Thursday, December 17, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Lead Actress Performances

1. Liv Ullmann - Scenes from a Marriage

There's a scene early in Ingmar Bergman's movie where the camera stays on Liv Ullmann's face for minutes on end, as she's mostly silent. It's one of the great shots in cinema not because of its visual invention, it's a rather mundanely framed shot, but because of the extraordinary nature of Liv Ullmann. Bergman loved faces, and Ullmann's is expressive, but obviously hiding many things under the surface. We can tell immediately that things are wrong in this outwardly happy marriage. As the movie goes on, Ullmann's performance grows and deepens as her character matures. It's my favorite performance I've ever seen from an actress and I think really can be felt by seeing the movie better than it can be explained with words.

2. Meryl Streep - Sophie's Choice

Almost an afterthought because it's the best performance from our best actress, but still. This is extraordinary work from Streep. She takes us through the trauma of the titular choice (as a concentration camp prisoner she's made by an SS officer to choose which one of her two children will be allowed to live) to the recovery and attempt at life years later. The accent is wonderful, allegedly even speaking Polish accented German, but I obviously can't verify that. But it's what's going on underneath that elevates this performance into the realm of must see and all-time great.

3. Marion Cotillard - La Vie en Rose

Marion Cotillard's star making performance in La Vie en Rose is one of the times I was totally bowled over by the all encompassing brilliance of an actors work. The movie as a whole is just good, but every frame is worth watching for Cotillard, who takes us through the life of legendary singer Edith Piaf. She goes through seemingly every emotion possible, and takes us pretty much through the entire adult life of the great singer. It's a life filled performance in every possible way, and even with Cotillard's Oscar win, I think this performance is underrated.

4. Q'Orianka Kilcher - The New World

Although she has continued to act, we haven't really seen Q'Orianka Kilcher since The New World, and that's a shame because she gave one of the great performances in Terrence Malick's lyrical take on the Pocahontas story. Kilcher is staggering in the growth she shows on screen, starting out as a curious teenager connecting with Colin Farrell's John Smith, they end up sharing their language and hearts with each other before Pocahontas grows up to marry Christian Bale's John Rolfe and eventually become a young mother and aristocrat in England. That Kilcher was just 14 or 15 when she did this work makes it even more amazing. I wrote when I first saw it of Kilcher's "startling depth" and I haven't stopped feeling that way.

5. Ingrid Bergman - Notorious

I could've easily gone with Bergman's great turn in Casablanca, but her better work is in this Hitchcock masterpiece. As the drunken beauty with a checkered past and Nazi family ties, Bergman is extraordinary. She believably falls for Cary Grant, and we sit frustrated as he pushes her away on assignment to infiltrate Claude Rains' uranium enriching former Nazi. She goes along against her better judgment, while Grant resents her for playing her part well and doing what he told her to. We see her internal conflict as she gets subtly poisoned and more wearied each time she and Grant meet. Though Grant's character is the one of action, his work and the success of the movie overall wouldn't happen without Bergman as the centerpiece.

6. Brigitte Mira - Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

The newest (to me) performance on the list, Mira's work as the 60-ish German woman, Emmi, falling in love with 35-ish young Moroccan Ali really blew me away. To see her in the beginning, a conservative widowed cleaning lady, probably given up on life sexually only to be awoken by the connection she immediately shares with the strapping Ali, it's really terrific work from the actress. And then as writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder doesn't just give us a simple love story, but adds the complexity of the racism against the couple, the shock of the age difference, and the difficult reality they face if they want to stay together. When Emmi breaks down at the restaurant and says she wishes it were just the two of them in the world, we feel the desperation of this woman who had given up but now has a chance at real, true, unfiltered happiness and struggles against the world who doesn't approve of her life and desires. It's great and unforgettable work from Mira.

7. Bibi Andersson - Persona

Hard to separate this performance from that of her co-star Liv Ullmann, as in my mind they're playing the same character, but Bibi Andersson was always the less renowned of Ingmar Bergman's great leading ladies and her work in Persona is really tremendous. Watching Alma go from sort of wide eyed and happy, to euphorically sexy, confused, vindictive, and so much in between is really one of the great joys of Bergman's masterpiece of a movie. It's a two hander, and if one side falls down in such a situation the whole movie is ruined, somehow Andersson not only doesn't fall down, she transcends and elevates. Her ethereal beauty can't overshadow the brilliance of her performance.

8. Kim Novak - Vertigo

Sometimes overshadowed by the extraordinary work from co-star Jimmy Stewart, and by her iconic director as well, Kim Novak's performance in Vertigo is really one of the sadly under appreciated great pieces of work from an actress. So much more than the icy blonde Hitchcock presents her as, in the dual performance as Judy and Madeleine, Novak adds startling depth and nuance to the character that isn't there on the page. Her yearning for the love and approval of the man she unexpectedly falls in love with, as he tragically falls into madness, is the best work Hitch ever got from an actress, despite their contentious working relationship.

9. Kate Winslet - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This was a performance it actually took me a while to appreciate. I connected so heavily to Jim Carrey's Joel that I overlooked Kate Winslet's performance as Clementine. But the more I've watched this masterpiece of a movie the more intrigued I am by Winslet's character. Her free spirit, intelligence, beauty, all the things that made Joel fall for her, but also Winslet's ability to flawlessly portray Clem's confusion, spitefulness, and other qualities that made her a bit of an enigma. Winslet, of course, is one of our great actresses. And although she has a wide breadth of great characters, and this isn't her showiest work, I think it's her best.

10. Julie Delpy - Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight

Okay, definitely cheating on this one but I love Julie Delpy's creation of Celine too much to choose which movie she was best in. The performances are all so specific to this character at these certain times in her life. The romantic Celine in Before Sunrise, the more cynical Celine years later in Before Sunset, and the struggling against the trappings of normal life Celine in Before Midnight. Delpy, working opposite Ethan Hawke, has come up with a fascinating look into the complex mind and heart of a character who grows and changes and develops in wonderful ways. Unprecedented in its return to its characters (co-written by Hawke, Delpy, and director Richard Linklater) every 9 years, I hope we get to see Delpy continue this development, as Celine is one of the great characters in cinema, and Delpy's performances are the big reason why.

Don't forget to check out Clint's blog, Guy with a Movie Blog,with his top 10 Lead Actress Performances too.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Top 50 movies: 36-40

36. Blowup
Year: 1966
Country: England
Language: English
Director: 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.

37. Wall-E
Year: 2008
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Andrew Stanton

Wall-E is one of the most lovable characters we've ever had. He's right up there with Winnie-the-Pooh and Wallace and Gromit. The mostly silent love story he has with EVE is one of the great ones in cinema history. From how he is immediately enamored of her, she thinks he's adorable, the way they dance in space, to the way Wall-E adorably says "E-va" since he can't say EVE. The fact that they're animated robots doesn't lessen their impact in the slightest. When EVE has to rebuild Wall-E near the end, the emotional longing and hope and love we can feel from her is as extraordinary as anything a real actor could've given us. And though the second half of the movie is indeed inferior to the first, as most people recognize, I love the logical extension that writer/director Andrew Stanton takes for our laziness and reliability on machines. That Stanton also tackles ecology, consumerism, and the future of the human race in the middle of his mostly silent love story is further proof of the genius of this movie, Pixar's best.

38. Don't Look Now
Year: 1973
Country: England, mostly filmed in Italy
Language: English
Director: Nicolas Roeg

As I recently wrote a bit about this movie again when I put it on my top horror movies list, I won't write too much more. Just to say that mood and atmosphere are the best friend of the horror movie, yet too many filmmakers think it's blood or gore or stupid jump scares. Nicolas Roeg, working from an adaptation of the novella by Daphne du Maurier, creates a movie that oozes with death and fear and a surprising amount of emotion. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as the grief stricken couple trying to hold things together after the death of their daughter, are both absolutely superb. But it's the forbidding mood of the movie (despite, if I remember correctly, only a body count of 2) that always sticks with me. And, of course, the image of a little girl in a red rain coat.

39. Chinatown
Year: 1974
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Roman Polanski
A favorite sub-genre of mine, what I call the "daylight noir", has its pinnacle here in Roman Polanski's masterpiece Chinatown. One of Jack Nicholson's best slow burn performances, as PI Jake Gittes, is actually overshadowed here by the villain Noah Cross, played by legendary director John Huston. The way he subtly digs Jake by always calling him by the wrong name. How he always already knows the things that Jake is trying to figure out. Huston's voice and arrogant manner have stuck with me from the first time I saw this movie. Though he could be an imposing figure due to his height advantage over Jake, Cross is an old man now, but still has that air of power and importance about him. He seems to contain a darkness we're not sure we want to know about, he holds secrets we're not sure we can handle, and he has a politicians unbeatable snakelike ability to always survive. He's one of the great characters, and Chinatown is one of the great movies.

40. The Empire Strikes Back
Year: 1980
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Irvin Kershner
Perhaps fitting that this should come up in this list, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens to come out next week, but the gold standard of the series is, and likely will stay being 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. George Lucas stepped aside, handing over directing duties to accomplished journeyman Irvin Kershner, who crafted the most exciting, intense, emotional, and overall satisfying movie in the series. It's often pointed to as one of the best sequels ever for a reason. The entire Hoth sequence alone would make this movie remarkable, but the way Kershner handles the Dagoba section with Yoda is the best thing in the Star Wars universe. The planet is dark and dingy, Yoda is funny and wise (true credit for this goes to Frank Oz's astounding work on the puppeteering and voicing of Yoda), and the growth our hero Luke experiences has real emotional impact. So it's everything a big Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster should be, but rarely is.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Lead Actor Performances

1. Marlon Brando - On the Waterfront

The greatest male performance I've ever seen is this classic from the man often thought of as the greatest screen actor. I first saw this movie on Turner Classic Movies the week that Marlon Brando died. I knew, of course, of the famous "I coulda been a contenda" speech, but I wasn't ready for the depth and sensitivity and power of Brando's work overall. That legendary speech is heartbreaking because of Brando's reading of it. The hurt in his voice when he tells his brother (Rod Steiger) "I was your brother, Charlie, you shoulda taken care of me a little bit" is devastating. I was convinced as soon as it was over that this was the best performance I'd ever seen, and I don't doubt that these many years later.

2. Al Pacino - Dog Day Afternoon

Al Pacino has long been my favorite actor. And he has given us a huge swath of great performances, from Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies, to Tony Montana in Scarface, Lefty in Donnie Brasco, Roy in Angels in America, or even his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. But his greatest on screen work, and the one that has seemingly the least amount of Al Pacino in it, is in Dog Day Afternoon. His Sonny (also Pacino's familial nickname as a youngster) is one of the great characters, but the voice, the mannerisms, the vulnerability but also the anger and confusion but with an undeniable intelligence. It's a tricky role to play and I'm not sure who could've really played it but him. In particular, the scenes of Sonny dictating his will, and his phone call with his lover (Chris Sarandon) have lost none of their power in the ensuing 40 years since they came out.

3. Denzel Washington - Malcolm X

Spike Lee has said that Denzel Washington became Malcolm X during filming of the great biopic of the controversial leader. He said Denzel would often go off script for minutes at a time with an assurance and fire that were not his own. Once he would finish a speech and Spike would call cut, he'd ask Denzel where those words came from and Denzel would say "that was Malcolm." And I believe it. As much as we know the faces and voices of movie stars like Denzel, and he changes neither of them for this performance, I never once questioned that I was watching Malcolm, not Denzel, on screen. It's a scorching performance, and Spike doesn't let Denzel down, as the movie is a masterpiece as well.

4. Robert De Niro - Raging Bull

One of the most famous transformations in cinema history is Robert De Niro's dedication to becoming legendary middle weight boxer Jake LaMotta. Getting in fighting shape, including fighting 3 real amateur fights (and winning two of them), and then stopping production to gain 60 pounds to portray the older and out of shape LaMotta, De Niro displayed a remarkable dedication that has served as inspiration for decades of subsequent actors. But De Niro does so much more than transform his body, he seemingly transforms his soul. Jake bashing his head against the concrete wall is one of the toughest things to watch that I've ever seen on screen. It makes for a tough movie to watch too, but a moving one. No one has played animalistic like De Niro did here. Few people have played a more lost soul than De Niro did here. And few people have given a better performance than De Niro did here.

5. Sean Penn - Dead Man Walking

Though his co-star Susan Sarandon took home the Oscar that night (while he watched Nic Cage win his category), Sean Penn's work in Dead Man Walking is the reason the movie is so special. His Matthew Poncelet is a nasty man. He's a murderer on death row and we watch as Sarandon's Sister Helen Prejean becomes his spiritual advisor towards the end of his life. Penn does something that I think is easier said than done. He plays stupid. Well, not stupid so much as aggressively ignorant. He tries to spout off to Prejean certain Bible verses he likes, only for her to counter, and then say something like "well, I'm not gonna get into a Bible quoting contest with a nun." But he reveals Matthew over the course of the movie to be worthy of our empathy. Why? Because he's a human being, and that should be good enough. Not because he's innocent, or smart, or funny, or would be someone we'd want to spend any amount of time with. But because he's a real person. When he thanks Sister Helen for loving him, I broke down bawling like I never have watching another movie.

6. Takashi Shimura - Ikiru

Takashi Shimura has his place in cinema history as one of the two favorite actors of my favorite director, Akira Kurosawa. And although he stars as the lead samurai in the more famous Seven Samurai, Shimura's best work is starring in Kurosawa's Ikiru. Shimura's Watanabe finds out he has terminal cancer and begins a journey of waking up for the final stretch of his life. He's been a nameless, faceless bureaucrat but when faced with the end of his life determines to do something meaningful, which ultimately involves getting a children's playground built. The journey that Kurosawa and Shimura take us on is incredibly affecting, as Shimura wakes up from the stupor of his life, searches for his purpose, finds it, and becomes relentless in making it happen before he succumbs to cancer. Shimura's nuanced work carries the story so beautifully, and that iconic final scene, I'll never forget that face or that performance.

7. Toshiro Mifune - Red Beard

Kurosawa's other, and more famous, collaboration was with Toshiro Mifune. Though more famous for his over-the-top work in Seven Samurai, or more iconic in Yojimbo (basically giving birth to Clint Eastwood's entire persona), I've always been more interested in the final of his 16 movies with Kurosawa, the novelic medical drama Red Beard. Mifune plays the enigmatic head doctor of a clinic in a small Japanese town. He acts as the mentor to the arrogant young doctor Yasumoto, who comes in with his fancy medical training, but none of the life experience to actually help the patients at the 18th century hospital. Mifune's gruff voice perfectly fits the cantankerous doctor, but he also adds a depth of understanding. We can feel his years of experience helping people, or simply witnessing the end of their lives when there's nothing to be done (and the sadness that brings). It's the most depth Mifune ever brought to the screen, and it's sad that the troubled production helped make it the last time he made a movie with Kurosawa.

8. Jimmy Stewart - Vertigo

I've always called this the ballsiest star performance in Hollywood history. Jimmy Stewart was the likable Everyman of his times, but Vertigo's Scotty is a different kind of role. Stewart's Everyman qualities help make his descent into obsession, madness, and misguided love all the more disturbing because it feels so real and believable. He's kind of sweet when falling in love with the mysterious Madeleine, but it all becomes more insidious as he starts to try and mold Judy into his lost love Madeleine (unaware that Judy is really the one he loves, Kim Novak giving an extraordinary performance in the roles herself). And Stewart sells every bit of it every bit of the way. The kind of time that an actors usual persona can aid in the turn of character contained in this movie. It's Stewart's best work, and one of the great performances by anyone.

9. Billy Bob Thronton - Sling Blade

One of the most imitated characters in movie history, Billy Bob Thornton's amazing work in Sling Blade is one of those like Tom Hanks' Forrest Gump that has been embedded in the public consciousness so much that I think it's become undervalued. Actually, Thornton is undervalued overall, I think. We all like him, but with the performances he's given in A Simple Plan, Bad Santa, Monster's Ball and others, he should be thought of right at the top of the list of our best talents. And Karl is his best creation. A character wholly new and unique in movies, and one of the most fascinating. Karl thinks and feels deeply, even if he doesn't quite understand or communicate intellectually the way others do. It's simply a perfect performance as a perfect character.

10. Klaus Kinski - Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Now, from all accounts Klaus Kinski was a certifiable crazy person, so maybe his mesmerizing work as a soldier falling into madness isn't as big a stretch as it might've been for other actors. But still, his work in this Werner Herzog masterpiece is amazing. Aguirre doesn't start out as the supreme officer, but through fight and ego and the general oncoming madness of the expedition as a whole, he ascends to the "throne", as it were. But he does so at the expense of everything. Ending up in one of the great final shots surrounded by chattering monkeys blabbering on about himself. It's a haunting performance of great power and often unrestrained violence. Kinski is mainly remembered for his work with Herzog, and this is his greatest performance.

Honorable mentions for:
Jack Lemmon - The Apartment
Humphrey Bogart - Casablanca
Robert Mitchum - Night of the Hunter
Jack Nicholson - The Last Detail
Tom Cruise - Born on the Fourth of July

Friday, November 27, 2015

Top 50 movies: 41-45

41. Annie Hall
Year: 1977
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Woody Allen

The movie that led to the rest of Woody Allen's career. Before Annie Hall, Woody's output was silly, episodic, occasionally hilarious but ultimately wildly inconsistent farcical comedies. With Annie Hall he took a bit more time, more focus, and created a story and characters that really resonate. My favorite part about the movie is the theme of enjoying life while you're living it. Allen's character Alvy doesn't appreciate Annie while he's with her, it's only after she's gone and he tries to recreate some of the fun things they'd done only to realize that those were particular moments that can't be recreated, no matter how much you wish they could. This kind of wistful and mature look at relationships is what has always put Annie Hall above Woody's other movies, for me. But there's also hilarious gags and one liners and surreal bits that have kept audiences loving it for nearly 40 years.

42. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Year: 1984
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

I watched Nausicaa not really knowing what to expect. It's not Hayao Miyazaki's most acclaimed movie (that'd be 1998's Princess Mononoke or 2001's Spirited Away, which won Miyazaki an Oscar), and I watched it because I was on a Miyazaki quest and it was simply the next on the list. But what I got was among the best post-apocalyptic movies ever made. The world building in this movie (based on Miyazaki's manga of the same name) is really extraordinary, and serves as the best representation of all of Miyazaki's favorite themes: ecology, flight, and a strong young heroine. Nausicaa's impassioned adventure through the unforgiving and toxic landscape, looking for answers on how to make the world a better place, is also Miyazaki's greatest action/adventure story. Joe Hisaishi's score, when it doesn't sound like a Nintendo game, might be the most beautiful score I've heard to go with Miyazaki's best imagery. There's not enough I can say about this movie (it also inspired one of my favorite video games, the NES's Crystalis), I enjoy certain anime, but for me this is the big daddy of them all.

43. The Haunting
Year: 1963
Country: England
Language: English
Director: Robert Wise

I recently wrote about this movie again when I placed it on my top horror movies list, but I'll just say again that what makes it work is that the characters are set up as real people and not just as "types". So when our supernatural haunted house happenings start to go down, we know these people a bit and it's interesting to see what happens, rather than the characters just being fodder for ghosts or typical horror shenanigans or whatever. But also the horror shenanigans work dramatically too, so it's got that going for it, which is nice.

44. Do the Right Thing
Year: 1989
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Spike Lee

Like Almodovar's Talk to Her, this movie has so much life in it. Spike Lee overloads this movie with characters, details, music, and dialog. We get a vision so specific to it's time and place that it becomes universal. As the unease builds throughout the hottest day of the year, we end up in an explosion of hurt and pain accumulated over years between these people. The movie's riot finale has become famous, as well as the question of "did Mookie do the right thing?" (spoiler alert: no, literally nobody does the right thing and that's what makes the movie so emotionally affecting). But all of that ignores the genius of Lee's writing and directing and casting. This movie is filled to the brim with everything you could want in a movie. It's the best work of Lee's great (but uneven) career.

45. Dog Day Afternoon
Year: 1975
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet nearly made my top directors list, and this is the best work of the masters career. Dog Day Afternoon is funny, tense, emotionally affecting, and impeccably done by everyone involved. Lumet lets the tension build and build as the cat and mouse game goes down between Al Pacino and John Cazale's bank robbers and Charles Durning's cops surrounding the building. Lumet subtly ratchets this tension up by allowing no music to come in and underscore anything or break the energy, a brilliant directorial choice. There's also Chris Sarandon's supporting turn as Pacino's gay lover and he is just extraordinary in his limited screen time. The phone call between he and Pacino is some of the best acting you'll ever see. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Directors

So here's my list of top 10 filmmakers. Don't forget to check out Clint's list over at Guy with a Movie Blog too!

1. Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa takes the top spot on the list for the simple fact that I've rated more of his movies 10/10 than any other filmmaker. His work speaks to me in a certain way. His wonderful framing and intense action. His blending of Eastern and Western. In fact during his lifetime he was often more revered abroad than in his native Japan because he was thought to be "too western", and with his hero being John Ford, that's maybe not too surprising. But the comic relief in Kurosawa movies works better than in Ford's and I think Kurosawa has the title of greatest action director ever for his iconic work like the rain soaked finale of Seven Samurai, or the intense and surprisingly beautiful action in Ran.

All of that and yet a more humane movie is hard to come by than his Ikiru, about a man determined to do something good with his wasted life before he dies of cancer. Or even his High and Low, which poses a basic philosophical question of if we're all the same, when a business mans son is thought kidnapped but just when he's ready to mortgage everything and pay the ransom he finds out it was his drivers son that was taken. Is that mans child any less worth saving? Would you give up everything you've professionally worked for to save the child of another person?

But ultimately Kurosawa's movies are so damn entertaining. His command of pace and story were second to none. His films have everything, and so it's not surprising at all that he takes my top spot.

2. Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese's name is one I've known for probably my whole life. Part of the "Movie Brats" of the 1970's (along with Spielberg, Lucas, De Palma, and others) he has carved out a career of remarkable breadth, even if people often think of him as the "gangster movie" director (which is odd because he's only made 5 gangster pictures in a career of nearly 40 films). His fluid camera work and his impeccable editing collaboration with Thelma Schoonmaker (who has edited most of Scorsese's movies) gives his movies a feel like no other. No matter how influential he's been to subsequent generations, there's no mistaking a Scorsese movie.

I've seen something like 25 of his movies and the only one I don't like (1983's unpleasant The King of Comedy) is some people's favorite of his. Scorsese' work covers just about all the filmic grounds that can be covered. He's done gangsters movies, yeah, but also period romance (Age of Innocence), musical (New York, New York), family (Hugo), women's empowerment (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), classic Hollywood remake (Cape Fear), religious (his powerful Last Temptation of Christ), and everything else. And he's been a master at it all.

3. Alfred Hitchcock

What more can be said about Hitchcock? He's probably the most written about director in cinema history, the most studied, and one of the most commercially popular. He wanted to, and did, play us in the audience like a piano. He could ratchet up the tension at will. And if you read the extraordinary book Hitchcock/Truffaut, in which admirer and legendary filmmaker in his own right Francois Truffaut talks to Hitch about literally every one of his movies, you see that none of it was by accident. Hitch knew how his movies worked on audiences and he knew why. He happily shares with Truffaut secrets like why we never see the whole courtyard in Rear Window until exactly the most impactful moment. He could've shown it earlier to give a certain visual reference for us, but he knew how it would play if he waited until later. That kind of insight and care into filmmaking is truly wonderful to see. And the genius is that even when you know what he's doing, you're not surprised by it and you know the trick of the magic, he still makes it work.

4. Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton was not just a great screen presence, he was also a hell of a filmmaker. Though often credited to others or co-directors, reading a biography of Keaton showed that the creative force of the film was always Buster. Often he allowed a co-director credit even though all the guy had done was run the camera while Keaton was in front of it. Notorious for getting on set and just kinda feeling things out until it felt right to put the camera a certain place and stage things a certain way, he'd sometimes even take breaks to start up baseball games with the cast and crew until inspiration struck. Sadly, after signing a contract with MGM (all his most famous work had been produced independently of the big studios, and friend Charlie Chaplin advised Keaton to turn away the contract and stay independent), that all went downhill. He lost his creative freedom, his spark (as he fell into depression and alcoholism), and eventually his popularity. Thankfully, his work was revived in the 1960's and his popularity has only risen since. But it's not his MGM work that's remembered (other than his first one, The Cameraman, which he still had control of), but all that great silent comedy that has stood the test of time. And when you see what a great action filmmaker he was, and how technically ambitious he was (especially in Sherlock, Jr.), there's no denying his spot among the greatest of directors.

5. Werner Herzog

I've always loved Herzog's movies, but since I've started on a kind of quest to see more from him, he's risen on this list. The haunting Aguirre, the Wrath of God, with its nightmarish journey through the jungle, had always stuck with me, as had the dreamy camera work in Encounters at the End of the World. But now I've seen the remarkable imagery and stories he's given us with Lessons of Darkness, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and others. His uniqueness is evident, but the more I see from the master, the more I love his movies.

6. Steven Spielberg

Spielberg is one of the few directors pretty much everyone knows by name. That's not always a good thing, since appealing to the masses generally takes a certain blandness to play to everyone. But Spielberg is as much an auteur as any other director. You see the recurring themes of broken families and the resulting stress that occurs, regular people in extraordinary circumstances, or even his ability to induce awe in us. Whether it's the Mother Ship in Close Encounters, multiple moments in Jurassic Park, or E.T. and Elliot flying across the full moon. Spielberg has probably given us more iconic moments in the pop culture collective consciousness than anyone. And on top of all of that, he's also a great storyteller. Sometimes his movies are too long, but he still generally makes them pop narratively in a wonderful way. He might be the most popular director ever, but that's no reason to be snobby and not include him on a list like this, he's popular with me too.

7. Woody Allen

I was late to the Woody Allen party. I saw Sweet and Lowdown when it came out, and thought it was fine but nothing too special. Years later, after seeing and loving Match Point, I decided I'd go on a bit of a Woody Allen quest and watch at least his most famous movies (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors) and found myself floored at what I saw. Unlike many, who prefer "his earlier, funny movies" I prefer everything post-Annie Hall, when he stopped making gag-filled episodic comedies and started creating characters and really became a terrific visual filmmaker. I could now go back and really appreciate the genius of Sweet and Lowdown, but also his musical Everyone Says I Love You, and start anticipating his new movies like Vicky Christina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris. I even love some of his lesser work like Scoop. And so he's become one of those few filmmakers who I will watch their movie simply because it's their movie.

8. Alfonso Cuaron

I vividly remember sitting in the theater, with only 2 or 3 other people, when the cut to black happened at the end of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, and I've never been more stunned at a movie. I couldn't say anything more than "wow" for a few minutes. I'd been taken to the movie by a friend, and thought I would enjoy it because I'd enjoyed Cuaron's previous two movies, Y Tu Mama Tambien and the third Harry Potter movie, immensely. But after Children of Men I needed to go back and see everything I could from him, which wasn't a lot, just his modern set Great Expectations and 1995's A Little Princess, which is one of the great family movies ever made. So I was hooked, I loved his use of single takes, even when they're stitched together to simply play as a single take (which is the case in the extraordinary attack on the city in Children of Men as well as the wonderfully romantic "long take" in Great Expectations). When Gravity came out, Cuaron blew me away again. It's one of the few movies I've ever seen multiple times in the theater. I can't wait for what he'll do next, as he's already created an amazing resume.

9. Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers are one of those filmmakers that I have always loved but sometimes forget about. From the first time I watched Raising Arizona (I couldn't have been older than 6 or 7) something about their weird, unique movies always spoke to me. Even times I wasn't as crazy about the movies as others were (like Barton Fink), their films are still fascinating to watch. And sometimes I come back to them years later and find that I love them wholeheartedly, which was the case with Miller's Crossing, which I thought was just okay initially but upon rewatches found to be an astounding movie. And they also have movies like No Country for Old Men and The Big Lebowski that no matter how many times I've seen them, if I start watching I can't stop.

10. Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the few filmmakers able to inspire true awe in me. That he does it in animation is all the more impressive. His recurring themes of environmentalism, flight, and young, strong female heroes are always welcome sights on screen. Even in his lesser films like Porco Rosso, there is a poetic sequence of flying above the clouds that is one of the most affecting scenes in any animated movie. He also can go from sweet, familial movies like My Neighbor Totoro to rip roaring action like that in Castle in the Sky or Princess Mononoke. You could go on and on about the amazing stuff in Miyazaki's movies (haven't even mentioned the God Warrior in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) but it's better to just watch them!

Honorable mentions to Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Guillermo del Toro, and Richard Linklater.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's A City of Sadness

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's A City of Sadness is often pointed to as the pinnacle of the great filmmaker's career, and I now understand why. Like a lot of Hou's work, it's a look at Taiwan's broken past through the lens of a single family. Starting in 1945, living in the aftermath of WWII, when Japan gave up control of Taiwan after 51 years. Though optimistic at first, the people aren't treated any better by the incoming Kuomintang government (KMT) from mainland China. A City of Sadness was the first movie to tackle the "White Terror", the name for the suppression of the political uprising following the February 28th Incident (starting in 1947), in which thousands of Taiwanese were either imprisoned, executed, or both.

Hou was just old enough to have lived in the times after this. And as a Chinese born immigrant to Taiwan, Hou obviously feels some connection to these trying times, as his parents moved to Taiwan when he was 1-year-old to escape the Chinese Civil War. He shows us the story of this time through the Lin family, specifically the brothers. Oldest brother Wen-heung (Sung Young Chen), a loudmouthed club owner, middle brother Wen-leung (Jack Kao) who suffers from PTSD and brain trauma, and youngest brother Wen-ching (the great Hong Kong actor Tony Leung) a deaf-mute photographer. We see bits of their daily lives and family interactions, as well as how the growing political unrest affects their lives, especially focused on Wen-ching.

Tony Leung gives a performance of great depth and power as Wen-ching, who's the most sensitive but also the most intelligent of the brothers. You can often feel his inner anger and energy trying to get out as he gesticulates and grunts while trying to communicate through his limitation. He writes notes, which are seen through intertitles, often to the loving Hinomi (Xin Shufen). Though Hou made the character a deaf-mute because of Leung's inability to speak any of the languages spoken at the time (specifically Mandarin, Taiwanese, or Japanese), Leung's extraordinary abilities as an actor are what makes the movie, for me. You can't not empathize with not being able to defend yourself verbally as people xenophobically attack you for not responding to their demands of "where are you from?" Leung's innocence, barely contained anger, and empathy carries the movie's narrative thread.

This is also, from the 10 of his I've seen, Hou's most conventional narrative. There are the long shots, silences, elliptical storytelling and gorgeous landscapes we're used to from Hou, but it all feels a bit tighter. There are 5 or more languages spoken, which Hou shot in direct sound during filming (the first Taiwanese movie to do so), showing the melting pot of Taiwan. And the movie became the first Taiwanese movie to win the top prize at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. This is probably his most easily digestible movie, even if he still doesn't spoon feed us the story and characters in the normal way. The cumulative effect of the movie is a powerful one. This is Hou's best movie, and since I rank him among the best directors ever, that's really saying something.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin

Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world, and has been a favorite of mine since I first saw his Three Times back in 2009. I recently was able to see two of his most acclaimed movies, his most recent (the one that won him the Best Director award at this years Cannes Film Festival) The Assassin, as well as what is often pointed to as his greatest movie, 1989's politically charged A City of Sadness. Both are unmistakably the work of the highest caliber of filmmaker, one is one of the best movies of the year and the other is one of the best movies of its decade. This is a review of The Assassin, with A City of Sadness to come later.

The Assassin stars the impossibly beautiful Qi Shu (her third collaboration with Hou) in the title role. Her magnetic work carries the movie despite the fact that I think she only says about 5 sentences. She plays Yinniang, a 9th century woman who was taken away from her family as a child and trained to become an unparalleled killing tool. We join her as she starts having that downfall of many a movie assassin, human emotions. Tasked with a target of her former betrothed husband, Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen, reuniting with his Three Times cohorts), Yinniang must decide whether or not to defy her master or to betray her heart.

All of this plays out in Hou's typical elliptical and slow storytelling. I've read that the original script explained much more of the story and either through the shooting or during the editing process Hou took things out so that the final product is much more opaque and not straightforward. It lends a wonderful intrigue to the movie, because even though it's not fast paced we are often trying to figure out what's going on, and why. There was a point late in the movie when I had an epiphany as to what was going on and how certain characters related to each other. I'm not sure how this will play on re-watches but at least on the first viewing it makes for a very layered and fascinating viewing experience.

And all of that on top of the fact that this is one of the most beautiful, visually striking movies ever made. Not just the impeccable costuming and set design but also the landscapes (filmed in central and northern China) and Hou's genius in photographic framing in addition to the staging of the action. Hou has always made beautiful movies, but this is no question his most beautiful yet.

Viewers who come into the movie based on the exciting trailer or the promise of the typical wuxia (ancient martial arts) movie will be numbed by the pregnant silences and even the way Hou shoots the action, not up close and flashy like a Hollywood director, but from his usual medium or long shots, and often over before you know it. And yet, because it's so different from what we're conditioned to expect, that's why I find so many of the sequences still vividly in my mind days later. The birch tree forest fight (and I didn't even realize who Yinniang's opponent was until later, reading about the movie), Yinniang taking on hordes of guards in the trees outside Tian Jian's compound, shot from long distance so that most of the action is obscured by the trees. It's really extraordinary stuff for us Hou fans. I'm glad he made a wuxia film all his own, instead of trying to make an action movie to have a hit or something. And the fact that it's gotten him some of the best notices of his career is just icing on the cake.