Archive for November, 2009


Serious Men: The Coens and Soderbergh against the world

November 22, 2009

Is it just me or did anybody else get The Informant! and A Serious Man a little mixed up? You vaguely knew that the Coen Brothers directed one and Steven Soderbergh directed the other, but you couldn’t quite keep them straight, right? (No? Maybe it was just me). For years now the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh have been dividing up the work of making the smartest, most beautifully-crafted, halfway-serious, semi-indie films out there, but until this fall I’ve never really thought of them in the same breath, and that’s despite both of their close connections with George Clooney (who appears in neither of these films, even though he seems to be in every other film out right now). But then The Informant! and A Serious Man were released within two weeks of each other and it got me thinking.

Joel and Ethan Coen are, respectively, 8 and 5 years older than Soderbergh. All three of them have been making films since the mid ’80s. Though the Coen aesthetic is easier to pin down than the Soderbergh aesthethic (Soderbergh being far more restlessly adventurous and experimental) their filmographies have much in common. Both (if I can refer to the Coens as a single entity from now on) have made noiry thrillers (Blood Simple; The Underneath) and both have made comic thrillers (Fargo; the Ocean trilogy); both have made jail-break movies starring Clooney (O Brother Where Art Thou?Out of Sight); both have made ravishing black and white fables (The Man Who Wasn’t There; Kafka); both have essayed left-of-field remakes (The Ladykillers; Solaris); both have contributed short films to portmanteau projects (the Coens to Paris, je t’aime and Chacun son cinema, Soderbergh to Eros). And both have won Oscars and Palmes d’Or.

Above all, both are incredibly fast-working and prolific. The Coens have made half their 14 features in this decade alone. But Soderbergh trumps that, making almost as many features (12, or even 13 if you count Che as two films) in the ’00s than the Coens have made in total, not to mention a TV series (K Street). But the Coens write all their own material, while Soderbergh, who started out as the archetypal writer-director with Sex, Lies and Videotape seems to rely more these days on other screenwriters. The Coens moonlight as their own editor under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, while Soderbergh (who also moonlights occasionally as his own editor under the pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard) works as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews (and is one of the best cinematographers in Hollywood at that).

Which brings us to The Informant! and A Serious Man: two very different films which could hardly be more alike. Two films about bespectacled Midwestern suburban putzes who wear their pants too high and feel that the world is against them. Both films had little fanfare before they started getting themselves noticed this summer (The Informant! with its Saul Bass-y poster, A Serious Man with its what-is-it trailer) then premiering within a day of each other at the Toronto Film Festival (though The Informant! had bowed four days earlier in Venice) and opening theatrically within three weeks of their premiere. (Though both directors have appeared in one of the previous two New York Film festivals, I would assume that the NYFF must have rejected both these new works). Though the films have widely differering budgets ($7 million for A Serious Man, $22 million for The Informant!) neither really looks particularly more expensive than the other, with the big difference in cost being the casting: Soderbergh has Matt Damon, while the biggest names in A Serious Man are Richard Kind and Fyvush Finkel (the film’s star Michael Stuhlbarg being better known on Broadway). Though A Serious Man is a film about Judaism (or is it about Jewishness?) and The Informant! is a film about Capitalism (or is it about greed?), the two films have a similar setting and a similar darkly humorous tone. Both films were shot on location (A Serious Man in Minneapolis MN and The Informant! in Decatur IL) and spend equal time in suburban living rooms, kitchens and driveways, offices, and motels. In both films FBI men arrive on doorsteps and bosses linger in office doorways making veiled threats.

Larry Gopnik in the Coen film is a Job-like figure who suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (Stuhlbarg played Hamlet in Central Park last summer in preparation) while Damon’s Mark Whitacre is a man who, though even more paranoid than Gopnik, is more the agent of his own demise. Both ultimately are company men (and scientists no less) just trying to work their way up the ladder—Whitacre as a biochemist at a giant Midwestern corporation, Gopnik as a physics professor at a small Midwestern university.

One of the biggest differences between these serious men, beyond their religion, is their wives. One has the most supportive wife in living memory. The other, the least. If you’ve seen either you’ll know what I mean.

Due to the presence of Damon and the backing of Warner Brothers, The Informant opened with a $10 million weekend, has played on up to 2,505 screens and  has grossed $33 million to date. A Serious Man (distributed by Focus Features) had a $251,000 opening weekend, has played on up to 262 screens and has grossed $7.5 million. But A Serious Man is the better reviewed film (79 metacritic rating, 86% rotten tomato rating, against The Informant!’s 66 and 76%) and looks to play longer.

Adding to the confluence of these films is that I feel almost exactly the same way about them. I enjoyed them both a lot and was a little dissatisfied by them at the same time. If I had to recommend one over the other it would be A Serious Man, but only just.

And then, of course, there are the posters. Assume the position…


The Best Films of the 1990s

November 8, 2009

With just a few weeks of this decade still to go I’ve got to get my skates on coming up with a list of my favorite films of the ’00s and to be honest I’m not really looking forward to it. So in lieu of that for now I have dug up my Best of the ’90s list which, I’m happy to say, I still stand by ten years later. I never would have thought the ’90s were a particularly strong decade for cinema but I doubt my top ten of the ’00s is going to be anywhere near as strong as this.



1. A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1991)
2. SATANTANGO (Bela Tarr, Hungary, 1994)
3. NAKED (Mike Leigh, UK, 1993)
4. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1993)
5. GOODFELLAS (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1990)


6. HEAT (Michael Mann, USA, 1995)
7. DREAM OF LIGHT (Victor Erice, Spain, 1992)
8. BREAKING THE WAVES (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 1996)
9. MY SEX LIFE (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 1996)
10. BOOGIE NIGHTS (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 1997)

Runners-up: AND LIFE GOES ON and THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES (Abba Kiarostami), BLUE (Krzysztof Kieslowski), THE GARDEN (Derek Jarman), GOODBYE SOUTH GOODBYE (Hou Hsiao Hsien), THE HOURS AND TIMES (Christopher Munch), INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA (The Brothers Quay), IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (Neil LaBute), JEANNE LA PUCELLE (Jacques Rivette), THE LONG DAY CLOSES (Terence Davies), A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE (Mohsen Makhmalbaf), NAKED LUNCH (David Cronenberg), NIL BY MOUTH (Gary Oldman), NOUVELLE VAGUE (Jean-Luc Godard), PORTRAIT OF A LADY (Jane Campion), PULP FICTION (Quentin Tarantino), STONE (Alexander Sokurov), THE THIN RED LINE (Terrence Malick).



Woolly Hats and Jump Cuts: The Touch

November 6, 2009


This is a post I started writing in the summer of 2008 and then abandoned for some reason, but since this unmissable film is playing this evening at MoMA I thought I’d resurrect it in its unfinished form.

The Touch is Ingmar Bergman’s Zabriskie Point: an English-language detour made at the height of its director’s international reputation that, because the eyes of the world were upon it, suffered far worse from critics than it might have done and gained an undeserved reputation as a giant turkey. Rarely seen, and unavailable on DVD, New York’s cinephiles were treated last Thursday to Elliott Gould’s personal print of the film. I had seen it on VHS*, back in the mid ’90s, but I remembered almost nothing about it beyond the fact that it was much better than I’d expected.

Usually when I see a film that I haven’t seen in over a decade there is one striking, unusual scene, or sometimes just a gesture, that unleashes some buried synapse in my memory banks. With The Touch there was little that I could recall having seen before, beyond, for some reason, Bibi Andersson’s woolly hat. That hat plays a pivotal role in the film’s most egregious scene: a what-not-to-wear montage of Bibi getting ready for her first tryst, scored to Burt Bacharachesque barbershopping and filmed with—zut alors—jump cuts! It’s like nothing else in the entire Bergman canon, but it’s very like scenes you’ll have seen in Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan or Lyndsay Lohan movies. But was Bergman the first to explore this particular cinematic dead-end?

Since I never got around to discussing much more about the film, let me just quote from MoMA’s synopsis: The Touch is a low-key, intimate drama set on the island of Gotland, just south of the filmmaker’s home in Fårö. Shortly after her mother’s death, a Swedish woman has an adulterous affair with the American archaeologist friend of her doctor husband. Andersson creates a finely tuned portrayal of a woman facing a midlife crisis, and the sparsely lit, claustrophobic interiors and subdued autumnal exteriors are beautifully photographed by cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The Touch, a Swedish-U.S. coproduction, was shot and released in two versions: one with Swedish and English dialogue, and one entirely in English. The original bilingual version—the version released in Sweden and now presented in this Festival—has been unavailable for a long time.”


*What is the deal with this VHS cover that I found on eBay? “Produced and Directed by Lars Owe Carlberg”? “Screenplay by Ingmar Bergman”? Did Bergman hate this film so much that at one point he tried to disown it?

Meanwhile, an anecdote about meeting Gould and discussing The Touch here.