Top Ten Movies: 1987

1987 The Dead 2

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce’s The Dead is a beautifully rendered evocation of time forgotten and love unrequited in early 20th century Dublin. What’s even more astounding about this seemingly “unfilmable” story is that it did just that, become an actual movie in 1987. But it wasn’t made into a haphazard adaptation, diluting its content as it went through the stages of pre-production, shooting schedules, etc. No, it became a boni-fied masterpiece all its own! John Huston’s final directing effort trims and rearranges certain aspects of Joyce’s original novella, but the substance is still there, lull and temperate until The Lass of Aughrim croons its way through a parlor door so as to hit Gretta Conroy like a distant ray of light upon her shoulders. The fact that John Huston would die not too long after filming wrapped also adds to the movie’s poignant sense of lament, a coping of the past and death similar to the cinematic bookends Huston provided Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe twenty years before. And so The Dead stands at the top of my list in a surprisingly good year for film. The rest of the decade… maybe not so much.  

1. The Dead (John Huston)
2. Where Is the Friend’s Home? (Abbas Kiarostami)
3. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
4. Au revoir les enfants (Louis Malle)
5. Boyfriends and Girlfriends (Éric Rohmer)
6. Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson)
7. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick)
8. Hope and Glory (John Boorman) and Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg)
9. Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé)
10. Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears)

Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Au revoir les enfants are both magnificent in the way they allow children to play adult roles without having the films compromise their wonder. Add the war themed Hope and Glory and Empire of the Sun and one could even argue that 1987 was the year for kid actors. Wings of Desire and Boyfriends and Girlfriends make for the art-house anchors, while Britain delivers two scathing drama/comedies in Withnail and I and Prick Up Your Ears. Then there’s Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which, while not being one of Kubrick’s best, still is Kubrick.

A couple of close contenders fishing for the bottom slots include Gillian Armstrong’s “teeteringly” sentimental but still acerbic enough family drama High Tide. Kathryn Bigelow outdid all “hipster vampire” movies twenty years before they became the popular thing with Near Dark, and Todd Haynes bursted onto the scene with his barbie doll biopic – if that’s how to describe it – Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Oh, and Bill Forsyth had Housekeeping, which is this week’s painful omission from my top ten list.

Two impeccably photographed period pieces, The Last Emperor and Red Sorghum, took on Chinese culture. Then there’s Ishtar and its not wanting to focus on much of that – culture, that is – for Morocco, at least not compared to its other more commercially oriented goals. But Elaine May’s infamous flop is still fascinating the same way that Heaven’s Gate is fascinating, that and it’s… hell, it’s even one heck of a funny movie! A couple of well-known titles: The Princess Bride, Broadcast News, Robocop, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Mooonstruck, provided good pleasures. And Evil Dead II… provided good pleasures as well… I guess?

Below those you’ll find Alex Cox’s Walker, Pedro Almodóvar’s Law of Desire, Lindsay Anderson’s Whales of August, and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. All flawed but in a very likable fashion. Finish it off with Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear and Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On – movies I have yet to watch – and that’s just a sliver of the films produced for 1987 (seriously, it was a busy year: House of Games, Predator, Barfly, Radio Days, Babette’s Feast, Maurice, Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, Space Balls, freakin’ Space Balls!, Some Kind of Wonderful, Overboard, etc…).

I’ll be taking a hiatus for the next couple of weeks but will be back at it soon with 1935. A great year for a studio synonymous with horror.

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Top Ten Movies: 1952

Singin' in the Rain

When you think of the movies chances are you probably conjure up images in your mind that include Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman bidding farewell one foggy night at the end of Casablanca. Or Cary Grant running for his life while a crop duster tries to gun him down in the middle of nowhere in North by Northwest. But there’s no denying that among these iconic scenes also stands Gene Kelly’s eponymous dance number in Singin’ in the Rain. In fact, it is rumored that during this exhilarating and now quintessential musical sequence, Kelly himself was battling a fever of 103 °F. But you’d never guess it! The minute the film begins it never lets go of its wondrous and buoyant momentum. Here was a prime example of what the Hollywood studio system could produce, a high-budgeted technicolor spectacle with stars, songs, and a happy ending. More often than not, it succeeded in telling a good story along with it all. But with Singin’ in the Rain the system got something more. It got a film that dealt with the trials of the motion picture industry transitioning to sound while in the real world Hollywood was desperately trying to survive a new and imposing competitor: Television. So musical numbers from forgotten movies were reintroduced, historical events were loosely incorporated, and the whole industry watched as a film steeped in its own celluloid past provided sheer fun and good laughs in a landmark that all other musicals continue to aspire to achieve today. Not surprisingly, over sixty years later, Singin’ in the Rain still provides those good laughs, as funny and joyous as they were in 1952. 

1. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly)
2. Othello (Orson Welles)
3. Europa ’51 (Roberto Rossellini)
4. The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi)
5. The Quiet Man (John Ford)
6. Limelight (Charlie Chaplin)
7. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa)
8. The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray)
9. Casque d’or (Jacques Becker) and The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir)
10. Le Plaisir (Max Ophüls)

As fragmented as Orson Welles’ Othello is, it’s this same crude element – due to a complicated production history – that enhances the movie’s brooding temperament, not to mention its brilliant use of wide angle lenses to create a cavernous space of veils, bars, and shadows. Then there’s the spiritual odysseys embarked by the leading actresses in Europa ’51 and The Life of Oharu, which allow their films to transcend into a sanctified realm not often found in the cinema, a true rarity that makes a case for the movies as a medium that can attain a higher level of aesthetic beyond their entertainment value. The same can also be said about Akira Kurosawa’s heartbreaking portrayal of what extraordinary results can come out of one dying man’s compassion for others. John Ford returned to his native land to shoot one of his most strikingly lush non-westerns, while Nicholas Ray rodeoed his way down to ranch country in The Lusty Men to dabble in Ford’s mastered genre.

Those that just missed the ranks include Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., which, along with Europa ’51, demonstrated that Italian Neoralist films, although waning by early 1950’s, still had some brilliant titles left in their influential movement. Gérard Phillipe channeled his inner Errol Flynn in Fanfan la Tulipe, and Gary Cooper duked it out on his own for a showdown of the ages in High Noon. René Clément had the devastating Forbidden Games, while Fritz Lang delivered two great genre pictures, Rancho Notorious and Clash by Night. Add a couple of other classic westerns – Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River, Howard Hawk’s The Big Sky – some taut B-noirs – Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin, Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential – and 1952 is beginning to look like quite the strong year for American cinema.

Next week: 1987. Offering a swan song of a movie as beautiful to watch as it to listen… to the dialogue that is. Melodic, like an old Irish standard. 

Top Ten Movies: 2009

The White Ribbon It’s the second week in a row that a horror film nabs the top spot in my best of the year list. The third if you include my very first post in a project I’ve begun just a little over a month ago. To be honest, this recurrence comes as a bit of a surprise since I’m not particularly fixated on the genre, or at least not more so than any other. But there’s no denying the brilliance behind Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Every minute of the film is as unsettling as the mysterious crimes committed in this small village set during pre-WWI Germany. From the rigid Protestantism enforced by the townspeople down to the social gatherings of the children, who, you know, you’d think would act like children and stuff, something always appears to be lurking beyond the corners of the frame. Of course, this foreboding tension is never fully realized but why would you want it to when the dread of it all stays with you long after the credits roll. That Michael Haneke can continuously tread familiar territory (i.e. Funny GamesCode Unknown, Caché) and still manage to present a new and disturbing angle towards his philosophy is a merit to his talents as a true auteur, perhaps the best working in the industry today. And so The White Ribbon situates itself as my number one in a year that presents a mixed bag of movies that are as assuredly uncompromising in their vision as they are in their eclecticism.

1. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
2. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
3. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
4. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)
5. Bright Star (Jane Campion) and An Education (Lone Scherfig)
6. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino)
7. Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos)
8. White Material (Claire Denis)
9. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu) and The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
10. Wild Grass (Alain Resnais)

Snuck a couple more in there that I just couldn’t ignore. An Education is another picturesque British period piece that, like Bright Star, tackles young love in a unique and vibrant way, not to mention bestowing the film world with a spunky Carey Mulligan whose as light and frothy in the role as a catchy French tune from the early 60’s. Then there’s The Hurt Locker and its well deserved accolades as a raw and relentless portrayal on a subject that all too often gets muddled in the cinema (and just about everywhere else). Tarantino delivers one of his most honed, and therefore one of his best, while the Coen Brothers indulge in what appears to be a passion-piece after the astounding success of their previous efforts in No Country for Old Men.

For those that didn’t make the ranks, 2009 was also a wonderful year for animation. Who would have thought that Disney could have delivered an even more idiosyncratic story in Up than Wes Anderson’s jab at stop-motion? But Fantastic Mr. Fox is indeed fantastic. And so is Avatar, that box office phenomenon which loses more than its scope when viewed on a small screen, especially when compared to the unwavering originality of Dogtooth or the complex moral gradations of Police, Adjective, big screen or not.

And the heavies? Andrea Arnold had Fish Tank, revitalizing the British kitchen sink realism from yonder years. Tom Ford had A Single Man, which is a gorgeously photographed drama that never attains the reach it originally sets it eyes on. And Martin Scorsese had Shutter Island, a film I wish I liked better than what I truthfully did. Add two foils from Soderbergh, The Informant and The Girlfriend Experience, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, and Pedro Almodóvar’s luscious Broken Embraces, and you’ve got yourself a year. Oh, and Antichrist too, whose first ten minutes gave me just enough of an inclination about the rest of the movie to not really want to finish it. And believe me, I’ve heard the stories.

Next Week: 1952. What a glorious feeling!