Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Movies Of The Year: 1959

Getting started on another list late at night while drinking some beer and watching the second half of David Lynch's Wild At Heart, which I originally started watching two weeks ago. Been a weird day as I did some housework, watched some TV and movies and had my mind blown by Susan Sontag's essay Against Interpretation, which if I had managed to read seven years ago would have made me feel a lot better about how much I hated the academic world.
Anyway, back to the list. As always, previous years' lists along with methodology and disclaimers can be found at The Big List.

15. The Shaggy Dog - Yet another tragic scarring by a Disney Channel dominated youth. Fred MacMurray plays a nuclear dad who gets transformed into a dog. Much hilarity ensues. Costars Jean Hagen (Singin' In The Rain) and seemingly the entire cast of The Mickey Mouse Club.

14. Plan 9 From Outer Space - Ed Wood's famously terrible film is as bad as you've heard, but not quite as funny. It's hard to rate the unintentionally hilarious in a format such as this. It fails in just about every way a film can fail, lacking even the bizarre horrible terror that his Glen Or Glenda inspires. Still, I'd rather have directed this travesty than The Shaggy Dog.

13. The Diary Of Anne Frank - George Stevens's film, along with the book, is, I assume, still a requirement in junior high schools around the country. That's where I saw it and I can't say I'll ever see it again. Like many a Hollywood social conscience film, it's well-meaning, well-acted, competently made and makes you feel like a heel for not liking. Guess I'm a heel then. It's just not that interesting to me. Sure its a tragic story, but I've real moral problems with the whole idea of making a movie about the Holocaust, let alone one that's so very obvious and lacking in nuance. Is there more we are supposed to learn from this story than that the Holocaust is bad?

12. Ben-Hur - William Wyler's film of Lew Wallace's best-selling historical melodrama is an overblown epic in the way that only the late Hollywood studio system could overblow something. Charlton Heston stars as the eponymous hero, a Roman Jew gets himself punished for something, gets sent to a galley, competes in a vicious chariot race, then meets Jesus on his way to get crucified. It's a fine example of the way only Hollywood could combine action violence, homoeroticism and sanctimoniously cheap religious piety in a way that makes way too many of people think it's the greatest film ever made.

11. Darby O'Gill And The Little People - One of the few films I've seen that ever actually scared me, though granted I was aged in single digits at the time. A Disney compendium of over-the-top Irish clichés, leprechauns, banshees, comical drunkenness. Daarby O'Gill's a cantankerous old drunk whose stories of leprechauns no one believes. He actually finds the pot of gold, but had to give it up when the banshee comes for his daughter (who's been dating none other than Sean Connery). It's the banshee arriving in his Coach Of death that terrified me, and probably still would. Along with Connery's singing, truly scary.

10. Anatomy Of A Murder - Otto Preminger's film is one of the greatest of all courtroom dramas. James Stewart stars as a small town lawyer acting as defense attorney for Ben Gazzara, accused of killing the man who supposedly raped his wife, Lee Remick. George C. Scott also stars as the prosecutor from the city. Stewart gives a fine, folksy performance as the kind of smarter than he seems country guy that Stewart's perfect at. The greatness of the film comes from its ambiguity: we never know when or if Gazzara or Remick are lying, and it's questionable whether or not it matters, to us or to Stewart. And the score's by Duke Ellington, if all that wasn't enough.

9. Good Morning - Yasujiro Ozu's remake of his own I Was Born But. . ., it's the story of a small suburban neighborhood, and specifically the kids in it who don't understand their parents. The kids want their folks to buy a TV so they can watch sumo matches. The parents complain that all the kids do is whine. The kids complain that the adults are always talking and not saying anything, which of course, is true. The adult conversations are all politeness and formalism ("Good morning") while the kids just say what on their mind (usually fart jokes). A fine introduction to Ozu, it's got all the hallmarks of his style but is a little faster paced and a little funnier than his best films. If the idea of Ozu intimidates you, start here.

8. Pickpocket - Speaking of difficult directors how aren't really as tough as their reps, acolytes or imitators want you to think, we've got Robert Bresson's Pickpocket, a film about the life and art of a Raskolnikovian pickpocket. A brainy young man dedicates himself to the pursuit of picking pockets, which we see demonstrated in some wonderfully informative yet stylish shots (closeups of various techniques and such). Along the way he attracts the attention of a local cop, who wants to reform him (or failing that, imprison him) and his mom's nurse, a cute neighbor girl he pretends he's not in love with. It's a pretty, odd little film. The Criterion edition has an interesting bit of Paul Schrader talking about the film, where he points out that Bresson cuts everything just a little longer than you'd expect, which works to minutely unsettle the viewer and exacerbate the strangeness of the film. I can't say the ending was as cathartic for me as it apparently is for Schrader (seemed more silly to me), but it's still quite a fun film.

7. Sleeping Beauty - My favorite of all Disney animated films. The film uses the score of Tchaikovsky's ballet, which I like a lot, even though the Disneyfy it with some silly lyrics and cute woodland creatures. And it's one of the few Disney films with a distinctive visual style, modeled after medieval paintings (angular, two-dimensional people, lack of shadow, etc). It's also got on the of the scariest villains in Disney films and the greatest, fastest climactic battle sequence. Cutting the comic relief of the annoying witches (faeries?) would make it a near perfect film. As it is, it can only be very good. Damn you Walt Disney!

6. Some Like It Hot - Often called the greatest comedy of all-time, I can't agree with that though it is a very good film. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon star as musicians on the run from the mob who disguise themselves as women and join an all-girls band bound for Florida. In the band they meet Marilyn Monroe, playing your basic Monroe character: hot, sad, and a little dim. Curtis adopts another disguise (a wealthy yet impotent playboy, his Cary Grant impression) to try to seduce Monroe, while Lemmon is courted (in his woman disguise) by a rich old man played by Joe E. Brown. It's got some classic comic moments, but I don't think the drag comedy is as funny to my generation, one that grew up with Tom Hanks an Peter Scolari in Bosom Buddies.

5. Floating Weeds - The second Ozu film from this year, and the second that's a remake of one of his own silent films. It's a bigger, more dramatic film than Good Morning. A traveling acting troupe comes to a small fishing village, where they lead to some romantic trouble. The leader of the troupe has a son who doesn't know he's his son working as a mailman in the town. As the leader spends time with the boy's mother, his girlfriend (one of the actors) becomes jealous. She gets one of the whorier actresses to seduce the son to punish the father. The actress and the son then fall in love. All this happens in Ozu's simple, calm visual style (camera never moving, low angles, beautiful compositions of ordinary objects, long takes, no close-ups, etc), the serenity of the style plays of the violence of the emotions involved in the same way the characters hide their emotions behind politesse and restraint (to a point).

4. The 400 Blows - François Truffaut's first film is a largely autobiographical coming of age story about a young boy who gets ignored by his parents, does poorly in school, loves movies, steals a typewriter and gets sent away to reform school. Jean-Pierre Léaud stars as the boy, Antoine Doinel, a character he'd play again in several other Truffaut films as he aged. Truffaut uses a black and white, smoothly realistic style that's light years away from what Jean-Luc Godard was doing in Breathless (co-written by Truffaut and released the next year) or even the lyricism of Resnais or Demy, French but not quite New Wave directors. There's little in the way of stylistic intrusion into the film. Instead, Truffaut Not having seen enough of the other New Wavers films (I've never seen any Rohmer or Chabrol, or any of Louis Malle's French films), I can't say for sure whether Truffaut is more or less typical of their style. I suspect that the crazy experimental nature of Godard (and Jacques Rivette) is the oddball in the group. Harvey Weinstein claims that he and his brother snuck into this film as kids thinking it was a porn movie. They stuck around and were entranced by it. They then fell in love with art movies and went on to found Miramax.

3. Rio Bravo - Howard Hawks's refutation of Fred Zinneman's prechy Western High Noon, this film stars John Wayne as a sheriff who must face a band of outlaws. The only help he accepts is from his deputy (the ancient Walter Brennan), his old friend and recovering drunk (Dean Martin, and a hotshot gunfighter who tries to stay out of the fight (Ricky Nelson). Wayne also manages to get Angie Dickenson to fall in love with him along the way. As entertainment, it's questionable whether there's a better Western. The balance between action and comedy and sex and music is as good as in any great Howard Hawks film (To have And Have Not, The Big Sleep, Only Angels Have Wings). The performances are uniformly terrific: Brennan's cantankerous and funny as the still reliable comic relief, Nelson's engaging and charming as the handsome young singer, Wayne's terrific as usual but it's Martin that steals the film as the old drunk trying to stay sober and redeem himself.

2. Hiroshima Mon Amour - One of the more beautiful films of all time is this Alain Resnais film about a French actress who meets, has a one-night stand with and falls in love with a Japanese man (Eiji Okada) while shooting a film in Paris. The first third of the film is a terrifying series of images of the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, with the woman (Emmanuelle Riva, who gives one of the very best performances ever) narrating the transition from horrific images of victims and destruction to the transformation of the city to a museum and theme park. The film takes place over a single day, as the two try to figure out if they should stay together (the man is married, the woman set to return to France). The middle section of the film centers on the woman's experience of World War 2, her own personal atom bomb. The film's shot in a variety of styles and succeeds in, as Resnais claimed it did, shattering time, from the dreamy abstract images of the two bodies intercut with the hyperreal post-bomb footage in the opening sequence, to a lot of jump cuts and cuts between flashback and present time. The images often appear realistic, but as the scene progresses they become more poetic, as in a scene of protest marchers in the film the woman is working on, or in the final scene of the film, a long shot in a restaurant that we can't tell is the past or the future or both.

1. North By Northwest - My current favorite Alfred Hitchcock film is perhaps the most successful of his relatively light films. Cary Grant plays a regular guy with a job and a mom who gets mistaken for a secret agent, kidnapped and framed for murder by James Mason. On the run from both the cops and the bad guys, Grant tries to find the guy for whom he's been mistaken. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Eva Marie Saint, who's got a few secret identities of her own. Filled with iconic sequences (the killer cropduster, the fight on Mt. Rushmore, the train entering a tunnel at a, well, climactic moment), clever comic dialogue (written by Ernest Lehman, who wrote Sabrina, West Side Story, The Sound Of Music and the great Sweet Smell Of Success), and more than a few subtle Hitchcock touches of terror and humor. Grant's character is named Roger O. Thornhill, and the O stands for nothing, in more ways than one. He's an everyman nothing hunted down by forces he can't understand for reasons he doesn't know, a Kafkaesque story of post-war modernity if ever there was. Hitchcock is one of the few directors in history to so successfully combine top-notch entertainment with psychological perverseness and subtlety. This multivalent brilliance is what makes his film so endlessly fascinating.

Not too much I'm in a hurry to see on the Unseen list this year. The Sirk movie is on TCM all the time, and I keep meaning to finally get around to it but haven't yet. Satayajit Ray's films, however, are not really available on decent DVDs in this country, as far as I know, so I've still not seen any of them.

Imitation Of Life
The World Of Apu
The Human Condition
Pillow Talk
Operation Petticoat
Suddenly, Last Summer
The Mouse That Roared
Black Orpheus
The Horse Soldiers
The FBI Story
Odds Against Tomorrow
On The Beach
The Tiger Of Eschnapur
The Indian Tomb