the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Monday, May 29, 2006


Next to United 93, Brick is the best thing I’ve seen so far this year.

This is the movie Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would have written were they modern high-schoolers. Brick may find its time and place in modernity but its soul is straight out of The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. Brick is what it would have looked like if Bogart went to high school--an adolescent Chinatown with shades of Kurosawa, peppered with the rapid-fire, hard-boiled, cryptic speech of A Clockwork Orange and wrapped in the very deceptive skin of a teen drama. These are not soap opera teens obsessed over who’s going out with whom. Here football studs, prom queens and social misfits are unapologetic criminals, enmeshed in a seedy high school netherworld that is as real an anything their parent’s encounter--perhaps more so.

Joseph Goedn-Levitt (Third Rock from the Sun) is Brendan--Sam Spade, Phillip Marlow, and Jake Gittes all wrapped into one. But he is more than just the pugnacious gumshoe of so many ’40 and ’50 film noirs. He is also a 16-year-old boy, struggling through English class, isolated through social alienation, and confused and hurt by unrequited love. Flashbacks reveal a young and innocent boy while realtime shows him to be cold and hardened man-child. Time has not done this. Pain has.

One day Brendan gets an frightened and cryptic phone call from his estranged ex-girlfriend. The next day he finds her dead. He doesn’t go to the cops. He can’t trust them. This is a mystery he must unravel for himself. He owes it to his love to find out who killed her, even if the answers come accompanied by brass-knuckles. The closer Brendan gets to the truth, the harder the punches land. He will take the beating and keep getting up because it is the only way to get to the truth.

Poking his nose where it doesn’t belong, Brendan encounters all of the genre archetypes to which Brick owes so much homage, including the Kingpin, a drug dealer who runs his business from the suburban, wood-paneled basement of his parent’s home and has to borrow the family car to execute his plans; his goons, hired muscle unimpeded by brains; and, of course, the classic femmes fatales--in this movie, no dame can be trusted. Everyone in Brick plays it straight. To them, their words and actions don’t seem in the slightest bit funny or weird. As Roger Ebert said, “The actors enter into the spirit; we never catch them winking.”

If this sounds ridiculous, it doesn’t play like it. First time director Rian Johnson’s endlessly clever and visually arresting film completely merges adolescent angst and detective-fiction into something that is odd, yes, but also audacious and engaging. It both takes itself very seriously and allows moments of dark comedic delight. The best such moment takes place in the Kingpin’s house, where warring gangs face each on the brink of the maelstrom and hovering in between them, the Pin’s cheerful and oblivious mother serves orange juice and cookies.

Brick is a black-comic ballet through the peculiar terrors of suburban adolescence exacerbated and magnified by a criminal underworld that is anything but carefree and youthful. It looks like the low-budget, $500,000, home-made, grainy, sound-challenged film that it is. Who cares? That is half its charm. And its triumph. That it overcame these decidedly independent hurdles to please both novice viewer and hard-boiled detective-fiction fan alike is testament to its dark-horse charm. This is the sort of movie you can't help but smile at, dazzled by its cheeky ingenuity.

Friday, May 26, 2006

"Blade Runner: Final Cut"

At long last, Warner Home Video announced today that it will be releasing a final director's cut of the SciFi masterpiece, Blade Runner in early 2007 (at which time there will also be a 25th anniversary theatrical re-release).

The classic film has a troubled history. When director Ridley Scott ran over budget, the studio took control of the film and made substantive alterations, among them the addition of a voice-over and a happy ending. In 1992, Scott issued a director's cut that excised many of the egregious changes but was still unable to fulfill his original vision due to time and money constraints. (Generally, I am very much against altering films that have already seen the inside of a theater--do you hear me George Lucas, you hack!?--but feel differently when the director's original vision was lost due to outside tampering).

The special edition DVD will contain all of the three previous versions, including the expanded international theatrical cut. Additionally, the set will also contain the much-anticipated bonus materials. Ridley Scott, through his exclusive DVD producer, Charles de Lauzirika, has become known as the "Father of the Director's Cut." His DVDs are known for their rich and substantive special features. Hopefully, this new release will satisfy once and for all. I had the pleasure of speaking with de Lauzirika not long ago in an interview for DVDFanatic, during which time we discussed the delinquent film:

de Lauzirika: Blade Runner is still my favorite film. That’s the one that knocked me on my ass when I was a kid. I’ve never told Ridley that and I don’t know if I ever will. I want to keep that sort of a distance in a way, you know? Well, I have to ask, since you brought it up…

de Lauzirika: No! Don’t ask that question—I know where you’re going! You’ve done all these films for Ridley…where’s the Blade Runner: Special Edition?!

de Lauzirika: I knew that was coming! I’m with you. That’s my favorite Ridley Scott film.

de Lauzirika: You know, right now I’m in fingers-crossed mode, hoping it’s going to happen. We’ll see. When or if it happens, I want that to be the one I retire with…

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"Marie Antoinette" Booed at Cannes


Following a screening of Sofia Coppola's new film, Marie Antoinette at the Cannes Film Festival today, the audience reacted with boos and snickers.

And this from the sycophantic, artsy crowd!

The lavish costume drama examines the life of the 18th century French teen ruler played by Kirsten Dunst, and her husband, Louis XVI, played by Jason Schwartzman.

After her intoxicating Lost in Translation, I'd watch anything Coppola directs.

But now I'm a tad bit concerned...

Monday, May 22, 2006

The DaVinci Code

The book sold like wildfire and became a bone-fide cultural phenomenon. The movie rights were snatched up with gleeful abandon. The raging controversy was the sort which studios would kill for. So it all begs the question—how did Sony Pictures screw up such a sure thing?

Unless you've been living in a cave the past few years, you know that The DaVinci Code focuses on Harvard symbology expert Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) as they race around Europe, hunted by the police and a rogue arm of the Catholic Church in a desperate attempt to unravel the clues to the whereabouts (and identity) of the Holy Grail.

While Dan Brown's book is the sort of thriller that keeps you peeling page after page to alleviate the tension in your chest from his dozens of cliff-hangers, (he may not be a master of the English language or by any stretch, a great writer, but the man knows how to move a plot) the movie lumbers along at a snail's pace, bloated with the sort of dialog and exposition that fill scenes the length of entire Shakespearian acts. It's a simple rule—show, don't tell. Apparently screenwriter Akiva Goldsman was sick the day they taught film at film school.

This is a movie bled dry of any sort of suspense and tension, sapped of any sort of energy or fire—controversial or otherwise. Middlebrow director Ron Howard plays the film so safe that it moves like a Superbowl played in quick-drying cement. So intent on being faithful, The DaVinci Code forgets to be entertaining. There is no joy here. No passion. No fun. No pleasure, guilty or otherwise. Not even the sort of vulgar and diabolical anti-religious sentiment that so many Christians are up in arms about. Stop protesting Christians. Sit back and let this dud of a film burn itself out.

Tom Hanks seems wooden and distracted, phoning in what is easily his worst performance in years. Audry Taotou, so enchanting in Amelie, is charmless here. Paul Bettany is hammy. Even Ian McKellen, the only actor to show any sort of pizazz on-screen is not up to his usual snuff. There is no crackling chemistry between anyone.

The film's philosophy resembles it cinematography. I've decided that there are times I like realism over murky artifice. It seems that filmmakers these days like to shoot things in the dark, just because it evokes gloom, even if it makes no sense on screen. For three quarters of The DaVinci Code, characters run around museums and hole up in great mansions, all of which apparently forgot to pay their electrical bills because no one bothers to turn on anything more than a tiny desk lamp or candle. It goes beyond ambiance and just feels silly.

Murder, religious controversy, secret organizations, arcane historical references, conspiracy theories—the movie, like the book, was tailor made to be a rip-snorting yarn. Instead it's a nap-inducing yawn.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Is a Cinema Studies Degree the New M.B.A.?

The New York Times
March 6, 2005

RICK HERBST, now attending Yale Law School, may yet turn out to be the current decade's archetypal film major. Twenty-three years old, he graduated last year from the University of Notre Dame, where he studied filmmaking with no intention of becoming a filmmaker. Rather, he saw his major as a way to learn about power structures and how individuals influence each other.

"People endowed with social power and prestige are able to use film and media images to reinforce their power - we need to look to film to grant power to those who are marginalized or currently not represented," said Mr. Herbst, who envisions a future in the public policy arena. The communal nature of film, he said, has a distinct power to affect large groups, and he expects to use his cinematic skills to do exactly that.

At a time when street gangs warn informers with DVD productions about the fate of "snitches" and both terrorists and their adversaries routinely communicate in elaborately staged videos, it is not altogether surprising that film school - promoted as a shot at an entertainment industry job - is beginning to attract those who believe that cinema isn't so much a profession as the professional language of the future.

Some 600 colleges and universities in the United States offer programs in film studies or related subjects, a number that has grown steadily over the years, even while professional employment opportunities in the film business remain minuscule. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are only about 15,050 jobs for film producers or directors, which means just a few hundred openings, at best, each year.

Given the gap between aspiration and opportunity, film education has often turned out to be little more than an expensive detour on the road to doing something else. Thus, Aaron Bell, who graduated as a film major from the University of Wisconsin in 1988, struggled through years of uninspiring nonunion work managing crews on commercials, television pilots and the occasional feature before landing his noncinematic job designing advertising for Modern Luxury Media LLC, a Chicago-based magazine publisher.

"You sort of have this illusion coming out of film school that you'll work into this small circle of creatives, but you're actually more pigeonholed as a technician," said Mr. Bell, who is now 39.

For some next-generation students, however, the shot at a Hollywood job is no longer the goal. They'd rather make cinematic technique - newly democratized by digital equipment that reduces the cost of a picture to a few thousand dollars and renders the very word "film" an anachronism - the bedrock of careers as far afield as law and the military.

At the University of Southern California, whose School of Cinema-Television is the nation's oldest film school (established in 1929), fully half of the university's 16,500 undergraduate students take at least one cinema/television class. That is possible because Elizabeth Daley, the school's dean, opened its classes to the university at large in 1998, in keeping with a new philosophy that says, in effect, filmic skills are too valuable to be confined to movie world professionals. "The greatest digital divide is between those who can read and write with media, and those who can't," Ms. Daley said. "Our core knowledge needs to belong to everybody."

In fact, even some who first enrolled in U.S.C.'s film school to take advantage of its widely acknowledged position as a prime portal to Hollywood have begun to view their cinematic skills as a new form of literacy. One such is David Hendrie, who came to U.S.C. in 1996 after a stint in the military intending to become a filmmaker, but - even after having had the producer/director Robert Zemeckis as a mentor - found himself drawn to the school's Institute for Creative Technologies, where he creates military training applications in a variety of virtual reality, gaming and filmic formats. One film he developed was privately screened for the directors John Milius and Steven Spielberg, who wanted to understand the military's vision of the future.

"That was like a film student's dream," said Mr. Hendrie, who nonetheless believes he has already outgrown anything he was likely to accomplish on the studio circuit. "I found myself increasingly demoralized by my experiences trying to pitch myself as a director for films like Dude, Where's My Car?" Mr. Hendrie said. "What I'm doing here at I.C.T. speaks to the other interests I've always had, and in the end excited my passion more."

In recent weeks, members of a Baltimore street gang circulated a DVD that warned against betrayal, packaged in a cover that appeared to show three dead bodies. That and the series of gruesome execution videos that have surfaced in the Middle East are perhaps only the most extreme face of a complex sort of post-literacy in which cinematic visuals and filmic narrative have become commonplace.

Melding easily with the growing digital folk culture, some film majors have simply taken to creating art forms outside the boundaries of the established film business. In one such instance, Wes Pentz, a k a DJ Diplo - a 2003 graduate of Temple University, where film majors are encouraged to invent new career paths in museums, leisure businesses and elsewhere - broke through with his trademark Hollertronix, a style modeled on cinematic soundtracks. "I think of my songs as having a movement, like I would watch in a film, and there's a narrative feel to them," said Mr. Pentz, who said he had learned to frame music differently because of his film school experience.

In the public policy arena, meanwhile, students like Yale's Mr. Herbst hope to heighten political debate with productions far more pointed than the most political feature film. Even a picture like Hotel Rwanda with its unblinking look at African genocide, is "a soup kitchen approach," Mr. Herbst said: "You're offered something to eat, but there are no vitamins." Bringing film directly into politics, he expects to throw objectivity out the window and change minds - perhaps not an unrealistic aim at a time when, in a bit of what a headline in The Wall Street Journal characterized as "film noir," the Edward D. Jones & Company brokerage has entered the fray over the proposed Social Security overhaul with a highly produced video.

To some extent, such broadening vision is already helping to make economic sense of film education, which in the past was often a long path to nowhere. "Most find their way, and the skills they learn from us are applicable to other careers and pursuits," Dale Pollock, dean of the School of Filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts, said of his students. "So we're not wasting their time or money."

Still more, Ms. Daley, the U.S.C. Cinema-Television dean, argues that to generalize such skills has become integral to the film school's mission. More than 60 academic courses at U.S.C. now require students to create term papers and projects that use video, sound and Internet components - and for Ms. Daley, it's not enough. "If I had my way, our multimedia literacy honors program would be required of every student in the university," she said.


For the past year or so, I have been writing film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

In 1994, Steven Spielberg came out with two of the biggest movies of the year—one fun and forgettable and the other, devastating and eternal—Jurassic Park and Shindler's List. Just over a decade later, in 2005, he did the same thing, giving us the uninspired and silly War of the Worlds and later, the powerful and monumental Munich.

If the profits generated from the one make the brilliance of the other possible, who am I to complain?

Much has been made of Munich's authenticity. Irrelevant. Whether or not the film is entirely true may never be disclosed so long as its events are shrouded in so many secrets. As the credits begin to roll, it doesn't matter anyway. This expertly crafted, Hitchcockian-paced drama about a super-secret Israeli commando team hunting down those Palestinians behind the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre is a cautionary tale all the same.

Where is the line between justice and vengeance? Upon how many hands can the blood of innocents rest? When does one cease being a man and become a monster? How are we so different from one another when our grief, our passions and our brutality are so very alike?

Munich is not a film that glories in violence. It is a film utterly devoid of bravery and bravado. Humanity, not heroics is given the fore. It is a film about good men doing evil deeds because those deeds must, they feel, be done to protect a good greater than them all. It is a film about butchers butchering butchers.

And it is something else as well—it is a clear and resonate plea for peace.

Munich, producer Kathleen Kennedy says, was a painful story to tell, but if it gets people talking, it will have succeeded in its goals. It has done that. And watched as an offering within the current political zeitgeist (particularly alongside last year’s powerful Palestinian offering, Paradise Now), it is one of those rare films that transcends art and taps directly into the consciousness of a hate-battered world.

To read the full review, click here.

The White Countess

For the past year or so, I have been writing film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

I’ve always loved Merchant/Ivory films. Ever since I was introduced to A Room with a View, and later discovered the sumptuous Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day, I’ve been hooked on their exquisite style and literary grace. I’ve always found it odd and not a little bit delightful that the best movies about British life, particularly the life of England’s aristocracy, were the product of a collaboration between an American and an Indian.

The setting: a city suffused with refugees and the looming specter of war where a bar owner wishes to keep the world and all of its ghastliness outside his popular establishment. Inside there can only be music and love.

Sound familiar?

No, it’s not Casablanca, but there are surely worse comparisons, and if, while watching this film, Casablanca should be evoked, so much the better. Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is a washed-up, blind American diplomat in China intent on opening the perfect bar while the rest of his countrymen carve up Asia’s economic interests. The centerpiece of his bar is the Countess Sofia Berinskyka (Natasha Richardson), a
destitute woman, cast off from her Russian homeland by a revolution that destroyed her way of life. Slowly these two people—partners in exile—will fall in love. But as the clouds of war with Japan gather, their fragile bond seems more tenuous than ever.

One thing that a Merchant/Ivory film has in spades is brains. Their films are among the most intelligent and literate anywhere. Too bad so many (lately) lack heart. While a beautiful and moving film, The White Countess, sadly falls short of being a great one because it never allows us into the hearts of its primary protagonists. We feel for their circumstances, but only peripherally for them.

This was producer Ismail Merchant’s final film. He died during pre-production. Roger Ebert said it best: “They (Merchant and Ivory) have been operating their own perfect little bar since 1963. Outside it is Hollywood, and the world is hurrying toward commerce and compromise. Inside their bar, cosmopolitan characters, elegant and tragic, have wandered out of the pages of good books…”

Too bad all good things must end.

To read the full review, click here.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Trailers: Lady in the Water and Miami Vice

Watch the brand-new trailers for Lady in the Water, and Miami Vice.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Trailers: Superman, Pirates and Bond!

Watch the brand-new trailers for Superman Returns, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and a teaser for the new James Bond movie, Casino Royal.

United 93

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I, like everyone else in this nation, stood horrified, watching the Twin Towers smolder on the television before me. A TV had been dragged to the main lobby of the building where I was on duty at Bolling Air Force Base base, and dozens of us were crowded around it. I was at Bolling because I was out-processing from the Navy—just a few more days of paperwork and I was officially a civilian again. Watching the carnage unfolding in New York, I began to wonder if they were going to let me go anywhere.

A loud crash made us jump and drew all our eyes to the ceiling. “Jeez,” I thought, “did someone on the next floor just knock over one of those heavy-duty filing cabinets?” And then I went back to watching the TV.

A moment later a sailor burst through the front doors, out of breath, his arms gesticulating wildly behind him.

“It’s been hit…the Pentagon…it’s on fire…it’s on fire!”

We all piled out the front doors and there before us was the massive Pentagon structure, a mere stone’s throw from our building. A large quadrant of it was wreathed in flame. Acrid black smoke belched into the sky.

The base was immediately locked down. Those of us living off base were not allowed to leave. For several days, we slept on floors, in hallways, anywhere they could put us. That night I sat alone at a table in the cafeteria, absentmindedly picking at my dinner. On one of the mounted television screens, CNN showed the Congress gathering on the steps of the Capitol, and in a rare moment of solidarity, singing “God Bless America” in one voice. While they sang, I took my eyes off the TV to the large bay windows just below it. The windows afforded me an unobstructed view of the Pentagon, it’s hemorrhaging flames illuminating the night sky.

* * *

Ever since it was revealed that Hollywood was producing films based on the events of 9/11 (Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center comes out later this year) I’ve heard two predominant reactions: “God, do you think we’re ready” and “Hollywood has a lot of nerve exploiting 9/11 just so that they can make a buck.”

The latter concern first…

If I didn’t understand film’s titanic power over our lives and its enormous ability to move us like no other medium, I’d find the exploitative remarks odd. No one complains about books—even fictional books—written about 9/11. Or songs. Or paintings. Or photographs. Or any other artistic medium. That’s because, as powerful as these tools may be, their spheres of influence pale in comparison to the reach, appeal and incisiveness of movies. Film alone has the power to cut straight through our skin and peel back the layers of our hearts. And it can do so faster than we can ever see it coming.

Which leads me to the former concern…

We’re ready. It is not too soon for United 93 because United 93 does not play like a film that is aware of the five plus years of history trailing behind those tragic events. This is a film told entirely in the present tense. Like an episode of TV’s 24, events unfold in nearly real time, rapid yet realistic.

This is a film that borrows more from the world of documentaries than from feature blockbusters. The camera work is uneven and sporadic, even disconcerting at times as if it too is trying its hardest to keep up with the action but is always just one step behind. Once United flight 93 gets airborne, there are no more establishing shots, no computer-generated planes spinning out of control. We are allowed to see only what the characters see—through windows, computer monitors and TV screens.

You probably won’t recognize a single actor in United 93. Director Paul Greengrass has deliberately chosen faces that you cannot identify. Dozens of the flight controllers and military personnel play themselves. There is no effort to tell the human-interest or back-stories of either the passengers or the terrorists. We don’t see them sharing breakfast with their kids or kissing their spouses before they leave for the airport. We learn very few of their names. All we know about the passengers, crew and terrorists is what we’d know had we been sitting in the terminal with them waiting to board or beside them in the plane. Which is to say, we know their faces. The film alternates between the cabin of 93 and the handful of command posts struggling to decipher what is going on. First one plane is hijacked, then another, then another, then another. Soon these planes begin smashing into buildings, one after another, after another, after another. No one knows what is going on. Pandemonium engulfs everyone.

In the film’s final act, the flight controllers disappear, replaced entirely now with the goings on inside the aircraft. The hijackers have seized the plane, killed several people, appear to have a bomb, and are headed for a collision course with the U.S. Capitol. We know what’s going on and what the passengers will do next because of the cockpit voice recorder and the many telephone calls they made before the rushed their attackers, stormed the cockpit and sacrificed their own lives for those of hundreds of others. There are no mustache-twirling villains here, no standout heroes. Just a planeload of terrified passengers who make the bravest and most sacrificial decision of their lives.

We know what’s coming. It’s our history. And still our stomachs are in knots.

United 93 is a film of extraordinary accuracy. There are no true moments of poetic license. While much of the action inside the aircraft has to be imagined and extrapolated through the scant details that survived, everything, down to the exact lines are recreated with pinpoint realism. (One exception is a shockingly beautiful imagined scene when the hijackers realize they are about to lose control of the plane and the passengers are preparing themselves for the inevitable. Both sides find themselves in prayer. The hijackers chant passages from the Koran juxtaposed with the passenger’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.)

The film contains no politics. No patriotic speeches. No finger pointing. No conspiracy theories. No Iraq. No bigger historical picture. There are no mentions of the “War on Terror” or Osama bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. This is a time before anyone found those names on the tips of their tongues. United 93 is a film devoid of any sort of commentary or conclusions because it does not allow itself to have the benefit of hindsight. Anything brought to this film will be the inevitable result of the viewer superimposing his or her own beliefs atop it.

This is one of those rare films where, when the credits begin the roll and the house lights go up, many people find they cannot move. The theater is uncomfortably silent. The sound of crying is the only thing heard.

I’ve seen it twice today already and I cannot assure you enough that this is a masterful and heartbreaking film. It in no way exploits the events of 9/11 or the people involved in them. In fact, many family members of those killed aboard flight 93 were deeply involved in its production. They have publicly stated, and I agree with them, that this film honors the memories of the fallen.

The film has garnered nearly immaculate reviews. Those who are less then enthusiastic admit to its first-rate production values and even its honorable intentions, but are at a place where they are not yet ready to deal with its subject matter. Such may be some of you. But if you think you are ready to wrestle with these demons, again, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. The theaters I attended were packed—people are seeing this film. And they are applauding when it is over. Like other painful and deeply disturbing films such as Shindler’s List, this is not a film you go to for enjoyment, but because you feel you have a duty to endure it.


Before "United 93" begins, the trailer for All the King's Men will be shown. Sean Penn is going to win an Oscar next year. Mark my words. You’ll see what I mean.

Course Focuses on Nazi Filmmaker

I once worked for the Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper as an Entertainment reporter. This is one of those stories...

Originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette
August 31, 2003
by Brandon Fibbs

This fall, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs becomes only the second college in the United States to offer a class on one of the most controversial artists of the 20th century.

Professor Robert von Dassanowsky, chairman of Languages and Cultures and director of Film Studies, will present a course on Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker who is both prophet and pariah, icon and ogre, artist and traitor.

Arguably one of the greatest filmmakers to ever grace the cinema, Riefenstahl, who turns 101 this month, is largely unknown outside of her native Germany or by those who are not film aficionados.

Ignorance about her stems not from a lack of talent on her part, but from a concerted effort to crush her works because of what is seen as her unforgivable alliance to Nazi principles and Adolf Hitler.

For CU-Springs, the focus will be on Riefenstahl and her place in film history.

Impressed by Riefenstahl's artistic abilities in her debut film, "The Blue Light" (1932), and hoping to give the German people their first look at their Fuhrer, Hitler commissioned the fledgling director to film the 1934 Nuremberg Party Congress rally.

That documentary became the infamous "Triumph of the Will." The film shows an undeniably dazzling use of perspective and camera movement. Riefenstahl used crane shots, aerial perspective and dramatic points of view to capture more than a million participants including SS troops marching in review, military equipment parades, keynote speeches and the powerful images of Hitler's singular presence. It was one of three documentaries she would create recording the birth of the Third Reich.

Riefenstahl would later lament accepting the project that ultimately forced her into cinematic exile.

Von Dassanowsky, an independent producer and widely published film and cultural historian, is considered one of the foremost Riefenstahl scholars in the world. He insists that the course will not whitewash the ideology that Riefenstahl's films record and at times even celebrate.

"On the contrary - a clear understanding of Riefenstahl's appreciation of Nazism and the danger of 'Triumph of the Will' is necessary to be able to understand what follows."

According to von Dassanowsky, from Riefenstahl's documentary on the 1936 Olympics onward, there is a clear desire to distance herself from (and atone for) the sins of her past.

"The course will attempt to get beyond the stereotypes - convinced National Socialist, pure artist, career opportunist, politically naive, etc. Too much of her work has been clouded by the emotionalism brought about by such reductive notions about her person. Let's see what her art has to say for her."

The late film critic Pauline Kael once said, "If only Riefenstahl had turned her back on her Fuhrer, she might be remembered as one of the mightiest directors in film history."

Or would we ever have known her at all?

Western Still Riding High After 200 Years

I once worked for the Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper as an Entertainment reporter. This is one of those stories...

Originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette
July 20, 2003
by Brandon Fibbs

It is the quintessential American film genre - a reflection of our rugged individualism, unconquerable spirit and the embodiment of our collected mythology. No other body of stories reveal how Americans view themselves or their collective past than the Western.

This year, the Western turns 100.

"Next to the Bible, the Western provided the most direct moral and cultural message in the early days of American cinema," says Robert von Dassanowsky, director of Film Studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "It was symbolic of a specific national and historical identity that could be used to symbolize the values of the nation."

Dassanowsky cautions that the Western often promulgated racist, sexist and xenophobic ideals that were once accepted but are now reviled, but it also extolled the nation's heroic beginnings, its pioneering spirit, the triumph of men and women over an untamed wilderness, and especially the vanquishing of evil by good.

Jim Kitses, professor of film at San Francisco State University and co-editor of "The Western Reader" says, "The Western is out of fashion as we enter a new millennium, but it is still the national epic and Hollywood's greatest tradition of popular cinema."

It all began with the milestone 10-minute silent film "The Great Train Robbery," the story about a locomotive besieged by thieves. Utilizing innovative cinematic techniques, the film caused audiences to scream in fear and leap from their chairs when the now-famous scenes of the train surging toward the camera or the bandit firing his gun directly at the audience appeared.

For the next several decades, through the silent era and beyond, the Western proved to be an immensely popular staple of moviemaking. Such films as "The Covered Wagon" (1923), Hollywood's first big budget Western epic, and "The Virginian" (1929) began to fill movie houses.

When the great Depression began throttling American morale, Hollywood responded with films that encouraged and bolstered national pride. In 1939 two noteworthy films appeared: John Ford's, "Stagecoach" catapulted a little-known but prolific actor named John Wayne on the road to cinematic immortality, and the comedy "Destry Rides Again" with Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart, as a pacifist town sheriff, proved that burlesque could veil stunning political depth.

The 1930s also birthed a sub-genre that would continue well into the '40s and beyond: the B Western. Filled with faithful steeds, funny sidekicks and lots of singing, the B Western made beloved icons out of such actors as Roy Rogers, Tom Mix and Gene Autry.

During World War II, the Western was the undisputed cinematic king, embodying patriotic ideals of democracy and freedom triumphing in the face of daunting aggression. Some of the finest films of the decade include Howard Hawk's "Red River" (1948) and John Ford's masterpiece, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" (1949), the relentlessly grim "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943) and the superlative O.K. Corral flick, "My Darling Clementine" (1946).

The Western faltered philosophically in the 1950s as the clear menace of Nazism was replaced with a far more difficult and chilling enemy - the planetary threat of atomic annihilation. Hollywood's focus shifted to Biblical epics and the burgeoning science fiction genre to better represent the diametric contest between the superpowers.

Although cracks began appearing, the '50s nonetheless produced magnificent films, including what is widely regarded as the greatest Western ever made, "The Searchers" (1956).

Part adventure film, part psychological study, "The Searchers" is about an obsessive quest to save the life of a kidnapped girl from marauding Indians.

Other standouts include "High Noon" (1952), with the indomitable Gary Cooper, "Shane" (1953), "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (1957), "The Gunfighter" (1950), "Winchester '73" (1950), and "Rio Bravo" (1959).

What ultimately signaled the death knell of the Western genre was the 1960s.

"The collapse of the studio system and the growth of counter- culture messages in independent film were at odds with the establishment messages of the Western and its associated icons," von Dassanowsky says.

Both the darling and the backbone of the film industry, Westerns began falling out of fashion as an increasingly vocal and angry youth movement cast aside the conventions of their parents.

The cowboy hero, once a bastion of morality and virtue, began to take on the darker shades of the non-conformist antihero only hinted at in earlier films. Fine John Wayne films like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), "The Sons of Katie Elder" (1965) and "True Grit" (1969) stalled beside the far more gritty Clint Eastwood films, "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964) and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1967). Directed by Sergio Leone, these films represented what would come to be known as the "Spaghetti Western," movies made by foreign filmmakers and shot in Spain and Italy.

This is not to say that the decade did not still produce some fabulous films.

"The Magnificent Seven" (1960), the story of seven gunslingers hired to save a Mexican village beseiged by bandits was the first of several Westerns to be based on the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. The delightful "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" hit movie screens in 1969, arguably the best "buddy movie" ever made. That same year, Sam Peckinpah's staggeringly violent and bloody film, "The Wild Bunch" (1969), about a group of aging outlaws, appeared to the praise of audiences young and old.

The spirit of the Spaghetti Westerns continued into the '70s with "High Plains Drifter" (1973) and "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976), actor/director Eastwood's tributes to Leone. Other noteworthy additions include Dustin Hoffman's "Little Big Man" (1970) and Robert Altman's "Mc-Cabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971). The funniest spoof of the genre, Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" opened in 1974 with Cleavon Little starring as a black lawman sent to clean up a town of very surprised white residents.

It is perhaps 1976's "The Shootist" that is the most poignant. John Wayne portrays an old gunfighter dying of cancer. It would be Wayne's last film. Less than three years later the same disease would claim his own life. Nothing would be the same again.

The Western genre imploded as the '80's dawned. In fact, only three noteworthy Westerns were made during the entire decade: the ensemble piece "Silverado" in 1985, the youth-oriented action/ adventure "Young Guns" (1988) and the beloved CBS television miniseries, "Lonesome Dove" (1989) starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. The '90s represented an attempt to create more realistic Westerns that dealt openly with race, class and gender as well as the failures of the American West.

"The Western is no longer the property of white male hero," says Kitses, "which is good news."

"Dances with Wolves" (1990) almost single-handedly brought the genre back from the brink. Kevin Costner, director of the film, stars as a Union officer sent to the forlorn Dakota frontier. There he discovers both himself and his Sioux neighbors. A more postmodern sensibility informed Eastwood's "Unforgiven" (1992), the story of an aging gunfighter trapped in a Western town where the hats aren't black and white anymore.

It's as if Eastwood's character is the embodiment of all of the outlaw characters he ever played. If the dying Western was given a requiem, this was it.

Other memorable films of the '90s include "Quigley Down Under" (1990), "Wyatt Earp" (1994), "Tombstone" (1995) and the comedy "Maverick" (1994).

If the Western genre has functioned as a barometer of America's fitness and a reflection of its historical narrative, then its future cannot be predicted, nor its impact and relevance underestimated.

"As a new era opens, despite some who constantly suggest the genre is dead, it will continue to be a productive source of great American movies," Kitses says.

Captive Audience

I once worked for the Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper as an Entertainment reporter. This is one of those stories...

Originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette
July 20, 2003
by Brandon Fibbs

You paid your money to see "Hulk," "Terminator 3" or some other summer blockbuster, but that's not what you get - at least not right away.

First you have to sit through the commercials. Spots pushing body fragrances, cars, soda, running shoes or public service ads touting friendship and universal good will can go on 10 minutes or more before the trailers come on.

What plays on the screens at cineplexes around the nation increasingly resembles the programming on your home television. The average American viewer must now endure four to eight ads per movie. When combined with the usual battery of movie trailers, it can be half an hour or more after the posted show time before the film actually begins. (In the name of full disclosure, we should mention that some of those pre-movie ads have been for The Gazette.)

"I think we have enough commercials on television," says Adam Muse, 30, a payroll technician waiting to see a movie at Cinemark. "We don't need to see them when we come in and pay to watch a movie."

Lindy Hargiave, a 19-year-old bookstore clerk, agrees. "The next thing you know they're going to be putting commercials in the movie," she says.

Lots of Internet chatter and informal water-cooler polls point to overwhelming displeasure with commercial advertising at movie houses. Yet a recent survey suggests that those opposing ads in cineplexes may be in the minority.

In May, the Arbitron and Scarborough research firms released what is perhaps the most comprehensive study ever conducted on cinematic advertising. The study was administered over the holiday season, during which 95 million Americans (more than 40 percent of the total population) reported going to the cinema. It concluded that more than two-thirds of adults and teenagers do not mind advertising played before movies begin. In fact, without exception, every age demographic polled gave an approval rating of nearly 60 percent or higher.

Regal Entertainment Inc., the nation's largest chain, now has a mandatory 20 minutes of pre-movie programming consisting of eight to 10 commercials. Watchdog groups insist that - sooner or later - the addition of 20 minutes of paid commercials will pressure studios to make shorter movies, penalizing filmmakers and audiences.

Kimball Bayles, owner of the Twin Peak Theatre, agrees.

"That will backlash," he says. "You can't charge people all that money and then expect them to sit through that. That's what people are fleeing from."

Bayles, who years ago considered showing ads for local businesses only, is now adamantly against the practice.

"I go to these giant megaplexes and you can tell the audience is really upset by the commercials," he says. "I try to distance myself from that entire experience. It's just not worth the agitation it costs. The audience reaction isn't good even if I play too many trailers."

Attorney and author Douglas Litowitz, a visiting professor at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., is co-author, with Chicago attorney Mark Weinberg, of a lawsuit against Loews Cineplex Entertainment Group and, most recently, AMC Entertainment Inc. He calls the Arbitron study "propaganda nonsense."

The pair's stance is spelled out in their class-action lawsuit: "Failure to start the movie at the scheduled time and only after foisting commercial advertisements on the movie-going audience constitutes a breach of contract. In addition, the showing of commercial advertisements prior to feature films, without informing consumers of the real starting times, constitutes a deceptive business practice." Weinberg is more irritated than surprised by the Arbitron survey. That the survey was undertaken with the cooperation of the National Association of Theater Owners and the Cinema Advertising Council makes him skeptical of the results.

Jason Thompson, director of Captive Motion Picture Audience of America, an advocacy group, says, "The issue of advertising itself is not what is being disputed, but rather the use of 'invasive' vs. 'passive' advertising practices." Most forms of advertising - newspapers, magazines, television, radio - are passive, he says. "The audience has a choice of accepting or rejecting these messages. This is not the case in a darkened movie theater. Advertising to a captive audience is not only an unfair business practice, but it also creates hostility toward the advertiser."

None of the theater chains currently embroiled in litigation owns screens in Colorado.

According to industry estimates, some form of advertising is shown on 24,000 of the nations 37,000 screens. In-theater advertising is a $250 million-a-year business in America alone.

Only in the past several years have filmed ads have proliferated to such a degree that the public is sitting up and taking notice. Why the sudden influx of commercialization?

Theater owners glutted the market with new screens in the 1990s. The number of theaters in the U.S. far outpaced the rise in admissions. The result was financial disarray; a dozen chains imploded; others managed to fold together. To survive in an industry in which as much as 80 percent of the ticket price goes back to the studios, theater chains had to find other ways to stay afloat. Concession prices ballooned, but not enough to offset costs. The industry settled on in-theater advertising.

John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, says, "You can either have movies with ads and pay $7 a ticket, or you can pay $12 a ticket and not have commercials."

The problem, say watchdog groups and patrons alike, is that theaters continue to raise prices and push ambitious new ad campaigns despite the fact that this year and last, box-office revenues topped the records set in the late 1950s.

"I would venture to say that the majority of people simply dislike movie ads or tolerate them, believing that the ads reduce ticket prices," audience advocate Thompson says. "However, the little feedback I get from people who like the ads almost always give the reason that the ads give them more time to get a snack or go to the restroom. Not exactly good news for advertisers."

Theatre Works As It Is

I once worked for the Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper as an Entertainment reporter. This is one of those stories...

Originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette
July 27, 2003
by Brandon Fibbs

Sarah Bousquet is the exception.

She plays Juliet in the annual summer Shakespeare production of "Romeo and Juliet," and has been involved in several other Theatreworks productions at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

What makes Bousquet unusual is that she is a student at CU-Springs. On the surface, that's not odd at all. What is more natural than a student performing in a school play?

But Theatreworks is not your ordinary school theater stage. It enlists more professional adult actors than students - a practice that has fostered both pride and resentment among liberal arts students.

"Theatreworks is not for the students," says Staci Henson, a senior at CU-Springs and former Theatreworks stage manager. "If you are a student, you are going to get horrible, tiny roles unless you are part of the 'in crowd.' I really don't think that Theatreworks is fair at all to the students who really want to do theater."

Jay Moore, a junior who auditions for every Theatreworks production available but has never received his big break, agrees. "I've never been happy with it."

Moore is hardly alone. The issue crackles throughout the student body.

Kenny Knapp is a student who has been featured in Theatreworks productions and recently starred in the Star Bar Players' "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" at the Lon Chaney Theatre.

"I know Murray (Ross) is doing quality theatre. I don't doubt that at all. But, why can't he build up what's here? Why can't he make these students into great actors? "

The answer to that goes to the crux of what separates Theatreworks from a typical university theater program.

Director Ross founded Theatreworks in 1975, not as an arm of a theater program but as a outreach tool, a way to put the university on the map.

"At that time the university was a frontier stage post," Ross says. "Nobody knew anything about the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. There was an acute need to get the campus identified within the community."

To do that, Theatreworks was founded as, first and foremost, a semi-professional theatre. Unlike other state universities, including the University of Colorado's main campus at Boulder, professional actors end up with most of the major roles in theatrical productions.

University officials contend it was never intended to be otherwise.

Modeled after such cooperative institutions as the Yale Repertory Theater and the Yale School of Drama, Theatreworks allows for hands-on training, functioning more often as an apprenticeship program for students.

Drew Martorella, Theatreworks' producing director, says Theatreworks should not be confused with the university's School of Visual and Performing Arts, the intended pipeline for hopeful actors.

"Theatreworks is only one part of theater here at CU-Springs," he says.

Unlike the unversity's visual arts department, Theatreworks must serve a public-relations function, a role that Ross argues it has fulfilled admirably. The accolades his troupe has mustered support his claims. Since its inception, it has presented more than 2,000 performances of 135 plays, including 30 world premieres to more than a half million people. The recipient of the Colorado Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, Theatreworks was described by Shakespeare Quarterly as "as good, in absolute terms, as the best in the world."

In a city of few theatrical venues, Theatreworks is widely regarded as the most professional program in the city.

"There is a lot of pressure on Theatreworks to be 'the' professional theatre company in Colorado Springs," says Laura Tesman, assistant professor of theater at CU-Springs.

Stage manager and Theatreworks actor Hossein Forouzanndeh thinks Theatreworks is doing a great job of providing art for a city that doesn't appreciate it, but the CU-Springs student has mixed feelings about its exclusivity.

"When I first got into it, it seemed fair," he says. "But when I looked outside the box, it seemed it was more geared to community and experienced actors. I feel the students could have more participation and say in what goes on."

Student participation has rarely been the group's highest priority, and for good reason, Tesman says.

"Theatreworks is not beholden to the university," says Tesman. "Although it's called UCCS Theatreworks, it is almost completely separate from the university."

"Most people don't understand that," says Henson. "That line is totally invisible on campus."

It's so invisible that even student actors who have been involved with Theatreworks for years don't understand the relationship between the school and the theater group.


Confusion about Theatreworks' role in the university is due primarily to misunderstandings that have never been clarified within the student body.

Although many of those involved in Theatreworks' administration teach at the university, further blurring the lines between the organizations, it is outside their Theatreworks duties. They get paid by the college for their instruction, not their role in Theatreworks.

Union actors who are cast in shows are always paid, but students normally choose from among several options: they can get paid, receive credits or volunteer.

Contrary to popular assumption, no tuition dollars fund Theatreworks productions. Neither Theatreworks nor the theatre department get money from the university for their productions. The money raised is generated from grants, foundations and ticket sales. A recent referendum shifting a small amount of student fees to Theatreworks served only to give the students free access to the new Bon Vivant Theatre at University Hall.

But the student resentment of Theatreworks isn't entirely about where the line is drawn between the university and the theater group, it's about the wall they believe stands between them and theatrical opportunities.

Martorella argues that such walls don't exist and that anyone who wishes to audition gets a fair shot.

"The theater program is by, for and about students exclusively. Theatreworks is by, for and about everybody, including students."

Martorella says his organization could not function without the students.

"Many of the shows we've done involve students either on stage, backstage, costume, wardrobe, electricians, box office, administratively, etc. There are students at every level. We wouldn't be here without them."

The benefits of Theatreworks' more professional approach, Ross says, are for the students as well. "There are very few places in this country where students get to work in such professional circumstances and where they can learn from and work alongside such professional actors. I think it is an absolutely fabulous opportunity for students."

What Ross sees as wonderful opportunities, others see as a creative shut-out.

"There is so much talent available here that Theatreworks doesn't draw on," complains Henson. "But most students don't have any idea until they find it out the hard way, get bitter and don't want to have anything else to do with Theatreworks. Or it's so hard to break into that they just give up and turn to other communities around town."

Ross bristles at the criticism.

"There are plenty of opportunities for students to act apart from Theatreworks productions," he says. "There are director showcases every fall which are exclusively student productions. There are student theater showcases at the end of each semester which feature the work of acting students. There is one student production that is fully funded and fully sponsored by Theatreworks. And we have the opportunity for student-initiated projects."


Theatreworks, Tesman says, finds itself in the difficult place of trying to fulfill the needs of a theatrical season and successfully draw in audiences while giving legitimate opportunities to a far less-experienced student population.

"Theatreworks is an awkward balancing act where they have a subscription of people who have been coming to the theatre for 25 years now and expect a certain caliber of performance and certain level of professionalism," Tesman says. "Murray is constantly asking me what students I think might be good in his productions. But one of the downfalls is that they are auditioning against more seasoned actors. It's the nature of this beast we call theater. It's a very difficult world."

Anjelica Bencomo, who, as a student, worked for Theatreworks for four years, recognizes her fellow students' complaints, but offers a different conclusion.

"Theatreworks has a small group of actors that get recycled over and over again. That's not just a Theatreworks thing, it happens in all community-based theaters. If Theatreworks picked shows that catered more to student actors, it would compromise its quality. Ihaven't seen a core group of student actors who can compare to the older actors, and who can play any age group and carry the show."

Bencomo feels the students' energies should not be focused at Theatreworks but at their own theatre program.

"I think that the academic theater needs to step up and do a lot more," she says. "The university has been talking about a drama major for years - it's time they get one."

That major, according to Tesman, is just on the horizon. Having pushed for it ever since she arrived three years ago as the school's first full-time drama department faculty member, she now predicts it will become a reality in the fall of 2004.

Ross says that when he was hired, there was no theatre department at all. He admits there has been progress, but, unfortunately, it has been slow going.

"It's vegetable growth," he says. "It's only in last three years that we have had a legitimate, full-time theatre position here in Laura Tesman. As great as that is, it's not very much. It's certainly not enough to build a department around. But none of this is from a lack of any of our trying. We all desperately want it to happen and it will happen. I very much want it to succeed."

For Bousquet, this year's Juliet, her success with Theatreworks came not because of any special clique, but because of her unremitting persistence.

"It is really important that if a student wants to get involved in a Theatreworks show, they need to get involved as much as possible with all the other aspects. You can't just jump into it expecting that they'll cast you, if that's all you are looking for."

CC Alum Proves He's 'Dumberer' As a Fox

I once worked for the Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper as an Entertainment reporter. This is one of those stories...

Originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette
June 29, 2003
by Brandon Fibbs

Colorado College. Its esteemed halls have produced doctors, lawyers, politicians, educators, bankers . . . and one really dumb guy.

Ordinarily, being called dumb is an insult. But referring to Derek Richardson as dumb is a downright compliment.

In 1994, the Farrelly brothers ("There's Something About Mary") breathed new life into the gross-out comedy with "Dumb and Dumber."

The misadventures of two exceptionally dull-witted friends, Harry (Jim Carrey) and Lloyd (Jeff Daniels), proved to be a wildly successful cult classic. The sequel, or, more correctly, the prequel, was inevitable.

Enter Derek Richardson.

"Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd" tells how the two became friends while trying to survive a high school "special needs" program. But if you go to watch "Dumb and Dumberer," you won't see Jim Carrey or Jeff Daniels. Filling their formidably dumb shoes are Eric Christian Olsen as Harry and, ta-da, Derek Richardson as Lloyd.

"A lot of the students here are creative and smart," says CC student Jeanette Ziegenhorn. "It's not so much of a stretch that one of our own actually made it into a funny, creative and cool film."

Even the most cursory glance of critical reviews for "Dumb and Dumberer" reveal en masse that "funny, creative and cool" are the least appropriate words in the world to describe this movie. The entertainment industry hasn't seen this sort of critical backlash to a film since 1986's "Howard the Duck."

One reviewer says "Dumb and Dumberer" is "best described as a cinematic black hole - infinite, and terrifying in its sheer emptiness. The only way to watch this soulless, greedy, and completely unfunny piece of junk is from inside a windowless nuclear shelter, lined with 20 feet of concrete, preferably located in the middle of the desert in another solar system."

In Ziegenhorn's defense, she hasn't seen the movie. Her enthusiasm, misplaced though it may be, must be attributed to an understandable support of one of her own.

Richardson, an art history major who wrote his senior thesis on 1950s and '60s pop art and how it reflected and inspired the social upheaval of the era, is described as, "a wonderful student, very smart, and interested in everything" says Ruth Kolarik, professor of art history at CC.

Richardson's acting ambition did not bud until his senior year, says professor emeritus Jim Malcolm, who has stayed in contact with him over the years.

"Derek was one of those kids who takes an acting class for fun and discovers he has a special ability. In every acting class there is someone who is very special. Derek was that person."

In 1998, the year he graduated from CC, Richardson landed a recurring role on the WB's "Felicity." He would later go on to a guest appearance on the NBC staple "Law & Order."

"Dumb and Dumberer" is Richardson's first feature film. Negative reviews or not, the movie still brought in a satisfactory $11 million dollars, placing it sixth in the top-grossing movies on its opening weekend.

Student Gabriel Varney only laughs when he hears of Richardson's success. "Yeah," he says. "This school will make you funny."

Fellow student Susanna Thiel chooses to look for the silver lining in Richardson's accomplishments.

"He gives hope to those of us who feel like the graduates from here just go on to McDonald's and Starbucks."

Malcolm hopes Richardson has continuing success in Hollywood - but, hopefully, in more quality films. Though he has not seen "Dumb and Dumberer," he confesses that he has heard it is an appalling movie.

"We didn't train him for that! " he proclaims.

Annual "Best Films of the Year" 2005

Originally posted to The Ready Room on February 3, 2006

In a few moments, my favorite films of 2005... But first, I feel the need for a snobby rant. Read on, or skip to the good stuff a few paragraphs below.

I confess, I often despair over the films John Q. Public chooses to praise.

Sure, film by its very nature is escapist entertainment, but why must it be only that? Why can't it be charged with something richer, deeper, more truthful? Why can't film speak to the human condition or the state of the world as does literature, painting, or a fine piece of music?

Film is the most powerful medium for communication in our world today. It is our culture’s most accessible means of proclaiming our corporate likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares. However, film is more than a way to propagate information or blindly entertain the masses — it is also an art form, capturing the human experience in a way no other art form can. Crafted well, its capability to teach us about ourselves and the world in which we live is unrivaled. Film has the power to move us in ways we cannot even comprehend. It is the communal consensus of what it means to be human. Cinema is the new form of global literacy, and those who are fluent in this language are empowered to communicate with the world. It has the ability to transcend our experiences and understanding, and teach us lessons that fly below the radar of our emotional resistance to lodge squarely in the one place that affects us most--our heart.

So, when will people decide that Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo isn't worth their time and money and opt instead for the enlightenment that comes from seeing Junebug? Jump online and peruse a host of blogs about people's favorite films and you'll find a shocking lack of sophistication. Even voters at Internet Movie Database list Harry Potter and Serenity as two of the year's seminal works. Rotten Tomatoes fares little better.

Perhaps the worst offender of all is the recent People's Choice Awards. Why? Because, I am sorry to say it, the people are stupid. Don't believe me? Here were the nominees for Best Film of the Year: Star Wars, Batman Begins and Hitch. Excuse me, but who in their right mind thinks that any of those (I thought Batman was riveting and Hitch quite funny) are the finest, most well-crafted, most lasting and noteworthy films of the year?! The people, that's who. Us. You and I. (Kind of puts a new twist on the whole mob mentality argument. Add that dismal point to the idea of participation in a constitutional democracy and you have...well, you have a whole other blog!) I don't care if the vast majority of people say one thing. As one of my favorite shows, Battlestar Galactica, said recently, "That doesn't make them right. It just makes a whole lot of people wrong."

Movie makers may claim that public accolades are their most coveted prize but I don't buy it for a moment. Sure, public support lines a filmmaker's pockets, but when George Lucus accepts an award for Star Wars at the PCA and tells the audience, "You are the most important people for any filmmaker. The reason I make films is for you. The audience rules!" I think he is either lying or a lunatic. Or both.

The problem seems to be, people don't want to have to think when they watch films. They want to be able to disengage their brains and release themselves to a sort of mass corporate brainwashing. They think they are entertained but they are merely distracted. There is a vast difference.

Why settle for trash when you can have transformation?

Not everyone seems to be fooled, however. Hollywood was beleaguered in 2005 by dismal returns and tepid attendance. It was, in short, one of the worst fiscal years in remembrance. Could it be because some of the people have woken up and begun questioning the nutritional quality of what is being fed them?

That said, I do find it odd that in such a flaccid year for Hollywood, 2005 was a great year for movies and produced some of the best films I have seen in a very long time. For the most part, this was not a year in which bright, happy, sunshiny films took the pedestal. It was a year of dark, often dismal, daring, prophetic and politically-charged films. The best films of 2005 sought more to educate than entertain, comment on our world than on simple diversion. And while the numbers may have slid (because the average movie-goer is still more interested in seeing The Fantastic Four or The Island than in The Constant Gardener) our lives are the richer for these films.

I'm often asked how I chose my list. True, what is a "best" list if not a "favorite" list? For my money, I know a film is good if it refuses to let me go; if it haunts me; if it sinks its talons into me and I find myself dwelling on it far more than is natural. Munich did that. So did Match Point. The nights I saw them, I hardly slept a minute.

The following list is hardly comprehensive. Unless you are a professional critic there is really no way to see every critically acclaimed film that comes out in a year. Still, what follows is the best of what I saw in 2005.

I'd be curious about your favorite additions. But if you thought Mr. and Mrs. Smith was this year's Citizen Kane, be ready for a fight!

And now, finally...


(click on any of the film titles for the trailers)

The New World

Terrance Malick is a director on the endangered species list. His celluloid visions—long, introspective, deliberate, visually indulgent—are rarely seen anymore (least of all from him—The New World is only his 4th film in 32 years!). Their scarcity only makes them that much more precious. The New World is a masterpiece. It tells the familiar story of Pocahontas (played by 14-year-old newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher) and her people’s first encounters with the Europeans who will colonize America. It imagines their first meetings and how strange they must have seemed to each other. As the great ships sail upriver, American history sails with them. This is Pocahontas’ story, though we are also allowed inside the heads of the two men who love her—one as an idea and the other as a person. There are two new worlds in this film—the one the English discover and the one Pocahontas discovers as she is grafted into English society and travels to London. Much is gained in the exchange. Much, much more is lost.

The New World is a thing of wild beauty, untamed and feral yet luxurious, sumptuous and lavish all at the same time. As with all Malick films, nature is the lead actor and the one most lovingly and longingly shot. It is the most artfully sculpted film in American cinema this year. It is an elemental tone poem composed not of words but light, wind, water, sound and fire. Malick creates a vast sensory universe so dreamily paced there's always time to breathe, react and admire. You will leave the theater enraged that the idyllic stillness must be broken by the sounds of car engines, cell phones, and radios; such is the film’s all encompassing gravity. This is not a historical reproduction—we, like the characters, are seeing and living history for the first time. And it is mesmerizing.


Crash was the first true cinematic masterpiece of the year. It is a film that speaks with a staggering prophetic voice. It is a film of devastating lyricism and haunting power. It is a film of hushed impact and explosive subtlety. It is a film of breathtaking intelligence--hyper-articulate and throbbing with sumptuous compassion. It is, easily, one of the strongest American films in years. When it was over, I sat in my chair, shell-shocked in stunned silence, trying to sort out my tangled emotions. Written and directed by Paul Haggis, the Academy-Award winning screenwriter of last year's Best Picture winner, Million Dollar Baby, Crash is a story of lives running parallel, losing control, colliding, and careening away from one another again. The film is an intimate tapestry of interweaving lives defined, one way or another, by racism and by our common humanity.

Good Night and Good Luck

There are certain pieces of art that transcend the medium on which they were created to take their place in the diminutive pantheon of ethical signposts, those creative signals that point humankind in the way it should, or should not, go. I did not think America would produce a more timely and necessary film this year than the phenomenally crucial, Crash. But it has. George Clooney’s sophomore film, Good Night, and Good Luck is a brilliant tour de force, both of filmmaking and philosophy. It is a daring and to some, a dangerous film. It is a snapshot of a previous era’s fight for America’s soul writ large on the canvas of contemporary necessity. We are guests as immortal newscaster Edward R. Morrow galvanizes a nation against the tyrannical excesses of government under the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and know that, while the film works brilliantly as a historical account, it also resonates as an unblinking cautionary tale to the unbridled governmental excesses of contemporary America.


In 1994, Steven Speilberg came out with two of the biggest movies of the year--one fun and forgettable and the other, devastating and eternal. I am, of course, talking about Jurassic Park and Shindler's List. In 2005, he did the same thing, giving the world the abominable and silly War of the Worlds (more on that below) and later, the powerful and monumental Munich. Much has been made of Munich's authenticity. Irrelevant. Whether or not the film is entirely true may never be disclosed so long as its events are shrouded in so many secrets. As the credits begin to roll, it doesn't matter anyway. This expertly crafted, Hitchcockian-paced drama about a super-secret Israeli commando team hunting down those Palestinians behind the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre is a cautionary tale all the same. Where is the line between justice and vengeance? Upon how many hands can the blood of innocents rest? When does one cease being a man and become a monster? How are we so different from one another when our grief, our passions and our brutality are so very alike?

Match Point

It's Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment"—without the punishment. Or, if you're Woody Allen, you suggest that a guilty conscience is a far harsher sentence than bars and razor wire could ever be. This brilliant and compelling film about lust, love and greed examines life teetering on a knife's edge. On one side is goodness and the other side is luck. If you're a rotten, sycophantic social climber in modern day London, you'll want to fall on the side of luck. You'll need all of it you can get. And while it just may save your life, your soul is another story. Revisiting some of the themes from his stellar Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen carves out a wicked, unpredictable, engrossing, deftly-acted, sexy, revolting film. This taut tour de force is easily the best thing he's done in decades.

Paradise Now

Could a more important, relevant and complimentary film to Munich have come out in 2005? This Palestinian film follows two best friends who are recruited to become suicide bombers. You see their uncertainty. You see their doubt. You see their conviction. You see their reasons. The juxtaposition between the urban wasteland in which they live and the decadence on the Israeli side is staggering to behold. Don't get the filmmakers wrong--this film does not suggest that violence is the answer. Far from it. But it certainly--and justifiably--shows that the Palestinians have just cause for their anger. This is a film that haunts with the queasy power of nightmares.

Pride and Prejudice

I have to admit, I wanted nothing to do with this movie. In my opinion, the BBC/A&E production with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle was so inspired that another remake bordered on sacrilege. I was wrong. It's not better, just different. This film is luxurious! Sublimely directed and shot, Pride and Prejudice captures all of the magic, feistiness, fun and conundrums of the beloved Austin text in a way that is abridged of content but not spirit. A joy to watch from beginning to end.

A History of Violence

David Cronenburg's examination of the secrets we hide to protect ourselves and those we love is a tightly wound masterpiece of storytelling. Mistaken identity and submerged truth vie for dominance in this story of hyper-violence wrought on idyllic small town America. A History of Violence is an unblinking look at our favorite national pornography—gawking excitedly at carnage. But be careful what you look at--you may not like what you see.


One of the best films I saw at the Telluride Film Festival. Capote is a rich and lush examination of a man so desperate for applause and adulation that he would tease and manipulate others the way naughty children delight in pulling the legs off Daddy Long Leg spiders. This is a fascinating film and one of the best directed of the year. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is nothing short of brilliant as Truman Copote.

Brokeback Mountain

The other best film at Telluride. Brokeback Mountain is a lot of things. Some of it good and some of it bad. But at the end of the film, this is a story of two people (not simply men) who genuinely cherished each other and the derailed lives they left behind them in the reckless pursuit of that love. You may call their love sin, but you cannot call it false. Ang Lee has directed one the most visually sumptuous film to play on movie screens in years.

The Constant Gardener

Selflessness and greed become entangled in this conspiracy thriller about a diplomat's wife who is murdered because she uncovers the truth about a drug conglomerate's nefarious practices in the African hindland. Politically as well as emotionally charged, The Constant Gardener is a mesmerizing walk through beauty, grief, despair and hope from Fernando Meirelles, the director of the shocking City of God.

Walk the Line

This year's “inspiring-and-overcoming-the-odds-to-make-it-big” musical is, in fact, light years better than last year's addition to this category, Ray. While Jamie Foxx alone was luminescent in his role as Ray Charles, Walk the Line shimmers on every level. Skillfully directed, genuinely moving, and impeccably acted (and sung) by its leads, Joaquin Phoenix and Reece Witherspoon, Walk the Line is easily one of the best of its kind.


You didn't understand all of it? It went by too fast to take it all in? There was too much information to mentally digest? Yeah, well, that was kind of the point. Life's a lot like that too. This unabashedly critical look at America's gluttony for mid-east oil and the lengths we will go to take and keep it was spellbinding if not always comprehensible. George Clooney strikes again in a daring and searing film that insists this country has far more blood on its hands then the news shows each night. Brilliant.


Oh, what a joy of a movie! Truthful yet subtle, realistic without being heavy-handed, Junebug, the story of a southern man bringing his New England bride back home to meet the family is, by turns, delightful, quirky, frustrating, painful, and authentic all rolled into one. But above all else, this movie is a bombshell because it fully introduced the world to the gushing radiance that is Amy Adams. Bravo.

Kingdom of Heaven

Yes, Kingdom of Heaven shows the brutal clashing of great armies. Yes, bloodied blades hack mercilessly at any limbs within their arc, showering the screen with crimson. Yes, massive fireballs rain down on besieged cities. And yes, the desert undulates with men and horses like a colony of ravenous ants across a leaf blade. And yet, there is so much more to it. That the film has monolithic battles, larger-than-life characters, and breathtaking special effects is hardly the point. Kingdom of Heaven pulses with a greater message. It is concerned less with action and more with human motivations. It is more interested in honor, justice, and personal righteousness, especially in the face of overwhelming odds. Kingdom of Heaven is profoundly relevant for our troubled times. In this era of intense religious and political fervor, Director Ridley Scott aims to understand both the Christian and the Muslim side of history and show that co-existence is possible if the voices championing jingoism, intolerance, xenophobia and religious war rhetoric are ignored.

Everything is Illuminated

Yet another favorite from the Telluride Film Festival in which tragedy and farce mingle to tell a story of remarkable beauty and hope. Based on Jonathan Foer's novel, Everything is Illuminated marks the directorial debut of actor Liev Schreiber and what a touching, bittersweet entry it is. What appears to be a story of a young man returning to his Ukrainian roots to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazi death machine turns out to be ruse, hiding a larger and much closer story of sacrifice, guilt and the ultimate closure.


What an act of bravery it was to make Downfall. Had this film been produced within the Hollywood juggernaut, that sentiment would be moot. Ambitious, but hardly brave. That Downfall was made by Germans makes it brave. Downfall dwells on the final days of the Third Reich, a time of utter hopelessness supercharged with mad desperation and fantastical optimism. The Russians have swallowed Berlin and now march their way to the city’s center where Adolf Hitler and his generals cower in an underground bunker. As Berlin disintegrates around him, Hitler presides over obsolete maps, rearranging imaginary armies in a delusional belief that victory can yet be snatched from the jaws of defeat. Ultimately, even he will realize the futility of his situation and splatter his brains across the wall of his personal study.

Though Downfall received lavish critical praise, many have blasted it for humanizing Hitler. By making him just a man, they say, you lessen his unimaginable crimes. By showing Eva Braun and her unshakable love for history’s greatest tyrant, you validate the idea that he had aspects that were, in fact, lovable. However, while humanizing the architect of Nazi Germany’s gore-soaked grab for world domination was indeed the aim of the film, excusing his culpability was not. If Hitler is denied a common humanity, he becomes something other, something alien. If he remains in the realm of the monstrous, we cannot truly identify with him, we cannot realize that we too are capable of such evils, that the evils he fueled could happen again. He is even more of a monster precisely because he is human.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

C.S. Lewis' timeless allegorical adventure follows the exploits of the four siblings who leave their WWII-era English countryside home for the world of Narnia after entering a magical wardrobe. Once a charming, peaceful land inhabited by all sorts of magical beasts, Narnia is now a world under icy siege by the White Witch. Uniting with the noble and mystical lion Aslan, the children discover that it is their destiny to destroy the White Witch and return Narnia to its idyllic self. Delightfully entertaining and wondrously substantive, this is the sort of film that elevates children's entertainment from banality to greatness.

Broken Flowers

Yet another introspective, introverted performance by the new master of subtle comic nuance, Bill Murray. In Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, Murray plays a bored and depressed millionaire with little to live for until he learns he may have fathered a child twenty years earlier. The resulting road trip to visit all the possible mothers is both hilarious and tragic and while Murray will discover much about himself, the film ultimately ends in delicious ambiguity.

Cinderella Man

This country sure does love its boxing movies. You rarely meet someone who watches the real thing, but turn it into a movie and it's halfway to an Oscar. Sure, Cinderella Man is a bit formulaic. What sports movies aren't, these days, with the exception of last year's phenomenal Million Dollar Baby (see what I mean about Oscar loving boxing!)? But this one's based on a true story, and like the inspiring Rudy, is ultimately more about an underdog with heart than a prince with skill. Russell Crowe gives a strong performance as a loving husband, father and comeback boxer who inspires Depression-Era America by fighting through poverty and injury to win the heavyweight boxing championship.


Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Me and You and Everyone We Know, March of the Penguins, Sin City, and the "unknown film" because, let's face it, there are a slew I've yet to see...

2005 DUDS:

By duds I don't mean those films that intentionally aim for the lowest common denominator and hit the bullseye every time, but those films that tried so hard to become something they simply did not have the stamina or metal to become.

I love science fiction, but this was a terrible year for it. In fact, my least favorite films of the year were all huge Sci Fi epics that, in my mind, played dismally.

King Kong

Twice as long as it needs to be, hedonistically animated and decadently self-indulgent, King Kong is beastly to be sure, but there is little beauty here. The impulse to create magic and wonder for its own sake is a perfectly viable and I would argue, necessary element of cinemagic. However, when special effects are presented narcissistically as they are here, when they serve no other purpose than to showcase the bravado of the artist, when they exist solely so that someone can thump their chest as the great ape, and cry, “Look what I can do” they cease being magic and become the very worst kind of cheap parlor tricks. This is Jackson at his most self-gratifying. And he simply doesn’t know when to stop.

War of the Worlds

I miss Steven Spielberg. I’m not saying a director is not allowed to change, or mature, or grow more cynical with age. But what I am saying is that I miss the youthful vibrancy, childlike zeal, and optimistic idealism that not only defined all of his early films, but several decades of entertainment as well. I miss the Spielberg before he thought he was Stanley Kubrick. I miss the Spielberg that rejoiced in the unknown and took great pleasure in the world’s many mysteries. War of the Worlds lacks the zest and joyous energy we expect from a Steven Spielberg picture. It lacks idealistic integrity. And it lacks courage. What happened to the sense of wonder celebrated in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? What happened to the imagination of E.T.? War of the Worlds just may represent the bleakest view of humanity that has ever come out in one of Spielberg's films--much more so than in Munich. He has traded wonder for terror, awe for gore, innocence for cynicism, optimism for fatalism, day-dreams for nightmares, Peter Pan for the Brothers Grimm. The cinema is poorer for it. And so are you and I.

Star Wars: Episode III

Thank God it's over. I'm sure we'll be arguing about whether or not George Lucas should have made these prequels for as long as the vastly superior originals are discussed. But, in my mind these lackluster, bereft of magic, un-muscular, pedantic, over-the-top, childish and just plain silly films are finally where they deserve to be—forgotten.