Thursday, November 26, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Director's Final Films

It is pretty much taken as a given that filmmakers tend to do their best work in the middle of their careers. Their first films are often rough around the edges as they try and find their voice, and they slide off into obscurity, or simply try to repeat old glories in their final films. But these 10 filmmakers defied those odds, and ended up making some of their best films their last statement to the cinematic world. I’m not sure I would rank any of these films as the directors best, but all are worthy of the directors who made them. I’m sure that some will be frustrated by all the foreign directors on this list, but I have to say that they seem to leave the cinematic world on a higher note than their American counterparts. (For the record, I did not include Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, even though it is his last film. Since it was also his first film, it went on the list of debut films instead).

10. A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006)
Robert Altman obviously knew he was dying when he made A Prairie Home Companion, the final great film in the career of the one of the truly great American filmmakers. A radio station has just been bought, and the once popular Saturday night variety show is in danger of being cancelled. The movie essentially about the final nights broadcast, where all the performers come in and do their acts. Two outsiders – an angel played by Virgina Madsen and the “axeman” from the company who bought the radio station, Tommy Lee Jones, also descend upon the theater for the final night. The film’s all star cast, including Garrison Keillor as himself, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as a singing sister act, Lindsay Lohan as Streep’s depressed daughter, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as the singing cowboys, Kevin Kline as fictional P.I. on the show, L.Q. Jones as the aging legend and the rest are all magnificent. A Prairie Home Companion is about a time in America that has passed, about the inevitability of everything coming to an end, and although there is sadness in the film, there is also much joy. A suitable end to a great career.

9. The Innocent (Luchino Visconti, 1976)
In his final film as a director, Visconti creates one of his most stunning achievements. It is turn of the century Italy, and aristocrat Giancarlo Giannini has an insatiable sexual appetite. Laura Antonelli plays he sweet and sensitive, and long suffering wife. Jennifer O’Neil is his cunning and extremely possessive mistress. Giannini leaves his wife for his mistress, who eventually tosses him out, so he returns to his wife thinking he can resume his former life. What he doesn’t know is that she, fed up with his actions, has had an affair of her own, and is now pregnant with the other man’s baby. He tries to convince her to get an abortion, but she refuses. He hates his new “son” when he is born, and thus leads to a long decline into tragedy. Visconti has often shown his disdain for his own aristocratic roots and their society, and in The Innocent this becomes more pronounced then perhaps ever before. The movie is brilliantly well acted, scored written and directed by Visconti, a master filmmaker still at the top of his game.

8. Star 80 (Bob Fosse, 1983)
Despite the fact that Fosse only directed five films – three of them musicals – his legacy in the film world in undeniable. Star 80 was his last film, and one of only two of his films that was not a musical. Muriel Hemingway stars as Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratton, who rose to fame in the late 1970s, only to be murdered by her estranged husband, Paul Snider (Eric Roberts). The film in unrelentingly bleak, and at times hard to watch. The movie begins with the murder, and then flashes back. There is not a moment of happiness in this film. Hemingway is brilliant as the sweet, na├»ve girl at the center of all the madness. She looks and acts like a kid most of the time. Roberts is devastating accurate and disturbing as Paul, who makes Dorothy into a star, which then puts her out of his league. The jealously, the rage of rejection, causes him to go over the edge and kill her. Fosse sees this all with his camera, and burrows deep into the obsession and the depravity of everything in the movie. Star 80 may not be a fun movie to watch, but it is a great one.

7. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)
Jean Vigo was only 29 years old when he died, leaving behind a film legacy of only two films – 1933’s Zero for Conduct and then this film a year later (he did make two short documentaries before these two films, but I, and seemingly most people, have never seen them). L’Atalante is one of the most beautiful films ever made, and is touching in its simplicity. A young couple is married even though they hardly know each other, and immediately board his barge to make the trip for her small home town to Paris. It is both a working trip, and their honeymoon. His jealously, and fits of rage, eventually drive her away. The film has a dream life atmosphere and is quietly beautiful. The films we lost because Vigo died at such young age.

6. That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel, 1977)
The surrealist master Bunuel never did anything quite the same twice. This, his final film, tells the story of a strange, dysfunctional relationship between Mathieu (Fernando Rey), a wealthy Frenchman, and Conchita (played by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina), a young, beautiful, poor flamenco dancer. By casting two actresses – of completely different physical looks and temperaments – to play the same role is an example of Bunuel’s surrealist nature. Oddly though, the casting of two actresses does not detract from the character, but rather deepen her. Set against the backdrop of terrorist activity in France, the film chronicles their strange love affair, as Conchita constantly taunts Mathieu with her sexuality, but refuses to have sex with him (she claims to be saving herself for marriage). They bicker and argue constantly, break up and make up just as often. The film is really a strange viewing experience, but an absorbing one. I have sort of a love/hate relationship with Bunuel, finding some of his films to be masterpieces, and some to be bores. This is definitely one of the former.

5. The Dead (John Huston, 1987)
John Huston’s final film, directed when he was 80 and dying, takes on the near impossible task of adapting a work by James Joyce, and pulls it off brilliantly. The movie concentrates on Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston), who attend a party in 1904 Dublin, after which Gabriel learns that even though he has been married to Gretta for years, there is much he does not know about her. The movie is beautiful made by Huston, the screenplay by Tony Huston, brilliantly captures Joyce’s prose and the essence of the short story, while still making it cinematic. The performances, especially Huston’s, are brilliant. Gabriel is a weak, insecure man, and his wife’s confession of the great love of her life not being him, rattles him even more. There is poetry in the movie – not just in the dialogue, but in the way in which it was filmed. Right up until the end, John Huston was pushing himself to do great work. The Dead is one of his masterpieces.

4. The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986)
I’ll admit that I still struggle with a lot of Russian master Tarkovsky’s films. They are so ponderous and slow at times, not to mention dense, that I have trouble truly getting into the films. Not so with his final film however, which I believe may well be his masterpiece. Erland Josephson stars as Alexander, who witnesses the world in the beginning of a nuclear Holocaust, and although he is an atheist, vows to give up everything that he holds dear to him if God will spare humanity. When he wakes up the next day, it appears that God has accepted his deal, and Alexander goes about doing what he promised he would. The film is ambigious in the extreme, as it never feels the need to spell everything out for the audience. Is all this a delusion of Alexander’s, that he has constructed so that he can believe the war he sees at the beginning of the film isn’t real? Or does God actually accept his deal? The Sacrifice is a film that is mesmerizing – like most Tarkovsky films – and is far and away my favorite of his work. Perhaps that’s because to a large extent, this film was a tribute to Ingmar Bergman, a director a like a lot more than Tarkovsky. No matter what the reason though, The Sacrifice is a masterpiece.

3. Three Colors: Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)
The final part of Kieslowski’s three colors trilogy is undeniably the best – and perhaps the best individual film of the great directors career (the ten hour, ten part The Decalogue is the greater achievement, but no one segment is as good as this movie). The film is a masterpiece that links the interconnecting lives of a vast group of characters –but the central plot involves a compassionate model who hits a dog with her car, and takes it to the owner – a Judge named Kern who likes to play God, and is listening in on his neighbor’s private phone conversations. The film is much too vast and complex to fully discuss here, but it is masterfully directed by Kieslowski. The bright red color palette of the film memorable, as is the recurring use of broken glass throughout the film. Although Kieslowski is dealing with dense themes, the movie zips by. The other two films in the Three Colors trilogy are both wonderful to their own degrees, but Red is quite simply a masterpiece.

2. Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)
Leone only officially directed seven films (although he played a hand in directing at least three other films), but his mark on cinema history is undeniable. He will always be best known for his spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood, as well his brilliant Once Upon a Time in the West, but his final film, Once Upon a Time in America, can easily stand among those masterpieces on its own. It is a huge, sprawling epic that spans nearly 50 years, and runs almost four hours long. It opens in the 1920s, where a group of kids in the Jewish Ghetto of Lower Manhattan, struggle to survive, and get involved in petty crime that gradually escalates. Later, during prohibition, the gang becomes more involves with violent crimes, which leads to double cross. The movie is huge in scope, and yet is also intimate, getting to know its characters, and gradually revealing its mysteries. Robert DeNiro and James Woods give great performances in the two key roles, but everyone in the movie is brilliant. Leone spent 10 years making Once Upon a Time in America (giving up the opportunity to direct The Godfather in the process), but the time spent was well worth it. This is one of the greatest gangster films ever made.

1. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
When I selected Eyes Wide Shut as my number 1 “final film”, I knew the choice would be controversial, and would inspire some to rip me to shreds. How can I possibly pick this film above the others on this list? It’s quite simple really – I think Eyes Wide Shut is better than all of them, and is Kubrick’ final masterpiece. Hurt by his wife’s confession of having thoughts of an affair, Tom Cruise’s doctor goes out into the streets of Manhattan, and suffers a long night in a strange dream world, where everyone responds to him sexually. Sex surrounds him utterly and completely climaxing in the now infamous orgy sequence. Does anything in this movie actually happen, or is it all in Cruise’s mind? It makes the film all the better that Kubrick never spells it out. The film is engrossing and haunting – as well directed as anything Kubrick ever made (yeah, I said it) and the performances are all amazing. Cruise has perhaps never been better, and Kidman is even better than he is. Her pitch perfect final line reading is the perfect note for which Kubrick to end his cinematic career. Eyes Wide Shut is largely derided, but it is in fact a masterpiece. I long for the day when more people realize that.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, love the list. I made one too and now I realize I left Red off. It probably would have placed at the top too. Here's what I came up with: