Sunday, November 1, 2009

Top 100 Films 45 -41


Once upon a time Tristan never would have dreamed of sticking a Western among his top 50s favorite films. When I was just starting to consider myself a film snob, I was far too eager to make sweeping generalizations about genres. Westerns got the short end of my cinematic stick. I warmed a bit to the likes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Destry Rides Again and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but it was with Once Upon a Time in the West that I finally made peace with the genre. The title suggests the stuff of legend. To invoke “once upon a time” is a bold statement of the films ambitions. But the concept comes straight from three of the great Italian directors, Sergio Leone himself alongside Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento. Centered on the expansion of the railroads, the plot taps into the lifeline of the old West and seems certifiably epic. But that epic feel takes hold in every corner of the picture because Once Upon a Time in the West is a landmark of direction. Leone not only can frame a perfect shot, he can string them together into the perfect scene. Each of the four main characters is treated to an appropriately memorable introduction with the opening sequence featuring Henry Fonda’s ruthless assassin Frank being one for the books. Same goes for high tension confrontation on the train, and the inevitable final standoff. With one unforgettable scene after another, Leone never makes a false step. What he does that rarely comes off successfully in westerns is to make the heroes, the villain, and the girl into equally interesting characters. The proper introductions certainly help, and he couldn’t have cast the parts any better (Charles Bronson has never been this good), and most importantly, there’s an equal sense of importance to each of them. Ennio Morricone even gives each of character their own theme, and they weave together seamlessly into one of his best film scores, which I revisit frequently just to conjure up images of the film.

Pandora’s Box, without the benefit of sound, stands among the most captivating films I have ever seen. This rests firmly on the sensual shoulders of Louise Brooks. Lulu is perhaps the most memorable face of silent cinema (or second to Falconetti, but Brooks is certainly first in my book) and so I don’t find it a stretch to call her performance a medium defining one. Her unabashed sexuality is striking, even today, and placed within the context of when the film was made, it’s remarkable. It’s among the many reasons why the late 20s up until the production code popped up is one of my favorite periods in cinema. As Lulu progresses from ambitious stage performer to utter destitution, we’re fascinated by all this misery of her own making. More compelling still are the men and women she casts her seductive spell upon along the way. We can’t help but see why. Pabst doesn’t need sound to pull this off. Brooks’ face and figure are quite enough.

I had originally stuck Black Narcissus back somewhere in between 70 and 80 on this list, but when I revisited it for the sake of this review, I realized I’d been severely underrating it. My re-viewings have lead to some minor adjustments of the list, but nothing has jumped quite like this. Its upward mobility is indicative of my ever-increasing appreciation for the powerhouse directorial team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I never would have thought it when I first caught Black Narcissus (my first of their films) but I would handily rank them among my five favorite directors, or I guess in this case, six. So this film was my first impression of the dynamic duo of classic cinema, and though I hadn’t been ready to tag it as a masterpiece straight off the bat, my recollection of it lingered thanks to the impact of the performances and the unparalleled power of the imagery.

Where else will you get to witness the slow unraveling of a cloister of nuns high in a Himalayan monastery? There’s something in the air, so they say, and you’ll believe it too. The art direction is the most breathtaking to ever come out of a studio, and the glorious matte paintings that encompass the background mark the monastery of Black Narcissus with a rare beauty that could only be created by an omnipresent hand. Overcome by passions and desires long since repressed, the nuns gradually break from their sanity. At the forefront of their collapse is Sister Ruth and the maddening lust she cultivates for the handsome British overseer, Mr. Dean. Conflicts of soul and body threaten to destroy the sisters and return the monastery once more to a place outside the realm of religious governance. Their undoing is ultimately of their own design, entirely independent of their intrusion in a seemingly mystic land. The failings of the sisters, much like those of the young Hindu prince and the atheist Mr. Dean, come from the most basic human desires, and indeed only seem like failures when viewed through the strict religious codes adhered to by the nuns. A thought provoking, visually resplendent and thoroughly mesmerizing piece of cinema.

42.In the midst of the decade lauded as the pinnacle of American cinema – one where I actually prefer much of the foreign flicks, being the contrarian that I am – I still find it impossible to deny the majesty of Chinatown. It’s both a great film and a great American film (made by a foreigner, no less) and is almost uncontested as the finest revisioning of film noir, a claim I’d hardly argue with. Only a few decades removed from the heyday of noir could you suck all the water – the stormy nights and rain-slicked streets – out of the genre and build as gripping detective story around a devastating drought in the Inland Empire. Jack Nicholson at the top of his game carries on in the tradition of the great screen detectives, a magnet for trouble and troubled women alike. And as far as troubled women go, all the classic femme fatales this side of Gloria Grahame ain’t got nothing on Fay Dunaway. Evelyn Mulwray ranks among the great tragic characters of the screen, her arc ranging from mysterious and alluring to unprecedentedly devastating. And I can hardly carry on about the brilliant casting without a mention of John Huston. The master of noir himself delivers one of the greatest performances by a director ever, in portraying one of the screen’s most loathsome villains. It’s just another nod from Roman Polanski to the glory days of the genre, but the reality it that his creation stands taller than so many of the films it reveres.

41.Adhering to my harshest standards, Greed is the first masterpiece in the hundred plus year history of cinema. Across four harrowing hours - not in the least bit tedious – we follow John McTeague ascent into riches and the ruination it brings upon him and his wife Trina. Erich von Stroheim famously resolved to film on location, most notable amidst the staggering heat of Death Valley. But desperate conditions produce strikingly realized scenes, from the scorching sands of the desert to the harsh mountainside. It’s the original tale of man’s consumption and subsequent unraveling in the face of avarice, pivotal in it’s influence on later classics from The Treasure of Sierra Madre to There Will Be Blood. The trinity of classic characters at the center of the film are as compelling as they are contemptible. McTeague (Gibson Gowland) gradually loses control of his life as his wealth blinds him to everything else. His wife Trina (ZaSu Pitts) is driven into miserly madness and his old partner, Marcus (Jean Hersholt) turns rival as they face off over the fortune. Unforgettable are two scenes deep into the film as greed takes final hold over the characters. Trina, deep in the thralls of insanity, rolls in a bed of gold, cackling like the madwoman she’s become. If that doesn’t get to you, then the legendary climax in the heat of Death Valley surely will. In a punishment fitting of the sinners of Tartarus, McTeague strangles Marcus only to find himself handcuffed to his dead opponent, stranded in the sea of sand. It’s a classic parable that’s been done time and time again ever since 1924, just never done quite so well.

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