Cinematic Listology

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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Claire Danes Cry Face

There’s a way to do sadness in film, and there’s a way to make sadness all about you. Many of our favorite films feature a heartbreaking scene or two that tug at the emotions ever so gently, but there are some that take that premise and run with it all the way to the cry bank by using the supreme talents of their actors and their abilities to tear-up like there’s no tomorrow. Can you scrunch up your face and look like death’s just arrived? Excellent, Claire Danes, we’ll see you tomorrow. From Danes to Brando, here are some truly impressive cry faces.

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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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