Good, artsy, and original do NOT run hand in hand.
I think one of the big reasons for my failure as a film student - besides the fact that I found the whole filmmaking process to be repetitive and boring, I mean - was that I ultimately couldn't appreciate certain movies as artistic masterpieces. After watching an old, admired movie that a pompous film student is supposed to love for its technique and metaphors, I had a bad habit of asking myself one annoying question above everything else: Did I LIKE the movie I just saw? I was being spoon-fed movies because of techniques or atmospheres or read-between-the-lines meanings. And all I ever wanted to do in film school was entertain people. While film students prattle on about portraits of anger, street-level realism, anguish, and depression - usually through metaphors obvious only to them, of course - I wanted to give audiences 90 to 120 minutes of entertaining escapism to make them forget those very things.
A few months ago, a friend of mine invited me to an underground gallery he works as a photographer for to see a reading from author Irvine Welsh. It was an event, in which short films were shown and many stories were read. But one of the films which was shown featured a very sexy young woman chewing a grab bag of disgusting foods in a very disgusting manner. In the end I clapped politely but secretly wonder why it was considered art. The ten movies on this list have all reached ridiculous levels of critical acclaim. Most are shown to awestruck film students. Most are classics or will be in the future. Many are credited as influences by directors. But they all have two things in common. The first is that they are considered among the finest film art ever created. The second is that they all utterly fail to perform as transportive storytelling, and in doing that they fail, for different reasons, at the very function most people will see them as.
Traffic is bloated, cold, preachy, and overly long. Traffic wastes our time by trying to preach a message which many people have already known: The war on drugs is a useless waste of taxpayer dollars. The worse part is that it tries to give you this message by showing a series of slightly intersecting stories which often have scenes depicting the worst parts of the war on drugs. Too many of the scenes in Traffic try to show us where things are going wrong, but they also succeed in making the case FOR the war on drugs because they show the worst aspects of what drugs do to people. The shaky camera tries to give us a feeling of grittiness but is just annoying a lot of the time. There are three stories which only intersect sometimes; the movie could have passed using just one.
The very worst thing about Traffic is that it doesn't give us a clever thriller or a moving or thoughtful meditation. Director Steven Soderbergh is only trying to lecture you. He directs without any sort of passion or emotional connection to his source material, and the end result is not a movie which provokes thought or feeling, but a cold series of boring images that Soderbergh gives us, says "here," and leaves the room leaving us to digest it.
Michelangelo Antonioni's snooty film school art movie is very well-crafted technically, and it presents us with its era and place in colorful tones. Beyond that it doesn't do a damn thing right. It commits every cardinal sin of cinematic storytelling. First of all, the main character is the biggest prick in movies, ever. He is sour, moody, and contemptuous and while this is a forgivable flaw in many movies, Antonioni's elitist photographer has no rhyme or reason which redeems him to a viewer. He is not misunderstood, troubled, lonely, or frustrated. He just walks around treating all the characters he interacts with like roadkill. There's no real story in Blow Up; it mainly revolves around this asshole walking around, going to parties and generally being an asshole. The plot as advertised only appears three-fourths of the way into the movie and it mostly shows the protagonist thinking he sees something in his photos and jumping to an irrational conclusion based on it. The remainder of the movie shows him feverishly developing his pictures and trying to convince people of what he thinks he saw. Then it ends inconclusively. The only reason one could possibly have for liking this piece of crap is trying to rationalize the time he just wasted. Blow Up isn't a movie; it's a pretentious piece of art that moves and speaks.
The noises. Dear god, the noises! David Lynch's Eraserhead is truly one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen. But while watching it, one gets the feeling that director Lynch is trying to tell the story strictly through some of the most annoying sounds possible: First there's a kid who won't shut up. Then there's buzzing. There's bumping, squeaking, and scratched-throated evil laughing. That Lynch's direction techniques combine the most overused aspects of Hitchcock and Kubrick doesn't help. Weird camera angles and long, quiet takes try to build suspense but do more to annoy.
Eraserhead seems less a story and more a series of very weird happenings featuring a bland main character and, in the movie's early goings, the most whiny girlfriend a man could never possibly love. Although the noises do get more bearable in the last half hour, they never really subside, and the movie just outright fails to give us anything meaningful or significant. Eraserhead is art filmmaking at its worst - it fails in the basic function of filmmaking in an overambitious attempt at being an interesting conversation piece.
Robert Altman is considered the godfather of the ensemble movie, and for that I would shoot him if he weren't already dead. Short Cuts is his biggest crime. First, he bases the film on a series of short stories by a pointless and boring writer. Not thinking the story selection good enough, Altman butchered the stories beyond recognition. Then he dragged them out while adding at least two more.
Then he did everything in his power to make the characters as repellant as humanly possible. Altman seems to get a ton of acclaim for his portrayals of ordinary working class people, but the fact that he gets so much acclaim for those portrayals only lends credence to the common working class theory that high university students, academic critics of culture and society, and Hollywood liberals are elitists who hate workers and have nothing but contempt for the class. Every character portrayal in Short Cuts looks down on the workers and perceives them as a set of stereotyped rednecks who ignore the greater society, care about no one but themselves, and wallow in a their own filth and vulgar senses of humor. In short, this movie is one of the most elitist and classist things I've ever seen, and people appear to think Altman was doing a good thing.
There is a mass cataclysm at the end, an earthquake, and god only knows what the point of that was. It doesn't change anyone or anything, and it seemed forced in just so Altman could bring this bloated, self-congratulatory piece of working class contempt to its merciful end.
The Untouchables is the baby of Brian De Palma. It proves once and for all, with the Battleship Potemkin scene near the end, that De Palma is a talented guy who hasn't had an original idea since the sixties. The worse crime is that The Untouchables spews cliches. Kevin Costner plays the strong light warrior who brings his smart guy, tough guy, and old hand into prohibition-era Chicago to bring down Robert De Niro's Al Capone. Everything about this movie has the look, sound, and feel of something you've seen somewhere before. It tries to come off as inspirational, but the fact that everything about The Untouchables looks like the extension of a scene or a character from an older and BETTER movie makes this movie come off as more silly and schlocky than anything. You would think a gangster movie set during the reign of Capone would give us a penetrating look into the corruption of city officials and police officers. But instead, The Untouchables tries to give the people a black-and-white gloss. I must say, this movie is truly of the Chicago way.
To the credit of Ingmar Bergman, I didn't hate The Seventh Seal. I found fairly interesting. But I also found it to be far too wandering, which is its fatal flaw. The Seventh Seal is part of film's master class and you frequently hear it mentioned in the same admiring sigh as Citizen Kane. But it confuses like few before or since, has no real point, and a good chunk of it isn't particularly well-directed either. The Seventh Seal has something to do with a chess game between a Crusader and Death. The Crusader tries to stall Death in order to receive one last chance to figure out the meaning of life. Or something. What follows is a more or less haphazard series of scenes which.... Well, our buddies the Crusader and Death aren't in most of the movie, and since they're the supposed hosts who kick it off, we're left without narrators or guides.
The Seventh Seal is very frustrating because it opts out of giving you a real idea or anything thoughtful to work with. It feels like director Bergman was trying too hard to be profound, insightful, and artistic. The first two I don't have a problem with. But when you're trying to be those things as well as artistic, your movie is quite likely a throwaway, especially if you're just giving us a series of seemingly disconnected scenes. Which is what The Seventh Seal basically is.
Jaws is a movie I can actually say I like quite a bit. It's a Steven Spielberg movie, and so it's a well-directed movie with a very well-told story. But I certainly don't understand why it's so frequently held up as an example of great filmmaking. Jaws is entertaining because it is acted and directed with a knowing grin and a wink. Jaws remembers it's a movie. But It's not Spielberg's best movie by a long shot. It's not a great thriller at all. There's no excusing the fact that Jaws does nothing to make you forget you're still only watching a run-of-the-mill slasher flick in which the guy doing all the knifing is a really mean shark.
Style can be a powerful thing. Style helps enamor people and draw them into the movie's world. Sin City reeks with style; any movie whose three (!) directors are Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino had better be oozing with style. Sin City tells the individual stories of a handful of society's dregs. And the scenes look awesome - glorious black and white with the occasional splashing or fading or colors, Sin City performs a wild balancing act between between serious movie and comic book.
But the problem occurs once the style starts to get less innovative and more annoying. There are scenes in which colors fly in and out so fast you'll have seizures. When this began happening to me, Sin City's novelty wore off and I learned I was watching a common Pulp Fiction wannabe. What is it about righteous criminals that everyone keeps sending them on fatalistic quests of redemption? The characters aren't likable and they often border on psychotic - Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis especially. They make decisions and do things which fly in the face of even most Hollywood versions of common sense. The fact that you're seeing these unlikable characters in ever-changing technicolor means people see predominant red from watching Sin City for too long. Their eyes get bloodshot and their nerves wear out. Sin City's most unforgivable sin, of course, is starting the worst movie trend since movies based on video games - movies gussied up to look like comic books.
This movie from George Stevens is notable for one reason and one reason alone: It marks the final appearance of James Dean. And that's certainly no reason for critics to fawn over it. Giant plays as a romantic epic strictly by the book. The Texas setting is supposed to be a colorful backdrop, but that's all it is in the end - a backdrop. This movie could have just as easily been set in New York. And in New York, we would have been spared almost an hour of running time without Stevens spending that amount of time fixing the setup for the main plot. Yes, that's really how long it takes. Once the plot is finally finished setting itself, it keeps introducing little problems like bigotry and sexism which are never, ever addressed and just fade away, as if they never happened. Even Dean is only used as a bit of background noise! Giant describes the size of the egos of everyone involved in its making. Otherwise it's puny.
See the full review, "Big Country".
Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest directors who ever lived. He is also one of the most frustrating. He built his career and reputation around his ability to drag suspense out in scenes only to have nothing actually happen. Vertigo opens in its first 45 minutes as a potentially brilliant and twisted thriller. But Hitchcock doesn't know when to quit with the non-suspense and it begins to dominate the movie in the second half.
Vertigo is a very creepy love story. The main character becomes obsessed with a woman and follows her around, and later she reciprocates his affection. She kills herself for no apparent reason. Then instead of moping like a good boy, the main character has the odd fortune to spot a woman who looks just like the woman who killed herself, and the movie loses any semblance of plausibility. Through the whole movie, the main character establishes himself as the worst-kind of wrong-headed thinker and both women are unbearable bubbleheads. Hitchcock doesn't seem to know if James Stewart should be playing his role as an aw-shucks everyman or a nut with an overwhelming crush. To my personal distaste, Stewart regularly fades in and out of both. Meanwhile, Vertigo itself fades in and out between romance and suspense thriller. Hitchie just can't get the two to mesh.