#21. Great Directors (2009, Ismailos)
The picture above illustrates perfectly why, despite being engaged with what the filmmaker interviewees have to say, I did not like Great Directors. Director Angela Ismailos is incapable of letting herself be off-screen for more than a minute. The film has zero form or purpose for being, other than the bright idea that ‘hey I like these filmmakers; let me talk to them about everything’. So it bites off far more than it can chew in that sense. It didn’t feel like I watched a film by the time it ended. Ismailos distracts from everything by constantly cutting to herself, whether she’s listening, nodding, or asking questions. Whatever she can do to get herself onscreen, she does it. This isn’t a showy investigative documentary.There’s no reason for it. Worst offender of all are the grainy black-and-white shots of her walking the streets (of Rome I think?) simply because she can. No thanks.
22. Laurence Anyways (2013, Dolan)
Equal parts period glamour and turbulent romance, Laurence Anyways has the specific brand of assured self-conscious filmmaking that I fall head over heels for (can we dub it the A Single Man brand of filmmaking?). The first Xavier Dolan film I’ve had the pleasure to see has sophisticated sweep to spare, using new-wave chic inspired surface pleasures of sight and sound to paint the characters’ inner experience and self-ownership. Both Laurence and Fred grapple with themselves and each other, coming together and apart in waves of time and baggage, never able to make it fully work.
Dolan’s compositions are direct and pronounced, with virtually every element of mise-en-scene unifying a vision that promotes active engagement through costume, art direction, and framing. The prints and patterns, the fashion and color, it all informs to make up the fabric that is the film. It doesn’t detract or distract. It simply is the thing. I haven’t stopped thinking of Fred’s ballroom entrance or Laurence’s leaf-stitched sweater, or the way she only wears one dangly earring. It’s stylistically satisfying yes, but equally so from a storytelling perspective. It also has the best compilation soundtrack I heard last year. With his multi-faceted time lapsing story of a transgender woman and her on-and-off girlfriend, Dolan reaches unimaginable peaks at age 23 with his third film, even if he periodically lets it get away from him. Suzanne Clément is especially excellent for making Fred’s resistance human as opposed to just cold-hearted.
#23. Yoyo (1965, Etaix)
After decades of long-going legal issues, the films of Pierre Etaix were finally restored and released to the general public a few years ago through the Criterion Collection for all to discover and absorb. After seeing Yoyo, I can’t wait to explore the rest of Etaix’s output. I wonder where this would stand in the annals of film history had distribution and availability been available for that half a century.
Its routine-based jokes, largely of an offbeat slapstick variety, have payoffs both short and long. They fly off the handle without letting up. It’s an ambitious work too, tracking the history of Europe, the passage of time, and the forms of entertainment to rise and fall within that framework. The first third plays as a silent film, with the kind of external and pronounced emphasis on sound effects that I love. Reminiscent of the way sound is used in Svankmajer’s Alice. The humor is based in comedic traditions (Etaix’s mentor was Jacques Tati, to give you an idea) with an off-kilter edge. There is even a striptease involving the removal of a shoe!
There is a light of touch to Yoyo that rarely accompanies such ambition. The 3 acts are distinctly separated, with one melody ubiquitously stringing it all together. Yoyo visits his father’s mansion as a child, and this visit prompts a lifelong goal of reattaining his father’s fortune. In the meantime, we’ve seen how empty and routine his father’s life had been in his wealth. We see his son pour all of the success he has a clown back into something we already know isn’t worth it. We don’t even see the parents in the second half, and Yoyo pretty much walls himself up in the restoration. The third act features a huge party with many bourgeois gatherers, but it’s still empty. Just a hell of a lot busier. Simplicity disappears. Technology, product, and status reign. It correlates with the way his job is shown, in an office, with multitasking everywhere. That we know and see Yoyo’s efforts as a waste gives the film a somber air. It all connects to a reaching back for childhood in a way. And the end is very Fellini. Very much so.
In a way, Yoyo does the opposite of what was taking place in the French New Wave at the time. It could be seen as very un-hip in the way it recalls and allies itself with traditional forms of entertainment (not the Hollywood model that New Wave directors disassembled and appropriated), and its obsession with the past, even in its ambition and considerable reach. But it’s so fresh, even today. It’s fuse threatens to fizzle out at periodic intervals, at least on a first viewing, but there’s so much to love here. So much to love.
#24. Help! (1965, Lester)
Runs on empty using Goon Show ‘how did we get here’ logic. Can largely be chalked up to a waste of inventive madcap energy. The Beatles, Ringo excluded, are never truly present. Their ambivalence hints towards image shifting soon to come. British character actors end up taking over for intervals, and the film as a whole has a preposterous and unappealing disarray about it. But the isolated song sequences are reliably wonderful as are the kaleidoscopic end credits.
#25. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965, Ritt)
From what I can discern, John Le Carre’s landmark spy novel is considered such in part for putting forth that maybe, just maybe, everyone involved in the spy racket is morally bankrupt and rotten from the inside out. This a stark, nicely mounted production that holds interest throughout, even if it doesn’t do more than that. Richard Burton’s relationship with Claire Bloom doesn’t come through enough to make her later importance hit as hard. Similarly, Burton’s scenes with Oskar Werner may be a highlight, but aren’t as crackling as I’d hoped. The courtroom centerpiece, with its chilly antler-filled decor, is where the goods are. The spy game is a world where innocent people are pawns, spies themselves are pawns, and love, emotion and/or hesitation get you killed instantaneously no matter how much time you’ve put in. This pattern of inhuman shove-offs is also subtly conveyed in the first half. As Burton (who is so good here) climbs up the hierarchy, the seemingly central figure of power is ignored and useless to the higher-ups, which he and us witness as he gets closer and closer to Mundt.