Saturday, September 12, 2009

Top 100 Films 65-56

65.I’ve been agonizing over this one for a while, first because it’s been some time since I’ve seen it so the exact progression of events is a bit muddled in my head, second because even if they weren’t, I’m not sure I could put to words the allure that this considerably underrated Ingmar Bergman film has for me. Like much of Bergman’s cannon, the atmosphere of The Silence defines the film more than its events do (and wouldn’t you know, it’s a very solitary atmosphere). In fact, the whole film seems to run on a throbbing disconnect between family, between culture, and between this life and the next. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot here that just doesn’t make one lick of sense. Why the singular tank in the streets? What’s up with the dwarfs? But like Last Year at Marienbad, (comparisons between the two are apt) it’s best not to demand answers from this one. Bergman himself was more interested in questions anyway, especially at this stage in his career. From that lengthy period when he grappled with the existence of God, The Silence is surely his most compelling work.

Would you rather have fish or meat for dinner?

What would you have preferred if you were having meat?
I dunno, veal.

If you were to have beef rather than veal, would you prefer a steak or a roast?
A steak.

Had you answered roast, would you have preferred it rare or well-done?

Well, honey, you’re out of luck. My roast beef’s a bit overdone.

Jean-Luc Godard always has so much to say in his films that often he forgets (or actively avoids) how to loosen up and have fun. Not so in A Woman is a Woman, which is joyfully packed with playful exchanges like the one above. Plus it’s a musical, or at least, it’s sort of a musical, and this insistence on wading halfway into a genre without ever committing to a full plunge must make this one of the most self-conscious movies ever made. The whole thing’s a blast though. The minor touches that Godard slips in don’t go unnoticed; like the casual references to his earlier films as well as Truffaut’s, or seeing them haul the floor lamp around the apartment at night, which gets me every time. Anna Karina rocks the color rock like it’s never been worn before and she brightens up every frame of the classic, yet dreary Parisian streets. Her presence is irresistible, and the giddy, just-awakened love we have for her is no surprise since we’re seeing her as Godard did early on in his attraction to her. And though it’s Karina’s movie through and through, it’s nice having Jean-Paul Belmondo (I especially enjoy his simple conman schemes) and Jean-Claude Briarly along for the ride. The interactions between all three amount to comic perfection. There’s really never a dull moment, mainly because jump cuts conveniently sidestep anything boring, but Godard and Karina bring so much energy to this mix that it’s a joy the whole way through.

I’m always surprised not to see Stroszek ranked among Werner Herzog’s greatest films. Sure it doesn’t boast an insane performance from Klaus Kinski, but instead we get the most endearing idiot to ever find himself on screen, Bruno S., the very definition of an amateur actor. Bruno, along with his girlfriend and elderly neighbor, leaves Germany behind and heads for the promised land of Wisconsin seeking a new and better life. But the life of an immigrant is rarely a glamorous one, and Bruno and company find a strain not just on their finances, but on their own little oddball family. It sounds like the story of just about every immigrant to the good ol’ US of A, and I’d have never taken interest in the first place had Herzog not been at the helm. That’s exactly what this classic tale of chasing the American dream needed though, the gaze of a foreigner whose dreams were always far grander than any newcomer here could every imagine. How familiar Herzog was at the time with America I can’t be certain, but two things I do know are thus: first, that he ended up making Stroszek after getting sidetracked from his quest to dig up Ed Gein’s mother’s grave; and second, that he approaches every minor utter obscurity in the heartland with the utter fascination that only a foreigner could. The America we see in Stroszek has no streets paved with gold, but it hardly takes place in an immigrant ghetto either. The country instead is characterized by its people, auctioneers, mechanics, even an animal magnetism expert; and unforgettably by its roadside attractions. Herzog and Bruno have to come all the way to Middle America to marvel at an animal sideshow event, complete with a chicken that just won’t stop dancing. It may be the strangest depiction of our country displayed on film, but more than a few notes of it ring true. In exploring the place on his own terms, Herzog finds the bits that set us apart from the rest of the world, though not necessarily for better or for worse.

One of the only films that I’d seen for the first time in 2009 to make the list (I believe 3 others did as well) I’d prefer to have another viewing before deciding how to explain it’s brilliance, but since it’s a little hard to come by a copy, I’ll do my best without. Nicholas Roeg, co-director and cinematographer, rarely gets the credit he deserves, and he’s surely shot films more beautiful than Performance, but maybe never one so effective (even there I’m stretching, The Masque of the Red Death nails the mood of Poe’s story with haunting precision). The point stands though that it takes an act of inspired genius to craft a tale of identity and (as the title would suggest) performance that so in your face as this; stuffed with violence and hypersexuality and filmed like a frenzied plunge into a rockstar’s life behind the scenes. Mick Jagger brings his larger than life persona to the film, and James Fox pulls out the performance of his career to go head to head with him. The resulting experience is a delirious pitfall with a real head-scratcher left at the bottom for us to mull over. But these bits of confusion don’t hurt, they add to feeling that this may all have sprung from an extended hallucination from too many wild nights stacked on end.

Ack! I just realized that I totally shorted Donald Cammell on co-director credit in the graphic. How insensitive of me. Well, credit where credit is due. He's responsible for the script, so that makes the wonders of this as much his doing as Roeg's.

61. For a cinematic mindfuck of the first order, I actually walk away from Being John Malkovich with relatively few questions, (save for ‘why doesn’t John Cusack chose scripts this good more often?’) but that’s ‘cause in spite one insane convolution on top of another, the film does a remarkable job of explaining, and subsequently holding to, its own logic. The plot hurdles from just-plain-weird to batshit-crazy as we move from the story of a creepy puppet guy who works in an office built for dwarfs to a hysterical scheme for exploiting the portal to another man’s body (that would be Mr. Malkovich) to a nefarious quest for eternal life. And yet each time Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze up the ante, we can only laugh; shocked that it just dared to go where no film had gone before.

Maybe that’s not quite true, but then again, it’s one of the only films I know that refuses to settle down. To call it escalation doesn’t even begin to do the screenplay justice. The film refuses to settle down and thus there’s no window for minds to wander out of. The film demands our fullest attention (just try bringing someone up to speed on this one, impossible) but what more can you ask for in a movie? At turns it’s hilarious, unsettling, sensual, powerful and introspective. It defies genre. And of course there’s a handful of memorable offbeat performances at the center of it all, including the all but unrecognizable Cameron Diaz. Her baffling love triangle, sort of quadrilateral, with John Cusack and Catherine Keener drives much of the film along and brings out career best performances from all involved. But had the lot of them not been so damn good, this would be remembered as Malkovich’s show. He brilliantly pulls of an intentionally self-aware performance that goes well beyond any part an actor ever imagine playing. Much as the film boggles my mind, I can’t imagine his reaction upon first seeing the script. Only from the warped brain of Charlie Kaufman could all this have sprung.

For an avant-garde filmmaker, Kenneth Anger’s output is surprisingly all quite uniformly good; that is to say, his experiments largely pay off. But within his fascinating body of work, The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome stands out as his masterpiece. He transports us to the very visual realm of Xanadu, not perhaps what you’d picture from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, yet steeped in mythic lore just the same. The film runs a mere 45 minutes, but you’d never really know. Time has no bearing on this hypnotic barrage of images. It’s the kind of film that can only adequately be experienced, not described. It initiates a kind of trance, provided you’re willing to get over how damn odd the whole thing is and surrender yourself to the visuals. My recommendation would be to turn off the lights and eliminate all possible distractions before getting started. Considering how short it actually is, there’s no sense in interrupting the otherworldly sensation this conjures up.

The times they are a changing in Sicily during the course of the Risorgimento, and The Leopard captures the moment through an intimate portrait of a member of the country’s dying nobility. Luchino Visconti’s exquisite masterpiece sets a high bar for epic filmmaking. Breathtaking visuals, a sublime score by Nino Rota, and a collection of the finest costumes ever designed for film add weight to unflagging grandeur of the whole affair. Visconti paints a world so beautiful that we never doubt how resolutely the old guard would hang on to it while the younger generations fight equally for its betterment. The performances are towering. Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, among the best European actors of their day, give a face to the country’s youth. Burt Lancaster is astonishing as the Prince, understanding of the changing world around him, but emotionally worn down by it as well. His character is a great man, yet a fragile one. So rarely do we see the most distinguished and imposing of figures reveal their vulnerabilities as he does, however selectively. It may just be the best performance of the 1960s. Overall, a film of soaring ambition that never misses its mark, but hits its most magnificent stride in the final hour with an extended celebration sure to win back the attention of less patient audience members. It’s an astonishing accomplishment for both Vicsconti and Lancaster.

I would struggle to compare Withnail & I to any other comedy I’ve ever seen. It’s more British than Beef Wellington, yet doesn’t fall into the company of the Pythons, Ealing studios, nor the more contemporary comedy of Simon Pegg or Ricky Gervais. It also succeeds in simultaneously hitting both the high and low brow, a satire on social rank that finds a great many laughs from drugs, homosexuality and drunken antics. Bruce Robinson’s screenplay is sharp and built around three characters whose typically extreme interactions (extreme, because excess of drink begets such behavior) keep things hilarious from start to finish. Paul McGann plays I, the more timid of the titular characters, whose inability to control the downward spiral of their country weekend seems to be the principle conflict of the film. Richard Griffiths is Withnail’s well-to-do uncle Monty who happily puts his nephew and friend up for the weekend in his country cottage under the illusion that I may have eyes for him. They’re both marvelous, but it’s Richard E. Grant as Withnail who (drunkenly) drives the film to such great heights.

Withnail may either be the worst person in the world, or the best. That would depend on whether you’re his roommate, or just a casual acquaintance, and it would certainly depend on whether you’re stone sober or soused out of your head as he is for most of the movie. He’s a coward who attracts the most exciting of situations. He’s a gifted performer forced to use his acting talents to secure a few drinks thanks to his perpetual unemployment. Most remarkably, he’s a fallen bourgeoisie, possessing all manner of an aristocrat from speech to attire, and disdain for the only food and drink he can afford because it doesn’t sooth his highly evolved palate. Withnail is a character built larger than life, and as wretched as he treats his constant companion I, his presence feels like an honor. Withnail can out-drink us, out-talk us, and out-class us, and he may in every way be too good for us, but we get to have him nonetheless. I’ll raise my glass to Withnail, and he’ll raise his bottle right back at me.

I’m the odd one that prefers the pseudo-sequel to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to the original tearjerker musical. It all stems from the conditions I watched it under. I usually can count on a musical to lift my spirits when I need it most-there’s no more perfect form of cinematic escape-but if my love for Jacques Demy’s perceived masterpiece is flagging (and it ain’t much, it would easily make an alternate top 100), it’s because I went in expecting a very different film then I ended up getting. Imagine my elation though when I discovered The Young Girls of Rochefort, every bit as gorgeous as Umbrellas, yet without the teary melodrama. Instead, it’s a celebration of musicals, one that’s impossible to overlook if you’re in love with the genre. Demy brings in Gene Kelly for chrissakes, and the aging dance master is in a fine a form as ever. At the center of it all, Catherine Deneuve and her real life sister Françoise Dorléac are positively radiant; glamorous young girls hopelessly in love and living in the most colorful seaside town ever dreamed of. I’ve heard catchier songs in musicals before, but here the combination of sound, color and oft-grand staging make my weepy heart race in anticipation of a happy ending. And if I’ve not spoiled it already, that’s exactly what I get.

I want to be a Tenenbaum. I’ve always wanted to, since long before the movie was even made. It might be that I’d like to picture myself living in style in one of New York’s most colorful apartments. Or perhaps I crave the talents, for writing, business, tennis or otherwise, that come so naturally to the gifted Tenenbaum offspring. Or maybe it’s the desire to dive into the world of indie quirk without all the saccharine cutesiness that’s now a staple of it. One way or another, Wes Anderson’s storybook tale of family dysfunction introduces a world that’s got plenty of class, wry humor and appeal, and dammit, I want to be part of it.

But why? The characters are hardly people you’d consider lucky to have as friends. Royal’s a grade-A fraud, Margot’s stoicism is a constant frustration, and Chas’s overbearing parent act is no less irritating. It’s also no small matter to ask the audience to accept, much less cheer for, a brother/sister romance, even if they’re only stepsiblings. Of course all these characters endear themselves to us, because although they’re types are exaggerated to extremes, they’re interactions and epiphanies all feel distinctly human. And we do cheer for Margot and Richie to find happiness, though if we’ve gotten to that point, we’ve already come to terms with the awkward situations the film relishes as the foundation of its humor. There’s no place the film won’t go for the sake of a dry chuckle; dog fighting, mental illness and a mortal wound or two, but with the amount of detail that Anderson manages to slip between the frames, it’s bound to take a few viewings to catch everything. Of course, I can think of few films that I’d more eagerly revisit. It’s a strange world these Tenenbaums live in, mostly by their own fault, but that’s what really makes it so inviting.

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