4.5, United States/Canada


2011 / Nicolas Winding Refn > The worst thing about Drive is the hideous, misuse of Mistral during the credits. You sit there, as Ryan Gosling drives into the night, wondering if you’ve been transported to a grittier version of Miami Vice. Maybe genre films remain an insular interest because the kitsch factor is too embedded in their culture? After all, this is the font that graced the intro of television’s Night Court.

But then the film unfolds. And sets up. And takes off. And during this ride, which can effectively be described as a classic noir tale with a penchant for real violence, there is nary a hole that can be poked. Every second is necessary, every shot elegant, every piece of music supports the action on the screen. Every question normally asked of a film, this one answers either with some level of extrapolation or faith in its characters. Gosling, credited simply as “Driver,” is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name. We gradually discover over time that he’s exactly the kind of person missing in 99% of Hollywood cinema: One that doesn’t cop out. That, in itself, is a tremendous victory.

As those who’ve watched his Pusher trilogy as well Tom Hardy’s brilliant, psychotic coming-out party in Bronson can testify, Winding Refn is a momentous talent. In fact, the lyrics of Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx’s “Nightcall,” which overtures the opening sequence, speaks of both the director as well as Gosling’s Driver: There’s something about you, it’s hard to explain. They’re talking about you, boy, like you’re still the same. In short: They are not to be underestimated. Drive shows the maturation of Winding Refn as a controlled director, Gosling as an action star and together they’ve come up with a fine piece of entertainment that’s a beauty to look at, satisfying to watch and evocative enough to remember.

4.0, Europe


Life as Fiction (Through Time)

M by Fritz Lang is the yearly favorite from 1931 as listed in Life as Fiction (Through Time): An Exercise in the Clockwork and Constriction of Cinematic History, a project to chronicle my favorite film from each year since 1921.

1931 / Fritz Lang > How does M hold up to the test of time over similar cinema of the past (and recent times) that eventually fade from memory? Unlike others in the genre which have lost their luster due to overused plot twists, a simple sense of age or technical awkwardness, M stands firm because Lang’s filming is claustrophobic but not overdone. His storytelling is imaginative but coherent. His treatment of the villain is respectful but not apologetic. In fact, it still supersedes most of its successors in terms of intelligence and overall composition.

Nowadays, tension in serial killer films seem necessary to be represented throughout the running time. However, in M, the great beauty is in its objectivity. The serial killer himself—and his capture—is only part of the game. The cops and robbers, the bystanders and victims, they all play a part in the total landscape without overshadowing the other. Moreover, it’s impossible not to see what it’s influenced (most notably, in my mind, was Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). Increasingly, this is one of the few classics where a modern remake would be interesting just to see if 80 years of technology and know-how could actually trump the original.

Originally posted on July 10, 2007 before inclusion into (Through Time).

4.5, Europe

Let the Right One In

Life as Fiction (Through Time)

Let the Right One In by Tomas Alfredsson is the yearly favorite from 2008 as listed in Life as Fiction (Through Time): An Exercise in the Clockwork and Constriction of Cinematic History, a project to chronicle my favorite film from each year since 1921.

2008 / Tomas Alfredson > Ever since I first saw this by happenstance at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008, it’s been stuck in my mind. Coming of age stories tend to hold a constant place in my heart, but the choicest of these only float around once in while. Each has its own little niche: Rushmore channeled overachievement and the quirkiness of Wes Anderson, Hana and Alice dove into the teenage dramatics of Shunji Iwai and Let the Right One In somehow molds youth, alienation and things that go bump in the night into one cohesive jolt. Alfredson has created a film rooted in a dark loneliness and an even darker elegance. Every scene and detail is necessary, and even those that come across borderline-kitschy end up making sense in context.

But let’s get the whole vampire bit cleared: This isn’t one of those bloodsucking genre films that go by-the-book in their treatment of the Draculan descendants. Just like Cloverfield was an episode of The O.C. with a monster in it, Let the Right One In is a coming-of-age love story that happens to include someone with a penchant for blood. It’s a surprisingly tactful method of curving an otherwise generic story into one of the year’s best films. Rarely does the script take the viewer’s intelligence for granted: myths are mostly hinted at, the gory visuals kept minimal and the camera angles respect our ability to extrapolate. The last sequence at the pool? It includes arguably the best scene in film from 2008. When Oskar’s eyes open up, it’s almost perfect.

Originally posted on March 12, 2009 before inclusion into (Through Time).

5.0, Japan


Life as Fiction (Through Time)

Tekkonkinkreet by Michael Arias is the yearly favorite from 2006 as listed in Life as Fiction (Through Time): An Exercise in the Clockwork and Constriction of Cinematic History, a project to chronicle my favorite film from each year since 1921.

2006 / Michael Arias > Tekkonkinkreet paints a portrait of adolescence with the right pigments and shades, with beauty and sorrow, loneliness and anger all packed into tight spaces that refuse to go away once the credits roll. Arias and Studio 4°C’s inventive style fits the bill perfectly, with its depiction of the fictional Treasure Town’s grimy streets and the two youthful protagonists’ parkour-style street running. But it’s not just about how pretty it all is. The writing is superb, capturing brotherhood in a way that’s neither sensationalist nor ideal. Violence and loyalty are two thematic elements that carry the film from beginning to end: The former as a medium by which to prove the latter. It’s got the kind of gutsiness that can provoke the imagination as well as the heart.

Originally posted on October 6, 2008.

4.5, Japan

Vengeance is Mine

Life as Fiction (Through Time)

Vengeance is Mine by Shohei Imamura is the yearly favorite from 1979 as listed in Life as Fiction (Through Time): An Exercise in the Clockwork and Constriction of Cinematic History, a project to chronicle my favorite film from each year since 1921.

1979 / Shohei Imamura > For all the serial killer stories that have ever been put on the silver screen, none have approached the subject in a manner as blankly as this. Vengeance is Mine is a story about love—not that of a man and a woman, but about a human being vs. society. The way the dominoes fall don’t often go as planned, and sometimes killing a stranger and sticking his cold, dead body in the closet is necessary. For Iwao Enokizu, this is neither good nor bad. It is an action that complements his strategy for survival. There is no premeditation besides the obvious need to grow older, but in his eyes, one has a hard time seeing a rationale for even living. Ken Ogata’s performance as Iwao, for whom Japan led a 78-day manhunt in 1963, is chilling in its exactness as it captures the kind of stoic judgment the killer makes at will. His value of life is a mystery, but his existence is the kind of evil that myths are built around. He begs, over and over, a simple question to the viewer: Is it possible that there are those who cannot possibly be loved?

Originally posted on April 1, 2010 before inclusion into (Through Time).

5.0, United States/Canada


Life as Fiction (Through Time)

Rushmore by Wes Anderson is the yearly favorite from 1998 as listed in Life as Fiction (Through Time): An Exercise in the Clockwork and Constriction of Cinematic History, a project to chronicle my favorite film from each year since 1921.

1998 / Wes Anderson > Not sure how much my familiarity with the soundtrack had to do with it, but my latest viewing of Rushmore was a completely different experience than I’d previously recalled. Seeing it in theatres upon release, when Anderson’s tactics were still fresh, the first half was all the rage while the second half seemed banal at best. But over time, that first half became a sort of gimmick, something to create an illusion of substance when in reality it embodies much of the indie quirkiness that continues to plague current cinema. But now, multiple Anderson films later, I’ve finally realized what makes the film tick isn’t its first half, but rather the second half, which maintains a sense of quiet rumination filled with the appreciation of living and acceptance.

In ways, this is as unusual a coming of age film as there ever may be. While Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer isn’t immediately someone to identify with, his emotional see-saw with Miss Cross (played by the elegant and lovely Olivia Williams) provides an intangible yet definite hook for us to latch onto. He seems the antithesis of what we see in Dangerous Minds, yet in many ways, he’s exactly similar. Nobody said you had to deal with guns and drugs to be a delinquent—You can also do it with “extracurricular activities” like building aquariums on the baseball diamond or tending bees instead of taking exams.

Also impressively, no Anderson film has used music as effectively as Rushmore: The Who backing the revenge sequence, John Lennon supporting Bill Murray’s hopeful Herman Blume and Max’s road back to grace and Miss Cross taking Max’s glasses off to Ooh La La by Faces (where the minor quiver on Williams’ lip is one of the finest moments in my personal cinematic history). All of these are further impacted by the calculated camera work of Richard Yeoman. So beautiful, in fact, that the curtain scene at the end has forever become etched in my memory.

Originally posted on October 25, 2008 before inclusion into (Through Time).

3.0, Korea

I Saw the Devil

2010 / Kim Ji-woon > Kim has defined himself as one of the most versatile mainstream directors in Korean cinema. With outings that include the very good neo-noir in A Bittersweet Life, a Western steampunk epic in The Good, the Bad and the Weird and his foray into the English language with Last Stand later this year, it’s little surprise he was able to secure two of Korea’s top actors for I Saw the Devil: Lee Byun-hun (who many in the U.S. know as Brian Lee a.k.a. Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe) and Min Sik-choi (who, known widely in the West for his role as Oldboy, makes a long-awaited return to the big screen).

There’s no smoke screen here: I Saw the Devil is about vengeance in the best way possible. Or is it the worst? That may, in fact, be the central question at bay. In his quest to avenge his wife’s death, a government agent falls so deep down the rabbit hole that we’re asked to second-guess how far we’d go to satisfy our deepest desires for revenge. But the lessons here aren’t anything extraordinary. We walk away feeling mildly disgusted with ourselves not because of the gruesome violence we’ve been exposed to, but because it didn’t mean much. Had this been made by a lesser filmmaker with lesser actors, it would have been naturally panned. But Kim, at the very least, knows how to direct an entertaining thriller that plays out with few visible regards for a moral compass. And though he’s slightly late to the game—the genre has become so saturated over the last decade that the film’s twists become relatively predictable—the film still works as a misdirection from our daily lives where we’re expected a greater level of human compassion.

2.5, United States/Canada

Sucker Punch

2011 / Zack Snyder > Never in my life have I so strongly felt the need for a film to be a video game—and just that. Snyder’s first attempt at original material shows his lack of storytelling prowess, as Sucker Punch somehow turns glorious visuals and sexy schoolgirls with cleavage into something that’s only a notch better than a mindnumbing bore.

Maybe I’m extra underwhelmed because the initial teaser was one of the best I’d ever seen. Expertly composed, it promised a fantastic adventure into the mind of a young girl in her fight for survival. A combination of dragons, samurai and zombie Nazis on a foundation of steampunk whetted our appetites for an exciting genre-bender. But Sucker Punch ends up failing for the same reason Snyder should be given some credit: He made it into a personal film instead of one that audiences would enjoy. One could argue that his intention was to combine his trademark visuals with the philosophic backbone of Bergman, but he simply didn’t have the vision and/or chops to execute that effectively. Instead, it’s predictable until it becomes silly. Emily Browning, who was excellent in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, is very much out of her depth here. Jamie Chung is wooden. Vanessa Hudgens has no lines worth repeating. Scott Glenn is a joke (though possibly on purpose). Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone are too good for the script. And as one of the most well-known contemporary, mainstream auteurs, Snyder has to take the blame for this mess. Still, if there’s something of value here, it’s that he was able to get a big budget film onto screens with his vision mostly intact, even if it depended on some of our basest fetishes for its appeal.

5.0, Europe

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by Powell & Pressburger is the yearly favorite from 1943 as listed in Life as Fiction (Through Time): An Exercise in the Clockwork and Constriction of Cinematic History, a project to chronicle my favorite film from each year since 1921.

1943 / Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger > Why on earth would Winston Churchill want to negate the existence of a film about a gregarious British soldier who believes in the good fight and the love of a beautiful woman? Made at the height of the Nazi threat, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp is a masterpiece chronicling forty-plus years in the life of Clive Candy, who we first meet after the unbeknownst-to-him British atrocities in the Boer War. This is a man whose military morals guffaw in disgust at the Germans and their war tactics. This is a man who believes the most important outcome of World War I was proof that the “good guys” could win. Much to Churchill’s annoyance, Powell & Pressburger question the gentlemen’s rules of warfare underneath the veil of a romantic epic. Does one stoop to the level of the Nazis in order to defeat them? What lengths would one go to in making sure that that Hitler was stopped before altering the world as we know it?

Roger Livesay’s performance as Candy is as joyful as it is tragic. It takes a while to get past all the sweetness on the screen before realizing Candy represents a great class of man, but one who may be completely outdated in today’s society. He loves and laments, but never is he anything short of a gentleman. His principles are strong, though it’s inevitable to pinpoint the naivety of his purposeful ignorance. Colonel Blimp may also be, most importantly, a reminder of how critical a time it was for our world at the height of Hitler’s regime. It affected how we approached and appreciated love, life and warfare. And now, nearly seventy years later, the film is equally as relevant in readjusting mindsets that blindly champion the goodness of the West vs. the evils of elsewhere.

4.5, United States/Canada

Out of the Past

Out of the Past by Jacques Tourneur is the yearly favorite from 1947 as listed in Life as Fiction (Through Time): An Exercise in the Clockwork and Constriction of Cinematic History, a project to chronicle my favorite film for each year from 1921 to the present.

1947 / Jacques Tourneur > It’s pretty obvious why David Cronenberg paid homage to Out of the Past in A History of Violence: If you’re going to put a twist on a genre, why not pay respect to its standard-bearers? Tourneur’s take on classic film-noir is thoughtful and riveting. The directing is meticulous, setting up a moody atmosphere, taking time to play out scenes that would otherwise have been rushed and making sure each of our characters are aptly developed. I can also now finally understand why Robert Mitchum was such a big deal. His quiet poise calls upon him an honest appearance while underneath he has the ability to carry deeper, darker secrets. And in a film where Jane Greer counters him as a dame of great beauty and equally great villainy, both work together balancing each others’ brilliant performances.

But fundamentals aside, Out of the Past is more notable for its congruence of issues: Lies, murder, secret pasts, infidelity, love, hope, greed, happiness. Novelist and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring threw the kitchen sink plus some toiletry in the story’s mix of ingredients. But what amazes is how well it all works out. The final scene with the boy stands the test of time as one of those moments that leave you wondering the improbable quality of the film you’ve just witnessed. These days, the descendants of noir have simply too much cynicism or lack of storytelling skills to be this effective.

Originally posted on February 11, 2009 before inclusion into (Through Time).