Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Movies Of The Year: 1957

Back to the list, while watching the Russ Meyer exploitation classic Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill!, which Rob Zombie had the audacity to claim is not camp. Pfft, Rob Zombie. Anyway, check out The Big List for previous results, explanations and disclaimers.

13. Old Yeller - The classic Disney film of a boy and his dog notable mainly for scarring millions of children with it's sappy act of doggy euthanasia. It seems like there was a lot more death in the Disney movies of the mid-20th century than they'd allow now, but I'd have to watch some of the "family" films out today to know for sure, and that is not going to happen.

12. Sayonara - Costume melodrama of the most mediocre variety about a group of American servicemen who fall in love with Japanese women during the Korean War. Notable as the film with the first Oscar-winning performance by an Asian actor (Myoshi Umecki as Red Buttons' girl), but that's about it. The cast also includes Marlon Brando, Ricardo Montalbon and James Garner. Adapted from a james Michener novel and directed by Joshua Logan, the man responsible for the Eastwood/Marvin musical classic Paint Your Wagon.

11. An Affair To Remember - Leo McCarey's remake of his own 1939 film Love Affair stars Deborah Kerr and Cary grant as a couple who meet on a cruise and fall in love, despite each being engaged to other people. After the cruise, they agree to meet six months later at the top of the Empire State Building. A classic story, decisively influential on many a film, including Sleepless In Seattle (#61, 1993) and Before Sunrise (#9, 1995), the film itself is quiet and classically styled, with an elegance and earnestness that's been lacking in romantic films for decades. Kerr and grant are quite good, as they always are; McCarey was a comedy writer/director going back to the early 20s, but the only other movies of his I've seen are The Awful Truth and Duck Soup.

10. Love In The Afternoon - One of the mellower Billy Wilder romantic comedies, starring Audrey Hepburn as a young girl out to seduce the way too old Gary Cooper. Hepburn's the Veronica Marsesque daughter of PI Maurice Chevalier, who's be hired to prove that Cooper, a notorious womanizer has been sleeping with his clients wife. Hepburn falls in love with Cooper and pretends to be a slutty socialite to make him jealous. Hepburn's as great as ever, but Cooper's not only too old (creepy!), but neither comic nor romantic enough to be the star of a romantic comedy.

9. 12 Angry Men - Sidney Lumet's classic film debut about a jury's deliberations in a murder case has a terrific, all-star cast, featuring great performances from Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, along with character actors Martn Balsam, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden and Ed Begley. Based on a play, this film could very easily have fallen into the category of "filmed theater", but Lumet manages to keep things moving and interesting despite the confined space and static, talky, nature of the story. One of those films that everyone probably saw in junior high school, but is still actually pretty good.

8. Bridge On The River Kwai - Alec Guinness stars in this David Lean epic about British soldiers in a Japanese POW camp during World War 2 who are forced to build the eponymous bridge. The battle of wills between Guinness (as the leader of the British) and Sessue Hayakawa (as the camp commandant) is wonderful, with great performances from both, especially Guinness as his character descends from hard-nosed, stiff-lipped ideal of British manliness to lunatic obsessive. The film is quite nearly ruined, unfortunately by a terrible performance (from a terribly written character) by William Holden as an American soldier in the camp who escape and leads the return to liberate the camp. In no way is anything involving Holden in this film any good at all. His character is written and acted seemingly as a parody of what the British think Americans are like (compare Holden here to Steve McQueen in The Great Escape). It's really unfortunate, considering the rest of the film is as good as anything Lean ever did.

7. Witness For The Prosecution - Billy Wilder's adaptation of Agatha Christie's courtroom drama hasn't the least relation to any kind of realistic depiction of a murder trial, but thanks to two great actors (and one terrible one) it's a quite funny and entertaining genre piece. Charles Laughton (perhaps the ugliest, and greatest, actor in film history) stars as the defense attorney for Tyrone Power (who's terrible), who has been accused of killing a middle-aged widow. Marlene Dietrich plays the defendant's wife, the title character. Elsa Lanchester (Laughton's real-life wife) also stars.

6. Funny Face - One of my favorite musicals, Audrey Hepburn stars in this Stanley Donen film as a bohemian bookworm who gets whisked away to Paris to be a fashion model for a famous photographer played by Fred Astaire. The music's almost all Gershwin, which always helps in a musical and there's a great supporting performance from Kay Thompson, the inventor of the word "pizzaz," as the editor of a fashion magazine. Astaire's way too old for Hepburn, and the dancing doesn't especially stand out (though there's an interesting overthetop Beat parody Hepburn performs in a club), at least relative to some of Donen's other films like Singin' In The Rain or Royal Wedding.

5. The Sweet Smell Of Success - Acid indictment of the nihilistic amorality of the entertainment industry starring Tony Curtis in his best role as a small-time press agent (Sidney Falco) trying to ingratiate himself with big-time gossip columnist Burt Lancaster (J. J. Hunsecker), in one of his good performances. Directed in a crisply dark noir style by Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers), with cinematography by James Wong Howe. The screenplay's even better than the visual look of the film (high praise), written by playwright Clifford Odets and the great Ernest Lehman (Sabrina, North By Northwest).

4. Paths Of Glory - One of my favorite, and one of the least misanthropist, of all of Stanley Kubrick's films is this courtroom drama in which Kirk Douglas tries to save three men from being executed for cowardice in the wake of a disastrous and idiotic offensive during World War I. Kubrick directs in a crisp, deep focus black and white, and his depiction of the battle, a long tracking shot of the horrors of trench warfare, is one of the most powerful scenes he ever shot. All the actors are quite good, but Douglas especially stands out as the idealistic warrior-attorney. The film's final scene, that of a young girl singing beautifully before a barroom full of rapt soldiers is the most romantic and humanist thing Kubrick ever did. And he even went and married the girl.

3. Nights Of Cabiria - Giulietta Masina gives one of the all-time great performances as the classic hooker with a heart of gold in this picaresque Federico Fellini film. There are three main sections in the film: an encounter with a celebrity, a trip with a massive crowd to a church for some religious festival, and an apparent discovery of true love. Each time Cabiria's hope and faith is raised, beaten down and yet somehow reemerges and she goes on to her next adventure. I suppose this makes her the ideal existentialist hero, trudging on with good humor despite all the horrible things that seem to unavoidably keep happening to her.

2. The Seventh Seal - Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece of life and Death in the Middle Ages stars Max von Sydow as a returning Crusader who meets Death on a beach and challenges him to a game of chess in one of the cinema's better metaphors for life. While the game is going on, the Knight gets to continue his journey. Along the way he meets a young family of traveling actors. Together, they all travel through the countryside in the wake of the Black Plague, where they meet crazy villagers, flagellant priests and various other medieval types. A beautifully, even profoundly filmed existentialist meditation of the nature and meaning of life and death, with one of the great final shots in all of cinema. One of my favorite films and deservedly regarded as one of the essential classics of film history.

1. Throne Of Blood - Akira Kurosawa's expressionist adaptation of Macbeth stars Toshiro Mifune as the tragic general who allows his (and his wife's) ambition to lead him into betrayal, murder and insanity. Much like he later did with Ran (#1, 1985), Kurosawa doesn't bother to adapt the language of the Shakespeare play into Japanese, but instead focuses on translating the raw emotions of the works into cinematic equivalents. Mifune is perfect here as the noble warrior who allows himself to be manipulated by a witch in the woods and his own scheming wife and then descends into a demented, elemental paranoia. Kurosawa modeled the look of the film on the Noh theater tradition (like he did with Ran and Kagemusha, #8, 1980), with mask-like faces, a slow paces and a hauntingly eerie soundtrack. The dark, dark, look of the film clearly has a lot in common with Orson Welles's own film of Macbeth, but only Kurosawa could pull off a seen as lyrical and horrifically beautiful as the final battle sequence, when an entire forest comes alive to attack Mifune, his own soldiers turn against him and dozens, if not hundreds, of arrows are actually shot at the clearly terrified actor. the cast includes Takeshi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki and Isuzu Yamada who is very good as the Lady Macbeth character, if not quite as purely evil as Mieko Harada's Lady Kaede in Ran. It doesn't get as much notice as Kurosawa's other masterpieces (let alone the Bergman film it beats out on this list) but it's as powerful as anything he ever made.

32 Unseen films this year might be some kind of a record, if I kept track of such things. There's a couple Samuel Fuller films, a Boetticher, a Bergman, a Chaplin, a Tashlin and an Ozu, among many others.

Wild Strawberies
The Tall T
Run Of The Arrow
Tokyo Twilight
A King In New York
3:10 To Yuma
Forty Guns
The Lower Depths
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
The Enemy Bleow
A Face In The Crowd
Gunfight At The OK Corral
Desk Set
Night Of The Demon
Jailhouse Rock
The Cranes Are Flying
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
The Three Faces Of Eve
Peyton Place
Pal Joey
The Pajama Game
Raintree Country
The Wings Of Eagles
I Was A Teenage Werewolf
The Sun Also Rises
Fear Strikes Out
White Nights
Bitter Victory
La Casa Del Angel
Les Maitres Fous

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Movie Roundup: Travelogue Edition

The Road Home - Favorite Actress Zhang Ziyi's debut film is this Zhang Yimou film. Beginning in grainy black and white, a young man returns to his small village on the occasion of his father's death. As he and his mother make funeral arrangements, we get the story of his parents' relationship. Zhang plays the mother as a young peasant girl who becomes enamored (kind of obsessed, really) with the local teacher. It's a love story told in small gestures and quiet rituals, filmed in the kind of beautifully tasteful color cinematography you expect (and I love) from Zhang Yimou. Speaking of Zhang and Zhang, Senses Of Cinema has an interesting, comprehensive and somewhat confusing article on House Of Flying Daggers, Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I think he's too hard (and literal) in his criticism of Crouching Tiger (nihilism), but his complaints about Hero (fascism) are basically the same as mine. The #8 film of 1999.

Meet Me In St. Louis - Vincente Minelli's musical ode to turn of the century small town America stars Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien as two of several daughters of an uppers class STL family that may be moving to New York. It's a very competent and largely inoffensive film, but aside from a number or two (Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, The Trolly Song) it's not anything that I find particularly interesting. I'm generally a fan of dancing, as opposed to singing musicals, so that's part of the problem (I like dancing musicals for the same reason I like kung fu films, by the way). But really, the film's just so archetypal that it's impossible to watch it today with fresh eyes.

The Heart Of The World - This short film by Winnipeg-based director Guy Maddin is one of the most vibrant, energetic and fascinating six minutes in the history of film. It's an entire sci-fi epic on fast-forward, told in a winking homage to the montage-heavy Russian silent films. A girl, a scientist is in love with two brothers, one an actor (playing Jesus is the Passion Play), the other an undertaker. When she discovers that the world's about to end (have a heart attack), the world falls into chaos and she falls for an evil industrialist. But she comes to her senses and saves the world. Any summary, certainly this one, is inadequate to describe this amazing film, the #3 film of 2000. Best to just watch it for yourself:

Archangel - Speaking of Guy Maddin, the only feature film of his I've seen is this 1990 film, a perplexing mix of Silent Cinema and campy/arty sci-fi horror. Set at the end of World War I, or so, the film revolves around a number of people with memory problems, who can't seem to remember who they or anyone else is. As imdb effectively summarizes: "(one-legged Lt. John) Boles loves Iris, who is dead, and meets Veronkha, whom he mistakes for Iris. But Veronkha is already married to Philbin, who forgets he is married to Veronkha. Veronkha thinks Boles is Philbin. . . ." There's also a peasant family, with a cowardly father and a mother who falls in love with the aforementioned Lt. Boles. When the family is attacked in the middle of the night by cannibalistic Bolsheviks, the father saves the son's life with the greatest intertitle I've ever seen in a film: "Strangled! By an intestine!" The #6 film of 1990.

Stromboli - My first Roberto Rossellini film stars Ingrid Bergman as a WW2 refugee who marries a young Italian man to escape the refugee camp. The young man takes her to his home island of Stromboli, a conservative little village dominated by an active volcano. The volcano metaphor isn't exactly subtle, but neither is Bergman's performance as she becomes increasingly hysterical in her struggle against the provincialism of small-town life. But somehow, teetering on the edge of camp, it manages to be sincere and moving. I definitely need to see more Rossellini: I've had Open City on the tivo for months now. . . .

Queen Christina - Greta Garbo playing a cross-dressing Swedish monarch? Yee-haw! This potentially great film gets off to a great start, with Garbo's Queen picking up a guy in a bar, this first third of the film falling somewhere between Henry V and The Crying Game. The rest of the film, unfortunately, becomes a rather dull story of class differences keeping the poor Queen and her lover apart. Competently directed by Rouben Mamoulian, with John Gilbert ineffective as the Queen's boyfriend, but Garbo's as amazing as ever.

The Departed - Martin Scorsese's latest film is an adaptation of the very good Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs (#6, 2002). It's quite different from the earlier film, both in length (much longer), tone (much funnier), and style (much more freewheeling, especially in the performances). It's Scorsese's best film in a long time, since Kundun at least. Matt Damon plays a gangster who goes undercover as a cop and Leonardo DiCaprio plays a cop who goes undercover as a gangster. Both are drawn to the head gangster of South Boston, played by Jack Nicholson (in a performance that starts restrained and becomes weirder and more "Jack" as the film's sense of paranoid hysteria increases), and both have legit cops as potential father figures: DiCaprio has the ideal good father in Martin Sheen, Damon has amoral (and hilarious) company man Alec Baldwin, in a less frightening variation on his great Glengarry Glen Ross performance. And both Damon and DiCaprio (in a sharp break from the original) fall in love with a psychiatrist, played adequately by Vera Farmiga.

The film it most reminds me of is Hitchcock's North By Northwest. It has the same kind of combination of dark humor (especially from Baldwin and Marky Mark Wahlberg's ill-tempered cop), suspense and hidden potential depth. It's much more entertaining than the original, though (despite an overlong middle section of Leo coming unglued) without nearly the depth of character or emotion. Any depth The Departed does have is therefore, like most of Hitchcock, not emotional but intellectual. In this way the two films are complementary instead of oppositional: I think they're both great and each is enhanced by the other.