Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Top 100 Films - 18

18.

No way can I write about The Big Heat without exposing a few of the great surprises it holds in store, so be warned, there be spoilers ahead. In fact, it’s a significant film, both for me and for cinema in general, in part because of these moments, which whether in or out of context of the era are profoundly shocking. It looks at first as if Fritz Lang is overplaying the American dream as Dave Bannion’s adoring wife fauns over him as he comes home from work, but that makes it all the more shocking when he blows that dream (and the car, and the wife) to smithereens, raising the stakes mighty high early on and giving Bannion every reason in the world to pursue justice by any means necessary. The car bombing is unique in film noir as it’s a personal assault of a nature that’s not previously been seen. Sure Sam Spade loses his partner Miles Archer at the outset of The Maltese Falcon, but their bond is professional at best and we never think that Spade could be deeply affected by the loss of anyone, whereas family man Bannion becomes a loner only when that which he loves most is ripped away from him. In a genre that thrives on the emotional distance of its leading characters, The Big Heat is the rare film that gives us a reason for such a lifestyle.

Yet even after that explosive first act, it’s hard to brace yourself for what’s to come. The legendary hot coffee scene, in which Lee Marvin’s brutal gangster scalds and disfigures his brazen girlfriend Debby, played by Gloria Grahame, surely must be the most raw act of sadism to occur under the guise of the Production Code. It strikes a nerve, and if In a Lonely Place weren’t enough, seals Grahame’s reputation as noir’s great tragic figure. Like Bannion she’s damaged, in her case physically as well as emotionally, and it’s not hard to see what draws them to each other. Their alliance seems a perfect one, but Debby fights with the reckless abandon of a woman with nothing left to lose while Bannion must consider the safety of his child. It’s ending seems inevitable from a mile out, but impending doom becomes easier to swallow when taken with sweet revenge. Lang remains unflinching to the very end, capping of a showdown of primal intensity with a most mundane scene of Bannion back at the office, presented with the blisteringly ironic offer for a cup of coffee.

Top 100 Films - 19

19.

For a while when I was first getting acquainted with Jean-Luc Godard, every film of his I would watch would become my new favorite. I think I bounced from Breathless to Contempt to Masculine Feminine to A Woman is a Woman before Pierrot Le Fou put an end to the cycle, but I wouldn’t balk at any claim of one of Godard’s unbroken run of 60s masterpieces as a personal favorite. But Pierrot is for me the definitive Godard film, a Bonnie and Clyde tale that reverses Jean-Paul Belmondo’s role from Breathless, instead stringing him along as the companion in an escalating crime spree. It also features Raoul Cotard’s finest work as cinematographer, give or take Contempt, the evidence lying both in the scenic Mediterranean landscapes and the intimate soul-capturing close ups that allow the two legendary star to let loose before the camera. Godard is at the height of his powers here, brandishing a sense of play that waned as his films got increasingly political. It’s a relentlessly fun ride, and with Anna Karina’s uncompromising allure, one of the sexiest films of the swingin’ 60s. The ending, as only Godard could manage, goes out simultaneously with a whimper and a bang, a deeply satisfying (and deeply hued) conclusion to one of the greatest road movies ever.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Top 100 Films - 20

20.

I was late to the Lebowski party, having somehow carried on an existence without it up until my freshman year of college, when I first joined the Dude, Walter and Donnie on their neo noir odyssey across Los Angeles. Over the next 12 months, I lost track of how many times I revisited this, compulsively converting new followers and experiencing it on a whole new level over many a delicious White Russian. It wasn’t until sometime later that I was able to get over my cult like fascination with the movie and do something I never thought to do – take it seriously.

And I don’t mean to suggest that The Big Lebowski should be so burdened with analysis that it becomes impossible to kick back and watch the hilarity of it all ensue. But dammit, this is a brilliant film, delivering nothing short of comic gold while adapting the trickiest of genres – noir – to the slacker culture of early 90s Los Angeles. When Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski’s rug is soiled after a case of mistaken identity, he embarks on a quest for reimbursement that spirals into a convoluted Raymond Chandler style plot that deceptively drives The Dude further off course as the clues, characters and car troubles escalate to the extreme. So it’s a neo-noir comedy, but it also takes cues from Westerns (hence the presence of Sam Elliot in cowboy gear) and Busby Berkeley musicals (The Dude’s porno hallucination) and you could even argue it’s a historical piece (set against the backdrop of The Gulf War). The cast consists mostly of memorable cameos, oddball characters that drop in to make The Dude’s life more complicated only to prove unimportant no matter which way you look at things. But for that we get Ben Gazzara as slick porn mogul Jackie Treehorn, David Thewlis as the literally hysterical Knox Harrington, Joe Polito as meddling snoop DaFino, and John Turturro as the one and only The Jesus. Even the more significant supporting players – Julianne Moore as the icy Maude Lebowski, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as loyal lapdog Brandt, the band of nihilists lead by Peter Storemare – prove nothing more than diversions from the real solution. But then again, if all these characters don’t really factor into any grand scheme, at least they provide The Dude with a reason to get out of the bowling alley, and in one case, out of the bathtub.

I can’t believe I’ve gone so far without singling out Jeff Bridges, but he embodies The Dude like only an actor of his ease could do, and truly he’s what ties the film together. Playing perfectly off his passive approach to life is John Goodman as bowling buddy and ‘Nam vet Walter, and along with their more diminutive teammate Donnie, they form the core of the movie, with the bowling alley being the one constant in The Dude’s suddenly upturned life. In that way, the film does set itself apart from noir, for although The Dude is as unlikely a hero as there ever way, he has his close friends, who despite their flaws, are there with him to the bitter end. And ultimately, as the film draws to a close, we understand at last that those are the bonds that mattered the most to The Dude, and this whole charade that started with one ruined rug wasn’t worth one night in the bowling alley.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Top 100 Films: 25 - 21

25.

Writing this now, a full year after I first devised this list, makes me realize just how far my tastes have come even in that short time. Here I’ve got Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s glorious story of the rise and fall of a perpetual old soldier at the tail end of my top 25 films, but it could just as easily have been The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffman, or my earlier entry Black Narcissus. Hell, they all could have made it. I’m increasingly convinced that these guys were the greatest directors to ever work in the medium. I know Martin Scorsese agrees.

But I’m sticking to the original plan, and for now it’s just The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp here. It’s a wartime film made during wartime, boldly grappling with the state of the British military as it pits the old dog Clive Wynne-Candy against a younger generation of military men, no longer bound by the honor and tradition bred into him from his earliest years of service. Major General Candy is the hero, albeit a foolish one, but it’s impossible not to admire his convictions, which play an integral part in establishing the great friendships and loves of his life. Roger Livesey gives a towering performance in the central role, but no less impressive is the support from Anton Walbrook and Deborah Kerr, the later leaving her mark on three different roles. It’s the strongest story that the Archers (Powell and Pressburger’s production company) ever put together, which is saying a lot, and the larger than life characters, stylish direction and triumphant score leave you wanting little else.


24.

Picnic at Hanging Rock holds a special place in my heart for so elegantly tearing down the walls of the oft-clich├ęd mystery genre and showing me just how much mileage you could get out of a perfectly crafted enigma. It was hardly the first film to do this, and perhaps had I seen L’avventura first, I would have instead latched onto that, but since it was Peter Weir’s film that I first came upon, it’s remained an essential one for me ever since. Like L’avventura, the first act of the film ranks among the most deliriously beautiful pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. At the outset I felt letdown that such a pace couldn’t be sustained, but after a third of the film devoted to weaving a haunting tale of disappearance when a group of young girls venture up to the peak of the temporal curiosity that is Hanging Rock, we get to dwell in those interminable days post catastrophe with the classmates and teachers they left behind, and it’s only at the end of all this that the film seems to truly have set itself apart. We’ve been fed a steady stream of clues, suspects, and bizarre occurrences, but never do we come closer to the answers we were initially looking for. And by that point, we really don’t care, something that diehard Lost fans should appreciate.

The point is that sometimes the uncanny is better left without explanation. There’s nothing scarier, nothing more haunting, than the unknown, and solutions (satisfying or not) often devalue the mystery that came before them. And with a mystery as elegantly construed as this one, we’re better off left to wonder.


23.

Nashville, despite a Best Picture nomination, a slot on the AFI top 100 and the general consensus as Robert Altman’s best film, still feels grossly underrated. For that I can think of a few explanations, though not a one feels like a valid complaint. Sure it’s long, but not Lawrence of Arabia long, and there’s a real momentum behind every event, driving every member of the sprawling ensemble toward the fateful concert that will at last bring them all together. It’s also about grass roots politics and country music, and I can personally sympathize with any aversion to these, but it all works, a uniquely American genre of music and a slice of democracy actually at work among the people, woven among the cast of dozens without a single lead, altogether the most American movie I’ve ever seen. Dreams are both realized and shattered, love is discovered and hearts are broken, and people find strength in each other, but also in music. In a way, it tells the story of America without ever attempting to project that onto one individual or family. The many characters of Nashville form a more honest cross-section of the country, and the story doesn’t belong to any one of them, but all of them. Presented this way, it understandable doesn’t fit our anticipated mode of storytelling, but it never feels disconnected and the characters are fascinating to observe, and it all ties together in a landmark finale that’s among the most powerful there ever was. Underrated indeed.


22.

A curious adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s finest works, Prospero’s Books is almost more of a multimedia experience than a film. Mad genius Peter Greenaway directs everything as if it were on the world’s largest stage, only to divide our attention through artful overlaid images, just some of the examples of his frame within a frame (which occur both naturally, and through post production). The ancient John Gielgud plays Prospero, truly standing in for the bard himself as he recites the lion’s share of The Tempest as the events unfold onscreen. It sounds complicated, but the film is anything but manic, thanks mainly to the elegant gliding camera of Sacha Vierny. It also may just be the most artistic film I’ve ever seen, committed to raising the level of literary adaptations above simply illustrated text and creating in the process something both truly cinematic and at harmony with all other forms of art. Call it pretentious if you like – I call it beautiful, every word of the play, every note of the score, and every frame upon glorious frame.


21.

Bernardo Bertolucci remains more famous for the scandalous Last Tango in Paris, but his earlier masterpiece The Conformist has all the style and all the sex of that one just without the butter. It’s an intense political thriller that doesn’t mind damning its main character, Marcello, and we stick with him all the way anxious to see whether he is capable of mercy or he’s been conditioned as nothing more or less than a fascist assassin. Jean-Louis Trintignant in perhaps his definitive role has all the cool aplomb of Alain Delon in Le Samourai but his fascist ties severe much sympathy for him, though the film is gracious enough to explore childhood trauma crucial to his development. This only draws us closer to those around him, those who may feel the consequences of his actions, and sure enough the supporting ladies, Stefania Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda, figure prominently into many of the film’s greatest scenes. And there’s no shortage of great scenes here, though the very finest may be the dance hall, where Marcello finds himself consumed by the crowd, and Bertolucci gets a chance to pay homage to the other great Italian political epic, The Leopard.