It’s been over three months (one crazy summer), but we’re back to the countdown. Lots of great films from this year, with no really bad ones.
18. The Marrying Kind
17. Clash By Night
16. Angel Face
15. The Bad And The Beautiful
14. High Noon
13. The Narrow Margin
12. Monkey Business
11. The Big Sky
10. Rancho Notorious – Fritz Lang’s colorful Western starring Marlene Dietrich as the owner of the eponymous ranch, a hideout for all kinds of outlaws on the run. A man’s fiancee is killed in a bank robbery, and he hunts the killers to the ranch and goes undercover to discover which of them actually did the killing. As always when Marlene Dietrich is key to the plot, love complicates things. Most of the performances are good, the Technicolors are really stunning, but the hero isn’t especially interesting: Arthur Kennedy’s pretty lame in the lead role. Bardot digs it, but Lang prefers M.
9. The Life Of Oharu – Another of Mizoguchi’s films about how horrible it is to be a woman in medieval Japan. Oharu’s the daughter of a high-ranking samurai who’s love life leads her into scandal after scandal as she’s repeatedly screwed by society on her way all the way down the social ladder. Like every Mizoguchi film I’ve seen, it’s beautiful and heartbreaking, but it’s also so so depressing. The piling on of every kind of anti-female evil possible in society onto the life of one character makes her a political statement instead of an actual human.
8. Europa 51 – Another woman gets screwed by society, this time it’s Ingrid Bergman directed by Roberto Rossellini. After her son dies, a high society woman becomes obsessed with helping the poor and unfortunate. Her family then, quite naturally, has her committed to an insane asylum, making her some kind of martyr. The dark comedy of the premise (almost Buñuelian, see Viridiana) both tempers and makes more moving the saintliness of Bergman’s performance and the religious ways Rossellini photographs her.
7. On Dangerous Ground – Nicholas Ray’s terrific pseudo-noir sneaks up on you. It starts in an urban nightmare world as cop Robert Ryan works dangerously close to the edge of psychotic fascism. His superiors send him off to solve a crime in the country after he’s pummeled one suspect too many, where he meets a blind girl (Ida Lupino, who may have directed some of the film while Ray was ill) who humanizes him. Turns out her brother is the #1 suspect for the murder of a young girl. Ryan and Lupino are at their best, and Ward Bond gives a fine performance as the dead girl’s revenge-minded father. The photography, both of the city and the snowbound country is noir at its finest.
6. Bend Of The River – Jimmy Stewart-Anthony Mann Western about a reformed outlaw who guides a wagon train from Missouri to Oregon. They meet up with another outlaw Arthur Kennedy) along the way, who helps out until they get to Portland. As winter comes on, the gold crazy townfolk try to extort the poor settlers (selling food at jacked up prices, etc). Stewart and Kennedy steal the supplies, but on the way back Kennedy steals them again and tries to sell them to a mining camp, leaving Stewart for dead. So Stewart’s got to defeat him, get the supplies to the starving farmers all while maintaining his newfound morality. Like with all their Westerns, Mann’s terrific at bringing out the hard edges in Stewart: he’s always convincing as a man struggling to not be violent. The scene where he finally snaps is one of the great scenes in the career of arguably the greatest actor in film history.
5. Othello – Orson Welles’s terrific adaptation of the Shakspeare play, made under the adverse conditions that plagues him most of his career. The famous anecdote is that the proper costumes didn’t arrive, so he moved a scene to a Turkish bath so the actors only had to wear towels. Where Olivier’s Shakespeare films are formalized recitations of “great works” with little feeling, life, or cinematic style, Welles’s are exactly the opposite. With a dark noir style and naturalistic acting, Welles gets the terrible emotions at the heart of all great Shakespeare. An Olivier Othello would be an unspeakable travesty. I think I prefer Welles’s pitch black Macbeth, and the brilliant Chimes at Midnight over either, but this is still terrific.
4. Limelight – An aging Charlie Chaplin plays a retired vaudeville performer who everyone’s forgotten. When his young neighbor (Claire Bloom) tries to kill herself, he nurses her back to health and teaches her that life’s worth living. He helps her ballet career, and eventually she helps him get back on stage, where he does a reunion show with Buster Keaton. Sincere, poignant, wise and often funny, it, along with City Lights, is maybe the best example of Chaplin’s unique ability to be sentimental without being maudlin. It also may be the finest performance of his career.
3. The Quiet Man – John Ford’s Technicolor Valentine to the mythical Ireland of the imagination of the child of immigrants. A lightly comic romance about an American prizefighter (John Wayne) who has sworn of violence returning to his family home and courting the saucy redhead next door (Maureen O’Hara). O’Hara’s brother, the bulging Victor McLaglen, is the big man around town who doesn’t much like Wayne, and refuses to pay O’Hara’s dowery. So Wayne stuck with a petulant money-hungry wife who won’t sleep with him and a brother-in-law who wants to fight him. The film climaxes with on of film’s greatest comic fight sequences, with the whole town cheering the two on. It’s all very silly, stereotypical, and more than a little misogynist (one of my favorite parts is when a little old lady gives Wayne a stick with which to beat the independent O’Hara). But above all the film is beautiful shots of an idealized Ireland, bright primary greens and reds, terribly romantic and always good-humored and joyous.
2. Ikiru – Possibly the best of Akira Kurosawa’s modern day films, and the one that most self-important Kurosawa-haters will say is their favorite of his (or his only good one). The great Takashi Shimura plays a mid-level beaurocrat who finds out he’s dying of stomach cancer. This sends him off on a quest for some kind of meaning for his life. Family, friends, women, fun and games all prove to be dead-ends. In the end, he devotes himself to his work, spending his last days navigating the bureaucratic morass to turn an open sewer into a public park. This simple, humanist fable is told with all the power of Kurosawa’s cinematic style, and is driven by Shimura’s performance, an actor who never did much of anything, except when employed by Kurosawa, where he was one of the all-time greats. The iconic shot of Shimura alone in the snow at night, swinging in his park and singing to himself is one of the great moments in film history.
1. Singin’ In The Rain – The consensus greatest musical of all-time, and I’m not going to disagree with that assessment. Gene Kelly plays a silent movie star who has to reinvent himself with the coming of sound. Much of the comedy comes from the actual complications this technological change caused, including his villainous costar, the hideously voiced Jean Hagen, in a brilliant comic performance. Along for the ride are Kelly’s love interest, a young actress played by Debbie Reynolds and his lifelong sidekick played by Donald O’Connor. The entire history of Hollywood up to that point is encapsulated in the film, as every genre or film style is referenced or parodied at one time or another, all set by writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green to songs from the MGM vault from the late 20s – early 30s by Arthur Freed. The climactic long ballet sequence evens moves past the 30s to the films of the 40s and 50s, melding noir with a massive abstract ballet in the style of Vincente Minelli and Gene Kelly’s own An American In Paris from the previous year. All of the musical sequences are terrific, but “Make “Em Laugh” by O’Connor and the title number by Kelly maybe the two greatest expressions of cinematic joy ever filmed. Without a doubt, one of my all-time favorite movies.
Some good stuff amongst the Unseen Movies this year. I’ve had The White Sheik on the tivo for awhile, but haven’t watched it. And I love the title for the Ozu film.
The Greatest Show On Earth
Pat And Mike
The White Sheik
The Lusty Men
The Flavor Of Green Tea Over Rice
My Son John
Son Of Paleface
Hotel des Invalides