Top Ten Movies: 1929

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A popular observation about silent films was that they had reached their peak by the time sound was introduced. Recently watching Dziga Vertov’s avant-garde Man with a Movie Camera, it’s hard to argue with such a case. Often found on countless “greatest movie” lists, including the always reputable Sight and Sound poll, this culmination of the “city documentary” genre exceeds in just about every boundary imaginable. As Soviet montage formalism, Man’s impressive in its seamless control of actuality and subjectivity. As nationalistic propaganda, it deviates from parading any set of forced ideals and focuses on people. As a silent film in general, it tells the story of a whole nation without a single intertitle. Add to it its ingenius use of self-reflexivity, allowing to see a day in a life of an unnamed city and then watching as, brace yourself, the editor pieces the film for us to watch as an audience in the actual movie, and you’ve got a master at hand orchestrating a well-maneuvered requiem to a medium we had already bid farewell. So at #1 Man with a Movie Camera goes.

1. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov)
2. Un chien andalou (Luis Buñuel)
3. Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock)
4. Lucky Star (Frank Borzage)
5. A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith)
6. Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst) and Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst)
7. Hallelujah (King Vidor)
8. The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch)
9. Spite Marriage (Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton)
10. The White Hell of Pitz Palu (Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst)

You want to talk about unprecedented, Luis Buñuel did to experimental cinema in less than twenty minutes what few, if any artists in that vein, could claim in a career’s lifetime. Then there are those films that treaded the fine line between silence and sound. I’ve had the fortune of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail on the big screen with Anny Ondra driven mad by the word “knife.” It is said that a silent version of the film exists, but I can’t imagine its delivery being just as impactful. A Cottage on Dartmoor mirthfully plays with a scene mocking sound at a movie theater that’s as scathing as Chaplin’s jabs towards talkies in City Lights and Modern Times. But other than that, Asquith’s glum thriller is anything but playful. Vidor’s Hallelujah and Lubitsch’s The Love Parade take leaps and bounds by becoming some of the very first musicals in film, all the while directors like G.W. Pabst and Frank Borzage presented works that were nothing less than masterpieces of the silent movement.

Those titles that just missed the ranks include a twofer from Dudley Murphy. Both St. Louis Blues and Black and Tan are exceptional in conveying just what exactly the blues and jazz meant respectively at the time, not to mention becoming cinematic landmarks on music history by preserving in film the enigmas that were Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington. Erich von Stroheim had his problem picture Queen Kelly, with Gloria Swanson taking control midway and unfortunately losing focus, and The Marx Brothers debut was forever embedded in nitrate with The Cocoanuts. Notable performances (apart from Louise Brooks cementing a mother of a legacy in one year alone) include Helen Morgan in Rouben Mamoulian’s remarkably fluid Applause, Anna May Wong overseas in E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly, and Gary Cooper in Victor Fleming’s Wolf Song and The Virgininan. My argument for the latter being that while Cooper wasn’t the most versatile actor around, he had the poise and disposition of what I always found myself to believe was a true movie star. So there you go.

Next time: 2006.

Top Ten Movies: 1934

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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

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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: 1935

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The year could have easily gone to one of the most iconic of all monster movies, a film that’s a culmination of sorts for the Universal horror genre by daring to subvert its bold subtextual material under the censor’s noses. The year could have also gone to Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s seventh and final collaboration together, which isn’t as subtle as Bride in its attempt to portray a feverishly charged love triangle. But 1935 also happened to be the year that Alfred Hitchcock took full form with The 39 Steps. Hitchcock had already made a number of remarkable thrillers up to that point, but nothing as perfectly honed as this chase around rural Scotland that’s about as “Hitchcockian” a movie as you can get. From the beautiful locales and expressionistic sets shot in detailed precision, to the fleshed out supporting characters that are as complex as the two leads, the movie’s a textbook example about how to film suspense the right way. What’s incredible is that when you boil down to it, The 39 Steps is still exhilarating and entertaining today. Because no matter how analytical one can get, the movies are first and foremost… movies. And quite the movie this one is.

1. The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock)
2. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)
3. The Devil is a Woman (Joseph von Sternberg)
4. Toni (Jean Renoir)
5. Alice Adams (George Stevens)
6. Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey) and A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood)
7. The Informer (John Ford)
8. Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl)
9. Top Hat (Mark Sandrich)
10. Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor)

Toni is a small masterpiece by Renoir that’s all the more endearing because of it, not to mention another film that captures the quaint and quiet beauty of the countryside. Alice Adams is a lesser known Katharine Hepburn title that painfully tugs at your heartstrings the way her eyes swell up and her voice shakes in her normally sturdy exterior. Then there’s Hepburn again in Sylvia Scarlett and all its peculiarities that seem admirable today but disastrous when the film was first released. And if you haven’t watched Ruggles of Red Gap, then you need to watch Ruggles of Red Gap, a light comedy that’s refreshingly different by proving that middle-aged actors could make for perfect screwball leads just as much as a Cary Grant or Carole Lombard.

And speaking of Lombard, films that missed the cut include her rags to riches then back to rags again comedy Hands Across the Table. Gary Cooper and Ann Harding’s love literally glistened in Peter Ibbetson. Sacha Guitry had the Lubitsch-like Bonne Chance! And John Ford’s Steamboat Round the Bend and The Whole Town’s Talking completed his rather prolific year, which might as well could be a discussion about his whole career while we’re at it (seriously, the man had over 100 movies to his name. Over 100 movies!)

Something I’d like to note. It’s strange to place a musical like Top Hat right next to Triumph of the Will. But as horrific as Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film is, there’s no denying its brilliance in manipulation and its groundbreaking methods of composition and editing that have become templates for documentary filmmaking ever since. The same could also be said of her next film, Olympia, three years later. Truly surreal works of art… surreal in that one doesn’t know just where to place them exactly. So at number eight Triumph goes.

It’ll be spotty from here on onward but if I could get at least two posts a month then I’ll consider my blogging project a very VERY slow success. So next time expect the year 2014. Seems just like yesterday, doesn’t it?

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.

Two from Hitchcock

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It was Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday last week and I thought this would be a great opportunity to recommend two titles from his incredibly prolific body of work. Apart from the standards (i.e. Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho), Alfred Hitchcock also had a rich oeuvre of underrated and seemingly forgotten movies whose dues are criminally neglected.

Personally, I’m particularly fond of his 1940’s period. His more polished latter work, which is what audiences are most familiar with today, lose a simplicity and roughness that made his earlier films feel more unguarded and intimate. His movies in the 50’s generally become lighter too. They’re so emerged in the style of the time that they can’t help but represent it. I’d like to think of them as “Metropolitan Hitchcock.”

To me, his films in the 40’s feel more raw and fatalistic. Like the black smoke cloud that blocks out the sky when Uncle Charlie arrives at Santa Rosa in Shadow of A Doubt, his films at this time have an impending sense of doom that constantly hover above the movies, even when there’s a happy ending. Because the majority of them are also shot in black and white, they encompass their own separate and individualistic worlds, outside the vividly colored and all too familiar busy urban streets of say North by Northwest. Strangers on a Train (1951), I, Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956) would have been a continuation of his 40’s theme had he remained more focused in that vein. But Hitchcock is Hitchcock no matter what.

1. Suspicion (1941)
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Released by RKO pictures in 1941, Suspicion is the only film where Hitchcock directed an actor to an Academy Award winning performance. Joan Fontaine, who had just come off of playing the lead in another Hitchcock landmark, Rebecca, stars as Linda McLaidlaw (a name in the typical ‘Hitchcockian’ fashion), a dowdy and submissive wealthy young lady on a steadfast pace towards spinsterhood – a role Fontaine more or less reprised from her previous collaboration with Hitch. Cary Grant, who plays a charismatic and handsome playboy, swoons her off her feet and out of those buckled shoes chafing with sexual repression. His financial recklessness becomes a small price to pay for the life he has saved her from. But when she begins to suspect that he solely married her for her money, paranoia sets in.

Hitchcock is a master at setting up romance as an ironic mental chuckle – predating Sirk’s glossy melodramas by a decade. You sense his urgency to get to the action, in this case Fontaine’s psychological deterioration, where the suspense really takes place. Unlike Rebecca, Suspicion also has less David O. Selznick in it, which means it becomes less of a literary adaptation that gets weighed down by its own self-importance and more of an experimentation in film techniques that draw out the best they can from the story. “Pure cinema” as the tagline goes. And if Psycho made audiences afraid to take a shower, one can’t help but think what Suspicion would have done to milk prices had the film been just as influential. 

2. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
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One of his more popular films from the decade, but still arguably unknown, is this disturbing family drama co-written by Thornton Wilder. Known particularly for the success of the stage play Our Town, which depicts the life of a small town community with all its charming simplicities and foibles, Wilder’s involvement is exactly what makes Shadow of a Doubt all the more fascinating. Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie, a vicious serial killer known as the “Merry Widow Strangler,” a murderer who contemptuously seeks out rich widows he charms and kills, taking their money and vanishing on to his next victim. On the run from the police, who inch their way closer and closer in capturing him, Uncle Charlie returns to his suburban childhood neighborhood, desperate to hide-out. His sister and her family are more than hospitable in his visit, especially his niece who idolizes him and is even named Charlie herself. The film becomes a bout between the two Charlie’s, as the niece slowly discovers the monster her uncle really is.

Despite the film’s eccentricities and absurd plot details, Shadow of a Doubt works because of Hitchcock’s mastery of film language. Like the majority of his movies, this one is a classic textbook example on how to create suspense and execute it to its fullest potential. Add to it the irony behind Wilder’s influence and you get a film that is truly disturbing and dark. A pathological and relentless man, who looks like any other ordinary civilian, enters the most ideal and pure of American institutions, the family. Evil sets foot onto wholesome provincial neighborhoods, where the traffic guards know pedestrians by name and everyone goes to church on Sunday. The fact that the film emphasizes Uncle Charlie as being a part of his niece indicts Wilder’s original belief and image about the “town” and its people as pure romantic fabrication.