Thursday, December 10, 2009

Getting Back in the Game

Every couple of months or so, I resolve to dedicate myself seriously to this blog. This resolution usually results in a small burst of activity for a week or two, followed by weeks or even months of inactivity. Partly as a result, I have no audience, no discernible reason for maintaining this blog aside from my own amusement - which as far as reasons for doing things go, ain't a bad one. So I think I'm resigning myself to the fact I have a haphazardly maintained blog kept mainly for some measure of self-amusement.
With my semester just wrapping up (with a generally terrific bunch of students) I want to try to get a couple posts in before I tackle the spring. As a way of easing back into blog writing, I thought I'd try my hands as this pretty wonderful quiz, courtesy of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. It's called "Professor Russell Johnson's 'My Ancestors Came Over on the Minnow' Thanksgiving/Christmas Movie Quiz.' It's so delightfully odd and esoteric that I feel compelled to respond.

1) Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie. Not a terribly interesting answer I'm afraid, but I got to go with No Country for Old Men, which comes in just behind Fargo in my list of favorite Coen Brother movies. A fairly conventional ranking, but then my opinion of the Coen oeuvre is fairly conventional. I like the Coen Bros. movies people usually like (my fondness for The Hudsucker Proxy being the only derivation from the norm ), and dislike the Coen Bros. movies people usually dislike (my lukewarm feelings for The Big Lebowski being the only derivation from that norm). I admire the kinds of things people usually admire about their movies - the formal precision, the pitch black wit, the knack for sharp characterization - and dislike the things people usually dislike about them - the icy sensibility, the way their wit can slide into snide satire, and the overly broad caricatures of regional types. Fargo is their warmest and most humane effort, while No Country has a clearer sense of aesthetic purpose, if only thanks to the source material. I value warmth more than purpose, thus No Country is a close second, and exists just a notch above Blood Simple in my Coen movie ranking.

2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible? (Question submitted by Peter Nellhaus)
Tati's Playtime, since my feelings for it have always been those of reserved admiration rather than rapture, and if the claims of Rosenbaum and other admirers are to be believed, a 70mm screening could easily change that dynamic.

3) Japan or France? (Question submitted by Bob Westal)
I assume this means which nation's cinema I value more, and I guess this might mean I flunk the quiz, because I can't answer that question. If I go with France, that means forswearing Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and what might be my favorite film of all time, Yasujio Ozu's Late Spring. If I go with Japan, that means forswearing Renoir, Truffaut, and what might be my favorite film of all time, Godard's Vivre sa Vie.

4) Favorite moment/line from a western.
Right now I'm going to say Henry Fonda leaning back in his rocking chair in My Darling Clementine, playing a balance game with a wooden beam.

5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?
Well, since it's my dissertation topic, I've got to say acting. I watch movies to see Myrna Loy walk across the room, and Cary Grant hold back hysterical laughter, and Ward Bond scowl at the universe and its many disappointments. It's precisely in the effects of performance that one can feel how slightly out of control the movies can be, a entropic force destabilizing everybody who comes into contact with it.

6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?).
Maybe Eastwood's Changeling, because I just saw it and like it a lot. The reception in the US was quite lukewarm, which just goes to show that many critics still aren't interested in looking at the images right in front of them. Sure, the script is too schematic, too redolent of the conventions of melodrama, but for the thousandth time, the plot's not the thing, the manner is, the level of feeling invested. On a shot by shot level, this is an effortlessly heartbreaking film, a movie that looks at the decay of love and hope with a eye that manages both objectivity and pity. Go back and watch those early scene between Jolie and her son. On first viewing, there's something tossed off about those moments, adding to the common mistaken impression that Eastwood is just a photographer of narrative poses. But look at those scenes in light of the ending, in light of everything we know is to come for those characters - what at first glance looks lackadaisical transforms into the crushingly tragic, and it a manner that feels blissfully tossed off rather than burdensomely telegraphed.

7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.
When I was ten years old, my favorite movie was Edward Scissorhands. Now, as I near thirty, I can't find it in myself to give a damn that Tim Burton is making Alice in Wonderland.

8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Macnee?
A decision that feels like a betrayal, but I have to go with Lom. Macnee can be an immensely enjoyable screen presence, a trapeze artist of an actor who glides in and out of moments with the greatest of ease. Lom is more of a tightrope walker, moving into the most conventional genre roles with a emotional commitment that finds him risking a fall into the abyss, leading you to catch your breath every few moments. For pleasure's sake, Macnee is a god, but for pity's fake, Lom is a man, and in contests of personality, I prefer men to gods.

9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film (Submitted by Tony Dayoub)
I suspect I might feel more sympathetic to it now, but there have been times when I've hated Wild at Heart. It plays like a parody of a Lynch film, and finds him more or less in a holding pattern after Blue Velvet. Twin Peaks, the show and movie, soon found him exploring thornier emotional material, and this now looks like a tossed off lark made by Lynch as a minor prank before the overwhelming richness of Peaks. Seen again in that light, I suspect it might yield more pleasures than it did on first viewing, although I expect to still be turned off by some of the nastiness of its images and tone.

10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
Willis, easy. Hall prettified everything, his visual conceits too ready-made, and too ostentatious in their presentation. Willis risked obscurity to help us see more clearly.

11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.
A tough call between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Escape from Alcatraz (both clear runners-up to my favorite Siegel movie, the extraordinary The Lineup). Escape from Alcatraz might be one of the few perfectly made film - not a second wasted, not a detail out of place - but I've got to go for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, whose imagery remains powerfully mythic.

12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?
DVD: Rushmore, which I screened this week for my class. In theaters: Inglorious Basterds.

13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
A blu-ray player, along with a HD TV set, remains one of those reputed necessities of modern living I lack, but when I get one, I suspect one of my first purchases will be a blu-ray edition of Blade Runner, whose catalog of New Wave rock imagery as a vision of the future makes it one of my favorite films to just stop and stare at (it almost entirely lacks any narrative urgency, leaving only the seductive void of Ridley Scott's grimy-sexy imagery).

14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse?
Looking up his filmography, I've seen surprisingly few Deezen films besides Grease. I've never been a fan of Grease, so Deezen has never made much an impression on me one way or another. Part of the disarming effectiveness of Superbad resulted from the warmth and awkward sweetness of many of the performances, Mintz-Plasse chief among them, so I must go with Mr. McLovin.

Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they
are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.
It's one of my life's projects to see every movie Boris Karlof was ever in, so I must go with him, although the same applies to Lugosi, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Pirce, and Lon Chaney Jr.

16) Fight Club -- yes or no?
No. Or rather yes to some of the first third or so, but once the plot really kicks in gear, it loses much of the anarchic, anything-goes charm of the opening moments, and collapses under the weight of David Fincher's overly polished images.

17) Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland?
De Havilland is a great actress, but I find Wright's performances in Shadow of a Doubt, Best Years of Our Lives and Pursued so absolutely note perfect that there are times when I consider her my favorite actress. De Havilland is always a pleasure, but Wright is frequently an obsession.

18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir.
Mike Hammer quotes Christina Rossetti in the bachelor pad of the gods in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me, Deadly.

19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)—see the wonderful blog Destructible Man for inspiration.
At times like these, a young man's fancy turns towards thoughts of the end of Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture the Duckling.

20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it? (Submitted by Lucas McNelly)
Saw the Jimmy Fallon/Queen Latifah comedy Taxi for free at the campus theater, and found the whole affair so thoroughly dispiriting I walked out midway through, and felt down in the dumps for the next week.

21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?
Both tend toward the bland side of things, but must go with Van Heflin for his ineffable portrait of a death of quiet desperation in Fred Zinnemann's Act of Violence.

22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film.
Trouble in Mind, a 1985 is-it-sci-fi-is-it-noir-is-it-memorex? movie that seems to exist half a beat ahead of real life, and leaves you wondering minutes/days/years later, what the hell did I just watch?

23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see.
Alain Resnais' Night and Fog.

24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded.
Bunuel's marvelous version of Robinson Crusoe - the most deeply felt affirmation of surrealist principles ever made.

Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share.
I apparently have no sense of shame when it comes to my knowledge of film, so I'll induce a qualifying incident forthwith by admitting I've never seen a single Visconti film.

26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald? (Submitted by Larry Aydlette)
Fitzgerald never made much an impression on me, while in I Was a Male War Bride, Sheridan manages to keep her head while all around her are losing theirs, so her.

Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors
or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who?
My students apparently think I look like Jonah Hill. These students, over whose destinies I have some measure of control, are brave and foolhardy souls.

28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why?
The remake of Funny Games, not just because I expected it to be unpleasant, but because I knew damn well there wouldn't be a single tonal or textural surprise in the whole thing.

29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller, says the man who has lived in Florida his whole life, and understands the concept of "wintry atmosphere" largely as a fantastic urban legend.

30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones?
Graham, because I can't see Jeffrey Jones pulling off a convincing Mick Jagger impersonation.

31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever).
The "Japanese tourists" at the end of David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner.

32) Second favorite John Wayne movie.
A rather boring answer admittedly, but Stagecoach. The Searchers, now and forever, comes first, but Stagecoach's kineticism, and Wayne's athletic poetry, remains one of the great affirmations of cinema as the art of pure movement.

33) Favorite movie car chase.
Car chase scenes are actually a pet peeve of mine, so even some of the most highly vaunted ones annoy me. That said, one of the reasons I love the aforementioned The Lineup is the chase that climaxes the film proves not only tolerable, but inspired.

34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film. (Submitted by Patrick Robbins)
A remake of Black Narcissus about a group of monks slowly going nuts in India could be intriguing.

35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?
My relative lack of familiarity with 70s TV schlock shows through here, since I don't know that I've seen anything with Barbara Rhoades. On the other hand, I loved Get Smart as child, and Agent 99 was surely one reason it proved a short term obsession for my pre-pubescent mind.

36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.
Riding Shotgun, a tidy Western lacking any pretension, and with an tactical openness that lets every moment breathe in the possibilities of the backlot.

If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from
all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it
be? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
Sounds like an awfully cruel fate to visit upon someone's life work, but upon reflection, the world would surely be enriched by the removal of The Wicker Man remake from existence, and I've never understood what people saw in the incompetent imitations of Jules Feiffer that constitute the rest of his oeuvre, so Neil LaBute is merely a second rate playwright rather than third rate filmmaker in my universe.

38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it.
I don't believe I've ever experienced a complete shift from hate to love. More likely, I move from deep admiration to passionate love, or mild enjoyment to strong enthusiasm. The closest I think I've come to experiencing the wide arc of reactions traced by the question is my reaction to David Lynch's Fire Walk with Me. On first viewing, I found the movie extremely frustrating, although I always loved individual scenes. On further viewings, however, the searing pain and sadness of the film seemed more manifest, and I've since come to see it as at least a near-great film.

39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
Not really a contest, is it? Yes, The Sorrow and the Pity is one of the greatest documentaries ever made. But The Reckless Moment is one of those movies composed of nothing but fleeting gestures - perfect, little, lovely gestures, any one of which can break your heart.

In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau
Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you
most resemble, either physically or in personality?
The Cutters. I've not seen Breaking Away in ages, but I'm thinking Cyril in terms of temperament, though I'm not a bike rider.

41) Your favorite movie cliché.
Weird noises coming from closet. Must inspect. Carry rolling pin for protection. Slowly open closet door. Rolling pin ready to strike.Something jumps out. Narrowly avoid braining a black cat. Breathe sigh of relief. Oh, watch out - knife wielding serial killer stands right behind you. Shriek! Shriek! Shriek!

42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
Minnelli. Singin' in the Rain is great, obviously, but Donen made some real duds, like Kiss Them For Me, where his utter lack of commitment showed in every frame. Even very bad Minnelli is interesting, and Minnelli made more great movies than Donen - Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bandwagon, The Bad and the Beautiful, Tea and Sympathy, and The Bells are Ringing to Donen's Rain, On the Town, and It's Always Fair Weather.

43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence.
Gremlins. A week later, a strange smell started started emanating from the chimney.

44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie.
The final scene of Ride the High Country.

If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or
cult movie) would you decimate? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
The Goonies cult. I hated it when I was five, I hate it now. Love the Cyndi Lauper song, though.

46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson?
Not really a choice sane man can make, but if forced, I'll go with Carlson, but only because Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed might be the greatest film to come out of Hammer Studios.

47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director. (Submitted by Patty Cozzalio)
John Ford

Favorite ambiguous movie ending. (Original somewhat ambiguous
submission---“Something about ambiguous movie endings!”-- by Jim
Emerson, who may have some inspiration of his own to offer you.)
The Awful Truth. Not extremely ambiguous admittedly, but ends with a possibility presenting itself, a mere chance of something rather a consummation. Gets at the way the pleasure of love often lies in its clumsiness.

49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for?
The fact that I obtained a copy of Jacques Rivette's L'amour fou.

50) George Kennedy or Alan North?

Kennedy, because he looks like he could be nobody in particular.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Aural Arguments

Some 2009 albums I've listened to, from damn good to damn insufferable. Listed in descending order of preference.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - s/t A sharp distillation of all the hang-ups and enthusiasms implied by shoegaze revivalism, but with a lyrical directness that dissipates the vagueness that plagues the form. Nice, delicate vocals that don't slide over into the cutie pie whimpering that affects so many indie vocalists. And sounds like their drummer knows something about his craft, which doesn't hurt. Smart, without being clever, which makes it feel damn near brilliant. A-

Mos Def - The Ecstatic An album as post-election sugar rush, Mos Def puts together a collection that feels politically urgent and personally mellow at the same time. "Quiet Dog" worried me all summer, if only for the way Mos Def says "Simmer down/simmer simmer down/simmer down now" like a man waiting impatiently for the other shoe to drop. Idealistic, without sounding naive, which makes it feel damn near utopian. A-

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Apparently early century dance-punk nostalgia begins now, and I'm relatively relieved by the consequences. "1901" gives punchy form to meaningless pleasure, and if anybody besides English grad students still listened to this kind of music anymore, it could have been a hit. Jaded, without being cynical, which makes it feel damn near wise. B+

Bob Dylan - Together Through Life Dammit, I like the accordion. No masterpiece, but it sounds like somebody had a good time recording it, and if the singer and his traditions mean anything at all to you, there's a reasonable chance their pleasure will move you. B+

Conor Oberst - Outer South Mannered - what else do you expect from Mr. Bright Eyes - alt-country homage (apparently late 20th century Wilco nostalgia also starts now) muddles through on words and an open air sound that gets at alt-country's smart-macho ebulliance without quite falling for the form's penchant for smart-macho self-pity. Note the use of "quite." B

Elvis Costello - Secret, Profane & Sugarcane As long as you have reconciled yourself with the idea that Costello will never again produce an album half as good as Get Happy!!! (let alone This Year's Model), there's nothing disappointing about this LP. About half of these giddily inelegant songs work in the sense that they convey the joy of man confident and comfortable with his talents, and all of them reveal some minor lyrical epiphany, and one of them- "Hidden Shame" - might constitute another minor classic from the master of minor classics. Shambolic country music pastiche with a slightly nervous edge. Possible sore point: the voice, always an obstacle for many, isn't getting any prettier. B

Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years Funny, pretentious, rockin, stodgy, sly, pompous- the usual grab back of half-effective affects from the merry pranksters of pop-prog. Like: "Moped Eyes," Inaugural Trams" Dislike:"Cardiff in the Sun," "Pric" Whole thing might seem more worthwhile if the production didn't sound so cutesy. The keyboard work (I guess it's the keyboards) sounds too damn dinky. B-

Chris Isaak - Mr. Lucky Either you fall head over heels for that voice, or you take it as a nostalgist dead end. I'm in the former camp, though I admit that aside from some moments on Forever Blue, he's never attempted anything particularly new with his gift. And I don't know if it's due to the infernal blessings of modern technology or good genes, but Isaak's vocal chords sound to be holding up quite well with age. Too bad about the songwriting, though, since the opening track ("Cheater's Town") the only thing that stayed with me two minutes after finishing the album. B-

Black Moth Super Rainbow - Eating Us Candy similes abound in the raves for this album, and the song titles basically write the reviews "Iron Lemonade," "Tooth Decay," "Bubblegum Animals." And it's pretty, in a candyland kind of way, but only the relatively bitter "Iron Lemonade" convinces me this is a band which has, in the parlance of a long dead civilization, something to say. B-

Jason Lytle - Yours Truly, The Commuter Carries over the inhibited romanticism that made Grandaddy interesting, only this ain't Grandaddy, and the result is simply less textured, although "Brand New Sun" does sound like a very good lost Grandaddy track. B-

Black Lips - 200 Million Thousand Smart ass garage rock revivalism I hate in theory, but proves fairly compelling in practice, although the singer makes sure you pay penance for your pleasure. B-

V/A - Dark Was the Night - Ah, as many stars as there are in heaven (heh, heh). Indie rocker megaparty has been the subject of both much overpraise and excessive vitriol. About 40% sucks, and even the good stuff seems too evocative of the conventions of the scene, but I've never spent enough time inside a Starbucks to find its sonic aura as loathsome as apparently I should. B-

Bishop Allen - Grrr... Tuneful. Cute even. A little too comfortable with privilege and their freedom from appearing meaningful, but "Don't Hideaway" is catchy enough to let me forgive all their venial sins. C+

The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love There's the obvious pretension, and even more obviously there's Colin Meloy's voice, but if you can get past those problems (and I failed to get past them for The Crane Wife), the album's grandiosity connects in a Junior High suicide pact kind of way. C+

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion Not the revelation its admirers claim, but I do find their pleasant, placid weirdness moderately more than tolerable, and "Summertime Clothes" (no, not "My Girls") convinced me to listen to the whole thing enough times til I learned not to hate it. Still took more work that I would think proper or kind for a supposed instant classic. C+

Dan Deacon - Bromst Listenable art school electronica, good for taking in while stumbling around suburbia at night, annoying your neighbors. Tends to fade away without additional stimulation. Recommendation: drink coffee, watch the rain, make a to-do list, read the warning labels on your medication, and play Bromst. C

Papercuts - You Can Have What You Want If it sounds enough like the kind of thing I should like, then it must be the kind of thing I should like. Right? C

Now, for the records undeserving of words:
Jarvis Cocker - Further Complications C-
Grammatics -s/t C-
Cymbals Eat Guitars - Why There are Mountains C-
Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle C-
Doves - Kingdom of Rush D+
Clues- S/t D
Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest D
Patrick Wolf - The Bachelor D
Mirah - (a)spera D-
Maximo Park - Quicken the Heart D-
Loney, Dear - s/t D-
The Boy Least Likely To - The Law of the Playground F

Friday, July 03, 2009

Favorite Movie Books

I'm ridiculously late coming to this topic, but I thought a tardy response to a meme asking bloggers to name the film books that had the biggest impact on them would constitute a ideal inaugural post this relaunched blog. Robert Christgau once wrote that most people who read critics are criticism fans first and foremost, and that's certainly true in my case. My love of good, sly criticism informed my decision to write about movies for a living. Pace the common smear that critics do what they do because they can't cut it as musicians/filmmakers/painters/novelists/interior decorators, I fell in love with criticism as an art and a discipline at some point in my life, and I soon realized I couldn't think of a happier way to spend my life than trying to live up to the models of my favorite critics and scholars.

The books and writers below shaped how I see movies, from the way I piece together the history that connects one film to the next, to what I look for in terms of sanity and grace. Above all, my favorite film writing suggested a language for sorting out my feelings, a way of getting beyond just thinking about whether I liked a movie or not, and getting at the meaning of the thing. Like most people, a good portion of my life has been taken up by viewing films, and good criticism testifies to the idea that none of that time has been spent frivolously. Criticism for me means above all trying to figure out how Art fits into the world, a way of accounting for time and attention so as to make a claim for the central importance of useless things. Below, I've made an annotated list of my favorite film books, roughly in the order I first encountered them.

Classics of the Horror Film by William K. Everson

In a recent post on the Everson archives, Jonathan Rosenbaum observed that Everson's knowledge of film history was of more value than his critical analysis. Maybe, but when I poured over this book as a kid, Everson's sense of how the arc of horror film history hung together deeply affected me, and he was very good at relating specific films to the larger context . Everson made me think of every movie I watched in terms of an evolving narrative of film history, perhaps the key conceptual shift that distinguishes the critic from the average viewer.

Danse Macabre by Stephen King

Film history as autobiography, King's impressionistic account of the horror genre remains a funny and informative work. It weaves together the intricate interrelationships between horror literature, fandom, and movies that so many more specialist histories miss.

Favorite Movies edited by Philip Nobile

A public library find from when I was in my formative years as a movie buff, this includes one of my favorite pieces of criticism - Joseph McBride's defense of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451. The book was issued at a time when the debates about taste ushered in by Sarris' The American Cinema were raging, so rather than simply rattling off a list of faves, the contributors engaged in an often bitter back and forth about what kinds of movies matter. The result is a collection of high stakes commentary about the very nature of film criticism.

Great Film Directors edited by Leo Braudy and Morris Dickstein

Another public library discovery, this was my introduction to auteurism (though as an avid reader of Fangoria magazine since I was about five, I already had a list of favorite directors -Romero, Carpenter, Dante, et al). It's an engaging collection of essays on both the pre-Sarris canon of great directors - Bergman, Fellini, Eisenstein - and post AC favorites (Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford). The collection remains one of the best anthologies of film criticism ever put together, and perhaps one reason I was left somewhat underwhelmed by Philip Lopate's recent Library of America collection of American film criticism was that I thought it paled in comparison to this collection of rather similar scope. It contains superlative pieces from Sarris (on The Seventh Seal and Blow-Up), Susan Sontag (on Persona), Luis Bunuel (on Passion of Joan of Arc), Christian Metz (on 8 1/2), Pauline Kael (on Intolerance), and André Bazin (on Diary of a Country Priest). In nearly every case, this was my first exposure to these writers, and also I believe the first I'd ever heard of Antonioni, Bresson, Dreyer, Flaherty, and Von Sternberg. An indispensable part of my film education.

From Vietnam to Reagan by Robin Wood

I came across this in my high school library when I was 15. Having already admired Wood's contributions to Favorite Movies and The Great Film Directors, this book enticed me because of the serious attention paid to the likes of George Romero and Larry Cohen. The idea that someone considered pulp horror movies worthy of serious consideration thrilled me. Wood's attentive dissection of these films legitimized my tastes like no other critic I had read before. But even more marvelous was what he had to say about those films - an eloquent, deeply ethical approach to criticism that saw art and political responsibility as intimately linked. Woods' forceful polemics even turned me, for a time, against Spielberg and Lucas, despite having grown up with and loved their films. I've since come back around to loving them both (well, more the former than the latter) , partly because I think they're defensible on precisely the humanist grounds established by Wood, but also because I ultimately came to question major tenets of Wood's critical foundation. Nevertheless, Wood's writings formed an absolutely critical component of my own feelings about film.

Hitchcock's Films by Robin Wood

Another Wood revelation, his audacity in ranking Hitchcock alongside Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky as a moral force and an artist made an enormous impact on me. I'm now somewhat suspicious of Wood's strategy (I'm inclined to agree with Robert Warshow's observation that "If film is to be accepted into the household of art, it will be a changed household that receives it"), but it's the kind of rhetorical move that was probably essential in order for film culture to move beyond the formalist ossifications that had shaped film aesthetics since the 1920s, and the book still makes one see Hitchcock better than any other single volume on the director.

The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris

Like most people who encountered this book at a certain age, Sarris's survey of American film directors became an obsession of mine, as I leafed through it more than any other single book in my collection. His thumbnail sketches remain definitive, and the wealth of discoveries this book enabled is the ultimate validation of auteurism.

Encyclopedia of Movie Awards by Michael Gerbert

At first glance, a kind of throw-away junk food book, full of trivia and asides and good jokes, but in fact it's an excellent off-hand history of movies and film culture. By laying out film awards
chronologically from the beginning of the sound era to 1995 (an updated version would be most welcome), Gerbert highlights the disparities between the movies that flattered and pleased people in their own day and the movies that move and surprise us now. Gerbert's own critical asides almost always inform even when he's wrong, and his pithy, superlatively written capsules that say so much with so little that he makes one wonder why anybody need ever write a review longer than fifty words.

Placing Movies by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Rosenbaum's critical positions have come to seem rather strident lately, but Placing Movies reminds anyone who's forgotten that for nearly three decades, Rosenbaum was one of the sanest, most intelligent voices in American film criticism. His thoughtful mixture of politics and aesthetics shows how it should be done, and he makes broadening one's cinematic horizons beyond the American multiplex seem like an ethical imperative.

Totally Tenderly Tragically by Philp Lopate

A recent re-read revealed Lopates attitude to be more cloistered and self-satisfied that I wished to remember, but those limitations are inextricable from Lopate's real virtues. Lopate conceives of serious moviegoing as a path towards self-understanding, an old critical commonplace that Lopate renders as a startling truth in a collection that works cohesively.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Pauline Kael
I came to Kael rather late. I knew the name from the Great Film Directors anthology and Sarris's kvetching, but my first immersion in her writing came vía one of her 80s anthologies, which proved underwhelming, since her taste rarely surprised, and her insights never turned the movies inside out. But in college, I got around to checking out her earlier collections, and discovered what all the fuss was about. Her prose stills seems explosive, and when you contextualize her within the conventions of liberal earnestness she rebelled against, it's obvious why she's revered as a revolutionary force in the history of arts journalism. I'm enough of a committed auteurist to question whether she ever truly helps the reader make renewed emotional contact with individual films, but her biggest impact is attitudinal, as she orients one to looking at movies in terms of pop sensationalism, an approach that can be reductive, but also makes one sensitive the ways movies upset the conventions of gentility and high art that so many critics try to reconcile with cinephilia.

Negative Space by Manny Farber

Another critic I came to late. Part of what impressed about Farber was how he worked anthropologically, using a cluster of movies to discover surprising formal rhymes with inventive reasoning. And as a prose stylist, he's as seductive and dangerous as Pauline Kael.

A few others worth mentioning, sans commentary:
History of Narrative Film by David Cook
Psychotronic Film Encyclopedia by Michael Weldon
James Agee's collected film criticism
Mondo Macabro by Pete Tombs
Cahiers du Cinema 1950s edited by James Hillier
Theory of Film Practice by Noel Burch
On the History of Film Style by David Bordwell
Films and Feeling by Raymond Durgnat
Signs and Meaning in the Cinema by Peter Wollen
More Than Night by James Naremore
Cinema 1 & 2 by Gilles Deleuze
The Material Ghost by Gilberto Perez
The World Viewed by Stanley Cavell
The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy by Robert Ray

Also, a few non-movie books that have nevertheless had a profound influence on how I think about movies:
Album Guide to the 1970s by Robert Christgau
Kitsch and Art by Tomas Kulka
Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes
Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus
On Photography by Susan Sontag

I should of course mention the Leonard Maltin movie guides, whose middle of the road preferences are worth mocking, but which nevertheless were of great use to a pre-teen trying make sense of movies caught on TV in the days before the Internet Movie Database. Similarly, Roger Ebert's tastes can be exasperating, but he's an unusually thoughtful writer, whose commonsensical approach can be helpful when trying to maintain a sense of critical composure in the face of the hype machine of modern pop cinema.
Another favorite encountered outside of books: Dave Kehr, whose auteurist militancy borders on a kind of madness, but at his best reveals the advantages in having a confirmed point of view in criticism.