Flawed masterpieces (Barry Lyndon and Planet Waves)

Commenters occasionally ask me for my movie list.  Due to blogging I haven’t seen as many films as usual (I used to see about 75 a year, all at the theatre).  At the end of this post I have provided a few comments on each film I saw on the big screen last year (both old and new.) Three stars means barely worth seeing. Some films should only be seen on a big screen—preferably film, not digital. (I hate digital. I’m so happy I wasn’t born 30 years later.) The best new film I saw was Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but it wouldn’t work on TV.  So don’t complain it is “too slow.”  That’s not the point.

Recently I’ve been thinking about flawed masterpieces.  I’d much prefer to watch a flawed film like “The Master”, over a well made piece of corporate product like “Argo” or “Silver Linings Playbook.”  Recently I saw Barry Lyndon for the first time in nearly 40 years.  As I recall the film was mostly panned when it came out, but it actually holds up far better than any other period costume drama that I recall seeing.  The glorious faces alone are worth the price of admission.  Marisa Berenson looking like a dazed Goya princess.  Card sharks right out of a La Tour painting.  Why was it panned by critics?  Perhaps for a combination of reasons. Kubrick doesn’t always go for easy crowd-pleasing techniques.  And despite its excellence, it’s a significant drop-off from his two 1960s masterpieces. Perhaps the subject matter seems less “important.”

About the time I saw Barry Lyndon I’d been listening for the first time in nearly 40 years to a CD made at exactly the same time–Planet Waves.  Once again, a flawed masterpiece that was panned by critics.  A CD that mostly avoids crowd-pleasing techniques.  A CD where the subject matter seemed less important, more simplistic, than earlier works.  A CD in the shadow of even greater works from the 1960s.  I wondered what the critics would have thought of Planet Waves if it had been the only CD made by a little known artist.  Or what if Barry Lyndon, or Lynch’s Inland Empire, or Tarantino’s Django Unchained had been the only film made by a nobody?  What would the critics make of it?  And did I overrate the Aussie film on my list, for exactly that reason?

Tonight is the Academy Awards.  The Nobel Prize in literature is just about plausible enough to merit ridicule.  Unfortunately the Oscar’s fall short of even that low threshold.

2012 List

Blow-Up  (British/Italian)  4.0  It’s been over 40 years since I first saw Blow-Up, and it seemed like a completely different film.  Or maybe I’ve changed.  It’s now obvious that Blow-Up was hugely influential (Blow Out, The Conversation, A Clockwork Orange, etc.)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkish)  3.8  Ceylan is now one of the world’s best directors, and still doesn’t seem to have reached his peak.  Stunning cinematography and excellent acting. But I wouldn’t watch this film on TV if you paid me to.

The Conversation (US)  3.8  The weakest of Coppola’s four 1970s masterpieces, and yet still a masterpiece.

Barry Lyndon (US/British)  3.8  Holds up very well after nearly 40 years””an underrated film.

Wake in Fright (Australian)  3.7  A real freak of nature here.  The print was recently discovered in a Pittsburgh warehouse—it was about ready to be destroyed.  One of the best movies of the 1970s, indeed one of Scorcese’s favorite films.  More testosterone per second than any other film I can recall.  Saw it at the Brattle in glorious Technicolor.  Reminded me of when I went kangaroo hunting back in 1991.

Django Unchained (US)  3.7  Bill Clinton was once called America’s first black President.  Not quite sure what that means, but I was reminded of it during an interview with Tarantino. He said he grew up in an African-American neighborhood, immersed in black culture.  He certainly seems to have a comfort level riffing on styles like “blaxsploitation,” which most white directors lack.  The film has all the usual Tarantino qualities. It probably won’t be rated as highly as it should be, because the film won’t be seen as serious enough for the subject matter, and we’ve seen this style before in his earlier films.

A Separation (Iranian)  3.7  Excellent film that touches on issues of gender, class, politics, youth, etc, presented in a compelling way that never talks down to the audience.

The Master (US)  3.6  An impressive film with the sort of acting performances loved by “The Academy.”  (I.e. actors acting like crazy people.)  I didn’t think the director (Anderson) quite pulled it off, but scene for scene it’s one of the best films of the year.  Similar to “There Will Be Blood.”  Excellent cinematography””see it in 70 mm.

The Day He Arrives (Korean)  3.6  The older I get the more I like Hong Sang-soo’s films.  The black and white cinematography is great, and a reminder of how much “information” gets lost in color films.

In Another Country (Korean)  3.6  Another gem by Hong Sang-soo.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind  (Japanese) 3.6  The best of three Japanese anime I saw last year, all by Miyazaki.  Surprisingly erotic for a kids film.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Japanese)  3.5  Another outstanding anime from Miyazaki.  Lots of ideas in Avatar seem to have been stolen from Laputa and Nausicaa.

My Neighbor Totoro  (Japanese) 3.5  Another excellent Miyazaki film””this one aimed at little kids.

Moonrise Kingdom  (US)  3.5  I was ten years old in 1965, and a cub scout.  Wes Anderson does a beautiful job evoking that era.  A charming film.

A Foreign Affair  (US)  3.5   A 1948 Billy Wilder film made in the rubble of post-war Berlin.  Does a nice job showing that the Washington elite was just as out of touch with reality in 1948 as they are today.  But the real reason to watch is Marlene Dietrich.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (US)  3.5  A new filmmaker who clearly has some talent.  Reminds me a bit of Spielberg, but grittier.

Skyfall  (British)  3.4  One of the best of the recent Bond films.  Scene by scene it was extremely well made, with Bardem being a very effective villain.  The one weakness is that the Bond franchise doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.  James Bond, or the Bourne Identity?  That indecision takes it down a couple notches.

Damsels in Distress (US) 3.3  It’s great to see Whit Stillman is back.  Some of the reviewers complained the film wasn’t “realistic.” (rolls eyes)

Argo  (US)  3.1 Affleck’s weakest film so far, but still fairly entertaining.

Zero Dark Thirty.  (US)  3.1  Sort of like a documentary, with some Hollywood-style acting added in.  In other words neither fish nor fowl.  Worth the price of admission to see the raid on Abbotabad.

The Hobbit (New Zealand) 3.0  The book version of the Hobbit was a story that seemed like it was just a story.  The book version of LOTR was a story that seemed so real that you believe it actually happened.  Ditto for the movie version of each.

The Outcry (Italian) 3.0   An early film by Antonioni.  Very depressing, but interesting in parts.

Silver Linings Playbook (US) 3.0  Standard Hollywood rom-com with fake crazy people.

The Story of Pi  (US)  3.0  I get tired of the CGI look of modern films, so perhaps I’m too old for this sort of thing.  But it also had some nice features, and was certainly watchable.  Clever ending.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi  (Japanese)  2.8  How much I like a documentary depends partly (but not entirely) on how much interest I have in the subject.  I have little interest in food.  I love Japanese films and I love Japanese food””just not films about food.

Dark Shadows  (US) 2.8  Maybe I’m getting too old, but I find it increasingly difficult to get interested in Hollywood films, even when directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Helen Bonham Carter.

Headhunters  (Norwegian) 2.6 Mildly entertaining thriller that suffers from too much violence.  Starts out entertaining but after a while it become so implausible that you begin to lose interest.

Inni  (Icelandic/American)  2.3  Sigor Ros in concert. Visuals were disappointing.

Salmon Fishing in Yemen (British) 2.0  A romantic comedy that was neither funny nor romantic.



26 Responses to “Flawed masterpieces (Barry Lyndon and Planet Waves)”

  1. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    24. February 2013 at 15:55

    I remember hearing how great Blow-Up was supposed to be, then watching it and being pissed that I had wasted my time on it. “The Conversation” was better and not a waste of time, but I didn’t think it was particularly good either.

    I did see “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, interested in what Zeitlin might get up to next. I hadn’t thought of the Spielberg comparison before (perhaps because “Lincoln” just came out, and seems very different at least from the previews), but it makes sense. I haven’t seen most of the other Best Picture nominees, but I find it amusing that I read this post on the same day that I read Alyssa Rosenberg write “Whatever genre you think Silver Linings Playbook falls into, it’s not traditional rom-com”.

  2. Gravatar of Rajat Rajat
    24. February 2013 at 17:26

    Skyfall? I found it very ordinary. It started out okay but the last half was rubbish.

  3. Gravatar of Toto Toto
    24. February 2013 at 17:42

    I can’t tell by this post, but if this is the first time you’ve seen Miyazaki films then you should just take a weekend to go through each and every one of them, assuming you can handle that much. My Neighbor Totoro is excellent, Spirited Away is critically acclaimed, but Howl’s Moving Castle may be the best of all.

  4. Gravatar of marcus nunes marcus nunes
    24. February 2013 at 18:13

    Barry Lyndon, by candlelight, a a delight.
    Blow Up turned a lot of early twenty guys into amateur photografers.

  5. Gravatar of Gene Callahan Gene Callahan
    24. February 2013 at 19:28

    “It is the operation of the market, and not the government collecting the taxes, that decides upon whom the incidence of the taxes falls and how they affect production and consumption.”

    Holy crapoly! I am in the theater about once every 2-3 years.

  6. Gravatar of Gene Callahan Gene Callahan
    24. February 2013 at 19:39

    Oops! I meant to quote this: “I used to see about 75 a year, all at the theatre.”

    Wrong thing in the paste buffer!

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. February 2013 at 19:40

    TGGP, De gustibus . . .

    Rajat, Perhaps you are right–I have low expectations these days.

    Toto, Yes, I saw them, although I thought Howl’s Moving Castle was one of the least impressive. But they are all very good. I liked Spirited Away best.

    Marcus. That’s a good observation.

    Gene, Keep in mind I watch nothing but sports on TV. So I watch a couple hours of TV plus movies combined every week–that’s actually less than most people.

  8. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    24. February 2013 at 20:24

    I just saw Damsels in Distress last week. Not Stillman’s best, but still better than anyone else’s film.

    Nice shot at ‘Ed Schools’.

  9. Gravatar of Al Al
    24. February 2013 at 22:46

    I had a different perspective on Silver Linings Playbook because I dated a woman with bipolar disorder. Bradley Cooper’s performance drew out a cold sweat because I could feel the hopelessness and frustration of that relationship. It was a faithful depiction of a very difficult mental disorder. Man, I’m getting upset thinking about it again.

  10. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    24. February 2013 at 23:47

    What exactly is the “flaw” in Barry Lyndon? As far as I can tell, your argument is that critics didn’t like (or get) it. That’s a flaw?

    Meanwhile “his two 1960’s masterpieces” are unflawed? C’mon, even the most stoned zombie Kubrick acolyte should admit to some misgivings about 2001. (I take it from the remark that “perhaps the subject matter seems less ‘important'” that 2001 is supposed to have a subject matter of some importance). You’ve made so many brilliant posts about the EMH, macro, econ history, why are you hiding all your “why 2001 is a great film” posts under a bushel?

    And for all its brilliance, Strangelove is the epitome of a flawed masterpiece: all that stuff with Sterling Hayden and Mandrake is about 1/50th as funny as the stuff with George C. Scott and the President….

    (I don’t really mean to be negative, thanks for the interesting capsule reviews).

  11. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    25. February 2013 at 00:32


    I don’t think opening-to-end War Room comedy would work. Switching up the story between three situations worked very well for me. I agree re: 2001; I find it just as unwatchable in full as Barry Lyndon.

    Skyfall was good, but for me the natural end of the Bond franchise was GoldenEye. They will never reach that high of combining self-awareness and excellent execution of the formula.

    Laputa: Castle in the Sky was one of my favourite films as a kid, partly because I only got to see it once. Despite that, I was able to remember most of the plot, scenes and visuals as a kid. Then I rewatched it and found to my surprise that it’s very enjoyable even as an adult. Princess Mononoke will always be Miyazaki’s masterpiece for me, but Laputa is definitely second.

    (Incidentally, the named Soviet base in Dr. Strangelove is also called Laputa. Thankfully, I didn’t know any foreign languages as a child…)

  12. Gravatar of Wolf Wolf
    25. February 2013 at 06:25

    My top pics for 2012

    1. The Master
    2. Django Unchained
    3. Lincoln
    4. Perks of Being a Wallflower
    5. Moonrise Kingdom
    6. Killer Joe
    7. Flight
    8. Silver Linings Playbook
    9. Ted
    10. Argo

    Honorable mentions- Looper, End of Watch, Life of Pi
    , Zero Dark Thrty

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. February 2013 at 07:09

    Patrick, I love Stillman’s sensibility.

    Al, The actors seemed like sane people pretending to be crazy-but I blame the director for that. Don’t get me wrong, it was an entertaining film.

    And the handling of insanity was light years ahead of “A Beautiful Mind.”

    anon, We are talking about the difference between a 3.8 film and a 4.0 film. I just think the two great 1960s films were Kubrick at the peak of his powers—utterly original, utterly engrossing. Barry Lyndon came close, but fell a bit short.

    BTW, studies now show the general was right–flouride in water can cause health problems.

    I’m not going to try to defend the greatness of 2001. It came in number 2 on one survey of critics all time favorite films, trailing only Vertigo (which also happens to be my all time favorite.) In 2001 Kubrick reinvented film as an art form–nothing like it had ever been done.

    W. Peden, Unfortunately I missed Princess Mononoke–I’ll catch it next time its in town.

  14. Gravatar of Randomize Randomize
    25. February 2013 at 08:37

    Good list, Doc. +1 on Moonrise Kingdom – it struck all the right chords.

  15. Gravatar of Todd Todd
    25. February 2013 at 09:41

    “Wake in Fright” is an Australian film, but by a Canadian director. Kotcheff isn’t an unknown, either. Compared to his other films, “Wake” is a one off, but “North Dallas Forty” and “First Blood” are certainly within the same realm of interesting macho set-pieces, and “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” is very underrated IMO.

  16. Gravatar of Ted Ted
    25. February 2013 at 09:43

    I admire “Blow-Up”, but the metaphysics aspect of it seems a bit cliche art house. Perhaps it’s because it’s been so influential that it seems cliched now because so many people have mimicked it. I vastly prefer his informal trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’eclipse). I actually prefer “The Conversation” to all of Coppola’s other films, but I’ve never liked Coppola much for a lot of reasons. “Barry Lyndon” is my favorite Kubrick actually. I hated Django Unchained, but I hate all of Tarantino. It’s all so cyncial, immature, and jokey. Just stylishness without much else. I suppose he’s entertaining enough though. “A Separation,” was a very good film, though I thought the ending was corny (c’mon the cut to credits scene). I thought it betrayed the idea of treating both sides fairly because it deemphasized the difficulties of divorce for woman in Iran. The film reminded me of how the Dardenne brothers embed genre pictures into most of their social realist dramas. For example, in the Dardenne’s “The Son,” you have a revenge thriller embedded in a drama (the final scene is one of the most exhilarating scenes ever filmed). It seemed Farhadi tried to embed a Hitchcock-like mystery thriller into a marriage drama, but it didn’t quite fit for me. I prefer his “About Elly.” Also, I think it’s a shame this film got so much press out of Iran. Iran has a lot of amazing directors – Kiarostami, Panahi, Makmalbaf – but for some reason a great, though unremarkable, film from Farhadi gets all the press. “The Master,” was frustrating for me. I felt Anderson almost had a masterpiece, but let it slip through his fingers. Maybe we’ll get a director’s cut in a few years. Finally somebody is pointing out that “Silver Linings Playbook” is mediocre at best. Also, yes, Ceylan is a genius. For me he hasn’t topped “Uzak” yet, but Anatolia is an amazing piece of art.

    I have yet to see “In Another Country,” and I’ve heard good things about “Wake in Fright.” I’ll have to check them out.

  17. Gravatar of Tim Tim
    25. February 2013 at 09:51

    I’d say that all the Miyazaki films are worth a look. “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away” especially. Note – “That Cat Returns” with the English language version has the lead character’s voice supplied by Anne Hathaway.

    Barry Lyndon is flawless.

  18. Gravatar of Leftbridge Leftbridge
    25. February 2013 at 11:34

    “Barry Lyndon” flawless? I haven’t seen it since its first run, but I thought Ryan O’Neal to be completely unequal to the material. Now, I admit to loving Magnificent Ambersons despite having grave reservations about Tim Holt’s acting, but I wouldn’t call MA flawless. I’m anxious to give BL another chance, but I’ll be surprised if O’Neal’s performance turns out to be a virtue. Very surprised.

  19. Gravatar of John John
    25. February 2013 at 13:06

    I like the blog. Barry Lyndon is my favorite movie of all time. So now I like the blog in a new dimension. Thanks!

  20. Gravatar of Tim Tim
    25. February 2013 at 13:44

    Leftbridge – IMHO Barry Lyndon is one of the very few times when Mr. O’Neal is exactly right for the acting job. I cannot think of anything that should be changed in Barry Lyndon so I think it’s flawless. I hope you get to watch it again soon. Now let’s talk something like “Saving Private Ryan” containing brilliant D-Day warfare scenes and also material that could be simply chopped out and the film would improve (like the ending – would have been so much better without the bit in the graveyard with the now elder private Ryan asking if he’d been a good man – Spielberg just cannot stomach a bit of mystery about who the guy is in the graveyard – every possible question has to be answered – usually with swelling musical accompaniment) Let’s call them Jar Jar Binks moments – based on the horrible Star Wars character – infamous film material that can be cut and the only result is improvement in a film. There are no Jar Jar Binks moments in Barry Lyndon.

  21. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. February 2013 at 14:19

    Todd, Good point, I suppose I meant that a lot of movie buffs like me had never heard of him.

    Ted, Great comment. I entirely agree with the second half of your comment. As you know, the American press will never cover directors like Kiarostami.

    I like Tarantino, but I see why many others don’t. I like everything Kubrick’s done (although I haven’t seen his first two films.)
    I’ve been surprised how many people here like Barry Lyndon. Obviously I do as well, but I recall hearing all sorts of criticism back in the 1970s. You are the first movie buff I’ve ever met who didn’t think the two Godfather films were great. But I can’t deny you have excellent taste in other areas.

    Tim, Spirited Away is great.

    Leftbridge, Ryan O’Neal? That’s the big question, isn’t it? Can an empty-headed actor play an empty-headed scoundrel? Even after seeing the film again I’m still not quite sure. How would someone else have done with the role?

    It seems to work for Kubrick. Remember how bland the astronauts in 2001 were?

    Thanks John.

  22. Gravatar of Leftbridge Leftbridge
    25. February 2013 at 16:18

    Speaking of feet of clay in Spielberg movies, Schindler’s maudlin groveling apology at the end may be perfectly accurate historically, for all I know, but boy does it not work.

    Back to O’Neal, I can’t see that anyone would have found him charming, and there are scenes in which that is presumed, but certainly not shown. I think it is a slippery slope when you try to interpret inadequacy as a virtue.

    Way back when, I, myself, have tried to justify another controversial bit of casting from the 70’s, which led to Ridley Scott’s first movie being lightly regarded, even for those who didn’t find the “pictorialness” overripe. Harvey Keitel’s lower class Napoleonic Duellist was universally condemned for his Brooklyn accent–we all know that the French lower classes speak with Cockney accents, after all. I’m inclined to believe that Keitel (along with 80 other completely unknown actors) would have been far better than O’Neal in Barry Lyndon. But we’ll never know. But if Barry Lyndon couldn’t have been made without O’Neal as part of the package, then good for him.

  23. Gravatar of Frederic Mari Frederic Mari
    25. February 2013 at 23:02

    I really really do not get why people like recent Tarantino’s.

    I mean, Inglorious Basterds was absolutely awful, with only Christoph Waltz’s character as a redeeming feature. Django Unchained was a lot better but, still, it doesn’t hold a candle to ‘Reservoir Dogs’ or ‘Pulp Fiction’. Ditto, why oh why people like ‘Kill Bill’ is beyond me.

    ‘Skyfall’: The poster who mentioned that James Bond is oscillating between James Bond and Bourne is spot on. I am in favour of the franchise being more Bourne-like but that’s a personal choice. However, I thought Skyfall fell very short of the 2 previous ‘Denis Craig’ Bond movies. The baddie was fairly weak, with implausibly good IT skills (we’re meant to believe that, if you’re good enough, you can engineer/manipulate anything with a computer?) and his personal vendetta not so interesting. IMO, continuing the Quantum storyline would have been a far superior choice.

    Besides, I don’t appreciate re-setting things with regards to ‘M’ (though that’s tolerable) and especially ‘Moneypenny’. There’s nothing wrong with ‘Eve’. Don’t call her ‘Moneypenny’ on top for cheap re-transitioning.

    I think they’d have been better off in terms of continuity in suggesting that ‘Bond/007’ is just an off-the-shelf-like identity that MI6’s top agent provocateur use to dissimulate their identity till, well, retirement or death. Basically, the equivalent of ‘M’ and ‘Q’. That would allow for evolving the franchise and changing actors while keeping the continuity…

  24. Gravatar of JVM JVM
    26. February 2013 at 01:23

    Honestly for me this year I think I was disappointed by every single film I saw. I actually enjoyed the Hobbit because I went in with minimal expectations. It boggles my mind why people don’t think Silver Linings or Argo were more than competent but formulaic takes on a romcom and a thriller respectively. Mediocrity was well rewarded at the Oscars, even Brave took one!

    I liked Django and Skyfall but I thought they both ran out of ideas in their respective last half hours.

    Despite its flaws, Beasts of the Southern Wild was the real stand-out for me.

  25. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. February 2013 at 08:08

    Leftbridge, You are probably right about O’Neal. I haven’t read the novel, so I have no idea how charming he was supposed to be. In the film he never seemed like a real person, just a caricature–but that’s often true in Kubrick films.

    Frederic, I liked Kill Bill-although I can’t explain why.

    JMV, Good points.

  26. Gravatar of Leftbridge Leftbridge
    27. February 2013 at 12:41

    Quick follow up, I decided to read Barry Lyndon before seeing the movie again. I’m only 15 pages in, but so far it seems similar in tone to the first person ramblings of a Flashman-like character. Lots of levels of irony, self delusion and outright fabrication (dare I say, “blarney”?), but some repellent charm as well. Of course, the movie didn’t have to be faithful to the book, but Kubrick may just have made really good lemonade, having been presented with a lemon.

    Within the levels of irony, there seems to be (but I can’t say for sure yet) a fond send-up of the 18th century novel (a la The Sot-weed Factor) that may get a little lost on us because Thackeray himself is so remote in time.

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