Cinematic Listology

Paths of Glory

Exactly one month after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia, and after weeks of diplomatic negotiations that went nowhere, Austria-Hungary declared war on July 28, 1914 — a date often regarded as the first day of what would come to be known as The Great War, now better known as World War I. While cinema had been in existence for over two decades by the time the war began, WWII has greatly eclipsed its predecessor in terms of its breadth of cinematic representation. Yet The Great War – with its many intersecting transnational conflicts and its location at the historical precipice between 19th century trenches and 20th century machine warfare – has produced an incredible number of fascinating, haunting, and even touching stories about a world experiencing accelerated change, many of which have made their way to celluloid. So for the 100th anniversary of The Great War, we’ve assembled a list of 8 worthwhile films that give us a glimpse into this complicated conflict that helped shape the 20th century.

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The Legend of Billie Jean

There is more to the ‘80s than time travel, fantastical adventures, and teenage angst with a happy ending, but it wouldn’t seem like that with the narrow tack nostalgia has taken. The era has been whittled down to a list of mainstream musts and little else. Sometimes other films get remembered for a fleeting instant, especially if an anniversary is nigh, but generally it’s a momentary vacation before the return to the typical rushes about forgotten scenes, wacky trivia, or new pricey figurines. After years of near-obsolescence, The Legend of Billie Jean finally returned to shelves with a Blu-ray release this week, reminding us that there are other great ‘80s films out there we can be talking about. Some are probably better off forgotten, like Prayer of the Rollerboys, which I was ashamed to revisit when my age got into the double digits. But there are others worth the revisitation.

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Moon Landing in 2001

There’s nothing like the Moon for cinema. It’s been a fascination for fiction from way before motion pictures were invented, but it’s had a very special place in the history of film. From the beginning, at least as early as 1896 when Georges Melies created a lunar-based dream for A Nightmare (watch it here), filmmakers have been portraying our planet’s natural satellite in all kinds of ways. One of the most famous movie images of all time is a silhouetted bicycle in front of a giant full moon, in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Even one of the Hollywood studios incorporates a crescent moon in its logo. One of the reasons the Moon is so interesting for cinema is that for the majority of the art form it was still a relatively unknown thing. Then, 45 years ago today (or yesterday, depending on where you are in the world), man touched ground on its surface and the idea of a journey to the Moon was no longer science fiction. Well, that’s actually dependent on who you ask, as well. Immediately we had hints about the Moon landing being a hoax, or if not totally manufactured then involving some other secret situation — like Apollo 11 really being a mission to investigate crashed Transformers (watch that here). Even after we officially knew there were no Cat-Women on the Moon and that it wasn’t in fact made of cheese, films have still had fun imagining the lunar body for sci-fi and fantasy stories set in […]

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We-Live-in-Public

Last week, National Geographic debuted a three-part documentary special called The ’90s: The Last Great Decade? Although it didn’t spend a lot of time on the rise of the web, the history of that period obviously noted some of the more significant moments in the early days of the Internet’s widespread popularity. There was the dot-com bubble, the breaking of the Clinton/Lewinski scandal on the Drudge Report, the first browser war, the screech of dialup and the reason Apple started naming products starting with a lower-case i. It was a great piece of nostalgia, reminding me that this month marks my own 20th anniversary of using the Internet — an occasion I know of because it coincided with a pre-college program I attended in the summer of 1994. Also last week, the New York Times posted a new Op-Doc by Brian Knappenberger called A Threat to Internet Freedom. The short film tackles the net neutrality issue in a brief yet concise five minutes, and there’s not a better director out there for this particular topic. Knappenberger continues to be the best documentary filmmaker when it comes to presenting histories, biographies and current events and debates of and related to the Internet. In fact, his two most recent features are both among the top 10 documentaries about the Internet. Those and the eight others are all from the past 13 years, none of them produced in the ’90s, and few of them even focus on subject matter pertaining to the net during the 20th century. The further we get from the dawn […]

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Worlds End End

People love a good twist ending. When it’s good, it’s The Sixth Sense. When it’s bad, it’s most of the Shyamalan films that followed. But now twists aren’t just shocking flips of plot that viewers don’t see coming. They’re also those moments where a feature defies one of Hollywood’s many conventions. These days, the courage of conviction rings sweeter than the slickly planned twist. It’s exhilarating to watch filmmakers follow their plan to the end (for good or bad), and it’s promising that they were allowed to do so and not curtailed by a system that wants things just so. (Consider the original plan for Heathers, which would’ve seen everyone die and get a happy ending in Prom Heaven.) Sometimes it’s as simple as fighting the rampant desire for a happy ending and letting characters be miserable or die, and other times it’s daring to not kill anyone at all. Every time I see the trailer for Sex Tape, I find myself hungry for the unexpected. I fear actually seeing the film because in my head, Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel spend half the movie trying to stop people from seeing their sex tape, and then they realize they’re actually closet exhibitionists and don’t care. Even if completely random and absurd, that would beat barreling toward a conclusion that’s obvious from the first trailer. In the meantime, I’ll have these films (and one television show) to sate my unexpected hunger. Beware, the ends of films will be discussed and therefore spoiled.

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Jaimie Alexander in Thor The Dark World

When news hit yesterday that Thor would become a woman in the pages of Marvel comics, speculation was immediate about whether the character could also switch gender on the big screen. Considering the change in the books is not just a short-term thing, according to Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso (“We have no real exit plan,” he told Time), there’s good reason to think it could impact the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chris Hemsworth has three more movies in his contract with Marvel Studios, one of which is next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Another installment each of the Avengers and Thor series is expected to fill the rest of that run. Then, maybe he can be replaced by a woman. Easy pickings, right? Well, she has to be worthy of filling Hemsworth’s boots, and that means maybe not being cast with a short, petite actress. The concept art for the new Thor doesn’t give much to go by except that she has long blonde hair, like her male counterpart, and looks pretty tough. I figure she ought to be somewhere close to the height of Hemsworth’s incarnation, too (he’s 6’3″). And she’d probably be relatively young, as Hemsworth was when he began (at age 26) — so, sorry Uma Thurman. I also don’t think Marvel would go for someone that famous anyway. Hemsworth was fairly unknown when he became the thunder god superhero. She will be, too. I’ve selected five actresses who fit the criteria as much as possible. Sadly, for nostalgia’s sake, Maia Brewton […]

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Ciao-Maschio-2

Earlier this week, I wrote about one of the worst movies ever made, Congo. It’s actually just a single example of the many terrible movies involving apes and monkeys, which form a whole subcategory in the worst movies of all time canon. The group includes titles where actors wear gorilla suits as well as those where real chimps, orangutans or other primates are trained to play sports, drive cars, wear costumes of their own or provide comic relief in some other fashion. Thank goodness we have something like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and now its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to make us forget about the crap that’s come before it. Yet there has also been a lot of great ape movies ahead of this rebooted Planet of the Apes series. Most of them are documentaries, but there are a number of fiction films and dramas based on true stories that ought to be recognized, to keep them in the spotlight while leaving stuff like Congo, Ed, Buddy, Link, Dunston Checks In and so many more in the shadows where they belong. Of course, as this week’s big movie is a sequel to a reboot, it’s recommended that you also look back at the originals. At least the first Planet of the Apes and second sequel Escape From the Planet of the Apes and definitely not Tim Burton’s 2001 remake. Also, obviously Rise (obviously, right, but I went to see Dawn with someone who didn’t even know […]

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22 Jump Street

We all know the refrain by now: remakes and reboots are a prime example of a creatively bankrupt Hollywood. The trend has gotten so ridiculous that now we have reboots and remakes within years of each other, studios throwing cinematic spaghetti at its old properties to see what sticks. Some do it right. After the success of The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, Phil Lord and Chris Miller will have to fight tooth and nail to avoid sinking under a pile of desired reboots and reimaginings. Others projects, meanwhile, seem to hold little sense at all – like turning a dangerous tale of high school obsession (Endless Love) into a positive romance. But what’s really frustrating is that our modern reboot culture rarely picks the properties that are still relevant today – the setups that can tap into a modern message while exploring the evolution of old ideas. Some projects are trying – we now have a Girl Meets World sequel series and the excellent Danger Mouse is primed for a return – but what else is there? If reboots are here to stay, it’s time to think about ways to inject the trend with new life.

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Prometheus Weyland TED Talk

In film, we tend to focus on the underdogs and their struggles, but what about the big guys up at the top who make it so good to be bad? The largest, most evil corporations in film don’t give a damn about the little guys; they don’t really care about anything at all except money power, and staying successful no matter what it takes — or how many feet they need to trample. It’s time to celebrate that by featuring the best of the worst. Here are the most evil corporations in movies.

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Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Community

Dungeons & Dragons has defied the odds and turned forty this year. A niche game that might take a decade to complete, its mixture of imagination, dice, paper and pencils seemed no match for the rise of the Digital Age and quick satisfaction. But tabletop gaming (and RPGs) bit their thumbs at the odds and became kinda cool. Celebs like Wil Wheaton, Sam Witwer, and Chris Hardwick have met up for a round of Dragon Age on TableTop, and the popular web series is now cooking up a spin-off RPG show after their super-successful crowdfunding campaign. But the RPG has not only infiltrated the back-room geek realms of the Internet. Though it never made much progress on film, save for the rare appearance in films like ET, D&D has become a television pre-requisite. Forget about musical episodes; if geeks are present in any noticeable way, there will be an episode or scene devoted to a D&D quest where the nerds lure newbies to the dice. It’s a game that’s set up deadly enemies, revealed inner weaknesses and unveiled fans in the least likely of places. Now I must admit – I have never played Dungeons & Dragons and have little desire to (unless it’s the ridiculously addictive board game offshoot, Lords of Waterdeep). My patience has no time for long quests. Nevertheless, some of my favorite television moments revolve around D&D (and television’s facsimiles of it). I love what it inspires in its fans, and the creativity that often stems from it. The RPG […]

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Stonewall Uprising

Once again, Happy Pride Month! Last week we featured a list of the 10 Best Documentary Portraits of LGBT Culture, films that celebrate the lives and loves of their diverse subjects. Today’s list is entitled “The Best Documentaries About LGBT History.” What’s the difference? The distinction is, in a word, politics. Obviously when dealing with something like LGBT civil rights, culture and politics are often very closely connected. Yet the following 10 films are more consciously political, narratives of the struggle for freedom and equality over the course of history. It might be a misnomer to call all of them “activist” documentaries, and the “issue film” moniker seems reductive. Therefore, we’ll call them history films, built from a century-long struggle against discrimination. They feature the earliest days of the Gay Liberation movement in the United States, the fight to respond to the AIDS epidemic, and the international scope of the pursuit LGBT civil rights around the world today. 10. Fig Trees (2009) Fig Trees is an experimental, musical portrait of the work of two AIDS activists. Zackie Achmat works with the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, Tim McCaskell with AIDS Action Now! in Canada. The film has a broad, international scope from the very beginning. Yet director John Greyson pushes the boundaries even further, placing his work in dialogue with Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson‘s opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The complexity of its images deepen the power of its message, enriching rather than confusing. READ MORE AT NONFICS

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Eli Wallach Transformation

The excellent Eli Wallach, whose career spanned over sixty years, passed away this week at the age of 98, and I’m consumed with thoughts of transformation. Of course, he lived and worked for so long that life was a transformation in and of itself. The man from The Godfather Part III is the same man who hilariously shuffled about with Cloris Leachman in New York, I Love You. But he was also a man that melted into his roles. It’s an amazing, yet eternally undervalued talent. We gush for the names who always, and will forever look like themselves – the Robert Redfords and George Clooneys — but the real magic comes from the character actors whose roles trump image, those who disappear, those who leave little to no taste of the real person behind the performance. Some need full masks and CGI to transform, but others need just a hint of makeup or sometimes (shockingly) nothing at all as they’re enveloped by their characters. Elite actors like Wallach allow us to simply enjoy the character and pretend, briefly, that they’re real.

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Annie at the movies

Six months ago, I compiled a list of movies to watch before going to the movies in 2014. It was a homework assignment for you all to become familiar with the old movies that were remade for this year, whether direct originals or early versions of the same stories retold. That was just the first part, covering only the new releases from January to June. As promised, here is part two. Looking over the second half of the year, one thing is apparent: there are fewer remakes. There are a lot of sequels, of all sizes, and I’ve avoided including the previous installments of series like Night at the Museum, Hot Tub Time Machine, The Trip, The Hobbit, Horrible Bosses, Madagascar, Dumb and Dumber, The Hunger Games, Paranormal Activity, Dolphin Tale, Cabin Fever, The Expendables, Sin City, Planes, Planet of the Apes and The Purge. Those are all givens. I also didn’t include the TV series of The Equalizer, which has been adapted into a feature, because that’s a TV series not a movie. Another note: fall release dates are never as pre-filled as spring and summer movie seasons. That’s because there are a number of movies that will premiere at Telluride/Toronto/Venice film festivals will wind up added to the slate for last-minute Oscar contention. I don’t know that any will be remakes or new adaptations of works previously filmed, but there’s a chance this list will wind up incomplete by the time late December rolls around.

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Batman-1989-Logo

If you were around and old enough to know anything in the summer of 1989, you remember what a phenomenon the release of Batman was. Tim Burton‘s comic book movie was almost as significant to blockbuster history as Star Wars, only in a different way. The DC superhero adaptation was sort of a peak for Hollywood’s aims in the wake of the surprise game changer of 12 years prior. Warner Bros. went all out to sell Batman as an event long ahead of its June 23rd opening and then used that hype to in turn sell the world on Batman merchandising, especially to those who weren’t already hardcore fans. There’s very little about today’s blockbuster and fan culture that wasn’t around for Batman 25 years ago. Even the Internet was involved. To commemorate the anniversary of the movie that sent America into a frenzy of Batmania, I’m not going to highlight a bunch of scenes we love or controversially compare it preferably to The Dark Knight or champion Michael Keaton’s return to the cape and mask after he returns to the black and white stripes of Beetlejuice. Instead I’ve selected a bunch of my favorite ridiculous facts about Batman, many of which are mostly crazy for how similar the preconception and reception was way back then to what we commonly see with tentpoles today.

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Tom Cruise in Goldmember

There was a time when the comedic cameo was a special, timeless treat. It would blend fiction and reality in an irresistible way, one that that might accentuate the rant of a neurotic New Yorker, like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, elaborate on the subtext of comic books like Stan Lee in Mallrats, set the scene of the narrative like the many grunge cameos in Singles, or embody the dream of every struggling college student when paper-subject Kurt Vonnegut pops up to give Rodney Dangerfield some help in Back to School. The above are all contextual, rare and so particular that they’re still remembered all these years later. They were both a viewer treat and an addition that added legitimacy to the film’s message. But what about today? Cameos have shifted from the exception to the norm – I Love You Man, This is the End, Veronica Mars, Zombieland and The Hangover are some of the many modern comedies that throw in a cameo just to have one (some good, others not so much). There are films that get away with it – one can’t blame the 21 Jump Street folks for wanting some source material cameos, for instance – but generally, it’s about a wacky pop culture fun. Ten years ago it was already wearing thin. In a piece at Slate, Adam Sternbergh wrote of the rising ironic cameo culture during the release of Dodgeball, and concluded: “the satire fizzled. So many people were in on the joke that it […]

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Paris is Burning

Happy Pride Month, everyone! The best way to celebrate is to watch documentaries, as is true of all festive occasions. In this case there are plenty to choose from. The LGBT community, as a distinct social group, is arguably about as old as cinema itself. It’s something of a 20th century phenomenon. The moving image has always had a crucial role in the construction of gay identity, whether mediated through the icons of Classic Hollywood or the more recent manifestations of queer people in popular culture. After all, the most recent active attempt to help queer youth define themselves, the “It Gets Better” Campaign, was made up of YouTube videos that directly address an entire generation. The subsequent debate over its unintentional highlighting of the success of upper middle class, predominantly white gay men was also very much about its image. And so, with that said, it’s important to take some time this month and watch honest and celebratory cinematic representations of queer people. The following 10 films span more than 50 years of creative LGBT filmmaking. They represent the great variety of perspective within the vast umbrella of queer experience, a diversity that is central in what we are all supposed to be proud of in the first place. Finally, a programming note. This list features documentaries centered on LGBT culture. Next week we’ll be posting a list made up of much more explicitly political documentaries on the subject of LGBT rights. In a way this is a false distinction. Identity sits on a blurred line between […]

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Columbia Pictures

There’s much to be mocked about sidekicks, one of the easier targets in film. We’re set up to picture a simultaneously meek and booming catchphrase-machine clad in a matching uniform, seemingly created solely to follow our protagonist around and hype them up on their journeys. While plenty of that variety exist, there’s a different and far more interesting breed of sidekicks who prove to be so much more — valuable assets who, really, are so much better than the leads in the first place. Here are seven sidekicks who are smarter and more capable than the heroes they’re supporting.

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Return to Homs

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is in something of a precarious position, at least theoretically. On the one hand there is its commitment to, well, human rights. The result of this raison d’etre is the programming of so-called “issue documentaries,” a not-quite-defined genre that has become something of a critical punching bag. And while the “human” bit will likely help HRW avoid the sort of righteous cinephile anger that was directed at Blackfish, the festival is still by definition a showcase of advocacy films. Yet it is by no means doomed to screen formally bland, ethically pure screeds about international crises. Art, and documentary art in particular, is the representation of human truth. With that in mind, HRW has something of a mandate to screen bold, staggeringly resonant films that capture the most essential problems affecting the world today. And so, as the critical community begins to become less interested in nonfiction films produced around policy positions, the 2014 slate of this issue-oriented festival turns toward its essential mission. Featuring a wide array characters captured with time and understanding rather than facts and figures, this year’s program is a beacon of light and strength. Here are the five films you shouldn’t miss: Emergency Cinema: Shorts by the Abounaddara Collective The Syrian Civil War has lasted well over three years. The nation is in shambles, despite the proud face put out to the world by newly “re-elected” dictator President Bashar al-Assad. Yet as is often the case with conflicts like this, Western media are quick to cover the outbreak of violence […]

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Moss IT Crowd

Today is Richard Ayoade’s birthday. You might know him as the random British inclusion in The Watch, the filmmaker behind the Jesse Eisenberg doppelganger movie, The Double, and of course, he’s Moss from The IT Crowd — a character that Christopher Campbell once dressed up as for Halloween. He’s also a great serving of comedic joy. Ayoade wouldn’t agree. He self-deprecatingly says he’s “just terrible. At talking. With words.” But if Ayoade is not, by his estimation, an actor, he is certainly a man who can banter brilliantly and absurdly in ways that make every manner of words seem natural. Even better: he has his own much-needed spin on nostalgia, one that replicates old styles rather than old toys, and relishes in the remnants of real life rather than computer-crafted graphics, as these 8 examples reveal.

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The Last of Robin Hood

In Maleficent, Angelina Jolie recreates her iconic curse with such perfect charisma that it’s a big letdown when she changes tune about 2.5 seconds later as Disney strives to make her relatable. Our beloved villainess became the reactionary scorned woman, and all of that potential for more evil cackles flies out the window. Thinking about this terribly missed opportunity for excellent evilness, I couldn’t help but think about the many real-life, often larger than life names who have been immortalized in cinematic biographies in ways more bittersweet than satisfying. It’s great to see them and get the rush of their performance, but sad to watch it wasted on an inferior film, or a bit part in someone else’s larger whole.

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