They Shot Pictures #7: Hou Hsiao-hsien

I was happy once again to join Seema on the They Shot Pictures podcast, this time to discuss Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien.  We focused on A Summer at Grandpa’s, Good Men, Good Women and Millennium Mambo, but we tried the impossible task of covering all the rest of his career as well.  Included are my rambling rants about the state of contemporary film scholarship and melodramatic vision of cinema as the solution to all of life’s problems.  I’m pretty sure we also conclude that anyone who doesn’t like Millennium Mambo is either a reductionist grad student or a horrible, healthy person.  You can download the episode from Sound on Sight or through iTunes.

(Apologies for being echo-y)

This Week in Rankings

Play While You Play aka Cheerful Wind – 20, 1981
The Green Green Grass of Home – 18, 1983
A Summer at Grandpa’s – 11, 1984
The Time to Live, The Time to Die – 2, 1985
Dust in the Wind – 5, 1987
The Puppetmaster – 3, 1993
Good Men, Good Women – 2, 1995
Goodbye South, Goodbye – 3, 1996
Flowers of Shanghai – 5, 1998
Millennium Mambo – 1, 2001
Three Times – 2, 2005

This Week in Rankings

Cockfighter – 10, 1974

Legend of the Mountain – 12, 1979
A Brighter Summer Day – 6, 1991
Café Lumière – 6, 2003
Breaking News – 6, 2004
Flight of the Red Balloon – 4, 2007

Margaret – 3, 2011
The Day He Arrives – 4, 2011
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart – 6, 2011
The Deep Blue Sea – 7, 2011
Romancing in Thin Air – 2012

Last Notes on the Sight & Sound Poll

All the critics’ ballots for the 2012 Sight & Sound poll went online today, along with a Top 250 films.  You can click on any film title and see who voted for it, as well as search by director, year, country or whatever.  It’s today’s easiest way to get lost on the internet.

I realize I never actually created my own hypothetical ballot, which should be somewhat different from the Top Ten of the last big list I put together.  Being limited to only ten movies rather than 100, or 1000, I want the list to be as representative as possible of cinema as I see it and love it, and so I’m creating some arbitrary restrictions (one film per director, genre, era etc).  With my Top 100, it’s not a big deal if, for example, no Powell & Pressburger film is in the top ten because they’re well represented with four in the top 100, but I can’t imagine a Top Ten without them.  That said, I’m inevitably leaving out a ton anyway (Ozu, Hou, Sternberg, and Renoir, for starters.  Sigh).  Anyway, here’s a stab at what my Sight & Sound ballot would look like right now, in no particular order:

1. Seven Samurai
2. Chungking Express
3. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
4. Casablanca
5. Pierrot le fou
6. Night of the Hunter
7. La Commune (Paris 1871)
8. Days of Heaven
9. Rio Bravo
10. The Red Shoes

To answer a question I raised in my last post on the poll on the chances of a consensus forming around In the Mood for Love enough to get it into the Top Ten, Wong Kar-wai films received 71 votes, 42 of which were for In the Mood leaving 29 for the rest put together, including 12 for my favorite, Chungking Express (sadly, no one voted for Fallen Angels, though Kenji Fujishima would have).  23 of those voters would have had to have voted for In the Mood this year for it to surpass 8 1/2 for tenth place.  Unlikely, but with some new voters added, it’s not impossible to see it moving up that high in the next couple decades.

Finally, here are the 45 films in the Top 250 that I have yet to see, most of which I’m looking forward to watching over the next decade:

Pather Panchali
La Maman et la putain
Beau travail
Fanny & Alexander
A Brighter Summer Day
Touki Bouki
Fear Eats the Soul
The Traveling Players
Los olvidados

L’Age D’or
Out 1
L’Argent (Bresson)
Memories of Underdevelopment
Marketa Lazarova
Distant Voices, Still Lives
Werckmeister Harmonies
Breaking the Waves

Listen to Britain
Red Desert
Chelsea Girls
Kings of the Road
Berlin Alexanderplatz
West of the Tracks
A Tale of Tales
Germany Year Zero
The Devil Probably
The Turin Horse
Love Streams
Floating Clouds
The House is Black
The World of Apu

Old Movie List Discovered: Provokes Mild Embarrassment, Rethinking of Life

A while back I rescued from the hard drive of a now 20 year old computer, a list of the Best Movies Ever that I put together back in the summer of 1998.  That was the year I moved to Seattle (a couple blocks away from the Best Video Store in the World) and watching movies became the thing I did for school and work instead of the thing I did instead of school or work.  The list is reflective of the lack of viewing options I had as a young moviegoer in the cinema wasteland that was Spokane in the mid-90s, possibly (hopefully) the last time in history that a person’s geographic location was a major limiting factor in what films they could see.  It also shows the influence of my pre-film studies reading: I’d spent the previous year and a half reading every movie book I could get my hands on, working my way up from Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert and VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever to Pauline Kael, François Truffaut and Jonathan Rosenbaum, along with scholarly books on Orson Welles (James Naremore), Akira Kurosawa (Donald Richie), Alfred Hitchcock (Truffaut as well as David Sterritt) and Martin Scorsese (Lawrence Friedman).

So, like all lists, it’s a snapshot of a particular person at a particular time.  And also like all lists, it’s notable as much for its omissions as for what it includes.  But still, looking back on it fourteen years later, I can help but be a little surprised at it.  Not because there are films ranked highly that I no longer think are any good (though there are a couple of slight embarrassments), but rather at how many of the films that I ranked highly then continue to occupy the top spots on the lists I’ve made more recently (I have four here at The End: a Top 150 from 2008, a Top 250 from 2009, a Top 600 from 2010 and a Top 1000 from 2011).  Of course that shouldn’t be a surprise, as these are many of my favorite films, and one of the ways I define that inescapably vague term “favorite film” is by how long I’ve lived with them, not simply in terms of rewatchability (though several of these I’ve seen many, many times), but in how over time these particular movies have come to define what I think cinema is, what it should be, and what it can be.

With the release of the latest Sight & Sound poll this week, and Labor Day Weekend, the time of year I traditionally create a new Best of All-Time, fast approaching, lists have been on my mind.  Every year, my Best Lists have gotten bigger and bigger, culminating last year, when I spent a month or so creating a Top 1000 list, an inherently ridiculous task that was as fun as it is absurd.  I could keep that trend going, with ever longer and more tedious lists (1500!, 2000!, 5000!), or I could try something new.  And so I’m going to follow the advice of the great Kristin Thompson, who in a post at her blog in March on the topic of Best Of lists suggested abandoning the repetitive reassertions of the canon that inevitably result from consensus-based polls like Sight & Sound‘s in favor an approach more like that of the National Film Registry:

I think this business of polls and lists for the greatest films of all times would be much more interesting if each film could only appear once. Having gained the honor of being on the list, each title could be retired, and a whole new set concocted ten years later. The point of such lists, if there is one, is presumably to introduce people who are interested in good films to new ones they may not have seen or even known about.

And so I’m going to create a The End of Cinema Hall of Fame, inducting a few movies each year and writing about them along the way.  Sometime soon, I’ll name 25 films, then spend the next year writing about them every two weeks or so until it’s time to name the next class.  I’m not going to rank them, instead I’ll just go along with the assumption that all Hall of Famers are equally canonical.  I haven’t decided what, if any, criteria I’m going to use: just naming my Top 25 films as of that moment or maybe using a quota system (Best film noir, Best Western, Best French movie, etc) or perhaps some kind of a combination of the two.  Rest assured, it’ll be arbitrary.

As a warm-up, here’s my recently unearthed1998 Top 200 Movies of All-Time List:

1   Manhattan
2   Casablanca
3   Seven Samurai
4   Annie Hall
5   Citizen Kane
6   Miller’s Crossing
7   Ran
8   Singin’ in the Rain
9   The Birds
10   Mean Streets
11   Lawrence of Arabia
12   The Rules of the Game
13   The Empire Strikes Back
14   Psycho
15   L. A. Story
16   Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
17   The Philadelphia Story
18   The Godfather Part II
19   It’s a Wonderful Life
20   Goodfellas
21   The Wizard of Oz
22   Rashomon
23   Do the Right Thing
24   On the Waterfront
25   Taxi Driver
26   Three Colors: Blue
27   The Lion in Winter
28   The Mission (Joffe)
29   The Godfather
30   Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind
31   Star Wars
32   Pulp Fiction
33   Kiss Me Deadly
34   North by Northwest
35   The Manchurian Candidate
36   Duck Soup
37   American Graffiti
38   Six Degrees of Separation
39   Harvey
40   Throne of Blood
41   The Big Sleep
42   Touch of Evil
43   Schindler’s List
44   Amadeus
45   Sanjuro
46   8 1/2
47   Raging Bull
48   The Red Shoes
49   Children of Paradise
50   Crimes and Misdemeanors

51   Kagemusha
52   Dangerous Liaisons
53   The English Patient
54   Quiz Show
55   Unforgiven
56   Hannah and Her Sisters
57   Jaws
58   Platoon
59   Patton
60   The Seachers
61   Boogie Nights
62   Broadcast News
63   Out of the Past
64   Vertigo
65   Blood Simple
66   Seven
67   All About Eve
68   Henry V (Branagh)
69   The Seventh Seal
70   The Graduate
71   Suspicion
72   The Third Man
73   Stranger than Paradise
74   The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
75   The Last of the Mohicans (Mann)
76   Bringing Up Baby
77   The Player
78   Bugsy
79   Trainspotting
80   Yojimbo
81   Rebecca
82   The Maltese Falcon
83   The Shawshank Redemption
84   Brief Encounter
85   Bonnie and Clyde
86   Fantasia
87   Silence of the Lambs
88   JFK
89   Raiders of the Lost Ark
90   Zelig
91   The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail
92   Fargo
93   Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
94   Sleeping Beauty
95   The Age of Innocence
96   Reservoir Dogs
97   High Plains Drifter
98   A Clockwork Orange
99   Laura
100   The Outlaw Josey Wales

101   Stagecoach
102   Day for Night
103   Ugetsu
104   Wings of Desire
105   Swingers
106   The Lady from Shanghai
107   To Have and Have Not
108   Empire of the Sun
109   Three Colors: Red
110   Barton Fink
111   ET:  the Extra Terrestrial
112   Out of Africa
113   Chasing Amy
114   Bull Durham
115   It Happened One Night
116   The Lady Vanishes
117   Double Indemnity
118   Kicking and Screaming
119   Clerks
120   The Thin Man
121   Big Night
122   The Princess Bride
123   Rope
124   Play It Again, Sam
125   The Right Stuff
126   Shadow of a Doubt
127   High and Low
128   Jules and Jim
129   Rear Window
130   The Fisher King
131   Sunset Boulevard
132   Hard Eight
133   The 39 Steps
134   The Last Temptation of Christ
135   Shoot the Piano Player
136   The Awful Truth
137   Le Samourai
138   Chinatown
139   The General
140   Monty Python’s the Life of Brian
141   The Asphalt Jungle
142   Z
143   Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
144   Force of Evil
145   Das Boot
146   The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
147   Slacker
148   Point Blank
149   Kundun
150   The Big Lebowski

151   2001: A Space Odyssey
152   When Harry Met Sally. . .
153   Monty Python and the Holy Grail
154   Halloween
155   Notorious
156   The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
157   Steamboat Bill, Jr
158   Kids
159   The Hidden Fortress
160   Top Hat
161   Party Girl
162   She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
163   The Sorrow and the Pity
164   Once Were Warriors
165   Sleeper
166   Marnie
167   Dreams
168   The Purple Rose of Cairo
169   Red River
170   Grand Hotel
171   Blow Out
172   Field of Dreams
173   Shadowlands
174   Nobody’s Fool
175   Fort Apache
176   Sullivan’s Travels
177   Beautiful Girls
178   Shampoo
179   Rosemary’s Baby
180   The Grand Illusion
181   The Ice Storm
182   Brazil
183   The Natural
184   Dazed and Confused
185   The Night of the Hunter
186   In the Company of Men
187   Love and Death
188   Judgement at Nuremburg
189   Nashville
190   Scream
191   Metropolitan
192   Edward Scissorhands
193   The Day the Earth Stood Still
194   The Hustler
195   Night on Earth
196   The Wild Bunch
197   The Magnificent Ambersons
198   Return of the Jedi
199   Afterhours
200   The Secret of NIMH

More on the 2012 Sight & Sound Poll

A couple days ago, on the eve of the announcement of the seventh decennial Sight & Sound Poll of the Greatest Films of All-Time, I predicted this for the Critics Top Ten:

1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
3. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
4. Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959)
5. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen & Kelly, 1952)
6. Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)
7. Ran (Kurosawa, 1985)
8. Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939)
9. In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000)
10. 8 1/2 (Fellini, 1963)

This was the actual Top Ten:

1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
2. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
4. Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939)
5. Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
7. The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1927)
10. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)

I’d say I did alright, but not spectacular by any means. I had the wrong Western (no Howard Hawks film made the top 50(!) while John Ford’s The Searchers returned to the Top Ten) and the wrong Japanese film (I really underestimated how well Ozu would do, I’m quite happy to see).  Singin’ in the Rain dropped down to #20 and I’m very surprised the Dreyer and Vertov films moved ahead of it.  The Vertov seems to have shocked everyone, it appears to have supplanted Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin as the Top Ten’s representative of Silent Soviet Cinema, though Potemkin did end up at #11, so maybe its more a matter of Camera also getting a lot of pro-documentary and -avant-garde votes (it’s a landmark of both types of film).  The Dreyer film has been in and out of the Top Ten for decades, so it’s less of a shocker, though I don’t think anyone predicted three silent films in the Top Ten.  In the Mood for Love was a long shot, but it did end up at #24, the highest ranked film of the last 33 years (1979’s Apocalypse Now at #14 is the next most recent) and a mere 22 votes (out of 846) behind 8 1/2 for tenth place.

Here’s the Top Ten with where I ranked them last year in my Top 1000 Films list:

1. Vertigo (13)
2. Citizen Kane (38, 3rd among Welles films)
3. Tokyo Story (112, 2nd Ozu)
4. Rules of the Game (9)
5. Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans (6)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (44)
7. The Searchers (10)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (298)
9. Passion of Joan of Arc (459)
10. 8 1/2 (148)

And the films in my top ten that did not make the S&S Top Ten and their rank in the S&S Top 50, if any:

1. Seven Samurai (17)
2. Chungking Express
3. Casablanca
4. Annie Hall
5. Singin’ in the Rain (20)
7. Duck Soup
8. Night of the Hunter

I’m looking forward to being able to pour through the individual ballots, both for the critics and the filmmakers who participated in the Directors Poll (where Kane also finished second, but in this case to Tokyo Story).  I suspect that when we get a look at the full list, beyond the Top 50, it will look a bit less dominated by the same old established films that make up the Top Ten (only Man with a Movie Camera had never been in the Top Ten before this year, and it’s over 80 years old).

With the most recent film on the Top Ten being Kubrick’s 43-year old 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s been much complaint (on Twitter if not more reputable places) that the voters are biased towards the films of the post-war Baby Boomer era, or at least against more recent films.  Bicycle Thieves topped the original list in 1952 a mere four years after its release, and L’avventura came in second about two years after its cacophonous reception at Cannes.  On the contrary, though, I’d say we’re seeing the effects of exactly the opposite phenomenon.

It took only 64 votes to make the Top Ten.  64 out of 846 ballots, or 7.6%.  You would expect that the more familiar a group is with a certain era of film history, the more films from that era they would vote for, spreading the votes around to such a degree that they’re unable to coalesce enough votes around any given film from that era.  The list tends to be dominated older films and Official Best films (Best Western: The Searchers; Best Japanese Film: Tokyo Story (which moved ahead of Seven Samurai in ’92 and remains, despite the one being only the second or third best Ozu and the other being the Best Movie Ever); Best Musical: Singin’ in the Rain; and so on).  A voter who is very familiar with the films of the last 40 years but not so much with the ones from the previous 70 has a wider pool of recent films to vote for than older ones.  So support for recent films is diffused while the past consensus films live on.  If this is the case, then the poll results we have indicate that the voting critics are not familiar enough with the first 70 years of cinema and are instead too focused on recent films.

Lower on the list we are starting to see consensus build on certain more recent titles (In the Mood for Love at #24, Mulholland Dr. at #28 (a couple years ago, it was our #2 movie of the 2000s over at Metro Classics), maybe Beau Travail at #78) while Coppola and Scorsese struggle to cohere enough support around a single film (Apocalypse Now (#14) or one of the Godfathers (#s 21 & 31)?  Taxi Driver (#31) or Raging Bull (not in the Top 50 this year after finishing 6th in the 2002 Directors Poll)?) in the way a consensus has determined the best films of Ozu, Ford, Welles, Dreyer, Renoir, Fellini, Hitchcock (votes for Rear Window went steadily downward over the decades as Vertigo climbed its way to the top), Murnau, Kubrick, etc.  This vote-splitting is, I think, the biggest reason Godard has yet to crack the Top Ten (he had four films in the Top 50, more than any other director), and why Kurosawa (Rashomon stealing votes from my beloved Seven Samurai), Antonioni, Mizoguchi, Tarkovsky and Bergman find themselves on the outside these days.

For evidence of the growing consensus on the top films of the past 40 years, note that 13 of the 11-50th ranked films are from after 1970:

14. Apocalypse Now (53 votes)
19. Mirror (47)
21. The Godfather (43)
24. In the Mood for Love (42)
28. Mulholland Dr. (40)
29. Stalker (39)
29. Shoah (39)
31. Godfather 2 (38)
31. Taxi Driver (38)
35. Jeanne Dielman (34)
35. Satantango (34)
42. Close-Up (31)
48. Histoire(s) du cinema (30)

If only 23 out of 804 people voted for non-In the Mood for Love Wong Kar-Wai films, (I’d guess that’s a pretty safe bet, but we’ll know for sure in a few days) and those people switched their votes from Chungking Express or Happy Together or Days of Being Wild or whatever to In the Mood, then there’d be a film from this century in the Top Ten.

What’s most shocking about the poll is not its repetition of staid consensus, but just how eclectic it is.  Over 2,000 films received votes.  That only ten of them managed to get even 7.5% of the vote is an argument for just how volatile and in flux the film canon truly is.  Given this environment, the stability of the Top Ten is better seen as a remarkable fluke, or at least a last gasp, than a representative of some kind of critical imperialist tyranny.

On the 2012 Sight & Sound Poll

The latest edition of the British magazine Sight & Sound‘s decennial poll of the greatest movies of all-time is due to be announced about 12 hours from when this posts.  In a field overflowing with Best Of lists and Top Tens and AFI DVD-selling ploys, the Sight & Sound poll stands out as the most prestigious, most long-running canon-defining survey we have.  Every ten years since 1952, they’ve polled critics from around the world (this year’s edition sought out “more than 1,000 critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles” according to editor Nick James) to come up with a consensus Top Ten Greatest Movies of All-Time.  The winner in ’52 was Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and every year since the list has been topped by Citizen Kane, which is one of the main reasons that film has held the unofficial title of Best Movie Ever for so long.

My own history with the list goes back to the mid-90s, when, as a nascent cinephile working at a video store in Spokane, I would copy titles from the yearly lists that Roger Ebert printed in an appendix to one of his books and scour every video store in town looking for them.  Many of the films listed were unavailable in Spokane in those pre-DVD, pre-internet video, VHS desert days, but I made sure to see them as soon as I could (and when I finally moved to Seattle, I did finally get to see most of them: there are two I haven’t yet: 1962’s #9 La terra trema and 1992’s #6 Pather Panchali).  This is, of course, the main function of Greatest Whatever lists.  It’s not just that they’re fun to make and argue about, it’s that in creating a reasonable version of a canon, they form a roadmap, a concise set of suggested paths to take for those who want to explore the movie world beyond the overexposed ubiquity of new releases.

There’s never been a Sight & Sound poll that matches my tastes exactly and it’d be extremely weird and creepy if there were.  Generally, the poll tends to celebrate my second or third favorite films of some of my favorite directors (Kane over Touch of Evil,  Tokyo Story over Late Spring, L’avventura over L’eclisse, The General over Sherlock Jr) alongside personal favorites (The Searchers, The Rules of the Game, Seven Samurai, Sunrise) and the occasional movie I like but don’t really love (The Godfathers, Battleship Potemkin).  There’s never been a Top Ten film I’ve out-and-out hated; Bicycle Thieves is probably my least favorite.  My favorite film, Seven Samurai, has only made the poll once, in 1982, and it’s either that poll or 2002’s that most closely resembles my own idea of the Top Ten.  I make Best of Lists every year here at The End (last year I did a Top 1000), and the Sight & Sound films tend to do fairly well (the lowest ranked of 2002’s Top Ten on my list last year was Potemkin, at #503).  I tend to rate comedies more highly than the poll does, but that’s probably just a side effect of the collective process: comedies tend to be more idiosyncratic and generational in appeal than dramas, so maybe its a bit harder to form a consensus around them.

Now, my prediction for this year’s Sight & Sound Top Ten Critics Poll:

1. Vertigo
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
3. Citizen Kane
4. Rio Bravo
5. Singin’ in the Rain
6. Sunrise
7. Ran
8. The Rules of the Game
9. In the Mood for Love
10. 8 1/2

I’m predicting the triumphant return of the director of my favorite movie to the list, but with my second or third favorite of his films (Akira Kurosawa with Ran), along with my third favorite Wong Kar-wai film (In the Mood for Love instead of Chungking Express or 2046).  I think the Western genre will return to the list, but with Howard Hawks and Rio Bravo a decade after John Ford’s The Searchers fell out of the Top Ten.  I suspect Stanley Kubrick will continue his march to the top with 2001: A Space Odyssey, moving past longtime list veterans Singin’ in the Rain, Sunrise, The Rules of the Game and 8 1/2, but he’ll be held out of the #1 spot by Alfred Hitchcock and Vertigo, which I predict will become the third #1 film in the polls history, finally knocking Citizen Kane of its lofty perch.  Finally, I predict that no longer burdened with Greatest Movie of All-Time status, a new generation of movie-goers will begin to appreciate Citizen Kane for the wildly entertaining film it really is.