Posts Tagged ‘The Red Shoes’
Let’s face it: surprises are no longer very surprising. These days, with every thriller and horror movie and serialized drama required to deliver a mandatory plot twist or two, it’s hard to react to any but the most unexpected developments with more than a yawn—or, at best, a mental ranking of how the twist stacks up against the best of its predecessors. Twists aren’t necessarily bad in themselves: it can be fun to watch a show like The Vampire Diaries pile up one implausible plot development after another, and very occasionally, you still see a twist with real impact. (This usually happens in a genre when you aren’t expecting it, which partially explains why the most pleasing twist I saw all year was in Wreck-It Ralph.) But it’s no wonder that audiences have become jaded. We’ve all seen television shows bump off major characters in the middle of the season, or movies that reveal that the victim was the killer the entire time, and by now, we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Once surprises become obligatory, they start to feel like mechanical impositions from the outside, when the finest twists arise organically from the material, or at least should seem like they do.
At first, it might seem that the best way to surprise the audience is for the author to surprise himself, by a development that arises unexpectedly in a work already in progress. If the writer doesn’t see a plot twist coming, the logic goes, the reader isn’t likely to anticipate it either. There’s some merit to this argument, and in fact, each of my own novels contains a major plot point that I didn’t foresee until I was halfway through the first draft. In The Icon Thief, this involves the murder of a major character who was originally going to die in any case, but whose ultimate fate ended up not only affecting the novel’s ending, but the rest of the series. City of Exiles surprised me in a somewhat different way: I’d written the first half of the book on the assumption that one of the characters had an important secret. When the time came to actually write it, however, I found that I couldn’t make it work. Consequently, I had no choice but to dig through the cast of characters I’d already developed to see if someone else was available to play this particular role. The result surprised me a lot, and because the first half of the novel remains largely as it was originally written, I’d like to think that it surprises readers as well.
But there are limits to this kind of surprise, which is why, in Eternal Empire, I’ve taken pains to weave the twists more securely into the fabric of the story itself. A twist that occurs to the author partway through the story has the advantage of being unexpected, but it can also seem arbitrary, or like an afterthought. The very best surprises, by contrast, are implicit in the premise of the narrative itself. By now, the ending of The Sixth Sense has become a cliché, but we shouldn’t allow this to undermine our appreciation of what remains the most elegant of all modern twist endings. It’s an ending that forces us to reevaluate much of what we’ve seen before, casting previous scenes in a new light, and it more or less demands a second viewing of the movie to fully appreciate. This isn’t the kind of thing that you can make up on the fly. Love it or hate it, it’s compelling in a way that few such twists ever are, because it isn’t just the ending that surprises us: we’ve been set up for it throughout the entire movie. (And as much as M. Night Shyamalan seems to have fallen short of his own early standard, that’s more than I can say for J.J. Abrams, who seems to think that a surprise is something you create by pretending it’s there in the marketing materials.)
In short, as Lermontov says in The Red Shoes, “Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.” Good writing is based on paradoxes of craft, and just as an unpolished prose style is generally the result of painstaking work, and an apparently unstructured plot requires more planning than any other, a good surprise demands methodical work in advance. Like any form of sleight of hand, it hinges on making the result of careful preparation seem casual, even miraculous. And that sad part is that it’s unlikely to be rewarded. The best kind of surprise is one that makes us realize that we aren’t being told the story that we thought we were, which strikes a lot of people as something slightly unpleasant: as I noted in my review of The Cabin in the Woods, most viewers only like to be surprised when they’re told so in advance, not when a work of art deliberately frustrates their assumptions. A mechanical plot twist may feel like a surprise, but it’s really just fulfilling our expectations for the genre. This isn’t necessarily bad; I’ve been guilty of it myself. But it’s no substitute for the real thing.
The next time you’re talking to a writer and get stuck for topics of conversation, here’s a tip: ask him where he gets the names of his characters. Not every name has an interesting meaning, of course, aside from the fact that it sounded good to the author at the time. But in my experience, most writers tend to invest a lot of thought and energy into coming up with character names, to the point where the names of even minor players have a long story behind them. In some ways, it’s not unlike choosing a name for a baby: you need to think of every possible scenario in which the name might backfire, whether because it calls up unwanted associations or lends itself too easily to a playground taunt. If it’s the name of a character in a novel, much less a series, you need to be particularly careful, because you’re going to be living with it for a long time. As a result, I generally spend a full day, maybe two, at the beginning of any novel project just coming up with names for ten or twelve important characters, which is much less fun than it sounds.
So what are the rules, if any? The critic James Wood has noted, quite fairly, that characters in a novel usually have different names, which is inherently unrealistic: “Whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?” Wood is perfectly right, of course, but even he would probably be the first to admit that this is an acceptable break from reality—like the fact that a character in a movie can always find a parking space when he needs one—that allows us to save time and confusion. Unless there’s a good reason why we should be uncertain as to which John or Elizabeth we’re reading about, it’s always wise to keep your characters’ names different and distinctive. In my own work, I try to avoid giving important characters names that start with the same letter, a rule that many other writers also seem to follow. (Now that I’m on my third novel with a shared cast of characters, this rule has become a real pain, but I still stick with it when I can.)
In the case of The Icon Thief, the names of the characters came about in all kinds of ways. Maddy and Ethan were a pair of characters who had been kicking around in my head for at least ten years, ever since I had the idea, way back in college, of writing a novel or screenplay that combined elements of two of the greatest of all American movies, Vertigo and The Searchers. The project was ridiculously ambitious, even for me, and I finally scrapped it, although not without emerging with two characters whose first names were taken from the leads of those films: Madeline Elster and Ethan Edwards. Alan Powell, as I’ve mentioned before, was named for Michael Powell, although his first name was Dennis for many drafts before I changed it to something that suited him better. And Ilya Severin was originally Ilya Kaverin, which I discarded, after spending more than two years living with that name, upon deciding that it was just too similar to that of a certain iconic character from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The rest of my characters have names that were chosen more or less at random. Rachel Wolfe, for instance, is just a name I like, combining the name of a close friend and an acquaintance in a way that strikes me as just right. John Reynard is a fun one: his first name is the most boring one imaginable, but his last name is that of a famously foxy trickster, which serves as a clue to some of his contradictions. Anzor Archvadze was one of the few plausibly Georgian names I could come up with that didn’t make my eyes cross, while Sharkovsky and Vasylenko were chosen for the sound, and Louis Barlow just looks like the name of an FBI assistant special agent in charge. And then we have the mysterious Alexey Lermontov, named, of course, for Anton Walbrook’s character in The Red Shoes. In my mind, he’s always been played by Walbrook, and I’d like to think that he gained something from the association, even if it’s just the slightest whisper of resonance from the character who, unforgettably, summed up the fate of the heroine in his ballet: “Oh, in the end, she dies.”
It’s safe to say that of the millions of viewers who tuned in last night for the premiere of NBC’s Smash, few were hoping to see a show about a couple of writers. The deluge of ads that aired during the Super Bowl promise an old-fashioned backstage melodrama, and on that count, the series delivers. (Perhaps a little too well—even given the disorderly nature of most network pilots, it has at least one personal subplot too many.) But I decided to check out the show for somewhat different reasons, which means that I’m going to ignore most of its other attractions, including the very fetching Katharine McPhee, to talk about a version of Smash that doesn’t exist yet, and probably never will. Because as farfetched as it might seem, this show represents the best chance we’ve had in a long time for a series about what I modestly think is the most interesting subject in the world, which is the creative process at work.
For obvious reasons, most movies or TV shows about writers aren’t very good. This is partially because a writer’s life doesn’t lend itself to visual storytelling, unless you’re going to indulge in frequent fantasy sequences—as Smash is clearly quite willing to do. It’s solitary work, without a lot of dramatic moments, and it doesn’t lend itself to neat character arcs. The movies like to pretend that there’s an intimate relationship between an artist’s life and work, but in fact, there’s often no correlation between the two. Writers can produce their best work on lousy personal days, and vice versa; most attempts to write biographies of Shakespeare (or, even less forgivably, the Earl of Oxford) based on clues from the plays founder on the fact that he didn’t necessarily write tragedies when he was miserable, or comedies when he was happy. A writer’s life, perhaps ironically, is doomed to frustrate most of our expectations about good storytelling.
When you have two writers in the room, however, that’s something else entirely. It’s no accident that the best works of art about the creative process often center on a collaborative relationship, which generally means some form of theater. I’m thinking of The Red Shoes, of course, which is my favorite movie of all time, but also of works as different as Topsy-Turvy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, the latter of which made writing for television seem like the coolest job around. And while it’s far too early to include Smash in that select company, there are some positive signs. We have a very appealing pair of writers in Debra Messing and Christian Borle, who, to my eyes, are the real stars of this show. If nothing else, Messing and Borle have real chemistry—which is more than I can say for McPhee and her ambiguously gay boyfriend—and in their scenes together in the pilot, I saw a glimpse of a show that I could learn to love.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily the show that creator Theresa Rebeck has in mind—although her recent interview with the A.V. Club was very promising. And we’re probably going to see many more fantasy musical numbers and karaoke scenes before we plunge any deeper into a writer’s inner life. But the producers of any television show are writers, first and foremost, and there are moments in the Smash pilot that feel like closely observed moments of what it means to write for Broadway. Messing is initially skeptical of the idea of a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, for instance, until she realizes that it will give her a chance to write a baseball number—and I suspect that all writers have been drawn to projects for equally random reasons. This leads to the truest moment in the pilot, when Messing confesses her real reason for wanting to write Marilyn: “I don’t want anyone else to do her.” That’s a sentiment that any writer can recognize. And if Smash can follow up on these hints, it could become something really special.
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo opens with an image that has long been central to this director’s work: a boy looking through a window at the world outside. As most fans know, this image is autobiographical—Scorsese’s asthma kept him indoors for much of his childhood, forcing him to view the world from afar—and although this isn’t the young Henry Hill, staring longingly at the gangsters across the street, but Hugo Cabret and a CGI wonderland of Paris in the 1930s, it shouldn’t blind us to the fact that this is Scorsese’s most personal film since Goodfellas. It’s a curious movie: far from his best work, yet ultimately entrancing, for reasons that have less to do with its considerable technical merits than with its romantic notion of what the arts, especially cinema, can mean to one person over the course of his or her life. In particular, it’s about what movies mean to Scorsese, and to convey this, he employs no fewer than three fictional surrogates, often where you least expect them.
At first glance, of course, it’s the technological aspects that command our attention. Scorsese is clearly tickled to be working with a large budget and in three dimensions, and Hugo is one of the best arguments I’ve yet seen for 3D as something more than just a fad. Unlike Avatar, which largely unfolds in an airless, if gorgeous, universe of special effects, Hugo takes particular pleasure in small touches of reality: steam, ash, the particles of dust on a real set. Its 3D is less a gimmick than a way of immersing us in a new world, aided immeasurably by Robert Richardson’s cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s production design, and the result is captivating from the very first frame. And while the same isn’t quite true of the plot—Scorsese seems rather indifferent to some of the beats of the children’s book he’s adapting, and the first half hour is especially lumpy—the story eventually becomes absorbing as well, thanks largely to the invisible figure at its heart: the English filmmaker Michael Powell.
The action of Hugo, and this is a minor spoiler, revolves in great part around the director Georges Méliès, whom Hugo discovers, now neglected and depressed, operating a toy shop at Montparnasse Station. Later, Hugo introduces him to a film scholar, an enthusiastic student of Méliès’s work, who goes on to unearth and restore many of his lost films. And while the plot closely parallels that of Brian Selznick’s original novel, it isn’t hard to see what drew Scorsese to the story: it’s basically a fabulous recasting of his own relationship with Michael Powell, whose films he loved as a child, and whose life he finally entered after establishing himself as a director and student of film in his own right. Like Méliès, Powell, once hugely popular, was overlooked for decades, during what should have been the most productive years of his career—in Powell’s case, after the disastrous release of the controversial Peeping Tom. And Scorsese played a major role in his rediscovery, leading the way in recent years in the restoration of his major works, beginning with The Red Shoes. (It’s even possible to see a hint of Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor and Powell’s wife, in Méliès’s wife Jeanne d’Alcy, played here by Helen McCrory.)
As a result, Powell’s ghost hovers like a protective spirit above much of Hugo. (Among the many small references to the work of the Archers: in the film’s closing scene, Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, wears the same white tie and tails as Lermontov at the end of The Red Shoes.) And Scorsese himself appears in three guises: as the young Hugo; as the movie scholar and Méliès fan René Tabard (nicely played by Michael Stuhlbarg); and, most interestingly, as Méliès himself. Scorsese is obviously far more interested in Méliès than in much of the surrounding story, and it’s hard not to read the final scene, as Méliès receives the Legion of Honor, in light of Scorsese’s string of late career awards. And while Scorsese has been far from neglected, he knows how it feels: he once feared that Raging Bull would be his last movie, and spent much of the 1980s in a relative wilderness. Like all artists, Scorsese has had moments, at one point or another, when he feared that his work had been in vain. If a film like Hugo is any indication, his legacy is secure.
Like all great films, but much more so, The Red Shoes—which I think is the greatest movie ever made—works on two levels, as both a story of life and a story of film. As the latter, it’s simply the most inventive movie ever made in Technicolor, second only to Citizen Kane in its abundance of tricks and flourishes. These range from small cinematic jokes (like its use of the scrolling title Forty-five minutes later, subsequently borrowed by Scorsese in The Aviator, to indicate the passage of time within a single shot) to effects of unforgettable emotional power (like the empty spotlight on the stage in the final scene). It’s the definitive work by a pair of filmmakers who had spent the previous decade on an unparalleled streak, making more great films in ten years than five ordinary directors could produce in an entire career. And The Red Shoes was the movie they had been building toward all along, because along with everything else, it’s the best film ever made about the artistic process itself.
And even here, it works on multiple levels. As a depiction of life at a ballet company, it may not be as realistic as it seems—Moira Shearer, among others, has dismissed it as pure fantasy—but it feels real, and it remains the most romantic depiction of creative collaboration yet captured on film. (It inspired countless careers in dance, and certainly inspired me to care deeply about ballet, an art form toward which I’d been completely indifferent before seeing this movie.) And as an allegory, it’s unsurpassed: Lermontov’s cruelty toward Vicky is really a dramatization of the dialogue between art and practicality that takes place inside every artist’s head. This may be why The Red Shoes is so important to me now: from the moment I first saw it, it’s been one of my ten favorite films, but over the years, and especially after I decided to become a writer, my love for it has increased beyond what I feel toward almost any other work of art. Yet Vicky’s final words still haunt me, as does Lermontov’s offhand remark, which stands as a permanent warning, and enticement, to artists of all kinds: “The red shoes are never tired.”
Most of us, from the moment we start writing seriously, are told that all good writing comes from character. Whether we’re writing a literary novel or a hard-boiled mystery, it seems obvious that the protagonist should drive the story through his own objectives and behavior, that he should succeed or fail based on the choices he makes, and that the resolution of the plot should come about as a direct consequence of his own actions. This is good, sound advice. I’ve given it here before. And yet as we continue to write and experience other works of art, it becomes increasingly clear that character isn’t the whole answer. Because when we consider the absolute heights of literature, from Oedipus Rex to King Lear, or even the best of genre fiction, like the novels of James M. Cain, it’s hard to shake the feeling that what we’re being shown is somehow more than character, while also derived from it, and closer to a true representation of how the world really works.
Years ago, after seeing Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, I reflected that one reason I admire but don’t love Leigh’s movies is that they’re character-driven in the purest way: the stories are derived from a long process of improvisation with a team of actors, and as a result, there’s nearly nothing in his films that doesn’t emerge from character. This is obviously admirable—and Leigh is one of the most consistently engaging directors around—but it also means that his movies are curiously limited. Events in real life, after all, doesn’t always come directly from character: we’re often asked to deal with things that are out of our control, or the control of those around us. Life can be uncanny, shocking, or arbitrary—but often in ways that seem strangely appropriate. And that’s why works of fiction that resolve their themes on an allegorical level, rather than a purely rational one, tend to shake us far more deeply than works that scrupulously follow through on the implications of character alone.
As a result, many of my favorite works of art, ranging from Vertigo and The Red Shoes to The Magus and Disgrace, are almost cosmically unfair. What happens to the the characters in these stories, while superficially the consequence of their own actions, is also the result of a playful, dangerous, or unfathomable universe, which takes their actions and magnifies them to the scale of tragedy. And sometimes genre fiction—horror, in particular—understands this better than anything else. I respond to the terribly unfair fates of characters in Stephen King, for instance, because they justify my suspicion that in real life, what happens to us is not always the result of our own character, but of some higher capriciousness or malevolence. And this sort of narrative perversion is inherently factored out of works of pure character, like Leigh’s films, while remaining accessible to artists like Brian De Palma, the master of the unfair conclusion.
In all honesty, though, I’m not sure what my advice is here. Character is still hugely important. And the strategy of cosmic unfairness, if pursued too closely, can only result in a victim story. (One unfair act of fate is generally enough.) As a general rule, the protagonist’s actions and objectives are what drive the plot moment by moment—this is one of the first things that any good novelist needs to internalize. But it’s more a question of craft than of philosophy. And once this rule has been fully absorbed, the novelist can move past it, or undermine it, just as life itself often undermines our best intentions. Best of all, as in Vertigo, an artist can begin with pure character, then fulfill it with a twist of fate that seems inevitable, but in ways that can’t be rationally explained. But such stories are only possible when the writer already knows the importance of character itself—and when to move beyond it.
Essential films: The Red Shoes, A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going!
Over the course of a single decade, from 1940 to 1949, the writing, producing, and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced ten masterpieces, beginning with Contraband and ending with The Small Back Room. This amazing run, conducted in the face of World War II and the difficult years that followed, is unparalleled in the history of movies, and deserves a great book on the subject. (Powell’s own autobiography, A Life in Movies, goes only part of the way toward filling that need.) Even more impressive is the dazzling range of stories on display. Some are naturalistic, while others are outrageously weird; there’s comedy, suspense, history, war, romance, melodrama, even excursions into science fiction and fantasy. One of their greatest films, A Canterbury Tale, doesn’t seem to be about anything at all, until we realize that it’s actually about everything in life that matters.
And yet every one of these movies is recognizably the work of the Archers. A film by Powell and Pressburger doesn’t look or feel like anything else: it’s the result of a very British mixture of humor, common sense, visual and narrative ingenuity, superstition, and a genuine curiosity about how the world works. If The Red Shoes had nothing to offer but dancing, music, and art direction, it would still be a classic, even an object of religious devotion. The fact that it also has a richly detailed story, fine performances, gorgeous locations, and cinematic inventiveness to rival Citizen Kane—and in color!—makes it seem almost inhumanly generous. Add this to the fact that it’s the best movie ever made on the creative process, and you have the work of art, after a lifetime of moviegoing, that has inspired and consoled me more than any other film.
Tomorrow: the dangerous example of Stanley Kubrick.
Any list of favorite movies—much less one of favorite screenplays, where the writer’s contribution can be so hard to separate from that of the director and editor—ends up being more about the compiler than anything else. My own list betrays a personal fondness for dense, complicated stories over quiet simplicity, which is arguably the harder of the two to pull off. All in all, though, I’ll stand by these choices—though I’m somewhat surprised to see that one of my top films stars Kevin Spacey, another stars Gabriel Byrne, and another, perhaps inevitably, stars both:
1. Seven Samurai. As far as I’m concerned, this the greatest screen story of all time—a massively detailed film of more than three hours that establishes its central conflict in the first minute, involves us in the lives of more than a dozen important characters, and treats us to the immense satisfaction of seeing epic action foreshadowed, spelled out, and unforgettably delivered. Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni.
2. L.A. Confidential. A script so good that it forever fooled me into thinking that there was a place in Hollywood for layered, complicated stories, saturated with ideas and atmosphere, with three central characters but no obvious hero. Well, there isn’t. But watching this movie makes you almost believe otherwise. Writers: Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson, based on a novel by James Ellroy.
3. The Red Shoes. All of Powell and Pressburger’s screenplays are amazing, but this is the one that fills me with the most awe. Like L.A. Confidential, it effortlessly establishes three major characters—and many minor ones—while ushering us into a world that seems both strange and familiar, with a range of tones that spans realism, surrealism, melodrama, and, in the end, merciless tragedy. Writers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
4. The Usual Suspects. The closest thing I’ve seen to a perfect clockwork screenplay, layered with small visual and verbal delights in every scene, all leading up to that famous closing surprise (which makes increasingly less sense to me as time goes on). To quote theater critic Walter Kerr, The Usual Suspects is a watch that laughs—and there’s a hell of a cuckoo inside. Writer: Christopher McQuarrie (though many of the best moments, including the closing montage of dialogue, were created in the editing room).
5. Casablanca. The first forty minutes, in particular, are the best I’ve seen in any movie, in terms of serenely establishing character, location, and conflict in a way that seems as natural as wandering into Rick’s Place out of the hot desert night. The second act has a few narrative lumps—I’m not a fan of flashbacks in general, even when they feature Bogart and Bergman in Paris—but as for the finale, well, nothing more needs to be said. Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s.
6. Miller’s Crossing. It took me years to warm up to this movie, but now that I know it inside and out, I can only marvel at how beautifully all the pieces fit, even if the writers evidently made it up as they went along. (They wrote Barton Fink, on a break, while trying to figure out how to resolve the plot.) It’s still the last of the great color noirs. Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen.
7. The Last Temptation of Christ. I was going to put Taxi Driver here, but this is really Schrader’s—and Scorsese’s—masterpiece: marvelously structured, moving, and more intelligent than so deeply religious a movie has any right to be. The last half hour rarely fails to bring me to tears, though never at the same place twice. Writer: Paul Schrader, based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.
8. The Third Man. The perfect blend of plot, location, and atmosphere, sinister yet romantic, with grotesque supporting characters lurking in the ruins like gargoyles. It all builds to that heartbreaking final image—the greatest closing shot in the history of movies—which wasn’t in the original script at all. Writer: Graham Greene (though Orson Welles wrote his own speech about the cuckoo clocks).
9. Psycho. Yes, yes, the closing psychiatrist’s speech is terrible. But up until that final moment, it’s perfectly structured and paced, with the greatest narrative fake-out of all time—one that works so well that I’m still faintly shocked, whenever I first see the Bates Motel sign, at remembering which movie I’m really watching. Writer: Joseph Stefano, based on a novel by Robert Bloch.
10. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Pauline Kael called it “endlessly inventive,” and it is, cobbling together a plot, as I’ve described elsewhere, from six different screenplay drafts and a random handful of science fiction elements, and having it all seem relaxed, witty, and inevitable. Writers: Credited to Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards, but really Nicholas Meyer.
Honorable mention: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Chinatown, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blue Velvet, A Hard Day’s Night, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and many others on the definitive Writer’s Guild list.
Yesterday I posted a list of my fifty essential books—that is, the fifty books that I would keep if I were deprived of all others. When I tried to do the same for movies, I found that the task was slightly easier, if only because I had fewer titles to choose from. (In both cases, I’ve tried to limit myself to books and movies that I actually own.) The result, as before, is a portrait of myself as expressed in other people’s works of art—which, in the end, may be the most accurate kind of self-portrait there is.
As usual, there are a few caveats. I’ve tried to be as honest as possible. This means omitting some of the very best movies of all time—The Rules of the Game and Tokyo Story, for instance—that I admire enormously but encountered too late for them to burrow into my subconscious. There’s an obvious preference for entertainment over art, as is generally the case in a home video library. And many of the movies named below might be ranked differently, or left out altogether, on another day (or hour). As of today, January 5, 2011, here’s how the canon looks to me:
1. The Red Shoes (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
2. Chungking Express (d. Wong Kar-Wai)
3. Blue Velvet (d. David Lynch)
4. Casablanca (d. Michael Curtiz)
5. The Third Man (d. Carol Reed)
6. Eyes Wide Shut (d. Stanley Kubrick)
7. L.A. Confidential (d. Curtis Hanson)
8. Seven Samurai (d. Akira Kurosawa)
9. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (d. Nicholas Meyer)
10. Citizen Kane (d. Orson Welles)
11. Vertigo (d. Alfred Hitchcock)
12. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (d. Steven Spielberg)
13. Lawrence of Arabia (d. David Lean)
14. The Shining (d. Stanley Kubrick)
15. A Canterbury Tale (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
16. The Empire Strikes Back (d. Irwin Kershner)
17. The Last Temptation of Christ (d. Martin Scorsese)
18. Inception (d. Christopher Nolan)
19. The Silence of the Lambs (d. Jonathan Demme)
20. Spellbound (d. Jeffrey Blitz)
21. Mary Poppins (d. Robert Stevenson)
22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (d. Stanley Kubrick)
23. The Godfather (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
24. Spirited Away (d. Hayao Miyazaki)
25. Casino Royale (d. Martin Campbell)
26. Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (d. Errol Morris)
27. JFK (d. Oliver Stone)
28. Barry Lyndon (d. Stanley Kubrick)
29. Miller’s Crossing (d. Joel and Ethan Coen)
30. Sleeping Beauty (d. Clyde Geronimi)
31. Psycho (d. Alfred Hitchcock)
32. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (d. Quentin Tarantino)
33. The Untouchables (d. Brian DePalma)
34. Raiders of the Lost Ark (d. Steven Spielberg)
35. The Dark Knight (d. Christopher Nolan)
36. Last Tango in Paris (d. Bernardo Bertolucci)
37. Children of Men (d. Alfonso Cuarón)
38. The Departed (d. Martin Scorsese)
39. The Godfather Part II (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
40. Crumb (d. Terry Zwigoff)
41. The Searchers (d. John Ford)
42. The Usual Suspects (d. Bryan Singer)
43. The Long Goodbye (d. Robert Altman)
44. Zodiac (d. David Fincher)
45. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
46. Boogie Nights (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
47. Taxi Driver (d. Martin Scorsese)
48. The Limey (d. Steven Soderbergh)
49. Dancer in the Dark (d. Lars von Trier)
50. Pink Floyd The Wall (d. Alan Parker)
Random observations: I had to look up the names of two of the directors (for Spellbound and Sleeping Beauty). Up until a few minutes ago, the last place on this list was occupied by The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which I had to drop after realizing that I’d left out Last Tango in Paris. I allowed myself more than one movie per director, with the largest number of slots occupied by Kubrick (four), Powell and Pressburger (three) and Scorsese (three). And I’m slightly surprised to find that my three favorite movies of the last decade are evidently Spellbound, Spirited Away, and Casino Royale.
Sharp observers might be able to guess which film occupies the top spot in the list of my favorite movies of the past year, which I’m hoping to post later this week. And in any case, if you have a Netflix account that you aren’t using, well, hopefully this will give you a few ideas.
The only person standing in your way is you.
—Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), in Black Swan
It’s safe to say that no other movie this year, aside perhaps from Inception, filled me with so much unnatural anticipation as Black Swan. Ever since my first encounter with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, which I think is the best movie ever made, I’ve had an uninformed but highly emotional interest in ballet, especially ballet on film. Darren Aronofsky, coming off The Wrestler, is easily one of the ten most interesting directors in America. And while Natalie Portman has been making a career, as Pauline Kael once said of Meryl Streep, of seeming to overcome being miscast, she’s still an actress for whom I have a lot of affection and respect (even if she seems determined to squander it).
The result, unfortunately, comes precariously close to being a bad movie. It’s chilly and lurid at the same time; the story is both overcooked and underconceived; and it descends so rapidly into overwrought melodrama that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. (At its worst, it’s nothing but one long mirror scare.) And yet it’s a work of undeniable skill and commitment, with extraordinary images and moments, and even at its worst, it’s still more interesting to think about than many conventionally good movies. On our way home, my wife asked me if I thought it would become a midnight movie classic. I think it will become something even better: it’s the kind of movie where, if it had come out before I was born, I might have skipped school to see it in revival on the big screen. (I did that only once in high school, and that was to see Last Tango in Paris.)
But Black Swan is still a deeply problematic movie, in ways that I don’t think Aronofsky intended. The story, without giving too much away, is that of a young ballet dancer’s descent into madness. And it plunges you into that madness so quickly, almost from the very first shot, that there’s no sense of loss as her sanity slips away. From the beginning, Portman’s character, Nina, comes off as hopelessly fragile and neurotic, and she’s never given the kind of emotional grounding—a scene with friends, say, or even a moment of ordinary human behavior—that might have made her story genuinely tragic, rather than a chilling exercise. What Black Swan needs, above all else, is a first act, set in the real world, before Aronofsky releases all of his lovingly conceived visual and aural shocks.
As it stands, it’s tempting to see Nina as a surrogate for the director himself (though it should be noted that Aronofsky did not write Black Swan, which is based on a screenplay by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman, and John J. McLaughlin). Nina is repeatedly told that she has perfect technique, but needs to lose herself in the moment, a criticism that can be leveled, not without reason, at Aronofsky. Even more than Christopher Nolan, Aronofsky is the most left-brained of all directors with access to stars and large budgets, and he might well argue that, objectively speaking, Black Swan is perfect. Which is probably true. But subjectively, in ordinary human terms, it’s dangerously close to ridiculous.
Aronofsky has obviously seen The Red Shoes, and includes one scene—an audition filmed from the point of view of a pirouetting ballerina—that is clearly intended as homage. And both movies are about dancers whose leading roles become tragically literal, and ultimately destroy their lives. The difference, though, is that The Red Shoes implicitly contains all of Black Swan, and embeds it in a much larger story about art, love, and the wider world that Aronofsky only shows us in fragments. Vicky, in The Red Shoes, is destroyed by the conflict between art and life. For Nina, there is no life, only art, and thus no conflict: she’s a creature of art in a movie that cares about nothing else. And by the end, it’s unclear why she, and nobody else, has gone crazy.