Movies Of The Year: 1957

Back to the list, while watching the Russ Meyer exploitation classic Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill!, which Rob Zombie had the audacity to claim is not camp. Pfft, Rob Zombie. Anyway, check out The Big List for previous results, explanations and disclaimers.

13. Old Yeller – The classic Disney film of a boy and his dog notable mainly for scarring millions of children with it’s sappy act of doggy euthanasia. It seems like there was a lot more death in the Disney movies of the mid-20th century than they’d allow now, but I’d have to watch some of the “family” films out today to know for sure, and that is not going to happen.

12. Sayonara – Costume melodrama of the most mediocre variety about a group of American servicemen who fall in love with Japanese women during the Korean War. Notable as the film with the first Oscar-winning performance by an Asian actor (Myoshi Umecki as Red Buttons’ girl), but that’s about it. The cast also includes Marlon Brando, Ricardo Montalbon and James Garner. Adapted from a james Michener novel and directed by Joshua Logan, the man responsible for the Eastwood/Marvin musical classic Paint Your Wagon.

11. An Affair To Remember – Leo McCarey’s remake of his own 1939 film Love Affair stars Deborah Kerr and Cary grant as a couple who meet on a cruise and fall in love, despite each being engaged to other people. After the cruise, they agree to meet six months later at the top of the Empire State Building. A classic story, decisively influential on many a film, including Sleepless In Seattle (#61, 1993) and Before Sunrise (#9, 1995), the film itself is quiet and classically styled, with an elegance and earnestness that’s been lacking in romantic films for decades. Kerr and grant are quite good, as they always are; McCarey was a comedy writer/director going back to the early 20s, but the only other movies of his I’ve seen are The Awful Truth and Duck Soup.

10. Love In The Afternoon – One of the mellower Billy Wilder romantic comedies, starring Audrey Hepburn as a young girl out to seduce the way too old Gary Cooper. Hepburn’s the Veronica Marsesque daughter of PI Maurice Chevalier, who’s be hired to prove that Cooper, a notorious womanizer has been sleeping with his clients wife. Hepburn falls in love with Cooper and pretends to be a slutty socialite to make him jealous. Hepburn’s as great as ever, but Cooper’s not only too old (creepy!), but neither comic nor romantic enough to be the star of a romantic comedy.

9. 12 Angry Men – Sidney Lumet’s classic film debut about a jury’s deliberations in a murder case has a terrific, all-star cast, featuring great performances from Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, along with character actors Martn Balsam, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden and Ed Begley. Based on a play, this film could very easily have fallen into the category of “filmed theater”, but Lumet manages to keep things moving and interesting despite the confined space and static, talky, nature of the story. One of those films that everyone probably saw in junior high school, but is still actually pretty good.

8. Bridge On The River Kwai – Alec Guinness stars in this David Lean epic about British soldiers in a Japanese POW camp during World War 2 who are forced to build the eponymous bridge. The battle of wills between Guinness (as the leader of the British) and Sessue Hayakawa (as the camp commandant) is wonderful, with great performances from both, especially Guinness as his character descends from hard-nosed, stiff-lipped ideal of British manliness to lunatic obsessive. The film is quite nearly ruined, unfortunately by a terrible performance (from a terribly written character) by William Holden as an American soldier in the camp who escape and leads the return to liberate the camp. In no way is anything involving Holden in this film any good at all. His character is written and acted seemingly as a parody of what the British think Americans are like (compare Holden here to Steve McQueen in The Great Escape). It’s really unfortunate, considering the rest of the film is as good as anything Lean ever did.

7. Witness For The Prosecution – Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama hasn’t the least relation to any kind of realistic depiction of a murder trial, but thanks to two great actors (and one terrible one) it’s a quite funny and entertaining genre piece. Charles Laughton (perhaps the ugliest, and greatest, actor in film history) stars as the defense attorney for Tyrone Power (who’s terrible), who has been accused of killing a middle-aged widow. Marlene Dietrich plays the defendant’s wife, the title character. Elsa Lanchester (Laughton’s real-life wife) also stars.

6. Funny Face – One of my favorite musicals, Audrey Hepburn stars in this Stanley Donen film as a bohemian bookworm who gets whisked away to Paris to be a fashion model for a famous photographer played by Fred Astaire. The music’s almost all Gershwin, which always helps in a musical and there’s a great supporting performance from Kay Thompson, the inventor of the word “pizzaz,” as the editor of a fashion magazine. Astaire’s way too old for Hepburn, and the dancing doesn’t especially stand out (though there’s an interesting overthetop Beat parody Hepburn performs in a club), at least relative to some of Donen’s other films like Singin’ In The Rain or Royal Wedding.

5. The Sweet Smell Of Success – Acid indictment of the nihilistic amorality of the entertainment industry starring Tony Curtis in his best role as a small-time press agent (Sidney Falco) trying to ingratiate himself with big-time gossip columnist Burt Lancaster (J. J. Hunsecker), in one of his good performances. Directed in a crisply dark noir style by Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers), with cinematography by James Wong Howe. The screenplay’s even better than the visual look of the film (high praise), written by playwright Clifford Odets and the great Ernest Lehman (Sabrina, North By Northwest).

4. Paths Of Glory – One of my favorite, and one of the least misanthropist, of all of Stanley Kubrick’s films is this courtroom drama in which Kirk Douglas tries to save three men from being executed for cowardice in the wake of a disastrous and idiotic offensive during World War I. Kubrick directs in a crisp, deep focus black and white, and his depiction of the battle, a long tracking shot of the horrors of trench warfare, is one of the most powerful scenes he ever shot. All the actors are quite good, but Douglas especially stands out as the idealistic warrior-attorney. The film’s final scene, that of a young girl singing beautifully before a barroom full of rapt soldiers is the most romantic and humanist thing Kubrick ever did. And he even went and married the girl.

3. Nights Of Cabiria – Giulietta Masina gives one of the all-time great performances as the classic hooker with a heart of gold in this picaresque Federico Fellini film. There are three main sections in the film: an encounter with a celebrity, a trip with a massive crowd to a church for some religious festival, and an apparent discovery of true love. Each time Cabiria’s hope and faith is raised, beaten down and yet somehow reemerges and she goes on to her next adventure. I suppose this makes her the ideal existentialist hero, trudging on with good humor despite all the horrible things that seem to unavoidably keep happening to her.

2. The Seventh Seal – Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece of life and Death in the Middle Ages stars Max von Sydow as a returning Crusader who meets Death on a beach and challenges him to a game of chess in one of the cinema’s better metaphors for life. While the game is going on, the Knight gets to continue his journey. Along the way he meets a young family of traveling actors. Together, they all travel through the countryside in the wake of the Black Plague, where they meet crazy villagers, flagellant priests and various other medieval types. A beautifully, even profoundly filmed existentialist meditation of the nature and meaning of life and death, with one of the great final shots in all of cinema. One of my favorite films and deservedly regarded as one of the essential classics of film history.

1. Throne Of Blood – Akira Kurosawa’s expressionist adaptation of Macbeth stars Toshiro Mifune as the tragic general who allows his (and his wife’s) ambition to lead him into betrayal, murder and insanity. Much like he later did with Ran (#1, 1985), Kurosawa doesn’t bother to adapt the language of the Shakespeare play into Japanese, but instead focuses on translating the raw emotions of the works into cinematic equivalents. Mifune is perfect here as the noble warrior who allows himself to be manipulated by a witch in the woods and his own scheming wife and then descends into a demented, elemental paranoia. Kurosawa modeled the look of the film on the Noh theater tradition (like he did with Ran and Kagemusha, #8, 1980), with mask-like faces, a slow paces and a hauntingly eerie soundtrack. The dark, dark, look of the film clearly has a lot in common with Orson Welles’s own film of Macbeth, but only Kurosawa could pull off a seen as lyrical and horrifically beautiful as the final battle sequence, when an entire forest comes alive to attack Mifune, his own soldiers turn against him and dozens, if not hundreds, of arrows are actually shot at the clearly terrified actor. the cast includes Takeshi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki and Isuzu Yamada who is very good as the Lady Macbeth character, if not quite as purely evil as Mieko Harada’s Lady Kaede in Ran. It doesn’t get as much notice as Kurosawa’s other masterpieces (let alone the Bergman film it beats out on this list) but it’s as powerful as anything he ever made.

32 Unseen films this year might be some kind of a record, if I kept track of such things. There’s a couple Samuel Fuller films, a Boetticher, a Bergman, a Chaplin, a Tashlin and an Ozu, among many others.

Wild Strawberies
The Tall T
Run Of The Arrow
Tokyo Twilight
A King In New York
3:10 To Yuma
Forty Guns
The Lower Depths
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
The Enemy Bleow
A Face In The Crowd
Gunfight At The OK Corral
Desk Set
Night Of The Demon
Jailhouse Rock
The Cranes Are Flying
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
The Three Faces Of Eve
Peyton Place
Pal Joey
The Pajama Game
Raintree Country
The Wings Of Eagles
I Was A Teenage Werewolf
The Sun Also Rises
Fear Strikes Out
White Nights
Bitter Victory
La Casa Del Angel
Les Maitres Fous

Movie Roundup: Travelogue Edition

The Road Home – Favorite Actress Zhang Ziyi’s debut film is this Zhang Yimou film. Beginning in grainy black and white, a young man returns to his small village on the occasion of his father’s death. As he and his mother make funeral arrangements, we get the story of his parents’ relationship. Zhang plays the mother as a young peasant girl who becomes enamored (kind of obsessed, really) with the local teacher. It’s a love story told in small gestures and quiet rituals, filmed in the kind of beautifully tasteful color cinematography you expect (and I love) from Zhang Yimou. Speaking of Zhang and Zhang, Senses Of Cinema has an interesting, comprehensive and somewhat confusing article on House Of Flying Daggers, Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I think he’s too hard (and literal) in his criticism of Crouching Tiger (nihilism), but his complaints about Hero (fascism) are basically the same as mine. The #8 film of 1999.

Meet Me In St. Louis – Vincente Minelli’s musical ode to turn of the century small town America stars Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien as two of several daughters of an uppers class STL family that may be moving to New York. It’s a very competent and largely inoffensive film, but aside from a number or two (Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, The Trolly Song) it’s not anything that I find particularly interesting. I’m generally a fan of dancing, as opposed to singing musicals, so that’s part of the problem (I like dancing musicals for the same reason I like kung fu films, by the way). But really, the film’s just so archetypal that it’s impossible to watch it today with fresh eyes.

The Heart Of The World – This short film by Winnipeg-based director Guy Maddin is one of the most vibrant, energetic and fascinating six minutes in the history of film. It’s an entire sci-fi epic on fast-forward, told in a winking homage to the montage-heavy Russian silent films. A girl, a scientist is in love with two brothers, one an actor (playing Jesus is the Passion Play), the other an undertaker. When she discovers that the world’s about to end (have a heart attack), the world falls into chaos and she falls for an evil industrialist. But she comes to her senses and saves the world. Any summary, certainly this one, is inadequate to describe this amazing film, the #3 film of 2000. Best to just watch it for yourself:

Archangel – Speaking of Guy Maddin, the only feature film of his I’ve seen is this 1990 film, a perplexing mix of Silent Cinema and campy/arty sci-fi horror. Set at the end of World War I, or so, the film revolves around a number of people with memory problems, who can’t seem to remember who they or anyone else is. As imdb effectively summarizes: “(one-legged Lt. John) Boles loves Iris, who is dead, and meets Veronkha, whom he mistakes for Iris. But Veronkha is already married to Philbin, who forgets he is married to Veronkha. Veronkha thinks Boles is Philbin. . . .” There’s also a peasant family, with a cowardly father and a mother who falls in love with the aforementioned Lt. Boles. When the family is attacked in the middle of the night by cannibalistic Bolsheviks, the father saves the son’s life with the greatest intertitle I’ve ever seen in a film: “Strangled! By an intestine!” The #6 film of 1990.

Stromboli – My first Roberto Rossellini film stars Ingrid Bergman as a WW2 refugee who marries a young Italian man to escape the refugee camp. The young man takes her to his home island of Stromboli, a conservative little village dominated by an active volcano. The volcano metaphor isn’t exactly subtle, but neither is Bergman’s performance as she becomes increasingly hysterical in her struggle against the provincialism of small-town life. But somehow, teetering on the edge of camp, it manages to be sincere and moving. I definitely need to see more Rossellini: I’ve had Open City on the tivo for months now. . . .

Queen Christina – Greta Garbo playing a cross-dressing Swedish monarch? Yee-haw! This potentially great film gets off to a great start, with Garbo’s Queen picking up a guy in a bar, this first third of the film falling somewhere between Henry V and The Crying Game. The rest of the film, unfortunately, becomes a rather dull story of class differences keeping the poor Queen and her lover apart. Competently directed by Rouben Mamoulian, with John Gilbert ineffective as the Queen’s boyfriend, but Garbo’s as amazing as ever.

The Departed – Martin Scorsese’s latest film is an adaptation of the very good Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs (#6, 2002). It’s quite different from the earlier film, both in length (much longer), tone (much funnier), and style (much more freewheeling, especially in the performances). It’s Scorsese’s best film in a long time, since Kundun at least. Matt Damon plays a gangster who goes undercover as a cop and Leonardo DiCaprio plays a cop who goes undercover as a gangster. Both are drawn to the head gangster of South Boston, played by Jack Nicholson (in a performance that starts restrained and becomes weirder and more “Jack” as the film’s sense of paranoid hysteria increases), and both have legit cops as potential father figures: DiCaprio has the ideal good father in Martin Sheen, Damon has amoral (and hilarious) company man Alec Baldwin, in a less frightening variation on his great Glengarry Glen Ross performance. And both Damon and DiCaprio (in a sharp break from the original) fall in love with a psychiatrist, played adequately by Vera Farmiga.

The film it most reminds me of is Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. It has the same kind of combination of dark humor (especially from Baldwin and Marky Mark Wahlberg’s ill-tempered cop), suspense and hidden potential depth. It’s much more entertaining than the original, though (despite an overlong middle section of Leo coming unglued) without nearly the depth of character or emotion. Any depth The Departed does have is therefore, like most of Hitchcock, not emotional but intellectual. In this way the two films are complementary instead of oppositional: I think they’re both great and each is enhanced by the other.

Like Dylan In The Movies

The wife and I went to see Bob Dylan at Key Arena last Friday night. The opening act, Kings Of Leon, was terrible. I didn’t think that there were bands around today that wished they were Mother Love Bone, but apparently there are. The three non-singers in the band were at least competent musicians, though lacking in creativity. The singer, and whoever is the songwriter are pretty bad. they were a complete waste of time and a bizarre thing to see before a Dylan show.

Anyway, the Dylan part of the show was amazing, perhaps the best concert I’ve ever seen. I generally say Nirvana in January of 94 or the first time I saw Dylan (June 95) when asked what the best concert I’ve ever seen was. But this one may have topped them both. My expectations were pretty low for this show. The wife and I saw him a year and a half ago and his voice was in pretty poor shape and he just looked tired and bored on the stage. He was off to the side of the stage and didn’t seem his old Dylan self.

Well, that was far from the case this time around. His voice was in top form and while he’s still playing keyboards, he threw in some harmonica and some hilarious old man dancing and pointing at the crowd. He was back to being the coolest person on the planet, a title he’s held off and on for the last 40 years or so.

I managed to write down the setlist, so here’s a short rundown of what transpired:

The show started with a very mellow, breezy version of Maggie’s Farm. It’s a common set opening for Dylan, but usually in an angry, rocking version. Instead, this , with it’s heavy emphasis on Dylan’s keyboards, sounded like a refugee of his 80s period. Second was a similarly keyboard heavy (but more conventional sounding) version of She Belongs To Me. Lonesome Day Blues was third, sounding much like it did on Love And Theft. A breezy version of Positively 4th Street, an angry song wrapped in a slow, wholesome melody that again emphasized the keyboards wrapped up the first section of the show: light, ethereal sounds disguising the true nature of the lyrics.

The highlight of last spring’s Dylan show was a blues adaptation of It’s Alright, Ma, one of Dylan’s greatest, and most angry songs. He played the same version again here, but it was an order of magnitude better. The band was more violent and Dylan’s delivery was more coherent. Next was a rather pedestrian version of Just Like A Woman, like the song itself, it was well done, but I’m just not a fan of it. Perhaps Woody Allen forever scarred me against it with Shelly Duvall’s character in Annie Hall. A conventionally ricking version of Highway 61 Revisited was next, followed by When The Deal Goes Down, the first single from Modern Times, in an identical-to-the-album version.

Next up was the highlight of the show for me, and one of my all-time favorite concert moments ever (along with the acoustic set at the Nirvana show, and Dinosaur Jr explaining my life at age 17 to me at Lollapalooza), my all-time favorite song, Tangled Up In Blue (no, I’m not afraid to be obvious, as any TINAB reader should know by now). The bulk of the song was typical of a Dylan performance of the last decade or so (he sang the multiple pronoun version while altering the lyrics of the strip club episode, gotta take the good with the bad), but it ended with (IIRC) the second harmonica solo of the night. I don’t recall Dylan playing harmonica at the last show, but this time each solo started out tentatively and then builded to a point when the full band comes in. In Tangled Up In Blue it was perfect: the whole band together, fully integrated into each other, the song and the audience (or at least, me). It was one of those transcendent moments you go to a concert (or movie) hoping to experience.

Next up was a decent, if traditional A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. For me, though, nothing tops the rollicking Rolling Thunder version of this song on Live 1975. It’s the one version where the song doesn’t feel bloated or pretentious. Watching the River Flow followed, but I have to admit I didn’t recognize it (despite putting it on a birthday mixtape for the wife just two days earlier) because of the radical bluesy reconfiguration Dylan gave it. It’s a great song., a personal favorite much akin to John Lennon’s Watching The Wheels. I’m also certain it was a theme song to something, TV show, movie, whatever, but I can’t remember what it is.

Next was a close-to-album version of Modern Times’s Workingman’s Blues #2, which brings up and interesting thing about the audience at Key arena that night. Yeah, they cheered quite loudly for the working man, but almost none of them were. They were almost entirely old and sold out. We were on the floor of the Arena, and it was dominated by folks in late middle age asking the people in front of them to sit down. Apparently those Ed Sullivan shows are wrong and in the 60s everyone sat politely at rock concerts. I even heard one guy claim that “John Cougar’s version is better than Dylan’s”. Suffice it to say this elderly yokel was wearing an annoying vest. Anyway, the set closed with a rocking, if predictable version of Summer Days from Love And Theft.

There were three encores. First was Modern Times’s opener Thunder On the Mountain. Played exactly as it appears on the album, Bob’s apparently still thinking about Alicia Keyes. Next was Like A Rolling Stone, played fairly conventionally, notable mostly for the lighting effects. At the chorus’s shout of “How does it feel?” the spotlights turned on the audience, essentially accusing them (us) of being the target of the song’s accusation against the yuppies’ ignorance of the plight of the poor. Considering the makeup of the audience, it was quite the accurate critique, not that any of them got it or anything. They’d all stand up and cheer when Dylan played the old favorites. Whenever he played a new song (three from the new album, 2 from Love And Theft) they’d sit down. Jackasses.

The show closed with an apocalyptic All Along The Watchtower, which, combined with the accusing Rolling Stone, and the angry It’s Alright, Ma left me with the feeling that Dylan’s one pissed off old man. Combined with his cooler than thou old man posing at the keyboards, and the positively ancient costuming of his band (grey suits and fedoras) he can’t help but come off as a pissed off old man scolding his fans for their superficiality and ignorance. Same as he’s been doing for 45 years. Same as it ever was.

Movie Roundup: Movie Mutations Edition

Been reading a number of movie books lately. I reread Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars, much of which was quickly outdated by the DVD/Netflix phenomenon in the five years since it was written. I’ve been making my way through Phillip Lopate’s Library Of America Anthology of American Film Critics, which has it’s flaws but is still pretty interesting (in addition to it’s having the first Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris I’ve been able to read). In the mail today came Movie Mutations, an anthology of essays on contemporary world cinema edited by Rosenbaum and Australian film critic Adrian Martin. Can’t wait to read it.

Raise The Red Lantern – Period melodrama starring Gong Li in which she’s the newest of four wives for a castle-dwelling fellow in 1920s China. Like every other Zhang Yimou movie I’ve seen, the film is beautiful: vibrant colors, with a very structured, composed mise-en-scène, which, combined with the length of the shots and the slow pace of the film effectively inspires a sense of restriction and entrapment. Whether this atmosphere is a subtle condemnation of life in totalitarian China or simply an evocation of the unfortunate circumstances the hero finds herself in is a matter of opinion. I think Zhang’s a lot more ambivalent politically than his Western admirers like to think he is, but I haven’t seen enough of his early films to say for sure. The #8 film of 1991.

The Black Dahlia – Brian DePalma’s a hack. This mishmash of Hitchcock and noir and the true story of a grisly murder is an incoherent mess, both in terms of a nonsensical plot, absurd, motiveless characters and a visual style that’s a nonsensical collection of shots from other, better movies. The Out Of The Past podcast (see the link in the sidebar) devoted their last episode to this travesty, and did an excellent job explaining the many ways it goes horribly wrong. It’s part of DePalma’s “style” to ripoff shots and scenes from other scenes and insert them willy-nilly into his own films, and the OOTP guys go into detail on how this radical decontextualization creates an incoherent mess of a film that can’t possibly contain any actual meaning, at best, and at worst perverts the original meanings to DePalma’s vaguely fascist (or misogynistic, if you like) purposes, as in the famous appropriation of the tumbling baby cart sequence in The Untouchables. Worth seeing for those who like train wrecks.

Fearless – In supposedly his last major role as a kung fu star, Jet Li reprises just about every other kung fu hero he’s ever played in this mildly interesting film directed flashily by Ronny Yu (The Bride With White Hair). Li plays a cocky young man who experiences a tragedy that forces him to grow up. he retreats for a time and achieves some level of Taoist enlightenment, which he subsequently uses to make his kung fu even better, and then he defeats all his enemies, furthering the glory of his native people, in this case defeating a group of foreigners in a four on one martial arts contest. It’s a fine film, well made with some great action sequences, but I prefer his earlier, funnier films.

Clash By Night – This Fritz Lang film has the title of a film noir, and it’s a part of Warner’s second film noir box set, but I don’t think it’s a film noir at all. It’s a fairly conventional small-town melodrama type film, with a terrific cast and fine direction by the great Fritz Lang. Barbara Stanwick’s a big city woman who comes home to small town Monteray, California. She marries a local lug Paul Douglas, but carries on an affair with the local movie theatre projectionist, Robert Ryan. Eventually, affairs are discovered and children are born and Stanwick’s brother marries Marilyn Monroe, but aside for an unusually accepting treatment of infidelity for a studio-era Hollywood film, there wasn’t a lot to interest me here. Lang’s, of course, a great director, so it’s likely I missed something somewhere along the way.

Day Of Wrath – Over the last few months I’ve been trying to catch up on all the auteurs I missed out on in college. One of the most prominent of those is Carl Theodor Dreyer. Despite the fact that I took a whole class on Scandinavian film (taught by a respectable scholar in the field no less: she did the commentary for the Criterion edition of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) I’d never seen a Dreyer film until The Passion Of Jeanne D’Arc less than a year ago. That’s his most famous (and probably best) film, and I next watched his last film, Gertrud, which is stylized to the point of difficulty, at least on first viewing, but still very interesting. Over the last couple weeks I’ve seen Day Of Wrath and Ordet, and two more Dreyer’s are upcoming this month on TCM (Vampyr and Leaves From Satan’s Book). Anyway, Day Of Wrath’s a terrific film, a claustrophobic story of witches and infidelity set in 17th Century Denmark. The local minister sentences an old woman to death for witchcraft, then his own young wife (herself the daughter of a witch) seduces his son. Largely restricted to the minister’s house, the film nonetheless finds a varied visual style, most obviously a motif of crosses which dominates the first half of the film. Quite possibly a perfect film.

Wild At Heart – I’ve never been a David Lynch fan, and I can’t say this film changed my mind. At least it didn’t actively annoy me like Dune or Blue Velvet managed to. Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern star as young lovers on the run in this twisted genre exercise that reaches for some level of parallel with The Wizard Of Oz. They’re on the run from Dern’s mother, who sends some bounty hunters after them, then thinks better of it, with over the top bloody consequences for everyone involved (certainly the mom in a ridiculous scene). It’s a fun enough ride, and Lynch once again manages to ensnare a far greater cast than he deserves: Cage, Dern, Diane Ladd, Willem Defoe, Harry Dean Stanton, Isabella Rosselini, Cripsin Glover and Sherilyn Fenn. The #32 film of 1990.

Movies Of The Year: 1958

With The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (#3, 1962) on the TV and a nice martini having it’s way with my psyche (and my typing), it’s onto 1958, a year in which I’ve managed to miss almost all the highest repped films. Anyway, see The Big List for previous years and various disclaimers and methodologies.

9. Separate Tables – Perhaps the film most responsible for my irrational hatred of Burt Lancaster, this dull drawing room drama stars Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, David Niven (who won an Oscar) and Rita Hayworth as various residents of a vacation hotel who have a variety of tedious problems. It’s based on a play, and it shows.

8. Thunder Road – Some kind of action film starring (and co-written by) Robert Mitchum about a vet who comes home and takes over the driving in the family moonshine business, the kind of business that led to the creation of NASCAR. I don’t exactly see the charm in the film, I thought it was kind of dull and overwrought myself, but some folks consider it a classic. I like the Bruce Springsteen song a lot better (“You ain’t a beauty, but, hey, you’re alright” and so on).

7. Gigi – I’m the first to admit my ignorance of the wonders of Vincente Minelli. I recognize that there’s something going on here, but I don’t know what it is. I just watched Meet Me In St. Louis today, another Minelli musical whose charms completely escape me. One of the gaps in my film education I guess. Anyway, Gigi stars Leslie Caron as a young fin de siècle courtesan to be who charms the pants off a young cad about town. Maurice Chevalier provides the film’s most memorable scene with his more than vaguely disturbing song “Thank Heaven For Little Girls.”

6. The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow – Short Disney adaptation of the Washington Irving Story about a nerd chased by a Pumpkin-headed monstrosity because he somehow managed to charm the local hot chick. Good advice to the young and geeky, I think: stay away from the pretty girls or else you’ll get yourself killed. Thanks, Uncle Walt.

5. The Left-Handed Gun – A young Paul Newman gives one of my favorite of his performances as a psychotic Billy The Kid in this Arthur Penn film based on a Gore Vidal play. The 1966 film Young Guns (#28) is basically an amalgamation of this and Sam Peckinpaugh’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (#6, 1973), set to a hopping 80s score. Newman’s in full anti-hero mode as he exacts bloody revenge on the people who killed his English (read: gay) father figure. Penn plays up the serious psychosis in Billy, while Peckinpaugh went more for the charm. Young Guns, on the other hand, had Emilio Estavez.

4. Vertigo – The consensus pick for the greatest of all Alfred Hitchcock films, a movie dangerously close to supplanting Citizen Kane from the #1 spot in the decennial Sight And Sound poll, but I’ve only got it rated the fourth best film of its year. James Stewart plays a detective afflicted with the eponymous acrophobia who becomes obsessed with a client who thinks her past life is trying to kill her. When she dies, he finds a girl who looks just like her and really goes nuts. Frankly, it’s a film whose charm I understand but have never felt much of a connection with. Somewhere in the middle it loses me, and I can’t exactly explain it. Partly it’s Kim Novak, who I really think is terrible. I know she’s supposed to be remote and robotic, but it’s too much for me. I just can’t care anything about her (either version) and thus find James Stewart’s obsession with her to be rather inexplicable. It’s a film I admire more than like, too cold and clinical for me to really care about.

3. The Hidden Fortress – I may get my film geek card taken away for ranking this Kurosawa swashbuckler over Hitchcock’s classic of perversity, but screw those freaks, this is my not a blog. Two peasants on the run from war get caught up with a general trying to smuggle a princess across the enemy border into safety. It’s Kurosawa’s first widescreen film, and he uses it to good effect with complex, detail-filled compositions that, combined with the space-flattening effects of his use of the telephoto lens create a vivid medieval tapestry and emphasizes the oppressiveness of the nature the main characters must traverse. The plot is a pure distillation of the adventure epic, but in the margins Kurosawa transcends the typical genre film and creates something truly interesting and entertaining, if never entirely original: the sheer greediness of the two peasants, their quarreling comic relief has been copied endlessly by lesser filmmakers (George Lucas most obviously), the transformation of the princess from haughty to fully human (done many times) elegantly reaches its climax in a powerful fire festival sequence that’s somewhat clumsily referenced at the film’s conclusion and the friendship and respect between Mifune and Susumu Fujita’s enemy general (Fujita starred in Kurosawa’s first film, Sanshiro Sugata, 15 years earlier), individuals on opposite sides of a war yet bound by a common class sense of honor and duty. Though there’s a decent Criterion DVD of this, it really does need to be seen in a theatre for it to have it’s full, populist entertainment effect.

2. Ivan The Terrible Part 2 – I wrote about this a couple weeks ago here. The second part of Sergei Eisenstein’s planned trilogy about the first Tsar of Russia, this film was banned by Stalin (who felt its depiction of Ivan’s use of a secret police to silence his political opponents was a bit too familiar) and not released until well after both Eisenstein and Stalin were dead. Abandoning his silent movie dialectical montage techniques, Eisenstein instead uses long takes, a distorted, artificial and grotesque mise-en-scène and acting styles to create a kind of feverish dream state, that only gets more bizarre halfway through the film when it all suddenly shifts from stark black and white to a vibrant bloody red pseudo-technicolor for a party sequence. Visually astonishing from start to finish, it is, it goes without saying, one of the minor crimes of the Stalin regime, but one of the great ones against film that Eisenstein never got a chance to finish his trilogy.

1. Touch Of Evil – One of my all-time favorite films is Orson Welles ultimate film noir. The film is generally used to mark the end of the classic periods of films noir, and in the same way Unforgiven (#1, 1992) represents the carrying of the Western genre to it’s most fundamental extreme, so Touch Of Evil is the ultimate noir both stylistically and thematically. The most recent version of the film, re-edited in 1998 along specifications laid out by Welles and ignored for 40 years, the disconcerting style of the film becomes much more clear. Much of what was changed was an increase in intercutting between the various plotlines involving newlyweds Janet Leigh and her Mexican lawyer husband Charlton Heston (“He don’t look Mexican”). The new version follows neither the original (which played each sequence to it’s conclusion then moved to the next) nor the rhythms of standard police procedural intercutting, but instead leave everything slightly off-balance, all of which occurs after the famous opening shot, a long track from one border town to another. In other words, the continuity of the world is disrupted and thrown off balance by the explosion that gets the plot of the film rolling. Similarly, the framing, dialogue and casting are also off-kilter, bizarre (and hilarious) Marlene Dietrich playing a Mexican prostitute/fortune teller with a German accent, the aforementioned Charlton Heston as a Mexican symbol of the impotence, squareness and just plain lameness of the law, Dennis Weaver as the world’s weirdest hotel clerk, and Orson Welles at his most grotesque as the fat drunk sheriff who likes to beat confessions out of the suspects he’s framed. The film is endlessly fascinating thematically as a meditation on the nature of police work (“it should only be easy in a police state”). It’s currently #5 on my ymdb Top 20 films list (link in the sidebar) and I could write pages and pages about it. “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” Indeed.

A whole lot of Unseen movies from this year, Including films by Tati, Ozu, Malle and Wajda that I’d really like to see sometime soon. The version of Brothers Karamozov below stars none other than William Shatner as Alyosha, one of the greatest crimes a film ever perpetrated on a novel.

Mon Oncle
Elevator To The Gallows
I Want To Live!
Equinox Flower
Party Girl
Ashes And Diamonds
Curse Of The Demon
Man Of The West
Murder By Contract
Rock-a-bye Baby
Une Simple Histoire
The Tarnished Angels
A Time To Love And A Time To Die
Wind Across The Everglades
The Magician
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
The Blob
A Night To Remember
The Fly
Fiend Without A Face
The Quiet American
The Naked & The Dead
Run Silent, Run Deep
South Pacific
The Defiant Ones
Bonjour Tristesse
The Brothers Karamozov