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: 1935

1935 The 39 Steps 4

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.