greatest films

991 (123). Lost Horizon (1937, Frank Capra)

Screened December 11 2009 on Columbia Tri-Star DVD in Brooklyn, NY

TSPDT Rank # 962 IMDb Wiki

Frank Capra abandoned the vibrant American melee upon which he built his reputation to issue this queasy utopian treatise dressed as an exotic adventure fantasy. Shangri-la makes for both a visually and dramatically banal paradise. Proto-Bob Ross matte landscapes and manufactured nature sets alternate with knockoff Frank Lloyd Wright architecture cluttered with curios. It could be fun in a camp/surreal way if Capra wasn’t so insistent that this Neverland was what Depression-era American needed, where fun times involve listening to Sam Jaffee’s wrinkled Lama make longwinded pseudo-Buddhist platitudes bemoaning man’s fate (I’ll take spitfire banter with Claudette Colbert or Jean Arthur anyday). Jane Wyatt is easy on the eyes and Ronald Colman, that paradigm of 30s benevolent colonialism, somehow bestows dignity on his environs through his benevolent colonialist gaze. Thomas Mitchell and Edward Everett Horton bring some down-to-earth Capra back to the proceedings by virtue of their charming petty-mindedness, casting the warm glow of genuine human behavior amidst the lofty artifice.

The restored version of Lost Horizon can be viewed online on Google Reader (see after the break)

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990 (122). A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958, Douglas Sirk)

Screened December 7 2009 on Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD (thanks Gina) in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT rank #994  IMDb Wiki

Douglas Sirk’s penultimate feature, and one of his most personal, brings his entire Hollywood career into stark relief.  This adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of love in WWII Germany envisions a bombed-out wasteland that couldn’t be further removed from the Technicolor gloss of affluent America seen in his most famous films. There are no vibrant pastels or lush interiors decorated with fine upholstery or shiny bric a brac; here, whether inside or outside, it’s a seemingly monotonous ash gray or dirt brown. Whenever color arrives (usually a tree blossom or sprig of a leaf), it’s a miracle.

This seems to invert the formula established in other Sirk films, where the abundance of attractive surfaces amounts to overcompensation for dissatisfied lives lurking underneath. Here, it’s luxury that makes life worth living: the young lovers Ernst (John Gavin) and Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) bluff their way into a fancy meal in an officer’s club, in a scene that defies gravity. What’s even more fascinating is how that famous Sirkian irony is turned on its ear. In films like All That Heaven Allows or Imitation or Life, Sirk lays ironic subtext into the dialogue or the mise-en-scene, such that it verges on mocking the characters’ myopic pursuits of happiness (while priming hipster camp laughter). Here the script is flipped: cynicism and irony wrought by wartime cruelty are the fashion, a way for soldiers and civilians alike to numb themselves from the inhumanity that engulfs them. It’s against this convention that the lovers fight, hanging on to a flickering sense of hope and earnestness (Gavin, a bit wooden, doesn’t quite carry it off, but Pulver more than compensates – it’s easy to see why Godard was smitten by her in his famous review of the film, as her doe-eyed litheness make her a prototype for Anna Karina).

What Sirk keeps consistent between this film and the American-set melodramas is his fixation with the fragility of what makes life worth living in a world of suffocating convention. Wealth and poverty prove to be equally dehumanizing.  What matters are the frail bonds between people, enabled by fleeting moments of fantasy fulfillment. This isn’t tied to any overt political or social agenda. Quite the opposite, there’s a startling, paradoxical acceptance of the status quo as a fundamentally inescapable condition: it’s ground that gives birth to its own acts of defiance – these moments of transcendent beauty – and it’s the ground that smothers them out.

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989 (121). Toute une nuit / All Night Long (1982, Chantal Akerman)

Screened November 29 on YouTube (thanks to Gina Telaroli for the tip) in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT Rank #975  IMDb

touteunenuit1

In a way it makes sense that Chantal Akerman’s 1982 masterpiece is (for the moment) available on YouTube, because it resembles a fan video compilation of dramatic scenes from the movies, stitched together in one ecstatic montage.  Instead of ripping them from her DVD collection, she’s reshot them in her own beloved Brussels. By my count we’re looking at 55 dramatic encounters, embraces and separations involving 75 nameless characters, usually in couples, lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes, arranged in loose chronology from anticipatory dusk to weary dawn. It’s a puzzle-form film that practically begs to be re-watched and broken down by geeks to find patterns and beguiling inconsistencies – like when a woman checks into a hotel in one scene only to be seen running into the same hotel a few scenes later. Many characters resemble each other in appearance and dress (women in blue dresses, men in white shirts) such that they all bleed into each other – only upon close observation does one realize that only a few characters reappear, and mostly near the end.

This convergence of the universal and the specific is but one of the film’s several paradoxes. With it’s actors’ balletic movements, rushing up and down streets and stairwells, pushing and pulling their partners in bars and bedrooms, it’s a musical, except  without music (save the recurring clacking of heels, as irresistible as fate). It depicts a city teeming with human life, energy, lustful passions, yet nearly every figure seems touched with lonely desperation even in their moments of consummation.  Or the way the characters move and speak like automatons following pre-programmed behaviors to express their most selfish desires. Love and lust, so exciting in an isolated moment, so banal in the context of human history, a script that essentially has never changed.

For me, this dialogue between love in the movies and in real life is the film’s most beguiling paradox. These fleeting scenes of romantic union and dissolution somehow embody both the larger-than-life drama of movie climaxes (and cliches) and the quotidian pleasure of everyday people-watching. Because these sublime encounters are devoid of the larger narrative granted to movie characters, they become as anonymous as people embracing on the street. The thrill of the movies aren’t just on screen, they’re everywhere around us, if we have the eyes to see them. This movie grants us that gift.

PART ONE OF TEN:

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986 (118). California Split (1974, Robert Altman)

Screened November 15, 2009 on Columbia Tri-Star DVD

TSPDT rank #968 IMDb Wiki

This tight, modest picture may not have the presumptions to Monumental Importance as Nashville, but in many ways it’s a more quintessential Robert Altman movie, if not a better film. Whereas Nashville maintains an Olympian perspective on its swarming ensemble, California Split inhabits a more complicated space with its two leads, alternating between celebration and skepticism (but never scorn) of their high-rolling gamblers’ lifestyle.  It’s a world that Altman knows well and it’s what allows him to employ his prodigious gifts with a precision and an authenticity that exceeds even his most famous films. (It certainly surpasses the lesser works, where his attempts at naturalist satire are belied by lazy-eyed lensing and snark characterization.)

Take his groundbreaking use of audio in California Split, his first employment of the multi-track technology he developed.  What he does with 8 audio tracks here makes the 24 tracks he used in Nashville seem excessive. It’s a soundtrack that’s as consuming as a gambler’s weekend casino binge – and that’s exactly the point. It plants us squarely in a subjective state, what it’s like to be terminally hopped up on the high of tumbling dice on green felt, clicking roulette balls and the polite trash talking of pretty much everyone around you. The soundtrack shifts from one of these nodes to another, restlessly searching for some way in to a special insight leading to a big score. It’s a real shame that The Conversation hogged all the attention for audio innovations in 1974, because this film does just as much to integrate its audio into the human experience it brings to life.

There are so many good moments, executed with such a natural flow that it transcends the script’s imperative to touch on of all the different types of gambling going on in Sin City: from dingy poker halls to race tracks to grand casinos to putting $20 against a dude at a bar to name the Seven Dwarves. Gould and Segal are excellent, with such lively in-the-moment riffing between them that you wonder if Cassavetes stepped in to direct their scenes. They’re matched in rapport by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles as Gould’s hooker roommates; Altman’s camera, in full groupie mode, really gets cozy with them as they lounge around in their apartment. It’s small moments and movements like in those scenes that are Altman at his best. They yield the full potential of his excitement and interest in the world and in people, without having to package the former into a big statement or belittle the latter in spite.

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984 (116). Bienvenido, Mister Marshall / Welcome, Mister Marshall (1953, Luis Garcia Berlanga)

Screened November 11, 2009 on Tribanda DVD in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT rank #  IMDb Wiki

What is it about Spanish cinema that just nails how people are possessed by dreams and stories? Of course I’m making an overgeneralization, and yet the three Spanish filmmakers that I know best, Bunuel, Almodovar and (sheepishly, based on watching two films) Berlanga, all share an uncommon fascination with the rapture of storytelling. Whether through a voiceover narration or one person telling a tale to another, these films traffic in the private fantasies and urges of characters and audience alike. It’s true in Bunuel’s earliest sound film L’Age D’Or, with its narrative framework disintegrating into a lucid stream of on-screen impulsive acts, or as recently as Almodovar’s Broken Embraces, where much of the film’s pleasure is in just watching characters being transfixed by each other’s stories.

Within this hypothetical national subgenre, Bienvenido, Mister Marshall stands tall. A sleepy Castillan village tries to transform itself into an Andalusian postcard paradise upon hearing that American postwar funders may pass through. The voiceover sets it up like a fable (“There once was an old spanish Town”); the film is not only an allegory for a nation’s collective submission to the utopian facades of Franco’s Fascist Spain, but to the countermyth of America, which pervades the characters’ dreams as well as fears. Two sequences bear this out vividly. In the first, villagers are ordered to line up and tell the administrators, Santa Claus-style, one thing they would like in return for contributing to the fake village effort. Some of the impoverished villagers can’t even mentally process this offer, having never been in a position to dream big, much less ask for things beyond food, clothing and shelter. The other is a brilliant sequence that relays from one character’s nocturnal fantasies to another, each one informed in their own way by the movies: a priest’s nightmare shot with Expressionist angles of Puritanical oppression; the mayor’s fantasy of gunslinging Western heroism; a farmer’s dream that brilliantly mixes social realist propaganda and Hollywood fantasy, with a plane flown by Santa Claus parachuting tractors to the peasantry.

With its withering observations on human fallacy and self-delusion on both an individual and collective level, Bienvenido, Mister Marshall would be one of the most merciless social satires ever made, if its condescending omniscience towards its subjects didn’t somehow implicate itself. There’s a priceless moment where the voiceover chastises a schoolmistress in bed possibly doing indecent things to herself; in doing so the narrator outs himself as being as much of a control freak as Franco. As such, the film amounts to its own fantasy construct of Spain as an eternally tragic, but laughably charming dystopia. It does as masterful a job of selling its vision as the fascist and capitalist ideologues it eviscerates.

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Brace yourselves, another update is coming…

Bill over at They Shoot Pictures Don’t They? has been gathering more top ten lists from passionate film lovers throughout this year and applying them to the master list. He informs me that a new December 2008 update to the 1000 Greatest Films is due any day.

Upon seeing last December’s updated list, I made an open complaint about how little representation of experimental and third world cinema there was, as well as films directed by women. One of my goals for the year was to seek and collect more lists that represented these perspectives.  I wasn’t quite able to fulfill this aim, but I did get a few good ones, which I have forwarded to Bill. If I have a moment I will post them here as well.

Bill also invited me to submit my own updated list. I haven’t put one together in a while, and I’m not really one to do this sort of thing anymore – I’ve just seen too many movies at this point to know better than to attempt a list of bests or favorites. However it’s only fair that I do what I’ve asked several respected colleagues to do. So here’s a list that I think best represents the films I most cherish at this particular moment, with their directors in parentheses:

Awaara (Raj Kapoor)
Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako)
Breakaway (Bruce Conner)
City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao Hsien)
Close-up (Abbas Kiarostami)
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee)
Earth (Aleksandr Dovzhenko)
The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad)
I Was Born, But (Yasujiro Ozu)
Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk)
Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)
L’Argent (Robert Bresson)
L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni)
L’Intrus (Claire Denis)
Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade)
Love and Duty (Bu Wangcang)
Love Streams (John Cassavetes)
The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (John Gianvito)
Menilmontant (Dmitri Kirsanoff)
Moolaade (Ousmane Sembene)
Ordet (Carl Dreyer)
Outer Space (Peter Tscherkassky)
Platform (Jia Zhangke)
Playtime (Jacques Tati)
Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell)
Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg)
Street Angel (Yuan Muzhi)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)
The Third Man (Carol Reed)
A Touch of Zen (King Hu)

929 (70). U samogo sinyego morya / By the Bluest of Seas (1936, Boris Barnet)

screened September 9, 2008 on DivX in Brooklyn, NY

TSPDT rank #710 IMDb

The crowning achievement in the mercurial career of Soviet director Boris Barnet, this simple story of a love triangle between two shipwrecked sailors and the beach blonde darling of a fishing village exemplifies a kind of film that could only have been made at the dawn of the talkies, when cinema had to rediscover its vision at the same time that it discovered its voice.  Films that most ingeniously mounted this challenge – Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’or, and both Frank Borzage’s and Yuan Muzhi’s versions of Street Angel, to name a few – were able to retain the luminescent purity of the silent era iconography and hitch it to pure simple stories of love and discovery, milked from an infant’s gaze and an adolescent’s emotions.  The tremulous and intermittent occurences of sound add a paradoxical wonder,  fearlessly inflicting violence on the silent image by thrusting it into a fragile new dimension.  The result is a cinema that remains vital and vigorous, perpetually new.   By the Bluest of Seas opens with a capsizing of a ship among relentlessly stormy seas that amounts to an audiovisual ablution for the viewer, eventually casting them on a blank, enchanted seaside full of possibility, where boisterous song, vaudevillian slapstick, romantic wistfulness and nonstop pining rule the day. It is a utopia of emotional freedom and spontaneously generating, momentary magic, a utopia that can only happen in the cinema.

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Video Essays for 926 (67). Aranyer Din Ratri / Days and Nights in the Forest (1970, Satyajit Ray) – featuring Preston Miller

Special thanks to Preston Miller, director of Jones, for his fastidious commentary and contributions to these video essays.  Expect one more in the coming days, edited by Preston and featuring an exclusive interview with Soumitra Chatterjee, star of the film.

Introduction to the film:

Scene analysis – “The Memory Game:”

926 (67). Aranyer Din Ratri / Days and Nights in the Forest (1970, Satyajit Ray)

screened August 4, 2008 on DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #988 IMDb  Wiki

This mid-career effort from India’s most celebrated filmmaker shows his craft firing on all cylinders, from the deft dialogue and orchestration of a talented ensemble through several subplots to his lithe camera and shifting, multifaceted perspectives on class and sex. Four young urban businessmen take a jaunt to the countryside to act like frat boys one last time before adulthood inevitably sucks the life out of them; with grace and subtlety Ray is able to celebrate their rebellious drive to individual expression against stifling social norms, while simultaneously pointing out their selfishness and abusiveness towards less privileged countrymen. Events unfold with a symphonic complexity, each character an instrument: Ray mainstay Soumitra Chatterjee’s jazzy restraint as a self-absorbed playboy, Rabi Ghosh’s ebullient comic relief, and Sharmila Tagore’s fragile yet hypnotic sensuality as Chatterjee’s romantic counterpart are only half of the ineffable performances on display. But the greatest performance of all is Ray’s camera, relentless in its perpetual explorations of space and reconfigurations of people within any given scene, dissecting and re-animating a society that is essentially frozen in its stratified customs. By the end, the only profound change experienced by any of the characters is the kindling of a private love between two people and connection beyond one self. Their fragile naissance is juxtaposed by an act of lust followed by violence between one couple, and an embarrassingly failed seduction between another. Such variety in expressing the vertiginous distance between people seeking love exemplifies Ray’s mastery as both dramatist and cineaste.

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Video Essay for 925 (66). El Cid (1961, Anthony Mann) with Mike D’Angelo

Mike D’Angelo is a film critic for Esquire, writer for Las Vegas Weekly, and proprietor of The Man Who Viewed Too Much.

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