Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Year in Review:1997

1997 was an important movie year for me personally; as I think that was the year I went from being a movie fan to being a film buff. There is a difference. It saw the emergence of one of the best filmmakers in the world; as well it was an important stepping stone for a few younger filmmakers who continued their growth. There are also a few films on here by filmmakers who have still not lived up to the films they made this year.

10. Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The first film by director Paul Thomas Anderson is his most intimate character study, forgoing his normal sprawling casts for a smaller one here. The great Philip Baker Hall gives a marvelous performance as an old gambler who takes on a younger protégé (the great John C. Reilly) and his prostitute girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow) for mysterious reasons. Not as ambitious as the other films in Anderson’s career, it is still a marvelous little movie, full of great writing, acting and direction. I love it when a character actor like Hall is finally given a lead role worthy of his talent, and although Altman gave him his best role in Secret Honor, Anderson gave him his second best one here.

9. The Game (David Fincher)
For reasons that have always boggled my mind, David Fincher’s The Game has never really garnered the kind of following it deserves. It is a twisty thriller about a rich man (Michael Douglas) given a strange gift by his younger brother (Sean Penn) of a strange game that is supposed to make him see life more clearly. The film keeps you guessing as to whether or not it really is a game until its final moment. And unlike most movies with a twist ending, The Game rewards repeat viewing, as the film is stacked with small details that you miss the first, second and even third time through. One of the more underrated films of the 1990s, and a crackerjack thriller at that.

8. Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson)
A President is running for reelection just as a sex scandal involving him and a “Firefly girl” is revealed. Needed a distraction, they bring in a spin doctor (Robert DeNiro), who decides to stage a fake war with Albania, and needs the help of Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman), who laughes everything off with a proclamation of “This is nothing!!!”. The film written by David Mamet, is full of whip smart dialogue, and characters who are perfectly cast in even the smallest of roles (Woody Harrellson for instance has but one scene, but he is brilliant in it). One of the best political satires of the decade, and an absolutely hilarious film to boot. Robert DeNiro is great, but Dustin Hoffman steals the movies with his thinly veiled Robert Evans impersonation. Perhaps Barry Levinson’s best film.

7. Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith)
After his debut film Clerks made a name for him, and his follow up Mallrats disappointed his now loyal fans, Kevin Smith made Chasing Amy - far and away the best film of his career. Ben Affleck does career best work as a comic book writer who falls in love with a fellow scribe - Joey Lauren Adams - unaware that she is a lesbian, or at least she says so. What follows is a surprising insightful, funny, truthful look at modern relationships- romantic, sexual and friendship. Jason Lee gives a marvelous performance as Affleck’s partner, who maybe harboring more love for Affleck than he cares to admit. After two films where he barely mumbled a word, Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob delivers a monologue that may just be the best thing he has ever written. This is the film that Kevin Smith keeps trying, and failing, to live up to.

6. Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell)
Mike Newell is a talented journeyman director who normally delivers solid films (his entry in the Harry Potter franchise, The Goblet of Fire, is my choice for the best of the series). Here, he is given the best script he ever had to work with by veteran Paul Attansio, and delivers a hell of a gangster movie. Johnny Depp is very good as FBI Agent Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, who infiltrates the mafia through his friendship with veteran Al Pacino. This is really Pacino’s movie, whose performance gives a complete opposite view of life in the mafia as his work in The Godfather films did. The movie is wonderfully detailed and observed, powerfully acted and directed. It’s too bad it was released so early in the year, so by the time the Oscars rolled around, the Academy completely forgot about Pacino’s work. More than a decade later, I can’t forget it.

5. The Ice Storm (Ang Lee)
Ang Lee’s film about two dysfunctional families in the 1970s gets my vote for the best film of his career. As the adults, led by Kevin Kline, Joan Allen and Sigourny Weaver, set about to key parties, extra martial affairs and imploding marriages, their kids are maturing into sexual beings in their own right. While all three of the adults are brilliant, it is really the kids who own the movie. Christina Ricci as a sexually precocious young woman, Elijah Wood who is perhaps too curious, and the college student Tobey Maguire all engage in acts that would shock their parents, if they were paying any attention whatsoever. The period detail is perfect, the cinematography terrific, and the movie builds to a shocking, but fitting, climax.

4. The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan)
This was the film that Atom Egoyan’s career was building toward up until this point, and which he has spent the past decade trying to live up. A bus accident that kills many children rocks a small town community. Ian Holm gives a wonderful performance as a lawyer who comes to town and tries to convince the parents to hire him so they can sue - anyone and everyone who may be responsible. Sarah Polley gives a marvelous performance as one of the older kids on the bus who survives, and maybe keeping secrets. Egoyan’s film is haunting and unforgettable from beginning to end. Egoyan’s masterful screenplay and direction anchors the movie in reality, but is also somewhat dreamlike. A masterful film.

3. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown was perceived as a disappointment upon its release, perhaps because it wasn’t as immediately influential as Pulp Fiction was. But Jackie Brown is a masterfully told story - the best ever adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel. Tarantino’s love for long dialogue scenes remains in intact, but so does Leonard’s narrative. The film is full of great performances from Pam Grier’s title character, a flight attendant involved in criminal activity, to Samuel L. Jackson’s drug dealer to Robert DeNiro’s ex-con to Bridget Fonda’s flirtatious pothead to Robert Forster’s bail bondsman. The film has all the usual Tarantino flourishes. A wonderful, intricately detailed crime movie of the highest order. People who think this is weak Tarantino really do need to watch it again.

2. LA Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential is one of the few neo-noirs that deserve comparison to Roman Polanski’s brilliant Chinatown. A mass killing at a coffee shop sets the plot in motion - one that will eventually include minor celebrities, whores cut to look like movie stars, corrupt rich men, a tabloid reporter, and three very different cops. Kevin Spacey is the celebrity vice cop, who is a technical adviser on a Dragnet like TV show. Guy Pearce is young, ambitious and completely by the book. And Russell Crowe is a more violent, by any means necessary type cop. These characters revolve around each other in the wonderful period detail of 1950s LA. The cinematography and art direction are top notch, but it’s really Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s twisty script, based on the James Ellroy novel, that is truly masterful. A great film noir for a new generation.

1. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson)
It didn’t take Anderson long to make his first masterpiece. In only his second film (and the second of this year), Anderson crafted a marvelously entertaining, enlightening and surprisingly touching movie about an extended family in the porn industry. Mark Wahlberg is magnificent as Dirk Diggler, the young stud who becomes an instant star under the tuttlage of veteran director Burt Reynolds, who has never been better. Julianne Moore is wonderful as the mother like figure of the group, and Heather Graham is sexy and fun as Rollergirl. The heady, fun filled days of the 1970s gives way to the downfall of the 1980s, fueled by drugs and the emergence of video. A great Hollywood type rise and fall story, Anderson fills his movie with the most interesting characters (John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Melora Walters, Thomas Jane, Alfred Molina and Philip Seymour Hoffman are among the supporting players). The film is endlessly entertaining and has the kind of sustained energy that is rarely seen in the movies. A truly great film - and one that gets better each of the many times I have watched it.

Just Missed the Top 10: The Apostle (Robert Duvall), Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemmons), Face/Off (John Woo), Fast Cheap and Out of Control (Errol Morris), Four Little Girls (Spike Lee), Gattaca (Andrew Niccol), Insomnia (Erik Skoljbaerg), In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute), Waco: The Rules of Engagement (William Galecki), Happy Together (Wong Kar Wai).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture and Director: Titanic (James Cameron)
James Cameron’s Titanic pretty much had to win this award. It was the most successful film of all time (and would remain so until his next film, Avatar, more than a decade later). Yes, the dialogue is stilted at times, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet anchor the movie with wonderful performances, and that final hour truly is something to behold. No, it was nowhere near the best film of the year, but it is a hell of lot better than a lot films who have won this award.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
Jack Nicholson is as enjoyable as ever as a writer with serious problems with women and gays, who is forced to confront both. It is fine work. But really it was nowhere near the best of the year. Of the nominees, I would have picked Robert Duvall’s magnetic performance in The Apostle, or Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog. But Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco and Ian Holm is The Sweet Hereafter were probably better than any of the nominees.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets
If Nicholson’s performance was enjoyable but not Oscar worthy, then I cannot say that Hunt is not even all that enjoyable. Sure, she’s fine in the movie as a waitress who for some reason likes Nicholson, but it really isn’t a great performance. Julie Christie in Afterglow, Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings of the Dove and Kate Winslet in Titanic were all nominees that were better than Hunt - and even better were Pam Grier and Joey Lauren Adams who didn’t even get nominated!

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting
The Academy obviously wanted to reward Robin Williams, a popular movie star, and saw this feel good story as their opportunity. Sure, he’s quite good as the shrink who works with a genius, but Robert Forster in Jackie Brown and especially Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights were nominees that were infinitely better. That doesn’t even mention Kevin Spacey in LA Confidential, Jason Lee in Chasing Amy and Robert DeNiro in Jackie Brown, all of whom SHOULD have been nominated.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Kim Basinger, LA Confidential
Kim Basinger is quite good as a hooker cut to look like Veronica Lake. She is the classic hooker with a heart of gold that we have seen many times before, but rarely this well done. The actress, who was never given very good roles in her career, makes good on the best one of her career. Personally, I think Julianne Moore’s performance in Boogie Nights was far and away the best this category had to offer. And I would have loved to have seen Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown, Sarah Polley in The Sweet Hereafter and Christina Ricci in The Ice Storm all should have been nominated.

Year in Review: 1988

What a great movie year 1988 was! There are many years in the 1980s when coming up with 10 worthy films can be hard, but the challenge this year was limiting it to 10. I’m sure that many people will find films that I left off of the top 10 worthy, but I really did agonize over what to include and what not to.

10. Who Framed Roger Rabbitt? (Robert Zemeckis)
22 years after it was made, Who Framed Roger Rabbitt? Is still an utter and complete joy to watch. Zemeckis, who now spends his time trying to push performance capture animation forward (with mixed results if you ask me), has done, in my mind, the best combination of animation and live action filmmaking ever with this film. This delightful family film trades on film noir clichés, with the hard boiled detective (a great Bob Hoskins), the sexy, if animated, femme fatale Jessica Rabbitt (brilliantly voiced by Kathleen Turner), and turned it into a film that families can enjoy on one level, and movie buffs can enjoy on another. Zemeckis has made a lot of interesting films in his career, but I don’t think I enjoy any of them as much as I do this film.

9. Midnight Run (Martin Brest)
Martin Brest and company certainly did not invent the kind of action/comedy teaming on display in Midnight Run, but they certainly did perfect it. Robert DeNiro is a no nonsense bounty hunter who arrests a mob accountant (Charles Grodin) and tries to bring him back to jail – all the while bickering with him as they are chased by people who want Grodin dead. DeNiro has made a lot of comedies in the last decade (much to my chagrin), but he has never delivered a better comedic performance than he does in this movie – an hilarious, dead pan straight man to Charles Grodin who is perfect in his best role. Midnight Run in the one of the best action comedies of the 1980s – a decade when there seemed to dozens of them every year.

8. Die Hard (Jon McTiernan)
Bruce Willis and a series of directors have tried to recapture the perfection of this action film in its three sequels, and while I think all of them (yes, even Live Free or Die Hard) are entertaining, none of them can compare to this film. This is the type of action movie that Willis is best at – playing a beaten down everyman who somehow pulls off almost superhuman feats. It helps in this film that he has one of the all time best screen villains in Alan Rickman to play off of. Endlessly enjoyable, forever quotable, packed with action and thrilling climax, Die Hard is what action movies can be when done properly.

7. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
Wings of Desire is one of the gorgeously sad films ever made. It looks at the life of angels in Berlin, whose job it is to watch over humanity – they cannot involve themselves in our lives, cannot change their outcome, but are destined just to sit back and observe us for good or ill. When one of the angels decides he is tired of simply watching, and wants to join humanity, he has to decide how to do it. Brilliantly shot in black and white, this is one the best films that German master Wim Wenders ever made – sad, yet touchingly human and profound. Forget the remake (City of Angels with Nicolas Cage), and the pretenders (Luc Besson’s Angel A) this one is utterly masterful.

6. Talk Radio (Oliver Stone)
To me, Oliver Stone’s run from 1986’s Salvador to 1995’s Nixon is one of the best runs any director in history has ever seen. During that time Stone made 10 films, all of them are great in one way or another. Talk Radio, sadly, is perhaps the most overlooked of all of his films in that period. The film stars Eric Bogosian, who recreates his stage role (of the play he also wrote), as a late night radio talk show host who makes his listeners angry with his endless rants about just about any subject you can name. Most of the action takes place right inside that radio booth, and yet Stone’s film is not a stagy film – it is not a photographed play – but an intensely cinematic rendering. Bogosian was never given a role this juicy again, and Stone’s film got increasingly frantic (for better and for not) as he progressed, but Talk Radio remains a triumph for both of them – one that more people really should see.

5. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris)
Errol Morris is perhaps the most well known serious documentartian in the world (note how I said serious, so Michael Moore need not apply). This documentary, one of his very best, looks at the 1976 murder of a Dallas Police Officer where a man was convicted and sentenced to death for the crime. Morris became skeptical that the man was guilty, and conducted interviews with all the players involved, and create re-enactments of the differing scenarios that were possible. Set to a wonderful score by Philip Glass (who does his best work with Morris), The Thin Blue Line is one of the few films that can claim that they actually made a difference in the real world – the man convicted of the crime was set free a year after the movie, because of what Morris uncovered.

4. The Vanishing (George Sluzier)
George Sluzier’s The Vanishing is an almost unbearably intense thriller. A young Dutch woman on holiday with her boyfriend in France goes missing from a rest stop on their trip. Her boyfriend cannot accept her loss, and obsessively searches for her years after the disappearance, but cannot discover even the slightest clue as to what happened. But then a mysterious stranger shows up and tells him he knows what happened. The Vanishing is a wonderful thriller, full of psychological torment and interesting twists and turns. It holds you in its grip throughout the entire movie, right down to its shocking final image. Sluzier remade this film for America in 1993, but the reviews were so bad, and my love for this film is so strong, that I never bothered to see it – why sully the memory of a masterwork like this?

3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman)
Great literature very rarely makes for great movies – but Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Milan Kundrea’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a rare exception. Kaufman’s films, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a Czechoslovakian doctor in the Communist era, right before 1968 invasion that would throw the country into chaos. Day-Lewis is a lothario, whose main lover is Lena Olin in Prague, but things become complicated when he meets a waitress (Juliette Binoche) and falls in love with her – although he does not want to give up his sexual freedom. Their happiness is crushed by the new regime, who sees Day-Lewis’ sexual ways as wrong, and kill his chances for employment. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is at turns deeply sexual, political, erotic and intelligent. The performances by the three leads rank among the best work any of them have ever done. This is one of the few films about sexuality that is intelligent and thought provoking – it has much more on its mind other than sex.

2. Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg has always made strange films that were fascinated with the body and the inner workings of identity. His Dead Ringers is one of his very strangest films – creepy beyond belief, but also wonderfully well written directed and acted. Jeremy Irons gives the best dual performance in cinema history as Elliot and Beverely Mantle – twin gynecologists. Elliot is outgoing and confident, whereas Beverely is shy and trapped inside his own head. Elliot seduces women, and then passes them off to Beverly without them knowing as a way of controlling his brother. But when Beverly becomes obsessed with a patient – Genevieve Bujold – who has a rare disorder (she says her internal arrangement has “three doorways”), he slowly starts on a downward spiral, that involves him creating horrific looking tools for use on mutant women. Irons gives two separate, but equally stunning performances as the twins, and Bujold is also brilliant as the woman one of them falls for. Cronenberg’s imagery is strong and disturbing, and his follows the movie to its logical conclusion. Dead Ringers is not a film a lot of people will be able to stomach – but it’s a masterwork nonetheless.

1. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese)
Watching Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, 22 years after it caused such a firestorm, will likely have the viewer wondering why the film was as controversial as it was. It doesn’t really stray all that far from the Bible – except that it portrays Jesus Christ as a real person, full of the same sort of doubts and insecurities that plague all of mankind. Scorsese’s film is powerful in its opening two acts – covering much of what we know from the Bible, with Willem Dafoe being the definitive screen Jesus. The last act, where we enter Jesus’ mind as he is dying on the cross, and see the “temptation” that Satan uses to try and get him down is just as masterful and thought provoking. Only a narrow minded person hell bent on their own version of religion could see anything truly wrong or offensive in this movie. This is the one movie I can think of that treats Jesus as a real, complex human being. That his direction of the film is masterful is to be expected. That it would be this thoughtful and immersive is what makes this a masterpiece of the highest cinematic order.

Just Missed The Top 10: Another Woman (Woody Allen), Bird (Clint Eastwood), Beetle Juice (Tim Burton), Tucker: A Man and His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola), A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Cricton), Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears), The Accidental Tourist (Lawrence Kasdan), School Daze (Spike Lee), Rain Man (Barry Levinson), Running on Empty (Sidney Lumet), Big (Penny Marshall), Working Girl (Mike Nichols), Akira (Katsuhrio Otomo), Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker), Eight Men Out (John Sayles), A Cry in the Dark (Fred Schepsi) Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahate), A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo)

Notable Films Missed: Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore), My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki), Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies)

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Rain Man (Barry Levinson)
Rain Man is a fine movie in its own right. Its story of two very different brothers - Tom Cruise’s young hotshot and Dustin Hoffman’s austitic older man - is clever and funny, and touching in its way. The performances are good, and the direction by Levinson is also good. But that’s just it - Rain Man is a good film - not a great one. Considering how they didn’t see fit to nominate any film I think is great though, it’s hard to complain too much.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man
Out of the nominees, Hoffman is a fine choice, even if I would have rathered rewarded the sheer joy in Tom Hanks’ performance in Big. But the Academy over looked the four best performances of the year here - Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Daniel Day Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Eric Bogisan in Talk Radio and Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Jodie Foster, The Accused
Jodie Foster is excellent in The Accused, a movie where she plays a lower class woman who was gang raped as the crowd cheered on. The movie itself is merely good however. Personally, I would given the award to either Glenn Close, so fabulously evil in Dangerous Liasons, or Meryl Streep, mastering another accent in A Cry in the Dark.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda
I find it impossible to complain about this win, as it is one of the only times the Academy has ever rewarded a screwball comedy performance, and Kevin Kline’s in A Fish Called Wanda is one of the best the genre had to offer.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Geena Davis, The Accidental Tourist
Geena Davis is fine in the role of young woman William Hurt falls in love with after his divorce. It really is one of her finest performances. Personally, I would have gone with Lena Olin for her breathtaking work in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but they didn’t even nominate her, so what do I know?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Year in Review: 1976

1976 is one of my favorite movie years ever. All you have to do is look at the films that DID NOT make my list to tell you just how strong a year this really was for movies. Filmmakers ranging from Martin Scorsese to Sidney Lumet to Brian DePalma to John Cassavetes to Roman Polanski all made great films this year. So with that, let’s get to the top 10.

10. Rocky (John G. Avildsen)
It is easy to make fun of Rocky now. Sylvester Stallone has essentially become a parody of himself, and he pretty much pissed on the films legacy by making five sequels – none of which were really necessary, even if I have to admit the rest do function well as guilty pleasures. But try going back and watching the film again with a fresh perspective. Yes, the story was old and well worn by the time Stallone and company got there. But rarely has it been this well executed. Stallone is really quite great in the lead role – a mumbling, has been given his one shot at redemption. Talia Shire is also wonderful as his shy love interest, and in Burgess Meredith, Burt Young and Carl Weathers, they have cast the perfect old grizzled coach, lunk head best friend and fierce rival that a film like this needs. The direction by John G. Avildsen is crisp and clean – nothing fancy, but beautifully executed. Yes, the shine has worn off the movie a little because of all the sequels and copycats that have come in the years since. But you know what? Rocky is still a great movie.

9. Marathon Man (John Scheslinger)
John Scheslinger’s Marathon Man is a brilliant exercise is thriller filmmaker. In the film, Dustin Hoffman stars as an innocent man, who get sucked into a complex web of lies and corruption because his brother (Ray Schneider) is a government agent who knows things he should. At the heart of the film is the brilliant, and justly famous, sequence when Laurence Oliver’s Nazi dentist drills into Hoffman’s teeth all the while asking “Is it safe?”, a reference to whether or not it would be safe for Oliver to pick up a cache of diamonds stolen from the Jews at Auschwitz. Hoffman has no idea what Oliver is talking about, but since he cannot get out of the game, he is stuck trying to play along. Hoffman is wonderful in the role – paranoid, fearful and intense. But this really is Oliver’s showcase, and he delivers one of the most iconic screen villains in history, and in my mind his best performance (I have never been as impressed with Oliver as many others seem to have been). The ending of the film is a little weak (according to screenwriting William Goldman it was changed because Hoffman didn’t like his ending), but overall, Marathon Man is a great example of the thriller genre.

8. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes)
John Cassavetes is one of the most important filmmakers in history – essentially founding the independent film movement decades before it really took off. This film is one of his best. Ben Gazzara gives an amazing performance as a strip club owner who, in the opening of the film, is finally able to pay off his long standing debt. He goes out to celebrate, and ends up right back in debt after losing a card game. The Mafia who owns his debt, convinces him to perform a hit on a major Chinese mafia figure, in order to square the debt. Gazzara reluctantly agrees. If this sounds like a typical crime movie, it isn’t. Cassavetes camera moves into the world, and fixes its gaze directly on Gazzara, and rarely leaves him for the entire running time of the movie. We get inside the world, get to know Gazzara. This is crime filmmaking that is intimate and real. No matter which version of the film you see (the original 135 minute version, or Cassvetes re-edited 108 minute version), you will see one of Cassvetes greatest achievements.

7. The Tenant (Roman Polanski)
Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe this film. Roman Polanski cast himself in the lead role in this film, where he plays a man who moves into an apartment where the last resident killed herself by jumping out the window. He moves in, and almost immediately, strange things begin to happen all around him. The neighbors constantly complain about the noise he makes – even when he isn’t making any. He begins to see the former tenant’s best friend (Isabelle Adjani), and their relationship becomes strange. Weirder yet, he starts to believe that HE IS the former tenant. Polanski’s film was critically drubbed upon initial release, and while it’s easy to see why a lot of critics found the film outlandish, I cannot deny its strange impact. Count me as a member of the strange cult of film fans who love this one.

6. Small Change (Francois Truffaut)
Francois Truffaut’s Small Change is a really simple movie that is also quietly beautiful and profound. There really is no story in the movie to speak of. It is just an assembly of scenes – some funny, some happy, some sad – that make up the lives of the children in the movie. It recreates childhood so perfectly that you cannot help but smile at some of the moments. The class clown waiting on the clock to tick down and bell to ring so he can get out of answering a question he doesn’t know. The painful longing of a first crush. Telling dirty jokes you don’t quite understand. It is moments like this, along with a masterful and hilarious sequence when a little girl takes her dad’s megaphone and announces to the world the indignity of her punishment – that has stayed with in the time since I first saw the film. It is almost a shame that Truffaut has to had a more serious plot near the end of the film – about an abused boy – but even that is handled with grace and simplicity. This is one of the best film ever made about children – by one of the best filmmakers in history.

5. Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter)
Two years before John Carpenter truly broke through with Halloween, he made this brilliant B-film. Inspired in part by Howard Hawkes Rio Bravo and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13 is a movie about a cop and a criminal who have to team up as they hide in a nearly abandoned police station, with a heavily armed gang of streets thugs outside who want to get to someone inside. This is B- filmmaking at its best – extremely violent (that shot of the little girl being shot through her ice cream cone haunts me), depending more on character types then on real people. With the group inside the police station, you see the influence of Hawks’ film, where people who normally would not be on the same side have to team up to save themselves. With the marauding gang on the outside, you see the influence of Romero’s zombie – a faceless horde of violent intruders. Carpenter has made a lot of films in his career – some of them great – but for me, Assault on Precinct 13 will always be my favorite.

4. All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula)
Until David Fincher’s Zodiac in 2007, All the President’s Men was probably the most realistic, most penetrating movie ever made about the inner workings of a newspaper. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford both give excellent performances as crusading Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters who would eventually break the Watergate Scandal. The pieces of the puzzle come in slowly – informants who stay in the shadows (Hal Holbrook is great as Deep Throat), and story meetings eventually start to involve legal teams, and the whole Watergate scandal starts getting bigger and bigger. Meticulously directed by Pakula, the film feels authentic in even the smallest of details. The supporting cast, including Jason Robards who would win an Oscar for his performance as the editor of the Post are all brilliant – even in the roles that only have a scene or two in the movie. Often, movies like this that are timely when they are made age poorly as the years go by – All the President’s Men doesn’t. It gets even more relevant.

3. Carrie (Brian DePalma)
Carrie is the best film that Brian DePalma has ever made, and one of the few adaptations of a Stephen King book to get everything exactly right. This is a horrifying movie, full of violent imagery and intense sequences that more than any movie I have ever seen gets the pain of high school, and the urge to lash out, just right. I have a feeling many school shooters would relate to Carrie. Sissy Spacek delivers one of the best performances of her career in the title role – a painfully shy and awkward teenager, who is teased mercilessly at school (the chants of “Plug it up” as she is assaulted by the other girl in her gym class throwing tampons at her is chilling), and tormented at home by her strict, religiously fanatical mother (the great Piper Laurie, playing perhaps the worst mother in movie history) who locks Carrie in a closet for hours on end when she is “evil”. Unbeknownst to anyone though, Carrie has supernatural powers that she is finding more and more difficult to control. When the final humiliation comes at the prom, Carrie simply loses it. This is DePalma at his bloody best. The film is full of brilliant imagery – perhaps none more so than the dance between Carrie and her date, with the camera circling them, which starts off nice and romantic, and then slowly starts spinning out of control. This is masterful filmmaking that goes beyond its horror genre to become something much more.

2. Network (Sidney Lumet)
One of the greatest satires ever made. What must have looked ridiculous and outlandish in 1976 now almost looks realistic, and that realization is simply sad. Peter Finch, in his final screen performance, is Howard Beale a network news anchor who is being fired because his ratings are too low. He announces, on air, that the next day he will kill himself live on television. Thus begins a strange journey when the news becomes entertainment – a circus – and the crazed Beale is its ringmaster. Behind the scenes, Faye Dunaway, the producer, is pulling the strings all the to get better ratings, where veteran newsman William Holden thinks the whole thing is simply sad. The network executives (represented by Ned Beatty is a brilliant, one scene performance) are holed up in dark offices. The news doesn’t matter anymore – just ratings, just money. In 1976, Network played as a warning of things to come. Now, in 2010, with Fox News claiming to be fair and balanced, while putting on the air a bunch of angry blowhards, and the other networks trying to keep up (yes, Keith Olberman is as ridiculous as anyone on Fox) it plays like what the news has become. Network is still a brilliantly acted, merciless, funny, sad satire. It just doesn’t seem so farfetched anymore.

1. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)
Is there anything left to say about Taxi Driver that I, and others, have not already said? Taxi Driver is one of the greatest of all films (it ranks second, only behind Apocalypse Now on my all time top 10 list) and is the greatest achievement by Martin Scorsese – my favorite filmmaker of all time. Robert DeNiro is simply amazing as Travis Bickle – a troubled Vietnam veteran who comes home from the war, and cannot deal with reality. He takes a job driving as taxi at night in New York, and only frequents the worst areas – the areas infected by drug, gangs and prostitutes. He tries to hold onto something good in his life, but there is nothing to hold on to. He sets his sights on two “angels” – first Cybil Shepherd as a campaign worker he dates, but screws up by taking her to a porn theater, then Jodie Foster as a child hooker he wants to save – even if she does not want to be saved. Scorsese’s camera captures New York at its ugliest, it’s most vile. The people Bickle meets just reinforces his worldview – that everything is sick and perverse, which leads to the films violent climax. Taxi Driver is a masterpiece, pure and simple. If you haven’t seen it, then you are missing one of the greatest films in history.

Just Missed the Top 10: Bound for Glory (Hal Ashby), The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood), Obsession (Brian DePalma), The Seven Per Cent Solution (Herbert Ross), The Shootist (Don Siegal), The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg), The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky)

Notable Films Missed: In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima), Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders), Casanova (Federico Fellini), Ceddo (Ousame Sembene), The Marquise of O (Erich Rohmer), A Slave of Love (Nikita Milkhalov).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture and Director: Rocky (John G. Avildsen).
Obviously, I think Taxi Driver deserved to win this award out of the nominees (and I guess Lumet for director, since they stupidly DID NOT NOMINATE Scorsese for director). I can see why they went with Rocky – it was a dark year in movies, and Rocky was the lighter, more fun choice. In many years, I wouldn’t say they embarrassed themselves too badly, but this year they got it really wrong.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Peter Finch, Network
Again, I think DeNiro’s performance could be the best in cinema history, so it should have won (and I would have loved to see Gazzara nominated for Chinese Bookie). But Finch’s crazed performance is utterly brilliant as well – and considering DeNiro had just won an Oscar two years before, and Finch had just died, it is easy to see why they went this way.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Faye Dunaway, Network
I have no problem with Dunaway winning this award. It is one of her best performances, for a great movie no less. Personally, I think that Sissy Spacek delivered the best performance in this category this year – but it was a weak year for actresses.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Jason Robards, All the Presidents Men
Out of the nominees, I would have gone with Oliver’s brilliant portrayal of the Nazi dentist, and perhaps even would have been tempted to give it to Beatty as the Network executive. But Robards is brilliant as well in the film. I really do wish Harvey Keitel’s work in Taxi Driver had have been recognized though.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Beatrice Straight, Network
The love of the acting in Network was so strong, that Straight won this award despite having only 8 minutes of screen time all in one scene, where he confronts her husband (Holden) about his infidelity. It is a perfect example of how a one scene performance can stay with you after the movie ends. However, I still would have given it to Jodie Foster for Taxi Driver, or even Piper Laurie from Carrie.

Movie Review: Hot Tub Time Machine

Hot Tub Time Machine **
Directed By:
Steve Pink.
Written By: Josh Heald & Sean Anders & John Harris.Starring: John Cusack (Adam), Rob Corddry (Lou), Craig Robinson (Nick), Clark Duke (Jacob), Sebastain Stan (Blaine), Lyndsey Fanseca (Jenny), Crispin Glover (Phil), Chevy Chase (Repair Man), Lizzy Caplan (April), Charlie McDormott (Chaz).

Hot Tub Time Machine is a disappointing movie because it is not nearly as stupidly hilarious nor downright awful as a film with the title Hot Tub Time Machine really should have been. Instead, it is yet another lame comedy with a few inspired moments (almost all of which were in the preview) and a whole lot of filler material. It should have been funny - but for some reason it simply wasn’t.

The film is about three college friends who decide to revisit the ski resort where they had such great memories almost 25 years ago. The intervening years have not worked out the way they planned on, and they have drifted apart in that time. But when Lou (Rob Corddry) survives a lame suicide attempt, Adam (John Cusack) and Nick (Crag Robinson) are quilted into going up again. Along for the ride is Jacob (Clark Duke), Adam’s nephew, who was born nine months after the last time they went up there. A wild night of drinking leads the four of them to the hot tub, which somehow transports them back in time to that weekend when everything went wrong. While Adam, Lou and Nick appear like their former selves to everyone around them (although not to us, as Cusack, Robinson and Corddry still play them), Jacob goes back at the same age he is in the present. He is nervous that any change they make before they can get the hot tub fixed could result in a changed future - most importantly, he may not be born.

The movie should be funny. It knows that virtually every time travel device in movie history is pretty much completely and totally ridiculous, so it goes one better and comes up with probably the most ridiculous idea ever conceived for a time travel device. It is really just a way to get these guys back to 1986, so they can mock that decade mercilessly. The film is awash in 1980s style in all its hideous glory, and follows the formula of sex comedies of that decade pretty closely. For Cusack, this is something or a homecoming as he got his start in teen sex comedies in that decade. Disappointingly however, Cusack, how also produced the film, seemingly sleepwalks through his role here - even when he is in the same outfit he wore in Better Off Dead. Corddry and Robinson fare slightly better, having fun with their old school looks. Surprisingly, newcomer Clark Duke is the best of the bunch by far - but then again, he gets the best lines (“I write Stargate fan fiction, I think I know what I’m talking about”). He is hilarious in many of his scenes - which is why its disappointing he has the least screen time of the four leads, but it looks good for the upcoming Kick Ass, where he has another supporting role. Another highlight is Lizzy Caplan, an actress I have loved since her short lived sitcom The Class, who is once again cute, funny and sexy.

But overall, Hot Tub Time Machine doesn’t really provide any real laughs. There are some isolated chuckles, and moments of inspiration, but mainly the movie relies on toilet humor, sex jokes and projectile vomiting (a lot of projectile vomiting). These jokes can be funny if done right, but they are not done right in this movie.

Hot Tub Time Machine should have been a great comedy in the vein of something like The Hangover. But what Hot Tub Time Machine proves is how rare movies like The Hangover actually are. It isn’t easy to make this kind of movie well, as Hot Tub Time Machine proves.

Movie Review: Chloe

Chloe ** ½
Directed By:
Atom Egoyan.
Written By: Erin Cressida Wilson based on the motion picture Nathalie written by Anne Fontaine.
Starring: Julianne Moore (Catherine), Amanda Seyfried (Chloe), Liam Neeson (David), Max Thieriot (Michael).

Atom Egoyan makes the mistake in thinking that his new movie, Chloe, is a serious exploration of sexuality. He believes that this movie has something in common with movies like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Last Tango in Paris or Damage. Instead, Chloe shares more in common with a movie like Fatal Attraction. Chloe should have been a guilty pleasure of a B-movie, featuring sexy girls acting sexy. But Egoyan takes it all too seriously. He gets his cast to buy into his ideas, and as such, the movie comes really close to actually working. Egoyan knows how to direct a movie, and Chloe has a great visual look throughout. Walking out of the movie, I was confused - I wasn’t sure if I had seen a great movie, or a terrible one. My rating reflects those mixed feelings.

The movie is about a long time married couple - Catherine (Julianne Moore) and David (Liam Neeson). She is a successful gynecologist in Toronto, he a popular music professor who splits time between Toronto and New York. When he misses a plane back to Toronto on his birthday - ruining a surprise birthday party Catherine had planned for him. When she checks his phone the next day, she sees a message that might mean that he is cheating on her. Devastated by this revelation, she decides to do something to prove to herself once and for all if he is cheating. She finds Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) and hires her to try and seduce David. Things, of course, do not quite go as planned.

The film is a remake of the 2004 French film, Nathalie, starring Fanny Ardant, Emmanuele Beart and Gerard Depardieu - a film that I seem to be in the minority in thinking was a little pretentious, and only mediocre (not unlike this film), Chloe is an erotic movie that twists and turns its plot all around. It isn’t long before Chloe is describing to Catherine - in detail - what her encounters with David are really like. This both disgusts and excites Catherine, who is drawn to Chloe more and more. And Chloe wants to get closer and closer to Catherine as well - even going so far as befriending her son Michael (Max Thieriot) for use later if things don’t go as she plans.

In Julianne Moore, Egoyan found the perfect actress to play Catherine. Moore has always been one of the sexually fearless actresses around. In films like Short Cuts, Boogie Nights, The End of the Affair, Blindness and Savage Grace she has proven herself to be utterly fearless when it comes to nudity and sexuality. Here, she plays a woman who is sexually cold to her husband - not because she doesn’t love him but because she doesn’t know what to do anymore. But as Chloe describes in detail what is happens between the two of them, she becomes aroused, and is drawn more and more to Chloe. Seyfried, for her part, is also excellent in the role. She plays Chloe first as a sophisticated call girl, but as the movie progresses, we realize that she is just a lost little girl in search of a family, and doesn’t know any other way to get it. These two performances are great, and make me want to overlook the other flaws in the film. The other performances aren’t quite as good as him. Theiriot isn’t really given much to do until the end of the film, and by then, we don’t really care about him. Neeson seems to be sleepwalking through his role. I understand that Neeson was going through a difficult time while filming this movie (this is the film Neeson was filming when his wife tragically died), but he really doesn’t do what it necessary to fill out this romantic triangle.

The problem with the movie is that it is too concerned on plot twists to truly explore what it sets out to do. I mentioned some other movies at the top of the list - Last Tango in Paris, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Damage - because those films were examples of films that explore sexuality in a meaningful way. With Chloe, the plot gets in the way of that serious exploration. And because Egoyan plays things so seriously, we cannot not quite enjoy Chloe as a guilty pleasure despite the steamy sex scenes in the film. The film is rather schizophrenic, never quite deciding what it wants to be, and as such it doesn’t really work. It isn’t surprising that Egoyan did not write this screenplay - which is a first as far as I can remember - because even when he has down this road in the past - like in the underrated Where the Truth Lies - the result is intelligent and sexy. Here the film doesn’t quite work. It’s not a bad film, but it is one that cannot decide what it wants to be.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Year in Review: 1962

1962 was a banner year for Hollywood. It created one of the most timeless, and important, epics in screen history, saw the best director of Western ever make his last important contribution to the genre, and saw early works by some of cinema’s greatest directors. Often during the 1960s, my lists seem to be dominated by European masters, and while they have their place on this list, 1962 was all about American films.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan)
Robert Mulligan is not exactly an exciting filmmaker – but his straight ahead point and shoot style works marvelously in this heartfelt adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel. Gregory Peck gives his most famous, and probably best, performance as Atticus Finch, the Southern lawyer who takes on the case of a poor black man accused of raping a white woman. Told from the point of view of Peck’s daughter (a great Mary Badham), the movie is a perfect view at the confusing adult world from the point of view of a child. It depicts the South during the great depression as a place where racism is the norm, and no one wanted to give the poor man a fair trail. In short, the subject matter is so powerful that it doesn’t matter than Mulligan isn’t much of a director – the material speaks for itself.

9. Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger)
Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent is not a film we hear a lot about these days – and that’s too bad because it is one of the best movies I have ever seen about the inner workings of Washington. A sick President (Franchot Tone) nominates an unpopular liberal (Henry Fonda) to be Secretary of State. The Republicans, led by the great Charles Laughton, do not want Fonda to be confirmed – he apparently has a communist past – but the Democrats, led by Walter Pidgeon, do. The movie is a detailed, behind the scenes look at the dirty politics of Washington – including one Senator threatening to out another as a homosexual, which leads to his suicide. The film was daring in its depiction of a homosexual affair, and openly challenged the Hollywood blacklist, by casting the likes of Burgess Meredith (who is great in the movie, and ironically, plays a Senator who accuses Fonda of being a Communist). Advise and Consent has aged a little bit in the decades since its release, but it is a film that deserves to be rediscovered and reconsidered – especially in these times, when the US Senate is full of a bunch of idiots who cannot get anything done.

8. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Sidney Lumet)
Sidney Lumet has done a great job numerous times in his career in adapting great stage plays into movies. In this version of Eugene O’Neil’s classic final play, he has created one of the best films of his career. The movie centers on the eccentric Tyrone family. Ruled by former stage star James (Ralph Richardson), who now wanders around their huge house unscrewing light bulbs to save movie, and his wife Mary (Katherine Hepburn), a recovering morphine addict, this family is screwed up. Older brother Jamie (Jason Robards) is a drunk, who resents the attention everyone gives to his younger brother Edmund (Dean Stockwell), who has TB. While Mary’s addiction is out in the open in the family, everyone else is also an addict – alcohol in their case – and the play is about each family member’s efforts to deflect blame from themselves onto others, in long, dialogue driven scenes. The film is nearly three hours long, but the performances are absolutely masterful, and Lumet keeps the movie’s pace at a high level. This is how you adapt a play for the screen.

7. L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni)
I have a sort of love/hate relationship to the films of Michelangelo Antonioni – admiring films like L’Aventurra and The Passenger but finding much of his work pretentious beyond belief. But L’Eclisse definitely plays into the earlier category. The film has a deceptively simple plot – where Monica Vitti breaks up with her boyfriend early in the movie, than begins an affair with a young stockbroker (Alain Delion) soon thereafter. This is probably actually my favorite Antonioni film, because while it shares similarities with the more celebrated L’Aventurra, the characters in the movie are more grounded in reality, their lives take place in the real world, where they have jobs to support themselves, and don’t merely have sex to fill the void inside them, but because they are really attracted to each other. This is a film as much about the environment – the setting – as about the characters. Antonioni extends his film for seven minutes after we last see the characters in the movie – as we flash to one place after another where the lovers have been, and we feel their absence. L’Eclisse is a movie that most modern audiences are going to hate – or would if they had any desire to see true art on screen – but for those of us who like this sort of thing, it is one of the best films of its kind.

6. Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah)
Ride the High Country established Sam Peckinpah as a great director of Westerns – a worthy successor to the likes of John Ford. Although it is 1969’s The Wild Bunch which is Peckinpah’s masterpiece, Ride the High Country is a great film in it’s own right. Two former lawmen (Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea) have aged beyond their usefulness, and not stuck guarding gold shipments down from the mountains. Scott plans on stealing the gold with the help of his young partner – and wants McCrea to join in the plot as well. While this leads to a conflict between the two of them, they don’t have long to fight it out, as the fiancé of a beautiful young woman they rescued from him (he was planning on making her a prostitute), comes storming after them. Peckinpah’s penchant for violent men past their prime and the women, who get them in trouble, is all here in their assured film. The final image of the movie is haunting and beautiful. Like The Wild Bunch, this is a film about the old west dying, and it established Peckinpah as a master.

5. The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)
There is a probably not a serious thriller ever made that better captures the paranoia of the Cold War than this one. The film opens during the Korean War, where the Soviets capture an American platoon and take them to Communist China for the purposes of brainwashing them. Now, years later, two of the men who were brainwashed seem to be on a collision course. Frank Sinatra gives perhaps his best performance as a Major suffering from a recurring nightmare involving Laurence Harvey murdering his own men – even though he remembers Harvey being a hero. He starts to dig deeper into his memory, to try and figure out what is happening. The Manchurian Candidate is a brilliant thriller – one that gradually twists and turns our expectations, and leaves many questions unanswered (is Janet Leigh just a romantic foil for Sinatra, or is she his handler?). It also provides us with one of the best screen villains in history – in the guise of sweet Angela Lansbury, who coldly will do anything to get ahead. John Frankenheimer made a lot of good films in his career – but The Manchurian Candidate is far and away his greatest achievement.

4. Lolita (Stanley Kubrick)
I know a lot of people view Lolita as one of director Kubrick’s lesser films – a film hampered by censorship, where Kubrick was not able to depict the sexual, carnal relationship between Humbert (James Mason) and Lolita (Sue Lyon) – Kubrick himself said that if he knew what the censorship issues would be, he probably never would have made the film. However, I don’t agree. The censorship forced Kubrick to be more subtle in the movie – no, we do not witness sex between these two, but we feel Mason’s erotic desire for Lolita throughout the movie – as he obsession drives further and further into a downward spiral. Mason is great, as is Lyon in the lead roles – he a perverse portrait of a pedophile, she a flirty, precoruis “nymphet”. The best performances may belong to two of the supporting characters – Shelley Winters as Lolita’s overdramatic mother and Peter Sellers as the even more perverse Claire Quilty. Kubrick leaves out a lot of the explanation for why Humbert is who he is, that was in the Nabokov novel, but this serves to make things even more interesting. Lesser Kubrick? Hardly.

3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)
John Ford directed a lot of great Westerns in his career, and although he would go on to direct two more after this one, this was his last Western masterwork. By the 1960s, Westerns were not just the fun and games shoot’em ups as they were when Ford started (a film liked 1939’s Stagecoach is a perfect example of that kind of Western), but had taken on a darker tone. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is more in line with those films. In it, a lawyer (James Stewart) comes to a small Western town, believing in law and order. He clashes with the Sheriff (John Wayne), who has different ideas on how to handle things. But when he angers Liberty Valance (a wonderful Lee Marvin), things really get bad. As we would see often in the Westerns of the 1960s, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was about the era of the Wild West coming to an end – a time when people like John Wayne would become irrelevant, and the law and order type represented by Stewart would come to power. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one the best Westerns of all time.

2. The Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunuel)
Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel is one of the surrealist master’s best films. In it, a group of wealthy people get together for dinner after going to the opera. After dinner, they retire to the sitting room, and soon discover that they cannot leave. There is nothing blocking there way out, but they are trapped in the room regardless. As the hours turn to days turn to weeks, they start to fall apart – retreating to small closets to defecate or have sex, or perhaps even kill themselves. Stripped of all the niceties of society, they slowly become as savage as cavemen – they even slaughter some sheep that happen to walk in. Bunuel's film is the type that isn’t made anymore – and really, was never much made in the first place. It isn’t a movie about plot, or even character, but rather about society. The people in the movie are trapped by their circumstances, and by the end of the movie, Bunuel makes it clear that the audience is just as trapped as his characters.

1. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
Realistically, how could I pick anything other than Lawrence of Arabia? David Lean’s epic film is certainly one of the most influential and important films of the 1960s. Its concentration on character, above story and action, was daring for a movie of this length – as was having the entire film populated by men – no love interests. And yet, Lean’s extremely long film never once drags, never becomes boring or monotonous. Peter O’Toole is amazing as Lawrence, a performance full of passion and life, and he is supported by an excellent cast who are all great in their own roles. The only regret I have about Lawrence of Arabia is that I have never been able to see it on the big screen – never been able to experience what it must have been like to see the film in 1962. DVD is a great invention, allowing us to see, in pristine condition, classic movies – but for films like this one, it hardly seems to do it justice. I love this movie, and I expect that if I ever do see on the big screen, I will love it even more.

Special Mention: La Jetee (Chris Marker).
Marker’s film is a true masterpiece of film construction – telling it story almost entirely in still pictures and voiceover narration. It is a daring, avant garde film. However, it is a short film, and as such, I decided to exclude it, as I wanted to keep this about feature films. Feel free to disagree with me.

Just Miss the Top 10: Days of Wine and Roses (Blake Edwards), The Longest Day (Ken Annakin & Berhard Wicki), Sweet Bird of Youth (Richard Brooks), Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson), Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa).

Notable Films Missed: An Autumn Afternoon (Yashijiro Ozu), Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky), Hatari (Howard Hawks), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson), Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Vincente Minelli), The Music Man (Morton DaCosta), Mutiny on the Bounty (Lewis Milestone).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture and Director: Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
Like me, the Academy couldn’t possibly deny David Lean’s monumental achievement (marking one of only 13 times that I agree with the Academy’s decision). This was a great year in film, but Lawrence towers over all comers.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird
It is hard to argue against Peck’s performance winning an Oscar – it is certainly one of the most loved, most iconic in film history. Personally, I would have liked to see Peter O’Toole win for his great work in Lawrence. Out of the people not nominated, I thought John Wayne deserved consideration for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, along with James Mason for Lolita, and Robert Mitchum for Cape Fear (he was far and away the best thing about that movie).

Oscar Winner – Actress: Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker
I certainly have no problem with Anne Bancroft winning an Oscar – I just wish it had been for one of her best performances, and I don’t think her work in The Miracle Worker qualifies. I would have rather seen Geraldine Page win for her performance as the aging movie star in Sweet Bird of Youth, or Katherine Hepburn for her work in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (ironically, I would have much preferred Bancroft in The Graduate to Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). And I have to say that Sue Lyon never got the recognition she deserved for Lolita.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Ed Begley, Sweet Bird of Youth
Out of the nominees, Southern patriarch Begley may have been the best choice – he does drip malice in the film. However, I would have loved to see Dean Stockwell for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Lee Marvin for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Charles Laughton for Advise and Consent and Peter Sellers for Lolita in competition.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker
Patty Duke was a young TV star proving herself capabale – and her performance as Helen Keller is impressive – not impressive enough for an Oscar however. Out of the nominees, Angela Lansbury’s brilliant villainous turn in The Manchurian Candidate should have been a shoe-in. And I would have loved to have seen Shelley Winters get in for Lolita.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Year in Review: 1957

1957 was a strong year for movies – both American and otherwise – you can tell that by the fact that Akira Kurosawa, one of my favorite directors has not one but two films that didn’t even place on my top 10. The top of my list is dominated by war films, but it also has interesting films about newspaper, juries, prostitutes and a lot of Swedish angst. While this is not the best year the 1950s had to offer, it was an incredibly strong one.

10. Le Notti Bianche (Luchino Visconti)
Visconti was always a little different than his contemporaries in Italian cinema. Though, like Rosselini and DeSica, he started in neo realism (with his 1948 film La Terra Terma), Visconti’s career expands into different areas much quicker than either of them did. Le Notti Bianche is pretty much the exact opposite of neo-realism – it is a film that is boldly romantic and artificial, filming the movie almost entirely on soundstages. The movie is a wonderful, sad portrait of loneliness and isolation – as Marcello Mastronini gives a stirring performance as a man new in town who knows no one, who falls for Maria Schell, who is isolated in her house, and longs for the man she loves, who may never come back to her. Filmed is gorgeous black and white, Le Notti Bianche is not the best film of Visconti’s career, but it is certainly a very interesting one.

9. Gunfight at the OK Corrall (John Sturges)
John Sturges’ Gunfight at the OK Corral is not the best Western to have Wyatt Earp at its center (that would be Ford’s My Darling Clementine), or even my favorite (that would be Tombstone), but it is one hell of an exciting Western. Burt Lancaster plays Wyatt Earp as a strong and sturdy man, and Kirk Douglas is wonderful as the drunken Doc Holliday (like the best Doc’s, he steals the movie from Earp). Sturges’ direction is exciting and crisp – the battle itself is the centerpiece, and remarkable action filmmaking. The movie also contains some excellent supporting work by Jo Van Fleet as Doc’s girlfriend, and John Ireland, as the villainous Johnny Ringo. No, the movie probably has very little to do with the reality of what actually happened, but I hardly care. This is Western filmmaking at its finest.

8. Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder)
Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution is an endlessly entertaining courtroom drama in the grand old tradition. Charles Laughton gives a wonderful performance as an aging lawyer who takes on the case of Tyrone Power, on trial for murdering a wealthy old woman who made him her beneficiary. Against the advice of his nurse (the wonderful Elsa Lanchester’s Laughton’s real life wife), he takes it to trial anyway, and is mystified by the behavior of Power’s wife – the wonderful Marlene Dietrich. Yes, Witness for the Prosecution has one unlikely twist after another – as many as an entire season of Matlock – but who the hell cares when it is this entertaining – this well acted and directed by people at the top of their game. This movie is just plain fun.

7. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman)
To many, The Seventh Seal is Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, but while I do think it is a great movie I can think of many Bergman films I like more, and I think he expanded on his theme of the “Silence of God” better in his trilogy – Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence and Winter Light. Nevertheless, The Seventh Seal is still an entrancing film, and film at once so simple, and yet endlessly complex. Bergman favorite Max von Sydow plays a Knight returning for the Crusades, to discover Sweden being overrun by the plague. Death has come for him, but von Sydow does not want to go yet, so he challenges him to a game of chess. To many viewers today, The Seventh Seal represents the art film at its most pretentious, but to me it remains a haunting film – the final image of the film, the infamous “Dance of Death”, remains ingrained in my mind. While it isn’t Bergman’s best film, it is still a masterful one.

6. Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini)
Nights of Cabiria is a transitional film for Fellini – you can see elements of the neo-realism of his earlier films intermingled with the more free flowing, visually exciting style of his later films. The film stars Giuletta Masina, Fellini’s real life wife, as naïve prostitute Cabiria – who at the beginning of the movie is shoved into the water by her latest boyfriend, robbed and left for dead. But this cannot bring down Cabiria, who soon begins to love life once again – only to be constantly mistreated and heartbroken. Fellini’s movie centers on Masina, and she delivers the best performance of her career. We feel for Cabiria as she is constantly beat down by life, but we love her as she keeps getting back up again.

5. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)
Bergman’s second film on this list this year is to me (obviously) the better one – and perhaps the most optimistic film of his career. The movie stars Victor Sjostrom, a director in his own right, as an elderly physician traveling with his daughter to receive an honorary degree from the university he graduated from 50 years before. Through the journey he is haunted by his memories, his dreams and his nightmares, and meets people along the way who remind of his past, and push him towards the future, which to him means death. Despite its weighty subject matter, the film is not depressing, and offers a rather hopeful look at life and death. Bergman, whose films are normally quite dark and depressing, here almost, seems to be celebrating life.

4. 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet)
Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is one of those films that seemingly never gets tired or boring no matter how often you watch it. The entire movie takes place inside a jury room where Henry Fonda believes that the boy on trial for murdering his father is innocent – while the rest of the jury thinks he is guilty. Lumet’s treatment of the material, which could have been stagy, is instead intensely cinematic. The movie is a showcase for great performances, none more so than Fonda’s, although the entire cast is wonderful. No matter how many remakes they do (my favorite being the recent Russian one simply titles 12); this is the best version of the story put to film. It is masterful.

3. Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick)
Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success was ignored when it was initially released, but has become regarded as a classic. The film stars Tony Curtis (in his best role) as Sidney Falco, a low level Hollywood agent who cannot get JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the most powerful gossip columnist in Hollywood to pay attention to his clients, so he agrees to a blackmail scheme to try and get Hunsecker’s beloved younger sister to break up with her boyfriend. The film is acid tongued and cynical to the core, looking at a world where everyone is morally bankrupt. Curtis has never been better than he is here – fast talking and conniving, and Lancaster is his match in every scene. The screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman is full of great lines, and Mackendrick’s direction is top notch. They don’t make movies like this very much anymore, and we’re all the poorer for it.

2. The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)
David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is grandiose studio filmmaking the way it was meant to be done. While so many of the epic films from the studio era now seem bloated and somewhat comical, Lean’s film is a master class is storytelling and filmmaking on a grand scale. The film is essentially divided into two sections – in one British officer Alec Guiness stands up to the Japanese who are running the prison camp where he is being held, but eventually agrees to help design and build a proper bridge for them. Meanwhile, William Holden plays an American who just escaped from the same prison camp, but has to go back with a group of commandos to try and take down the bridge. The two leads are excellent, and are supported by an excellent cast – especially Sessue Hayakawa as the Japanese officer in charge of the camp. The film is big, bold, entertaining and leads to an explosive climax. All these years later, The Bridge on the River Kwai remains as exciting as ever.

1. Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick had already proven himself to be a director of skill with his first features, but I would argue that Paths of Glory is his first true masterpiece, and the finest WWI film ever made. The film is about three men who are being charged with cowardice, following an attack on a German stronghold that was unsuccessful. Angered by the three regiment’s failure to carry out their orders, the powers that be want to execute 100 men as an example – but settle on three instead. Kirk Douglas is assigned to defend them, but doesn’t like what he sees. There are no witnesses, no trial records – nothing to prove their guilt, and he argues, futilely, in their defense. Kubrick’s control of the medium here is absolute. The acting is first rate – especially by Douglas as the idealistic defender of the men, but also by Wayne Morris as the true coward and Adolphe Menjou as the cynical General who ordered the attack in the first place – and goes to the end of the movie thinking they did nothing wrong. The final scene in the film is haunting and beautiful. Kubrick is one of the best filmmakers in history, and Paths of Glory is one of his best films.

Just Missed the Top 10: Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa), The Lower Depths (Akira Kurosawa), Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur) The Three Faces of Eve (Nunally Johnson), An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey).

Notable Films Missed: Peyton Place (Mark Robson), Pyassa (Guru Dutt), The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozishvili), Funny Face (Stanley Donen), Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture and Director: The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)
It is nearly impossible to complain about this film winning Picture and Director, as the film truly is a studio era masterpiece of epic filmmaking. Yes, I prefer Paths of Glory, but the Academy is always going to reward the kind of spectacle on display here rather than the more somber and dark, like Paths of Glory. We are lucky when the film winning as good as this one is.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Alec Guiness, The Bridge on the River Kwai
Again, it is hard to complain about Guiness’s wonderful performance winning the Oscar this year – and impossible to deny that Guiness deserved to have an Oscar on his shelf for his career. Personally, I think the two best performances of the year were both in Sweet Smell of Success by Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, but a case could be made for Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory, Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men and Victor Sjostrom in Wild Strawberries alongside Guiness. This was a great year for this category.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve
It is easy to see why Woodward won this Oscar – she was beautiful, young and married to an equally beautiful and young star – Paul Newman. Also, the movie is about schizophrenia, and allows Woodward an actor’s showcase to play three different women – which she does quite well. The movie is up to her performance though, and remains a good, but not great film. I haven’t seen ANY of the other nominees that year (my bad!), but I personally, I would have loved to have seen Giuletta Masina win for Nights of Cabiria.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Red Buttons, Sayonara
I don’t think much of Joshua Logan’s Sayonara – the kind of melodramatic tearjerker that gives that genre a bad name. Not even Marlon Brando in the lead role can salvage the film. Buttons is fine as Brando’s sidekick, who in the aftermath of WWII while stationed in Japan falls in love with a local woman, and the government’s refusal to let him bring her home causes his tragic end. But if it wasn’t for the films multiple Oscar wins, this would have long since been forgotten. Out of the nominees, I would have voted for Sessue Hayakawa for The Bridge on the River Kwai – but I think both E.G. Marshall and Lee J. Cobb, two great character actors, had the best work of the year here in 12 Angry Men.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara
What I said about Buttons in this film goes double for Miyoshi Umeki, who plays the woman he falls in love with and marries. She is fine in the role, but it is such a meek and underwritten role that it is hard for her to excel in it. I would have loved Elsa Lanchester’s hilarious work in Witness for the Prosecution win here, and Bibi Andersson was great in BOTH Bergman films released this year.