Friday, February 18, 2011

Top 10 Movies from the Past - 2010 Edition

Hi. It’s been a long time. Thought I’d break the ice by doing something fun. And what can be more fun than a top 10 list? Especially a meaningless list like this one. The following is list of older movies I happen to have caught in 2010 for the first time. In other words, it's a meaningless list. But hey, I want to start writing again, and what better motivation than to write about the things you love?

01. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell & Pressburger, 1943). The Archers’ movies are like postcards from God. They look and feel like nothing else in the movies, and even the bad ones are a treat. Their best movie, Colonel Blimp, actually snuck up on me. There I was, happily lapping up the technicolor splendor and Robert Livesey's extraordinary portrait, guffawing at his compassionate send-up of that blustery British type. The complex structure is impressive, and I noted that the Archers have a wicked way of sometimes opening scenes right in the middle of the action. But by the end of it, I was just knocked flat. All the formal razzle-dazzle aside, though, Colonel Blimp is above all about the lived experience, about love and enduring friendships, but also how we end up obsolete, failing to adjust our ideas for a new time and extrapolating too much from past experience. This all comes together in that poignant scene when Candy meets Theo again. The way Candy gamely tries to laugh off the tragedy of his life, that he failed to act on his love when he had his moment, just crushes me.

02. The Tales of Hoffmann (Powell & Pressburger, 1951). Have you seen a clip of this crazy picture? Well, have you? Let me help you out then.

03. Clash By Night
(Lang, 1952). A world-weary Stanwyck returns home to a sad little port town where she instantly becomes a prize catch. After a bit of resistance, she resigns herself to a stable, loveless marriage with stolid Paul Douglas. That is, until his best friend, a sweaty, snarling Robert Ryan, begins to vie for her attention. Clash By Night is Lang’s saddest film, a catalog of fear, loathing and self-sabotage among lonely, desperate souls. Framed by shards of deep shadow, Ryan and Stanwyck circle each other lustily but warily, two predators who know that they’re too similar to thrive together. As the film reaches its drippy denouement, I was moved less by Stanwyck’s dilemma than by her own internal drama: the tug-of-war between Phyllis Dietrichson and Stella Dallas, the ying and yang of the Stanwyck persona. What’s at stake is not so much who she chooses to be with, but who she chooses to be.

04. Matador (Almodovar, 1986). The matador penetration-as-murder metaphor is -- I’ll admit it -- a bit labored. No matter. Pedro’s breathless black comedy, about the intertwining of Eros and Thanatos, is both a spectacular work of high camp and a controlled investigation into dark nature of human temptation. It’s impossible to shake off.

05. Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, 1958). His eyes masked by dark glasses and decked out in a snazzy utility jacket, Cybulski’s Maciek look more like Natalie Wood’s Friday night date than a rebel soldier tasked with a violent mission. And for much of the compressed single-night narrative, Cybulski, all Brandoesque gestures and Dean-like diffidence, acted that way. He spent more time courting a pouty bartender than advancing the plan to assassinate a communist official. In the final installment of the "Warsaw Trilogy," Wadja left behind the sewer-stink realism of Kanal in favor movie thrills. Loaded with symbols and expressionistic flourishes, like the fireworks that punctuate the assassination, the picture closes with a pre-Breathless long-take staged with such conviction and brilliance (especially a shot of a bleeding Maciek hiding amid the white linens) that it’s easy to overlook the excesses.

06. The Music Room (Ray, 1958). Fading noblemen, at least in the movies, would like nothing better than to throw one last party, even if it means emptying their entire vault. In The Music Room, the stubborn Huzur does exactly that. His final gesture, tossing his last coins to the performer, is pitch perfect: petty, proud, and utterly imprudent, this is a character who sowed the seeds of his own demise. And we’re familiar with the trope of the failed VIP standing shamefully before the portraits of his predecessors. But is there one better than the scene here? The ancestral portraits, hanging in a barren room with walls that seem to extend to the clouds, loom over Huzur like a stern parent reprimanding a child. In the end,The Music Room, like Pather Panchali, is as terrifying as any horror movie, since there’s nothing more frightening to me than oblivion reached by way of financial bungling.

07. Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovsky, 1962). Like Goya’s Third of May 1808, Tarkovsky’s depiction of war is terrifying and anti-heroic, never beautiful. But check out this stunning shot of a soldier kissing while straddling a trench.

08. Violence at Noon (Oshima, 1966). I don’t have very much to say about this. There’s a neat bit of trivia comparing the over 2,000 cuts in this picture to the 40 cuts in Night and Fog in Japan. But anyone with a passing familiarity with Oshima knew about his protean proclivities. I see Violence more as a peak representative of this director and the Japanese New Wave than some kind of outlier. Here we have the New Wavers’ penchant for cant angles and diagonal lines, their way with luminous high-contrast b&w stock (which I can look at all day), and a disruptive, minimalist score. What stands out is a move toward greater psychological realism that Oshima and his cohorts so often eschew. This might sound strange given how the victims here so frequently subvert our expectations about how they should react. But the care given to answering the question of why, even if it’s answered somewhat unsatisfactory, anchors the film and saves it from the old “none of this makes any sense but that’s okay because it captures the hopelessness and irrationality of modern Japan” routine.

09. Boyfriends and Girlfriends (Rohmer, 1987). A classic Rohmerian roundelay concludes the "Comedies and Proverbs" cycle on a cheery note. The masterpieces of this series, The Aviator’s Wife, Full Moon in Paris, and The Green Ray, were suffused with regret. They were about lives not lived and loves squandered. By comparison, there’s very little at stake in Boyfriends. Our heroine, the mousy bureaucrat Blanche, nurses a crush on a classic douchebag while her friend Bea’s a bit queasy about her relationship with earnest Fabien. The movie’s about the misteps of youth, about the way our youthful desire can be coaxed and shaped by friends. I love the way the film moves from the drab office park suburb to the resplendent French countryside, tracking Blanche’s moods and emotional progress. And the proverb here? A wise one: chicks before dicks.

10. On Dangerous Ground (Ray, 1952). Last year, I was finally turned on to the greatness of the underrated Robert Ryan. Possibly the least needy lead of the era, Ryan’s tough guys were often unsentimental pragmatists, with none of Mitchum’s brooding preening or Bogie’s romanticism. He's at his best in On Dangerous Ground. Check out his initial meeting with Ida Lupino. Before arriving in Lupino’s cabin, Ryan’s Wilson was a combustible menace. He's still hard-edged here, but beginning to soften just a tad. Cutting through the maudlin score with his firm voice and hard, stiff body language, Ryan opens up only through his eyes.

As fine as Ryan was, the movie’s far from perfect. Everyone agrees that the first half, with a restless Wilson teetering on the edge of a mega-implosion, is dynamite. But many deride the movie’s jarring shift to the blind Lupino storyline. I admit the shift is unwieldy, as if Bud White stumbled into Dancer in the Dark. Still, let me try to defend it. In contrast to Dix Steele in Ray’s In a Lonely Place, Wilson’s pathology comes from without. He can change, if he gets out of the scummy city. Here’s a character who's entirely self-contained, having never asked for viewer affection or admiration. Shouldn’t we extend our generosity and allow the man his redemption?

Reconsidered: Chloe in the Afternoon (Rohmer, 1972). Rohmer’s masterpiece, the greatness of which eluded me in my twenties. A separate post will address this picture.

Honorable Mentions:The Narrow Margin, A Day in the Country, A Night at the Opera, Remember My Name.

Other excellent films seen in 2010: Hands Across the Table, Offside, The Court Jester, Kanal, The Driver, Forbidden Games, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Steel Helmet, A Woman’s Face, Bed and Board, Air Force, Scandal Sheet, Hour of the Wolf.

Overrated: Fists in the Pocket, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Big Deal on Madonna Street, The River, Casque d’Or.

1 comment:

Paul C. said...

I also saw On Dangerous Ground this past year for the first time, and you're pretty much on the money. The tonal shift is pretty jarring, but I think it works well, especially since the film is never really about whether Ryan can solve the mystery, but about him holding onto his sanity and his soul. It's clear even in the beginning that Ray is making a character study, since we're just kind of following him around as he drives and takes care of police business and just starts coming unraveled.

Ryan is becoming one of my favorite actors. He's great in this and Wild Bunch, obviously, but I also like him a lot in his American Film Theater production of The Iceman Cometh. Larry Slade isn't the showiest role in the play, but he knocks it out of the park, and in his final performance no less.