Gosford Park marks the final indulgence to the murder mystery genre on my list (yet both mystery and murder abound in forthcoming selections, just not together) and it’s taken a rare moment of clarity for me to bump this back a few spots in favor of even more deserving films. Hell, I think Gosford Park is perfection, and it’s not even Robert Altman’s best film. More on that later.
But it’s nonetheless a masterpiece of craft, with a sprawling ensemble that is entirely essential to the upstairs/downstairs clash of classes at the heart of the film. Equally mindful of its roots in the mystery genre and Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, it’s still through and through an Altman picture, where characters only glimpsed in select moments are drawn together in a much grander design. One is tempted to single out Helen Mirren or Maggie Smith, but deserving Oscar nominees though they are, this is a collective effort built on strings of interactions both public and private and not one of the cast dampens the proceedings. From Michael Gambon as the surly master of the house and Kristen Scott-Thomas as his icy wife right on down to Kelly McDonald and Emily Watson as the perceptive help, the actors weave a net of intrigue that conjures doubt over just exactly who saw/heard what.
Most impressive it the feeling of restlessness that Altman wraps us into with his wandering camera. An hour passes before murder disrupts the order of Gosford Park, but by then we’ve spent half the film sharpening our eyes because amid the simmering tensions and secret rendezvous, something clearly is about to snap. Proving why Altman is so perfectly matched for the genre, we only get snippets of conversations, leaving open the question as to what our characters are up to in those unseen moments. Other dialogue plays out in the background, and quite commonly multiple conversations occur simultaneously. The aural complexity of Altman films is unmatched (save, perhaps, for Playtime) and in that capacity alone Gosford Park moves beyond the typical trappings of the murder mystery and creates something entirely its own. Surely one of the greatest late career films of all time.
A bleak and harrowing ghost story of three sisters gathered together as one slowly passes into death, Cries and Whispers is a personal high water mark for just about everyone involved – Sven Nykvist, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann, even Ingmar Bergman himself. It’s also perhaps the most unlikely Best Picture nominee there ever was, for it’s not only foreign, but relentlessly depressing right from the start. It’s a movie with mortality ever on the mind, where life, sanity and family bonds balance on a razor’s edge (and speaking of razors, how ‘bout that scene with the broken glass). This is heavy stuff, but it’s not without payoff, taking an ethereal form and bringing closure to unending hours of pain and suffering. Intrinsic to the overwhelming mood of the film is Nykvist’s lush red palate. Few films so thoroughly justify the existence of color, for without those thick as blood rooms to surround them, the characters might seem out of step with the high tragedy bearing down on them. Bergman uses these walls to insulate us in contemplative vision, and from there he cycles us through all the stages of death, from terror to grief to acceptance.
One of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s earliest films still remains my favorite. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant unfolds in the cluttered loft of a clothing atelier and from within we witness the gradual and complete breakdown of the queen bitch of all cinema. Petra is a soul-swallowing monster presiding over a haute court and it’s no challenge to find sympathy for those under her employ. The framing is nothing short of intimidating. Characters are frequently positioned within the guise of stone-faced mannequins or in the shadow of the looming canvas adorning one particularly open wall. But it all works in service to the eventual realization that beyond the intimidation, beyond the monstrosity, Petra von Kant is human. Such a turnaround is the great accomplishment of the film, a triumph as a study in both character and location.
What a fascinating double feature The Exterminating Angel would make when paired with Luis Bunuel’s later The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The plot here is the inverted form of the other: a group of the aristocratic elite sit down at a dinner party and find themselves incapable of leaving. From there things begin to crumble – the walls for instance – but the fact remains that something, somehow, is preventing anyone from vacating the premise. Enter the livestock, not to mention a bear, and watch the mounting confusion in the face of the frivolous habits those wacky bourgeoisie still cling to. From Bunuel we expect nothing less than hilarious absurdity, but in his finest moments (and this is his very finest) he treats us to pointed social satire that is anything but hard to comprehend. The Exterminating Angel may often seem inexplicable, but that’s the point. So are the petty elite.
So much love and hate encircles The Lord of the Rings series that it’s nigh impossible to take a position on it without being labeled either a hopelessly devoted fanboy or a genre-loathing curmudgeon. For the haters, your dissent is noted and understood, (fantasy flicks aren’t everyone’s cup of tea) though your reduction of the movie to a boring story about walking and gay hobbit love have gotten old. Whichever you may be, it’s hard to dispute that the trilogy ranks among the most startlingly ambitious works of contemporary cinema, hell, across all cinema. And as an adaption, it largely works, successfully matching my imagined versions of characters and locations and keeping the greater part of hundreds of pages of text intact. A spotless transition it does not make, but in translating the story to the big screen, one couldn’t ask for much more.
One thing I’ve always loved is how the remarkable ensemble is built on less than obvious casting choices (unlike, shall we say, Harry Potter). In no particular order, my favorite performances across the films come from Bill Boyd (Pippin), Bernard Hill (Theoden), John Noble (Denethor), Miranda Otto (Eowyn), Sean Bean (Boromir) and the incomparable Andy Serkis making cinema history as Gollum. Not a one of them bringing start power to the roll, but each surpassing all expectations I had for their characters. Surrounded by the lush landscape of New Zealand, tucked within a gorgeous blend of set design and digital imagery, the performances keep the film from losing sight of its characters amidst the sea of CGI magic (hello Avatar!). But look at me, I’m starting to sound like a fanboy. Fuck, oh well.