Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Top Old Movies Seen Last Year

Those who've had the misfortune to have dated me come to tolerate (or not) my compulsion to plan much of my free time around catching rep screenings of movies "I've been waiting for years to see, and it's not on video!" Old movies continue to provide me with my greatest moviegoing pleasures, not because I think "they don't make 'em like they used to" (though in some cases, they don't), but because history has already weeded out the flotsam. The rep calendar offers the cream from 100 years of movie history, while the multiplex screens Man on Fire. If you're a gambling man, where would you put your money?

Ten years ago, Los Angeles lagged far behind the Bay Area on the rep/revival front: LA had UCLA, LACMA and the New Beverly; the Bay Area had the PFA, Castro, Red Vic, Roxie, Fine Arts, UC Theater and others. But as the rep theaters in the Bay Area slowly died off or changed courses over the last ten years (even the venerable Castro is now reportedly planning to screen only first runs), LA saw a renaissance in rep programming led by the American Cinematheque, which runs the beautiful Egyptian Theater and just opened up a second rep theater, the Aero. Outside of New York, there's no other city in the U.S. that offers more diverse and innovative programming, and in top-notch viewing conditions.

Anyway, enough of the b.s.; here are the non-2004 movies that gave me the greatest pleasure last year. (Re-posted from jottings sent to another forum. Many of you have already seen this.)

01. Tabu (Murnau & Flaherty, 1931) w/ City Girl (Murnau, 1930)

As with Gaughin, sometimes you gotta just shelve the reservations
about the "colonial gaze" and succumb to the beauty of Tabu's crisp,
emotionally direct imagery. Also, it's about the perils of loose
credit, which makes it more relevant to our lives than 3/4 of the
movies made today. We associate Murnau with pastoral poetry (seen in
the Days of Heaven-like shots of wheat fields in his films), but the guy's
versatility is something to behold: check out the action cutting and
the comic moments in the diner in City Girl, the urban (dare I
say, blue state) response to that celebration of agrarian virtue,

02. An Autumn Afternoon (Ozu, 1962) w/ Equinox Flower (Ozu, 1958)

We know about the peerless eye for the nuances of familial dynamics.
We know about the rigors of his tatami-mat level frontal camera angle
and the poetry of his establishing shots. But what about Ozu's humor?
You'd expect that his final movie, An Autumn Afternoon, would be wise
about the fear of old men of letting go, but Ozu keeps it light, never
giving in to wintry morbidity. A perfect film. Plus, Why Humanism
Rules, Pt. 27: the exquisite Equinox Flower, where Ozu gently nudges a
well-meaning, hypocritical conservative patriarch with good humor and,
yes, empathy. One of Ozu's very best.

Varying degrees of awesomeness: about 10 other Ozus I saw at the
retro, with special mention to Setsuko Hara in Early Summer.

03. Love Me Tonight (Mamoulian, 1932)

Would be immortal for the opening scene alone, but the brilliance of
this effervescent musical never lets up, reaching its apex in the
"Isn't It Romantic" Paris montage. Most fun I've had at any movie all
last year.

04. The Leopard (Visconti, 1963)

Finally a Visconti retro plays and I'm out of town for most of it. At
least I caught his masterpiece in its projected splendor. Celebrated
for the extended ballroom dance, there's a beautiful moment at the end
of the sequence, when Lancaster's nobleman, ever so cognizant of his
class's own obsolescence, finally walks out of the ball and all that
it represents, alone. Also, White Nights, if only for Marcello going
nuts on the dance floor.

05. Jeanne Dielman (Akerman, 1975)

Waited ten years to see Chantal Akerman's famous experiment in extreme
naturalism, and it didn't disappoint. Akerman hypnotizes you by
lingering on banalities -- Jeanne tenderizing meat for ten minutes,
etc, -- so that any event out of the ordinary is suffused with tension,
like Jeanne roughly handling the baby. Also: The Eighties, a glorious
deconstruction of a musical that hadn't yet been filmed.

06. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Peckinpah, 1973)

Hard-living tough guys like Sam Peckinpah don't fade away, they burn
out, contracting every STD known to man before drinking themselves to
death. Less an elegy than an epitaph, Pat Garrett is the best of
Peckinpah's movies that eulogize a time that never was, a mythical
period in American lore when men who live by a code like Peckinpah are
fated to, yes, fade away.

Ranking other Peckinpahs seen for the first time last year: The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Straw Dogs, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Junior Bonner.

07. F for Fake (Welles, 1973)

The antidote to Akerman's reality fetishism, Welles' slippery movie
essay on trickery, illusion, cons, legerdemain, and storytelling
serves as a definitive statement of principles.

08. Meshes of the Afternoon (Deren, 1943)

Felt like a clown to have waited until now to catch up to this seminal
avant-garde work. Also: Ritual in Transfigured Time.

09. Gunman's Walk (Karlson, 1959)

A Guy Maddin kind of movie -- a western fueled by Oedipal rage, and
charged by yet another great performance from Van Heflin as an
arrogant, but not ruthless patriarch. Seems like you can watch a
great western from the 50s every month for the rest of your life.
Another 50s western: Day Of the Outlaw, a bleak existentialist western
from de Toth.

10. Naked City/Night and the City (Dassin, 1948/1950)

The amazing Richard Widmark doesn't give an inch as a smarmy wrestling
promoter in the latter, a fatalistic noir classic from Jules Dassin. The
former's a gritty valentine to New York as only tough-as-nails
Dassin can make it.

Honorable mention: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, The Wages of Fear,
Bay of Angels, the Rohmer short Girl at the Monceau Bakery, Leisen/Brackett/Wilder's Hold Back the Dawn.

Reconsidered: Playtime in 70 mm -- if you only saw this on video, you've never seen it; Stagecoach, which I mistakenly thought was underwhelming based on an impression from bits and pieces of the movie gleaned from spotty TV viewings over the years; and Jacques Demy's Donkey Skin in a beautiful new print.