As I have explained, I try to judge the quality of a film by how perfectly it is made, rather than how much I enjoyed it. Those criteria closely overlap, because I find any near-perfect film a joy to watch. Now, just because a film is near-perfect doesn’t guarantee it will be emotionally gratifying. All of us take pleasure in films that reinforce our beliefs, or that tickle our egos, or that thrill us in any of the ways a person can be thrilled. We love to see deserving underdogs win, and bad guys get punished, and love triumph over adversity.

But not all great art plays on the brain’s promiscuous pleasure centers. What about Munch’s “The Scream?” What about the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby?” What about Michelangelo’s “The Pieta?” Like those works of art, great films can also express anguish, futility, or sorrow, achieving near-perfection without playing to the cheap seats. It may not be exactly great fun to watch “The Servant,” or “The Conversation,” or “Psycho,” but they are as close to perfect as film can be, and failure to appreciate them as such indicates, I think, lack of understanding of what art (in contrast to entertainment) is.

Those three are troubling films, as are so many great films. “The Godfather” also fits in that category, as do “The Graduate” and “Chinatown.” What makes all of them so disturbing are their endings, which, instead of rewarding viewers with anticipated storybook closures, spring traps of surprise ambiguity. It’s a difficult cinematic trick; many lesser directors have tried it and failed.

Endings are important. A poor ending can reduce a great film to a mediocre one. A great ending can raise a mediocre film to a great one. And, a great ending to a great film takes it into the pantheon of classics, where it resides with “Gone With The Wind” and “Some Like It Hot” and “Casablanca,” whose famous endings are anchored in the cultural landscape.

A great ending is not one that ties up the film into a neat little package, or one that makes the heart burst with joy. A great ending is one that dismisses the human need for perfect closure and refutes the need for it. It tells the viewer, “Look, the real world doesn’t operate like that, and we’re not going to lie to you and say that it does—but we’re going to give you something even better.” And then it does. With a few succinct words of dialogue or choice imagery, it suddenly presents the film in a new and unexpected context. A terrific ending to a film is rather like a terrific punchline to a joke—except usually it’s not funny.

All that aside, there are plenty of near-perfect films that don’t have classic endings. I’ve seen four of them recently, and I’d like to pass them along:

1. “Silent House” (What follow is the review I wrote for it on Netflix)

“Any true cinemaphile should rave over this little masterpiece. It only has six actors, and three of them hardly count. So, for 86 minutes you have pretty much just a girl and her dad and her uncle on the premises of a country home. The ONLY reason this works is because of Elizabeth Olsen, but that is the ONLY reason you need. This younger sister of the Olsen twins blows away every actress of the day (and I have great respect for a few of them). Keep in mind that the camera is close-up on her face for 80% of the film– yet there isn’t a moment when you dare look away. She is absolutely riveting. I’m not even a big fan of horror films — the only reason I rented this one was because of the strength of Olsen’s performance in “Liberal Arts.” And kudos to the filmmakers, who minimized everything else so Olsen’s dazzling talent could shine in its full glory.”

2. “Unconscious” (Spanish, 2004)

The setting is 1913 Barcelona for this mystery-farce-drama. I don’t know what else to say about it other than that I judged it near-perfect in execution. I won’t bother telling you the plot, because it won’t help you know whether you’ll enjoy it or not.  This is a bit of a wild card, but a superior one.

3. “Shattered Glass”

Based on the true story of Stephen Glass, the writer at The New Republic whose fiction-riddled articles shocked the publishing world in the 90’s, this is marvellously written and acted, with Hayden Christensen uncannily channeling Stephen Glass. If you liked “All The President’s Men,” you’re going to love this one.

4. “Searching for Sugar Man”

Wow! How it it possible to find a film that me, my wife, and our fifteen-year old son ALL rave about? This stunning documentary follows a story too incredible for it to be fiction. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Rodriguez recorded two albums in the early 70’s in Detroit. The records flopped—except in apartheid South Africa, where they bizarrely achieved near-divine status.  Then in the late 90’s, a couple of journalists there went searching for the truth about how the mysterious Rodriguez had died: did he really commit self-immolation on stage, or had he shot himself in the head before a booing audience? Skip the reviews and google searches and go straight to the film. If this movie doesn’t blow your mind, you haven’t got a soul. It’s an absolute must-see.

Every Move You Make, I’ll Be Watching You

It’s hard to grasp how much privacy has been lost in the past two decades.  Government and corporations, often working together, have made sure that nobody in the US can enjoy a private life anymore.  It’s almost impossible to avoid leaving a record of everything you say, everything you do, everywhere you go, and everyone you have contact with.  Most people don’t grasp how widespread the surveillance is.  Here are some of the types:

–  when you approach an ATM machine or bank teller’s window, your image is recorded for posterity.

–  when you use a credit or debit card, the transaction is recorded by the bank and the government.

–  wherever you take your cell phone, the NSA can track your movements.

–  your cell phone can be remotely turned into a microphone for the NSA to listen to background voices, even if it’s turned off.

–  your car’s computer system, if it accepts verbal input, can be remotely turned into a microphone, so an NSA analyst can listen to conversations in the car.

– your television, monitor, and webcam can be remotely turned on without your knowledge, and whatever they see or hear is transmitted to the NSA.

–  your car’s computer keeps track of where you go, the route you take, where you stop, and how long you stay—and the NSA can acquire the data if they want it.

–  Facebook keeps a shadow profile more extensive than the profile you provided, and its bots scour the Internet for personal details to add to that shadow profile.

–  the NSA keeps track of your phone calls, who you spoke to, for how long, and can record your conversations.

–  the NSA records all your e-mails, internet postings, chats, and web searches.

–  the NSA can remotely load spyware onto your cellphone or your computer undetectable by commercial anti-spyware, without you knowing.

–  in public places, you are watched by multiple cameras, your movements recorded.

I think that most people have some vague sense that such surveillance is going on.  They don’t worry about it too much because they don’t think that what they say or do is of any significance to the government.  In other words, they feel they have nothing to hide because they aren’t terrorists.

Let me point out, however, that the NSA has its own city complex in Fort Meade, Maryland.  It has fifty buildings filled with tens of thousands of employees.  And this complex, which is surrounded by electrified fences and anti-tank barriers and armed guards, is still not large enough for NSA purposes.  It is now adding another 227 acres to the complex, with another 1.8 million square feet of buildings, even its own power plant.  Nor will that vast size of a dominion suffice; on its drawing boards are two more phases of construction that will expand it into a mid-sized city.  Who is so naïve as to think that all this surveillance capacity is intended only for the purpose of catching the occasional shoe-bomber?

No.  This overarching cyberpower has two aims.  The first is to let the US to dominate the world in the same way that it dominated the world with nuclear weapons after WWII.  The second is to dominate the populace of the US and render impotent any efforts to limit its authority.  The NSA does not talk publicly about either of these aims.  Both, of course, are achievable if the NSA gets what it craves, which is total access to all digital information in the world.  If it can track everything that everybody is doing or has done—here in the US and in the rest of the world—it will be virtually omnipotent.  That complex in Fort Meade will have more power, more control over the lives of human beings, than all the combined empires of history.  It refuses to answer to us now, and it will certainly not answer to us then.

Now let’s address the argument that we shouldn’t care about any of this because we aren’t doing anything wrong.  On the face of it, that’s an absurd rationalization, because all of us do things that are wrong, as well as things that we’d prefer to keep private.  We are, after all, human.  There is no doubt at all that when J. Edgar Hoover attained so much power as head of the FBI, it wasn’t just that he knew where the bodies were buried; he also knew plenty that was happening that was merely embarrassing—who was gay, who liked to cross-dress, who was cheating on his spouse, who had a bastard child, who had a drug addiction, and so on.  But beyond the embarrassing things that we want to keep just between us and our spouses (or priests or therapists), all of us commit illegal acts as well.  Little acts, to be sure, but illegal just the same.  We tweak our tax returns, we make the occasional illegal u-turn, we exceed the speed limit, we download songs without paying for them, we jaywalk, we don’t pay income tax on garage sale earnings, etc.  It is impossible—literally impossible—to function in US society without breaking the law once in a while.

So asserting that total surveillance doesn’t matter to us because we’re innocent is a foolish claim.  What we mean is that we’re such insignificant peons that our little words and deeds aren’t worth exposing or prosecuting.

Let’s face it, that’s pathetic.  None of us are insignificant.  And even if we are unimportant, the principle at hand is not.  This is the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution that we’re talking about.  If there’s anything sacred in our materialistic society, it’s the Constitution.  That’s the only thing all of us in this country have in common.  Religion, language, education, ethnicity, socioeconomic status—these we differ in.  But the Constitution belongs to all of us and unites us all.  And the ongoing surveillance by the government is a horrific violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against search and seizure—with emphasis on search.   Even the FISA court, the judicial body created to keep an eye on the federal eavesdroppers, has issued an opinion admitting as much.

This matter isn’t about weighing a balance between safety and privacy.  The pundits get that wrong, and I imagine the government encourages dissent to be framed within those terms.  But the Constitution isn’t about safety and privacy.  The Constitution is about rights and powers.  And it says in no uncertain terms that the government can’t poke into people’s affairs without credible evidence that there is illegal activity going on.  Furthermore, before the government searches, it has to gain the approval of a judge—and I’m pretty sure that when the Founding Fathers wrote that clause into the Fourth Amendment they didn’t intend for secret courts to be created to approve secret searches based on secret testimony by secret witnesses in secret proceedings with secret judgments that result in secret sentences to secret prisons.  No, I don’t believe that’s what they had in mind at all.  No sir.

Suppose that you don’t care a tinker’s dam about the Fourth Amendment or the Constitution.  Suppose also that you’re as pure as driven snow and haven’t done anything remotely questionable in your entire life and don’t plan to start anytime soon.  Also, you abhor terrorists and wish they’d be all caught and transported to Abu Ghraib.  Is there any reason why you should oppose NSA surveillance?  As a matter of fact, yes, there is.  Here are three good reasons:

1.  When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, they passed new laws making illegal some activities that hadn’t been previously.  They made such laws retroactive, and set about prosecuting people who had been innocent, but now were guilty, even though what they did was legal at the time.  That could happen here as well, with some dramatic change in government.  You think retroactive laws are out of the question?  Not at all.  Our Congress passed a law giving retroactive immunity to telecoms that enabled illegal wiretaps by the Bush administration, protecting them against tort suits for damages.

2.  It isn’t what the NSA has on you that counts.  It’s what it has on others.  What happens if the NSA—even rogue analysts in the NSA—find some dirt on a Supreme Court Justice?  Or on the President, or his wife or kids?  What if another J. Edgar Hoover gains the reins of power in the NSA and decides the purge the country of political parties he dislikes?  What if he decides the genetic pool needs purifying, and he forces Congressional leaders into passing strict racial laws by threatening to expose their sexual proclivities?  What if the NSA decides to eliminate your son, the investigative journalist, so they remotely take over his car’s computer system and drive it into a tree at ninety miles an hour?  (By the way, they have the technical tools to do that and may have done it already.)  You see, it’s not just your secrets, or lack thereof, that matter.  It’s the potential leverage over elected officials and others who matter to you that surveillance hands over to an unelected and unrestrained bureaucracy.

3.  Sunshine is the best disinfectant.  A society needs to have open political debates—as well as a press that dares to find and expose wrongdoing and corruption.  But there can be no open debates in a surveillance state.  Let me offer a personal anecdote to make my point.  About a decade ago, I made a musing comment on a blog thread, to the effect that Ted K. (who was the Younib*mber), might have been ahead of his time.  A few minutes later I got an e-mail from someone I didn’t know.  This person thanked me for my thoughtful comment and asked if I posted my writings anywhere else on the internet, because he would like to read more.  That had never happened to me before (and it has never happened since) and it freaked me out.  It seemed obvious to me that I had tripped a red flag by mentioning the name of Ted K.  I replied to the e-mail, inquiring if he was NSA, and emphasized that I did not agree with Ted K’s methods.  The person answered, breezily making light of my query about his identity, and repeating his request.  After another attempt to draw me out, he gave up.  Ever since, I’ve been wary about using words that are likely to bring attention from federal agents whose attention I really don’t want.  Did I do anything illegal, or even embarrassing?  Not at all.  Yet the mere hint of surveillance had a chilling effect on my expression of political opinions.  And that is what makes surveillance so cunning.  Once people know they’re being watched and listened to, they police themselves.  They stop voicing views that don’t parrot the government line, and if there’s a taboo subject they’ll pretend it doesn’t exist.  By cultivating the belief that everyone is being watched and listened to, the KGB or the Stasi—or the NSA—can keep even law-abiding citizens in a state of anxiety.  Freedoms are gone when that point is reached, expunged by the mere threat of surveillance.

Realistically, we can’t stop the growth of surveillance technology.  These new and frightening tools are inseparable from the new weapons of cyberwarfare, which are being deployed as well.   The rationalization will always be that if we (meaning the US) don’t develop cyberwarfare technologies, other nations (Iran, Russia, China) will, and they then will use the cyberweaponry against us because they “hate us for our freedoms.”

However, it is absolutely imperative that this unconstitutional domestic surveillance be curtailed—immediately, implacably, and irrevocably.  Neither the NSA nor the FBI nor any other classified bureaucracy can be allowed to listen and watch what every citizen is saying and doing.  If it continues, we in this nation will no longer have any freedoms for the terrorists to hate.  And although it may not be exactly the victory that the terrorists wanted or what they expected, they will nevertheless have won.


Great Movies

There are lists online of the 100 Greatest Films of all time.  The American Film Institute has compiled theirs; Rotten Tomatoes offers another; and Entertainment Weekly offers another.  There’s overlap in these lists, but they’re far from being identical.

The lists differ because there are so many noteworthy movies and weighing their relative value gets a bit arbitrary.  It’s not even possible to agree which elements define greatness, let alone on how well any particular movie expresses those elements.

What the typical movie-goer means by “great” is that the movie made him feel good, but there has to be more to greatness than that.  What the film historian means is that the film is “important,” in the sense that it proved culturally expressive or affective, but that isn’t a fair criterion.  What the movie reviewer means is that you’ll like the movie and won’t regret having shelled out ten bucks to see it, but that alone doesn’t establish greatness, either.

Two measures of greatness matter to me.  The first is whether I can enjoy watching it again and again.  The second is whether the movie comes close to being perfectly made.  Sometimes the two measures go hand in hand, but not always.  I’ve watched Goldfinger twenty times and I’d never claim that it’s any artistic masterpiece (although the title sequence is).  On the other hand, Oliver Twist (with Alec Guinness) is near-perfect, but I’m content with having seen it just once.

I do have favorites that qualify by both measures.  Groundhog Day comes to mind, and The Godfather and Miller’s Crossing and North by Northwest.  I am forever bewitched by American Graffiti, mesmerized by Network, and enchanted by Casablanca.  I love the surreality of Barton Fink, the anarchic joy of Animal House, the ruthlessness of The King of New York, the timeless innocence of War Games, the unpretentiousness of Red Rock West.  Although I’ve watched all of these at least a dozen times, with each viewing I catch nuances in them that I hadn’t noticed previously.  They are great movies by both of my criteria.

Keep in mind that film is far, far more complex than other forms of art; complete perfection may be impossible.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a perfect movie, although museums are full of perfect paintings and sculptures.  The only film of those I mentioned above that might actually be perfect is Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers 1930’s gangster offering.

And it’s worth noting that it’s even more difficult to make a perfect comedy than a perfect drama.  That may explain why comedies rarely win Academy Awards for best film.  Annie Hall garnered a Best Picture Award, but Hollywood fawns over Woody Allen.  In 1964 Some Like it Hot wasn’t even nominated, although it’s considered by some the greatest film comedy of all time.  So you have very funny movies like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Without a Clue and When Harry Met Sally which are great by comedy standards but don’t make it into the Best 100 Films lists.  Comedies are just not taken seriously, because they can’t approach perfection in the way that a drama does.

Over the past several years I’ve rented hundreds of films from Netflix.  I rarely bother with a movie that doesn’t earn at least three stars (out of five) from the Netflix viewers.  Although I’m seldom disappointed with my picks, occasionally I’m gratified to come across what I consider a near-perfect film.  Many of these are Hollywood hits that I’d never gotten around to before, like Master and Commander, Fight Club, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Gangs of New York, The Pianist, Hugo, The King’s Speech, and Apocalypto—great movies, all of them.

But a lot more are indie or foreign films, or Hollywood feature films that slipped through the cracks without catching the attention of a distracted public.  Some of these are off-beat, a few are older films, but all are great in the sense that they’re just about perfect.  For those of you who are looking for something better than the generic and formulaic crap you usually end up with, here’s the list.  Print it out and give these gems a chance!


The Killers (1964 version)

The Lady from Shanghai


The Girl on the Bridge

The Lives of Others

The Orphanage

Tell No One (French film)


The Kingdom

Street Kings


In Bruges



Mr. Brooks

Requiem for a Heavyweight

Adam’s Rib

Hard Candy


The Boxer

The Last Picture Show

Baby Face

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish version)

Point Blank (2010, French)

Stage Beauty

The Next Three Days

The Fighter

The Method

City Island


Enemy at the Gates