#16. Zero for Conduct (1933, Vigo)
First Seen in: 2006
Playful anarchy executed with a boisterous celebration of freedom in all its forms. I personally prefer this to L’Atalante because of the way poeticism becomes linked to unbridled youth. This is a highly personal work from Vigo harking back to his days being schlupped around boarding schools and his dead father’s anarchist ideology. There is a tight scenic structure but the content within each scene has the opposite feel, that of carefree openness. Vigo and cinematographer Boris Kaufman extensively use high overhead shots to observe the boys as a scurrying gleefully undisciplined unit and the efforts by authority figures to rework them into rigid awkward symmetry. The overhead shots allow us to see with a pragmatic eye how unnatural the rigidity feels to us and the boys. Anarchism is displayed as a joyous arena where freedom simply entails the natural state of things reclaiming itself. Formally, Vigo reinforces this disposition where magic tricks and feats of experimentation are used as a form of communication both for the director and for the young boys. I’m fascinated by the matter-of-fact homosexuality suggested between effeminate Tabard and older Bruel.
Jean Daste, who I had a major crush on when I first saw this (more here than in L’Atalante) and still do, is an odd duck in this black and white spectrum of instigators and authority figures. He supports the boys, an adult who never really grew up and is really uncomfortable as an authority figure, rejecting it outright most of the time. He has his head in the clouds and uses his body as a playful instrument just like the boys, communicating in headstands and skips.
The pillow fight scene is justifiably the most famous and it was the only thing I remembered about it from my first viewing. It is fixes a moment in time using slow-motion with its otherwordly double inverted score by Maurice Jaubert. There are few moments in film that reach this level of majesty projecting a mythological triumph with its floating feathers and use of nudity.
#16. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, LeRoy)
First Seen in: 2009
#18. A Serious Man (2009, Coen Brothers)
First Seen in: 2009 in theaters
I wrote a review of this when I first saw it. It’s very poorly written. This firmly holds its place as my second favorite Coen Brothers film. It ponders the impossible question of ‘what does it all mean’ through the examination of the Jewish faith. It even starts with a made-up Yiddish folktale that doesn’t exactly connect in theme, but in religion. It uses vague surrealism and repetition of conflict, images and sound to feel like Larry and us are struck in some sort of spiraling nightmare. What he’s actually going through is what most people go through at some point in their lives (there’s no real plot here), but the Coens present it as something like an existential vortex. A considerable reason for me loving this film as much as I do is Michael Stuhlbarg. It’s kind of absurd just how much of a crush I have on this man. He’s also the reason that Rothstein is my favorite character on Boardwalk Empire (along with Richard of course). He fails to gain leverage in any conversation, all of which are two-person scenes. It’s a mostly reactive performance requiring lots of confused frustration and it’s one of my favorite performances by any actor. Shout-out to Fred Melamed as Sy Abelman. And that whopper of an ending still packs a punch even by their standards.
#19. Black Swan (2010, Aronofsky) First Seen in: 2010, first day in theaters
Yeah, I still really love this. I wrote a big long review of it when it came out (which can be found on this blog) so I won’t really write much else here. It deals in repetition, the building blocks of ballet. And it mixes its over-the-top visceral subjectivity with a documentary-like realism in its cinematography and performances. Winona Ryder is absurdly underused (like Laura Dern in The Master level underused), but she does get to have a temper tantrum, get wasted, call Natalie Portman a whore and stab herself in the face with a nail file, all in what amounts to five minutes of screen time. Now that’s mileage.
#29. The Pirogue (2013, Toure): B+/B
Review posted for PIFF 2013 on Criterion Cast: http://criterioncast.com/film-festivals/piff-2013/moussa-toures-la-pirogue-piff-2013/
#29. Walking and Talking (1996, Holofcener): A-
I had some thoughts jotted down but I lost them all but suffice it to say I’m so happy to have finally seen this, and it’s certainly one of my favorite indie films of the 90’s. It has everything I gravitate towards. Honestly flawed and self-involved women coping with their own problems.
#30. Smile (1975, Ritchie): A
A brutally shrewd satire that pities its characters and lambasts the endlessly contradictory social and cultural rituals that flourish in America. There are so many moments in this film where the jokes cut so damn deep. The laughs carry more than a hint of uncomfortable bite and they often surprise. Just look at that last shot for a prime example. It’s a bold gut-punch of a statement in a film that’s full of them. Satirizing beauty pageants seems like an easy target, and it is, but what Smile does to layer everything is shine its spotlight on the adults involved in the Santa Rosa ceremony. Their lives are a pit of denial, none more so than Bruce Dern in a turn that deserves all the recognition in the world. His Big Bob Freelander is sort of an adult example of someone who lives by the superficial ideals set forth in the Young Miss America pageant. Ideals that sound good on paper, except when you realize those traits don’t make a person, even less so when you want everyone to commit to the same ones.
As for the girls in the competition, they are all mixed up inside, conforming to what others want of them without really examining the end game. They are told to be individual but what the judges really want is conformity, thus perverting altruistic traits into something meaningless. In the judges conference, we see a montage of many girls saying they want to help others. The one dissenter who never brings her answers in that direction (our main contestant Robin played by Joan Prather), is then led by the judges to say she wants to help others, much to their satisfaction. It’s a brilliant moment, one of many, and these moments work so perfectly because you don’t see them coming, making you feel their impact even more.
Lastly, Michael Ritchie never focuses too much on the competition, which highlights the pointlessness of it. The climax of Smile is as you would expect, with the announcement of the winners. But despite knowing that Robin and Doria (a young Annette O’ Toole) want to win, you feel absolutely no stakes in the reveal. And that’s exactly the point. As the girls scream and cry, hiding their own disappointment with sheer fake energy, we feel the emptiness of it all. Smile is unflinching with its bleak humor, pulling back the curtain on blind optimism and contradictory values, specifically in small-town America.
#31. After the Wedding (2007, Bier): A-
Bring your hankies everyone. Bring your damn hankies to this one. And go into it knowing little. What looks like a soap opera on paper is deftly handled by Bier. The seemingly melodramatic turns go beyond the jolt and into their thematically tricky motivations and what it all means for the characters. The past catches up with Mads Mikkelsen, showing him inextricably linked to two decades previous. After the Wedding welds connections and peels back intent to devastating effect. The cumulative weight of it all hits at exactly the right moments. Using money for personal gain is unconventionally addressed, looked at from a new angle. What lies behind the motivation to help others and does it remain appropriate when it entails making decisions for other people? An ever-shifting interpersonal drama, shot by Bier with ruggedly Dogme overcast, with stellar performances from all four leads.
#32. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Herzog & Vasyukov): C+
Review posted for PIFF 2013 on Criterion Cast: http://criterioncast.com/film-festivals/piff-2013/catherine-reviews-werner-herzog-and-dimitry-vasylukovs-happy-people-a-year-in-the-taiga-piff-2013-review/
#33. The Love Parade (1929, Lubitsch): B+/B
It’s endlessly impressive how much of Lubitsch’s wit remains fresh more than 80 years later. This is probably my favorite role of Jeanette MacDonald, as the coy, indecisive and pouty Queen of Sylvania. It’s so funny that Maurice Chevalier is considered suave. Sure he is. But he’s also all twitchy smiles and fey stammering, a ladies man who exudes different qualities than you expect. Not much happens in The Love Parade, but what does happen is centered around sex. Who is in control? The Queen because she’s the Queen. But Chevalier can’t abide husband as sole occupation. Their courting is some risque role-playing as foreplay with doling out punishments and such, all the more charged because MacDonald is serving up some serious bedroom eyes. They call each other out, all is a series of tests.
Lubitsch’s fuses older methods while making some headway with talkies technology, still in its infancy at this point. A lot of the jokes are visual, beats you would see in a silent film. But so many of the jokes hinge on sound and the film as a whole is less stilted than you would assume at such an early juncture. The songs in Maurice Chevalier films never do much for me, but I must say the numbers between Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth are physical comedy heaven. I’ve always loved Roth (and I think I’ve seen most of her Pre-Code work at this point, which means I’ve seen most of her work) and she really shines here.
#34. The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962, Levin & Pal): D+
3-strip Cinerama is trippy stuff. Photographed with three lenses on a projector that produces three strips of film, it is one of only two feature-length narratives photographed using this method (the other was How the West Was Won). It was meant to draw people away from their TV sets, giving them a more encompassing experience. It was even projected on a panoramic screen with curvatures. This format is both the reason to see it, and what ruins it. Not only is the story and the fairy tales within the story uninteresting and awkwardly performed and shot, but 3-strip Cinerama means that the whole world is crammed into every frame. There are no close-ups. There are barely medium or long shots. The format is too grandiose to accommodate even the simplest of camera distances. But it’s fascinating to see, for a while. You can even see the lines separating the three cameras. Karlheinz Böhm, ridiculous but entertaining claymation and a few wtf perspective shots kept me going on this one. Each shot felt like an overambitious diorama.
#35. A Fierce Green Fire (2013, Kitchell): B-
Review will be posted on Criterion Cast soon
#36. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966, Klein): B+
#37. Circus of Horrors (1960, Hayers): B-Enjoyable B-movie schlock from Anglo-Amalgamated. Well-paced and entertaining from first to last mainly because of its absurd central conceit, which is by its nature not a plot I’ve seen in another film. Trying to test the envelope-pushing in horror with scantily clad women meeting their grisly ends. Anton Diffring, a waxy British Dennis Hopper is fun. Most importantly, where else are you going to see Donald Pleasence trying to drunkenly dance with a bear only to get mauled in the process? Nowhere.