Thoughts on Spring Breakers, the Male Gaze, and the Objectification of Power

Michael Powell, in 1960, made a film that departed from his famous work of the 1940s and 1950s with Emeric Pressberger. It was a horror film called Peeping Tom. Similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s more popular Psycho, it depicted a man who murders women as he films them. A film of fantastic psychological complexity, one of its most daring aspects is the way it embodies the male gaze inherent in narrative cinema and brings it to the forefront, a full 15 years before Laura Mulvey would publish her famous essay on the subject, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

In Powell’s film, the pleasure Mark Lewis, the titular peeping tom, gets from the act of watching is taken to its logical, violent end point. The camera becomes a tool of destruction, a weapon that not only objectifies with its gaze, but literally kills. The camera is not only used to record; Lewis attaches a knife blade to one of his tripod legs. The violence of the male gaze in narrative cinema is made flesh.

Last night, I saw the nascent year’s most discussed film, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. I doubt there will be more written about another film in 2013, and for obvious reason. It stars three teen idols, playing against the (somewhat) clean image they have in the media, and James Franco, who seems to become, in the eyes of entertainment media, an iconoclast by pushing the limits of picking controversial projects in the age of picking controversial projects. Add to the casting decisions the fact that Korine himself is going against his own reputation, making a film about four college girls and an amateur drug dealer named Alien after films like Trash Humpers, Gummo and Julian Donkey Boy, and Spring Breakers is a TMZ wet dream.

Spring Breakers could have been successful just by performing some sort of fantastic prank on its audience of Disney Channel loyalists and Franco fans. The film is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what its marketing campaign and seedy plot description promises. While it delivers bikini-clad, sapphic college girls robbing drug dealers set to Britney Spears, the editing, structure and voice over reminded me more of Malick than Bound. Droves of unexpecting Selina Gomez fans would have shown up, and just as many would have walked out confused and disgusted (I’m sure the kids behind me in the theater were members of these droves). Korine has done something more than playing a joke on the biggest audience of his career, though. With Spring Breakers, Korine has made a film that embodies the male gaze and its effect better, perhaps, than any since Peeping Tom.

Korine starts Spring Breakers with a montage of the kind of images with which anyone who’s seen a Girls Gone Wild commercial is familiar. College girls take off their bikini tops, soaked in beer poured by drunken college boys, all bleached by the overwhelming Florida sun. Instead of letting his camera stay at a safe, concealing distance, he zooms in on the shaking, wrinkling flesh of the girls’ thighs and buttocks, marked by cellulite, which is natural to anyone with any kind of body fat. It’s exactly the kind of image that you’d never see in the pornographic images presented in normal spring break movies, but even in the first moments, Korine wants us to see the things that the fantasy of spring break tries to conceal.

That fantasy is where the idea of the male gaze comes in. Unlike Powell’s concept of the gaze, Korine’s is less actively violent and more enticing. The girls in the film react to something they’ve been exposed to in footage from spring break. The idea of spring break, to them, is some fantastic fantasy world where they escape from their college campus for a week and “let loose.” Letting loose, is, to each of the girls, something very different, but each of their concepts are based in the debauchery they’ve been exposed to over and over by television. Insidiously, the ever-present cameras in our culture draw them closer and closer to a fantasy world that doesn’t exist.

Even the way the girls get the money to get there is based in media saturation. The girls discover that they’re short on money despite saving all year. After a quick discussion, three of them decide to rob a local restaurant, stealing their professor’s car to use in the robbery. One of the girls tells the others to “just pretend like it’s a video game” or a movie, and as such, the scene is shot with a sense of distance. We watch from the passenger seat of the getaway car while the driver circles the restaurant, watching the chaos the other two girls cause inside through the windows. Much like Powell’s point of view footage of murders in Peeping Tom, Korine’s decision here, at the beginning of his film, makes us complicit in the robbery, and by extension, the corruption of these girls.

The question of whether it really is corruption is a good one. Two of the girls, Brit and Candy, the ones who drive the others toward more and more dangerous activities throughout the film, may not be corrupted, but instead corruptors. Their characters are the most interesting to me, in the sense that they embody the way the male gaze has transformed in the 53 years since Peeping Tom and the 38 since “Visual Pleasure in the Narrative Cinema”.

Formerly, the male gaze left women powerless. Under the camera eye, women frequently became sexual objects, victims, or both. Very rarely were they presented as powerful, and when they were, they were corrupting influences on the heroes of their stories, the classic example being the femme fatale in numerous films noir. In the past 20 years, images of powerful women have become more frequent. While the portrayal of powerful women is, on its surface, a positive change away from the male gaze, it often leads to a different kind of objectification. Instead of victimized objects, the camera frequently turns women into objects of power, associated more with how much violence they can unleash and sexual control over men rather than control over their own image.

This image, the powerful woman, an archetype more than a character, is what entices Brit and Candy. This becomes most evident in the “look at my shit” scene, in which Alien shows the two of them the things he’s gained through his horrible lifestyle. At the end of this scene, Brit and Candy pick up two loaded guns, and force Alien to perform fellatio on the silencers attached to their barrels. They tell him they could kill him easily, to which is response is “I think you’re my soul mates”. This is exactly what they think they want. To be as powerful as a man who gained power by selling drugs and murdering people. That Alien may be as much a pretender to that power as they are is irrelevant. The image is what matters to them. As long as they have Scarface on repeat and the piano by the sea, the image of power is maintained.

The concept of power as physical violence is followed through in the final scenes, where Brit and Candy invade a drug dealer’s compound. The action unfolds like the climax of a typical action film, with bodies falling into pools and faceless bikini-clad women running from the bullets aimed at the the men who were fondling them a minute beforehand. What differentiates the climax of Spring Breakers from that of a typical action movie is the way in ambiguous expressions the girls wear as they drive away in Archie’s Ferrari. The girls look bored as they speed down the highway, and it’s unclear whether they are merely disappointed that, after the rush of their life with Alien and its violent conclusion, they are returning to their dull lives in college, or if they are disappointed that for all their violence and wildness, they didn’t become something they were merely pretending to be.

The Master Returns

(Because of the unexpected nature of last night’s screening and the desire to get this up in a timely manner, I’ll be posting this week’s non-narrative film update on Monday)

I saw The Master last night. For those of you who don’t know, the screening had been announced 24 hours beforehand, and it may be the only time that the film screens in its intended format, 70 millimeter film, in Chicago. I hope that’s not the case, because I want others to have the chance to see this movie the way it was meant to be seen.

Jaoquin Phoenix plays the Renfield to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s psychic Dracula. Phoenix is an animal, drunken, wild and destructive, and Hoffman’s charismatic Lancaster Dodd is a man that believes human beings are not animals. He believes we are better than animals, that we have souls that have been alive for trillions of years. Into his belief system he has ensnared apostles all over the U.S., chief among them his wife, played with an unbreakable intensity and power that I’ve never seen from Amy Adams before.

The scenes between Phoenix and Hoffman are the movie’s best, as Phoenix’s violence collides with Hoffman’s calming platitudes. The crux of the film occurs in a jail cell. Hoffman and Phoenix are dragged into their cells. Hoffman stands, unaffected by his arrest, while Phoenix goes on a rampage, smashing his toilet, kicking the wall, screaming at Hoffman, who is only angered by the fact that he can’t seem to get through to Phoenix. Phoenix is his one pupil that seems completely resistant to his methods. The contrast between the two characters, one trying to civilize the other, one dragging the other into drunkenness is what makes The Master so exciting.

Somewhere between the major, feeling-the-rotation-of-the-Earth masterpiece that was There Will Be Blood and the minor, who-cares-about-the-world-out-there originality of Punch-Drunk Love, The Master is Anderson leaving his past behind. In his last three films, Anderson has become his own filmmaker, and a filmmaker who is never comfortable. He will never make another There Will Be Blood, and those who go into The Master expecting Daniel Plainview will be disappointed. Those who go in ready for another masterwork from the best American filmmaker of the last 16 years, on the other hand, will surely have their expectations met.

The headlines have been about Scientology, and that’s what they’ll continue to be, but The Master isn’t about Scientology. It’s about something much larger. The idea of human being as animal, the concept (or perhaps the lie) of freedom, and the peace we seem to search for in places that can only breed more violence are ideas that existed long before Scientology. If Anderson had made a film merely about Scientology, it may have been great. But I have little doubt that it would have only been a tenth as great as The Master.

An Introduction to an Introduction

I can trace my interest in avant-garde film back to day in March of 2009, when Noel Murray wrote an interesting article for The A.V. Club about the struggles of being a fan of the experimental brother of the narrative films we all love. If you know the name I used to comment on the AVC back then, you can find my thoughts on avant-garde films from the time. I viewed experimental film more as a breeding ground for techniques I’d see in the films I love than as a genre of film I could love myself. The techniques I’d see in Béla Tarr and Martin Scorsese films were born in avant-garde, but beyond that, I couldn’t appreciate them as fully formed works of art. I admitted I wasn’t right to think that way, but it was the way I thought.

    The part of Murray’s article that stuck with me was the idea that more people might not only appreciate, but actually love, avant-garde film if there were the non-narrative film equivalent of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Having been somewhat lost in the jungle of movies that rarely make any sense for the past 3 years, I can attest to the fact that having a guide would be welcome to millions of cinephiles around the world. So I’ve decided to try it. This series, however long it runs, will hopefully provide you with an opportunity to learn more about a style of film that, while entirely different from the great narrative films we all love so much, offers just as much entertainment and opportunity for thoughtful engagement.

     You should know I don’t claim to be anything resembling an expert on avant-garde film. In fact, I’ll get this out of the way now: I’m a novice. This series of blog entries serves two purposes: to introduce people who want to learn more about the subject to new gateways and to teach myself more about it, too. I feel like I’m in the position where I can teach others about avant-garde film because I have my foot in both worlds. I know more than I did on that probably dreary morning in 2009, but I also know that I’m only familiar with a tiny fraction of a fraction of the world I’m writing about. But since the day I read that article, I’ve seen some great films by directors like Stan Brakhage, George Kuchar, Hollis Frampton, and Chantal Akerman, and I understand just how wrong I was. I hope that I’ll be able to show you how wrong I was, too.

     I’ve been thinking about writing something like this for about a year, now, and I’m still trying to figure out how to do it. What are the sticking points for someone who wants to know more about avant-garde film (besides, you know, everything about it)? One of the first things that comes to mind is the term itself. Avant-garde film. It’s so artsy. So pretentious. So French. It sticks on the roof of your mouth and makes you feel like you’ll never be able to understand anything about this entire genre. So I say we start by throwing “avant-garde” out the window. That and “experimental.” Lots of films are experimental. Powell and Pressburger, Hitchcock, Welles, they all made experimental movies. But none of them are included in the genre of “experimental films”. Frankly, I think there term, when applied to a single group of movies, is bullshit.

     So what do we call this genre? There’s no perfect term for it, just like there’s no perfect term for the movies playing at the multiplex. But I’ve settled, after a lot of thought, on non-narrative film. It’s imperfect, since a lot of non-narrative films have what you might call narratives (including our first film). But even those movies subvert or downright abuse the idea of a traditional narrative, to the point where they’re nearly unrecognizable as (if you’ll excuse my scare quotes) “traditional” narrative films. For our purposes, non-narrative film is simply the best term for this genre.

     Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the actual meat and potatoes of what we’re going to do each week. The idea I want to get across in this series, with a hat tip to Noel Murray, is that while non-narrative films may seem foreign and inscrutable, we’re more familiar with the terms they present us with than we think. Music videos, commercials, YouTube videos, and even home videos have introduced us to worlds without logic, images that, when presented in succession, take on new meanings, and entertainment and emotional connection without anything resembling a traditional narrative. We’ve all been subjected to these things before, and most of us have watched them willingly and enjoyed them.

     Keeping that in mind, I want to make sure my focus stays firmly on the films themselves, rather than delving too much into the culture they influenced. When I talk about Kenneth Anger, I’m going to talk about Kenneth Anger. Not Martin Scorsese, not David Lynch, not John Waters. They’ll come into my discussion, I’m sure, because they’re the filmmakers on whom Anger most clearly exerted an influence, but this series is about first appreciating and hopefully loving non-narrative film as an artform itself.

     Each week, I’ll watch a non-narrative film, and write about the ideas and themes which I think make it worth watching. Most of these movies are short and on YouTube, so I’ll link to the film itself as often as possible. After the body of the post, I’ll try to include a short selection of music videos, commercials, and movies that I see as gateways to enjoying the movie in question, essentially a “if you like that, you might like this” section.

     I hope that eventually these posts will inspire some conversation in the comments, but I don’t expect much by way of that at first. But please, if you’re reading this, I want to hear your opinion. If you agree, if you disagree, even if you have input on my process, I welcome it.

So without further ado we’ll start with our first film: Chris Marker’s most famous work, La Jetée.

     As most of you know, Chris Marker died on monday, the day after his 91st birthday. When I tweeted about his death, one of the first responses came from Peter Labuza, who pointed out that La Jetée may be the best entry point to non-narrative film for the uninitiated. The more I thought about it that day, the more I agreed. La Jetée tells an exciting sci-fi story, avoids the cold emotional distance that many non-narrative films proudly engender, and inspired Terry Gilliam movie with a devoted cult. Not only is it one of the best gateways to non-narrative film, it may be the most seen non-narrative movies ever made. So I think the fact that it is such a great entry point combined with the timeliness of Marker’s death make La Jetée a perfect place to start.

    In just 27 minutes, La Jetée presents us with an amazingly complex story about memory and love. It’s rarely mentioned among the greatest love stories in cinema, but wholly deserving of a place among them. The story begins with a memory of a young boy witnessing a death at an airport. From this introduction, we’re thrown into the outbreak of World War III. Paris is destroyed in a nuclear attack, and the survivors are forced to live under the city as either “victors” or “prisoners.” The victors perform experiments on the prisoners. One of the prisoners (none of the characters are named, he is only credited as The Man) is selected for his intense memory, the memory of a child witnessing a death from the opening. This vivid memory will allow him to travel backwards in time.

    The Man is injected with a serum by The Experimenter, at which point he travels back to a time before the war. Each time he time travels, he encounters a woman who he remembers from the day of the murder.. The Woman is his connection to peacetime, and they fall in love. The bulk of the film is spent on their love affair. She refers to him as “her ghost.” After one trip back,a visit to a museum of natural history, The Experimenter explains that the experiment has been a success, and that The Man is to be sent to the future to get help for the fallen society. The Man realizes he will no longer be sent back, and he will never see the woman he loves again. He accepts this fact; he has no choice. He travels to the future, he’s given a power source which will help with reconstruction, and goes back, knowing that he will most likely be disposed of. He was only a tool to The Experimenter.

    Instead, as he lays in his cell, the people from the future come to him (they can travel easily through time) and tell him they want him to join them. Without hesitation, he asks to be sent back in time to be with the woman he loves instead. They oblige, and he is sent back to the same day of his childhood memory. The Woman stands on the far end of the airport’s concourse. He runs to her, but before he can reach her, he sees The Experimenter, who shoots and kills him. He realizes, as he dies, that as a child, he witnessed his own death.

    What separates La Jetée from films with similar themes, such as Solaris, is the way in which the story is presented on screen. It is told entirely with still images. Where a normal film would present us with a shot in which the camera and its subjects move, here, every image we see is static (save for one). In addition to this, all dialogue is whispered in German, and the story is narrated by a pleasantly monotone voice.

    Essentially, Marker took the basic concepts of cinema in the sound era and broke them down. Sound combines with images, but not in any way we’re familiar with. In a conventional film, images become motion. In La Jetée, motion becomes images. The film is projected the same way as any other film. The flicker effect that creates the illusion of movement is still there, but instead it creates the illusion of an image sitting unmoving on the screen, followed by another image, and so on. There’s no reason for La Jetée to be presented as a film rather than a book with pictures, except that it shows us the reality of what we see every time we sit in a dark theater.

     One of the reasons La Jetée is such a strong gateway to non-narrative film is that it’s rooted in something we all innately understand from the time we’re children. Two or more images combining to create a larger narrative isn’t just the basis for film, comic books, and picture books; it’s the basis for language itself. Anyone reading this sentence understands the concept. But when we watch a movie, we’re used to images being presented in such rapid succession that we don’t recognize them as still photographs or drawings.

      In the booklet for the Criterion Collection DVD of La Jetée, there is a short recollection from Marker about where the idea for the movie came from. He tells a story about a small viewfinder through which he slid frames from movies like Abel Gance’s Napoleon; in a way, it was an early form of home video. He loved looking at the frames so much, he eventually endeavored to make his own. He got a hold of some transparent film and drew several frames. When he presented it to the most creative boy in his class, the boy scoffed and told him that movies were supposed to move.

     Marker’s story betrays the playfulness under the black-and-white, the classical music, and the meditative tone in La Jetée. It may be the most important thing about the movie. We’ll come back to the concept of playfulness a lot in this series, because I think it’s one of the things that starkly separates non-narrative film from narrative film, and also makes films more accessible than they may seem at first.  Here, Marker isn’t just creating a beautiful film; he’s having a lot of fun doing it.

     La Jetée is so playful that it doesn’t even follow its own rules. I mentioned above that I consider it one of the greatest love stories ever told, up there with The Apartment. One scene in particular pushes it onto another level. For the first 20 minutes or so, La Jetée is, as you know, presented entirely in still frames. On one of The Man’s trips back, though, we see images of The Woman laying in bed, lit by an early morning light, nude and covered by bedsheets. There’s no narration and no music in this scene, just the sound of hundreds of birds singing cacophonously at once. The images move faster and faster as she wakes from her sleep, until finally we get to a single shot of her face looking directly at the camera, and she blinks twice. Not a still image of her blinking, but a traditionally filmed shot of her blinking. In that moment, everything that seemed artificial before becomes painfully, beautifully real.

     Unlike many of the movies I’ll be writing about going forward, La Jetée is grounded in emotion as much as it is intellect. It’s not a romantic film, but it is an emotional one. It’s a film about memory, and the ways that memory ties us to the past and holds us there. The Man rejects the utopian world of the future for the past, and because he’s trapped in that memory, he dies. Still, I don’t think there’s any question that Marker is at least sympathetic to The Man’s desire to stay with The Woman, the one memory he has to hold onto in a dying world.

The Best Movies of 2011

Monkey Ghost

2011 was a great year for movies. It won’t be a good year for Oscars (the two are more than likely related), but it was the best year for movies since at least 2007. I’m actually hard-pressed to think of a better year for movies since 1975 (my personally favorite year). From the greatest living directors (Scorsese, Godard, Kioristami) to filmmakers who’ve just started to make a name for themselves (Farhadi, Refn, McQueen), 2011 saw an awful lot of great artists at the absolute top of their games. I’ve listed the 30 best movies released in 2011 that I’ve seen, and written about the top 15. This was, to say the least, difficult. Any of my top 7 could have been my number 1, and any of my top 20 could have fit in with my top 10, easily. But I think, after putting considerable time into thinking about the order, I got it right. There’s a few well-reviewed movies I’ve missed out on, from House of Pleasures to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, so the list is, at best, transitional. But I don’t think there will be too many changes going forward with masterpieces like this. Without further ado:

The Top 15

A Separation
1. A Separation – In a year when Abbas Kioristami left the country and Jafar Parahdi began his imprisonment and forced hiatus from filmmaking, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation made an excellent case that he is the next great filmmaker to come out of Iran. With one of the best scripts in years and subtle, gorgeous performances, what could have easily been an interesting chamber drama about a husband refusing to leave Iran with his wife or grant her a divorce takes a turn to become a masterful, nearly perfect analysis of justice in a situation where no one is guilty and no one is innocent.

2. Drive – After the dust of the well-deserved hype and the inevitable and in some ways just as deserved backlash has cleared, it’s interesting to look back on Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive with more objective eyes. I thought maybe I’d like it less when I looked back on it soberly, but to be honest, if anything, I love it more now that I’ve had time to think about it. On the surface, Drive is the ultimate “cool” movie: strong, silent hero, car chases, ultra-realistic violence, and a soundtrack that sounds like it was lifted from an episode of Miami Vice. But these elements are also what separate it from a run-of-the-mill but intelligent, cool-in-quotation-marks thriller. Underneath all the sheen, it’s a movie about stunted adolescence crossing the line into delusion. Ryan Gosling’s Driver is an emotionally stunted teenager surrounded by people who play right into his fantasies, and when he runs into Albert Brooks’s Bernie Rose, the only adult in the movie, the results are as violent and explosive as any movie I’ve seen.

3. Meek’s Cutoff – Kelly Reichart takes the revisionist western to its logical extreme in a movie with none of the hallmarks of the genre, just a small group of pioneers crossing a rocky, arid desert. They’re led by a man named Meek and an Indian they’ve captured, neither of whom they trust. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it is a rewarding one. Reichart makes innovative use of her mise-en-scène and sound design to craft a gorgeous film that makes deft points women in a world with no respect for them and the equalizing power of desperation.

4. Tree of Life – With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick presented science in religious terms. All the awe and beauty once reserved for Biblical epics, Kubrick used to create the greatest science fiction film of all time. With Tree of Life, Terrence Malick presents religion in scientific terms. It’s a movie very much about God and mortality, told from the perspective of Sean Penn’s Jack, who tries, in the film’s most nascently famous scene, to imagine the scope of a truly supreme being who existed before the dawn of time. Between the bookends of this truly awesome scene and an ending that includes an image of heaven and the end of the world, Malick creates cinema’s greatest Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness.

5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – I’m not completely sure what to say about Uncle Boonmee. To be honest, I don’t know what you can say. No blurb could explain the plot, no description could explain its techniques, and no words could do it justice. So I’ll simply say this: I wouldn’t recommend Uncle Boonmee to most people, even most people who love movies. That said, it’s a gorgeous, meditative film about rebirth, death, and the quality of the life that takes place in between. It’s a weird movie, but at its core, it’s a universal one.

6. Certified Copy – In Certified Copy, Juliette Binoche gives not only the best performance of the year, but also the best performance of her already formidable career. It’s never clear exactly what’s going in this movie. Sometimes, it feels like we’re watching an intellectual exercise, sometimes, a budding love affair, sometimes, a dying marriage. While for some movies, this confusion would be messy, it actually helps Certified Copy. The audience intrinsically knows the emotions on the screen are not real, but what we see is that an imitation of a emotion is sometimes just as valuable as the real thing. Abbas Kioristami has created a true masterpiece in the vein of Before Sunset and Voyage in Italy.

7. The Interrupters – My girlfriend and I were lucky enough to see The Interrupters followed by an Q&A with Steve James (who also directed another one of my favorite documentaries, Hoop Dreams), the founders of CeaseFire, several other people involved in both the production and the program it documents, and, best of all, Ameena Matthews. Once you’ve seen this movie (and this may be the one movie in my top 10 I’d unequivocally recommend to everyone), you will never forget Ameena. The Interrupters is not just a portrait of a community plagued by a disease, but also a real-life superhero movie about people like Matthews who are amazing enough to make a dent, no matter how small, in the violence that’s destroying a city.

8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – One of the big debates I had with myself while organizing this list was whether to put Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or 13 Assassins at 8. It probably came down to the fact that I saw TTSS a couple of weeks ago, and haven’t seen 13 Assassins in a few months. Both are excellent genre films that, instead of redefining their respective genres, look backwards, TTSS to pre-James Bond Cold War spy films like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and 13 Assassins to Kurosawa’s great samurai action movies. Neither is particularly original, but both make an excellent case for virtuosity over originality.

9. 13 Assassins – TOTAL MASSACRE. Nuff said.

10. Tabloid – For the second year in a row, following Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop, the most purely entertaining movie of the year has been a documentary, this time by one the medium’s greatest provocateurs, Errol Morris. I’ve been reading Morris’s Believing Is Seeing, about the difference between what we see in photographs and reality. One of his central points is that doctored or posed photos often tell a more accurate, complete story than the photos we think of as authentic. The story of Joyce McKinney and her battle against the British tabloids is a perfect example of how true this can be. The tabloids manufacture stories about McKinney, but in the end, even the masters of the insane supermarket schlock can’t keep up with the truth.

11. Shame – Michael Fassbender had a very good year, and he capped it with his best performance yet. He plays a sex addict whose life is interrupted by not only his sister coming to live with him, but his own attempts to break free of the cycle of one night stands and anonymous sex. Steve McQueen’s stunning camera work capturing a nearly flawless performance from Fassbender solidifies this relationship as one of the most exciting to watch in film right now.

12. Weekend – Finally, a movie that’s more about homosexual love than homophobia. In its own quiet, lackadaisical way, Weekend is as radical as any movie that deals with homosexuality from a more political angle, because it shows a relationship between two men not as socially transgressive, but as touching a love story as there is.

13. Poetry – There are films as lovely and simple, but movies like Poetry are rarely this compelling. The less you know about this movie, the better, but I can tell you that Chang-dong Lee’s melodrama may sound staid from a quick DVD blurb, but it is simply one of the most unflinching, elegiac films I’ve seen in a very long time.

14. The Skin I Live In – As much as I’ve liked his last few movies, it’s great to see Pedro Almodovar back to being Pedro Almodovar with his best movie since Talk to Her. It’s refreshing to see a movie so full of bizarre twists bordering on the surreal that can use those same twists to explore gender, ethics, love and identity in such a clear and straightforward way. It’s sort of a horror movie, sort of a science fiction movie, and sort of a melodrama, in a way that only an Almodovar movie can be any of those things.

15. Hugo – Anyone who knows my taste in movies knows I am a big Martin Scorsese fan (I routinely list Raging Bull as my favorite movie) and I love Georges Méliès almost as much. Even so, I was more than a little nervous about the concept of Scorsese making a 3D children’s movie. When you think of Scorsese, orphans living in train stations, automatons, and magicians aren’t the first things to come to mind. But Hugo proves that Scorsese can still, after almost 40 years, surprise you. Scorsese borrows not just from the great Méliès films he recreates in the movie’s second half, but also later silent comedies and movies from the French poetic realist era, and the resulting cocktail makes a charming, beautiful case for film preservation. There are plenty of times it lacks subtlety, but sometimes subtlety is overrated.

 16 through 30:

John Hawkes
16. Martha Marcy May Marlene

17. Margaret

18. Silent Souls

19. Bridesmaids

20. Contagion

21. Take Shelter

22. The Arbor

23. Le Quattro Volte

24. Attack the Block

25. Melancholia

26. Film Socialisme

27. The Trip

28. Super 8

29. The Artist

30. The Myth of the American Sleepover

Louie Louie Louie Louie

I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to try to answer without using Google or IMDB. What won Best Short Film, Live Action, at the Oscars in 2007? Hint: it was the year The Departed won Best Picture. Clock’s ticking.

I’m going to assume that even the devoted film addicts and Oscar historians among you didn’t get it, and probably only the people who made West Bank Story would be able to tell you that they, in fact, won an Oscar less than 5 years ago. There’s a reason for that. Since the beginning of the sound era, the short film format has been ghettoized. It’s not so much that it’s considered illegitimate; it’s more that it’s considered either a proving ground to young filmmakers who go on to do better things in their “real” movies, or a home to bizarre experimental cinema too mind-boggling to be consumed in larger chunks. In days of the silver screen (or, still, in the case of Pixar), short films were shown before features, cementing their reputation as warm-ups rather than headliners.

But there’s hope for short film; hope that comes from an unexpected source: Louis C.K. For those of you who don’t know, C.K. is one of the best and most popular stand-up comedians working today. He also writes, directs, edits, produces, and stars every episode of his FX series, Louie, which, despite somewhat tepid ratings, is nearing the end of its second season and has been picked up for a third. It’s one of the best, most exciting shows on TV right now.

One of the things that makes it so radically different is the format. Every week, Louie presents us with one or two stories about Louis C.K, a divorced comedian with two young daughters living in New York City. Louis C.K., the character, is pretty much just Louis C.K. the comedian, but with a few gently surreal touches mixed in. The result is a mixture of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor and Jorge Luis Borges fiction. It’s not always a comedy (though the clips of C.K.’s stand-up that get mixed in are always hilarious), but it always tells a compelling story.

That brings me back to my point. By telling these insular stories with a lack of continuity between them, C.K. is doing for short film what Harvey Pekar did for comic strips. He may not be making them popular again, but he is getting attention for making them. Each episode is a short movie, using the same cast and characters, but none really being explicitly connected. What happens at the end of one episode will have little effect on what happens at the beginning of the next (beyond, perhaps, a callback or a wink to an earlier story).

Of course, Louie is a TV show. It’s not a movie. It’s not shown in theaters. But if I were a young filmmaker thinking about making short films, I wouldn’t look any further than what C.K. is doing every Thursday night. He explores how to tell an exciting story in just 10 minutes without making it feel rushed. Most of his shorts even take on a lazy sort of pace, which is amazing considering how much plot he can get into that short span.

He’s even, on occasion, had the chance to explore different genres. Most episodes fit into the same dark situational comedy that was popular in the 70s, but once in a while Louie goes out on a limb. The best example so far has been “Duckling”, which premiered last week. Based on C.K.’s experience in Afghanistan on a U.S.O. tour and a story by his daughter, it combines aspects of both the war movie and the road movie.

“Duckling” is, in my mind, the best representation of what Louie can do. Not only does it show that short films can be just as ambitious as their full-length counterparts, but it shows the power of telling a small story. This isn’t The Thin Red Line or Platoon. It’s just like any other episode of Louie. Louis C.K., the character, is a guy who gets into awkward situations and only feels comfortable up on stage; it doesn’t matter if it’s in Manhattan or Afghanistan, he’s probably going to strike out with a pretty girl and make an ass out of himself around people who actually know what they’re doing. Louis C.K., the comedian, never loses sight of the fact that it is, at its heart, a short film, with all the same limitations, and all the same benefits.