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.

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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: 1962

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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: 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: 1952

Singin' in the Rain

When you think of the movies chances are you probably conjure up images in your mind that include Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman bidding farewell one foggy night at the end of Casablanca. Or Cary Grant running for his life while a crop duster tries to gun him down in the middle of nowhere in North by Northwest. But there’s no denying that among these iconic scenes also stands Gene Kelly’s eponymous dance number in Singin’ in the Rain. In fact, it is rumored that during this exhilarating and now quintessential musical sequence, Kelly himself was battling a fever of 103 °F. But you’d never guess it! The minute the film begins it never lets go of its wondrous and buoyant momentum. Here was a prime example of what the Hollywood studio system could produce, a high-budgeted technicolor spectacle with stars, songs, and a happy ending. More often than not, it succeeded in telling a good story along with it all. But with Singin’ in the Rain the system got something more. It got a film that dealt with the trials of the motion picture industry transitioning to sound while in the real world Hollywood was desperately trying to survive a new and imposing competitor: Television. So musical numbers from forgotten movies were reintroduced, historical events were loosely incorporated, and the whole industry watched as a film steeped in its own celluloid past provided sheer fun and good laughs in a landmark that all other musicals continue to aspire to achieve today. Not surprisingly, over sixty years later, Singin’ in the Rain still provides those good laughs, as funny and joyous as they were in 1952. 

1. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly)
2. Othello (Orson Welles)
3. Europa ’51 (Roberto Rossellini)
4. The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi)
5. The Quiet Man (John Ford)
6. Limelight (Charlie Chaplin)
7. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa)
8. The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray)
9. Casque d’or (Jacques Becker) and The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir)
10. Le Plaisir (Max Ophüls)

As fragmented as Orson Welles’ Othello is, it’s this same crude element – due to a complicated production history – that enhances the movie’s brooding temperament, not to mention its brilliant use of wide angle lenses to create a cavernous space of veils, bars, and shadows. Then there’s the spiritual odysseys embarked by the leading actresses in Europa ’51 and The Life of Oharu, which allow their films to transcend into a sanctified realm not often found in the cinema, a true rarity that makes a case for the movies as a medium that can attain a higher level of aesthetic beyond their entertainment value. The same can also be said about Akira Kurosawa’s heartbreaking portrayal of what extraordinary results can come out of one dying man’s compassion for others. John Ford returned to his native land to shoot one of his most strikingly lush non-westerns, while Nicholas Ray rodeoed his way down to ranch country in The Lusty Men to dabble in Ford’s mastered genre.

Those that just missed the ranks include Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., which, along with Europa ’51, demonstrated that Italian Neoralist films, although waning by early 1950’s, still had some brilliant titles left in their influential movement. Gérard Phillipe channeled his inner Errol Flynn in Fanfan la Tulipe, and Gary Cooper duked it out on his own for a showdown of the ages in High Noon. René Clément had the devastating Forbidden Games, while Fritz Lang delivered two great genre pictures, Rancho Notorious and Clash by Night. Add a couple of other classic westerns – Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River, Howard Hawk’s The Big Sky – some taut B-noirs – Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin, Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential – and 1952 is beginning to look like quite the strong year for American cinema.

Next week: 1987. Offering a swan song of a movie as beautiful to watch as it to listen… to the dialogue that is. Melodic, like an old Irish standard. 

Top Ten Movies: 1926

1926 The General Buster Keaton’s The General is still a wonder to behold. It doesn’t attempt to procure any particular acclaim outside of entertaining, and yet today it’s considered a masterpiece of the silent era. There’s no high concept theme sermonizing about the “human condition” or sophisticated cinematic techniques commenting on the plot and/or characters. It just tells a good story and chugs along. Like its homegrown protagonist, it’s the film’s charm and deceptively simple approach that makes it such a unique and delightful experience. Which really could be said about the work of any of Keaton’s contemporaries (see Harry Langdon in The Strong Man). They made the laughs look far much easier than what they really were, often breaking a couple of bones along the way. And when they got it right, well… how else could one describe their movies but sublime. And that The General is, standing out in a somewhat tepid year for film.

1. The General (Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton)
2. 3 Bad Men (John Ford)
3. The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström)
4. Faust (F.W. Murnau) and The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger)
5. Mother (Vsevolod Pudovkin)
6. The Strong Man (Frank Capra)
7. Moana (Robert Flaherty)
8. The Black Pirate (Albert Parker)
9. Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff)
10. Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown)

3 Bad Men is one of John Ford’s best, skewing the lines between corrupt authority figures and noble criminals long before directors like Anthony Mann or Sam Peckinpah revised the genre. And this is Ford we’re talking about! In the nineteen-twenties! Then there’s Lillian Gish at a culmination in her career. While other actresses scrounged for the kewpie doll/gamine roles, Gish was busy challenging herself with each new film, enriching her body of work by continuously expanding the boundaries of her craft and paving the way for other great American movie actresses to come (à la Bette Davis and Meryl Streep).

But Gish does get quite the stiff competition from Greta Garbo, who’s luster is equally as bright in Flesh and the Devil. That film makes it on the list just over a handful of other strong contenders. But I’ve got to learn to have a little self-control, especially after cramming The Adventures of Prince Achmed in there with another gloriously visualized German classic. So Flesh and the Devil has to stick it out on its own at the number ten spot.

Those that did miss the cut include Teinosuke Kinugasa’s feverish A Page of Madness and Ernst Lubitsch’s jazz age extravaganza So This is Paris; the latter based on a couple of hilarious skits I discovered online in an otherwise hard-to-find comedy. Mary Pickford had Sparrows, which has one of the most touching scenes involving an orphan and an apparition that captures the pathos of the moment just right, and Rudolph Valentino bids farewell with The Son of the Sheik. Then there’s Raoul Walsh’s boisterous What Price Glory?, one of Harold Lloyd’s self-proclaimed “gag pictures,” For Heaven’s Sake, and the criminally underrated Beatrice Lillie laughing it up in Exit Smiling. And where’s Chaplin? Perhaps he needed to take a break after climbing up the Klondike.

Next week: 1973. Has anybody seen my cat?