170. The Zero Theorem (2014) Dir. Terry Gilliam
A new Terry Gilliam movie is always something of an event for cinephiles. He’s one of our greatest visual mad men, a sort of crazed scientist of cinema who consistently strives to show us the world through a completely new pair of eyes and ears, often heightened and askew. Now while The Zero Theorem certainly delivers on an aesthetic and design level, it feels painfully tedious and hollow as far as the story and characters are concerned. Christoph Waltz’s bumbling hero is appealing enough but he’s almost impenetrable as a protagonist and much of the supporting characters feel the same. They are heightened and abstract to the point of alienation. Brazil had Sam Lowry, 12 Monkeys had Cole even The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus had a soft, human centre that The Zero Theorem so tragically lacks. It’s like being on another planet with no guide. Now there are certain pleasures to be had with that but they are kept at arm’s length. The story and themes are cluttered and pretentious, something about searching for the meaning of life, dreams about black holes and so on. I really enjoyed Melanie Thierry’s performance however, in the same way Lily Cole brought a refreshing feminine touch to Doctor Parnassus her character does the same here and keeps the film from sinking into a cold, forgettable but visually appealing void. Not Gilliam’s finest hour but hell, at least a filmmaker so uncompromising is still making movies true to his vision in this day and age.
169. Smoke (1995) Dir. Wayne Wang & Paul Auster
This is one of those 90s Miramax movies that seems to have slipped off the radar in the 19 years since it’s release. It’s a cool little film, a series of episodes concerning a small group of characters all connected through Harvey Keitel’s tobacco shop. It’s like a Robert Altman or Richard Linklater movie in that the characters are just real people trying to get by and the film is fine with that. The plot points or moments of drama are deeply human and relatable. All the characters are storytellers in one way or another and the film really puts that aspect front and center. It’s a brilliant New York movie too. Definitely worth a look if just for the writing and performances. Oddly enough, the film even spawned a sequel, Blue in the Face which I’m looking forward to checking out.
168. The Purge: Anarchy (2014) Dir. James DeMonaco
I think I was the only person who actually enjoyed last year’s The Purge. I found it to be a clever, tense and refreshingly simple high-concept B-movie throwback to John Carpenter’s heyday. Sure it was trashy and ugly but it worked. The concept really lends itself to a rolling franchise so it’s no surprise that a mere twelve months later we’re faced with the sequel, also written and directed by James DeMonaco. The Purge: Anarchy successfully, if expectedly, blows up the canvas of the first film, taking it from within the house to the streets outside where blood-thirsty gangs are either “purging” or finding other ways to exploit the annual event for financial benefit. A lot of what DeMonaco shows you isn’t surprising but he covers a lot of ground in the brisk running time. You can tell his mind was running away with him in terms of the potential ideas and variations on things established in the first film and you get the sense he was in a rush to include them all in this movie. I think it was a mistake as Anarchy feels rather episodic and hasty, the result of a filmmaker putting most of his ideas into one basket as opposed to finding a thematic throughline. The concept didn’t sit as easily with me this time either. There is much more emphasis on the mindless, video-game violence that unfolds over the purge’s twelve hours wherein the first film kept it at a distrubing distance. More suggested through CCTV footage as opposed to being displayed full-on with choppy editing and slick camerawork. It feels like a misstep and the message is uncomfortable. There’s a gleefulness to the violence that I didn’t feel in the original. Plus the cast is all too scattershot to provide a solid centre like Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey did the first time around. The reviews seem to have been slightly kinder to this movie but I think the first was far better and more effective.
The Brood is probably my favourite. I really like the early, rougher stuff like Shivers and Rabid. Always thought Scanners was a bit overrated but The Fly, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Crash, Spider and Naked Lunch are all masterpieces in one way or another. History of Violence, Eastern Promises and Cosmopolis have all stayed with me too. Fucking hate A Dangerous Method though. And need to watch The Dead Zone and Fast Company.
167. eXistenZ (1999) Dir. David Cronenberg
Anyone pining for the days when David Cronenberg did body horror should rewind to this underseen late-career gem from the king of inner-terror. Released the same year as The Matrix it’s a brilliant, jet-black satire on the world of video games and false realities but on a smaller, nastier scale than it’s big budget counterpart. This film has slipped past me for a long time but being a big fan of Cronenberg’s trademark movies I found it to be a surprisingly bold and confident work that easily stands side by side with something like Scanners. Cronenberg is a man of ideas and the reason he’s so great is because you see stuff in his movies that no only have you never seen before, but stuff your brain can’t even imagine until you’ve seen them on the screen. The ideas and concepts in eXistenZ are so bat-shit and overtly sexual that they run the risk of being ridiculous but Cronenberg keeps the humour front and center, totally self-aware. You’ve got guns made out of human organs, video game jack-in ports to the spine that require lube before use (cue an endless stream of anal sex double entendre’s) and just all out craziness. The performances and dialogue can be a bit shaky at times, you get the sense the actors have no fucking idea how to play some of the scenes just because they are so out-there but Cronenberg guides everyone through with a steady eye and hand. It’s a very tight, sharp film. It moves like a B-movie bullet but is just wall to wall with ideas. The ending will divide many but I really felt like it was an extremely bold and complete piece. Criminally underseen. Go check it out.
166. The Family (2013) Dir. Luc Besson
I love De Niro and I like Luc Besson so to see the two of them come together for a late-career crime caper is certainly a promising set up. The Family isn’t quite the film that was marketed. It’s not the silly crooks-in-the-country shoot-em-up the trailers made it out to be. It focuses a lot more of the characters and is a lot softer and gentler than I was expecting. De Niro has fun as the disheveled gangster and Tommy Lee Jones is clearly enjoying sharing scenes with him as is Michelle Pfeiffer. The film doesn’t really go anywhere beyond a dumb blitz of bullets that feels unnecessary and would seem more at home in one of the throwaway action movies Besson produces year in year out. The movie justifies it’s existence in one moment though that features De Niro’s character watching Goodfellas. It’s a jarring but pleasant bit of metatextual pepper that will be the sole reason to remember this film in years to come.
165. Lynch (2007) Dir. blackANDwhite
This is a really fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary about David Lynch and his day to day working methods. He doesn’t sit down and discuss his career or provide interviews, instead the filmmakers just follow Lynch around during production of INLAND EMPIRE as he paints, writes music, takes photographs and smokes. If you’re a fan of Lynch’s work it’s presented in a very Lynch-like way. Context is rarely given and it’s more just a collection of unconnected episodes and discussions. It might not get you deeper into the man’s mind and reasons but it does give you a sense of his methods and personality. I love Lynch more than I love a lot of people in my family so I thought it was terrific.
Sex, lies and videotape - Steven Soderbergh - 1989