Monday, May 12, 2008

Movie Roundup: Early Summer Edition

No, I haven't seen any more Ozu recently, but instead it's summer in movie theatre-land as blockbuster season has begun. For the next several weeks, I'll be watching a bunch of film's hoping at least a couple of them end up ranked higher than 25th on my eventual Movies Of The Year: 2008 list.

Here's some of what I've seen over the last couple of weeks:

My Blueberry Nights - An egregious victim of critical groupthink, as apparently every critic at Cannes last year decided Wong Kar-wai was no longer "cool" and took this opportunity to whine about the flaws of this film as if they aren't as prevalent or more in every one of his earlier films. There's even a nice tinge of racism to the criticism, with repeated references to the "fortune cookie" nature of Wong's dialogue. They of course, conveniently overlook that this film's strengths are, again, the same as with Wong's earlier work: the breathless, dreamlike romanticism of the images first and foremost. The film can be seen as an exploration of what Faye Wong's character in Chungking Express might have been up to in the year between standing up Tony Leung at the California Restaurant and her return as a flight attendant. Norah Jones, bummed over a bad breakup, takes some time before committing to Perfect Guy Jude Law and walks the Earth for awhile, traveling to Memphis and Nevada, where she encounters a trio of film noir characters (David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz in the first place, Natalie Portman in the second). Of the reviews I've seen, only Michael Wilmington's at makes any connection to noir with this film, which is odd, considering Wong's co-writer is the crime novelist Lawrence Block. Anyway, by witnessing each of these characters noir adventures, Jones gets over her troubles and makes her way back to Law, a nifty analogue of the healing power of movies if ever there was. The actors are all just fine, though only Strathairn and Portman are close to great (Portman's work here is her most interesting in at least a decade). Chan Marshall (Cat Power) is also terrific in her single scene. The movie's actually a bit like the Cat Power and Norah Jones songs that dominate the soundtrack: moody, romantic and maybe a little slight. For an antidote to the poor and negative criticism of the film, check out Matt Zoeller Seitz's review at The House Next Door. The #6 film of 2007.

Monte Carlo - Part of the Criterion Eclipse boxset of Ernst Lubitsch musicals I've been slowly working my way through. Jeanette MacDonald stars as a countess on the run from a rich dud of a fiancé who ends up in the ritzy gambling mecca where she's pursued by a count disguised as her hairdresser. Some decent, if not totally memorable songs and some fun pre-Code wordplay makes for an enjoyable experience. These musicals are still more interesting historically than as movies, halfway through the box. The #6 film of 1930.

I Shot Jesse James - Samuel Fuller's first film is a solid, but unexceptional debut. It lacks the essential wild nuttiness of his best work and ascribes a conventional romantic motivation for Robert Ford's betrayal of his friend that leaves no room for the mysteries at the core of last year's The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (#6, 2007). Really, it's hard to think of two films that take such opposite approaches to the same subject matter. I preferred the new version.

Talk Of The Town - Cary Grant stars as a factory whistleblower framed for arson who escapes from prison and hides in the attic of the house Jean Arthur's renting to a stuffy law professor, played by Ronald Coleman. Not exactly screwball, it's occasionally funny, but is too long and at times even a little preachy. Coleman actually manages to give a better performance than Grant or Arthur. Not one of my favorite George Cukor films, but not bad at all. The #11 film of 1942.

3:10 To Yuma - A fine attempt at a Western that goes horribly, horribly wrong in the last 30 minutes. Christian Bale is very good as a disabled Civil War vet struggling to make it as a farmer who gets caught up in the capture of Russell Crowe's famous outlaw. Crowe, however, seems to be coasting, and Gretchen Mol, as Bale's wife, isn't in the film nearly enough. The ending is appallingly stupid and undoes almost everything good about the preceding hour and a half. The #33 film of 2007.

Iron Man - Better than any of the X-Men films or Spider-Man sequels, Jon Favreau's adaptation of the Marvel comic is, somewhat surprisingly, a lot of fun. Robert Downey Jr gives the best lead performance in a superhero movie in a long time, if not ever. Gwynneth Paltrow sparkles more than she has in years and jeff bridges seems to be enjoying the taste of the scenery. The final action sequence, however, is lackluster. Whatever its faults, at least Michael Bay's Transformers had the guts to film CGI action in daylight.

Casino Royale - This latest reinvention of the James Bonds series is really quite good. I loved the early action sequences (especially the first, parkour, sequence) and thought Daniel Craig was terrific. The last half hour or so was pretty bad, from the terrible dialogue between Craig and Eva Green to the final action sequence which was over the top and poorly cut and shot. Probably better than any of the Bourne movies, though, and certainly a return to form for the Bond series after the unfortunate Pierce Brosnan years. The #26 film of 2006.

The Importance OF Being Earnest - The Michael Redgrave version of Oscar Wilde's play, directed by Anthony Asquith. Very much a filmed play, but it's a great play and the actors are great with it. A little confused by the ending though: aren't they still short an "Ernest"? the Technicolor, at least on the print TCM ran, is pretty ghastly. The #10 film of 1952.

Our Man In Havana - Tonally, a weird mix between The Third Man (Carol Reed and Graham Greene) and the 50s Ealing comedies (Alec Guinness). I like both aspects, and the mixture is unique even if the movie never really comes together, or even makes any kind of emotional sense. Burl Ives and Noel Coward are really great in supporting roles, but Maureen O'Hara is kind of wasted, her character never really works. Would make a great double feature with I Am Cuba, or maybe The Quiet American. The #11 film of 1959.

Movies Of the Year: Best Of The 50s

As I was updating The Big List just now, I got to wondering what were the best movie years of all-time. In putting these lists together, of course, the big ones jump out (1939 being the most famous), but I've never gotten around to actually ranking the individual years. So I might as well do that now. I'll rank the years by decade, and when I've finished, come up with a Top 10 Years Of All-Time list.

The rankings are determined by considering both a year's depth (the sheer volume of good movies) and height (the greatness the movies). As always, these are limited by the films I've seen from each year. We'll start in the middle, with the 1950s.

10. 1951 - The weakest of a truly great decade for film, 1951 is topped by only two movies I consider truly great (Jean Renoir's The River and Samuel Fuller's The Steel Helmet), the weakest peak of any year this decade, though it does feature some solid depth, including a few films I know other people like more than I do (Dairy Of A Country Pirest, Ace In The Hole and Strangers On A Train). Other highlights include The Thing From Another World, Flying Leathernecks, An American In Paris, Alice In Wonderland and Tales Of Hoffman. Best: The River. Most Underrated: The Steel Helmet. Most Overrated: The African Queen.

9. 1956 - Four great films from this year, led by John Ford's masterpiece The Searchers, one of my favorite films, along with Yasujiro Ozu's Early Spring, Douglas Sirk's Written On the Wind and Budd Boetticher's Seven Men From Now. It's a shallow year though, with only a few more films I'd call really good. Best: The Searchers. Most Underrated: Early Spring. Most Overrated: Giant?

8. 1950 - A good peak but this year is sorely lacking in depth. Rashomon and All About Eve are masterpieces, and Harvey, Stromboli, Winchester '73 and In A Lonely Place are very god as well. After that are a few good but flawed films. With only 14 Movies I've Seen, this is my least watched year of the decade. Best: Rashomon. Most Underrated: Winchester '73. Most Overrated: DOA.

7. 1958 - Like 1956, this year is lead by a phenomenal top four: Touch Of Evil, Vertigo, Mon Oncle and Ivan the Terrible, Part 2. But unlike that year, there's a number of very good films backing up that great peak: The Tarnished Angels, The Hidden Fortress, Ashes And Diamonds, Some Came Running, A Night To Remember and Equinox Flower. Best: Touch Of Evil. Most Underrated: The Tarnished Angels. Most Overrated: Gigi.

6. 1955 - The most difficult year to rank, as there isn't a single film I'd call a masterpiece, but an impressive depth of very good films. Headlined by Kiss Me Deadly, Ordet, Mr. Arkadin, All That Heaven Allows and Lola Montes, there are at least 17 films from this year I really liked (Street Of Shame, Rebel Without A Cause, Bad Day At Black Rock, The Big Combo, Smile's Of A Summer Night, The Seven-Year Itch, It's Always Fair Weather, etc etc) leaving out at least one wherein I'm of the minority opinion that it's not all that good (Guys And Dolls). Best: Kiss Me Deadly. Most Underrated: Mr. Arkadin. Most Overrated: Guys And Dolls.

5. 1952 - A much better version of 1951, with two masterpieces at the top followed by a decent amount of very good films filling out spots 3-15, and even some films I may be underrating below that. Topped by one of my (and everyone's) favorites in Singin' In The Rain, and the film that even critics who don't like Kurosawa concede is great, Ikiru. Several other very good films, including The Quiet Man, Limelight, Othello, Bend Of the River, On Dangerous Ground, The Life Of Oharu, The Big Sky, and Europa '51 follow. Best: Singin' In The Rain. Most Underrated: Limelight. Most Overrated: High Noon.

4. 1959 - The decade went out with a bang with 6 masterpieces: Hitchock's North By Northwest, Alain Resnais's Hiroshima, mon amour, Hawks's Rio Bravo, Disney's Sleeping Beauty, Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Preminger's Anatomy Of A Murder. A few other great films as well, with Ozu's Floating Weeds and Good Morning, Bresson's Pickpocket Wilder's Some Like It Hot and Sirk's Imitation Of Life, which I think is a bit overrated. Unfortunately for '59 partisans, the year just doesn't have the depth past the top 10 that the top three years do. Best: North By Northwest. Most Underrated: Sleeping Beauty. Most Overrated: Ben-Hur.

3. 1953 - Four great non-American films headline this year, with arguably the best films by Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu), Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story) and Max Ophuls (Madame de . . .) and Jacques Tati's M. Hulot's Holiday. There's plenty of good American films as well: Samuel Fullers Pickup On South Street, John Ford's Mogambo and films by Fritz Lang, Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Howard Hawks and Ida Lupino. 1953 also features what is possibly the scariest, most disturbing film of the 50s, if not of all-time: Ed Wood's Glen Or Glenda. Best: Ugetsu. Most Underrated: The Band Wagon. Most Overrated: Shane.

2. 1954 - 1954 has the highest peak value of the decade with two of my favorite films: my #1 film, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and my current favorite Alfred Hitchcock film (the fifth film to hold that honor over the last 15 years) Rear Window. Not far behind are another great Mizoguchi film (Sansho The Bailiff), Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront, Federico Fellini's La Strada, Billy Wilder's Sabrina, Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder, Joseph Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa, Anthony Mann's The Far Country and William Wellman's Track Of The Cat. there's even some decent if unspectacular musicals: Brigadoon, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and A Star Is Born. Best: Seven Samurai. Most Underrated: The Barefoot Contessa. Most Overrated: Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto.

1. 1957 - The best year of the decade features the two most popular Ingmar Bergman films (The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries), the second best Fellini film (Nights Of Cabiria), classic films from Kurosawa (Throne Of Blood), Stanley Kubrick (Paths Of Glory), Stanley Donen (Funny Face), Alexander Mackendrick (The Sweet Smell Of Success) and Leo McCarey (An Affair To Remember). Lesser known, but nonethless amazing films from foreign directors Mikhail Kalatozov (Cranes Are Flying) and Ozu (Tokyo Twilight). There's a pair of films from Budd Boetticher, and a pair from Billy Wilder and some fine movies by John Ford, Samuel Fuller, David Lean, Sidney Lumet, and Vincent Minnelli. All in all, I count 22 films I consider worth seeing, more than any other year, with at least a half dozen masterpieces. Best: Throne Of Blood. Most Underrated: Tokyo Twilight. Most Overrated: Bridge On The River Kwai.