Wild Grass *** ½
Directed By: Alain Resnais.
Written By: Alex Réval & Laurent Herbiet, based on the novel L'Incident by Christian Gailly
Starring: André Dussollier (Georges Palet), Sabine Azéma (Marguerite Muir), Anne Consigny (Suzanne), Mathieu Amalric (Bernard de Bordeaux), Emmanuelle Devos (Josepha), Edouard Baer (Narrator).
Alain Resnais is one of the most daring filmmakers in history. For his films Night and Fog, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel in the 1950s and 60s, he established himself as one of the masters of the French New Wave. He has never stopped working in the years since, even if his films have become somewhat more obscure, and less highly touted. Now at 87, he has made Wild Grass that many critics believe is his best film in years. And while I quite liked the film, I must admit that I do not see the masterpiece that others see – but that doesn’t mean that Resnais is not back in fine form.
The film is about the strange connection between two strangers, and how their relationship progresses when one character finds the others wallet. Sabine Azema plays a woman who goes shopping one day and has her purse snatched by an unknown assailant. Andre Dussollier finds her wallet in the parking lot of a local mall. After some debate as to what to do, he decides to turn the wallet over to the police, here represented by Mathieu Amalric. When Azema picks up the wallet, she asks about the man who found it. She calls him up to thank him, but Dussollier is not satisfied with a simple thank you. He wants more. He starts writing Azema long winded letters about himself, and making phone calls to her. At first she is annoyed - she even goes back to Amalric to report him, who goes to see Dussolier to tell him to back off. But then Azema has a change of heart, and starts wanting to connect with him. By then, he has lost interest though. He is married to a much younger woman (Anne Consigny), with two grown children, and has decided to stick with his normal life.
The movie is a very strange comedy, based on the irrationality of the characters. Why do these characters behave the way they do, and make the decisions that they do? Honestly, I have to admit that I have no idea. To some this may seem charming, and it was for me for the first two thirds of the movie. But in the last act, I grew frustrated. It can be thrilling in a movie, even a seemingly lightweight comedy like this one, when you have no idea what is going to happen next - but when it’s based on the completely irrational behavior of the characters, it started to grate on my nerves a little bit.
Yet, having said all of that, it is impossible to deny the skill that is involved in making this film. Eric Gautier’s cinematography favors wonderful, swooping crane shots and the use of color in the movie is mesmerizing. And while I do not think I ever fully comprehended the characters, it is clear that the actors all do, as their performances are all wonderful. Dussolier has the central role, and his face is one of the most fascinating I can recall seeing on an actor. He seems to always be thinking about something, and mulling over his options as each new development happens. Azema is more of a free spirit, and she is equally wonderful. Consigny is quite good as the wife who has no idea what is going on, and Emmanuelle Devos is fun as Azema’s best friend who find herself drawn into the events without ever quite understanding them. Best of all may just be Amalric as the increasingly put upon cop, who is just trying to stay sane. And while I’m not sure if every scene leads effectively into the next one, taken by themselves they all work wonderfully well.
I cannot help but admire Resnais, who at an age when most filmmakers, are well, dead, is still taking chances, and still pulling off much of what he attempts. There are not many directors of any age, who would attempt something like Wild Grass, and even fewer who could make something this good out of it. Perhaps I just need to see the film again to fully appreciate it. I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival, and sometimes in the midst of seeing fives films a day, and going on little sleep, the more complex movies sometimes seem overly so. Whatever the answer, Wild Grass is certainly one of the more interesting films of the year, even if I do not think it is necessarily a great one.
Note: After writing this in review in full – I did not change a word – I went read the rather lengthy review of the film in the September/October issue of Film Comment. What I came away with from that reading, was that I did not really miss the point of the movie. It is about the irrationality of its characters in the depths of “mad love”, and the confusion is all part of the fun. This makes me feel good. I still admire Resnais’s film – the camera work, the colors, the performances, the brilliant Vertigo homage at the center of it all – but I still don’t quite love it. Strangely though, I think I want to see the film a second time now more than I wanted to see the film the first time.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Wild Grass *** ½
Directed By: Sook-Yin Lee.
Written By: Sook-Yin Lee
Starring: Cristin Milioti (Sammy Smalls), Mark Rendall (Eugene), Kevin McDonald (Mr. Smalls), Sheila McCarthy (Mrs. Smalls), Will Sasso (Dirk), Ali Liebert (Sylvia), Patrick Gilmore (Todd).
Year of the Carnivore is a romantic comedy that spends so much time trying to be hip, that it forgets to be either romantic or comedic. The movie is so relentlessly quirky that I never really got involved in the movie, I just sat there and watched in horror as I was subjected to one stupid scene play out after another.
Sammy Smalls (Cristin Milioti) is a 21 year old cancer survivor with one gimpy leg, who works as a store detective at a grocery store. Essentially, her job is to catch old people trying to steal meat, or teenagers trying to steal porn, and then turn them over to Dirk (Will Sasso) who then takes them out back and beats them up, then takes their picture. She is a little to into her job, as everyday she shows up in a more elaborate disguise to try and fool potential shoplifters. Her parents (Kevin McDonald and Sheila McCarthy) are a little too over protective, and still want her to move back home. Their marriage does not seem to function unless Sammy is there to act as a buffer.
What keeps Sammy going from one day to the next is her crush on Eugene, a local musician who spends his days playing his quirky and personal songs on the street, and his nights playing in a loud, incoherent rock band, that for some reason seems to be on the verge of making it big. The two of them like each other, and after a long night o drinking, they fall into bed together, and things do horribly wrong when he tries to touch her and she starts laughing. She’s ticklish. So what does Eugene do? Tells Sammy to go out and learn how to have sex properly if she wants to be with him.
Now, most self respecting women I know would at this point, kick Eugene in the balls, call him an asshole and storm out. But not Sammy. She takes him seriously, and really does go on a journey of sexual self discovery. But she really does not know what to do. Attempts to use a vibrator, pick up guys at the bar, and have a threesome do not go well. She ends up taking guys she catches stealing out to the woods to practice sex with them. If she was a man, we’d call that rape. But she’s a woman so we call it quirky.
The movie, written and directed by Sook Yin Lee spends so much time trying to be cool - with its hip attitude towards sex, its soundtrack full of “indie” bands, and its constant need to be “clever”, that it never really just settles down and tells its story. All of the characters are so of full of idiosyncrasy, even the tiny role of Ali Liebert as a porn star, turned sausage girl, turned university student turned philosopher, that I never really got invested in the characters. When all of the people in a movie belong in a mental hospital, it’s hard to truly care about them. The movie tries so hard to be funny, that it never really is, just painful and embarrassing. Sammy’s sexual quest is not enlightening or enjoyable for her, just embarrassing. The scene where she has a threesome with a married couple - with the mother lactating no less - is just down right difficult to watch.
The only thing that really makes the movie at all watchable is the performance by Milioti in the lead role. True, she has to deliver some truly inane dialogue, and has more quirks than the rest of the characters combined, she somehow remains lovable throughout. She reminded me of Brittany Murphy at her best, and the scene where she dances around her room trying to make herself feel sexy, is quite endearing in its way. When she is not stuck delivering terrible dialogue, she is quite the charmer. I look forward to seeing her in a real role. Rendell is no where near as charming as Eugene. He is incredibly awkward, yet he somehow gets beautiful women to fall into bed with him at the drop of a hat. He never has a moment of genuine emotion in the film.
Year of the Carnivore is insufferable because the movie never really settles down and tells its story. If the film would just relax and tell its story. It needed to let Milioti play a real character. Because it didn’t, Year of the Carnivore is just plain painful to watch.
Directed by: James Mangold.
Written By: Patrick O'Neill.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Roy Miller), Cameron Diaz (June Havens), Peter Sarsgaard (Fitzgerald), Jordi Mollà (Antonio), Viola Davis (Director George), Paul Dano (Simon Feck), Falk Hentschel (Bernhard), Marc Blucas (Rodney), Lennie Loftin (Braces), Maggie Grace (April Havens), Rich Manley (Danny), Dale Dye (Frank Jenkins), Celia Weston (Molly).
I have called Tom Cruise a lot of things since he went crazy on his promotional tour for War of the Worlds in 2005 announcing his love for Katie Holmes everywhere he went (batshit crazy being the most common), but I have never called him stupid. Cruise has always been very conscience of his image, and after he got ridiculed, he has done his best to try and rehabilitate himself in the public’s eye. But judging on his performance in Knight and Day, and his ever popular work in Tropic Thunder, I think Cruise may have found his new niche – playing characters who are as batshit insane and intense as he is.
In Knight and Day, Cruise plays Roy Miller a former government agent gone rogue. At an airport in Wichita Kansas he literally bumps into June (Cameron Diaz) twice. They talk, they flirt she thinks they share a connection, and they two end up on the same nearly deserted flight to Boston together. When she goes to the bathroom on the flight, he has to kill everyone else on the plane – including the pilots – because they are all government agents out to kill him and recover whatever it is he has that they want. They end up crash landing in a cornfield, where Miller drugs June and she wakes up in her own bed in Boston the next morning. It all seems too crazy to her to be real, but she tries to go about her life as normal – but that’s when Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard) shows up, tells her that Miller has gone crazy, and offers to protect her if she will help them get what they want – something called the zephyr. But, of course, Miller soon shows up as well, kills a bunch of people, and takes June along for the ride.
The plot twists and turns from there, and we are never quite sure if Miller really has gone insane, or if he is telling the truth. The entire movie is pretty much told from June’s point of view, so on their globetrotting adventures (which seemingly all happen within a couple of days), she is constantly being drugged and waking up somewhere new, with new people trying to kill her and Miller.
The movie is directed by James Mangold, one of those directors who goes through his career making quality movies, but is pretty much impossible to pin done. Among his films are the police drama Cop Land, the chick flick Girl, Interrupted, the horror film Identity, the country music biopic Walk the Line and the western 3:10 to Yuma. There isn’t much connecting these various movies, except that they are all quality movies. I wouldn’t call any of them great, but they all accomplish what they set out to do. Mangold is talented behind the camera and knows how to shoot action sequences – something that cannot be said for many other action filmmakers. If Mangold is a journeyman filmmaker, he is at least a talented one. The action sequences in this movie do not fall into the Michael Bay trap of cutting so rapidly that you cannot tell what the hell is going on. And while they are as impossible as anything I have seen in an action movie, they at least seem plausible while you are watching the movie. In the various car chases, and gun battles, there actually does seem to be something on the line, and he choreographs it all wonderfully well. I will always prefer this type of action to the shaky camera, rapid edit style of action filmmaking that seems to dominate the current thinking of action filmmakers.
But the main reason why Knight and Day works is because of Cruise and Diaz. Cruise has always been a charming actor, and here he really turns on the juice. You like him right away, partly because he is Tom Cruise, and partly because although you think he is insane at certain points, he is always likable. Diaz is our surrogate into this strange world, and does a fine job as well. The movie is smart to know that no matter how good looking Cruise is, if someone like him showed up in your life and starting killing everyone, you would want to run for it – an instinct that she keeps most of the way through the movie even while she’s falling for him. The supporting cast is fine, but underused. Sarsgaard is a typical government bad guy, Viola Davis the typical government bureaucrat, Paul Dano the typical nerdy scienctist and Jordi Molia plays the role he always plays – evil criminal. They are fine, but I wonder if they really needed to cast such talented actors in such nothing roles.
Knight and Day has no allusions that it is anything more than what it is – an entertaining action/romance/comedy. It reminded me of Midnight Run, with a gender twist, or Stanley Donen’s Charade, or Jonathan Demme’s underrated remake The Truth About Charlie. It isn’t quite as good as any of those movie (well, maybe Charlie), but it’s a fine example of its genre. It keeps you entertained from beginning to end – and for a summer movie isn’t that all you really expect from it?
Directed by: Dennis Dugan.
Written By: Adam Sandler & Fred Wolf.
Starring: Adam Sandler (Lenny Feder), Kevin James (Eric Lamonsoff), Chris Rock (Kurt McKenzie), David Spade (Marcus Higgins), Rob Schneider (Rob Hilliard), Salma Hayek (Roxanne Chase-Feder), Maria Bello (Sally Lamonsoff), Maya Rudolph (Deanne McKenzie), Joyce Van Patten (Gloria), Ebony Jo-Ann (Mama Ronzoni), Di Quon (Rita), Steve Buscemi (Wiley), Colin Quinn (Dickie Bailey), Tim Meadows (Malcolm), Madison Riley (Jasmine Hilliard), Jamie Chung (Amber Hilliard), Ashley Loren (Bridget Hilliard), Jake Goldberg (Greg Feder), Cameron Boyce (Keithie Feder), Alexys Nycole Sanchez (Becky Feder), Ada-nicole Sanger (Donna Lamonsoff).
It seems to me that some movies get made because the cast simply wants to hang around together goofing off for a couple of months. Sometimes – like with two of the three Ocean’s movies directed by Steven Soderbergh – movies like that can be fun and charming. And sometimes, like with Grown Ups, the result doesn’t add up to very much. Watching the film you get the feeling that everyone had fun making the movie – but aside for a few moments in the film, I didn’t have all that much fun watching the result.
The movie is about five friends who in 1978 were best friends and the starting line-up of a champion basketball team. Now 30 years later, they get together because their coach has died, and they have to come together for the funeral. You get the feeling that while they have all remained friends, they have certainly drifted apart in the intervening years – yet when they get back together, they still act like teenagers.
Lenny (Adam Sandler) has become a powerful Hollywood agent, married to a beautiful fashion designer (Salma Hayek) and had three kids – who have become spoiled and lazy. Eric (Kevin James) has a more blue collar life, but is also married (to Maria Bello, and no one seems to ask how James nabbed Bello, but whatever), and had a couple of kids of his own. Kurt (Chris Rock) has become a stay at home husband and father to his powerful wife (Maya Rudolph) and complains that his efforts (at making pumpkin risotto among other things) are going unnoticed. Marcus (David Spade) acts like a teenager all the time – no wife, no kids and that’s the way he likes it. Rob (Rob Schneider) is on his third marriage (to the much older Joyce Van Patten), and is worried that he has no connection with the kids from the previous marriages, and has become a health food nut. It would seem like these five guys, no matter how close they were in high school, would have nothing in common now – but they find that common ground, mostly by ignoring their differences and acting like idiots. They spend a week together at a lake house in their old home town, and everyone learns some valuable life lessons.
I can see how a movie like this could have worked – even one with the same cast. Everyone seems to have chemistry together, and you really do get the sense that they are all friends in real life and like hanging out with each other. Grown Ups is at its best in those lazy scenes where its just the guys, or just the girls for that matter, hanging around, talking, laughing and hanging out. Whether these scenes were tightly scripted or not, I don’t know – but they certainly have an improvised feel to them that works. Most of the best one liners come out of these scenes as well.
Unfortunately more often than not, Grown Ups tries to force these characters into some assemblance of a plot. There is a lot of talk about that winning basketball game, and the guys even meet the team they beat – and they still have not gotten over the loss and demand a rematch. There are also too many scenes of the various couples and families working through their own problems, and learning valuable lessons as a result. And strangely, I think the movie is least funny when it tries the hardest to be funny – the one liners that feel scripted all fall flat.
None of this is to say that Grown Ups is a painful movie – it isn’t. The cast is too talented for that. Adam Sandler has grown and matured somewhat since he was Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore – more comfortable in his own skin and acting normally. When he is given a great role – as he was in Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People or Reign Over Me – he can play it well. But he seems to want to make these family comedies more often than not, and while they aren’t really my thing, I have to admit he does them better than a lot of people (Eddie Murphy for instance). But I like Sandler in many of his more recent roles. Kevin James is also a talented comedic actor – although I don’t think any of his film work can match the work he did for years on The King of Queens. Chris Rock will always be a better stand up comedian than an actor, but he is likable enough in most of his roles. And hell, this time even David Spade and Rob Schneider (two actors I have never liked) are pretty good as well.
What I wish when I see a movie like Grown Ups is that the writers (in this case including Sandler himself) weren’t quite so lazy – that they would in fact push these actors a little bit further. But Grown Ups takes the easy way out practically every time. Yes, there are a few laughs scattered throughout the movie, which is probably all the film was going for. But had Sandler pushed himself and his friends a little bit harder, they could have had a much better movie. Instead they took the easy way out – and while Grown Ups will almost assuredly make a lot of money, it is a movie that almost everyone will forget by the time they reach the parking lot.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
10. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyers)
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a very strange, violent, sexual movie. It is a cross between a comedy, a satire, a melodrama, a soft core porn, a musical and a violent exploitation movie. It hits all of these notes pretty much perfectly, satirizing Hollywood’s formula “youth” movies of the time – especially Valley of the Dolls, a huge box office hit that was reviled by the critics. The movie is about three young women in a rock band – The Kelly Affair – who head to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. They are soon introduced to Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, a thinly veiled Phil Spector, who loves them, and promises them fame and fortune, much to the chagrin of the lead singer’s boyfriend, who is also their manager. Soon there are affairs, and revenge affairs, unwanted pregnancies, lesbian affairs, talk of abortion, lots of drug use and suicide attempts. Then, at the climax of the movie, Z-Man goes crazy at one of his drug parties, and in a scene inspired by the Manson murders, goes on a killing rampage. The movie then has a fake public service announcement, and ends happily with a triple marriage. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one of those rare films that doesn’t seem to fit in with any real genre. The movie is hilarious at times, but the actors play every scene as if they were deadly serious – which adds to it. Some have questioned whether the filmmakers knew they were making a comedy – but I think it’s clear. The film mocks Hollywood conventions and stereotypes making them out to be truly ridiculous. At the end of the day, I’m not quite sure why the film works as well as it does – I just know that it is a true original.
9. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist is a film about a homosexual man in Fascist Italy during the 1930s – who simply wants to fit in. The movie opens in Paris as Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is preparing to assassinate his old college professor – an outspoken anti-fascist. The movie than flashes back to show us how Marcello got there. In one flashback, we see Marcello as a teenager, as another boy makes a sexual advance at him, which he responds to, before snapping and killing the other boy. From then on, Marcello tries everything he can to fit in – he goes to confession, even though he is atheist, he marries a beautiful young woman, he joins the fascists. When he is assigned to kill the professor he starts tracking him, and ends up falling in love with his young wife (Dominique Sanda), who he tries to save, but when it really matters, he does nothing. At the end of the film, when the fascist government has collapsed, Marcello once again tries to remake himself – conforming to the new society, by denouncing people as fascists. Marcello is a tragic figure – and yet he brings the tragedy onto himself, so he has no else to blame.
8. El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
El Topo is one of those films that seems to defy explanation. It seems to start out as a Western – but a strange one, as it contains a man dressed all in black, riding along on a horse with a naked child. Why is the child naked? I don’t know, perhaps because he represents more than just a child, and is perhaps The Child. El Topo is full of such symbols, but director Alejandro Jodorowsky doesn’t make it easy to figure what if anything these symbols mean. In the first part of the movie, the man is convinced by a woman (isn’t that always the way it goes?) to take on four legendary gunslingers – all of them are strange in their own unique way, to become the greatest in the land. The second half takes place years later, as El Topo gets involved with a group of underground dwellers, and is determined to help them dig their way out – only to have them massacred by a cult when they do, sending El Topo into a murderous rage, which will end after he kills the cult members, and then immolates himself. What does all of this mean? I don’t have the slightest clue. Jodorowsky fills the movie with Christian symbols, and ones from Eastern Philosophy, and probably other things I didn’t even spot. Perhaps the film is simply an exercise in surrealism, like some of Luis Bunuel’s film. What I do know is that El Topo is a fascinating film from beginning to end – it has such wonderful imagery, such beauty existing beside such brutality that the film remains haunting. Jodorowsky is an original, and El Topo is a one of a kind film.
7. Little Big Man (Arthur Penn)
Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man is a film that meanders through its story, rather than simply diving in head first. The film is told from the point of view of a 121 year old man – played by Dustin Hoffman – who tells his life story just like we would expect an old man to do so. Hoffman is mainly an observer to the action in the film though – he is a white man, who for a time lives with the Cheyenne Indians, and at other times is part of the Calvary led by General Custer, at other times is a gunfighter or involved in medicine shows to lives as a hermit – he needs to be all those things so he can observe everything that happens, and report to us what he saw. The key performance in the film is not Hoffman’s, but Chief Dan George’s, who has a dignity, power and authority about him when he speaks in this film about Indian life, and the difference between him and Custer. Penn is a terrific director of violence, as he proved with Bonnie and Clyde, and the massacre at the center of the film – that by Custer of the Indians – is another example of his power behind the camera. When the Cheyenne strike back at Custer, the violence is more subdued. There have been a lot of films since the days of the classic Western when Indians were portrayed as savages that have tried to show a different image of them. None of them are better than Little Big Man.
6. Tristana (Luis Bunuel)
Like Viridiana and Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel’s Tristana focuses on sexual morals and religion. Catherine Denueve gives a wonderful performance as the title character – a virtuous young woman whose mother has just died, so she is sent to live with a wealthy family friend – Fernando Rey (in a role similar to what he played in Viridiana), who is supposed to be an upstanding, older man who will take on the role of father to the young woman. But Rey becomes obsessed with Denueve, with possessing her beauty for himself, and feels that he should have the rights not only as father, but as husband over Tristana – which virtually means complete control. At first, we feel that Rey has complete control over Tristana – but her experience with him has taught her a lesson – and made her slightly more jaded. When she takes up with a young artist (Franco Nero), Rey is devastated, but can do little to stop it. When she returns two years later, with an illness, Rey has grown older, greyer and lonelier – and when she asks for his help, and agrees to marry him, his fate is sealed. Tristana is not quite the film that Viridiana or Belle de Jour is – but is still a fascinating, brilliant study of religion and society repressing a woman’s sexuality – and how she claims it back.
5. Woodstock (Michael Weidleigh)
I’m sure that no film can ever come close to matching the experience of actually being at Woodstock in 1969. But Michael Weidleigh’s documentary gives you as good of an idea of what the concert is like as any film possibly could. Woodstock is, without a doubt, the greatest concert movie of all time. The cameras – and there were a lot of them – seem completely free to capture the performers from all angles, as well as the crowd, often at the same time. The editing of the movie – done with a team of editors including Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker- uses split screens better than any movie before or since – giving us different angles, different perspectives on the same events. The music is great – none better than Jimi Hendrix’s whose version of the Star Spangled Banner has become iconic because of this film. And yet, the music is only part of why the film is so great. The movie also captures the feeling of being there – little moments of people in the crowd – not just the hippies getting high, having sex and playing in the mud (which it includes), but of other moments about the townspeople, the farmers, the workers. Woodstock is ultimately a time capsule. No, you cannot say that you have truly experienced Woodstock simply by watching this movie. But there are few movies that I think better sum up 1960s like Woodstock does. It is a great concert film, a great documentary – and more, an important historical document of its time and place.
4. Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol)
Le Boucher is about a relationship between a school teacher and a butcher – two characters who should never be involved with each other – and how their seemingly normal relationship transforms both of them in horrid ways. It is a fascinating film about the butcher, a serial killer (Jean Yanne), and his relationship with a teacher (Stephane Audran). We know that he is the killer from the start of the movie, and I think so does Audran. But instead of this repelling her away from him, it only serves to draw her ever closer to him. Watch their first meeting when he watches intently how he carves the meat – she, who has basically been celibate for years, seems to be getting something sexual from his movements. Later, after we know that she knows he is the killer, she is continually drawn to him. Yet despite this movie being about a serial killer and beautiful woman, the film isn’t really a thriller. It’s something much deeper than that – it about their connection, which is largely left unsaid. Yanne is a murderer, there is no doubt about that, but the film almost sees him as a victim – driven by the brutality he witnessed in the army, and also by his relationship with Audran. Yanne knows that she knows he is the killer, and yet she continues to draw closer to him – although they never have sex – so he continues his crimes. There is a wonderful scene right near the end of the movie where we know precisely what he is thinking, but she remains an enigma. That shot of her face is the key to the film, and her character. She is, in many ways, much more screwed up than the serial killer, who she is fascinated with, and plays with in a merciless, wordless way.
3. MASH (Robert Altman)
I’m not sure that many people remember the movie MASH as much as they remember the TV show. Alan Alda and the rest became so iconic in their roles during that popular series’ run, that I suspect that many people watching Robert Altman’s film may find it a bit odd to see others in the roles. But Altman’s film is both funnier, and more serious, than the show ever dared to be. This movie about doctors during the Korean war is bloody in its surgical scenes, and then hilarious during much of the rest of it – these doctors are simply trying to retain their sanity. The thing that is often overlooked when talking about the movie is just how utterly cruel its characters are. Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould play practical jokes, as they would in the TV series, but here the jokes hurt, they sting. We laugh with sadistic pleasure when we play these jokes – but if they were done to us in real life, we would probably cry. Robert Altman is perhaps the only director who could make material like this work the way he does. He doesn’t direct like most people, and his movies have the chaotic feeling of real life. Gould and Sutherland are cruel because they have to be – they have to do something to maintain their sanity after seeing all the suffering they do. And Sally Kellerman as Hot Lips and Robert Duvall as her lover, don’t seem to feel anything – so Gould and Sutherland try to make them feel something, anything. Although MASH was set in Korea, everyone knew that the film was really about the ongoing war in Vietnam. That Altman and company made such a brazen comedy about it was daring – and the movie remains one of the best American comedies of the 1970s.
2. Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner)
Patton is perhaps the best “pro-War” film I have ever seen. I think that could be the reason why the film is not quite as adored by many film critics as it probably should be. George C. Scott gives one of the most legendary performances in screen history – he makes General George Patton into a larger than life character – the type of guy you would be horrified to spend any time with, but during wartime, you want on your side. The movie begins with the famous scene of Patton standing in front of a giant American flag, delivering his speech to the troops, who remains unseen. But that is just part of the movie. The film is wonderful in how it shows Patton’s masterful military strategy, and also his own special brand of insanity. Patton is as much of an actor as anything else – putting on a performance to gear up his troops, or browbeat them into doing what he wants them to do depending on the situation. Some of the time he means what he says, sometimes not – but only he knows the difference. Scott is amazing in the central role – ripping into Patton with all his contradictions, all his madness, his genius, his hatred and his patriotism and coming up with a fascinating character. Was the film made with a right wing agenda, trying to influence public opinion at the heart of an unpopular war? Perhaps. But it that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a wonderful film.
1. Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson)
Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces is one of the key films of the 1970s. It shows the influence of Cassevetes, but takes things in an even bolder direction. It is a movie with two halves – the first one a mystery, the second one that explains it. It is about Bobby Duprea (Jack Nicholson), a oil rigger with a trailer trash, pregnant girlfriend (Karen Black), who seems to look down at the people around him. At this point in the movie we do not know why. It is only when the second half of the movie begins – when Bobby goes home to his upper class family that the pieces start falling into place. Bobby feels that he has let everyone in his life down – including himself. His family forgives him his trespasses, as does Black, who is one of those women who is so desperate to hold onto her man that she doesn’t see him for who he truly is. In fact, no one sees Bobby for who is really is – not even Bobby. The movie has moments of shocking humor – everyone remembers the scene in the diner where Nicholson tells the waitress to hold the chicken “between her knees”. But mainly Five Easy Pieces is a character study about a man who doesn’t fit in, and spends his entire life running away. The end of the film is perfect, and haunting, because it remains loyal to its characters right down to the final moment. Nicholson has delivered many great performances in his career – including several that I would say were better than this one. But I’m not sure he has ever played such a realistic character before – a character so out of sorts with himself. Five Easy Pieces is a masterpiece of character development and insight. Unlike many films that seem like a product of their time and place, Five Easy Pieces is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.
Just Missed The Top 10: Dodes’ka-den (Akira Kurosawa), Gimme Shelter (David & Albert Marsyles &Charlotte Zwerin), Goin' Down the Road (Donald Shebib), Hi Mom! (Brian DePalma), I Never Sang for My Father (Gilbert Gates), Joe (John G. Avildsen), Love Story (Arthur Hiller), Performance (Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg), Women in Love (Ken Russell).
Notable Films Missed: Airport (George Seaton), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Sam Peckinpah), The Hart of London (Jack Chambers), Husbands (John Cassvetes), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder), The Red Circle (Jean Pierre Melville), The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophuls), The Spider's Stratagem (Beranrdo Bertolucci), Zorn's Lemma (Hollis Frampton).
Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner)
I have a feeling that if Midnight Cowboy had not won the best picture Oscar in 1969, then a different film may have won the Oscar in 1970. That isn’t to say that Patton isn’t a great film – it was my second favorite of the year after all – but we have often seen this pattern emerge at the Academy awards. After a daring, smaller winner, the Academy goes back to what it feels more comfortable with – in this case and epic war movie. At the time, I know many younger critics and audiences thought that Patton was simply an attempt to drum up support for an unpopular war that was looking unwinnable at the time. Whether or not this is true, you cannot deny the skill involved with making the movie – the storytelling of Schaffner and his screenwriters (including Francis Ford Coppola), or the lead performance by George C. Scott. Yes, I would have voted for Five Easy Pieces, but I see nothing wrong with this win.
Oscar Winner – Best Actor: George C. Scott, Patton
On a personal level, I find it very hard to choose my preference for the win in this category this year. On one level, Jack Nicholson gave one of his best, most humane performances of his career in the lead role of my favorite film of the year in Five Easy Pieces. Without Nicholson, that film doesn’t work at all. Having said that, George C. Scott is truly larger than life in Patton – capturing the ambition, the madness, the patriotism and the anger of Patton and turning him into a truly complex character. He commands your attention in every scene of the film – as he is practically the center of attention in every single scene. You cannot take your eyes off of him. This is basically a choice for two polar opposite, yet equally great, performances – a larger than life, over the top performance, and a subtle, more restrained one. You make the call – either would be worthy winners.
Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Glenda Jackson, Women in Love
Glenda Jackson is the best thing about Ken Russell’s film – a sort of battle of the sexes set in the 1920s which is about sexual freedom. She plays the “difficult” sister, whose love affair with Oliver Reed is doomed. Jackson makes the somewhat daring decision to embrace her unlikable character full on, and turns her into a predator, and far and away the most interesting character in the movie. The film has a little too much “avant garde” style for my liking – I felt it distracted from what was generally a very good story that was already more than enough to keep me interested. Out of the nominees, she is clearly the best – but I would have loved to have Stephan Audran’s difficult work in Le Boucher or Catherine Denueve’s brilliant turn in Tristana win instead – but of course, they didn’t nominated them.
Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: John Mills, Ryan’s Daughter
Ryan’s Daughter was a favorite whipping boy of critics back in 1970 – and to be honest it is easy to see why. The film is bloated and long and doesn’t have the epic feel of Lean’s previous films – although not for lacking of trying on Lean’s part. He tries to do the same thing he did in Doctor Zhivago – make an epic love story set against a revolutionary backdrop – but the IRA in this film doesn’t quite ring true. And a third of the love triangle at the center of the film – the British soldier – is the films dullest character who says nothing of interest throughout the whole film. Yet, there is greatness within Ryan’s Daughter as well. Robert Mitchum is in fine form as the older teacher who marries Sarah Myles – who is as good as the film allows her to be – only to see her have an affair with the British soldier. There is an epic storm sequence that is brilliant. In total, Ryan’s Daughter is not quite the failure that it was made out to be, although it is still Lean’s weakest effort. Unfortunately though, none of the good stuff in the movie involves John Mills performance as the mentally challenged village idiot. The performance is one note, and the character merely functions to keep the plot moving forward, as he always seems to be in the right place to hear things he wasn’t supposed to and then report it to everyone else. Mills, a fine actor, is simply not given anything of interest to do – it really isn’t his fault. But this is one the worst acting winners I can remember – another example of how if you want to win an Oscar, play a mentally challenged person. Chief Dan George was robbed.
Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Helen Hayes, Airport
Airport is one of those big budget movies that the Academy couldn’t help but nominate in the 1970s alongside some of the more daring choices. The public ate the film up, so it got a lot of Oscar nominations. I haven’t seen the film – I will at some point, but haven’t feel the need to yet – so I really cannot comment on whether Hayes’ performance in the film is any good or not. Roger Ebert, who generally disliked the film, praised Hayes’ performance as a stowaway saying that she milked the performance for all it was worth, and seemed to realize just how ridiculous the movie was. Since Hayes had already won an Oscar for 1931’s The Sin of Madeline Claudet (by the way, setting a record for the longest period between an Actor’s first and second Oscar wins), they couldn’t really have felt the need to award her again. Karen Black’s performance as the white trash girlfriend in Five Easy Pieces who is not as dumb as she looks gave a truly great performance – as did Sally Kellerman in MASH, but the Academy gave it here, and since I haven’t seen it, I cannot complain too loudly.
10. Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock)
The second American film by Alfred Hitchcock is this top notch, intense spy thriller. Joel McCrea stars as an American crime reporter sent to London to try and get some answers about what is really going on over there in terms of the war that is about to break out. His first lead is about a Dutch diplomat (Albert Basserman), who he briefly meets but then appears to be assassinated – although things are not as they appear, and the powerful Fisher (Herbert Marshall) may be up to no good. The film is intricately plotted by Hitchcock, and contains a number of intense sequences – the most famous of which is on top of the Westminster Cathedral. McCrea, Basserman, Marshall and the rest of the cast – including George Sanders and Larraine Day – are also wonderful. The climax to the movie is great. My only problem with the film is the closing scene – a radio broadcast that is too much like propaganda for my tastes (although, since this was 1940, perhaps we can forgive the film this flaw).
9. Contraband (Michael Powell)
Michael Powell’s Contraband (written by Emeric Pressburger, but the two had not yet starting sharing director credits), much like Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, is about a British spy ring. But Contraband is a lighter, more fun version of events. Conrad Veidt gives an excellent performance as a Danish sea captain carrying important supplies back to his country in the early days of WWII, along with some passengers. When they are detained at customs in England overnight, two of his passengers (including the beautiful, insolent Valerie Hobson) disappear in London – and when Veidt goes to try and get them back, he gets himself involved with their schemes, and the Nazis who want to catch them. The film is stylish in the extreme – making full use of a London under a blackout, and the plot constantly twists and turns. The film calls to mind the Hitchcock films of the 1930s – and it’s high praise to say that Powell’s film matches that of the master. An underrated gem.
8. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor)
The Philadelphia Story is one of the great “comedies of remarriage” – a genre popular in the 1930s and 40s, when you were not allowed to show married couples having an affair, so instead they got divorced, had their dalliances, and then got back together. The movie stars Katherine Hepburn in one of her greatest roles as a socialite about to get married to John Howard. The weekend of the wedding, her ex-husband, Cary Grant, shows up with reporter Jimmy Stewart in tow. Hepburn flirts with both Grant and Stewart, much to the chagrin of Howard, before everything ends happily – and just as we expect it to. The performances are all top notch, and the writing, based on the famed Broadway play that revived Hepburn’s then ailing career is full of terrific one liners (my favorite being Grant’s “A little? And you a writer? Tsk, tsk, tsk. I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know, at one time I think I secretly wanted to be a writer.”). This is the kind of comedy that Hollywood has forgotten how to make.
7. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)
Ernst Lubitsch was best known for his comedies, and while The Shop Around the Corner is not one of his funniest films, it is one of his best. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan play two employees at a small store in Budapest, who constantly get on each other’s nerves working side by side. What they do not know is that they are each other’s pen pals as well, and they have fallen in love with the other person through those letters. The film is one of the few Hollywood films of the era that I can remember that actually shows people working – and not in glamorous, or exciting jobs – but in the mundane workaday world. Stewart and Sullivan have excellent chemistry together, battling each other early on, and eventually falling for each – like we knew they would all along. This is a charming little film.
6. Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock)
Hitchcock’s first American film, and the only one of his career ever to win the Best Picture Oscar, is this stylish, classy film about the new wife (Joan Fontaine) of a rich man (Laurence Olivier), who believes that her husband is still in love with his dead wife, Rebecca – when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Judith Anderson gives a chilling performance as Mrs. Danvers, the maid who worshipped Rebecca, and keeps her room as a shrine to the late woman. There is an undercurrent of homosexuality in her obsession with the dead woman, as she fondles her underwear and negligee. George Sanders appears as one of Rebecca’s “cousins” (actually lover), and his appearance upsets Fontaine even more. This is not a typical Hitchcock film – it doesn’t really qualify as a thriller at all – but shows the master’s eye for detail and stunning cinematography. The climax, with the house ablaze, is a thrilling set piece, and an appropriate ending to the film. A great Hitchcock film.
5. Fantasia (Various)
Fantasia was groundbreaking in 1940, and even now 70 years later it seems like perhaps the most daring animated film that Disney ever made. It has no narrative drive throughout the movie, and no dialogue. Rather it is a collection of dazzling short films set to classical music. Of course, everyone remembers the infamous The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, set to Paul Dukas’ wonderful music as Mickey plays a young apprentice trying to use magic before he can fully control it – leading to all hell breaking loose. This segment is the most famous – and best – of the sequences, but that’s not to take anything away from the other segments. The Nutcracker Suite segment is magical, with various fairies, animals and plants dancing their ballets. The Rite of Spring was hugely ambitious showing the formation of the planet right up until the extinction of the dinosaurs. The Dance of the Hours (featuring the famous dancing hippo) is just plain fun. My favorite sequence, other than The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the incredibly dark Night on Bald Avenue/Ave Maria featuring the black demon Chernabog. Yes, I will admit that The Pastoral Symphony segment is oddly racist, and for some inexplicable reason contains nudity, but hey, one of the segments was bound to not live up the standards of the rest. In the years since Fantasia, we have rarely seen an animated film this magical, this ambitious – and certainly not from Disney – although I will admit, I do prefer at least one other Disney animated film to this one (see number 4).
4. Pinocchio (Ben Sharpsteen & Hamilton Luske)
Pinocchio is my favorite Disney animated film of all time. It’s story is so simple, and yet so touching. The carpenter Geppetto is a lonely, kind old man who makes a wooden puppet he names Pinocchio, then wishes that he could be a real boy, not just a puppet. The Blue Fairy comes and grants his wish – to an extent – he is now “alive”, but still a puppet, and to become a real boy, he must prove himself worthy, and listen to his conscience – a role assigned o Jiminy Cricket. Yet still Pinocchio is continually led astray by others – first to a puppet show, and then to “Pleasure Island”, before finally being able to prove himself by rescuing Geppetto. I don’t think you could make a film like this today – it is much darker than the kids movies today, with scary sequences in the puppet show, Pinocchio’s friend being turned into a donkey and sold into slavery, and of course the climatic whale sequence. But the darkness of the movie adds to its charm, and also to its message to kids. I think we “protect” kids too much these days, coddling them beyond all reasonable measures. Pinocchio is a classic Disney movie – and one of the great kid’s movies ever made, not in spite of its darkness, but in part because of it.
3. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)
I’m not sure that any film in history has dialogue fires off as rapidly as in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. Cary Grant is great as a newspaper editor trying to entice his ex-wife (Rosalind Russell) into staying with his paper, instead of marrying the boring Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). The action takes place on a chaotic night as a prisoner is supposed to be executed, and Grant gets Russell to agree to cover one last story – all the while trying to sabotage her upcoming marriage, by having Bruce repeatedly arrested on false charges, and even kidnapper his mother. Things get even more complicated when the prisoner escapes, and ends up with Russell. Hawks was a master of screwball comedy – and this is one of the greatest example that the genre ever producer. Grant and Russell have magical chemistry together, and they handle the rapid fire dialogue by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer and Charles McArthur (based on the play The Front Page, with a gender switch for Russell) with ease. Comedy doesn’t get any better than this.
2. The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin)
Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is an important historical film for several reasons. One, it was the first sound film of Chaplin’s career – and in my mind his best. For another, it was the first American film to openly mock Hitler, and what was going on in Europe – daring for at the time America was still neutral in the conflict. Chaplin plays a duel role here – one as a Jewish WWI hero for “Tomainia”. Flash forward 20 years, and the brutal Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again, doing a ruthless Hitler impression) is now the dictator of Tomainia and is persecuting the Jews. The Jewish war hero is shocked to what has happened to his country – he spent the last 20 years in a hospital with amnesia. The film has many great set pieces – the infamous one of Hynkel playing with a giant globe, and of course his fiery speech that is hilarious translated by a matter of fact Englishman (the best one being after a rant that lasts a full minute, accompanied by furious hand movements the translator simply states “The furor has just referred to the Jewish people”). Chaplin showed daring in making the film – courage not only to openly mock Hitler and hold him up for ridicule, but also in its sympathetic portrayal of Jews. Oh yeah, and it’s also absolutely hilarious.
1. The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford)
John Ford was an odd choice to direct the film version of John Steinbeck’s infamous Great Depression novel – as Ford was a well known conservative, and Steinbeck’s novel had been accused of being pro-communist. Yet, despite the ending of the film which is happier than the novel (something you cannot blame on Ford – almost anyone would have had to make the ending happier – and no one in 1940 was going to have a woman giving birth to a stillborn baby and offering her breast milk to a starving man) Ford does a great job at turning the book into a movie. Henry Fonda gives perhaps his finest performance as Tom Joad, an ex-convict who along with his family leave Oklahoma after losing the family farm, and making their way west – to California where they endure horrible conditions as migrant workers. Steinbeck’s focus on the land and man together (something easier to do in a novel) is replaced by showing the Joads as a more cohesive family unit, boldly trying to keep their heads above water. Jane Darwell, in her Oscar winning role, is also wonderful as the matriarch of the family – the driving force behind their optimism at the end of the film. If you want to criticize the movie for softening Steinbeck’s novel, then go ahead, but I really do not think that it does. It still contains Joad fighting for union wages, and having to go on the run to fight for his idealized world. The film is expertly crafted by Ford, contains some of the best screen performances of all time and although softened, is still an unmistakable indictment on the rich landowners who take advantage of the working man. Somehow this odd collection of talent has produced an American classic .
Just Missed The Top 10: The Bank Dick (Eddie Cline), Kitty Foyle (Sam Wood), The Letter (William Wyler), The Long Voyage Home (John Ford), The Thief of Bagdad (Michael Powell & Ludwig Berger & Tom Whelan).
Notable Films Missed: All This, and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak), Our Town (Sam Wood), The Westerner (William Wyler).
Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Rebecca
It seemed like The Grapes of Wrath was going to be unstoppable at the Oscars this year, as it was the most acclaimed film of the year, and a sizable box office hit. However, some in power in the Academy didn’t want to see the film win – after all, the film was openly critical of wealthy California landowners, and the bigwigs in the Academy certainly qualified as that, so Rebecca was a compromise choice I believe. That’s not to say that the film isn’t wonderful – that it isn’t worthy of winning the award, just that I think we all know what film the Academy would have given the award to if it had been critical of any other group.
Oscar Winner – Best Director: John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath
I have always thought that when the Academy splits the Picture and Director Oscar, more often than not the Director winner made the better film (other examples – The Great Ziegfield vs. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Life of Emile Zola vs. The Awful Truth, Hamlet vs. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man, Around the World in 80 Days vs. Giant, Chariots of Fire vs. Reds, Driving Miss Daisy vs. Born on the Fourth of July, Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator vs. Traffic, Chicago vs. The Pianist, Crash vs. Brokeback Mountain – the obvious exception being The Godfather vs. Caberet), and that is what happened here. The Academy knew The Grapes of Wrath was the better film, but couldn’t bring themselves to quite vote for it for Best Picture.
Oscar Winner – Best Actor: James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story
I find it somewhat strange that the only Oscar Stewart ever won was for this film. Not only is his role in the film a supporting one, he doesn’t even outshine the male lead – Cary Grant – who I thought had the better role and the better performance. This was a makeup Oscar for Stewart losing the year before for Mr. Smith to Robert Donat for Goodbye Mr. Chips, which itself was a makeup award for not giving him an Oscar for The Citadel in 1938. And the cycle continued, with Henry Fonda as the victim – but in his case he would have to wait over 40 years before the Academy made it up to him.
Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Ginger Rogers, Kitty Foyle
I’m not going to say that I didn’t enjoy Ginger Rogers performance in Kitty Foyle, or the movie itself for that matter. It is a charming little romantic drama/comedy about a woman having to choose between her two lovers. And I do dearly love Ginger Rogers in her great movies with Fred Astaire in the 1930s. But considering the Academy nominated Hepburn for The Philadelphia Story and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, and could have nominated Rosalind Russell for His Girl Friday, I have to say that Rogers didn’t really deserve her Oscar for this film.
Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Walter Brennan, The Westerner
I have yet to see this movie. Walter Brennan was a favorite with the Academy – being one of only three actors in history to win 3 or more Oscars – but that was mainly because in the early days, the scores of movie extras were allowed to vote for the Oscars, and Brennan was once one of them, and they rewarded him handsomely because of it. I enjoy Brennan, and will get around to this film one day, but I would have loved to have seen Jack Oakie’s hilarious Mussolini stand-in in The Great Dictator win this one.
Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath
I have no complaints about Darwell’s win for her performance in this movie. She is the heart of the film, the emotional core, and she delivers her great final speech with passion and conviction. Personally however, I think I would have gone with Judith Anderson’s marvelous work in Rebecca, as one of the first in a long line of crazy lesbian killers. And for that matter, Ruth Hussey was delightful in The Philadelphia Story.
10. Point Blank (John Boorman)
Lee Marvin really wanted to make Donald E. Westlake’s novel The Hunter into a movie, with him in the central role, so he convinced John Boorman to direct it – and it became one of the best films that either of these men were ever involved in. Marvin is great as a man who steals a large sum of money from a courier, but is double crossed by his partner who shots him, leaves him for dead, takes all the money and runs off with Marvin’s wife. This obviously doesn’t sit well with Marvin, who goes to get his money back and take revenge on everyone involved. This is one of the roles that Marvin will be remembered for – he is cold, calculating and moves like a shark – relentless in his pursuit of what he wants. He becomes a man so consumed by revenge that he loses himself somewhere along the way – even Angie Dickinson, as his sister in law who falls for him (after Marvin’s wife kills herself) is repulsed after they have sex by his coldness. Boorman’s direction is taut and intense as the plot continues to spin towards it ultimate conclusion – where of course, no one gets what they want.
9. In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison)
In the Heat of the Night looks rather tame in its depiction of race relations in the American South – but when you watch the film through the eyes of someone in 1967, the daring nature of the movie comes out. The film is about a small Mississippi town where a wealthy Chicago factory owner gets murdered, while down there planning the opening of his new factory. Police Chief Rod Steiger is under enormous pressure to solve the murder, and when he sees Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), an outsider, but more importantly a black man, with a lot of cash, he immediately assumes that he is the killer. Proven wrong when it turns out that Tibbs is a respected Detective from Philadelphia, Steiger offers no apology, but Tibbs decides to stay and help solve the case. The details of the crime itself are rather mundane, but the real reason why the movie works is the depiction of this racist Southern town – almost everyone in it hates Tibbs simply because he is successful, black and refuses to back down from them (in the film’s most famous scene, he slaps a white man who slapped him first). Jewison’s direction is remarkable for the way it captures the atmosphere of the town – all the more remarkable since he shot most of the film in Illinois because they feared for Poitier’s safety if they shot in the South. In the Heat of the Night is a great film – but not because of the mystery that is seemingly at the heart of the film, but because of the characters.
8. Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker)
D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back is one of the greatest of all rock documentaries. It follows Bob Dylan on his infamous 1965 tour of England. During the film, Dylan has to deal with countless questions from reporters, and he seems to take a perverse joy is screwing with them. He at times can appear arrogant and unlikable, and yet at the same time, we realize that we are essentially watching a kid, who has had the weight of being the “voice of his generation” thrust upon him, and he doesn’t quite know how to deal with it. When asked stupid questions, he gives stupid answers – his humor fully on display right alongside that arrogance. The performances are great, the insight into the music business (care of its unflattering portrayal of Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman) valuable, and the film catches Dylan at his most playful, yet most cynical. Yes, at times in the film Dylan seems to be a jackass (cruelly playing “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” to Donovan, his English “equivalent” at the time), but how rare is it that we get a portrait like this of a true musical genius?
7. Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville)
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai is just about the most impassive film about a contract killer that you will ever see. The main character is played by Alain Delon, who rarely says a word in the film, and remains utterly unreadable in practically every scene. He is hired to kill a nightclub manager, and in the films brilliant opening scenes, we watch as he prepares to do the job, set up alibis and commit the deed, all while barely saying a word and never betraying an emotional. As the film moves along, the plot becomes increasingly complex – both the cops and his former employers, who betrayed him, are after him, and he has to dodge them, and deal with the two very different women in his life. The film is brilliant because it doesn’t give us pointless action sequence, but instead just quietly builds the suspense from scene to scene, as it watches Delon on his journeys. Melville was a master filmmaker who specialized in films like this – his reputation is one that continues to grow as more and more people discover his films. Le Samourai is one of his best.
6. The Graduate (Mike Nichols)
Mike Nichols’ The Graduate is one of those movies that I think still speaks to kids fresh out of university. It spoke to me when I saw it in high school, and then again after I saw it when I got out of college. But it is also a film that I find my relationship changing with as a grow up – when I watched the film again recently, I found myself thinking that Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock, a character I used to love, to be kind of an immature jackass. Yet amazingly, I think I may have liked the film even more. The film is about the just graduated Benjamin during the summer, when he starts to have an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), but then ends up falling for her daughter (Katherine Ross). The film was a huge hit in 1967, with the younger generation thinking that the film represented them, and their rejection of their parent’s values and failings. But Mike Nichols gave the best answer imaginable when asked what happens to the couple after the movie ends – “They become their parents” was all he said. And he couldn’t have been more right. What looked to me in high school and college as a movie about two people finding their own way in life, looks to me now as being a movie about the same two people becoming trapped in the life they choose for themselves. The look of the faces of Hoffman and Ross as that bus drives away is masterful. And I guess I should mention this since I haven’t so far – the film is also absolutely hilarious.
5. Mouchette (Robert Bresson)
Robert Bresson’s Mouchette is one of the most relentlessly grim movies ever made. It is about a little girl who suffers and suffers and suffers at every turn in her life until she can simply not take it anymore. Her father is an abusive alcoholic, her mother is sick and bedridden, and so all the housework and childcare for her younger sibling falls on her – and yet nothing she does ever seems good enough. She is mocked at school by her classmates for her shabby clothes, humiliated by her teacher when she refuses to sing, then sings off key. There is one scene of joy in the film where Mouchette goes to carnival, and playfully flirts with a boy via bumper cars, but this is stopped by her father who slaps her before she can actually talk to him. Things get even worse for her when a poacher tries to use her as an alibi for a murder he thinks he has committed, and ends up doing far more damage to Mouchette when he rapes her, just hours before her mother dies. Still there is no compassion for her from her village as she is branded a slut. Young Nadine Nortier gives a remarkable performance as Mouchette – she does most of the acting with young, beautiful, wide open face as she bravely fights to keep going in every scene, right up until the end when the weight of it all is just too much for her. For Bresson, the film is one of his greatest achievements – a minimalist film that builds its power slowing, through observation before we get to the shattering climax. Mouchette is undeniably grim – but it reflects a part of humanity that is undeniable.
4. Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel)
Two European masters made films in 1967 about a bored housewife turning to prostitution. Despite its reputation, I though Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her was an utterly pretentious mess of a movie (when the little boy talks about his dream of the twins that became one, and realizing that it represented North and South Vietnam reuniting, I knew I was in for a long slog). But Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour is one of his greatest films. Not as surrealistic as he is normally known for, Belle de Jour is an erotic film that understands its female character better than just about any other erotic movie I can think of – most of the time, it’s the men who are the most interesting characters, and the women are their playthings – this time it’s the reverse. Catherine Denueve gives one of her best performances as the prim and proper – not to mention gorgeous – young wife of a surgeon. The surgeon is attracted to her virtue, as is a family friend (the great Michael Piccolli), but for Denueve all this attention given to her because of this gets boring – she wants something else. So she works at a brothel a few afternoons a week. The erotic charge she gets is because the men she sleeps with there see her completely differently than everyone else she knows. She has her sexual fantasies (that Bunuel brilliantly plays out at times, and only hints at other times – what the hell is with the meowing cats? And what of that box that the potential John brings in?) and they control her more and more as the movie goes along. In a way, Belle de Jour is different from many of Bunuel’s other films because it lacks the surrealistic flourishes – and yet it does fall in line with what he thought as early as L’Age D’Or in 1930 – that people’s sexual fantasies are predestined early in life, and they are powerless to control them. Maybe because the story here is so strong – Denueve’s performance so assured – that Bunuel realized he didn’t need to do anything else with it. Belle de Jour is one of his greatest films – and considering his resume, that is saying a lot.
3. Playtime (Jacque Tati)
Jacques Tati is one of the great visual poets in cinema history. His films rarely contain much dialogue, and what is spoken doesn’t really matter. In Playtime, his greatest achievement, he gives us a tour of the modern city of Paris – all skyscrapers, vast workspaces, steel and glass. Yes, Tati’s famous character Mr. Hulot is in the film, but he isn’t more important than anyone else in the film – he’s just part of the crowd. The movie is full of magical moments – Hulot playing with his chair that makes funny sounds, a miraculous sequence where we observe, in a single unbroken shot, a man in one cubical phone a man in another for information, that the second man has to walk across the great expanse of space to right outside the first’s man cubicle to retrieve, then retreats to his own cubicle to call the man back (that probably sounds stupid, but watching the sequence is sublime. Not to mention scenes where windows reflect Paris landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the Church of the Sacred Heart – but these are the only moments that the famed monuments of Paris are evident. The use of glass doors and walls in the film is consistently brilliant, and cause no end of confusion. The final long sequence involves the opening of a restaurant where everything goes wrong, but everyone has fun. Is there a point to anything in Playtime? I’m not sure there needs to be. Tati is sitting back and observing the crazy modern world he, and all of us, find ourselves living in and finds endless joy and whimsy. The film was the most expensive made in French history to that point, and when it wasn’t initially successful, it cost Tati everything. But all these years later what we are left with is a one of kind film that is simply masterful. There has never been a film like Playtime either before or since.
2. In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks)
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is perhaps the greatest true crime book ever written. Despite what the Oscar winning 2005 film Capote tells you, he wasn’t just a vampiric parasite who took advantage of two killers – he in fact made two brutal murderers achingly human in his book. The amazing thing about Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Capote’s book is that it does the same thing. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson give perhaps the best performances of their careers as Perry Smith and Dick Hickock – the two ex-cons who never could have killed the Clutter family in Kansas after invading their home in the hopes of getting a supposed $10,000 he that Clutter keeps in his safe by themselves. Apart, they were little more than pathetic losers, with miserable childhoods and a history of petty crime. Together though, they became capable of killing for silly, stupid reasons. The film, and the book for that matter, is not an apology for the killers, but simply asks the viewer to see them as human, not purely as monsters. The controversy about the violence in the film is undeserved as the killing all take place off-screen. Conrad Hall’s brilliant black and white cinematography is justly legendary – the infamous shot of Blake on the night he is going to executed staring out the window, as the rain looks like tears on his face is legendary for a reason. That the film came out the same year as Bonnie and Clyde is somewhat fitting as they show two sides of the same coin. Bonnie and Clyde were portrayed as hero outlaws – young kids who were rebelling against the system. In Cold Blood portrays its pair as pathetic losers. This film isn’t as well known as that one – but it is nearly as good.
1. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde brought violence in the cinema to the masses. It certainly wasn’t the first film to be as staggeringly violent as this films infamous climax was, but it was the one that broke through to critics and audiences – the film that tied it all together. Warren Beatty was smart enough to see in the screenplay by two newcomers – Robert Benton and David Newman – he had the opportunity to bring European Art cinema into the American mainstream. I am happy that his plans to have either Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut make the film fell through – they would have made the film too idiosyncratic and clever. With Arthur Penn, he found a director that could match them stylistically, but also bring a distinctive Americaness to the film. Beatty is great as Clyde Barrow the small time outlaw who falls for Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway – equally great) the first time he sees her, and soon takes her on a cross country crime spree. The film explicitly links together sex and violence through Clyde’s impotency, and bravely mixes together humor and horror, often side by side in the same scene. The supporting cast including Gene Hackman as Clyde’s older brother, Estelle Parsons as his hysterical wife and Michael J. Pollard as the bored gas station attendant who joins them are all great. The entire film is a masterwork of style, but it is that final sequence – the final gun battle where Bonnie and Clyde get gunned down in a horrific hail of gunfire that marks Bonnie and Clyde as a true masterpiece. Bonnie and Clyde is one of the most important films of all time – because once it came along, nothing was ever the same again.
Just Missed The Top 10: Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki), Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg), The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich), El Dorado (Howard Hawks), Guess Whose Coming to Dinner? (Stanley Kramer), The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitman), To Sir, With Love (James Clavell), Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard), .
Notable Films Missed: Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol), Doctor Doolittle (Richard Flesicher), The Firemen's Ball (Milos Forman), The Red and the White (Miklos Jansco), Terra em Transe (Glauber Rocha), Two for the Road (Stanley Donen), War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk), Wavelength (Michael Snow), The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy).
Oscar Winner – Best Picture: In the Heat of the Night
In the wonderful book Pictures at the Revolution, Mark Harris charts the changing dynamics of Hollywood by charting how the five best picture nominees from this year were made. Essentially, it becomes clear that In the Heat of the Night was a compromise choice – not as daring or as innovative as Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate, not as conservative as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and not as out of control or old fashioned as Doctor Doolittle. Yes, I believe Bonnie and Clyde to be the best film of the year – but since when has the Academy given the Oscar to the most controversial film of the year? As far as compromises go, In the Heat of the Night is a damn good one.
Oscar Winner – Best Director: Mike Nichols, The Graduate
The Graduate was just Mike Nichols second film as a director – and for it he received his second Best Director nomination, and his first win. The Graduate’s visual style was fresh and new at the time – at least to mainstream American audiences, who were unfamiliar with Nichols’ European influences. Giving Nichols this award was a way for the Academy to reward the new guard with a major award on Oscar night, without inviting the controversy that a win for Arthur Penn would have done. And considering the career that Nichols has had – a sporadically brilliant one – it’s hard to complain about this award.
Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night
Poor Sidney Poitier. He was the lead character in not one, but two, of the years best picture nominees, and yet watched his white co-stars get nominated, and one of them win while he got nothing. And yet, you can’t really blame the Academy for that – in both In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier is saddled with the “perfect black guy” role that eventually wore him down, whereas Spencer Tracy, and especially Rod Steiger were given more complex roles. This was also a way to reward Steiger for his brilliant work in 1965’s The Pawnbroker, a film that was too controversial for him to win the best actor award, but one that I defy anyone to watch back to back with that year’s winner – Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou – and tell me Steiger didn’t deserve to win. He is excellent in this film, as the racist sheriff who learns a valuable lesson about tolerance. Yes, Warren Beatty was better – as was Dustin Hoffman – but I don’t have a problem with this win.
Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Katherine Hepburn, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
I know too many people, that even at the time of the film’s release Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner looked like an over sentimental, simplistic view at an interracial relationship – as you had the perfect Sidney Poitier – who plays a doctor who does charity work no less – falling in love with the daughter of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Yet, considering that many theaters in the South wouldn’t play the film at all, until it became a hit elsewhere, perhaps this was the film that needed to be made at this time. It wasn’t for the progressive youth of the moment – it was for their parents. Yes, I also wonder why Poiter’s perfect man would fall in love with Katharine Houghton – who is barely a character in the film, yet when I watch the film I am drawn in by the performances, the characters. Yet, I cannot help but wonder why they felt the need to give Hepburn an Oscar for her work, which is solid, but not spectacular. I mean, she already had an Oscar at home. Perhaps they felt this maybe their last chance to give her one – it wasn’t, she won two more Oscar, including one the following year – but next to Anne Bancroft and Faye Dunaway, this is a weak choice.
Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke
As the de facto leader of the prisoners, who at first beats Paul Newman’s Luke to a bloody pulp, but slowly comes to respect him, George Kennedy is quite good in the film. As the movie goes along, he becomes more a part of the story, and by the end he is reminiscing about his old friend Luke, even though their relationship became strained at several points. It’s a fine choice, in a really good movie (that I just didn’t have room for on my top ten list) – but considering that Gene Hackman and Michael J. Pollard were nominated for Bonnie and Clyde, not to mention John Cassavetes in The Dirty Dozen (another film there just wasn’t room for), I think it should have gone elsewhere.
Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Estelle Parsons, Bonnie & Clyde
Estelle Parsons is a hoot in Bonnie and Clyde – providing some much needed comic relief in a movie that was violent much of the way through. She is the ever nagging wife of Gene Hackman’s character, who I will always remember running around like a chicken with her head caught off, screaming and waving a spatula during a raid on the gang. This was a wonderful performance, by a great actress who has continued to do great work (two summers ago, I saw her give an unbelievable great performance on Broadway in August, Osange County – so yes, she still has it).