Monday, October 19, 2009

Top 100 Films - 50 to 46

Fellini goes Technicolor, and just because he can, goes completely overboard. I’m sure a lot of credit has to go to Criterion for their resplendent restoration, but the whole film is overrun by eye-poppingly beautiful color. As far as visual feasts-for-the-eyes go, I can’t think of many I’d rather indulge in. Juliet’s wanderings in the spirit world, and its subsequent intrusion into her own, provide ample opportunity for sensational costumes and set pieces. The circus scene, sadly too brief, explodes with life and character. Suzy’s lavish pad mixes shadow and brilliant light giving it a distinctly erotic ambiance. Even Juliet’s real world seems just out of place from the high fashion to the perfectly sculpted trees. But this is a fantasy, one of the best, and everything about the color palate and the set design is just as it should be.

One thing I can’t saw for most films on this list is that I’ve had the pleasure of watching them in the theater. In fact, There Will Be Blood I think is one of only two, and there’s something special about being in on a film’s greatness right from the start. It’s a film of startling ambition, and that’s something we rarely see these days (only a handful this decade are in league with this, and they’re all still to come in my countdown). Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most interesting presences in American cinema these days, has been shooting for the moon his whole career, and so it’s no surprise that he had this in him. The concept speaks to fundamental American values born from greed and religion and it arrived with its theme of blood and oil in the waning years of the Bush administration. The timing was perfect. Of course, so was just about everything else. Like all the most iconic screenplays, this one’s immensely quotable. Johnny Greenwood’s sharp score is perfectly unnerving. Robert Elswit’s cinematography renders every set piece a grand one. And towering in the middle is Daniel Day-Lewis as the deplorable, yet not altogether villainous Daniel Plainview. Every aspect stills seems so fresh, and there’s nothing I can really add to its praise that hasn’t been reiterated time and time again these past two years, but suffice it to say, it’s refreshing to have been a film fanatic at the time this hit theaters.

The world of Brazil isn’t so impossibly different from our own. For a science fiction dystopia there’s not nearly the emphasis on technology you’d expect, nothing much beyond what we’re already capable of (at least in the 80s). But you could be forgiven for not noticing the similarities, because Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece looks nothing like you’ve every seen before. Brazil is a marvel of art direction. It’s no easy task to craft a world that operates on its own brand of logic, but to make such a place seem so cohesive that you never doubt it, well, that’s an accomplishment only equaled by Jacques Tati. Against all odds, Brazil holds together, though it seems that at any moment the walls may come down. Gilliam and company run amok through the dark and unstable buildings, like children acting out a scene in a bedsheet fort of grand design, gleefully ignorant of the impending collapse of their set. That’s why Brazil is at once dangerous and indefatigable, and I can’t think of two better compliments for a film stuck in the middle of the dullest decade cinema has yet to see.

47.Spoilers…Give me Kenji Mizoguchi any day over all the other classic Japanese masters. For proof, look no further than Sansho the Bailiff, although Ugetsu and Life of Oharu are nothing to sneeze at either. But Sansho delivers simultaneously a potent political commentary and a harrowing tale of familial bond, and since neither are typically my cup of sake, it’s speaks volumes that Mizoguchi binds me to the story as intensely as he does. Sansho’s prison-like estate makes for grand set piece, and the haunting cinematography sets the mood for Zushio as he chases his ghosts. The two lingering moments that I’ll never shake from my head come at the middle and end of the film respectively. Anju’s descent into the lake is bone-chilling, perhaps the most powerful depiction of family sacrifice in all of cinema, and it’s her absence that keeps the reunion at the end of the film from carrying the satisfaction you’d expect. That doesn’t diminish the effect of this final scene. Zushio and his mother are together once more, but the years have taken a terrible toll on her, and Anju’s absence weighs heavily on both of them. They’re together at last, but at great cost. It takes every ounce of self-control to hold back tears by this point - the moment is just that bittersweet. Kudos to Mizoguchi for proving I’m not heartless after all.

46.The opening scene of Sam Fuller’s uncompromising Naked Kiss lets you know exactly what’s in store for you in the next hour and a half. There’s a hooker pummeling some no-doubt deserving bastard with her purse. And suddenly after he yanks on her hair, her wig comes right off. She’s bald. This only makes matters worse, and she continues to beat his drunken ass to the floor. She seizes his wallet, takes exactly the money he owes her, and stuffs the remaining wad of cash in his mouth. Rarely has a movie so gleefully launched us into the fray. From there we jump to two years later, and our familiar whore, Kelly, now has a full head of hair and new prospects on the horizon. But as she strikes up a new life, leaving her former profession behind, she can’t help getting caught up in the dark underside of the town she now calls home. Had the opening scene not prepared us for virtually anything, the astonishing twist in the plot may have felt too shocking. Fuller never hides the dark edges of his films, but he shows a commendable amount of restraint just where he needs to here. The payoff is one of the great commentaries on small town America, and it feels very much like a precursor to Twin Peaks noir angle. And amid the 60s arthouse boom and infatuation with epics, Naked Kiss seems the most distinctly American film of the decade. Sheer greatness all around.

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