Monday, November 10, 2008


My good pal Rick Olson recently tagged me for a new meme that's been floating around, called the Alphabet Meme. This meme, created by Fletch over at Blog Cabins is maddening in its simplicity. What you do is, you pick a favorite film for each letter of the alphabet. The standard rules of alphabetization apply, with the one exception being that a movie whose title is, or begins with, a number would be categorized by the first letter of that number: 8 1/2 would be an "E" title, 12 Monkeys a "T" title, and so on.

Before being tagged, I'd run across this meme on other blogs, such as over at Marilyn's place, and at Final Girl, and somewhere or another I read that the movies you chose had to be personal favorites, movies that you had a special connection to. That's not part of the rules as laid out by Fletch, but I stuck to it anyway. As a result, and much to my embarrassment, the list I ended up with features only one film made before 1970, and contains no foreign films at all. Now, I love a lot of classic American films, and all kinds of foreign films, so I'm not entirely sure how this happened, nor am I happy about it. But I also have to admit that this list is pretty representative of me -- at least the "me" who loves movies.

The thing is, though, a lot of films, and filmmakers, who are equally representative of my tastes don't get a look in here either. There's no Herzog, no Kubrick, no Melville, no Paul Thomas Anderson, no Robert Altman. And there are only two films that could be reasonably categorized as horror. That's a real puzzler. Now, I could have very easily put The Exorcist or The Shining in here, and those two in particular are actually a better fit for this list, as I've laid it out above, than the films which ended up in those respective slots, but those two end up on just about every list of movies anybody has ever put together, and while I love them as much as I ever have, the idea of writing about them makes my shoulders slump, so I left them off. Then again, I can't really be said to have done much writing about any of the movies below, so I don't know why that should have stopped me including the Friedkin or Kubrick films, but I've already made the list, and I'm not one to dwell in the past. Ever forward, that's my motto.

That's enough of that. The list:

American Movie (d. Chris Smith) – You know what I like about Mark Borchardt? When he’s unable to get a movie going, apparently he shifts over to writing radio plays. Who does that anymore?

Brazil (d. Terry Gilliam) – The power of this film has certainly dimmed over the years, but watching Gilliam’s only truly great film today, I can’t help but notice that Brazil still manages to feel like no other movie I can think of.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (d. Woody Allen) – Woody Allen now says that he regrets including the comedic storyline in this film, because he believes it deadens the impact of Martin Landau’s story. You remember the comedic storyline, right? That’s the one that deals with suicide and coprophiliac rape. This is the richest work Allen has ever done, and the most optimistically pessimistic film I’ve ever seen.

Dead Man (d. Jim Jarmusch) – You’d think naming your main character “William Blake” would be gilding the lily just a bit too much, but this film by Jim Jarmusch is so bizarre in its humor, and so shocking in its violence, and so enigmatic in its purpose, that I’m willing to allow that Jarmusch knew what he was doing.

The Elephant Man (d. David Lynch) – Man, how I wish David Lynch would make another film set in Victorian England. No other film gets closer to my own personal sense of that time and place than this one, which is both Lynch’s most atypical (outside of The Straight Story), and also my favorite of his films. I’ve never seen another film set in that era where you can actually hear the hissing of the gaslights.

Frenzy (d. Alfred Hitchcock) – One of the reasons I like this film so much is that, just once, Hitchcock was able to let rip with his more graphic inclinations that he’d been tamping down for pretty much his entire career up to that point. And while he did indulge himself in that regard, he also held back and went for dark elegance when the film called for it. Hitchcock was an old man when he died, but Frenzy still makes me sad about the films he never got to make.

Glengarry Glen Ross (d. James Foley) – I can’t overstate the influence this film, and David Mamet in general, has had on me. To me, this film is just astonishing, and no one has ever got Mamet’s rhythms on film like James Foley did here. Adapting Mamet should be Foley’s career.

Homicide (d. David Mamet) – At one point, I was so determined to affect a kind of eclecticism regarding my tastes that I almost chose Hour of the Wolf for my “H” movie. Not that I don’t like that film, but that’s not what this meme is about, and we must be ethically pure when dealing with memes. Anyway, this is two Mamet films in a row, except Mamet directed this one itself, and to me it still represents his best work behind the camera. Fiercely original and provocative, plus one can never have too much Joe Mantegna.

The Ice Harvest (d. Harold Ramis) – I think this film would make a great double feature with Groundhog Day. Really. Think about it. Plus, this is the best work John Cusack has done in a really long time.

Jackie Brown (d. Quentin Tarantino) – Tarantino seems to bristle when anyone claims this is their favorite of his films, but oh well. He needs to realize that, despite the fact that this is an adaptation of someone else’s work, Jackie Brown is still a Tarantino film from top to bottom (and I say that having read my fair share of Elmore Leonard’s fiction). This film is so goddamn patient in its storytelling, and that, more than anything, is what I love about it. So few filmmakers take their time to let a story unfold anymore, but Tarantino does that here. And for that matter he did it with Kill Bill, as well. That’s one lesson none of his imitators chose to follow.

The King of Comedy (d. Martin Scorsese) – The last half hour or so of this one has never really completely worked for me, but I happily let that slide, because this must be the most idiosyncratic movie Scorsese or De Niro have ever put out there. Hilariously uncomfortable.

The Life Aquatic (d. Wes Anderson) – Of Hotel Chevalier, the short film that serves as a prologue to The Darjeeling Limited, one well-known film critic said that it showed what Wes Anderson would be capable of if only he’d stop being Wes Anderson. Yeah, because that’s what we need, filmmakers who strive to be as disconnected from their work as possible. The Life Aquatic is not impersonal: it’s wild, and singular, and hilarious, and beautiful, and devastating, and the ending makes me cry, and I don’t care who knows it, so shut your mouths, you bunch of dicks.

Miller’s Crossing (d. The Coen Brothers) – More than any other film, Miller’s Crossing made me a cinephile (it also kicked my love of crime fiction into full gear). It remains one of the most visually and, hell, aurally striking movies I’ve seen. When I first saw it in theaters, it knocked me on my ass, and it still does.

The Ninth Configuration (d. William Peter Blatty) – This movie combines a completely unbelievable, even cartoonish, depiction of mental insanity; Stacy Keach speaking almost entirely in monotone; Vietnam; lines like “I wish you’d douche, sincerely”; the question of God; Jason Miller trying to stage Shakespeare with all-dog casts; a wickedly brutal bar fight; and one of my favorite openings in film history. Don’t ask me why all this works, because I don’t know, but it does.

Of Mice and Men (d. Gary Sinise) – Ray Walston makes me cry in this movie, as does one brief, wordless flashback at the end. This is the best adaptation of this book you will ever see.

The Prestige (d. Christopher Nolan) – Probably the darkest summer Hollywood film to roll around in many a moon, I feel like this film is already being forgotten, and that’s just not right. Now I’ll admit that I do have a particular affinity for stories revolving around turn-of-the-last-century magicians, especially if the story involves two magicians trying to destroy each other, but seriously, watch this thing again. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.

Quiz Show (d. Robert Redford) - This one single-handedly justifies the directing career of Robert Redford, and it’s one of the recent high-points of the Big Hollywood Oscar Film genre. An exceptionally strong cast mixed with a really smart script about a fascinating, fringe bit of American history: what’s not to like? Plus, any time a scene revolves around food in some way, the characters actually eat. I don’t know, I feel like that’s worth noting.

The Right Stuff (d. Philip Kaufman) – I’m tempted to say that this is the great modern American epic film. It’s hard to make a film about America that is, at the same time, cynical and rousingly patriotic, but this one is, and it’s completely sincere about all of it.

A Simple Plan (d. Sam Raimi) – I fear this film is, like The Prestige, rapidly dwindling from our collective memory. But don’t let that happen. Billy Bob Thornton is unbelievably good in this story about how evil regular, decent people can be.
Topsy Turvy (d. Mike Leigh) – There’s a moment in this Mike Leigh masterpiece where Jim Broadbent, as W. S. Gilbert, is watching the rehearsal of a song he’s not pleased with from his newest operetta, The Mikado. He has a cigar tucked between his fingers, and with that same hand he takes a drink, looking at the stage from over the rim of his glass. I love that moment! I can’t explain why, but if I’m watching the film, and I happen to glance away and miss it, I have to rewind. And that one second of screen time in some indefinable way sums up why I think this is one of the great films of the last twenty years.

Unforgiven (d. Clint Eastwood) – I had an asshole professor in college who called this film “banal”. I think he was referring to the scene where Clint Eastwood says, “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away everything he has, and everything he’s gonna have”. I’m sure my professor could have come up with something far more complex to say about the act of killing another man, and I’m also sure it would be torture to listen to, and would be ultimately meaningless. This film is magnificent.

Videodrome (d. David Cronenberg) – This is easily the David Cronenberg-iest film David Cronenberg has ever made. And how can I sum up my feelings on this flawed and disturbing movie, a film so original that no one even knows how to go about being influenced by it? I don’t know, but I do think that the next time I have to write kind thoughts in someone’s birthday card, I’m just going to put “Long Live the New Flesh! – Bill R.”

Waiting for Guffman (d. Christopher Guest) – “People always say, well, you must have been the class clown! And I say, no I wasn’t, but I sat next to the class clown, and I studied him.” I like this one even more than This is Spinal Tap.

X - The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (d. Roger Corman) - This letter worried me the most when I sat down to begin this because, you see, I'm actually not a great fan of the X-Men films. But hey, I thought, what about X - The Man With the X-Ray Eyes?? I hadn't actually seen it, but I did own a copy, so I watched it. Just now. With my fingers crossed, by the way, because if I didn't like it, then what? I needn't have worried. The art of the well-crafted B-movie is practically dead, but thank God they made a whole shitload of them before that happened. I could make a whole new, and just as honest, list filled with movies like this.

The Yakuza (d. Sidney Pollack) – One might reasonably make the claim that a filmmaker’s talent can best be measured by how well they handle genre material, especially if that filmmaker is eventually known for other kinds of films. If so, then Sidney Pollack was a better filmmaker than he’s generally given credit for. This is a gripping, unflinching crime film/samurai hybrid that has at least two show-stopping action scenes. Highly underrated.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (d. Xan Cassavetes) – The kind of film that makes you nostalgic for a time, place and experience that you never had (if, in fact, like me you didn’t live in the particular section of California in the 1980s that offered the services of Z Channel). I’m so glad Xan Cassavetes remembered this unusual story about one guy’s spiral into the abyss, and the kind of love of film that everyone reading this shares, because it’s the sort of documentary that, if the one person who did make it hadn't made it, nobody would have, and I’d be poorer for it.


Well, that's that. I shall now tag the following people...

Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running

Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule

Adam Ross at DVD Panache

Brian Doan at Bubblegum Aesthetics

Arbogast at Arbogast on Film

None of you should feel obligated, of course. It's just that I'm supposed to tag five people, and I'm too new to this whole blogging thing to be making waves.


Fox said...

I'm glad to see you give love to The Life Aquatic. I think that film is a masterpiece. Truly. I would say the same for The Darjeeling Limited as well. And as much as I like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and Tennenbaums, I think Aquatic and Darjeeling are really major leaps beyond those films.

Anonymous said...

You did a great job, here, Bill. You obviously put a lot of work and thought. I love it that you put the pictures above their descriptions, and the capsule descriptions are great.

No matter what Fox says, I'm not a fan of The Life Aquatic, but I love The Darjeeling Limited and the other Andersons.

bill r. said...

I'm right there with you. Well, I still prefer Tenenbaums and Rushmore to Darjeeling, but even so I can acknowledge the "step forward" argument.

But The Life Aquatic is really a work of imaginative genius. I don't know how anyone can look at that film, and then piss and moan that Anderson is too insular, or that he's stuck in a rut, or whatever else people said about that film. You should be grateful a movie as off-the-wall as The Life Aquatic even got made! I find the film genuinely moving, incredibly funny, and staggeringly original.

Adam Ross said...

"I don’t know, but I do think that the next time I have to write kind thoughts in someone’s birthday card, I’m just going to put “Long Live the New Flesh! – Bill R.”"

Hahaha! There's a lot of potential for that phrase: a t-shirt, one of those vintage mesh hats, birthday cake, or just a random comment on someone's blog.

Great list, I was nodding my head to many of these. On "Glengarry Glen Ross": I actually read the play before I saw the movie, and in print could just never tap in to the raw desperation Mamet based it around. Foley captures that feeling perfectly in the movie from beginning to end.

bill r. said...

Oops, my last response was to Fox.

Rick - I think it's interesting that The Darjeeling Limited seemed to appeal to so many people who were losing their faith in Anderson (I know Dennis over at SLIFR really liked it, too). As someone who has loved all his work, I don't quite understand what people think that film has that The Life Aquatic doesn't.

Thanks for the compliments. About halfway through, I was starting to think the pictures were a bad idea, so I'm glad you think they work.

bill r. said...

Adam - I first noticed Mamet's name in the opening credits of The Untouchables. If I hadn't cooled on that movie a bit over the years, I would have put it on the list, because that was a huge film for me as a kid, because that's when my obsession with Mamet began. At first, I couldn't read Mamet. I couldn't understand the rhythm of it at all, and it read like a pointless affectation (especially in the "no-swearing" plays like The Cryptogram or A Life in the Theater), but when I started seeing films like Glengarry Glen Ross, everything about Mamet opened up. If anyone were to ask me to explain why I love his work so much, and why I think his style is more than a pointless affectation, I can just point them to Foley's film.

bill r. said...

Also, why are so many of the pictures I used cropped on the right hand side?? The pictures for King of Comedy, Quiz Show and The Prestige all cut off important information.

Marilyn said...

These are great. I love that you picked Z Channel, American Movie, Homicide, King of Comedy. All terrific films. I haven't seen several of these, but thanks for the recommendations.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Marilyn. Which ones haven't you seen?

Anonymous said...

As someone who has loved all his work, I don't quite understand what people think that film has that The Life Aquatic doesn't.

I dunno, I just don't like it. I've seen it a couple of times, watching it the second time in the hopes that it'll grow on me. It didn't.

The Djarleeng Limited had just the opposite effect; I liked it ok the first time, but the second time had me hooked. Go figure.

bill r. said...

Okay, well, fine. To each his own, as they say. Incidentally, I also love Darjeeling. I thought I might have given the opposite impression. Since seeing it, I've listened to "Strangers" by the Kinks probably around fifty times.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jesus Christ, what a list. I will respond, but don't be offended/annoyed if it ends up looking at lot like yours. There's just not a lot to argue with here. And I second Adam's belly laugh about that Videodrome line.

Okay, I promise to try to not ape your list completely. But damn you for getting to The Ice Harvest before me!

bill r. said...

First, thanks!! Second, sorry about The Ice Harvest, but you can still use it. Rick stole both Zodiac and Unforgiven, and while I couldn't, in good conscience, use both, I had to use at least one. Rick, if you're still reading, not being able to use Zodiac really hurt. It was like a knife in my back!

Thank God for Z Channel (and to my wife for reminding me that I'm a big fan of Quiz Show).

Marilyn said...

Frenzy, The Ice Harvest, Jackie Brown, Life Aquatic, Miller's Crossing, Of Mice and Men, The Prestige, A Simple Plan, Unforgiven, The Man with X-Ray Eyes, and The Yakuza.

I'm most likely to see at some point Frenzy, Life Aquatic, The Man with X-Ray Eyes, and The Yakuza.

bill r. said...

You should see them all. Really, my taste is awesome. But do at least add A Simple Plan, Miller's Crossing and The Prestige to your "likely-to-see" list.

Unknown said...

You shame me, Bill, with the work and care you put into this. And it's not you, by the way—I got tagged by Mr. Dayoub first.

I like that we have very similar picks for the final fourth.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Glenn. As it happened, I didn't have a hell of a lot going on that night.

Speaking of where our lists match up, I was thrilled with X... Ray Milland, brother -- that guy was solider than solid.

Brian Doan said...

Hey Bill!
Thanks for the tag-- I've been out of town this week, and kind of out of the blogosphere as a result, so I didn't see you'd tagged me until today. I will try to post something this week-- I love the idea of the alphabet (my MA thesis was actually written as one, with 26 different alphabetic fragments), and hopefully I won't get stuck on "Q" or something. (:

Arbogast said...

I just noticed this. Sorry - my intern is supposed to read your blog for me every day and submit a summary but, well, you know what they say... when you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Which actually doesn't make sense to me, as monkeys eat bananas, not peanuts. I'll have my intern look into that.

bill r. said...

I understand, Arbogast. Also, sometimes monkeys dress like people.