Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea – The latest Hayao Miyazaki film is pretty much the cutest thing ever. I’m glad I watched it in Japanese: any Jonases or Cyruses might make it unbearable. It’s the Little Mermaid story, except the love story is between five-year old kids. Ponyo’s the fish who wants to be human (and eat ham); Sosuke’s the boy who loves her. The film is much lighter in tone and less narratively complex than Miyazaki’s last three films, though there are hints of a darker side (sights of the polluted ocean in the beginning, trouble between Sosuke’s parents (his dad is a sailor who doesn’t always come home when he should) but these are largely abandoned in the last half of the film. Similarly, and this is more typical of Miyazaki, there are no real villains in the film. The lack of darkness and any real conflict has its benefits: the film has the relaxed tone of a work by a true master, but it also leaves the impression of slightness, a lack of seriousness that we grownups like to have in the animation we admit to liking. Me, I’d take this over the straining Princess Mononoke any time. The #15 film of 2008.
True Heart Susie – Lillian Gish plays the eponymous and slightly clueless young girl who sells her cow, chickens and ducks to send the neighbor boy (who she’s in love with and who looks a bit like Matt LeBlanc) to college. He then comes home, becomes a minister and marries the first gold-digging flapper who looks in his direction (she listens to jazz, wears makeup and ankle-length dresses that are somewhat form-fitting, dances and kisses boys and drinks), much to poor Susie’s surprise. The absurdity of Susie’s lack of assertiveness is made clear, but the film also adores her for her steadfast stubbornness and patience in waiting for the boy to wise up. Yet for all the silliness of the plot, the movie works because of Gish’s performance and the way Griffith captures it with all those terrific close-ups. The #2 film of 1919.
Dracula – The 1931 version directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi. I’ve only seen one other Browning film (Freaks) but I’ve yet to be really impressed by him (James Whale seems a much better director of early 30s horror). The cinematography here, especially in the early and final scenes, and shot by German Expressionist master Karl Freund is terrific, but the middle scenes aren’t anything special. Lugosi’s performance is iconic, of course, and very much different from Max Schrek’s in Murnau’s Nosferatu. This is the fourth version of the story I’ve seen, and I’ve got to say the ones by Murnau, Herzog and Coppola are a lot better. Of those, this one is closest to Coppola’s I’d say, at least in how it emphasizes the sexuality of the story. Herzog goes more for dark humor, and Murnau outright creepiness. The #15 film of 1931.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman – It’s not just the brilliant Technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff that makes this Albert Lewin film feel like it was instead a Powell & Pressburger film, nor is it the appearance of Marius Goring (star of The Red Shoes). No, there’s something about the tragic romantic scope of it, the melodrama that reaches a kind of spiritual level. Ava Gardner plays Pandora, the beautiful woman that everyone falls in love with, and James Mason is the Dutchman, who may or may not be the mythical figure who killed his wife and is sentenced to roam the seas for eternity, coming ashore once every seven years to see if he can find a woman who loves him enough to sacrifice her life for his soul. Everything about it is quite wonderful. The #6 film of 1951.
Heaven Can Wait – This 1943 Ernst Lubitsch film is no relation to the 1978 Warren Beatty film (which is instead a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan) which I haven’t seen. But since that film doesn’t star Gene Tierney, I can’t imagine it’s as good as this. Don Ameche plays a dead man telling the story of his life to the devil, explaining why he doesn’t think he belongs in heaven. The film is made up of flashbacks of his life filled with petty lies and indiscretions and a great romance with Tierney, his wife, who he may or may not have been entirely faithful to. Despite what seems clear inferences of his dalliances, we never actually see it, and we get the feeling that Ameche’s all talk: not nearly as charming or successful as he thinks he is. It’s that lack of clarity that makes the film great: he and Tierney are nuanced, complicated characters who are never exactly like what we expect them to be. This subtlety of characterization is a key element of Lubitsch’s style, along with the peculiar mixture of light comedy and serious darkness. He’s the kind of director who presents the film’s most melodramatic moment obliquely and in narration, which makes it far more devastating than acting it out would have been. The #3 film of 1943.
Paranormal Activity – If Speed is Die Hard on a bus, then this must be The Blair Witch Project in a house. A couple is haunted, so the man decides to record the nocturnal goings-on in their bedroom in an attempt to figure out what’s really happening and despite the increasingly direct protests of his girlfriend. The film alternates between scenes of them talking about what’s happening, meeting a specialist in ghosts and such, and the stationary shots of the camera on its tripod at night. These night shots are the film’s true standouts: they’re truly creepy. They’re as if Sam Raimi had decided to make a film using Tsai Ming-liang’s aesthetics. The two actors are terrific, with Katie Featherston looking a bit like a combination of Jenna Fischer and Mary-Lynn Rajskub and Micah Sloat perfectly evoking a pig-headed day-trading jackass. The #27 film of 2007.