Top Ten Movies: 1973

Don't Look Now There’s often much talk about the ending of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Just who exactly is this mysterious figure? Why does she do what she does? And what could it all necessarily mean? Having recently watched the film a second time around, I’ve come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter. What I do remember is that scene early in the movie when a father grips the body of his lifeless daughter and carries her to shore. The wail of despair in his echoed voice as he comes to the realization that she’s drowned. I also remember a mother attempting to come to terms with her child’s death, and how that in turn affects her marriage with her husband. But the strange thing about this all is that none of it is ever directly addressed. Nicolas Roeg somehow manages to leave an indelible impression about the movie’s sense of dread by not really leaving anything at all. He plays with time and space, dissects it, twists it around, and ends up giving you the story in a radically new way, where the fragmented pieces coalesce to make better sense of the character’s state of loss and grief through ellipses than any conventional narrative could ever deliver. If it all sounds like a puzzle, then maybe it is. But then again so is the movie, mounting its way up to my number one spot by trumping another dazzling display of formalism told through a young girl’s perspective.

1. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg)
2. Badlands (Terrence Malick)
3. Amarcord (Federico Fellini)
4. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)
5. Day for Night (Francois Truffaut)
6. O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson)
7. The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice)
8. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)
9. Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman)
10. Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah)

Elliot Gould and Malcolm McDowell offer up a couple of tour de force performances that are as much about their personalities as they are about their talents, which work wonderfully well because the two of them are just so damn likable. Then there’s Fellini’s Amarcord and Truffaut’s Day for Night, both of whose warmth and endearing look into the past are like a breath of fresh air in a year – hell, a decade – where the movies often threw out genre conventions and opted for ambiguously bleak endings. The Spirit of the Beehive is a Spanish landmark directed by an underrated filmmaker whose body of work is as sparse and whose reputation as elusive as Terrence Malick’s. And then we have Pat Garret and Billy the Kid just nipping it above a couple of other potential films by offering as much insight and texture for James Coburn’s Pat Garret as that of the infamous but admittedly “been done” treaded ground of the gunslinging Kid.

Those that just missed the lower rungs include Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, which I have stored in my mind in a horribly truncated and poorly subtitled print that doesn’t do its reputation justice. Two solid American New Wave staples, Serpico and Scarecrow, that make a case for Al Pacino as actor of the year. Hal Ashby had the hilariously foul-mouthed The Last Detail, while Paul Mazursky warped the rules of the romantic comedy with Blume in LoveAmerican Graffiti introduced the world to George Lucas, and John Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh is quite possibly the best adaptation of any Eugene O’Neill play set to film.

Then there’s Senegal’s Djibril Diop Mambéty and his masterful Touki Bouki with a Josephine Baker score you’d swear was handed to the filmmakers on scratched vinyl. India had Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas, now gorgeously restored by the Criterion Collection. And the Netherlands had Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight, a commercial success that established Verhoeven’s name at home and one to look out for overseas.

Below those films are a couple of Hollywood soft spots that nabbed a few Oscars along the way (i.e. The Sting, The Way We Were, and a personal favorite of mine, Paper Moon). Some gritty U.S. of A. crime dramas: Charley Varrick, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and The Outfit, balancing out some horror turns from the likes of Romero, Friedkin, and De Palma – The Crazies, The Exorcist, and Sisters respectively. Blaxploitation films gave us two kick ass female leads – Coffy and Cleopatra Jones – while cult favorites like Enter the Dragon, The Wicker Man, and Jesus Christ Superstar would soon find their audiences. Seal it off with a couple of eccentric sic-fi quirks, Fassbinder’s World on a Wire and Michael Crichton’s Westworld, and you’ve got yourself quite the crammed year.

Next week: 2009. A good time as any to pull out that Jefferson Airplane album of mine.

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Top Ten Movies: 1926

1926 The General Buster Keaton’s The General is still a wonder to behold. It doesn’t attempt to procure any particular acclaim outside of entertaining, and yet today it’s considered a masterpiece of the silent era. There’s no high concept theme sermonizing about the “human condition” or sophisticated cinematic techniques commenting on the plot and/or characters. It just tells a good story and chugs along. Like its homegrown protagonist, it’s the film’s charm and deceptively simple approach that makes it such a unique and delightful experience. Which really could be said about the work of any of Keaton’s contemporaries (see Harry Langdon in The Strong Man). They made the laughs look far much easier than what they really were, often breaking a couple of bones along the way. And when they got it right, well… how else could one describe their movies but sublime. And that The General is, standing out in a somewhat tepid year for film.

1. The General (Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton)
2. 3 Bad Men (John Ford)
3. The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström)
4. Faust (F.W. Murnau) and The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger)
5. Mother (Vsevolod Pudovkin)
6. The Strong Man (Frank Capra)
7. Moana (Robert Flaherty)
8. The Black Pirate (Albert Parker)
9. Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff)
10. Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown)

3 Bad Men is one of John Ford’s best, skewing the lines between corrupt authority figures and noble criminals long before directors like Anthony Mann or Sam Peckinpah revised the genre. And this is Ford we’re talking about! In the nineteen-twenties! Then there’s Lillian Gish at a culmination in her career. While other actresses scrounged for the kewpie doll/gamine roles, Gish was busy challenging herself with each new film, enriching her body of work by continuously expanding the boundaries of her craft and paving the way for other great American movie actresses to come (à la Bette Davis and Meryl Streep).

But Gish does get quite the stiff competition from Greta Garbo, who’s luster is equally as bright in Flesh and the Devil. That film makes it on the list just over a handful of other strong contenders. But I’ve got to learn to have a little self-control, especially after cramming The Adventures of Prince Achmed in there with another gloriously visualized German classic. So Flesh and the Devil has to stick it out on its own at the number ten spot.

Those that did miss the cut include Teinosuke Kinugasa’s feverish A Page of Madness and Ernst Lubitsch’s jazz age extravaganza So This is Paris; the latter based on a couple of hilarious skits I discovered online in an otherwise hard-to-find comedy. Mary Pickford had Sparrows, which has one of the most touching scenes involving an orphan and an apparition that captures the pathos of the moment just right, and Rudolph Valentino bids farewell with The Son of the Sheik. Then there’s Raoul Walsh’s boisterous What Price Glory?, one of Harold Lloyd’s self-proclaimed “gag pictures,” For Heaven’s Sake, and the criminally underrated Beatrice Lillie laughing it up in Exit Smiling. And where’s Chaplin? Perhaps he needed to take a break after climbing up the Klondike.

Next week: 1973. Has anybody seen my cat?

Top Ten Movies: 1991

1991 The Double Life of Veronique
When taking my very first course in film history I was instantly captivated by the stories I read regarding the tricks and optics used long before film cameras were invented. Alluring names such as “phantasmagoria” and “camera obscura” immediately conjured up images in my mind about the cinema and its ability to preserve a moment in time, the places and its people long after they’ve been gone. The fact that through light and shadows we create a completely new world still mystifies me. The Double Life of Véronique casts a spell over the viewer that parallels this said experience. It does so not through plot but in its ability to simply project. The colors and sounds are so palpable, the tempo melodic, that the film transfixes us through its motion alone. Its story, about two identical women unaware of each other’s existence but clairvoyant in their acknowledgement of the other’s ineffable presence, shares similarities with our emotional attachment to characters on screen that don’t know we exist but play a role for us. Prisms, mirrors, photographs, link events that turn the mundane into a spiritual transcendence of time and place. I mean, isn’t that what going to the movies is all about? The spectral lull of each individual scene and Irene Jacob’s immaculate beauty are just a few of the countless reasons that place Double Life at the top of my list for 1991.

1. The Double Life of Véronique (Krzysztof Kieślowski)
2. La Belle Noiseuse (Jacques Rivette)
3. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)
4. Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou)
5. Barton Fink (Joel and Ethan Cohen)
6. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme)
7. A Woman’s Tale (Paul Cox)
8. Van Gogh (Maurice Pialat)
9. Slacker (Richard Linklater) and Johnny Suede (Tom DiCillo)
10. Homicide (David Mamet)

And speaking of beauty, what can be said about Emmanuelle Béart that isn’t already perfectly conveyed in La Belle Noiuseuse? Along with Van Gogh, Jacques Rivette’s nearly four-hour (!) ode to the life and rituals of a painter is as painstaking in its depiction of the patience and trials required in creating art as it is in illustrating its periods of exhilaration. Then there’s Raise the Red Lantern and its aesthetic brilliance in framing and lighting that could, for my money, easily compare to any work of a Rembrandt or Caravaggio.

But apart from those good ol’ foreign artsy flicks (including Lars Von Trier’s Europa and Stanley Kwan’s The Actress), 1991 was also a strong year for independent cinema. And it very well should be! Those days of breaking it in the industry with just a good script to match your vision and tenacity now appear to be only words spoken with reverence and nostalgia about an era gone by. Maybe we didn’t know how good we had it?

Those that didn’t make the cut include a couple of crime/action movies that still pack quite the punch today. Point Break and Thelma and Louise have held up surprisingly well given that they didn’t depend on early CGI work as a crutch. Oliver Stone felt particularly prolific this year with two highly ambitious projects: The Doors and JFK. And I almost feel like I’m cheating this list – which I probably am – by withholding myself from watching Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and A Brighter Summer Day until they hit the big screen, but there you have it.  

Next week, I’ll go back to those olden days of the silent cinema where we didn’t need dialogue, we had faces! Great Stone Faces! 1926 it is.

Top Ten Movies: 1960

1960 Psycho

Much to my many failed attempts, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on this site. A year-and-a-half as a matter of fact. It’s safe to assume that Waterfront Cinema was beginning to look like quite the drought (and here’s hoping that it continues to rain for the one that actually matters in California). So I thought it would be interesting to develop a project, one inspired by a blog page I frequent. Robert Horton’s “The Crop Duster,” which is a collection of beautifully written reviews by the Seattle-based film critic who has a knack for wit to compliment his ingenious sense of film analysis. And just like his “Year by Year Best Movies” list, this one will be a categorization of films from a given year that have left the biggest impression in my viewing experience. Of course, it’s all subjective and you can take it anyway you’d like, but I always find myself attracted to lists. I feel like the need to create order is something innate in us all, like cleaning up a cluttered room. In the end, we might realize that the carpet is a different color than what we had originally imagined, or that an object we had given up for lost was actually stashed away amidst the mess. In other words, making lists can reveal a little bit more about us than what we originally thought composed our taste and outlooks. That and this project is one heck of a way to prevent getting rusty. Write. Write. Write!

So I’ll start off with the year 1960. Seminal in its transition from an older mode of filmmaking into one of complete freedom and experimentation. This is the decade where the “Waves” flourished (i.e The Japanese New Wave, the Czech New Wave, and of course, the French New Wave already kicking it off the year before). The studio system was beginning to collapse. And yet, my number one pick comes from a master of the craft who thrived under studio discipline. Psycho is as honed a genre piece as you can get; perfected through the expertise of artists and technicians taught, where else, but the on blood, sweat, and tears of the backlots in Hollywood. Still, Psycho is different. The shift in protagonists midway through the plot, the dark and disturbing psychological subject it chooses to portray, and of course, that infamous shower scene, are characteristics that would have been unheard of in the movies just a couple of years before. You can even compare Rebecca, Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood, with this one and see how far movies had truly come. So here it is, solidly cemented as my number one spot.

1. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
2. L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni)
3. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard)
4. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini)
5. Rocco and his Brothers (Luchino Visconti)
6. Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut)
7. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)
8. The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
9. Wild River (Elia Kazan)
10. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz)

A couple of Italian landmarks at the top challenging those brazen and restless French directors catching their first wind (this was also the year of the wonderful Les Bonnes Femmes and Zazie Dans Le Métro). And as assured as I am that Rocco and his Brother is one of my absolute favorite films – of all time, so the saying goes – there it sits at number five.

Those that were close but didn’t quite make the cut include the kinetic Cruel Story of Youth and the not-so-kinetic When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. Strong turns by bonafide masters (Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, Ozu’s Late Spring, and Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) and Purple Noon, adapted from a Highsmith staple that I believe holds up even better than Minghella’s very good 1999 film version.

Below that tier are two Robert Mitchum vehicles (Minnelli’s Home from the Hill and Zinnemann’s The Sundowners) that prove that the studios still had it in them (See The Apartment and Wild River). And then there’s Spartacus, which apart from being very entertaining, also made for one hell of a funny Pepsi commercial.

Next week (I sound like an old episodic show) will be the year 1991. Think again before taking a bite of those fava beans and nice chianti.