This Week in Rankings

Over the past month or so I wrote about King Arthur here at The End and a bunch of movies over at Seattle Screen Scene, including Christmas in July, Trainwreck and The Lady Eve, A Hard Day and Unexpected, and a quartet of Running Out of Karma movies: Wild City; Yes, Madam!; The Heroic Trio, and A Better Tomorrow.

We discussed that last one as well on The George Sanders Show, along with Blackhat. We also did shows on Summer Interlude and Songs from the Second Floor and The Green Ray and X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes. We have a new episode of They Shot Pictures on Preston Sturges ready to go, it should be making it’s way onto the internet any time now. And, following tradition, I made a bunch of Best of the Year So Far lists.

I also went on a bit of an Endy Awards kick, handing out fake cat statues to films from the years 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1997. I also updated the years 1994 and 1998-2014, changing some nominees and winners based on new movies I’ve seen since the last revision in March. You can find all of those, as always, in the Endy Awards Index.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Short comments or capsule reviews for them can be found over at letterboxd.

The Power and the Glory (William K. Howard) – 33, 1933
The Good Fairy (William Wyler) – 11, 1935
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz) – 2, 1938
Christmas in July (Preston Sturges) – 4, 1940
The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges) – 20, 1940

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges) – 2, 1941
Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges) – 11, 1941
The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges) – 5, 1942
Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges) – 8, 1944
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges) – 12, 1944

Unfaithfully Yours (Preston Sturges) – 5, 1948
Summer Interlude (Ingmar Bergman) – 31, 1951
X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (Roger Corman) – 24, 1963
Temple of the Red Lotus (Hsu Tsung-hung) – 27, 1965
The Story of a Discharged Prisoner (Patrick Lung-kong) – 21, 1967

A Better Tomorrow (John Woo) – 1, 1986
The Green Ray (Eric Rohmer) – 2, 1986
Middlemarch (Anthony Page) – 40, 1994
Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson) – 23, 2000
Emma (Jim O’Hanlon) – 27, 2009

Blackhat (Michael Mann) – 3, 2015
Wild City (Ringo Lam) – 12, 2015
Trainwreck (Judd Apatow) – 13, 2015
7 Days in Hell (Jake Szymanski) – 17, 2015

SIFF 2015 Index

This is an index of my coverage of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival. The reviews are all at Seattle Screen Scene, the brief comments are on letterboxd.

Reviews:

Temporary Family (Cheuk Wan-chi, 2014) – May 14, 2015
Snow on the Blades (Setsurô Wakamatsu, 2014) – May 14, 2015
Results (Andrew Bujalski, 2015) – May 18, 2015
Back to the Soil (Bill Morrison, 2014) – May 18, 2015
Beyond Zero 1914-1918 (Bill Morrison, 2014) – May 18, 2015

Natural History (James Benning, 2014) – May 18, 2015
The Coffin in the Mountain (Xin Yukun, 2014) – May 22, 2015
Haemoo (Shim Sungbo, 2014) – May 22, 2015
The Color of Pomegranates (Segei Parajanov, 1968) – May 22, 2015
A Hard Day (Kim Seonghoon, 2014) – May 22, 2015

Overheard 3 (Alan Mak & Felix Chong, 2014) – May 29, 2015
Dreams Rewired (Manu Luksch, Thomas Tode & Martin Reinhart) – May 29, 2015
The Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray, 1955-59) – May 29, 2015
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015) – May 29, 2015
Unexpected (Kris Swanberg, 2015) – May 29, 2015

A Matter of Interpretation (Lee Kwangkuk, 2014) – May 29, 2015
Dearest (Peter Chan, 2014) – May 29, 2015

Brief Comments:

When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2014) – May 05, 2015
Virtuosity (Christopher Wilkinson, 2014) – May 10, 2015
The Royal Road (Jenni Olson, 2015) – May 30, 2015
Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014) – May 31, 2015
The Teacher’s Diary (Nithiwat Tharathorn, 2014) – Jun 01, 2015

Saved from the Flames (Compilation hosted by Serge Bromberg) – Jun 02, 2015
Cave of the Spider-Women (Dan Duyu, 1927) – Jun 03, 2015
Cave of the Silken Web (Ho Meng-hua, 1967) – Jun 03, 2015
Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2014) – Jun 04, 2015
¡Que viva México! (Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov, 1932) – Jun 07, 2015

Podcast:

The George Sanders Show Episode 62: SIFF Recap

On King Arthur

This 2004 film directed by Antoine Fuqua from a screenplay by David Franzoni is not just ahistorical in a run of the mill anachronistic or “hey things didn’t happen like that” kind of way. That stuff is kind of annoying but it’s mostly harmless. All histories, filmed or otherwise, are necessarily approximations of the truth. But this is antihistorical, it falsifies history in such a way as to not only make its audience dumber about the past, but in service of a nefarious agenda regarding the present.

Arthur is situated as the leader of a small band of Roman cavalry stationed at Hadrian’s Wall in the late 5th century, at the time Rome pulled out from Britannia in the wake of Germanic and Gothic incursions throughout the Western Empire. His men, anachronistically called “knights” (knights won’t actually become a thing for another 500 years or so, after the Norman conquest; this is an example of an acceptable anachronism, especially since the Arthurian legends, composed in the age of chivalry, have already imposed knighthood on the historical story (if there was one, more about that later)) are Sarmatians, drafted into Imperial service as part of a 3rd Century surrender agreement between their people and the Empire (not historical: the Sarmatians remained a power in the Ukraine and Balkan regions through the end of the Western Empire, though there is a theory that the Arthurian legends are influenced by or even sourced in, similar Sarmatian stories (notably one about a lady with a sword in a lake), the influence purported to have come from a community of Sarmatian veterans in Lancashire). Arthur himself is not Sarmation, but is half-British and half-Roman, having been raised by the renowned Christian theologian Pelagius (though probably of British or Irish origin, Pelagius nonetheless spent most of his life far south of where Arthur would have lived, also he died some 50 years before the events of the film take place and the film is wrong about almost every aspect of his life and beliefs).

Warring factions on the island include: the Romano-British, those native Celtic Britons that had been Romanized over three centuries of occupation; the Woads, led by the mysterious Merlin, these are non-Romanized Britons at war with the Empire, the name and their appearance recalls the Picts, the Celts who lived North of the Wall in Scotland (the Scoti likely were Irish Celts who migrated from Ulster to Western Scotland, at this time though the Picts were the dominant group in the area), though these Woads seem to operate freely on both sides of the Wall rather than be separated by it from the Empire, which was of course the main purpose of the Wall; the Saxons, Germanic invaders led by Cerdic and his son Cynric who land in Scotland and march South to take over the lands of the withdrawing Romans. This is inane geographically: the Saxons invade North of the Wall, which is not only ahistorical but incredibly dumb – rather than invade the South of England, they apparently travelled all the way north by boat simply to land on the opposite side of the most impressive defensive fortification in the Western Empire. The historical Saxons of course landed on the South and South-Eastern coasts of Britain, an area then known as the “Saxon Shore”, Saxon raids on the Empire had been so frequent from the 3rd Century on that there was a whole Roman command dedicated to discouraging them, you can even still find Roman forts on the Saxon Shore today. And it’s inane historically: Cerdic was an actual person, as was his son. They were the founders of the Kingdom of the West Saxons, known as Wessex (note: West Saxons, not “guys who invaded Scotland for no reason”). Their line of descendants, cut short in the film because, as the villains, they both get killed, is the line of the British monarchy, a more or less direct descent from Cerdic to Alfred the Great to William the Conquerer, Henry VIII, and the present Elizabeth II. So not only does this film put the West Saxons in the North, it kills off the entire history of English royalty.

So what have we got here other than a tangled mess of misremembered history? If we posit that no film can be a true depiction of history, and that the task of historical fiction is to use the past as raw material for the telling of a story, one that tells us as much, if not more, about our present than it does our past, in effect broadening our myopic modern concerns with the weight and perspective of lost time (whether fanciful or factual), then what does this nonsense film accomplish? For any act of historical fiction that deviates from historical fact, there must be a reason. Usually this amounts to story expediency, minor historical details are modified to make for a more compelling narrative, as is the case in, say, The Lion in Winter, which depicts a family gathering of the Plantagenet nobility that likely never took place but that nonetheless sets an effective the stage for exploring the actual conflicts and interactions within that remarkable family. So to what end is history mangled in King Arthur? It’s hard to read it as anything other than an apologia for neo-conservatisim and a justification for the Iraq War. Released in 2004, at the height of that propagandistic time, we have the story of a powerful garrison stationed in a faraway land, banding together for no reason other than fellowship and duty, to protect one group of freedom-loving primitives from another, more aggressive band. King Arthur was written by David Franzoni, the man also responsible for the historical farce that is Gladiator, which asserts that by overthrowing the decadent and fascistic dictatorship of the cruel Roman Emperor Commodus, a group of high-minded nobles and warriors will (did) bring freedom (that word again) to the backwards peoples of the Empire, which is, of course, the opposite of what actually happened in Rome (and Iraq, so far at least). Reportedly Franzoni is at work on two different historical fictions set in China, one a Yang Kwei-fei adaptation, the other set amongst 19th century pirates. I, for one, am very afraid.

This is the opposite of the narrative the Arthurian legends, if they are in fact sourced in history (which is highly debatable), represent. Tradition holds that the historical Arthur was one of the leaders of a band of Romano-British left behind after the Empire abandoned the island. In the wake of that withdrawal, Saxon immigration (which had been on-going for a century or so) to the island intensified. This was not necessarily in an invasion: one tradition holds that as groups of Romano-British warred amongst themselves, a band of Saxons were invited over as mercenaries and took a liking to the place, setting up their own space and gradually expanding outwards. There’s even strong evidence that what happened wasn’t so much a full scale migration followed by genocide and population replacement (as is implied by Cerdic preventing a Saxon rape because of a Hitlerian vision of the purity of Saxon blood: in fact, there’s some evidence that the historical Cerdic was at least part-Celtic), but rather a cultural shift as the same Britons that had centuries earlier adopted Roman culture simply added Saxon culture to their existing identity (as these same people would later do with Viking and Norman influence – the English are nothing if not adaptable). But anyway, there were a series of battles fought as the various boundaries between Celtic (Welsh, Pict, Cornish), Romano-British and Germanic groups vied for control of the former Imperial lands throughout the 5th and 6th centuries. One of those leaders may have been Arthur (some identify him with the general Ambrosius Aurelianus, who won a decisive battle against the Saxons sometime in the fifth century that might have been at Mons Badonicus (Baden Hill), the site of the fictional Arthur’s greatest victory). Arthur isn’t mentioned in any contemporary historical accounts (of which there are very few), but from his earliest mentions is identified with the British resistance against the Saxons. The later Arthurian stories, popularized in France in the late middle ages come out of a different tradition entirely and this is the source of much of the chivalric lore surrounding the modern narrative (Guinevere and Lancelot and the grail quest, etc).

So both the film and the history have tell story of a valiant defense against a foreign invader, so far, so good. But Franzoni makes two major deviations. The first is in asserting that Arthur’s band is foreign, rather than a native resistance, as it would have been historically. There’s no other reason for this than to draw a parallel to the United States’s mission in the Middle East. A film valorizing a native defense against a foreign invasion would send the wrong message in the midst of an American invasion of a foreign nation. This is the nefarious deviation. The second deviation is the geographical nonsense. This is less evil than it is stupid, but possibly even more dangerous. Franzoni has taken a handful of historical actualities and jumbled them together in such a way as to seem plausible, but are actually false. Cerdic and Cynric were actual people, Hadrian’s Wall is an actual thing. There’s just enough fact in the story to lend the propaganda the patina of truth – an obvious fantasy is no danger because few are likely to believe it, but just as I wonder how many people think the death of Commodus brought about a resurrection of the Roman Republic, I worry how many lies about the past people who see this film will come to believe (not many probably: thankfully the movie didn’t have much of an audience and is largely forgotten today). There might be a reason to relocate the invasion North to the Wall, it being a much more dramatic location than the Kentish coastline, the decision to do so is more a matter of privileging dramatic effect over basic logic and common sense. For example, it requires the placing of a massive, defenseless Roman estate North of the Wall, the innocent occupants of which must be evacuated by our hero knights – obviously no such estate would exist: the whole point of the Wall was to keep the Romans on the South side and the Celts on the North. But there’s no story reason for Franzoni to name his villains after the founders of the English royal dynasty, why do so other than to adopt the appearance of actuality? And just what is the implication here? Could it be that not only is Franzoni working to justify the invasion of Iraq, but he’s also advocating for an American overthrow of the United Kingdom? Probably yes.

The Best Movies of the Year 2015 (So Far)

We are now halfway through the year and as has become an annual tradition here at The End, it’s time to look back at the best movies of the year so far. As I discussed in the 2013 halfway post, the consensus movie-dating system is nonsensical and posits New York as the center of the universe. Far more logical (and much easier to use) is a system reliant on imdb’s dating system, which locates a film in whatever year it first played for an audience. That’s what we use here at The End as it’s the most fair to all eras and areas. (A dating system reliant on playing in a certain locality I think can be valuable for a publication that is geographically specific, like a local newspaper or website. We’ll be putting together a Seattle-specific lists for Seattle Screen Scene later this week, for example. But here at The End, we have a global reach.)

A by-product of the system is that a number of films that first go into wide-release in any given year actually had their premiere in the year before. A number of the films on many critics’ halfway-thorough lists include these films, films that find their proper home here on my 2014 list. And so here we have two lists: the Best Movies of 2015, following the strict imdb dating system, and the Best 2014 Movies of 2015, which includes those films from last year that you might find on a more chronologically-illogical list. In new additions this year, I’m adding a third list, of 2014 films that have yet to see a New York release and therefore don’t (yet) exist by the standards of most critics. And a fourth list, a halfway version of my annual Best Older Movies list, counting the top movies I saw for the first time this year that are more than a few years old.

The Top 10 Movies of 2015 (So Far):

1. Blackhat (Michael Mann)

2. Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

4. World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt)

5. The Royal Road (Jenni Olson)

6. Results (Andrew Bujalski)

7. Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis)

8. Sleeping with Other People (Leslye Headland)

9. Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis)

10. Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks)
The Top 17 2014 Movies of 2015 (So Far):

1. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)

2. The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui Hark)

3. La Sapienza (Eugène Green)

4. Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes)

5. Heaven Knows What (Josh & Benny Safdie)

6. Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve)

7. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)

8. While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach)

9. Approaching the Elephant (Amanda Wilder)

10. When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi)

11. The Last Five Years (Richard LaGravenese)

12. Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón)

13. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)

14. The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)

15. Ned Rifle (Hal Hartley)

16. Amour fou (Jessica Hausner)

17. Kung Fu Jungle (Teddy Chan)
The Top 25 “Unreleased” Movies of 2014 (So Far):

1. The Midnight After (Fruit Chan)

2. Hill of Freedom (Hong Sangsoo)

3. Horse Money (Pedro Costa)

4. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)

5. A Matter of Interpretation (Lee Kwangkuk)

6. Journey to the West (Tsai Ming-liang)

7. Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono)

8. Hit 2 Pass (Kurt Walker)

9. White, Heat, Lights (Takashi Nakajima)

10. The Coffin in the Mountain (Xin Yukun)

11. Dearest (Peter Chan)

12. Uncertain Relationships Society (Heiward Mak)

13. Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara)

14. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan)

15. Beyond Zero 1914-1918 (Bill Morrison)

16. The Rehearsal (Carl-Antonyn Dufault)

17. Natural History (James Benning)

18. Women Who Know How to Flirt are the Luckiest (Pang Ho-cheung)

19. The Iron Ministry (JP Sniadecki)

20. A Hard Day (Kim Seonghun)

21. Transformers: the Premake (Kevin B. Lee)

22. The Teacher’s Diary (Nithiwat Tharathorn)

23. Inside Voices (Ryland Walker Knight)

24. Golden Chickensss (Matt Chow)

25. Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (Wong Ching-po)
The Best Older Movies I saw in 2015 (So Far):

1. Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)

2. Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005)

3. It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis, 2009)

4. Gimme Shelter (The Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)

5. Aparajito (Satyajit Ray, 1956)

6. Three Crowns of the Sailor (Raúl Ruiz, 1983)

7. The Terrorizers (Edward Yang, 1986)

8. The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford, 1953)

9. Pride and Prejudice (Simon Langton, 1995)

10. The East is Red (Ching Siu-tung & Raymond Lee, 1993)

11. Alexander (Oliver Stone, 2004)

12. The World of Apu (Satyajit Ray, 1959)

13. Taipei Story (Edward Yang, 1985)

14. The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)

15. A Borrowed Life (Wu Nien-jen, 1994)

16. Balloon Land (Ub Iwerks, 1935)

17. ¡Que Viva Mexico! (Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov, 1932)

18. Lady Snowblood (Toshiba Fujita, 1973)

19. Into the Woods (James Lapine, 1991)

20. The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (Adam Curtis, 2007)

21. Ali (Michael Mann, 2001)

22. Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)

23. Company (Lonny Price, 2011)

24. Twin Dragons (Tsui Hark & Ringo Lam, 1992)

25. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2009)

26. The Spring River Flows East (Cai Chusheng & Zheng Junli, 1947)

27. Himalaya Singh (Wai Ka-fai, 2005)

28. The Power of Nightmares (Adam Curtis, 2004)

29. The True Story of Wong Fei-hung: Whiplash Snuffs the Candle Flame (Wu Peng, 1949)

30. Red Line 7000 (Howard Hawks, 1965)

31. Fay Grim (Hal Hartley, 2006)

32. The Century of the Self (Adam Curtis, 2002)

33. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (Justin Lin, 2003)

34. J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011)

35. Where Danger Lives (John Farrow, 1950)

This Week in Rankings

This update includes all the rest of the movies I saw at the Seattle International Film Festival. After the festival, I essentially watched nothing for two weeks (well, I watched seven movies in fifteen days, which for me is essentially nothing), so I don’t have a whole lot else to update. The only thing I’ve written about at any length was The Fifth Element over at Seattle Screen Scene. And here is our SIFF Recap episode of The George Sanders Show. I’ve also updated my indices here at The End: the Review Index and the Essay and Podcast Index.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Links are to my letterboxd reviews, which range from single words to short comments to proper capsules.

After the Ball (Georges Méliès) – 1897
A Trip to the Moon (Geogres Méliès) – 1, 1902
Metamorphosis of a Butterfly (Gaston Velle) – 1, 1904
A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire (The Miles Brothers) – 2, 1906

Tit for Tat (Gaston Velle) – 3, 1906
San Francisco: Aftermath of the Earthquake (Billy Bitzer) – 4, 1906
Kiri-Kis (Segundo de Chomón) – 1, 1907
Le papillon fantastique (Georges Méliès) – 3, 1909
The Acrobatic Fly (F. Percy Smith) – 2, 1910

Gertie the Dinosaur (Winsor McCay) – 2, 1914
The Love Nest (Buster Keaton & Edward Cline) – 6, 1923
Cave of the Spider Women (Dan Duyu) – 15, 1927
¡Que viva México! (Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov) – 14, 1932
Balloon Land (Ub Iwerks) – 8, 1935

Cave of the Silken Web (Ho Meng-hua) – 24, 1967
The Road Warrior (George Miller) – 5, 1981
The East is Red (Ching Siu-Tung & Raymond Lee) – 17, 1993
Pride and Prejudice (Simon Langton) – 12, 1995
The Fifth Element (Luc Besson) – 20, 1997

Love in a Puff (Pang Ho-cheung) – 8, 2010
Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve) – 32, 2014
The Teacher’s Diary (Nithiwat Tharathorn) – 66, 2014
Lava (James Ford Murphy) – 86, 2014
Sleeping with Other People (Leslye Headland) – 8, 2015

Inside Out (Pete Docter) – 11, 2015
Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Peter Greenaway) – 12, 2015
The Chinese Mayor (Zhou Hao) – 14, 2015
The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle) – 17, 2015

This Week in Rankings

I’m still lost in the never-ending saga that is the Seattle International Film Festival. We’ve been covering it in detail over at Seattle Screen Scene, and as of right now I’ve seen 25 movies or so, with another week to go before the thing is finally, blessedly over. I have a couple posts here started but not finished, on Jackie Chan’s Project A movies, which are pretty good, and Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, which is a crime against history, but festival stuff has slowed the momentum on them enough that I doubt I’ll ever actually finish them. Everything else I’ve written recently has been at SSS, obviously given that the last post here was also a This Week in Rankings. In addition to all the festival coverage over there, I also have reviews of The Triplets of Belleville, Clouds of Sils Maria, Kung Fu Jungle, and Tales of Hoffman.

Recent episodes of The George Sanders Show include discussions of Linda Linda Linda and The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, Clouds of Sils Maria and Centre Stage, Jauja and Three Crowns of the Sailor, and Days of Thunder and Redline 7000. It’s been a really long time since I’ve done an actual episode of They Shot Pictures, hopefully I’ll be able to put something together this summer, after this festival is over and before the Vancouver Film Festival rolls around in September.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last several weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (Don Weis) – 15, 1953
Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray) – 3, 1955
Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray) – 6, 1955
Aparajito (Satyajit Ray) – 8, 1956
The World of Apu (Satyajit Ray) – 8, 1959

The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov) – 10, 1968
Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin) – 1, 1970
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller) – 23, 1985
Centre Stage (Stanley Kwan) – 5, 1991
Ballistic Kiss (Donnie Yen) – 63, 1998

The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet) – 11, 2003
Camp (Todd Graff) – 29, 2003
King Arthur (Antoine Fuqua) – 68, 2004
Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita) – 2, 2005
Himalaya Singh (Wai Ka-fai) – 15, 2005

Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke) – 73, 2008
Overheard (Alan Mak & Felix Chong) – 50, 2009
Let the Bullets Fly (Jiang Wen) – 6, 2010
Romance Joe (Lee Kwangkuk) – 8, 2011
Overheard 2 (Alan Mak & Felix Chong) – 65, 2011

Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore) – 17, 2012
Crossfire Hurricane (Brett Morgen) – 63, 2012
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow & Derek Kwok) – 10, 2013
Phoenix (Christian Petzold) – 8, 2014
A Matter of Interpretation (Lee Kwangkuk) – 11, 2014

The Coffin in the Mountain (Xin Yukun) – 25, 2014
Noah (Darren Aronofsky) – 27, 2014
Dearest (Peter Chan) – 32, 2014
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) – 36, 2014
Beyond Zero 1914-1918 (Bill Morrison) – 38, 2014

While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach) – 39, 2014
When Marnie was There – (Hiromasa Yonebayashi) – 43, 2014
Temporary Family (Cheuk Wan-chi) – 50, 2014
Natural History (James Benning) – 58, 2014
A Hard Day (Kim Seonghoon) – 61, 2014

Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner) – 67, 2014
Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore) – 72, 2014
Kung Fu Jungle (Teddy Chan) – 74, 2014
Back to the Soil (Bill Morrison) – 75, 2014
Virtuosity (Christopher Wilkinson) – 83, 2014

Snow on the Blades (Setsurô Wakamatsu) – 86, 2014
Haemoo (Shim Sungbo) – 88, 2014
Overheard 3 (Alan Mak & Felix Chong) – 93, 2014
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach) – 2, 2015
Mad Max Fury Road (George Miller) – 3, 2015
World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt) – 4, 2015

The Royal Road (Jenni Olson) – 5, 2015
Results (Andrew Bujalski) – 6, 2015
Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks) – 9, 2015
Unexpected (Kris Swanberg) – 12, 2015
Dreams Rewired (Manu Luksch, Thomas Tode & Martin Reinhart) – 13, 2015
Chatty Catties (Pablo Valencia) – 14, 2015

This Week in Rankings

The past several weeks saw the Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective come and go in Seattle, and I covered it in detail over at Seattle Screen Scene (I also was lucky enough to be invited to introduce a handful of shows as well, which was fun). Over there I wrote lengthy reviews of The Boys from Fengkuei, The Time to Live, The Time to Die, Dust in the Wind, Flowers from Shanghai, Millennium Mambo and Café Lumière. I also covered the Seattle releases of Abel Ferrera’s Welcome to New York, Hal Hartley’s Ned Rifle and Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja.

I also submitted an annotated list of Underrated 1985 Films to Rupert Pupkin Speaks. And I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet, but I also have a thing on my favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 over there too.

Over here at the end, I wrote about Chang Cheh’s Masked Avengers, part of my Running Out of Karma series, the index for which is fully updated. I’m closing in on 200 Chinese language films seen as part of the series, which is surely some kind of a milestone. Especially since I still pretty much hate the series’s title. My other indices are up-to-date as well: the Review Index as well as the Index of Essays and Podcasts.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

Red Line 7000 (Howard Hawks) – 11, 1965
The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin) – 19, 1970
Cute Girl (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 27, 1980
Masked Avengers (Chang Cheh) – 28, 1981
Three Crowns of the Sailor (Raoul Ruiz) – 8, 1983

The Boys from Fengkuei (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 9, 1983
The Time to Live, The Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 2, 1985
Taipei Story (Edward Yang) – 7, 1985
Yes, Madam (Corey Yuen) – 9, 1985
The Terrorizers (Edward Yang) – 6, 1986

Dust in the Wind (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 11, 1986
Project A 2 (Jackie Chan) – 18, 1987
Days of Thunder (Tony Scott) – 40, 1990
Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata) – 2, 1991
Twin Dragons (Tsui Hark & Ringo Lam) – 24, 1992

A Borrowed Life (Wu Nien-jen) – 11, 1994
Henry Fool (Hal Hartley) – 12, 1997
Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 6, 1998
Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 1, 2001
Fay Grim (Hal Hartley) – 19, 2006

It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis) – 2, 2009
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Adam Curtis) – 23, 2011
Save the Date (Michael Mohan) – 82, 2012
Jauja (Lisandro Alonso) – 4, 2014
Approaching the Elephant (Amanda Wilder) – 31, 2014

Ned Rifle (Hal Hartley) – 53, 2014
World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeld) – 2, 2015
Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis) – 4, 2015
Furious 7 (James Wan) – 5, 2015

Running Out of Karma: Chang Cheh’s Masked Avengers

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.

Masked Avengers was released in 1981, the latest in a series of films directed by Chang Cheh and starring a new group of actors and stunt performers generally known as the Venom Mob, after the 1978 film in which they were first gathered, The Five Deadly Venoms. The plot revolves around a martial arts group’s search for the leaders of a criminal gang of assassins. The bad guys wear masks, conduct elaborate sacrifices of their victims (including blood-drinking) and are surprisingly hard to find considering they’re the only other characters in the film. Except for one guy, a waiter who knows more than he lets on, who turns out to be a hero, which is also pretty obvious because he’s played by Philip Kwok, the most-recognizable of the Venoms (you know him as the badass killer from Hard-Boiled and also Johnnie To and Tsui Hark’s The Big Heat). Like the rest of Chang’s films from this period, the plots and characters are rote and mechanical, the fight scenes interminable and the sense of moral, cultural and philosophical decay overwhelming. They are bloody, bleak and crushing films, movies in which the heroes who in earlier years stuck defiantly to codes of honor and brotherhood are finally lost into their nihilistic world of violence and destruction.

Chang Cheh’s breakthrough films in the late 60s and early 70s are driven by the star charisma of David Chiang, Ti Lung and Jimmy Wang Yu and romantic notions of brotherhood, codes and bloody self-sacrifice (The One-Armed Swordsman, Golden Swallow, The DuelVengeance!, The Heroic Ones). His mid-70s films reflect a haphazard attempt to chart a history of kung fu (driven in some part by his collaboration with Lau Kar-leung), locating that code ideal in a centuries-old tradition, as well as an influx of new stars like Alexander Fu Sheng and Chen Kuan-ti (Shaolin Temple, Boxer Rebellion, Five Shaolin Masters, Heroes Two). His late 70s and 80s films ditch the romanticism of brotherhood and movie stardom in favor of a collective of highly skilled stunt performers, almost all of whom either lack star power or aren’t given a chance to express it in the confines of the claustrophobic gothic-detective narratives in which they find themselves. The films (In addition to Masked Avengers, I’ve seen The Five Deadly Venoms, Crippled Avengers, Ten Tigers from Kwangtung and Five-Element Ninjas) almost all exist outside of history or even the ephemeral political context of so many other kung fu films (Ten Tigers being the notable exception, as it is located on the Shaolin Temple-Wong Fei-hung timeline, about which I wrote a long piece last year that may be published someday) choosing instead to play out as either generic revenge tales or wholly unremarkable mystery plots.

This has the effect of making the films seem even more nihilistic than Chang’s earlier paeans to bloody revenge. At least when David Chiang is sacrificing himself, he’s doing it for something. Even Wang Yu’s white-clad super-swordsman in Golden Swallow, alienated from the world by his bloody obsessions, at least has his moment of heroic glory, knowing he’s the greatest warrior of them all. The early Chang heroes die standing up, but in the late films, there’s no such glory to be found, only exhaustion. Driven by the percussive rhythms of their (over-)long fight sequences, which, without the drive to authenticity of Lau or the comic ingenuity of the New Wave of choreographers popping up at Golden Harvest and various independent production houses (Sammo Hung, Corey Yuen, Ching Siu-tung, Yuen Woo-ping) become exercises in brutality. The films become less action-entertainment than Sisyphean horror shows, the human body distorted beyond reality, mutilated and scarred by motiveless betrayals and the devious machinery of violence. The five venoms and ninjas are inhuman collectives, the avengers are crippled and demon-masked. The infernal dungeons and torture devices of Masked Avengers belong more to the world of Roger Corman’s Poe films than the bright studio sets of the Shaw Brothers (contrast Chang’s spare but for devilish implements of murder backgrounds to the stately Sternbergian clutter of Chor Yuen’s wuxia films of the same period (Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, Heroes Shed No Tears, and The Sentimental Swordsman), the ornateness of his mise-en-scene matched only by the wild curlicues of his and Gu Long’s dizzyingly complicated plots, narratives which pack more ingenious twists into any given ten minutes than the entirety of Chang’s bland mysteries). The Masked gang utilizes statues of the Buddha in its elaborate torture systems, imprisoning their victims within statues or crucifying them upon them, but they don’t propagate an alternate religion: their base is an abandoned temple, their world has no monks, no ideology, they kill people for money and that is all there is.

The kung fu film in the early 80s, like most generic cycles in their late stages, was falling apart as it dissolved in a multitude of directions. In a weird way, Chang, the oldest of the great kung fu directors, most captured the generational rage and nihilistic drive to (self-)destruction at the heart of New Wave classics like The Happening or Dangerous Encounters – First Kind. Masked Avengers embodies a bleakness that Sammo Hung can only hint at, that Tsui Hark ventured into only rarely before receding into the comic antics of Cinema City, that Lau Kar-leung took a breath-taking stab at in The Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter before walking away. In the 15 years between 1967’s The One-Armed Swordsman and 1982’s The Five-Element Ninjas, Chang Cheh directed somewhere in the neighborhood of seventy films. I’d hesitate to say these late films represent a kind of personal exhaustion, but my God, who wouldn’t be tired after all that?

This Week in Rankings

The 2014 Oscars came and went since my last update, and I wrote a few things in relation to them: my predictions (turned out pretty well, though I missed on the biggest awards of the night), the 2014 (and 1998) Endy Awards, and a long Oscars-inspired editorial, the kind of thing I don’t write very often. I also continued my look at 21st Century history films with reviews of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Robin Hood.

Most of my writing has been over at Seattle Screen Scene, where I covered Valentine’s Day, Lady Snowblood, A Fuller Life, the Fists and Fury Series, Casablanca, Chimes at Midnight, Maps to the Stars, 12 Golden DucksBallet 422, Wild Tales, and Another Hitchcock Series.

Coming up over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be introducing a number of screenings at Seattle’s version of the big Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective that’s been traveling the world in recent months. I’ll be at Boys from Fengkuei at Scarecrow Video and then all five of the shows at the Northwest Film Forum (Dust in the Wind, Flowers of Shanghai, A Time to Live A Time to Die, Millennium Mambo and Good Men Good Women). I haven’t watched or written much about Hou at all over the past few years, so I’ve been studying up lately. A few years ago, we did a They Shot Pictures episode on Hou (you can listen here), and around that time I wrote about Café Lumière and Good Men, Good Women, and collected some images from Flight of the Red Balloon.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Short reviews or comments for most of them can be found on my letterboxd page.

Where Danger Lives (John Farrow) – 23, 1950
Doctor Zhivago (David Lean) – 23, 1965
Darling (John Schlesinger) – 27, 1965
Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita) – 15, 1973
Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards) – 14, 1975

Christine (John Carpenter) – 9, 1983
Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann) – 1, 1992
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (John Carpenter) – 41, 1992
HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien (Olivier Assayas) – 23, 1999
The Insider (Michael Mann) – 31, 1999

Gladiator (Ridley Scott) – 40, 2000
Ali (Michael Mann) – 11, 2001
The Power of Nightmares (Adam Curtis) – 10, 2004
Collateral (Michael Mann) – 13, 2004
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 2, 2005

Cigarette Burns (John Carpenter) – 26, 2005
The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (Adam Curtis) – 8, 2007
Public Enemies (Michael Mann) – 10, 2009
Robin Hood (Ridley Scott) – 39, 2010
J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood) – 34, 2011

A Fuller Life (Samantha Fuller) – 28, 2013
The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann) – 55, 2013
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 (Johnnie To) – 5, 2014
Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono) – 20, 2014
The Last Five Years (Richard LaGravenese) – 36, 2014

Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón) – 37, 2014
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg) – 45, 2014
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland) – 47, 2014
The Iron Ministry (JP Sniadecki) – 49, 2014
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy) – 52, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu) – 58, 2014
Black Comedy (Wilson Chin) – 75, 2014
The Theory of Everything (James Marsh) – 76, 2014
Smog Journeys (Jia Zhangke) – 3, 2015

On Ridley Scott’s Gladiator

I’ve been building up to a rewatch of this one for awhile now, taking in a series of historical epics in anticipation of a second look at one of my least favorite Best Picture winners of the century so far. I do think there’s much to be made about the 2000 Best Picture race: here was a chance for The Academy to move in a new and progressive direction, honoring truly innovative and important work from outside America (though directed and written by Hollywood veterans and co-funded with American cash). It could have set the tone for a more globally open and innovative 21st century, not just for awards, but for US film distribution and viewing patterns. But instead the Academy opted for Ridley Scott’s CGI-fueled historical epic over Ang Lee’s CGI-fueled historical epic. And once the Weinsteins put a stranglehold on everything they could from Hong Kong, the chances of American audiences getting wide exposure to the most exciting and interesting cinema in the world quickly diminished. But this is a long digression, this is supposed to be about Gladiator itself.
The action, at least, is better than I remembered, it’s really only the opening battle that degenerates into an incoherent blur, the gladiator fights are instead simply middling examples of Hollywood obfuscation-as-excitement (the opening battle is also topped by a similar one in Oliver Stone’s Alexander which as well hinges on a daring cavalry maneuver, but manages to both ratchet up the excitement and violence while at the same time remaining historically accurate), although I quite liked the one with the tigers.
As history it’s abominable in just about every particular. It’s not so much that it is historically inaccurate, or even that it just doesn’t give a fuck about history, it’s that it is actively anti-historical, manipulating the facts of the past in service of the narrative it wants to tell, which is a story about two versions of manhood: one virile and stoic; one impotent and emotional. Commodus is transformed into a simpering weakling, a coward and an incestuous pervert. His villainy is sourced in his weakness. Opposite to him in every way is Maximus, the very ideal of honor, loyalty, fidelity, fatherhood and filial piety. Maximus is the guy Chris Kyle thought he was, and this is a Bush-era film to its core: it imagines a world in which peace and freedom can be instilled through violence, war and the sacrifices of noble men. That Marcus Aurelius never did much in the way of seeking eternal peace, his wars against the Marcomanni and Quadi, on-going at his death, was only concluded when Commodus decided he simply wasn’t interested in continuing the fight, is an inconvenient fact of history to be ignored, as is the indisputable fact that Marcus very much wanted Commodus to succeed him (and in fact Commodus had been in place as his Caesar for 14 years prior to Marcus’s death – co-Emperors were a fairly common practice in Rome, the senior being titled “Augustus” the junior “Caesar”). The idea that Marcus couldn’t possibly have made such a terrible decision is an enduring one, however, and it’d be hard to blame Scott for propagating the legend.
Indeed, Anthony Mann utilizes much the same premise in his Fall of the Roman Empire, though that film at least accepts the political realities of late Second Century Rome. There’s no question of the Senate, or the Roman populace (repeatedly identified as “the mob”) having any real power at all, which they hadn’t for at least a century, if not longer. The reason for this can only be contemporary: it’s the neoconservative vision of using force to establish freedom, transplanted to the Roman Empire. Marcus appoints Maximus as the Emperor needed to maintain order while the government transitions from autocracy to democracy, the military dictatorship preceding the withering away of the state. Then the film has the audacity to suggest that Marcus and Maximus’s “dream of Rome” a dream of freedom guaranteed by the Roman Senate (never mind that the Senate was never anything like what we’d recognize as democratic or even populist, rather a hereditary oligarchy built on a slave economy), actually will come true. When, in fact, after Commodus’s assassination (strangled in his bath by his wrestling partner: Commodus was in fact an energetic lover of games, often partaking in rigged gladiatorial combats, something which engendered popular dislike of him by the deeply class-conscious masses), the Senate quickly put the role of Emperor up for sale to the highest bidder (something Mann’s film does well to dramatize). The year following Commodus’s death is called the Year of the Five Emperors, you can guess from that how it went down. The ultimate victor in that civil war, Septimus Severus, established a tradition of military dictatorship, infighting and political assassination that came to be the norm for the next century (it’s collectively known as “The Crisis of the Third Century”), until Diocletion and then Constantine radically remade the Empire in the late 200s and early 300s. At no point did the Roman Empire ever become more democratic that it was when Commodus was alive: that’s why Gibbon started his book with his reign.
It’s interesting then to rewatch this now, 15 years after its release and after just having seen Scott’s Robin Hood, which similarly twists historical fact in the service of a political narrative, albeit one as informed by the Bush years as Gladiator is in anticipation of them. Crowe’s Robin is a mythical figure, a mask adopted by a foot soldier (well, archer, technically), one that, as Maximus does, embodies certain masculine ideals. But the implication is that all of these roles are merely poses, that the actual man is nothing more than a construct, an ephemerality. Just so is that film’s dream of freedom – it’s one that pointedly is not accomplished by film’s end, and indeed it’s strongly implied that it cannot ever be – rather the aim of the true hero is the struggle toward universal political freedom, not the justification of certain means of achieving it. The utopia Robin and Marion create can exist only in the magic of Sherwood Forest, and then not by force, but only by withdrawing from the world into a small-scale community, disconnected from the strife of the larger world.
Even still, given all that, I probably would have given it a positive rating if only Oliver Reed had thrown his hat and charged into combat at the end.