Category Archives: Film

Getting In On The Act: Introducing The Acting Lists

What makes a great acting performance?  Some would say, “You can’t tell he’s acting” or “She vanishes into the character.”   For some of us, it is easier to pick out the bad performances: wooden, uninspired line delivery, a lack of realistic interactions with other characters and reactions to events that don’t seem credible.  The ‘ham’ makes it obvious to all that he is ACTING, thus making it impossible for us to suspend our disbelief and accept the film or play as real (at least on an emotional level).  Of course the actor may not be wholly responsible for a ‘bad’ performance.  Except in a wholly-improvised situation, there is a writer who created the character and wrote all or most of his lines.  It takes an especially gifted actor to give a three-dimensional performance of a two-dimensional character.  To confuse matters further, writers may deliberately draw attention to the artificial nature of the play or film – think of Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill on the stage and Jean-Luc Godard in film (or Groucho’s frequent asides to the audience).  Or a writer may deliberately create a character who is acting in their own life (Tennessee Williams was famous for this).  I have occasionally reevaluated an acting performance halfway through a movie when I realized that it wasn’t the actor who was disconnected, awkward and seemingly out of place, it was the character.

The Hollywood star system added another layer of complication.  During the Golden Age of the studio system (roughly 1920-1960), actors who had become stars had their movie roles carefully selected.  The studios felt that in order to preserve the box office appeal of their stars, they had to play roles that fell within a fairly narrow range.  Furthermore, for the leading men and ladies, they were not supposed to “disappear” into their roles a la Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, but to inhabit them while also continuing to project their star persona.  In a classic example, the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) was altered to avoid giving the impression that Cary Grant’s character had murdered his wife.  In today’s post-studio system, the audience plays a similar role by refusing to accept its stars in roles that clash with their personae.  When comic actor Bill Murray attempted to move into serious roles with 1984’s The Razor’s Edge, the audiences stayed away in droves.  It took another 20 years for Murray to achieve success in the tragicomic roles which he now excels at.

Even in contemporary performances, there may be a wide variety of acting styles, from The Method to a more instinctive approach.  There may be a variety of opinions from observers as well – an unscientific review of Internet postings reveals Daniel Day-Lewis as everything from an overacting ham to the greatest actor alive today.  And then in the case of film, there are the “performances” of the director, editor, cinematographer and others who take the actor’s performance, chop it into bits and rearrange them, decide on long shots or close ups, add music to manipulate our emotions, etc. So, while we can do better than “I know it when I see it” in evaluating good and bad acting, finding a list of objective criteria that applies generally appears unrealistic.

Before introducing my new lists of the best film actors of all time, I need to talk about procedure.  First, as always, I was limited by the lists I could find in books and on the Internet.  These were almost exclusively limited to film actors, so I left out actors who exclusively performed on the stage (no room, then, for Sarah Bernhardt, Lunt and Fontanne, and my favorite stage actor, Mark Waldstein).  As for the lists of film actors, there were more lists of men than of women, more contemporary actors than actors from the past, and, as usual, a pro-US and English-language bias.  I did my best to find lists that included actors from all over the world, but there were few such sites (at least in English).  Knowing that India’s film industry is one of the largest in the world, I went out of my way to find lists of Bollywood actors and include the best-regarded names, even though my knowledge of Bollywood films is essentially zero.  As a result, the lists include only the very best known actors from India and non-English speaking countries, while they include some English-language actors whom I do not personally feel merit a place on a “Best Actors” list (I’ll let you decide which ones I’m talking about).  While my original intent was to use only lists of “best” actors, I did include some lists of “most popular” and “most famous.”  I also included several lists of “best performances” in an attempt to get away from the famous/popular bias.  I did draw the line at lists titled “Hottest” or “Sexiest” or “Most Beautiful/Handsome” actors, which I refused to include on principle.  Despite all the procedural drawbacks, the resulting list has a lot going for it – I’ve arranged the actors in rank order, and divided it up into two pieces: the first starts with the actors on 22 lists and ends with those on 4 lists.  Part 2 includes all the actors on 3 lists.  For each actor, I’ve included some biographical information, a selected filmography and a still from one if the films (click on it to enlarge the picture).

So here they are:

Best Film Actors & Actresses of All Time, Part 1
Best Film Actors & Actresses of All Time, Part 2

What’s Up? Docs.

The documentary film has been around as long as the movies.  When the Lumière brothers filmed their workers leaving the factory at the end of the day in 1895, that was a documentary: a depiction of real people engaged in non-fictional activities.

When the Lumières filmed a train arriving at a station, that, too, was a documentary – it was a real train and a real station with no script or actors – but there was a twist: they filmed the train at such an angle that it looked like it was going to crash through the screen and into the theater, causing some to run, according to some accounts, or at least jump in their seats.

The documentary, or non-fiction film, then, often creates the illusion of giving us a glimpse of the truth, of real life, but the Lumières showed that choosing the perspective (literally or figuratively) for presenting the subject involves conscious or unconscious choices on the part of the filmmakers.  We easily identify Triumph of the Will as Nazi propaganda, but propaganda comes in many forms.  When propaganda happens to promote a viewpoint that you already agree with, it just seems like common sense.  And maybe it is.  Politically-charged documentaries like those of Michael Moore (Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11) and Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight; Inside Job) lead some to cry foul, while others (myself included) find them rousing indictments of a corrupt system.  But one important role of the viewer is to separate facts from opinion and understand that the emotional impact of powerful images can cause us to leave our rational minds behind us.

The techniques of documentary filmmakers are myriad.  Some take found footage created by others for other purposes (newsreels, home movies) and fashion them into contemporary accounts of personal lives or historical events.  Alain Resnais shaped World War military films into a haunting memorial of the Holocaust in Night and Fog.  Some interview participants or others with a personal connection to the facts and present their subjects as ‘talking heads’ (e.g., Errol Morris’s The Fog of War.)   Others, as in One Day in September, The Thin Blue Line or Touching the Void, recreate events using techniques ranging from low to high tech.  Nature documentaries like Planet Earth, Winged Migration and Microcosmos involve dozens of technicians working all around the globe using the most sophisticated equipment.  Personal essay films like Tarnation require only a camcorder and a computer with a movie-making program – plus a willingness to bare your soul and expose all your family members’ deepest flaws.  Many documentaries follow some sort of narrative – often chronological – while some, like Man with a Movie Camera, are free-form or even surreal in their structure and imagery.  Cinéma vérité filmmakers like the Maysles brothers (Grey Gardens), D.A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back) and Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies) reject traditional documentary formats, eschewing narration and explanatory titles in an attempt to present reality, unadorned and unjudged, for the viewer to interpret.  Other documentarists (e.g., Werner Herzog in Encounters at the End of the World), insert themselves consciously into their films to emphasize the subjectivity of the creative process.  Essay films like Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, where a fictional narrator reads letters from a fictional traveler while we watch documentary images, blur the line between fiction and non-fiction.  Of course, many documentaries combine several of these techniques.

The goal of the documentary filmmaker may be to inform, to educate, to challenge, to expose evil, lies and hypocrisy, to speak truth to power, to amuse and entertain, to celebrate, to warn, to question, to present the artist’s personal creative vision.  Rarely do the best documentaries simply document reality.  The conscious and unconscious choices of these filmmakers inevitably shape that reality, creating art in the process.

Here, then, are my documentary lists:

BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF ALL TIME – THE CRITICS’ PICKS
BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF ALL TIME – CHRONOLOGICAL

My Favorite Books and Films Read or Seen in 2013

BOOKS

The obsessive-compulsive folks (and their algorithms) at Goodreads.com tell me that I completed 24 books in 2013.  My stats page helpfully points out that the longest book I read this year was The Visual Arts: A History, by Hugh Honour, at 992 pages.  (Curiously, no ‘shortest book’ stat is provided.)  Most of the books I read this year come from two meta-lists I created: (1) Best Fiction Since 1900; and (2) Best Literature of All Time – Chronological.  Of the 24 books I read in 2013, I gave the following seven a five-star rating:

Great Dialogues of Plato (c. 400 BCE).  By Plato.  Translated by W.H.D. Rouse.
I’m cheating a little here – I only read the Apology, the Symposium and the Crito.  I read The Republic, too, but in a different translation (Grube).  But I did read several of the other dialogues in a philosophy course in 1979, if that helps any.  It is interesting to watch Plato go from Socrates’ chronicler to a philosopher with his own ideas (which he nevertheless continues to attribute to Socrates – an early example of branding?).

The Book of Disquiet (1935). By Fernando Pessoa.  Translated by Richard Zenith.
I read this book from my Best Literature list out of chronological order because of our April 2013 trip to Portugal.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Pessoa’s narrator (Bernardo Soares, one of his many avatars)  is an early existentialist (whole passages of Sartre’s Nausea appear to be cribbed from Disquiet) or perhaps undiagnosed depressive whose thoughts and emotions impart a dark-flavored energy onto everything in his exterior and interior world.  He seems to find comfort in describing the minute details of the view from his office window or the surface of his desk.  I can see why bookstores in the university towns of Portugal sell Pessoa t-shirts, even now, 75 years after his death.

Memoirs of Hadrian (1951).  By Marguerite Yourcenar.  Translated by Grace Frick.
A Roman emperor looks back on his life with a well-developed sense of himself and his opinions, a remarkable recall for names, places and events, and an uncanny ability to objectively assess both his strengths and weaknesses.  Hadrian was a real emperor and this narrative is steeped in the facts of his life and times as they have survived.  And yet while there is little (perhaps no) dialogue in Hadrian’s recitation, there is no question that it is a work of fiction and not history.  Changing from the third person to the first person is not merely a grammatical change – we hear a historical character speaking to us through time.

Molloy; Molone Dies; The Unnameable (1951-1953). By Samuel Beckett.
It may be some kind of aesthetic crime to try and describe Beckett’s trilogy in my lazy prose.  Each of Beckett’s sentences seems hewn in stone – it is impossible to imagine them any other way.  He is postmodern in the sense that he doesn’t believe you can read a novel without knowing that it is a fiction, created by an author, for a reader, and therefore all these concepts – “fact” “fiction” “character” “author” “reader” “novel” – are subject to change without notice.  Is the protagonist of all three novels the same character?  Is there a protagonist or character, in any previously-understood sense, in the third novel at all?  And, finally, how many stones does it have in its pocketses?  This is one of those rare books, like Moby Dick, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow, that I look forward to re-reading, and re-re-reading, and so on, for there seem to be endless depths to plumb.

A Death in the Family (1957). By James Agee.
With its shifting narrative perspectives, carefully-drawn scenes; and an ability to convey powerful emotions without manipulation or sentimentality, this story is at its heart a simple story about a boy and his father.

Invisible Cities (1972).  By Italo Calvino.  Translated by Willliam Weaver.
Marco Polo describes to Genghis Khan the amazing places he has seen on his travels.  One is more fantastic than the next.  Each description is a little prose poem.  Borges comes to mind.  But if the cities aren’t ‘real’, are they nevertheless real in some other sense?  And what do these conversations mean to Polo and Khan?

Conversations with Scorcese (Paperback edition, 2013). By Richard Schickel.
In the old days, directors denied that they had any agenda, any intellectual underpinnings or philosophical outlook.  John Ford and Howard Hawks would tell you they just want to tell a story – point the camera and turn it on.  Of course, these were deceptions, but while reading reviewer/documentarian Richard Schickel’s conversations with Martin Scorcese on life, the universe and Goodfellas. I wondered if there can be deception in a wall of words, a mask hidden behind the appearance of revealing secrets, telling all.  Here we learn details about Scorcese’s childhood and life as a director, as well as stories about each of his movies, and his thoughts on more technical aspects of moviemaking.  I raced through it and wished for more.

FILMS

I didn’t see any five-star movies in 2013 (excluding David Lean’s Great Expectations, which I’d seen before), but I did see quite a few movies that rated 4.5, which is often as good as it gets these days.

Pickup on South Street (Fuller, 1953)
San Soleil (Marker, 1983)
I Shot Andy Warhol (Harron, 1996)
The Piano Teacher (Haneke, 2001)
Ten (Kiarostomi, 2002)
Dogtooth (Lanthimos, 2009)
Marwencol (Malmberg, 2010)
Amour (Haneke, 2012)
Frances Ha (Baumbach, 2012)
Before Midnight (Linklater, 2013)
Blue Jasmine (Allen, 2013)
Nebraska (Payne, 2013)

It’s the Most Wonderful Time – For Listers

The month of December is high season for listers and those who love lists.  Because December is the time that arts critics in every newspaper, magazine, website, blog, TV or radio station look back over the past year and make lists (usually Top Ten lists, but not always) of the best accomplishments from the past 12 months.  I’ve been collecting these lists – specifically for films, music and books – since 2002, and collating them to find out which items are on the most lists, and then making my own meta-lists.  Why do I do this?  One (somewhat inexplicable) reason is that I enjoy the process.  But a better reason is that I believe it exposes me to the best of these three arts.  Each list becomes a set of recommendations that I trust and that pushes me beyond my comfort zone.  I know that some folks don’t trust critics and reviewers to guide their choices of what to see, what to read and what to listen to, but to me the critics’ lists are the best option available, given that you can’t read/watch/listen to everything and must make choices.

What  are the other options for choosing what movies to see, books to read, music to listen to: (1) recommendations of friends and family; (2) following one particular expert, critic or reviewer; (3) critics’ reviews in newspapers, magazines and websites, or on radio or TV; (4) recommendations of people who sell movies or CDs or books, like Amazon; (5) trailers or other types of ads; (6) crowd-sourced websites like Goodreads or reviews on Amazon or other sites by ‘regular people’; or (7) meta-data sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes that collect critics’ reviews and assign ratings.  I have tried most of these methods myself, and I find that – except for (7), which is very similar to what I do – they all leave me disappointed.  I end up feeling like I have either adopted someone else’s tastes; sold out to The Man; ended up in a solipsistic spiral of stuff I know already, or that I’m just being exposed to the winners of various popularity contests judged by people completely unlike me who can’t spell and seem to base their opinions on completely irrational criteria.  So instead I rely on the critics and reviewers – people who analyze works of art for a living and may know more than I do about their subject.  While I may not agree with the tastes and judgment of each one, there is a pretty good chance that if several of them (or 10, 20 or 30 of them!) agree that a book is worth reading, a film is worth seeing, or an album is worth listening to, they are right.  Plus, when you pool the lists of many critics, you get a much wider variety than under most of the other available methods.  Taking this approach has led me to find masterpieces of artistic expression – from low to highbrow – that I would never have found had I just listened to what my friends’ recommended.  And while the critics’ top ten isn’t always my top ten, I have never regretted a choice I’ve made based on these lists.  (Even in the rare case that I don’t ‘like’ a highly rated book, recording or movie, I can appreciate the artistic qualities that led to its high rating and thus I benefit from it.  I just won’t be watching/reading/listening to it again any time soon.)

Here are the 2013 lists and Happy New Year:

Best Films of 2013
Best Books of 2013
Best Music of 2013

 

Too Big to Fail: The Best of 2008

A global financial crisis in the middle of a U.S. presidential election toppled financial institutions and triggered government bail-outs.  In the midst of it all, Americans elected their first African-American President, Barack Obama.  In other news, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan and the Olympics were held in Beijing.  Take a trip back to 2008 – the year that was too big to fail.  I’ve compiled lists of the best films, music and books of 2008, according to the critics and bloggers who make those “Best of the Year” lists every December.

Best Films of 2008
Best Books of 2008
Best Music of 2008

Authors and Auteurs: The Individual As Creative Force

There appears to be a human impulse to attribute a work of art to a single creator.  Maybe this is a consequence of the monotheistic religions that so many humans embrace (or perhaps monotheism is a result of the same human impulse).  We honor and celebrate the skill and imagination, the creative power of book authors, playwrights, poets, painters, sculptors, songwriters, musicians, and film directors.  The underlying theory, I suppose, is that it takes the creative vision of a single mind to produce a fully-realized work of art.  The most controversial application of this theory is the auteur theory developed by French film critics in the 1950s and championed in the U.S. by Andrew Sarris.  According to the theory, a film’s director is its author, in the same way that the single person who writes a book is its author.  The trouble with the theory is that movies are also a collaborative art – an enterprise involving the coordinated artistic and technical skills of many individuals in addition to the director, such as the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the editor, the sound crew, the set designer, costumers, as well as the actors.  The auteur critics used their theory to champion lesser-known directors like Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk by showing how they used the relative obscurity of genre and “B” movies to put forth a personal artistic vision.  But the theory works less well for many of the films produced by the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s and 1940s, when the director may have been just another cog in the machine.  Gone With the Wind seems more a product of its producer, David O. Selznick’s vision, than than of its director, Victor Fleming.

Music can also be a collaborative art, especially in the ensembles of rock and jazz, where songwriting and performing are often spread among a number of talented individuals, working together but also taking opportunities to “solo” and improvise, temporarily elevating the individual above the ensemble.  Even classical music, in which the composer’s manuscript is usually sacred, conductors and musicians “interpret” the piece, bringing something of their own style and personality to the final performance.

Painting and sculpture, which are now seen as extremely individualistic, were not always so (and, for massive public art projects, are not so even now).  A painter or sculptor in the Renaissance, for example, had many assistants, who often executed some of the work. Painters were even known to charge higher rates depending on the percentage of the work they did themselves.  Furthermore, those clients commissioning paintings and sculptures often had very specific requirements about the content of the work.  The notion of a painter sitting down to a blank canvas and painting whatever he or she pleased is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Are book authors (and poets and playwrights), then, the only true auteurs?  In many cases, the author sits down, writes his or her book alone and then sees it published in substantially the same form.  But in other cases, this image ignores the reality of publishers and editors who influence not just the subject of books but the style.  (Thomas Wolfe is one famous example of a writer who delivered a mass of disorganized writing to his editor, who then whipped it into shape.  Yet the editor is not considered a co-author.)  There are also ‘authors’, like Homer and those to whom many ancient manuscripts are attributed, who are merely symbols for the centuries of oral tradition that led to the Iliad, the Odyssey and other works handed down over time.  And all artists are influenced by other artists – some steal directly, others unconsciously.  Some are rebels; some are reformers, and some wish to return to times gone by.  They are influenced by the market – what will sell, what will not.  The political climate affects them as well as their personal circumstances.

I have raised all these complications as a preface to introducing a number of new lists.  Actually, they are mostly reworkings of older lists (although a few of them dig deeper than the lists I’ve already published).  These new lists all have one thing in common: they are organized by artist (as in performer, author, director).  Some are alphabetical; some are chronological.  The main idea is to see the lists in a different way: through the lens of the individual creator and their body of work.  They are particularly useful in answering the question: “Which one should I try first?” (E.g., Which David Bowie  or Charles Mingus album?  Which Titian painting?  Which Dickens book?  Which Godard film?)  Or, for those who have dabbled already, “Which should I try next?”

Rock, pop, R&B, etc.:  Musicians and Their Best Albums
JazzJazz Artists and their Best Recordings
BooksGreat Authors and their Masterworks, Part 1: 850 BCE – 1870
BooksGreat Authors and their Masterworks, Part 2: 1871-Present
FilmFilm Directors and their Best Films
Visual Arts: Great Artists and Their Masterpieces 

The Best of 2009 & 2010

I have put links for all my meta-lists for the best of 2009 and 2010 in this post – each one is a compilation of numerous best film, best music and best books lists for each year.  Have a look:

BEST BOOKS OF 2009                      BEST BOOKS OF 2010
BEST FILMS OF 2009                        BEST FILMS OF 2010
BEST MUSIC OF 2009                       BEST MUSIC OF 2010

2012 – It Was A Very Good Year

Every December, like clockwork, film, book and music critics (and bloggers) publish their “Best of the Year” lists in newspapers, magazines and websites.  And since 2002, I’ve been collecting those lists and collating them to find out which books, movies and albums made it onto the most lists.  I’m going to publish all these lists eventually, but for now, I’ve put up the most recent ‘best of’ compilations, from 2012.  Take a look:

BEST FILMS OF 2012  
BEST BOOKS OF 2012
BEST MUSIC OF 2012

Check It Out – My Personal Checklists

As you may already know, I don’t just make lists, I also like to play with my lists.  (Contrary to popular belief, this does not lead to blindness.)  I have been wanting to take my best music, literature and film of all time lists and set them up so you can see which items I’ve checked off, and so you can do the same.  If you’ve ever spent any time on listsofbests.com, you know what I’m talking about.  Unfortunately, WordPress (at least here in the cheap seats) doesn’t allow for such sophisticated programming.  Undaunted, I have found an alternative ‘check-off’ method.  Instead of checking off each movie I’ve seen, book I’ve read and and piece of music I’ve listened to, I have highlighted it in blue – Royal Blue, I might add.  (See below.)  So now, if you care (and, honestly, why would you?), you can find out which of the “best evers” I have partaken of so far.  And to make the fun last longer, you can make a copy of each list and do the same.  Happy listing!

My Film Checklist
My Literature Checklist
My Music Checklist