Top Ten Movies: 2006

Dans Paris

A lot of revisiting and rediscoveries. For instance, so much of Pan’s Labyrinth is obviously about the creatures that I had pretty darn close forgotten the gripping historical drama that eases in and out of the macabre fantasies. Really, it’s spellbinding in its transitions and dares to question the nature of reality. I mean, what else is history but a long told tale of sorts? And A Prairie Home Companion, a coronation to bookend an idiosyncratic career in an idiosyncratic way, becomes richer as it distances in years. Its misty-eyed farewell never turns to saccharine because like most of Atman’s oeuvre, there’s nothing like its perfect imperfection. I just still feel bad for the crowds that had herded in expecting the radio show. But what a surprise my number one is! Whatever happened to Dans Paris? It came and went with very little fuzz and got shelved to dust. Or who knows! It could be the greatest rave in France to this day. No matter the case, it’s quite the vibrant movie, uncompromising in its manner of vision. It can be as cold and angry as Godard, as playful as Truffaut, and as riveting as any French New Wave film uncovered from the ashes of time. One moment its morose, the next they’re singing, but it never once loses its luster. So at number one it happily pops up.

1. Dans Paris (Christophe Honoré)
2. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro)
3. A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)
4. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
5. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
6. Inland Empire (David Lynch) and Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin)
7. Still Life (Jia Zhangke)
8. The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
9. Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran)
10. Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa)

The Lives of Others has become one of those cases of a dignified, intelligent work cast amongst respectfully neglected foreign films whose directors never bloomed as renowned auteurs (i.e. Sundays and Cybele, The Official Story). But its reputation is something I’m glad to continue to somewhat hear about today, even if it’s not as commonly referenced to as when compared to a PT or Wes Anderson movie. Then there’s stuff like Syndromes and a Century, Still Life, and Inland Empire, films all about their director’s visions and inseparable from their creator’s cannons. What can I say? That’s just how cinephile’s memories tend to work (mine included). And without mentioning all of those wonderful movies that I painfully had to exclude – and trust me, there were a lot – I will say that Lady Chatterley and Colossal Youth are nearly three-hour long dramas that rightfully deserve that time to ruminate.

Next post, and at this rate once a month, will be the year 1981. All I can think of is throwing a chair through a window, Mr. William Hurt.

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. 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 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.

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: 1973

Don't Look Now There’s often much talk about the ending of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Just who exactly is this mysterious figure? Why does she do what she does? And what could it all necessarily mean? Having recently watched the film a second time around, I’ve come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter. What I do remember is that scene early in the movie when a father grips the body of his lifeless daughter and carries her to shore. The wail of despair in his echoed voice as he comes to the realization that she’s drowned. I also remember a mother attempting to come to terms with her child’s death, and how that in turn affects her marriage with her husband. But the strange thing about this all is that none of it is ever directly addressed. Nicolas Roeg somehow manages to leave an indelible impression about the movie’s sense of dread by not really leaving anything at all. He plays with time and space, dissects it, twists it around, and ends up giving you the story in a radically new way, where the fragmented pieces coalesce to make better sense of the character’s state of loss and grief through ellipses than any conventional narrative could ever deliver. If it all sounds like a puzzle, then maybe it is. But then again so is the movie, mounting its way up to my number one spot by trumping another dazzling display of formalism told through a young girl’s perspective.

1. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg)
2. Badlands (Terrence Malick)
3. Amarcord (Federico Fellini)
4. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)
5. Day for Night (Francois Truffaut)
6. O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson)
7. The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice)
8. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)
9. Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman)
10. Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah)

Elliot Gould and Malcolm McDowell offer up a couple of tour de force performances that are as much about their personalities as they are about their talents, which work wonderfully well because the two of them are just so damn likable. Then there’s Fellini’s Amarcord and Truffaut’s Day for Night, both of whose warmth and endearing look into the past are like a breath of fresh air in a year – hell, a decade – where the movies often threw out genre conventions and opted for ambiguously bleak endings. The Spirit of the Beehive is a Spanish landmark directed by an underrated filmmaker whose body of work is as sparse and whose reputation as elusive as Terrence Malick’s. And then we have Pat Garret and Billy the Kid just nipping it above a couple of other potential films by offering as much insight and texture for James Coburn’s Pat Garret as that of the infamous but admittedly “been done” treaded ground of the gunslinging Kid.

Those that just missed the lower rungs include Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, which I have stored in my mind in a horribly truncated and poorly subtitled print that doesn’t do its reputation justice. Two solid American New Wave staples, Serpico and Scarecrow, that make a case for Al Pacino as actor of the year. Hal Ashby had the hilariously foul-mouthed The Last Detail, while Paul Mazursky warped the rules of the romantic comedy with Blume in LoveAmerican Graffiti introduced the world to George Lucas, and John Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh is quite possibly the best adaptation of any Eugene O’Neill play set to film.

Then there’s Senegal’s Djibril Diop Mambéty and his masterful Touki Bouki with a Josephine Baker score you’d swear was handed to the filmmakers on scratched vinyl. India had Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas, now gorgeously restored by the Criterion Collection. And the Netherlands had Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight, a commercial success that established Verhoeven’s name at home and one to look out for overseas.

Below those films are a couple of Hollywood soft spots that nabbed a few Oscars along the way (i.e. The Sting, The Way We Were, and a personal favorite of mine, Paper Moon). Some gritty U.S. of A. crime dramas: Charley Varrick, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and The Outfit, balancing out some horror turns from the likes of Romero, Friedkin, and De Palma – The Crazies, The Exorcist, and Sisters respectively. Blaxploitation films gave us two kick ass female leads – Coffy and Cleopatra Jones – while cult favorites like Enter the Dragon, The Wicker Man, and Jesus Christ Superstar would soon find their audiences. Seal it off with a couple of eccentric sic-fi quirks, Fassbinder’s World on a Wire and Michael Crichton’s Westworld, and you’ve got yourself quite the crammed year.

Next week: 2009. A good time as any to pull out that Jefferson Airplane album of mine.