Top Ten Movies: 1966

Blow Up 2

Ah, such were the days when fledgling college freshman ransacked art house theaters, lurking in cramped little rooms full of budding green-horned intellectuals searching for springboards in water cooler talk. 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 self-reflexively ethnographic, 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 expunging post-adolescent energy and leaving the remnants, 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)

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 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. 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, all of 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 earthy The Pornographers. Alfred Hitchcock creating a terse 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: 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.