A User’s Guide to Essential Anthology Films

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This Friday marks the theatrical release of V/H/S, a chilling and genuinely effective found-footage anthology from directors Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence. (It’s available on demand now.) As scary and unnerving as it is, however, it does fall prey to the seemingly inevitable pitfall of a multi-director anthology film: there are a couple of sections that simply aren’t as good as the rest of the film. When you think about it, it’s bound to happen; even if the filmmakers assembled are all talented, there’s a pretty good chance at least one participant will have difficulty conforming to the short form, or will have trouble measuring up to the others, or just might be off their game. As a result, very few completely great anthology movies have been made — most at least have a couple of segments that don’t fit.

But that’s the joy of DVD: in your living room, you can do the editing job that their fellow filmmakers were too polite to perform. After the jump, we’ll take a look at a few of the best-known multi-director anthology movies, and offer up some viewing suggestions for them.

Twilight Zone: The Movie DIRECTORS: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller WATCH: “Prologue” (Landis), “It’s a Good Life” (Dante), “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Miller) SKIP: “Time Out” (Landis), “Kick the Can” (Spielberg)

When reviewing Twilight Zone: The Movie on its original release in 1983, Roger Ebert surmised: “Spielberg, who produced the whole project, perhaps sensed that he and Landis had the weakest results, since he assembles the stories in an ascending order of excitement. Twilight Zone starts slow, almost grinds to a halt, and then has a fast comeback.” Ebert was right; Psycho author Robert Bloch, who did the novelization of the film (remember those?), reported that the script he adapted ended with Spielberg’s segment — which would have been disastrous for the film, since that twinkly, gloppy, maudlin mess was far and away its worst. That was the surprise of Twilight Zone — keep in mind, this was a big summer release in 1983, a year after the Spielberg double-whammy of Poltergeist and E.T. So kudos to Spielberg for wising up and closing the film with Miller’s gripping tale of a phobic flyer (a great John Lithgow) convinced that there’s a person, or a thing, on the wing of that airplane. Joe Dante, who Spielberg would reteam with the following year for Gremlins, created the film’s other great section, in which Kathleen Quinlan stumbles upon a very creepy family that’s a bit too enamored with their son. Though the brief prologue (with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks) that John Landis crafted is a welcome kick-off, his full segment that follows — in which a bigot (Vic Morrow) finds himself on the receiving end of intolerance — doesn’t work at all, and that’s even without knowing about the notorious helicopter accident that killed Morrow and two young actors during production.

Four Rooms

DIRECTORS: Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Alison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell WATCH: “The Misbehavers” (Rodriguez), “The Man from Hollywood” (Tarantino) SKIP: “The Missing Ingredient” (Anders), “The Wrong Man” (Rockwell)

Like Twilight Zone, another occasion to skip to the second half. Rockwell came up with the idea of this omnibus collaboration as the four directors were working the festival circuit simultaneously in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs, El Mariachi, Gas Food Lodging, and In the Soup. (Richard Linklater was initially included as well, but dropped out before production.) By the time the film was actually made, Tarantino’s blockbuster Pulp Fiction success made it a much higher-profile project, which would have been great news for Anders and Rockwell if their contributions weren’t so terrible. Both are fine filmmakers, of course, but their segments are aimless, dull, and unfunny. Tarantino’s was rather unfairly dismissed — sure, it’s a piffle, but it’s got some witty moments, a great payoff, and a good slab of his distinctive dialogue comedy. Most critics agreed that Rodriguez’s slapstick segment was the highlight; “The Misbehavors” was a big departure from his action-heavy Mariachi and its follow-up Desperado, but was very much in the style of the short films he’d made with his brothers and sisters. It remains fresh and funny, even if it now serves as an unheeded warning of all the Spy Kids movies we’d be subjected to in the coming years.

Eros DIRECTORS: Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh, Michelangelo Antonioni WATCH: “The Hand” (Wong), “Equilibrium” (Soderberg) SKIP: “The Dangerous Thread of Things” (Antonioni)

This 2004 film assembled two of our most exciting contemporary filmmakers and one of the cinema’s true masters, and, alas, the master came out looking very badly indeed. Wong’s segment “The Hand” is a story of erotic repression and unrequited desire in his best tradition; Soderbergh’s “Equilibrium,” on the other hand, is quite unlike anything in his filmography, a black-and-white comedy sketch in a style reminiscent of Elaine May and Mike Nichols (one of the filmmaker’s professed idols). Both engage us, in very different ways, with their ideas about eroticism and the curious hold it has on us. Antonioni’s film is the most explicit of the bunch — by a long shot — but is oddly the least erotic; it’s full of naked flesh, but is so painfully dull that we can barely be bothered to pay attention. Contrary to Twilight Zone and Four Rooms, Eros front-loads its good stuff, so watch the Wong, stay for the Soderbergh, and then get out before Antonioni puts you to sleep.

New York Stories DIRECTORS: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen WATCH: “Life Lessons” (Scorsese), “Oedipus Wrecks” (Allen) SKIP: “Life Without Zoe” (Coppola)

If you’re going to get together three directors to make a New York anthology film, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better line-up than this one. But New York Stories wasn’t exactly catching each filmmaker at their finest moment; though Scorsese was between Last Temptation of Christ and GoodFellas, and Allen was about to make one of his masterpieces, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Coppola, on the other hand, was coming off of a very rough patch in the 1980s, and made the film as he was preparing Godfather III. Unsurprisingly, his is the weakest film of the bunch. Scorsese’s “Life Lessons” opens the picture, and it’s an electrifying portrait of an aging action painter clinging desperately to his muse, with wonderful performances by Nick Nolte, Rosanna Arquette, and Steve Buscemi, as well as a great script by Richard Price (and one of our all-time favorite Bob Dylan cues). Allen’s closer “Oedipus Wrecks” isn’t quite the equal of Scorsese’s short (or of the best of Allen’s other work of the period), but it has some big laughs and an ingenious premise, plus the added bonus of a bit role for a very young Larry David (above). But Coppola’s “Life Without Zoe,” which comes between them, is a sentimental bit of instantly-forgettable fluff, set in a New York that seems airlifted out of lesser movies from the 1940s. Most surprisingly, it was co-written by Coppola and daughter Sofia; the film’s poor reception may have discouraged her from continuing her work as a filmmaker and (unfortunately) doing some acting.

Love at Twenty DIRECTORS: Francois Truffaut, Renzo Rossellini, Shintaro Ishihara, Marcel Ophuls, Andrzej Wajda WATCH: Truffaut and Wajda SKIP: Rossellini, Ishihara, Ophuls

This French-produced 1962 anthology of romances from five countries is mostly remembered for Truffaut’s segment, “Antoine et Colette,” which found him revisiting the character of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) for the first time since The 400 Blows; Truffaut would make three more Doinel features over the next twenty years. It’s a charming film that captures the longing of the teenage years with grace and wit; Wajda’s film, a tale of attraction and misinterpretation, is also quite lovely. The other three are mostly undistinguished (yes, even the Ophuls); like New York Stories, Love at Twenty is a film best viewed only by its bookends.

If I Had A Million DIRECTORS: Ernst Lubitsch, Norman Taurog, Stephen Roberts, Norman Z. McLeod, James Cruze, William A. Seiter, H. Bruce Humberstone WATCH: “China Shop” and “Road Hogs” (McLeod), “Violet” and “Grandma” (Roberts), “Death Cell” (Cruze), wraparounds (Taurog) SKIP: “The Forger” (Humberstone), “The Clerk” (Lubitsch), “The Three Marines” (Seiter)

This 1932 anthology film collected Paramount’s biggest stars and most reliable directors around a clever but effective premise: a dying tycoon uninterested in leaving his money to his greedy relatives, selects eight random names out of the phone book and decrees that they shall each receive a check for a million bucks. Paramount circa 1932 was known for raucous comedy (Mae West, the Marx Brothers, and W.C. Fields were under contract) and the film’s best segments are in this tradition, particularly “Road Hogs,” a Fields/Alison Skipworth two-act directed by McLeod (whose credits included The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Fields’ It’s a Gift, and the Marxes’ Monkey Business and Horse Feathers) in which the pair buy a fleet of cars and use them to smash up rude drivers. The better bits tackle serious subject matter as well, however; Cruze’s “Death Cell” is haunting, and Roberts’ “Violet” — a pre-Code tale of a prostitute who takes her money, checks into the fanciest hotel she can find, and sleeps there alone — is a knockout. But “The Forger” and “The Three Marines” are clunky, and too impressed by their own irony, while “The Clerk” is far too much of a throwaway for a talent like Lubitsch.

Paris, je t’aime DIRECTORS: Bruno Poalydes, Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha, Gus Van Sant, Joel and Ethan Coen, Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, Christopher Doyle, Isabel Coixet, Nobuhiro Suwa, Sylvain Chomet, Alfonso Cuaron, Olivier Assayas, Oliver Schmitz, Richard LaGravanese, Vincenzo Natali, Wes Craven, Tom Tykwer, Gerard Depardieu and Frederic Auburtin, Alexander Payne WATCH: “Tuileries” (Coens), “Loin du 16e” (Salles/Thomas), “Porte de Choisy” (Doyle), “Parc Monceau” (Cuaron), “Quartier des Enfants Rouges” (Assayas), “Faubourg Saint-Denis” (Tykwer), “14e arrondissement” (Payne) SKIP: “Tour Eiffel” (Chomet), “Quartier de la Madeleine” (Natali)

For a film comprised of 18 shorts, the hit-and-miss ratio is surprisingly robust in Paris, je t’aime, the 2006 international production set in the City of Light. In fact, there are only two segments that don’t play at all: Sylvain Chomet’s insufferably cutesy tale of mimes in love (maybe you’ll like it if you’re one of those rare people who finds mimes irresistible), and Vincenzo Natali’s horror section, which is less bad than it is wildly out of tone. All of the other sections are at least worth seeing, though the highlights are probably the Coen Brother’s uproarious vignette of a Metro misunderstanding (with a great bit of deadpan work by Steve Buscemi), the Maggie Gyllenhaal-fronted mini-romance by Olivier Assayas (Carlos), and the film’s best and last section, Alexander Payne’s tale of an American taking a long-awaited Parisian vacation, a wistful and wonderful short with a rare leading role for the great Margo Martindale.

New York, I Love You DIRECTORS: Jiang Wen, Mira Nair, Shunji Iwai, Yvan Attal, Brett Ratner, Allen Hughes, Shekhar Kapur, Natalie Portman, Katih Akin, Joshua Marston WATCH: Particularly the Iwai, Attal, Hughes, Portman, and Marston SKIP: Wen, Kapur, Rattner

Paris, je t’aime’s art-house success led to something of a rarity: an indie sequel, this time taking the idea of an international cast and crew to the Big Apple. The results are similar — a couple of real dogs, a few gems, the rest middling. Chinese actor-turned-director Jiang Wen’s Tribeca section has promise, but is sunk by an incompetent (and self-conscious) Hayden Christensen performance, while Kapur’s piece is an overwrought, pretentious misfire. The must-skip section, however, is the one you’d expect; I’m not sure who thought Rush Hour director Brett Ratner was a good fit with this crew, but his sequence wastes several fine actors (James Caan, Anton Yelchin, and Olivia Thirlby) to basically tell an old, smutty joke. On the other hand, Natalie Portman makes a sparkling directorial debut, Shunji Iwai gets a good performance out of Orlando Bloom (something we’d presumed impossible), and, as in Paris, the strongest short is the closer: Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) simply follows Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman for an anniversary stroll. The pair are great together — they’ve got the rhythms of an old couple, or at least a vaudeville team — and they bring the uneven film to a warm conclusion.

Those are some of our favorite anthology movies — what are yours? Let us know in the comments!