Is Akira the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The Criterion Collection numbers the movies that it releases, so it’s easy to find that the first animated film they released was number 700, Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are only five others and none of them are what you’d call “anime,” though that descriptor is losing meaning in a changing landscape. I saw Akira, which Criterion has released but does not consider part of the main numbered line, this weekend and it got me thinking about what we’re willing to honor.

I saw Akira as part of a midnight showing at the Music Box Theater in Chicago. The place was nearly packed, even at midnight, for a movie that is now more than three decades old. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times and enjoyed this viewing, with a 4K print that I’m not sure necessarily adds that much to an animated movie but was a nice experience all the same. What struck me this time was how much it hits the same way every time, with a first half that draws me in and mesmerizes me and then loses me a little before a stunning climax.

Akira is “the” anime, I think, and especially for Western audiences it was the first one to really click. It was advertised in America as “not for kids” on late-night commercials back in the days when you would send in payment over the mail and get a VHS tape. This predated Sailor Moon and was contemporary with the earliest versions of Dragon Ball, so those ads had to educate viewers about what they were even offering, much less why you should want this version of it. The exoticism of anime to the West is still very much a part of it, and why there were so many people in that theater in the wee hours watching it all these years later, and the climax of Akira probably did more to build that up than any one piece of media.

Testuo and Kaneda are part of a bike gang in a futuristic, but ruined, Tokyo. Tetsuo has an encounter with a mystical glowing child and becomes both very powerful and very sick. The government shows up and wants to reign in and explain his power, but Tetsuo sees the opportunity to finally get out of Kaneda’s shadow and rebels in the only way he sees available. We get smatterings of what life is like in this world in the background, with protests and street fires and government control gone mad, but mostly we follow these two kids as they advance towards a conflict. Kaneda is his friend, but he wants Tetsuo to calm down and be reasonable.

This big brother/little brother conflict is almost all of the second act, which I have to say feels hard to watch every time I see it. Part of this is the impact of the rest of the film. The conflict itself, where Kaneda finally confronts Tetsuo and the visuals begin to really go for broke, is what people remember, and for good reason. It’s visually arresting and it’s horrifying, but it’s also largely hand-drawn and beautiful. Even if you know what’s coming, the scale of it and the constant one-upping gets you every time. The artform and the audience came from this moment.

However, it’s the first hour that reverberates through art itself. Katsuhiro Otomo wrote the original Akira manga and directed the film, and it’s his Neo-Tokyo that you see over and over. The bike in Akira is iconic, but it’s the specific way that government control and scientific discovery without ethics and societal collapse is portrayed that became the template for how you show what might happen next. Otomo didn’t invent this, but the synthesis of it in Akira helped define a language for a world that’s advanced, but also failed.

Akira is hyperviolent, even for the genre, and remains a little shocking even today. It’s not for everyone and I say that even as someone that still feels a little hesitant to recommend anime in general to a broad audience. When I talk about movies like Paprika and Weathering With You, I want people to learn what those are and when they should watch them. I think you could put either of those on after dinner on a Tuesday and enjoy it with your friends, roommates, partner, or other weirdos that watch anime with you. Akira is not in that vein. This is a stepping stone to where we are now, but it’s also a pretty watchable version of that. The ending is still surprising and the climax, as we’ve been over, is one of the great visual displays in animated history. Criterion’s hallowed list may still be reserved for when Wes Anderson makes something animated, but if you’re willing to take a chance on anything that’s slightly out there but also very acclaimed, I really can’t recommend anything more highly than this.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It would be fair to say Stalker and Akira are “in conversation” with each other, I think, and I think both of them defined their respective genres for years to come. I’m more interested in the questions Stalker asks, and I think the pacing is a problem in both of them, but I think I have to side with Akira. On this recent watch that first hour really did capture me again, which is an accomplishment for something I’ve seen as much as I’ve seen this, and worthy of note.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, still Persona. My vote for the best anime film of all time is probably The End of Evangelion, a film with an undeniable debt to Akira. I also recently watched Megazone 23, another series that’s constantly compared to Akira, though I ran out of space to discuss it above. We’ll revisit all those connections at some point, and while I’m not willing to dethrone our current winner for Akira, if you have any interest in anime at all and haven’t seen it, I’ve gotta say again that you owe it to yourself to correct that error.

You can watch Akira on Hulu (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Stalker the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I watched Stalker because I couldn’t stop thinking about Solaris. Both are films by Andrei Tarkovsky, a legendary filmmaker who feels intimidating to approach. He only made huge, heady epics that are intimidating in scope and scale. He made Solaris in 1972 because he felt that Western sci-fi was not thoughtful enough, which is also part of a disagreement with Stanley Kubrick about 2001: A Space Odyssey. He made Stalker for even more complicated reasons than that.

Stalker is the story of a man, known as a Stalker, who can enter a mysterious area called The Zone. The Stalker is not named in the film, and there is a suggestion that there are other Stalkers and that this is more aptly said to be a profession than a name. Most of the other characters are similarly unnamed, including the two men the Stalker brings into The Zone: the Writer and the Professor. Both of them want to go to The Zone for different reasons and the extended action sequence that opens the film shows how tall of a task this is. The military protects The Zone, or at least defends against people entering it. The Stalker’s wife pleads with him not to take another trip to The Zone. The Stalker himself seems resigned to his actions.

The three men drive a military jeep around and evade soldiers, but this is mostly a misdirect. The film takes place almost entirely within The Zone, where the film shifts from sepia-toned black-and-white to full color. Both settings creep along and the pacing is, similar to Solaris, almost unbearably slow. In my review of Solaris I talked about Akira Kurosawa’s commentary on how audiences find Tarkovsky’s films to be difficult because of the pacing and how he tosses off that criticism. Two films may not be enough to speak conclusively about the man’s work, but I have to again disagree. Stalker is almost three hours long and it feels significantly longer. That said, just like Solaris, the runtime is deserved here and you begin to understand what the director wants you to feel as you settle in.

Within The Zone, the two men begin to debate with each other and with the Stalker. They all discuss the dangers of the world around them and the complexities of their lives outside The Zone. They experience otherworldly phenomenon within The Zone, but most of Stalker is about what is inside these three men and what they hope to get out of this trip. There is supposedly a space within the center of The Zone, called The Room, that will grant your greatest desire. The catch, as there is always a catch, is that The Room makes this decision for you. You stand to gain something you could not otherwise achieve, but you also must confront what that means about you. What’s in your Room? Do you really want to know?

The philosophical discussion here is a little more interesting than it is in Solaris and I think it’s a better film as a result. Critical consensus tends to agree, with critics placing Stalker at #29 on the immortal Sight & Sound poll from 2012 that I keep referencing. Tarkovsky has a few films ranked even higher that we’ll get to down the line, but something made me really want to watch Stalker now. The central The Room element is definitely interesting, but there’s so much more to turn over in your head. The film predates the events at Chernobyl, but it’s become tied to the disaster to the degree that people called workers there “stalkers.” The comparisons to various events in Russian history are obvious and become darker as the group progresses through The Zone. The cast and crew famously grew ill as a result of filming near dangerous locations to lend authenticity to the visuals. The bulk of the film was reshot after disagreements between Tarkovsky and his staff and damage to the original film. There’s more to say than we’d ever have space for here.

If you can only pick one, I suggest you pick Stalker instead of Solaris, but you really should watch both. They both depend on your ability to bring something to the picture. There’s a lot of contemplative silence in Stalker and these periods require you to think. Some of these stretches feel repetitive in Solaris but they feel necessary in Stalker. Both films will test your patience, unless you are more like Kurosawa than I am, but they will also reward it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Chinatown is a perfect mystery story and a movie that rewards revisiting. I will certainly see it more often in my life than I will see Stalker. That’s not the only criteria for greatness, though, because I’ll probably see a lot of movies more than both of them. I think Stalker will give you more to think about, and on this particular day, I think that’s more important.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, still Persona, though I really thought about this one. Stalker is a special film and it’s one I’m glad I saw. There are only a dozen films on the Sight & Sound list that rank above Persona, so it’s no slight to keep saying that it retains this crown. I’ve seen ten of those twelve, and one of the two I haven’t seen is another Tarkovsky film, Mirror. That’ll be coming up, though I may have to take a break from Russian cinema for a few weeks.

You can watch Stalker on The Criterion Channel (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Chinatown the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The premise of this series is tongue-in-cheek. There is no “best” movie, not really, and even assuming there was, there’s not enough time in one lifetime to find it. I’ve been reading Roger Ebert’s Great Movies books this year and the personal details there serve as a reminder that you cannot expect to cover this kind of ground. We’re a good chunk of the way through 2021 and I’ve only seen 45 movies this year that I hadn’t seen before.

All that said, part of the reason I started this was to give me an excuse to watch new things. There’s rarely a good time to sit down and watch a three-hour Russian drama, even if you’re the sort of person who wants to do that. I’m the kind of person that struggles with rewatching things, as well, as it feels like a waste of time that could be spent in experiencing new things. That’s obviously not the right way to think about it, but when I queued up Chinatown for at least the third time recently, part of me wondered if I needed to see it again.

You don’t need me to tell you to watch Chinatown. It’s one of the most acclaimed films in American history and even if you’re not really into classic film, you know the final line. This is not obscure or in need of being rethought. I decided early on I wasn’t going to start with my favorite movies (like The Third Man and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) or the obvious ones (like Citizen Kane and Casablanca). I include Chinatown here despite violating that second rule because I think it is an interesting movie to consider in this context.

The “Legal History” section of director Roman Polanski’s Wikipedia page is extensive and you cannot discuss Chinatown without confronting the man behind the camera. There’s a much larger discussion to have around art and artist and I think it’s a difficult one to have. As of this writing, comedian Louis C.K. recently performed in front of an enormous sarcastic “sorry” sign. It’s really something I’ve thought a lot about, because his show Louie is one of my favorite TV shows of the last twenty years. It was astounding television and I’ve written a lot, years ago, on this site about how much I love it. I don’t know what to do with the reality that he seems to be a true monster and seems to be leaning into it, which is even worse, I think, but I still loved that show. The list of evil men who make good art is long, but the whole premise here is that there’s an infinite amount of things to consume. Why bother with anything made by someone that requires you to split the art and the artist? It’s one thing for someone to be “complicated” but Polanski isn’t complicated.

It’s been clear over the last few years that people will bend over backwards to defend what they consider touchstones of culture. I’m going to try to talk about Chinatown because it’s on all the great lists and, yes, is a great movie, but you have every right to ignore it and condemn it given who Polanski seems to be. I think that’s probably even a more defensible position than this one, but let’s talk about the movie.

Chinatown came out the same year as The Godfather Part II, so it lost most of the Oscars it was nominated for, but it did win for Best Original Screenplay. When you watch it through a modern lens, the script is what you notice. It unfolds so perfectly, with the first half unclear on what the mystery even is and the second half feinting towards one thing only to explode with detail in the final fifteen minutes. Jack Nicholson was at the height of his power in 1974 and his performance as Jake Gittes is unforgettable. Roger Ebert wrote about Chinatown several times, but the detail from his criticism that stands out to me is calling out that Gittes is confused alongside the audience. He’s not a mastermind detective the way so many heroes in stories like these are, but he’s resourceful and inventive. We never know what he’ll do next and we never assume he’ll figure it all out and save the day. It ends up feeling like an unpredictable story as a result, but not a confusing one. We get all the details he gets, as he gets them.

Gittes is a private investigator who is hired to investigate a local businessman is cheating on his wife, but then it becomes unclear who really hired him. Then, shockingly, the guy ends up dead, which changes the entire story. Gittes seems like a decent guy, though he’s comfortable in the muck. He knows the cops but also has some other allies. The storytelling is superb, as advertised, but you only really notice it in retrospect. It doesn’t flow from A to B. It weaves along, sometimes making you wonder what this scene means or why this person’s motivations seem unclear. It all pays off with Noah Cross, the powerful man behind the entire conspiracy, maybe, played by John Huston. His daughter, played by Faye Dunaway, seems in control of some scenes and like she’s piecing it all together alongside Gittes in others. It’s clear from the beginning that she has something to hide, but what? And what does Noah Cross, who seems to be infinitely rich and powerful, want? Gittes even asks him at one point, what more can you buy that you don’t already have?

You probably know a little bit about Chinatown or maybe a lot about it, but on the off chance you don’t know the twist, I won’t spoil it for you. The three central performances are obviously notable, but I keep coming back to Huston. He’s one of the greatest directors of all time, but his acting is almost equally fascinating. He plays Noah Cross with an effortlessness that is on display again in Orson Welles’ famously unfinished The Other Side of the Wind. In both films, Huston embodies the idea that no one in any room he’s in can challenge him at all. This is true power, not just political control or money, but the confidence that you will get what you came for in every situation. The final line of Chinatown is iconic for a reason, but Huston’s performance as he delivers the ethos of his character and of the world as he sees it is always what will stick with me. He addresses the private investigator and either deliberately (as disrespect) or absent-mindedly (as a sign that he is not worth remembering) calls him “Gits” instead of “Gittes,” and says “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” You may think you know the evil you’re up against, but the deeper you go, the worse it all gets.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The last movie in this series was Millennium Actress. Realistically I have to go with Chinatown as the better film, but it’s interesting how stark the contrast is in morals. Neither film shows a necessarily good or just world and both are consumed by evil that’s motivated by greed, but Millennium Actress shows a different way to exist within that in opposition.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it’s still Persona. I haven’t revisited Persona since watching it and I think I might do so soon. Chinatown is even better after you’ve seen it a few times as you notice what everyone knows and when they know it. The first time through it’s a story that gets bigger and bigger, but on repeat viewings you notice that the big story actually shrinks to give way to the personal conflict. It’s a neat trick and part of what makes this a movie that’s stood the test of time.

You can watch Chinatown on Amazon Prime or Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Millennium Actress the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Satoshi Kon died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 46. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer but chose not to make it public. He left behind a relatively small filmography as a result, with only four true features to his name. I opened this series with Paprika, a visual explosion that either “is similar to” or “inspired” Inception, depending on your opinion. Perfect Blue is probably his best known work, which also “is similar to” or “inspired” Black Swan, which also depends on how generous you’re willing to be with your opinion. His other two major works, Tokyo Godfathers and Millennium Actress, always felt a little more slight to me.

I recently had a chance to revisit Millennium Actress as part of an outdoor film series our local arthouse movie theater hosts. I went in with an open mind. I love Kon’s work and liked Millennium Actress fine, but the gap between the two I love and the two I like was always fairly large. I was, happily, very wrong. I probably owe Tokyo Godfathers another shot, too.

Millennium Actress is the story of Chiyoko Fujiwara, a long-retired and reclusive film actress who agrees to be interviewed by a two-man crew. Genya Tachibana is obviously a huge fan and old enough to have seen her work firsthand. He’s overly formal and places heavy significance on this moment. Kyoji Ida, his young, slacker cameraman, asks why this could be so significant and does not seem interested at all. It’s all part of a series on the demolition of Ginei Studios, where Chiyoko worked for decades.

This is fairly familiar ground. It’s a movie about movies and the heroes are the people who want to preserve the past at minimum and live within it at maximum. The opportunity for romanticism is already high, but when Chiyoko starts recounting her early performances it really goes into overdrive. The world bends to her story, inserting the crew in the drama of the film’s reality. These start simple enough, but become an overarching story that includes a curse, the search for love, and a rivalry between a former famous star and the new emerging starlet.

There are so many pieces of film history happening in Millennium Actress. There is some heavy All About Eve reference to the conflict between the two actresses, but the film rarely centers on this. There is a marriage of convenience and a war and there are several literal earthquakes, but even these huge events don’t really get a lot of time. The thing that matters here is a search for lost love that is triggered by a chance encounter. Chiyoko meets a man when she is young and gets into film to search the world for him. Everyone asks her along the way why she would care and why this is worth all the trouble, but this all seems to miss the point. How can you explain something like that to someone else? Why even try?

Millennium Actress tries, sorta, but mostly it wants you to live in the moment. Rather than explain the decision, just accept that it was made and see where that leads you. As the crew advances through her life and her performances, they learn not so much an answer to the “why” of the moment, but they do see the results. That may frustrate you, if you’re someone who needs to know why people behave like they do, but if you can embrace the journey, you’re really in for something special.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I think I like it more than Bande à part, though it does prompt me to think about what each movie is trying to do. Both movies are better if you don’t ask the question of why the woman at the center of the story does what she does. Both movies are journeys, though this one is decidedly deeper, but again, that’s not really a criticism.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I don’t even think it’s the best movie Satoshi Kon made, even after really enjoying this experience so much. Paprika has flaws, but it’s something I’ll come back to more often, and Perfect Blue really is a masterpiece. They’re all very different films. I’m more willing than the average person to judge an anime alongside a regular film, but even in that headspace, can’t argue that any of them are better than Persona.

You can watch Millennium Actress for free on YouTube. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Bande à part the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

If you read any review or review-like piece about Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 classic Bande à part, you will see the same word used: “accessible.” It’s not uncommon for consensus to build around a film, especially an “important” one by one of the masters, but it’s a little uncommon to see the same exact term. Some may go with “approachable” but really they are all saying the same thing. All of these reviewers want to tell you that even if you don’t normally watch Godard movies or even French cinema, this is the one for you.

What does that statement even mean when said about a crime drama carried out by stony-faced men that features an extended, nearly wordless, dance scene in the middle? I guess in comparison to something like Pierrot le Fou this is, sure, an easier film to parse and to follow, but it still feels like the wrong term. It also feels like it’s speaking to an imagined audience, like framing something as having the least space in a Star Wars film. I don’t think anyone would sit down to watch a movie like this and hope, first off, that it be really easily approached. The complexity for this era of French film isn’t necessarily the draw, but it certainly isn’t a hinderance, either.

Bande à part is a simple story. Two men named Arthur and Franz (Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey) meet one woman named Odile (Anna Karina) and the two men decide to rob the woman’s extended family. Odile is young and beautiful and a little naïve, we learn through her interactions with the two of them. She jokingly steals a hat and agrees to cut English class with them only after telling them that she certainly understands kissing, even “with tongue.” When she tells her new friends that she knows where a bunch of money is hiding, it’s clear that she isn’t necessarily suggesting they take it. It’s also clear that is exactly what will happen.

Parts of this will feel familiar even if you haven’t seen it. The three of them form a love triangle despite not really having anything in common or having any reason to feel affection. They decide to perform this robbery together despite Odile clearly being uncomfortable with the idea. The whole thing unfolds with a sense of dread, but more importantly it only starts out of boredom. We only see a brief window into Odile without the duo present, but there she insists to her aunt that she isn’t interested in shopping or going out or any of the things she’s supposed to want. It’s brief, but it says a lot about why she might get roped into what she gets roped into.

Just how complicit is Odile? This is the big question, as we see the men shuffle through life motivated by simple greed, though they both speak about Odile in lustful or romantic terms. Obviously there’s a love story here, but it’s so much more important to consider why this is all happening. You expect any movie about a risky robbery to be about the money, but this seems equally to be about rebellion. The title, Bande à part, even stems from an expression that means to do things separate from a group. The money matters because the gang wants to run away from society, but the question of why they want that in the first place is largely unasked and unanswered. It doesn’t need to be, because viewers felt the same way.

The director provides an infrequent narration through the film, sometimes listing the thoughts of characters and sometimes speaking to the next steps. It’s often funny, which helps to contrast with the seriousness of the crime and the grim determination of both men. I think this is the detail people are referencing when they say this film is “approachable.” The story beats are easy to follow and the narration doesn’t necessarily explain things, but it does help you track the mood. The settings are beautifully shot, especially some night scenes with the duo running through the city and falling in some kind of love.

Is it approachable? There are moments to like even if you don’t like movies like this, sure, including the most famous scene in the movie. It’s a dance scene where the trio dances to the classic Michel Legrand score. It inspired the dance contest from Pulp Fiction and has been referenced several times in other media. It fits with the tone of the film, but it also is part of the commitment to a shifting tone and only slight insights into our characters. I don’t think “approachable” is the right word, but I will agree with the overall assessment and say it’s fair to say this is worth your time even if you think it might not be worth your time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It feels a bit silly to compare Un Chien Andalou to anything, but such is this series. I think this is better and I think it’s a truly great and exciting film, even many decades later.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I still will stick with Persona. That said, I really do encourage you to watch this, even if you aren’t the sort of person who might. It’s slightly longer than Breathless but much faster paced. I think I’m more interested in the original, but I was more excited by this one. I kept wondering what would happen, right until the surprisingly absurd ending.

Bande à part is currently streaming in some countries, but in the United States you will need to purchase it from The Criterion Collection or another retailer. The company also sometimes streams it, but not as of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Un Chien Andalou the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In 1929, you weren’t supposed to like Un Chien Andalou. You were supposed to experience it, maybe, but “like” is probably too strong a term. Director Luis Buñuel has seven films included in the top 250 films according to Sight & Sound and co-writer Salvador Dalí, well, you know him, too. The two men met and described dreams to each other and used the images to craft a movie. You get the sense in reading about it that they felt they had to share their images with the world.

Un Chien Andalou is, inarguably, a bunch of images. It’s a surreal 21-minute set of images, totally devoid of story or timeline. Scenes shift in time, with title cards that tell you one scene is years before another scene, but the cast may or may not be the same from moment to moment. Reviews of the film take great care to point out that just because one scene shows someone look out a window, the next scene does not necessarily show you what they are looking at. We’re conditioned to expect that and we certainly were in 1929, which is what makes the fact that it may not be true all the more interesting.

But that opens the question, really, because we have to ask if it actually is interesting, almost a hundred years later. It’s a ridiculous film, but it also was then. If you read user reviews in the usual places you’ll see people excited to tell everyone how much they get it with their five-star reviews and people who are frustrated and confused with their one-star reviews. I don’t feel like either is strictly necessary, but a lot of the one-star reviews express criticism that I have to assume Buñuel and Dalí would have agreed with. People are frustrated there’s no story and it’s all disconnected images. They’re right.

There are two movies we’ve watched in this space that I was reminded of: Battleship Potemkin and Last Year at Marienbad. The former is another piece of dated cinema but an undeniable classic. The latter is another divisive art film that’s just as likely to skew viewers in one direction as the other. Un Chien Andalou is a singular thing, but it occupies the same space as a lot of great works. The difference is in intension. The men behind this movie wanted it to do what it did to everyone who saw it, like it or hate it. If your anger is that it makes no sense and it’s just a dumb, random collection of images, it “worked,” whether you like that or not.

That said, it’s fairly impossible to ignore the more extreme elements. I knew to expect the most famous images, with an eye being sliced open and some equally creepy imagery around body parts. I did not know to expect a man dragging two pianos with two rotting donkeys. Is this a representation of sexual frustration or animal instinct? I have to go back to the men behind it who would insist that absolutely any digging is of your own accord, they don’t intend anything. This isn’t even a sly joke, very specifically, it isn’t that you don’t get it, it’s that there’s nothing to get.

This kind of directorial intent resists criticism. Did you hate it? Excellent. Did you love it? Excellent, maybe even equally so. There is an argument to be made that by intending no meaning, they’ve made a perfect puzzle box. You can keep trying to find ways in, but it’s constructed perfectly. You cannot find what does not exist to find.

It’s all striking and it’s interesting and it’s worth the time, still, especially because the time is one minute shorter than an episode of network television minus commercials. Film students over the world watch this because it’s so central to the start of everything, but you may as well watch it because it’s free and it’s short. Maybe the images will connect with you. Maybe you’ll insistently find meaning, defying the authors. Maybe you’ll just marvel at the audacity and imagine one hundred years ago, the guts it must have taken to say that this was it, come see it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so, now. Minnie and Moskowitz is not one of my favorite movies or even one of my favorite movies by Cassavetes, but it’s hard to rate Un Chien Andalou these days. It’s barely a movie, arguably not a movie by the terms we’d use today. I can appreciate the audacity, but that’s about it.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. It’s on several top 100 lists because directors vote on those and they all want the world to continue to allow for space for something like this. I can completely appreciate that and I do think they mean it when they say this is one of their favorite movies. I think it is pretty difficult to offer a fair analysis of this movie today, which is why Persona, which owes it a very heavy debt in the striking images department, is still my vote.

You can watch Un Chien Andalou for free on YouTube. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Minnie and Moskowitz the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The Wikipedia article for Minnie and Moskowitz says that the film received “generally positive reviews” but offers no proof of this claim. Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby, the reviewers for the New Yorker and New York Times, respectively, both hated it. Roger Ebert loved it and contrasted it with Husbands, the most recent film by director John Cassavetes. Ebert said Husbands was overrated and I completely agree, I found it difficult to watch and even more difficult to appreciate in a modern context. It feels long and unedited, with frequent indulgences that feel spiteful to the viewer.

Cassavetes followed up his homage to male friendship and masculine rage and disappointment with the much sweeter Minnie and Moskowitz, a story about unlikely love. Gena Rowlands plays Minnie Moore, a detached, distant woman who is in an affair with an abusive married man. Seymour Cassel plays Seymour Moskowitz, an emotional, simple man who just wants to park cars for living and eat hot dogs. They meet through a chance encounter and strike up a relationship that progresses quickly.

It’s supposed to be a story of oil and water, which is familiar territory for a love story, but this really stretches credulity. Minnie’s relationship is horrible, with a cartoonishly evil man who is wasting her time and is completely unaware of how to connect with others. The physical violence is shocking, but it works to establish Minnie as having a difficult time of life. She’s not sure what she wants, but she imagines romance as something she’s open to and increasingly hopeless about at the same time. We see her have a blind date that is beyond terrible, with a man who seems to have never interacted with anyone in his life. He shouts constantly, babbles, and says things no person would say to another person. Minnie is not polite but also shouldn’t be, given the circumstances. At the halfway point through the movie, all we know about Minnie is that her life is terrible and that she seems very sad, all of the time.

Moskowitz, however, seems a little more joyful but also so much worse to be around. He eats hot dogs for every meal and ambles through life with no ambition. His mother calls him stupid even at the moment that’s supposed to provide the movie’s emotional peak. Minnie doesn’t seem to like anything about him, but he saves her from a violent, offensive tirade at the end of the blind date and their lives become intertwined. He calls her beautiful, she says she’s not interested, but he just won’t go away.

This is supposed to be an offbeat romance, but it never gets funny or sweet enough to really qualify. Minnie seems so sad, even when we’re supposed to find the whole thing charming, and Moskowitz is so oafish and frustrating that even when it’s supposed to have a kind of Moonstruck quality to it, it feels like she needs to get away from him to have any chance at all. You never want these two people to be together or feel any reason to think that they should be together except for a sense that neither is happy anywhere else.

There are fun moments, like a plane trip where Moskowitz tries to convince a child to eat carrots by acting silly. Minnie never gets these moments, short of a romantic, drunken discussion of what movies tell us about romance. Moskowitz flits between these sweet, silly moments and moments that tilt very far in the other direction. Within the first ten minutes of the movie we see him barge into conversations and insist everyone knows him as he drinks out of people’s drinks. I know this is supposed to establish him as not your average loser, but man, I really hated him the entire way through. I couldn’t stop picturing the real Seymour Moskowitz and imagining how awful he would be to be around.

Your enjoyment here will depend on if it bothers you that these people are so sad and so wrong for each other or not. The whole point of a movie like this is watching the friction as opposites attract. The story of a frustrating man wearing down a sad woman through extreme acts and broad gestures is not a story I want to watch, even well-performed as this one is. I really didn’t like the message of Husbands and I think there’s more to like here, but this still isn’t for me. I see the message here, but I don’t buy it at all.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Once Upon a Time in the West is a little bloated and borrows so much that it feels complex, whereas this is really just two people slowly falling in love. No one in Minnie and Moskowitz other than the title characters is present for more than five minutes. That said, Timothy Carey (the gunman from The Killing as well as other Kubrick and Cassavetes films) plays an oddball who bothers Moskowitz during a meal at a diner and steals the show. I’ll remember his small part more than anything else here, but overall this just won’t stick with me.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, not at all. Persona keeps the crown and I think other than Husbands, this is the least I’ve enjoyed a Cassavetes movie. Both Persona and Minnie and Moskowitz have elements of horror in them. I found myself hoping the two characters could separate in both films before they could do more damage to each other. In Persona that’s at least intentional.

You can watch Minnie and Moskowitz on The Criterion Channel (subscription required; limited availability). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Once Upon a Time in the West the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

When I was a teenager, my favorite director was Quentin Tarantino. That’s probably a sentence a lot of people could write. If you Google the director now, you get dozens of stories from just the last few days offering to distill his appearance on a popular podcast or explain why one of his popular movies “needs” a prequel. Tarantino is effectively a vessel for film for a lot of people, which his personality definitely supports. He’s probably the first director a lot of people would be able to name.

Tarantino the man is more divisive than Tarantino the director, but he’s overall a little difficult for people because of his entire approach to film. Patton Oswalt once talked about a year where he saw hundreds of movies in the theater and the impact it had on him, but this seems to be Tarantino’s normal life. His films are stuffed with references to the point where no viewer could be expected to get all of them. As a teenager, I didn’t get any of them. I smiled when characters referenced jingles I recognized, and this level of recognition spirals out depending on your level of film literacy. I’m not even sure the point is anything more complicated than Tarantino saying his version of “have you seen this other movie?”

Once Upon a Time in the West is a Western by Sergio Leone, who didn’t want to make any more movies in the genre after his Dollars trilogy. Once you make The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, you don’t feel like you need to keep telling stories about gunfighters, but Leone was given a chance to make a movie with Henry Fonda and he wanted to take it. Fonda was Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, and this along with dozens of other successes painted him as a classic “good guy.” Leone had other ideas.

Fonda plays Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, a heartless, evil killer. It’s tough to see Fonda in the role, but by the end of the film he fully embodies the character. Fonda supposedly didn’t even want to do it, but Leone sold him by saying that was the whole point. Audiences would be shocked by seeing Fonda as a sociopath, he said, and they were.

The rest of the cast is more traditional. Jason Robards plays Cheyenne, a joking good guy who gets framed for a murder that Frank actually committed. Charles Bronson grimaces as a character just named Harmonica, who plays a few notes every time he’s on screen to fill out the unforgettable soundtrack by way of Ennio Morricone. Claudia Cardinale plays a former prostitute who inherits some land and a dream. Everyone’s either trying to support her or trying to rob her, which provides the standard Western plot.

I mentioned Tarantino because of the structure of Leone’s movie. The director didn’t want to make another Western but he did want to work with Fonda, so he had to come up with a way to make it work. The result is a Western that “borrows” from a dozen classics in the genre. Harmonica is clearly a lift from Johnny Guitar, but there are a lot of less obvious versions of the same thing. The result is a movie that never really feels like itself, but frequently feels like lots of other things you’ve seen.

When the film initially came out, critics panned the film for being long and confusing. This is a completely fair read of the film, especially as you watch Cardinale’s character try to interpret the motives of the three men in her life. It eventually becomes clear what everyone wants, but not necessarily why they want it. Harmonica is the exception here, as his backstory is specifically held back for a reason, but most everyone else is shadowy for no real reason. The performances are incredible, but the characters themselves feel flat. Robards is funny and fun in the role, but we never really grow to understand Cheyenne.

Cardinale is mostly wasted in the central role, which critics also called out. She’s a victim of circumstance and has to make the most of it, which is fair enough, but as the nominal lead of the movie, she mostly glares at men with guns. The plot is so borrowed from Johnny Guitar that it’s distracting, but for a movie that came out 14 years after the influence, the step backwards in agency for the female character isn’t great. Supposedly Leone wanted to film full-frontal nudity for Cardinale’s character and she refused and said that it wouldn’t add anything to the story, which makes you wonder how he felt about getting across who she was supposed to be in the film.

The mish-mash of Western stories here isn’t the same thing as what Tarantino does, but it’s supposed to make you feel the same way. The plot is very Johnny Guitar, but that’s not an accident. By doing it deliberately, Leone confronts a reality of Westerns that people don’t often confront. The genre is inherently samey. The guy in the black hat wants to kill everyone because he wants to kill everyone. The guy with the harmonica is named Harmonica and he’s got a mysterious backstory. The other guys are good because they like the pretty girl. The pretty girl is a pretty girl. Stop asking so many questions.

This is a reductive viewing of a classic, but I also think it’s a fair one. I am not predisposed to love Westerns, so a combination film that’s an homage to a dozen of them was never going to be my favorite movie. I think Once Upon a Time in the West is a successful version of what it’s trying to do and it’s especially notable because Fonda’s performance is unique and remarkable, but critics didn’t like it until they did and now it’s a classic. There are so many versions of this story and mostly you’ll find yourself agreeing with the rethinking. Here, I can’t follow the logic. The criticisms of the original reviews seem very valid to me, especially the read on Cardinale’s character. It’s by no means a bad movie, or even a bad Western, but I don’t think a movie with structural issues should be in the spot this one’s in on the lists it’s on.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No. Vivre sa vie is better, as is, I think, Johnny Guitar.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, Persona retains the crown. I was definitely too hard on this one, but it’s a different question of “is it good” and “is it the best?” It’s good and you’ll enjoy it, but Leone made at least three better Westerns. The plot here is the biggest problem, you’ll find yourself frequently asking why characters are doing what they’re doing and what their reasons for supporting someone are. It’s all clear by the end, but it’s not my favorite way to tell a story.

You can watch Once Upon a Time in the West on Amazon Prime (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Vivre sa vie the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I started this project for two main reasons. First, I asked a dozen people what their favorite movie was and wanted to push myself to watch all of them. Second, I wanted to educate myself better about movies I wouldn’t otherwise watch. Over the last five years I’ve watched between 100 and 200 movies a year, which is already too many, but I wanted to work on gaps in my knowledge base. I simply spend the majority of time watching recent stuff in English, so I wanted to push into history.

Before I saw Breathless I read a lot about Jon-Luc Godard. There’s a steady thread through essays and retrospectives of his career that finds scholars and critics worried people will lose interest in Godard. This always seems overblown, especially given the way film history plays out. Most of these pieces are worried about people giving into blockbusters and popcorn films. The same arguments could be made today as thirty years ago. I don’t think this dark day is coming. It’s easier now to make an art film and it’s more likely today that you’ll find something that fits your specific tastes. It’s easier now to stream the classics, as well. This idea that people will watch more Marvel movies (or whatever the stand-in for Marvel movies was then) and fewer all-caps IMPORTANT movies is one people keep bringing up, despite it never fully happening.

Do people still watch Godard, and more importantly, does that question, asked that way, matter? If you want to understand cinema then you never stop trying to fill in these gaps and you will invariably start with someone like Godard. If you don’t care, you probably never were going to care. I don’t think one kind of movie really overlaps with the other and I don’t think any trend in popular film today makes the other less likely to continue. You don’t have to watch French classics, but if you want to, it’s easier today than it ever was. That’s a victory, no matter what you feel about what you imagine the desires of future cinephiles to look like.

Today’s film is Vivre sa vie, or My Life to Live in some countries. It stars Anna Karina, Godard’s wife at the time, as Nana, a woman who runs away from her family and struggles to connect with life around her. It’s an oversimplification to say it follows her career as a prostitute, but it must be said that is the narrative thrust. It more importantly follows her search for meaning, or at least understanding, through several artistic forms and philosophical discussions.

The film is told in twelve scenes, each prefaced with a title card. This artificially breaks up the film into distinct portions with clear breaks between moments. This is a technique Tarantino lifted, as are the camera angles behind Nana’s head as she speaks. These angles are deliberate, but they hide the conversation behind her head and force us to imagine much of what’s happening in the frame we can’t see. So much of modern film, especially quiet, character-driven work, owes just a tremendous amount to devices like these.

And it’s so watchable, even six decades later. Breathless is a caper, you know why you’re watching who you’re watching and you’re wondering what will happen to them. Vivre sa vie doesn’t have the same built-in tension, so it relies more heavily on Nana. The fact that it works is a tremendous testament to Karina’s performance, but also the overall production. Nana turns on a jukebox in one of the film’s most famous scenes and we see her dance around, briefly engaged in life a clear way though no one else in the room embraces the mood. Another, though opposite reaction finds her at the movies, seeing The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her date tries to put his arm around her as she is visibly moved to tears by the power of the silent film. Again, she is not on the same page with the men in her life, but we are inarguably on her page.

The 11th of 12 scenes is a discussion between Nana and a philosopher who apparently played himself. This approaches, but does not fully go over, the line of “too much.” For me, scenes like this will always fall into the same bucket as the strangest parts of David Lynch’s work. Out of context, a philosophical discussion about if thoughts and speech are actually different things is extreme stuff. In context, it’s a contrast to the matter-of-fact discussion of the rules of prostitution that Nana gets from another person in her life. I feel the same way about a man sweeping the floor for five minutes in Twin Peaks. You can choose to accept that as part of the work and wonder why it’s there or you can abstract it, that’s your call.

Overall, yes, you should still watch Godard, even if you’re starting with this one. It’s quick and beautiful, which aren’t necessarily terms that go together often in classic cinema. If nothing else, you’ll gain an appreciation for how many people have cribbed from this one, and that’s reason enough to experience it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes, I prefer this to No Sudden Move. Very different themes at play in these two and the institutions that the characters battle are different. This is much more a story of internal lives, which goes back to the differences between this and Breathless. You could draw a connection, but it would take forcing one.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I will still say Persona is better, though this is a much closer one than most have been. I really enjoyed this and it’s really inspired me to continue my trek through French cinema. Stick around, let’s do it together.

You can watch Vivre sa vie on HBO Max or The Criterion Channel. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is No Sudden Move the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Steven Soderbergh was on WTF with Marc Maron last week to promote his new film No Sudden Move. Maron spent a significant amount of the interview discussing the realities of filmmaking with the director. I’d encourage anyone with any interest in films to listen to it, as Soderbergh is more honest about his career than most people are willing to be in settings like a huge podcast with tons of listeners. He says that he’s failed a few times, which is nothing new to admit, but he talks about how failure changes your view of what you do next. David Mamet, years ago on the same show, said something that sticks with me still: “you can sink with your good ideas, but if you want to succeed, you better learn to entertain people.” Mamet arguably is not taking his own advice and obviously has some significant issues these days, but it all ties back to a conversation that Soderbergh goes much deeper on.

Soderbergh said that No Sudden Move is a movie, not a film. He also said that he hasn’t made a film since Che in 2008. All of his recent works are movies, not films. Maron pushed him on this distinction and the director said that films win awards. It seems to be like the classic definition of pornography: “you know it when you see it.” A film is a specific type of movie to Soderbergh, and honestly, this is a definition we can all probably live with in some way. The Academy even recently tried to make a new category for “popular” movies, which would definitely feature what Soderbergh would call “movies” and not “films.” Soderbergh has only made two movies that lost money, prior to the recent apocalypse for theaters, and those are Che, which he calls a film, and his remake of Solaris which we have discussed in this series before. I’m not sure if losing money is necessarily a defining point in the movie/film continuum, but there’s probably something there.

No Sudden Move is probably a better movie than Ocean’s Eleven or Logan Lucky, my two favorite Soderbergh movies (not films), but I don’t think I enjoyed it as much. Almost every review urges you to see it twice, which I normally balk at but this time I obliged. I don’t think you should have to see anything twice, but if you feel compelled some movies definitely reward repeat viewings. The twists here aren’t necessarily so confusing that you need to do it twice, but the second viewing will help you understand how some characters feel they fit into all of this. There’s still plenty unexplained, but that’s the nature of the genre. Sometimes when characters move past the double cross into the triple cross in a gangster movie, you’re not meant to keep track.

Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro play small-time hoods who get called in for what should be an easy job. They’re supposed to “babysit” a family and collect a document from a safe. It’s easy, then it becomes difficult. This is run-of-the-mill stuff for a movie like this, but the art is in how you pivot. The heist itself is tense, as it requires a low-level employee (David Harbour, who you’ll recognize from Stranger Things) to leverage his affair with a secretary to gain entry to a safe. The safe is empty, onto the next twist. Things progress from there.

I won’t walk you through the plot, because movies like this are all in the plot. Ray Liotta is fantastic as the hot-heated schemer who put this all together, Brendan Fraser is an absolute highlight as a mid-level crook, and Amy Seimetz, Jon Hamm, and Bill Duke really make even smaller roles feel like significant, real characters caught up in a constantly expanding mess.

I do have to give away a cameo to talk about the best part, though. Matt Damon plays the money behind the muscle and shows up towards the end to explain what was really happening. This device can feel forced in lesser movies, but here it reads like George Clooney’s Danny Ocean moments where he tells everyone exactly what was happening during all the quick cuts and the jazzy music. This is less of a reveal after misdirects and more of a look in the boardroom, but it plays out the same way. It speaks to the larger politics of Detroit and the 1950s war between car companies that is all happening in the background of No Sudden Move and it makes this feel like a much more significant movie as a result. This isn’t just ten crooks all trying to rob each other, this is a story about a much, much larger robbery than any one person could pull off.

The leads are good and the supporting cast is even better, and ultimately this is just a very clever, very smoothly polished story about what happens when people try to take more than they’re given. There are several scenes where characters put words to the theme, directly pointing out to each other that they’re being greedy. It never rises to the level of the rat in The Departed, but it’s an interesting metacommentary on the film within the film. It’s worth seeing once, and maybe twice, but I see what Soderbergh means when he calls it a “movie” and not a “film.” Maybe you think that’s him being self-effacing, but I think it’s him moving the bar down. If this is just supposed to be a good time, it clears that bar with ease.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes, this is significantly better than Tropic Thunder. It will age better, too, which is interesting. The targets here (greed and corporate crime being more insidious than individual crime) are targets that will deserve ire for a very, very long time.

Is it the best movie of all time? I guess you could spin this question for a Soderbergh production, given his terminology. The best movie is significantly better than the worst film, using his terms, but I guess the best film ever is better than the best movie ever. Maybe we’re stretching this, but Soderbergh was not trying to dethrone Persona when he made this movie, so it’s fair that he didn’t do it.

You can watch No Sudden Move on HBO Max (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.