Several of my entries include links to longer reviews on my blog.
- Jumping Beans (1922) .. Dave Fleischer
Before Betty Boop and Popeye, the Fleischer studios made the “Out of the Inkwell” series featuring Koko the Clown, each short of which begins with Max dipping his pen in his inkwell and drawing Koko on his canvas, invariably resulting in a battle of wits between the animated character Koko and his human creator Max, with each one confounding the other in humorous ways. These shorts must have astonished early audiences, but what’s truly remarkable about them is that despite being made nearly 90 years ago they remain highly impressive today (even without the benefit of sound!), especially Jumping Beans, an imaginative short in which an army of Koko “clones” invades Max’s world.
- Seven Chances (1925) .. Buster Keaton
With only a few hours to get married before losing a lucrative inheritance, Buster endeavors to find a bride (with amusingly disastrous results), only to have the situation reversed when he becomes the target of a mob of wannabe brides who’ve learned about his inheritance. An unstoppable force of nature on a par with the cyclone that blows through town in Steamboat Bill Jr., these wannabe brides relentlessly pursue Buster and anyone or anything unlucky enough to be in the path of this stampeding mob will be flattened, including an entire football team. The film starts a little slowly, but it picks up momentum and before long there’s no stopping it, concluding with an exhilarating, beautifully sustained chase sequence in which Buster does some of his finest acrobatic work while eluding the pursuing brides, jumping from cliff to cliff, somersaulting and back flipping his way down a hill, and most impressively, nimbly dodging a landslide of boulders rapidly rolling towards him. (Keaton is one of my favorite directors, so I just as easily might have included The Electric House, The Scarecrow, One Week, Cops, Our Hospitality etc.).
- Varieté (1925) .. Ewald André Dupont
Despite a silly melodramatic plot involving a deadly love triangle between circus trapeze performers (Emil Jannings, Warwick Ward and the voluptuous Lya de Putti) this is silent cinema at its best, a dazzling visual feast featuring dynamic editing, claustrophobically tight close-ups, expressionistic photography, astounding camerawork (courtesy of the great Karl Freund) and highly-charged emotional situations involving jealousy, eroticism, sexual humiliation and murder. So while some of the hokier bits are risible, Dupont’s astonishing cinematic bravura more than compensates, such as the swooping, gliding subjective camera movements that accompany the performing trapeze artists. Another notable moment is when Ward waits inside his hotel room for de Putti to emerge from her adjoining room so that he can greet her when she passes by his door: as he presses his ear to the door to listen for her the camera zooms in to a close-up of his ear, providing one of the finest examples of a silent film director using the cinematic sound barrier to creative advantage.
- Ménilmontant (1926) .. Dimitri Kirsanoff
After their parents are brutally ax-murdered, two young sisters from the country (Nadia Sibirskaïa and Yolande Beaulieu) flee to the titular working-class district of Paris, where they endure poverty, homelessness, prostitution and unscrupulous characters eager to exploit them. Structurally, the film is built on bold contrasts: it opens in the idyllic countryside in sunny summertime, and then shifts to the grimy city in dreary wintertime; the once-innocent sisters frolic in the countryside, then struggle for survival in the city; Eisenstein-inspired montage sequences, like the brutal murders, compete with tender Chaplinesque moments, including the film’s most memorable scene. Wandering the streets at night, cold and hungry, the destitute Sibirskaïa rests herself on a park bench. An old man, probably homeless himself, sits down next to her and, barely looking her way so as to protect her dignity, offers her a few scraps of his bread, which she gratefully accepts with tears in her eyes and a thankful smile on her lips. It’s an extraordinarily touching moment, made all the more so by Sibirskaïa’s exquisite playing, which is shorn of the usual histrionics associated with silent film acting. Using her wonderfully expressive face to convey a complex range of emotion, Sibirskaïa’s low-key, naturalistic acting style turns what easily could have been eyeball rolling schmaltz into a profoundly moving moment of grace.
- The Unknown (1927) .. Tod Browning
Rivaled only by The Passion of Joan of Arc in dramatic intensity among silent films, this bizarre masterpiece is the best of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations. Set in a circus, a milieu rife with grotesquery, exploitation, and violence and perfectly suited to the macabre sensibilities of both director and actor, Chaney plays a knife thrower so obsessed with his beautiful assistant (Joan Crawford) that he has his arms amputated in a gesture of his undying love for her because she suffers from a phobia of men’s hands! Luckily for Chaney he possesses amazing pedal dexterity which allows him to smoke, drink, gesture, throw knives and play guitar with his toes! But when he finds out that Crawford has miraculously overcome her phobia and married the strongman, Chaney’s face, not his feet, become the focal point. Held in tight close-up his countenance undergoes an astonishing change of expression, first grimacing, then forcing an absurd smile, then laughing hysterically, and finally, twisting his face into a visage of murderous intent until the strain is too much and he faints - proving that The Man of a Thousand Faces could just as well have been dubbed The Man of a Thousand Facial Expressions.
- The Skeleton Dance (1929) .. Walt Disney
Featuring a quartet of bony hoofers showing off their terpsichorean talents during a midnight graveyard soiree, The Skeleton Dance is five minutes of lively animated hilarity which holds up beautifully after 80 years thanks to Ub Iwerks’s imaginative animation and Carl W. Stalling’s playful music and sound effects. The film’s gleefully morbid sense of humor, with its clickity-clacking skeletons dancing the Charleston and using their own skulls as drums and rib cages as xylophones, must have influenced Tim Burton who clearly references the film in the “Remains of the Day” musical number from Corpse Bride.
- Westfront 1918 (1930) .. G.W. Pabst
Ask the typical movie buff/critic to name an antiwar WW1 film from 1930 that revolves around the disillusionment of young German soldiers and employs stunningly elaborate tracking shots in its harrowing depiction of violent hand-to-hand trench warfare in the desolate, corpse-strewn landscape of the Western Front, and the likely answer you’ll get is All Quiet on the Western Front. And that’s a pity because Westfront 1918 is a more realistic and better acted, less sentimental and heavy-handed account of remarkably similar events, and holds up much better today than the comparatively dated All Quiet on the Western Front.
- City Streets (1931) .. Rouben Mamoulian
This extraordinary early talkie - a fast-paced Prohibition gangster yarn starring Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney as young lovers trapped in the beer racket - compares favorably with any ‘30s gangster movie, thanks to Mamoulian’s striking compositions, Lee Garmes’ fluid camera movements, a remarkably economical narrative, and an innovative use of sound, including the first ever “sound flashback”, in which Sidney subjectively hears dialogue spoken earlier by Cooper. While this device has become a cliché over the years, it’s thrilling to see its first appearance here.
- Platinum Blonde (1931) .. Frank Capra
Before their work together degenerated into self-important sermonizing with the likes of Meet John Doe, the Capra/Riskin director-writer team proved adept at turning out delightful romantic confections in the early ‘30s, notably It Happened One Night and this fast-paced gem starring Robert Williams and the inimitable Jean Harlow, both of whom deliver Riskin’s snappy dialogue with expert coming timing. To wit: after receiving a gift from Williams, Harlow says that her mother will want to kiss him, to which he replies: “Your mom will want to kiss me? Give me that back.”
- One Hour with You (1932) .. Ernst Lubitsch
This underrated operetta, in which the characters communicate with each other by singing and speaking in verse, is a delight from start to finish, with Chevalier often directly addressing the camera/audience, intimately involving us in his hilarious predicament in which he must decide whether to remain faithful to his wife or indulge in an extramarital dalliance with a flirtatious acquaintance.
- Red-Headed Woman (1932) .. Jack Conway
This saucy pre-Code sex comedy was the first to fully showcase the inimitable Jean Harlow’s comic talent, here playing the quintessential gold-digger/home-wrecker who uses cutesy baby talk and jiggling boobs – a potent combination! – to manipulate helpless Chester Morris out of his happy marriage and into her sinful bed, even as she carries on affairs with Morris’ supposedly upright boss and the boss’ chauffeur - clearly no mere mortal man can resist her braless charms! The film’s consistently witty dialogue comes courtesy of Anita Loos. To wit:
Harlow to a friend: “I’m the happiest girl in the world. I’m in love and I’m going to be married”
Friend: “You’re going to marry Albert?”
Harlow: “No, Gertsy.”
Friend: “You’re in love with Gertsy?”
Harlow: “No, Albert.”
- White Zombie (1932) .. Victor Halperin
Young newlyweds vacationing in Haiti have a slight crimp put into their honeymoon plans when evil voodoo master Bela Lugosi turns the blushing bride into a lifeless zombie - and you thought your sex life was boring! Can the Power of Love conquer Lugosi’s diabolical scheme? The general creakiness and stilted acting notwithstanding, this impressive little horror movie uses Expressionistic lighting, creepy set design, eerie music, and unsettling sound effects - screeching vultures; a creaking waterwheel operated by zombie slaves at Lugosi’s sugar mill; the constant beating of bongo drums by island natives - to surprisingly poetic effect.
- Footlight Parade (1933) .. Lloyd Bacon
Thanks mostly to James Cagney, who proves to be as energetic as a harried musical producer as he was as a manic ‘30s gangster, the first part of this vintage Warner Bros. backstage musical is highly enjoyable, but it achieves real distinction only during the three astonishing Busby Berkeley production numbers, particularly the eye-popping “By a Waterfall.” As an aquacade of frolicking showgirls/water nymphs slide, dive, splash and swim in the water, Berkeley’s camera captures their pretty faces in loving close-up, dives underwater to catch their playful somersaulting and paddling legs, and, most spectacularly, observes them from on high with an array of stunning overhead shots as they shape themselves into myriad symmetrical patterns like a living kaleidoscope. That the “By a Waterfall” sequence is supposed to be a theatrical number is highly ironic, as Berkeley’s purely cinematic visuals so thrillingly transcend the confines of the proscenium arch. http://notesofafilmfanatic.com/?p=76
- The Kennel Murder Case (1933) .. Michael Curtiz
Employing wipes, swish pans, tilted angles, split screens, odd camera effects and offbeat editing, Curtiz’s impressively stylish direction enlivens this enjoyably twisty Philo Vance whodunit, anchored by the always reliable William Powell as the suave detective, sans Myrna and Asta, sniffing out the killer at a Long Island dog show.
- The Goddess (1934) .. Wu Yonggang
A simple description of the story makes it sound like the stuff of pure, hokey silent film melodrama: a young single mother (Ruan Ling-yu) resorts to prostitution to support her young son, while being menaced by her villainous pimp. And to a certain extent it is hokey melodrama, but Yonggang’s imaginative direction, which displays a seemingly intuitive grasp of the visual language of film (in one remarkable, floor-level shot, the camera shoots from behind and between the pimp’s legs as he stands over Ling-yu and her son, who are cowering on the floor and looking up at him in the background) and Ling-yu’s splendid performance effortlessly transcend the corny material. Avoiding actorly histrionics, Ling-yu’s expressive, genuinely heartfelt performance, largely captured in ravishing close-up, lends true poignancy to this depiction of the length’s a mother will go to protect her child, and turns what might have been a maudlin tearjerker into one of the best melodramas ever made.
- It's a Gift (1934) .. Norman Z. McLeod
In this classic W.C. Fields comedy, the Great Man plays an Everyman, who is mercilessly pecked by the shrillest hen in the coop, the inimitable Kathleen Howard, as the embodiment of the stereotypically nagging, insufferable wife, most of whose sentences start with “don’t” - “don’t smoke at the table!” “don’t throw matches around!” “don’t try that innocent look with me!” It must take a superhuman effort on Fields’ part to restrain himself from strangling this shrew. But neither can Fields find any relief from the rest of the family, including a bratty son and a problem daughter whose monopolization of the bathroom denies him even the simple pleasure of shaving in peace. The situation is little better at his grocery store, where he must put up with a useless assistant, a cantankerous blind man who trashes merchandise, and a customer who insistently demands “cumquats.” Fields can’t even find a good night’s sleep on his porch at 4 o’clock in the morning, as a series of events conspire to disrupt him, including rattling milk bottles, a coconut tumbling down a flight of stairs, the crashing of overturned garbage cans, an inane conversation between mother and daughter, a kid dropping grapes in his open mouth and, of course, a salesman famously asking about one Karl LaFong. The accumulation of domestic annoyances Fields endures makes for a hilariously nightmarish vision of family life. It’s enough to drive one crazy. Or to drink. Fields drinks. But he’s not crazy, as we find out in one of the all-time classic lines:
Man: You're drunk!
Fields: And you're crazy. But I'll be sober tomorrow and you'll be crazy for the rest of your life.
- Tarzan and His Mate (1934) .. Jack Conway
MGM’s Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, battles a lion (Leo?), a rhino, and an oversized crocodile without once losing his loincloth, a remarkable feat definitively proving his status as king of the jungle, but the most stimulating spectacle in this deliciously erotic pre-Code jungle romance is the delectable Maureen O’Sullivan as Tarzan’s gal, Jane. Her skimpy halter top and low cut loincloth must have had the Hays Office prudes gasping in disbelief, and one can only gleefully imagine their moral outrage when the amorous jungle lovers, an unmarried couple living in sin together in Tarzan’s tree house, make out, fondle each other, and sleep and swim together in the buff. But, really, there’s no need to get so uptight. They’re an awfully cute couple. Tarzan teaches Jane how to swing on vines and she even acquires her own dulcet toned little jungle bellow to go along with Tarzan’s manly bellow. When the king and queen of the jungle aren’t getting it on, they can usually be found blissfully swinging through the trees together, emitting their jungle bellows in perfect unison.
- The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) .. John Ford
Penned by Capra’s regular screenwriter, Robert Riskin, this fast-paced, cleverly contrived mistaken identity comedy stars Edward G. Robinson in a dual role as a sympathetically mild mannered clerk who gets mixed up with (in more ways than one) his lookalike, a notorious gangster. The supporting cast makes nice comic contributions, including Jean Arthur as Robinson’s cute but spunky co-worker who inspires him to an unlikely act of heroism and Etienne Giradot as Robinson’s officious little boss who even brings a work assignment to Robinson in jail, but it’s Robinson’s show and he rises to the challenge of the dual role wonderfully, managing to humorously play against type and to effectively maintain his tough guy persona.
- Sisters of Gion (1936) .. Mizoguchi Kenji
The sisters of the title are geisha: the elder accepts her subservience to men, while the younger (Isuzu Yamada) rebels against it - though, in the end, Mizoguchi suggests, it doesn’t matter, for both women wind up equally unhappy. Largely eschewing close-ups, Mizoguchi’s camera keeps its distance from the action in order to emphasize the importance of the environment in which the women operate, but despite Mizoguchi’s distanced gaze the film remains a moving examination of the plight of women in Japanese society, with Yamada making an indelible impression as the younger, rebellious sister whose treacherous attempts to manipulate the situation to her advantage backfires with tragic consequences.
- Swing Time (1936) .. George Stevens
By the time Fred and Ginger made Swing Time, their sixth romantic musical comedy together in three years, the couple’s natural rapport was honed to perfection, not only in their dancing but also in their unusually affecting romantic interplay, resulting in a hoofing tour de force highlighted by “Waltz in Swing Time,” a joyous ode to budding romance in which the partners ecstatically leap, whirl and spin in celebration of their love, and the equally impressive but altogether more downbeat“ Never Gonna Dance”, a somber requiem for their lost romance in which the anguished former lovers desperately try to recapture the magic of their waltzing. http://notesofafilmfanatic.com/?p=43
- Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) .. Leo McCarey
Forced to live apart by circumstance and their uncaring children, an elderly couple, beautifully played by Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore, face the end of their lifelong relationship with poignant dignity, reminiscing about their life together, sharing a last dance and, sadly, saying their final farewells. As wise, moving, and sensitively observed as Tokyo Story, which it anticipates by 15 years, Make Way for Tomorrow is a masterpiece.
- Destry Rides Again (1939) .. George Marshall
Destry Rides Again features many familiar western movie elements – shootouts; barroom brawls; crooked businessmen; trigger-happy villains; and a sultry saloon singer (Marlene Dietrich, famously warbling “The Men in the Backroom”). But tossed into the midst of all these clichés and stereotypes is one of the oddest heroes of the western genre in the form of James Stewart’s Destry, a laidback pacifist lawman with truly unorthodox methods: he does more drawling than drawing; he prefers a wholesome glass of nutritious milk to a manly shot of rotgut whisky; he tames the wildcat saloon singer with chivalry instead of swagger; and he’d rather relate parables than engage in fisticuffs and gunplay. Deftly mixing action, romance and humor, Destry Rides Again giddily upends western movie conventions by amusingly reversing the stereotypical view of traditional masculine heroism.
- Gaslight (1940) .. Thorold Dickinson
The original British version of this classic tale with Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard, which was forced out of circulation by MGM, is far superior to the Hollywood remake with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Walbrook and Boyer are equally good as the devious husband who hatches a diabolical plot to systematically drive his wife insane, but Wynyard’s superb low-key playing in the role of the trusting but tormented and terrified young bride has a poignancy and credibility sadly lacking in her counterpart Bergman’s shameless histrionic emoting. Also, the original, shorter by a good half hour, tells its suspenseful tale with more economy than the comparatively bloated remake, thus its attention is unrelentingly focused on the cruelty and terror to which the wife is subjected, making the tension and suspense more concentrated and Wynyard’s paranoia and suffering all the more chillingly effective.
- Gentleman Jim (1942) .. Raoul Walsh
Even those who despise boxing should enjoy this spirited biopic of Jim Corbette, which features rich period flavor, fast-paced direction, exciting fight scenes and, above all, one of Errol Flynn’s most dynamic, charismatic performances. As played by Flynn, Corbette emerges as a colorful and engaging lad, cocky yet immensely charming, the kind of guy who, through the sheer force of his personality, draws everyone’s attention wherever he is. His girlfriend would sometimes like to see someone knock the conceit out of his swollen head, but she’s irresistibly drawn to his magnetism anyway. I love when he shows off his fancy footwork by darting back and forth between pedestrians walking in a crowded street, a scene that nicely showcases Flynn’s athletic gracefulness and captures his character’s exuberant cockiness. Despite his brashness, it’s hard not to like him – unless of course you’re the champ, Ward Bond, who’s the target of Flynn’s merciless Ali-like taunting. But the film concludes with a wonderfully touching scene between the two fighters following Flynn’s decisive defeat of the prideful Bond. Bond used to strut around boasting that he could whip any man in the world, but when he shows up in shame at Flynn’s victory party to hand over his championship ring, Flynn magnanimously tells him that he’s glad he didn’t have to fight him in his prime. The macho emotionalism of Flynn’s gesture of good sportsmanship is a genuinely touching moment, beautifully capping off this highly enjoyable winner.
- The Suspect (1944) .. Robert Siodmak
One of the great practitioners of film noir, Siodmak made a string of excellent thrillers in the ‘40s, none better than The Suspect, a taut suspenser in which henpecked Charles Laughton’s infatuation for beautiful Ella Raines drives him to murder his shrewish wife. Siodmak pulls off a couple of gripping Hitchcockian set-pieces, notably a marvelously suspenseful scene in which unexpected visitors sit on the very couch Laughton has hidden a body behind, but the film’s true strength lies in its sympathetic character study of a fundamentally decent man who resorts to murder for perfectly understandable reasons. Laughton gives an unusually restrained performance as a humble, genteel English gentleman, and because he’s far more compassionate than his monstrous victims – his wicked wife and a no-good, blackmailing neighbor – we want him to get away with murder and run away with his beloved Raines. Alas, his fate is sealed, ironically, by his own sense of decency in the genuinely moving conclusion.
- The Body Snatcher (1945) .. Robert Wise
Of all the fine horror films Val Lewton produced this one is my favorite, not only because the foggy nights of old cobbled Edinburgh provide a fittingly eerie atmosphere for this macabre tale, but also because Lewton’s literate script features fascinating interplay between Henry Daniell’s Dr. MacFarlane, the outwardly respectable physician with a shady past, and Boris Karloff ‘s Mr. Gray, the creepy “body snatcher” who won’t let Daniell forget that past. Though seemingly opposites, they are in fact “of the same skin,” and as the story plays out their antagonistic, yet oddly symbiotic relationship develops into one of the most psychologically compelling in cinema.
- Hangover Square (1945) .. John Brahm
One of the best films of 1945, Hangover Square is a noirish, deliriously stylized, feverishly baroque Jekyll and Hyde-like thriller starring Laird Cregar as a classical composer whose “Hyde” persona manifests itself not by drinking secret potions but by hearing discordant sounds. Dissonance drives him mad and, with eyeballs bulging and nostrils flaring, puts him in a murderous fugue state. Already in a particularly fragile state of mind as he struggles to complete his masterpiece (a concerto actually written by Bernard Herrmann), his psyche grows even more unstable when Linda Darnell’s duplicitous character enters his life. An extraordinarily sexy nightclub singer, she callously uses Cregar to further her career by seducing him into writing popular ditties for her, even as she carries on a torrid romance behind his back. But when Cregar finds out she’s been two-timing him, Darnell better hope that no discordant sounds come within earshot of him. Of course, they do, with predictably murderous results, leading to the film’s memorably flamboyant highlight: During a Guy Fawkes Night celebration, Cregar totes Darnell’s body, disguised as an effigy of Fawkes, to the top of a huge bonfire and publicly immolates her in a spectacular conflagration in front of hundreds of cheering people. Darnell didn’t know it, but she was literally playing with fire. (In a cruel irony Darnell died in a house fire while watching one of her movies – one can only hope it wasn’t this one).
- Objective, Burma! (1945) .. Raoul Walsh
About a platoon struggling to survive behind enemy lines in the unforgiving jungles and marshes of Burma, Objective Burma is my choice as the best WW2 combat film of the ‘40s, thanks to an impressive recreation of the Burmese jungle, one of charismatic Errol Flynn’s best performances, and Walsh’s potent direction, which heightens suspense by emphasizing the unbearable sense of anticipation experienced before the bloody battles.
- Deception (1946) .. Irving Rapper
In the right hands the grand passions inherent in the melodramatic form can result in utterly compelling viewing and that’s the case with Deception, a magnificently loony love triangle rife with duplicity, unfaithfulness, jealousy, and murder, set to intense classical music and reteaming the stars of Now Voyager – Paul Henreid, Bette Davis and Claude Rains. Not so much eating the scenery as spewing venom on it, Rains steals the picture as a deliciously wicked egomaniacal genius composer harboring a pathological disdain for his kept woman Davis’ long lost true love (guess who?).
- Northwest Hounded Police (1946) .. Tex Avery
Following his pioneering work for Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes, Avery moved to MGM where he created, among other characters, Droopy, the pint-sized, jowly basset hound who moved and talked with sloth-like speed yet always managed to outwit his adversaries. In Northwest Hounded Police - a superior remake of Droopy’s debut cartoon, Dumb-Hounded (1943) - an escaped convict named Joe runs afoul of Droopy, here a diminutive Mountie with a hilariously runty blue horse. Droopy hops on the horse and off they go, clippity-clopping away on their relentless pursuit of the dangerous escapee. Hilarity ensues as Droopy continually mystifies Joe with his uncanny ability to materialize out of nowhere, always turning up wherever Joe tries to hide and delivering a one-liner in his patented deadpan style - be it at the top of a mountain, at the bottom of the sea, or inside the belly of a lion (”crowded, isn’t it”).
- Oliver Twist (1948) .. David Lean
Lean’s admirably economic direction always places the visuals in the service of the story, ensuring that his remarkable eye is given full expression without ever sacrificing pace, clarity and characterization, while Alec Guinness’s compelling Fagin, who looks as if he sprung directly out of Cruikshank’s original engravings, and Robert Newton’s terrifying Bill Sykes rank among the screen’s most memorable villains, making this is one of the great cinematic adaptations of a literary classic. http://notesofafilmfanatic.com/?p=17
- Border Incident (1949) .. Anthony Mann
Mann is remembered today mostly for the series of psychological westerns he made in the ‘50s, but he also made a number of tough thrillers in the ‘40s, the best of which is Border Incident, a powerfully directed film noir - about American and Mexican officials joining forces at the Texas-Mexico border to foil an illegal immigrant crime ring - distinguished by the great John Alton’s stunning deep-focus, high contrast photography, imposing heavies, led by the forbidding Howard Da Silva, shot in sweaty close-up, and several memorably nasty, violent set-pieces, notably a brutal murder involving a tiller.
- The Set-Up (1949) .. Robert Wise
Combining the potency of the boxing drama with the shadowy atmosphere and fateful sensibility of film noir, The Set-Up is one of the best film’s of the ’40s, a low-budget gem whose taut, spare narrative unfolds in real time, lending the film a heightened sense of urgency as it counts down to aging boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson’s rendezvous with destiny. Its alignment of real-time and film-time was a groundbreaking narrative device, anticipating High Noon by three years, but even more remarkable is its visual scheme, which offers several textbook examples of the essential techniques of film noir, as if Wise shot the film knowing that one day it would be studied by film students. http://notesofafilmfanatic.com/?p=19
- Whisky Galore! (1949) .. Alexander Mackendrick
Life without whisky is scarcely worth living for the Scottish islanders of this memorable Ealing comedy, and when their ration is cut off during WW1 the inhabitants treat the situation as a tragedy comparable to famine. But just when things look their bleakest a miracle occurs: a ship carrying thousands of cases of whisky shipwrecks on their island! Truly a dream come true, the islanders have their will to live restored and become roused to take action against the British officials unwise enough to deny them their right to the whisky. A darker subtext about colonialism is there, but the film’s real strength lies with its rich characterizations, evocative atmosphere (foggy shores, tooting ships, smoky pubs etc) and Mackendrick’s imaginative direction, which displays a knack for visual humor: after being tipped off about some hidden whisky on a beach, a British official finds a drunken man passed out on the sand with two trails of footsteps ending at his feet, one running perfectly straight (to the whisky), the other twisting to and fro (returning, drunk)!
- Gun Crazy (1950) .. Joseph H. Lewis
In B-movie maestro Joseph H. Lewis’s low-budget masterpiece, the gun crazy lovers Bart and Annie meet carnal (not cute) at a fair where Annie, looking incredibly sexy in cowgirl garb and holsters, works as a trick shot artist. Bart is impressed with Annie’s sharpshooting prowess, and after he beats her in a shooting contest, she’s equally impressed with his. Rarely has the gun-as-phallic-symbol been as explicitly presented, as Bart is clearly turned on as much by Annie’s skillful handling of guns as she is by his prodigious gunmanship. It’s love at first shot. Their sexual obsession for each other only intensifies as they embark on a robbery and murder spree across small-town America of the forties, climaxing with an astonishing three and a half minute bank robbery sequence shot in one fluid, continuous long take from a camera positioned in the back of their car, a technically innovative, stylistically bold idea which thrillingly makes the viewer an accomplice in their crimes. From the extraordinarily erotic beginning to the tragic yet passionately romantic conclusion, Lewis’s fast-paced, imaginatively directed, sexually charged lovers-on-the-lam tale is cinema’s supreme expression of amour fou.
- El (1953) .. Luis Buñuel
Bunuel’s most scathing, wickedly funny attack on the Church, El explores the irrational jealousy of a respectable churchgoer, whose deeply ingrained sexual neuroses, firmly rooted in the repressive practices of the Church, come to the fore soon after his marriage, sparking within him paranoid suspicions of his wife’s unfaithfulness and ultimately compelling him to attempt a ghastly act against her person using a needle and thread, pathological behavior which ironically drives her into the very relationship it was intended to prevent. http://notesofafilmfanatic.com/?p=99
- The Naked Spur (1953) .. Anthony Mann
Stunningly shot in Technicolor on magnificent Rocky Mountain locations, The Naked Spur is the best in the excellent series of James Stewart/Anthony Mann westerns. With the help of an aged miner and a dishonorably discharged soldier, bounty hunter Stewart captures killer Robert Ryan (and his girlfriend, Janet Leigh) with the intention of escorting him back to civilization and collecting the reward money. As the group makes it way along the riverbanks, through the forests, and over the mountains, Ryan creates tension and paranoia within the group by pitting his captors against each other (““two can share the money better than one”) until the situation reaches the boiling point. Mann emphasizes the conflict by using the surrounding topography to reflect on the characters and their situation, with the rugged, precarious terrain mirroring their grueling, dangerous trek, and the turbulent rapids reflecting/symbolizing the escalating tension within the group. Concluding with a gripping shootout amid the dangerously jagged mountains, The Naked Spur succeeds as both an exciting adventure yarn and a compelling psychological drama.
- Pickup on South Street (1953) .. Samuel Fuller
Master storyteller Fuller wastes no time hooking us with his noirish espionage tale: in the opening scene pickpocket extraordinaire Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) filches Jean Peters’ purse, not realizing that he’s just come into possession of commie microfilm containing classified government information, and we’re immediately plunged into a dangerous world of petty thieves, informers, and spy rings operating around the waterfront dives and subway stations of NYC. Fuller is fascinated by these degenerate bottom feeders and the ramshackle world they inhabit, and he brilliantly uses these dilapidated settings to comment upon his characters. McCoy lives in a bait and tackle waterfront shack which sits on pilings over the water and connects to the shore by an oscillating bridge made of rickety wooden planks and thin ropes stretching precariously from the front door to the edge of the dock – a perfect symbol of this outsider’s alienation from society. Thelma Ritter’s Mo, eking out a living at the bottom of the criminal food chain as a stoolie, lives in a dingy apartment above a tattoo parlor, and it is in this hovel where she meets her sad end in one of cinema’s great death scenes: lying in bed, exhausted by life, and resigned to her fate, she bravely looks up at her murderer and says, with lips quivering, “look mister, I’m so tired you’d be doing me a big favor if you’d blow my head off”, and as the camera pans to a record player a gunshot rings out ending her life just as the scratchy phonograph needle reaches the end of the melancholy song she was listening to. Film noir doesn’t get any more potent than this.
- Them! (1954) .. Gordon Douglas
Far better than its campy reputation would suggest, this classic big bug movie effortlessly transcends its B movie limitations through effectively low-key direction, sharp writing, impressive special effects and believable acting. Happily, the colossal mutant ants, a nightmarish embodiment of the era’s paranoid fear of nuclear power, are defeated in the end. But beware! Given the current state of global affairs, it may not be too long before those giANT insects rear their nasty heads once more and start wreaking havoc all over again.
- Les Diaboliques (1955) .. Henri-Georges Clouzot
Les Diaboliques has often been glibly compared to Hitchcock, probably because it is adapted from a novel by the same author who wrote Vertigo, but while Hitchcock might have used the plot - about the apparent murder of an abusive headmaster at a boy’s school by his wife and mistress – Clouzot’s approach differs significantly from The Master, favoring a low-key realism over the comparatively flamboyant style of Hitchcock. The role music plays is a particularly obvious difference in their respective approaches to generating suspense. Whereas music was integral to Hitchcock’s films (The Birds being an exception), Clouzot seems to scorn the very concept of “artificially” enhancing suspense through music, generally preferring to use sound effects in place of musical effects. This is nowhere more apparent than in the famous final scene, featuring one of the great shock twists, which grippingly generates suspense through creaking doors, mysterious footsteps, a clicking typewriter, and heavy breathing.
- The Harder They Fall (1956) .. Mark Robson
Focusing on the sport of boxing itself rather than on an individual fighter, The Harder They Fall emerges as a harsh indictment of boxing, exposing the sport as an utterly corrupt racket run by crooked scumbags who heartlessly manipulate and exploit naïve boxers for profit. Humphrey Bogart stars as an unemployed sports writer who reluctantly accepts a job as press agent for racketeer Rod Steiger, but later comes to regret his decision when he realizes the pitiless nature of the scam Steiger has devised, prompting Bogart to carry out a noble deed on behalf of an exploited palooka. Were Bogart not the star his climactic actions might seem corny, but because he brings so many iconographic associations from earlier roles to bear here, his ultimate redemption rings poignantly true. His hard-boiled, world-weary but ultimately honorable character could be a cousin of Casablanca’s Rick, which makes this role a particularly fitting swan song for the legendary actor.
- Patterns of Power (1956) .. Fielder Cook
No better depiction of the cutthroat nature of Big Business exists than Rod Serling’s riveting, powerfully written and acted drama about a ruthless CEO of a large corporation (a suitably slimy Everette Sloane) who, having determined that elderly, longtime company man Ed Begley is no longer an asset to the company, decides to force him out through verbal abuse and humiliation, and replace him with a young hotshot executive.
- The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) .. Jack Arnold
At once a celebration of human ingenuity, an existential meditation on man’s (in)significance in the universe, and a nightmarish vision of alienation, The Incredible Shrinking Man remains a superior example of ‘50s sci-fi, one in which the once familiar, comforting security of “home” becomes, for one alarmingly diminutive man, a vast, deadly arena where previously harmless things like the family cat, a basement spider, and even a drop of water pose menacing threats to his very existence.
- Terror in a Texas Town (1958) .. Joseph H. Lewis
In this impressively offbeat western, Lewis’ final theatrical release, rapacious land-grabber Sebastian Cabot, a gluttonous capitalist who devours farmland as ravenously as he devours food (his pudgy fingers are always into one kind of foodstuff or another), and his hired gun, a villainous quick-draw with a mechanical hand, run up against one of the western genres strangest heroes, a Scandinavian whaler, leading to a spectacularly bizarre climactic showdown between the gun-toting villain and harpoon-hurling hero.
- A Bucket of Blood (1959) .. Roger Corman
Cult character actor Dick Miller gives one of his finest performances as a lowly busboy at a beatnik hangout in this excellent little Roger Corman quickie. Even though the beatniks are shown to be hacks who recite hilariously pretentious poetry, Miller, whose creative impulses exceed his artistic abilities, envies them and proves willing to go to great lengths to receive their approbation. His dreams come true when the “sculpture” he makes out of a dead cat earns him great acclaim from the foolish beatniks. But in order to maintain his newfound reputation as a Great Artiste, his next work, sure to be his masterpiece, will require a human sculpture, driving Miller to commit murder in the name of art. In addition to Miller’s fine turn, the film benefits from Charles B. Griffith’s thematically rich script which satirically explores the consequences of artistic ambition run amok.
- Compulsion (1959) .. Richard Fleischer
This compelling, unfairly overlooked thriller based on Leopold and Loeb, the two intellectual prodigies and self-described Übermensch (others might say goobermensch) who murdered a young boy for kicks, combines an engrossing police procedural, an interesting examination of journalistic techniques, an effective courtroom drama and, above all, a fascinating psychological study of disturbed minds, with chilling performances by Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell as, on one hand, clean-cut, promising young men from wealthy families and, on the other, savage, remorseless killers. It is precisely this incongruity between their respectable public image and their unconscionable private behavior and attitudes that makes the film so fascinating. Considering themselves supermen exempt from the laws of ordinary men, murder is just another experience, hardly distinguishable from anything else they might do, a nihilistic attitude which takes Nietzshean philosophy to its unsettling logical extreme.
- Eyes Without a Face (1960) .. Georges Franju
The basic storyline of Eyes without a Face could be the plot of a thousand old Universal horror movies: a mad scientist enlists the help of his assistant in luring beautiful young women to his secret laboratory in order to graft their faces onto the horribly disfigured face of his once-beautiful daughter. Except that here Franju subverts the creaky old horror movie clichés by replacing the stereotypes with believable, flesh and blood characters: the “mad scientist” is no raving lunatic but a world renowned surgeon with a calm, low-key demeanor; the murderous assistant isn’t some dim-witted heavy or one-eyed hunchback but an attractive older woman with a special personal reason for doing his bidding; and the “monster” isn’t a monster at all but a sensitive, tortured young woman with an almost ethereal presence. Even more remarkably, Franju presents his frequently horrific images in an oddly low-key, matter-of-fact manner: a sequence showing an operation in which the doctor literally slices a beautiful girl’s face off plays as if we were medical students watching an instructor demonstrating a procedure and an extraordinary sequence featuring a series of still photos showing the gradual deterioration of the daughter’s grafted facial tissue after the surgery is described by the doctor as if he were relating the results of a scientific study/experiment. Jean Cocteau once said, “The more you touch on mystery, the more important it is to be realistic”, and I think that’s the key to the success of Eyes without a Face – its conflation of the bizarre with the everyday, the horrific with the matter-of-fact, the fantastic with the realistic, and the abnormal with the normal.
- The Hole (1960) .. Jacques Becker
What sets The Hole apart from other prison escape films is Becker’s richly detailed direction and the emphasis he places on the camaraderie between the plotters. Filmed in long takes and focusing unblinkingly on the grueling efforts of the men as they pound, saw, chisel, hammer and dig through the stone floor and tunnel underground, Becker achieves an almost Bressonian attention to detail and a remarkable degree of authenticity, while the evident camaraderie that forms between the would-be escapees as they work together toward their common goal is worthy of Hawks, which makes the climactic betrayal all the more powerful.
- Shoot the Pianist (1960) .. François Truffaut
Balancing playful comedy, moving romance, winking reflexivity and dark existential tragedy within a narrative involving a honky-tonk pianist’s failed efforts to remain emotionally detached from the world, Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianinst deliriously blends genres, styles and tones with the kind of cinematic razzmatazz associated with talented young filmmakers giddily exploring the medium’s rich visual possibilities. http://notesofafilmfanatic.com/?p=77
- The Innocents (1961) .. Jack Clayton
Now that explicit gore, extreme violence and showy special effects have become so prevalent in the horror genre, Clayton’s exquisite, low-key adaptation of Henry James’ ghost story The Turn of the Screw is a timely reminder that a young girl humming an eerie tune on a beautiful sunny day can be far creepier than all the gory FX found in the typical modern horror movie. The great Deborah Kerr stars as a sexually repressed governess who comes to believe her young charges are possessed by the spirits of her kinky predecessor and that woman’s S&M lover in this superbly mounted psychological/supernatural thriller, whose teasing ambiguity leaves you wondering to the end whether the spooky specters she sees and the eerie whispers she hears are real or merely the product of her disturbed mind.
- A Woman Is a Woman (1961) .. Jean-Luc Godard
Godard’s “Karina Period” was by far the most creatively fertile stretch of his career, and he must have been a happy man when he made A Woman is a Woman because he was about to marry the beautiful Karina. And so I’m sure it’s no coincidence that A Woman is a Woman happens to be his most upbeat, playful and accessible film, an amusing lark with a refreshing sense of spontaneity, in which seemingly anything might happen, from self-conscious asides to the camera to lyrical musical interludes, as if things were being made up as they went along (and by all accounts, they were).
- The Haunting (1963) .. Robert Wise
In between his two beloved Oscar-winning films, West Side Story and The Sound of Music, the underrated Robert Wise directed this superb adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic ghost story The Haunting of Hill House. Achieving a near-perfect visualization of Jackson’s marvelous prose, the first glimpse of Hill House offers a spine-tingling portent of the supernatural goings-on to come - sitting crookedly on its hilltop the spooky house almost seems to be…alive, an evil entity gazing down through its darkened windows, awaiting the arrival of its uninvited “guests”. Within, the house is no more inviting, its architecture slightly askew, with nary a right angle in sight, its corridors and passageways dark and forbidding, its rooms filled with creepy statues and busts, its atmosphere dark and oppressive with heavy draperies and unlighted candelabras. And all this even before Wise starts turning the screws with some truly frightening set-pieces. Suggesting rather than showing a supernatural presence at work, Wise employs canted camera angles, distorting lenses, fast-cutting, zooming, quick camera movements and cacophonous sound effects (loud banging, eerie whispering) to generate an atmosphere of unbearable suspense and genuine terror.
- High and Low (1963) .. Kurosawa Akira
The narrative structure of High and Low - a fascinating mixture of social commentary and exciting thriller in which a wealthy man (Toshirô Mifune) must decide whether to mortgage everything he owns to pay the ransom for the kidnapped son of his chauffeur - is as sharply divided as the hierarchical class structure alluded to in the title, with the first part focusing on wealthy Mifune grappling with a moral dilemma high up in his luxurious hilltop mansion and the second part shifting focus to a police procedural/investigation in and around the alleys, bars, and junkie hangouts of the “lower depths”.
- Hud (1963) .. Martin Ritt
“I always say the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner.” That’s a quote from Paul Newman’s Hud, one of cinema’s unforgettable characters, a recklessly amoral but irresistibly charming heel who functions both as the film’s hero and its villain. Hud oozes charisma and a smoldering sexuality around women and exudes grit and toughness around men, but proves equally treacherous toward each sex, cheating both indiscriminately. He’s a womanizing ladies man and an underhanded man’s man. By film’s end he will have disillusioned his adoring/idolizing nephew, degraded his family’s sexy but dignified housekeeper (beautifully played with a twangy seductiveness by Patricia O’Neal) and, above all, thoroughly alienated his sternly moralistic father. The film’s major theme is the clash between Hud, who represents modern materialism, and his father (Melvyn Douglas), who represents traditional ideals. Hud is materialistic. Douglas is idealistic. Hud is amoral. Douglas is moralistic. Hud is self-interested. Douglas is self-righteous. The conflict between the two comes to a head (or a Hud) over what to do about a herd of cattle infected with hoof-and-mouth disease, a collision between selfishness and self-righteousness that results in tragedy, lending this dynastic drama the grandeur of Greek Tragedy.
- Night Is the Phantom (1963) (The Whip and the Body) .. Mario Bava
The snapping whip belongs to Christopher Lee, the ravishing body to Daliah Lavi in this thrilling sado-masochistic fantasy from horror maestro Bava. First in life and then from beyond the grave, Lee derives pleasure from exerting his power over Lavi by violently flagellating her until she’s “whipped” into a sexual frenzy, with Bava’s camera fetishistically capturing every detail of pain and pleasure, desire and shame, that registers on Lavi’s lovely face. Treading about as far into sexual taboo territory as a mainstream director can go, the result is at once deeply unsettling, powerfully erotic and, thanks to the haunting piano concerto Carlo Rustichelli composed for the ill-fated S&M lovers, oddly romantic.
- Devil Doll (1964) .. Lindsay Shonteff
The fantastically bizarre premise alone lends real distinction to this shamefully overlooked chiller: a diabolical mesmerist/ventriloquist, eerily played by Bryant Halliday, transfers the soul of a hypnotized subject into his dummy and commands it to carry out his evil biddings! Totally off the wall, yes, but convincing performances ensure suspension of disbelief, while stylish direction, sharp editing and a deliciously creepy walking/talking/murdering dummy help sustain the film’s unsettling atmosphere all the way to its neat little twist ending.
- Onibaba (1964) .. Shindô Kaneto
Despite vaguely supernatural goings on, Onibaba is less a horror film than a horrifying vision of humans living in extremis, centering around two peasant women, a mother and her daughter-in-law, in war torn Japan who resort to waylaying and killing wandering samurai warriors and selling their armor for food. Motivated solely by base instinct and the need to survive, the women, living in a reedy marshland, are reduced to a primitive state, stripped of any semblance of a moral dimension due to the ravages of war, with matters only worsening when a friend of the mother’s son/daughter-in-law’s husband shows up and reports that the son/husband has been killed in the war. Deprived for sex the daughter-in-law sneaks away every night to have torrid, animalistic sex with the man, satisfying her carnal cravings amidst the evocatively undulating reed fields. Worried that the daughter-in-law’s sexual activities will ruin their already tenuous partnership, the mother tries to prevent her from seeing the man by donning a demon mask she took from one of her samurai victims and scaring the younger woman into believing she’s being haunted as punishment for her lustfulness. Horrific consequences ensue. Eerily filmed amidst the misty reed fields, few films, horror or not, offer a more profoundly pessimistic vision of human nature than Shinto’s masterwork.
- Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) .. Russ Meyer
Watching tough women kick ass seems to be a fetish among some of the younger directors these days, but the trio of voluptuous, psychotically violent nymphomaniacs at the center of Meyer’s sexploitation classic make the Angelina Jolies, Uma Thurmans, Rose McGowans, and Princess Warriors of the world look like dainty little powder-puffs by comparison. The leader of the group, Tura Satana, is a truly formidable presence: black clad and oozing with exotic allure she’s the voluptuous embodiment of every man’s ultimate fantasy and worst nightmare – irresistibly desirable and undelimitedly sexual and as deadly as a mate-devouring black widow.
- For a Few Dollars More (1965) .. Sergio Leone
If any one of the films comprising the so-called “Dollars Trilogy” has received short shrift it is surely For a Few Dollars More. It rarely receives consideration as one of the “great westerns”, nor does it often appear on “best films of 1965” lists. A Fistful of Dollars receives more attention because 1) it was a remake of Yojimbo, 2) it started the “spaghetti western” craze, 3) it made Eastwood an international superstar and 4) it jumpstarted the careers of Leone and Ennio Morricone. And over time For a Few Dollars More has simply been overshadowed by the epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But while For a Few Dollars More is not quite in the same league as its successor, it is vastly superior to its predecessor. Freed from the constraints of a remake, Leone’s style is more fully developed, his themes more refined, his pacing more assured. Morricone’s score is richer, too, introducing elegiac elements which will become more pronounced in later films. Additional elements also appear which will continue to figure prominently in subsequent films: a triadic struggle between mercenaries eventually forms into an uneasy alliance between two of them; the presence of a haunted character driven by revenge; extreme close-ups alternate with deep-focus, elegantly composed medium/long shots, a Leone trademark largely absent from AFOD; the first appearance of a gun duel held in a circular arena, with the participants ritualistically staring down each other with all the drama and sense of anticipation of a corrida; Leone’s patented montage sequences, featuring virtually abstract shots of eyes, hands and guns, which slowly build in speed and intensity and suddenly end with a quick spurt of violence; the use of an emblem or a keepsake as a key narrative element, here a timepiece that triggers Proustian flashbacks, greatly increasing the emotional/dramatic resonance of the characters’ present actions. The classic Leone ingredients are all here in developing form, which is what makes this film particularly fascinating for us Leone fans. If you’re an admirer of Leone and haven’t seen this film in a while, do yourself favor and revisit it soon. (See also Duck, You Sucker, Leone’s true “forgotten” film and a sadly underappreciated one).
- Branded to Kill (1967) .. Sezuki Seijun
One of Pauline Kael’s books is called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a title she says refers to the basic appeal of movies: sex and violence. Branded to Kill plays like a distillation of those basic cinematic appeals: 90 minutes of naughty kiss kiss and brutal bang bang. Dispensing with bothersome things like narrative continuity, character motivation, thematic content and any hint of social/moral commentary, Suzuki fashions a deliriously stylish, boldly elliptical yakuza thriller centering around a super-cool, amoral hit-man (Joe Shishido, sporting a mohair suit, jet black Raybans and collagen-enhanced cheekbones) whose sole activity in life, other than engaging in copious amounts of sex (aided by his decidedly Japanese fetish for inhaling rice steam!), is climbing the corporate hit-man ladder to attain the desirable rank of number 1 killer. The result is a truly gonzo gangster flick which is every bit as cine-savvy as the typical rule-breaking French New Wave film.
- Point Blank (1967) .. John Boorman
Shot and left to die by a friend and partner in crime, gangster Lee Marvin returns from the brink of death (or is all a fantasy at the point of dying?) seeking revenge against those who wronged him. His money and his wife have been stolen. He wants his money back. For clues he contacts his wife’s sister, Angie Dickenson, who tells him, “You’ll ask him for the money, he’ll say no, and you’ll kill him,” which just about sums up the simple motivation driving Marvin, a killing machine every bit as single-minded and relentless as Schwarzenegger’s terminator, destroying just about anything that gets in his way, not just people but also inanimate objects: he shoots a bed, demolishes a car, and rips a phone out its wall socket. Boorman’s stunning direction enhances the intensity of Marvin’s unrelenting pursuit with virtuoso camerawork, brilliant editing and an imaginative sound design. In one memorable scene, Marvin is shown purposefully walking down a long corridor, his loud footsteps pronounced on the soundtrack. He’s found out where his wife is and he’s coming for her. As Boorman cuts back and forth between the wife obliviously going about her business and Marvin relentlessly heading to where she lives, his footsteps continue to echo on the soundtrack, louder and louder until finally he busts through her front door! He’s not called Walker for nothing! It’s an incredible sequence which establishes Marvin as an unstoppable force. But he’s also an immovable object: Dickinson futilely pounds on his chest for a good minute trying to break through his implacable exterior before collapsing at his feet, spent and exhausted. But even this unstoppable force/immovable object is no match for modern day organized crime: his bloody quest ultimately leads him to the higher echelons of “The Organization”, which conducts business with plastic rather than paper currency, rendering Marvin an anachronism, his quest futile.
- The Shooting (1967) .. Monte Hellman
A mysterious woman, a bounty hunter, his dim-witted sidekick, and a black-clad, quick-drawing gunslinger embark on a long, grueling trek through desolate, barren terrain – an inhospitable landscape which functions as the visual correlate to the film’s bleak existentialism - which ends in a surreal confrontation whose ultimate meaning remains tantalizingly elusive. Earlier the bounty hunter asked the woman what the point of their journey is and she said, “There is no point”.
Theirs is a long journey to nowhere, fraught with sound and fury along the way, but ultimately signifying nothing. In the end there’s only death and nothingness – a fitting conclusion to this spellbinding, powerfully nihilistic western.
- The Flat (1968) .. Jan Svankmajer
At once hilarious and unsettling, The Flat is a surrealistic masterwork in which a man becomes inexplicably trapped inside a bizarre cabin which seemingly operates in contradistinction to all known universal laws, mystifying the hapless protagonist at every turn and making him the butt of some absurdist cosmic joke.
- Shame (1968) .. Ingmar Bergman
Bergman’s bleak, apocalyptic vision of war focuses on the futile attempts of a peaceful married couple to remain neutral to war when armed forces invade their island, powerfully demonstrating how quickly and easily the tenuous thread between order and chaos, peace and conflict, civilization and savagery can snap.
- A Touch of Zen (1969) .. King Hu
A delirious pastiche of ghost story, martial arts actioner, Ming dynasty political intrigue, and Zen Buddhism, A Touch of Zen defies easy categorization or description. Most of the action occurs in a sleepy little village on the outskirts of Peking where the film’s hero, Ku, lives with his mother across from an abandoned fort reputed to be haunted. His mother is constantly nagging him to become a civil servant, but after he becomes involved with the mysterious woman, Yang, residing at the fort, it is clear his destiny lies elsewhere. Like Leone, Hu spits on the concept of a traditional “plot hook”, allowing narrative details to unfold slowly over time; a semblance of a plot doesn’t even begin to take shape until a third of the way into this three hour film when it is revealed that Yang is a noblewoman hiding out from evil Ming dynasty assassins. Displaying an almost fetishistic attention to visual detail, Hu draws us into the film not through plot points but through visual means, filling the Cinemascope frame with color and movement, whether it be swaying trees, flowing garments, or the stealthy maneuverings of characters, and spending an inordinate amount time establishing the characters and the outlay of the village, employing a remarkably fluid camera which follows Hu around the village as he tries to figure out what brought so many Ming dynasty agents to his sleepy town. Aided by a band of monks with formidable ass-kicking kung fu skills and the apparent supernatural ability to float on the wind, Ku and Yang battle the forces of evil, leading to dazzlingly kinetic martial arts sequences featuring acrobatic characters flying through the air with gravity-defying grace and speed.
- Le Boucher (1970) .. Claude Chabrol
In a small, quiet French village the friendly butcher and the cute schoolteacher fall in love. But what begins as a seemingly sweet little romance between two lonely people turns into something altogether darker when it transpires that the butcher happens to be a serial killer of young girls. The couple is compatible except for this one small problem: she teaches kids; he kills them. Chabrol’s exploration of the banality of evil uncovers the malevolence lurking not merely below the surface of civilized society but squarely within it, yet nevertheless allows his killer a chance for redemption in the expectation-violating, strangely moving conclusion.
- Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970) .. Waris Hussein
Gene Wilder plays Quackser, an uneducated working-class stiff who makes a living by scooping up manure off Dublin streets and selling it as fertilizer to adoring neighborhood women. This may not sound like the most dignified way to make a living, but it’s preferable to working in the local foundry like all the other men in town – a far shittier job than Quackser’s. Say what you will about his occupation, Quackser is an enterprising guy who works for himself, keeps his own hours, and works outdoors, while other men toil inside a soulless factory. It is Quackser’s enterprising, nonconformist streak, no doubt, which draws pretty American coed Margot Kidder to him, sparking their unlikely, bittersweet romance. Although they seem happy together, the relationship can’t last, and Kidder, figuring they are fundamentally incompatible, breaks Quackser’s heart by leaving Dublin without saying goodbye. Interestingly, although Kidder is hipper than the unsophisticated Quackser, it is she who finally buckles under to societal expectations and peer pressure, while Quackser remains true to his independent spirit and ultimately emerges as the genuine nonconformist hero of this highly original if all but forgotten romantic comedy/drama.
- Last Tango in Paris (1972) .. Bernardo Bertolucci
Marlon Brando’s legendary career began with his electrifying, sexually charged performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, first on Broadway, then in the 1951 film, which revolutionized screen acting and influenced countless future actors. Two decades after astonishing audiences with Stanley Kowalski’s raw sexuality, he did it again, this time in far more sexually liberated times, with his devastating portrayal of middle-aged angst, grief and sexual rage in Last Tango in Paris. His honed naturalistic acting style coupled with his immense natural charisma gave Brando a commanding screen presence of unparalleled power, and when he was committed, as he was in Last Tango, nobody could touch him. Acting students should be required to study the astonishing range of emotion Brando exhibits when he breaks down in front of his recently deceased wife’s casket; this incredible scene is probably Brando’s (or anyone else’s for that matter) single greatest screen moment. Alas, Brando would never again perform with such conviction, as if this emotionally shattering portrayal expended him and laid him bare with nothing left to say.
- Prime Cut (1972) .. Michael Ritchie
Ritchie’s offbeat contribution to the gangster genre stars Gene Hackman and Lee Marvin as, respectively, a ruthless Kansas mob boss operating a slaughterhouse as a front for drug dealing and teenage prostitution, and a syndicate enforcer from Chicago sent to collect the money Hackman owes - not an easy task considering his predecessors returned to Chicago as human hamburgers. Transposing the conventions of the urban gangster movie to the rural countryside, the action of Prime Cut is staged not on the mean streets of the big city but in the hayfields and sunflower patches of the heartland, where characters are menaced by a combine harvester in a cornfield and the climactic gunfight takes place in a barn between snorting pigs and mewing cows! But despite its unusual setting Ritchie’s underrated film remains as energetic and fast-paced as an old James Cagney gangster flick.
- The Long Goodbye (1973) .. Robert Altman
Altman’s revisionist masterpiece places a ‘50s style version of Philip Marlowe within the narcissistic, morally indifferent milieu of ‘70s L.A., an inspired conceit which allows Altman to critique the selfish Me-generation and parody the conventions of the private eye genre while also telling an engrossing mystery story, aided by Elliot Gould’s poignant re-imagining of Marlowe, Leigh Brackett’s clever screenplay, Zsigmond’s constantly tracking, panning, zooming camerawork, and John Williams’ intentionally corny yet oddly haunting title tune, whose theme wittily pops up in the damndest places, including a doorbell! http://notesofafilmfanatic.com/?p=108
- The Wicker Man (1973) .. Robin Hardy
A truly original horror movie about a devoutly religious but sexually repressed Protestant policeman (Edward Woodward) who travels to a remote Scottish island inhabited by pagans to investigate the disappearance of young girl, The Wicker Man is at once an engrossing mystery thriller and an intelligent exploration of the ancient clash between Christianity and Paganism. An upright and uptight Christian, Woodward becomes morally indignant upon witnessing the “perverted” displays of free love practiced among the heathenistic pagans. However, his indignation is as much a product of his repressed lust as it is of his spiritual convictions, and so he finds himself struggling to resist the temptations of the beautiful pagan seductress Britt Ekland, even as his efforts to convert the “heathens” to his “one true god” prove pathetically futile. The pagans, meanwhile, appear to be friendly, happy people who spend much of their time singing and dancing, but there’s seemingly something dark and sinister lurking beneath their jovial surface, which gives the film a creepy, unsettling aura. Woodward’s investigation leads him to the belief that the community plans to ritualistically sacrifice the missing girl as an offering to the sun god in exchange for a bountiful crop. But he doesn’t have that quite right, as we learn in the truly haunting conclusion, which demonstrates both the potential barbarism inherent in religious extremism and the absolutely futility of faith in the face of an indifferent universe.
- Female Trouble (1974) .. John Waters
Waters’ bad taste classic stars Divine as Dawn Davenport, an obese juvenile delinquent whose life may have turned out better if she’d just gotten those cha-cha heels she wanted for Christmas. Sadly, when she doesn’t get them she thrashes her parents, destroys the Christmas tree and runs away from home. But life is tough out there: she gets raped by a sex pervert, has his child (the daughter from hell) and turns to a life of crime and prostitution. But then things get really bizarre. Even after her face is horribly disfigured by acid, Dawn acquires a substantial cult following as the sexiest and most dangerous woman alive (never mind how). With what’s left of her face caked in gaudy makeup, Dawn struts around in all her rotund glory wearing the trashiest clothing imaginable, convinced she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, even as she commits outrageously violent crimes, including the murder of her own daughter for becoming a Hare Krishna (“I would have killed you at birth if I’d thought you’d even entertain such an idea!”). But she always has time for her adoring fans: in one of the funniest sight gags ever she regales a crowd with an amazing trampoline act, whipping them into a frenzy with a couple of stupendous half flips while furiously masturbating. Vulgar and determinedly offensive, yes, but Waters’ film also happens to be an uproarious satire of mindless idolatry and the cult of talentless celebrity – all the more relevant in this age of idiotic reality television shows and the hero worship of vacant social debutantes and no-talent pop singers and actors.
- The Parallax View (1974) .. Alan J. Pakula
Newspaper reporter Warren Beatty gets himself in way over his head in this creepy conspiracy thriller when his investigation into the recent assassination of a politician leads him to a corporation that recruits violent, antisocial misfits to carry out political assassinations. The quasi-credibility of that premise is made all the more chilling by Pakula’s knack for creating unsettling visuals - even the buildings, like the Seattle Space Needle, evoke an eerie, otherworldly aura. Operating within this menacing world, Beatty often seems lost amid huge, wide-open spaces or dwarfed by massive architectural structures, as if to suggest he’s up against something far too big for him to handle. At other times, he seems cornered in small, cramped spaces, which reflect the trap he’s stepped into. Either way he seems doomed, destined for a far different fate than the reporters in Pakula's All the President's Men. One of the creepiest political thrillers of all time, The Parallax View taps deeply into our worst paranoid fears, confirming that behind every assassination exists a vast, impenetrable conspiracy.
- Fox and his Friends (1975) .. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Films depicting the exploitation of minority groups by more powerful groups are fairly commonplace, but it’s rare to find films about the exploitation of someone from a minority group by others members of the same group. But that is precisely Fassbinder’s theme in this powerful study of an elitist homosexual’s cruel treatment of his naïve but likable lower class lover, played with heartrending poignancy by Fassbinder himself. Insofar as the film deals with the manipulation/exploitation of one class over another, the film treads fairly familiar melodramatic turf, but Fassbinder introduces an additional layer of complexity by having both the exploiter/manipulator and the exploited/manipulated belong to the same (minority) group, thereby demonstrating, quite astutely, that treachery occurs not just between groups but within them as well. The haunting final scene, in which two kids rob Fassbinder’s corpse, powerfully sums up the film’s despairing viewpoint.
- Chinese Roulette (1976) .. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The title refers to a bizarre parlor game played by a family gathered at their country estate which involves asking each other confrontational questions like, “What would he have been during the Third Reich?” (Answer: “concentration camp commandant”) and “What’s a fitting death for her?” (Answer: “She’s already dead”). The resulting arguments and mutual recriminations bring their barely concealed hatred for each other to a head, while Fassbinder ratchets up the tension by filling the mise-en-scene with glass (windows, glass cases, mirrors etc.) and employing a tingling sound design of tinkling chandeliers, clinking plates/glasses and nerve-jangling music, creating the sense that things are constantly on the verge of shattering. Unique, intense and cinematically brilliant, this is one of Fassbinder’s best, if overlooked, films.
- Eraserhead (1977) .. David Lynch
Made at a time of great uncertainly in Lynch’s personal life and professional career, it is tempting to view the bizarre visual scheme and creepy soundtrack of Eraserhead as the expressionistic embodiment of Lynch’s nightmarish fears of urban decay, poverty, fatherhood and stifling domesticity, with the film’s hero, Henry, an alienated, lonely nonentity adrift in a desolate urban landscape and trapped in a domestic nightmare with no freedom, joy, or creative outlet, personifying what/who Lynch was terrified of becoming. But however it is interpreted, Eraserhead remains one of the most imaginative, deeply personal films ever made, an utterly unique, fascinating mood piece which retains its capacity to disturb, provoke, mystify, and, yes, delight even after countless viewings.
- Modern Romance (1981) .. Albert Brooks
Mary: “There’s something wrong with you.”
Richard: “No, there isn’t, I’m in love.”
Modern Romance was released the year after Raging Bull and that may not be a meaningless observation. Raging Bull was about a man consumed by jealousy and an obsessive need to control his mate. So is Modern Romance: Richard Cole (Albert Brooks). The difference between the two men lies in the means with which they seek to exert their control: La Motta uses violence whereas Richard favors emotional appeals (he doesn’t want his girlfriend to wear a dress because it makes “your nipples look like eyeballs.”). Brooks is mining the same nether regions of the male psyche as Scorsese but whereas Scorsese found only the makings of heavy drama, Brooks finds the material for high comedy. Scorsese sees the violence. Brooks sees the absurdity. And the result is a hilarious, keenly observed comedy, albeit with a very dark undercurrent. In the opening scene Richard breaks up with his girlfriend, Mary, and immediately regrets it. After a hilariously futile attempt to forget her (involving Quaaludes, phone calls to barely remembered women, and an aborted exercise regimen), he embarks upon an obsessive quest to win her. Nothing or nobody else matters. Everything else pales in significance, everyone else a mere nuisance, including his own mother, whose phone calls he (hilariously) blows off. Obsession completely overtakes logic and therein lays the hilarity. When he gets her back he immediately smothers her with affection and becomes irrationally jealous and possessive, which, of course, puts a strain on the relationship. In a last ditch effort to find a solution to their problems, Richard offers a desperately delivered marriage proposal. She accepts. But this is a not-really-happy ending: marriage won’t change anything, except now the cycle of break-ups and get-back-togethers will become a series of divorces and remarriages, as we learn in the end titles. Somewhere along the line Brooks lost his comic edge, but Modern Romance is a reminder that, once upon a time, he was one of the funniest and most astute observers of the male psyche.
- The Ballad of Narayama (1983) .. Imamura Shohei
The Ballad of Narayama is an alternately shocking, grotesque, darkly comic, and moving one-of-a-kind masterwork which explores a culture and a people about as far removed from modern “civilization” as one could imagine. The setting is a small village located in a remote mountainous region and Imamura’s rigorously observed examination of the behavior, mating habits, superstitions, and rituals of the people living there takes on the flavor of an anthropological study. Many of their customs will seem alien, even primitive and/or barbaric to outsiders – male babies are killed, female babies sold; only the eldest son in a family is allowed to marry and reproduce; members reaching 70 must be taken to the Narayama mountain to die. Yet when viewed in context the customs become perfectly understandable - food is scarce, especially in the winter, and they function to keep the population in check. Not surprisingly, the customs hold religious significance for these people and give meaning to their lives; the spirits of the dearly departed, they believe, are waiting for them on Narayama Mountain and the trek to the top is treated as a religious pilgrimage. Throughout the film, Imamura reinforces the similarities between man and animal – characters engage in animalistic sex; a hunter shoots a rabbit, only to watch an eagle swoop down and snatch it etc. – but only the human animal engages in ritual and superstition. And it is precisely this effort to find meaning in a seemingly indifferent universe, Imamura seems to say, which makes man at once the noblest and the most pathetic critter on earth.
- A Christmas Story (1983) .. Bob Clark
Based upon the recollections of humorist Jean Sheppard, A Christmas Story is a hugely enjoyable ode to childhood detailing 10 year old Ralphie’s unrelenting quest to acquire a Daisy Brand Red Ryder Ranger Model Air Rifle for Christmas. His entire life revolves around this pursuit but there’s one major obstacle standing between him and this most glorious of Christmas presents – his mom, who’s sure he’ll shoot his eye out. Nostalgic, funny and perfectly narrated by Sheppard, whose voice-over beautifully captures the essence of those magical childhood days when the most important thing in the world is getting your most cherished toy, A Christmas Story has become a staple of holiday viewing and the discriminating film buff’s alternative to Home Alone (if not It’s a Wonderful Life).
- Last Night at the Alamo (1983) .. Eagle Pennell
The traditional image of the macho cowboy takes a serious beating in Last Night of the Alamo, one of the best, if sadly little known, independent features of the ‘80s. Revolving around the various characters at The Alamo, a once-popular local waterhole about to be torn down, the film chronicles the death throes of a way of life, and the attitude of the filmmakers toward its demise seems to be, “good riddance, cowboy!” The big man at the Alamo is the suitably named Cowboy. He’s the very embodiment of the cowboy ideal and aesthetic, but as the film progresses Cowboy, like the bar itself, will be chopped down to size. His boastful talk of becoming the next John Wayne is pure delusion; his promise to use his “connections” with the governor to stop the razing of the bar pure nonsense; and his alleged stature as a ladies’ man is seriously called into question when he reveals a bald head hidden under his ten-gallon Stetson – a perfect symbol of the cowboy image long past its heyday. Boasting vivid characterizations, insightful observations, and a richly detailed sense of time and place, Last Night at the Alamo is more than worthy of rediscovery.
- Stranger Than Paradise (1984) .. Jim Jarmusch
The most refreshing thing about Jarmush’s minimalist gem is that he shows/proves that jazzy editing, slick camera movements, special effects, or even plots aren’t necessary for memorable cinema. Relentlessly fading in and out on a series static one-take scenes, Jarmush’s style is perfectly suited to the subject matter, which focuses on a pair of hilariously inert, aimless slackers who decide one day on a whim to hoist themselves off the couch and go on “vacation” (even though they don’t appear to have jobs), only to discover that their lives proceed exactly as before (only the location changes), as the film just keeps fading in and out on them. Jarmusch may spend the rest of his career trying unsuccessfully to match this perfectly realized slice of lifeless.
- This Is Spinal Tap (1984) .. Rob Reiner
A spot-on send-up of the sexist lyrics, thundering music, ostentatious stage shows, pseudo-profound philosophizing and internal feuds and breakups of the typical heavy metal band, This is Spinal Tap is one of the funniest movies of all time thanks to utterly inspired improvisational performances by Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher “these go to 11” Guest, who not only created hilarious but credible characterizations but also wrote all the Spinal Tap rocks songs, including such classics as “Big Bottom” and “Sex Farm”.
- The Thin Blue Line (1988) .. Errol Morris
Morris’ groundbreaking documentary, about the possible railroading of an innocent man for the murder of a cop, juxtaposes fascinating interviews with the real life participants and imaginative recreations of the actual events, all of it set to Philip Glass’ hypnotic score. The result is an engrossing exposé of the criminal justice system, which chillingly demonstrates how difficult it is to stop the wheels of “justice” once they’ve started spinning, not only because of the pressure, in this case, to solve the murder of a cop but also because of the reluctance of those involved to admit having made a mistake. (See also: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills).
- Miller's Crossing (1990) .. The Coen Brothers
Arguably the Coen brothers’ best film, Miller’s Crossing boasts an impressively labyrinth plot, memorably stylized dialogue, a superb score, and several stunningly executed, incredibly violent set-pieces, notably the electrifying Tommy gun shootout cut to the sorrowful strains of ‘Danny Boy.’ But it’s Gabriel Byrne’s brilliant performance as Tom Reagan, a gangster boss’s brainy right-hand man who’s so hell-bent on outsmarting everyone around him that he ultimately outsmarts even himself, that gives the film genuine emotional heft and elevates it to the very top of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre: like the anti-heroes of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, Tom slyly plays both sides against the middle and ultimately emerges victorious – but, in his case, at a great personal cost: in the process he loses both his best friend and his girl, ending up as the last man standing and perfectly alone. Happiness for Tom seems to be as tantalizingly elusive as the haunting image of that hat blowing away in the woods.
- Raise the Red Lantern (1991) .. Zhang Yimou
Monogamy may not be the ideal system, but it works better overall than polygamy, for both women and men, if only because it evens out the playing field as much as possible. Polygamy does not favor men in general because the only men who truly benefit from the system are rich men. Every woman that marries a wealthy man is one less available to a poorer man, creating a large population of resentful and sexually frustrated males; in short, the system benefits the few at the expense of the many. Woman fare no better under the system, as Raise the Red Lantern is at pains to demonstrate. Gong Li stars as Songlian, an educated, beautiful young woman who is more or less forced to become the fourth mistress of a wealthy man and move into his palatial estate with the other three mistresses. Though possessed of an independent spirit, she quickly gets caught up in the ways of the house and soon finds herself vying with the other three mistresses for The Master’s attention. The reward for their efforts boils down to having the privilege of spending the night with him, with pretty red lanterns placed outside the house of whomever The Master decides to spend the night with. For an inherently free-spirited woman like Songlian, enforced servitude is a humiliating existence. She’s eventually stirred to rebellion, but ultimately descends into madness when deliverance from her circumstances proves impossible. Yimou’s visually dazzling masterwork features an engrossing story involving jealousy, duplicity and intrigue, an emotionally nuanced performance by Gong, and a final overhead shot of heartbreaking power showing Songlian wandering aimlessly in her yard, illuminated by red lanterns outlining the perimeters, like a trapped rat forever bumping up against the sides of its cage.
- Bottle Rocket (1996) .. Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson and Owen C. Wilson could spend the rest of their careers making quirky, offbeat films and never top their wonderful debut, Bottle Rocket, a completely original, hilarious variation on the botched heist/caper movie in which a trio of slackers, led by Wilson’s spacey Dignan, endeavor to make something of themselves by becoming master thieves and pulling off a major heist. Of course, these terminal screw-ups prove as bad at thievery as everything else they’ve tried, partly because they’re none too swift but also because they’re basically nice guys who (endearingly) lack the necessary ruthlessness it takes to succeed, resulting in some truly hilarious bungled robberies. But the film is also suffused with poignancy because no matter how misguided these likeable losers may be they truly are putting forth a genuine effort to improve themselves. The memorable result is an amazingly deft blend of comedy, pathos and characterization, anchored by Wilson’s exceptional performance, which somehow manages to be sidesplittingly funny, endearingly loopy, and genuinely poignant without ever resorting to parody or condescension.
- Happiness (1998) .. Todd Solondz
A powerfully written and acted pitch black satire exploring the perverse underbelly of suburban life, Happiness makes American Beauty look like The Brady Bunch, treating as near-farce subjects that most filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch, let alone find humor in, including masturbation, rape, murder and pedophilia. In Solondz’s hands familiar scenarios become warped and skewed in deeply unsettling ways. A scene in which Bill masturbates to a boy’s magazine in the back of his car is immediately followed by a domestic scene showing his wife dutifully preparing dinner and cheerfully greeting Bill with a kiss after a hard day’s work, while sitcom-happy music plays in the background. It’s like Ozzie & Harriet - except that this Ozzie likes to bugger little boys. Never has the rosy, idealistic image of domestic bliss looked so false and preposterous. http://notesofafilmfanatic.com/?p=137
- Election (1999) .. Alexander Payne
Never mind that the story is set in high school, Election is one the most politically astute films ever made, a sharply written, hilariously irreverent satire of the election process featuring a truly great cast of characters, notably Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, an all-American go-getter whose cute-as-a-button looks, chipper demeanor, and school girlish attire disguise the vindictive, conniving, power-hungry little egomaniac within, traits that help her win the election and pave the way for even higher political office in the future. http://notesofafilmfanatic.com/?p=105
- Requiem for a Dream (2000) .. Darren Aronofsky
Employing myriad visual/aural techniques to convey the manic, fragmented, disoriented state of mind of the addict, Aronofsky captures the subjective experience of drug addiction with harrowing, visceral intensity in Requiem for a Dream, an experimental near-masterpiece which concludes with an extraordinary montage sequence that cuts back and forth between the four characters as their sad, tragic fates unfold, building to an astonishing crescendo, aided by Clint Mansell’s already-classic music, that would have impressed the Griffith of Intolerance.
- Mulholland Dr. (2001) .. David Lynch
Like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Lynch’s mesmerizing film occurs entirely in the mind of his dying protagonist, “Betty”, a would-be Hollywood starlet who (re)casts herself in fantasy as the heroine of a mystery story, the solution to which only leads her back to grim reality. In telling Betty/Diane’s sad story Lynch and Naomi Watts - whose shocking transformation from a naïve, endearingly optimistic aspiring actress named Betty to a disillusioned failed actress and jilted lover named Diane is utterly astonishing - expose the filthy underbelly of Tinseltown, whose glittery surface conceals a darker reality of shattered dreams, broken hearts and lost identities.
- Spirited Away (2001) .. Miyazaki Hayao
Brimming with imagination, populated by amazing creatures and as richly animated as anything by Disney, Miyazaki’s enchanting animated tale, one of the few sheer delights of recent cinema, ties an Alice in Wonderland type fantasy to an exciting adventure story, while touchingly celebrating courage, friendship and personal identity.
- Open Water (2003) .. Chris Kentis
This shamefully underrated horror film (and it is a horror film in the truest sense of the world), about a married couple that find themselves stranded without food or water in the middle of shark-infested waters, intentionally begins uneventfully by showing in some detail the banal, everyday existence of the couple so as to make the subsequent horror they experience that much more intense. It’s a brilliant strategy because the contrast between their ordinary day-to-day existence and the horror that later befalls them throws into sharp relief the film’s chilling point: that no matter how seemingly insulated we are, or think we are, from the heartless indifference of nature, in truth, we are, always have been, and always will be merely a part of nature, as well as its potential victim. This theme is hauntingly underscored by a deeply unsettling scene towards the end. The sun has disappeared behind the horizon. A storm gathers. Thunder rumbles in the distance. Flashes of lightning supply the only illumination in the pitch black night. The couple floats alone in the vast ocean, exhausted, cold and bleeding, with hungry sharks circling. The sequence possesses an existential dread that even Jaws didn’t achieve. Shaky hand-hand camerawork and impressively naturalistic performances lend great immediacy and realism to this disturbing film, and the stunningly bleak conclusion confirms we aren’t in Hollywood anymore.
- Before Sunset (2004) .. Richard Linklater
As the steadicam follows Celine and Jesse, the reunited lovers from Before Sunrise, around Paris and finally up to Celine’s apartment, Linklater and his actors, who once again deliver uncannily naturalistic performances, achieve a rare sense of intimacy, as if we really were following these people around, eavesdropping on their private conversations. Even more remarkable, the evident rapport between Hawke and Delpy is so authentic, so genuine and true, that the essence of romantic love seems to have been captured on the celluloid itself.
- Hidden (2005) .. Michael Haneke
In Haneke’s creepy thriller, the stable relationship of a happily married couple is upset when they start receiving mysterious videotapes of their home under surveillance. But who’s sending them? Haneke never definitively answers. Hidden works best, I think, as a self-reflexive acknowledgment of the director’s godlike role in manipulating his characters and the audience. For it is Haneke, is it not, who’s really sending those surveillance tapes? Certainly the fact that Haneke stages many scenes with the same kind of static, voyeuristic camera set-ups we see on the surveillance tapes lends credence to this reading. That, above all, implicates Haneke in the “crime”. After all, it links the director’s shooting style to that of whoever is shooting the tapes. As such he can be seen as the omnipotent presence hovering above and beyond the proceedings, manipulating the characters in the filmic universe of his own creation. In any case, this provocative, formally inventive film is probably destined, like Blow-Up before it, to be analyzed ad nauseam by stuffy film school professors everywhere (not that that’s a good thing).
- Exiled (2006) .. Johnnie To
The prolific To’s oeuvre may be of variable quality but few action directors today can touch him when he’s working in top form as he is here. Decidedly not from the school of frenetically edited action sequences, To, like Leone, prefers to emphasize the anticipation of imminent violence rather than the violence itself, using fluid, rhythmic editing to slowly build tension before quickly ending matters in sudden bursts of mayhem. Yet at the same time he’s not above indulging in extended shoot-outs, even employing slow motion at times à la Sam Peckinpah or John Woo. As a result Exiled almost plays as if Leone, Peckinpah and Woo (from his Hong Kong days) were on set battling for control of the production. Yet despite these obvious directorial influences Exiled is no rip-off, because the mixture of styles and influences somehow creates something completely novel, as if it were the result of a cine-chemical reaction. Much the same could be said of the excellent score, a combination of elegiac orchestration and cool electric guitar riffs which echoes Morricone without being an outright rip-off of The Maestro.
- The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) .. Seth Gordon
The best documentary of 2007 was not about the Iraq War but about the Donkey Kong War, the monumental struggle between good and evil waged by video arcade geeks Steve Wiebe, the nice guy underdog, and Billy Mitchell, the villainous nerd and undisputed Donkey Kong champ whose rock star status among video gaming geeks even landed him a silicon-filled trophy wife.
- Ratatouille (2007) .. Brad Bird
Brad Bird, perhaps the best animation director working today, continued his string of successes with Ratatouille, a wonderfully funny, visually inventive charmer about a rat - that bane of the restaurant kitchen – who dreams of becoming a master chef at one of Paris’ finest restaurants. In the memorable conclusion Remy the rat achieves his dream when given the opportunity to serve his special ratatouille to a notoriously persnickety critic. The exquisite aroma and mouthwatering deliciousness of Remy’s dish inspires gastronomical delights in the critic the likes of which he hasn’t experienced since childhood, triggering a rapturous Proustian flashback which transports him back to his beloved mother’s kitchen where he used to savor her delicious home cooking.
- Let the Right One In (2008) .. Tomas Alfredson
Eschewing the gratuitous gore and CGI effects of the typical modern Hollywood horror movie, Let the Right One In favors a slow burn atmosphere of mounting dread with an emphasis on story and characterization, while still managing to pull off several memorably horrific sequences, notably the soon-to-be famous ”pool scene” featuring remarkably imaginative decapitations and dismemberments. The result is a stunningly original horror movie which combines an ingenious re-imagining of the vampire flick with a surprisingly sweet romance/poignant coming-of-age tale – or, given that one character happens to be immortal, a poignant coming-of-agelessness tale.
- WALL·E (2008) .. Andrew Stanton
WALL•E is easily one of the best animated films of recent years, and two scenes above all convince me of its greatness. In the first, when WALL•E’s endearing personality - his “WALL•E-ness” - momentarily disappears, leaving only an empty hunk of metal, indistinguishable from all the other robots, you realize how much emotion you have invested in these animated characters. The “WALL•E-ness” is gone from the machine, and we share EVE’s mournful sense of loss and her urgent desire to bring the WALL•E we love back. And when the spark returns to his eyes and the familiar WALL-E speaks again it is cause for rejoicing. That we care so much about an animated robot is a testament to the talented folks at Pixar. The second scene is WALL•E and EVE’s beloved space dance. The highlight of Thomas Newman’s fine score is “Define Dancing”, a lovely composition, both lilting and “futuristic”, which accompanies WALL•E and EVE’s delightful interstellar pas de deux, in which they dance among the stars with all the grace and beauty of Fred and Ginger. That the most sweetly romantic sequence in recent cinema was between two amorous androids is yet another testament to the talented folks at Pixar.
- The Wrestler (2008) .. Darren Aronofsky
Combining grainy documentary-like authenticity with dark romantic poetry, The Wrestler might best be described as a vérité fairy-tale, working both as a naturalistic glimpse inside the brutal world of professional wrestling and as an elegiac requiem for washed-up wrestler Randy “the Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke). Rourke takes the viewer on an emotional journey with his ”broken down hunk of meat”, never stepping wrong in a complex, multi-faceted performance of body-slamming, heart-rending, tear-shedding and blood-letting power. Having failed in his attempt to create a new life for himself after wrestling, Randy finds himself compelled to return to the only place he knows: the ring. With an aura of tragic fatalism hovering over him, Randy enters the ring for the last time, determined to recapture his past glory, if only for one fleeting moment before departing the arena forever. Poignantly, he succeeds, climbing the ropes to salute the crowd and deliver his signature “Ram Jam” for the final time, and then leaping through the air, onto the canvas, and into cinematic folklore.