Friday, October 23, 2009
Question: Which episode of The Office, American style is best?
Approaching my Best of the Decade televisiongasm, I’m trying to determine the best episodes of the best shows, and the past two and a half seasons and the first seasonlet notwithstanding, The Office certainly qualifies. But, I’m encountering a major dilemma picking the best episode.
Drawing out the suspense….and…okay.
Namely, a lot of the best episodes are set outside the titular office. "Casino Night" was my immediate pick for best episode, and while it is jam-packed with comedy, finds moments for everyone, and is obviously the culmination of a season’s pining, it seems odd to say the best episode is one that takes place after hours. The other immediate standout of the season is “Booze Cruise,” and largely for the same reasons, but again, it’s set on a boat.
The hallowed second season sticks to the office mainly, with other exceptions being the end of “The Fight” and the Dwight-Michael portions of “The Office Olympics” and “Dwight’s Speech.” But Seasons 3 and 4 venture outside Dunder-Mifflin often and with great relish: “The Convention,” “Diwali,” “Business School," “Women’s Appreciation,” “Traveling Salesmen,” “Phyllis’ Wedding,” “Money,” “The Deposition,” “Dinner Party,” “Night Out,” even the majority of “Goodbye, Toby.”
It’s not imperative that the best episode of The Office be the perfect representative. It’d be difficult to find a single half-hour that featured Michael’s awkwardness and surprising competence, a great Dwight prank, Jim-Pam magic, and moments for the rest of the cast, while being set in an office and framed with some element of workplace minutiae.
Briefly, some great in-office episodes: the one-two punch of "Michael's Birthday" and Kevin's cancer scare, "Drug Testing" and the jinx heard 'round the world; any Christmas episode; "The Injury" and basically everything else from Season 2; "Branch Closing," "Local Ad," and the Michael Scott Paper Company arc.
So now, I’m curious. What’s the best episode (not necessarily your favorite) of The Office, and does it matter if it’s not predominantly set at Dunder-Mifflin?
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We're about a week away from Halloween, and I'm in the mood for some scary movies. With that in mind, here are some of my favorite scary movies from the '70s. Only, as you may have gathered, these are horror with a twist.
I don’t know about you, but I’m generally less afraid of monsters or serial killers than I am of, um, psychological imbalance. Which is to say I fear losing a grip on reality much more than I fear a witch’s curse. I’m reminded of the time I found my dad sleep-walking, and after a few moments of casual conversation, me not really getting it, he looks at me wryly and asks, “Am I awake?” I had a similar scare the only time I’ve ever passed out.
So it’s with reckless abandon that I propose a list of Halloween flicks that tend more toward bizarre atmospheres and creepy dread than good, old-fashioned scares. But, naturally, there are a few of those as well. Just no Halloween, Carrie, Dawn of the Dead, or the like. The Omen remains a long-time favorite, and The Exorcist scared the hell out of fourteen year-old Brandon (He actually cried in the theater out of surrender), but for this list, I sided more with thrillers than classic horror. Like I said, the literal insanity of most of these sticks with me more than the average zombie kill.
1970: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage by Dario Argento
A man witnesses a brutal attack, and the serial killer makes him his next target. Argento's slasher films are dependably fun and scary and his compositions impressive. His eye for background textures is apparent in every notable scene, including the one pictured, but The Bird with the Crystal Plumage isn't quite up to the narrative standards of his later films.
1972: Images by Robert Altman
I may be wrong, but I get the impression Images is generally disparaged among Altman fans, but I found it an intense, absorbing psychodrama. Since the story follows Susannah York's schizophrenic housewife, we seamlessly float between reality and her perception, leading to a handful of frightening tracking shots. This is not Cassavetes realist piece, but a suspenseful nightmare, and Altman milks a lot of scares, cheap and otherwise, from a husband and wife retreating to their summer home.
1973: Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg
Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland play Laura and John Baxter, parents of a deceased child living in Venice, and a series of murders there coincides with John's visions of his dead daughter in a red raincoat. Roeg's opening (recounting the daughter's death) is the first of several mesmerizing sequences, and then he takes us all over Venice, soaking in the beauty and milking the terror of the darkness. Don't Look Now is not only creepy but genuinely frightening, especially at the end, and features a bizarre, blind psychic and, as mentioned, the ghastly, tiny figure in a red cloak scampering all over Venice.
1975: Deep Red by Dario Argento
While my heart will always favor Suspiria, Deep Red features Argento's most compelling narrative, a thrilling affair that takes us to a midnight piazza, an out-of-the-way ranch, a dilapidated mansion, and elsewhere on this precarious murder investigation. David Hemmings is the star, another Argento witness who becomes the target of a serial killer, and he proves as resourceful and determined as his companions, especially when excavating a mansion at night. And as for horror, Deep Red is comprised of several compelling set pieces populated with grotesques, psychics, and twisted dolls.
1976: The Tenant by Roman Polanski
Ebert gave this film one star, and he's crazier than the movie. One of the things--nay, the primary reason I love this film is that it makes no sense. Sure, there's Polanski's brilliant continued exploration of gender and power on top of the director's staggering performance as Trelkovsky, a man who moves into an apartment whose previous tenant committed suicide there, but the highlight of The Tenant is the oppressive mood. It's in the disturbing imagery and Trelkovsky's increasing alienation and, of course, the moments where reality starts to possibly warp that The Tenant thrives.
1977: Suspiria by Dario Argento
This was my Halloween movie last year, and it was a resounding success. I mentioned before Argento's faculty with textured backgrounds, and Suspiria is the prime example. The story follows a foreign girl arriving (at night, in the rain, naturally) at a ballet academy where a girl has just died, and the opening murder is a perfectly inviting thrill, probably my favorite Argento murder scene.
1978: The Shout by Jerzy Skolimowski
Like several of the others, The Shout takes a while to get a narrative going. You see, the primary story is told in flashback during a cricket match at a mental hospital, and before we even get to the hospital are a few out-of-sequence mood-setters, including a long shot (during the opening credits) of an Aborigine stumbling through the desert during an abrupt weather change. The Shout is more weird than scary, but it has its fair share of suspense and doom hanging over it. And the titular shout, well, it was far more frightening than I expected.
1979: Nosferatu the Vampyre by Werner Herzog
By far the least scary—in fact, this film isn’t really scary at all—Herzog’s take on Nosferatu is nonetheless indispensable, an eerie, sickly mood seeping through every scene. Klaus Kinski’s Dracula is an affecting portrait, but he's legitimately intimidating when called. Meanwhile, the climax is a deranged dream that explodes all the bottled-up suspense on a medieval plague. Like I said, not very scary, but the gothic atmosphere, Kinski's vampire, and Herzog's masterful shots make Nosferatu the Vampyre essential, especially for those less interested in scary movies.
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Monday, October 19, 2009
I've always thought the singing cowboy premise a little silly, but every time I've actually beheld musical sequences in westerns--like Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo, or the Forty Guns gang--I've loved them. And, from what I've seen on Encore Westerns, The Gene Autry Show is kind of awesome.
Since you asked, I'm not sure there's much point in fighting the battle of copyright violations on Youtube, at least with respect to classic film. I suspect most people truly interested in, say, Un chien andalou or Las hurdes are going to be more than happy to buy the DVDs. Having clips on Youtube just makes for a useful reference. By the same token, when I post clips here, usually of a musical sequence from a TV show I enjoyed, it's not exactly discouraging people from buying the DVDs. I understand (not to say I agree with) the reasoning behind removing full episodes, even on Hulu, but it seems to me clips make the best ads.
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Friday, October 16, 2009
I can tell you're frothing at the mouth for a followup to my comedy rankings, so here you are, insatiable gluttons! A few stray morsels on network comedy to whet the palate, a hearty discussion of the pointlessness of the battle of the network all-stars, and a savory recommendation for dessert. Bon appetit!
Here I thought I was ahead of the curve on Parks and Recreation, and now everyone's saying it's the current best comedy. I'm pretty sure they just wanted to be in my esteemed company. "Sister City" was a fine episode, the best of the night again. I appreciated Fred Armisen's subdued take on what could have been a volatile monster, and I loved the subplot with the pit project check. When Leslie finally gets that park made, it's going to be done right.
Meanwhile, I have another reason The Office ain't what it used to be. Back in the good old days Glenn Beck pines for, The Office followed a bunch of lonely people who were stuck. Michael, Jim, Pam, Ryan, Toby, Jan, and several others were all trapped in a dead-end town in a dying business (their words). Yet the moral seemed to be that they found hope or at least encouragement in each other, as in "Booze Cruise" or "The Office Olympics."
Nowadays, everyone has experienced a fair amount of success, so the ennui, the "celebrate the little things" of it all is lost. Jim and Pam are married and starting a family, Jim scored a promotion, Pam scored a promotion, Michael started a business and sold it, Ryan has a regular job (after his jailtime, it's a victory). The list goes on.
Can shows change? Sure, and most shows probably should strive for a certain amount of progress (think my diction was hedgy enough?). It's just that the worldview of The Office is so different now, too different for some, and I can't ignore it. I harp on The Office because I love, and because I've seen its potential, but I worry that the compromises it's made in getting here can't be rectified (i.e. the characters can't go back to being lonely and trapped, so I'm not sure where it goes from here to do right by its themes). I enjoy spending time with these characters, and in my rankings, I couldn't place it below Cougar Town, which frankly had a better episode this week, or Glee, which usually does a better job entertaining me.
On the other hand, several of the personalities participating in the 30 Rock backlash (which often isn't so much backlash as cautious admiration) are those who explicitly chose The Office as the best comedy of last year, which is ridiculous for reasons I've explicated several times now. How are they so perceptive in critiquing 30 Rock but so blind when it comes to The Office?
As it is, a certain amount of 30 Rock criticism is valid. In Season 3, the show stopped being a workplace comedy, focusing much more heavily on its characters' personal lives including extended romantic arcs for both Jack and Liz. Similarly, the character groupings have not been as successful as those on Modern Family or Arrested Development. In general, a storyline that doesn't feature at least one grounded character (Liz, Jack, and Pete) faces an uphill climb. But complaining that Tracy and Jenna are unidimensional is ludicrous, not least because unidimensionality is not necessarily a flaw (Seinfeld, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). 30 Rock is not about kitchen sink realism, like, say, The Office, and by design the series is inherently cartoonish at times. It's like saying Tobias or Buster are one-note.
Regarding the premiere, "Season Four," I actually think it's a bad time for the critics to come out. No, it wasn't a runaway laugh riot, but it fought vehemently against several of its common complaints. The Josh storyline addressed the missing tertiary characters, the A-plot united all of the leads in a cohesive satire, and the guest star (Steve Buscemi) stuck to a couple lines in a couple scenes. At the end of the day, "Season Four" was a pretty good outing, pairing Liz with Pete (one of my favorite 30 Rock groupings) to tremendous success, giving Tracy another montage, letting Jenna sing and dance in a brilliant Monday Night Football takeoff, and concluding absolutely perfectly. All of this is to say 30 Rock's flaws are more easily addressed than those plaguing The Office.
I'm sorry to constantly frame NBC Thursday as a zero-sum game. Especially in light of Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, The Office vs. 30 Rock is tired. So while it goes without saying, I would love for all four NBC comedies to bat this season out of the park.
So let's move on to Modern Family. I have one thing to say: Shelley Long is the perfect fit, and not just for her genetic resemblance to Julie Bowen and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Her premiere was another hit, and her brand of unhinged earth mother complements the dynamics already at play. I desperately hope the writers manage to keep Shelley Long around as much as possible. Learn from the Amy Ryan Principle.
I never have much to say about Cougar Town, but I tried to watch with a critical eye this week, and I found it very successful. The relationships are all clicking, and apparently the writers are capable of pulling off instances of real pathos, which was one of the things that made early Scrubs so great, and one element that failed in the latter seasons. Perhaps unsurprisingly Cougar Town is facing anti-feminist criticism, which I find baseless. Unless the arguments build, I don't care to respond.
This week's episode of Glee is the perfect support for my previous arguments. The episode focused on the kids, whose storylines are much more rewarding. The series has made a point of showing the inherent goodness--honesty, loyalty, community--of the kids, and once again, we see Rachel reaching out to both Finn and Quinn. Quinn could have been another stereotypical mean girl, but first in the scene where she walks out on Ms. Sylvester in "Acafellas" and again here, we see that Quinn is someone who feels trapped and alone but ultimately does the right thing. On the other hand, the adults are by and large more stubborn, selfish, and misguided.
Regarding the music, the pilot promised a show less focused on contemporary pop, but I guess I should have expected it. Still, as a non-radio, Grammy, or music television audience member, I much prefer the show branching out to pre-2000s music or show tunes. It's a nit-pick, but it seems like the balance is tipping a little bit too heavily to pop hits of the past few years.
In flashback news, I highly recommend Armando Iannucci's British series The Thick of It, a precursor to his bilious satire In the Loop this summer following the inner workings of a British minister's department. Its relentless cynicism never feels unbelievable, but it ends with a moralistic note that does. Or maybe that speaks to my own feelings on the national political conversation. Quoth one character: "This is the trouble with the public: they're fucking horrible."
I leave you with that. I would love to hear your thoughts on the current television comedies, especially now that 30 Rock's back and the others have had a few episodes to assert themselves. Let me know what you think!
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Now that we're four weeks into the fall season, NBC will reluctantly premiere its least favorite star 30 Rock. To be fair, 30 Rock mouths off a lot. But I remain baffled by what I consider disrespectful treatment of NBC's best series, though I'm often too drunk to think business-like. Anyway, with the king of comedy set to return, how are the current comedy rankings? I'm glad you asked!
Unfortunately for comprehensiveness, I don't watch every comedy, because I have, well, not a life, but some doppelganger version involving way too many pumpkin muffins to be healthy. Anyway, this means The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, not to mention their younger siblings, are well outside my purview. And they are going to stay there and think about what they did!
Also, I made no attempt to watch anything that was critically scorned, like Jenna Elfman's latest vehicle, and apparently The Middle is sort of good, but yeah, I missed that boat. I would say you couldn't pay me to catch up on Two and a Half Men, but I promise you could. Pay me?
Still, I have exactly ten or eleven or so comedies that I do watch, until 30 Rock makes it eleven or twelve or so and Scrubs pushes the number beyond my capacity for arithmetic. So, what are you waiting for? Read faster!
The 2009 Comedy Rankings So Far:
10. SNL/SNL Weekend Update Thursday Season 47
And you thought I was joking when I said ten or eleven. I'm counting this as the same show, because separately they just make me sad. I'm glad we only had to endure three weeks of the Thursday SNLs, and I thought it was hilarious that Thursday stole at least one sketch idea from SNL proper, but it just made me uncomfortable when SNL went ahead with it anyway. In short, I've been an SNL fan since it debuted in 1975, and even I can't defend either of the season's episodes that I've seen. And I swear it's not just because I love Michaela Watkins and Casey Wilson.
9. The Big Bang Theory Season 3
It's hard to tell if Sheldon's obnoxiousness is excessive this season (though I can affirm his whiny accent went overboard in the premiere) or if he's always been this infuriating, but I have a hard time finding him funny when 1) the laugh track is working overtime to convince me this is the funniest show since To Catch a Predator and 2) the character is so irredeemably annoying. Hence, I am loving Kaley Cuoco even more than usual, since she's the only one willing to use her sarcasm for good. The Big Bang Theory is a fine entertainment, but it still has all the problems it always has, and I doubt the series will grow deeper any time soon.
8. Cougar Town Season 1
From here on out are shows that are much more good than bad, starting with Bill Lawrence's Cougar Town. The story is about a middle-aged divorcee named Jules learning to adapt to her new life and aging body, and the highs are the moments where Cougar Town scores laughs out of a C-section scar or keeping the price tag on in case you want to return it later. Courteney Cox is a capable if manic lead (I hope things can slow down for her soon), and the supporting cast--Busy Philipps, Christa Miller, Josh Hopkins, Brian Van Holt--are terrific, too. Cougar Town is funny and endearing when mining Jules' insecurity, and the joke-writing remarkably clever. P.S. Jealous Much? is the best boat name ever.
7. Glee Season 1
Far from a guilty pleasure, Glee is a raucous entertainment mostly because its rapid pace disguises its maddening inconsistence. The biggest drawback is its clear dedication to cliched characterization and narrative, and the one original plot (which I'm coining "baby-coercion") is as frustratingly tedious as the rest. Jessalyn Gilsig is fine as Mr. Schue's wife, but her characterization and the pending marriage of the essential Jayma Mays' Miss Pillsbury are petty contrivances. Besides, as villains go, Jane Lynch is indomitable. "I will not be treated like a second-class citizen because of my gender!" On the other hand, Glee has had more than its fair share of excellence, notably among the kids and Mr. Schue. I'd quibble with the direction of the musical sequences--too much cutting! Take a page from Gene Kelly and string together a few long shots--but they're all so magical. And thank you, Glee, for helping "Don't Stop Believin'" rightfully supplant "Hallelujah" as the quintessential television song. Quoth Ryan Atwood: "Do NOT insult Journey!"
6. The Office Season 6
While it remains an often hilarious entertainment, I'm sorry to say, four episodes in, The Office has fallen far. Where once it mined daily minutiae to reflect its characters' ennui, mounted a vigilant campaign for awkward comedy, and dug deep into believable relationships in relatable scenarios, now The Office works on only one of those levels. Most of the characters only have one or two traits nowadays, and the show is not even a realistic mockumentary any more. Case in point: Does anyone buy that if Dwight kicked a bridesmaid in the face and Kevin fell into the wedding decorations, nobody would help? These were two of the funniest moments in the final montage of "Niagara," but they crystallize the transformation of the show. The Office would rather be funny than real.
5. Community Season 1
After four episodes, the writers have gradually improved what was a pretty great pilot: The characters are revealing more layers, the writers are grouping them in interesting ways, and most thankfully, the writing is less earnest. After that on-the-nose speech about community in the pilot, I feared an overriding John Huges bent to every episode, but we dodged that cheesy bullet. The show always concludes warmly, but it's not afraid to get sarcastic and even downright cold in the getting there. Moreover, Community's fast-talkers promote a high jokes-per-minute ratio, which isn't a panacea for a mediocre sitcom, but it helps. Perhaps best of all, I enjoy spending time with these characters, and with a couple exceptions, the lead cast are stellar. Abed remains my favorite new character of the season, though if anyone on Community is in danger of becoming one-note, it's he. Speaking of, I'm not sure if the cold closes are intentionally disconnected, isolated scenelets to air behind the credits, but they've all been funny. As is, Community is vastly exceeding expectations.
4. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Season 5
Talk about a comeback! Season 3 began a downward slide into traditional sitcom territory, with Season 4 relying more on the show's history (recurring characters, a certain degree of self-reference and serialization) than on the premise: standalone issue parodies. But each episode of Season 5 has been excellent, whether commenting on the creation of and reaction to the recession (sufficient, if not brilliant, topicality), indulging in some of the show's patented vulgarity (i.e. everything with Gail the Snail or Charlie's molesty uncle), or concocting elaborate schemes that allow the characters to celebrate nonexistent victories (combining the baby and the house ideas, Frank's intervention). The gang are as unidimensionally selfish as ever, and the comedy expectedly anarchic. Wine in a can, bird law, gypsy head-shrinking, crab-people...so far, Season 5 is a runaway success.
3. How I Met Your Mother Season 5
"She's getting here as fast as she can" may be the best thing that ever happened to the series. Nobody cares when Ted will meet the mother, just that the writers keep teasing it. Fortunately, Season 5 has laid off the eponymous conceit, even backburnering Ted for most of the episodes. Frankly, Josh Radnor gets a bad wrap but gives a great performance, and Ted's reputation as a douche overshadows the character's sharp sense of humor, but I'm happy to spend some time focusing on America's new favorite couple: Barn-Man and Robin. Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders have risen to the occasion, indulging in a hint of romance without losing any edge. Plus, the writers are finding fun new ways to play with narrative--from the two first dates to the truth about Robin's surprising erogenous zones--while introducing us to some new yet quintessential Mother jokes--Stripper Lily, Mabel the Barrel and the Bermuda Triangle, the sexless innkeeper. Four episodes in, this is the best opening since Season 2. Here's hoping it keeps up!
2. Modern Family Season 1
The best new series of 2009, Modern Family is succeeding in all the ways the other new shows are: sequestering its characters in different groupings in order to reveal new shades. But what can't be said about the other new shows is that all ten leads are interesting and funny in their own ways, an impressive feat for an established comedy, not to mention a newbie. Obviously Ty Burrell steals all his scenes with his desperate dad routine, but he shows surprising paternal competence in his baseball interrogation of "D-Money." As with Community, I fear Modern Family erring on the side of cheesiness (or maybe I just intensely fear sincerity...move along, therapists), but each episode's climax feels earned so far, and Ed O'Neill is the perfect source considering his character's orneriness.
1. Parks and Recreation Season 2
First, a plus and a minus: "Pawnee Zoo" is the best episode of any comedy this season, but I acknowledge the mockumentary-stretching of some of the scenes (notably when the camera crew are apparently filming Ron after-hours during his hernia fiasco without any intervention, and I suppose Ann is fine with them filming her dates?). But on the whole, Parks and Recreation is easily the best comedy of the season so far. What it lacks in documentary veracity it makes up for in a believable workplace environment, sharp relationships and characterization, and, funny, trenchant satire. Daily office life is subtly evoked to keep the show mired in workplace frustrations (as in April asking if Ron's on a power trip, Leslie's talking head about the best interaction she's ever had with Donna, and the muck-raking in "The Practice Date"). It helps that Parks has the best cast on NBC Thursdays, and that includes 30 Rock: Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Paul Schneider, Chris Pratt, and even supporting players like Retta (Donna) and guest star Louis CK (Dave) are not only hilarious, whether telling jokes or playing straight, but authentic. The writers and performers have found some sweetness too, as in the scene where Tom tells Leslie she's too good for Mark. It's not often I prefer a show to be less serialized, but with the pit project tabled, Parks has really come into its own topically, capitalizing on gay marriage to address political discourse, using sex scandals to satirize vetting and the campaign process in general, even jury rigging a Henry Gates takeoff. Essentially, Parks can get broad because it's so grounded. Unlike some of the lower-end comedies, Parks and Recreation has a point, a reason for being besides seeing what happens next.
In other words, 30 Rock has some stiff competition this year.
So, am I crazy? Is The Office better than Parks and Recreation? (It's not, but you can make your case.) Or is Community the best new show? I would love to hear your opinions about the comedy season so far. But no dissing Journey.
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Sunday, October 11, 2009
Art may be the last field to make a virtue of willful ignorance. But that’s forgetting mainstream journalism. Still, it never ceases to amaze me when filmmakers are only too happy to admit not having properly researched their new genre. Until you know what’s been said before you joined the conversation, Donny, you’re out of your element.
Take Heroes creator Tim Kring: “I don’t really know anything about X-Men, and I have no real knowledge of it or the world.” He’s positively pleasant admitting his fatal mistake. If he had some interest in X-Men, he’d learn rather quickly that the Marvel universe suffers from two primary failings: the regular resurrection of dead characters, severely undermining the often apocalyptic stakes, and an overreliance on alternate universes and timelines that ultimately have no effect on anything in the “real world.” Good thing Heroes dodged those bullets!
When it comes to archetypal plots of good versus evil, Kring doesn’t think you can avoid doing what’s been done before; reinventing the wheel comes with the territory. Maybe so in general terms—which explains how Brad Bird's The Incredibles essentially combines The Fantastic Four with Watchmen despite Bird's ignorance of both—but a little creativity can go a long way toward cultivating originality. Heroes’ timeslot neighbor Chuck, for instance, melds the spy action-comedy with the coming-of-age superhero drama to create a fresh take on worn subjects.
More recently, Ryan Murphy’s Glee fell into some of the traps pointed out by High School Musical, which Murphy carelessly confesses to ignoring. I certainly understand not wanting to endure tween paradise for a few hours, but when creating a high school-set musical, it might be a good idea to do your homework. Perhaps Murphy would have learned from the laughably rigid stratification of High School Musical, or the cardboard types, or the similar narrative, in which the jock and the brain fall in love over music, blasting, nay, rocking cliques asunder. Can you imagine a version of Glee where Mercedes, the black one, isn’t consigned to saying things like “Hell to the no!” and “Pretty fly for a white guy.” I can’t believe it’s 2009 and I just wrote that.
Glee also draws from Election, Bring it On, Remember the Titans, Never Been Kissed, and a host of other contemporary high school flicks. But the filmmakers use these influences and our knowledge of them to enhance Glee’s charm, sometimes lifting a narrative wholesale in service of another story (the football team dance) and other times spinning the expected narrative into a surprising and heartwarming end (the spirit fingers coach, for instance). See what can happen when you do your due diligence?
Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica grave-robbed the original, taking the gold and leaving the corpse to rot, resulting in one of the most lauded series of the decade. JJ Abrams was never a Star Trek fan, but it’s clear from his entry into the canon that he’s done his research, playfully citing everything from redshirts to the planet Delta Vega. Quentin Tarantino has made an art of esoteric film references, while Pixar films revel in their more mainstream allusions.
I refuse to validate the artistic refusal to research, for fear of influence or otherwise. Summarizing the relationship between his newest film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant, Werner Herzog says, “I haven’t seen it, so I can’t compare it. It has nothing to do with it.” Herzog admits his mistake, so I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt when he says his film is not a remake and aside from the protagonist and title, the films share nothing. But the fact remains that his ignorance of Bad Lieutenant is a glaring, easily rectified flaw. Willful ignorance is never a virtue, and in science or politics or media, it would never be taken seriously (not accounting for the approximately 26% of the voting populace known, in technical terms, as crazies).
Tim Kring calls it reinventing the wheel, which is adequate only insofar as reinvention is inherently unnecessary; the wheel Heroes ain't. But I have another cliché for you: those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Originality isn’t easy, but if you don’t do your homework, it may as well be impossible.
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Thursday, October 8, 2009
Watching "Robin 101," I couldn't help but notice Angry Robin Scherbatsky's cinematic forebear:
Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse features a similarly pale, unblinking, nostril-flared, visage. And like Angry Robin, he will make you cry. For the third time. That night.
How I Met Your Mother is off to a much stronger start than either of the past two seasons with a Jim-Pam influenced coupling (which is to say not very will-they-or-won't-they) at the center, fun narrative playfulness, and of course, Stripper Lily. The season ahead looks just as promising, with a musical number, Rachel Bilson--who was as vivacious in Chuck as she was in The OC--and best of all, the doppelgangers for Ted and Barney! Any bets as to the appearance of the next slap?
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Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Four days ago, nobody remembered that fifty years prior, The Twilight Zone premiered. So I’m a little late, but The Twilight Zone—not only one of my all-time favorite shows but one of the most consistently well-written and -directed—deserves a tribute. Hence, my top ten favorite episodes!
Before we delve into the list proper, it should be noted that at least twenty half-hours of The Twilight Zone are essential television classics, required viewing alongside “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” or The Sopranos’ finale. Since my guiding principle here was preference, I’d like to note ten significant episodes that are not on my personal list, most of which just missed the mark:
1. “The Encounter” in which George Takei succumbs to the historical personality of an antique samurai sword. It predates Sulu's shirtless fencing by two years.
2. “The Howling Man” in which a bystander involves himself in the struggle between a shady monk and his creepy prisoner. And the camera shows us what unsettling is all about.
3. “The Masks” in which a dying man subjects his heirs to a grueling ritual in order to remain in the will. I can't wait to be old.
4. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” in which Captain Kirk fights the abominable snowman on a plane in a storm!
5. “The Obsolete Man” in which director Elliot Silverstein brings irony to a totalitarian dystopia, and Burgess Meredith meets yet another happy Twilight Zone ending.
6. “The Odyssey of Flight 33” in which a plane flies over dinosaurs!
7. “The Passersby” in which a Civil War wife makes strange acquaintance with some of the men returning home on the road by her house after the war.
8. “Time Enough at Last” in which junior high English teachers teach good, old-fashioned irony thanks to Burgess Meredith’s misanthropic bibliophile.
9. “To Serve Man” in which it is, indeed, a cookbook.
10. “Where is Everybody?” in which Rod Serling introduces us to his bizarre, magical, creepy, uplifting, transcendent vision as a man searches for answers in an abandoned town.
Some of the more gimmicky episodes of The Twilight Zone—“The After Hours,” “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” “Stopover in a Quiet Town”—are fun, high-concept kids’ mysteries that I love, like ticking Mind Trap riddles, but they lack some of the relevance of the more notable pieces. Which is to say, I don't love them that much.
And now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the honorable mentions proper, shall we? Hey, you’re lucky this is only a top ten. I haven’t seen all 156 episodes, but I’ve done the due diligence on the more promising shows outside my purview, one of which made my cut. Of course, these are more based on my appreciation—for whatever reasons, although certainly the usual art criticism contributes to my response—than any attempt to be objective. Shall we?
Honorable Mentions, in alphabetical order:
1. “The Hitch-Hiker”
A woman is tormented by a recurring hitchhiker. On top of its accelerating dread, there are a few genuinely chilling surprises superbly realized by director Alvin Ganzer, not least of which is the ending twist.
2. “Living Doll”
Telly Savalas' Erich versus his daughter’s Talky Tina doll, who has the unfortunate habit of going off-record at the most inopportune moments—that is, only when Erich is around. "My name's Talky Tina, and I don't think I like you." Naturally, Erich's obsession with the nasty doll drives the wedge between him and his new wife deeper. "Living Doll" is a fun, grim thriller, but it's also the story of a little girl caught between constantly fighting parents, and it's that relevance that launches it into the pantheon.
3. “The Lonely”
The setting is crucial here, as the sole convict serving his sentence on a remote planet is not alone simply in his building but on his giant rock. When a friendly supply ship captain delivers a robot, the exploration of loneliness kicks into high gear, and it ends the only way it can. As the inmate, Jack Warden deftly wins our sympathies, and that final shot of his isolated, little cabin is one of the series' most moving.
4. “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”
Ah, the requisite cowboy story. I’m not sure how well-liked this episode is, but I find what seems like a pulpy western-with-a-twist entrancing and poignant. The story, written by Rod Serling, tracks a drunk, washed-up gunslinger getting a second chance with a magic gun, lending itself to some fun shots—as you can see—by Allen Reisner. And the cowboy thing doesn't hurt its appeal, either.
5. "Nothing in the Dark"
An old woman is awakened by a gunshot outside, but she's afraid to open the door in case Death gets in. Robert Redford stars as the wounded man, and while it all happens pretty much how you expect, that doesn't make the game any less fun. "Nothing in the Dark" lives up to the series' penchant for playing against expectations with a story about a possibly crazy lady and possibly Death concluding in a nice, upbeat finale.
And now the top ten episodes of The Twilight Zone:
The only survivors of an apocalyptic war are a man and a woman from opposite sides, played by Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery. As usual, the art design is transportive, picking up some of the story-telling slack from the dialogue-free beginning. The Twilight Zone is known for terrifying or waxing cynical, but "Two" is an excellent example of how the series could effortlessly subvert its own doom scenarios, throwing that force instead behind a powerful, moving hope.
9. "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street"
Rod Serling's version of The Crucible, "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" examines a community's rapid dissolution in the wake of inexplicable events—only one neighbor's car starts, the lights at all the houses flicker at will, etc. Violence naturally ensues in one of the series' memorable montages, but the real treat is Serling's script, ever so slowly fragmenting its mob into family units, and sometimes even those crumble. To top it off, there's a deliciously biting payoff that anticipates my next pick.
8. "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?"
First and most importantly, the episode's star is John Hoyt, who played the doctor in the original Star Trek pilot. "Who wants a warm martini?" But in this universe, Hoyt is a businessman who winds up along with his fellow bus passengers at a diner where police are investigating a nearby UFO crash. Since there are one too many bus passengers, the suspicion flies, but the pleasure in this one is not the solution to that mystery, but what comes after. Like many of the best episodes, it's a simple, one-location story of humanity pushed to its extremes by weird circumstances, and it ends with two of the series' most indelible images.
7. "The Eye of the Beholder"
It had to go somewhere, right? Probably the most recognizable episode of The Twilight Zone, "The Eye of the Beholder" features a twist so infamous there's no sense in discussing what happens. While the impact does ride on essentially one big twist—a surefire way to deprive a work of repeat value—this episode benefits from Serling's incorporation of horror and satire. The first half is basically a soapy melodrama about a hospitalized woman facing her grim surgical outlook. But because our protagonist is a mummy-like bandaged head, and because the hospital staff are always disguised by shadow, the melodrama take on an eerie tone that only strengthens once the bandages are off. The ending is a bit on-the-nose, but in the vein of the best episodes, its message is timeless.
6. "The Invaders"
Scripted by Richard Matheson and almost entirely dialogue-free, "The Invaders" focuses on Agnes Moorehead as a hermit dealing with a tiny UFO that crashes in her attic. The brunt of the narrative resting on Moorehead's seasoned shoulders, the actress shines, recalling Chaplin and Keaton as she slapsticks her way through one strange eviction. Then comes Matheson's sucker-punch, a good, old-fashioned Twilight Zone twist that calls into question what we thought we knew.
5. "Nick of Time"
The first episode to feature William Shatner—try as he might—is actually stolen by an inanimate object, a bobbing devil head atop a fortune machine. The episode, also written by Richard Matheson, is about how Shatner's character's fear of destiny makes him a slave to it, and Matheson elegantly delivers hopeful and tragic finales in equal measure. But at the end of it all remains the mysterious iconic figure, that grinning, nodding, omniscient, little devil.
4. "Twenty Two"
Given the extreme cost-cutting of this episode, which is as distractingly ugly as it is mesmerizing, I can understand if I'm alone on this. But I actually think the lo-fi quality enhances the piece, lending a Lynchian horror vibe to this soap-turned-awry about an actress in the hospital with a recurring nightmare. As the phantasm nurse, Arline Sax is like a ninja with her bone-chilling invitation, "Room for one more, honey." The story itself and the cute resolution are incidental. The episode is a treasure thanks to its expertly roving camera, haunted hospital set, and of course that trashy, B-horror budget.
3. "A Stop at Willoughby"
The plot follows an overworked businessman escaping to a magical little village in his dreams. This episode has something of a dark twist, but it can nevertheless be read either romantically or disturbingly. Given the haven of the old-fashioned fantasy town of Willoughby, I choose the romantic read, which sees a man achieving some measure of happiness inside his own imagination. Who says The Twilight Zone is too black?
2. "Walking Distance"
Like "A Stop at Willoughby," here's an episode about the small things that rural life brings into relief so beautifully. Only, instead of a man escaping into his dreams, here a man walks right into his own past: his hometown circa his childhood. "Walking Distance" features a certain degree of melancholy, capitalizing on the well-worn idea that you can't go home again, but it's really a masterpiece of nostalgia and all it entails: lamenting experiences that can't be recreated, seeing things through new eyes, taking advantage of missed opportunities, appreciating things (and people) for the first time. The Serling-scripted episode culminates in two pivotal conversations that never fail to bring the tears, augmented by Robert Stevens' camera, always with the most interesting shot (helped enchantingly by the carnival setting). The Twilight Zone sure loves its scares and twists and bitter ironies, but one of its best episodes is marked by being one of its sweetest.
1. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
It feels wrong to say the best episode of The Twilight Zone is not really an episode of The Twilight Zone at all—"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" was an independently produced short written and directed by Robert Enrico that premiered at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival—but Rod Serling ought to appreciate the irony. The delirious story opens with a Civil War prisoner about to be hanged, but suddenly the rope is shot and he escapes. From there it only gets more expressionistic, Enrico's camera reveling in Dutch angles and chiaroscuro, as the prisoner dreams of reaching his family at their plantation. The pulse-pounding score tells as much of the story as the imagery, right up to the perfect ending which I wouldn't dream of ruining. The Twilight Zone is remarkably well-directed, with tracking shots and exciting angles and the necessary glides and swoops and pushes and pans, but "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is its highest achievement in cinematography. Like "Walking Distance" and the other great episodes, it's not about its gimmick but rather its intimate understanding of the basic human condition, exquisitely illustrated by Robert Enrico.
I've now referenced 28 episodes of the series, and there are scads more that are worthy: "The Grave," pictured at the top, about a gunslinger cursed by his latest victim, "Night Call," where an old lady receives distressing phone calls from the beyond, "The Trade-Ins," where an elderly couple try to trade their bodies in for younger models. The Twilight Zone is unquestionably my favorite classic television series, just as it's certainly one of the most important and influential shows ever to air. I'm overjoyed to have some of it still ahead. Happy Birthday, Twilight Zone!
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Monday, October 5, 2009
Believe the hype: Zombieland is one of the year’s most successful films, surprisingly the debut feature for screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and director Ruben Fleischer. An uproarious road comedy with a healthy injection of action and scares, Zombieland spins a rotting tale into an original surprise by abandoning the usual commentary, placing comedy above horror, and invoking a voice that might be best classified as postironic.
Zombieland immediately demonstrates Fleischer’s visual competence with a slo-mo credit sequence in the vein of Watchmen illustrating the horror and simultaneous hilarity of zombies and their hapless victims. Our narrator, played by Jesse Eisenberg as a slightly hardened version of his usual awkward nerd, quickly introduces himself and his method of coping in Zombieland, a series of rules helpfully illustrated on screen ranging from cardio to the double-tap method of making sure your kill stays dead. Woody Harrelson’s character demands they go by geographic nicknames so as not to get too attached, so Eisenberg’s Columbus and his new hedonistic hick partner Tallahassee set out with fittingly half-hearted plans for the future.
The triumph of Reese and Wernick’s screenplay, besides its wise disinterest in the zombie catalyst, is the gradual, barely noticeable humanization of its prickly heroes, from self-isolating Columbus, who intones that he treated everyone as zombies before there were zombies, to Emma Stone’s jaded Machiavellian Wichita. As the group’s surrogate father, or at least cool uncle, Woody Harrelson’s Tallahassee is a magnetic performance with more than his fair share of scene-stealing action on top of some honest-to-goodness dramatic work. Wisely, the script’s ample surprise interrupts every moment of sincerity, a coup that disguises the narrative arc from ironic distance to genuine attachment—literally: the film opens with a wisecrack about small-town Texas and builds to a point where their relationships have made the characters vulnerable.
Conceptually, Zombieland draws from Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: the Last Man series, also a postapocalyptic cross-country journey, the similarly conceived 28 Days Later, about a ragtag group of hardcore survivalists uniting in the wake of a zombie apocalypse, and countless other genre flicks. Thematically, though, the modern conception of family at work in Zombieland—namely, you make your own—shares more with Spaced than Shaun of the Dead. And unlike many other modern action or zombie flicks, Zombieland features characters who have experienced loss, but rather than hiding behind sarcasm or gung ho action goals, they accept their relative sadness openly.
Don’t misunderstand: Fleischer ensures Zombieland is a raucous adventure with the scales tipped heavily in favor of superhick playing target practice on a roller coaster rather than lonely kid learning to love. References to Warhol, Facebook, Hannah Montana, and, of course, Ghost Busters kill. But I’ll leave the jokes and frights for you to discover on your own. Besides, it's the subtle character work that lends the immensely fun surface resonance. Zombieland cannibalizes all manner of postapocalyptic tale as well as a family theme that isn’t exactly fresh, but thanks to its surprising narrative through-line, this expertly paced action-comedy feels less like a zombie than a living, breathing human.
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Sunday, October 4, 2009
Last month, I finally caught up with all five major films by Carl Theodor Dreyer. I'd seen two before (The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr), but needed to refresh. Both films revealed new colors, Day of Wrath proved emotionally thrilling, and Ordet showed Dreyer at his most mature, right down to its courageous, teary climax. Still, my favorite Dreyer film to date is Gertrud, a spare, engaging, mysterious emotional ballet.
Some other highlights: I began September with a new Criterion, Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a nuanced, epic, quiet cri de coeur. The feminist masterpiece outlasts three hours and never bores, effortlessly enlisting your empathy through its provocative finale. I also finally saw Dumbo in its entirety, which I found touching and a little racist. But really, the scene of Dumbo’s mother singing and swinging Dumbo to sleep is magical. Last, another stalemate in my personal war between Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, this time with Ray’s sad, witty noir In a Lonely Place and Fuller’s packed, vibrant B-western Forty Guns. You could do worse for a month of movies.
But—say it with me—the best movie I saw last month is Gertrud by Carl Theodor Dreyer.
It’s a straightforward narrative—a wealthy cabinet minister’s wife juggles four suitors in just a few, brief episodes—but the film is anything but simple. Comprised of Dreyer’s most transcendent long shots and skilled classical stage direction that calls for characters to play musical chairs on emotional beats, complimenting a warm, controlled performance by Nina Pens Rode, Gertrud is an aesthetic marvel.
But the fruit of the film is in Dreyer’s dogged working over of his favorite themes—art and artists, the nature of love or at least romance, the psychology of guilt and shame—along with a new one: mortality. There is a coda set many years after the film’s central story that brings tears to my eyes not from tragedy or even great joy; it’s the content resignation accompanying the loss of what might have been that wrecks me. The final scene from his final film hits me just as hard—Dreyer’s goodbye to his audience.
When it comes to Carl Theodor Dreyer, cinephiles and critics apparently love The Passion of Joan of Arc or Ordet above the rest, given both films’ vaunted status on all sorts of film lists. Some others prefer the weirdness of Vampyr, which is my second favorite thanks to its imagination defeating its narrative sense. But Gertrud speaks to me most strongly, the Danish auteur's final statement on his thematic pursuits mingling with his mis-en-scene at its most precise. Tight but with enough room to lend the subjects some measure of unknowability, Gertrud is a dense, profound piece of music that is gone much too soon.
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Saturday, October 3, 2009
You know that feeling when you’re up late and you flip to the high channels and suddenly you’re watching Wife, Mom, Bounty Hunter wondering if it’s all a dream? Well, the Season 4 DVD of How I Met Your Mother has such a commentary, surprising and hysterical once you get past its surrealism.
I’ve already told anyone who will listen about two of my all-time favorite commentaries: For Season 2, Jason Segel joined writer Chris Harris to discuss “Arrivederci Fiero,” and the conversation quickly became an experiment to see how uncomfortable Segel could make Harris by slowly increasing the sexual tension. A year later, the dynamic duo returned to discuss “The Chain of Screaming,” only this time, Segel had several shots just before recording, and the clothes were off much sooner. The highlight: a suffering Harris announcing, “He’s just put 12 condoms on the table.”
Much to my dismay, Segel and Harris did not return for a threequel on Season 4, but in their stead came perhaps the greatest commentary of them all, a piece of art so effective that I can’t believe it was actually released. Apparently, the producers decided to give a commentary to guest actors David Ellis Duncan and Evan Rock to give an outside perspective on the show. It’s slow to start for reasons I won’t divulge, but at some point, it all comes together, and you’ll laugh the rest of the way. The two actors have hilarious stories about Jason Segel and Josh Radnor, and the website one of them pimps is a must-see.
I want to discuss the commentary in detail, but I’d hate to ruin anything about it, as it benefits from flying under the radar with its unknown commentators. As it is, I can’t find a single DVD review that mentions the track in anything but denotative terms. Like that night I watched four episodes of Wife, Mom, Bounty Hunter, I have no idea what just happened, but I wish everyone involved the best.
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Friday, October 2, 2009
I subscribe to two podcasts, one of which is Battleship Pretension, a casual yet knowledgeable conversation between two film geeks about various topics. A couple months ago, they asked for submissions for a list of the 100 best movies, so eagerly I participated. The ranked list is finally out, and collectively, we’ve come up with a decent top 100.
Four of my submitted films made the cut, and frankly, I’m impressed. I deliberately chose some less obvious films, leaving the masses to anoint Citizen Kane and The Godfather. (Anoint, they did, by the way, but we’ll get there.)
We were asked to pick 10 films, so here are my submissions, in no order:
1. The Trial by Orson Welles. Welles’ other films are hiding in the shadow of Citizen Kane, and the one I felt most deserving and likely to receive more support was The Trial.
2. The Exterminating Angel by Luis Bunuel. My favorite Bunuel, as noted here.
3. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Sergio Leone. For all my arty-ness, this is probably my favorite movie.
4. El Topo by Alejandro Jodorowsky. It was a waste to vote for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, since Leone’s twin masterpieces were sure to be carried in by other voters. So I tried to balance that vote with another of my favorite westerns, one that would need a lot more work to come close to making the cut.
5. L’Atalante by Jean Vigo. Best film of the '30s, with the possible exception of a film others would surely vote for, The Rules of the Game. (Turns out, Rules didn't make the cut. Oh, but Amelie did. Yeah.)
6. Diamonds of the Night by Jan Nemec. I can’t believe how few people know about this masterpiece. I'm not even particularly well-versed in the Czech New Wave, but I consider myself a Diamonds evangelist.
7. Aguirre, the Wrath of God by Werner Herzog. My intense Germanophilia necessitated a pick from the motherland, so it was a toss-up between my three favorite Herzogs. As usual, Aguirre won.
8. Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais. You probably want me to shut up about Marienbad at this point. I hear you, but I had to try to get it on the list.
9. Blow Up by Michelangelo Antonioni. As you now know, I have a celestial connection to the Italian master, and Blow Up is my favorite of his works that I've seen.
10. Werckmeister Harmonies by Bela Tarr. I wanted a contemporary film to balance what was sure to be the flood of support for the usuals—Pulp Fiction, Shawkshank Redemption, Fargo, etc.—so what better than one of the best films of the decade?
These are certainly not my favorite ten films, but they’d all be in my top 100, and like I said, my primary goal was to counterbalance the populist picks by reaching further out a bit, but not so far out that nobody else votes for my movies. I expected The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to make the list easily, and it ended up at 25. And I knew El Topo and Diamonds of the Night were longshots. Happily, Aguirre made the cut at 73, Marienbad at 76, and the biggest surprise, Werckmeister at 84.
Like I said, the ultimate list is pretty sophisticated, covering every decade since the '20s in a variety of genres, and a quarter of the final list are foreign. That seems a bit low, but the specific films chosen (8 1/2, Persona, In the Mood for Love) outclass the IMDb Top 250. In fact, I much prefer the Battleship Pretension 100 to not only the IMDb list but any AFI 100.
I haven't seen three of the BP 100: Animal House (99), JFK (97), and—I've been saving it like the package in Cast Away—Fanny and Alexander (38). Which reminds me, I didn't select a single Bergman film, even though I could have chosen ten. I was gambling on Persona (51), The Seventh Seal (31), and Wild Strawberries (82) as sure things and figured Shame and Hour of the Wolf were unlikely.
One genre missing from the list, pointed out by the hosts, is documentary. It's understandable based on the voting process—ten films per person is awfully small. But F for Fake, My Winnipeg, Grey Gardens, The Man with a Movie Camera, or Dont Look Back would have made excellent additions.
Meanwhile, only two animated films made the cut: Fantasia and Finding Nemo. I'd have gone with The Lion King and Toy Story, but really, I'd prefer any number of 2-D Disney films to Fantasia, and half the Pixars to Nemo. But those are just personal preferences.
My biggest problem with the list is how common a lot of the choices are, which can't really be helped given the limited quantity of great films. The top 10 were announced a few days after the rest of the list, and I made 7 guesses as to what they would be, all of which made it. Citizen Kane (1) is obviously a phenomenal film, and I would not dispute it. But is it necessary that we all prove our credentials by constantly promoting it? To my mind, there are plenty of equally great films. Let's pick a new one for a while. I vote The Third Man.
Oh, and Sunset Blvd. (42) is just below The Dark Knight (41). So there's that.
On the whole, though, I'm very pleased with the Battleship Pretension Top 100. I guess I'm just desperate for a movie list that still has the power to surprise me. As I check off more and more classics, it's harder and harder to find beloved films that I've never heard of. Ebert has remarked that the only valuable movie list is the one compiled by an individual, on the grounds that democracy shoots for the middle. This might be just what I need to finally assemble my personal top 100.
To be continued. Probably.
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