Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Just look at the body of work. His first film, Spanking the Monkey, is a dark comedy/drama about a college kid home for the summer who has an incestuous relationship with his mother. If my hazy memory is correct, the movie fits pretty comfortably in the '90s indie youth movie template with its pop culture dialogue, teen angst, and forced transgressive subject matter. He followed it with Flirting with Disaster, a screwball comedy heavily indebted to Woody Allen; Three Kings, an action-adventure/political satire hybrid that was much more visually stylized than his previous work; I Heart Huckabees, a derivatively ambitious but ill-fated attempt to make a Charlie Kaufman movie without Charlie Kaufman; The Fighter, a gritty '70s-style drama/biopic about boxer "Irish" Micky Ward and his large, screwed-up family; Silver Linings Playbook, an overly sentimental but cute clusterfuck of Sidney Lumet street drama and Frank Capra meets Howard Hawks romantic comedy; and American Hustle, his watered-down, easy on the blood version of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and Casino and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. Again, my question. Who the hell is this guy?
I was entertained by American Hustle without being moved, and it barely lingered in my memory afterward. Before I get into why that might be, I've got a few other bones to pick. The first is not Russell's fault, so maybe I should let it slide, but this is my blog and I feel like complaining about it. Mainstream critical consensus about this film was pretty favorable, with many newspaper and television critics calling it one of the best of the year. I disagree, but they're entitled to their boring, predictable groupthink. (I love everybody.) What stuck in my craw was the way so many critics used this film as a cudgel to beat Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. More than one critic actually wrote that Russell "out-Scorseses Scorsese." I'm speculating, but I think too many newspaper and TV critics are lazy viewers dazzled by wigs and hit songs, and they like films that pretend to grapple with a serious subject while actually offering easily digestible flash and candy. The flash and candy films make you think you've thought about something or had some kind of intimate experience without all that troubling self-examination and conscience rustling.
Let me get down from that soapbox and step on another one. There's a real arrogance to calling a film "American _____," but that hasn't stopped a boatload of middlebrow filmmakers from doing it. Intentionally or not, if you call your movie "American Blank," you're making a claim that your film has captured something vital about a feeling, attitude, behavior, fantasy, dream, etc., of an entire country, when usually, you've just captured something obvious about upper middle class white suburban families or sexy white teens or attractive crime film cliches (American Beauty, American Psycho, American History X, American Gangster). (Notable exception: American Ninja really captures the U.S. ninja experience, in all its multiplicity.) Or maybe you feel you're approaching your film's subject in a particularly American way when you're just offering more Hollywood provincialism. Sometimes, it's warranted (American Splendor, based on Harvey Pekar's comic of the same name, Chris Smith's double whammy of American Job and American Movie), but most often, it comes across as hubris.
Playing devil's advocate with myself (that sounds dirty), though, I can see American Hustle capturing at least a partial tenor of the times. What with all this Throwback Thursday business and popular music and fashion and advertising constantly repurposing '70s and '80s and '90s culture, the film's overbaked period '70s setting and its exaggerated wigs and clothes and wall-to-wall '70s radio hit jukebox clowncar soundtrack exemplify this country's cultural obsession with nostalgia. And Russell's attempt at a '90s Scorsese/P.T. Anderson gliding-camera, music-packed, stable-of-favored-actors ensemble sprawl is a classic American move, an I-like-that-successful-thing-I-will-make-my-own-cheap-knockoff party.
It's such a thin film compared to the work of Scorsese or Anderson, but it's fun. While those guys use carefully chosen music as point, counterpoint, and commentary about the characters and events in their films, Russell inelegantly throws a nonstop barrage of big hits from the period at the screen as an easy way to churn up emotion, nostalgia, pep, and entertainment. It's fun. The cameo from Robert De Niro is way too on the nose, but it's fun. I'm still not sure what I think of Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, for all the praise she got for this part, is pretty wasted here, but I thoroughly enjoyed Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Louis C.K. in their roles. This movie, it's fun. That's all it is, though, with plenty of self-importance and peacock-feather pomp sitting on top like donut sprinkles. It's candy pretending to be a meal.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. This is a first-impression culture, and the film is hardly sunshine and lollipops, but I just can't relate to these reactions. Yes, the film is melancholy, with a mournful, autumnal quality to the cinematography, and many of the characters carry sadness, bitterness, and anger with them like a security blanket. And, yes, Llewyn Davis eats a lot of shit, which is sometimes his fault and sometimes not, and he can be selfish, self-absorbed, and cranky, but he's got plenty of good qualities, not least of which is his stoic acceptance of all that shit-eating while he carries on doing what he does. In this determination to continue, Llewyn Davis is an unconventionally optimistic figure, and the Coens are unconventionally optimistic filmmakers. They know the odds are not generally in our favor, they know the world is an uncaring place, they know that bad stuff is going to happen and happen often, and they know that even the best of us are fools, but surrounding that pessimistic landscape is an optimistic frame of great humor, determination, and a what-the-hell-else-are-we-going-to-do acceptance. Their films remind me of my grandfather's dog Jake (he should have acted in one of their movies), a grouchy, ill-tempered, heart-of-gold mutt with an overbite and fur that looked and felt exactly like steel wool. Jake refused to die on multiple occasions out of stubborn determination. Every glance at Jake was accompanied by a complicated swirl of emotions and opinions, a casserole of fear, affection, admiration, trepidation, pity, and humor. He was ridiculous and funny to look at and to think about, but he was often in on the joke. (The films are quite a bit more visually elegant than that dog, but you get the idea.)
The Coens are often accused by detractors of looking down on their characters and whipping up a smug superiority in their audiences by encouraging them to laugh at the buffoons up on the screen. In a few of their weaker films, this is uncomfortably close to being true, but I generally tend to disagree with this criticism. They've populated their films with a complex variety of characters and encouraged a diverse range of responses, reserving their largest stores of warmth and affection for the most buffoonish. When we laugh at a Coen character, we're laughing at parts of ourselves, and though there is a distance between their characters and the audience, it's not a distance that separates them from their humanness. The Coens aren't particularly emotional filmmakers, and there's a control-freak aspect to their formal style (especially in the early films), but they're not cold, either. They clearly love their actors, and there's always an element of real human emotion and experience in every character, even the most exaggerated and cartoonish. (Anton Chigurh is a big exception in No Country for Old Men, though his narrative function is to draw all-too-human reactions from everyone else). Inside Llewyn Davis feels like one of their most human, direct films, without the cartoon exaggerations or genre-exercise layers of protection they often put between themselves and their audience.
Set in the early-'60s Greenwich Village folk scene that nurtured (and sometimes hindered) Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, the Kingston Trio, et al., Inside Llewyn Davis takes its overcast autumn cinematography from Dylan's Freewheelin' cover and several of Llewyn's experiences from Van Ronk's autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Music is integral to the film, but it's not an inside-baseball, record-collector's movie. I think it's a film about how to manage the day-to-day minutiae of living while dealing with grief and about how much indignity and shit-eating you have to endure if you want to pursue a career in music (or any of the arts) and you're not a huge success. This may sound like a drag to watch, but it isn't. The film is very funny, full of good music, tightly constructed, and sensitively and entertainingly performed.
In those films, Barton Fink and Larry Gopnik contend with setbacks in their careers, bad luck and misfortune thrown at them by a dark and uncaring world, and struggles and clashes with fellow members of their cultural and Jewish communities. Like Barton, Llewyn is a struggling artist trying to succeed creatively who butts heads with the commerce- and entertainment-minded people who run the business side of things, and his prickly disposition makes him few friends. Like Larry, Llewyn is a sharp guy who's in over his head when life pummels him with random acts of misfortune and indignity. There are some sharp differences, though. Barton is a bit of a fraud, a pompous, pretentious pseudo-intellectual who condescends to and barely understands the working classes he considers it his leftist duty to write about while Llewyn is a genuine talent with a deep love of the music he plays. Barton compromises his ethics by writing a wrestling movie for Wallace Beery while Llewyn suffers many indignities by choosing to go his own way. Larry Gopnik, meanwhile, is a far more frenetic and neurotic character than Llewyn, desperately wanting to know why he's being tested while Llewyn sighs, groans, and accepts it. It's also important to note that Llewyn is a solo artist because his former singing partner has recently committed suicide. Llewyn's grief is never overt, but it informs and haunts the entire film. He's carrying a burden that Barton and Larry don't have yet.
Tonally, as well, Inside Llewyn Davis is a far different film than Barton Fink and A Serious Man. While all three films play as fables, the earlier two are comedies so black they approach horror. They come across as nightmares, and they share a kinship with the early films of Roman Polanski. Inside Llewyn Davis is more naturalistic, more pragmatic, with characters that have stopped asking "why me?" and just continued on, but it's also dreamier, floatier, emotion and atmosphere turned into narrative structure. The film's cyclical narrative can be read as a pessimistic loop Llewyn is forever trapped in, as a flashback explaining what happened in the opening scene, or as a message finally making itself known to Llewyn, a message that could propel him out of the rut he's stuck in, an agent of change masquerading as avenging husband kicking Llewyn's ass for mocking his folk singer wife in a misdirected moment of drunken anger while Bob Dylan takes the stage for his debut. Your own disposition will make that choice for you.
The Coens have been on an incredible roll lately, and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of my favorites of both this phase of their careers and the whole filmography. I talked about Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, but the whole supporting cast delivers here, with special kudos to Carey Mulligan, Max Casella, F. Murray Abraham, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as Llewyn's patrons, and the welcome return of John Goodman to a Coen Brothers film, as a sour-tempered heroin-addicted jazz musician who shares a fraught road trip to Chicago with Llewyn. As a cat lover, I also need to mention the enjoyable presence of a very expressive cat (maybe two cats). Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography captures a look, mood, and feel that nails the tricky tone of period accuracy, drama and comedy, pragmatic reality and dreamlike reverie. I love this movie. It's not depressing and Llewyn Davis is not a jerk. Well, not entirely a jerk. He has his moments.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
There remains a big pile of Hoskins performances I still need to watch (including his work in British television, Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey, and Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales, the latter seemingly permanently trapped in distribution limbo in this country), but I can recommend his work in the following movies (he's pretty good in Nixon, too, but I have an intense dislike of Oliver Stone, so I can't recommend it):
The Long Good Friday (1980)
Pink Floyd The Wall (1983)
The Cotton Club (1984)
Mona Lisa (1986)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Paris, je t'aime (2006)
Thursday, April 17, 2014
Ms. 45 is Ferrara's second feature film (he directed several shorts and a porn film before making features), released in 1981 and out of print for years on video. Drafthouse Films restored and rereleased the film, first in theaters, then on Blu-ray and DVD. I'm glad more people have the chance to see it, because I think it's one of Ferrara's strongest, most consistent, most fascinating films and maybe his most successful marriage of exploitation and art, with a pretty amazing central performance from the late Zoe Tamerlis, or Zoe Lund, as she was also often billed.
A feminist response to the cycle of rape-revenge and vigilante films then in vogue, Ms. 45 maintains a consistency of purpose, tone, mood, and atmosphere while doing such varied things as parodying and critiquing the Death Wish and I Spit on Your Grave-style series of films, attacking the way men treat women as commodities, sexual objects, and fragile figurines, creating a visually expressive study of a sympathetic but disturbing character, capturing an impression of the alluring seductiveness, exotic strangeness, and sleazy, menacing hellscape of early '80s Manhattan, and satisfying its entertainment requirements as a grindhouse thriller. Ferrara's second film, it looks and feels more personal and accomplished than the more conventional handful of features and TV projects he completed in the nine years immediately following it, until 1990's King of New York saw him back at peak dreamy strangeness.
(SPOILER WARNING: I'm going to be talking about some important scenes in the movie, so if you don't want any story details spoiled, you may want to step off the train here.)
Tamerlis/Lund is Thana, a mute seamstress in a wannabe high-fashion firm in Manhattan. People make mistaken assumptions about her, condescend to her, and feel the need to protect her because she can't speak for herself and because she's shy, but she's a far more complicated, interesting person than her peers and boss notice. The movie does a great job in the first ten minutes of connecting the audience to Thana, creating a convincing, complex work atmosphere, and fixing the routine of her average day, its various locations (work, grocery store, apartment) and their spatial relationships. On her way home from work one day, Thana is grabbed from behind and pulled into an alley by a masked rapist (played by Ferrara). The rape scene is far from exploitative. While other rape-revenge films dwell on the act, relishing it and getting off on the sexual violence while pretending to be horrified, Ms. 45 keeps the scene short and focuses almost entirely on Thana's face, never letting the camera take the rapist's or leering observer's point of view. Instead, the audience shares her fear, pain, and trauma.
As the film progresses, Thana's actions become more troubling, creating a rift between viewer and character and a critique of our desires as an audience for violent revenge. Thana begins targeting all men indiscriminately, no longer giving them the chance to prove themselves misogynists, and she slowly changes from avenger to predator. In a spectacularly cinematic finale that skillfully marries performance, image, sound, and formal technique, Thana opens fire on every man at a Halloween costume party while dressed as a nun. The surviving men jump for cover, run, and hide, and it's a woman who ends Thana's descent into murderous revenge.
Ferrara's film is carefully composed and grandly expressive, raw and strange, an articulation of anger against the dehumanizing effects of violence, misogyny, and revenge that nevertheless understands the visceral thrills inherent in screen violence and the anticipation of violence, a film that is equal parts funny, horrifying, exciting, and painful. It still looks brand new.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Denis has astonishing range, but her body of work is cohesive, connected, and recognizably hers. Though the films are quite different from each other in subject matter, genre, tone, mood, and intensity, they share common structural and narrative traits, particularly their elliptical narratives and an emphasis on character over plot. Denis often begins her films in the middle of the action, thrusting the audience into the characters' lives before we know who they are, how they are related to each other, and why those relationships are important. Denis often ends scenes before giving her audience a firm grasp on them, and she plays with chronology without the typical markers viewers rely on for navigation when a director plays with the timeline. This can be initially disorienting, with a narrative that can be fragmentary and slippery, but an open-minded, active viewer will be rewarded in ways beyond conventional filmmaking's limited pleasures. I find myself more engaged and invested in Denis' films and characters than in the work of most other contemporary filmmakers, and I'm endlessly fascinated by their enduring mysteries. I leave the theater energized, alive with the possibilities of cinema and never drained, even when her films are emotionally distressing or disturbing (and Bastards is most definitely both of these things).
I'm afraid my description of Denis' films in the previous paragraph may make them sound like work, like a chore, or like that horrible phrase writer Dan Kois coined to describe his own limited imagination, "cultural vegetables," (i.e., art that is good for you but not pleasurable). Denis' films are full of pleasures, the pleasures of faces, bodies, landscapes, music, movement, light, shadow, vivid color, human behavior, storytelling, acting, and the ways these elements interact with each other. She knows how to look, really look, at almost everything, and her films value sensuousness and detached, careful, nonjudgmental observation over the sentimentality, bombast, easily defined characterizations, and manufactured emotions of mainstream filmmaking. Denis' characters are white, black, old, middle-aged, young, straight, gay, male, female, wealthy, middle class, poor, immigrants, colonizers, natives, rural, urban, leaders, subordinates, abusers, abused, open, withdrawn, violent, and kind, and Denis watches them all with the same detached, detailed understanding. I can't think of another director so capable of creating and observing so many different lives without a false note or a blind spot.
Setting aside the Denis films I haven't yet seen (No Fear, No Die; U.S. Go Home; The Intruder), I'm left with an amazing body of work: Chocolat (not the Johnny Depp movie), a semi-autobiographical, leisurely paced, sun-baked drama about a French girl's childhood in colonial Cameroon, with an emphasis on her interactions with the family's houseboy and its parallels and dissonances with France's colonial relationship to Africa; I Can't Sleep, a strange, exciting blend of eccentric ensemble drama and thriller about several different lives in Paris converging due to their mutual connections to a serial killer (or killers) of elderly women; Nenette et Boni, a love letter to Paris and young people with elements of drama, comedy, and suspense about a young man's reconnection with his estranged teenage half-sister after the death of their mother; Beau Travail, an avant-garde adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd with a complex visual structure that combines Denis' female-gaze aesthetic appreciation of the male figure's physicality and movement, the homoeroticism underpinning masculine ritual and macho conflict, the ghostly process of decolonization, and the complexities of male friendship and respect with one of the most incredible, unexpected, and ecstatic final scenes I've had the fortune to witness; Trouble Every Day, a violent, bloody, confrontational, and very physical take on the vampire myth and the horror movie, full of memorable, beautiful images; Friday Night, a deceptively light comedic romance about Paris, music, traffic jams, first dates, new attractions, and lust; 35 Shots of Rum, a finely detailed character study of the friendship between a widow and his adult daughter and the fellow apartment building residents, on-again/off-again romantic partners, and coworkers that dip in and out of their daily lives, inspired by the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu; and White Material, another look at the messy end of French colonialism in Africa, this time in the guise of a violent, neo-noir thriller. I love every one of these films.
But before these ideas even took shape, Denis just wanted to work with actor Vincent Lindon again. Denis is loyal to collaborators, often using Agnes Godard as her cinematographer and the British band Tindersticks as the composer of her films' scores (they return for Bastards), and she's amassed an impressive troupe of returning actors (Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankole, Beatrice Dalle, Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin, Vincent Gallo, Alice Houri, the late Yekaterina Golubeva), but until last year, Lindon was on the equally impressive list of actors Denis has only worked with once (Isabelle Huppert, Denis Lavant, Ingrid Caven, Francois Cluzet, Christopher Lambert, Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurore Clement). Lindon was the co-star of Denis' lightest film, Friday Night, along with French pop singer Valerie Lemercier, and he's the sympathetic center of Bastards, Denis' darkest.
Bastards is sometimes hard to watch and harder to shake and should be approached with caution if you or a loved one have ever been the victim of sexual abuse, but I have no reservations about calling it a great film. Denis is working at her peak formally and stylistically, and I can't find words that will do her images justice. The film, though difficult and at times emotionally disturbing, is also dreamy and seductive, haunting and menacing. The actors commit to their parts honestly and intensely. Tindersticks come up with one of their most successful scores, finding a sonic correlative to the film's contradictory powers of seduction and menace, unease and allure. Not even a pinhole of light pushes through this time, but Claire Denis has made another vital, living film.
I've embedded my favorite piece of Tindersticks' music from the film, their transformative cover of Hot Chocolate's disco-pop song "Put Your Love in Me," below because I think it does a better job of capturing the feel of the film than my fumbling attempts to describe it.
Sunday, March 02, 2014
Night and Fog (1955)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Mon oncle d'Amerique (1980)
Same Old Song (1997)
Wild Grass (2009)
Any omissions above are absent only because I haven't seen them yet.
Friday, February 28, 2014
While Nebraska sees Payne return to the familiar territory of his home state (and mine), in most other ways the film is a step away from his comfort zone. It's his first film in black and white, his first to be shot digitally, his first film not based on a novel since his debut (Citizen Ruth) in 1996, and, perhaps most importantly, his first film without a credit as one of the screenwriters. (His first four films were written with Jim Taylor, and his last with the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.) Though it may seem an odd statement coming from a guy who prefers directors who also write their films, I sometimes think filmmakers can benefit from taking a step away from the writing process once in a while as a way to change stale patterns, take on new challenges, and devote more time to the visual, structural, and performance aspects of their work. Payne made huge strides as a visual stylist with The Descendants, but the screenplay was mushy. Here, working from an original screenplay by fellow Nebraskan Bob Nelson, Payne reconnects with the foundational aspects of his body of work and its subjects and obsessions.
A father/son road trip movie that takes its two leads from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska but spends most of its time in the fictional rural town of Hawthorne (several small towns near Lincoln provide locations), Nebraska is either a comedy made from the parts of drama, with the humor coming from nearly every character playing the straight man, or a drama carved out of the inherent comedy of human wants, needs, and behavior. Payne's actors nail the tone, and they actually look and sound like people from the Great Plains chunk of the Midwest (well, some of them really are). Payne was pressured by the studio to put big movie stars in the film and make it in color, which would have turned it into a cartoon. He stuck to his plan, though a color print was also struck to keep the studio off his back. (Payne says he hopes that version never sees the light of day.) Instead of bright, shiny movie stars and their gigantic personality machines, Payne's leads are veteran character actors Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach, given deservedly meatier parts than they've had in years, and comedic actors Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk in straightforward, serious performances where the laughs mostly come from their practical responses to ridiculous situations. Payne also brings back June Squibb (About Schmidt), a stage actress whose film career primarily consists of bit parts, as Dern's foulmouthed wife. A mix of character actors and nonprofessional locals make up the smaller parts.
I've read critics from large cities and both coasts who think Payne is laughing at the expense of his characters, and I can understand that misconception. As someone intimately familiar with what Payne (from Omaha, but interested in the entire state) and screenwriter Nelson (from South Dakota, but raised in rural Nebraska) are showing in this film, I don't see that condescension or elitism. There is a sadness, an unintentional humor, a dignity, a pettiness, and a ridiculousness all sharing space in the lives of any human being, but small, rural towns have their own highly specific version of this combination. Payne nails it visually, and Nelson writes it as only a native could. It's almost never captured on screen, and the fact that it has been captured here is valuable to me, and I hope to others who share my background. Small towns in films are usually depicted as havens of cornball virtue, backwoods horror shows full of inbred cretins, or conventionally strange suburban-sanitary fantasylands populated by harmlessly "quirky," nonthreatening eccentrics. This one rings true.
If the film were just an accurate portrayal of a segment of small-town life, I wouldn't be praising it quite so highly, but it's equally impressive in its visuals and narrative structure. Payne here has captured some of the feel of a black and white John Ford film in a modern context, as well as Peter Bogdanovich's Ford-influenced black and white 1970s films, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. (Before any cinephiles jump all over me, I'm not suggesting an equivalency. John Ford is a master and Payne is simply a really good director, but if the reputation of William Shakespeare can survive all the comparisons to Oliver Stone (gag, vomit) when Nixon was released, the reputation of Ford can handle a comparison to Payne's film.) Ford's films often portrayed uncertain journeys undertaken by stoic men of few words, with deceptively simple shots and camera movements that contained great thematic weight and visual expressiveness. In Payne's 2013 update, the journey is uncertain, the men only say what they have to say, and the camera is deceptively simple yet expressive and tied to the narrative, but Ford's wagon trains, army camps, shanty towns, Monument Valley rock formations, teepees, rivers, and Western towns have been replaced by cheap apartments, small Midwestern houses, a speaker store in a strip mall, bars, pickup trucks, and nondescript restaurants and karaoke bars, and his outdoor vistas and horizons have been replaced by the faces of Dern, Forte, and Keach. And in using Dern and Keach and echoing Bogdanovich's echo of Ford, Payne also reminds us of how influential the key American films of the 1970s have been on his own work, and how that influence haunts the current cinema's CGI/teenage boy fixation like this film's setting and characters are haunted by their pasts. Dern and Keach never went away, and always do great work when they get the chance, but they got their best opportunities in the last decade when mainstream American films took chances and went after adult audiences: the '70s. (Since The Sopranos, television has since picked up the slack.) That history is all over their faces, and it adds a layer of authenticity, lived experience, thematic weight, and authority to what was already a very fine film.
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