Friday, December 2, 2011

Thoughts on the First 100: The Best Films I've Never Seen Before

I started this series at the beginning of 2011 because I love watching older movies, and yet I never really wrote about them on the blog. In 2010, I went back and did a top 10 list for every year since the Oscars originated in 1927, and in preparation for that, I went back and tried to watch a few key films from every year that I missed. I loved it, but there were times when I was disappointed. This was because I saw a great movie, but what I could write about it was limited to a paragraph. Or sometimes, because I didn’t like a classic movie – or didn’t like it enough for it to be on a top 10 list, so I didn’t write about it at all, even though I had something to say about it. When that project finished, I wanted to keep going, so that is essentially what I have done. I thought of doing something like Roger Ebert’s Great Movies series, and while this series shares similarities with that series, this one is different because I don’t necessarily love all of these movies. Plus, I’m writing about films that I have not seen, rather than films I have seen, and are rewatching.

When I started, my goal was to use the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? Top 1000 list, augmented by Roger Ebert’s Great Movies and the 1001 movies You Must See Before You Die series, but as you may have noticed, I quickly abandoned that. I felt it was too restrictive, and their were movies that weren’t on any of those lists that for whatever reason piqued my interest. So I just started to watch whatever the hell I wanted to. I enjoyed it.

The Best Movie I’ve Never Seen Before series has provided me with 100 interesting movies to contemplate so far – and at a much higher rate of positive to negative reviews that current movies. Of the first 100, I only gave “negative” reviews to 8 films. I didn’t love the other 92 (only 45 got 4 stars), but I liked them enough to award them at least 3 stars. But the rating for me is always secondary. It is a handy classification tool, but little else. I hope these 100 reviews helped to shed some light on some great classic films – both ones that are well known to movie lovers that somehow I missed, to other, lesser known films.

I look at the directors I have reviewed so far, and I am amazed. 82 different directors from 17 different countries (Germany, Italy, France, Canada, America, England, Spain, Greece, Japan, China, Thailand, Iran, Portugual, Denmark, Sweden, Hong Kong, Russia), spanning over 100 years and I am simply amazed. What an eclectic group of filmmakers, spanning all genres and eras of filmmaking. I couldn’t be more pleased, and I look forward to continuing the series.

As a final aside, I’ll give you my list for my 10 favorites and five least favorites out the first 100 films seen, in reverse order, with just a few brief words about each. They are completely meaningless lists, with no real parameters, but hey, I wanted to do, so I did.

10. Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984)
The final “Cassavetes” Cassavetes film (he made one after, but it was one his “director for hire jobs”), Love Streams is a bizarre, operatic examination of a truly strange relationship between a brother and sister – played by Cassavetes and his wife Gena Rowlands. Only Cassavetes could have pulled this one off.

9. Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, 2004)
The stark contrast between how we see ourselves and how the world sees us is the subject of this painful and painfully film by modern French master Despleschin. Emmanuele Davos gives an incredible lead performance here.

8. Petulia (Richard Lester, 1968)
One of the most bizarre films about the swinging ‘60s is Lester’s incredibly strange film about George C. Scott as a doctor who lives his wife (a brilliant Shirley Knight) and has an affair with world class cook Julie Christie. Words cannot describe this disturbing, cruel film.

7. The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963)
Harold Pinter likes his characters to play games with each other, and nowhere is that more apparent than in this film, with Dirk Bogarde giving a great performance as a manservant who gets the best of his master. Losey’s direction is brilliant.

6. The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950)
An underrated Western with Gregory Peck as an aging gunfighter who wants out of the life, but knows he will probably never be able to leave. If it was directed by Ford or Hawks, it would be recognized as one of the best ever, like it should be.

5. The Traveling Players (Theo Angeloposlos, 1975)
A hugely epic (four hour) film about Greece from 1939 to 1952, but harkening back to Greek mythology for its characters and action. A challenging film, but a richly rewarding one.

4. Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)
The studio thought they were getting the next Easy Rider when the funded it – and were disappointed when it turned out they got the anti-Easy Rider instead. Hellman’s film will be the one he is remembered for – a story about the emptiness of the open road.

3. Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1924)
The fact that we’ll never get to see all 9 hours of Stroheim’s opus is one of the biggest losses in cinema history. The fact that we do get to see what is left of it – nearly four hours including stills – is cause for celebration. Quite simply one of the best silent films ever made.

2. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)
I put off seeing Tarkovsky’s most celebrated film for more than a decade because of my mixture of awe and boredom that I normally get from watching his films. But this is a sci-fi masterpiece – all awe, no boredom.

1. Chungking Express (Wong Kar Wai, 1994)
The only film I’ve watched for this series where I watched it twice in a row, simply because I didn’t want Wong Kar Wai’s dreamy, romantic film to end (even if it is about the fleeting nature of romance, and how infatuation can be more satisfying than the real thing). Wong has made more complex film, more beautiful films, but never one I loved so much as this one.

And the five worst.

5. Wait Until Dark (Terrence Yong, 1967)
There have been a number of occasions over the years when someone will ask me if I’ve seen Wait Until Dark, and told me that it was one of the scariest, most intense movies they’ve ever seen. I thought it was just plain silly, with one unlikely twist following another in a plot that makes no sense if you think about it for about 2 seconds. Audrey Hepburn is pretty good in it, I guess, but that’s about it.

4. Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967)
A slow zoom on a mostly empty room last 45 minutes. There are a few minutes with people in at the beginning, about half way through and at the end, but they are meaningless. There is no plot, and while there is editing, it is done in a way that is seamless, so the eye perceives no change. The camera zooms closer and closer to a picture on the far side of the room. The film had the effect on me that Michael Snow wanted it to have – he wants you to watch closely, and be bored by the inaction, because he’s making a point about the illusion of cinema. Point made. I just don’t quite understand why I needed to watch it.

3. Funny Girl (William Wyler, 1968)
I have never been a Barbara Striesand fan, even if I barely know her film work. Having said that, she is pretty much the only reason to watch William Wyler’s epically long and epically dull Fanny Brice biopic. Striesand throws herself into the musical numbers with gusto, but there is nothing beyond those musical numbers remotely interesting or entertaining. Omar Shariff has got to be the dullest leading man in film history.

2. Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936)
Joseph Cornell’s surrealist short film from 1936 may have been the film Salvador Dali saw in his dreams (he even accused Cornell of stealing his thoughts), but it certainly wasn’t the film of mine. It is 18 minutes of the B-movie East of Borneo, divorced from its soundtrack, and focusing entirely on the female lead – Rose Hobart. The film forces us to evaluate the images themselves, because they are devoid of context or sound, so the images take on a different meaning then they were intended to. I think I get the point, but like with Wavelength, I’m not entirely sure I needed to watch it.

1. Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971)
After loving him in Joseph Losey’s The Servant, I rented Death in Venice with Dirk Bogarde, because of him, and Visconti – a director I normally love. And while I love the visual look of the film – making a city I visited and fell in love with look its best – I found Death in Venice to be a hollow film. The main thrust of the plot is dull and limp, and mainly consists of Bogarde starring dreamily at a beautiful teenage boy until he dies. I understand why Bogarde, as a closeted gay man, would want to make this film. But the result is painfully dull. If I want to see Bogarde and Visconti working together, I’ll stick with the over the top The Damned, thank you very much.

1 comment:

  1. I am glad to see that you enjoyed Chungking Express, it is a personal favorite of mine. I also love the hell out of Wavelength, yet can completely understand your disdain for the film as it is very much all the things you described. I am curious as to how you viewed the film though given it is hard to find. The only version I have come across is the rather crappy Google videos version.