Categories
Films

Recent Best Films

BEST OF 2019
Finally, a return to actual adult films. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is probably the best film this year. Another film for mature, thinking and feeling adults (with a creative use of models and some CGI): A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Richard Jewel is a moving story of a contemporary tragedy forged by irresponsible media and misguided officials — one of the best films of the year and surely nominated for several Academy Awards.

BEST OF 2018
A good film with a great deal of CGI, but also good themes and thought: Black Panther.

BEST OF 2015-2017
Hollywood and popular culture is in a rut: recycling Marvel heroes reflects in an ever diminishing pool of stories that will be found inoffensive to mass audiences. One is hard-pressed to find recent films of significance. However, there were some films of note: Mad Max, Inside Out, The Martian, and Irrational Man and Concussion were among the best films of 2015.

An example of Hollywood’s self-absorption and indifference to actual performance art is awarding DiCaprio an Oscar for acting his role in The Revenant. In terms of acting craft, Will Smith in Concussion was far superior.

Another example: Other than trying to resurrect the artistic and intellectual achievement of Blade Runner, one wonders what is the justification for spending time and energy to produce the overwrought, lugubrious Blade Runner 2049? At two hours and forty-four minutes running time, perhaps half of that with actual dialogue, it is a small wonder that the film has not fared well at the box office. Excellent critic A. O. Scott from the New York Times says: “Daring in its own right, this broodingly sumptuous saga explores the primacy of feelings, the nature of memories and the essence of being human.” Perhaps…but one can hardly say this is the most moving or insightful treatment of such themes.

As we progress through this recent period of stagnation a significant question remains: When, if ever, will audiences tire of CGI-dependent storylines? Are we entering an age of “alternate realities only”? If so, why?

BEST OF 2014
Academy Award Nominations for Best Picture (2014) and any appropriate comments:
Whiplash
American Sniper (Unlikely. Not best film, but Best Actor probable.)
Birdman
The Grand Budapest Hotel (No way!)
The Imitation Game (Way! See prediction about Cumberbatch below.)
Selma (Way! Hollywood’s prejudice for political causes rather than the greatness of the film may put this at the top.)
The Theory of Everything
Boyhood

Truth and Fact in 2014: With 50% of Best Picture Nominations as historical dramas, 2014 is the year of “true” stories brought to the screen. The notion of “true” presents a dilemma for postmodernist approaches to narrative — a problem that cannot be detailed here. Suffice it to say that anyone wishing to go to contemporary films to be educated on the “facts” of history will be disappointed and misdirected. Moreover, viewers will sometimes have to suffer through pointless and diminishing politically correct “codas” (e.g., captions and/or inappropriate music) attached to the ends of these films. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the study of popular culture, there are important films to see this year.

Most disappointing film of 2014: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. No need to see this film except to experience that audiences will pay to see something essentially empty when expectations are high and the “brand” is “good.”

Funniest 5 Minutes in 2014: First 5 minutes of Penguins of Madagascar.

American Sniper (2014). For any film “based on true events,” one needs a scorecard upon entering the theater these days. Perhaps a full vetting of all “factual” information presented in the film would do the trick. Fortunately, this film was vetted by the family. At least in terms of capturing the personality and many of the major events in the career of this soldier, principal members of the family (including the hero’s wife) have publicly stated that the film is accurate. This is reason enough to see the film. Necessary viewing for 2014.

Selma (2014). Probably the best film of 2014. While pure fiction dramatically expresses general truths about the human condition, reconstituted historical dramas express a portion of these truths as we would have liked them to be. This film is no exception to this general rule. Fortunately, these two elements of popular film (general and historical truth) meet in one of the most powerful narrative segments in any recent film: the death Jamie Lee Jackson. One scene in this segment, the meeting between King and Jamie Lee Jackson’s father at the city morgue, is among the finest moments of intimate film making in recent years. The film should be seen for this scene alone. Many other scenes in the film are much inferior, including odd and distracting camera angles. Auteurs and DP’s will study these other scenes for lessons about what not to do with a camera. Another extraordinary aspect of the film is that it demonstrates how much the borderline for inclusion of sexual truth in films has moved since the ’60s. Under no circumstances would the information about King’s extramarital encounters have been included in a film meant to honor his legacy in any film of the prior to the 1990s (Clinton changed all that). Best use of a Biblical reference in 2014: Selma jail scene, Matthew 6:25.

The Imitation Game. The smartest film of 2014. This film will get Benedict Cumberbatch an Academy Award nomination, although Alex Lawther (Young Alan Turing) may well be the best actor on the screen and does the best job since DiCaprio’s 1993 performance of portraying a young man with emotional/intellectual problems. You should know what is basically real and what is not real before going, since you can’t trust Hollywood when it releases films “based” on true events. The girlfriend is basically real and he (Turing) was really engaged to her (Joan Clarke). But leave it at that. Don’t investigate too much before going to see it, or you will spoil the story! Overall, a great lesson in utilitarianism, which the Brits also invented in addition to modern computer architecture. Best line: “You are not God, Alan. You don’t get to decide who lives and who dies.” See the film for Turing’s response.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). God, as a petulant 12-year old, meets delusional man with an attitude. It’s true that in the Old Testament Moses actually argues with God and questions His decisions, but this film takes that idea to a whole new level. Best moment: Death of Pharaoh’s son, enhanced by the sudden silence of the overbearing score. Production values: Filmed through a glass darkly, the entire film has the aura of cheap, backyard production filmed on old film stock. Optional viewing, but good for a thesis of how thought and theology are being marketed today.

Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (2014). A continuation of the best film of 2013, this film also is “one of the few films to self-consciously examine media politics and the construction of character and emotion through action” (see 2013 comments below). The film follows the book faithfully, as the plot takes a new direction in following the heroine’s moral and intellectual development. The problem now is not just to sort out emotional ties but to learn how to engage in psycho-political warfare through media. Much more subtle and deep than the other “teenage angst films of 2014” (listed below) this film addresses the real situation now faced by millennials — especially in the Arab world — who understand what love and freedom should mean, but who are unable to find any viable political routes to it. The credits are followed by a beautifully animated logo that reasserts the reality of the film’s message to totalitarian regimes.

Interstellar (2014). Possible subtitles: “Gruber goes Galactic” or “Timeless Echoes of Hume and Plato.” Hume states: “In general, it may be affirmed, that there is no such passion in human minds, as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities, of services, or of relation to ourself” (Treatise, II, 1). In other words, various forms of self-interest motivate our actions; presuming that any abstractions such as “love of mankind” will motivate people is folly. Plato implies it is necessary for rulers to issue “noble lies” to the general public in circumstances where the truth would be too much for the public to bear. In other words, “Gruber” is a necessary political being. Interstellar deals with both of these ideas about our motives and political truths, as well with many more precise questions: (1)Are human beings multi-dimensional beings who can travel in time as well as space; (2) Are feelings of love, rather than the testimony of the senses or the machinations of reason, a signature of deep knowledge about the nature of reality? Interstellar will surely rank as the most philosophically rich film of 2014, although certainly not the best. Much of the plot and dialogue are more forced than it needs to be, so be prepared for much willing suspension of disbelief. Also be prepared for the mumbled dialogue of Matthew McConaughey, who makes the main character sound like he is only talking to himself most of the time. Great Sci-Fi, such as 2001, Blade Runner, Terminator, GATTACA, or Avatar it’s not, but still a must for 2014.

Fury (2014). A general principle of films is that those set in a “historical” context tell us more about our contemporary consciousness of social/political/moral situations than they do about the actualities of the historical setting in which the action takes place. Fury is no exception to this principle. How should we react to the open brutality of totalitarians who terrorize their own people? Best line: “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”

Teenage Angst films of 2014 These are all must-sees for those following the zeitgeist:
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
The Maze Runner
Divergent

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Perfect for the study of cultural themes as reflected in film. Most prominent among the themes — and most importantly in terms of a global audience that includes emerging nations where women continue to be second-class citizens — is the autonomy and life choices of women. It is not unusual to find concise arguments written into great scripts, but this film contains a particularly potent 3-phase formula for expressing a stance for contemporary women: (1) there is such a thing as overprotection of women; (2) women have their own autonomy that must be given both respect and concrete opportunities; and (3) where there is risk (even to life), women themselves should be given the choice to assess and accept that risk. Also included (as so often in recent popular films) is the theme of psychic damage done to young men by absent fathers. Still another aspect of modern life explored in this film: how lack of recognition and the alienation experienced by workers in large corporations can lead to self-destruction and violence. Best Scene/Best Acting: Aunt May (Sally Field) explains to Peter/Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) why he is her son. Best twist/plot element: sorry, to reveal that would be a huge spoiler! Suffice it to say that apart from the technical/intellectual components of the script noted above, this edition of Spider-Man is thoroughly enjoyable and works on many emotional levels. Recommended.

Noah (2014). Biblical Noah meets Alternate Sci-Fi Universe meets Nietzsche. Contrary to popular belief, the Biblical story of Noah would not make a good film script. For a Hollywood-quality script, one needs a villain, a series of escalating crises, moral dilemmas, a confrontation with evil as personified in the villain, and a resolution showing the success of the hero. Noah has all of these elements, so it is a good film for study as well as for enjoyment. It fulfills the promise of radio ads promoting the film, which describe it as having taken artistic liberties with the Biblical story but in ways that are consistent with Biblical themes and values. Although some critics, and even the director of the film (Daren Aronofsky) have claimed the film identifies Noah as an environmentalist vegetarian, this is certainly not the moral focus of the film. As Plato observed, nothing prevents artistic creators from not understanding their own works at a philosophical level. We should be loath to accept the poet’s interpretation of his own work.

The story apparently does not take place on Earth, at least not at any time within the last 100 million years or so (the daytime sky and the depiction of the global landmass does not correspond to our world) and the story adds a deus ex machina device in the form of sci-fi creatures called “Watchers,” although these may be thought to correspond (very loosely!) to the “giants in the earth” referenced to in Genesis. The moral dilemma is one that Nietzsche knew well: our free will is both a blessing and a curse; it demands that we take full responsibility for our acts and ultimately accept the idea that our will can be coincident with God’s, if not in every respect, at least in the vital respects that correspond with the promise of human flourishing symbolized by the rainbow (the last image of the film). Highly recommended. A great study piece and one that represents contemporary spiritual, theological, and philosophical dilemmas quite well.

The film was banned in the many Islamic countries, ostensibly for “depicting a prophet,” but perhaps also (admittedly, just a guess here) for superimposing the story of Abraham — a vital key to Islamic theology — onto Noah.

Best lines: “A man is not ruled by the heavens but by his will. So I ask you, are you a man? Good. Then you can kill.”

Trailers: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1959490/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

God’s Not Dead (2014). For professional critics of popular culture only. Amateurs will not enjoy this film since they will see nothing but over the top preaching about the beauty of Christianity. Professionals will understand that the film is not about Christianity as much it is about freedom of choice and the fact that humans must cope with totalitarian intellectual repression, loss of love, death, and disease. The story is based on actual court cases where universities have attempted to limit the freedom of speech and association of on-campus Christian groups. If you are a university-level academician, you will have a hard time suspending your disbelief about the initial story premise: a philosophy professor makes signing a declaration that “God is dead” worth 30% of the course. Hopefully, any professor actually caught doing that would be summarily fired. Put that aside, accept the premise, and enjoy the film. The film contains three powerful, emotional subplots that some viewers will find more than make up for any weaknesses in the principal storyline. A good example of the overt politicization of film (as opposed to the more covert, as in The Hunger Games).

Categories
Films

Mistakes in Film Criticism

1. THE AUTEUR THEORY. An idea popularized some decades ago by French intellectuals — basically, the idea that the meanings of films can be derived from their original intent, and this intent is controlled and manifested by the director of the film. The most often cited example is Hitchcock, who transformed “B” pictures into great works of art reflecting his own view of the universe. A more recent example: Tim Burton turned Pee Wee’s Big Adventure into something quite a bit more than a mindless kid’s movie. Hollywood and the general public continue to believe the auteur theory. Directors who do a surprising job with mediocre material (e.g., as Dennis Hopper did with Easy Rider) are often rewarded with more ambitious projects. The director’s reputation is sometimes a factor in getting the public to see films that might otherwise be ignored (e.g., Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Oceans 11 or Ang Lee’s Hulk).

The problem with the Auteur Theory is that it simplistic. While it is undeniable that the great directors leave an indelible stamp on their pictures, their input is only one of many factors that contribute to a great film. (See Aristotle’s list of elements in drama, elsewhere on these pages.) Most frequently overlooked is an obvious factor: the script. While the industry, and most film critics, have recognized the role of directors, screenwriters have been virtually ignored. The Screenwriters Guild went on strike over the issue. The strike (1999 or 2000?) lasted until the industry finally gave in to demands for increased public recognition of writers’ creative role in the production of films. During the strike, a member of the guild appeared on the TODAY SHOW. He said that we are in a culture that celebrates actors in stories rather than the creators of stories — and he implied (quite correctly) that there is something fundamentally wrong with this.

Directors do not (in their role as directors) create the basic narrative. Their role is more akin to that of a musician who plays and interprets a composition. By “basic narrative,” I mean the linguistic narrative. Defenders of the auteur theory might argue that film is essentially a visual narrative, and since the director controls the visual interpretation of the script, the director becomes the “author” of the finished product by default. First of all, any visual interpretation, while it can embellish (or even be at odds with) the series of events depicted does not itself constitute a new and independent narrative. The script, not the images associated with it, contains the essentials of the moral life posited by the characters. In my view (again, just following Aristotle), the structure of the plot, and the moral choices of the characters in the plot comprise the most important messages of a film. Second, as I (and many other philosophers) have argued elsewhere, the concept of a purely visual narrative simply does not hold water. Images have no meaning in an of themselves. They are given the potential for meaning by a narrative or story structure. Unless the director also writes the script, there is only a limited sense in which he is the auteur of the story.

One can respond, I think, to my comments above as follows. This is not the auteur theory at all. What we mean by the auteur theory is that the director transforms a written script into a visual language and creates a new level of meaning over and above the original narrative. And this is what is both interesting and creative about the role of the director in a film.

A response to this objection: True, a director can do these things. And in some cases, the role of the director, and the new levels of meaning introduced are the most important elements of the film. The works of many of the great directors (Ford, Welles, Hitchcock, etc.) usually cited as auteurs demonstrate this. But is it true in every case? Is this the only factor we need to look at? Do we need to get inside the director’s mind rather than the writer’s mind to understand a film? My objection to the auteur theory is not that directors cannot or do not introduce new levels of meaning, but that (1) this theory cannot serve as the only tool for criticism; (2) the fundamental moral meaning of a film derives from its script; and (3) the messages delivered by films are not essentially visual — rather, the messages delivered are due to a complex of factors (again, see Aristotle’s list of elements in drama) over which the director exerts only limited control.

2. THE THEORY THEORY. This is the idea that some specific perspective, generally one founded on some scientific, cultural, religious, sociological, moral, or intellectual ideology, is required for the correct criticism of all cultural manifestations expressed through the arts. The auteur theory (above) is similar in that it demands a certain perspective, but the theory theories are grander in scale. They are derivative of some total theory — one that purports to encompass virtually every aspect of social and political life. Examples include Marxist theory, radical Feminism, or any of the myriad other similarly inspired approaches. All these share a common thread: they posit that all cultural events, especially the productions of popular media for mass culture, are essentially a form of conspiracy to control the shape of human development in according to a some (evil) master plan, and it is the duty of the critic to expose this plan in order that cultural enlightenment will be brought about (according to the critics own vision of the good).

Such theories, in so far as they are applied to criticism of the arts, suffer from several flaws. First, like the auteur theory, they are simplistic. Theory-driven critics tend to lament the fact that popular media simply supports the prejudices of the status quo. It is, of course, true that the productions of mass media reflect the norms of the culture. But it is, in a sense, trivially true. What should we expect from popular media? Surely not anything that essentially calls into question all the presuppositions an prejudices that are built into the culture in which it exists! Cultures, and the popular media that run through them, generally seek some sort of stability; they do not try to commit intellectual suicide by trivializing or renouncing the values that they hold sacred.

Second, the theory-driven critic tends to become a soldier in a cultural war rather than a critic of the arts. Theory-driven critics are right to point out that evil cultures produce popular entertainment to support their value systems. After all, Nazi Germany produced films to support its agenda. This, however, is not the point of criticism of the arts. We can distinguish between propaganda and cultural artifacts (artistic productions) that exemplify both cultural and universal truths. The theory-driven critic tends to regard all popular media as propaganda — and he tends to pit his own vision of what reality should be against that propaganda.

Third, criticism driven by grand theories tends to develop its own “principles” of criticism, based on its own version of what would be best, according to the utopian vision of the critic. For example: “this image does not support the liberation of workers,” “this image retains the aura of a male-dominated society,” and so on. Eventually, these principles become so flexible that they evaporate into an empty repetition of formulas. Examples: Freudian psychoanalytic principles as an explanation of every form of human behavior; feminist principles as an explanation for every moment depicted in every film.

When “complete” critical theories are applied, they tend to subvert an authentic search for the good, the true, and the universal that may be embodied in the productions of popular media.

3. THE NO THEORY THEORY. The fall-back position from the theory theory is to take a diametrically opposed view. The “no theory” advocates say that finding the “correct” theory of criticism is not the problem. They assert there can be no “correct” theory because the concepts which underlie theory construction are flawed or outdated. The no theory advocates question (1)any type of universal theory of interpretation, (2) the idea that there are specific, original, or authoritative meanings to be uncovered by criticism, and even (3) the concept of truth itself. According to this line of reasoning, the idea that films (among the many other human productions that can be interpreted) actually have a meaning is false. A version of the no theory theory is reflected in an interesting article by Jo Smith. She states: “There is no lack or absence in a filmic encounter, no hidden meaning to be unearthed, no abstract body of knowledge to reach for to re-insert a meaning.”

The no theory theory is inherent in Postmodernism, which asserts that we should acknowledge the “death of the author” because readers (or spectators), conditioned as they are by pre-existing meta-narratives that define their social, political and intellectual horizons, clearly contribute just as much in the production of meaning as the reputed “source” of meaning, the author. Postmodernism capitalizes on the contemporary fear of “totalizing influences,” that is, of meta-narratives that control our thinking. I believe this view, while it has the benefit of making us conscious of our preconceptions, simply ignores the structure of the creative process in contemporary story writing, which follows well-known principles. One may question those principles, of course — but that is hardly the main job that needs to be done when one when one is intellectually engaged in appreciating a film. One does not need to question the rules of sonnet making when one reads and interprets a sonnet. The no theory theorists, are, perhaps, more in the right than the auteur theorists in recognizing that except in very rare cases there is no single author of a film, and they are right to caution us against over-reliance on conventional methods of interpretation. But by attempting to abolish truth and meaning they leave little in the way of possibilities for critical response other than a form of free-association with images and text. Furthermore, there seems to be a confusion in the no theory theory between having many levels of meaning an no meaning at all. To say that a sonnet has many meanings is not to say that it has no meaning, nor is it to exclude the possibility that some meanings gleaned through interpretation are better than others. Finally, the postmodern approach, in my view, is a kind of defeatism. It implies that we should give up searching for truths about the human dilemma that are expressed through art — or, worse, it implies that we should substitute our own “truth” for that of the artist’s. For additional arguments against the postmodern or no theory approach in the arts, see A. D. Coleman’s article on Cindy Sherman.

4. CONFUSING STORY CONTEXT WITH THEME. The story context of Forrest Gump is “a slow-witted man makes his way in the world.” The theme of the film, on the other hand, is a profound metaphysical issue: do we live in a world guided by chance or does God’s grace influence or control certain events? Do we live in an uncaring, mechanical universe, or is there something more complicated involved? The theme is introduced at the beginning of the film as a feather floats through the air (obeying chance and the laws of physics) and finally lands (by chance?) near the hero. Many people, even professional critics, mistake what is immediately presented (the action, setting, or context) for the theme or message of the film. Some critics, for example, objected to Forrest Gump as “a celebration of stupidity.” Such criticisms clearly miss the point. We can make the distinction another way: at one level in any narrative, there is a story line or setting; at another, there is what the author is writing about at the deepest level – his theme. The setting of The Iliad is the Trojan War, but the poem is not about the Trojan war per se. The poet uses the context of the war to address his themes: the consequences of uncontrolled anger, the folly of human pride and jealousy, and the involvement of the gods in human affairs. Similarly, Dirty Harry is the story of a cop who steps outside the law in order to track down a psychopathic killer, but one of the themes concerns justice in general: can we trust our system (or God) to bring people to justice? Now, one may argue that the vehicle chosen by an author is inappropriate to the theme. Hence, some people may think that both The Iliad and Dirty Harry seem more like celebrations of violence than serious treatments of important themes. But this is a different sort of aesthetic judgment, and it cannot take place until we have at least first attempted to differentiate story context from theme.

5. “POLITICAL” THINKING. A professor at Columbia University once informed the class that Rising Sun was a racist, politically-motivated film. The professor had not seen the film, nor had any members of the class. This fact stopped no one from passing judgment. The entire class agreed the film was racist. There should be, the professor went on to say, a review panel that would check the “messages” of any film before it was released. This “classroom moment” should have been televised: it might have later been enshrined as a defining moment for political correctness. Plainly this brand of PC revealed itself as the worst sort absolutism, with a strong attraction for people interested in obtaining moral and intellectual domination through mind control and social engineering.

This warped political consciousness is the foundation of one of the most pervasive styles of criticism in the United States. Examples abound: “this film carries the wrong message for contemporary women,” ” this film depicts black Americans in a negative light,” “this film glorifies violence,” and so on. Indeed, for some, how a film depicts blacks, women, or gays is the essential litmus test of the “quality” of a film. In any given case, such critical comments may, in fact, have some merit, but if that is the end of the analysis, then it is a mistake. One must first do justice to the essential questions relevant to the analysis of narratives:

1. What is the nature of the human character development (regardless of race or gender) that takes place in the film?

2. What is the nature of the conflict between good and evil?

3. Was the protagonist correctly motivated?

4. What did the protagonist learn as a result of his struggle?

5. What happens in the subplot? (As far as the message of the film goes, this may be more important than the plot.)

6. What universal themes are at issue?

These, among others, are questions essential to answer before one can begin to interpret the political messages that may be contained in a film.

6. EMOTIONALISM.“I liked it.” “It made me laugh.” It made me cry.” These and other similar reports on how a movie made us feel are sometimes mistaken for criticism. But reporting one’s emotions is not the same sort of activity as reflectively judging the overall quality of an artistic production. Critical, reflective, activity is always at one remove from emotional involvement. Of course, how an artistic production makes us feel is an essential part of criticism, but it must be part of other considerations. It is perfectly possible, for instance, to accept that a film has profound emotional impact (because, for instance, of powerful imagery or the sentimental nature of the story), but judge that the film is not, overall, a good film (because of lack of nuance, poor acting, predictable story, etc.). On the other hand, a film might lack emotional impact, but still be a very good film in most other respects. Confusing these issues is, perhaps, a less common mistake than others.

7. ELITISM. There is, for some people, a temptation to believe that whatever the hoi poli enjoy and endorse should not be enjoyed or endorsed by a “certain class” of people. So, for example, some people judge European films as invariably better than American films — simply because (so they believe) such films are not produced for a mass market, but are specifically intended for intellectuals. This attitude overlooks several important features of popular media, and of American films in particular. Many (if not most) great works of art have always been, and continue to be, produced with the intent of creating popular (as opposed to “class targeted”) art. In particular, the narrative arts are usually intended to be appreciated on many levels, by every “class”(Shakespeare, anyone?). While European “art” films that make it to this country often appear (on the surface) to be more intellectually sophisticated, it is not true, as a rule, that popular American films are always less sophisticated (and therefore for a lower “class”). The apparent differences in sophistication between American and European art films is often more a matter of how the films present their themes. The intellectual issues addressed in the themes of American films are usually covered over by more tangible elements that tend to increase audience involvement, such exciting plots, grand spectacles, or convincing demonstrations of the techniques of method acting. For those who wish to make the effort of analyzing the deeper layers of meaning present in many American films, there is plenty of material to satisfy the intellectual. The Auteur theorists, to their credit, accepted this truth and developed many techniques for the appropriate analysis of American films.