Thursday, January 7, 2010
James Cameron's "Avatar" may be all the current rage, but according to our critics, 2009 offered plenty of great movies. We'll talk with Beth Accomando and Scott Marks about their picks for the best and worst in film for 2009. We'll also talk about some of the big stories from the year, including a little movie by a San Diegan that scored big at the box office.
'Best Of' Lists
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. There are good reasons to say goodbye and even good riddance to last year, but when it comes to movies, maybe not so much. 2009 saw a wide variety of excellent and ambitious movies, from Quentin Tarantino's gleefully violent "Inglourious Basterds," to the sly Italian tour-de-force bio-pic called "Il Divo." And there were horror movies, animated pictures and romances in 2009 that we may still be talking about in the years to come. Joining us with their best-of lists on this KPBS Film Club of the Air are Beth Accomando, KPBS film critic and author of the Cinema Junkie blog on KPBS.org. Hi, Beth.
BETH ACCOMANDO (KPBS Film Critic): Hi.
CAVANAUGH: And Scott Marks is the author of the film blog EmulsionCompulsion.com. Happy New Year, Scott.
SCOTT MARKS (Film Critic): Happy New Year. We missed you. We did two shows without you.
CAVANAUGH: I know.
MARKS: Your punishment is now you have to go watch “Precious.”
CAVANAUGH: I hate when that happens.
MARKS: So do I.
CAVANAUGH: Well, first of all, let’s talk about some of the trends and maybe some of the surprises we saw at the movies in 2009. Beth, comic book adaptations have been the big box office hits the last couple of years. Did we see that continuing trend this year?
ACCOMANDO: Yeah. I mean, there were fewer actual comic books, I think, adapted this year but the trend of that style of film – I think a film like “Avatar” fits very much into that even though it’s not directly adapted from the comic book. I think kind of maybe the twist or the trend where it seems to be going a little more now is the video gaming aspect seems to be getting a little more prevalent with movies like “Gamer” and “Crank: High Voltage” and even “Avatar,” I think, is a lot like being in a video game. So I think that may be kind of the tweak that’s happening to it but, I mean, we’ve got a lot of sequels coming out. We still have more “X-Men” coming. We have another “Ironman.” So I think it’s still going to be a strong trend.
CAVANAUGH: But is it dying off a little bit, Scott?
MARKS: God, I hope so. I am so tired of these movies, you know. I don’t know “Watchman” made a ton of money. I would say “Transformers” is a big comic book movie. So, no, I don’t think it’s dying off at all.
CAVANAUGH: Well, one San Diego connection that was big at the movies this year was the little low budget horror movie called “Paranormal Activity.” It became a big hit. A San Diego named (sic) Oren Peli made it. How did “Paranormal Activity” become such a phenomenon, Beth?
ACCOMANDO: Well, I think it worked along the lines of what “Blair Witch” did, which is, you know, it was a small, low budget film and it did use a lot of the inter – I mean, it used the internet to help it get this buzz going, and the buzz was going with the younger crowd, probably college age was the most, but I went with a group of my teen critics and they had all heard about it and were all interested in it, so I think it grew from that. The studio also, I think, handled it smartly. They went about having a lot of small word-of-mouth screenings targeted at college audiences, and it built. And it struck a nerve with people just the way “Blair Witch” did. And it’s the kind of thing you can’t calculate to create. I mean, if a studio went in and said, ooh, we gotta make this low budget film and bring in a hundred mil, you can’t calculate it like that to make it work. I mean, these things do have to kind of spontaneously grow.
MARKS: And they were very, very cautious in releasing this film. They opened it at midnights only for awhile.
MARKS: And there was no advertising. It was strictly word of mouth…
ACCOMANDO: But I don’t know that was so much cautious as part of the game plan. I mean, because I think that created – they sold out those midnight screenings and they had to add – I mean, I went to the first midnight screening they had and they added two theaters to it because there was all this – It’s the supply and demand kind of notion. It’s like it’s only playing once at one theater at midnight, that’s your only chance to see it, and suddenly everybody’s like, oh, my God, we’ve got to go out and see this movie. What’s it all about? How come everybody’s talking about it? And I think that really helped it and I think it channeled that excitement and made it more of an event than if they just blanket released it and…
MARKS: But how often do you see movies being released at midnight with the exception of “Black Dynamite.” Let’s put a plug in for that, which is…
MARKS: …this Fri – Saturday night at the Ken, and you should all go see “Black Dynamite.”
MARKS: But how often do you see films – They don’t have midnight films anymore.
ACCOMANDO: No, they don’t. But I think that was – I mean, I think that was part of the marketing plan once they had the film. I mean, I don’t think it was just, ooh, we’ve got to be careful, we don’t want to waste a lot of money on this. I think it was part of the plan. I think they did think about it.
CAVANAUGH: Scott, what did you like about “Paranormal Activity?”
MARKS: It scared me.
MARKS: I mean, that’s pure and simple. I saw it before – I think I saw it before you did. They had this one little screening that was just snuck in there and it was a packed house and the film – it was the anti-Blair Witch. This film got to me. This film creeped me out, and that’s very, very hard to do. So I think that’s why I liked – And I – There’s something hypnotic about just sitting and looking at that one frozen shot for 90 minutes and you know something’s going to come through that door and you just wait and wait. And when it does, it’s a great payoff.
CAVANAUGH: Now, for San Diegan Oren Peli, do we know what’s coming next for him?
MARKS: I forget. You must know the name of this one.
ACCOMANDO: What’s coming next? No…
ACCOMANDO: …I don’t know what he’s got next.
MARKS: Oh, he’s – I think he just…
ACCOMANDO: But he…
MARKS: …got done finishing something, another paranormal kind of thing. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Well, this one’s not going to be released at midnight, we know that much.
ACCOMANDO: Probably not, no way.
MARKS: No, this one will be 11:00 a.m. and fifteen dollars, right.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, now before we launch into your favorite movies of the year, Scott, did this year offer a lot of quality movies. I know a lot of people have just said this has just been a bang-up year for movies.
MARKS: A what year?
MARKS: Oh. Oh, I agree with that. I mean, when I was putting together my top ten, there were 30 contenders. This hasn’t happened in 15 years. I think this is one of the best decades or one of the best years for movies – no, not one of the best decades but one of the best years for movies in quite some time. I saw more great movies this year than I probably have in the past three or four combined.
ACCOMANDO: Either that or you’re getting softer.
MARKS: Never. Never. Never.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, they say that, you know, hard economic times sometimes propels good art and if you think of movies as art, as we all do here…
MARKS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: …perhaps that’s one of the reasons.
ACCOMANDO: It could be. I find it hard to kind of pinpoint a reason why there are good films that come out one year and not in another year but there were quite a few good ones this year. I don’t know if – I think there were more quality films but there weren’t quite as many films that really just like would be one of my all-time favorite films. But there were a lot of good, solid films for the year but I don’t think there – I’m not sure how many – There’s like maybe two or three that would go beyond this year.
MARKS: I had a great time at the movies this year.
ACCOMANDO: Oh, I did, too.
MARKS: But I think that I saw a handful of films that I think did change the way I think about movies and did really attract me and make me happy for a change, which is so hard to do with the crap that we’ve consumed over the past decade.
CAVANAUGH: Beth, how do you go about – I’m going to ask you both, how do you go about assembling your yearly best lists? I mean, do you go through every movie that you’ve seen during the year?
ACCOMANDO: I find it really difficult to do a Ten Best list because the films are so different. It’s really comparing apples to elephants sometimes because…
CAVANAUGH: And just so everyone knows, how many movies do you think you see a year?
ACCOMANDO: Ooh. At least – I mean, I see anywhere from two to five movies a week.
ACCOMANDO: And on the weeks when there’s festivals, I might see 20 or 30.
CAVANAUGH: And basically the same for you, Scott?
MARKS: Of course.
ACCOMANDO: I mean, you…
MARKS: About 300 a year.
MARKS: Yeah, something like that.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. That’s a lot to go through.
CAVANAUGH: So how do you…
MARKS: No. Shhh…
CAVANAUGH: No. Scott’s got a…
MARKS: No, not enough.
ACCOMANDO: A movie a night is fine, yeah.
MARKS: And what about – No, a movie in the morning and a movie at night. That’s okay. That’s better than heroin.
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, I can’t do that when I’m supposed to be working on other things.
CAVANAUGH: But – so do you – how do you cull that down?
ACCOMANDO: Oh, it’s really hard because there’s some films that I just enjoy watching. They’re not necessarily great art and they’re not necessarily films that, you know, would stand the test of time but they’re just fun to watch repeatedly. And then there’s other films that I really admire. Some of these documentaries, like I saw this documentary, “Burma VJ” and “The Cove,” which I think are incredibly well-made documentaries but they’re not films that I really want to sit and watch ten times. So I have a hard time sometimes putting together the ones that are just fun that I want to have on my video shelf and watch repeatedly, and the ones that I really admire and think – So I end up being totally schizophrenic by the end of the…
CAVANAUGH: That’s an interesting distinction.
CAVANAUGH: And, Scott, how do you make up your list?
MARKS: My list is done on December 31st because I keep a list of every film I see…
MARKS: …and every film I’ve ever seen in order of preference. So by the time the year rolls around, I know what my favorite film is and I know what my least favorite film is.
CAVANAUGH: Well, so, in other words, there is some master list in the Scott Marks house with every…
MARKS: Yes, there is.
CAVANAUGH: …film you’ve ever seen?
MARKS: Yes, there is. Yes.
CAVANAUGH: And listed in order of preference?
MARKS: Yes, by year in order of preference, yes.
CAVANAUGH: We must get our hands on that someday.
MARKS: Absolutely not. That’s like giving you a list of every girl I ever dated. You’re not going to get it.
ACCOMANDO: I won’t ask which is longer.
MARKS: There’s a joke there, too, that I’m not going to respond to.
CAVANAUGH: Now we want to talk about the Best Films of 2009.
MARKS: Oh, yeah, that’s why we’re here.
CAVANAUGH: Both of your lists are very interesting and they are actually different from a lot of other critics. For example, neither of you included “Avatar” in your top ten. I know you’ve gotten a lot of flack for your “Avatar”…
MARKS: Are a lot of people including “Avatar” on their top ten of the year?
CAVANAUGH: Yes. Yes.
CAVANAUGH: Actually, yes.
ACCOMANDO: Eight nominations, too.
MARKS: I know. I know. Okay.
ACCOMANDO: Hey, you were on this show saying that you…
MARKS: I like it but I don’t think it’s one of the best films of the year, not even close. It didn’t even – Of the 30 films that were in contention for the top ten, it wasn’t on – it wasn’t up there. It wasn’t even close.
ACCOMANDO: Well, I’m glad to hear that.
CAVANAUGH: But you’re right, Beth. It is getting…
CAVANAUGH: …a lot of buzz, especially for awards time and all of that. Well, what are your awards predictions for “Avatar?”
ACCOMANDO: My awards predictions?
ACCOMANDO: I hate doing these because if I say it’s going to win then I’ll feel horrible if it doesn’t. I mean, I think it’s going to get a lot of attention at awards time. A couple of reasons. I think for some reason James Cameron is still popular with the awards crowd. I think a lot of money was spent on this. It’s got a lot of state of the art technology. It was very popular. I think the fact that the Oscars this year extended their nominations for Best Film to ten is the Academy’s attempt to try and get more of these mainstream, popular films in those nominations to make people more interested in watching the awards show. And once you get a film like that into that top ten, there’s no telling how the voting’s going to go. And I…
MARKS: Do you really think that’s why and not the fact that they figure if we double the amount of best picture nominees that’s just going to mean more money at the box office because there are people out there that want to…
MARKS: …see every nominated picture and now they just doubled it.
ACCOMANDO: I’m sure that helps but I really think based on the fact that the ratings were dropping for the Academy Awards that they were taking a lot of flack that they were nominating these indy films and films that weren’t the big – I think the fact that “Dark Knight” didn’t get on that list was one of the…
MARKS: But they’ve never been kind to blockbusters. Maybe, what? “Ben Hur” may have been the last one…
ACCOMANDO: No, they have. I mean, blockbusters have made it. “Star Wars” was up there.
MARKS: But it didn’t win.
ACCOMANDO: “Lord of the Rings” was up there.
MARKS: Well, okay, there you go, now that’s – that one…
ACCOMANDO: But, I mean, I think that was in their thinking. And reading what – some of the comments and interviews and things from members of the Academy, I think that was one of the things that was in their mind at the time.
CAVANAUGH: Well, speaking of having “Avatar” perhaps on the list of Academy Award nominees, it brings up the idea of this trend in 3-D movies. Scott, do you think this is going to – this is – we’re going to see more of that kind of product in theaters?
MARKS: I think we already are.
MARKS: Sure. And I hope it stays that way.
MARKS: Oh, 3-D is great. 3-D is so much fun. The problem is, is that I don’t think enough filmmakers use 3-D as a means of telling a story. It’s the old 3 Stooges philosophy, just throw as much stuff at the camera as possible, poke your fingers at the camera and all that. I think if they start incorporating 3-D into films for adults and use the technique as a narrative enhancer as opposed to just…
ACCOMANDO: A gimmick.
MARKS: …a gimmick, I think that, you know – Just bring back “Dial M for Murder,” the Hitchcock film from 1954 that he shot in 3-D. Bring it back, and there you will see a film with no special effects that knows how to incorporate 3-D into the narrative fabric of the film. That is an amazing film and it is still the best 3-D film ever made.
CAVANAUGH: ESPN is launching a 3-D network on TV. I mean, are you going to be sitting at home with your glasses on watching TV?
ACCOMANDO: Well, I think that’s going to be one of the key factors to whether or not 3-D really stays in theaters because if they can’t replicate that experience in the home theater then putting all these 3-D films on DVD isn’t going to have the same appeal and the same potential for making them money as if – as it was with the regular films. So I mean, I think that’s part of the factor, too. If it’s just going to be a gimmick in the theaters, that’ll help box office in the actual theaters but if they can’t figure out a way to make that work at home, I don’t know if the DVD sales for some of those films are going to be quite as good.
MARKS: Here’s something I don’t know. In the ‘50s, did they release flat versions and 3-D versions?
ACCOMANDO: In the theaters?
MARKS: Yeah, in theaters.
CAVANAUGH: I don’t know.
ACCOMANDO: I don’t know.
MARKS: Because I don’t understand…
ACCOMANDO: I don’t think they do.
MARKS: …why would anybody go to see “Avatar” or any of them, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” Why would anybody go see these films unless they were in 3-D.
ACCOMANDO: Some people claim it gives them a headache or they get motion sickness or they just don’t like the effect.
MARKS: If it gives them a headache with glasses, imagine how bad these things are without glasses. So I don’t understand that.
ACCOMANDO: Well, it is a different print.
CAVANAUGH: We’ve let everyone wait long enough. I want both of you to read us your list. We’re going to take a short break and then we’re going to come back and speak more about them. But, Beth, you first. Give us your list of the ten – your ten best movie picks for 2009.
ACCOMANDO: All right, counting down from the number ten spot, which I had a three-way tie, so on the bottom, number ten, “Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” “Silent Light,” and “Crank: High Voltage.” Then number nine, “Pontypool.” Number eight, “Red Cliff.” Number seven, “Hurt Locker.” Number six, “The Song of Sparrows.” Number five, “Inglourious Basterds.” Number four, “Serious Man (sic).” Number three, “District Nine.” Number two, “A Single Man.” And in the number one spot, “Il Divo.”
CAVANAUGH: And, Scott, could you read them the same way from ten to first?
MARKS: I think I can do that, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: All right.
MARKS: Sure. Number ten, “The Box.” I’ll get a lot of flack for that. Number nine, “Tony Manero.” Eight, “Inglourious Basterds.” Seven, “Still Walking.” Six, “Seraphine.” Five, “The Song of Sparrows.” Four, “Adoration.” Three, “Mother.” Two, “Il Divo.” And one, “Bright Star.”
CAVANAUGH: All right. Similarities and some real differences here. We have to talk about this but first we have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue talking with my guests, Beth Accomando and Scott Marks, about the best films of 2009. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. This is the KPBS Film Club of the Air. My guests are KPBS film critic Beth Accomando, and Scott Marks, author of the film blog EmulsionCompulsion.com. We’re talking about their picks for the best movies in 2009, and they just read us the master lists of their best picks. And I notice that both of you have “Il Divo” right at the top. Scott, it’s number two with you and it’s number one with you, Beth. Why don’t you start and tell us about what you liked about “Il Divo.”
ACCOMANDO: It was just so fresh and it had so much energy. I mean, you go to see this film and you get sucked into this world of Italian politics, which is very complex. And for an American who’s not familiar with what’s going on or has been going on in Italian politics, it could be very confusing but he has such gusto in the way he throws all these characters and events at you. And there’s such attention to detail, an amazing use of music, and editing. There’s so many elements in it that just work so well together. And, ultimately, it’s like some big Italian opera. It’s over the top, it’s flamboyant, it’s – it’s just amazing. And lots of fun. Despite the content being grim at times and brutal, you come out of it energized by the filmmaking, by just this sense of passion he has for the medium. And it was just a joy to watch.
CAVANAUGH: Scott, give us more of a sense, what is this film about? “Il Divo.”
MARKS: I don’t know, and I’ve seen the film like five times.
MARKS: And this is a very, very difficult film to follow from a story point of view because, as Beth said, unless you’re an Italian politics buff, you’re pretty much left in the dark. I like this film because I love epic films about passive characters. Where here at the center of this film, you have a hunchback dwarf with these floppy beagle ears who basically has one expression throughout the entire film. And…
ACCOMANDO: He’s like Buster Keaton.
MARKS: Well, let’s not – he’s not that good.
ACCOMANDO: No, no, no, but I mean he has that kind of face.
MARKS: But, yeah, he does have that kind of sense. And this is like “The Last Emporer.” Or another film, “Vera Drake,” although I don’t think that’s an epic. But to take a film about a cipher and make it compelling, this to me is – that’s game. That’s why you should make movies. And that’s what intrigues me about this movie, and the energy. And, as Beth said, the use of music, and the fact that this guy has such an awareness of past forms. So to ask me what this movie is about, it’s about a guy who’s in love with movies, making a movie…
MARKS: …which all the great films – that’s what they’re all about. I mean, the films that I really carry in my heart, that’s what they’re about. But it’s a tough film and everybody I show this film to, the first thing they say when it’s over is, I didn’t understand it. Give it time. I didn’t understand “Citizen Kane” the first time I saw it. There are a lot of films I didn’t catch the first time through. And there are certain films, like you mentioned “The Cove” earlier, that you wouldn’t – may not want to have that on DVD. I love “The Cove,” but I got that film the first time. Don’t ever want to see it again. What was the one with the two people who die? “Open Water?”
MARKS: Never want to see it again…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, yes.
MARKS: …but I got it the first time.
CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
MARKS: Never want to see that film again. It’s too grueling. This film, “Il Divo,” I can sit and watch over…
MARKS: …and over and over, and always find something new and always – For a film to make me go out and do research on history and to find out who these people were and what the real guy looks like, you know, and what – not – what’s the actor’s name? Oh, I have it down here.
ACCOMANDO: The lead actor? Tony…
MARKS: Tony Servillo.
MARKS: You want to know what he looks like without the makeup.
CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Umm-hmm.
MARKS: So, I mean, this film, I did a lot of research after watching this film and I still don’t understand it but, my God, I love watching this movie.
CAVANAUGH: Well, that’s one of – the film that you agree on, I guess, both most strongly because it’s almost at the top of…
CAVANAUGH: …both of your lists.
MARKS: Yeah, that and “Basterds.”
CAVANAUGH: Top of your list.
ACCOMANDO: And we both had “Song of Sparrows” there along with…
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, let’s talk about some of the other movies that you – are similar on your lists. Both of you picked “Inglourious Basterds.” Do you think Christoph Waltz will win an Academy Award for his portrayal?
MARKS: Oh, he better.
ACCOMANDO: He better.
MARKS: He better.
ACCOMANDO: He better. I can’t believe they – there’s some performances where they just can’t possibly ignore, and I think this is one. And he’s so uniformly won praise from critics and awards groups, and it was such an amazing performance because he’s somebody that nobody knew. Nobody was familiar with who this person was and he comes on and he just rivets you for the entire movie. So I would hope that the Academy is smart enough to recognize that.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Scott, you say that “Inglourious Basterds” is one of the funniest movies of the year. Now, I don’t know that a lot of people have that particular…
ACCOMANDO: Oh, I would agree with that.
CAVANAUGH: Would you agree with that?
CAVANAUGH: Why – why is that?
MARKS: Do I agree with her? Of course. I said it.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, no.
ACCOMANDO: Well, I thought you argued with yourself.
MARKS: Oh, I do that all the time. Shut up.
CAVANAUGH: Why do you say it? Come back, Scott.
MARKS: I’m here.
CAVANAUGH: Why do you say it?
MARKS: It made me laugh. And I think that Tarantino purposely set out to make a comedy but given the fact that it is about Jews scalping Nazis, I can see why people may go and watch this film and take it serious – seriously, as if they’re watching a straight drama. I saw it once in a theater, the – I think the third time I saw it, and the audience, it was like they were watching “Battle of the Bulge” or something like that, and I was the only one laughing.
CAVANAUGH: That’s what I mean.
MARKS: Yeah. Well, that’s me. You know, it’s…
ACCOMANDO: No, but I think that also the way he made the film. I think he made the film so there’s the surface look to it of being this kind of Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich war film from, I don’t know, the forties or fifties or something. And you can take it at face value. You can just take it but I think you…
MARKS: Can you really? When a Nazi pulls out a Meerschaum pipe, can you really take that at – You were laughing at that.
ACCOMANDO: I was – I was laughing. But, I mean, I think there’s a level at which he makes it so that you can watch it and take it at – as this kind of homage to these war films but I think if you love movies, I think you see all these references and I think you see how he’s tweaking all these genre expectations and clichés and making it very funny.
CAVANAUGH: And so that was those two movies you agreed on. Let’s get to some of the movies that you had…
MARKS: Oh, there’s one more.
CAVANAUGH: And “Song of Sparrows.”
MARKS: “Song of Sparrows.”
CAVANAUGH: Remind us, again, Beth, what was that about?
ACCOMANDO: That’s a film from Iran from Majid Majidi and it’s a very simple kind of slice of life film. It’s this man who – it’s his daughter loses her hearing – or, her hearing aid is broken and then he’s also lost the – I forget if it’s an ostrich or an emu…
MARKS: He’s an ostrich farmer.
ACCOMANDO: And he loses one of his employer’s ostriches, so it’s – he’s got to deal with these crises in his normal life. But while being a very simple film dealing with very kind of everyday problems, it, you know, ends up being much bigger. But it’s just – it’s a gorgeous film to watch. I mean, visually it’s just stunning at moments but in a very simple way. I mean, it’s almost contradictory in what it achieves because it does have this simplicity and this amazing like elegance and grace.
CAVANAUGH: And, again, you both had that…
CAVANAUGH: …on your best lists for 2009. Some of the dissimilarities, some of the things that you departed from, Beth, the Terry Gilliam movie, the new movie…
CAVANAUGH: …that you talked about this morning on Morning Edition, “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.” It’s on your top ten.
CAVANAUGH: It opens here in San Diego this weekend. Tell us about this movie.
ACCOMANDO: Well, this is a film – Terry Gilliam is someone who always seems to be troubled by challenges and obstacles when he makes films. He’s had stars who’ve gotten sick, storms that have washed away sets, studios that tried to change his movies. On this one, Heath Ledger had passed away halfway through the film and he was starting to lose backers for the film and he had to come up with a way to finish it. And to me, I’ve always loved Terry Gilliam’s films. I really find that he’s got a fun and wild imagination, and I appreciated how he kind of recovered from this tragedy and made the changes to it but he ends up having three actors play the rest of Heath Ledger’s role, so there’s Colin Farrell, Jude Law and Johnny Depp taking over. And I thought he did a very clever thing in making that work, and I think he’s got an amazing imagination. And, to me, seeing – I saw that film and “Avatar” back to back and, to me, seeing what Terry Gilliam can do with a fraction of the budget and a fraction of the technology was just so impressive compared to what Cameron did with all this money and all this technology. So…
CAVANAUGH: We have a clip from the movie. Let – Here’s the late Heath Ledger. His character tries to entice a wealthy woman at a shopping mall to enter the Imaginarium. It’s a magical place where people can realize their fantasies as well as face a moral choice that places their soul in jeopardy. And here’s that clip.
(audio of clip from “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”)
CAVANAUGH: That was Heath Ledger in his last movie, “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.” And, Scott, what did you think of this movie?
MARKS: I disagree with Beth in the fact that I don’t think he was able to get over Heath Ledger’s death and I think that there’s – it’s so hard for – It was so hard for me to get into this film and to get into the spirit of the film because I think that there’s almost a wall that he puts up in this movie where it was just very, very hard for me to penetrate. I like the story. You’re right about his imagination and the fact that you look at this and you look at something like “Lovely Bones” and you see production design and how it should be handled. But I guess I just didn’t have any…
ACCOMANDO: See, I thought he – I really thought that he identified with the character of Dr. Parnassus and that there was this…
CAVANAUGH: He, in…?
ACCOMANDO: Terry Gilliam…
ACCOMANDO: …identified with Dr. Parnassus in kind of the way that Dr. Parnasssus was in a certain level not very effectual and having a hard time getting by. And I think part of Terry Gilliam the artist is in that character, and I thought it made it kind of a bittersweet film, that this is a bit about him facing his own challenges in his own career. And I really connected with that and I found it kind of sweet in a sad sort of way.
CAVANAUGH: So “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” is one of your ten best.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s move to one of your ten best that’s not on Beth’s list, Scott.
CAVANAUGH: And it’s a movie called “Seraphine.” It hasn’t received much press here in the U.S. but it’s the year’s most honored film in France, winning seven Césars from the French Academy, including Best Film and Best Actress. What is it about?
MARKS: It’s about a 40 year old devout Catholic cleaning woman who one day is discovered by one of her tenants to be this great artist. What it’s really about, and I think when you look at a Ten Best list it says so much about the people who pick the films. I love movies that show slow descents into madness. Always have. Always have. “Spider,” the David Cronenberg film…
MARKS: …one of the best pictures of the decade. This is a worth successor. The performance is great. I haven’t seen a film that looked like this – the entire film was overcast, everything in the film, I mean, inside, outside. Everything is overcast. There’s not a drop of sunshine in the film or in this woman’s life. And if you can take that and make it artistically compelling, I think you’re making a great movie but this is not a film – most of the films on my list are not films that are fit for public consumption. I think this is a very, very difficult film to sit through. It’s long. It’s slow. But, for me, so what? I mean, I found it so rewarding. And her performance – Have you seen it?
MARKS: Her performance is astounding.
CAVANAUGH: Did you like “Seraphine?”
ACCOMANDO: I liked it. I think part of the problem for me is I saw that in a massive run for watching films for award voting, and I watched it on DVD and this is a time when I was watching, I think, five or six films a day, trying to get through screeners. And I think if I’d seen it in a theater, it might’ve made more of an impression. So it – But it’s a film I liked and I did like her performance a lot. But it just…
CAVANAUGH: So, again, the personal nature of…
CAVANAUGH: …these lists.
MARKS: Oh, yeah.
ACCOMANDO: Oh, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: It’s where you saw the film.
ACCOMANDO: Sometimes that can make a difference, too.
CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. Well, we move now from movies honored in France to an action movie that has not been honored in…
CAVANAUGH: …France, Beth. No. It’s called “Crank:…
CAVANAUGH: …High Voltage.” Now you make the case for this one. Why is this on your list?
ACCOMANDO: I just felt like I had to highlight it because I knew nobody in the world would probably highlight it, and it was so much fun. And it was a film – It’s the only film I’ve ever seen that really makes you feel like you’re in a video game, not watching a video game, not playing a video game, but you’re in it. And it has these bizarre kind of lack of rules about how that reality is defined. And I thought it was just unabashed, stupid fun. Just…
MARKS: But does that justify…
MARKS: …one of the ten best films of the year?
ACCOMANDO: It was just a film that I felt…
MARKS: Stupid fun. I want to see that…
MARKS: …on a poster.
ACCOMANDO: I just felt like it was – I like films that kind of break rules and this film just didn’t abide by any, and it was just…
MARKS: But I could see a guilty pleasure but – and I haven’t seen…
ACCOMANDO: All right, so maybe I call this my…
MARKS: I didn’t see it because…
ACCOMANDO: …number ten guilty pleasure.
MARKS: I never saw the first one and I didn’t think I’d be able to follow the second one.
ACCOMANDO: I didn’t like the first one.
MARKS: Umm, I was joking.
ACCOMANDO: I didn’t like the first film.
MARKS: I – I – This one, I didn’t see and now I have to go watch two films on account of you.
ACCOMANDO: You don’t have to watch it.
ACCOMANDO: You’ll probably hate it. But, I mean, they actually had like a giant kashu battle like where the two actors are in big rubber suits like Godzilla and they fight amongst these really fake looking giant telephone poles. I don’t know, there was just this bizarre kind of surreal experience. It was like getting put on a drug and watching…
MARKS: Were you on medication when you watched this?
ACCOMANDO: I wish. No.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, now…
ACCOMANDO: It was just fun.
CAVANAUGH: …we called you on “Crank: High Voltage,” Beth. And now we have to call Scott on, really, a surprise on your list as well. It’s one of the worst reviewed movies of the year.
MARKS: Of the decade, let’s go all the way. It is one of the five worst reviewed films of the decade.
CAVANAUGH: And it’s on your top ten list…
MARKS: You bet, number ten.
CAVANAUGH: …and it’s “The Box.”
MARKS: Yeah, I know. I know. I – I’ve taken a lot of flack for this movie. You liked this movie, too. You don’t like it as much as I do but you like “The Box.”
ACCOMANDO: It was all right. I mean, I was…
MARKS: It’s not “Donny Darko,” I’ll give you that.
ACCOMANDO: It’s not “Donny Darko,” yes.
MARKS: I’ll give you that.
CAVANAUGH: It was directed by Richard Kelly…
ACCOMANDO: Richard Kelly.
MARKS: Richard Kelly.
CAVANAUGH: …who directed “Donny Darko.”
ACCOMANDO: I mean, it definitely has some good – I think maybe if it didn’t have Cameron Diaz I might’ve liked it a little bit more. But…
MARKS: See, I think she’s – she’s used very well in this film. I have no problem.
ACCOMANDO: I – Umm…
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about it. What is it about?
MARKS: A mysterious man with half of his face eaten away shows up at someone’s doorstep with a box and they say, you press the button, someone that you don’t know will die and we’ll give you a million dollars. And that’s all you have to do. So this is the springboard. It’s based on a Richard Matheson—it’s easy for you to say—a Richard Matheson short story that was done on two versions of “The Twilight Zone.” They – there were two versions of this done for “The Twilight Zone.”
CAVANAUGH: I do remember it on “The Twilight Zone,” yeah.
MARKS: Yeah. And I think if you go to Hulu, it was up because I did get to watch it.
MARKS: And the other one with Mare Winningham is on YouTube, so they’re both out there. Again, any film that makes me go home and reread “No Exit,” boy, oh boy, you’re doing something right. I will never claim to understand this film fully. I don’t even know if Richard Kelly could make that claim. I’m dying for the DVD to come out so I can listen to the second audio commentary. I complain about so many films not having anything to say or any imagination. This film is just so filled with ideas and beautiful imagery and – but it’s – but it’s not beautifully photographed but it’s well photographed. This is not a pretty picture and I think the period, the recreation of the seventies, where they found that wallpaper, I don’t know but, boy, was that – did that bring back horrifying memories. I know – I know I stand alone on this one, and that might be why I put it in my top ten, because I know that most people hate this film. But I think this is a very intelligent, well made, and for the most part, well acted film. I think Frank Langella has that certain air of creepiness to him…
ACCOMANDO: I always like him. I think he’s a good actor and…
ACCOMANDO: …has been under used in film.
MARKS: Yeah, but I can see why people hate this film, because you have to – it makes you – I was going to say it makes people think about metaphysics, like they do, and existentialism. And these are terms that I get…
ACCOMANDO: Well, and it’s an emotionally cold sort of film, too, which I think is – a lot of people have a hard time with.
MARKS: But at the end, the love between those – the husband and wife, and the final decision they have to make, it melted me. And I don’t think it’s cold.
ACCOMANDO: But I think for the most part an audience would view it – because they’d have to get all the way that far into it…
MARKS: That’s true.
ACCOMANDO: …to get…
MARKS: That’s true.
ACCOMANDO: …that scene.
CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about the movie, “The Box,” which is the surprise ending of Scott Marks’ ten best list of movies…
MARKS: Surprise ending.
CAVANAUGH: …of 2009. We have to take a short break. And when we come back, we will continue talking about these lists and also about some of the best performances of the years and other quirky little things on their lists. We will continue on the Film Club of the Air. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days in San Diego, and this is the KPBS Film Club of the Air. We’re talking about the ten best movie lists of our critics Beth Accomando, KPBS film critic, and Scott Marks, author of the film blog EmulsionCompulsion.com. Now they’ve agreed on a couple of movies. “Il Divo,” “Inglourious Basterds,” and “Song of the Sparrows,” are on both their lists. But we’ve been talking about areas where they disagree and one of those areas, Beth, is a Coen brothers movie out this year called “A Serious Man.” It made your list.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us why.
ACCOMANDO: Well, this is a film that I’ve seen, so far, three times this year and it just keeps getting better. And I really appreciate films that I can watch repeatedly and keep getting something out of it. The Coens, I really love because you just feel like everything in the film is there for a reason. I mean, you feel, I feel, this very strong sense of attention to detail and I just love it. I mean, everything down to the shag carpet and the wallpaper. I mean, you talk about the wallpaper in “The Box,” I mean, their sense of design and performance, and I think this had the best ensemble cast of any film this year, although there were quite a few films this year that had some strong ensemble work. And their films just keep getting better when I see them. And this one is an oddball one, and I think it took me a little while to warm up to it. I don’t think I liked it – I don’t think I would’ve put it on my ten best list after seeing it the first time but after seeing it the third time, I definitely felt I wanted it on there.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s hear a clip from the movie. It’s – This is Larry Gopnik, he’s the main character. He’s facing a series of crises in his life and he’s trying to deal with a Columbia Records salesman who insists that he has an account with them. This is a clip from “A Serious Man.”
(audio clip from the film “A Serious Man”)
CAVANAUGH: Well, that takes us back.
ACCOMANDO: Well, I mean, the thing I love, too, is that this notion of I haven’t done anything changes through the course of the film. You know, at the beginning, he’s up for tenure and there’s some mention of a scandal or something, that maybe something he’s done, and he’s like, well, I haven’t done anything. And then by the end, it’s this notion of I haven’t done anything, it’s like, well, you don’t have to do anything for this to happen. And, I mean, I think this kind of brings up some existential questions as much as “The Box” does.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I promised that I would ask you about one of the films on your list, “Tony Manero,” because you really wanted to talk about this, Scott.
MARKS: “Tony Manero” played one week at the Cinema En Tu Idioma series at the Latino Film Festival runs, and they sent me a screener and I didn’t have time to watch it. And right around Thanksgiving there were no movies playing so I’m going through withdrawl, and I get a really bad case of the flu and I could barely get out of bed. And I’m going through my screeners, give me something new, and it’s like, all right, I’ll look at “Tony Manero” now. And I popped this thing in, it cured me. I’m telling you, this movie made me feel so much better. It’s about a grey little nothing of a man who is just completely captivated by John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” to the point where he wants to enter a celebrity lookalike competition, and the guy looks like Al Pacino. You know, he does not look at all like John Travolta.
ACCOMANDO: And he’s in his fifties, too.
MARKS: Yeah, and he’s in his fifties. And the guy, he’s…
ACCOMANDO: Gray hair.
MARKS: He never smiles. He’s like “Il Divo.” The guy never – he has one expression on his face throughout the entire film. But the problem is, is that he’s a serial killer. And when you take “Saturday Night Fever” out of the theater and replace it with “Grease,” watch out. Watch out. There’s a moment in there when he goes up to the booth and just takes a projectionist’s head and bangs it against the lamp housing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to do that in my life, maybe not for the reasons – well, okay, yeah, when they cancelled “Casino” after it didn’t play enough, I didn’t have enough chances to see it, so I wanted to kill the projectionist. But there are some shock moments in this film that just really appeal to me and here’s a film that deals with politics. This is set in the late seventies in Chile. It talks about the Pinochet government without ever really telling you everything. It just shows you the devastation that this government had on Chile. And that fascinated me, too. So it’s kind of a horror film. I don’t – I asked Beth a couple of questions during the break that she couldn’t answer. I still don’t know how these people in his life got there. There are a couple of younger women, one of them has a daughter, and there’s an older woman and there’s a guy, they want to put on like a dinner theatre version of “Saturday Night Fever.”
MARKS: This is the strangest movie I saw this year.
CAVANAUGH: Well, “Tony Manero” is on your list but you also credit “Tony Manero” in your list of good performances during the year.
ACCOMANDO: Umm-hmm. Yeah, the actor Alfredo Castro, who plays the Tony Manero lookalike character. He’s amazing. He just rivets you to the screen. It’s a great performance. So…
ACCOMANDO: …although I didn’t put the film on there, he’s definitely on my list of the top actors.
MARKS: And it’s NC-17. I mean, this – there’s hardcore stuff in here, which kind of surprised me as well. Just watch Netflix for when this thing finally comes out on DVD. And don’t rent “Saturday Night Fever,” don’t make that – although that’s a great film, but maybe watch them on a double feature.
MARKS: But this will come out…
ACCOMANDO: Watch them back to back. That’s right.
MARKS: Yeah, this’ll come out – what was – oh, no, and don’t rent “Stayin’ Alive.”
MARKS: Oh, oh…
ACCOMANDO: Oh, no.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s talk about – more about the performances you list.
CAVANAUGH: And some of the other categories you came up with on your lists for 2009. What about the best performance by an actress this year, Beth?
ACCOMANDO: Hands down, I thought it was Tilda Swinton in “Julia.” “Julia” actually I think is a 2008 film but it only…
MARKS: It didn’t open here, yeah.
ACCOMANDO: It didn’t open until this year, I mean, until 2009 here. She was amazing. I think she’s an amazing actress. She totally gets into any part she plays. You forget you’re watching an actress. But this was – she plays this drunken woman who ends up with this bizarre idea of kidnapping some kid – or pretending to kidnap a kid in order to get some money and it’s the stupidest possible scheme you can imagine and yet it’s this bizarre tale of redemption, too, and she’s just amazing to watch.
CAVANAUGH: Did you like this movie…
MARKS: Oh, you bet. You bet.
CAVANAUGH: …and this performance?
MARKS: It kind of reminded me of John Cassavetes’ “Gloria”…
MARKS: …about halfway through. She’s an amazing actress. And, again, this movie is so off-putting. I mean, I can’t imagine why anybody would want to see this movie. It’s a great movie and I love this movie, but it is so – every – this has been the most depressing year for movies in the history of cinema. I mean…
CAVANAUGH: And yet they’re good.
MARKS: Yeah. I mean, when you have “A Single Man” as a Christmas release, we’re in a lot of trouble. Or “The Dead Girl.” That was released around Christmas, too, when that came out. But this has been a – Maybe with George Bush out of office, we’re finally, you know, exorcising certain demons in art, you know, it’s coming out in that way. Maybe that’s what you were referring to earlier on.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. What are your male performances? In fact, who was your…
MARKS: Yolande Moreau in “Seraphine” and…
MARKS: …what’s her name, Michelle Monaghan in “Trucker.” I thought both of those were just great performances.
ACCOMANDO: And I would agree with that. I mean, those were great performances, too.
CAVANAUGH: And besides “Tony Manero,” the good performances from the actors?
MARKS: Tony Servillo in “Il Divo” and Colin Firth.
ACCOMANDO: Colin Firth in “A Single Man.”
ACCOMANDO: And I also thought that Tom Hardy in “Bronson” was amazing.
MARKS: Yeah, he was good. Ben Foster in “Whatever Works.”
MARKS: The one that I think everyone is ignoring, which I thought that this was going to be a shoo-in for a nomination, is Evan Rachel Wood in Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works.” One of the best performances of its kind since Judy Holliday died. She is terrific in this film, and I think she’s a great little actress but I guess this is one of those Woody Allen films that…
ACCOMANDO: People didn’t like the film…
ACCOMANDO: …so I think that was…
CAVANAUGH: What about…
MARKS: I think Larry David had a lot to do with that.
CAVANAUGH: What about Best Documentary?
ACCOMANDO: Oh, hands down, “The Cove…
MARKS: Yeah, “The Cove.”
CAVANAUGH: “The Cove…
CAVANAUGH: …on both your lists.
CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. Best animated movie?
ACCOMANDO: I would go with “Ponyo,” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Those two are – And there’s another one, “Azur and Asmar,” the French film.
MARKS: Oh, that’s beautifully animated though, but that thing is so slow. Oh, it’s like watching mud photographed through honey.
MARKS: It is so slow. The other one that I would put on there is “Battle For Terra,” which, if you think about it…
ACCOMANDO: Is “Avatar.”
MARKS: …”Battle for Terra” and “FernGully” are “Avatar.”
MARKS: So if you want to save some money and watch stuff with the kids…
ACCOMANDO: You know, save some time, you can watch – cut your viewing time in half.
MARKS: Oh, “Avatar’s” not that bad.
ACCOMANDO: But it is almost two and a half hours.
CAVANAUGH: Now, especially, you both but especially you, Scott, have some very quirky categories on your list. You, in fact, talk about two movies this year that you walked out of.
CAVANAUGH: What were they and why?
MARKS: I never should’ve walked into “Transformers 2.” Never. I don’t care how hot Megan Fox is, I never should’ve walked into that film. 40 minutes, it was like putting me on a mechanical bull, out the door. And the other one was “The Blind Side,” which I saw like the day after “Precious,” and it’s like enough, I don’t want any more of this liberal muck. This is terrible. But to my credit, they did send me a screener of “The Blind Side,” and I did see how it ended, which really surprised me. I didn’t think it would end that way. Oh, my God, was that a bad movie.
MARKS: That’s my New Year’s resolution. Unless Sandra Bullock works with Scorsese, you’re out. You’re the female Spielberg. You’re out. You’re out. Send botulism, send typhus, send anything but her.
MARKS: Oh, God.
CAVANAUGH: …do you have a guilty pleasures on your list, Beth?
ACCOMANDO: Well, I think I put my guilty pleasure on the list with “Crank.” I would say something like “Dead Snow.” This was a great year for zombies. I mean, we had Pontypool,” we had “Zombieland,” and “Dead Snow.”
MARKS: See, my complaint with “Pontypool” is that film didn’t play theatrically so I don’t – I would – I liked the film but I would never put that on a best list because that’s like saying, why don’t I put – I never saw Frank Borzage’s “Seventh Heaven” until this year, why don’t I put that there. That – that was the best movie I saw this year.
ACCOMANDO: Well, it was released this year and it was on Video on Demand. And I just liked it so much and thought it was so fresh a take on zombies that I had to credit it.
CAVANAUGH: Well, it gets in on your list on a technicality.
MARKS: “Dead Snow,” I will agree with you. And the other one—I’ll go to hell for this—I really laughed a lot at “Antichrist” and…
CAVANAUGH: I know you did.
MARKS: …I hope they serve beer in hell. I thought that film was so funny. And “Fired Up.” Out of all the dumb teen comedies, I laughed my head off during this movie.
MARKS: Those two kids were great.
CAVANAUGH: …I gotta ask you what a lot of people have been waiting for: the worst movie that you think you’ve seen this year.
ACCOMANDO: Well, actually what’s funny is although this was a really strong year, too, it also had some of the worst films…
MARKS: You bet.
ACCOMANDO: …I have ever seen.
MARKS: You bet.
ACCOMANDO: “The Strip” was painful.
MARKS: Oh, you saw that? Yeah, yeah.
ACCOMANDO: Oh. Oh.
CAVANAUGH: Remind us what it was…
MARKS: My DVD player begged me to walk out on that film.
ACCOMANDO: It was a wannabe comedy with Dave Foley that is kind of these loser guys in a low end electronics store but if that was a low budget, painful horrible film, then we had films like “It’s Complicated” and “Nine” that had a lot of money, had star power, and were just horrendous.
CAVANAUGH: In fact “Nine” contains for you one of the worst casting moves of the year.
ACCOMANDO: Oh, Nicole Kidman as an earthy Italian sex goddess? Please. I’m sorry. It’s funny because when we got the screeners, the award screeners, they say that after we watch them we have to render them unwatchable, well, I’m sorry, but those screeners came to me rendered unwatchable. Ohh…
CAVANAUGH: Okay, so, Scott…
MARKS: How do you render a DVD un…
ACCOMANDO: Cut it in half. Says please cut it in half…
MARKS: Yeah, right, yeah. Sure.
ACCOMANDO: …or render it unwatchable.
MARKS: I wouldn’t do that to – I would sooner do that to a child than a DVD.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, no.
MARKS: Taking a scissors to a DVD, hateful.
ACCOMANDO: Well, like I said, there were a few of my…
ACCOMANDO: …screeners that were rendered unwatchable when they arrived. So…
CAVANAUGH: What was rendered unwatchable for you, Scott?
MARKS: Gee, what a surprise. This is going to – Well, technically, the most incompetent film – and this is what I go by. I mean, it has to be either technically incompetent or a film that got a lot of critical praise that had a big budget, you know, that people got behind. So, technically, the worst film I saw this year was “Gentlemen Broncos.” That thing died so quick. That was like one of the few screenings I was like, oh, nobody came. None of the – they must’ve read the blurb and said, oh, forget about this, I’m staying far away from this.
CAVANAUGH: Forget that.
MARKS: A science fiction fantasy with Sam Rockwell. It is just so bad. But out of all the films I saw this year, the one that offended me the most was “Precious.”
MARKS: Yeah, that’s the biggest – Next. Go ahead. We – I’ve buried her enough. I hate that movie with all – Although what’s funny is, I’m reading critics now – some guy in the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a devastating article comparing “Precious” to John Waters’ “Female Trouble,” saying that this really is a funny movie. So, okay, thanks. You’re not telling me anything I didn’t know. But, boy, that was like taking a millstone off my chest.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, it sounds like, you know, we are out of time now…
CAVANAUGH: …so I just…
CAVANAUGH: …want to thank you both, and it sounds like that this year has a very high bar to live up to…
CAVANAUGH: …if it’s going to get a…
ACCOMANDO: And a very low one as well on the other end.
MARKS: But the good more than…
MARKS: …outweighs the bad this year.
MARKS: And if you go to Emulsion Compulsion, I put the 50 best films of the decade. I lost my mind, so you can go and check that out.
MARKS: And I’m never doing that again because it took me so darn long to put that thing together.
CAVANAUGH: And we will have links to your blog on our blog and our website, KPBS.org/TheseDays. Beth Accomando, Scott Marks, thank you both so much for being here.
ACCOMANDO: Thank you.
MARKS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know These Days is produced by Angela Carone, Hank Crook, Megan Burke, Sharon Heilbrunn, Pat Finn, senior producer is Natalie Walsh. Production Manager, Kurt Kohnen, with technical assistance from Tim Felten. Our production assistants are Jordan Wicht and Rachel Ferguson. Have a wonderful weekend. Thanks for listening. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.