Talking Movies

August 15, 2017

100 Best Films of the Century (sic)

Poring over Barry Norman’s ‘100 Best Films of the Century’ list last month set off musings on what a personal version of such a list would be. All such lists are entirely personal, and deeply speculative, but it’s time to be more ambitious/foolhardy than heretofore and nail this blog’s colours to the mast. Norman unapologetically focused on Old Hollywood, but Talking Movies has more regard than he for the 1980s and 1990s. The years to 1939 are allocated 10 films, and each decade thereafter gets 10 films, with an additional 10 films chosen to make up any egregious omissions. What is an egregious omission, or addition for that matter, is naturally a matter of opinion. Like the truest lists this was written quickly with little revision. If you don’t trust your own instincts why would you ever trust anyone else’s?

The first day to 1939

Nosferatu, The Lodger, M, King Kong, It Happened One Night, The 39 Steps, A Night at the Opera, Top Hat, Secret Agent, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Gone with the Wind

1940 to 1969

His Girl Friday, Rebecca, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Shadow of a Doubt, The Big Sleep, The Stranger, Rope, The Third Man

Strangers on a Train, The Lavender Hill Mob, Singin’ in the Rain, Them!, Rear Window, High Society, Moby Dick, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rio Bravo

Last Year in Marienbad, The Manchurian Candidate, The Birds, The Great Escape, Billy Liar, Dr. Strangelove, Goldfinger, Dr. Zhivago, The Sound of Music, The Good The Bad And The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Ma Nuit Chez Maud, The Italian Job

1970 to 1999

Kelly’s Heroes, Aguirre the wrath of God, The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, Star Wars, Superman, Apocalypse Now

The Blues Brothers, Chariots of Fire, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Aliens, Blue Velvet, Wall Street, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Die Hard

JFK, My Own Private Idaho, The Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2, The Age of Innocence, Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, Speed, The Usual Suspects, Scream, The Matrix, Fight Club

2000 to the present day

Memento, Almost Famous, Moulin Rouge!, Ocean’s Eleven, Donnie Darko, The Rules of Attraction, The Lord of the Rings, Team America, Brick, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight

Inception, Scott Pilgrims Vs the World, Incendies, Skyfall, Mud, This is the End, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Birdman, High-Rise, 20th Century Women

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July 13, 2017

Taking Stock of Keanu

7 years ago to the day I wrote a piece on how Keanu Reeves, then 45, was dealing with mid-life cinematically. I think it’s time to check on Keanu again.

In the distant halcyon past of 2004 I wrote a profile of Keanu Reeves for the University Observer. He had just declined Superman for Warner Bros when I wrote that profile, and in 2010, not having any currently lucrative franchise, I said he’d be now be considered about 20 years too old to even audition, and George Reeves be damned.  In the Observer piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles”, but lacked the space to really flesh that out. Somebody, perhaps Barry Norman, had suggested Hollywood leading men lose their cachet on hitting 50, so their 40s are the years where they have both the maturity and the box-office clout to take on the roles for which they will be best remembered. Think John Wayne (Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers), Gregory Peck (Moby Dick, The Big Country, On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, To Kill a Mockingbird), Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Falling Down). It seems a good enough theory.

Between 2004 and 2014 Keanu appeared in Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi, 47 Ronin, and John Wick. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in Mike Mills’ first movie. His turn in Rebecca Miller’s Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem them. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find large audiences. Richard Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if odd film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as leading dramatic roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best characters. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas, while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing, courtesy of future Hunger Games main-man Francis Lawrence; making his directorial debut. Utilising what Lawrence has since spoken of as the twilight zone between PG-13 and R it had a fine sense of metaphysical rather than visceral horror, and was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix.

And then came John Wick

July 2, 2017

RIP Barry Norman

I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of former BBC film critic Barry Norman. I can’t add to the obituaries, all I can contribute is a personal note on what I think he meant to me and other film fans of my generation.

Image result for barry norman

Barry Norman for a whole generation was the archetypal film critic. His avuncular remarks from his comfy chair in the studio that morphed with changing fashions over the decades let you know exactly what films were worthy of recognition and championing in the ongoing narrative of cinema. His retirement from the BBC in 1998, volubly aghast at what Hollywood was purveying as their stock in trade, seems like a merciful escape for him now that some American film critics are writing serious thinkpieces about their duty to avoid reviewing much of Hollywood’s current (even worse) stock in trade lest it destroy their critical palate. I watched Film 98 and its previous incarnations religiously, and howled in outrage every summer as Norman buggered off on his holliers just as we all most needed his guidance on what blockbusters were worth watching.

Norman was famously unimpressed by the ego and entitlement of famous actors and directors, from John Wayne to Mel Gibson, and would never have stooped to the recycling of breathless press releases gushing about the all-time record box-office grosses just achieved by … (never of course adjusted for inflation, for painfully obvious reasons) that drives so much of online film commentary. Instead he took the long view, a very long view indeed. His 1992 book 100 Best Films of the Century ostentatiously dwelt mostly in the past; a duty given the tremendous present bias that afflicts our culture; with only 5 films being made after 1980. I read it an impressionable age, and when revisiting it after a decade was aghast/amused/astonished to discover I had been parroting many of Norman’s contentions under the genuine belief they were my own opinions.

Not of the individual films, I hasten to add, but the broad sweep of cinema as outlined in his contextualising introduction to his picks. Some of the lines about certain films still resonate, Apocalypse Now being the best example; I read his piece on it before seeing it, yet frame in my mind in his terms. Barry Norman was such a fixture that something similar happens with Back to the Future II. I didn’t see it in the cinema, but I think of his review on BBC and the scene he picked to illustrate it whenever I see that scene in the movie. What he talked about on Film affected what I thought was worth watching, even if I disagreed. He valorised Woody Allen for years, and I never got it; but I eventually investigated 1970s Woody and thus began to appreciate the body of work. Alas, I never made it to the Helix in DCU years after he’d stopped presenting to see him speak on some of his favourite Old Hollywood films, but I still have his book, and helpfully someone on IMDb has used it to create a watch-list of Norman’s picks: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls055207230/

The Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, The Gold Rush, The General, Napoleon, All Quiet on the Western Front, Frankenstein, Duck Soup, It Happened One Night, The 39 Steps, Top Hat, Modern Times, La Grande Illusion, Oh, Mr. Porter!, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Vanishes, Pygmalion, La regle du jeu, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, The Grapes of Wrath, The Thief of Bagdad, The Bank Dick, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Bambi, To Be or Not to Be, Double Indemnity, Laura, Les enfants du paradis, I Know Where I’m Going, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Big Sleep, The Best Years of Our Lives, My Darling Clementine, A Matter of Life and Death, Great Expectations, Bicycle Thieves, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Red River, The Red Shoes, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Whisky Galore!, The Third Man, Orphee, Rashomon, Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, The Lavender Hill Mob, The African Queen, Jeux Interdits, High Noon, Pat and Mike, Singin’ in the Rain, Genevieve, Shane, Seven Samurai, On the Waterfront, La Strada, Bad Day at Black Rock, Pather Panchali, Richard III, The Searchers, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Nights of Cabiria, Paths of Glory, Some Like It Hot, Psycho, A Bout de Souffle, Lawrence of Arabia, The Leopard, Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Z, The Wild Bunch, M.A.S.H., The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Cabaret, The Godfather, Mean Streets, Sleeper, The Godfather: Part II, Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Gregory’s Girl, E.T, Ran, Hannah and Her Sisters.

While some people may worship at the protean altar of the crowd-sourced IMDB Top 250 or the too cool for film school hipster fashions of the Sight & Sound poll this will always be for me the North Star of cinema. An unapologetic focus on Old Hollywood, foreign films picked because they made a huge impact not because you need to fill a quota, the silent era dismissed in just 5 films rather than (as Sight & Sound’s polled experts are wont) pretentiously behaving akin to a lover of the theatre who bemoans everything since the Greeks, and the recent past put on hold to see how it sets before celebrating it: only 5 films since 1980 in a list compiled in 1992, and only 12 films admitted from the 1970s. Norman never pretended the present moment was uniquely awesome.

Barry Norman’s legacy is to forever be the voice in your head which asks, “Yes, this film is fun, but will it endure?” In a way every Irish film critic of my generation, professional or dilettante, will have internalised for life Barry Norman’s scepticism of commercial success being equated with artistic quality as well as his sardonic “…And why not?”

January 27, 2010

RIP Michael Dwyer

I was saddened to hear of the death of Irish Times film critic Michael Dwyer. Many words have been written about Dwyer’s contribution to Irish cinema, his founding of the Dublin International Film Festival, and his work in building an audience for foreign films in Ireland. I can add little to such perspectives, what I can add is a personal note on what I think he meant to me and other film fans of my generation.

As the elder statesman of cinema at the Irish Times from a ridiculously young age Dwyer was more influential than anyone with the exception of Barry Norman in forming the archetype for a whole generation of what the role of a film critic was, and what films were worthy of recognition and championing in the ongoing narrative of cinema. My own personal experience of Dwyer’s writing falls into, yes, a three-act arc. First was the period of adoring respect – the religious reading of the Irish Times every Friday to see what films were good, what films were bad, what directors deserved respect, and the continual processing of his casual asides into an expanding mosaic of just what films from cinema past and present were important and good.

Then inevitably came the teenage age of rebellion. This began for me with sneering at his (still) frankly embarrassing laudatory review of Titanic in 1998, and then found greater expression in criticising his Top 20 Films of the Year lists which seemed to take a peculiar joy in not featuring films from the Top 20 Highest Grossing Films of the Year lists. Eventually this perception of an utter disjunct between critic and audience led to a jaded boredom with his perspective and a cynical distaste for the clichés of his style, especially when writing about sex and violence in movies, which found voice in a polemical University Observer piece about the tired and tiresome predictability of critical responses to films like 9 Songs and The Passion of the Christ.

The reappraisal came later, after I had finished writing my abrasive film column for the University Observer and had started writing reviews, when I realised just how difficult it sometimes is to sum up your reaction to a film in a short word-count. Indeed I could not possibly have hacked it as a film critic for InDublin, writing up to 6 reviews a week, had I not downloaded Dwyer’s review of 300 and taken it apart to understand how he structured his reviews – which gave him the head-start needed to make the sometimes tortuous work of reviewing seem easy. At this juncture, having cycled back to a position of mature rather than adoring respect, it was fitting that I finally met Michael Dwyer at a press screening of Youth without Youth. He was charming and talkative about the decline of Coppola and the history of InDublin and made me feel like I truly belonged to Graham Greene’s ‘mornings in the dark’ corps.

Other people have written about Dwyer’s tangible legacy but from my perspective his legacy is to forever be the voice in your head which asks, “Yes, this film is fun, but will it endure?” In a way every Irish film critic of my generation, professional or amateur, will have Barry Norman’s sardonic “…And why not?” and Michael Dwyer’s critical perspective internalised for life. And so long as we all keep hearing that voice then a part of him lives on forever in his readers.

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