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    Simply the Worst: Woody Allen's "Anything Else"

    We’re some forty years into the career of Woody Allen, America’s most consistent—and perhaps consistently undervalued—filmmaker, and it’s become almost impossible for cinephiles, and even casual movie connoisseurs, to abstain from participating in the annual combing-over of his oeuvre that accompanies his each new release. Which one’s the best? Which one’s the worst? How about a complete ranking from #1 to #41? (Spend five seconds on Google, and you’ll find a few.) It’s almost a sport. I recently passed a soused evening at a party separating the wheat from the chaff via pithy one-liners with a group of similarly Allen-versed comrades. It took...

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    RS 29—Race to the Finish: "Spellbound" and "Smile"

    Towards the end of Jeffrey Blitz’s independent 2002 documentary Spellbound, Alex Cameron, longtime pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, describes a quintessentially American belief in the power of work, repeating the familiar idea that with enough effort and desire, anyone can achieve anything in the United States. What he does not discuss explicitly, however, is the logical extension of this idea, that it is not enough to work hard, you must work harder—or smarter, or faster, or more cunningly—than those around you to succeed. What is hard work worth if you are not in some way better than the millions of other people who want the...

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    RS 29—Hearts and Minds: "The Station Agent" and "The World According to Garp"

    About fifteen minutes into Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent, the film’s protagonist, Fin (Peter Dinklage), walks into a convenience store near the train depot he has just inherited. The clerk is astonished to see the man—a dwarf—in her shop. As he heads over to a cooler to grab some water, she leans over the counter to get a better look. “Yoohoo,” she calls. He turns toward her; she pulls out a camera and snaps a picture. Annoyed, Fin nods and continues to shop, a nonchalant indication that the clerk’s reaction to her once-in-a-lifetime dwarf sighting is all-too-familiar to him. One could criticize this convenience store encounter as easy and...

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    RS 29—An Eponymous Affair: "Capote" and "Julia"

    The biopic occupies a strange place within contemporary cinema, independent or otherwise. Of the many released in the last decade, Capote is in my mind most notable for its understatement. And though the daisy chain of mononymous films can be traced back further than 1977's Julia, Fred Zinnemann's film based on playwright Lillian Hellman's memoir Pentimento provides a useful lens through which to view the current state of its extended cinematic family, especially Bennett Miller's 2005 portrait of the jet-setting author of In Cold Blood. Capote was neither the first nor last biopic so unimaginatively titled; recent films carrying on this tradi...

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    RS 29—America Is Watching: "Southland Tales" and "The Parallax View"

    “The pure products of America/go crazy”—William Carlos Williams Paranoia has been out of fashion in the movies since the 1970s. After Oliver Stone’s JFK, the last serious Hollywood-style entry of the post-Kennedy era to posit a hinky what-if conspiratorial scenario, Richard Donner’s execrable Conspiracy Theory, featuring a wild-eyed, motor-mouthed Mel Gibson, demonstrated how marginalized and discredited such tortuously convoluted mindsets had become to the mainstream. In the late ’90s, the American empire was flourishing, and world conflict seemed distant. The X-Files movie, created by Paranoiac-in-Chief Chris Carter, was more an homage to...

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    RS 29—Home Sweet Home: "Shotgun Stories" and "'night Mother"

    “It’s all that okra that she eats,” says ’night, Mother’s matriarch, Thelma Cates (Anne Bancroft), to her daughter, Jessie (Sissy Spacek), to explain why the older woman’s closest friend, an eccentric named Agnes, is the way she is. “You can’t just willy-nilly eat okra two meals a day and expect to get away with it. Made her crazy!” This is later revealed as a white lie—Thelma is trying to hide the fact that Agnes doesn’t come around because she’s simply spooked by Jessie (and her cold hands)—but what matters here is that it momentarily passes for truth: Okra is a staple in the town where Jessie and Thelma live, and local superstition suggest...

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    RS 29—Farmed Out: "Winter's Bone" and "Country"

    Both Debra Granik’s 2010 Academy Award–nominated indie thriller Winter’s Bone and Richard Pearce’s 1984 farm saga Country, the first release from Walt Disney’s Touchstone Pictures studio, and that year’s New York Film Festival opening night film, focus on families struggling to save their homes from seizure by government agents. Bone’s teenaged Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) acts as single parent to two younger siblings in the wake of her meth-dealing father Jessup’s disappearance and severely mentally ill mother’s slide into oblivion. One afternoon, bailiffs show up in the debris-strewn yard of their small rickety home threatening to foreclos...

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    RS 29—Sibling Rivalry: "You Can Count on Me" vs. "Crimes of the Heart"

    The family has always occupied an oddly supporting role in mainstream American cinema. It clucks disapproval or offers encouragement in romantic comedies/dramas and musicals, perennially playing second fiddle to a heterosexual romance. It exists to be endangered in many westerns and action/adventure films, both humanizing the tough male hero and allowing him to prove his abilities as a masculine protector. Even high-toned prestige pictures frequently view the family solely in terms of the influence it’s had on a single protagonist or couple. The daily experience of living with one’s parents, siblings, and extended relatives—within the same ph...

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    RS 29—Surface Tensions: "L.I.E." and "Firstborn"

    Forget about the clumsy and poorly executed chase scenes, the hideous worst-of-the-eighties synth-rock soundtrack, and the clichéd ending in which the nuclear family stands triumphant and intact inside their suburban paradise (or cage)—Michael Apted’s now largely forgotten 1984 Paramount Pictures melodrama Firstborn is, above all, a conservative Reagan-era tale. The paranoia of previous decades about the infiltration of external forces into the social fabric now took place in the realm of the picket fence and driveway. It anticipates a cycle of movies in the early 1990s, such as John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights or Curtis Hanson’s The Hand T...

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    RS 29—The Family Jewels: "The Squid and the Whale" and "Men Don't Leave"

    To begin with an admittedly eyebrow-testing proposition: Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale belongs in the “body horror” genre as surely as anything by David Cronenberg. For Baumbach, family is defined as the people who are witness to the humiliating moments stricken from your public persona, and so this extraordinarily close-quartered movie is coated with the embarrassing secretions of the polished, published, and articulate. At the family meeting where 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) already know their parents are going to announce their divorce, the moment is drawn out agonizingly: father Bernard ...

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