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Nero fiddled. I watch movies. But it must be noted that I’m not the emperor.

Back in June of 2004 we began an alphabetical cinematic odyssey, and I’ve been posting my reviews ever since — though at a greatly reduced rate since Katrina. We cleared the letter ‘S’ recently, twenty-odd films in all. It’s taken a while to get these reviews posted, in part because of some crazed compulsion on my part to write something more substantive than the one-liners I’ve done in the past, at least for my favorites.

In fact, at this point we’ve also cleared T, U and V and are well into W, but it will be a while before I get those reviews together.

I’ve been very close to abandoning this little project because it seems so silly in the face of everything else we’ve been dealing with, but I’ve stuck with it because a) I’m crazed, b) I’m compulsive, c) I like to see things through to the end, d) I like to follow through on commitments even if they are silly and made only to myself and e) I actually enjoy this.

These were my favorites:

  • Top billing: Shaolin Soccer — 2001. Extraordinarily goofy and endearing Chinese film about martial arts monks with superpowers who play soccer. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Well, it’s twice as ridiculous as it sounds and ten times funnier than any comedy film I’ve seen in a while. The special effects are cheaply done compared to the state of the art coming from Hollywood, but this film proves a good story is far more important than a big CGI budget.
  • Seven Samurai — 1954. Akira Kurosawa is shaping up to be one of my favorite directors. With the exception of Ran (and to a lesser extent Red Beard) I’ve been blown away by every one of his films, and this one’s no exception. Its standing as a classic shines through in every scene, and I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before. Great story, great characters, great acting, great cinematography.
  • Short Cuts — 1993. I still think The Player is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, but it’s pretty mainstream. Short Cuts seems more representative of Altman’s distinctive, sprawling style. I’ve seen a few of his other films that fit that description, but this is my favorite by far. I loved the languid easy largeness of its narrative scope. This felt like an immersion rather than a viewing. A widescreen TV is really a necessity for a movie like this. Fortunately we got one with our flood insurance money. Hm. Maybe I should go back and watch Nashville again.

I also liked these, a lot:

  • Sullivan’s Travels — 1942. A disillusioned Hollywood director sets off to discover the “real” America. Even though this is over 60 years old it has a remarkably contemporary feel. It’s also damn funny.
  • A Soldier’s Story — 1984. At first this seems to be a murder mystery that just happens to take place in an all-black army platoon. But as the story develops, it’s actually about a dialog within the African-American community. Interesting food for thought, and a good story too.
  • Silkwood — 1983. Shenanigans at the local nuclear facility. Based on a true story. Really angrifying and sad. Meryl Streep is amazing.
  • Seven Days in May — 1964. Talky but good political thriller about a rogue general plotting to take over the United States.
  • Scenes from a Marriage — 1973. A six-part move from Swedish television by the great Ingmar Bergman. It’s an intimate portrait of a marriage, and their story is told through long dialogs, mainly between just the two of them. The first three installments are stellar, but I found the second half less compelling for a variety of reasons. There’s a shorter theatrical edit; most people recommend the television version as superior, but I wonder.
  • Spellbound — 2002. Excellent documentary about spelling bees. I think documentaries confuse people because they’re about real life. Fiction allows us a little distance, but documentaries make us a little uncomfortable. At least good ones do.
  • Soylent Green — 1973. Classic science fiction. Can’t believe I never saw it before.

These were OK:

  • Searching for Bobby Fischer — 1993. Chess wiz kid.
  • Seconds — 1966. What with the psychedelic cinematography and the science fiction themes and the presence of my main man Burt Lancaster, you’d think this would be at the top of the list. It’s a good movie, but a little slow in places.
  • Separate Tables — 1958. Reserved British people at a resort hotel. Somewhat stagey, but good performances all around, especially from David Niven.
  • Skokie — 1981. Dramatization of the true story about the Nazis plan to march in the Jewish community of Skokie Illinois. A little stiff, but the issues are fascinating.
  • Singin’ in the Rain — 1952. OK, this one has some great, great scenes. But the film between those great scenes is pretty thin.
  • Smothered — 2002. Documentary about The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
  • Style Wars — 1983. Documentary about the art and culture of graffiti.
  • Sweet Smell of Success — 1957. Gritty urban melodrama.
  • Swimming Pool — 2003. Artsy French fluff.
  • The Sunshine Boys — 1975. Matthau and Burns as grumpy old guys who used to be a Vaudeville duo but now hate each other’s guts.

Now we come to the films I didn’t like so much:

  • Silent Running — 1971. I like the message of this ecological science fiction story. The concept is actually stunningly depressing, and could have had great impact. But some of the acting is so overwrought that it becomes laughable, and in general the execution does not live up to the concept. And that Joan Baez soundtrack — ouch!
  • Smiles of a Summer Night — 1955. Um. This Bergman flick was just plain tedious.
  • Separate But Equal — 1991. The story of Brown vs. the Board of Education. An important topic, and an educational film. It’s informative but very stiff and ponderous.
  • The Singing Detective — 1986. A decidedly unpleasant series from the BBC, about a writer in hospital with a serious skin condition and a really bad attitude, intertwined with a fictional plot from the detective book he’s writing in his head and reminiscences from his painful childhood. Oh, and it’s a musical too, kind of. Sounds intriguing, yes? Unfortunately the ambition exceeds the execution. I wish I’d checked out the 2003 film with Robert Downey Jr. instead. I don’t think I’d have liked it any better, but at least it would have been shorter. For some reason I kept thinking my friend Paul Smedberg would like this. Not sure why — perhaps because it has a psychedelic absurdist edge to it. However, I couldn’t recommend it to anyone.
  • The Stunt Man — 1980. Artsy and ambitious but ultimately pretentious and rather boring.

As always, I hasten to note that great S movies like The Shawshank Redemption and Sherman’s March and The Shining and The Shop Around the Corner and Sideways and The Silence of the Lambs and Slacker and Solaris and Sophie’s Choice and A Streetcar Named Desire and Sunset Boulevard and The Swimmer aren’t listed here because I’ve already seen ’em. This project is about movies I hadn’t seen yet.

Published inFilm & Video


  1. So glad to hear that you were also underwhelmed by Singing in the Rain. The first time I saw this “classic,” I was amazed that everyone thinks it’s so great. To me, it looked like production numbers that were left on the cutting room floor of other movies, then strung together with as much cohesion as a Mardi Gras parade with rented floats.

  2. The Singing Detective Soundtrack is one of the best..Nothing like cheery depression era music to make you feel good while you feel bad.

  3. Ashley, I think that’s technically an “O” as in “Obchod na korze.” But is it really different from “The Shop Around the Corner”?

  4. Man, I didn’t know you spoke Czech.

    Ne, “Obchod na korze” neni “The Shop Around the Corner”. “Obchod na korze” se zameruje na krutosti nazistickeho Nemecka potoze film byl natocen kratce po valce. Za povsimnuti stoji, ze Slovaci byli nacisticti spojenci a Cesi nikoliv. Dne meho nazoru je tento film mnohem realistictejsi a kruty svou skutecnosti.

    In other words, I think “Obchod na korze” is a much more poignant film, as it was filmed after the war, and there’s no real Hollywood anywhere to be found. Also, don’t forget that the Slovaks (this is a Slovak film) were Nazi sympathsizers, as opposed to the Czechs.

  5. Damn, I was hoping you would actually review Sssssss (looked it up to see how many Ss); that’s one of my favorites.
    I agree about the Player (I actually own it, and I don’t have many movies), and I’ll see anything with Tom Waits; but don’t bother with Nashville if you didn’t like it the first time. I was so excited because I’ve liked about all of Altman’s films (the Company was torture though), and I wasn’t blown away. I don’t know if it doesn’t age well or I just didn’t get it, but it wasn’t nearly what I’d been led to believe.

  6. MF MF

    The SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is a great film. You’ll have a chance to see another excellent one, though — I heard THE HOST is opening all over the country and is a big hit. I’m not saying it’s a classic like SHOP, but I haven’t been this impressed and excited about a film in at least a year!

  7. Bill Bill

    Yes, you should watch Sssssss, and you should watch it as part of a double features with Frogs. Strother Martin in the former and Ray Milland in the latter — a double dose of killer reptiles & amphibians, with plenty of ham and cheese!

  8. Garvey Garvey

    I’m surprised you didn’t like “Singing in the Rain” more. It’s fast paced and funny. And the big multi-set-piece dance number is 10 solid minutes of the finest cinema ever produced.

    Totally OT, but Ashley’s assertion that the Slovaks were simply Nazi sympathizers glosses over quite a bit of history. And saying that, “as opposed to Czechs,” glosses over even more. Czechia wasn’t exactly the model of resistance–their 1000-year history of antisemitism was welcomed by Hitler.

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