Thursday, March 21, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 1970's

10. Dog Day Afternoon (1975, directed by Sidney Lumet)
Al Pacino's greatest achievement as an actor is his work in Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon. He plays Sonny, who along with his buddy Sal (Pacino's good friend John Cazale) rob a bank in Brooklyn, ultimately getting stuck inside with all the employees as police surround the building. Based on a true story, though with plenty of inaccuracies as always with a movie, Dog Day Afternoon was revolutionary in its time for broaching the subject of gay relationships. Sonny is robbing the bank to pay for the sex change operation of his gay lover Leon (future Prince Humperdink Chris Sarandon, who's then wife Susan was starring in another 1975 gay culture revolution called The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Sadly, I think a major movie like this would still cause some controversy if it were made by a huge star and released today.

Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, Pacino creates one of the great characters in cinema in Sonny. He's smart, paranoid, angry, confused, and Pacino allows him to feel like a real life person, even though there's not a bit of what we think of as Al Pacino in the performance. Mannerisms, voice, everything is Sonny. Sarandon deservedly got nominated for an Oscar for his brief role, which is just as hilarious and tragic as Pacino's. Lumet's as always subtle work is phenomenal, as the lack of music makes things feel more real, ratcheting up the tension, and he keeps us inside with Sonny rather than spending too much time outside with the police. I thought it was a tad too long when I first saw it, but on a recent re-watch I didn't feel that at all.

9. Don’t Look Now (1973 directed by Nicolas Roeg)
Don't Look Now is the story of a couple, John and Laura (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who lose a child to a freak drowning accident. They soon after travel to Venice, hoping a change of scenery will help them cope while John works restoring a church. Strange things happen on the job to John, while Laura meets two sisters, one of whom claims she's clairvoyant and that Laura's daughter is trying to contact her parents to warn of danger. John also begins catching glimpses of a tiny figure, in the same red rain coat his daughter died in, running around, but every time he follows, he loses the person in the labyrinthine streets of the city.

A psychological workout on many levels, even the infamous sex scene is wrought with layers of meaning as it cuts between Sutherland and Christie in bed and the couple getting dressed for dinner, also mimicking other time jumping cuts that director Roeg only lets us realize are happening at the last (and most emotionally impactful) minute. The sex scene was reportedly so intense even during filming that stories have gone over the years that it was not simulated, much to the anger of Christie's boyfriend at the time, Warren Beatty. Sutherland insists that it was not only fake, but choreographed by Roeg sitting behind the camera calling out what he wanted each of them to do while filming.

So much more than its famous sex scene, in 2011 Don't Look Now was voted by UK magazine Time Out as the #1 British movie of all time. It drips with foreboding atmosphere and like all great horror movies, works on your mind, not with blood and cheap thrills.

8. Annie Hall (1977, directed by Woody Allen)
Roger Ebert says that Annie Hall is "Just about everyone's favorite Woody Allen movie", and I guess that makes me like everyone because it is certainly my favorite. Turning a corner from his earlier farces (with which he'd had great success), Annie Hall adds a lot of depth and weight to Allen's still hilarious humor, making for THE romantic comedy of all time, even if it's too singular to Allen to be copied to death like rom-coms tend to be.

Miraculously winning Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actress (miraculous because this was the year of Star Wars, after all), I think Woody and the gang deserved it. It's hilarious from start to finish, whether Woody is evoking Grouch Marx ("I'd never be a member of a club who'd someone like me as a member"), fearing for his life as Annie's crazy brother (played by an insanely young Christopher Walken) might kill them, or breaking the fourth wall and giving us in the audience little asides from the plot. My favorite is actually one with a hint of melancholy, where Alvy (Allen's character) tries to recreate different crazy antics he'd had with Annie with a new girl after he and Annie broke up, only to have the new girl not join in and him realize how special Annie was.

It was a turning point for Allen, as his next works became more serious, or at least were not silly, giving rise to the often uttered "I liked his earlier, funnier movies better." Not me, I think he only got better and better as a filmmaker, even if I think he never bettered this masterpiece.

7. Chinatown (1974, directed by Roman Polanski)
Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes is one of the best and most understated performances of his career in Roman Polanski's downbeat classic Chinatown. Set in 1937, and obviously indebted to the crime movies of previous generations, Polanski doesn't shoot much at night, making Chinatown what I'd refer to as a daylight noir. John Huston was a towering directorial figure in the noir genre, and makes for a towering villain in this one. From his refusal to say Jake's name correctly (always calling him "Mr. Gits" instead of "Git-ies"), to the air of a charming snake oil salesman, everything about Huston's Noah Cross gets under your skin, before you even know if he's done anything bad. Faye Dunaway rounds out the three leads and gives a wonderfully different take on the noir femme fatale.

Because of its downbeat and uncompromising take on the noir genre, Chinatown is a movie that subverts your expectations and therefore sticks out and grows in your mind in a way that most other crime thrillers don't. Robert Towne deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the movie's only win in a year dominated by The Godfather part II), but it was reportedly Polanski who came up with the film's famous ending. This was just a few years after his wife Sharon Tate had been murdered by the Manson family, and was his first time shooting in LA since then, something he only agreed to because of the extraordinary strength of the script and his wish to work with friend Jack Nicholson. Sadly, it would be Polanski's last American film, as he would have his famous legal troubles just 3 years after Chinatown's release. It's a hell of a great American movie though.

6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam)
One of the handful of funniest movies ever made, Holy Grail is a right of passage for every teenager (especially boys, as girls don't respond to Monty Python quite as well, on average). It's probably the most quotable, and quoted, comedy of all time, and with good reason. Everything Python ever did was messy, with some bits that work and others that don't, but they were never as consistently hilarious as in Holy Grail. Surprisingly well shot on a shoestring budget, it's a good old fashioned "let's throw everything we can at the wall and see what sticks" kind of comedy, with musical numbers, animation, failed musical numbers, storybooks, narrators, and many more techniques showing up on the episodic quest for the Holy Grail. And none of that even covers the characters, sequences, and lines that have entered pop culture over the past 35+ years.

There's much debate among Python fans as to whether this or their subsequent movie, the controversial Biblical tale Life of Brian, is superior. For me it's easy. Life of Brian obviously benefited from the Pythons experience making this movie, as it's more professional looking and was made on a significantly higher budget. It's a good movie, with many hugely hilarious and wonderfully quotable lines. But it's no Holy Grail. Holy Grail is the best comedy of the 70's, and if you don't believe me, I shall be forced to taunt you a second time.

5. Apocalypse Now (1979, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
A towering nightmare of a movie, and even more so of a production (check out the great documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse for that fascinating backstory), Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now was the last of 4 masterpieces by the man (the 2 Godfathers and The Conversation being the others, of course), and is one of the great achievements in cinema. Speaking to the depth of greatness of the 1970's, I would list this movie among the top 25 or so ever made, yet is only #5 of its decade. Martin Sheen stars as Capt. Willard in the loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as a Vietnam soldier sent on an assassination mission on former hero Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has set up his own Cambodian army, with himself as a God like figurehead.

The nightmare of the movie is the long trip down river as Willard comes across Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) bombing a Vietnamese village so they can get the good surfing waves there, a USO show featuring Playboy Bunnies, and unseen attackers as they get closer and closer to the hell of Kurtz's compound where he lectures Willard on war, humanity, and civilization as his fool (a photographer played by Dennis Hopper) babbles on about Kurtz's greatness. It's all so tragic, yet hallucinogenic enough that you're not really sure what Willard will do once he gets to the compound. That's also based on Brando's divisive work as Kurtz. It was among the first works of Brando I saw and I was completely spellbound as he captured my attention like few other actors ever had. I was fascinated by every single (sometimes nonsensical) word. Some say he was lazy and bloated, I say he's brilliant. Sheen too is terrific as Willard, and all of the supporting cast is wonderful.

But even Brando doesn't steal the spotlight from the movie itself, which is so epic even when feeling so singularly personal and emotional. There are also so many things about it that work like a lot of 70's cinema does for me, which is like music. You can't always quite describe why one thing is particularly better than another, but you feel it in your gut. "The horror... the horror..." sticks with you like all the great closing lines do, maybe because there are so many things the phrase could be applied to in the movie. Maybe because it's the great final notes in an incomparable symphony.

4. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, directed by Werner Herzog)
 One of the biggest influences on Coppola's Apocalypse Now was the movie that introduced the genius of Werner Herzog to the rest of the world. His fourth fiction film, it was his first with volatile star Klaus Kinski (father of Nastassja Kinski), who gives one of the great crazy man performances in the history of movies. It's the fictional story of a group of Spanish conquistadors looking for the fabled El Dorado, the City of Gold. Like Apocalypse Now, it's a slowly burning tale of madness, though here we stay with Don Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) as he takes over the mission, only to lead it to insanity and tragedy.

Kinski's work as a crazy man may not have been great acting, as by all accounts Kinski was every bit a barely controlled crazy man. Still, his work succeeds on screen in giving us a descent into delusion and a frenzy of blood as he becomes single minded in his tragic quest for the golden city. The perfect compliment to his erratic star, Herzog's gift of telling stories by not seeming to tell stories is a singular gift. His films unfold as if they're not at all planned, but we never doubt we're in the hands of a master who knows where he's taking us. Herzog's habit of not storyboarding his shots leads not to messy shooting (though a low budget movie like this has a bit of that too) but of found, seemingly accidental awe inspiring visuals. The opening shot of thousands of people marching down one hill and up another in the dangerous looking jungles of Ecuador is one of the great shots in movies, as is the closing shot. Aguirre alone in his madness, surrounded by chattering monkeys, muttering to himself on a raft, the camera slowly circles him as he leaves the screen, but not our memories. Not anytime soon anyway, this movie sticks with you for a while.

3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, directed by Steven Spielberg)
The concept of "first contact" (the first interactions between mankind and an alien race) has long been one of the most fascinating to me. Many movies and books have revolved around the topic, in an infinite number of ways, and my favorite movie dealing with it is Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Like he often does, Spielberg picked just the right leading man for the job here, as Richard Dreyfuss is not exactly your regular everyman. He gives off that quality, but has a sarcastic intelligence, and sometimes anger, that makes him feel even more relateable. As he says at one point in the movie, he didn't ask for "this" to happen to him (to have contact with aliens). He's not even really sure what happened, or why, or what it means, or where he goes from here. He loses everything in his life to find the answer to those questions.

I loved the movie when seeing it as a kid, but watching as an adult, I wonder why. It's actually not a very fast paced movie, with much of the time being spent watching Dreyfuss think and try to figure out what he's going to do, or with French UFO scientist Claude Lacombe (legendary director Francois Truffaut) and his interpreter (Bob Balaban) as they go on a similar chase for knowing the unknown. But I bet the seeds for my fascination in first contact were sown when I saw the powerful final section of this movie, where the Mothership shows up and we finally make our contact. It's a transcendent piece of filmmaking, awe inspiring and impressive on both a technical and storytelling level, the special effects are so prominent but always serve to better the story. I also love that we see the aliens, but they never speak nor directly communicate, and watching the original theatrical cut, we don't see inside their ships nor do we ever understand what they want. There's something I always liked about that.

A side note that I enjoy: what communication we do get from the aliens is done through music, and eventually through computers playing musical sequences in a repeated pattern. When on the show Inside the Actors Studio, it was pointed out to Spielberg that the aliens communicate through computers and music, while Spielberg's mother was a music teacher and his father a computer scientist. He was happily appreciative of that being pointed out to him, as it was coincidence and had never occurred to him until then.

2. Taxi Driver (1976, directed by Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver was a very important and influential movie in my development as a cinephile. I first watched it when I was about 16, I think, and I thought it was okay. Over the years, Travis Bickle's lonely decline into violent madness has haunted me and begged for re-watch after re-watch. Robert De Niro gives one of his many extraordinary performances, and working with Scorsese for the second of eight times the pair give us one of the great character portraits ever committed to celluloid. It's the story of Travis Bickle, a lonely insomniac Vietnam vet who drives around NYC when he can't sleep until he figures he might as well get paid for it by being a cabbie. Seeing the grimy, drug riddled, dangerous streets of pre-Guiliani NYC, Travis calls himself "God's lonely man" who thinks thoughts like "some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets."

We follow Travis on his journey to becoming that rain to wash scum off the streets, but before we get there he meets Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker, and Iris (Jodie Foster) a 12-year-old prostitute. He eventually takes it upon himself to be the savior of these two women, the fact that neither seems to want saving being irrelevant to Travis. The most disturbing thing about the finale of Taxi Driver is that after Travis kills a bunch of low life creeps, he's hailed in the media as a hero trying to clean up the city, while we who've been with him know that he was simply a ticking time bomb who went off, it just happened to be directed at these people (don't buy from anyone that everything after the shootout is a dream, that's bullshit). Travis saves his news clippings, and a letter from Iris's parents, but the final scene plays a strange noise as Travis looks in his rearview mirror at Betsy. To me this has always been the sound of the time bomb starting to tick down again.

It's a hauntingly lonely and disturbing movie that I can't shake for days each time I watch it. In the best possible way, and in a way that few movie have ever affected me.

1. The Godfather (1972, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

Conventional choice? Sure. Expected? Maybe. Boring? No way. Few movies have ever been as entertaining as The Godfather. Few movies have ever been as densely constructed as The Godfather. There's seriously not a wasted scene or moment in the entire film, everything means something. We're conditioned by other movies that there will be throwaway lines, moments, even whole scenes in which nothing was really accomplished in either a character or plot development way. Not so in the best adaptation of a book ever made.

Marlon Brando's work gets better every time I watch this movie, and ditto Al Pacino. The scenes between the two of them are electric in their greatness, as Brando's Vito Corleone cedes power of his mafia family to Pacino's Michael. Robert Duvall, James Caan, John Cazale, Talia Shire, they're all wonderful. But to me the movie comes down to the operatic execution of the amazing script from Coppola and the novel's author Mario Puzo (one of the movie's only 3 Academy Awards), and those two lead performances from Pacino and Brando. Of course, you could praise everything from Gordon Willis's influential photography (for which the master somehow didn't even get nominated for an Oscar) to the flawless production and costume design, Nino Rota's famous score, everything. It's one of the most thoroughly well made movies I've ever seen.

But none of that would make The Godfather as esteemed as it is if it wasn't so layered, powerful, and damn entertaining to watch. There's a reason so many people consider it the best movie ever made. I have to watch it every once in a while and I never fail to love it even more than I did the last time.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 1960's

10. Masque of the Red Death (1964, directed by Roger Corman)
The newest addition to my lists, as far as the most recently viewed by me, is this seventh Roger Corman movie based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. One of Poe's best stories becomes this terrific movie that really caught me by surprise. With the campy b-movie king Roger Corman directing one of the legends of the campy b-movie, Vincent Price, I guess I wasn't expecting a movie this dark and sinister and not at all campy. It's the story of a plague sweeping through a region in medieval England, where Price's Satan worshiping Prince Prospero holds court in his castle for many noblemen and women, while the countryside dies horrible deaths from the plague.

Price is simply phenomenal, oozing danger and evil while having his trademark sense of humor (which makes him and that smile all the more frightening). It's opulently made, or at least appears so, reusing sets from the Peter O'Toole/Richard Burton starring medieval movie Becket. Looking terrific (shot by the legendary Nicolas Roeg), coupled with Corman not turning away or cheapening the darkness of Poe's original material, it's absolutely a terrific movie, and very worthy of its inclusion on this list.

9. High and Low (1963, directed by Akira Kurosawa)
No secret by now that I'm a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa's work. There's something about his movies that really speak to me. I knew I was going to love this movie simply from its premise. Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is a shoe company executive. He becomes the target of extortionists who plan to kidnap his son and hold him for ransom. But as he's getting ready to pay the ransom, he finds out that it's not his son, but his drivers, who is kidnapped. Kurosawa uses this as a jumping off point for a police procedural with some philosophical questions wrapped around it. Is the drivers son worth any less than the bosses? If you were the boss would you use the money you'd saved up in your dream of finally taking control of your company, or would you spare the life of a boy you don't even know?

The movie is split almost in half, with the first dealing with the kidnapping, and the second dealing with the search for the kidnappers. It's to Kurosawa's credit that even though Mifune is one of the most charismatic and watchable leading men the movies have ever known, when the cop characters take over the second half of the film, the quality never dips. It's a tremendous movie, and one whose reputation (rightfully) grows year after year.

8. The Silence (1963, directed by Ingmar Bergman)
One of the stranger films on these lists, Bergman's The Silence is the story of two sisters, one dying and one resentfully caring for her and her son. While on a train home through Europe, they decide to stop in at the fictional town of Timoka, a place on the brink of war, and stay for a bit. The son seems to make a sort of friend in the kind elderly hotel porter, though the country speaks in an unintelligible language. There are long, fascinating shots of the boy exploring the hotel, running into the porter and meeting some of the other inhabitants. This is contrasted to the battle of wills between the sisters, as the sick one gets closer to dying and the other acts out with some of the locals.

Intended as the final entry into Bergman's "Faith Trilogy", starting with 1961's Through a Glass Darkly, and continued with 1963's Winter Light, The Silence evokes its title in many ways. Of course, if an artist refers to something as a "Faith Trilogy" and there's an entry called "The Silence", you can bet that the silence of God will be an issue in that piece. But Bergman always dealt with heavy issues like that in his work. On a much simpler level, The Silence is a very low key movie, with not a ton of dialog. The thing I actually came out remembering most was all of those great shots in and out of the hallway as the young boy searches through the hotel. It felt like an expansive journey of a movie, I was surprised to find out that it is only an hour and a half long. It feels longer, in a weirdly good way.

7. The Haunting (1963, directed by Robert Wise)
THE great haunted house movie, and probably what I would consider my favorite "horror" movie. Sadly, many people only know the title The Haunting from the reprehensible 1999 remake with Liam Neeson, Owen Wilson, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. That version is an unabashed piece of shit. Robert Wise's original is of the great old school variety where they actually created characters, used suspense, and made us believe that we're in a haunted house, instead of just throwing special effects at us.

It's not complicated. A team of people goes to investigate the alleged haunting of Hill House. Two men, Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), two women, Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theo (Claire Bloom). Finding simple things in the house like unexplainable cold spots, the tension ratchets up until we have things like "HELP ELEANOR COME HOME" scrawled on the walls and (naturally) Eleanor, who seemed initially to have the least connection to the project, starts to unravel. The movie has some great set pieces, like the door bowing into the room where the girls sit frightened on the bed, but the SFX are always in service of the story, and Wise never forgets that this is the story of these people, Eleanor in particular, not the SFX. Made between his huge successes of 1961's West Side Story and 1965's The Sound of Music, you wouldn't think this was made by the same filmmaker, but that's what makes Wise one of the underappreciated great directors of all time.

6. Blowup (1966, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
The first English language movie from Michelangelo Antonioni, Blowup is a hell of a good time at the movies. The Hitchcockian tale of a photographer who may or may not have accidentally photographed a murder, and the ensuing 24 or so hours after he did it. Antonioni doesn't give us any easy answers, and never answers the question of what "really" happened. But he doesn't need to, because that's not what he's after.

I think he's after a couple of things. 1.) He shows his main character, Thomas, bored with the mundanity of his fashion shoots and longing to be artistically motivated again. Antonioni had not really been going through a dry spell as an artist, but I think all artists feel bored and feel a need to reconnect or rechallenge themselves again. But to what end? Thomas almost becomes stuck in his project, not sure of how to get out (or if he even wants to) 2.) Antonioni is commenting on the nature of reality and perception. The famous ending scene with the mimes playing tennis as Thomas watches is a perfect distillation of Antonioni's asking of the question "what is reality? How is it different from perception? IS it different?" Few thrillers have ever challenged us to ask such deep questions before.

5. Red Beard (1965, directed by Akira Kurosawa)
One of the most human epics the movies have ever given us, Red Beard is one of the handful of movies I would ever describe as being "novelic". It was a hellish shoot, taking over two years, and the stress it caused meant it was subsequently the last of 16 movies Kurosawa made with Toshiro Mifune.

The movie is the journey of arrogant young doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), who for his post-graduate job is sent to work for the enigmatic Akahige, or "Red Beard", Dr. Niide (Mifune). Brash and uppity about his fancy Dutch medical training, Yasumoto believes he has nothing to learn from the small hospital Niide runs, and certainly not from the man himself. Over the course of the movie, though, Yasumoto's guard comes down and Niide forces him to grow up and realize that there's much more to medicine than the latest technological training. Sometimes you simply need to bear witness to the life of someone you can't save, and sometimes you have to work harder than you thought possible to save someone who doesn't think they can be saved.

Red Beard is probably Mifune's triumph as an actor. Gruff, no-nonsense, intimidating, but caring, philosophical, and strong and smart in every possible way, he's a fascinating character, expertly underplayed by the sometimes over-the-top Mifune. Sadly, it was allegedly the reservations of one of the writers saying that Mifune's performance was "all wrong" that led Kurosawa to question his leading man and ultimately never work with him again. While it was the financial stress put on Mifune by having to wear a natural beard and be available for sporadic shooting for more than two years, ultimately losing out on upwards of 10 movie roles in the process that caused Mifune to not want to work with Kurosawa again. Sad though it was that this was their swansong, it's a remarkable movie and a satisfying finale to the greatest actor/director combo in all of cinema.

4. Psycho (1960, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
One of the most famous, talked about, written about movies ever made, Hitchcock's low budget masterpiece Psycho deserves every bit of attention it's had. Knowing in advance the twists and turns of the story, it's to Hitch's credit that I was engrossed from the first frame of film. Anthony Perkins delivered the performance of a lifetime as Norman Bates, a truly extraordinary character we've never seen before. Janet Leigh is terrific as well, as the woman on the run who checks into the wrong hotel. It's not quite as quick moving as some of the other greats from the master, I don't think the search storyline is anywhere near as interesting as the Norman/Marion piece, but it's still good so it's a minor quibble in an otherwise tremendous movie.

On a side note, the controversial "shot-by-shot" remake that Gus Van Sant made in 1998 is one of the most fascinating pieces of experimental cinema I've seen. When asked why he did it, he said "so no one else would have to." He was trying to see if recreating a magical movie like Psycho shot-by-shot would retain all of the cinematic greatness, or if there's something deeper and unexplainable that makes a certain movie special. Sadly, it's obvious from seeing his version that the movie doesn't work, and there is indeed something deeper and unexplainable going on here. But since so much vitriol has been spit at Van Sant over the years for this project, I actually wanted to voice my support of his artistic balls, even if I think he failed to make a good movie.

3. The Apartment (1960, directed by Billy Wilder)
One of the loneliest movies ever made would not seem the place to inject a healthy amount of comedy, but Billy Wilder's triumph does exactly that with a grace and wit rarely seen. Jack Lemmon does his greatest work creating C.C. Baxter, the lonely corporate ladder climber who lets his bosses use his apartment for their affairs because it's cheaper than a hotel room (and doesn't come with any paperwork). He has never realized just how alone he feels until he falls for Shirley MacLaine's Fran Kubelik, and the moment late in the movie when he voices this is one of Lemmon's greatest scenes. Fred MacMurray plays Lemmon's boss, who MacLaine's character is having an affair with.

The description of the plot doesn't sound like there's much room for comedy either, but you must remember that this was the creative team just coming off of the great Some Like It Hot the previous year. Lemmon, Wilder, and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond were all at the top of their games and crafted one of the most complex, interesting movies to ever win a Best Picture Oscar, a fitting cap on the unabashed greatness that's permeates this masterpiece.

2. Persona (1966, directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Bergman's Persona is truly one of the most exciting movies ever made. It's a minimalist almost surrealist film about an actress named Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) who stops speaking onstage one night, and Alma (Bibi Andersson) the nurse assigned to be her caretaker while Elisabet goes to a small cottage to recover.  Alma talks almost constantly, initially good naturedly, to Elisabet about all manner of things, from reading a letter Elisabet's husband sends, to relating the story of a sexual encounter at the beach. Alma slowly begins to resent Elisabet and when she acts out by leaving a piece of broken glass for her to step on, Elisabet's eyes meet Alma's and the film famously burns up before Bergman reassembles it and we get on with the story.

The story then gets more odd and abstract, as we later see a monologue delivered once with the camera completely on Liv Ullmann's face, and then cut to Bibi Andersson's as the monologue is redelivered. After this comes the famous scene where Bergman take half of Ullman's face and half of Andersson's and mashes them together to show a truly frightening image of one face. Despite the bone chilling feeling of watching these two come together, my interpretation of the movie has always been that Alma and Elisabet are simply the same person, with Alma breaking off into her own character as Elisabet refuses to speak out loud.

Interpretations of movies like this are fun, but nothing compares to the visceral feeling of actually watching it. The moment when the two faces of these absolutely gorgeous women come together to make this monstrous looking face is a chilling psychological horror feeling I've not ever felt from another movie. I almost had to turn it off it was so disturbing to me. So great is Bergman that a simple act like this (something Bergman superfan Woody Allen later used in his comedy Love and Death) could have such an impact. Less than an hour and a half long, it's the epitome of the movie that you may not quite be sure what each piece means upon your viewing, but you're sure that you've seen greatness that must be dissected and examined.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Another movie that must be talked about and examined in detail is the best movie of the 1960's, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Disappointed that there were no great sci-fi movies, in his mind, Kubrick set out to collaborate with one of sci-fi's great minds, British author Arthur C. Clarke. They came up with the general outline together, and Kubrick went off the write the script and make the movie while Clarke wrote the book, that way both had artistic freedom in their fields, while also having worked together in the project's inception. What we got from Kubrick (I've strangely never read the book, despite being a huge Clarke fan) is sci-fi's great intellectual work, taking a long hard look at technology and how it affects us.

The movie really is driven by technology, the apes in the opening sequence discovering the use of bones as tools and weapons really being the first technology. We jump ahead to spaceships and all this crazy cool tech stuff that has become so commonplace it's boring to the characters. Next, the most conventional (and entertaining) section, with the HAL9000 and its crew on their dangerous mission to Jupiter. And the final section where our technology is irrelevant, but our evolution keeps going. A fascinating look on every level, with all the questions it raises stimulating our minds, while the still nearly flawless SFX holding our  eyes, 2001 is really an amazing achievement on every level.

Not necessarily easy to get through, I turned it off just a few minutes after the opening "Dawn of Man" sequence was over during my first attempt to watch it. But I went back and am glad that I did, as seeing it as a whole let me see what Kubrick was going for. Really the only complaint I have about this movie (which is in my all-time top 10) is the "Beyond the Infinite" sequence, where Dave goes through the wormhole into universes and planets and surfaces we could never imagine and can't really even process in our minds (this subject was a the focus of a section in Clarke's earlier masterpiece Childhood's End). The sequence goes on long after the point has been made, but even though it becomes monotonous after a bit, that makes the eventual sudden cut to Dave's face all the more shocking and effective. Kubrick's greatest movie, and the best movie of the 60's, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 1950's

10. Elevator to the Gallows (1958, directed by Louis Malle)
I previously wrote about Elevator to the Gallows when I first watched it, but essentially it's a French version of the American noir movies of the 40's and early 50's. The debut of future legend Louis Malle, it stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as Florence and Julien, secret lovers planning the murder of her powerful husband (his boss), only to have their perfect plan slowly unravel over the course of the movie's 91 powerfully tense minutes. A haunting, lonely score improvised by Miles Davis sets the backdrop of inevitable tragedy in the lives of our characters. Moreau, who didn't do anything for me in Truffaut's Jules and Jim, here uses her strangely attractive features in a wonderful performance of a woman hoping and searching and afraid for the safety and whereabouts of the lover she can't find, almost going mad with worry. Because, after the murder of her husband, Julien spends the night trapped in the elevator of the building in which he'd just committed the crime.

Gorgeously shot, tautly directed (by just a 24-year-old Malle), expertly acted and painfully tragic, it has all the hallmarks of the great noirs of years past and deserves to be remembered alongside them, above most.

9. Some Like It Hot (1959, directed by Billy Wilder)
Two broke musicians are witness to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and must go on the run as mobsters chase them through Prohibition-era Chicago, all the way down to Miami. Doesn't exactly sound like the premise of one of the great comedies of all time, but it is. Everyone knows by now that the musicians are played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, who disguise themselves in drag, meet Marilyn Monroe, and hijinks ensue.

Curtis and Monroe are both pretty and charismatic enough that their story is engaging (Monroe in particular, no matter what problems there were getting her to this performance), but it's Jack Lemmon who makes this movie really shine. His flawless comic timing and fearless work opposite pervy Joe E. Brown that takes things over the edge. The absolutely perfect ending "Well, nobody's perfect", despite knowing that that was the ending line, had me rolling on the floor laughing (not figuratively) at this Billy Wilder masterpiece.

8. The Night of the Hunter (1955, directed by Charles Laughton)
Robert Mitchum was always a welcome sight on screen, in my book. But when I watched The Night of the Hunter, he became one of my favorite actors. His bone chilling work as the murderous "Preacher" Harry Powell is among the great villianous turns the movies ever gave us. That he's surrounded by Charles Laughton's expressionistic, poetic, equally frightening movie is what makes it an all-time great. Powell kills his new wife (Shelly Winters), only having married her because he was cell mates with her first husband, who let slip of his family having a big stash of money. He stalks after the kids, unforgettably calling out in that booming Mitchum voice "Chiiiiiildren?" They eventually make it to the safety of Lillian Gish's Rachel, but the fight still isn't over yet.

It's sad that The Night of the Hunter was a massive flop when it was released. Laughton had been Hollywood royalty, having already won an Oscar (Best Actor for The Private Life of Henry VIII) and married to fellow Oscar nominee Elsa Lanchester, and this was his first shot at directing. His weird, disquieting, dark little movie rejected by both critics and audiences, he never directed again and was dead 8 years later, of cancer of the kidneys. Still, it stands as a remarkable achievement in atmosphere and screen horror, and one of the great movies of the 1950's.

7. Rio Bravo (1959, directed by Howard Hawks)
A testament to just how many incredible movies were made in the 1950's (the decade I had the hardest time whittling down to 10 during this effort), Rio Bravo is probably my favorite western, a genre I love wholeheartedly, yet doesn't even crack the top 5 of its decade. Regardless, this is one of the most entertaining movies I've ever seen. Howard Hawks' famous quote about what makes a great film was "3 good scenes, no bad scenes" and he was a master at putting that into practice. I don't know that I could single out what the best scene in the movie is, but I can sure as hell tell you there's nothing in the 141 minutes I'd cut out.

John Wayne is terrific here, even if his juicier role in The Searchers is his best work as an actor. He feels like he really would be the sheriff of this small town about to be under siege. Dean Martin should've had a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as the drunken deputy Dude. Walter Brennan adds some wonderful comic relief, and even Ricky Nelson is wonderful as the quick shooting Colorado. When he and the boys have a little musical interlude before the carnage of the finale, it doesn't feel shoehorned in because Nelson was a teen idol at the time and Martin a legendary singer, it works for these characters. It's simply terrific all around and one of those movies I'd gladly watch any time anywhere.

6. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donnen)
Despite growing up seeing a TON of musicals, as well as being a musician, I'm not a big fan of the musical genre of movies. The breaking into song pushes my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point and ruins it for me. But, of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and the exception here is the infinitely entertaining Singin' in the Rain. Gene Kelly's masterpiece onscreen is one of those happy movies that I watch if I'm sick or feeling down or anything. It's simply too much fun seeing Donald O'Connor throwing himself around like a cartoon, Kelly charming his way through the transition of silent star to the talkies, Debbie Reynolds' personifying the word plucky, and Jean Hagen's oh so wonderfully hateable Lina Lamont.

I could focus on the overlong "Broadway Melody" dance sequence, but Kelly did this in most of his movies, having a big show stopping dance number near the end of the movie. But no, the moments that stick out to me are Kelly's iconic title song and dance number, O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh", and the moment when it's revealed that Reynolds was the voice all along. Embarrassed, she tries to run out of the theater, but I never fail to tear up as Kelly calls out "Hey, stop that girl! She's the real star" Roger Ebert has called that a perfect moment of cinema, and I don't disagree.

5. Seven Samurai (1954, directed by Akira Kurosawa)
Generally considered Akira Kurosawa's greatest triumph, again the 1950's show their strength that I count this movie among my all-time 20 favorites, and yet it's only #5 on this list. Endlessly mimicked and ripped off, Kurosawa's tale of a small group of heroes protecting a village from bandits was the biggest movie ever in Japan upon its release, and a huge success worldwide as well, despite its 3 1/2 hour runtime. Having written about it multiple times before, I won't belabor the point here, just safe to say that its reputation is well deserved, even if it's only my personal #2 from the Japanese master.

4. Rififi (1955, directed by Jules Dassin)
The third of four non-English language movies on my 50's list, the blue print for all subsequent heist movies came from Blacklisted American Jules Dassin, directing in France because that's the only job he could get. It's a story you've seen many times since, but never as well, with a terrific lead performance from Jean Servais, and my favorite role in the movie, that of the Italian safecracker, played by Dassin himself. The calling card of the movie is the 30+ minute silent heist itself, a brilliant piece of filmmaking that none of its imitators can match. It's simply a genius movie.

3. On the Waterfront (1954, directed by Elia Kazan)

Occasionally pieces of cinema become such parts of pop culture that people forget even where it came from or the piece loses its power from repetition. Upon first viewing On the Waterfront, I expected the climactic "I coulda been a contenda" speech to be one of those for me. Instead, I found myself weeping at the loss and disappointment Terry Malloy felt in himself and in his brother Charlie. "I coulda been a contenda" isn't even the important part of the speech, it's when Terry says "You was my brother, Charlie, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money." It's a devastating scene, and delivered by Marlon Brando in what I believe is the greatest screen performance ever given.

There's plenty of backstory to the movie, about how Elia Kazan named names so he wouldn't get blacklisted, and made this movie as a sort of sticking up for himself. But I don't really care about all that. I care about Terry and Charlie and the other characters in the movie. Kazan set up real and idealistic people and all the actors are flawless. It's overall one of the best acted movies I've ever seen, even with Brando taking such deserved accolades for his work.

2. Throne of Blood (1957, directed by Akira Kurosawa)
Kurosawa loved Shakespeare, even though he thought he was "too wordy." He gave us some of the great adaptations of the Bard's work, with the greatest being this oppressive, horror tinged take on MacBeth. As he did with his later Ran, Kurosawa shifted the tale to feudal Japan. It stars Toshiro Mifune in the MacBeth role, hear called Washizu. The movie is dripping with atmosphere, it's almost oppresively foreboding. The 3 witches from the opening of the play are replaced with a single spirit here, and it's much creepier than any interpretation I've ever seen. They somehow altered the actors voice to give it a ghoulish deepness, with an almost metallic tone to it. It's very effective when combined with the eerie score and nightmarish forest setting. Mifune is a good deal more subtle in his performance here, there are some over-the-top outbursts, but mostly he internalizes Washizu's struggle. It's a brilliant performance, although arguably not even one of his two best.

The most famous sequence of the movie is the finale, where instead of dying in a duel as MacBeth does, Washizu perishes in a hail of arrows in a scene that might be my favorite from any Kurosawa movie. Washizu is able to dodge many of the arrows, some only inches from his head, but he's not able to dodge them all. Someone once told Toshiro Mifune that his acting in the sequence was terrific, that he actually seemed scared. Mifune replied that he was terrified, Kurosawa had people shooting real arrows only 2 feet or so from his face. He said he was not really acting at all. Whatever he was doing, it works. And the culmination of the scene is an image burned into the brains of many a film fan.
1. Vertigo (1958, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
There's honestly not that much to say about Vertigo that hasn't already been said on an analytical level. It was also recently picked as the #1 movie of all time, in the Sight and Sound poll of film critics and directors, a poll taken every 10 years where Citizen Kane had been the #1 movie for 50 years or so. The first time I watched it, I'd only recently seen Psycho, which had quickly become my favorite from Hitchcock, and was going through a bit of a phase, one in which I watched Notorious, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest (again) as well. While watching it, I was taken in by its hypnotic pacing and sumptuous photography, as well as one of the most disturbing performances ever given by a huge movie star. Jimmy Stewart was like the All-American movie everyman. He'd been a beacon of every day nobility and charm on screen for many years, even temporarily retiring to fly in WWII. So to see him play Scottie Ferguson with the kind of subtle delusional mania that he does was both surprising in his choice of role (and Hitch's choice to cast) as well as frightening in the intensity of performance. Stewart's performance is one of the all-time greats, the greatest Hitch ever got from his actors (and he had some great ones), and an incredibly bold statement from a guy whom I'd thought of almost as a persona and not the talented actor he was.

The almost trance-like sequences early in the movie as Scottie follows and ultimately falls in love with Kim Novak's Madeleine, gives way to the startling descent into madness that Scotty experiences in the final section. Hitchcock's presentation of this is somehow still infused with his trademark tension, while never feeling contrived for suspense. He gets us wired through building our central character and following him as he falls in love first with a woman, and then with an idea. We don't need planes flying at us, or scenes of murder in the shower to ratchet up our involvement with this movie. It's Hitch's crowning achievement and one of the truly great movies ever made.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 1940's

10. Stray Dog (1949, directed by Akira Kurosawa)

The earliest of Kurosawa's many masterpieces (he's got at least 8 I'd call out and out great movies), Stray Dog is about a young post-war Tokyo cop who has his gun stolen on the train home one hot summer day. This gun later turns up as the murder weapon in another case, and sends the young officer on a manhunt to find who stole his gun. One of Kurosawa's underappreciated non-samurai movies, Stray Dog has a palpable sweat to it, evoking those unbearable summer days and humid nights. Wrapping that setting around a cop movie was a good choice, and having his favorite actors Toshiro Mifune (as the young cop) and Takashi Shimura (as the veteran helping him out) as his stars was never anything but brilliant.

9. Bambi (1942, 5 different directors)

One of those odd "nostalgic" movies that I'm not actually nostalgic for. Bambi was never one of my favorites when I was a kid, I think I thought it was too slow. But when I saw it as an adult, I was mesmerized by the nature scenes and the evocation of seasons and life in the forest. I still don't cry when Bambi's mother is killed, but I tense up as they're trying to get out of the burning forest, and get all dewy eyed when the characters are growing up. One of the great Disney movies for sure.

8. Double Indemnity (1944, directed by Billy Wilder)

The earliest of Billy Wilder's many great movies, Double Indemnity did what a lot of the classic noir movies did, it took a terrific noir book, and didn't screw anything up in the translation to the screen. Fred MacMurray is a great choice as our everyman protagonist, drawn into the web of femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson makes for a great investigative foil who witnesses the whole thing unravel (as it always does in these noir movies). Great atmosphere, writing, acting, it's got all the usual hallmarks of a Wilder movie.

7. Foreign Correspondent (1940, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

The greatest movie Hitchcock ever made that most people haven't heard about, Foreign Correspondent doesn't have any big stars, or any iconic set pieces, it's just a damn fine movie. A globetrotting reporter played by Joel McCrea runs around Europe during WWII having all kinds of Hitchcockian hijinks happening around him (ya know, murder and blackmail and all that good stuff). Despite being nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars that year, Foreign Correspondent seems overshadowed in history by Hitch's other 1940 release, the Best Picture winning Rebecca. But it has some of Hitch's best work (especially the plane crash), including a deviously villianous turn by a pre-Santa Claus Edmund Gwynn.

6. Monsieur Verdoux (1947, directed by Charlie Chaplin)
One of the great dark comedies ever made, I've written about Charlie Chaplin's diabolical opus before, but I'll recap that it was an idea Orson Welles had for a movie that he wanted Chaplin to star in. Chaplin had never been directed by anyone but himself, and wasn't gonna start at the age of 58, so he bought the script, re-wrote it, directed it, starred in it, and wrote the score for it (a typical day at the office for control freak Chaplin). It's the story of a man who marries women, kills them and takes their money. It abides by the production code of the day by not letting Chaplin get away with it, but coming out just after WWII, Chaplin can't help commenting "One murder makes a villain, millions a hero." I've only seen 2 Chaplin's I'd call genius. And while I think his The Gold Rush is superior to this, Monsieur Verdoux is certainly his other.

5. Citizen Kane (1941, directed by Orson Welles)

What more can really be said about this, likely the most talked and written about movie in cinema history? I'll just quickly posit that obviously I don't put it as one of the 1 or 2 greatest movies ever made, it is most definitely a great movie. Orson Welles' work as director is incredibly ambitious and impressive, his work as writer nearly flawless, but it's his central role as Charles Foster Kane that really carries this textbook of a movie. He doesn't need the aging makeup he's put in, he believably takes us through different stages of Kane's life with just body language and voice control. It's truly amazing work on every level from a man who was only 26 at the time. And for those who haven't seen it, yes Rosebud was his sled, but what does that mean?

4. He Walked by Night (1948, directed by Alfred L. Werker)

Probably the most unfairly overlooked noir movie ever made. Serving as the blueprint for Dragnet's use of real police files, and having that shows creator and star Jack Webb in a small role, He Walked by Night is a fascinating police procedural noir with some striking cinematography, terrific performances, and a tightly wound script that never lets up, even if it only lasts 79 minutes.

Credited to journeyman filmmaker Alfred L. Werker, but directed at least in part by the legendary Anthony Mann (reports conflict on how much), the calling card of the movie has to be its finale, a flashlight lit chase through the L.A. storm drain system that shames the more famous, and very similar, chase at the end of The Third Man, released the following year. The wonderful suspense of the chase is heightened by what we already know of the killer's knowledge of the underground system, and his preparation of just such a scenario. The little details adding up into a tremendous sequence that's the best I've run across in my quest. The photography of the picture overall should be commended as well, shot by master cinematographer John Alton (An American in Paris, The Big Combo), the finale is not the only memorably photographed sequence (although I can't impress upon you how much I loved that finale), we get many great shots of faces lit by the light shining through the blinds, lonely intersections broken only by a single street lamp, and many more.

3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947, directed by George Seaton)

Everyone has that movie (or movies) that just make them feel good. No matter what your mood is, no matter what's going on in your life, you can watch it and feel thoroughly good. Well, this is that movie for me. I watch it multiple times a year and cry with joy every. single. time. The tale of faith and Santa Claus and legal loopholes and all that stuff add up to be the movie that just makes me the happiest I can be.

I have always wanted to point out that it makes me laugh that the finale of the movie is all driven by people acting selfishly. Fred is so sure of himself as a lawyer he says he can prove Kris is the real deal. Judge Harper refuses to dismiss the case because he has to keep his integrity, but can't risk pissing off the voters and he's up for re-election soon. The post office workers simply want to be able to get rid of all the Santy Claus letters they have in their dead letter office, so they send them to Kris. It doesn't exactly underline the giving mentality of what Kris preaches, but the movie makes me so happy that even as I'm watching it and thinking about how everyone is selfish, I just don't care and I sit back and be happy.

But as a movie buff I couldn't put it on the list if I didn't admire it from a filmmaking perspective too. It's got a tight script, is nicely photographed, and the acting by everyone involved is top notch. So it satisfies anything I could want from it.

2. Notorious (1946, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
One of the great performances from one of our greatest stars, Ingrid Bergman, is contained right here in one of the most low-key spy stories the movies have ever given us. It's really not a spy tale at all, it's the story of love and how these two people let their jobs get in the way, and put their country above themselves just long enough for things to get all screwed up, while we hope that they get out of it in the end. It's a nearly perfect movie, in my eyes, with Cary Grant's career best work, and Bergman's only being surpassed by another movie on her resume...

1. Casablanca (1942, directed by Michael Curtiz)

Speaking of perfect movies, I don't think I can find a flaw in the world's most famous B-movie. Not intended as one of the big studio productions, Casablanca simply came together in the happiest of accidents and became one of the most beloved movies ever made. It took me a long time to see it, but as soon as it was over I wasn't asking myself what the big deal was, I was kicking myself for waiting so damn long to see one of the greatest movies ever made and the best movie of the 1940's.

I have to detail my personal favorite scene in the movie and the reason why Humphrey Bogart was one of our greatest stars. After seeing Ilsa again, and hearing "As Time Goes By" for the first time in years, Rick sits drinking alone after closing the bar. Sam comes in and starts playing piano, Rick gives his "of all the gin joints in the world, she walks into mine" speech, but then asks Sam what he's playing. Sam says it's something of his own, and Rick lashes out at him to "stop it! You know what I wanna hear. If she can stand to hear it, I can!" and the look of complete devastation on Bogie's face should've won him an Oscar.

Upcoming posts - top 10 lists

Since I've always been a list maker, I've decided to create my top 10 movies for the decades of film I care about. Now, I'm a movie nerd, so I care about everything back to and including the silent era. For these lists, I didn't do the decades before the 1940's because as I was going through I realized that I didn't know enough about those decades to feel confident enough about my top tens to defend them. I know me some Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd, but not a lot else from the silent era (other than the big ones like Sunrise, The Birth of a Nation, and other agreed upon classics), and my list from the 30's of movies I'd rank as all-time greats was barely double digits. I've made these lists and will write a bit about why each movie is on there, starting with...