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.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New York Film Festival Wrap Up

I've been back in Michigan a few days now, and I think it's high time for an update on my New York trip. In my time in the city, I logged a lot of hours at the New York Film Festival, none of them disappointing ones. I caught four films, which considering everything else I managed to do, is quite respectable. I should probably jump into this chronologically, yet I've got some bragging to do, so I think I'll jump around as it pleases me. Great films attract great talent, and I did see a handful of notable directors, at least ones notable to an arthouse whore like myself. But closing night (Sunday) was the showing of Pedro Almodovar's latest, Broken Embraces, and with the film came not only Pedro, but his favorite muse, (sometimes my favorite too) Penelope Cruz. It's difficult to put her elegance to words. She's lovely, and her arrival with Almodovar was one of several moments over the weekend that had me 100 percent certain that I don't want to be living anywhere but New York.

But the film! Broken Embraces. My perspective on Almodovar's canon comes from having seen all his biggest hits (specifically, Women on the Verge..., All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education and Volver) and nothing more, mostly for availability. Needless to say, those five set a pretty high bar, so my expectations for this were nigh unreachable. For my unfairness, however, I was punished by not being disappointed so much as taken by surprise. I'd never imagined that the film would be funny, much less as hilarious as this often was. A surprise, an a pleasant one, but it did leave the mystery of it all hurting a bit. That ended up being my only complaint. The intrigue that drives the story on doesn't set itself up quick enough, only to resolve itself too soon. The film jumps back and forth in chronology frequently, and it's in the editing of these otherwise fine scenes that something goes awry. Beyond that, the film doesn't falter. Much as I'd love to single Penelope out, the entire ensemble does a wonderful job, but she does look the best of the bunch. And not just because she's gorgeous: her costumes are marvelous. Between this and Brothers Bloom, I don't know which I'd rather see get in for best costume design at the Oscars (and neither will).

Now allow me to jump around in time Broken Embraces style. We cut to Wednesday night. Tristan has arrived in New York mere hours ago, and currently wanders the streets aimlessly, suitcase still in tow. Come 8:30, I jut on over to Lincoln Center, knowing I'll be able to catch a certain film at the festival while I wait for my friend to get out of class. I knew I'd be catching Jacques Rivette's new film, Around a Small Mountain, but I didn't realize until then how fitting it seemed to be. Not to spoil things to come on my top 100 list, but Rivette's become quite a favorite of mine in the past year and given how extraordinarily difficult it is to find his films, the opportunity to see one in the theater on my first night in New York was too great to pass up. The film was quite good, and shockingly for Rivette, under ninety minutes. Funny enough, that may have been what kept me from thinking it on the level with his best work. Few directors work as well with so much time given, and the story of a struggling circus he presents goes by too quickly. Still, it was worthwhile, and a joy to see on the big screen.

Time jump again! Only because I'm building slowly up to my favorite film of the bunch. It's Saturday at noon. I met up with Sanny and Dr.Ciski, two of the other posters over at Culturish for a screening of Bong Joon-ho's film, Mother. Like his previous film, The Host, it's a terrific mingling of genres that seamlessly moves from laugh-out-loud hilarious to levels of intensity that'll make your blood run cold. Bookended by two surreal dancing sequences (I was reminded of Beau Travail, but I doubt he had that in mind) the rest of the film moves at a much faster pace. The story centers on a young man, a literal village idiot type, and his ever present mother. It seems typical enough at first, but once a murder investigation enters the picture, oh the places this goes! Kim Hye-ja's portrayal of the mother ranks among the finest turns of the year, but the whole thing is just spectacular. I can't recommend it highly enough, and hopefully it'll see some sort of limited release around the States. South Korea wisely selected it as its contender for Best Foreign Film, and I'd love to see it make the lineup, if only for the attention it will bring it.

And now we cut back to Thursday, when after an anxious wait in the rush tickets line, I at last got my ticket to see Michael Haneke's Palm d'Or winning The White Ribbon. I was so grateful to get in that I didn't even complain when I saw my seat, first row, one seat from the end. This had one advantage and advantage only: Haneke himself stood five feet in front of me as he introduced the film. He cut a respectable figure, and dressed in all black, precisely as I imagined he would. He also refused to give us the satisfaction of an explanation of his motives, and I'm assuming he elaborated a bit in his Q & A session, but one of the many great things about the film were the potential discussions that could crop up around interpretation. The only thing I knew going in was that this small German village in the early 20th century becomes a symptom for the impending Great War. The best elements of all Haneke films are here in spades. Performances are stellar across the board and the direction itself is easily the best I've seen all year. And unlike many of his films: both Funny Games, Benny's Video and even Caché, this doesn't seem designed to provoke the audience (a trait which I don't personally mind) and as such I can see this becoming his most mainstream effort, despite even the 2 and a half hour run time. Of course, there's still moments of sadistic violence, more even than in most of his films, but there's also a surprising amount of humor and even a touch of romance. Thanks to that, and he strikes a perfect tonal balance I feel, the violence wrought upon the town doesn't bear down on the film like in many of his previous works. Behind everything though, despite the best efforts of the townsfolk to ignore it, the violence seethes, and the impending conflict of war is brilliantly set up. The film is gorgeous and I'll file it right behind Caché as my favorite from Haneke.

Ah, there, all set! I can get back to that top 100 project, I suppose.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Manhattan Project

Tomorrow I journey through the fires of hell itself (that would be a flight from Detroit straight to Newark) and emerge from there in the city that gave me Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Gossip Girl. It'll be my first trip to New York, so like my arrival in San Francisco last spring, I'll celebrate by dragging my luggage around for a few hours getting my bearings and finding the place I'm staying at (while I wait for my gracious host to get out of class). I'm expecting to be overwhelmed right from the get-go, except wait, I'm flying into Jersey, so no. But I'm sure it won't take long for me to entirely lose myself in the city. Providing for that, I've made few firm plans. The possibilities seem limitless, but here's a few things I'm sure to look into.

1. Visit NYU. That's my excuse for going in the first place, so I'm certainly making time for this. I'll be scouting out my number one choice for grad school, which I'm looking forward to almost as much as the East Village itself.

2. The New York Film Festival. This I'm already overwhelmed by. I initially hoped to just grab tickets for Broken Embraces and The White Ribbon, Pedro Almodovar and Michael Haneke's new films respectively, but the lineup for these final few days of the festival is fairly exceptional. I've already got my ticket for Bong Joon-Ho's Mother, and it's going to be hard to pass up the chance to see films by Jacques Rivette (Around a Small Mountain) and Claire Denis (White Material) on the big screen. Even Catherine Breillat's new film, Bluebeard, has got my attention, though after seeing Fat Girl this spring, she's still stuck on my timeout bench for a while. With all the fancy art-housing that I'm bound to take part in, you can bet I'll have something to report here early next week. And for the first time, I won't have to wait around for these to never actually open in Michigan. Hooray for being ahead of the curve!

3. Broadway. How can't I at least try to see something while I'm around? And I've narrowed it down to two, Next to Normal or God of Carnage. Probably Thursday night, because that looks all clear for now. I'm strongly leaning toward God of Carnage on account of the cast. Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden - I'm there. Well, not yet, but with any luck, then absolutely.

4. Museums. MOMA, maybe the Natural History Museum. Or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We'll see. I've really fallen in love with art museums lately so I'll be doing at least one of them.

But I'm resisting planning as much of this as I can. I'd really rather just immerse myself in the city. That way I can be free to do some shopping, restaurant and bar sampling, and celebrity stalking. And then I'll file a full report right back here. It'll at least be more culturally relevant than this lame declaration of my agenda.

Cheers! Be back next week!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Top 100 Films - 55 to 51

55.Luis Bunuel’s career as a director, taken in all its surrealist glory, is in a way a microcosm of the history of cinema, because up until his final film in the late 70s, he was following right along with it, all the way from Un Chien Andalou back in the silent era. And somehow while remaining true to the instability of his cinema, he stills progressed through stage upon stage of development as a filmmaker before truly coming into his own, as world cinema was, during the 1960s. The trick he at last perfected was to sustain his surrealist fantasies through a feature film, and the marvel of it is that he pulls this off without straying from his typically simple and inventive, if rarely logical, premises. The gimmick holding up The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie sees a group of outdated aristocrats have their attempts to sit down to dinner continually thwarted. Amusing though it may sound, it’s the kind of concept that may seem more at home on a sketch comedy show. But of course, it works. In fact, it works so well that at times you forget there is a gimmick to it all because it’s so damn funny.

The film’s nature calls for an episodic format, but you could never get away with calling it disjointed. One scene seems to beget the next, and like our intrepid elites, we never grow discouraged at the relative lack of progress. We collect each incident in the film (I’d put no stock in any isolated analysis here) and cobble them together in the portrait of the upper class, aptly singled out in the title for their charm. Bunuel was the great class satirist of cinema and he hits his mark here with a subtle ferocity. He’s slandered the poor bourgeoisie in the worst possible way: they’re no scourge upon society, they’re merely frivolous.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a delirious little fairytale that would feel seriously morbid were it not for the feeling that you could snap back into consciousness at any time. It’s like a Czech Alice in Wonderland, but with vampires and evil priests, and also a man who turns into a bird. Filter that through a surrealist spyglass and set it in a gothic fantasy land and the scene has been set. Our heroine, Valerie as the title would indicate, embarks on a fantastic journey of sexual discovery as the hands of the monsters and madmen, and here’s where it ought to get morbid, except that the whole thing’s so impossibly beautiful that you can barely muster a cringe. It’s a wonderful hidden gem of a film, maybe not the best way to break into Czech cinema, but one whose macabre sense of whimsy is hard to shake.


Ask me my favorite actress and I won’t hesitate to bring up Juliette Binoche. Actor is bound to make me think a bit more, but if I narrow the list down to those still drawing breath, the easy choice is Daniel Day-Lewis. And what do you know, Phillip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being brings my two favorite living actors together, in one of the most sensual romantic epics ever made. But who emerges as the real star of the show here, (no, not Lena Olin, though she is wonderful, and even more wonderful to look at) none other than Sven-fucking-Nykvist, who incidentally can fight Sacha Vierny for the title of my favorite dead cinematographer. Nykvist’s camera captures each scene with elegant eroticism. It’s an unbridled approach to love that we don’t get much of in American cinema, and I’m assuming that’s the general aura of Milan Kundera’s novel as well, though I’ve not read it. Binoche’s performance taps the most interesting angle of this romance, as she exudes both a childlike innocence and the spirit of sexual adventure. Whereas Olin’s sexuality burrows into our minds from the start (times two! that mirror!), Binoche’s allure simmers at first only to explode upon her arrival in Prague. But it’s at the photo shoot that marks the midpoint of the film where she comes into full bloom, guided by Olin’s steady hand and Nykvist’s penetrating gaze.

As with just about every epic romance, this is set against one of those times that try humanity, here the USSR’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. It’s a conflict that defines the lives of the three principle characters as much as their relationships do, and like Day-Lewis’s Tomas, our initial apathetic outlook toward it becomes a matter of deep conviction. Not surprisingly, Tom Stoppard took at lot of inspiration from here (well, the novel at least), for his recent Rock ‘n’ Roll. But the politics are expertly balanced with the erotic, often with one nudging the other along. The three hours don’t go by quickly, not that you’d want them to. It’s the kind of beautiful dreamscape that, despite the ups and downs, you wish could stretch on forever. Alas, it appropriately comes to a very dreamlike ending that offers a sort of melancholy satisfaction.

The devastation wrought by In a Lonely Place has no equivalent among classic Hollywood fare. It’s filed under noir, a label I certainly wouldn’t deny it, but in fact it’s one of the most intense character studies ever put to film. It’s not really about murder, though that’s the act that sets the whole of it in motion, it’s about two people’s gradual destruction at each other’s hands. Headlining the cast is the icon of noir himself, Humphrey Bogart, a man whose presence is enough to carry just about any movie. But the real treat of it all is that he has honestly never delivered a performance of this caliber anywhere else (even The Treasure of Sierra Madre). Bogart reaches below his unshakably confident exterior and creates a character with secrets, fears and passions. It’s one of the great turns of all time, not merely his career. And it helps that working with him (and against him) is noir’s great distressed damsel, Gloria Grahame. Her performance is every bit as involved as Bogie’s, colored equally by shades of suspicion and devotion. They’re working off a knockout of a script, and Nicholas Ray’s intimate direction keeps the momentum building right up to the final gut-wrenching scene, but I can’t stress enough that with any two other actors, this film would not be the masterpiece that it is. Bogart gets a lot of credit, but rarely for his acting chops, and Grahame just doesn’t get much credit at all, but these are two of old school Hollywood’s finest, and to see them battling fears and passions like this is really a thing of wonder.

51.Werner Herzog’s notion that great documentary is rooted in fiction doesn’t gain much traction in the field where the pursuit of truth seems to be the ultimate end. Yet I put it to you that the greatest documentary ever made is one built around this examination of fact vs. fiction. I’m speaking of Orson Welles F For Fake, masquerading at first as an examination of the world of art forgers, but just as much an exposition of Welles’ own career as a “magician” and “charlatan.” The presence of the legendary director himself is holds limitless fascination. Of course we know he’s a gifted storyteller, and the tale he lays out of notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory and Howard Hugh’s faux-biographer Cliff Irving comes off sounding even more impressive, if that’s even possible. Throughout the film we’re tantalized by minor yarns from Welles own life, and being the master magician he is, he eventually succeeds in catching us off guard. But documentary or not, it’s still a movie, and what fun it is to be tricked like this! If only more documentaries dared to walk the murky line between fact and fiction that F For Fake does. Maybe that’s against the spirit of the genre, but considering how subjective the truth always is, it might paint a more complete picture. Certainly a more interesting one.

Continue to 50 to 46