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The Best 100 Movies of the 21st Century (So Far) Named by 177 Film Critics

in Film | August 24th, 2016

Mulholland Drive Cover

When prompted to think of the cinematic peaks of the 20th century, or of specific decades like the 1930s, the 1970s, or the 1990s, we can usually thread up specific examples in the projector of our mind right away. Grand Illusion and Gone with the Wind! Taxi Driver and The GodfatherPulp Fiction and Fargo! But in this century it gets trickier. This probably doesn’t have to do with a precipitous drop in the quality of cinema itself, nor with a lack of films to consider — indeed, the 2000s and 2010s so far have burdened cinephiles with more critically-acclaimed pictures than they can get around to seeing.

The relative recency of the movies of the 21st century presents something of a challenge, since the zeitgeist hasn’t had quite enough time to digest most of them. And what now constitutes the “zeitgeist,” anyway? We live in a postmodern time, we often read, and that usually seems to mean that a greater variety of aesthetic sensibilities, historical periods, and world cultures now coexist for us on an essentially level playing field than ever before. The experience of the modern moviegoer reflects this condition, as does the BBC’s list of the 21st century’s 100 greatest films (so far), the top ten of which follow:

  1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
  2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
  3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
  4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
  5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
  6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
  7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
  8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
  9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
  10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)

To produce the list, the BBC surveyed 177 critics “from every continent except Antarctica. Some are newspaper or magazine reviewers, others write primarily for websites; academics and cinema curators are well-represented too.” They note that they include the year 2000, though not technically part of the century, since “not only did we all celebrate the turn of the millennium on 31 December 1999, but the year 2000 was a landmark in global cinema, and, in particular, saw the emergence of new classics from Asia like nothing we had ever seen before,” not just Yi Yi and In the Mood for Love but Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a bit down the list.

France, though a country closely associated with mid-20th-century cinema, makes an admirable showing here with the likes of Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners & I, Michael Haneke’s Caché, Claire Denis’ White Material, and Jean-Luc Godard’s voyage into 3D, Goodbye to Language. Some films shamefully overlooked at their initial release, like Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, appear here as perhaps a prelude to their rightful rediscovery. We can tell which auteurs have defined the cinematic century so far by the presence of more than one of their works: the late Abbas Kiarostami‘s Ten and Certified Copy both appear, as do three films by Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul and six by those still-ambitious once-wunderkinds of American cinema, the Andersons Wes and Paul Thomas.

Most of these movies exploit, to a deeper extent than the critically acclaimed pictures of decades previous, the creation of dreamlike experiences possible in film. None do it more vividly, perhaps, than the occupier of the top spot, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The selection will surprise some readers, and others not at all. What makes that particular movie so good? Conveniently, the BBC provides on the sidebar a link to an article by Luke Buckmaster explaining just that.

Buckmaster compares Mulholland Drive to Citizen Kane, “writer/director Orson Welles’ esteemed 1941 feature film debut – BBC Culture’s critics poll of the 100 greatest American films last year put Kane at number one. If Kane can be viewed as an essay on the nuts and bolts of film-making – a masterclass in technical processes, from montage to deep focus, dissolves and the manipulation of mise en scèneMulholland Drive’s appeal is more thematic and conceptual. It is less a demonstration of how great cinema is achieved than what great cinema can achieve, its capacity for ideas seemingly endless.” May the remaining 84 years of the 21st century find that capacity more endless still.

See the BBC’s complete list here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Star Trek Postage Stamps Coming Soon: Celebrating 50 Years of Exploring the Final Frontier

in Sci Fi, Television | August 24th, 2016


The original Star Trek TV series took to the airwaves nearly 5o years ago–on September 8, 1966. Poor ratings meant that the show didn’t last very long (only three years). But everything changed once the show went into syndication. It achieved cult status. And a franchise was born. The original Star Trek has now spawned five additional tv series, 13 feature films, and a number of fan-made sequels.

To celebrate 50 years of Star Trek, the US Postal Service has decided to release a commemorative set of stamps inspired by the original show. The four stamps (shown above) depict the following:

  • The Starship Enterprise inside the outline of a Starfleet insignia against a gold background.
  • The silhouette of a crewman in a transporter against a red background.
  • The silhouette of the Enterprise from above against a green background.
  • The Enterprise inside the outline of the Vulcan salute (Spock’s iconic hand gesture) against a blue background.

The stamps will be officially available on September 2, though they can be pre-ordered here.

via Kottke

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Penn Jillette Makes the Philosophical & Pragmatic Case for Libertarianism

in Politics | August 24th, 2016

For an anarchist like Noam Chomsky, libertarianism as it’s understood in the U.S. is a corruption of the term. Throughout their political history, Chomsky argues, “real” Libertarians have been anti-Capitalist—and he includes under this heading such classical liberals as Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, as well as modern anarcho-socialists like himself. Modern U.S. Libertarians like Ron and Rand Paul, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick have all meant something very different by the term, and certainly haven’t agreed on what that is. So what exactly is Libertarianism?

Given popular misconceptions—and some less than stellar public relations moments—one perhaps gets a clearest idea of what American Libertarianism is by reading about what it isn’t, as in this essay from one of its most contrarian theorists, Murray Rothbard. Or we can spend a few minutes with that voluble comedic magician Penn Jillette, a well-known face of Libertarian and atheist thought for many years. Jillette’s thesis in his eighteen-minute Big Think video above comes down to this: “we think you should take as little from other people by force as possible and you should be able to do whatever you think is right.” Libertarianism, Jillette elaborates, “is the strongest sense of ‘please, do what you want, try not to hurt me.”

The concept he refers to is one Isaiah Berlin wrote of as “negative liberty,” or the principle of noninterference, a staple of all Libertarian thought. The heavy stress on individual rights has come in for critique as naïve, but as Rothbard notes, “no individualist denies that people are influencing each other all the time.” Libertarian thinkers have wrestled with the conflict (if not contradiction) between maximal individual freedom and freedom from harm. Robert Nozick, for example, extended his discussion beyond our responsibilities to each other to a moral case study of our duties toward animals. Responsibility stands as a key term in Jillette’s articulation of Libertarianism—a sine qua non of a Libertarian society.

But is there such a thing as a functioning Libertarian society? Or does Jillette describe an unrealizable utopia that depends not only on most people acting responsibly, but also on most people acting rationally? As he himself says, “Libertarianism is taking a right on money, your first left on sex, and looking for utopia straight ahead.” This language aside, he doesn’t seem to operate under the illusion that people always make the best choices for themselves or their families. As part of his argument, however, he admits he isn’t qualified or desirous to make those choices for other people when he can often barely discern the right course of action for himself. As it generally does, this course of reasoning brings us to the problem of taxation in Libertarian thought.

Jillette’s appeal seems commonsensical and pragmatic, and after his general pitch, he launches into a critique of corporate capitalism that could come right out of a Chomsky talk—in some small part, that is. Jillette believes that, absent most government interference, we would have such a thing as a “true free market” in which everyone could compete fairly and without coercion. This is a position even Nozick softened on many years after his classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia, calling it “seriously inadequate” and admitting that many democratic institutions Libertarians want to abolish preserve “our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction.”

Whatever we make of Jillette’s laissez faire ideology, his critiques of government speak to Libertarians on either side of the economics divide. He makes an incisive case against Clinton, then tears into Trump’s willingness to “give easy answers.” Holding up career politicians Bernie Sanders and Gary Johnson as “paragons” may seem a bit much, given Jillette’s forceful argument for a healthy and thoroughgoing mistrust of government. As he says in the earlier Big Think interview above, “part of the joy and the wonder and the brilliance of the ideas of the United States of America that whoever’s in power is questioned and beat up.”

He does not, of course, mean that last part in any literal sense. While Libertarianism has perhaps been tarred by association with an increasingly violent right, it would be a mistake to lump Jillette in with certain political opportunists who at one time or another have used the term to describe themselves. His commitment to anti-war and drug legalization policies is unwavering, and he makes a strong, well-reasoned case for his politics. It’s one worth hearing out whether you agree or not in the end.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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The Enchanting Opera Performances of Klaus Nomi

in Music | August 24th, 2016

After making one of the grandest entrances in music history on the stages of East Village clubs, the BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test, and Saturday Night Live, theatrical German new wave space alien Klaus Nomi died alone in 1983, a victim of the “first beachhead of the AIDS epidemic.” The disease frightened Nomi’s friends away—no one knew anything about what was then called “gay cancer” but that it was deadly. Soon afterward, the immensely talented singer’s reputation declined. Writer Rupert Smith pronounced Nomi “largely forgotten” in a 1994 issue of Attitude magazine, and made a case for renewed attention. “Nomi,” wrote Smith, “remains rock music’s queerest exponent, who outshone the many acts following in his wake.”

But Nomi has since received his due, in a moment of revival that has extended over several years, thanks in part to many of those later acts. In his own day, writes LD Beghtol at The Village Voice, “the underground punk-opera singer was mostly unknown beyond his small circle of friends and fans.” Nomi was “queer in multiple senses of the word and stood well apart from his fellow East Village bohos. And he possessed an undeniable gift, a voice that surged up from a husky Weimar croon into the falsetto stratosphere. Operatic countertenors, though, were hopelessly déclassé. His professional options were few.” It’s also the case that Nomi’s opera experience wouldn’t have taken him very far. “As young Klaus Sperber,” writes Smith, “he had worked front-of-house at the Berlin Opera in the late Sixties, and would entertain colleagues with his renditions of the great arias as they swept up after performances.”

But with or without the résumé, Nomi had the voice—one audiences could hardly believe came from the strange, diminutive cabaret character with heavy makeup and tri-cornered receding hairline. At the top of the post, see Nomi’s 1978 debut at New Wave Vaudeville, a four-night revue at Irving Plaza. “Nomi,” Smith tells us, “was a smash.” Skip ahead to 2:14 to see Nomi’s musical director Kristian Hoffman introduce his performance of “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart opens to your voice”) from Camille Saint-Saëns’ 1877 opera Samson et Dalila. (See a full performance of the aria, in murky color, in the video further down.) After every subsequent performance, Hoffman says, the cabaret’s MC had to assure audiences that Nomi’s voice was “not an electrical recording.”

Nomi’s voice and presence attracted the attention of stars like David Bowie, who hired him as a backup singer for that SNL appearance in 1979 after he appeared on the cult New York public access show TV Party. Glenn O’Brien’s introduction of Nomi as “one of the finest pastry chefs in New York,” above, is only partly tongue in cheek; that was indeed the singer’s day job. But in character, he wielded his otherworldly falsetto like a raygun. “Every song,” writes Pitchfork in an appreciation, “included dramatic multiple shifts in octave, where Klaus would rise to extreme highs and lows, handling both effortlessly. He would jerk his hands into karate chops with each changing note, widening his eyes every time he skirted into higher octaves.”

Nomi’s brand of opera-infused synth-pop and retro-futurist, shiny-suited cabaret act—the “Klaus Nomi Show” as it was called—brought him notoriety in the New York art scene during his lifetime, and have since made him a star, decades after his tragic death. As gratifying as that may be for longtime fans of Nomi’s work, we should also remember that Nomi’s devotion to opera was no mere gimmick, but a lifelong passion and undeniable talent. As we noted in an earlier post, in Nomi’s last performance before his death—in a small 1982 European tour—he sang the aria “Cold Genius” from Henry Purcell’s 1691 opera King Arthur or, The British Worthy, a performance, wrote Matthias Rascher, “certainly one of the most memorable in operatic history.” Perhaps we might call it one of the most memorable moments in pop music history as well.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Gets an Epic, Instrumental Soundtrack from the Indie Band Joan of Arc

in Film, Music | August 23rd, 2016

The legacy of the silent film era is always with us, even as we move further and further away from film and closer to computer art. Not only do the compositions, costuming, and camerawork of golden age classics like Metropolis, Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and others continue to inform current directors’ work, CGI and otherwise, but these films have spawned their own prestigious form of music. In recent decades scores for classic silents have become the special provenance of avant-garde and experimental composers. The pairing makes sense. These are movies that raised the stakes for their medium and established the first generation of cinematic auteurs—Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and, of course, Carl Dreyer, the Danish director of 1928’s profoundly intense The Passion of Joan of Arc.

As with all of the acknowledged classics of the era, Dreyer’s masterpiece has received many contemporary musical treatments in the past few decades, including an original operetta by Richard Einhorn (on the Criterion Collection edition) and many more classical and modernist scores. But it has also been part of a parallel trend—of indie rock musicians like Dengue Fever, Yo La Tengo, Sparklehorse, and Dean and Britta scoring classic silent films. First, Australians Nick Cave and The Dirty Three came together in 1995 to play a live soundtrack for Joan of Arc in London. Then Cat Power accompanied the film in 1999 for several dates. In 2011, for one night only, Chicago indie stalwarts Joan of Arc performed their 80-minute instrumental score for a packed screening at the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival. Hear it, along with the film, above. (A copy can be purchased online here.) It was an “unexpected turn for the band,” their label Joyful Noise notes, given that they had just “released their most conventionally ‘rocking’ album in years, ‘Life Like.’”

Associated with singer and sole permanent member Tim Kinsella’s raspy yelps and warped songcraft, the band here takes a post-rock direction, loud and dirge-like. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does, writes Joyful Noise, offer a “dark, flowering sonic counterpart to the film’s grim subject matter (which is a rather haunting depiction of savage religious persecution).” Dreyer’s film is indeed a grim work of art, but it is not any less beautiful for its oppressive narrative. As running titles in the Joan of Arc-scored film’s intro inform us, like its protagonist, “The Passion of Joan of Arc was the victim of several ordeals,” including censorship upon release and the loss of the original negative and a re-edited copy to fire. Likewise for the film’s actress, the great Renee Maria Falconetti, “the performance was an ordeal,” as Roger Ebert points out, with legends telling “of Dreyer forcing her to kneel painfully on stone and then wipe all expression from her face.”

Known “only in mutilated copies” for over half a century, the 1985 restoration above comes from an original Danish copy discovered “complete and in very good condition” at a Norwegian mental institution in 1981. It is a curious story. Scholars have often speculated that the historical Joan of Arc was schizophrenic or that she suffered from “one of numerous neurological and psychiatric conditions that trigger hallucinations or delusions.” Falconetti’s performance of Joan is ambiguous, suggesting on the one hand, a “faith that seemed to stay any suggestion of irritation,” as one contemporary reviewer wrote, and on the other, the dazed, faraway look of a person in the throes of mental illness. And the film’s warped perspectives and extreme close-ups and angles suggest a kind of disturbance, of the corrupt, superstitious social order that interrogates and executes Joan, and also of Joan’s mind as she confronts her implacable judges. Joan of Arc’s pulsing, atmospheric soundtrack, draws out this very tension, written in Falconetti’s every exquisite expression.

This version of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc will be added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.. Another version, without any sound whatsoever, can be found above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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