Top Ten Movies: 1997

boogie-nights

The two at the top of my list for 1997 couldn’t be any more disparate. Boogie Nights is a three-hour race through the golden age of the porn industry. Picture the coke-induced drive at the end of Goodfellas with as many characters as there is depravity. Mother and Son is an hour long Russian piece on the meditation of death between, what else, a mother and her son. It sighs and whispers, with every subtle motion a rift on the screen. And while both exemplify the quality of great films, Boogie Nights has got the fumbled excitement of a child that proudly takes his or her erratic behavior on the chin. P.T. Anderson’s second feature can overwhelm itself in its own scope but its ambition is something to admire. It revels in the hedonistic binge of its content all the while taking a sobering look at the trappings of sterilizing insecurities. Sex isn’t sex but a business, with everybody soon finding out that you can’t even get away with that. Somehow, you end up leaving the movie with the solemnity of exiting an art house picture, getting at something much deeper than all the surface drama. So at number one no doubt it goes.

1. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2. Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokurov)
3. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami)
4. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
5. The River (Tsai Ming-liang) and The Eel (Shohei Imamura)
6. Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai)
7. Funny Games (Michael Haneke)
8. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
9. Lost Highway (David Lynch)
10. In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute)

The once polarizing Taste of Cherry is still the poster child of 90’s Iranian cinema, that decade initiating – and still blazing – movement that’s produced some of the most outstanding narratively experimental social dramas, peeling away layer after layer of film grammar. Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential has tested far better than a lot of its contemporary crime peers by displaying its makers’ unabashed passion for everything the movie stood for. And Jackie Brown, a mutual screenwriter’s class darling, is strictly built upon that principle alone for Tarantino and the 70’s blaxploitation boom.

As for the rest, just look at all the bleakness! You have Tsai Ming-liang’s crumbling family drama desperately attempting to salvage its self-inflicting wounds. You have Michael Haneke perversely playing with the medium in his cool malevolence. You have David Lynch snatching a Luis Buñuel trope of replacing the lead midway in his bristling grumble of a shadowed world. The adjectives! Then there’s Chad from In the Company of Men, who could quite possibly be the most terrifyingly evil character on the screen in the ever most eerily of gratifying ways. A nod to LaBute for that, I guess…

Those that got pretty darn close include Robert Altaman’s Jazz ’34, which I ended up liking more than Kansas City. And I like Kansas City! Paul Verhoeven’s sly and subversive Starship Troopers, dating brilliantly because it never took itself serious… or did it? Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island, inspiring in its first half but a bit of a let down once Jason Priestly’s character actually arrives on screen. John Woo’s Face/Off, because like Verhoeven, bonkers is the way to go! And Nil by Mouth, Gary Oldman’s directorial debut that I haven’t watched in a very long, and I mean LONG time. For that matter, there’s also Grosse Pointe Blank, Gummo, The Ice Storm, and The Sweet Hereafter. Oh, and Titanic. Yeah… Titanic.

Advertisements

Top Ten Movies: 1971

mccabe-and-mrs-miller

By 1971, the American New Wave brandished and wielded into an antithetical “screw you old-Hollywood” defiance that was as unshaken as it was uncompromising. Rage and gunfire superseded stealth, recklessly blowing the staunch lid off le cinéma de papa. Fists first in blind fury. Straw Dogs and rape warped. A Clockwork Orange and violence operatic. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song giving the finger to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? With a new administration at hand on this bleak inaugural day, this may be a Duel-induced ride we’re going to be shifting fast gear on. And so my number one, revisionist as all get out, plays for the team but on its own terms. How do you go about radicalizing the already violent? The Ballad of the Green Beret conservative call to action with combustion back? By placing a flower in the smoking barrel. McCabe and Mrs. Miller recedes the western into placidity. It disrobes the ideal to expose the human. It’s elegiac about the loss of battle rather than harboring on its gratified ferocity in victory. This mature sentiment has always kept it as my number one in a year unprecedented with quality, and I’ve no doubt it’ll stay that way for a very long time.

1. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman)
2. Out 1 (Jacques Rivette)
3. The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich)
4. The Go-Between (Joseph Losey) and Two English Girls (Francois Truffaut)
5. The Merchant of Four Seasons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
6. Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman)
7. Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby)
8. The Ceremony (Nagisa Oshima)
9. The Devils (Ken Russell) and Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff)
10. WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Dušan Makavejev)

Up to this point, I’ve had a very difficult time omitting films with each and every entry. But this year here, this one takes the cake. There’s Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, a deeply fascinating portrayal about two driven-down souls meeting in the shadows of their own demons. Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, those movie rarities that miraculously manage to encompass their nations. Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, an admitted trudge that becomes part of its amplitude. Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, another poem in the western prose. And while we’re at it, master poet Jean Renoir also had The Little Theater of Jean Renoir. Then there’s William Friedkin’s The French Connection, that surprising Oscar-baiter which would have been relegated to B status fifteen years before. The black-and-white forgotten anti-war Trumbo passion project Johnny Got His Gun. Elaine May establishing her own kind of humor in A New Leaf. But wait! It keeps going! Mike Hodges’ Get Carter, Miklós Jancsó’s Red Psalm, Duck, You Sucker!, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Trafic, Vanishing Point, Carnal Knowledge!

I would, however, like to give a special nod to Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood for elevating their own blend of the thriller genre to even greater heights with Dirty Harry, Play Misty for Me, and a personal favorite of mine, The Beguiled. Good job, guys! This was truly their year.

Top Ten Movies: 1934

the-scarlett-empress

What a searing affair was the collaboration between the manic sensibilities of Josef von Sternberg and his willful ceramic muse. So much so that for 1934 it’s managed to knock off a deceitfully ground-surging masterwork, buoyant in its simplicity and tenderness as opposed to any rush of impact. But L’Atalante gets enough exaltations without me adding histrionics, so the hell with it. The Scarlet Empress blights with monstrosity in comparison. It’s a culmination of its mad creator’s delusions, clawing its way into abstractness. Sternberg had long discarded plot as superfluous, but now with this elevated deification of Dietrich he throws out whatever shred of reason that had previously tamed his seething obsession. He uses Catherine the Great as a pretense to shroud his frame with gaudy ornateness, tarnishing the past in a maneuvered playing field to heighten the lurid. Gothic backdrops layered in countless shadows, casts of caricatures all sneers and insinuations, and of course, Marlene Dietrich at the helm of it all, spotlighted as a nymph hovering above the mud-work so as not to dirty up her hem. This would all inevitably collapse unto itself; but for one brief torrid moment the nitrate blazed and blistered. The rest, while strong-footed, run miles behind the likes of these two movies.

1. The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg)
2. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo)
3. It Happened One Night (Frank Capra)
4. The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
5. La signora di tutti (Max Ophüls)
6. The Merry Widow (Ernst Lubitsch)
7. The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock)
8. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer)
9. Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks)
10. Judge Priest (John Ford)

A lot of comedies opening the flood gates for screwball with It Happened One Night banging the drum and rousing up the herd. This would undoubtedly be the genre’s decade. Then there’s early solid works by masters in the, if not already, making. Just take a gander at Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much or Max Ophüls’ La signora di tutti and tell me you don’t agree. Okay, the latter might actually be hard to find, which is unforgiving at our modern home movie release rate, but you get my drill. Then there’s Judge Priest, archaic in a snow-globe quaint fashion, but overseeing its datedness and understanding the context and intentions of the time, it’s still got Will Rogers at his most charming, and that’s saying a lot! The Black Cat is good old Universal horror macabre and my pick of preference over Lugosi in Dracula and Karloff in Frankenstein. But two cents, after all, are two cents. It’s too bad it had to come out the same year as Empress.

Those nibbling at the ends include W.C. Fields hating children in It’s a Gift, Astaire, Rogers, and company dancing night and day in The Gay Divorcee, Busby Berkeley kaleidoscoping (?) – hell, I’m trying – in Dames, Robert Flaherty hitting the shores in Man of Aran, which I would probably include if I ever watch in a decent print, and two honorable mentions, honorable in that I’ve yet to watch them, with King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread and Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess. Then there’s also Frank Borzage’s Little Man, What Now?, a great and under-appreciated tiny classic that was so tiny I forgot to add it above, so be on the look out.

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. Manhattan (Woody Allen)
3. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
4. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
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.