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: 1987

1987 The Dead 2

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce’s The Dead is a beautifully rendered evocation of time forgotten and love unrequited in early 20th century Dublin. What’s even more astounding about this seemingly “unfilmable” story is that it did just that, become an actual movie in 1987. But it wasn’t made into a haphazard adaptation, diluting its content as it went through the stages of pre-production, shooting schedules, etc. No, it became a boni-fied masterpiece all its own! John Huston’s final directing effort trims and rearranges certain aspects of Joyce’s original novella, but the substance is still there, lull and temperate until The Lass of Aughrim croons its way through a parlor door so as to hit Gretta Conroy like a distant ray of light upon her shoulders. The fact that John Huston would die not too long after filming wrapped also adds to the movie’s poignant sense of lament, a coping of the past and death similar to the cinematic bookends Huston provided Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe twenty years before. And so The Dead stands at the top of my list in a surprisingly good year for film. The rest of the decade… maybe not so much.  

1. The Dead (John Huston)
2. Where Is the Friend’s Home? (Abbas Kiarostami)
3. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
4. Au revoir les enfants (Louis Malle)
5. Boyfriends and Girlfriends (Éric Rohmer)
6. Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson)
7. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick)
8. Hope and Glory (John Boorman) and Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg)
9. Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé)
10. Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears)

Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Au revoir les enfants are both magnificent in the way they allow children to play adult roles without having the films compromise their wonder. Add the war themed Hope and Glory and Empire of the Sun and one could even argue that 1987 was the year for kid actors. Wings of Desire and Boyfriends and Girlfriends make for the art-house anchors, while Britain delivers two scathing drama/comedies in Withnail and I and Prick Up Your Ears. Then there’s Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which, while not being one of Kubrick’s best, still is Kubrick.

A couple of close contenders fishing for the bottom slots include Gillian Armstrong’s “teeteringly” sentimental but still acerbic enough family drama High Tide. Kathryn Bigelow outdid all “hipster vampire” movies twenty years before they became the popular thing with Near Dark, and Todd Haynes bursted onto the scene with his barbie doll biopic – if that’s how to describe it – Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Oh, and Bill Forsyth had Housekeeping, which is this week’s painful omission from my top ten list.

Two impeccably photographed period pieces, The Last Emperor and Red Sorghum, took on Chinese culture. Then there’s Ishtar and its not wanting to focus on much of that – culture, that is – for Morocco, at least not compared to its other more commercially oriented goals. But Elaine May’s infamous flop is still fascinating the same way that Heaven’s Gate is fascinating, that and it’s… hell, it’s even one heck of a funny movie! A couple of well-known titles: The Princess Bride, Broadcast News, Robocop, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Mooonstruck, provided good pleasures. And Evil Dead II… provided good pleasures as well… I guess?

Below those you’ll find Alex Cox’s Walker, Pedro Almodóvar’s Law of Desire, Lindsay Anderson’s Whales of August, and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. All flawed but in a very likable fashion. Finish it off with Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear and Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On – movies I have yet to watch – and that’s just a sliver of the films produced for 1987 (seriously, it was a busy year: House of Games, Predator, Barfly, Radio Days, Babette’s Feast, Maurice, Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, Space Balls, freakin’ Space Balls!, Some Kind of Wonderful, Overboard, etc…).

I’ll be taking a hiatus for the next couple of weeks but will be back at it soon with 1935. A great year for a studio synonymous with horror.