Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Movies Of The Year: 1965

I put this off for awhile because I hoped to watch Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard first, after having owned the very nice Criterion DVD of it for several years. But it doesn't look like I'm going to get around to it anytime soon, and I can always add it to The Big List when I do finally watch it.

15. That Darn Cat! - One of the greatest movie titles of all time is this live-action Disney film about a crime-solving cat. The cast is remarkable: Disney stalwarts Haley Mills and Dean Jones star along with Elsa Lanchester, William Demarest, Frank Gorshin, Ed Wynn and Roddy McDowell.

14. The Sound Of Music - Julie Andrews stars as a singing nun who abandons God for Christopher Plummer and his obnoxious children. In turn, God sends Nazis after them. Directed by Robert Wise, who edited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, directed The Set-Up, The Day The Earth Stood Still, West Side Story and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. According to imdb, Christopher Plummer "likened working with Julie Andrews to 'being hit over the head with a big Valentine's Day card, every day.'" Sounds about right.

13. The Sons Of Katie Elder - Remade last year by John Singleton as Four Brothers, starring Marky Mark. John Wayne and Dean Martin reunite 6 years after Rio Bravo in this mediocre Western about some brothers avenging their parents. Also stars Dennis Hopper and George Kennedy. Directed by Henry Hathaway, who made true Grit, Niagara and a series of films noirs in the 40s (Kiss Of Death, Call Northside 777, The House On 92nd Street) that I haven't seen.

12. Repulsion - One of the most horrific experiences I've ever had watching a movie. Roman Polanski's film stars Catherine Deneuve as a disturbed young room left alone in her sister's apartment for a weekend who becomes increasingly deranged and terrified as she's overcome by possible hallucinations of murder and rape. It's a brilliantly done film, if what Polanski was going for was a cinematic kick to the groin. Ranks this low because I personally don't like to be kicked there or anywhere else.

11. Dr. Zhivago - For a beautiful woman, Julie Christie does look pretty terrible in a whole lot of movies. This is a prime example. Mostly I blame the lipstick. David Lean's bloated, dull, painfully melodramatic epic about poetry and infidelity in the time of the Russian Revolution has a tremendous cast and, like you expect from Lean, is a big, beautiful film. But I can't say I liked any of it. Lawrence of Arabia I can watch over and over again, Zhivago was like a visit to the Cinemascope dentist. I think I may have slept through the middle hour, but I'm not sure. Stars Christie, Omar Sharif, Alec Guiness, Tom Courtney, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Ralph Richardson and, believe it or not, Klaus Kinski.

10. For A Few Dollars More - The ubiquitous Kinski also co-stars in this, the second of Sergio Leone's so-called Man With No Name trilogy. It's a transitional film between the Kurosawa ripoff that was A Fistfull of Dollars and the truly epic style that Leone would master in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (#2, 1966), Once Upon A Time In The West (#3, 1968) and once Upon A Time In America (#7, 1984). Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef play a pair of bounty hunters on the trail of Gian Maria Volantè.

9. Shenendoah - I reviewed this back in August here on TINAB (which you can read here). It's an anti-war pseudo-Western starring James Stewart as the head of family that doesn't want to, but inevitably must get involved in the Civil War. katharine Ross is the only high point among a pretty dreadful supporting cast. Director Andrew V. McLagen had a long career highlighted by generic John Wayne mediocrities and "sequels" to good films (The Dirty Dozen: The Second Mission, Return From The Riv er Kwai).

8. Thunderball - One of the better James Bond films, rather pathetically remade in the 80s as Never Say Never Again ( #22, 1983). SPECTRE steals a bomber loaded with a couple for nuclear weapons and holds the world ransom for 100 million dollars (say it like Dr. Evil). Fortunately, Sean Connery's around to track them down and save the day, but not before stealing the bad guy's girlfriend Domino, naturally. Claudine Auger plays Domino (it was the terrible Kim Basinger in the '83 film), Adolfo Celi plays the villainous Emilio Largo and Luciana Paluzzi plays the wonderfully named Fiona Volpe.

7. A Charlie Brown Christmas - The best remembered of the Peanuts specials, and not just because Robert Schmigel seems to love it (he does the cartoons on Saturday Night Live that have been the best part of the show for the last decade or so). It's success lies in the fact that while it's critique of the commercialization of Christmas (and by extension, the secularization of modern life) is unsubtle and simplistic, it's told with complete honest such that the viewer never feels manipulated. Which is, of course, the best way to manipulate someone. It's telling that the climactic speech Linus gives at the pageant is not about any of the great Christian values (charity, mercy, compassion, forgiveness) but rather an assertion of that Christmas is merely the celebration of the birth of a God-figure (Jesus, if you didn't know). Certainly an odd message, if you ask me, that Christmas isn't about values at all but about the birth of one particular religious group's deity. The film then is about how good Christians are being corrupted by the technological and capitalistic advances of secular society (pink aluminum Christmas trees, for example). I propose that for next years battle in the Liberal War On Christmas, we expose this piece of non-inclusive propaganda for what it is: a radical combination of Marxist and Fundamentalist Christian critiques of modern American society. Just be sure to ignore the fact that Peanuts is the most successfully merchandised and commercialized comic in history. But the dancing's real cool.

6. The Cincinnati Kid - This definitive poker movie stars the always cool Steve McQueen as the title gambler who hopes to unseat Edward G. Robinson as the best of the best. It's a simple plot device that works for any genre film from The Hustler to Enter The Dragon. This being a gambling film, our hero must resist the temptation of gangsters who want to cheat and a overcome a dealer who has been compromised. Not surprisingly, he must also juggle the attentions of two women (a madonna and a whore, of course) played by Tuesday Weld and Ann-Margaret (poor bastard). Karl Malden, Joan Blondell, Jack Weston, Cab Calloway and Rip Torn also star. Norman Jewison directed, Hal Ashby edited and Ring Lardner Jr (Laura, MASH) and Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove, Barabarella) adapted the screenplay.

5. Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard making a ultra-low budget sci-fi film starring Anna Karina? Sign me up. Eddie Constantine plays Lemmy Caution, an American private eye who travels to a futuristic, Orwellian city run by a computer that doesn't like emotion or self-expression or poetry and all that. Karina's the daughter of the evil scientist who built the computer, Dr. Von Braun, who Lemmy's supposed to kill or something. A crazy, mystifying Godardian soup of sci-fi, film noir, in-jokes, puns, overthetop pretentiousness and Akim Tamiroff. This was the second Godard film I saw, after Breathless and it confused the hell out of me a decade ago. I haven't watched it since, but not because I don't love it. I've a cheap used video copy of it, but I hear the Criterion version is pretty bare bones, it's on the list of movies to buy.

4. Samurai Spy - Masahiro Shinoda directed this beautiful film about warring gangs of spies in the early days of Tokogawa Japan. The only film I've seen that successfully mingles samurai and ninja, two of the coolest things ever. One of the ninjas, a leper, is clearly the influence for the look of Snake Eyes's arch-enemy, Storm Shadow. The plot's ridiculously complex, with a Sanada clan spy caught in-between a spy war among the Tokogawa and Toyotomi clans, trying to hunt down a spy named Nojiri, Seven Samurai's master swordsman Seiji Miyaguchi showing somewhere along with a group of persecuted Christians. It's a beautiful black and white film, filled with dramatic, thematically appropriate shadows. A perfect example of samurai noir.

3. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold - One of those movies that I love and that no one else seems to have seen, let alone really like. In this John Le Carré adaptation, Richard Burton plays burned-out spy Alec Leamas who leaves his agency after his last agent is killed, becomes a librarian, romances Marxist bookworm Claire Bloom all in an elaborate scheme to frame his East German rival, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Burton is brilliant, as always, Peter Van Eyck is very good as the menacing Mundt and Oskar Werner is exceptional as the German agent who interrogates Leamas. Director Martin Ritt brings a seedy noir style to the film that matches perfectly Le Carré's deglamourized, anti-Bond spy world. One of those rare movies that's actually better than the book, though I did enjoy the book very much.

2. Chimes At Midnight - Orson Welles took all the parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV parts 1 & 2, Henry V and Richard II that involved the character Sir John Falstaff and reedited them into one film about him and his relationship with Prince Hal, later Henry V. Falstaff is one of the more remarkable characters in the history of literature: fat, obnoxious, drunk, boastful, and melancholy. Flastaff is a bit of a joke, we laugh at him and we laugh with him. He's Hal's friend when he's slumming among the common people, and he gets abandoned when Hal has to grow up and become the King. You might recognize the plotline from Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (#12, 1991), in which Keanu Reeves plays the Prince Hal role, abandoning his homeless and gay prostitute friends when he takes his role in society as the son of the mayor of Portland. Anyway, Welles's film is, like you'd expect, beautiful, with a tremendous performance by Welles and great work from John Gielgud as Henry IV and Jeanne Moreau around somewhere. It's criminally unavailable in a decent DVD version, there is a crappy Spanish version of it out there. Hopefully Criterion or someone will get around to releasing it. I saw it on video 8 years ago, it was one of the first movies I rented the first day I moved to the big city a couple blocks away from "the best video store in the world".

1. Pierrot Le Fou - After a party where everyone speaks in advertising slogans except for Samuel Fuller, Jean-Paul Belmondo escapes with the babysitter, Anna Karina, who's fleeing a group of Algerian gangsters. The two lovers run to the Mediterranean, where they live a life filled with romance, music, poetry, art, movie references, bizarre dialogue and Godardian absurdity until the hit-men catch up with them, Karina leaves with them and Belmondo blows himself up. Like any Godard film, the plot is both impossible to summarize and the least interesting thing about the movie. It's another beautiful Godard film, with typically great performances from the two leads. This is the peak of a remarkable run for Godard from 1960-68, where he was putting out two or three films a year, most of them masterpieces: Breathless, A Woman Is A Woman, My Life To Live, Le Petit Soldat, Les Carabiniers, Contempt, Band Of Outsiders, A Married Woman, Alphaville, Pierrot Le Fou, Masculin-Femenin, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Made In USA, La Chinoise, and Week-End. An artistic peak rivaled only by The Beatles from 1965-70 or Bob Dylan 1963-1966.

Red Beard leads the list of Unseen from this year, but there's some other interesting stuff as well:

Flight Of The Phoenix
Cat Ballou
What's New, Pussycat
Battle Of The Bulge
Red Beard
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Juliet Of The Spirits
The Greatest Story Ever Told
The Shop On Main Street
The Agony And The Ecstasy
The Loves Of A Blonde
Simon Of The Desert
Lord Jim
The Saragossa Manuscript