The Greatest Films of the 21st Century

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I suffer from chronic list fatigue, initially eager to scroll through the latest re-ordering of greatest hits, but inevitably collapse into a heap before I ingest the whole thing. Enter the BBC to test my illness. Yesterday they unveiled the results of their mammoth “Greatest Films of the 21st Century” poll, in which 177 critics submitted their top movies of the current century. It confirms that David Lynch’s  fractured, terrifying Hollywood fairy tale Mulholland Drive (2001) is the consensus film of the age. It has been topping lists of this ilk for years now, and I welcome a film so mysterious as our millennium-overlord. My narcolepsy is triggered not by the quality of the works cited, but the recycled nature of the discourse it elicits, which tends to ignore the films entirely for a “this-over-that” essentialism that reduces complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list. Which reminds me, now it is time for me to reduce complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list! Below you’ll find my top ten films of the 21st Century that were not included in the BBC’s top twenty five, in a modest effort to expand the conversation.

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Tippett Studio

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A few weeks ago I got a chance to visit Tippett Studio and was given a tour by Phil Tippett himself. He was seven-years-old when he saw Ray Harryhausen’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and knew what he wanted to do with his life. Since then he has worked on Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, received his first Academy Award nomination for his dragon in Dragonslayer, was awarded his first Oscar in 1984 for his work on Return of the Jedi, worked with Paul Verhoeven on both RoboCop (the terrifying ED-209) and Starship Troopers (the even more terrifying alien arachnids), would win another Oscar for his visual effects on Jurassic Park, and the list goes on… [...MORE]

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June 18, 2016
David Kalat
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Border Incident

There’s an old joke about a comedians’ convention. Comedians have come from around the world to gather in each others’ company, and they are such experienced veterans of the joke trade that instead of telling each other jokes, they just list them off by number. “7!” (polite applause); “122!” (respectful chuckles); and so on. Then one comic takes the mic and boldly declares “516!” and the house erupts in laughter. A journalist covering the event asked the comedian why that last one got such an outsized reaction. “Oh, they hadn’t heard that one before,” he replied.

I started obsessively watching movies because I fell in love with their magic. I fear turning into one of those jaded convention goers, content with hearing familiar numbers read aloud, and only occasionally surprised by the unfamiliar. But it happens—I’ve seen so many movies, their tricks do become routine, their contours become as familiar as old socks. I grow cynical and jaded. And then out of nowhere, when I least expect it, someone throws me a 516 and I have to boggle at the surprise.

I submit to you: Anthony Mann’s Border Incident. It is very nearly 70 years old, but it feels fresh and relevant. It is hard to classify (we’ll go with “film noir” for the lack of anything better). It is a taut B&W thriller from 1949, made on a stingy budget, and largely forgotten today. But this is one to seek out and treasure, and it is full of surprises.

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KEYWORDS: Andre Previn, Anthony Mann, Border Incident, Howard da Silva, Ricardo Montalban
COMMENTS: 26
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May 24, 2016
David Kalat
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Shane Black’s Long Kiss Goodnight

Hi everybody!  This isn’t my usual spot, but Mr. Sweeney’s out this week for very forgivable reasons.  It’s not my story to tell, but let’s just say there’s about to be a slight uptick in the world’s population, and leave it at that.  Since he didn’t want all y’all Morlockians to have to endure the indignities of a missing post, or a rerun, I’m filling in for the day.

And with the recent release of The Nice Guys, I’m in a bit of a Shane Black reverie.  It cast my mind back to the 1997 action thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight and a certain scene that, to my mind, encapsulates everything you need to know about contemporary commercial Hollywood cinema. If you had a space alien, or some Rip Van Winkle type, who wondered “what’s the deal with movies these days?,” you could just fire up the DVD player, scan forward to this scene, and let ‘er rip:

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KEYWORDS: Geena Davis, Shane Black, The Long Kiss Goodnight
COMMENTS: 20
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A Toast to Dolemite (1975)

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“These rhymes and raps that I have were told 50 years ago by the beer joint and liquor store wise men who used to sit out in front of the store, drinking beer, lying, and talking shit. What I did, I picked them up. I even gave older winos money to tell me those tales. And then I’d take them and freshen them up.” – Rudy Ray Moore

Rudy Ray Moore was an X-rated griot, a traveling storyteller who popularized beer-joint folklore in black communities throughout the 1970s. His routine, in which he told outrageously filthy tales in singsong rhyme, was known as “toasting”, a pivotal influence on hip hop. Like the rappers he influenced (“He’s the greatest rapper of all time” – Snoop Dogg), Moore was intent on channeling the personalities of the neighborhoods he grew up in  (he was born and raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas and bounced to Milwaukee and Cleveland as a teen). Wanting to expand his reach after his “toast” albums became underground bestsellers, he started writing a screenplay based on one of his characters – the exaggeratedly macho gangster/pimp/loverman Dolemite. With no one to fund him, he saved money from his non-stop touring and made the feature for around $100,000 of his own money. It is an outrageous, hilarious comedy that never tries to cater to white audiences. Dolemite became famous for the ineptitude of its technical shortcomings – boom mics dipping into frame and the clumsy martial arts choreography – but for black audiences it was a rare depiction of a familiar character, like spending 90 minutes with one of their wisecracking drunk uncles. As writer and performance artist Darius James put it, “Unlike most of the commercial cinema’s Black-market movies, which rely on the story formulas of their honkoid counterparts, the movies of Rudy Ray Moore are rooted in the structure, imagery, and motifs of Black oral narrative.” After decades of circulating in faded dupes, the enterprising exploitation experts at Vinegar Syndrome unearthed a 35mm negative, and scanned and restored Dolemite in 2K. The resulting Blu-ray, out today, is so bright and clean it’s like seeing it for the first time.

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The Ten Best Action Movies of 2015

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Since their inception the movies have been obsessed with fists hitting faces. In the testing phases of Edison’s Kinetograph in 1891, W.K.L. Dickson shot footage of sparring boxers, cementing the sweet science as one of cinema’s enduring subjects. Though the medium matured, its audience (myself included) did not, and the appetite to watch performers sacrifice their bodies for our amusement has never abated. For a century filmmakers have been trying to capture the perfect punch in action movies, whether it’s in globetrotting blockbusters with CGI blood spurts or no-budget brawlers with practical squibs. There were plenty of worthy  efforts in 2015, and since it’s list-making season, below you’ll find my top ten action movies of the last year.

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Throwing Hands: Close Range (2015)

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As with their blockbuster brethren, direct-to-video action movies thrive on previously existing brands. These cheaply made concoctions can’t afford to license comic books, so they market personas instead, whether it’s Van Damme,  Lundgren, or even Cuba Gooding Jr. While their careers as major stars were brief, fight fans flock to the familiar, so these nostalgia acts are essential to secure production funds, even if they only appear in a scene or two. This doesn’t account for the burgeoning cult surrounding actor-director duo Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine. Adkins is the rare performer who has made himself a bankable star inside of the DTV universe, despite having only landed bit parts in major films outside of it (The Expendables 2, the upcoming Doctor Strange). He is unknown among the general public, but Adkins and Florentine’s defiantly old-fashioned attitude regarding the shooting and blocking of fight scenes have made them cult heroes among the small but vocal DTV action film fanbase. Close Range is their eighth film together, and it is distilled down to the basics. A revenge drama set on the U.S.-Mexico border, it pits Adkins against a drug cartel, whom he dispatches in a series of increasingly bloody showdowns. The action takes place mainly along one rural dusty road where Adkins goes one-on-one with an SUV and one-on-dozens during an extended siege. Available on VOD and iTunes December 4th, with a limited theatrical run December 11th, Close Range is a satisfying back-to-basics brawler.

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August 29, 2015
David Kalat
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Go, Miss Mend, Go!

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but in TCM’s program descriptions, every single silent film shown is described with “In this silent film, …” as a sort of talismanic warning: Abandon All Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.

The presumption is clear: silent films are slow, they’re old, they’re in B&W, they’re silent.  Better warn people so no one turns in unsuspecting.

Of course, the bias is absurd.  Practically everything TCM shows is old and B&W, and most of it is slow–by modern standards, surely.  If you’re watching this channel, you’ve already signed up for a different pace and style to contemporary filmmaking.  So why the fear of silents?  Especially when there are such mad gems as the 1926 Soviet Russian serial Miss Mend, a cliffhanger-driven pulp adventure in the Fantomas vein.  Last week we talked about Arsene Lupin–if you enjoy that, this is up your alley too.

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KEYWORDS: Miss Mend
COMMENTS: 6
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THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD
August 8, 2015
David Kalat
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The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

A couple of weeks ago I posted an article looking back at the 1980s apocalyptic-screwball singularity that was Miracle Mile. One of the comments posted to that thread exhorted TCM to stop showing imports—as non sequitur a remark as you could hope for. I wanted to respond with a list of the kinds of imported films I refuse to live without (Godzilla, Jackie Chan, Hammer Horror, Claude Chabrol, FW Murnau, Fritz Lang’s silent films, Ernst Lubitsch’s silent films, Alfred Hitchcock’s English films, Powell & Pressburger, J-Horror, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone…) or to try to argue what Hollywood would have lost—or never had in the first place—without the influx of foreign-born talent and the need to compete against foreign-made films.

But then I decided it would be more fun to be obstinate. Why not single out an import that hasn’t had the time to become recognized as a classic, and will have few—if any—defenders? An import that has barely been released in the US at all, and which sets itself conspicuously to be compared to a beloved classic?

So, this week, Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird.

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KEYWORDS: Kang-ho Song, The Good The Bad The Weird
COMMENTS: 6
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Fighting Spirit: Kung Fu Killer (2015) and Skin Trade (2015)

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The summer movie season seems to begin earlier and earlier every year. 2015′s blockbustering began on April 3rd, when Furious Seven started fueling its way to a billion dollars.  Avengers: Age of Ultron opened this past weekend, and from now on men-in-capes will be throwings fists at green screens from now through August. I’m looking forward to a few of these behemoths, namely Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas, but for the most part I prefer to to retreat to action films more human-scaled during the sweaty months. Which is why Teddy Chen’s Kung Fu Killer is my summer movie of the year. Garnering a limited stateside theatrical release from the invaluable Well Go USA (click for showtimes near you), it’s a cleverly conceived Hong Kong fight film in which Donnie Yen is released from prison to track down a serial killer of martial artists, each victim a master of a different fighting discipline. This allows for a relatively uninterrupted series of brawls in a variety of styles, honoring the whole tradition of HK martial arts films. It’s very self-consciously looking back, as it contains a who’s who list of cameos of HK film legends, from stuntman Bruce Law to the founder of Golden Harvest studio Raymond Chow.

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