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The Films of David Cronenberg Ranked From Worst to Best

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The Films of David Cronenberg Ranked From Worst to Best
The Films of David Cronenberg Ranked From Worst to Best

David Cronenberg’s films don’t age. This is incredible when one considers the range and speculative nature of the material that often attracts the director, particularly during the first half of his career. Many low-budget 1970s and 1980s genre films are quaint now, but the years haven’t diluted Cronenberg’s early “body horror” films one iota, and, in many cases, time has intensified their outrage, which mixes the visceral with the cerebral in a fashion that’s distinct to the filmmaker. Cronenberg has subsequently worked in every genre, save, arguably, for comedy, though his films are reliably informed by a subterranean strain of mordant humor. He’s adapted a handful of notably subjective novels thought to be “un-filmable,” and he’s consistently wrestled with defiantly alienating subjects, often associated ambiguously with unconventional sex.

This agelessness springs from an uncommon authorial focus, directness and clarity, which is reflected by the films’ deceptively unfussy, nearly sculptural mise-en-scène (honed in significant part with a group of longtime collaborators). Cronenberg rarely strains for melodrama, never leans too heavily on the score when silence or diegetic noise will more effectively establish emotion or mood. The director never approaches shocking material as if it’s shocking, and this casually intellectual need to explore something, while reserving judgment in a manner that’s analytical yet human, is the very center of his cinema. Cronenberg’s greatest accomplishment, though, may be the mystery that tinges all of his films, which still, for all their thematic ambition, ultimately possess an element of unknowability. The weird pull of these films can be attributed to a contradiction: They’re the work of a literalist who’s determined to plumb the figurative.

Review: David Cronenberg’s Consumed

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Review: David Cronenberg’s Consumed
Review: David Cronenberg’s Consumed

Consumed is clearly the work of David Cronenberg. The novel suggests a print fusion of the filmmaker’s early, grungy, bluntly metaphorical work with the subtler, formally refined, classical elder-statesman films of his most recent period—and the contrast of those sensibilities allows for occasionally quite effective shocks. The prose is chilly and erudite, suggestive of Nabokov and, particularly, of Ballard, which will resonant with fans of the director’s Crash. In the tradition of those authors, Cronenberg sweeps you up in the pure power of his aesthetic command, coaxing your guard down so as to spring perversities that eventually cast the entire book in unsettling hues of twisted inevitability. Cronenberg isn’t moonlighting; he’s a real novelist.

Naomi Seberg and Nathan Math—the names are clues—are 21st-century yellow journalists who thrive on the instability culture of YouTube, Twitter, and TMZ. Nathan, who has aspirations to write for medical publications, is given to justifying his more exploitive story choices; Naomi, though defensive about her lack of intellectual bona fides, more instinctively gets off on the kill of nailing a scoop. Both of them, it’s explicitly established, are married to the endless variety of phones, cameras, and recorders that Cronenberg details with an agency that’s at once enticingly sexual, banal, and actively off-putting. The author frequently attributes human characteristics to the journalists’ tools of the trade, while assigning mechanical attributes to the humans themselves; as in his films, he’s equally repulsed and aroused by innovation as a pathway toward evolution that paradoxically dehumanizes our species. In an early seductive passage, a woman’s struggle to look upon Nathan is described as a “process so electromechanical that it seemed photographic.” A subsequent sex scene is writ so metaphorical as to slyly, deceptively, outline eventual late-act revelations:

Oscar Prospects: Cloud Atlas

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Oscar Prospects: Cloud Atlas
Oscar Prospects: Cloud Atlas

You won’t find Cloud Atlas on the top rosters of too many Oscar pundits, but at this stage, the alternately thrilling and unwieldy three-hour epic is the season’s closest thing to a wild card. Just as there are enough nasty reviews to ward off on-the-fence filmgoers, there are a whole lot of factors playing into the movie’s major nomination potential. The biggest—and most cited—benefit is the sheer ambition of Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings’ undertaking, which compelled the ever-influential Roger Ebert to call their baby “one of the most ambitious films ever made.” The whole project may be a very mixed bag in terms of artistic success, but most evaluators are at least somewhat united by the awe that it inspires, however fleeting that awe might be. The flaws of Cloud Atlas, which include a lack of profundity and clarity the filmmakers themselves seem unaware of, aren’t so bothersome when watching it, as the experience is a brisk and spectacular diversion. Even in his barely-positive critique, A.O. Scott observed that this “may be the most movie you can get for the price of a single ticket,” and despite a lackluster opening weekend, that virtue shouldn’t be counted out. This sprawling spiritual odyssey, which covers six genres in its translation of David Mitchell’s celebrated novel, should be taken seriously as a Best Picture contender, and not just a magnet for technical nods.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Kenji Fujishima’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Kenji Fujishima’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Kenji Fujishima’s Top 10 Films of All Time

In trying to whip up a Top 10 for this alternative Sight & Sound poll, I decided from the beginning to try to forgo any extra-cinematic considerations and simply go with 10 films that mean a great deal to me personally. There’s an implicit canon-building aspect to this particular exercise, and surely some would feel a need to take into account not only previous Sight & Sound poll-toppers (Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, , etc.), but also such things as historical importance in coming up with a list for posterity. But where’s the fun in that? Besides, screw posterity: I’m totally willing to admit, at the outset, the possibility that any of my favorite 10 below may decline in estimation over time, to be replaced by another film entirely that I may begin to appreciate more as I grow older. For now, though, these are 10 films that I could not part with in my life.

Language As Body Horror Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet

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Language As Body Horror: Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet
Language As Body Horror: Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet

It’s no hyperbole to say that language defines us as a species. It allows us to communicate on a level required to develop peculiarities like art, history, science, and religion, laying the way for our unique place among animals. In The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus imagines our species becoming allergic to this ubiquitous byproduct of its civilizations. In it, language becomes so toxic in all its forms that communication itself becomes a lethal plague that only children are immune to. One might imagine the result to be a descent into feral post-apocalypse, with humans becoming more overtly animalistic, but Marcus surprises with a truly strange, original vision of a post-linguistic world.

The novel is a first-person account told from the point of view of Sam, a husband and father. We see the unfolding epidemic through his eyes, from its early phases where children like his daughter Esther become the primary vectors, to the total societal breakdown that follows. Complicating things is the fact that Sam and his wife Claire are members of a deeply secretive sect of Judaism. These “forest Jews,” as they are known by detractors, keep their faith secret, worshipping around hidden “Jew holes” that transmit radio sermons from unknown sources, activated by inserting orange wires into bilious, bag-like conductive devices called “listeners.” This religion turns out to be of special interest to some once the language toxicity spreads.

No Room for Love: Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka

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No Room for Love: Andrzej Zulawski’s <em>Szamanka</em>
No Room for Love: Andrzej Zulawski’s <em>Szamanka</em>

A man meets a woman, and we’re not even five minutes into the running time of Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka before they are having sex on the floor of her rented apartment. Immediately thereafter, this man is revealed as an anthropology professor excited by the discovery of a mummified shaman. The primal act of sex and the mysticism of the strange religious-historical find are the engines that drive this strange, often hilarious, frequently brutal genre film. It’s an art film about sex and sweat, one that seems to have emerged from the guts as opposed to intellectual game-playing, or in the bleakly absurd streets of mid-1990s post-Communist Poland. It’s fast, frenetic and seems to have been made either by a young man bursting with fresh energy or an old man who films every moment as if he might never get another chance to work.

As it happens, both are kind of true. Zulawski was, in fact, middle aged and soon to cut his directorial career short in favor of writing books. He had not made a film in his native Poland since his work was banned in 1976, and he vowed never to work again under the Communist regime. Szamanka was an independently funded production outside of the state. Most noted in America for his “video nasty” horror project Possession, starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani as a married couple descending into a hellish spiral of rage and carnal despair (and that’s before the monster shows up), Zulawski’s work is often about the painful relations between men and women.

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2011: Top Floor, Left Wing

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Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2011: <em>Top Floor, Left Wing</em>
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2011: <em>Top Floor, Left Wing</em>

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the fact that Top Floor, Left Wing makes light of a hostage situation involving Muslim terrorists. What’s wrong with writer-director Angelo Cianci’s half-leaden, half-hysterical (and not in a funny way) farce is the way he takes the wrong things seriously and pokes fun of nothing worth laughing at. Unlike Four Lions, Chris Morris’s empathetic and genuinely funny comedy about suicide bombers, Top Floor, Left Wing pivots around the serious notion that there’s such a thing as defensible or simply respectable terrorist actions while laughing at the concept that the terrorist you don’t know is often more dangerous than the one you do. It’s a loud, incoherent, and completely unenlightening film about the way we live now, almost a full decade after 9/11.

The Conversations: Crash

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The Conversations: Crash
The Conversations: Crash

Jason Bellamy: In David Cronenberg’s Crash we are given a collection of characters with often overlapping but not always similar sexual fetishes. There are characters turned on by automobile crashes—either as foreplay or as self-contained experiences. There are characters turned on by pain. There are characters turned on by scars and disfigurement. There are characters turned on by the turn-ons of others. There are characters turned on by the prospect of being caught having sex in public and there are others turned on just by having sex in cars in public places, seemingly oblivious to whether anyone will notice. The film has sex. The film has nudity. The film has oddity. This is what Crash is. But what is Crash about?

Seeing the film for the first time since its 1997 release, that’s the question I asked myself over and over. What is this about? What is the meaning of this? Are these demonstrations of peculiar eroticism an ingenious metaphor or are they self-evident? Is Crash an examination of something or simply an exhibition? I suspect that our discussion of this film will repeatedly come back to these questions, but it seems this is where we must begin. And so I repeat: What is Crash about?