Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Top 250 Movies

Some friends and I have been looking at the Top 250 Movies on IMDB.com, and we compared who had seen the most. I tied with several others at 183 (Hitchcock and Kurosawa films helped me a lot). Since this is a dynamic list, the top 250 can change every day, but the list is fairly consistent from week to week.

Voting for “greatness” is an inherently flawed and subjective enterprise, doubly so when Internet voting is concerned (I could make 20,000 IMDB accounts and vote Ernest Goes To Jail into the list, for example). Still it is a fun thing to talk about, and if nothing else, it helps me find great movies I’ve missed over the years.

The absurd part is how many recent movies are in the Top 250. When I checked on February 13, 2007, 43 films out of the 250 were released between 1920 and 1949. There were 48 films in the top 250 released from 2000 on. So about 20% of the greatest movies of all time have been released in the past seven years? What a miraculous age we live in!

Of course, voters are more likely to vote on more recent movies, and a 12-year-old might genuinely think Return of the King is the greatest movie in the history of cinema, since he’s seen 100 movies total. Like hall of fame inductions, I think there should be a cooling off period before voting a movie as one of the greatest of all time (say ten years).

What should be considered for greatness? Influence, both cinematic and cultural, should be a factor. By that criteria, Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, Psycho, and Blade Runner will always be in a greatest movies list. Yes, The Passion of the Christ might get in on that criteria, but let’s wait the required ten years before putting it up there. I’m surprised that a few incredibly popular movies didn’t make it, such as Titanic, Rocky, and E.T.

Documentaries were not eligible for the top 250, which is outrageous. Night and Fog, the French documentary on the Holocaust, should make the top 250, as well as Hoop Dreams.

Another obvious exclusion is the lack of movies from the developing world. India, the Middle East, and Africa are completely excluded, and there is only one movie from South America (City of God).

One last point: cinema is still an amazingly young art form. There are conceivably people alive today in 2007 who could have seen every movie on this list when it premiered.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

20 Overrated Movies

I have said many times that lists are a lazy way to fill a magazine (or VH-1). Lists are easy to write, easy to edit down for space considerations, just plain easy. Some magazines seems to be made of nothing but lists (Worth, Men's Health, and Cosmo come to mind). 10 Ways To Trim Down Your Abs, 17 Mutual Funds You Should Be In Right Now, 10 Simple Paragraphs To Fill Up Page Two. People like them because they are easy to read. Lists boil down the content of a story into little manageable bites. No wonder USA Today loves them.

All of that is a convoluted way for me to say "But I like this list!" Premiere magazine had a list of the 20 most overrated movies of all time that I thought was provocative. I have not seen all of the movies on the list, but I give a resounding "Hell yes!" to many of those listed.

I particularly agree with these:

Good Will Hunting
This movie feels like a screenplay. The central premise of a genius abused kid working as a janitor at MIT, that's too cute by half, but then they (the real writers of the screenplay, not Damon and Affleck) make him SO smart, it is almost a superhero movie. Robin Wiliams and Stellan Skarsgard have some interesting exchanges as old friends and rivals, but many passages of the movie should have a big blinking "OSCAR CLIP" subtitle like in Wayne's World.

Forrest Gump
It is sort of funny that young retarded sweet innocent Gump interacts with all these famous people and events, but the gimmick gets old fast, and that's all this movie is a, a gimmick. I also despise the revisionist counterrevolutionary tone: a black radical with a huge afro walks around incoherently shouting slogans (to no one in particular), the token hippie guy beats up his girlfriend, and as the Premiere magazine article points out, the promiscuous drug-using girl dies of AIDS. Of course. Oh and it is HILARIOUS how Gump's mom prostitutes herself to get Gump into regular school. Playing that for laughs sickened me. Even friends of mine that are fans of this movie admit Gump's years long run across America was utterly ridiculous.

Monster's Ball
Like Requiem For A Dream, Monster's Ball piles on the tragic events to ludicrous heights. Shakespeare can get away with that (it helps being the greatest writer of all time) but this movie will make you snicker after awhile. By the time Halle Berry's son is killed in a hit and run, you want to throw something at the screen and yell "Come on!" Halle Berry did not deserve an Oscar for this. She gives the fifth or sixth best performance in the movie. Fuck, P Diddy acted better than her. Billy Bob Thornton, Peter Boyle, Mos Def, and Heath Ledger were all excellent.

Easy Rider
This movie must have been a blast to make. Everyone on the set was apparently baked, coked up, or tripping the entire time. It has the production values of a C-grade horror movie, the kind they would play on TBS in the early 1980s. The trip scene in New Orleans last five minutes and feels like fifty.

Gone With The Wind
Because of its huge success, fame, and staying power, this has to be the most overrated movie of all time. There are many other historical epics that were highly praised once but now look worse in retrospect (Dances With Wolves and Braveheart come to mind) but Gone With The Wind still has tons of fans. It must be the cast and the big gaudy sets. Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable are all-time movie stars, no doubt. Leigh has more charisma in this movie than every Gwyneth Paltrow performance put together. Clark Gable was a stud, a cool dude, an American James Bond with the best last line in a movie ever. So there is something to this movie. BUT...it is a four-hour-long snoozefest! It's interminably dull, and it glorifies a racist aristocracy that richly deserved to get its ass kicked. Setting aside the politics, this movie bores me to tears with its overwrought silliness. I don't think the real Civil War lasted as long as this damn movie.

I really DON'T agree with these:
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Wizard of Oz
Mystic River

I am on the fence about one choice. American Beauty was overhyped for sure, but I still think it's a great movie. I get why people think it's annoying (the gay Marine dad is too easy, and the creepy next door neighbor kid IS creepy), but I love the riff on the pointlessness of modern American society. Kevin Spacey has never been better.

Right after Gone With The Wind, which I believe inflation-adjusted is still the biggest grossing movie of all time, number two on my list of most overrated is E.T. This beloved clot of treacle is one of the most popular movies ever, and so saccharine sweet diabetics can't watch it safely. Except for Bambi, no other movie is more crassly designed to make little kids cry.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Book Review: The Wisdom Of Crowds

I haven't added anything to the original BlowdenBlog (kid-tested, mother-approved) in quite some time, so I thought I'd add some book reviews. Since I'm not a member of the East Coast Mainstream Media Elite, I don't have access to their perks, like pre-release comped books. I have to buy my books the old-fashioned way, through Amazon's website using my credit card. Also, I don't have the time to read that I would like, what with the six-hour work days, video games, and web surfing. That is a verbose way of saying the books I will be reviewing were released a long time ago.

My first review will be James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki is a regular writer for The New Yorker. His "Financial Page" column is always well-written, well-argued, and interesting. In fact, I can't think of a better writer on economic matters. He always explains the issues in a way that is easy to understand without being, to my non-economist mind at least, simplistic. My only criticism of his articles is that he always seems to come to decisive opinions about the best course of action for a given economic topic. Economics in my mind has always been an imprecise science, and I'm uneasy about unequivocal opinions on financial matters. Not that Surowiecki comes across as arrogant or partisan - his conclusions seem well-reasoned and objective.

As a fan of Surowiecki's work, I eagerly looked forward to reading The Wisdom of Crowds, and it was an enjoyable book. His central thesis is that groups of independently thinking decision-makers can come up with better choices than a small group of experts. His first example is Frances Galton, who discovered that the average guess of a cow's weight at a local fair was better than any individual guess.

He uses other examples, such as the method used to find the missing submarine USS Scorpion. Dr. John Craven of the US Navy was tasked to find the vessel, and he used probability analysis to get a consensus best guess of the sub's location based on several independent estimates. This turned out to be highly accurate, and enabled the Navy to find the missing sub.

Surowiecki discusses how groups of independent actors organize themselves in various ways, from betting on sporting events, to negotiating traffic, to participating in group discussions. One of the most compelling chapters in the book is the account of the meetings leading up to the Columbia space shuttle disaster. Surowiecki gives a persuasive example of how all opinions need to be heard, even unpopular ones, and that centralized decision making does not always lead to better results.

The Wisdom of Crowds is a lively entertaining read. Unfortunately, by ranging over such a variety of issues, his point about group dynamics is often lost. This problem is evident in many of the popular eclectic non-fiction titles of the past few years, such as Freakonomics and Blink (the latter of which I will be reviewing in a separate article). By giving a series of anecdotes, the reader can sometimes be left wondering what the overall point is. I don't think there is a central point to be gleaned from Freakonomics, for example (which is collected from a series of standalone articles and feels like it). Similarly, The Wisdom of Crowds is partially composed of material from Surowiecki's New Yorker columns, and it is hard to read as a unified whole.

Perhaps that is because this new wave of general interest non-fiction is in fact written by journalists (Surowiecki, Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Dubner) who specialize in short story-driven features. Not that I was expecting a dull monograph on decision-theory or sociology, but I would have liked The Wisdom of Crowds to have more thematic unity and a stronger conclusion. So groups of independent thinkers can arrive at decisions better than small groups of experts, where does that knowledge take us? Surowiecki gives some brief ideas, but I wanted more. Leaving your audience craving more is mostly a good thing, and Surowiecki left me urgently waiting for a followup.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Excessive Voiceover Gives You Cancer

Voiceovers in fiction need to be stopped. We hear voiceovers all the time in media, from an unseen newsreader speaking over video for a story, to Voice of God James Earl Jones pitching CNN and Verizon Wireless, to Daniel Stern going over his life story on The Wonder Years. It is this last type of voiceover that I don't like (although I'm not wild about Darth Vader pitching products either). Obviously, voiceovers in news, sports, and commercials are an integral element of their genres, but the VO in fiction is a symptom of lazy writing and acting.

In the memoir subgenre, (Wonder Years, Fried Green Tomatoes, My Name Is Earl), voiceovers are almost universally used. Here is a made-up example of what I'm talking about: picture a kid at a funeral. The camera zooms in on the kid's face as the narrator says, "The day my father died, I realized that I had to be the man of the house now. My mother and my younger brothers would need me, now more than ever. My childhood was over."

The writer is overexplaining a scene that we probably figured out already. Let the actors act. You don't have to beat the audience over the head with what you are trying to say. With the character's expressions and actions (and good point-of-view camera work), the audience will get the idea.

Also, voiceover speeches easily veer into the cloying, maudlin, Hallmark Card sentimentality that I despise with every fiber of my being. Watch an episode of Desperate Housewives (force yourself). The narration by the deceased character Mary Alice Young is sappy and wince-inducing. Now imagine the same episode without this jibber-jabber. You would still understand all the plot points. Rarely would a joke be diminished. The voiceover adds nothing to the enjoyment of the show. It actually detracts. Some might say that if the woman narrating (Brenda Strong) were a better actress, or if the dialogue were better, then the voiceover wouldn't be a problem. I disagree. Strong's acting isn't the problem, and the writing, while lame, isn't the worst part. Meryl Streep could be reading incredibly eloquent lines but it would still be a distraction from the sound and motion of the onscreen characters. Shut up and let the actors and director tell the story.

Blade Runner is a famous example of bad voiceover being excised from the director's cut of a movie. Director Ridley Scott and star Harrison Ford always disliked the omniscient dialogue Ford was forced to do. It overexplained things we already figured out, and sounded like a distracting parody of old detective movies. Removing this track from the director's cut, Scott proved the voiceover narration was an unnecessary element. Other lesser film and television producers should follow his example.

Am I saying that voiceover never works? Of course not. It is used to great effect in American Psycho, for example. The only filmmaker I can think of who consistently makes VO work is Martin Scorsese, who masterfully uses the technique in Goodfellas and Casino. But Scorsese is a genius. He also employs slow-mo and music montages, two of the most tired gimmicks in cinema, and makes them fresh and interesting, which is just short of miraculous. So my advice to film and tv creators, if your name isn't Martin Scorsese, give voiceover a rest.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Simpsons Will Save Us

Science magazine named evolution the 2005
Breakthrough of the Year.

But what do those panty-waists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science know? Relying on experiments and empirical data?!? Bah! What happened to good ol' gut instinct? Which reminds me of one of my favorite Simpsons quotes, from the always-agitated Superintendent Chalmers: "Thank the Lord? That sounded like a prayer. A prayer in a public school! God has no place within these walls, just like facts don't have a place within organized religion."

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Why I Hate Fox (and I'm not even talking about Fox News)

Arrested Development got cancelled a few weeks ago, and I am still simmering about it. One of the best sitcoms of all time in my opinion, clever on many levels. Each episode was so packed with subtle humor that you could watch it several times over and find new things to laugh at each viewing.

Some critics claimed Arrested Development had no likeable characters, which in their reasoning was the reason it failed to attract an audience. This is a ridiculous statement - almost all of the characters were likeable, despite their eccentricities. For that matter, Seinfeld's main four characters were all despicable, irresponsible people, yet the audience liked them just fine.

The main character is (was?) Michael Bluth, played by Jason Bateman. Who would have thought Jason Bateman could be so good? On the show, he was a hilarious straight man to the many weird characters around him. When later generations deconstruct this show, he will be seen as the Ward Cleaver of Generation Y (or perhaps the white, less-annoying, postmodern version of Cliff Huxtable - can I overwrite this sentence any more?). Unlike his sitcom predecessors, Michael's life is a struggle (arguably a failure). The show put a another shovel of dirt on the grave of the American Dream. It showed crass materialism and ambition in a much uglier light than we usually see on American television. That is probably why it failed to draw a mass audience.

Barring a miraculous revival on another network (my dream would be for it to be on a pay TV channel like HBO or Showtime), Arrested Development will be forced to end prematurely (that title sure is ironic now, huh?).

For you Arrested fans that like to get angry, here is a list of the truly, truly shitty sitcoms that are still on the air (as of November 29, 2005):

According To Jim
American Dad
Out of Practice
Still Standing
The War At Home
Yes Dear

That doesn't even count the dreck on UPN and WB. To add insult to injury, some of these shows have been on a long damn time. According to Jim is in its fifth season, and Yes Dear is in its sixth. Of course, the incredibly overrated Everybody Loves Raymond is remembered as a classic, so I obviously live in Bizarro World.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Torn Apart By Hooks

I always felt that if I were to be sucked into a demonic netherworld where my flesh was torn off by hooks and biomechanical attachments were inserted all over my body (a la Hellraiser), I would want Nine Inch Nails to be playing. Nine Inch Nails is my favorite music for transcendental unhappiness. I don't mean, "Oh shucks, my baseball team lost last night." I mean existential angst, crushing despair that sits on your chest and presses you into the floor. If you were having withdrawals from heroin, and you got beaten and left for dead in a urine-soaked alley, AND you just got a Candygram that all of your family had been murdered, that would be Nine Inch Nails time.

NIN is basically one man, Trent Reznor, and I am not making fun of him. I think he is a phenomenal songwriter and lyricist. His latest album With Teeth is awesome. I like every song on it from start to finish. I just think his music fits my worst moods. Reznor can certainly write a catchy pop song, but some of his music is the audio equivalent of an H.R. Giger painting. I find it very interesting that Johnny Cash liked Reznor's work enough to cover "Hurt," the depressing NIN song that became an even more depressing Johnny Cash cover. Cash's video for "Hurt" makes me tear up every time I see it. It is the most depressing thing I have ever seen that wasn't Holocaust related.

Anyway, I thought I was being too negative in my blog, so I thought I would be positive about something, or as positive as I can be. Trent Reznor is a great American (and so is Johnny Cash).