Sight and Sound Magazine have finished compiling their decennial list of the greatest films of all time. You can view the critics’ top 50 here (actually 52 because of three-way tie at the 50th slot), and I assume the complete lists will be available after Sight and Sound publish their September issue. To give the list some context, Sight and Sound have been compiling a poll of film critics every ten years since 1952 to determine the greatest films of all time. In 1992, they also started compiling a separate list polling directors.
I find it fascinating to observe the shifting critical opinions around great films over the years. Some of the films (such as VERTIGO, SUNRISE, and 2001) have steadily increased in reputation over the last few decades. Some are slowly diminishing. But mostly I’m fascinated by the films that seem to bounce around from decade to decade. For example, look at the chaotic ranking changes of THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, which seems to oscillate in reputation every twenty years.
Being a narcissistic soul, my initial thought was to see how the Sight and Sound lists compared to my personal Top 10 Films Of All Time list. Answer? Not well. None of my top 10 picks show up anywhere on the top 50 of the Sight and Sound critic list.
Even more embarrassingly, I’ve only seen 17 of their top 50 films. I guess I have a lot more movie-watching to do. High-res

Sight and Sound Magazine have finished compiling their decennial list of the greatest films of all time. You can view the critics’ top 50 here (actually 52 because of three-way tie at the 50th slot), and I assume the complete lists will be available after Sight and Sound publish their September issue. To give the list some context, Sight and Sound have been compiling a poll of film critics every ten years since 1952 to determine the greatest films of all time. In 1992, they also started compiling a separate list polling directors.

I find it fascinating to observe the shifting critical opinions around great films over the years. Some of the films (such as VERTIGO, SUNRISE, and 2001) have steadily increased in reputation over the last few decades. Some are slowly diminishing. But mostly I’m fascinated by the films that seem to bounce around from decade to decade. For example, look at the chaotic ranking changes of THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, which seems to oscillate in reputation every twenty years.

Being a narcissistic soul, my initial thought was to see how the Sight and Sound lists compared to my personal Top 10 Films Of All Time list. Answer? Not well. None of my top 10 picks show up anywhere on the top 50 of the Sight and Sound critic list.

Even more embarrassingly, I’ve only seen 17 of their top 50 films. I guess I have a lot more movie-watching to do.

But They’re Already Famous…

One of the common responses to my “Tear Down These Walls” post is that people are afraid the new artist/fan model is only sustainable for artists who have already built a huge fan-base under the traditional entertainment industry model. People who are already famous. I don’t think this is true. First of all, there are already success stories of content-creators who have thrived in the new model without any major prior success from the traditional content distribution system. But I also think that this perception is a result of where we are in the timeline of transition. The new model of artist/fan interaction is, after all, a new model. Of course the artists who already have big engaged fan-bases are best suited to use this new model, and of course most of the artists who already have big fan-bases managed to build those relationships in the old system. That too will change.

But the simpler response to this criticism is just to highlight some artists who have already found success with the new model without the benefit of large fan-bases built on the back of traditional media. (And I’m ignoring the incredibly successful artists that used online popularity to build a foothold in the traditional media system, such as Justin Bieber and Soulja Boy and Carly Rae Jepson and let’s be honest almost every other big new pop or hip-hop artist.)

So here are some people who used online and non-traditional media to build strong artist/fan relationships and who used these relationships to build successful pipelines for creating and distributing art and entertainment.

JONATHAN COULTON

As Wikipedia says, Coulton is “an American singer-songwriter, known for his songs about geek culture and his use of the Internet to draw fans.” He was a computer programmer who started creating his own music in 2003. Coulton has released his music under the very friendly Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license which lead to a lot of early podcasts using his music. As Coulton’s popular online built, he was approached to make the song “Still Alive” for the end-credits of the popular video-game Portal.

In 2011 Coulton revealed that he was making $500,000 a year from his music, without having a traditional record label contract. It’s fair to assume that his earnings have increased in 2012.

FREDDIE WONG

Freddie Wong (aka FreddieW) joined YouTube in 2006. The competitive Guitar Hero player and video-game junkie started creating and sharing wacky VFX-heavy video-game inspired videos. He currently has 3.4m subscribers on YouTube and his videos have over 675m views. In 2011, Freddie tried to raise $75,000 on Kickstarter to fund a more ambitious online video series called Video Game High School. He ended up raising $273,726.

RICH BURLEW

Burlew was a Dungeons and Dragons geek growing up. He attended Pratt Institute for a degree in Illustration, and ended up with a job doing elementary school textbook design and layout. I guess technically that’s a job in the old media system, but it’s not much of a foothold. In 2003, Burlew decided to add a stick figure comic to his personal website Giant In The Playground. This web-comic grew to be “The Order of the Stick.”

After selling self-published “The Order Of The Stick” books from his website for a few years, he ran out of copies of the original book. This year, Burley decided to try to raise some money to fund a reprint. He set a target of $57,750 which was the minimum needed for a second print run. When the Kickstarter campaign closed, Burley had raised $1,254,120.

JERRY HOLKINS and MIKE KRAHULIK

In 1998, Holkins and Krahulik started a web-comic called Penny Arcade. It is incredibly popular. It’s hard for me to explain the level of cross-media popularity and impact attained by Penny Arcade in a short paragraph, so I recommend checking out the long Wikipedia entry for Penny Arcade for some more context.

MARKUS “NOTCH” PERSSON

I saved the biggest for last. Notch is the pseudonym for video-game developer Markus Alexej Persson. Notch is currently one of the biggest celebrities in the video-game community. Back in 2009, Notch was just another programmer working for a video-game development company. However, all that changed when Notch released a tech demo for a personal gaming project called Minecraft. This was a game he created, promoted, and marketed himself. He has now built a small company around the game, and remains vehemently independent. As of today, 6.8 million people have purchased the PC/Mac version of Minecraft. The game is available for computers, and has versions available for XBox 360 and iOS. Minecraft has earned well north of $50m for Notch and his company Mojang. All of this without using any traditional video-game distribution systems until after earning more than $20m in revenue from direct sales to fans.

Minecraft has very transparent sales figures. In the last 24-hours, direct sales of Minecraft resulted in over $360,000 in revenue.

The power, influence, control, and yes, money, that Notch gets from Minecraft vastly outstrips what would be possible if he developed and released Minecraft through the traditional channels. Although, let’s be honest, the traditional channels never would have made a game like Minecraft in the first place.

Perhaps you notice a pattern here (besides the unfortunate pattern that all the people I listed are men). These success stories are primarily people who are creating content that appeals to gamers. As I mentioned in my prior post, I believe that this new model is currently more successful in the world of gamers because gamers are already highly engaged with finding, purchasing, and consuming content online. Gamers are the early-adopters of the new model of artist/fan interaction. There are also plenty of robust alternative distribution, marketing, and publicity platforms for independent game developers and for people making content that appeals to gamers. I think that other audiences are a few years behind on this timeline, but we’re going to start to see these success stories rolling out across more types of content as more and more people become engaged online.

This is where we’re going.

Of course, this list would look totally different if I started talking about self-publishing e-book authors… But that’s another post.

Tear Down These Walls

In the entertainment business, we’re living in very interesting times. There’s a wave of momentum pushing forward a powerful new relationship between artist and fan.

At its most basic, there are only two important parties in the world of art and entertainment: the artist and the fan. However, over time, a wide variety of industries have set up shop between the artist and the fan. These middle-man entities took control of helping artists fund their art, helping artists market and distribute their art, helping fans discover and consume the art, and helping fans build a semblance of a relationship with artists they admire.

These industries used to serve incredibly important purposes. It was very expensive to make a lot of modern art forms such as music, Broadway, or film. It was very expensive to create and administer a distribution network that had to get vinyl records into thousands of stores or to manufacture and ship heavy 35mm film prints to hundreds of theaters. It was very expensive to market art to the public. And while some of these expenses are still here, the need for most of them have started to drop or disappear over the last few years.

Unfortunately as these expenses have started to disappear, the middle-man system has clutched harder and harder at the control it maintains over the creation and distribution of creative content. Studio executives wield creative power with a stronger fist than any time in the last few decades.

But over the last few years, the reality is that these middle-man positions have become less and less important. First the web and now the social-web (mostly Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr) have removed communication barriers between artists and fans. Platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo make it possible for artists to fund their work through a direct relationship with fans. Amazon, iTunes, Steam, and other initiatives make it simpler for artists to make their work available directly to millions of potential customers. Google and Facebook both have advertising systems that are incredibly powerful and user-friendly.

It’s possible today for artist and fan to have a direct relationship in terms of content consumption, communication, and commerce.

From my position as an independent film producer, it looks like we’re at a turning point. If you are creating content that appeals to an online-savvy audience, all of the tools you need for creation, distribution, and marketing are accessible and affordable. And clearly I’m not the only person to see this. There are success stories across all popular forms of art and entertainment:

This is something Patton Oswalt recently discussed in his keynote address at Montreal’s Just For Laughs 2012. Patton puts it incredibly well:

Our careers don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. They’re gone.

The old gates are gone, and new gates don’t try to control the content. Kickstarter, iTunes, and Twitter don’t try to fiddle with what an artist wants to create. They don’t try to own the content. They don’t try to insert themselves into a position of power in the artist/fan relationship. They have business models based on facilitating artist/fan relationships, not based on controlling the content of those relationships.

I believe that comedians and video-games are the best early-adopters for this new model, and that’s why we’re currently seeing the most success in these areas.

Comedians have been building direct artist/fan relationships for years, based on touring. This is what lets Louis CK reach his fans directly. This is what led to Kevin Hart’s huge success with his theatrically self-released standup special. As artists in other fields build these direct artist/fan relationships, they can start using the same powerful direct-distribution and communication models that are being pioneered by comedians. I suspect that music will come next, and then finally film.

In terms of potential business models, video-games are the most interesting example. The current state of video-game distribution gives a sense of where all entertainment distribution will go over the next few years. Video-games are ahead on this timeline compared to other forms of entertainment for a variety of reasons:

  1. Video-games appeal to people who are already online-savvy.
  2. The people in control of video-game production are already online-savvy.
  3. Video-game players are already conditioned to experience the content on the same platform where they discover and purchase content.

All three of these things will happen to other forms of entertainment over the next few years. So let’s see what interesting models we see in the world of video-games…

  • Steam is a hugely successful distribution platform for independent games.
  • Kickstarter has had multiple video-game projects funded for over $1m, proving the power of a direct artist/fan relationship.
  • Humble Bundle provide a powerful promotional and sales platform for independent games. They package multiple video-games into a limited time sale where people can pay whatever they want for the games. A business model like this would be laughed out of most board rooms a decade ago, but the last Humble Bundle video-game bundle grossed over $5,000,000.

Right now Humble Bundle are selling their first non-video-game bundle. The Humble Music Bundle includes geek-friendly releases by OK Go, MC Frontalot, They Might Be Giants, Christopher Tin, Hitoshi Sakimoto, and Jonathan Coulton. There are ten days left in the bundle, and they’ve already sold $300,000 worth. That’s a pretty significant chunk of change for a limited-time sale where people are allowed to pay whatever they want.

So I sit here in 2012, looking around myself as an independent film producer stuck in the traditional world of film marketing and distribution. Like Patton Oswalt, I have benefited and failed based in large part on the whims of people in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in my direction. And I’m stuck in this position despite the fact that I usually only show up in the plush offices with completely finished and releasable films. I could get into specifics, but there’s no real advantage to throwing people and companies under the bus. But I sit here looking at the film-industry around me right now, and I don’t like what I see.

I look over the fence at Louis CK, Amanda Palmer, and Double Fine. It’s not just that their grass is greener than my grass. It’s that their grass is growing, and my grass is dying. I want to be on the side of the fence where the grass is growing.

So I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I recently invested in VHX, a platform for artists and filmmakers to distribute video content directly to fans. I am a vocal supporter of Kickstarter, and have backed over 30 projects on their platform. I’m looking to support new platforms that will help build direct relationships between artists and fans.

And yes, my plan over the next year is to jump over that fence myself. I’m sick of relying on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in my direction. I want to live at the intersection of artist and fan. I want to help tear down the broken system so we can build something better in its place.

[You might also want to read my follow up post: “But They’re Already Famous…”]

What does it feel like to finally stop biting your nails?

I’m a big fan of the website Quora (specifically a place for asking and answering questions, and generally a fantastic resource for information). I’ve been answering questions there this year, and I’ve decided to start cross-promoting some of my popular answers here on my personal blog.

QUORA QUESTION -  What does it feel like to finally stop biting your nails?

MY ANSWER or “A Trip To The Scientology Celebrity Centre”

A few years ago, I became obsessed with the idea of figuring out what was inside the Scientology Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles on Franklin Ave.

The building has an aging Hollywood charm, being the former Chateau Elysee. It was originally built in late 1920s as a luxury long-term apartment building. It was a pet project of Hollywood royalty Elinor Ince after the death of her husband Thomas Ince, the legendary silent filmmaker and studio mogul. In the 1930s and 1940s some of the biggest celebrities of the era held residences in the building: Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, George Burns, and many more. This was the center of the “chateau life” of the period, and the setting for many legendary parties and debaucheries.

Today the legacy of the building has faded. It was in considerable disrepair in 1973 when The Church of Scientology purchased the building. It is now operated as the Scientology Celebrity Centre, and its general purpose is kept mysterious. The romance of old Hollywood has been replaced by the mystery and secrets of Scientology.

I was living in Los Angeles a few years ago, and would often eat lunch with my girlfriend at Birds or La Poubelle on Franklin and stare at the mysterious building across the street. When I was in college in the late 90s, I read extensively about Scientology. I was fascinated by the organization, and it’s a fascination that has continued throughout my adult life. It should come as no surprise that THE MASTER is my most anticipated film of 2012.

After a few trips to the neighborhood, we realized that the Scientology Celebrity Centre offered a weekend brunch buffet at the Renaissance Restaurant. Unfortunately it appears that the restaurant’s website isn’t online anymore, but at the time it boasted about being ranked one of the 40 best restaurants in the nation. So this was the best of both worlds: delicious food and a peek behind the curtain of the Scientology Celebrity Centre.

To be honest, we were a little nervous about going by ourselves. If you spend much time reading about Scientology online, you run into some scary stories about the organization. But we weren’t scared enough to miss out on this adventure. Instead we roped in two friends who shared our fascination. A young film director and his girlfriend.

I called and booked a table for four, using a fake name (as I said, I was quite nervous). It was surprisingly easy to get a Sunday brunch table at one of the 40 best restaurants in the country.

The highly-anticipated day finally arrived. The Celebrity Centre offers free valet parking, but we (wisely) parked our cars around the corner on the street. We weren’t keen on the idea of having the Church of Scientology in possession of our vehicles. The four of us strolled across the beautifully maintained grounds, and entered the restaurant. We were looking forward to a brunch of excellent people-watching. A sneak behind the curtain of how the Scientologist royalty spent their Sunday mornings. The restaurant was almost entirely empty, and the buffet was what you would expect from a complimentary breakfast at a two-star hotel.

To say the least, this was a disappointment. We had built this up in our minds for the last week, and we were eating soggy cold french toast in an empty room.

But all was not lost! With no people-watching to do, we used our lunch to plan our approach. How could we explore this building? How could we find the inner secrets of the Celebrity Centre?

After we paid for brunch (we paid in cash; see above re: nervousness) we wandered further into the building to initiate our plan. Once you got past the restaurant, you started to really get a sense of the Scientologyness of the building. There were class-project-style dioramas and presentations on all the walls explaining various tenets of Scientology. We passed a roped-off empty office which we later found out was L Ron Hubbard’s office. Apparently every major Scientology building leaves an empty office for L Ron Hubbard. I assume this is in case he decides to return to Earth and needs to quickly bang out a Battleship Earth sequel.

Past the displays explaining the hierarchy of Scientology was a large foyer with a desk like a hotel reception. I approached the smiling woman behind the counter to start my well-rehearsed speech.

"Hi, we were just eating brunch at the Rennaisance, it was fantastic by the way, and we were blown away by how beautiful this building is. Is this a museum or something? Is there any sort of tour we can take?"

Of course, she loved this. We were immediately whisked off to a private theater to watch a forty minute recruitment video for Scientology. Just the four of us and the full force of Scientology’s audio-visual recruitment techniques. Wow. I can’t really do justice to this video without doubling the length of this already-lengthy answer. I believe it leaked online a few years ago, but Scientology immediately took it down. I will say that if you ever get a chance to watch the official Scientology recruitment video, do it.

After the video ended we shuffled out of the theater, minds totally blown. Of course we all wanted to discuss the mind-blowing video we just watched, but we were immediately grabbed by our “tour guide.”

Our guide took us around the ground floor of the Celebrity Centre. We were in full-character as young successful filmmakers who had never heard of Scientology, but who were intrigued by the claims made in the recruitment video. I think our feigned success was the key. I had two younger friends who went a couple months later and were immediately split up and given the hard-sell that you would assume Scientology would give young desperate people looking for help. We were treated like visiting dignitaries.

I got to play with an e-meter, as the tour guide asked me questions about things bothering me in my personal life. He would nod knowingly as the e-meter moved, and then would interpret the signals to give me answers to my made-up problems. This was the one time where I actually felt bad for our tour-guide. He was so earnest in his guidance and there I was making up problems and taking advantage of his hospitality.

I felt less bad when we were taken to the second floor and I saw the diorama that explained how Tom Cruise helped save the lives of New York City fire-fighters after 9/11. I love Tom Cruise, he’s one of my favorite actors of the last twenty years, but let’s keep things in perspective.

We walked through the Scientology library. Young people were hard at work plumbing the wisdom of L Ron Hubbard. We were asked to keep quiet not to interrupt their important work, and were quickly rushed out of the library when a young man looked disturbed by our presence.

In total, we spent around an hour and a half touring the building. I’m sure it could have gone on longer, but my friend’s girlfriend was starting to become disturbed and wanted to leave. The tour-guide tried at the last minute to switch into heavy recruitment mode, sensing that he was losing us, but we feigned that we had lost track of time and were late for an appointment. We gave fake names and phone numbers and got out of there as quickly as possible.

But one part of the tour has always stuck out in my mind. Part of the tour of the Celebrity Centre involved us going down into the basement, which had been lovingly converted into a full service spa and gym. The overwhelming feeling around the Celebrity Centre was that of a theme park. Walking through the basement hallways felt like walking through the Disneyland line for a medieval castle ride. The walls were covered with fake plaster painted stonework. And like a theme park, the people in attendance were all ridiculously happy. I am constantly amazed by how happy most Scientologists are. I have plenty of problems with Scientology, but I can’t fault the happiness that it seems to bring to so many practitioners.

While touring the spa a young woman came up to our group. I assumed she was in her early twenties, although she might have still been a teenager for all I knew. A wide smile was painted across her face. My mind drew a parallel to the fake painted medieval stonework on the walls around us, and almost immediately I felt guilty. Who am I to judge the legitimacy of her happiness? She grabbed my hand. I remember her palms were surprisingly warm.

"I’m so glad you’re here! Scientology is amazing! It cured me of biting my fingernails!"

The girl seemed very happy. And her nails looked fantastic.

vhxtv:

We’re very proud to announce that VHX is powering the worldwide release of Indie Game: The Movie on June 12.
Indie Game has come a long way since their ambitious Kickstarter project. Two years later, they’re armed with an amazing film, a basket of accolades, and an eagerness to redefine what indie distribution truly means. We could not dream of a better fit for VHX for Artists.
You can pre-order it now and you’ll get high quality streaming and DRM-free downloads. If you want to find out more, you should watch the trailer!

Filmmakers, film execs, and film lovers: pay close attention. This is where the film, video, and television business is going. It will start with the crowd-funded and self-funded films by artists on the bleeding edge of technology, appealing to the early adopters. The musicians and comedians will embrace it, as they’ve always been the closest to their fans. It will creep into traditional independent film, as the pipeline for a well-supported self-release proves to be more lucrative and stable than gambling on traditional distribution. And finally the studios and networks will be dragged into the future kicking and screaming, left with no alternative as the market shifts under their feet.
But this is it. This is where we start. Crowd-funded on Kickstarter; self-released on iTunes, Steam, and VHX. Our Edison is Steve Jobs, our Chaplin is Louis CK, our multiplex is VHX, and our Warner Brothers is Kickstarter. I hope you can be our Hitchcock, our Curtiz, our Méliès, or our Griffith.
Movies are still young. It’s just the system that’s getting old. High-res

vhxtv:

We’re very proud to announce that VHX is powering the worldwide release of Indie Game: The Movie on June 12.

Indie Game has come a long way since their ambitious Kickstarter project. Two years later, they’re armed with an amazing film, a basket of accolades, and an eagerness to redefine what indie distribution truly means. We could not dream of a better fit for VHX for Artists.

You can pre-order it now and you’ll get high quality streaming and DRM-free downloads. If you want to find out more, you should watch the trailer!

Filmmakers, film execs, and film lovers: pay close attention. This is where the film, video, and television business is going. It will start with the crowd-funded and self-funded films by artists on the bleeding edge of technology, appealing to the early adopters. The musicians and comedians will embrace it, as they’ve always been the closest to their fans. It will creep into traditional independent film, as the pipeline for a well-supported self-release proves to be more lucrative and stable than gambling on traditional distribution. And finally the studios and networks will be dragged into the future kicking and screaming, left with no alternative as the market shifts under their feet.

But this is it. This is where we start. Crowd-funded on Kickstarter; self-released on iTunes, Steam, and VHX. Our Edison is Steve Jobs, our Chaplin is Louis CK, our multiplex is VHX, and our Warner Brothers is Kickstarter. I hope you can be our Hitchcock, our Curtiz, our Méliès, or our Griffith.

Movies are still young. It’s just the system that’s getting old.

A plan for aspiring filmmakers.

[This is based on a message board post I made in 2008 when an aspiring filmmaker asked a question about whether he should make a microbudget film.]

If I were starting from scratch today and I wanted to be a filmmaker… With no knowledge, no contacts, no experience, no credits, etc… This is what I would do…

1) I would write screenplays for “real” movies. Scripts that I think should be big budget Hollywood films.

2) I would make a variety of short video content with an easy hook on a regular schedule. Perhaps once a month. If they really catch on, I would do more of the same style with a hope to build an audience.

3) I would try to make at least one microbudget feature a year. I would try to do as much of the technical production as I could until I had easy access to better crew. I would endeavor to get these films into the best festivals possible, and self-distribute online unless I received an offer from a reputable independent distributor.

All three of these methods can lead to success, but they also all inform each other. As you get better at any one of the three, it will improve the quality of the other two. It would also lead to you becoming a more interesting person than most aspiring filmmakers. You would hopefully start to build a fanbase, and it would separate you as someone who does rather than someone who talks about doing.

Here are several films that either were made on a microbudget or that I think could have been made on a microbudget without massive sacrifices. Please note that I do NOT include delivery costs when considering the budget for a microbudget film. If you’re delivering a film it’s because you made a sale, and the sale should be able to cover the delivery expenses. On the other hand, I would always include delivery costs in a non-microbudget film. One of the tricks to a good microbudget film is getting one or two things that should be expensive for cheap, and then building a film around that.

Also the primary trick with microbudget filmmaking is to not pay for anything. You try to pay for nothing, and your budget is basically whatever you can’t get for free, and you can’t do yourself.

Movies That Didn’t Make My Top 10 List

Last week I published the list of My Personal “Top” 10 Films Of All Time. Over the last week my mind has occasionally wandered over the big list of my favorite movies that didn’t make the final cut. So for the curious, here is my list of honorable mentions in alphabetical order.

  • ABOUT A BOY
  • ALIENS
  • ALL THAT JAZZ
  • AMADEUS
  • ANNIE HALL
  • BACK TO THE FUTURE
  • THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS
  • A BETTER TOMORROW
  • BOTTLE ROCKET
  • A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
  • THE CONFORMIST
  • THE CONVERSATION
  • COOL HAND LUKE
  • DIE HARD
  • DIRTY DANCING
  • THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
  • ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
  • FACE/OFF
  • THE GODFATHER PART 2
  • GROUNDHOG DAY
  • A HARD DAY’S NIGHT
  • HERO
  • HOOP DREAMS
  • INCEPTION
  • INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM
  • INFERNAL AFFAIRS
  • INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
  • IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT
  • JERRY MAGUIRE
  • JURASSIC PARK
  • KILL BILL: VOLUME 1
  • THE KILLER
  • MANHATTAN
  • MARY POPPINS
  • THE MATRIX
  • MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL
  • MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO
  • NETWORK
  • OLIVER!
  • PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL
  • PULP FICTION
  • RAN
  • RATATOUILLE
  • RINGU
  • THE ROAD WARRIOR
  • ROBOCOP
  • ROMANCING THE STONE
  • RUSHMORE
  • SCREAM
  • SE7EN
  • SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
  • THE SIXTH SENSE
  • STRANGERS ON A TRAIN
  • STRAW DOGS
  • STRICTLY BALLROOM
  • SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS
  • SUNSET BLVD.
  • THERE WILL BE BLOOD
  • THE THING
  • TO BE OR NOT TO BE
  • TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
  • TO LIVE
  • UNFORGIVEN
  • WHEN HARRY MET SALLY

My Personal “Top” 10 Films Of All Time

My friend Cole Abaius from Film School Rejects asked me to participate in an experiment to make an alternative to the canonical Sight & Sound Greatest Films list. The request was simple: to provide my “Top Ten Movies Of All Time, ranked.” He then compiled all the entries into this master list.

At first I thought this would be a fun diversion, but it turned out to be incredibly stressful. Who am I to not include a single Stanley Kubrick or Akira Kurosawa film on my Top 10 list? Have I betrayed my beloved FACE/OFF by not including it? Am I really so anglo-centric that I can’t find room for foreign language masterpieces? At the end of the day, I’m upset at myself for not finding a way to put at least 100 movies on my top 10 list. The entire idea of a top 10 list is a bit wonky to me, as I believe it’s impossible to rank and organize the impact and quality of different works of art, but I think a finished list can still provide a helpful guide to other film explorers and it can be an interesting insight into the mind of the list-maker. So here we go…

THE RULES
I am using a few simple self-imposed rules to narrow down the playing field:

  • Only one film per director.
  • Only films I have seen (obviously).
  • Only films I love personally.
  • Only films that I consider to be of exceptionally high quality.
  • Only films that I think have had an impact on the overall path of filmmaking.

THE LIST

1) THE GRADUATE (1967)
This is personally my favorite film of all time, and I also consider it to be one of the finest achievements in the craft of filmmaking across almost all departments. So you shouldn’t be surprised to find it at the top of my list. I could spend my entire life studying THE GRADUATE, and I still would still be awestruck by its excellence. It was a big  wake-up call to the American film industry, both creatively and commercially. THE GRADUATE sets the stage for the 1970s in its visual style, editing, casting, and through the use of non-diegetic popular music. I honestly think if this movie were released today, it would set off a creative revolution all over again. The film still plays fresh and inventive, even though it has been copied so many times over the years. It’s also easy to forget how commercially successful this film was. What was essentially a low-budget independent film grossed over $100m in 1967, which would be over $650m in 2012 dollars.

2) CASABLANCA (1942)
This movie could be number one if it were in color. Just kidding. It would also have to star Dustin Hoffman.

3) LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
ARABIA isn’t just an epic film; it is *the* epic film. The scope of this production is jaw-dropping, and it has to be seen projected in 70mm at a good theater to truly appreciate the achievement. And when you pick your jaw up off the floor, remember the most incredible thing: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is an independent film.

4) RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
Just thinking about this movie makes me want to watch it right now.

5) STAR WARS (1977)
It’s hard for me to figure out how to approach STAR WARS. I grew up watching it on a crappy VHS on a crappy television, and yet it exists in my mind’s eye not as a noisy tiny image, and not as a beautifully projected film. It exists as a memory as real as anything else from my life. I feel like I’ve been there, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and George Lucas’s film just reminded me of those days. Everything post-1977 aside, STAR WARS used the creative technology of film to build a powerful global shared myth. It managed to combine a global distribution system with a singular piece of narrative art to do something almost overnight that historically had taken generations. Our Greek gods, our Knights of the Round Table, our fairy tales are STAR WARS and the Marvel and DC heroes. STAR WARS shook the world, and I think people dismiss its huge power too easily when they use the critical tools you would apply to fiction with more traditional goals.

6) CHINATOWN (1974)
You can bring back the critical tools you apply to fiction with more traditional goals. Onions watch CHINATOWN to learn how to have layers.

7) THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
I love musicals, and THE SOUND OF MUSIC is my favorite film musical of all time. On top of that, I think the film is incredibly well made even beyond just the music. Some obvious standout aspects being Ernest Lehman’s screenplay adaptation and Ted McCord’s remarkable cinematography. Plus it makes me smile and want to be a better person.

8) OLDBOY (2003)
Of all the films on my list, I suspect this is the one I have ranked too low. OLDBOY is a dirty miracle. It lies waiting in the dark crevices and alleys of my mind. The parts of my mind that make me uncomfortable standing on a tall building not because I’m afraid I might fall but because I’m afraid I might push the person standing next to me. Of course, the good parts of my mind are filled with THE SOUND OF MUSIC so I just end up singing instead.

9) THE FLY (1986)
That’s right. I think that a remake is one of the ten best films of all time. For me, THE FLY is the ultimate horror film. It does what only true horror can do, and makes you realize there truly are fates worse than death. And it does it through the framework of a heartbreakingly real tragic love story.

10) TOY STORY (1995)
This is the movie that set the bar for feature-length CG-animation, and it’s the film that launched Pixar. Those two things alone warrant giving the film major consideration just for historical impact, but beyond that TOY STORY is a damn good movie. A filmmaking friend of mine says that the best movies are ones where it feels like the medium of film was invented just to make this movie. Well in the case of TOY STORY it’s actually true.

So that’s my list. At least, that’s my list today. I’m sure if you asked me tomorrow most of the films would be different. And I’m sure if you asked me the next day, they’d change all over again. But for now here’s a snapshot of what I consider to be celluloid greatness. If you disagree, and I’m sure you do, feel free to create your own list or drop me a line on Twitter @keithcalder.

2012 Movie #44 - Oliver! (1968)
I was lucky enough to see a brand-new 35mm print of OLIVER! projected at the BFI with a Q&A featuring Ron Moody (Fagin), Kenneth Cranham (Noah Claypole), and Mark Lester (Oliver Twist himself!). This was definitely one of the high-lights of my filmgoing life, as OLIVER! is one of my all-time favorite films and Ron Moody’s performance as Fagin is one of my favorite film-performances.
I have a long history with Lionel Bart’s musical version of Oliver. It was one of my favorite films growing up, and I was actually cast as Oliver when I was 12 at our high-school’s production of the musical. Obviously I know all the songs by heart. However I’ve only ever seen the film on VHS, and haven’t seen it at all for well over a decade.
Seeing the film on a new 35mm print was a revelation for me. The production design and cinematography are jaw-droppingly amazing. The fascinating thing about the film is how Carol Reed is able to combine the best part of a heightened classic musical aesthetic with elements more at home in a serious modern drama of the late 60s. The production design fits the scope of a glossy studio musical, but with dirt and grit giving a real honesty to the sets.
You can see further proof of this perfect marriage of grand theatrical scope and intimate drama in the scenes between Fagin (Ron Moody) and Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed). In his Fagin, Ron Moody constructed a compelling dangerous clown out of what is traditionally a despicably evil one-note villain. He uses every trick of the stage performer including pulling bits form magic, clowning, mime, and vaudeville. It’s a remarkable performance, and shows what is capable when an incredible theatrical actor is given a canvas that fits his style.
But what’s most remarkable is that Carol Reed has figured out a way to let the vaudevillian theatrical Fagin live in the same frame as the more naturalistic method approach of Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes. Reed is one of the few characters to never sing a note in this musical. He broods his way through scenes with intense masculinity and real menace.
It’s hard to explain just how hard it is to maintain suspension of belief in a film when you are mixing multiple tones. It’s a miracle that Carol Reed was able to pull this off. OLIVER always feels cohesive and complete and real. He manages to pull the best from both the grand performance tricks of theater and the grounded intimate drama of film. And he does it so effortlessly. I think this is what has stopped people from fully recognizing OLIVER as the masterpiece it is. Reed made it look too easy. High-res

2012 Movie #44 - Oliver! (1968)

I was lucky enough to see a brand-new 35mm print of OLIVER! projected at the BFI with a Q&A featuring Ron Moody (Fagin), Kenneth Cranham (Noah Claypole), and Mark Lester (Oliver Twist himself!). This was definitely one of the high-lights of my filmgoing life, as OLIVER! is one of my all-time favorite films and Ron Moody’s performance as Fagin is one of my favorite film-performances.

I have a long history with Lionel Bart’s musical version of Oliver. It was one of my favorite films growing up, and I was actually cast as Oliver when I was 12 at our high-school’s production of the musical. Obviously I know all the songs by heart. However I’ve only ever seen the film on VHS, and haven’t seen it at all for well over a decade.

Seeing the film on a new 35mm print was a revelation for me. The production design and cinematography are jaw-droppingly amazing. The fascinating thing about the film is how Carol Reed is able to combine the best part of a heightened classic musical aesthetic with elements more at home in a serious modern drama of the late 60s. The production design fits the scope of a glossy studio musical, but with dirt and grit giving a real honesty to the sets.

You can see further proof of this perfect marriage of grand theatrical scope and intimate drama in the scenes between Fagin (Ron Moody) and Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed). In his Fagin, Ron Moody constructed a compelling dangerous clown out of what is traditionally a despicably evil one-note villain. He uses every trick of the stage performer including pulling bits form magic, clowning, mime, and vaudeville. It’s a remarkable performance, and shows what is capable when an incredible theatrical actor is given a canvas that fits his style.

But what’s most remarkable is that Carol Reed has figured out a way to let the vaudevillian theatrical Fagin live in the same frame as the more naturalistic method approach of Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes. Reed is one of the few characters to never sing a note in this musical. He broods his way through scenes with intense masculinity and real menace.

It’s hard to explain just how hard it is to maintain suspension of belief in a film when you are mixing multiple tones. It’s a miracle that Carol Reed was able to pull this off. OLIVER always feels cohesive and complete and real. He manages to pull the best from both the grand performance tricks of theater and the grounded intimate drama of film. And he does it so effortlessly. I think this is what has stopped people from fully recognizing OLIVER as the masterpiece it is. Reed made it look too easy.

A Response to Marco Arment’s “Right versus pragmatic”

My friend Marco Arment wrote a recent blog post discussing the problem of intellectual property piracy, and possible ways of responding to the problem. He uses an example of a shared public restroom in his old office building which had a problem of people throwing paper towels on the floor by the door of the bathroom because there was no trash can by the door. Someone tried to resolve this problem by putting up passive aggressive signs asking people to please discard paper towels in the waste basket. The floor-besmirchers ignored these signs and rebelled against these signs, because it was more convenient for them to drop their paper towel on the floor on their way out the door. Marco argues that the pragmatic response would be to just place a trashcan by the door. It’s hard to argue with this logic. It certainly would be pragmatic to put a trashcan by the door.

So I’ll respond with my own bathroom analogy. I used to work in an office building with shared public restrooms. We didn’t have a paper towel problem, but we did have another problem. One or more people kept pissing on the seats of the men’s toilets. I assume it’s because they didn’t want to touch the seat to lift it, and they certainly didn’t want to touch the seat to wipe away their urine splashes. So they pissed on the seats, and walked away with urine splatter lying as a booby-trap for future buttocks.

Now what is the pragmatic response? I guess you could pragmatically remove the toilet seats. That would satisfy the seat-pissers, but the result is that no one else would have toilet seats. That would certainly make things uncomfortable for people who need to defecate or who need to sit down to urinate. I guess it could be pragmatic for people who need to sit on the seats to clean up other people’s pee. But then you have people who are non-bathroom-destroyers having to clean up someone else’s selfish urine. Maybe the pragmatic solution is that the bathroom maintenance people just have to check in on the bathroom every couple minutes to clean up any potential toilet-seat spills. Of course this would require significant staffing and business changes for most public restrooms, perhaps to the point that it might be more pragmatic to just get rid of the public restroom. Or it would require significantly increasing the rent in the building, adding cost to non-bathroom-pissers because of the mess caused by their piss-aim-disabled brethren.

The “right” solution is that the people pissing on toilet seats should stop pissing on toilet seats.

But that’s never going to happen, right? There will always be seat-pissers. Some people think it’s their inalienable right to piss on whatever surface that they can technically piss on. Is it the responsibility of all the non-toilet-seat-pissers to change their bathroom routine? Is it the responsibility of the building to redesign their bathroom to find ways to stop people from pissing on the seats? No, of course not. And there isn’t a pragmatic solution to the problem that doesn’t cause other bigger problems. So unfortunately we are left with a stalemate. The seat-pissers keep on seat-pissing, and the non-seat-pissers keep on being frustrated by the urine of selfish lazy people.

Piracy is a problem, and I could argue it’s a lot more like the pissing-on-the-seat problem than the paper-towels-on-the-floor problem. Marco seems to think the solution of putting all content online for a cheap price as soon as it’s released in any other media is a “trashcan by the door” problem. In reality it’s a lot more complicated than that, and would require a complete redesign of the entire bathroom industry. For something that might stop some people from pissing on some seats.

Now hear me out before you start labeling me an unthinking tool of the bathroom-SOPA initiative. I certainly don’t think the solution is putting spy cameras in bathrooms, making everyone sign a contract saying they won’t piss on toilet seats, or legislating how people can hold their genitalia. So let’s not assume that I’m saying that the film industry is responding to piracy in an appropriate way. I just also don’t think the solution is changing everything for the benefit of the seat-pissers as if their anti-social behavior is a market demand.

Of course, most seat-pissers don’t go around the place telling people that they’re undermining the fascist greedy bathroom industry by pissing on toilet seats. They don’t create political parties to make seat-pissing legal. They don’t piss all over a bathroom and then when asked to clean it up say that they wouldn’t have urinated if they had to pay for it so their piss shouldn’t count as a mess. So maybe my analogy doesn’t work either. I guess that’s the danger of using a public bathroom analogy to illustrate a point about a complicated topic such as piracy… (Hint: I made this last sentence bold because it’s the real point of this post.)

"On Film-Making" by Alexander Mackendrick

Back in January, I wrote what is easily the most popular post on my blog: The Big Filmmaking Book List. While I was writing that piece, I solicited other filmmaking book suggestions from Twitter, and I put together my Film Book reading list. My hope is to spend a big chunk of my free time in 2012 working my way through this list, and seeing if there are any gems to share with the rest of you. You can see all of my film-making book reviews at the Film Books tag page.

So that brings us to the first in the series…

On Film-Making" by Alexander Mackendrick

This is by far the best book I have read on the topic of traditional narrative filmmaking. How is that for a hyperbolic compliment? But seriously, the book is incredible.

Mackendrick worked in the film industry as a storyboard artist, screenwriter, and director. He directed SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS and THE LADYKILLERS, among others. He was a studio director at Ealing Studios, and when they shut down he moved to LA to work as an independent director. Facing frustration at the Hollywood studio system, Mackendrick left to become the dean of the film school at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). After about a decade, he gave up the position to focus on teaching. He taught at CalArts until his death in 1993.

On Film-Making was not designed to be a book. It’s a well edited collection of materials that Mackendrick created for his classes. It’s an incredible collection of study plans, handouts, storyboard examples, and essays. The book is broken into two sections: Dramatic Construction and Film Grammar. While both are full of gems, it’s the Dramatic Construction section that contains chapter after chapter of brilliant insight into narrative fimmaking. Mackendrick manages to cover screenwriting from both the writer’s and director’s perspective, creating an invaluable resource for the aspiring filmmaking.

It’s a waste for me to try to paraphrase Mackendricks’ insights, so I’ll just give you some quotes directly lifted from the book.

  • "Your only mistake, as you work in this medium of communication, is to produce in your audience an effect you didn’t intend, or fail to produce the effect you did."
  • "Primitive magical rituals use rhythmic movement, repetitive gesture and musical noise to give sensory unity and comprehension to some otherwise disturbing and fearsome mystery. A myth, it is said, is the verbal equivalent of a rite that serves the same archaic need: to help the primitive mind take hold of a mystery. Stories, even in the contemporary context of mass entertainment, would seem to be successful when they, too, fulfil such a need, something audiences need not even be aware of."
  • "Drama, so said drama critic William Archer, is almost always the effect of ‘anticipation mixed with uncertainty’. A good director, therefore, is always asking himself certain fundamental questions. What is the audience thinking? In relation to what has just happened and what might or might not happen next, is it approving, disapproving, fearing or hoping?"
  • "A dramatic character is definable only in relation to other characters or situations that involve tension. A dramatic scene is usually one in which something happens: an incident or an event takes place, the situation between the characters is different at the end of the scene than from what it was at the beginning. The equilibrium has been altered and there is some narrative momentum that drives the characters (and us the audience) to a new situation in the next scene."
  • "Most stories with a strong plot are built on the tension of cause and effect. Each incident is like a domino that topples forward to collide with the next in a sequence which holds the audience in a grip of anticipation. ‘So, what happens next?’ Each scene presents a small crisis that as it plays out produces a new uncertainty."
  • "The task of a storyteller is thus often the invention of a structure along the principle of Chinese boxes. A situation is created where our curiosity is whetted by the desire to uncover or disclose a solution, or to unravel a knot of tension, but when the discovery is made or the knot unravelled, it shows only another box, another hiding place."

And these are all before page 50. The book is a treasure trove for the aspiring filmmaker. It gives you a skillset for analyzing your own work, and methods for pushing against the limits of your current abilities. Mackendrick pushes a philosophy of understanding how an audience interacts with a film, and developing the skills to shape an audience’s reaction.

I can tell this is a book that I will come back to over and over again in my career, as I struggle to get a grasp on my own path as a filmmaker. Mackendrick opens the books with a simple concept: “Film writing and directing cannot be taught, only learned, and each man or woman has to learn it through his or her own system of self-education.” Well, I’m well on my path of self-education, and I feel like I made leaps and bounds thanks to this book.

Star Wars The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Drive

These are the films that were featured at least three times on the curated #film tag on Tumblr over the last 30 days, in order of descending number of mentions.

  1. 19 Mentions - Star Wars (the original trilogy)
  2. 15 Mentions - The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
  3. 10 Mentions - Drive
  4. 9 Mentions - The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  5. 8 Mentions - Inception, Pulp Fiction, The Avengers
  6. 7 Mentions - The Amazing Spider-Man
  7. 6 Mentions - Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, Reservoir Dogs, Se7en, The Phantom Menace, The Dark Knight
  8. 5 Mentions - 500 Days of Summer, Ghostbusters, Inglourious Basterds, Prometheus, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Dark Knight Rises
  9. 4 Mentions - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club, Harry Potter franchise, Lost in Translation, The Muppets, Pierrot le Fou, The Artist, The Big Lebowski, The Hobbit, The Social Network
  10. 3 Mentions - American Psycho, Back to the Future, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, Evil Dead, Gremlins, Groundhog Day, Hunger Games, Robocop, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Shame, Taxi Driver, Wall-E

These are the ten directors whose films were featured the most on the curated #film tag page over the last 30 days, in descending order.

  1. David Fincher
  2. George Lucas (sort of, since he didn’t direct all three Star Wars films)
  3. Christopher Nolan
  4. Quentin Tarantino
  5. Peter Jackson
  6. Marc Webb
  7. Steven Spielberg
  8. Nicolas Winding Refn
  9. Robert Zemeckis
  10. Tim Burton

This post was prompted by me thinking to myself “Why is there another god-damn Dragon Tattoo picture on the tumblr film page?”

For the curious among you, from my count there were 286 different films featured on the #film tag page in the last 30 days.

Want to know why generations of teenage girls love DIRTY DANCING?Want to know why it’s one of the highest selling DVDs of all time?Want to know why it can still sell out screenings around the world?
Because it’s really fucking good.
2012 Movie #39 - Dirty Dancing (1987)
For Valentine’s Day, Jess and I decided to see DIRTY DANCING at a theater here in London. this is probably the 4th or 5th time I’ve seen the film, but the first screening for over a decade. It’s also the first time I’ve ever seen the film projected in a theater.
I’ve always been a fan of DIRTY DANCING. Unfortunately, as a cultural phenomenon, “Dirty Dancing” has moved beyond the quality of the film, and now exists as a polarizing pop-culture item that people “love” or “hate.” This is a shame, as the film itself is of remarkably high quality.
So what the hell, I’m going to make the case for why I believe  DIRTY DANCING is one of the great films of the 1980s.
THEME
DIRTY DANCING is incredibly dense with interesting thematic content. It contains interesting explorations of class relations, shifting family and cultural dynamics in the mid-20th century, the maturation of father/daughter relationships as a daughter becomes an adult, but mostly it’s a film about believing you can change your world and the importance of helping other people. These last themes are touched on by all of the interweaving storylines and major characters, and is the beating heart of the relationship between Baby and Johnny.
THE BABY/JOHNNY RELATIONSHIP
Baby and Johnny have a love story built on the belief they have in each other, and their ability to expand each other’s horizons. Johnny teaches Baby how to dance and how to express herself. He helps her take the path from timid teenager to strong expressive adult. Baby in turn gives Johnny the strength to push against the class driven glass-ceiling he feels restrained by. In the most basic and compelling sense, they complete each other. They are simply better people in each other’s company. We fall in love with Baby and Johnny for the same reason why they fall in love with each other, and this is the ultimate success for a dramatic romance.
BABY’S RELATIONSHIPS WITH HER FATHER
The second biggest driving relationship in the film is between Baby and her father. People generally attribute the Baby/Johnny dynamic as the cause for the film’s rabid female fanbase, but I think the father/daughter relationship has an equally strong appeal and elevates the film beyond just another teen romance. The film uses the events of the narrative and Baby’s character arc to reflect the universal relationship dynamic of a father realizing his daughter is not just a child to love but a person to respect. Baby leaves DIRTY DANCING as a truly realized adult in all her important relationships.
THE WRITING
The screenplay for DIRTY DANCING is exceptional. If you’ve been following my blog, you can tell that I have pretty strong beliefs when it comes to the power of a well executed dramatic narrative. DIRTY DANCING never lets its narrative tension slack, and every scene is a real dramatic scene, which has become a rarity these days.
When I describe a scene as a “real dramatic scene,” I mean something very specific. In his book “On Film-Making,” Alexander Mackendrick defines a dramatic scene as…

…one in which something happens: an incident or an event takes place, the situation between the characters is different at the end of the scene from what it was at the beginning. The equilibrium has been altered and there is some narrative momentum that drives the characters (and us the audience) to a new situation in the next scene.

It has been a sad trend these days that many scenes are just “stuff happening.” Events will occur, but they have no impact on the film’s narrative propulsion because they don’t actually change the character dynamics or situations from the start to the end of the scene. They don’t indicate to the characters or the audience a new situation that builds on the prior situation, and so we enter the next scene as a blank slate waiting for the next “stuff happening” moment. Boredom is born in “stuff happening.”
This idea of indicating narrative progression is hugely important when it comes to structure. It’s well explained in Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s NYU lecture on story structure that went viral in 2011.

We found out this really simple rule… We can take these beats… of your outline and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re fucked. You’ve got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat you’ve written down is the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but.’

If you have “and then” between your scenes, it means that you aren’t writing using true dramatic scenes. You aren’t using your scene to build a changing situation in the world, and indication of how that changing situation effects the overall narrative progression of your story.
DIRTY DANCING is almost entirely structured using strong dramatic scenes. Every scene propels the plot and the characters, and this is what allows for such dense thematic, narrative, and character content in a brisk 100 minute running time.
This alone would make DIRTY DANCING an impressive screenplay. What makes the writing exceptional is that you never notice this expert craftmanship! Hell, I’m always looking for this stuff, and it took me a few viewings to realize how well crafted the script is. You never feel the invisible hand of the author forcing the story along. The scenes exist as natural moments between characters, where you believe they are making decisions and experiencing the world exactly in that moment. As a result, the audience also lives within the moment of every scene.
THE DETAILS
It’s certainly not enough to have a brilliantly structured and told story. Having a strong dramatic structure definitely helps make a film compelling to watch and avoids the cardinal sin of boredom, but it’s not like most people look back on a film they loved and say “it was amazing how every scene had narrative propulsion.”
The things you consciously remember and love about a film are the details. The iconic shots, the memorable marriage of dialog and performance, the shocking peripeteia (reversal of circumstances; turning points), the powerful scene or sequence, or the twist ending. The moments and the details.
The red pill or the blue pill? Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. Darth Vader reveals he’s Luke Skywalker’s father. Gene Kelly singing and dancing on a rainy street. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Slim Pickens riding the bomb. “I Fart In Your General Direction.” Johnny lifting Baby above the water of a Catskills lake. “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.”
DIRTY DANCING draws us in with its expertly conceived narrative, and hooks us eternally with its exquisite details.
What I’ll Take Away: Everything.
High-res

Want to know why generations of teenage girls love DIRTY DANCING?
Want to know why it’s one of the highest selling DVDs of all time?
Want to know why it can still sell out screenings around the world?

Because it’s really fucking good.

2012 Movie #39 - Dirty Dancing (1987)

For Valentine’s Day, Jess and I decided to see DIRTY DANCING at a theater here in London. this is probably the 4th or 5th time I’ve seen the film, but the first screening for over a decade. It’s also the first time I’ve ever seen the film projected in a theater.

I’ve always been a fan of DIRTY DANCING. Unfortunately, as a cultural phenomenon, “Dirty Dancing” has moved beyond the quality of the film, and now exists as a polarizing pop-culture item that people “love” or “hate.” This is a shame, as the film itself is of remarkably high quality.

So what the hell, I’m going to make the case for why I believe  DIRTY DANCING is one of the great films of the 1980s.

THEME

DIRTY DANCING is incredibly dense with interesting thematic content. It contains interesting explorations of class relations, shifting family and cultural dynamics in the mid-20th century, the maturation of father/daughter relationships as a daughter becomes an adult, but mostly it’s a film about believing you can change your world and the importance of helping other people. These last themes are touched on by all of the interweaving storylines and major characters, and is the beating heart of the relationship between Baby and Johnny.

THE BABY/JOHNNY RELATIONSHIP

Baby and Johnny have a love story built on the belief they have in each other, and their ability to expand each other’s horizons. Johnny teaches Baby how to dance and how to express herself. He helps her take the path from timid teenager to strong expressive adult. Baby in turn gives Johnny the strength to push against the class driven glass-ceiling he feels restrained by. In the most basic and compelling sense, they complete each other. They are simply better people in each other’s company. We fall in love with Baby and Johnny for the same reason why they fall in love with each other, and this is the ultimate success for a dramatic romance.

BABY’S RELATIONSHIPS WITH HER FATHER

The second biggest driving relationship in the film is between Baby and her father. People generally attribute the Baby/Johnny dynamic as the cause for the film’s rabid female fanbase, but I think the father/daughter relationship has an equally strong appeal and elevates the film beyond just another teen romance. The film uses the events of the narrative and Baby’s character arc to reflect the universal relationship dynamic of a father realizing his daughter is not just a child to love but a person to respect. Baby leaves DIRTY DANCING as a truly realized adult in all her important relationships.

THE WRITING

The screenplay for DIRTY DANCING is exceptional. If you’ve been following my blog, you can tell that I have pretty strong beliefs when it comes to the power of a well executed dramatic narrative. DIRTY DANCING never lets its narrative tension slack, and every scene is a real dramatic scene, which has become a rarity these days.

When I describe a scene as a “real dramatic scene,” I mean something very specific. In his book “On Film-Making,” Alexander Mackendrick defines a dramatic scene as…

…one in which something happens: an incident or an event takes place, the situation between the characters is different at the end of the scene from what it was at the beginning. The equilibrium has been altered and there is some narrative momentum that drives the characters (and us the audience) to a new situation in the next scene.

It has been a sad trend these days that many scenes are just “stuff happening.” Events will occur, but they have no impact on the film’s narrative propulsion because they don’t actually change the character dynamics or situations from the start to the end of the scene. They don’t indicate to the characters or the audience a new situation that builds on the prior situation, and so we enter the next scene as a blank slate waiting for the next “stuff happening” moment. Boredom is born in “stuff happening.”

This idea of indicating narrative progression is hugely important when it comes to structure. It’s well explained in Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s NYU lecture on story structure that went viral in 2011.

We found out this really simple rule… We can take these beats… of your outline and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re fucked. You’ve got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat you’ve written down is the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but.’

If you have “and then” between your scenes, it means that you aren’t writing using true dramatic scenes. You aren’t using your scene to build a changing situation in the world, and indication of how that changing situation effects the overall narrative progression of your story.

DIRTY DANCING is almost entirely structured using strong dramatic scenes. Every scene propels the plot and the characters, and this is what allows for such dense thematic, narrative, and character content in a brisk 100 minute running time.

This alone would make DIRTY DANCING an impressive screenplay. What makes the writing exceptional is that you never notice this expert craftmanship! Hell, I’m always looking for this stuff, and it took me a few viewings to realize how well crafted the script is. You never feel the invisible hand of the author forcing the story along. The scenes exist as natural moments between characters, where you believe they are making decisions and experiencing the world exactly in that moment. As a result, the audience also lives within the moment of every scene.

THE DETAILS

It’s certainly not enough to have a brilliantly structured and told story. Having a strong dramatic structure definitely helps make a film compelling to watch and avoids the cardinal sin of boredom, but it’s not like most people look back on a film they loved and say “it was amazing how every scene had narrative propulsion.”

The things you consciously remember and love about a film are the details. The iconic shots, the memorable marriage of dialog and performance, the shocking peripeteia (reversal of circumstances; turning points), the powerful scene or sequence, or the twist ending. The moments and the details.

The red pill or the blue pill? Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. Darth Vader reveals he’s Luke Skywalker’s father. Gene Kelly singing and dancing on a rainy street. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Slim Pickens riding the bomb. “I Fart In Your General Direction.” Johnny lifting Baby above the water of a Catskills lake. “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.”

DIRTY DANCING draws us in with its expertly conceived narrative, and hooks us eternally with its exquisite details.

What I’ll Take Away: Everything.

The Big Filmmaking Book List

I write this blog for a specific audience. It’s all written to be appealing to the “me” of ten years ago. By that, I mean the young eager person who loves film and is avidly trying to absorb as much knowledge and experience as possible. I hope I can help share some insight, and help people realize that everyone in this industry is still trying to learn how to make a good movie.

In that spirit, these are some books that I’ve read over the last decade or so that helped shape my approach to filmmaking and my understanding of the film business. I think these books all have considerable educational value to the aspiring or working filmmaking. The list is broken into categories, but I recommend cross-pollinating your knowledge. I find that breakthroughs in one filmmaking discipline often come from knowledge and experience acquired in another. The art, craft, and businesses of filmmaking are not orthogonal; they intertwine and it’s expected for an expert in any field to at least have a basic understanding of how their work impacts their colleagues.

This list is just a starting point. I will spend a lot of my free time in 2012 reading more books related to filmmaking. Check out the list of filmmaking books on my “to read” queue, and if you want to recommend a book please shoot me a note on Twitter. I will update this list if I find a book of exceptional value, otherwise you can follow my responses to other books by browsing the “film books" tag.

Some disclaimers:

  • Obviously I have not read every book on filmmaking, and please don’t take the omission of books from this list as a sign that the book does not have value.
  • That said, I have omitted some well known books intentionally because I think they don’t have any meaningful value. For example, most screenwriting books.

GENERAL FILMMAKING / PERSONAL ANECDOTES

Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez
At the age of 23, Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for $7,000 (excluding post-production and delivery). This book contains his personal journal from that period, and is a fascinating read. It also includes many wonderful practical tips on guerilla filmmaking.

Getting Away With It by Steven Soderbergh and Richard Lester
This is my favorite film-related book of all time, and one that I have revisited a few times over the years. At a low point in his career, before the huge success of the Ocean’s Eleven films and his studio system re-entry of Out of Sight, Soderbergh sat down for a series of interviews with legendary director Richard Lester. This book is a fascinating look at both artists, and you can see the conversations shape Soderbergh’s future path as a filmmaker.

DIRECTING

Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
This is the single most useful book on directing that I have ever read. Lumet is obviously a legend, and this book contains priceless nuts-and-bolts wisdom. If you are going to read one book before shooting your first film, this is the book.

My First Movie edited by Stephen Lowenstein
If you are going to read two books before shooting your first film, this is the second book. This book contains interviews with twenty directors exclusively on the subject of shooting their first film. It covers the anxiety and stress of making your first film, and contains priceless tips that will help any aspiring filmmaker get over that hump. Note: there are two volumes in this series, and I think that the first volume is vastly superior to the second.

Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen by Steve Katz
Another book that I read a long time ago, but I’m pretty sure helped to formulate by thoughts on visual storytelling. This book analyzes many of the options and reasons for planning composition and shot selection for a film. I haven’t revisited the book for well over a decade, so I’m not sure if my opinion would change today, but I remember liking it as a novice.

On Directing Film by David Mamet
It’s fascinating reading Mamet’s thoughts on directing. He has some opinions that I definitely disagree with, and I think his approach to directing has also limited the cinematic potential of his films. That said, there are some real gems of insight, and I recommend it mostly as a divisive book that can help foster your own original thought on how to approach the art and craft of filmmaking.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Painting With Light by John Alton
Supposedly the first book on cinematography written by a working director of photography (in fact one of the inventors of the film noir look), this somewhat dated book is a true classic that focuses on the use of light on film.

The Five C’s of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques by Joseph V Mascelli
To be honest, I read this book a very long time ago, but I remember it shaping my thoughts on cinematography and the fundamentals of visual temporal storytelling.

New Cinematographers by Alex Ballinger
OK, so you’ve had enough of these old books with old fogies talking about classic cinematography. New Cinematographers contains interviews with six cutting edge current cinematographers: Lance AcordJean-Yves EscofferDarius KhondjiJohn MathiesonSeamus McGarvey, and Harris Savides.

SCREENWRITING

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
This memoir by William Goldman is a must read for any screenwriter. It covers the early part of his career in great detail, and even includes the script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This is one of the essentials.

On Writing by Stephen King
This is not a book about screenwriting, but it is a book about writing. Many of the insights and thoughts that Stephen King shares in this book are wonderful. A lot of his suggestions will be totally misleading when applied to the craft of screenwriting, and when reading the book it’s important to keep in mind the differences between the two forms. However, on the whole I think this is a fascinating read on the process of a writer.

EDITING

In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch
If you only read one book on film editing, this is the book. Walter Murch is a master, and covers all the fundamentals of editing with wonderful expertise. This is a book to come back to again and again over the years, always gleaning new insights.

First Cut: Conversations with Film Editors by Gabriella Oldham
This book consists of interviews with 22 amazing film editors, and provides a huge number of insights into their creative and technical process. As I’m sure you can tell by now, I am very drawn to first-hand information from filmmakers, and this is a treasure trove of information on film editing.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje
After reading “In the Blink of an Eye” get even more Walter Murch in this series of interviews by Michael Ondaatje. Walter reveals even more secrets and insights into his trade, making this a must read.

When The Shooting Stops… The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story by Ralph Rosenblum
There is a trend that my favorite film craft books are written by expert craftspeople, and Rosenblum is no exception having edited films like The Pawnbroker and Annie Hall (both of which I consider to contain some of the finest picture editing of all time). This book is a fascinating insight into his process, but most importantly I think it’s the best source for information on the art of cutting for comedy.

PRODUCING

So You Want to Be a Producer by Lawrence Turman
Larry Turman is another legend. The man produced The GraduateThe Thing, and American History X and now runs the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. There aren’t many good hands-on books on film producing, and Larry’s book is by far the best I’ve read.

THE BUSINESS OF FILMMAKING

Ovitz: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Most Controversial Power Broker by Robert Slater
At one point in time Michael Ovitz was the most powerful agent, and perhaps the most powerful person in Hollywood. This official biography was published in 1997 so you won’t hear about his stunning fall from power or any real dirt. What you will hear about is how he helped form CAA (Creative Artists Agency) into a powerhouse, and a brief understanding of how agents and agencies derive their power and influence. The book is so hugely one-sided about what a great person Ovitz is, it actually exists as its own proof of how much power Ovitz could once wield.

Storming the Magic Kingdom by John Taylor
Maybe I have a thing for old books on the film business. The book covers the period in the early 80s when Michael Eisner and his team took over Disney and reshaped it to be the current media powerhouse that it is. It’s a fascinating read, and has a lot of detailed information and analysis of how things work at the top of an entertainment company.

Hollywood A Go-Go: The True Story of The Cannon Film Empire by Andrew Yule
Published in 1987, this book is about the rise and collapse of the Golan-Globus film empire. It goes into some detail on their business model, and holds no punches as it’s clear that the author doesn’t like what he has to see. It’s one of the few books that actually has insight into the world of international independent film finance, production, and distribution. It gives you a sense of the types of people you will end up dealing with if you get into the film industry. Unfortunately this book is long out-of-print, and isn’t even listed on Amazon’s website. The above link should go to a search for the book on AbeBooks, but if the link is broken you’ll have to search for it yourself.

So that’s the list. Was there a book you were expecting to see that wasn’t listed? Perhaps it’s in my to-read pile. If you don’t see it there, please drop me a note on Twitter with a suggestion.

Note: After writing this in January 2012, I decided to read a lot of other filmmaking books, in the hopes that I can help recommend some other gems. You can find the full series of reviews at the “film books" tag, but here are links to other books that I consider to be essential.

ALIEN Polish poster - Style A ALIENS Polish poster ALIENS Polish poster - Style B

These are three of the original Polish posters for ALIEN and ALIENS. I believe all three were designed by legendary Polish poster designer Witold Dybowski.

If this is your introduction to the amazing world of Polish film posters, you are in for a world of delight. The Polish film industry has a history of utilizing creative artistic posters long after most of the world moved to photographs of movie stars. But even if you’re already familiar with the wonders of Polish film posters, I hope I’ve uncovered some hidden gems in this post that can further your appreciation of the subject.

I’m not an expert on the subject, so I don’t want to fill your head with misinformation or my own amateur interpretation, but here is my basic understanding of how Polish film posters became so awesome. In essence, there was a single film distribution entity in Poland from the mid 1940s until 1990. Film Polski was the state run film monopoly, and all non-Polish films were released through this entity. The lack of competition and unorthodox approach to commercialism certainly provided an environment where poster artists were able to flourish, but I like to think the high quality of Polish advertising was mostly driven by people and a culture that wanted to embrace great art. The focus was on making stunning images that could stand on their own, not just a sales tool to promote the stars of a film. You can see incredible artistry in Polish design across almost all forms of print advertising including opera, theater, film, concerts, and even normal product billboards.

The Kemistry Gallery in London will be having an exhibit entitled “Mr T: The Posters of Jerzy Treutler" from February 2nd to March 17th. Jerzy Treutler designed Polish film posters through a big part of the 20th century, and has this to say about his work on Polish film posters:

The Polish School of Posters can be best described as being bold and colourful with painterly orientation and one I embraced as a graphic artist with all my heart, it was an exciting and creative time for me.

Some of my favorite Polish film posters…

AIRPLANE polish film poster

AIRPLANE (1984) designed by Witold Dybowski

BACK TO THE FUTURE Polish Film Poster

BACK TO THE FUTURE (1986) designed by Mieczyslaw Wasilewski 

DANTON Polish Film Poster

DANTON (1993) by designed by Wieslaw Walkuski 

JAWS Polish Film Poster

JAWS (1977) designed by Andrzej Dudzinski 

JAWS 2 Polish Film Poster

JAWS 2 (1980) designed by Edward Lutczyn 

ROCKY Polish Film Poster

ROCKY (1978) designed by Edward Lutczyn

ROSEMARY'S BABY Polish Film Poster

ROSEMARY’S BABY (1984) designed by Wieslaw Walkuski 

STORMING MONDAY Polish Film Poster

STORMING MONDAY (1988) designed by Wieslaw Walkuski

THE GRADUATE Polish Film Poster

THE GRADUATE (1973) designed by Maciej Zbikowski 

THE OMEN Polish Film Poster

THE OMEN (1977) designed by Andrzej Klimowski

UN CHIEN ANDALOU Polish Film Poster

UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1996) designed by Wieslaw Walkuski 

To explore more of the world of Polish film posters, I suggest the following links: