Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Top 100 Films - 75 to 66

75.Guests gather in abundance in a classic manor house for a weekend of mayhem, maybe even murder. I am powerless to resist the allure of this tired scenario. I could offer any number of explanations why, and while I’m musing on it, why not start with the manor house itself. A sprawling mansion (or castle or chateau or whathaveyou) is a genuine modern labyrinth, and rarely an empty one at that. Never does one room get all the action. Guests and servants move from room to room. Everyone has an agenda. In film, at times we see this all at once, but more often than not we remain in the confines of one room, simply aware that more is going on that we’re not privileged to see.

The Rules of the Game pulls off the difficult task, more successfully than any other film, of showing us the whole picture. It’s a tremendous feat of direction, benefiting greatly from the use of deep focus shots that Jean Renoir pulls off better than Citizen Kane even managed to. But like I pointed out above, he was using the perfect setting. The mansion in the film is appropriately sprawling. I couldn’t even begin to draw a map of the place, not that I’d want to. On occasion we observe rooms from beyond the doorway to another. People move to and fro in manic fashion, and just when we think all the action before couldn’t be more overwhelming, the camera pans in a quick 180 degree motion and reveals yet another roomful of motion. There’s not a main character to be found, but instead a handful of intermingling passions among the many gathered at the house. We jump from one plot strand to the next not merely seamlessly, but artfully. There’s a delicate build to the mayhem of this house, tightly controlled chaos if you will, and watching it unfold is mesmerizing.

Of course, there are a lot of other reasons to love The Rules of the Game as well, but they’ve been talked about time and time again and there’s not much I’ll be able to add to the conversation. Suffice it to say that it’s a film worthy of its acclaim, above all else because it actually demands something of its viewers. There’s a lot to keep track of, and far more to consider about lives of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat than is readily spelled out for viewers. It’s a film packed with so much that the bar it sets is nigh unreachable, but that’s just how Jean Renoir rolls.

I’ve always found the practice of one artistic medium exploring another not only compelling, but also strangely daring. Film has taken on theater, photography, painting and so forth with rather limited success. I don’t say that harshly. It’s not that all these films are failures, they just don’t adequately capture the creative process at their subject’s core. Films tend to be about the artists, not the art, and as such they are little more than that most uninteresting of genres, the biopic. But leave it to Jacques Rivette, the most underrated of the Nouvelle Vague masters, to be the great exception to this case.

La Belle Noiseuse makes no attempt at brevity. Through the course of four hours, we follow an aging artist as he returns to his trade to create the masterwork he had failed to years ago. Michel Piccoli plays Frenhofer the artist. Modeling for him is the incomparable Emmanuelle Béart. Their interactions alone in the studio naturally take up a great deal of the film’s time, and the relationship they have stands far from the typical artist/model cliché. That is to say, she’s no traditional muse to Frenhofer. He abuses her, contorting her body into impossible poses, and the physical abuse begins to take a mental toll. Mixed throughout are lengthy hand sketches, each abandoned in frustration in favor of a new pose. But of course great art isn’t created over night, and within the confines of the studio we can’t help but give the film our undivided attention because we can feel this greatness in the works. Never has a film given such insight into the artistic process. Never have four hours passed by so unnoticed.

Odd that one of the greatest science fiction films only incidentally exists in the genre. There’s no overarching critique of society in Solaris, and despite the epic feel that its length and critical standing lend it, everything here boils down to the personal struggle of the protagonist, Kelvin. The shot early on in the film driving unhindered through the streets of Tokyo sends us off on a mesmerizing journey. We move along to the space station, and like Kelvin, find the experience hallucinatory. Memory and reality mingle, but not without a cost. There comes a point when neither seems quite right anymore, but we’re too far gone at that point to turn back. Tarkovsky’s pacing is slow, but deliberate, and the delirious visions are so arresting that getting lost in them feels only natural. And as usual, Tarkovsky sends you off with an ending that stands your every hair on end.

72.Eraserhead is the closest a film has ever came to replicating the stuff that nightmares are made of. Analysis doesn’t do it justice. Like all the wildest dreams, it can only be described by experiencing it. It works because despite the utter insanity of it all, it never feels as though David Lynch has haphazardly thrown this together. Maybe there’s a method to the madness, I’m inclined to think there is, but understanding isn’t the key to appreciating a film of this kind. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a good time pondering the possible interpretations, but I’ll be damned if I could offer any insight into its inner-workings. Might as well tackle the mysteries of the universe while I’m at it. One thing I can be sure of though; in heaven, everything is fine.

It’s become so entangled in its downright mythic production history that it’s possible to forget that Fitzcarraldo is actually as great a film as it is a personal achievement for Werner Herzog. For those not in the know, Fitzcarraldo is about an opera aficionado who decides to build an opera house in the South American jungle. The task at hand requires the monumental task of moving a boat between two rivers, quite literally hauling it up a mountain. That’s exactly what he does, not just Fitzcarraldo, but Herzog himself. Trees are cleared, the hill is smoothed, and a pulley system strong enough to carry the ship up and over is constructed by hundreds of natives. And it works. Both the character and the director move mountains. How’s that for inspirational?

Of course, it takes a madman to undertake such an endeavor. Herzog fits the bill, but it’s baffling that he ever thought of anyone but Klaus Kinski to play the titular role (he originally started filming with Jason Robards before abandoning that footage). Kinski falls perfectly into the role of a man whose blind ambition begets this perilous scheme. But there’s no man whose man enough to make Kinski back down except for Herzog himself. It’s a role that no one else could have stepped into. It’s also a movie that no one else could have made. But for the safety of casts and crews everywhere, maybe that’s ok.

70.It’s easy to include all corners of adolescence as if they were the same when bringing up great films about childhood, but while there’s at least a handful of classic films surrounding young kids, those at the turning point between junior high and high school are very sorely represented. What so marvelous about Whisper of the Heart is that it taps into a very real concern of kids that age, or at least one that was very real to me, the question of what you’re going to be when you grow up. Just as the film shows, that impending move from one school to the next seems like a very real jump into adulthood. Pulling you forward is the desire to accomplish something and the fear that you’ll fall behind. Holding you back is the remnants of early childhood imagination. The film gets it right. I recall feeling very much like Shizuku eight years ago when I was in the same spot.

But I didn’t see this first as an eighth grader, I saw it as a sophomore in college, and I could only smile at the thought that what once seemed like the biggest transition in the world really didn’t amount to much. And though many circumstances are different, I still find a lot of the same desires and worries tugging at me that I did back then. All these worries may seem insignificant in retrospect, but when you’re in the midst of them, they’re the biggest thing in the world, and that’s all Whisper of the Heart needs to drive its story. With not so much as an antagonist, the film makes this oft overlooked portion of life a truly sublime journey, complete with romance, personal struggles and flights of fancy.

Long before The Battle of Algiers rocked the Casbah, those pesky French were still causing trouble for the city. Hiding from them inside the labyrinthine walls of the Casbah is Pépé le Moko, (Jean Gabin at his most dashing) a notorious crook, thief and lover. Pépé plays the true anti-hero, a man with as many enemies as he has lovers. But he knows his streets better than any of the French officers operating on the outside could ever hope to, and as long as he remains within his quarter’s high walls, he has the advantage in this intense cat and mouse game. His playful relationships, with the pursuing police and women he’s pursuing, grow increasingly complicated. Likeable though he may be, his story never seems destined to end happily.

The only thing more fascinating than Pépé is the space that surrounds him. The cinematography of the Casbah is wonderfully evocative of the most intricate mazes, and the city literally forms both Pépé’s refuge and prison. Film noir owes considerable debt to this one. Few cities have appeared as twisted as the streets and alleys of the Casbah do here. It’s a wonderful example of a film’s location defining it as much as character does. That’s something we don’t see nearly enough of, but boy is it done well here.

The entirety of Drowning By Numbers feels very inevitable, and I mean that in the best way possible. But what else is there to expect from a film where the central gimmick (not actually connected to the plot) is the successive appearance of numbers 1 through 100. The film moves toward an end that becomes fairly evident early on, but the path we take to get there is so sick, twisted and amusing that we hardly mind the formula that we seem to be following. And I don’t mean this falls neatly into the cliché’s of a genre; it’s predictable in the way a board game is. Observe for a little while and you’ll get the basic idea.

And I suppose that’s exactly what Peter Greenaway was going for. Throughout the film he breaks apart various fictional children’s games and inserts a derivative segment concerning them here and there. It keeps the pace up and fits perfectly with the film’s playful nature. Bernard Hill’s performance as the town coroner is memorable, as is Michael Nyman’s score, and as usual for a Greenaway film, the visuals are enough to drop your jaw to the floor. That would be the magic of Sacha Vierny though; credit where credit is due. But the combination of those three has never produced less than interesting results. Drowning By Numbers is no exception, and as it also happens to be one of Greenaway’s most accessible films, there’s no reason not to give it a shot. Except by accessible, I didn’t mean easy to find, which it’s not. Since there’s never been a region 1 DVD of this, I guess you’ll just have to take my word for its awesomeness for now.

Ha! It seems pretty definitive to claim that The English Patient is my favorite film to win best picture, but I look around at the rest of my list and well, it is. And I’m all right with that. It easily falls into my passion for romantic epics, and though people complain about the length, I think it’s actually far more eventful than most films of its kind. Hell, there are basically two main storylines, one happening from the bed of an abandoned villa and one unfolding gradually through flashbacks. Boring? I suppose, if you’ve got a short attention span. Really though, I actually enjoy how much of a punching bag this film has become for some people. It got an entire episode of Seinfeld dedicated to complaining about it and people still like to seize upon it as some grand Oscar travesty (partly because they’ve not seen/don’t know enough of the winners to find a more worthy one to complain about, but also partly because they think The Departed was the best film to ever win the award). Hey, I’ll hear anyone’s case for why some film is the best of that generally subpar cannon, but I’ll stand by this one of the best. Oh, why not, I’ll even tell you why.

First, yet again, I’ve never read Michael Ondaatje’s book on which the film was based, but by all accounts the adaptation pulled quite a feat by translating everything in a way that could work for the screen. What could have easily amounted to pages of precise description of the limitless Sahara and the Italian countryside are expressed through stunning cinematography. Gabriel Yared’s understated score backs it all up without ever overpowering the scene. And of course, the performances rise far above the sappiness that I usually freely accept from romantic epics. It’s where I first truly took notice of Juliette Binoche and where she began her steady ascent to becoming nothing short of my favorite actress, a title she’s consistently held and only grows more secure with each film I see her in. But she seems to be the only that gets all the credit among this cast when really Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas are just as phenomenal. The more I watch, in fact, the more enamored I become with Scott Thomas’s performance. It helps that she’s got a classic beauty like few others these days, but she’s so alluring that I’d never doubt her power to make a man betray his country for her. Well, this is getting a little long. I bet you’re bored. I guess it’s like the mini-review version of this movie. Don’t like it? Then you can just go sit in your corner and watch Forrest Gump and we’ll agree to disagree.

Maurice Jarre’s spooky score open this Grand Guignol of French horror films, setting the glorious bursts of a gothic pipe organ against the blur of passing trees, gnarled and exposed without the cover of leaves to cloak them. But if you think trees look sinister without foliage to enshroud them, wait till you see a human stripped of her skin. Maybe ‘wait’ is the operative term. The first half of Eyes Without a Face runs on the steadily burning question of what lies behind that haunting white mask. Our fear, of course, is of what might lie behind that ghostly white exterior, and thus there’s a risk in revealing her face too early in the film. But by the time we get a peak, there are enough other terrors to seize us that the film holds steam right up to the ethereal conclusion. And yet despite the incredible amount of restraint applied to most of the story line, several moments lapse into downright gruesome detail. It’s obviously enough fake, but for a film that’s just hit its fiftieth year they hold up darn well. The traumatic visions of a face being sliced off, even with the limited effects, make you squirm as much as any of today’s torture porn flicks do. The difference is that Eyes Without a Face never dwells on these moments too long; they’re minor indulgences adding gravity to an already disquieting plot.

Horror films have had a good run on this list up until now, which isn’t something I’d have expected before devising this list, but this is the last for now. There’s one more coming somewhere down the road, but not just yet.

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