Monday, December 28, 2009

Fave Film Books

One of the questions I get asked most often is what books I would recommend to people really interested in making films?  I didn't go to film school so aside from watching movies and making some of my own, some of my best education has come from reading.  Here is a list of some of the books that have been most useful to me:

1.  Anything in the Conversations with Filmmakers Series


I'm particularly fond of the Coen Brothers, De Palma, Jarmusch, and Woody Allen books in the series.

2.  From Reel to Deal:  Everything You Need to Create a Successful Independent Film by Dov S-S Simens


3.  My First Movie:  Twenty Celebrated Directors Talk about Their First Film


4.  I Wake up Screening:  What to Do Once You've Made That Movie by John Anderson and Laura Kim


5.  Directing Actors:  Creating Memorable Performances for Film & Television by Judith Weston


6.  Godard On Godard


7.  The Films in My Life by Francois Truffaut


8.  Everything by Pauline Kael


*I'm also anxiously awaiting Jon Reiss' Think Outside the Box Office:  The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution and Marketing for the Digital Era


What are your favorite film books?

Coppola, Zoetrope, and The Black Stallion

I'm sure there are many of us.  But I'm definitely one of those that wishes Francis Ford Coppola made more movies and (maybe even more important) that his dreams for his Zoetrope Studios were still very much alive and well.  He desperately wanted to bottle that potent seventies concoction -- personal filmmmaking with Hollywood-size budgets.  But instead, after a few budget overruns and box office disappointments, One from the Heart being the worst, his dreams fizzled out pretty quickly.

Yet, at least we're still left with a few signs of what Coppola might have produced if someone had reigned him in a bit more.  And one of the best examples of this, I think, is The Black Stallion.  I saw the film as a kid and could clearly remember sections here and there.  But this is the first time I've watched it again in twenty-five years, owing the re-visit to David Thomson and his excellent book "Have You Seen...?"

The Black Stallion is everything you probably remember -- a feel-good fable with a beautiful horse and a kid you wish you could be.  But there are also some things you might not remember.  It sports some very brave cinematography by Caleb Deschanel.  He's not afraid to go deep into the blacks (for instance, the scene when they show off the horse hoping to land a spot in the big race).  And, as a result, Deschanel pulls off this unusually hazy, magic quality that I would imagine is exactly what he was hoping to achieve.  Also backing Stallion is one of the greatest sound technicians in the history of the medium, Alan Splet.  Splet was David Lynch's regular collaborator before passing away in the early nineties.  All you have to do is listen to the symphony of sounds he creates in the final race to get a sense of Splet's special talent. 

I even felt a part of Coppola here.  He's produced many films throughout his career.  But this is the first one where I could really feel his directorial hand, too (in a good way).  I'm not even sure what it is exactly.  But in the final race, once the flashbacks kick in, I entered that Apocalypse Now trance-like state that Coppola pulls off so well in his own 1979 film.

Zoetrope might not have lasted.  But I have to give it to Coppola.  He bet it all more than once in his career.  And our 114 year-old medium is so much better because of it. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Most Memorable in 2009

I've gotten to play catch up in the last couple of months.  And I've pretty much now caught up with everything I really wanted to see from 2008 and 2009.  The one major film I haven't been able to see yet is The Hurt Locker, but I'll check that out the second week of January when it becomes available through Netflix.  All that said, here are the eight most memorable moments I had with movies this year (some just came out, some have been around much longer than I have):

1.  Tulpan (2008) – The most daring movie I saw this year, and the one that most impressed me with its humanity and approach. 
2.  Alien (1979) – Scott pulls off a Jaws; a complex and thoroughly entertaining genre film with characters we actually care about.
3.  Eastern Promises (2007) – Hopefully the start of more Cronenberg crime films.  Is Viggo the greatest actor of his generation?  And is Cronenberg doing even more with crime right now than Michael Mann, David Lynch, and Abel Ferrara?
4.  Broadway Danny Rose (1984) – My first time seeing this Woody Allen film.  I’d forgotten how formally solid and brave he could be while still being as funny as anyone (helium scene!)  Also this is the most impressed I’ve ever been with Mia Farrow’s acting.
5.  Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) – Rohmeresque.  In other words, simple, modern, playful, and real.  And my favorite so far from Hong Sang-soo. 
6.  Chris & Don:  A Love Story (2007) – Two amazing lives; a great story of loyalty, love, and a unique time in American arts. 
7.  Joy Division (2007) – Barney Sumner’s excellent interviews really bring to life the band and their journey.
8.  The Champ (1931) - Campy and dated, maybe, but also human and very moving.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Curious Case of Woody Allen

Maybe he already gets enough credit for this, and I'm just not thinking all the way through on this one.  But when I think of Woody Allen, I think of the funny-looking guy who makes funny movies.   What I don't immediately think of is Woody Allen as one of the most innovative and experimental directors working in American cinema.  For some reason, I forget about all the unconventional techniques in Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo.  And Robin Williams being literally "out of focus" in Deconstructing Harry.  And what American director has made more movies in black-and-white in the last thirty-five years?

Just got around to watching Broadway Danny Rose for the first time. How have I  missed this one for all these years?  I loved it.  And I guess the consolation here is that occasionally I'll still discover an older film that excites, inspires, and reminds me of why I give so much of my time and energy to movies.   BDR is another black-and-white Woody, with an incredibly well-realized, typically Woody Allen densely structured script.  It also boasts my favorite Mia Farrow performance so far, and of course at least one excellent scene of experimentation.  You have to see it.  But we'll just call it the "helium scene".

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Favorites of the Decade

Everyone seems to be compiling these best of the decade lists right now. And I must admit, at first, I was a little reluctant.  Tastes change so much in ten years.  And it's difficult for me to gauge whether or not a response I had in 2001 would still be the same today.

But I like the idea of filters, and have seen my fair share of movies this decade, so I thought I would jump in the game:

1.  All the Real Girls (2003)
My favorite David Gordon Green film.  I still marvel at his naturalism and fully formed style here.

2.  Mulholland Dr (2001)
One of my very favorite films from one of my very favorite directors.  I couldn't explain the plot to you better than anyone else, but I love the labyrintine and alternate world that Lynch lets us play in here.

3.  Funny Ha Ha (2002)
I love Bujalski's ability to be smart, sweet, human, and restrained all at once.  His approach has an ease and grace that I really admire.

4.  Regular Lovers (2005)
A difficult film, probably.  But it's like McCabe & Mrs. Miller or The Mother and the Whore, films that create their own rules for time and space and ones that I never really want to leave.

5.  What Time Is It There? (2001)
When it comes to using color and composition, I'm not sure I like anyone as much as the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang.  Of all of his films I've seen so far, this one seems the most accessible.

6.  Yi Yi (2000)
Epic but also personal.  Feels like the work of a wise and honest director, capturing many of life's truths.

7.  4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)
That great blend of character and plot that I'm always after in my own work.  Direction at a remarkably high level.

8.  Tulpan (2008)
Another challenging film that's probably not for everyone.  But brings fiction to life in a way that completely awed and inspired me.

9.  Under the Sand (2000)
For me, just a very compelling story well-told.  Not flashy; "the invisible director" in the way that I sometimes really like it.

10.  Milk (2008)
Van Sant back in Hollywood.  Proof that the great stylists can still make films with a lot of heart and appeal.

Note:  Not in preferential order.

Favorites of the Year coming soon.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ben Lovett and Good News

Just in:

Ben Lovett's Score for The Last Lullaby was selected as one of the best of the decade over at the superb blog Moon in the Gutter (  We're in with some of my absolute favorites:  Badalamenti, John Cale, The Tindersticks, and it feels great.

Thanks, Jeremy.  And Moon in the Gutter.  We're very honored!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Eastern Promises

I admit; I'm way late on this one.  But, truth be told, I've barely been able to see anything the last two years.  So now I'm playing catch up.

Cronenberg's duo of crime films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, arrive somewhat unexpected in the director's canon.  But, once I saw them, the choice made perfect sense, and made me wish he'd been working with this sort of material more often during his fantastic career.  I think the two films are like Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures and Closer or The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head.  In other words, two works that chronologically follow each other, almost forcing you to choose which one you like better?  I'm on the unpopular side of all of these, I think, in that I prefer Closer, Check Your Head, and now Eastern Promises.

Eastern Promises has its flaws, but Viggo is working at such a tremendous level (think his moments in Carlito's Way).  And it's awesome to see Vincent Cassel show the same rawness and talent that he's been displaying for years in France (I'd recommend revisiting Kassovitz's La Haine if it's been awhile).  Now, if we could just find a great English-speaking role for Virginie Ledoyen.

I always felt they let the air out of A History of Violence once they let us in on Viggo's real identity.  Whereas the intensity here never really lets up.  Way to go Steven Knight.  I was a big fan of Dirty Pretty Things, and you've done it again.

Elegant, raw, dangerous, and rigorous, Promises will definitely find a spot in my Top Ten at year's end.