Sunday, 16 November 2008

M Is For Meme

The fine people at Blog Cabins started the Alphabet Meme a short time ago and it's been spreading like wildfire - though I suppose slightly less destructive. I don't think I need to state the full rules: list 26 movies each starting with a different letter of the alphabet. Many have listed their favourites starting with each letter, others have narrowed the focus a bit. I'm going to do a couple of different versions. I mean how can I be expected to choose just one for each letter? I'd feel the need to apologize to the others...

I haven't been tagged, but it's too good to pass up (and many people have suggested anyone reading their meme just assume they have been tagged). So here's three different attempts:

Off The Top Of My Head Picks:

Airplane! - A huge influence on my sense of humour...To this day one of the funniest films I've ever seen. Far better than the Naked Gun series because they kept everything deadpan - the more serious Leslie Nielsen was the funnier he got.

Ball Of Fire - Barbara Stanwyck. Barbara Stanwyck. Barbara Stanwyck. Oh, and a great, sharp and funny script.

Cure - Kiyoshi Kurosawa's disturbing take on the serial killer genre piece. To say that it avoids many of the trappings of a genre piece is putting it lightly.

Donnie Darko - I love time travel stories and this is a neat spin on them. Great use of music as well.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind - You had to see that one coming, right?

Fargo - One of many faves from the Coens.

The Great Escape - As a teenager, this was one of those comfort food films that I could watch whenever it came on.

Harakiri - Masterless Samurai who couldn't find work had really but one option - commit ritual suicide. For one ronin in particular, he desires to take care of the act in the courtyard of one of the feudal lords. But he has additional reasons for the location...A pretty stunning film on all levels. There's a reason why I have 2, and could have had 3, films by director Masaki Kobayashi in my list.

In The Shadow Of The Moon - Interviews with all (minus one) of the surviving astronauts who set foot on the moon are spliced with jaw-dropping NASA footage. Truly awe-inspiring and inspirational.

Ju-On: The Grudge - My favourite ghost story. There's just such a terrific built-up feeling of dread and anxiety throughout the entire film.

Kwaidan - Kobayashi again with his own take on the ghost story. Four separate ghost stories to be exact. A key touchstone for the entire J-Horror movement of the last decade.

Lady Vengeance - The crowning touch to Chan-wook Park's vengeance trilogy. This is essentially a perfect film in my mind.

Magnolia - The first 10 breathless minutes of this film are simply fantastic - the quick run through of the three urban legends with a discussion of coincidences followed by the sprint through the character introductions. The remaining 2 hours and 50 minutes aren't too shabby either.

Network - Possibly one of my two favourite films of all time. Sidney Lumet's 1976 satire was a revelation to me when I saw it in the early 80s.

Ocean's Twelve - I stick to my guns in stating that this is not only the best of Soderbergh's Ocean films, but also a great art film. And lots of fun. And yes, it does hold together.

Punch Drunk Love - That's two for PT Anderson as well. I grow to appreciate this film more and more each time I see it.

The Quiet Earth - A slow, but compelling sci-fi tale of the last humans on Earth.

Rififi - Boy, it was tough not putting "Raising Arizona" or "The Royal Tenenbaums" here, but this is the first thing that came to mind. And not just because of the oft talked about 30 minute dialogue-and-music-free heist. That would be enough though since it is that incredibly good.

Sunrise - A gorgeous film of a married couple falling back into love.

Twelve Angry Men - The other possible entry in my top two films of all time is also directed by Sidney Lumet. While some films can barely flesh out 2 or 3 main characters, this one easily manages to give us 12 complex individuals wrapped into a great story.

Umbrellas Of Cherbourg - With an ending that pretty much defines the word "bittersweet", Jacques Demy's musical is a feast for the senses. Music and colour spill out of every frame (that wallpaper!).

Visions Of Light - My favourite documentary about film introduced numerous titles to me (e.g. "The Conformist").

Whisper Of The Heart - This wonderful story of young love is far more than just a beautiful anime film. It's one of the best coming of age films I've ever seen.

SeX And Lucia - Julio Medem's layered magical account of several people's stories on a remote island is also a very, very sexy film. Shame about his last film "Chaotic Ana" though...Ugh.

Young Girls Of Rochefort - My favourite all time musical. I cannot physically stop smiling during this movie.

Z - Costa-Gavras' political thriller made me angry. And I believe that was his intent.

Less Well Known Picks (aka "Aren't I Cool That I Know These?"):

Acacia - One of the most horrific aspects of this Korean horror tale is the callous behaviour shown towards a small 6 year old adopted boy. His new grandmother won't even speak to him and thinks that once her daughter actually becomes pregnant that he should be sent back. There's plenty of other more visceral terror in the film, but those scenes stick with me even more.

Blood Wedding - Part of Carlos Saura's Flamenco Trilogy, this is a brilliant small film - it covers the dress rehearsal of the staging of "Blood Wedding" in three parts. First the preparation of the dancers (doing their makeup, getting dressed, etc), followed by a practice session and then a 40 minute run through of the play itself. The story is told without dialogue, but through music and dance and it culminates in an amazing knife fight between the two male leads - all of which is done to look like it is in slow motion.

C.R.A.Z.Y. - Quebec cinema seems to outpace the rest of Canadian cinema sometimes - I'm not sure if it's because they have a built in audience who actually attend their films in the theatre or if the artistic community in Quebec simply spawns talented filmmakers. Whatever the case, this is a highly enjoyable look at 20 odd years in the family of 5 boys growing up in the 60s and 70s of La Belle Province.

The Dinner Game - A number of snobby rich friends have a regular dinner to which they invite the stupidest people they can find. Whoever brings the dumbest guest wins. Pierre thinks that his current "catch" will far out do anyone else's. Very funny in both subtle and broad farcical ways.

The Eel - If nothing else, Shohei Imamura's 1997 film (and his 2nd win at Cannes) introduced me to one of my favourite actors - Koji Yakusho. But there's a lot more in this tale of a man trying to restart his life after serving 8 years in prison for murdering his cheating wife.

Funky Forest - The absolute best way to see this film is with an audience of unsuspecting people who are ready for anything to be thrown at them, but its many surprises and joys can still be enjoyed at home alone. Just be ready to be discombobulated.

Gunga Din - This is how they used to make 'em.

Hukkle - An odd Hungarian film with virtually no spoken dialogue of any kind about a series of deaths in a small village. The clever story incorporates wonderful images of nature and a very black sense of humour.

The In-Laws - I only saw this hysterical film a few years ago and regret having spent so much of my life sheltered from its brilliance. Peter Falk and Charles Grodin at their very funniest.

Jean De Florette - Claude Berri made both this and its sequel ("Manon Des Sources") in 1986 - two beautiful films in one year. Gerard Depardieu plays the titular character - a man determined to live with his family on his inherited property even though his greedy neighbours have shut down his well. Through failing health he still walks miles to get his water to keep the farm operational.

Kamikaze Taxi - More Koji Yakusho...An interesting take on the difficulty of integrating into society when you are a foreign born Japanese. Some good yakuza-ness in the film as well.

Linda Linda Linda - By using many long takes, director Nobuhiro Yamashita allows you to feel you've actually spent a great deal of time with these 4 teenage girls as they prepare for a battle of the bands. You really feel as though you got to know them. The great energetic music helps too.

Matinee - One of the more loving tributes to 50s cinema and in particular, the William Castle style of promotion and goofy fun. It can actually make you feel nostalgic for a period of time that you never experienced.

Next Stop Wonderland - This romantic comedy by Brad Anderson ("Session 9", "The Machinist", "Transsiberian") allows you to really like the two flawed individuals before they even meet each other. Hope Davis is simply gorgeous here.

One Two Three - Possibly my favourite Billy Wilder film (short of "Double Indemnity") has oodles of snappy patter and one liners tumbling from the mouths of its cast. James Cagney is a bundle of energy and a complete delight as the head of a Coca-Cola plant in West Germany who is looking to move up to bigger and better things.

Pulse - Possibly the creepiest film ever, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Pulse" chronicles one scenario of the breakdown of human communication. It's subtle in how it works on you and gets under your skin.

Quicksand - Mickey Rooney in a noir story of how a single act (even a small one) can snowball and seal your fate.

Royal Wedding - Cheesy, predictable and quite dated in many ways, "Royal Wedding" is also an amazingly entertaining musical with a terrific performance from Jane Powell. Fred Astaire dances on a ceiling, twirls with a coat rack and romps with Jane through some great colourful numbers (in particular "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life").

The Seagull's Laughter - It's rough for a 12 year old girl growing up in Iceland. Especially when no one believes anything you say.

The Taste Of Tea - A completely lovely and charming film about a family who have slowly disengaged themselves from each other. It's left up to the ailing patriarch to take it upon himself to remind them of the simple joys of life.

Un Flic - Melville. Delon. That's all I need to know.

The Vanishing - Build up. Build up. Build up. Devastating ending.

Werckmeister Harmonies - Some of the most stunning black and white photography I've ever seen mixed with incredibly evocative music. There are images from this film, especially from the single extended take of the attack on the hospital, that will stay with me pretty much forever.

EXte: Hair Extensions - A fun mix of silly, creepy and WTF. Fortunately the film is very self-aware as it takes the idea of the long black haired ghost and stretches it to ridiculous limits.

You, The Living - I love this film.

Zatoichi - Takeshi Kitano's crowd pleasing version of the blind swordsman's tale.


Anytown USA - A fascinating document of the mayoral race in a town in New Jersey. The Republican sitting mayor is not well liked and legally blind, the Democrat challenging him is accused of mafia type dealings and the independent write-in candidate is a local former football hero who also happens to be legally blind. Things don't transpire quite the way you expect them...

Bill Cosby: Himself - "Burden Of Dreams" is great, but this one man concert film of some of Cosby's best bits takes the 'B' spot because it is a tears-streaming-down-the-face riot. I love watching this with my Dad.

Calle 54 - During each of the numerous Latin Jazz performances in this film, there's a moment where you think "Ah, this will be my favourite one" - and then the next song starts and about half way through you think, "No, THIS will be...". The word fiery was coined for live music like this.

Deadline - Illinois governor George Ryan has 60 days left in office and decides to use much of it to investigate the cases of the death row inmates in his state. Like the university students who did research and inspired him to look into these cases, he finds out some baffling things - short cuts taken, assumptions made, biases everywhere and possibly innocent people awaiting their death sentence. A fascinating examination of the death penalty.

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room - Bastards. All of 'em.

Five Obstructions - Lars Von Trier tasks one of his idols, Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth, with remaking an old short film five different times - each with a different set of restrictions. Along with a superb look at the creative process, it sheds a lot of light on both men.

Go Tigers! - The tagline reads: "Massillon Ohio: Where they live, breathe and eat football." Do they ever.

Hearts Of Darkness - The behind the scenes making of documentary to end all behind the scenes making of documentaries.

Intelligence - Through the framing story of The Emperor's New Clothes, the film takes a look at intelligence from several different angles such as the value placed on it in society and why we continue to try to measure it (and continue to fail).

Journeys With George - An "inside the campaign trail" account of George W. Bush's 2000 run for the White House. Though we see a few different sides of Bush, the film seems to be more about the press corps and their view of the campaigning - the repeated rallies, the dull bus trips and a sense that it's very rarely about the leaders' ideas.

The Kid Stays In The Picture - Producer extraordinaire Robert Evans had a helluva life. And this film is a helluva way of telling it - using many still photographs in unique ways, it paints not only Evans' portrait but that of Hollywood in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

The Last Waltz - Along with "Stop Making Sense", one of my favourite concert documentaries. The Band's last concert in San Francisco in 1976 had a roster of talent (Dylan, Clapton, Van Morrisson, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, etc.) rarely matched. And Scorsese was there to capture it all.

Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred Leuchter Jr. - Errol Morris' examination of one man's desperate need to find validation - any kind of validation. Leuchter's experience as a builder of death machines (electric chairs and such) is interesting enough, but the real story is where that experience leads him. Possibly my top documentary of all time.

Nursery University - I'm not even sure if this has been released domestically yet, but it should be. It has all the style and fun of many recent documentaries that follow several individuals or families in their pursuits of different goals - in this case the goal of getting their toddlers into the best possible nursery schools to set up their future education. As with those other films, the main subject is only part of the story. It's mostly about the people themselves.

One Day In September - Shocking, disturbing and ultimately depressing account of the killing of Israeli athletes and coaches during the 1972 Munich Olympics by terrorists.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills - Mind-boggling. Two teenage boys get sent away for the gruesome murder of younger boys with scant evidence and a huge bias towards their love of heavy metal music and the devil.

The Qatsi films (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi) - Koyaanisqatsi may have been one of the first jaw-dropping experiences I ever had watching a film. The combination of visuals (slow motion shots, time-lapse photography, etc.) and Philip Glass' music in both films gives totally different perspectives on parts of the world we may never see and some that we live in every single day.

Riding Giants - Stacy Peralta's follow-up to "Dogtown And Z-Boys" focuses this time on surfers...Particularly the ones who ride the huge waves. Great stories and some extraordinary footage.

Schlock: The Secret History Of American Cinema - A fun trip through the silly and occasionally quite influential period of 50s and 60s exploitation cinema.

The Times Of Harvey Milk - I was re-reading what I wrote about this early last year after viewing the film for the first time. I had forgotten that Milk really came to the fore battling Proposition 6 - an attempt to prevent any openly gay person from teaching in the public school system in California. Milk was a huge catalyst for change in the 70s and things have indeed come a long way. However, I also wrote: "As with the best documentaries, "The Times Of Harvey Milk" expands its scope. In this case asking questions that are still relevant today - what will society tolerate and allow in order not to feel threatened?"

With the most recent vote in California on Proposition 8, we see that there's still a ways to go...Sigh, change is slow sometimes isn't it?

The Untold Story Of Emmet Louis Till - In 1955 a 14 year-old black youth whistled at a white woman and was brutally beaten to death. The deliberation by an all white jury after the trial of his white killers took less than an hour. How could anyone not feel angry after watching this film?

Vernon, Florida - Errol Morris again with a quirky almost ramshackle document of some of the people from a small Florida town.

Wordplay - A fabulously fun movie about crosswords, the people that make them, those that solve them and the yearly competition to see who solves them best. Believe it or not, parts of the story are on-the-edge-of-your-seat exciting...

X: The Unheard Music - I guess it helped that I had actually heard much of X's music before watching this documentary. One of the L.A. punk bands, X combined the dual vocals of John Doe and Exene Cervenka with terrific riffs and propulsive drumming. Their album "More Fun In The New World" is a great slice of power punk pop.

Year Of The Horse - The word "shambolic" springs to mind when I think of Jim Jarmusch's look at Neil Young and Crazy Horse during their 1996 tour (both on and off the stage).

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession - Though the heart of this movie is the sad story of Jerry Harvey - the programming chief of this early cable station - the joy of it is to listen to the many people influenced by the classic foreign and off the beaten path films Z Channel showed.


Ed Howard said...

I love that there's actually someone who appreciates both Sex and Lucia and One, Two, Three as much as I do. The sexiest film I've ever seen and the funniest one I've ever seen (and I think you can guess which is which, though Pamela Tiffin is pretty cute too).

Bob Turnbull said...

Damn straight Ed! Both are great films.

Yep, Pamela Tiffin was really cute. She grew up nicely too.

Have you seen "Chaotic Ana" Ed? It's Medem's most recent film and after both "Sex And Lucia" and "Lovers Of The Arctic Circle", it was a huge disappointment. Just terrible.

It's entirely possibleI've asked you this before by the way...B-)

Ed Howard said...

Haven't seen it yet, the negative buzz has kept me away (that and it not playing anywhere easily accessible around here). I'll see it eventually I suppose. I don't even like Lovers nearly as much as Lucia, though it's not bad. I doubt Medem will be able to top what will likely remain his one great masterpiece, though.

James Yates said...

Excellent picks here. I haven't seen "Next Stop Wonderland," but I was blown away when you wrote that Brad Anderson was the director. His name and "romantic comedies" just don't seem to fit in the same sentence.

And I believe that this is the first documentary list that has not included "Capturing the Friedmans." Don't get me wrong, it's a pitch-perfect documentary, but sometimes can seem like too easy a pick.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Great list, Bob. I don't know anything about the new Medem film. I have Red Squirrel on R2 DVD based on the rumor that Kubrick really liked that film. I like it too, My list will be out next week when the film festival here in Denver ends.

On a somewhat related note, the main guy who books the festival told me he was gong to have a tribute to Kiyoshi Kurosawa that fell through. I guess I'll have to wait for the Tokyo Sonata DVD.

Bob Turnbull said...


Certainly seek out "Next Stop Wonderland" if you can as well as his follow-up to that - "Happy Accidents" (with Marisa Tomei and Vincent D'Onofrio). That second one also likely falls into the romantic comedy genre, but both of them just felt more fleshed out than your run-of-the-mill romcom.

I certainly could've put "Capturing The Friedmans" in the list...I distinctly remember that one scene where the detective states (without any hint of it being an issue) how they had to "help" the kids remember details. I think I said out loud (in the theatre) "Holy crap!"


That's a shame about the Kurosawa tribute not making it into the program. Any exposure he can get is a good thing. I'll be curious to hear what you think of "Tokyo Sonata". I quite liked it, though there's a shift in tone at one point that was certainly a bit odd.

I'd heard good things about "Red Squirrel" as well. One day...