Between Gonzaga’s inexorable march through the NCAA Basketball Tournament and the World Baseball Classic (who in their right mind starts Carlos Silva over Felix Hernandez??), I haven’t been watching many new movies over the last couple of weeks. I’ve also not yet managed to watch The Story Of GI Joe, which I have on the tivo and want to see before writing my Movies Of The Year: 1945 post. So this week, I’ll just be posting a list of my Top 50 films from the 1960s. Lists for the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s can be found on the sidebar.
2. Pierrot le fou
3. The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg
4. Dr. Strangelove
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey
8. A Woman Is A Woman
9. Andrei Rublev
10. Once Upon A Time In The West
11. Lawrence Of Arabia
12. The Manchurian Candidate
13. The Birds
14. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
15. Au hasard Balthazar
16. I Am Cuba
17. 8 1/2
18. Last Year At Marienbad
19. The Lion In Winter
20. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
21. The Battle Of Algiers
23. A Touch Of Zen
24. Blow Up
25. Don’t Look Back
27. The Young Girls Of Rochefort
28. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid
30. The Exterminating Angel
31. The Great Escape
33. Chimes At Midnight
34. Night Of The Living Dead
35. Come Drink With Me
36. Masculin feminin
37. 7 Women
39. Breakfast At Tiffany’s
40. The Sword Of Doom
41. Week End
42. Hell In the Pacific
43. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
44. Rosemary’s Baby
45. Shoot The Piano Player
46. Age Of Consent
48. Cleo From 5 To 7
49. High And Low
50. The Color Of Pomegranates
No blog specific content again today, as I spent most of today writing this for another website. Apologies once more if you’ve already read it.
This was the first time I’d seen The Virgin Suicides, but I’ve not been a big fan of Sofia Coppola’s other films. I had some hope for this one, however, given that it is based on a well-regarded novel, and my primary problem with Coppola’s films has been her screenplays. Unfortunately, this is one of those adaptations that leaves you with the feeling that a whole lot of the book was left out, both dramatically and thematically.
Ostensibly the story of five sisters who kill themselves, and even more, of the boys who try to befriend the girls and are mystified by their act for the rest of their lives, the film instead chooses to focus on just one of the girls (played by Kirsten Dunst) and the bulk of the film’s middle is taken up with the story of her romance with heartthrob Josh Hartnett. This limited focus is seemingly motivated by the narration, which states that the boys had a hard time learning about the girls, except from Hartnett. But the film doesn’t strictly hold to this limited perspective, as we see a few scenes that couldn’t have been witnessed by any of the boys. Regardless, the effect of limiting the film to the Dunst-Hartnett storyline is twofold: first, we get to enjoy many many many shots of pretty young actors being pretty, walking in slow motion, rolling around in the grass, etc; second, none of the other characters ever mean anything to us. This profoundly undermines the central mystery of the film, namely, why did these girls kill themselves.
It is asserted in the narration that the boys have been pondering the question for 25 years, but the narrator never bothers with a theory to explain it. We’re left to assume that they did it because their mom overreacted to Dunst staying out all night by locking them in the house for a couple of weeks. Which seems kinda stupid to me. Of course, the film has an answer for that: the narrator asserts that no one can ever know why anyone does anything (or words to that effect), that human behavior is necessarily inexplicable. But in the context of this film, where every action until the end is motivated and reasonably explained, it feels like a cheat.
Anyway, visually the film is quite pretty: Edward Lachman is a terrific cinematographer, and he does great work here. Much of the film is built around alternating shots suffused with warm or cold light, often changing tone within a shot/reverse shot setup in a single scene. I don’t know, though, that there’s any rhyme or reason to that, other than merely looking cool. There’s a whole lot of empty aestheticism in Coppola’s work: she has a great eye, but doesn’t appear to have much to say with it. Often, in this film (as well as Marie Antoinette, where it is thematically motivated) this makes one think that she’s more interested in the objects on display than a narrative or thematic or emotional statement. Her approach to period detail in this film is overwhelming, it might even be fetishistic.
But the soundtrack is great. Coppola’s really good with music, she has great taste and a real understanding of how to use music in film. All things considered, I actually liked the film. It didn’t make me as angry as Lost In Translation did, nor is it quite as empty as Marie Antoinette (which I think is good, but was overrated when it came out).
I saw Schindler’s List three times in the first two weeks after its theatrical release during my senior year in high school. At that time, and from my limited perspective, it seemed to me that is was the pinnacle of cinematic art, and I recall claims for it as one of the greatest films of all-time. The combination of the film’s exemplary technique, brilliant performances, Important Subject Matter and pleasantly liberal humanist message gave it a weight that crushed all opposition and all but prevented any kind of real examination of the film’s merits. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.
Later in the decade, under the influence of contrarian critics and the sheer fun of deflating the piously praised, I became enamored of the idea that it was a bad film, one that used its considerable resources to trivialize the Holocaust, a profoundly pure evil about which Hollywood films with great sound effects, beautiful cinematography, actorly acting and simple morals (“one man can make a difference” “there’s good in everybody, even womanizing Nazi war-profiteers”) have a pernicious influence on the human mind, actually making us stupider and more complacent (not to mention the argument that a movie wherein a German rescues a bunch of Jews is somehow racist, that one doesn’t make a whole lot of sense). Basically, the pendulum swung the other way around, where Schindler’s List‘s status as the big liberal elephant in the room causes the concomitant ideological objections against liberal elephants to come spewing forth, which of course, does as much to obscure the true nature of the film as the unquestioning worship does.
So, the task at hand is to disentangle the film itself from all the ideological seaweed it’s accumulated over the last 15 years, and try to see it for what it really is. Well, I watched it again last night, for the first time in a decade or so, and I’m surprised at how sloppy the narrative feels. Not so much the Schindler story: that’s pretty simple. He begins the film as a purely amoral capitalist hoping to become a war-profiteer. He has no definite opinion about Jews, neither for nor against them; his only concern is making money. He begins to soften with the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto and through the second half of the film, as he (and we) witness more and more atrocities, he wholly commits himself to helping as many Jews as he can, at the potential loss of his life, and even more importantly (to his old self), of his entire fortune. It’s a coming of age story.
Ralph Fiennes’s story, on the other hand, feels slight and even caricaturish. He’s the evil Nazi Amon Goeth who commands the liquidation of the Ghetto, and later runs the prison camp with depraved and often random acts of murder. He represents the pure, un-understandable evil of Nazism. Schindler spends large sections of the middle of the film befriending and attempting to reform Goeth and it is Schindler’s final understanding of Goeth’s psychosis that moves him to more extreme action on behalf of the Jews. This feels like a cop out. Was the Holocaust only possible because of psychopaths like Goeth? Or is it just because the crazies were in charge? For all its seeming intent to be The Holocaust Film, Schindler’s List never attempts to truly understand the minds of the people who committed and allowed these horrors. Instead, it chalks it up to an unfathomable evil, when in actuality there were a lot more perfectly sane people doing atrocious things than lunatics. As such, Goeth never really feels like a character, more a force or an argument, a symbol of something Schindler needs to learn about rather than a real person. Even still, when he disappears in the final section of the film, it feels like we’re missing something like a conclusion to his story.
The real heart of the film, as well as its truest hero, is Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern, the Jewish accountant who runs Schindler’s business and, from the very beginning, works behind the scenes to protect as many Jews as he can (he stockpiles Schindler’s factory with musicians and professors and rabbis, women, children, and the elderly, knowing those people would be most at risk of extermination). I would say a film about Stern would have been just as interesting, and moving, as one about Schindler, but Hollywood films require a protagonist that changes, and Stern never changes. He’s the opposite of Goeth, the absolute good to his absolute evil. It is to Kingsley’s credit that Stern feels more human than Goeth. Played differently, the film might succumb to the angel vs. devil on Schindler’s shoulders dynamic that structures the narrative. Instead, he grounds the film in a kind of reality, one that links the semi-documentary style of its horror scenes with the melodrama of the central character arc.
The film is extremely well-made, technically speaking. Janusz Kaminski’s black and white cinematography is lustrous and vibrant, and he and Spielberg create some wonderful images with shadows and beams of light. Spielberg’s always made striking use of light, and it’s good to know he does just as well with chiaroscuro imagery as he does in color. The score is appropriately, but not overwhelmingly, mournful, and the sound is a marvel. The opening shots of Schindler preparing for his big night at the cabaret blew be away in high school and continue to do so: it’s the sound (the rub of the silk tie, the tactile thumb of the cufflinks on the dresser top, the reassuringly heavy clunk of the drawers) that bridges the gap between our time and the colorless past to create a realistic world.
In all, the film’s merits outweigh its flaws (which, in addition to the simplistic narrative and approach to character include a few oversteps of the maudlin variety (I’m looking at you, cute little girl in the red coat), and a rather confused metaphor about names and lists (paperwork and names are repeated motifs, with both positive and negative connotations (Schindler refers to his workers by name, thus treating them as humans instead of “units” as the Nazis call them); there are bad lists (those kept by the Nazis) and good ones (the one Schindler and Stern create), everywhere there are references to an overwhelming amount of paperwork. This idea of the Holocaust as a triumph of bureaucracy over humanity is an interesting one, but it is left unexamined in favor of the unthinking evil represented by Amon Goeth.
It’s an extremely competent melodrama given inflated importance (both positively and negatively) by its subject matter. Schindler’s List is more Gone With The Wind than Citizen Kane, but that’s OK.
Magnificent Obsession – Rock Hudson stars in Douglas Sirk’s melodrama about a rich playboy who not only kills Jane Wyman’s husband (accidentally) but manages to blind her while trying to apologize for it. So he goes to medical school to learn who to cure her blindness, while romancing the poor girl without revealing his identity. There’s some more craziness in the story, but you probably wouldn’t believe it. Of course, since its Sirk, the whole thing manages to be not only beautiful, but absolutely convincing as a story. It ultimately plays as the anti-Fountainhead, with Hudson getting converted to a kind of extreme altruism as the key to spiritual and communal happiness. The #9 film of 1954.
Bombshell – Jean Harlow stars in a screwball comedy about a movie star with a wacky family trying to create a normal life for herself (husband, child, and so on). Never really works, mostly because Harlow, while great as the slutty girl in films like Red-Headed Woman or Red Dust, isn’t a particularly good comedic actress. The film just isn’t that funny. The #15 film of 1933.
Spirited Away – I’ve been very slowly catching up with the films of Hayao Miyazaki, after years and years of people telling me to see them. A few months ago I saw Howl’s Moving Castle and liked it a lot, mostly for its beautiful imagery and clever editing. Spirited Away has more of that, but within a more conventional (or at least, more explicable) fairy tale narrative. The film is more notable for its wildly inventive character designs than anything else: it never really gave me the jolt of awesomeness that some of the cuts in Howl’s did. But it is a more satisfying story than that later film. I’d have a hard time saying which film I liked better. The #6 film of 2001.
Ocean’s Eleven – I’d avoided seeing this for years, mostly because I’d heard they changed the ending. I wish I hadn’t bothered to give it a chance. Not only does the film have none of the wit or coolness of the original (everyone tries way too hard for that), but it fails to fulfill the most basic genre expectations. In a heist film, what we see is a plan being formed, and then carried out, with suspense created as the plan is put into action and circumstances arise which force the characters to deviate from that plan. This film, on the other had, never bothers to explain the plan, draining the actual heist sequences of suspense in favor of shock (allowing the audience to overlook the utter ridiculousness of everything that happens). One might argue that this is Soderbergh “deconstructing” the heist genre. I’d argue that he’s a hack. The #28 film of 2001.
Coraline – Went out to the big airplane hanger of a movie theatre at the Supermall to see this in 3D, but I can’t say it was really worth it. The movie itself is pretty good, a goofy-dark Neil Gaiman twist on Pan’s Labyrinth (and much better than that film, by the way) that inexplicably abandons character for action in the final 20 minutes. The new 3D effects are pretty cool, creating actual depth in the image as opposed to just throwing stuff at the audience to elicit gasps. But the glasses gave me a headache: I don’t think they really work for people who already wear glasses.
Cartesius – Another of Roberto Rossellini’s made for TV films about historical figures, this one about René Descartes, the “I think, therefore I am” guy. Not nearly as engaging as his Medici or Louis XIV films, partly because Descartes literally does nothing for the entire three hours of the film. It’s a major problem with a biopic about a man who saved up his ideas for decades until he was absolutely sure he had them right before telling anyone what they were. The film then becomes a chronicle of Descartes life as he wanders from town to town throughout France and The Netherlands, getting into the occasional impudent philosophical argument and ever so slowly fleshing out his philosophy. The arguments are always fun, but you never get the feeling that they are developing, but rather Descartes seems to have the same ideas at the beginning of the film that he does at the end: it just takes him 40 years (or however long the film covers) to find the words to explain it all. The #12 film of 1974.
A Chinese Odyssey – The first part of Stephen Chow’s epic about the Monkey King. He plays the leader of a run down gang that gets caught up with a couple of immortals searching for Pandora’s Box, a MacGuffin. There’s lots of lowbrow comedy, some crazy action and complicated romances. It’s fun enough, but I still need to see the second half. The #38 film of 1994.
Wagon Master – One of John Ford’s most underrated films, it tends to fall under the radar not having any major stars like John Wayne, Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart. Instead, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr play cowboys who sign on to lead a Mormon wagon train to their promised land. Along the way they encounter a troupe of drunken actors and a gang of evil gun men. It’s as pure a distillation as you’ll see of Ford’s ideas about family and community. It also might be his most musical film, with the Sons Of The Pioneers punctuating every transition in the story. The #8 film of 1950.
The Glass Key – I’ve got some kind of mental block when it comes to Dashiell Hammett, I think. I’ve read this book at least once, just a year or two ago, yet I honestly couldn’t tell you how much was changed in this film adaptation. I think the time system is all mixed up, with the main character in the book uncovering past events that happen present tense in the film, and I’m not sure that the protagonist is the same (though I may be confusing it with Red Harvest, which I’ve read at least twice and can’t remember). Anyway, this is the book, and even more so the film, that the Coen brothers based Miller’s Crossing on. Alan Ladd plays Ned Beaumont, the chief advisor to the town’s head gangster that gets in a fight with his boss over a woman (Veronica Lake), gets beat up a lot, briefly goes over to the rival gang leader’s side and eventually outsmarts everyone. Notable is William Bendix as the rival gang leader’s tough guy. He seems to enjoy beating up Ladd out of some implied attraction to Ladd’s prettiness, something the Coen Brothers utilize much more explicitly in their film. The #11 film of 1942.
The Blue Dahlia – Another Ladd/Lake noir, this time with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler (though how much he actually wrote is debatable.) Ladd plays a vet who returns home from the war with his three buddies, only to argue with his wife and run out on her. When she turns up dead, he’s the prime suspect. Fortunately, veronica Lake’s there to help him out. Ladd’s army buddies are played by Hugh Beaumont (before he met June, I guess) and William Bendix, who goes a bit over the top on the crazy this time, but still has that great mix of sweetness and menace (despite looking exactly like Jon Faverau). The #12 film of 1946.
Ramrod – This was the third Veronica Lake film I watched in a attempt to stave off a cold last week, and it almost worked. Lake plays a ranch owner determined to stand up to the big evil ranch machine that chased off her fiance, a task for which she recruits her Sullivan’s Travels costar Joel McCrea to help. Director Andre De Toth gives real grit to this fairly grim story, reminding me a lot of Samuel Fuller (the film has a lot in common with Fuller’s Forty Guns, and Lake reminds me a lot of Barbara Stanwyck in that film, though she doesn’t have the range to really pull off this kind of character). De Toth’s one of those auteurs you never really hear about, and I this is the first of his films I’ve managed to see, but I’ll certainly see more. The #9 film of 1947.
Schizopolis – Hated it. The #70 film of 1996.
Age Of Consent – It’s half an old man’s version of paradise: tropical island populated by you and a nubile young girl who really really likes you; and half a touching vision of how art and beauty make life worth living. James Mason plays the old man, a successful artist who’s run out of ideas and can’t stand city life. He runs off to an island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to reconnect with nature and meets the young and hot Helen Mirren (her first movie role), who lives with her drunken grandmother gathering seafood and selling it in the town on the mainland. Mason gets Mirren to pose for him: she’s inspirational, especially so when she takes her clothes off. It was essentially director Michael Powell’s last feature film, coming almost ten years after Peeping Tom ruined his career. Both of these films are terrific, but they nonetheless show how necessary both parts of the Powell & Pressburger team were to their string of masterpieces: Powell’s solo films generally have pretty bad scripts, and their stories never reach the kind of magically hypnotic level of even the least of the Pressburger films (like The Small Back Room or The 49th Parallel). One hopes that Emeric would have seen and eliminated the annoyance that is the entire character of Mason’s buddy Nat Kelly (played, again annoyingly, by Jack MacGowran). It’s like an episode of Perfect Strangers shoehorned into the middle of The Red Shoes. The #4 film of 1969.
Woman On The Beach – The first film I’ve seen from celebrated Korean director Hong Sang-soo, it’s in keeping with the dominant minimalist style of contemporary Asian art films, though it’s a more playful film than, say, Hou hsiao-hsien’s films, and not as rigorously restrained as Tsai Ming-liang’s. Kim Seung-woo plays a film director who needs to get out of town for a few days to work on his new script, so he brings his producer (and the producer’s girlfriend) to the beach (which is largely abandoned: it’s the slow season). Kim then, of course, steals the girlfriend from the producer. But when she goes back to town, he hooks up with another vacationer, only to have the first girl return the next day. The lies pile up and get resolved some way or another. Honestly, I can’t remember how the film ended (it’s been a week since I saw it), but I do know I liked it. What struck me more than anything else was the sense of the beach they go to. It reminds me so much of the beaches we vacation at around here: overcast and relatively empty. Last year’s Thai film Wonderful Town similarly charmed me with its sense of place, but Hong manages to avoid the lame and depressing ending that film had (at least, Im sure I would have remembered if it had such a bad ending). The #13 film of 2006.
3 Bad Men – A remarkable John Ford silent film, at least, remarkable for me as I’ve only seen one of his other silents (The Iron Horse). What surprised me so much is just how, well, Fordian it all is, from the visual style, to the narrative about morally questionable guys helping the forces of civilization build a functional society in the wilderness, to the little details of characterization that make even the smallest part seem like recognizable people (or at least movie people). The plot is, more or less, A Night At The Opera, with the titular three men helping a nice young woman stake her claim in the Dakota land rush (there’s a nice prologue with newspaper headlines: “Gold Found On Indian Land” “Indians Move To New Reservation”, the kind of point-making that Ford was too subtle to get credit for) and get married to nice young man George O’Brien. There’s some comic relief involving drunkenness and some great action scenes (horses racing over the camera dug into the ground, another Ford trademark, a harrowing attack on a church). Really a tremendously enjoyable movie. The #1 film of 1926.
City Girl – FW Murnau’s followup to Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans isn’t nearly as successful as that film (a high standard to be sure), but its nonetheless very good. A young farm boy heads to Chicago to sell some wheat (the importance of which is a recurring trope in the film’s first third, where bread references abound, the film was also known as Our Daily Bread). While there, he meets a cute waitress and marries her. When he gets back to the farm, his father is hopping mad (only a low class gold-digging girl would get married that fast), slaps the girl around and prevents the two from sleeping together. It’s chattier than any other Murnau I’ve seen (and not just the ones that eliminate intertitles altogether like The Last Laugh and Tabu: A Story Of The South Seas), which makes it seem a bit less poetic than it really is. The farm scenes in particular (the poor city is reduced to only a few locations (that look like sets actually) and seems much smaller than the town in Sunrise are really stunning: much of the film feels like Days Of Heaven was the film Murnau actually wanted to make (same location: wheat field in the upper midwest, attacked by a natural disaster, though Murnau doesn’t appear to have the budget for his hailstorm whereas Malick could afford locusts). I’d never though of Murnau and Malick together before, but they fit remarkably well, even beyond the simple fact that Murnau influenced everyone. The #4 film of 1930.
Bell, Book And Candle – There’s just a whole 10-15 years of comedy (from the mid fifties to the late sixties) guess I just don’t understand. Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, immediately before making Vertigo, star in this comedy about a witch who falls in love with a human (Novak’s the witch, Stewart’s the human). All that’s fine enough, I love the same premise with Veronica Lake and Frederic March in I Married A Witch, but for some reason, it just doesn’t seem funny here. Even Jack Lemmon is a bit dull in a supporting role. Fortunately, the direction by Richard Quine is pretty cool, with some off-kilter high angle shots, a nifty spell casting sequence with Novak and her cat and an establishing shot through a crystal ball. The #21 film of 1958.
The Unsuspected – I had this on while writing this, so I wasn’t really paying much attention. But then, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot to pay attention to. Claude Rains plays a radio-theatre host who’s killed a few people, but no one seems to notice. Rains didn’t really seem to be putting much effort into it. Does anyone think I should give this Michael Curtiz film a shot and watch it again?