Ah, such were the days when fledgling college freshman ransacked art house theaters, lurking in cramped little rooms full of budding green-horned intellectuals searching for springboards in water cooler talk. And what a time! Up on screen they encountered pinnacles of sorts, movies tearing apart at the screen in radicalizations. It’s not an exaggeration then to read down at this list and note that any of these titles on any other given year could have easily ranked at the very top. But alas, the days of Persona and Au Hasard Balthazar are misty-eyed over. Not that there aren’t bona fide masterpieces – whatever that means – today. It’s just not the same scene, man. Far too many wonderful outlets prohibit a singular, dogmatic mentality to rule supreme. No Godardian deity to enshrine en masse or Sarris/Kael arena to pit oneself against as fervent cineastes nervously flip through the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma in defense of Louise Brooks and Allan Dwan. Hell, I wasn’t even born yet and I miss it. But we do still have the movies. And at the top are two of the best damn pieces of celluloid we’ll always have around. Masculin-Féminin captures said youth thriving in said habitat, all raised fingers in opinions, chugging down coffee, and chain smoking-cigarettes en route to bed for both sex, and, most importantly, more bon mots. The movie’s self-reflexively ethnographic, iconoclastic, and fun. Perhaps Godard’s most disarming, not that it isn’t dark (just picture a Disney star today casually discussing abortion). But then there’s Blowup, which takes it one step ahead by expunging post-adolescent energy and leaving the remnants, nihilism, knowing damn well that that’s where the generation was headed to anyway. Pretty hard to top that, don’t you think? And so at number one Antonioni stands in a hellishly impressive year.
1. Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni)
2. Masculin Féminin (Jean-Luc Godard)
3. Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
4. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky)
5. Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson)
6. Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles)
7. Seconds (John Frankenheimer) and The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara)
8. The Birds, the Bees and the Italians (Pietro Germi)
9. Cul-de-sac (Roman Polanski)
10. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Roberto Rossellini)
A sucker for buxom 60’s blonde expatriates dabbling in glitz town, The Birds, the Bees, and the Italians was a wonderful discovery for me in the Virna Lisi cannon, and, quite possibly, the very best of the commedia all’italiana genre. It speeds way through three story lines on crack, with each premise topping the one that preceded it until it reaches a mother of a politically incorrect conclusion. Seconds is the All That Heaven Allows with Rock Hudson playing the Jane Wyman role, while Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another shares an eerily similar premise to the Frankenheimer drama, which nevertheless is executed just as surgically. Cul-de-sac has always given me the impression of being Polanski in pure form and The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is remarkable in its nonchalant take on a period piece. Seriously, it’s so relaxed that it feels like you’re watching a cinéma vérité reel that just so happened to be filmed in the 17th century.
Those that missed the top include The Battle of Algiers, which on many days is better than most of the stuff I’ve got up here. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, whose reputation I’ll let speak for itself. And Black Girl, Ousmane Sembéne’s claim to international recognition and an incisively frigid piece that’s less than an hour long. Oh! And Monte Hellman’s The Shooting for several reasons, one being Jack Nicholson’s Byronic-like wardrobe and Will Hutchins, all of Will Hutchins. But the list keeps rolling off. There’s John Ford’s oddity Seven Women, somber and strange, really strange. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an actor’s workshop dandy. Closely Watched Trains and Daisies, Czechoslovakia’s outlets. Wings, Larisa Shepitko’s outstanding debut. Who Are You, Polly Magoo?, a stamp of the time, along with Modesty Blaise, Alfie, and Georgy Girl. Roger Corman’s surprisingly perceptive The Wild Angels. Shohei Imamura’s earthy The Pornographers. Alfred Hitchcock creating a terse scene on how hard it is to truly murder someone in Torn Curtain. And Seijun Suzuki with two wild tales of – surprise, surprise – youth in Fighting Elegy, and, my personal favorite of his, Tokyo Drifter. Lastly, I’d like to make a comment about Robert Downey Sr.’s Chafed Elbows. The comment being that if you like midnight movies here’s one hell of a way to sleaze still-photo storytelling. I wonder what Ken Burns would do with that.
I’ll be on hiatus for a couple of months but will return with 2010. In the meantime, enjoy some Chantal Goya and the wonderful Yé-Yé music I so passionately adore.