Cinematic Listology

Gore Vidal The United States of Amnesia

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” I’m not sure there is a better, or more important, example of someone not giving a damn than the late Gore Vidal, who died two years ago this summer. As a public voice for seventy years, Vidal unforgettably ruffled many feathers, not just as a provocateur, but as an intellectual whose opinions often came well before society was ready to hear them. Vidal was the man who warned about the five-percenters well before they became the one-percent; who stated that “homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality;” and warned of the “corporate grip on opinion.” He was the controversial author, and more controversial public speaker. Vidal was the man who sparred with Joe Pesci in With Honors, lent his pen to some of Hollywood’s most iconic and notorious films, was close with icons from the Kennedys to wonder-couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and was even interviewed by Ali G. Now he’s the subject of Nicholas Wrathall’s new documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, and it’s a perfect time to take seven peeks into his legacy.

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Ellen Ripley Alien

It’s one of the most frustrating phenomena in film to watch, seeing someone so clearly correct and potentially wise get shut down by the people around them because their theories or warnings seem too far-fetched. As an audience, we know that they’re right – that monster is ripe for striking the city, that megastorm is about to hit mainland any day now and that kid is up to something suspicious – but our poor, long-suffering protagonists just don’t have the luck of getting their pleas heard in time. If only people had known these crackpots were right all along. Here are 7 cinematic Cassandras.

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Bonnie and Clyde Movie

In cinema, real, dangerous women have been a fascinating anomaly – rare invaders of the norm who arrive, surprise, and vanish. As stalwarts of diversity, they wait in the wings until they’re tapped for the next tale, used so often that their names become immortally infamous – like Bonnie Parker, who died eighty years ago today in an ambush alongside partner in crime, Clyde Barrow. If Hollywood was to be believed, history holds only a handful of badass women, but the repetitive nature of historical biographies isn’t a necessity, it’s a matter of habit. Hollywood opts for the familiar rather than mine the deep and plentiful repositories of women in history, save for the rare interludes that have brought women like Domino Harvey, Valerie Solanas, and Mary Surratt to the big screen. But they are a few of many more – tough heroines and villains whose lives are just asking for a film treatment. Here are seven, and the cinematic counterparts they could challenge.

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Spinning Plates Movie

If you cast a superficial glance at movie times and television schedules, you might think being a chef was just about rote culinary competitions and dudes hitting the road to get their fried food on. Jon Favreau is the latest to add to the trend with the indie charmer Chef, a film about a man who reconfigures his relationship with food by hitting the road in a food truck. It’s familiar material; television’s been giving us heaps of men hitting the road to please their taste buds for years from Feasting on Asphalt to the fan favorite Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. But of course, the world of chefs extends well beyond rumbling engines, fried foods, and manliness, and cinema’s modern crop of chef-centric documentaries is a great way to see the expanse of experiences and techniques that go into being a chef, as well as the fundamental basics they all share. Some are exciting, some are thought-provoking, and all challenge our preconceptions about the craft of food.

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Little Edie in  Grey Gardens

I am mostly against the critical valuation of real people in documentaries. I’ve written about this in the past, specifically in response to the reviews of The Imposter that judged subject Frederic Bourdin more than the film itself. I also wondered last fall whether it is okay to highlight the “best” characters of a given year in the form of the Cinema Eye Honors recognition of “The Unforgettables.” On that, I eventually came around to agreeing that memorable documentary characters deserve recognition if not a competitive prize that puts one above the rest (and the CEH don’t mean for them to be “the best,” just unforgettable). Even calling them characters makes me conflicted at times, but within the film space and narrative, that is what they are. Ranking these characters, though, or calling them “best” or “worst,” isn’t something I feel comfortable doing. However, it is more acceptable to discuss a documentary character positively than negatively. Calling someone inspiring is fair, but calling someone despicable is not. Unless their deeds are horrible enough that calling a subject such is about considering them beyond the personality they exhibit on screen (think Hitler in Triumph of the Will, Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing and really any other genocidal leader). We can think anything we want of these people privately and even discuss them amongst ourselves as part of the audience, but there’s no place for it in film criticism. So this list, which is inspired by my ongoing consideration of the Up Series for its 50th anniversary, is not intended to be a critique of any of these people (or […]

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The Fall - Lee Pace

Sometimes Hollywood charms us and hypnotizes us with its magic. And sometimes it’s so damned capricious with talent that you want to start a national shin-kicking campaign to change the tide. Between celebrities built up and then thrust into obscurity, and talents that never quite see the light of fame, Hollywood is a wasteland of actors who could give the current who’s who a run for their dramatic money. The lucky few get that extra ten minutes of fame that turns them into a split-second repeat whirlwind a la Mickey Rourke, but most live the life of a character actor with the occasional reminder role, or the television guest star who makes Kevin Bacon’s Hollywood web seem a little smaller. Here are nine of the many, the ones that have had me grumbling about their trajectories in recent months:

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Home Alone Talkboy

Defictionalization is when something that previously only existed in a movie universe comes to life. Films and TV shows are now taking advantage of this more than ever before. In the world of TV, Castle has spawned a series of books by Nathan Fillion’s crime novelist character; Parks and Rec has spawned a guide to Pawnee written by the characters themselves; and Archer is now releasing an album recorded by Judy Greer’s character Charlene (and not, apparently, by Judy Greer). Here are ten great examples of fictional products from movies that became defictionalized in interesting ways:

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Casablanca Movie

Sometimes, the urge to crack open a cold one when you’re stuck in the middle of a Netflix binge can get overwhelming. And it’s understandable; so many of our favorite films feature incredible bars and pubs that put our local haunts and dives to shame, intergalactic gathering spots that bring together alien races, chic international watering holes and rough roadsides that may necessitate a bodyguard or two. While we can’t frequent these cinematic watering holes, it’s okay to daydream and sip a martini or two while doing so. Here are the movie bars at which we’d love to pull up a stool.

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Expedition-to-the-End-of-the-World-Tshirt

As April leaves us with this one last day, it’s appropriate to end the month’s theme of environmentalism with a look at films that very well could change your mind about something regarding alternative energy or climate change. And even if they don’t go that far, they’ll at least surprise you a bit about their subject matter and probably get you thinking differently. These are not documentaries aimed at sending the usual green messages, but they’re not conservative features looking to debunk those usual green messages, either. They’re about or made by people going against the grain in their thinking on the issues, and that makes them really fascinating. The following list highlights documentaries about the environment that aren’t preaching to the choir. They take risks with different attitudes, and here’s what’s not surprising: none of them are big hits. Cool It From director Ondi Timoner (Dig!; We Live In Public), this 2010 doc is based on Bjorn Lomberg‘s books The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the State of the World and Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming and features Lomberg explaining his highly controversial theories on climate change. He directly responds to Al Gore‘s points from An Inconvenient Truth with his own facts on sea level rise and super storms and even polar bear endangerment. Lomberg isn’t a global warming denier from the other side of the political spectrum, though. He just is saying to “cool it” with all the fear-mongering rhetoric as well as all the wasting of money for solutions that aren’t working and maybe aren’t necessary. A movie like this […]

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Oscar Isaac in The Nativity Story

If you saw today’s Star Wars: Episode VII casting news and said “who?” more than once, this guide is for you. But even if you saw the names and were mostly familiar with them, this guide is also for you. Sure, everyone knows Andy Serkis, but has everyone seen the movie that makes him best suited to work with director J.J. Abrams on a Star Wars movie? Especially if, as I would wish, he isn’t just doing another motion-capture character? And yeah, yeah, there’s the whole Inside Llewyn Davis reunion going on with Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac, but there are other more appropriate, if not better, movies to see in anticipation of the big one. For each of the newcomers, I’ve selected one movie that you can watch right now and one movie that will (hopefully) be out between now and the December 2015 release date for Episode VII. That gives you plenty of time and a fairly small pile of titles to get through. Of course, if you have some extra room for more, you can always add at least 20 more necessities for Max von Sydow. That guy has been in a lot of great stuff. And a lot of bad stuff that’s at least pretty cool.

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Autobahn in The Big Lebowski

You wouldn’t be able to see them in concert. You couldn’t necessarily find an old favorite of theirs on vinyl or hear their new single on the radio, or download their latest EP as a new discovery. But for the fictional bands of cinema, their music still matters in a deep, powerful way. With the announcement that one of the most famous fictional bands of all time, Jem and the Holograms, is getting the movie adaptation treatment, it’s about time to look at the other fake bands that stepped onto the silver screen before them. Their existence may not be true, but their music is.

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Jump London

To some, the new film Brick Mansions is notable as one of the final projects starring recently-deceased actor Paul Walker. Others know of it as a remake of the French film District B13. Or, you might not be familiar with it at all, given the somewhat muted promotional push. Like the original, the movie acts as a showcase for parkour, the physical discipline of getting from one point to another as quickly as possible, often utilizing impressive acrobatic techniques. But if you want better examples of the sport in action, then it’s best to turn to a documentary. After all, the stunts in these nonfiction films aren’t performed by doubles and there’s no safety apparatuses in play. That’s much more in the true spirit of parkour. While Hollywood generally sees parkour as a means to an action scene end, there is in fact a philosophy behind it, and each of these docs get into that to one degree or another. Jump London, a 2003 film widely credited with causing an explosion in popularity for the sport in the UK, didn’t appeal to youth just because of the cool tricks. Its message of reclaiming locomotion in an era dominated by traffic jams pushes traceurs, the French practitioners of the form, as true free spirits. Seeing them bound around famous London landmarks is absolutely exhilarating. That theme is continued in the film’s 2005 sequel, Jump Britain, which follows the traceurs to new places all over the country. Watch Jump London in full, care of director Mike Christie, by clicking through below. He also uploaded the sequel here. READ MORE AT NONFICS

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Stories We Tell

All creations are, in some way, autobiographical. As the merging of imagination and experience, at least a little bit of the creator’s self is infused in their creation. At times, it’s little more than a thematic hint, like Ethan Hawke’s discussion of his failing marriage in Before Sunset, as the actor himself went through a public break-up. It can also be the combination of memory and fantasy, like Guy Maddin’s eccentric documentary about his hometown and childhood memories, My Winnipeg. And other times, cinema becomes the therapist investigating familial turmoil, like Sarah Polley’s excellent Stories We Tell. On occasion, the film itself becomes a revealing cinematic journal, one that makes its audience witting (or unwitting) voyeurs snooping through private lives with a depth tabloids can only dream of. These films allow the filmmaker moments of introspection, revenge, and confusion that make for compelling narratives, but even more fascinating autobiographies when you know what inspired them.

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Alanis Morissette in Dogma

Once, in the 90s, it was told unto us that God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, trying to make his way home. The all knowing, all seeing, all feeling creator of everything and anything in the universe could take on many forms, and he typically has throughout the many channels of pop culture. But it’s hard to find a good version of God in movies – for good reason. It’s a part that many might not want to take; God is, after all, the ultimate role. It doesn’t get much bigger than that. How do you embody a deity, the most important figure in a vast amount of people’s lives, and a part they’ve already casted in their minds while daydreaming in church pews from an early age? You get around it, and you get creative. Sometimes, you don’t even have to be on screen. Just pray for the best. 

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IMAX Blue Planet DVD Crop

Earth Day was set up in conjunction with the growing environmental movement, and after 44 years that remains the main purpose of the occasion. But we can also think of this day as a time to celebrate the planet like it’s her birthday. Happy 4.54 billionth, Earth! Again! Therefore I’d like to not just devote the day to listing environmental issue films. Instead, I’ve compiled the best documentaries about Earth, as in the planet is the subject and these are portraits of her, both negative and positive. It’s a fairly brief list, because there aren’t a whole lot of nonfiction films qualified as being about or of the whole world. And I don’t want to just include them all just to fill the space, even though most of them are pretty good. I highly recommend all seven of the following nonfiction films to everyone living on Earth, which should be all of you (if not, hello extraterrestrial readers!), because it’s a good idea to know your home. READ MORE AT NONFICS

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Joe-Berlinger-Crude

With Earth Day coming up next week, it’s the time of year to highlight documentaries dealing with our planet and its well-being. In other words, we’ve got environmentalism films to recommend. For our first list devoted to this theme, I’m interested specifically in the low points, the damage that’s been done to the earth, some of it ongoing and some of it remedied. These docs look at disasters like pollution, oil spills, changes to eco-systems and more. And they aren’t all necessarily issue films devoted to making a difference. Most are simply a look at what’s been done. All are necessary works to remind us, maybe affect us, but also to stimulate us in other ways, too. Below are 12 nonfiction features — a few of them Oscar nominees and a couple of them outright masterpieces — from Werner Herzog, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Noriaka Tsuchimoto, Joe Berlinger, Ken Burns and other great filmmakers who know how to create a feeling in us, whether or not they’re also communicating direct information about these disasters. Where known and available, I’ve noted how you can watch each one. Before the Mountain Was Moved Robert K. Sharpe‘s Oscar-nominated 1970 feature is about the effects of strip mining in West Virginia. The primary focus is on the people living in an area where private homes are being damaged by the mountain top removal process and their attempt to either sue the coal company or at least get them to stop being “bad strippers.” It’s […]

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This is a week of cinematic imagination. Tuesday brought the arrival of Ben Stiller’s journeying remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and this Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since Joel and Clementine raced through his mind trying to hide in memories and avoid permanent erasure. While that film strove to take something from the memory, there are countless films that strive to add to it, relishing in the many ways the imagination manifests, from a little girl’s fantastical journey into strength, to one man’s struggle to break out of a dream. Sadly, Figment isn’t taking us on this journey, but the imaginative movies that follow show the possibilities of the mind – as a childish pursuit, an adult coping mechanism, and a wonderfully idiosyncratic way of life.

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Justin Timberlake Omeletteville

We’ve all probably contemplated a career change at some points in our lives. But at the same time, we also probably didn’t (most of us, I don’t know about you) start out as multi-award winning pop stars beloved by millions for our singing and dancing. Proving that even the richest and most famous get bored or at least hear from an agent or two that they’re something special, many a pop sensation get the itch sometime down the road to give acting a shot. Whether or not they’re successful, well, that’s up for us to sit through and ultimately decide. For every On The Line, there’s an Oscar-winning performance in Moonstruck that somehow happens. Some people just have all the luck.

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Twin Peaks

April 8th marked the 24th anniversary of Twin Peaks’ premiere. But as any good fan knows, this means it’s also been 25 years since Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) first visited the Black Lodge on March 26, 1989, when Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer whispered in his ear: “I’ll see you again in 25 years.” For fans, it’s been a whirlwind of cherry pies and snapping fingers, but the anniversary is also a reminder of just how far David Lynch and Mark Frost’s influential show stretched. This wasn’t a little cult affair seen and quoted by few. Glimpses of the show can be seen far and wide in homages, parodies, and vague references from stage to screen, from adult comedy to children’s programming. By this point, just about everyone has seen at least a little Twin Peaks through one of media’s many references, and here are some of the best.

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Videodrome

Canada is a scary place. I know that may be hard to believe given its reputation south of the border, but it’s true. At least since the mid-1970s something about the Great White North has inspired its citizens to go forth and make horror films. Good ones at that. Derek Lee and Cliff Prowse’s Afflicted, one of our 13 Best Horror Films of 2013, is only the most recent to hit American theaters. It won’t be alone, either, as Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy continues to unsettle and confuse audiences in its third week. The glut of terrifying entertainment from Canada begs some sort of explanation. Obviously there’s more to the nation than the stereotype of the apologetic, self-effacing peacenik but the Maple Terror phenomenon is now large enough to merit some light-hearted analysis. Let’s start with Margaret Atwood. Back in 1972 she published a book of literary theory called “Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.” Her idea was that the principle theme of Canadian culture is the battle with the wilderness, the fight to survive the snow and the cold. The protagonists in Canadian fiction are often in “victim positions,” a representation of a communally held fear of nature. Canadian literary criticism has mostly moved on from Atwood’s book, as has the writer herself, but there’s something very useful about this idea. No one is more victimized than the hero of a horror film. Is there something inherently Canadian about the genre, something that has inspired generations of filmmakers to terrorize their characters? Maybe! […]

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