Top Ten Movies: 1956

07_the_searchers__Blu-ray

When thinking of 1956 and all of the continuous, ceremonious even, praise for The Searchers, I almost hesitate to place it as my number one. Do I really love John Ford’s often cited magnum opus because of a lack of my own peripheral vision muddled with a sort of cinephile status quo? Or do I genuinely think of this film as, and here I go and say it, one of the greatest achievements in the cinema? The answer, of course, is listed below. If there is any indication of the “Great American Novel” transferred to film, my argument is that yes, it has already been achieved, and yes, it was done by the sanctified cinematic duo of John Ford and John Wayne. If you trace back Ford’s filmography, you can see him actually cover every groundbreaking moment in American history. From the War of Independence (Drums Along the Mohawk), to the Civil War (The Horse Soldiers), all the way up to the Great Depression (The Grapes of Wrath) and beyond. So it’s quite the statement to be made then when he introduced a staple in his mythology, in this case the All-American Hero, and stripped away the romantic varnish of its purity. Ethan Edwards is his protagonist but he’s hurdles away from being a saint. Ethan’s clung to all of the ugliness that has tinged the nation’s past and has displayed it for the Eisenhower generation to digest along with their popcorn and drinks. Here’s a genre historically steeped in controversy over its archaic racist depictions and overlooked misogyny. And here’s the flag-bearing director of said genre’s success forcing audiences to question their previous acceptance of the western’s conventions. That’s quite the pill to swallow but quite the courageous leap for Ford to make creatively. So at #1 The Searchers goes.

1. The Searchers (John Ford)
2. A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson)
3. Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk)
4. Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray)
5. Flowing (Mikio Naruse)
6. Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher)
7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel) and Bob le flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville)
8. Street of Shame (Kenji Mizoguchi)
9. The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin) and Baby Doll (Elia Kazan)
10. Calle Mayor (Juan Antonio Bardem)

1956 also happened to be a spectacular year for melodrama. Aside from the aforementioned Written on the Wind, Bigger Than Life, and Baby Doll, there was also Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves and Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow; movies that really pulled away at the patterned curtains and into the American hypocrisy of its domestic complacency. And what an inspired momentum Sirk had with that! Melodrama overseas included Japan’s Flowing and Street of Shame, two wonderful and would-have-been labeled “woman’s pictures” that hold up beautifully today; the latter also the final outing by the ingenuously talented and deeply empathetic Kenji Mizoguchi. Spain had the Betsy Blair tug-at-your-heartstrings Calle Mayor, a gem desperate for rediscovery, and I almost gave the tenth spot to Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, the second in his brilliant Apu Trilogy installment.

Others hovering near the end also include Kubrick’s first solid masterwork The Killing, Robert Aldrich’s biting and sneering war drama Attack!, Vadim and Bardot really digging each other in And God Created Woman, and Fritz Lang’s seething noir, as if he knew how to do anything else, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Then there’s the colors in John Huston’s Moby Dick, and that and just about everything else in Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet. Oh! And Hitchcock had two perfect Hitchcock pictures in The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man, warming up for the work he had in store ahead.

Top Ten Movies: 1962

jules-and-jim

What a year, what a year. While there are countless venerations, books even, about Hollywood’s Golden Age reaching its zenith in 1939, there’s undoubtedly a strong argument to be held in favor for that underrated and infallible coalescing of world cinemas that took place in 1962. Hell, Hollywood’s bloated epics were rapidly deflating into hot air as emerging voices pushed their way out of conventionality. The likes of earnest political dramas in the vein of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were giving way to acid-dripping bite in the contorted form of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. The new kids on the block were taking over, mainly overseas. But those old guards that recognized this change, and accepted it, allowed their work to mature into a poignantly muted lament. I’m looking at you, Ford and Ozu. So why my number one? Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim has every deserved right to be identified as a French New Wave product. It malleates film grammar and brandishes it upon youth. But about midway through, unexpectedly, it begins to shift gears. That tire-screeching ride strolls countryside. It takes a long breath and holds it, wearing out into a deep self-reflection its fledgling director had every right not to experience yet. Having died young makes it all that much more touching. So Truffaut’s masterpiece beats out a whistle-blowing list of damn good cinema.

1. Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut)
2. Vivre sa vie (Jean-Luc Godard)
3. L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni)
4. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
5. The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)
6. The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel)
7. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford) and Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah)
8. An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu)
9. Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda)
10. Freud (John Huston)

You want to talk about omissions? Let me mention to you those that just missed the cut. There’s Roman Polanski’s scathing feature debut Knife in the Water. You had Kubrick behaving very naughty with Lolita. Bergman was especially Bergman this year with Winter LightKurosawa had his Yojimbo sequel, Sanjuro. Chris Marker had his brilliant short, La Jetée. The Brits provided us with their ever-so-dependable angry men in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Andrei Tarkovsky introduced himself to the cinephile world with Ivan’s Childhood. Pasolini collaborated with Italy’s brass beauty in Mamma Roma. In Hollywood, there was Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Penn’s The Miracle Worker, Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Hell, we even had the mother of predecessor indies through the horror vessel I like to call Carnival of Souls. Throw in Il SorpassoOs Cafajestes, Sundays and Cybele, The Trial, Salvatore Giuliano, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Kind of Loving, and I might as well be giving myself a heart attack. Seriously. Harakiri, Merril’s Marauders, Cape Fear, Two Weeks in Another Town, The Intruder, Advise and Consent. I can’t stop!

Top Ten Movies: 1947

Out of the Past

What a year for film noir! Let’s begin with a painstaking list of those omitted. You had Richard Widmark’s seething and sinister Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death. Tyrone Power and his traveling carnival troupe in one of the oddest entries with Nightmare Alley. Joan Crawford trapped in a vicious ménage à trois between Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda – Henry Fonda! – in Daisy Kenyon. Burt Lancaster tearing through steel in Brute Force. John Garfield doing what it is he does best, brooding as a tortured anti-hero in Body and Soul. You had Robert Ryan playing an outright anti-semite in Crossfire. Hell, you even had John Hodiak and Wendell Corey getting tight and chummy as the more fascinating love interest in Desert Fury, the year’s Gilda. But with that said, nothing tops the classic duo of Jacques Tourneur and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past. It isn’t the most innovative script with the most inspired climax, but it is everything a noir should be. It’s smoke coiled underneath an exposed lightbulb. It’s Mitchum’s baritone voice cooly describing his downfall, probably with a dangling cigarette in his mouth. It’s Jane Greer’s twenty-two year old youth brandished against her jaded fatalism. It’s basically the stuff that dreams are made of. So here’s tipping my glass of scotch to that, the year’s best.

1. Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
2. Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
3. Quai des Orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
4. Odd Man Out (Carol Reed)
5. Pursued (Raoul Walsh)
6. Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
7. T-Men (Anthony Mann)
8. Boomerang! (Elia Kazan) and They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel)
9. The Macomber Affair (Zoltan Korda)
10. La Perla (Emilio Fernández)

Odd Man Out has got to be one of the most extraordinarily idiosyncratic exports from the Brits. A film that begins like a caper but evolves into something surreal, all unique unto itself in its quiet and poetic finale. Then there’s Powell and Pressburger’s technicolor extravaganza that basically boils down to horny nuns in the Alps. Who woulda thought that it could make for such a damn good movie!? But like E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, it gets at British repression and social propriety against the call of, ahem, nature. Charlie Chaplin deviated as far away from his Little Tramp character with Monsiuer Verdoux, probably intending to make a statement by it, and Zoltan Korda snatches the win for the most criminally neglected film of the year with The Macomber Affair, one of the best adaptations of a Hemingway novel and an ironic piece of scrutiny against masculinity. Robert Preston should have won an award or something.

Next time, who knows! Hey, it was Robert Mitchum’s birthday today and I had a couple of hours to kill.

Top Ten Movies: 1979

1979 The Marriage of Maria Braun

Last time I had promised 1995… again. But hey, I get to make the rules here. It’s been a while since I’ve watched several of the films from that year, so I’d rather wait and revisit a couple before I take on the challenge of, you know, listing them. 1979, however, is as fresh in my mind as Hanna Schygulla’s smeared lipstick. After a trailblazing decade of drug-fueled machine-gun paced work, Rainer Werner Fassbinder finally got the kind of budget he’d always admired when watching Hollywood soap dramas from the 1950’s. The Marriage of Maria Braun is a compact little epic about survival in post-war Germany as told through the experiences of one single woman. It’s trashy, at times overwrought, and perfectly sinister in its commentary about West German plight turned opportunism. Basically, it’s all of the things that make Fassbinder’s work so chillingly pleasurable. Enough so, in fact, to knock out a couple of bona fide classics off the top spot. I mean how much more could really be said about Apocalypse Now or Alien? Movies that still sell out tickets at retrospect screenings like Super Bowl games. And although as popular as Maria Braun is when discussing Fassbinder’s work, that’s still a claim that it sadly can’t achieve. Which is a shame because it’s one heck of film. Oh well. You can’t win ’em all.

1. The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
2. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
3. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
4. Manhattan (Woody Allen)
5. Tess (Roman Polanski)
6. Vengeance is Mine (Shōhei Imamura)
7. Alien (Ridley Scott)
8. Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog)
9. Life of Brian (Terry Jones)
10. Camera Buff (Krzysztof Kieślowski)

Stalker is one of Tarkovsky’s lesser known works and, as we speak, still unavailable in the U.S. in a decent print. C’mon Criterion! But hey, they at least gave Tess and Vengeance is Mine the Blu-ray treatment, two art house films that continue to demand high praise. The latter is also a good first-billing in a double feature with The Silence of the Lambs, which always conjures up the theory in my mind that there is movie violence and then there is Japanese movie violence. And that’s a whole other category. And thank the Gods for Manhattan and Life of Brian, which lighten things up here. The former is a personal favorite of mine and one of Allen’s best, while the latter makes an audacious attempt at satire that only Monty Python could have the cajoles to get away with.

Movies that trail just behind include Francois Truffaut’s final installment in his Antoine Doinel series, Love on the Run, and idiosyncratic turns by Huston and Ashby with Wise Blood and Being There respectively. Oh! And throw in Winter Kills, too! Another oddball of a movie that’s truly unforgettable. Blake Edward’s had 10, with Bo Derek doing the Baywatch thing, and Bob Fosse had All That Jazz, with Roy Scheider doing the Marcello Mastroianni thing. David Cronenberg was finally in his “groove” with The Brood, and George Miller introduced a dystopian world we have yet to forget – and I hope we never do – with Mad Max. Cram in a couple of Oscar favorites like Kramer vs. Kramer and Norma Rae, along with some forgotten gems like Saint Jack, Going in Style, Breaking Away, and The Wanderers, and 1979 ain’t looking too shabby.

Next time: Who knows! I’ve been lying to you anyway, so why pretend? But I’ll leave you with this clip from Quadrophenia as an apology of sorts. I know, I know. Apology accepted.

Top Ten Movies: 1969

My Night at Maud's

I always get a kick out of watching characters eat in movies. It’s a little pleasure of mine to observe them actually behave like human beings. Talking over one another, fidgeting with their fingers, having to write something down because they won’t remember it. And, you know, locking doors, since everyone always seems to barge into houses and cars without any bit of a struggle. When a movie like Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s comes along, it takes it one step further. Here we have characters that actually think. And I don’t mean iterate lines that will move the plot along, but people that sit down and talk. They talk about love, they talk about religion, they talk about sex. Anything that comes to mind. One leaves for the night, another asks to spend it at the hostess’ house because it’s far too late to drive home. You know, stuff that actually could happen in the real world. And when the story grows from this source, something unique occurs. You’re immersed in the characters’ ideologies, beliefs, fears, and not strictly on their actions. That becomes the driving force of the movie. Them, their discourse, the stuff that you connect with people in the real world about. It’s quite the experience watching; something that I could definitely go on and on about like any of Rohmer’s characters, so I better stop it here. As for the rest of the year, simply one of the best.

1. My Night at Maud’s (Éric Rohmer)
2. Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin)
3. The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)
4. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville)
5. La Femme infidèle (Claude Chabrol) and Z (Costa-Gavras)
6. La Piscine (Jacques Deray)
7. Kes (Ken Loach)
8. The Honeymoon Killers (Leonard Kastle)
9. Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini) and The Damned (Luchino Visconti)
10. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sidney Pollack)

I had previously written that I’d get to 1995 next. Well… I lied. I listened to The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shleter last night as I was driving home late from work and it had suddenly occurred to me just how dark and haunting the Maysles brothers documentary really is. Unlike say Monterey Pop or Woodstock, there’s something about that concert at Altamont that captured the fringes of human behavior on the brink of some sort of implosion; that tether line that could always snap at any minute, and did! It’s pretty freakin’ unforgettable.

I also have to hand it to a lot of French stuff that won me over films like Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, brilliant movies nevertheless. But I couldn’t look past the luridly bizarre love quadrangle in Deray’s La Piscine, or Melville’s well orchestrated and tonally subdued WWII drama; the latter all the better because it lacks the self-righteoussness that practically comes as an instruction manual with movies dealing with that daunting war. Then there’s Fellini and Visconti on steroids, which in my mind conjures up an image of a midget couple making love on top of a Pollock painting. Yeah, I know. I need help.

Next time, 1995. I promise.

Top Ten Movies: 1967

1967 Le Samourai

What a year for French cinema! While those wunderkinds of the New Wave continued to hack away at the content and form of film, one even going so far as to disown the medium, you had seasoned veterans producing some of their most distilled and finest work. And distilled is exactly the word I’d use to describe Robert Bresson’s Mouchette and Jacques Tati’s Playtime, both lauded masterpieces that produce a certain kind of purity in their directors’ visions. The same could also be said about Belle de Jour, a movie that has always struck me as the Buñuel film to initiate one unfamiliar with his sensibilities, foot fetish and all. But it is Jean-Pierre Melville’s lean and stoic crime drama that nabs the top spot with its astonishing balance of both quiet urgency and its counterintuitive weariness. Melville, caught between the French pre-war traditional method of filmmaking and its enfants terrible successors, always seemed to mirror a combination of the two. With Le Samouräi, he just so happened to also produce his most stylish and iconic gangster movie of them all. And in Melville’s world, that kind of detail makes every bit a difference.

1. Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville)
2. Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel)
3. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)
4. Mouchette (Robert Bresson)
5. Playtime (Jacques Tati)
6. Accident (Joseph Losey)
7. Weekend and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard)
8. Point Blank (John Boorman)
9. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy)
10. Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg)

Even American films began to exude with an invigorated youthfulness that had rubbed off from overseas. Bonnie and Clyde and Point Blank, the former initially orchestrated to be directed by Francois Truffaut, brimmed with an energy knowingly produced by French gangster movies like Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player, movies themselves influenced by, what else, but older American gangster pictures. I guess we Yankees just didn’t know how good we had it. But we did have Cool Hand Luke, an Americana piece of classical craftsmanship that beats out another peer amongst its class, El Doroado.

Those that just missed the cut include Mike Nichols’ little known comedy The Graduate (have you heard of it?), which unfortunately conventionalizes in its second half when it should have jabbed deeper into the Braddock-Mrs. Robinson affair. D.A. Pennebaker showed the world that Bob Dylan could be a not so very nice guy in Don’t Look Back, and Robert Blake gave the performance of a lifetime in In Cold Blood, eerily foretelling a future all too familiar to his movie’s character. Then there’s Shirley Clarke’s fly-on-the-wall Portrait of Jason, which, along with David Holzman’s Diary and Titicut Follies, makes for an astounding case of exceptional documentaries that emerged in 1967 – if Diaries could be considered that.

Czechoslovakia had the breathtaking Marketa Lazarová and The Firemen’s Ball, Sweden gave us the *ahem* mature I Am Curious (Yellow), and Brazil offered up the spellbinding Terra em Transe. More great French films included Éric Rohmer’s La Collectioneuse and Godard’s La Chinoise (which makes three!), while Britain bestowed the… what would you call it? Somber? Somber cinematic year with an underrated and still clever comedy, Bedazzled, that, come to think of it, could take a spot on the top ten any day of the week. Now where do I sign?

Next time it will be the year 1995. “There’s a snake in my boot!”

Top Ten Movies: 2015

45 Years

A sporadic year overall. But while many critics bemoan the death of cinema, the commercial success of films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens reassure us that the experience of watching a movie in a theater and with an audience is still, you know, an actual thing. In the meantime, here’s my personal top ten list of the year. Unfortunately, I still have a lot of catching up to do before I expand on it any further. Guess I’ve got some homework to do. Happy New Year everyone!

1. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh)
2. Son of Saul (Lázló Nemes)
3. Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
4. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
5. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
6. Tangerine (Sean S. Baker)
7. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)
8. Experimenter (Michael Almereyda)
9. Phoenix (Christian Petzold) and The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)
10. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)