Top Ten Movies: 1966

Blow Up 2

Ah, such were the days when college freshman ransacked art house theaters, lurking in cramped little rooms full of budding green-horned intellectuals searching for discussion springboards in critical studies courses. 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 ethnographic (yeah), 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 stripping away post-adolescent energy and leaving the remains, 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) and Nayak (Satyajit Ray)

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, get this, 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. Seriously, I’m beginning to regret its omission. 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, ah 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 The Pornographers. Alfred Hitchcock creating a tense 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.

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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.