Since I’ve got a massive backlog, here’s a quick roundup the last 60 films I’ve watched. If you want to know more about any of them, please ask in the comments. I’ve just got to get through this list:
Curse Of The Golden Flower – Not as good as the last couple Zhang Yimou period pictures. It out-ornates even Marie Antoinette. Great performances from Gong Li and Chow Yun-fat, though Chow’s still missing his charm. Not as much action as Hero or House Of Flying Daggers, but the second most Shakespearean film of 2006, after The Departed.
Tea And Sympathy – Vincente Minelli drama about a young man who may or may not be gay and the older woman he may or may not love (played by Deborah Kerr). Brightly Technicolored complex swirl of subtexts, fascinating. The #7 film of 1956.
Rancho Notorious – Tremendously fun revenge Western directed by Fritz Lang. Marlene Dietrich stars as the proprietress of the eponymous hideout. Arthur Kennedy’s the weak link as the protagonist out to kill the men who murdered his fiance during a holdup.
The Mortal Storm – Interesting 1940 anti-Nazi film by Frank Borzage that manages to run it’s entire length without ever mentioning that the people the Nazis are killing are Jewish. Great cast including James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan and Robert Stack.
Death Takes A Holiday – The remake, Meet Joe Black is a guilty pleasure of mine. This, the original, directed by Mitchell Leisen, stars Fredric March, who isn’t half the actor Brad Pitt is. Think about that.
The Last Hurrah – 1958 John Ford film starring Spencer Tracy as an old school politician on his way out as the world changes. Basically a low-key American version of The Leopard. There’s a tracking shot towards the end that’s one of Ford’s best. The #7 film of 1958.
The Barefoot Contessa – Dreamy Joseph L. Mankiewicz film that’s the perfect Technicolor counterpart to his All About Eve. Ava Gardner plays a young dancer who gets cast in a Hollywood movie, becomes rich and famous, marries a Count and has everything fall apart. Also stars Humphrey Bogart (“What’s the Spanish word for ‘Cinderella’?”) and Edmund O’Brien.
6ixtynin9 – Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Tarantino-esque comedy-thriller about an unemployed girl who has a fortune fall into her lap and her attempts to keep it from the hoodlums who keep killing each other in her apartment while trying to retrieve it. A lot of fun, but never as sublime as his Last Life In The Universe. The #12 film of 1999.
Children Of Men – Entertaining, but flawed dystopian action film by Alfonso Cuarón. In the not too distant future, the human race can’t reproduce which causes repressive anti-immigrant hysteria in England as the last bastion of civilization on Earth. Clive Owen has to escort a miraculously pregnant young woman out of the country. The art direction is clever and inventive, and the film is already famous for its impressive long tracking shots. The technical virtuosity combined with the political allegory establishes a serious mood that’s undermined by the humor of the mise-en-scène and the inherent silliness of the film’s central remise. The incongruity leaves the film neither fish nor fowl, but platypus. The #5 film of 2006.
Platform – Director Jia Zhangke’s semi-autobiographical film about a traveling musical comedy troupe in post-Cultural Revolution China. Wistful, nostalgic and more than a little confusing at times (it can be hard to keep all the characters straight on first viewing) the film’s at heart a generational coming of age story along the lines of American Graffiti or Dazed And Confused. The #5 film of 2000.
Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler – Four hour Fritz Lang silent that was the first in his trilogy of films about criminal mastermind psychologist Mabuse. It’s fun to see Lang inventing both film noir and the crime thriller in general bit by bit as he goes along, the film is archetypal. But it’s hampered by what has to be one of the dumbest detectives in film history.
13 Ghosts – Low-budget British horror film from 1960 directed by William Castle. Like seemingly all horror films, the lower the budget, the more effective it is. A very creepy haunted house movie with some mediocre acting, cheap special effects and some rather confusing, if silly, plot twists at the end. The #12 film of 1960.
Last Year At Marienbad – Alain Resnais’s masterpiece about a pair of lovers who may or may not have met one year before at the same palatial estate/luxury hotel. One of the most beautiful black and white films ever made, filled with long tracking shots through the house and its surrounding grounds. The plot, such at it is, is a puzzle that may or may not have a solution. Unlike the tick movies of the last decade, however, it’s a film that grows and deepens with every viewing. A must see for any film fan. The #3 film of 1961.
The Proposition – Bleak, Peckinpaugh-esque Australian Western written by Singer/songwriter Nick Cave. Some nice landscape photography, particularly the sunsets. Fine performances by Ray Winstone and Guy Pearce, but doesn’t really add anything new to the genre, aside from the accents. The #18 film of 2005.
Elena And Her Men – Charming Jean Renoir romantic comedy with Ingrid Bergman as a Polish princess with a variety of suitors. Effortlessly fun and enjoyable, the Technicolor costumes create a mood of vibrant buoyancy. The #5 film of 1956.
The Long Goodbye – Another in a string of Robert Altman masterpieces from the early 70s (along with MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville). Elliot Gould turns Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe on his ear in a post-hippie adaptation of the author’s hard-boiled crime novel. With pitcher Jim Bouton as Marlowe’s murdered friend and Sterling Hayden as the drunken great author who may be a suspect. The #4 film of 1973.
Portrait Of Jennie – Joseph Cotton stars as a starving artist who meets a girl (Jennifer Jones) in the park who inspires him to paint some salable pictures. He becomes rather confused as each time he meets her, she appears much older than before, but he heedlessly falls in love with her anyway. The film, directed by William Dieterle, won a special effects Oscar thanks to some cool-looking dissolves as the film frame gradually gains the texture and grain of a painting on canvas.
Goodbye South, Goodbye – Hou Hsiao-hsien’s gangster film is about as far away from the pyrotechnics of Scarface as you can get. The set up is familiar enough: veteran gangster is trying to go straight but the younger gangster he’s got to look out for keeps screwing things up for the both of them. You may remember that from such films as Mean Streets and Wong Kar-wai’s As Tears Go By. But the film’s told in Hou’s unique style: long deep focus shots with multiple planes of character and movement always keeping things interesting. Only in a Hou movie can you see a five minute-take and not realize there’s a character at the bottom of the screen until the fourth minute. The #10 film of 1996.
Hamlet – Michael Almereyda’s version, with Ethan Hawke as the melancholy Prince, Julia Stiles as Ophelia, Bill Murray as Polonius and Geoffrey Wright, Kyle McLachlan, Liev Schreiber, Steve Zahn and Sam Shepard along for the ride. The play’s recent in the world of a contemporary corperation, with Hamlet as a video artist. Self-consciously artsy, it’s the kind of adaptation people who call things “pretentious” would hate. The actors are fine, but the only thing that stands out is the vaguely silly mise-en-scène. The #11 film of 2000.
Hell In The Pacific – A can’t recommend this forgotten masterpiece highly enough. Sometime in World War 2, two soldiers are stranded on a deserted island: one American and one Japanese. The American is Lee Marvin and the Japanese is Toshiro Mifune. neither speaks the others language, and Mifune’s dialogue is not subtitled. At first the two are antagonistic: Marvin trying to steal the water Mifune’s gathered, trying to upset all the machines Mifune’s built, generally trying to kill each other. Eventually, they decide to work together to build a raft and escape. The direction, by John Boorman and the cinematography by Conrad Hall are Malickian. The #5 film of 1968.
The Women – The Desperate Housewives of 1939. Gossip and drama in the lives of rich, catty women. It’s got a great all-female cast though: Norma Shearer, Joan Fontaine, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard. Ably directed by George Cukor.
Curse Of The Demon – Mediocre horror film in which Dana Andrews is called in to find out whether or not a demon has been conjured to murder people, who conjured it, and why. Director Jacques Tourneur made some great low-budget horror films in the 40s, but this is more The Leopard Man than Cat People or I Walked With A Zombie. The #13 film of 1957.
Sylvia Scarlett – Cross-dressing adventure comedy with Katherine Hepburn as the daughter of a embezzler on the lam. She disguises herself as a boy and falls in love with Cary Grant, a con artist they meet along the way. The three of them manage their escape, pull some cons start a variety show and meet an annoying artist. The film was a tremendous flop, Hepburn was labeled “box office poison” and it was years before she regained her stature. Directed by George Cukor.
Taste Of Cherry – The first Abbas Kiarostami film (and the film Iranian film) I’ve seen, and it’s mesmerizing. A middle-aged man is thinking about killing himself, so he drives around the outskirts of tehran looking for someone to come to a specific place the next morning (a hole he’s dug in the side of a hill) and help him out if he’s alive and bury him if he’s not. He first tries a soldier, who runs away in fear, then a religious student who tries to talk him out of it and finally an old taxidermist who agrees but only to help his sick child. The ending is one of the more astounding things in film history. The film is shot almost entirely from the interior of the car, alternating shots of driver and passenger. Apparently the dialogue is largely improvised, with Kiarostami playing the opposite part of whichever actor was being filmed at the time. The #5 film of 1997.
The Criminal Code – Minor Howard Hawks film about a DA (Walter Huston) who gets a kid convicted for murder then becomes the warden of his prison. He takes a liking to the kid and makes him his valet. The kid falls in love with Huston’s daughter and witnesses a murder in prison. He’s got to choose whether or not to rat out the killer. The direction is fine and Huston’s always great, but the rest of the cast (aside from Boris Karloff) is pretty mediocre, and the film lacks the fierce energy Hawks would bring to Scarface a year later.
The Banquet – A loose Chinese adaptation of Hamlet, starring Zhang Ziyias the Queen and Daniel Wu as the upset son. Zhang isn’t Wu’s mother, which eases some of the incestual tension of the play, and makes the film more f a tragic romance between the two. All the principals and events are there from the play, in slightly altered form, but the tone of the thing is different. Whereas the play is a brilliant mixture of comedy and tragedy, the film is dark and moody to the point of hysteria. The sets and costumes are elaborate, but the direction and cinematography are rather pedestrian. The #11 film of 2006.
A Canterbury Tale – I don’t know how it is that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were able to do it: take the simplest stories an wring the profoundest emotional experiences out of them. During World War 2, an American soldier on leave, a British officer and a young girl find themselves in a small village outside Canterbury. There’s an odd criminal on the loose: some weirdo likes to pour tar in girls’ hair late at night. The three set out to capture the crook and along the way learn the joys of small-town life, and eventually, the wonder of life in general. No filmmakers have ever glided more elegantly from the mundane to the transcendent. The Archers were magicians.
Last Of The Mohicans – I was surprised at how closely Michael Mann’s version followed this 1936 adaptation starring Randolph Scott and directed by George B. Seitz, who went on to direct many an Andy Hardy film. It’s a terrific action film, but never approaches the poetry of Mann’s version. Some of the dialogue I’d always credited to 80s action movie tropes in Mann’s film are actually in this one (“Someday you and I are going to have a serious disagreement.”)
The Man In The Iron Mask – I’ve never yet read a Dumas adaptation I liked, and even the great James Whale couldn’t manage it in this 1939 film, though it’s easily the best of them. Louis XIV is an evil tyrant with a twin brother. The famous four musketeers maneuver things such that the evil twin is replaced by the good one. I’ve read a fair amount of Dumas (The several Musketeers books and The Count Of Monte Cristo) and they are cinematically written but have yet to be well-adapted. We need a four hour Three Musketeers directed by Quentin Tarantino or something.
Bill Of Divorcement – Well-made melodrama with John Barrymore as a patriarch returning home suddenly after 15 years in an insane asylum to find his wife has divorced him and his daughter’s about to get married. Katherine Hepburn plays the daughter, who increasingly becomes afraid that she’ll go nutso as well. George Cukor directs, but the film doesn’t quite escape from its theatrical roots.
Dragnet – Jack Webb’s film adaptation of his popular and ground-breaking police procedural TV series. Essentially just a 90 minute episode of said show, the only thing it really added was color, which I guess was a bigger deal then than it is now (especially since I’ve only ever seen the TV show in color). As an early attempt at a color noir, it fails. But then noir and the procedural genre only have a tangential relation. The #14 film of 1954.
Faust – FW Muranau’s adaptation of the timeless story has a delirious mise-en-scène and some fine campy scenery chewing from Emil Jannings as Mephisto, but the plot doesn’t entirely make sense (the end is literally a deus ex machina) and the lead actress, while pretty, is fairly poor. It’s not as great as the best Murnau films (certainly not Sunrise) but is still pretty terrific.
This Could Be The Night – Chalk my viewing of this mediocrity to my, understandable I think, infatuation with Jean Simmons. She plays a nice, college educated girl who gets a job as a secretary at a low-class night club. She’s charming to most of the regulars and staff, but Anthony Franciosa doesn’t like her, until, of course, he loves her. Directed by the great hit and miss director Robert Wise. The #14 film of 1957.
Arrowsmith – Mediocre early John Ford biopic about a doctor trying to cure bubonic plague. He neglects his unfortunate wife for his work, and so, of course, she ends up dying from plague. Stars Ronald Coleman and Helen Hayes and based on a Sinclair Lewis novel. Ford’s always great, but this isn’t exactly the top of his game.
Hangmen Also Die – Surprisingly terrific war film by Fritz Lang. The Nazi ruler of Czechoslovakia is murdered and the Nazi establishment tries to solve the crime. The assassin escapes to the home of a local professor (and his hot young daughter). Despite random arrests and murders, the whole Czech populace unites to protect the assassin. A moving and entirely effective war film with a co-story credit for Bertolt Brecht. the cast includes an unrecognizable Walter Brennan, I literally did a double take when I realized it was him.
The Life Of Oharu – Man it must have sucked to be a woman in medieval Japan. In Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic film, everything that can go wrong for poor Oharu actually does. She sleeps with Toshiro Mifune, who’s below her class and gets her family kicked out of Kyoto, she gets a decent life as the second wife of a nobleman, but so angers the first one that she gets thrown out, she marries a decent merchant out of love but he dies too young, eventually she ends up an old prostitute, mocked by monks. the film would have been more moving if it wasn’t so schematic. Oharu isn’t a woman or a character, she’s a type, a political statement. Mizoguchi would make better indictments of the fate of women.
Lord Love A Duck – A truly weird high school film with Roddy McDowell as a genius who makes it his mission to fulfill every wish the ridiculously hot Tuesday Weld (the new girl in school) happens to have. Dark and satirical, the film parodies teen movies in general, along with the beach film genre, the Disney Merlin Jones series, and anything and everything serious. I don’t know if it’s brilliant, but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The #15 film of 1966.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – I’ve seen this referred to as Sidney Pollack’s best film and a great film in it’s own right, but I ain’t buying it. I liked it a lot until the ending, which seemed forced and unmotivated and depressing for the sake of seeming deep and serious. Give me Out Of Africa any day. Anyway, the story is that jane Fonda and red Buttons and Bonnie Bedelia and Bruce Dern are all in one of those endless dance marathons of the Depression. They’re poor and desperate and exploited for the entertainment of others, but that’s show business. The #6 film of 1969.
The Killer Is Loose – Joseph Cotton stars in this procedural about a cop who captures a bank robber and gets him placed behind bars. When the psychotic crook escapes, he goes after Cotton and his wife. A taut, no nonesense thriller that doesn’t resonate much beyond basic suspense. Directed by Budd Boetticher, and reportedly one of his lesser films. The #12 film of 1956.
El Dorado – I’d occasionally heard that this Howard Hawks film was superior to his film it is a remake of, Rio Bravo, but I never believed it. But, honestly, now that I’ve seen it. I think it might be. Te premise is the same: John Wayne, an old man, a drunk and a young kid have to hold off a gang of outlaws until the marshall shows up to take away a killer. This version trades Robert Mitchum for Dean Martin and James Caan for Ricky Nelson, a acting improvement in both cases. It also adds some interesting backstory and vulnerablizes the heroes. For example, Wayne, instead of the superpowered John T. Chance of the first film is a flawed man who accidentally kills someone in the first 15 minutes of the film and isn’t necessarily always on the side of the law. Both films are great, but this may very well be better. The #6 film of 1966.
On Dangerous Ground – Odd little Nicholas Ray noir with Robert Ryan as a cop so close to the borderline of police brutality that he gets sent upstate to help solve a murder in a small town. Ward Bond plays the father of the murder victim, anxious to shoot the killer, but Ryan’s heart warms when they track the killer to Ida Lupino’s house, a pretty blind girl who takes care of her disturbed brother, the murderer. Simple and moving.
The Spiral Staircase – Horror noir about a serial killer on the loose who prays on invalid young women. Directed by Robert Siodmak with some nice POV shots and a spooky mise-en-scène that elevates the rather simple story and pedestrian acting by Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore.
Tears Of The Black Tiger – A Guy Maddin version of a Sergio Leone story, in Thailand is director Wisit Sasanatieng’s action film. A frenetic, melodramatic score, some over the top violence and lushly colored visuals amke for a highly entertaining culture and genre mashup. The #9 film of 2000.
Lost Horizon – A group of Brits are kidnapped and crash-landed in the mysterious land of Shangri-la, where they experience a paradise that literally too good to be believed. Director Frank Capra’s idealism infuses the film, but the cast led by Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and Edward Everett Horton isn’t quite up to the task. An odd misfire of a film, a complete version doesn’t appear to exist, there’s a long, slow-moving middle section and some 1930s nudity. And the ending doesn’t really work.
Hamlet – The 1948 version by Laurence Olivier, and I’m not a fine. It’s well-directed, with a noirish mise-en-scène that’s entirely appropriate to the material and some elegant tracking shots between scenes that establish the space of Elsinore Castle quite nicely. But I have two major problems with the film. First, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are almost entirely eliminated, along with my favorite speech from the play (“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.”). Second, and most importantly, the acting is the worst kind of Shakespeare there is: recitation, not performance. This was a problem in Olivier’s Henry V as well, a film about passion that was totally lacking in passion. Here, Olivier manages to play a line like “Now could I drink hot blood!” as if he had a hankering for a nice cup of tea. Give me Mel Gibson and Franco Zefferelli any day.
Street Of Shame – A more realistic Mizoguchi feminist film, this time set in the present as anti-prostitution laws are being debated by the Japanese government (supposedly this film helped get those laws passed). The film centers on a single brothel and the various trials the girls that work there are put through. Not as poetic as Hou’s Flowers Of Shanghai, made 45 years later, but more effective as a political statement, not that the two are not interrelated effects. The #6 film of 1956.
Hype! – Documentary on the Seattle music scene of the 1980s and early 90s. Some interesting interviews with now unknown members of that scene, but there’s little that’s insightful to someone who grew up during the grunge explosion. There’s the familiar Northwest paradox of everyone trying to be rich and famous while disdaining all things rich and famous as sellouts or lame or whatever. Also odd that the film manages to go one for 75 minutes before it ever mentions drugs, the prime mover that corrupted and eventually destroyed the whole thing. A fine record and worth watching. The #26 film of 1996.
A Star Is Born – This, the original 1937 version of the oft-remade story directed by William Wellman I liked a lot better than the more famous remake starring Judy Garland and James Mason and directed by George Cukor. This time, Janet Gaynor (Sunrise) plays the young girl who makes it big in Hollywood as her big star husband descends into drink and obscurity. There’s no way I’d ever choose the cedarian Fredric March over James Mason, one of my favorite lesser stars, (and likewise Wellman over the great Cukor) but this film works a whole lot better with Gaynor and a lack of musical numbers. It’s a great story and hard to do wrong (though i suspect the Barbara Streisand version manages it). The two-strip Technicolor process gives a quite unusual look to the film that’s worth watching just to see.
Sisters Of Gion – My favorite of the Mizoguchi anti-prostitution film, this time he boils the story down to two “sisters” who share a house and a struggle for clients. One gets screwed over by a man she thinks loves her and the other sees her manipulative schemes fail and create misery for everyone, but most especially herself. It’s also got a fair amount of humor, something which Mizoguchi’s other films aren’t especially successful at.
Story Of The Last Chrysanthemums – I managed to see this and A Star Is Born in the same day, which was rather serendipitous, as both films are about the difficulty and costs of an acting career. This is easily my favorite of the Mizoguchi films that played here recently that I’d yet to see, and not just because there wasn’t a prostitute in sight. It’s less schematic and obviously political than the others, but just as fundamentally humanist. It’s about a young kabuki actor who sucks but no one will tell him because his father is famous and successful. He falls in love with his nephews servant, who has the nerve to tell him he isn’t very good, and the two of them run off to hone his acting kills on the road. You can imagine the course of the melodrama from there, but it’s nonetheless tremendously moving and effective.
Monsieur Verdoux – A terrific late Chaplin film about a serial killer just trying to support his family in the years before the Depression. He charms old ladies, marries them and then inherits their money after murdering them. Totally lacking in the sentimentality that colors far too many of Chaplin’s films, it also avoids the nostalgia of the otherwise great Limelight or the political aggressiveness of The Great Dictator. Chaplin’s too old for the best of his physical comedy, but the movie still manages some moments of hilarity, especially in his interactions with Martha Raye as his most obnoxious wife.
Speedy – On the basis of this, my first Harold Lloyd film, I’d say there’s no way his in the class of Keaton or Chaplin as silent film comedians go. A collection of set-pieces, on a couple actually work: Lloyd as a terrible cab driver who ends up scaring the hell out of Babe Ruth, Lloyd and his girl in Coney Island in a sequence that has a lot in common with the amusement park sequence in Sunrise, except the Murnau is sublime while the Lloyd is mediocre, and the final race against the clock as Lloyd high-speed drives a horse-drawn train all the way across New York.
Cleo From 5 To 7 – Agnes Varda’s chronicle of two hours in the life of a singer who things she might have cancer. The film starts off has a lot of fun as the singer and her old friend go hat shopping and ride around town in a cab, turns a little weird as she fights with her songwriters (one of whom is played by the great film composer Michel Legrand), and picks up again as she meets a soldier in a park. It’s the only Varda film I’ve seen thus far, though I’m a huge fan of two of her husband’s movies: The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and The Young Girls Of Rochefort, The #6 film of 1961.
Pandora’s Box – GW Pabst’s famous silent film about a sexy girl and the havoc she wreaks on a decent family. She marries the father and drives him to kill himself on their wedding night. The son falls for her and helps her to escape in a scene reminiscent of a Bob Dylan song. The daughter’s not too subtly gay and in love with the girl as well: all three of them, along with the girl’s father and a variety show producer end up in a gambling den where they not so slowly go throw away all their money. Eventually they end up destitute and victims of a serial killer. Louise brooks is radiant as the heroine, Lulu, and her haircut was the model for Anna Karina’s in many a Godard film.
The Circus – Classic Chaplin silent has the Tramp join a circus. Closer to his manic shorts than his more ambitious features like City Lights or The Gold Rush, it also manages to avoid the sentimentality that drives me crazy in those otherwise great movies. I’ll take the ending of the Circus over City Lights any day, but that’s just the kind of guy I am.
Objective: Burma! – A very fine Raoul Walsh war film with Errol Flynn as the leader of a group of American paratoopers trapped behind enemy lies after a successful attack on a radar station in World War 2. Made in the midst of the war, it’s an obvious propaganda piece, not just in the opening and closing titles, but also in the generic demonization of the Japanese enemy. A Pacific theatre version of William Wellman’s Battleground, or an inland Sands Of iwo Jima, it works to set the archetype of the WW2 movie that so many folks have been demolishing for the last 60 years.
The Leopard – Luchino Visconti’s elegiac story of Sicily during the wars of reunification in the 1860s. Burt lancaster plays the Prince Of Salina who sees his old order collapsing in the wake of political turmoil and does what he can to ensure his family’s success in the post-Garibaldi world. Alain Delon plays his nephew, who’s marriage he arranges to the daughter of a vulgar, corrupt local politician for whom he foresees great wealth and power. He doesn’t hurt that the daughter’s played by the ridiculously beautiful Claudia Cardinale. If the scenery reminds you of The Godfather series (especially the Sicilian parts) that’s no coincidence. The #8 film of 1963.