Category Archives: Film

The Sound of Silents: The Best Films from the Years Before Talkies

Silent films were never silent.  At the first official movie screening by the Lumiere brothers in Paris in December 1895, a guitarist accompanied the presentation of 10 short films, including the first documentary, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, and the first comedy, The Sprinkler Sprinkled.  In the U.S. it was more common for a pianist or – in the case of major films in big cities – a small orchestra, to accompany early films, which due to lack of the requisite technology had no synchronized soundtrack.  The musicians began by improvising or linking together popular melodies to illustrate what they saw on the screen, often adding sound effects for galloping horses, thunderclaps, ringing bells and other actions. In 1908, the first fully-composed film scores appeared in France (by Camille Saint-Saens) and Russia.  The first major U.S. film to have a score was D.W. Griffith’s racist blockbuster The Birth of the Nation, with music composed by Joseph Breil, in 1915.  The giant movie theaters built in the 1910s and 1920s often incorporated immense theater organs that allowed for musical accompaniment, which usually involved a combination of following the score as well as improvisation and elaborate sound effects.  The switch to synchronized sound after the success of The Jazz Singer in 1927, a change that permitted the actors to speak their dialogue and allowed moviemakers to incorporate music into the film itself, put thousands of movie theater musicians out of work.

Modern audiences often have difficulty watching movies from the “silent” era.  The acting style necessary to communicate without spoken dialogue – essentially a form of mime – seems histrionic and over-the-top to many now.  (Even some contemporaries agreed. When Charles Chaplin made A Woman of Paris in 1923 – one of the few Chaplin films that did not star The Little Tramp – he specifically instructed his actors to adopt a more subdued acting style than was the norm. As a result the film seems more modern than many other silent films.)  The stilted, corny or moralistic tone of some of the intertitles can also be offputting to modern audiences.  On top of these substantive concerns, there are also physical problems with many silent films – many were badly preserved.  In fact, we are lucky to have any silent films left at all – it is estimated that 70% of all feature films from the pre-talkie era have deteriorated beyond repair or were deliberately destroyed after the switch to the new sound technology.

But these difficulties should not dissuade movie buffs from checking out some of the classic silent films, particularly those made in the 1920s.  It was during the silent era that filmmakers developed the basic visual vocabulary of moviemaking. By the mid-1920s, studios around the world were turning out high-quality films, some of them with dazzling visual technique and inventiveness.  In fact, the first years of sound movies, which required the noisy film cameras to be placed in soundproof (and immobile) boxes and anchored the actors to the location of the nearest microphone, saw a decrease in the cinematic inventiveness and overall quality of films. Look at many sound films from the late 1920s and early 1930s and you will see film returning to the days when everything looked like a filmed play – no moving cameras, few or no tracking shots – everything static.  The transition period is lovingly parodied by Betty Comden and Adolph Green in their screenplay for Singin’ in the Rain, the 1952 musical directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.

Because there was no dialogue, and intertitles could easily be translated into any language, silent film was a more international art than film after the introduction of sound. Germany during the Weimar Republic was a particularly strong producer of high-quality films in various genres: horror (Nosferatu), science fiction (Metropolis), crime thriller (Dr. Mabuse – The Gambler), and drama/social commentary (The Last Laugh; Pandora’s Box).  Several of the best German directors – Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg – brought their expertise to Hollywood in time to produce silent film masterpieces on both sides of the Atlantic.

Perhaps the most accessible of the silent films to modern audiences are the comedies. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and other comic geniuses created personae that appeared in film after film in one outrageous fix after another.  The relative critical reputations of Chaplin and Keaton have see-sawed over the years.  At times, the sublime mix of comedy and pathos that characterizes Chaplin’s best work receives top billing; then the pendulum swings to the unsentimental acrobatics of the stone-faced Keaton, who never asks the audience for its sympathy.

I urge you to take another look at silent films, many of which are available online either free on YouTube or through a streaming service.  Or take the DVDs out of your local library.

To give you a selection of the best silent films that have been preserved, I collected 10 lists of “Best Silent Films” and made two meta-lists.  One organizes the movies by rank, that is, with the movies on the most lists at the top.  The other list is chronological.  Enjoy.

Best Silent Films of All Time – The Critics’ Picks
Best Silent Films of All Time – Chronological

My Personal Year-End Round Up: Books and Movies

It’s not quite the end of 2016, but like many of you out there, I am in a rush for the year to be over, so I’m publishing my end of year summary a few days early.  Here are some of the highlights of my year in movie-watching and book-reading.

MOVIES
Number of Movies Seen in 2016: 64

Category
Feature Films: 37
Short Films: 17
Documentaries: 10

Date of Movie
1920-1930: 12
1930-1959: 10
1960-1979: 4
1980-1999: 3
2000-2014: 16
2015: 9
2016: 9

Highest Rated Movies
10/10
Shoe Shine (Italy, De Sica, 1946)
Anomalisa (US, Johnson & Kaufman, 2015)
Moonlight (US, Jenkins, 2016)

9/10
Ballet mécanique (France, Léger & Murphy, 1924)
The Freshman (US, Newmeyer & Taylor, 1925)
Ghosts Before Breakfast (Germany, Richter, 1928)
Lot in Sodom (US. Webber & Watson, 1933)
Meshes of the Afternoon (US, Deren & Hammid, 1943)
21-87 (US, Lipsett, 1964)
Land of Silence and Darkness (West Germany, Herzog, 1971)
The Cruise (US, Miller, 1998)
The Secret in their Eyes (Argentina, Campanella, 2009)
The Big Short (US, McKay, 2015)
45 Years (UK, Haigh, 2015)
Tangerine (US, Baker, 2015)
Son of Saul (Hungary, Jeles, 2015)

BOOKS
Number of books finished in 2016: 12

Category
Fiction: 4
Non-Fiction: 4
Epic Poems: 4

Date Published
1000-1299: 5
1300-1799: 0
1800-1999: 1
2000-2016: 6

Highest Rated Books
FIve Stars

The Tale of Genji (Japan, 1021). By Shikibu Murasaki
Europe Central (US, 2005). By William T. Vollmann
Lawrence in Arabia (UK, 2013). By Scott Anderson

Best Films of the 21st Century (So Far)

If there’s one thing listers like to do, it’s make lists, and we don’t need much of an excuse. Case in point: I was wandering around the Internet the other day and found about 10 lists of “The Best Movies of the 21st Century.” Being that this century is less than 16 years old (less than 15 if you want to be technical about it), this seemed like a rush to judgment, to say the least. Nevertheless, I was intrigued enough to pull all the lists together to see which movies were on the most lists. Spoiler alert: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) was the highest vote-getter – it was on seven lists. The resulting meta-list is below, organized in chronological order – with every film that made it onto 3 or more of the 10 lists I collected. In addition to the title, number of lists, country of origin, date and director, I have added my personal 1-10 rating for those movies on the list that I have seen.

– John M. Becker

In the Mood for Love (on 5 lists)
China 2000  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: Wong Kar-Wai

Memento (on 3 lists)
US 2000  (JMB: 9/10)
Director: Christopher Nolan

Yi Yi (Yi Yi: A One and a Two) (on 3 lists)
Taiwan 2000  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: Edward Yang

Mulholland Drive (on 7 lists)
US 2001  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: David Lynch

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (on 5 lists)
New Zealand/US 2001  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: Peter Jackson

Amélie (on 4 lists)
France 2001  (JMB: 9/10)
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Spirited Away (on 4 lists)
Japan 2001  (JMB: 9/10)
Director:  Hayao Miyazaki

The Royal Tenenbaums (on 3 lists)
US 2001  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: Wes Anderson

City of God (Cidade de Deus) (on 6 lists)
Brazil 2002  (JMB: 9/10)
Director: Fernando Meirelles

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (on 4 lists)
New Zealand/US 2002  (JMB: 9/10)
Director: Peter Jackson

Talk to Her (Hable con Ella) (on 3 lists)
Spain 2002  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Punch-Drunk Love (on 3 lists)
US 2002  (JMB: 8/10)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (on 4 lists)
New Zealand/US 2003  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: Peter Jackson

Oldboy (on 3 lists)
South Korea 2003
Director: Park Chan-Wook

Elephant (on 3 lists)
US 2003  (JMB: 8/10)
Director: Gus Van Sant

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (on 4 lists)
US 2004  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: Michel Gondry

The Incredibles (on 3 lists)
US 2004  (JMB: 8/10)
Director: Brad Bird

Caché (Hidden) (on 5 lists)
France 2005  (JMB: 9/10)
Director: Michael Haneke

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (on 5 lists)
Germany 2006  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Pan’s Labyrinth (on 4 lists)
Mexico/Spain 2006
Director: Guillermo del Toro

Children of Men (on 3 lists)
US/UK 2006  (JMB: 9/10)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón

No Country for Old Men (on 6 lists)
US 2007  (JMB: 10/10)
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen

There Will Be Blood (on 5 lists)
US 2007  (JMB: 9/10)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Zodiac (on 4 lists)
US 2007  (JMB: 8/10)
Director: David Fincher

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (on 3 lists)
Romania 2007  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: Cristian Mungiu

Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) (on 4 lists)
Sweden 2008  (JMB: 8/10)
Director: Tomas Alfredson

The Dark Knight (on 4 lists)
US 2008
Director: Christopher Nolan

The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte) (on 5 lists)
Germany 2009  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: Michael Haneke

The Tree of Life (on 4 lists)
US 2011  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: Terence Malick

12 Years A Slave (on 3 lists)
UK/US 2013
Director: Steve McQueen

Boyhood (on 3 lists)
US 2014  (JMB: 10/10)
Director: Richard Linklater

 

My Watchlist: Favorite Films of 2015

Another year of movie-watching having passed, I have rated all the movies I saw in the past year on a 1-10 scale and organized them into two lists.  The first list contains all the movies I’ve seen so far that were officially released in 2015.  (Note: I saw several of these films in 2016. )  The second list contains all the movies I saw in calendar year 2015 that were not released in 2015.  I am grateful that my techniques for deciding what movies to watch have become so effective that I did not see any movie that I rated below 6/10 (although, believe me, a 6/10 is a lot worse than a 10/10).  Unlike most of my lists, this is not a meta-list, with its aura of objectivity, but simply a case of my subjective personal preferences.

2015 FILMS SEEN

10
Anomalisa (US, 2015) Dir: Charlie Kaufman

9
45 Years (UK, 2015) Dir: Andrew Haigh
Spotlight (US, 2015) Dir: Tom McCarthy
The Big Short (US, 2015) Dir: Adam McKay
Heart of a Dog (US, 2015) Dir: Laurie Anderson
Room (Canada/Ireland, 2015) Dir: Lenny Abrahamson
Brooklyn (Ireland/UK/Canada, 2015) Dir: John Crowley
Tangerine (US, 2015) Dir: Sean Baker

8
Amy (UK, 2015) Dir: Asif Kapandia
Bridge of Spies (US, 2015) Dir: Steven Spielberg
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (US, 2015) Dir: J.J. Abrams

7
Grandma (US, 2015) Dir: Paul Weitz
Trainwreck (US, 2015) Dir: Judd Apatow
The Revenant (US, 2015) Dir: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
What Happened, Miss Simone? (US, 2015) Dir: Liz Garbus
Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia/US, 2015) Dir: George Miller

OTHER FILMS SEEN IN 2015

10
Forbidden Games (France, 1952) Dir: René Clément
The Virgin Spring (Sweden, 1960) Dir: Ingmar Bergman
The Act of Killing (Netherlands, 2012) Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer

9
Strike (USSR, 1925) Dir: Sergei Eisenstein
It’s a Gift (US, 1934) Dir: Norman Z. McLeod
Los Angeles Plays Itself (US, 2003) Dir: Thom Andersen
Beginners (US, 2010) Dir: Mike Mills
Poetry (South Korea, 2010) Dir: Chang-dong Lee
Barbara (Germany, 2012) Dir: Christian Petzold
Museum Hours (Austria/US, 2012) Dir: Jem Cohen
Under the Skin (UK/US, 2013) Dir: Jonathan Glazer
Mr. Turner (UK, 2014) Dir: Mike Leigh
Happy Christmas (US, 2014) Dir: Joe Swanberg
Inherent Vice (US, 2014) Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Goodbye to Language (France, 2014) Dir: Jean-Luc Godard
Two Days, One Night (Belgium, 2014) Dir: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

8
Scarface (US, 1932) Dir: Howard Hawks
You Only Live Once (US, 1937) Dir: Fritz Lang
Saboteur (US, 1942) Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
Scarlet Street (US, 1945) Dir: Fritz Lang
The Naked Kiss (US, 1964) Dir: Samuel Fuller
Henry & June (US, 1990) Dir: Philip Kaufman
Farewell My Concubine (China, 1993) Dir: Chen Kaige
The Pillow Book (UK, 1996) Dir: Peter Greenaway
American Pimp (US, 1999) Dir: Albert & Allen Hughes
Forks Over Knives (US, 2011) Dir: Lee Fulkerson
Upstream Color (US, 2013) Dir: Shane Carruth
Selma (US, 2014) Dir: Ava DuVernay
Flowers (Spain, 2014) Dir: Jon Garaño & Jose Mari Goenaga
It Follows (US, 2014) Dir: David Robert Mitchell
American Sniper (US, 2014) Dir: Clint Eastwood
Maps to the Stars (Canada, 2014) Dir: David Cronenberg
Force Majeure (Sweden/France, 2014) Dir: Ruben Östlund

7
The Far Country (US, 1954) Dir: Anthony Mann
This Boy’s Life (US, 1993) Dir: Michael Caton-Jones
Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong, 2002) Dir: Andrew Lau & Alan Mak
Waste Land (UK/Brazil, 2010) Dir: Lucy Walker
The Punk Singer (US, 2013) Dir: Sini Anderson

6
The Ruling Class (UK, 1972) Dir: Peter Medak
Snowpiercer (South Korea/US, 2014) Dir: Bong Joon-ho

IMHO: My Top Overrated and Underrated Movies

The idea that a work of art is over- or underrated is a curious one. What does it really mean?  I think we often use the terms as a type of shorthand for, “I don’t agree with most of my friends on this [painting, TV show, movie, book, etc.].”  Sometimes ‘overrated’ means “this is getting more attention than it deserves in the press, or in winning awards” and ‘underrated’ means it’s not getting enough attention.  For me, the problem with all these definitions is that they are so highly subjective – it is easy enough to figure out what your opinion is, or mine, but what exactly are we comparing our opinions to?  What your friends like probably differs from what my friends like, so your overrated book may be my underrated discovery.  While opinions about the value of a work of art are inherently subjective, I have been wondering if there is a way to quantify objectively the work’s position in the Zeitgeist.  Without such an objective standard, our judgments of ‘overrated’ and ‘underrated’ are not only extremely variable but may be based on incorrect assumptions about our audience.  An extreme but perhaps not uncommon example is the person who is told again and again that X is overrated, but who has no idea what X is and has never seen it or heard of it before. Maybe the true goal of the speaker in such a case is not to share her opinion and spark debate on the relative value of an artwork but to demonstrate to listeners that she knows much more than they do and is so much more clued in, to the point that she is already sick and tired of all the praise she is hearing for X, something she realizes is not even on the radar for most of her listeners.

In my search for an objective standard to anchor judgments of overrated and underrated, I decided to look first to the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com).  I’ve been a fan of imdb.com since I first discovered it in 1995, when it was already several years old.  Although in recent years, it has come to look like a zillion other entertainment sites, lying underneath all the frills is the core of the website: a gigantic database of movies and the people who make them.  You can find every movie made by a director, every actor in a particular movie, and a wealth of information about every production.  Those who are members of imdb.com are asked to rate each movie they’ve seen on a scale of 1 to 10, and the cumulative scores are published, along with the number of voters.  For example, the number of voters giving ratings to movies I’ve seen ranges from a high of 1,546,508 ratings (for The Shawshank Redemption) to a low of 69 ratings for the 1981 music documentary Dance Craze.  For this post, I decided to go through the movies I’ve seen and compare my rating with the overall imdb.com rating.  I decided that if my rating is more than two points lower than the imdb.com rating, the movie is overrated; if my rating was more than two points higher than imdb‘s, the movie is underrated.  I stayed near the top of the lists: the overrated movies all received a 7.0 or higher average rating from imdb.com (the highest rated movies on imdb received a 9.2); to find underrated movies, I looked at all the movies I rated either a 9 or a 10.   Just to be clear, even though the overrated movies list includes some films I absolutely hated, inclusion on the list does not necessarily mean I didn’t like the movie. It may just mean that the collective imdb consciousness liked the movie a lot more than I did.

While no system is perfect, I think the average ratings given by compiling hundreds, thousands and in some cases over a million votes should give a pretty good idea of where the Zeitgeist is on a particular movie.  It is then a relatively simple process to compare one’s own ratings with the Zeitgeist and see which films are over- and underrated.  Although the entire enterprise is based on the subjective opinions of the imdb.com voters and me, there is now an objective method of determining whether one’s opinion is consistent with or divergent from the average.  Instead of using an unscientific impression of what our friends think about something, or a vague notion of how much praise something is getting in the press, we can (for movies at least) quickly and easily identify whether an item is overrated or underrated.  Here, then, are my lists of overrated and underrated movies, in chronological order.

OVERRATED
(imdb.com = 9.2 – 7.0; Make Lists, Not War = at least 2.1 points lower)

Each Dawn I Die (Keighley, US, 1939)
The Enchanted Cottage (Cromwell, US, 1945)
The Jolson Story (Green, US, 1946)
Dial M for Murder (Hitchcock, US, 1954)
A Journey to the Beginning of Time (Zeman/Ladd, US/Czechoslovakia, 1955)
The Ten Commandments (De Mille, US, 1956)
Operation Petticoat (Edwards, US, 1959)
Village of the Damned (Rilla, UK, 1960)
Pocketful of Miracles (Capra, US, 1961)
Monterey Pop (Pennebaker, US, 1968)
Oliver! (Reed, UK, 1968)
Battle of Britain (Hamilton, UK, 1969)
The Sting (Hill, US, 1973)
Papillion (Schaffner, US, 1973)
The Return of the Pink Panther (Edwards, UK, 1975)
The Pink Panther Strikes Again (Edwards, UK, 1976)
The Omen (Donner, US, 1976)
Star Wars (Lucas, US, 1977)
Grease (Kleiser, US, 1978)
Alien (Scott, US, 1979)
Baby Snakes (Zappa, US, 1979)
Dance Craze (Massot, UK, 1981)
The Thing (Carpenter, US, 1982)
First Blood (Kotcheff, US, 1982)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand, US, 1983)
Terms of Endearment (Brooks, US, 1983)
Trading Places (Landis, US, 1983)
The Princess Bride (Reiner, US, 1987)
Die Hard (McTiernan, US, 1988)
Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore, Italy, 1988)
Major League (Ward, US, 1989)
Field of Dreams (Robinson, US, 1989)
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (Chechik, US, 1989)
Total Recall (Verhoeven, US, 1990)
Home Alone (Hughes, US, 1990)
Ghost (Zucker, US, 1990)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, US, 1991)
Cape Fear (Scorcese, US, 1991)
Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale/Wise, US, 1991)
Aladdin (Clements/Musker, US, 1992)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson, US, 1992)
Jurassic Park (Spielberg, US, 1993)
The Shawshank Redemption (Darabont, US, 1994)
Dumb & Dumber (Farrelly, US, 1994)
True Lies (Cameron, US, 1994)
The Lion King (Allers/Minkoff, US, 1994)
Forrest Gump (Zemeckis, US, 1994)
Léon: The Professional (Besson, France, 1994)
The Usual Suspects (Singer, US, 1995)
Primal Fear (Hoblit, US, 1996)
The English Patient (Minghella, US/UK, 1996)
Titanic (Cameron, US, 1997)
Face/Off (Woo, US, 1997)
Starship Troopers (Verhoeven, US, 1997)
Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, US, 1998)
The Matrix (Wachowskis, US, 1999)
Sleepy Hollow (Burton, US, 1999)
The Sixth Sense (Shyamalan, US, 1999)
Meet the Parents (Roach, US, 2000)
Finding Nemo (Stanton/Unkrich, US, 2003)
The Matrix Reloaded (Wachowskis, US, 2003)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (Verbinski, US, 2003)
Collateral (Mann, US, 2004)
Spider-Man 2 (Raimi, US, 2004)
Anchorman (McKay, US, 2004)
Wedding Crashers (Dobkin, US, 2005)
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Apatow, US, 2005)
King Kong (Jackson, US, 2005)
Notes on a Scandal (Eyre, UK, 2006)
The Mist (Darabont, US, 2007)
Ratatouille (Bird/Pinkava, US, 2007)
Atonement (Wright, UK, 2007)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Burton, US, 2007)
WALL-E (Stanton, US, 2008)
Up (Docter/Peterson, US, 2009)
Avatar (Cameron, US, 2009)
The Hangover (Phillips, US, 2009)
Inception (Nolan, US, 2010)
The Help (Taylor, US, 2011)
Super 8 (Abrams, US, 2011)
Source Code (Jones, US, 2011)

UNDERRATED
(ML,NW = 9.0 – 10.0; imdb.com = at least 2.1 points lower)

The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, US, 1914)
The Floorwalker (Chaplin, US, 1916)
One A.M. (Chaplin, US, 1916)
Greed (von Stroheim, US, 1924)
Napoleon (Gance, France, 1927)
Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel & Dali, France, 1929)
L’Age d’Or (Buñuel, France, 1930)
Zero for Conduct (Vigo, France 1933)
L’Atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)
Swing Time (Stevens, US, 1936)
Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, US, 1935)
Stagecoach (Ford, US, 1939)
The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles, US, 1942)
Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, US, 1944)
Ivan the Terrible, Part I (Eisenstein, USSR, 1945)
My Darling Clementine (Ford, US, 1946)
The African Queen (Huston, US, 1951)
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati, France 1953)
The Band Wagon (Minnelli, US, 1953)
The Naked Spur (Mann, US, 1953)
A Star is Born (Cukor, US, 1954)
Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich, US, 1955)
Ivan the Terrible, Part II (Eisenstein, USSR, 1958)
The Trial (Welles, France, 1962)
Jules and Jim (Truffaut, France, 1962)
The Servant (Losey, UK, 1963)
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, Italy, 1964)
Band of Outsiders (Godard, France, 1964)
Repulsion (Polanski, UK, 1965)
Blow-Up (Antonioni, UK, 1966)
Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, US, 1967)
Belle de Jour (Buñuel, France, 1967)
Faces (Cassavetes, US, 1968)
Kes (Loach, UK, 1969)
Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, US, 1969)
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (de Sica, Italy, 1970)
Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson, US, 1970)
Last Tango in Paris (Bertolucci, France, 1972)
Badlands (Malick, US, 1973)
The Conversation (Coppola, US, 1974)
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Herzog, W. Germany, 1974)
Nashville (Altman, US, 1975)
3 Women (Altman, US, 1977)
The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder, W. Germany, 1979)
Stardust Memories (Allen, US, 1980)
My Dinner with Andre (Malle, US, 1981)
The King of Comedy (Scorcese, US, 1982)
Local Hero (Forsyth, UK, 1983)
Baby It’s You (Sayles, US, 1983)
Blue Velvet (Lynch, US, 1986)
Raising Arizona (Coen, US, 1987)
Say Anything… (Crowe, US, 1989)
Short Cuts (Altman, US, 1993)
Party Girl (von Scherler Mayer, US, 1995)
I Shot Andy Warhol (Harron, US, 1996)
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (Morris, US, 1997)
Happiness (Solondz, US, 1998)
Being John Malkovich (Jones, US, 1999)
All About My Mother (Almodóvar, Spain, 1999)
Waking Life (Linklater, US, 2001)
Fat Girl (Breillat, France, 2001)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson, US, 2001)
Tarnation (Caouette, US, 2003)
Capturing the Friedmans (Jarecki, US, 2003)
The Holy Girl (Martel, Argentina, 2004)
Fahrenheit 9/11 (Moore, US, 2004)
Born Into Brothels (Briski/Kauffmann, US, 2004)
Grizzly Man (Herzog, US, 2005)
Once (Carney, Ireland, 2006)
Juno (Reitman, US, 2007)
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Mungiu, Romania, 2007)
Food, Inc. (Kenner, US, 2008)
The White Ribbon (Haneke, Austria, 2009)
Take This Waltz (Polley, Canada, 2011)
The Tree of Life (Malick, US, 2011)
Museum Hours (Cohen, Austria, 2012)
Under the Skin (Glazer, UK, 2013)
Inherent Vice (Anderson, US, 2014)
Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014)
Goodbye to Language (Godard, France, 2014)

If you’re interested in other movie lists, check out these:

Best Films of All Time – The Critics’ Picks (Updated)
Best Films of All Time – Chronological

Too Soon? The 21st Century Movie List

We’re only 14 1/2 years into the 21st Century (technically only 13 1/2, since there was no Year Zero, but I’m going to go ahead and include the year 2000 anyway), but that hasn’t stopped listers from publishing their lists of best movies of the 21st Century, best movies since 2000, best movies of the New Millennium, etc.  And it is my job as meta-lister to put these lists together and see what, if anything, they have to offer.  I found 10 lists fitting the description – here are the films that made it onto at least two of the “Best of the 21st Century” lists.  For those movies I have seen, I have provided my personal rating on a 1-10 scale.  I expect many updates as the century continues.

NOTE:  If you want more comprehensive “Best Movies” lists, click on the hyperlinks to my recently updated Best Films of All Time – The Critics’ Picks and Best Films of All Time – Chronological lists.

7
Mulholland Dr.
(2001) Dir: David Lynch (US) 10

6
City of God
(Cidade de Deus) (2002) Dir: Fernando Meirelles (Brazil) 9
No Country for Old Men (2007) Dir: Joel & Ethan Coen (US) 10

5
In the Mood for Love
(2000) Dir: Wong Kar-Wai (China) 10
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) Dir: Peter Jackson (New Zealand/US) 10
Caché (Hidden) (2005) Dir: Michael Haneke (France) 9
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (2006) Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Germany) 10
There Will Be Blood (2007) Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson (US) 9
The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte) (2009) Dir: Michael Haneke (Germany) 10

4
Amélie
(2001) Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (France) 9
Spirited Away (2001) Dir: Hayao Miyazaki (Japan) 9
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) Dir: Peter Jackson (New Zealand/US) 9
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) Dir: Peter Jackson (New Zealand/US) 10
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Dir: Michel Gondry (US) 10
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Dir: Guillermo del Toro (Mexico/Spain)
Zodiac (2007) Dir: David Fincher (US) 8
Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) (2008) Dir: Tomas Alfredson (Sweden) 8
The Dark Knight (2008) Dir: Christopher Nolan (US)
The Tree of Life (2011) Dir: Terence Malick (US) 10

3
Memento (2000) Dir: Christopher Nolan (US) 9
Yi Yi (2000) Dir: Edward Yang (Taiwan) 10
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Dir: Wes Anderson (US) 10
Talk to Her (Hable con Ella) (2002) Dir: Pedro Almodóvar (Spain) 9
Punch-Drunk Love (2002) Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson (US) 8
Oldboy (2003) Dir: Park Chan-Wook (South Korea)
Elephant (2003) Dir: Gus Van Sant (US) 8
The Incredibles (2004) Dir: Brad Bird (US) 8
Children of Men (2006) Dir: Alfonso Cuarón (US/UK) 9
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) Dir: Cristian Mungiu (Romania) 10
12 Years A Slave (2013) Dir: Steve McQueen (UK/US)
Boyhood (2014) Dir: Richard Linklater (US) 10

2
Requiem for a Dream (2000) Dir: Darren Aronofsky (US) 10
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) Dir: Béla Tarr (Hungary)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) Dir: Ang Lee (Taiwan/US/Hong Kong/China) 8
Dancer in the Dark (2000) Dir: Lars von Trier (Denmark) 8
American Psycho (2000) Dir: Mary Harron (US)
Ghost World (2001) Dir: Terry Zwigoff (US) 9
Fat Girl (À ma sœur!) (2001) Dir: Catherine Breillat (France) 10
Donnie Darko (2001) Dir: Richard Kelly (US) 8
The Piano Teacher (2001) Dir: Michael Haneke (France/Austria) 9
A.I. – Artificial Intelligence (2001) Dir: Steven Spielberg (US)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) Dir: Joel & Ethan Coen (US) 7
Moulin Rouge! (2001) Dir: Baz Luhrmann (Australia/US) 10
Far From Heaven (2002) Dir: Todd Haynes (US)
The Son (2002) Dir: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (France/Belgium)
Adaptation (2002) Dir: Spike Jonze (US) 8
Finding Nemo (2003) Dir: Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich (US) 7
Capturing the Friedmans (2003) Dir: Andrew Jarecki (US) 10
Lost In Translation (2003) Dir: Sofia Coppola (US) 8
Dogville (2003) Dir: Lars Von Trier (Denmark) 10
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003) Dir: Quentin Tarantino (US) 7
Shaun of the Dead (2004) Dir: Edgar Wright (UK) 7
Tropical Malady (2004) Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand)
Before Sunset (2004) Dir: Richard Linklater (US) 9
Grizzly Man (2005) Dir: Werner Herzog (US) 10
A History of Violence (2005) Dir: David Cronenberg (US/Canada) 9
Brokeback Mountain (2005) Dir: Ang Lee (US/Canada) 7
The Squid and the Whale (2005) Dir: Noah Baumbach (US) 9
The Departed (2006) Dir: Martin Scorsese (US) 8
Once (2007) Dir: John Carney (Ireland) 10
Encounters at the End of the World (2007) Dir: Werner Herzog (US) 10
Juno (2007) Dir: Jason Reitman (US) 10
Superbad (2007) Dir: Greg Mottola (US) 7
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Dir: Andrew Dominik (US) 8
Slumdog Millionaire (2008) Dir: Danny Boyle (UK) 10
In Bruges (2008) Dir: Martin McDonagh (UK)
The Hurt Locker (2008) Dir: Kathryn Bigelow (US) 8
The Headless Woman (2008) Dir: Lucrecia Martel (Argentina)
Synecdoche, New York (2008) Dir: Charlie Kaufman (US)
Adventureland (2009) Dir: Greg Mottola (US)
Inglourious Basterds (2009) Dir: Quentin Tarantino (US/Germany) 7
The Social Network (2010) Dir: David Fincher (US)
A Separation (2011) Dir: Asghar Farhadi (Iran) 9
Melancholia (2011) Dir: Lars von Trier (Denmark) 8
Margaret (2011) Dir: Kenneth Lonergan (US)
The Act of Killing (2012) Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer (Denmark/Norway/UK) 10
Moonrise Kingdom (2012) Dir: Wes Anderson (US) 10
The Great Beauty
(2013) Dir: Paolo Sorrentino (Italy) 9

GENERAL NOTE:  Some readers assume that the lists on this site contain my personal opinions about my favorite movies, books, music, etc.  This assumption is FALSE.  The list above and most of the other lists on Make Lists, Not War do not represent my personal opinion of what is best – they contain the combined wisdom (such as it is) of multiple listers – often critics, academics and other experts – whose lists I have combined.  I have found over many years of collecting lists that combining the opinions of multiple experts provides much more useful information than the personal views of any individual.  While the website does contain some lists of my personal favorites, they are few in number and clearly marked as such.

Oscar Preview: My Favorite Films of 2010-2014

With the Oscars coming up this Sunday, I thought it would be fun to put together a list of my favorite and least favorite movies from the last few years.  As always, your comments are welcome!

– John

Highest Rated Feature Films: 2010-2014

5 stars
The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011) US
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) US
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) US

4 1/2 stars
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010) US
جدایی نادر از سیمین [A Separation] (Asghar Farhadi, 2011) Iran
Le gamin au vélo [The Kid With a Bike] (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2011) Belgium
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012) US
Des hommes et des dieux [Of Gods and Men] (Xavier Beauvois, 2012) France
Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012) France
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012) US
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013) US 
Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) US
Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013) US 
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013) US
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013) US 
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013) US
La grande bellezza [The Great Beauty] (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013) Italy
Ida (Pawel Pawikowski, 2013) Poland
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) UK 
Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg, 2014) US
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) US
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014) UK

4 stars
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) US
The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) US
Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010) US
Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2010) UK
Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010) US
The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011) US
Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011) Denmark
Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2011) US
50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011) US 
Hugo (Martin Scorcese, 2011) US
Win Win (Thomas McCarthy, 2011) US 
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) France 
The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev, 2011) US
Bonsái (Cristián Jiménez, 2011) Chile
Like Crazy (Drake Doremus, 2011) US
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011) US
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Glenn Ficarra, 2011) US 
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011) Canada
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012) US
The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, 2012) US
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) US 
Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012) US
Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012) US
A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman, 2012) US
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorcese, 2013) US 
The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt, 2013) US
American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013) US
The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013) US
Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013) US
All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor, 2013) US
Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013) US
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013) US
American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014) US
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) Australia
Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014) US
The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014) UK

Highest Rated Documentary Films: 2010-2014

5 stars
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2012) Germany/US

4 1/2 stars
Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, 2010) US
Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010) US
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (Werner Herzog, 2011) Germany/US

4 stars
Restrepo (Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington, 2010) US/Afghanistan
Buck (Cindy Meehl, 2011) US
Pina (Wim Wenders, 2011) Germany
Muscle Shoals (Greg “Freddy” Camalier, 2013) US
Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, 2013) US
Particle Fever (Mark Levinson, 2013) US/Switzerland

Lowest Rated Films: 2010-2014

2 stars
Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) US

2 1/2 stars
Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011) US
House at the End of the Street (Mark Tonderai, 2012) Canada/US

It’s About Time: The Timelines of Human History

A timeline is a sort of chronological list and so it is fitting that Make Lists, Not War should include some timelines.  I’ve already published a timetable of scientific discovery, so now I’ve created a much larger set of timetables covering human history, beginning with our hominid ancestors 6.5 million years ago and concluding (for now) with 2014 in the Common Era (CE).  I’ve included scads of photos and maps, and tried to reduce the text to a minimum.  Where there are multiple items with the same date, I have followed a rough hierarchy, as follows:

Climate/Natural Disasters
World Population
Political Events
Religious Events
Cultural Events (incl. sports)
Scientific Discoveries
Exploration
Inventions
Architecture
Sculpture
Painting & Other Visual Arts
Literature: (1) Non-fiction, (2) Fiction/Poetry
Music: (1) Classical; (2) Jazz; (3) Other
Film
Photography
Deaths
Births

I realize that some (perhaps most) historians would find these timelines anathema to the true study of history, and I would have to agree, to some extent.  Anyone familiar with the study of history will tell you that the days of memorizing names and dates are long gone.  This is the time of understanding causes and movements, even going so far as to analyze the various ways in which scholars have studied particular historical events or trends over time.  Concepts, ideas, meaning and purpose are the substance of today’s history, not who invented this and which general won what battle.

But I suspect even the most up-to-date historian or history teacher would admit that a few facts now and then can anchor those theories and movements to real people at real times.  A concept or an idea, after all, must be thought of by a mind of a specific person who must communicate it or act it out.  It is true that a list of events without a deeper context lacks the threads of the narratives that carry them from person to event to person, etc. (e.g., there is no timeline event labeled “nationalism”, “humanism”, or even “Industrial Revolution”).  Should I hit  the delete button, then?  Is publishing these timelines going to do more harm than good?  I somehow doubt it.  To me, they constitute a treasure chest of interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing facts about human history, with the political events of the day set alongside scientific and technological achievements, the great works of art and literature and various aspects of culture (from sports to gay rights to the labor movement).  The timelines have rekindled a passion for history; instead of sending me back to the “just the facts” mode of  studying history, these lists have made me want to read more about the deeper narratives that weave these disparate facts together.  I hope they do the same for you.

Timeline of Human History I: Prehistory-1499
Timeline of Human History II: 1500-1799
Timeline of Human History III: 1800-1899
Timeline of Human History IV: 1900-2014

Favorite Movies Seen in 2014*

The following is a list of movies I saw for the first time in 2014 that I rated 4.5 or 5.0 stars out of 5.  The list includes movies that were made in 2014 and before, and also includes a couple of 2014 movies that I saw in January 2015 (hence the asterisk above).  The idea of reducing one’s opinion about a movie to a single 1-5 rating has always seemed a bit ridiculous to me – there are so many facets to filmmaking that I sometimes wish we could rate each facet separately: the writing, cinematography, editing, sound, soundtrack, acting, etc.  (Or just discuss them without ratings – there’s an idea.)  But I do find it useful to rate the movies, if only for occasions like this list.

5 Stars
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
Transcendent – Linklater and his actors have the power to create moments of true life that are evocative without being melodramatic; it is as much a story about parenting as growing up.
Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
An unevenness almost brought it down to a 4.5, but the chase sequence is the best I’ve ever seen, and the surreal section in which Buster steps into the movie screen is a timeless work of genius.

4.5 Stars
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
Joanna Newsom reading Thomas Pynchon as a manic pixie voice over; Omar in a cameo; Josh Brolin gruff but lovable; Owen Wilson, wacky but lovable; Katherine Waterston deceptive but lovable; and over them all is Joaquin’s Doc in a haze of pot smoke continuing to prove that he is the best of his generation (not just Her and The Master, go back to Gladiator, and Inventing the Abbotts and especially To Die For)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014)
Remember Topsy-Turvy?  This is that history-buff Mike Leigh, not the contemporary working class dramedy director of Secrets & Lies (OK, they’re the same person). Timothy Spall gives the performance of a lifetime, but just as important are the women in his life – each of whom is etched in acid.  Thankfully, Leigh never tells you who to vote for.
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
Like Fellini before him, Sorrentino is not afraid to let you know there is a real person behind the camera as well as in front of it; he has a photographer’s eye for great shots; the aging central character has many loves, not the least Rome and himself.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowksi, 2013)
In early 1960s Poland, a young novitiate has a chance to explore the secular world before taking her vows – she goes on the road with an aunt and a journey of self-discovery, through the gray snowy towns and forests.  The tone is never sentimental or cliche – but there are secrets and surprises.
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013)
Alright alright alright! This has been an amazing run for Matthew McConaughey – I’ve seen this, Mud, The Paperboy, and Bernie in the past couple of years and he is stellar in every one.  Once again, the writing, direction and acting manage to take a potentially maudlin, sticky-sentimental tale and keep it real.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013)
Almost every Coen brothers movie is a bit of a disappointment to me, because they are usually very close to perfect, but just miss the mark somewhere.  Still, they are so good that a near miss still rates a 4.5 from me.  Is Goodman right on the money or way over the top?  What does the cat symbolize?  (It symbolizes his pet.)  Are the songs his voiceover?
Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
Spike Jonze likes to start with an out-there concept (his own or Charlie Kaufman’s), but it doesn’t work without real human emotion.  The conceit here is that the ‘real’ relationship is with a machine, a kinder, gentler HAL 9000 who sounds just like Scarlet Johansson.
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013)
The third part of the trilogy that might be called Boyhood: The Prologue.  Every 10 years or so, we check in with a couple we met on a train so long ago.  This one is about marriage and so there is of course, a big fight.  And a reconciliation?
The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2011)
A heartbreaking unpredictable tale of an abandoned boy and the woman who tries to make a home for him.
Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011)
Werner Herzog doesn’t get the death penalty.  And he is not afraid to voice his criticisms in his Werner Herzogian way while interviewing two boys who committed a random murder, one of whom is on death row.
Crazy Love (Dan Klores & Fisher Stevens, 2007)
A typical American love story, except for the part about hiring someone to throw acid in your girlfriend’s face.
Caché (Hidden) (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Hitchcockian suspense tale about a family that is being watched, but they don’t know why.  Keeps you thinking right until the very last frame.
Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
Just young people doing what they do, except for the raping maybe.  The Thing that Wouldn’t Leave.
The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)
Casting Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe was like casting Woody Allen as Superman – and Robert Altman knew exactly what he was doing.  Altman’s 70’s rethinking of the detective flick involves self-indulgence, ennui and worshipping lots of false idols.  Oh – and Marlowe’s cat is missing (what does that symbolize?).
A Woman Is a Woman (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)
Take Belmondo and Seberg’s conversations from Breathless and convert them into a parody of sit-com dialogue and you’ll get an idea of this light-hearted experiment from Godard.
Earth (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930)
Wheat, wheat, fields of wheat.  And a tractor.  Change comes to the Ukraine.
Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst, 1929)
American actress Louise Brooks made her best movie in Germany.  It’s a morality tale about a good-time girl who gets her comeuppance, but it’s the fun times we remember.
Safety Last (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1923)
The famous climb up the side of the building is the highlight, but there are lots of gags before and after, and even a fair amount of character development.

 

The Best of 2014: Your Meta-Lists Have Arrived

When historians look back on 2014, they will probably remember it for one event: Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea.  Putin’s action hearkened back to a long line of precedent of unilateral annexation by such power-mongers and empire builders as Cyrus the Great of Persia, Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Tughril Beg, Ivan the Terrible, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and so many more. But for those who follow pop culture, the highlights of the year involved names like: FKA Twigs, Taylor Swift, Perfume Genius, Flying Lotus, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Anthony Doerr, Leslie Jamison and Marilynne Robinson.

Here are the meta-lists of the best movies, music and books of 2014, as determined by a critical consensus.

Best Films of 2014
Best Books of 2014
Best Music of 2014