Thursday, July 29, 2010

Year in Review: 1946

1946 was a strong year for movies, and contains at least 6 films that I would count as masterpieces. This was a year of transition for some directors, some making their first films in a new style, and others the last ones in their old style. There are many films that deserve praise.

10. Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau)
For viewers only familiar with the Disney cartoon version of Beauty and the Beast, Jean Cocteau’s film may come somewhat as a surprise. Cocteau was an accomplished artist in many fields aside from filmmaking, but when he directed a film, he was mainly known as a surrealist – as films like 1930’s Blood of a Poet shows, he was at that time the equal of Luis Bunuel. His version of Beauty and the Beast retains the elements we expect from the story, but adds surreal, dark twists. The Beast’s castle is one of the most memorable environments ever created on film – a dark, lair where still moving, though detached, human arms hold up the candelabras, where a door talks to Belle, and where a magic mirror seemingly knows all. Belle (Josette Day), is a beautiful young woman treated like a slave by her sisters, but who adores her aging, broke father so much that she agrees to take his place with the Beast, after he runs afoul of him. But the Beast (Jean Marais) is so taken with Belle, that instead of killing her, he asks her to marry him – and continues to do so every day at 7:00. Gradually, a bond forms between the two of them, and understanding. Day is wonderful, but Marais is even better – not just as the Beast, but also the Prince and a family friend who also wants to marry Belle – they are three distinct performance. But the real star here is Cocteau, who has taken a “story as old as time” as the saying goes, and breathes life into it. I’m not sure it’s better than the Disney version – which is one of their best – but it’s a masterful film. I hope that my niece, who right now is 4 and obsessed with the cartoon version, will watch this one when she gets older.

9. Shoeshine (Vittorio De Sica)
Before he made the more celebrated Bicycle Thief and Umberto D., Vitorrio De Sica made this other masterful neo-realist film. Set just after the war, Shoeshine tells the story of two young boys who have dropped out of school and try to help support their families by shining shoes. Their dream is to one day buy a horse. But they get caught up in the sale of black market goods, and sent to reform school – where they are surrounded by conniving, manipulative inmates and guards, and soon the best friends are at each other’s throats – one thinking the other ratted on him. The film is about this friendship – so innocent, so full of hope despite the problems they encounter, and how the boys lose their innocence, and the eventual tragic end of the film. The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D are better films, true, but Shoeshine is still a masterful film.

8. Paisan (Roberto Rosselini)
The second part of Roberto Rosselini’s War Trilogy (following Open City in 1945, and preceding Germany Year Zero in 1947), Paisan is one of Rosselini’s best films. Split up into six different sections – divided up by geography to show the effects of the war on the entire country of Italy, is brilliant in the way that it creates six entirely different, almost self contained worlds over the course of the film. The film does a remarkable job of juggling tones throughout the film. The first segment, set in Sicily, is about the tragic murder of a young woman trying to help the allies. The second, set in Naples, is about an African American soldier who gets drunk, and wakes up without his shoes. The third, set in Rome, is about an American GI who meets an Italian girl who offers him kindness, and more. The fourth, in Florence, is about two people – an Italian man and woman – who both want to enter the city, even though the Germans still occupy it, because he wants to see his family, and she wants to get to the man she loves. The fifth is perhaps the most comic, as a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew all show up at a convent in Northern Italy, and the monks seem horrified by the prospect of having two non-Catholics there. The last sequence is the most harrowing – set in the Po Valley, as American soldiers team up with Italian partisans to fight against the superior numbers of the Germans. Although each of the segments is self contained, the film is really a cohesive statement – a wonderful portrait of Italy in the year of Liberation, where the different factions, languages, religions, etc make communicating difficult, yet vital.

7. The Killers (Richard Siodmark)
The Killers is one of the quintessential noir films of the 1940s. The story is about two contract killers who arrive in a small town to kill Burt Lancaster. Lancaster knows his fate is sealed, and doesn’t struggle against the men. Because he had life insurance, the insurance company sends an investigator to examine the death before a payout can be made. Gradually unfolding in flashback, we see what lead Lancaster to his fate – all of it involving a payroll robbery, and a femme fatale played by Ava Gardner is one of her very best roles. The plot of the film is standard noir stuff, elevated by the excellent performances, but most importantly by Richard Siodmark’s dark, stylish direction. The opening 20 minutes – the only part directly adapted from Ernest Hemingway’s short story – is particularly inspired in its use of lighting, the escalating tension and particularly the dark humor. If you love film noir, then you have to see The Killers.

6. A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death is a wonderful fantasy film set against the backdrop of WWII. David Niven plays a pilot in the Air Force whose plane is shot down over England. As the plane descends to its inevitable crash, Niven talks on the radio to a young American woman (Kim Hunter) stationed not far from him. Niven bails out of the plane, despite the fact that he doesn’t have a parachute – and miraculously survives – but only because the angel sent to bring him to heaven lost him in the fog. Before the mistake can be corrected, Niven meets Hunter and the two fall deeply in love. When the angel appears to take him to heaven, Niven protests, setting up the memorable finale in which Niven fights for his life in front of a heavenly tribunal. I’m sure all of this sounds farfetched and rather silly, but it doesn’t play like that. For one thing, the visuals in the film – color for the earth bound scenes, and black and white for heaven, are brilliant (as they always are when Powell is involved). For another, all the actors – Niven, Hunter, Roger Livesey as a brain surgeon and Raymond Massey as Abraham Farlan, the “prosecutor”, are all brilliant. A Matter of Life and Death is the kind of film that fantasy films could be, if only people were more inventive.

5. My Darling Clementine (John Ford)
John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is one of the gentlest of the master filmmakers many Westerns. It is a film as much about the passage of the time – the civilizing of the Wild West – as it is about the shootouts between Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and the Clanton gang at the OK Corral. Fonda’s performance as Earp remains the best of the many actors to have played the man. His performance is more about body language than it is about the words he speaks. We observe him in his quiet moments – and there are a lot more of them then there are action packed moments. Victor Mature gives a great performance as Doc Holliday as well (although for me, Val Kilmer’s will always be the best). His Holliday knows his fate from the outset, and doesn’t really try to fight it – he is slowly drinking himself into oblivion and death, and knows it. Ford doesn’t linger over the violence in the film – he portrays it naturally and without glamour, but rather as something that has to be done so that the Old West can be put to rest. I have loved a lot of John Ford Westerns – and My Darling Clementine certainly ranks among his very best.

4. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
I have no idea who murders who in The Big Sleep. Apparently Raymond Chandler, who wrote the book, didn’t either and it was only a question from Humphrey Bogart on the set that prompted him to realize that one of the supposed murderers was actually already dead when he committed his murder. And yet, that hardly matters, because The Big Sleep is a film noir where the outcome of the investigation doesn’t matter as much as the process of getting there. Bogart became the definitive Philip Marlowe in this movie – a clever P.I. who gets sucked into a investigation involving a wealthy General, and his two daughters – nymphomaniac Martha Vickers, who tries to seduce Marlowe (“She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up”) and the more sultry Lauren Bacall, who falls in love with him. The movie takes us to seedy locations, and has one body after another turn up, but the heart of the movie is between Bogart and Bacall – who were never better together. There is an energy between them, a fierce sexual attraction that works well with Bogart’s weariness (apparently he was drunk for much of the shoot, as he was going through a messy divorce at the time, so he could marry Bacall). Hawks is one of the best filmmakers in history – always finding his own way of telling any story that he was given to shoot. He worked in every genre over his career – The Big Sleep is his best film noir, and one of the best detective movies ever made.

3. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
It’s a Wonderful Life became a classic by accident. Although the film was nominated for several Oscars, it was so unpopular with audiences that the studio didn’t even bother to renew its copyright on the film – meaning that PBS, desperate for free programming, could play the movie without having to pay. It soon became a Christmas staple, and one of the most beloved films of all time. It’s easy to see why that is. Jimmy Stewart was never more lovable than he is here as George Bailey – the small town man who gives up his dreams for the good of his family. When it appears that all hope for him is lost, he contemplates suicide, and his guardian angel Clarence, shows him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born – the result is not pretty. When he is returned to his life, he is overjoyed. Frank Capra is frowned upon in some circles – dismissed with the derogatory term “Capra-corn”, but when he is at his best, and It’s a Wonderful Life is certainly among his best films, there are few directors capable of lifting your spirits as much. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the most life affirming movies ever made – and a film that never fails to drag me in when it plays on TV every Christmas.

2. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)
William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives was a daring film to make in 1946. Most of the “war” films during WWII, and immediately following it, were very patriotic – some might say too patriotic (Wyler himself made Mrs. Miniver in 1942 which certainly falls into that trap). But The Best Years of Our Lives focuses on three men returning home from war – and doesn’t sugarcoat the problems they experience when they get back. Dana Andrews comes back, and realizes that he no longer knows his wife – and that neither of them have any real interest in each other anymore. Frederic March comes back to a family and a job as a bank President, but has trouble adjusting to normal life again. Worst off is Harold Russell, who lost both of his hands in the war, and now has hooks. Although his family, and his fiancé, support and love him – he feels like he is a burden to them – and will be for the rest of his life. The movie doesn’t portray these men as extraordinary or heroic – they are just three of many returning veterans who face a life of uncertainly. Gregg Toland’s brilliant, deep focus cinematography is wonderful, allowing scenes to play out naturally without as much editing as we’re used to seeing. The Best Years of Our Lives has not aged a bit since 1946 – one of the few films of that time that can make that claim.

1. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is, for me anyway, the best film the director made during the 1940s – and also his best film in black and white ever. It is a film that plays with the audiences expectations right from the outset, and remains fascinating even after we know all of its secrets. The story involved the daughter (Ingrid Bergman) of a disgraced scientist sentenced to death for working with the Nazis during WWII. A government agent (Cary Grant) gives her an opportunity to redeem herself – by getting close to a Nazi (Claude Rains) now living in South America and giving him the information she attains. Things are complicated when Bergman and Grant fall in love with each other. And yet, what makes the film so fascinating for me is how Hitchcock plays with our expectations. Cary Grant is one of the most popular actors in history – and he casts him in the role of the “hero” – and yet his character is really more a bastard. He uses Bergman’s love for him against her – by making her agree to marry Rains, and then essentially calls her a whore for doing so. For his part, Claude Rains, although he is playing a Nazi, is extremely sympathetic – he remains under the purse strings of his domineering mother, right up until the final moment when she calls him into the house, and he goes – knowing the whole time that it will result in his death. Bergman is luminous in her role, and Hitchcock drags her through hell to get there. It goes without saying that Notorious is brilliantly well made – anything by Hitchcock is – and is one of his last films to feature a truly happy ending, although when you think about it, perhaps it’s not so happy after all.

Just Missed The Top 10: Cloak and Dagger (Fritz Lang), Duel in the Sun (King Vidor), Gilda (Charles Vidor), Ivan the Terrible Part II (Sergei Eisenstein), The Stranger (Orson Welles).

Notable Films Missed: The Devil in the Flesh (Claude Autat Lara), Great Expectations (David Lean), The Razor’s Edge (Edmund Goulding), To Each His Own (Mitchell Liesen), The Yearling (Clarence Brown).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)
The Best Years of Our Lives represents one of those rare occasions when the Academy gave a film the Oscar because of its “important subject matter” and actually made the right call. The film was unlike most of the films of its era, as it was not merely a patriotic look at the fighting men of the military, but looked at the after effects of the war – how difficult it was for the men who fought to rejoin American society. The men in the film are all injured and scarred – physically or emotionally, or perhaps both, and the film doesn’t shy away from that. William Wyler made a lot of films in his career – several of them masterpieces, but none better than The Best Years of Our Lives.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Frederic March, The Best Years of Our Lives
Of his two Oscar wins, the other being for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the early 1930s, this is the better of the two Frederic March performances. As the GI who comes home to a nice family and a comfy job at a bank, and still feels horrible – eventually turning to alcoholism – March is wonderful, particularly in a scene where he gives an impassioned speech at a company dinner – the speech is half drunken rant, and half common sense. Considering my choice, Cary Grant in Notorious, was not nominated, I think that they made a fine choice in giving the award to March this year – although an equally strong case could be made for Jimmy Stewart.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own
To Each His Own is said to be a rather classy soap opera – with Olivia de Havilland as a young, single mother forced to give up her child and spends her life loving him from a distance. I say this because this is one of the few major Oscar winners that has yet to receive a DVD release, so I have no idea how good her performance is in this film. I think they overlooked some great work this year though – most specifically Ingrid Bergman who gives one her best performances in Notorious (and in keeping with tradition, Bergman’s great roles are ignored, while her subpar ones win Oscars).

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Harold Russell, The Best Years of Our Lives
The Academy hedged its bets this year, giving Harold Russell an honorary Oscar for helping to inspire fellow war veterans with his portrayal in The Best Years of Our Lives – thinking, incorrectly it turned out, that he had no chance of actually winning. There was some criticism – ridiculous if you ask me – at the time that Russell was being exploited by the filmmakers. His performance is open and honest – pulling no punches, and looks at his situation from both sides. True, I think fellow nominee Claude Rains (who shamefully never won an Oscar) in Notorious should have won this year, but it really is hard to argue against Russell’s win. Like Haing S. Ngor winning for The Killing Fields nearly 40 years later, this is an example of a man playing a version of himself that comes off brilliantly.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Anne Baxter, The Razor’s Edge
I have somehow never seen The Razor’s Edge – despite some decent reviews, and Anne Baxter’s Oscar win. Everything I have heard says that she, and fellow nominee Clifton Webb, are the reasons to see this film – which I do fully intend to catch up with at some point. I do have to say though, that I would have voted for the great Lillian Gish – who received her one and only Oscar nomination for her great work in King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Movie Review: Salt

Salt *** ½
Directed by:
Phillip Noyce.
Written By: Kurt Wimmer.
Starring: Angelina Jolie (Evelyn Salt), Liev Schreiber (Ted Winter), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Peabody), Daniel Olbrychski (Orlov), August Diehl (Mike Krause), Daniel Pearce (Young Orlov), Hunt Block (U.S. President Lewis), Andre Braugher (Secretary of Defense), Olek Krupa (Russian President Matveyev).

Salt is an action movie that kicks things into high gear almost right from the get go and doesn’t slow down for the next 100 minutes. True, if you wanted to, you could pick apart the story for its preposterousness – but what really would be the point in doing that. This is a movie that moves so quickly, and entertains so thoroughly, that you don’t stop to think about why anyone do what they do until you’re in the parking lot after the movie – and by then you have already been entertained.

Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent working on the Russian desk. We see her a few years before the action in this movie takes place in a jail in North Korea being tortured by the guards. She is only let go because her husband Mike (August Diehl) kicked up such a stink in America that they had to make a deal and let her go. In the years since she has apparently led a much quieter life back in the States, still working for the CIA. Everything is thrown into chaos for her when Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up at the CIA offices however. He claims to be Russian intelligence and is a defector. He says that a Russian spy is going to kill the Russian President the next day – and that Russian spy’s name is Evelyn Salt.

Salt’s boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) and a counter terrorism agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejifor) want to question her right away, but Salt is smart and crafty and ends up escaping. She says that she is not a Russian spy, and doesn’t want to kill the President of Russia, but she knows that they have kidnapped her husband. And if he would risk everything to save her, and then she has to do the same for him. She knows the CIA doesn’t give a crap about her husband, so if anyone is going to save his life, it’s up to her. What follows is a series of shootouts, chase scenes and a lot of people talking mostly by yelling at each other. Salt’s plan is so complicated that often we get lost in its intricacies, even while we think we have everything figured out.

The director of the movie is Philip Noyce – a talented journeyman director who usually does his best work when he being more serious (The Quiet American, Rabbit Proof Fence) and not when doing action (The Saint). But here, he has raised his directorial game a little bit – taking some lessons from Paul Greengrass, the movie plays a little bit like the later two Bourne movies, although Noyce does tone down the shaky camera movements at least a little bit. It has been a while since I’ve seen high octane action done this well.

Jolie carries the movie well as Salt. While I think that often times when she decides to get more serious, she isn’t capable of pulling it off, in full blown action movie mode there are few, if any, women who can touch her. Remarkably she grounds her character in a believable emotional reality, which makes it far easier for us to accept her as she runs around doing crazy stunts. She is aided a great deal by Schreiber and Ejifor, who give their characters as much depth as is possible under the circumstances, and by Olbrychski who makes a scarily believable villain.

If I wanted to, I could pick apart the movie for its plotting, a lot of which doesn’t really make all that much sense if you stop and think about it too hard. This has derailed a lot of action movies in the past. But the thing about Salt is like the Bourne movies, which are no more or no less ridiculous that most action movies, they move so quickly that during the course of the movie you don’t notice that it doesn’t make sense, and afterwards, you don’t really care. The filmmakers know that the plot is unbelievable, but they are playing to that. It helps this movie a little bit that apparently in the last few weeks the Americans have actually discovered sleeper cells of Russian spies hiding in plain sight for decades.

Salt is without a doubt the most entertaining, most high adrenaline action movie of the summer. It doesn’t reach the heights of something like Inception only because Inception is so much more than an action film. Salt has no pretensions, no delusions of grandeur – it simply does what it does better than I have seen it done in a while now. What more do you want?

Movie Review: I Am Love

I Am Love ****
Directed by:
Luca Guadagnino
Written By: Luca Guadagnino & Barbara Alberti & Ivan Cotroneo & Walter Fasano.
Starring: Tilda Swinton (Emma Recchi), Flavio Parenti (Edoardo Recchi Jr.), Edoardo Gabbriellini (Antonio Biscaglia), Alba Rohrwacher (Elisabetta Recchi), Pippo Delbono (Tancredi Recchi), Diane Fleri (Eva Ugolini), Maria Paiato (Ida Roselli), Marisa Berenson (Allegra Recchi), Waris Ahluwalia (Mr. Kubelkian), Gabriele Ferzetti (Edoardo Recchi Sr.), Martina Codecasa (Delfina), Mattia Zaccaro (Gianluca Recchi).

The ghosts of Italy’s past – both political and cinematic – haunt every frame of Luca Guadagnino’s luscious new film I Am Love. Watching it, I was reminded of the themes in both Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of Finzi Continis, where the reality of fascism breaks through to people in their opulent lifestyles. But in visual terms, the film owes more to the work of Luchino Visconti – particularly The Leopard – where the massive, beautiful surroundings threaten to overtake the characters, but somehow never does. Daringly though, I Am Love is not a period piece, but one set in the present day. While the film draws links to Italy’s fascist past, it is still grounded firmly in the present world of globalization.

Tilda Swinton gives a remarkable performance as Emma Recchi, the wife of a wealthy industrialist, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), who has taken over the family business from his father (Gabriele Ferzetti). We first meet this family at a lavish birthday party for the father, who makes a great speech about his family’s legacy being written into Italian history. He started his factory as a young man, and has made the family exceedingly wealthy – but now it’s time to retire, and leave the company in the hands of Tancredi and his son, Edoardo (Flavio Parenti), who is now out of college and ready for the responsibility. The company is what has made the family great, and the grandfather makes a wonderful speech about morality and loyalty in business – ignoring the fact that during WWII, the company used cheap, Jewish slave labor to build itself up. A few months later, the grandfather is dead, and Tancredi is looking to sell the business – which doesn’t sit well with Edoardo who has bought his grandfather’s bull about morality and loyalty hook, line and sinker.

In the films first half, Guadagnino does a marvelous job at establishing all the players in the movie. It’s only in the films second half that Emma truly becomes the films protagonist. She was raised in Soviet era Russia, and married Tancredi who had travelled there is search of art and business (an early example of globalization). Coming to Italy, she hasn’t looked back since – becoming so Italian, she says she does not even remember her original first name, it having been supplanted by Emma when she moved. She mistook all the consumer freedom in Italy that she never experienced in the Soviet Union, for true freedom. But during the course of this movie, she will get a glimpse of what true freedom really means.

It all seems to start when she comes across a letter that her daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) sent to Edoardo. In it, she confesses to dumping her steady, respectable Italian boyfriend, because she has fallen in love with her older, female art teacher in London. Rather than being shocked or angered by Elisabetta’s effort at self actualization, it inspires Emma to set herself free. We have already seen her and Edoardo’s much poorer friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef, making eyes at each other but so far that is as far as things have gone. They go a step farther when Emma brings her mother in law (Maria Berenson) and her future daughter in law (Diane Fleri) to Antonio’s restaurant – under the guise of welcoming the daughter in law into the sisterhood of “Recchi wives”. But the lunch serves an entirely different purpose when Emma eats Antonio’s food – through a series of close-ups, Emma digs into the food with almost orgasmic delight, and from there she never looks back. It isn’t long before Antonio and Emma are having an affair.

It is also in the films second half that the themes in the movie truly start to take root. Emma is, in her own way, caught in a totalitarian regime herself. Her husband Tancredi seems nice, but he is never really there, and with his money, he truly does control her. Her son, Edoardo, is nicer, but more naïve and in two heartbreaking scenes near the end of the film, they both essentially say the same thing to her – that she no longer exists. It is also in this section where the reality of the business truly hits home, with the arrival of Mr. Kubelkian (Waris Ahluwalia), an Indian American businessman, who talks of globalization with phrases like “Commerce is democracy” and “War is a growth opportunity”. An old regime of fascism in Italy may have been toppled, but a new one – and this one global – is taking hold.

Swinton carries the film with her remarkable performance. I have no idea how she learned to speak Italian with a Russian accent, but she did, and she pulls it off remarkably well. But it is really in her quiet moments where she takes off – often not saying a word. The films devastating and brilliant climax is pulled off with her saying nothing, all because of the looks she exchanges with her family. She has lived under political fascism in the Soviet Union, economic fascism in her marriage, and she is finally breaking free to have true freedom – whatever it costs her, she no longer cares.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Year in Review: 1931

I think 1931 is one of the best years for movies of the 1930s. Just looking at the filmmakers who made films – great films – this year is enough to make your head spin. In other years, you could argue that any of the top 5 films deserved the top spot. This year though, I think the top 2 stand head and shoulder above the rest – and picking which one was the best was damn near impossible.

10. Monkey Business (Norman Z. McLeod)
There are some things that never grow old, never seem to age or become dated. The Marx Brothers are like that for me. Monkey Business is not as good as say Duck Soup, A Day at the Races or A Night at the Opera – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a wonderful, hilarious comedy in its own right. The brothers play stowaways on a ship, who are discovered and forced to become tough guys in a war between two gangs – eventually meaning they have to track down a baby that has been kidnapped. As with all the Marx Brothers movies, the plot is secondary to the comic gags – and this one has a lot of them – Harpo posing as a Punch and Judy puppet in an attempt to hide, Groucho pretending to be Maurice Chevalier to get through customs, and of course all the great one liners (“If this is the Captain, I'm gonna have a few words with him. My hot water's been cold for three days. And I haven't got room enough in here to swing a cat. In fact, I haven't even got a cat.”). The Marx brothers were comic geniuses, and it is on full display in Monkey Business.

9. Le Million (Rene Clair)
Rene Clair’s Le Million is a wonderful, funny, musical comedy about a man who wins the lottery – but then cannot find the ticket to cash it in. He put the ticket in his jacket pocket, which he left at his girlfriend’s house, who gave to a man running from the police to disguise him, who sold it to a opera singer who wants to use it as a stage prop. Soon, the man is running all over Paris – pursued also by his friend, his creditors, his girlfriend, his mistress and lots of other people. The film has many wonderful moments, and Clair is not afraid to mix musical comedy, dialogue and silent cinema style slapstick together to come up with a wonderful mixture of a comedy that is funny from beginning to end. Unlike his other film from this year (see #8), Le Million doesn’t seem to have any greater meaning, any greater purpose in mind other than to be a madcap comedy – at which it succeeds brilliantly. You can see the films impact in the work of the Marx brothers in particular, but also in many other films. A wonderful comedy.

8. A Nous La Liberte (Rene Clair)
The second film in a row on this list from the great Rene Clair, A Nous La Liberte is perhaps the best film of Clair’s career. It is about two men who start out the movie in prison as best friends, but are separated when one escapes. The escapee ends up owning a factory, and when his friend gets out, he gets a job at the factory – although neither know the other one is there. As gangsters come to try and extort money from the factory owner, things become more and more complicated. Clair’s film is really a criticism of the industrial age – the work that the prisoners are forced to do is almost exactly the same as the work the factory workers are doing outside of prison. Both of them are not truly free. The movie portrays French politicians of being truly clueless to what is going on in the world around them, as well as what is happening right in their own country. You can understand why there was controversy when Chaplin’s Modern Times came out a few years later, as many of the sight gags are similar – although Chaplin claims he never saw the film, and Clair wasn’t angry at him no matter what the truth was. A Nous La Liberte is a great comedy, but it is one with something more on its mind that just laughs.

7. Dracula (Tod Browning)
Watching Tod Browning’s Dracula today, it is hard to see what shocked initial audiences so much that they apparently fainted due to the horror on the screen. The film today is positively tame compared to almost any horror movie you can think of. But what doesn’t fade is the ingenious way Browning shot the film – covering it in darkness, fog and gloom. The performance by Bela Legosi has become iconic – inarguably the most famous of the many actors who would eventually play Dracula – even though his speech pattern is strange, but only adds to the portrayal’s eeriness and foreboding. The film was daringly sexual for a 1931 film. Even if the film is not as shocking as it once was, you cannot deny its cultural impact or importance – or the magnificently creepy vibe the film gives off.

6. Street Scene (King Vidor)
I’m not sure why King Vidor’s wonderful Street Scene has pretty much been forgotten by cinema history. In my mind, it’s one of the master filmmakers best films. The action pretty much all happens on the stoop outside a New York apartment building – and yet despite this, and the fact the movie is based on a play – this movie is one of the most inventively shot movies of the era. Vidor utilizes strange camera angles to portray the action, making this a pure joy to watch. The story starts off slowly as the people in the apartment sit around and gossip about their neighbors – until they show up, and they switch to gossiping about someone else. The talk of the heat, possible affairs, foreigners, mixed marriages eventually gives way to murder and a fugitive chase, all while never leaving that stoop. The ensemble cast are wonderful – Sylvia Sidney gives one of her trademark doe eyed innocent performances, and Beluah Bondi steals the movie as the most vicious gossip of them all. Street Scene deserves to be mentioned right alongside Vidor’s acknowledged masterpieces like The Crowd.

5. La Chienne (Jean Renoir)
Jean Renoir’s La Chienne is a about a simple man (Michel Simon) who gets in way over his head. Simon plays a mild mannered guy who for years has worked as a cashier at a local store – where the rest of the employees mock him good naturedly because of seemingly dull life. He is married to a woman who hates him, mocks his paintings and is always comparing him to her first husband who died in the war and was a “real man”. Then Simon’s life changes when he meets Lulu (Janie Marese), a beautiful young woman who he saves from being beaten by her boyfriend/pimp Dede (Georges Flamant). But no matter what he does to her, Lulu will always love Dede – and do whatever he asks. Mistaking him for a rich artist, they decide to take advantage of him for all his money – not realizing that he has none. La Chienne is in many ways a precursor to film noir – in fact Fritz Lang remade this film with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Dureya as Scarlett Street in 1945. Simon is a nice guy, a quiet guy a guy used to his life no matter how dull his job is, or how angry his wife is. But he allows himself to be seduced away from it, and when it all comes crashing down on him, he snaps. La Chienne is the earliest film of Renoir’s career that I have seen – and while it doesn’t quite match films like Grand Illusion or The Rules of the Game (and in reality, how could it), it shows a great director early in his career doing wonderful work.

4. The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman)
William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy was the first major film of James Cagney’s career – and forever marked him in the public eye as a gangster. That’s because his performance as Tom Powers, a low level criminal who gradually gains more power during Prohibition by selling booze and killing people is so wonderful and authentic. Powers rises in the ranks because he is more ruthless, more unfeeling than the rest of the crew – he is willing to do anything to anyone. The film’s most controversial moment comes when Cagney shoves a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face – a scene that has given rise to the ludicrous assumption that the film is somehow misogynistic (just because it shows that scene, that doesn’t mean it agrees with it, anymore than the film agrees with Powers’ numerous murders). The Public Enemy is a tough gangster film – well made, well shot, well written and well acted. There is a reason why while many gangster films of the era are forgotten, The Public Enemy never will be. It is a timeless film, that doesn’t seem to have aged a bit in that last 80 years.

3. Frankenstein (James Whale)
James Whale’s Frankenstein is perhaps the best of all the Universal Horror films of the 1930s – and if it’s not, then its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, also directed by Whale is. Boris Karloff is the definitive Frankenstein monster – a gentle giant who does not know his own strength and ends up killing without meaning to. The birth sequence of the monster is justly one of the famous in screen history – highlighted by the terrific performance by Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein, and innovative special effects – the huge clash of thunder and lightning. The film, which like Dracula also this year, was controversial upon its initial release for being so terrifying. The horror has faded from the movie – it is hard to imagine anyone but the smallest children being frightened by the movie – but what Whale did with the movie is turn it into a tragedy. The Frankenstein here is not merely lashing out at society for the perceived injustices he has suffered, but often doesn’t even mean to do what he does. He is a sad, tragic figure. He never asked to be born, and now he is simply doing what he comes naturally to him. That is why Frankenstein is still a masterpiece.

2. M (Fritz Lang)
M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film – and perhaps the best film of his entire career. The film is about a child murderer (Peter Lorre, in the role that would dominate his career) whose murders are bad for the underworld – the cops are so determined to stop him, they continually interrupt their operations. Thus begins a two pronged manhunt for Lorre – one by the police, and the other by the criminals. Lang’s use of sound in the film is remarkable – the first abduction we see for example has Lorre, whose face we do not see, whistling his trademark song as we see shots of him, and a group of children. Just as the whistling stops, we see a ball roll away, and the intent is clear – the murderer has struck again. The film, which is a technical masterwork by one of the great directors in history, is also notable for being one of the few films of the era to get the mentality of a serial killer pretty much accurate. Lorre, brought before a kangaroo court of criminals, gives an impassioned plea about the voices and compulsions inside his head that make him do what he does. Yet the film is about more than just the manhunt for this child murderer – it is also a portrait of a corrupt society, run by ugly, fat men who sit in smoky rooms and plot the future. Lang, who would flee Nazi Germany just a few years after making this film, saw society crumbling down around him at this early juncture, and made a film that criticized this. I, for one, don’t think the final denouement to “watch your children” is really necessary – but everything up until then is masterful. A truly remarkable film.

1. City Lights (Charles Chaplin)
City Lights is not only the greatest Chaplin movie ever made – in my mind, it is the greatest silent comedy of all time. Yes, I do identify myself more of a Keaton fan than a Chaplin fan – but that’s based on the body of work as a whole, and Keaton never created something this hilarious, yet touching. Chaplin plays his typical Little Tramp character, broke and homeless as usual, and the two people he meets. First there is the Millionaire, who gets drunk frequently, and when drunk, he takes Chaplin on as his best friend, showering him with presents, food, drink and a good time, until he sobers up and has no idea who Chaplin is. The more important relationship though is with the poor blind girl Chaplin meets selling flowers on the street. The blind girl mistakes Chaplin for a millionaire, and he doesn’t have the heart to correct her. The film is hilarious at times – particularly the drunken escapades – but is also so touching in its emotional portrayal of the Little Tramp and the Flower Girl, that you have to be made of stone not to cry at the last, iconic image of the film. A true masterpiece.

Just Missed the Top 10: The Champ (King Vidor), A Free Soul (Clarence Brown), The Front Page (Lewis Milestone), Tabu (F.W. Murnau).

Notable Films Missed: Arrowsmith (John Ford),Bad Girl (Frank Borzage), Five Star Final (Mervyn LeRoy), Kameradschaft (GW Pabst), Limite (Mario Piexito), Mädchen in Uniform (Leotine Sagan), The Sin of Madeline Claudet (Edgar Selwyn), Skippy (Norman Taurog), The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch), The Threepenny Opera (GW Pabst).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Cimarron
Good God is Cimarron a horrible movie – one of the absolute worst films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. While the Academy ignored such great American films as City Lights, The Public Enemy, Frankenstein and Street Scene, they rewarded this bloated, somewhat racist epic with its biggest prize this year. Directed by Wesley Ruggles, Cimarron was one of the biggest movies of its era – a huge movie about the plight of one family over the course of many decades. There are some good moments – the land rush scene from example – but mostly the film gets bogged down in endless scenes of the characters talking about nothing. While Irene Dunne is decent in her role as the matriarch – to be fair to her, she probably does the best she can with what was a horribly written movie – Richard Dix, who portrays her husband, is absolutely awful. Dix was a star in the silent era, and never toned down his performance in the movie, which is so grandiose it borders on the ridiculous and unwatchable at times. An awful film that is only remembered today because it won this prize.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Norman Taurog, Skippy
As far as I know, Skippy is not available on DVD, so I have never even had a chance to watch it – not that the story – about Jackie Cooper, as Skippy, trying to help his new friend Sooky out – appeals to me all that much anyway. The film was based on a popular comic strip of the time, and was apparently a rather heartwarming movie. If the film ever becomes available, I may give it a shot. But considering that Taurog did not exactly have the best career (I cannot say that any of his films that I have seen were very good – and after all this is a man who directed 9 Elvis movies), I’m not going to be holding my breath.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Lionel Barrymore, A Free Soul
Lionel Barrymore’s win for A Free Soul fulfilled two of the Academy’s main requirements for an Oscar winning performance – he was a drunk, and he was a lawyer who gets a big courtroom scene in the film. Directed by Clarence Brown, the movie is a typical melodrama about Barrymore’s lawyer who has to defend his daughter’s (Norma Shearer) boyfriend (Leslie Howard) on a murder charge when he killed a gangster (Clark Gable), who Shearer had started dating, and who Barrymore had previously defended successfully. Barrymore is missing for much of the movie – which centers on the other three characters, but when he does arrive, he makes a good impression. His impassioned 14 minute speech to the jury is the reason he won the Oscar that year. He didn’t deserve it really, but considered who they nominated, you cannot complain too much. It is a fine performance – although had this been a few years later, he undoubtedly would have been placed in the Supporting Actor category.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Marie Dressler, Min & Bill (actually a 1930 film).
I believe Min and Bill has become available on DVD in recent years – I’m not sure though, since I have yet to see it – and to be honest, don’t hold out that much desire to. Dressler plays a inn keeper who tries to keep her daughter innocent – and to do so needs to keep Wallace Beery’s drunken Bill away from her. Other than that, I don’t know much about the film itself – which is said to be an average melodrama – but Dressler is said to be good in it. Considering that once again, like every category this year, they ignored the best work, who knows if they picked the best of the nominees. The two I have seen – Dunne in Cimarron and Shearer in A Free Soul – weren’t exactly brilliant.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Year in Review: 1974

1974 has to rank as one of the high water mark years for movies – in particular American movies. The studios were at their most daring this year, and gave young filmmakers a chance to make pretty much anything they wanted to – and they didn’t disappoint. When critics wax nostalgic about American movies in the 1970s, 1974 could be the year they are thinking of. Any of the top five films could have easily been a number one in more recent years.

10. Blazing Saddles/Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks)
I hate putting ties on my top 10 lists – after all by doing so, you are making them a top 11. But in this case, I made an exception as both of these Mel Brooks films are spoofs of classic movies, and I cannot tell you which one is better or funnier – as both are genius. Blazing Saddles sends up the Westerns brilliantly, with Gene Wilder as the shakiest gun in the West, and of course having a – gasp – Black sheriff. There are more funny moments in this movie than practically any comedy made in the last decade. Young Frankenstein is just as good, sending up the Universal Horror films with Gene Wilder as the mad scientist, and Peter Boyle excellent as the monster. In one of the most inspired cameos in film history, Gene Hackman is wonderful as the blind man who befriends – then maims – the monster. Both of these films are the work of a comedic genius at the top of his form.

9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper)
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes place in a world without hope, without joy. It is a depraved film, but one that speaks to something deeper than just it’s surface level. Yes, it is a violent, vile, depressing movie where a psychopath with a chainsaw, and a mask made of human skin, cuts, stabs, impales and other brutally kills a group of young people one by one – including one poor sap in a wheelchair. And yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the scariest films I have ever seen – making great use of its dark cinematography, it’s top notch low budget production design, which is creepy in the extreme, it’s hulking villain, and the screams of the innocent people he hacks to pieces. Yet somehow, I think this movie works magnificently well, and never resorts to the type of torture porn that we have seen in many recent horror films – films that their makers insist were inspired, at least in part, by this film. It is a dark portrait of the times in which is was made, where the hope of the 1960s had given way to cynicism. Is the film a statement on the Vietnam war? I have read some convincing pieces that argue that this group of young people, wandering around in a land they do not understand, and are hacked to pieces by an enemy that they don’t see coming and is completely ruthless. But I’m not sure it really matters if it’s about Vietnam, or America as a whole in that time. Yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the best, scariest horror films ever made – but it is so much more than just that.

8. California Split (Robert Altman)
For some reason, when the great films of Robert Altman come up, I rarely hear California Split mentioned. It is one of his funniest, most cynical movies – and one that ultimately ends in sadness – not just for the characters, but for the audience, as even though the two characters at the center of the film are not really sympathetic – we feel for them anyway. That is how acutely Altman observes them – and how wonderful the performances by George Segal and Elliot Gould are at creating them. They meet at a poker game and bond when they are mugged in the parking lot afterwards. They don’t know much about each other – and neither do we – except that they both like gambling. They have found someone else to share in their obsession. The film is funny – perhaps as funny as Altman’s MASH – but it is a film that is still full of despair. This is the film that defines the phrase “We laugh so as not to cry”. The two characters are constantly tired, constantly drunk or hung over, and exist on sheer nervous energy – the high they get while they are gambling. The film gives an insight into gambling and gamblers that we have not really seen before. The film has an energy brought on by Altman’s style – the overlapping dialogue, the almost documentary feel of some scenes. By the end of the film, one of the characters at recognizes he has a problem. Will he be able to stay away, or will it drag him back in again. He has nothing else in his life, and if he does walk away, he’ll lose his only friend. California Split belongs on any list of the best Altman movies.

7. Harry and Tonto (Paul Mazursky)
With all the great films in 1974, it may seem odd to some that I put Harry and Tonto on this list. Surely, there are more accomplished films that didn’t make the cut, but Harry and Tonto is such a simple, beautiful, sad film it is one that I love beyond all reason. Art Carney won an Oscar for his performance as an old, stubborn man who is forced to move out of his apartment before the wrecking ball comes and destroys it. This was his home for decades, and he didn’t want to give it up. Other than his cat, Tonto, it meant more to him then anything in the world. After he is forced to leave, he goes on a road trip and meets all sorts of fascinating people. Tonto is the only constant in his life, and he loves that cat. The people he meets along his journey are sometimes kind, sometimes not, but all are interesting for the time they are on screen. The variety of actors include Geraldine Fitzgerald and Chief Dan George. But to me, this will always be a movie about a relationship between this old man and his beloved cat. When Tonto gets sick, and has to be put down, the movie wisely does not show us the scene with the injection. Rather, it gives us a scene where Carney goes to the back and finds Tonto in a cage, lying down. The scene between them in so touching, so honest, so real that just writing about it now, I’m feeling the urge to cry. Harry and Tonto is a film that is not mentioned much anymore – but it is a wonderful story of an old man and his cat – and to me, will always be the best film Paul Mazursky ever made.

6. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah)
Sam Peckinpah is one of the best directors in history, despite the fact that many of his films don’t live up to the standard he set in his few masterpieces. His early films were interesting – showed us a gifted director – but were also compromised by interference. In his later films, he had descended so far into alcoholism that at times they are a complete mess. But there was a brief period – perhaps no longer than five years – between The Wild Bunch in 1969 and this film – where Peckinpah was a master. If Roger Ebert is right, and Peckinpah had already descended deeper into depression and alcoholism at this point, it is still clear that he had his faculties about him to make this masterwork. The film stars Warren Oates as a sad American piano player living in Mexico, lost in his own alcoholic abyss. But he hears of a reward offered by an angry father who wants the head of the man who impregnated his beloved daughter. Oates finds out that the man is already dead – all he has to do is find his grave, dig it up and chop off the head. He travels with a prostitute to find the head, and the two shares a common delusion – they love each other, perhaps because no one else will love either one – and they will make a fortune and live happily ever after. But things don’t turn out that way. During the course of the movie there will rape and murder – brutal and ugly as only Peckinpah can do it. But Oates has the head, and it is his fortune. He will do anything to protect it, even if it costs him his life. As Peckinpah said ''I did 'Alfredo Garcia' and I did it exactly the way I wanted to. Good or bad, like it or not, that was my film.'' This is one of the masterpieces of Peckinpah’s career.

5. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola)
Between the two Godfather movies, Francis Ford Coppola made this film. But if he was at all rushed, it doesn’t feel like it here. Inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, The Conversation is about a security expert (Gene Hackman) who specializes in plant sound devices on people to gather information – mostly in infidelity cases. In one such case, he overhears a conversation that haunts him. He believes what he is hearing is two people plotting the murder of another person. He starts to dig deeper, and gets in way over his head. Hackman is great in the lead role – but perhaps most fascinatingly, he isn’t very good at his job, despite how often people praise him. He allows himself to be bugged, and doesn’t realize it, the tapes he gets are often garbled, and he completely and totally misunderstands what he is hearing in that conversation. Coppola has structured The Conversation as a thriller – and it works as a merciless one as we only gradually see all the pieces come together over the course of the film. Yet, it is even better as a character study of Hackman’s lonely, pathetic character – who tries to be a hero, and fails miserably. Coppola has a long, great career but he has really only made four masterpieces – the first two Godfather films, Apocalypse Now and this film. I can think of no higher praise than to say that this film deserves to be mentioned in the company of those ones.

4. Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman)
Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is exactly what the title implies – a portrait of a long marriage, giving us single scenes that take us through the years they have been together. When we meet them Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman have been married for 10 years, have children and claim to be the personification of a happy couple – but we sense something underneath that false happiness, and perhaps see their future in the other couple they have dinner with. When we next see them, time has passed, and they are not quite as happy – she has become uninterested in sex, and he is flirting with younger women – but they continue to pretend they are in love. The third episode is when Josephson admits his affair, and tells his wife that he is going away with her lover – devastated Ullman tries to stop him, and enlists the help of her “friends” who admit they have know about the affair for a while. Next, Josephson is tired of his mistress, and comes back to Ullman, who now has a lover of her own, they discuss divorce, try and fail to make love, and decide to perhaps try again. The next segment is the two of them meeting at a lawyers to sign the divorce papers, and soon arguments ensue. The final segment takes place years later, when both have married other people, but are unhappy, so get together one last time to have an affair of sorts. This is the only time they seem happy. Originally made for Swedish television, in six one hour segments, Bergman edited the film down for theatrical release to a lean three hours – but the result is the same. The movie is really about these two people who love each other, hate each other, but cannot get away from each other. Their lives are intertwined, and no matter how they try, they cannot stay away from each other forever. Bergman’s film is one of the best I have ever seen about marriage – about love and relationships and the impossibility of ever truly moving on when you’re so involved with the other person. 30 years later, Bergman would make his final film, Saraband, which essentially adds a seventh segment to this movie, and while it isn’t as good as this – one of Bergman’s very best films – it is still wonderful.

3. A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes)
Another film about a terribly complicated marriage, A Woman Under the Influence is without a doubt the best film of John Cassavetes career. It gives us a portrait of a woman, played with amazing ferocity by Gena Rowlands, who is somewhat beaten down by life. She has no privacy in her own home, and tries so hard to be exactly what her husband (Peter Falk) wants her to be, but can never quite pull it off. It’s clear that she has emotional and psychological problems – and the movie essentially focuses on the period right before and right after she is checked into a mental hospital. And yet, I think that perhaps the key to A Woman Under the Influence is that everyone in the film is as crazy as Rowlands is, but they seem to fit in better. Surely, Peter Falk has problems of his own – highlighted by the scene where he tries to force his kids to have fun at the beach, and then gets them drunk, and his ill planned party he plans for Rowlands on her release. Rowlands mother, played by her real mother Lady Rowlands, tries to help her daughter, but doesn’t know what to do. Her father seems completely weak willed, and beaten down, and when he eventually does try to help his daughter, it is far too little too late. And then there is Falk’s mother – played in a great performance by Cassavetes real life mother Katherine, who still exerts control over her son, to the detriment of his marriage, and is capable of becoming as hysterical as Rowlands herself. The film is one of the most honest depictions of a marriage I have ever seen – a dark, penetrating, and at times funny, depiction of two people who are equally mad, but somehow work together.

2. Chinatown (Roman Polanski)
Chinatown is one of the most detective movies and film noirs of all time – perhaps the best that wasn’t made in the noir heyday of the 1940s and 50s. It functions as a mystery if you want it to – a twisty, turny complex plot that reveals layer after layer of corruption in Los Angeles in the 1940s. But what elevates the movie is that Polanski, and screenwriter Robert Towne, create characters who are not merely pawns in the plot. They are real. Jack Nicholson’s performance as JJ Gittes is not just him donning the old Humphrey Bogart role as detective. They are similar, but there are differences. Gittes is sadder and lonelier – and later angrier – than Bogart ever got. This is not one of those performances where he goes over the top brilliantly, but one where it plays it exactly how it should be played. He looks ridiculous with that bandage on his nose (“You know what happens to nosy people? They lose their noses”). He gets involved with what seems to be a normal adultery case, but then things spiral out of control as he digs deeper, and people aren’t who they appear to be. The two other major characters are Faye Dunaway, as the femme fatale, but not a typical one. She is damaged, and Gittes senses that, but he is still angry when she lies to him. Her father is played by John Huston – who is one of the best screen villains of all time. Think of Charles Foster Kane crossed with Daniel Plainview (who, in his performance, you can tell Day-Lewis is channeling Huston) and you’re on the right track. Yes, there is murder, there is incest, there are brutal beatings in Chinatown. But the real crime is much bigger. As Huston says, it’s “the future”. The movie is bleak – both in its magnificent visual look and its outlook on life. The ending is justly famous because it doesn’t fit in with the typical noir ending. Things don’t work out, the wrong people die. And things continue just as they were before. This, out of all of the film is his career, is Polanski’s masterpiece.

1. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)
What can one say about The Godfather Part II that hasn’t already been said? Certainly the film is the equal of its predecessor – perhaps even greater, even though it certainly isn’t quite as entertaining. It is a darker, more nuanced film and has an epic scope to it, covering the early lives of Vito Corleone (now played by Robert DeNiro), as he leaves Siciliy, comes to America and becomes a gangster, as well as his son Michael’s (Al Pacino) complete fall from grace. When we see Michael in the first film, he doesn’t want anything to do with the family business. By the start of this film, he is running it, and over the course of the movie he will fall even farther – climaxing with his having his simple minded brother Fredo (John Cavalze) murdered on that boat. Michael, who was perhaps the only moral character in the first film (although Vito certainly has his own set of morals he lives by), has completely lost them by the end of this film – where he sits completely alone, isolated from everyone around him. The performances in the movie are all amazing – there is a reason why this film tied the record by having 5 acting nominations – and Coppola has perhaps never been in such full control of his films narrative drive and structure. The filmmaking is impeccable – not just in the films big set pieces, like the stalking and murder of the local Don by Vito which is justly infamous – but in every scene. The Godfather Part II is one of the very best films ever made.

Just Missed The Top 10: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese),Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Ted Kotcheff), Death Wish (Michael Winner), F For Fake (Orson Welles), Lacombe Lucien (Louis Malle), Lenny (Bob Fosse), Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet), The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula), Phantom of the Paradise (Brain DePalma), The Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg),Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman), The Yakuza Papers Volume IV: Police Tactics, The Yakuza Papers Volume V: Final Episode,

Notable Films Missed: Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders), Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog), Female Trouble (John Waters), India Song, Lancelot du Lac (Robert Bresson), The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Buneul), The Towering Inferno (John Guillerman), Xala (Ousmane Sembene).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)
1974 represents one of the few years where the Academy went against critical consensus, and actually ended up picking the better film in my opinion. At the time, the most critically acclaimed American films of the year were Chinatown and The Conversation – both also would have been worthy choices – but the Academy recognized before many critics did just how great The Godfather Part II was, and gave the film its very deserving Best Picture prize. In doing so, they gave it to one of the most violent, darkest best picture winners ever. The Godfather was easy – because it was so entertaining – but this film is much more complex, so you have to give them credit for giving it the Award. The nominees this year – among them Chinatown, The Conversation and Lenny represent the darkness of the country at the time. You can almost forgive them for nominating The Towering Inferno for the fifth spot for at least lightening the mood a little.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
This was a year when four of the nominees would have been deserving winners. Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, along with Carney were all excellent in their films (although my choice would have been Pacino). But Carney’s win shocked a lot of people, who expected one of the younger actors, who had already been nominated for a bunch of Oscars prior to this year, to prevail. Carney carries Harry and Tonto from beginning to end, and creates such a lovable, touching character that you cannot help but love him and his performance. Yes, I think Pacino and Nicholson delivered better performances that Carney. But I will not insult this win, as it really is a wonderful performance.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
I feel somewhat bad that the years on either side of this – 1973 and 1975 – were such weak years for leading actresses in American movies, because 1974 has any number of great performances that deserved to win this award. Among the other nominees here were Faye Dunaway, Gena Rowlands and Valerie Perrine (who, if she had of been nominated in her proper category – supporting – would have gotten my vote). While personally, I think Rowlands delivered the best performance, it is hard to fault the Academy for giving the Oscar to Burstyn for her excellent work in Martin Scorsese’s only movie to center on a female protagonist. Burstyn plays a recently widowed mother of a somewhat demanding child, who takes him on the road to try and start a new life for herself. She is not all that much unlike Rowlands, as both women are struggling with the gender roles that have been forced upon them, while the world outside seems to be constantly changing. In many year, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore would have made my top 10 list, and Burstyn’s performance would have been my clear choice – but this year it wasn’t.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Robert DeNiro, The Godfather Part II
The Academy nominated three actors from The Godfather Part II in this category, but made the right choice in giving the award to DeNiro (although, it would have been a tougher choice for me had they nominated John Cavazle, who was better than the other two nominees Michael V. Gazzo and Lee Strasberg). DeNiro captures the mannerisms and voice that Brando used in the first film wonderfully, so what we are really watching here is an extension of that performance. And yet, DeNiro brings other notes to the role as well, and creates a portrait of an ambitious young man on the rise. It must have seemed impossible to fill Brando’s shoes – few actors would have even attempted it – but DeNiro pulls it off brilliantly. Good call.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Ingrid Bergman, Murder on the Orient Express
I really do love Ingrid Bergman, but like her first two Oscar wins, for Gaslight and Anastasia, I cannot say her work in Murder on the Orient Express as a Swedish missionary just back from Africa where she helped all those “little brown babies”. I will admit that I think Bergman is a riot in this role, and is probably the best thing about the film (although Albert Finney is a lot of fun as Hercule Poirot as well), but I cannot say she deserved to win. Out of the nominees, Valentina Cortese in Day for Night would have been my favorite (that film is actually a 1973 film, so you’ll find my write up of it there), although the nominees – Diane Ladd’s over the top best friend in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Talia Shire as Michael’s grieving sister in The Godfather Part II and Madeline Kahn, hilarious in Blazing Saddles, were all worthy as well. I can’t say that this win bothers me too much – it is the best of her three Oscar winning performances – but still does not represent Bergman anywhere near her finest.

YEar in Review: 1968

1968 saw a lot of bold, innovative films from great filmmakers. Audiences wanted something different and these filmmakers supplied to them. I have a feeling that I need to watch a few more films from this year, but the ones I have seen are great.

10. Who’s That Knocking at My Door (Martin Scorsese)
Who’s That Knocking at My Door is Martin Scorsese’s first film as a director, and you can already see the master filmmaker he would become at work. Yes, the film is a little rough around the edges, but it is also a film that is honest and thoughtful about its subject matter. Obviously inspired by the work of John Cassavetes, the film details the relationship between Harvey Keitel, a “good” Catholic boy and Zina Bethune, a not so good girl. Keitel spends his time carousing with these friends and picking up “dames”, but when he meets Bethune, he thinks he has met the “girl” of his dreams. There is a difference between dames and girls you see – you’ll fuck a dame, but never marry her, but marry a girl who is, of course, as pure as the driven snow. Keitel sees no contradiction in his logic. There are several wonderful, honest moments in the film – a scary sequence where it appears Keitel and his friends maybe on the verge of raping a girl, and later when Bethune confesses her past to Keitel, who cannot deal with it. No, the film does not rank among Scorsese’s best. It is rough around the edges, and the fantasy sex sequence that was added at the distributer’s request certainly doesn’t belong in the film (although, it must be said that it is wonderfully filmed), but there is an honesty, an integrity to the film that is rare – and makes it a worthy addition to this list.

9. Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Scaffner)
There are some movies that you know a hell of a lot about before you ever watch them. Planet of the Apes is one of those movies. Who hasn’t seen the clips of Charlton Heston saying “Get your paws off me you damn, dirty ape”, or lamenting his species for blowing it up, when he realizes that he was on earth all along (which gets me singing the final song from the Planet of Apes musical as seen on The Simpsons). But despite that, and all the unnecessary sequels, and Tim Burton’s completely unnecessary remake (which was good only to see Tim Roth’s evil bad guy), Planet of the Apes remains a hell of exciting, fun and at times surprisingly intelligent movie. Yes, Charlton Heston was one of the cheesiest, most ham fisted actors of all time, but there are times when that works for a movie – and this is one of them.

8. The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey)
The 1960s were so full of stylistic innovations that sometimes people forget the more classically entertaining, intelligent films like Anthony Harvey’s magnificent The Lion in Winter. Peter O’Toole gives a wonderful performance as King Henry II, who is aging and needs to decide on an heir to his throne. He has three male children, but he worries that if he names one heir, the others will revolt, or perhaps we will be pushed off the throne himself by his son’s ambition. The movie takes place over one long day – Christmas Eve – where Henry even does his wife, Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn) the honor of letting her out of prison for the occasion. The King of France is there as a guest, and wants to know when his daughter will marry the heir to the throne – the problem is, that Henry has taken her as his mistress, and is thinking perhaps the two of the them can produce the heir themselves. After all, that would give him a lot more time. O’Toole dominates the movie with his larger than life performance – he had played Henry II before (in an even better performance and movie in 1964’s Becket), but Hepburn equals his performance with a grand one of her own. A young Anthony Hopkins is great as one of the sons – who has the line that I remember more than any other in the film when it appears like Henry may have his sons killed, and he wants to fight back and is told by another brother that they will fail no matter what, and why does it matter how they fall and he responds “When the fall is all that’s left, it matters”. Many costume dramas – even the most handsomely mounted among them, feel rather bloodless. The Lion in Winter is one of those rare costume dramas that feel real and immediate.

7. Yellow Submarine (George Dunning)
By 1968, The Beatles didn’t want to make another movie. They were in the process of creating the White Album, and their band was on the verge of collapse, but they had signed a three picture deal, and had to deliver something. What they came up with was Yellow Submarine, a daring, innovative, trippy animated movie that uses their songs and their likenesses, but allowed The Beatles not to be overly involved – although they loved the final product. The film tells a story of Pepperland, where the evil Blue Meanies, who hate music, invade and turn the colorful Pepperland into a blue, depressing place – until The Beatles arrive to save the day. The plot doesn’t really matter, and neither really does the dialogue which is at times so nonsensical that you simply have to smile and go with the flow. The songs, of course, are a highlight of the movie, but so is the imagery which is whimsical, funny and inventive. Yellow Submarine is a movie that doesn’t have to make sense – it is precisely what it wants to be, no more and certainly no less.

6. The Producers (Mel Brooks)
Mel Brooks has got to be considered the father of the dirty comedy – yet unlike many of the people who came after him; his best films are also intelligent and satirical. Brooks’ first film, The Producers, may just be the best thing he ever made. Zero Mostel gives a deliriously funny performance as a down on his luck theater producer who hits upon an idea given to him by his accountant, Gene Wilder. They will produce the worst play in Broadway history – and yet all of Mostel’s old lady backers to put up the money for it – pocketing the extra money, and never having to pay them any of the profits, because there won’t be any. The find the play – called Springtime for Hitler – written by deranged Nazi Kenneth Mars, which they describe as a “love letter to Hitler”. They cast a drugged out hippie, Dick Shawn, to play the lead, and hire the worst director on Broadway, Christopher Hewitt to direct. The resulting show is so offensive that they feel they have succeeded in their goal. Brooks film is hilarious for many reasons – the wonderful cast, the great songs, the staging of the musical the title musical number – but mainly because Brooks is fearless in how he presents it. He knows people will be offended by the movie, and doesn’t care. He goes for broke. That’s what great comedies are supposed to do.

5. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero)
Night of the Living Dead is one of the most groundbreaking horror films in history – and other than my number 1 film, probably the film that has had the greatest influence on film history of anything released this year. Director George A. Romero made the film for practically no money in 1968 – and the independent nature of the production allowed him to create precisely the movie he wanted to make. The film was grisly, violent and shocking by the standards of the times, and while the shock value has faded, the film still has an undeniable visceral impact when viewed today. Night of the Living Dead was also daring in that, although it was a horror film, it took on many social issues – the destruction of the American family, the war in Vietnam and racism. Romero has continued his zombie apocalypse movies for the past forty years – most recently with 2010’s Survival of the Dead. He has become one of the giants of horror films – and it all started with this shocking little film.

4. Faces (John Cassavetes)
Faces is an appropriate title for John Cassavetes film about a marriage that is slowly imploding. Here is a film where the characters are constantly talking, laughing, singing, dancing, yelling and yet it is in those rare quiet moments, where Cassavetes simply concentrates on the actors faces that we truly get the see the real people inside. John Marley and Lynn Carlin are excellent as a married couple whose marriage is simply crumbling down around them. He spends time with a prostitute (Gena Rowlands), comes home and ends up in an argument with his wife that ends with him demanding a divorce. Then he goes back to the prostitute. Perhaps the forget the pain she is feeling, Carlin and some friends go out, and end up back at her place with a charming younger man – Seymour Cassell. Soon all her friends are gone, and it’s just Cassell and Carlin together. These four characters are so acutely observed by Cassavetes, avoiding all stereotypes and simply allowed to be themselves. There is a lot of false bravado in the film – a lot of laughing and joking, but these characters are really insecure below it all. This is one of the greatest triumphs of Cassavetes career – because he sees these people who are trapped in their own little worlds, hung up with their own issues that they are unable to see the other people around them for who they are. The performances are all wonderful, and Cassavetes trademark style (which infuriates some, I should point out) is put to full use here. There are some movies that are mere time capsules of their era, that age badly over time – Faces seems just as relevant today as it must have in 1968.

3. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski)
Rosemary’s Baby still has the power to shock, scare and titillate over 40 years after it was released. The film works so well all these years later, because it does not depend on the surprise ending for its effectiveness. I’m sure most viewers were like me the first time they saw the film – and knew the ending heading in. But Roman Polanski does a masterful job in Rosemary’s Baby precisely because he does not depend on that shock for the ending. There is a sense of foreboding throughout the entire film, a sense that something is not quite right, and not that Mia Farrow is simply crazy – but that her husband (John Cassavetes) and her next door neighbors (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) really are up to something evil. We watch in horror not to find out what is going to happen, but because we cannot stop it from happening. Farrow is marvelously effective as Rosemary, and Gordon is perhaps even better as the seemingly kindly old woman next door. Polanski keeps the plot moving along, and the sense of dread gradually building until it becomes nearly impossible to watch. He keeps us involved in the story, believing the story right up until the final moment. Polanski hit it out of the park in his first American film.

2. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)
Perhaps because it doesn’t star Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America isn’t as well known by the public as his previous spaghetti Westerns were. Yet the film has enjoyed a huge, and deserved critical reputation. It just maybe the best film of Leone’s career. The film’s plot is almost endless complex – involving a new wife (Claudia Cardinale) of a wealthy man who arrives at her new home to discover her family is dead, and she is now the sole owner of a prime piece of land. Henry Fonda is magnificent as the cold blooded bad guy who killed them, and wants the land, and has framed Jason Robards for the crime. Then there is Charles Bronson, a man with no name, who rides in and has a score to settle with Fonda. What score? Leone doesn’t tell us until very late in the movie. The film is masterfully photographed, contains a wonderful score by Ennio Morricone, and great performances all around – especially Fonda whose icy blue eyes are full of evil and malice. Leone captures the atmosphere just about perfectly – a large, expansive set, lots of extras who feel real, and he wrings every last ounce of drama and tension out of the films set-up, and gun battles. I’m not sure if Once Upon a Time in the West in Leone’s best film – but it ranks right alongside The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon in America as the masterpieces of his career.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the kind of big budgeted, epic mind trip movies that no one in their right mind would ever green light to day – where audiences are not as adventuresome, or perhaps just not on as many drugs, as they were in 1968. It is one of the best films of all time, which is even more impressive when you remember that the most intriguing character in the film is little more than a blinking light, and an eerily calm voice of the computer HAL. None of the human characters offer any real complexity – but then again they do not have to, because they are not the point of the movie. 2001 may just be the ultimate atheist movie – a movie that proposes an alternate version of human history from that proposed by the bible. The story of human is not the great tragedy of how far we have fallen from our biblical roots – where Eve damned mankind forever by eating that apple – but how far we have come from the our roots as savage primates. Kubrick’s movie suggests the next step in human evolution, how we are constantly changing, shifting into something greater than ourselves. The film is innovative and groundbreaking in its use of special effects, masterful in its direction from the longest flash forward in cinema history – representing millions of years when that monkey at the beginning throws the bone in the air – to the breathtaking “murder” of HAL, but the film is so much more than just those elements. This truly is one of the greatest films ever made – and the supreme achievement by one of the true masters of cinema.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Boston Strangler (Richard Flesicher), Bullitt, Greetings (Brian DePalma), Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman), Madigan (Don Siegal), The Odd Couple (Gene Saks), Shame (Ingmar Bergman).

Notable Films Missed: The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Jean Marie Straub), Funny Girl (William Wyler), Hour of the Furnaces (Octavio Getino & Fernando E. Solanas), L’Amour fou (Jacques Rivette), Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea), The Party (Blake Edwards), Rachel Rachel (Paul Newman), Romeo & Juliet (Franco Zefferelli), The Salesman (David & Albert Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin), The Subject Was Roses (Ulu Grosbard), Teorema (Pier Paolo Passolini), A Touch of Zen (King Hu).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Oliver (Carol Reed)
Contrary to what many of my readers probably think of me by now – considering how often I have picked on the musical winners of the Best Picture Oscar – I can, and do musicals – even large scale ones at times. But, don’t count me among the people who think that Charles Dickens’ dark tale of orphans needed a toe tapping update and lively music to make it worthwhile. Worse still, the boy who plays Oliver is a consummate bore – he has zero personality and is so bland he fades into the background in practically every single scene. Ron Moody’s Fagin is Jewish stereotyping at its worst, providing no complexity to the character, and essentially making him an evil clown. The only actor in the film who is truly wonderful is young Jack Wild as The Artful Dodger, who is full of energy and charisma. The rest of the movie is a big, bloated bore. I love Carol Reed as a director – see his 1940s films like The Fallen Idol, Odd Man Out and The Third Man to see what he is really capable of, and forget this mess of a film.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Cliff Robertson, Charly
There are some choices the Academy has made over the years that I not only don’t agree with, but that absolutely mystify me. I may not like Oliver as a film for example, but I understand why others did and why it won the Best Picture Oscar. But this win for Cliff Robertson in Charly is one of those ones where I simply shake my head and wonder what the hell they were thinking. Robertson plays a mentally challenged janitor who wants to become smarter – but after years of night school, he still cannot spell his name properly (hence the title). He undergoes an experimental treatment to make him smarter – and it works, as he soon surpasses his teacher, Claire Bloom, and then falls in love with her, and she with him, until it is realized that the affect is only temporary, and that he will revert back to his former state. The film, when viewed today is so horribly dated, that at times it borders on unwatchable (the two montage sequences, first with Charly growing a mustache, riding a motorcycle and kissing lots of women, the second as he and Bloom fall in love are the most glaring examples, but the whole movie suffers). Robertson isn’t all that convincing as a mentally challenged man, and isn’t that much better when he regains his intelligence. I suppose a good movie could be made out of this material – but this movie certainly is not it – and Robertson is among the main reasons why. When you think that they nominated Peter O’Toole’s great performance in The Lion in Winter – an actor who holds the record for the most nominations without a win – and still went with this bad performance in this bad movie, it simply boggles the mind.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Katherine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter/Barbara Striesand, Funny Girl
For only the second time in history, The Academy had a tie for an acting Oscar win. The strange thing about it is, that this was the only year that the Academy allowed nominees who were not previously part of the Academy to vote in the winning round – normally, although they become automatic members, they have to wait until the next year – meaning that if assuming Striesand voted for herself, this strange quirk in the rules (that no one could possibly see resulting in this) was the cause of the tie! Due to my completely irrational hatred of Striesand (other than The Prince of Tides and Meet the Fockers, I have never see any of her other films), I cannot comment on her performance. However, Hepburn was marvelous and forceful in her performance in The Lion in Winter. While I wouldn’t say it was her best performance, it is certainly the best of her performances to win an Oscar (and there were 4 of those!).

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Jack Albertson, The Subject Was Roses
As far as I know, The Subject Was Roses has never been released on DVD, so Jack Albertson’s Oscar winning turn has eluded me up to this point – although I am very interested to see the film, and Albertson is a fine character actor, so I suspect it’s a quality performance. Out of the nominees, I would have probably chosen either Gene Wilder’s hilarious turn in The Producers, or Seymour Cassell’s wonderful hippie performance in Faces – although I think the best performance in this category this year was by Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in America.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Ruth Gordon, Rosemary’s Baby
Ruth Gordon is great in Rosemary’s Baby – the seemingly sweet old woman next door to Mia Farrow who at first simply seems kind and overly concerned and nosy regarding her pregnancy, but gradually starts to become creepier and creepier leading up the finale of the film, where she reveals her true colors. Gordon, along with her husband Garson Kanin wrote some wonderful comedies in the 1940s and 50s – including Oscar nominations for her work on A Double Life, Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike. She had also been acting for years, but never really got good roles until the 1960s. Her work in Rosemary’s Baby is legendary. Considering how infrequently work in the horror genre is recognized by the Academy – in any category, but especially acting – her win is a cause for celebration for fans of the genre.