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, – and who isn’t!? – 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: 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 such as Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River, Howard Hawk’s The Big Sky; some taut B-noirs like 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.