Tuesday, January 18, 2005

THE TOP 22 OF 2004


I don’t get to the movies as much as I’d like to these days, so this list is by no means the kind of exhaustive, all-inclusive list one would expect to see from writers who do this sort of thing for a living. For every one of the movies listed below, good and bad, there are probably three or four others that my real life insisted that I skip, wait to catch on DVD later (that list gets longer every day!) or give in to my prejudices and preconceptions and just outright dismiss. And the list itself proved, more than any other year I can remember, to be a lot more elusive and ever-changing as I tried to pin down the rankings (next week it might look a lot different—hell, two minutes after I post this it might start to look different-- in fact, I updated this post on January 18 at 2:07 pm because I've already done a little waffling on my Best Actor pick*). But this is, for better or worse, how I saw the movie year in 2004. I apologize for all the important stuff I can’t write about here. But when I do catch up with those titles on DVD (and I will), at least this blog exists so I can attempt to make up for my deficiencies then.

MILLION DOLLAR BABY ****
Clint Eastwood truly inherits the mantle of Old Hollywood with this masterpiece, in which the skin of ostensibly time-worn material is filled with fragrant new wine; in its confidence, its devastating power and bleak emotional terrain, it’s like a pessimistic post-war drama retold for a new age of uncertainty, where the possibility of redemption exists but is by no means guaranteed. Eastwood’s own performance, a career best, squares him and the movie with the kind of brilliantly understated work most associated with powerful, reticent and underrated actors like Gary Cooper and Robert Ryan.

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS **** / HERO ****
Courtesy of Miramax’s inexplicable two-year shelving of Hero, Americans were treated to the greatest one-two punch (and flying kick) in the history of martial arts cinema when these two brilliant works from Zhang Yimou were released within months of each other. Hero is the more complex politically (and anyone who says it’s a sell-out to the oppressive Chinese government must have closed their eyes during the last half-hour), but Daggers is even more lush, stunning and moving—aside from its one-of-a-kind action sequences, it may one day rank as one of the great movie romances of all time.

THE INCREDIBLES ****
Pixar goes six-for-six courtesy of the visionary expansiveness of writer-director Brad Bird (he of the neglected and equally amazing The Iron Giant), who fashions his spectacular, and spectacularly funny, superhero family saga as a celebration of individuality amongst society-endorsed mediocrity. This movie, and the two described directly above, redefined the scope of visually imaginative and expressive storytelling in 2005; Bird rises to the ranks of the great animation directors with his work here, folding James Bond, the Fantastic Four and the Warner Brothers classic cartoons together to create a vibrant design and crackling sensibility all his own. Somewhere Chuck Jones and Albert Broccoli are smiling and shaking hands…

BEFORE SUNSET ****
The most naturally, painfully romantic movie of the year. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reunite after nine years and a promise to meet again that was never kept. Viewers who remember this film’s predecessor, Before Sunrise, are likely to be shocked by a brief flashback to that film that is a tidy economic lesson in how even beautiful people are subject to time’s craftsmanship and deconstructive qualities. And the dialogue, devised by the actors along with director Richard Linklater, is incisive, realistic, funny, but never precious, and takes on the subject of time, impermanence and missed opportunities with elasticity and fertility. Linklater shoots long takes filled with vibrant conversation between two intelligent people floating through the streets of Paris—eloquently simple filmmaking that compliments the eloquent struggle of old lovers grappling with the implications of that love in the light of lives that could have been and the reality of those that are.

DAWN OF THE DEAD ****
I recently revisited the first eight minutes of this movie (the unrated director’s cut) on DVD and was surprised at how easily the inescapable dread and panic that left me paralyzed with fear when I saw it at the local multiplex came flooding back, as if it had been floating around in my bloodstream all this time, just waiting for a prick of the skin. And I think, somehow, it probably has. I know grown men and women, jaded horror fans who’ve seen and shrugged at it all, brought low in their seats and desperate in their dreams by this vivid reimagining of George Romero’s vastly overrated and inferior original, and I can honestly say I’m scared to see the rest of the director’s cut. But not too scared—after all, honest fright generated by a horror movie is just too rare an experience these days, and Dawn of the Dead offers dread and hair-whitening shudders that horror fans (and fans of good movies, period) will want to savor. No movie this year was as on fire with pure filmmaking fury as this one.

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN ****
Director Alfonso Cuaron delivers all the magic, the horror and the filmmaking wizardry so lacking in the first two films, which were textbook examples of how to be slavishly faithful to the novels and still be pedestrian and uninspired. The universe of Harry Potter looks and feels lived-in here, and the entire movie has a palpable texture, like the rough-hewn pages of a brilliantly illustrated fairy tale that envelop you in the silky, sinister imagination they convey. The three juvenile leads finally seem comfortable in their roles, which allow them to approach puberty, within the movie’s subtext, with sly humor and dread, and the rest of the cast is a who’s-who of brilliant British character actors who also seem more at home in the world according to Alfonso Cuaron than that of Chris Columbus. Cuaron is not directing number four, but we can hope that his influence will continue to be felt.

THE AVIATOR ****
Martin Scorsese’s vibrant biopic of Howard Hughes jauntily turns the conventions of the genre on its ear, orchestrating spectacular visual set pieces that function as the intimate moments in the billionaire’s increasingly recessive life (Hughes filming elaborate dogfights seems like a happy kid at play), while staging physically intimate encounters (between Hughes and a mesmerizing Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, between Hughes and a doorknob he cannot force himself to touch) that eventually assume the function that big, life-defining set pieces might in a more typical biographical approach. Leonardo DiCaprio is fairly amazing here, and the movie trumps another biopic convention by taking us and the actor to what might be the beginning of the third act—when Hughes finally begins to slide into full-time madness—and leaving us, and him, to stare into the abyss of what is come—the way of the future, the way of the future, the way of the future…

SIDEWAYS ****
Some critics, in their year-end polls, can’t distance themselves fast enough from Sideways and the unprecedented swell of critical support it has managed to garner so far. And some have accused the movie of being condescending and mean-spirited, as if the very notion of showing people glorying in their obsessions (in this case, wine appreciation and sex), or showing overweight people boning with obsessive abandon, means you’re making fun of them—a curious prism through which to view social satire that, to my mind, speaks more about the prejudices of those raising the objections than it does about the film’s intentions. Sideways is a movie that deals with characters in a framework—the raucous road movie—that is usually left to those about half the age, or younger, of its two lead characters, and it succeeds in suffusing that framework with enough middle-aged insecurity and desperation to offset the bitter laughs that run parallel with those desperate lives. Alexander Payne’s directorial hand makes it look easy, but this comedy is hard.

HIDALGO ****
This is the kind of family-friendly wide-screen action epic that doesn’t get made much anymore, and the sweep and excitement derived from this old-fashioned entertainment make you wish and hope it won’t be the last time director Joe Johnston gets a shot at making one. Johnston is not a vivid stylist, but he is at the head of a shrinking class of modern filmmakers rooted in American special effects spectaculars who have the hearts of storytelling classicists like Howard Hawks, William Wyler and David Lean. Hidalgo, the story of a dangerous horse race across the Sahara desert, showcases Johnston’s storytelling chops admirably—it’s a thrilling, white-knuckle adventure—yet Johnston remains under the radar, perceived more as a hack-for-hire than the emerging showman-artist on display here. Here’s hoping that he and directors like David R. Ellis (Cellular), Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) and John Moore (Flight of the Phoenix) can continue fruitful careers making the kinds of films that may get precious little critical respect but fulfill the profound possibilities of pleasure of the best popular cinema.

HELLBOY ***1/2
Guillermo Del Toro’s deliriously vivid comic-book adaptation has visual conceits and constructs that stare down genre cliché and familiarity and twist away from its grip with impish sprightliness, leaving the viewer gasping with delight at its audacity, at the sheer unlikelihood that what he/she’s seeing could possibly feel so fresh, so electrically charged, so vital and, yes, unpredictable. Del Toro fuses standard genre tropes with grandiose Catholic iconographical allusions and torrents of emotion, and he knows how to stage action that breaks down your resistance to familiar CGI technology and thrusts you into the emotional core of the scene. Everything happens, as it did in his brilliant gothic The Devil’s Backbone, at a slightly off angle; violence erupts in a fashion skewed by enough unpredictable rhythm to keep the adrenaline flowing and the audience’s emotional investment in a satanic, lovelorn, and somewhat reluctant red-skinned hero, very high indeed. The best movie of its kind in years.

The Second 11:

SHAUN OF THE DEAD
“I’m sorry, Shaun.” “Don’t worry about it.” “No… I’m sorry, Shaun…” Then the disfiguring twist on Shaun’s face as he realizes his friend is apologizing (and none too sincerely) not for any misbehavior, but for his inability to control certain gaseous tendencies… Worse than any zombie!

THE BOURNE SUPREMACY
The car that blindsides Bourne and hits him squarely in the driver’s door—how the hell did they do that?

THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI
The critical cliché of martial arts choreography and its connection to dance is not so much reimagined as literalized; I stared at the screen with awe, delight and utter amazement, thinking that thought we so often think but rarely really mean: “I’ve never seen anything like that!”

COLLATERAL
The wolf crosses the path of Jamie Foxx’s ill-fated cab, its silver eyes glinting from the headlights—the poetry of primal fear and power misplaced and loose on the streets of Los Angeles.

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
Demme never matches Frankenheimer’s visualization of the deadly brainwashing sessions as a malevolent ladies’ garden club, but he tells the story in an intimate way that emphasizes its plausibility while intensifying its political resonance. The second remake of the year that surpasses the original. Still, Meryl Streep never emerges from the shadow of Angela Lansbury.

CELLULAR
Alongside his previous feature, Final Destination 2, the exceedingly clever Cellular establishes director David R. Ellis as a perversely exciting talent to watch, an action director with a real eye and a intuitive understanding of how the pieces can fit together to make an audience sit up and watch.

MR. 3000
The best baseball movie in years not directed by Ron Shelton. Bernie Mac is alive and exciting in so many ways that never even occur to most actors to explore. But why, in a movie about a player for the Milwaukee Brewers, is there no Bob Uecker? Is the ghost of Major League that imposing?

THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE / TEACHER’S PET
Two surreal and brilliant big-screen debunkings of the notion that there’s no good TV for kids that’s also good for adults. Teacher’s Pet casts a spell of escalating oddity and perversity, and Spongebob, for this previously uninitiated adult, was a revelation of spastic slapstick and wacky wordplay.

SPIDER-MAN 2
Everything, in tone and pace, that the moderately successful first episode should have been. But I still object to Kirsten Dunst—she hasn’t the fire, the sassiness, the sex appeal I recall—no, demand—from the Mary Jane Watson of my Marvel-ous memories.

KILL BILL VOL. 2
Oh, to see volumes 1 and 2 back to back someday. Where the first film is excitable and excessive in every way, the second film takes a more languid course (all things being relative, of course) and blindsides the viewer with unexpected and deeply felt ruminations on motherhood and, of course, killing the one you love.

Other Titles That Made Going To The Movies Exciting, Troubling or Otherwise Worthwhile In 2004:

THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS
SHAOLIN SOCCER
FAHRENHEIT 9/11
I (HEART) HUCKABEES
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
KINSEY
THE HUNTING OF THE PRESIDENT
ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY
FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX
MARIA FULL OF GRACE
SUPER-SIZE ME
THE LADYKILLERS
BAADAASSS!
JERSEY GIRL
MIRACLE
13 GOING ON 30
HOME ON THE RANGE
STANDER
MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP


The Worst Movies of 2004 (In Descending Order):

P.S.
SILVER CITY
CATCH THAT KID
DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY
TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE
THE TERMINAL
JOHNSON FAMILY VACATION
EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING
PAPARAZZI
STARKSY AND HUTCH
VAN HELSING

STILL TO SEE FROM 2004:

VERA DRAKE
MOOLADE
PRIMER
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU
RAY
END OF THE CENTURY
BAD EDUCATION
NOTRE MUSIQUE
ENDURING LOVE
LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF
A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT
Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION
TARNATION
OCEAN’S TWELVE
IN GOOD COMPANY

FILMS I MOST REGRET NOT BEING ABLE TO SEE BEFORE COMPILING THIS LIST:

VERA DRAKE
MOOLADE
PRIMER
LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF
BAD EDUCATION
A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT

PERFORMANCES:

Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank,
MILLION DOLLAR BABY
Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andrew Lau,
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, HERO
Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Brad Bird,
Jason Lee, Elizabeth Pena, Samuel L. Jackson, THE INCREDIBLES
Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, BEFORE SUNSET
Sarah Polley, Mehki Phifer,
Jake Weber, Ving Rhames, DAWN OF THE DEAD
Emma Thompson, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon,
Daniel Radcliffe, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett,
Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, THE AVIATOR
Paul Giamatti, Sandra Oh,
Thomas Haden Church, Virgina Madsen, SIDEWAYS
Viggo Mortensen, Zuleihka Robinson,
Omar Sharif, J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Berridge, HIDALGO
Ron Perlman, John Hurt, David Hyde-Pierce, Selma Blair, HELLBOY
Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Kate Ashfield,
SHAUN OF THE DEAD
Matt Damon, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Julia Stiles, Karl Urban,
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY
Takeshi Kitano, Taramoru Asano, Guadalcanal Taka,
THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI
Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett-Smith,
Irma P. Hall, Tom Cruise, COLLATERAL
Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber,
Jeffrey Wright, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
Kim Basinger, Jason Statham,
William H. Macy, Chris Evans, CELLULAR
Bernie Mac, Angela Bassett, MR. 3000
Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbakke, THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE
Nathan Lane, Debra Jo Rupp, TEACHER’S PET
Tobey Maguire, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, SPIDER-MAN 2
Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen,
Daryl Hannah, Michael Parks,
Gordon Liu, KILL BILL VOL. 2
Jorgen Leth, Lars Von Trier, THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS
Lily Tomlin, Naomi Watts, Dustin Hoffman, Mark Wahlberg,
I (HEART) HUCKABEES
Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood,
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
Liam Neeson, Peter Saarsgard, Laura Linney,
William Sadler, John Lithgow, KINSEY
Catalina Sandina Moreno, MARIA FULL OF GRACE
Dennis Quaid, Giovanni Ribisi, FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX
Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Fred Willard,
Vince Vaughn, Christina Applegate,
ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY
Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Tzi Ma, J.K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans,
THE LADYKILLERS
Mario Van Peebles, BAADAASS!
Ben Affleck, George Carlin, JERSEY GIRL
Kurt Russell, MIRACLE
Jennifer Garner, Andy Serkis, Judy Greer, 13 GOING ON 30
Thomas Jane, STANDER
Maia Morgenstern, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
Shawnee Smith, SAW
Marcia Gay Harden, P.S., WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT
Gary Cole, Jason Bateman, DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY

ACADEMY OF THE OVERRATED

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
MARIA FULL OF GRACE
RIPLEY’S GAME
JU-ON
I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD
TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

ACADEMY OF THE UNDERRATED

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
DAWN OF THE DEAD
HIDALGO
MR. 3000
CELLULAR
ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY
JERSEY GIRL
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

ACADEMY OF THE SIMULTANEOUSLY UNDERRATED AND OVERRATED

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
FAHRENHEIT 9/11
I (HEART) HUCKABEES


LIKELIEST CANDIDATE FOR APPRECIATION 10 YEARS LATER

DAWN OF THE DEAD

THE STATION AGENT AWARD FOR BEST ENDING

BEFORE SUNSET
THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI

BIGGEST MISSED OPPORTUNITY

TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY THINKING?

THE TERMINAL
P.S.
EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING

MOST ASININE CRITICAL BACKLASH

Harlan Jacobsen, in the most recent issue of Film Comment (Jan-Feb 2005, “Chop Socky Soap Suds”), whining about how grindhouse martial arts cinema of the Bruce Lee variety has been appropriated by revisionists like Ang Lee and “lost-in-a-fog auteur and former Fifth Generation wunderkind” Zhang Yimou, not to mention critics who love to talk about action choreography as “ballet.” Listen to this, and know, if you loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and/or House of Flying Daggers, just how deluded you are:

”With both (Hero and House of Flying Daggers) on stateside display in the same year, it’s become painfully clear that things have degenerated way past the point of ballet.
Bye-bye, Bruce! And welcome to the land of Harlequin romance, in which gorgeous hunks on either side of some Robin Hood revolution fight to the designer death over a fairy-tale princess, running to and fro in the color-corrected forest as in a Breck shampoo ad, ending it all in a decorous splash of red. We are not talking here about some form of feminist realignment. This is nothing less than the reconfiguration of an entire genre—once a form of meta-pornography for pimply faced geeks, for whom every thud and crrrack offered a form of virtual revenge on schoolyard bullies—as a Spanish TV soap opera, for our collective Inner Girl!!! Aaarrrggggh!”

Hell hath no fury like a pimply faced geek deprived of his meta-pornography, I guess. And while we’re at it, that Francis Ford Coppola has got a lot of nerve for mucking around with Mario Puzo and making some sort of “big statement,” when we really only want tommy guns and mother complexes from our gangster pictures.


BEST DEFENSE OF COMPUTER-GENERATED IMAGERY
(NON-PIXAR DIVISION)

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
THE AVIATOR
THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI
I (HEART) HUCKABEES
SHAOLIN SOCCER
SPIDER-MAN 2

STRONGEST ARGUMENT FOR THE ELIMINATION OF COMPUTER-GENERATED IMAGERY AND RETURN TO RAY HARRYHAUSEN-STYLE STOP-MOTION ANIMATION

VAN HELSING

WORST DESECRATION OF A CINEMATIC LEGACY

VAN HELSING

CANNIEST DEFENSE OF A CINEMATIC LEGACY

BAADAASS!
SHAUN OF THE DEAD


REMAKES THAT TOPPED THE ORIGINALS

DAWN OF THE DEAD
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE


BEST MOVIES NOBODY LIKED

JERSEY GIRL
ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY

BEST MOVIES NOBODY SAW

HIDALGO
CELLULAR
FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX


WORST MOVIE EVERYBODY SAW?

MEET THE FOCKERS (I wouldn’t actually know, though, as I never saw it)

MOVIE I ONLY SAW ONCE THAT I’M ITCHING TO SEE AGAIN (I’m hoping a second-viewing might reveal to me more of what others seemed to see the first time)

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND

BEST VOCAL PERFORMANCES

Sarah Vowell, Brad Bird, THE INCREDIBLES

IF I HANDED OUT THE OSCARS:

Best Picture: MILLION DOLLAR BABY

Best Actress: JULIE DELPY
Runners-up: KATE WINSLET, HILARY SWANK, ZIYI ZHANG,
JENNIFER GARNER, CATALINA SANDINA MORENO

Best Actor: CLINT EASTWOOD *
Runners-up: BERNIE MAC, ETHAN HAWKE, PAUL
GIAMATTI, WILL FERRELL, LEONARD DiCAPRIO, KURT
RUSSELL
(* See? I waffled already!)

Best Supporting Actress: CATE BLANCHETT
Runners-up: SANDRA OH, VIRGINIA MADSEN, IRMA P. HALL,
MAIA MORGENSTERN, SHAWNEE SMITH

Best Supporting Actor: MORGAN FREEMAN
Runners-up: DAVID THEWLIS, ALAN ALDA, J.K. SIMMONS,
JAMIE FOXX, MARK WAHLBERG

Best Director: CLINT EASTWOOD
Runners-up: ZHANG YIMOU, BRAD BIRD, RICHARD
LINKLATER, ZACH SNYDER, ALFONSO CUARON, MARTIN
SCORSESE, ALEXANDER PAYNE, JOE JOHNSTON,
GUILLERMO DEL TORO

Best Original Screenplay: BEFORE SUNSET
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Runner-up: THE INCREDIBLES Brad Bird

Best Adapted Screenplay: MILLION DOLLAR BABY Paul Haggis
Runner-up: SIDEWAYS Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

Best Art Direction: HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
Runner-up: HERO

Best Cinematography: HERO
Runner-up: THE AVIATOR

Best Film Editing: THE AVIATOR
Runner-up: DAWN OF THE DEAD

Best Makeup: HELLBOY
Runner-up: DAWN OF THE DEAD

Best Musical Score: THE INCREDIBLES
Runner-up: SIDEWAYS

Best Sound: THE BOURNE SUPREMACY
Runner-up: HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS

Best Sound Effects Editing: THE INCREDIBLES
Runner-up: HELLBOY

Best Visual Effects: HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
Runner-up: HELLBOY

BEST TOP-TEN LIST

A year or so ago a bunch of coworkers and I went through a sort-of getting-to-know-you exercise in which we all exchanged lists of out top ten horror movies, Desert Island Discs
(CDs you’d taken along if you were stranded on a desert island), top ten comedies, top ten albums of the ‘80s, et cetera. When it came time for the top ten albums of the 90s list, one of the participants, Sean Newcombe, taking on the persona of Duncan MacLeod, the 600-year-old Immortal Highlander of the movie and TV series, pretended to misunderstand the category and turned in a list of his favorite albums of the 1890s. The list has nothing to do with the movies of 2004, or movies in general, but it’s such a funny piece that I begged Sean to allow to me to include it in my article. He generously agreed, and so here, without further delay (it’s been put off far long enough already) is Duncan MacLeod’s list of the Best Albums of the 1890s:

Compiling a list of the top ten albums of the 1890s was a difficult undertaking-- but, also, a labor of love. I remember the decade well. As I told Teddy Roosevelt when we stormed San Juan Hill, "Ah, indeed, this is a splendid age." He, too, is a Highlander, and now lives in Passaic, New Jersey as a grocer.

By the way, in the 1890s we referred to them as "spools," as they came on cylinders.

TOP TEN SPOOLS OF THE 1890s

1. Never Mind the Fisticuffs, Here Now's the Bowery Lads - The Bowery Lads (1898)

The Bowery Lads were an audacious quartet that thumbed their noses at the blue blood establishment with such songs as "Did You See Her Ankles?" and "We Have Liquor on Sundays," to name only a few.

2. Rabbi Feivel's Secret Klezmer Band - The Dreidels (1894)

This kabbalah-tinged effort was the first "concept" spool of its era and it featured the songwriting duo of Levitz/Malachi.

3. O, Mighty Timber! - Mr. Paul Bunyan's Original Quintet (1894)

What today is called "folk" music, we called "backwoods pleasantries." The perfect spool after a long carriage ride.

4. Manifest Destiny - John Philip Souza (1891)

This "Heavy Brass" effort was an ear-splitter from beginning to end.

5. We'll Not Wear Bloomers - The Susan B. Anthony Singers (1897)

A true "protest" spool by a daring band of suffragettes.

6. Two Games a Day - "Iron" Joe McGinnity (1899)

I know, I know, this was what would now be called a "novelty" album (we called them "curiosity spools"), but it still reminds me of going out to the Polo Grounds to watch Iron Joe pitch.

7. My Lady's Private Rag - Scott Joplin (1899)

I loved this bawdy jaunt. I'd invite the ladies over to my parlor and dance the buckles right off of my shoes.

8. 40 Whacks and Fiendish Deeds - Lizzie Borden (1897)

You might call her an "Original Gangstress"-- or you might not.

9. The Girl with the Big Balloons and Other Funnies - Giggles McGee (1892)

This was my favorite spool of jokes. We'd sit around with a bicarbonate of soda and laugh till our bellies ached.

10. Through the Looking-Glass - The Charles Dodgson Homage (1893)

Really, The Charles Dodgson Homage was the first tribute band. They took the works of Lewis Carroll (born Charles Dodgson) and made them their very own. Wondrous.

11 comments:

Thom McGregor said...

As usual, a very well-written and insightful top 10, or 11 or 22 list of the year's movies. And as usual, I either didn't see most of them or I didn't like them as much as you did, but oh, well. "Million Dollar Baby" is a good, sturdy movie that's very well-made and acted and is what I would call an old-fashioned "tearjerker spool." But I don't really understand what everyone's going on about. "The Incredibles" is a very entertaining and clever cartoon. And I refuse to see most any action movie or special-effects-laden blockbuster style film, so there goes half your list. But well done, sir! Well done! Your writing is probably, in most cases, much better than the subject of your writing.

Anonymous said...

Well done, as usual, Dennis! Here in no particularly order are my comments on your commentary:

Glad to see:
- FARENHEIGHT 9/11 and HUNTING OF THE PRESIDENT made your honorable mention. Also, I stunned that anyone else saw HUNTING.
- The unfairly maligned JERSEY GIRL is on your list, as after seeing it, I couldn’t figure out why the critics and the press felt it necessary to spew all that vitriol upon it. No, it wasn’t great, but it was certainly better than some of the other films critics salivated over (I’m talking to you, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND!)
- LADYKILLERS! I loved this movie! It had me laughing out loud from beginning when the camera panned over the campaign sign. Great, silly fun from the Cohen Brothers of all people! Who knew?


Choices that made me go “HUH?”
HIDALGO - I watched it (well, if I’m to be totally honest, I alternately watched, dozed and played Freecell on my computer) on DVD recently. A co-worker had said that she really enjoyed it and couldn’t understand why it didn’t do well at the box office. Well, I get it.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND - What a steaming pile of crap?! Rarely have I been angry when I left the theater. I wasted 2+ hours of my time, not to mention my hard-earned money on this dreadful excuse for a film. Characters I don’t care about in a confusing and uninteresting morass.

~ Sharon

Anonymous said...

Oh, my god, I just realized that I forgot to mention the brilliant "Top Ten Spools of 1890"! Huzzahs to our good buddy Newk! Made me harken back to the good old days when I sat between him and Sean Smith (aka Fintan O'Sullivan). How I ever got any work done with those two around is beyond me. Ah, good times!

~ Sharon

Anonymous said...

As always, an interesting list.

Okay, so I didn't get to read all of it, but I'm on the clock here, having just taken out the trash and now having to deal with dinner dishes.

I must insist that you add LEMONY SNICKET to your list of movies you have yet to see. For my money, it simply kicks the bejesus out of any of the Harry Potter movies, including #3, which I liked, too. Lemony looks great, the story is good, the music is remarkable, hell, even the end credits are worth watching, even if they are about 7 minutes long, and not because there are outtakes or anything at the very end of everything. If you don't trust me, trust Willie, who liked it a lot, said it had almost no flaws, and felt it was better than anything the Potter franchise has put on film. And it's a movie with Jim Carrey that has a message. Actually, more than one message.

Andy

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thom:

"Million Dollar Baby" is a good, sturdy movie that's very well-made and acted and... old-fashioned... But I don't really understand what everyone's going on about."

Well, I think that a lot of what everyone's going on about-- at least me-- is the fact that it is a good, sturdy movie, very well-made and acted, and old-fashioned. It's made in a style that encourages you to soak in these characters and their environment and take the time to follow the story and discover the riches that lie within in without being shoved around and having your nose stuck in what's supposedly good about it. It is a movie that risks derision from some quarters as being "old-fashioned" in the sense of being overly familiar, but it eventually asks questions and demands responses of its characters that might never have been asked in a Warner Bros. boxing melodrama of the 30s and 40s. And its sure hand, deliberately fluid (but not droopy, as some have suggested) pace and daring (not incompetent, as some have suggested) cinematography are all part of Clint Eastwood's continually developing command of the medium, which is, I think, in this case masterful.

"The Incredibles" is a very entertaining and clever cartoon.

I agree totally, but the strange thing is... I don't think of it as a cartoon, or even as a work of computer animation. The characters as animated, and the work of the voice actors, was so transcendent, and the vision of the movie so daring and slpendidly alive and exciting, that when I think back on Bob and Helen Parr, and their kids Violet and Dashiell, and even baby Jack-Jack, I think of them as living, breathing beings. That may be a tribute to my being able to make some imaginative (or perhaps psychotic)leap, but I think it says volumes about the quality of Brad Bird's movie, and the talent of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell and Spencer Fox in these roles.

"Your writing is probably, in most cases, much better than the subject of your writing."

Well, thanks, but given the quality of the movies I talked about on my list, it really would take a psychotic leap on my part to believe that comment even for one second. I really appreciate your coming by to read and comment, though!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Sharon:

"I'm stunned that anyone else saw HUNTING (OF THE PRESIDENT)..."

Yes, I was fortunate enough to catch it during a Dirty Dishes Cinema session on my portable DVD player recently. And people wonder why I let my kitchen go to hell...! I even thought about including Susan MacDougall on my list of best performances, but I felt that might imply I thought she was putting on an act-- a point of view I might have held to in the past to some degree, but no longer...

"I couldn’t figure out why the critics and the press felt it necessary to spew all that vitriol upon (JERSEY GIRL). No, it wasn’t great, but it was certainly better than some of the other films critics salivated over (I’m talking to you, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND!)"

I went into JERSEY GIRL with expectations lowered, certainly, but also at the recommendation of someone I trust who suspected I might appreciate it from the point of view of a father of two daughters. You're right, it's not earth-shaking, and some of its situations are overly familiar, but it's done with enough conviction to patch over some of those holes. And my friend was right-- it was very effective for me as a testament to how love goes between a dad and his kids. And Ben Affleck, for once, is not teeth-gratingly annoying; he's actually pretty darned good. As for ETERNAL SUNSHINE, I was underwhelmed, but certainly not to the point of anger. In fact, I still think it's a good movie, just not one that swept me up either with emotion or intellectual excitement-- and I think a lot of that has to do with the parallel story line involving Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, et al. Every time the director jerked me out of the Carrey/Winslet line I felt jarred and annoyed because I found what was going on in the corpopreal world, as opposed to Winslet and Carrey's heads, far less compelling. And this second story line turns out, after all the existential heavy lifting, with the revelation of Dunst's character, just to be a plot device anyway just to get that note in the right hands. That said, my one and only viewing of it was not under the best circumstances to allow a movie to envelop you in all its conceptual storytelling concerns, so I look forward to spinning it in the old DVD player soon.

I stand by HIDALGO!

And I passed your enthusiasm on to Newk. He was thrilled!








At 5:16 PM, Anonymous said...
Oh, my god, I just realized that I forgot to mention the brilliant "Top Ten Spools of 1890"! Huzzahs to our good buddy Newk! Made me harken back to the good old days when I sat between him and Sean Smith (aka Fintan O'Sullivan). How I ever got any work done with those two around is beyond me. Ah, good times!

~ Sharon

Thom McGregor said...

Dennis, I'm just going to add these two comments to the two comments you commented on.
I don't like Turner Classic Movies channel or The Cartoon Network. But I love you.

Anonymous said...

Hey! It's Bruce, weighing in with some doddering commentary, from the trenches of working "rush" in the trenches of the CCSF Bookstore: for me, "Million Dollar Baby" was a good story well told, with characters so vivid I was caught up with them every moment (except when I went to the restroom), and the photography was superb and suited both the mood of the story and the feeling of old men and an old boxing club; it evoked the 1930s for me, for some reason. The theme of people overcoming the odds to realize their dreams may be hackneyed, but like many an overdone theme, it can always be powerful again if it's done in a fresh way. "The Incredibles," for me, was wittily written and smart, well played by all, but mostly I enjoyed it as a sort of action comedy with perfect comic timing.

Anonymous said...

Bruce again--oh, and I loved "Hidalgo," too. A good, juicy adventure with a tough hero who's an animal lover--but somehow I believed he could be a man of that time. I would say it's a guy thing, but my wife loved it, too...then again, she's blinded by Viggo Amour.

Sister O'Gacihc said...

Just what the doctor ordered...

Here in the Midwest, many of us are suffering from a condition called the mid-winter blues. Daily activities are more difficult, bad news seems worse, skin peels like bad paint, snow is starting to turn brown. So, last night as I watched "Dogville," I was convinced that movies, as good as they are, must also be painful.

Tucked into his posting about the best of 2004, Dennis mentions a film I vaguely remember hearing about. In the past I have been subjected to "recommendations" by the above-mentioned Dennis that have been -- I'll be euphemistic -- a little below my expectations (two that immediately pop into my mind are "Collateral" and, ah hem, "Jackass" (the movie--not to be confused with the classic cable series)).

I rented "Cellular" with absolutely no expectations. I just wanted lightweight entertainment. And guess what. It fulfilled those expectations in such a thorough and disarming way. No big message. No "twist" to alter your perception of reality (although the movie is not too strong on reality in the first place). The film moves at the speed of a sprinter and the pace of a long distance runner. No pauses for a Charley Horse. Best of all was the dude and William Macy combo. I must say this was one of the most entertaining movies I have seen in a while. I'll let that feeling last until I have to go out and shovel the brown snow again for the 100th time this winter.

Thanks, Dennis. Maybe I'll check out "Dawn of the Dead;...Maybe...

Dennis Cozzalio said...

S.O.C.: I'm really glad you enjoyed CELLULAR. I think the success of a movie like that, amid the tens of hundreds of movies like it all over cinemas and, more to the point these days, video store shelves, really says something about how hard it is to craft a clever, honest, intelligent thriller for audiences who have apparently (but not really) seen it all. It honors its audience's intelligence by staying within the rules of the story it's trying to tell, staying within its own reality, while managing some sharp observations about our technolgical society at the same time. And CELLULAR goes one step further and achieves its (modest) glories by juicing its particular genre without turning everything into a hip deconstructionist exercise (a singular achievement in and of itself for a movie like this). Since I seem to have been momentarily forgiven for JACKASS (but perhaps not COLLATERAL), I reluctantly point you toward the movie director David R. Ellis did just previous to CELLULAR, a nifty, nasty thriller called (stay with me now) FINAL DESTINATION 2. You need not be familiar with FD1 to appreciate the way Ellis delights in his abilities to stage eye-popping action here-- this is the movie that demonstrates he's far more than just an adept stunt coordinator, his previous primary occupation. And FD2 returns creatively employed gore to its good graces, using CGI techniques to put greasy, grimy, gopher-gutty exclamation points on some of the best set pieces in a horror film in many a moon. Okay, so maybe I'm getting a bit heady here. Let's not get too carried away. Instead, just quietly turn that DAWN OF THE DEAD DVD over in your hands a few times, then, on a cold Midwestern night when you're feeling DOGVILLE-ish, but not too much so, lock the doors, wrap up in a blanket, pop that monstrosity in your player and give it a go. I can't wait to hear all about it...!