Top Ten By Year: 1958


For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column:
I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other films from that decade. I am using list-making as a motivation to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. I’ve done 1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, and now 1958. Next I’ll be doing 1978.

1958 was a curious year for my Top Ten By Year project. I had seen 14 films from 1958 before all of this. Not much compared to the other years of that decade. When I said I picked 1958 for this, everybody proclaimed “Such a great year!” And it is, in the sense that every year is a great year in film if you know where to look. But the reason that 1958 stood out to me so much when I was trying to decide on a year from the 1950’s is because I was ambivalent on many of the ‘classics’ I had already seen. And three months later, that’s still the case. I’ve already mentioned it in my What I’ll Remember post but it bears repeating. I flat out do not care for The Hidden Fortress; it’s my least favorite Kurosawa film by a mile. Elevator to the Gallows is a taut genre exercise but nothing more than a first-timer testing the waters; impressive but not involving. I appreciate Cairo Station’s importance but didn’t take to it. Okay, I like Mon Oncle and Big Deal on Madonna Street, I’ll give you that. Ashes & Diamonds is masterful, but not in my wheelhouse. Outside of Nicholas Ray’s unshakable popularity among cinephiles, I’m perplexed for the love that people have for Party Girl. And Equinox Flower is richly pleasant but there’s a wall between the two of us. That’s a lot of films I just listed right there. And I’m sure anyone reading this loves one or more of the above and is shaking their head right now. So the question is; what am I left with? In my efforts to plumb the depths of what 1958 has to offer, I came up short. A lot of what I watched was merely, well, okay; engaging in context or in spurts, or in how they fit as part of the larger whole, but rarely in their own right. There was a lot of divergence in my own preferences and 1958 as a whole (interesting that 1957 though, contains so many favorite films of mine).

So while this is a very strong group of ten (I absolutely treasure all of these films), unlike other years, it was not too difficult to secure a spot this time around, at least comparatively. Though there are five very distinctive films not on the list that I wish there was room for. I’ve now seen 44 films from the year. In addition to first time viewings, I re-watched 11 of the original 14 films I’d seen for this project. I’ve also realized that my list this time is almost entirely US films, which is sort of embarrassing but it’s just the way the cookie crumbled this time. In writing this post, I find myself touching on the particular quality of actresses, even more than normal, and what it is that the women of 1958 bring to the films they are so central to.

We’re right at the tip of some major cinematic movements that are soon to start. Tawdriness is welcomed in increasingly growing measures. Noir is gasping its last corrupt breaths. The musical is on the downslide. European ennui is catching on. Auteurs are communicating cynicism through genre. Stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age hang on like aging apparitions. Authentic and naturalistic emotions make up the new. And at the forefront, theater has taken over cinema; The Adaptation Craze is in full operating mode.

Top Ten By Year: 1958 Poll Results
Movie Music Mix: 1958
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1958: A Love Letter

Biggest Disappointments:
The Lovers
The Blob
Cry Terror!
Attack of the 50ft Woman
I Want to Live! (re-watch)
It Happened in Broad Daylight
The Matchmaker
The Haunted Strangler

Blind Spots:
Brink of Life (could not get hold of this though I tried, oh how I tried), A Time to Love and a Time to Die, The Horse’s Mouth, Fiend without a Face, Ice Cold in Alex, Run Silent Run Deep, No Time for Sergeants, South Pacific, Ballad of Narayama, The Long Hot Summer, Cowboy, The Last Hurrah

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1958: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research):
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Anna Lucasta, Ashes & Diamonds, Attack of the 50ft Woman, Auntie Mame, A Movie, Le Beau Serge, Bell Book and Candle, The Big Country, Big Deal on Madonna Street, The Blob, Bonjour Tristesse, Bridges Go Round, Cairo Station, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cry Terror!, The Defiant Ones, Elevator to the Gallows, Equinox Flower, The Fly, Giants & Toys, Gigi, The Goddess, The Haunted Strangler, The Hidden Fortress, Horror of Dracula, I Want to Live!, It Happened in Broad Daylight, The Last Day of Summer, The Lineup, The Lovers, The Magician, Man of the West, The Matchmaker, Mon Oncle, Murder by Contract, The Music Room, Party Girl, “Robin Hood Daffy“, Some Came Running, The Tarnished Angels, Terror in a Texas Town, Too Much Too Soon, Touch of Evil, Vertigo

Honorable Mentions:
The Music Room (India, Ray): Music as symbolic wealth and obsolete extravagance haunt a decaying mansion and its owner who refuses to acknowledge change.

Some Came Running (US, Minnelli):
The prodigal son accidentally returns home, torn by himself and the two sides of town, each represented by a lady. Poor Shirley MacLaine; those last five minutes are brilliant and devastating.

Man of the West (US, Mann):
The Straw Dogs of studio westerns, and a volatile, sickening and at times unbearably tense piece of filmmaking. Damn do I really need to catch up with some more Anthony Mann films.

“Robin Hood Daffy” (US, Jones):
Um, Daffy Duck as Robin Hood. Need I say more? “Ho! Haha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!”

The Lineup (US, Siegel):
Think of this as being tied with my #10. With San Francisco location shooting even more notable and far less appreciated than Vertigo, this starts as a dull police procedural and morphs into something episodic, dangerous, and off-kilter.

Key:
FTV: First Time Viewing

RW: Re-watch
LTF: Long-time Favorite

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10. Gigi
(US, Minnelli) (RW)
Some Came Running, Vincente Minnelli’s other 1958 film, may have more meat on its bones, but Gigi is home to personally preferable Parisian frills. The many reasonable criticisms leveled against it play heavily into why I find myself so smitten with it. It is, overall, an admittedly inconsequential story. It’s a musical with nary a dance to be found (and let’s be honest, no real singing either). The protagonist is an impossibly rich and handsome man (Louis Jourdan) who we are meant to empathize with, because, wait for it, he’s bored (besides “It’s a Bore”, another of Gaston’s songs is the petulant “She is Not Thinking of Me”). The story is conflicted over what we expect of women, and then resents them for achieving just that. It has none of the pizzazz or freedom of the director’s soundstage musicals and none of the propulsion of his melodramas.

So; why Gigi? It’s difficult to say. I’d argue that all of the above works, at least to some degree, in its favor. It has a deceptively stilted charm, made up of Minnelli’s sumptuous obsession for dressing-the-frame paired with sparse camera movement. When you look closer, what at first seems oppressive is actually freeing. The actors are given ample room to move about the elaborately constructed spaces or locations, leaving us to appreciate the rich precision of the interiors (That red room! That yellow room! That pink room!), or the way the imaginary is transported into legendary Paris locations. With one simple pan, Maxim’s becomes a gossip funhouse where space curves and endless planes of speculating people blur into one another.

Gigi is a mix of innocuousness and sly implications, and just like Gigi (Leslie Caron) and Gaston, the two constantly play off each other. Sister makeover musical My Fair Lady may have the better songs, but give me the light playfulness and balanced business of this over the stuffy lifelessness of the latter any day. How can I not fall for a film that has Maurice Chevalier misremembering history with Hermione Gingold against a soundstage lit setting sun?

Anna Lucasta
9. Anna Lucasta
(US, Laven) (FTV)
As written, “Anna Lucasta” (inspired by” Anna Christie”) centers on a Polish-American family and an estranged daughter-turned-prostitute returning home. But it was originally performed and adapted by the American Negro Theater, opening in Harlem with an all-black cast in the 1940’s. Fifteen years and one Paulette Goddard film later, an adaptation of the African-American production was released.

Nobody talks or writes about Anna Lucasta. Nobody seems to have seen it (it’s available on Instant Netflix fyi). Those who do write about it do so for its historical value and seem underwhelmed by what’s actually there. It was barely advertised and also dismissed upon release.

I love Anna Lucasta. For one, it’s a needle in a haystack to see an all-black cast during the studio era (fuck, any era) in something other than a musical. Most importantly, it’s damn good. Cinematic? No; Arnold Laven’s direction is something tepid. It’s seen as a detractor, possibly a deal-breaker, when a film isn’t able to shed its stage origins. But there’s a particular way theater grabs hold of its audience from the get-go, using personalities and everyday dynamics that are old hat for the characters but brand new to us. Anna Lucasta fails in the directorial department, but it’s got this quality in spades.

It also has Eartha Kitt, Queen of the World; watching the camera take to her serpentine presence is a privilege. And then there’s Sammy Davis Jr, character actor Rex Ingram as Anna’s deeply troubled father, and a host of offbeat characters rounding out the central family. Though the film prefers a romantic interest  it’s impossible to get behind (who among us actually wants Anna with snoozefest what’s-his-name over the one, the only, Sammy?), Anna Lucasta has an immediately welcoming energy in which we the audience are invited into the well-worn dynamics of this family as Anna herself is begrudgingly and deviously welcomed back into the fold.

The Magician Bergman
8. The Magician
(Sweden, Bergman) (RW)
Hiding among all these adaptations is Ingmar Bergman, wrestling with the very idea and purpose of cinema and his relationship to his audience.

A story of versus; the illusion of truth versus scientific explanation, acknowledging transparency versus willful submission. It’s pretty clear which side Ingmar Bergman is on in this case of absolutes. Bergman asks to what end humiliating the creator serves. In The Magician, stuffy authoritative detractors, led by Gunnar Björnstrand, clinically dissect a form of illusion for being the very thing that it is; illusion. Thus, they are seen as useless, seeing only facade without bothering to think on why the facade exists. Those that submit know they are doing so, whether to be seduced like the sex-starved maids downstairs, or to extract a source of faith or entertainment.

The Magician has a curiously hodgepodge structure. Starting with an enchanted trek through in unforgettably fairy-tale forest as photographed by the great Gunnar Fischer, we then devote whole sections to bawdy sex comedy, elusive two-person conversations and horror. Stringing these sections together is a series of humiliations committed by the stingy non-believers onto Bergman’s alter-ego, the worn-out masked Vogler (Max von Sydow). The Magician is in part about how we mask ourselves and the protection that it provides us. What affected me most about the film was how Vogler reveals himself in the final half (pretending to be mute he finally speaks and sheds his physical disguise), only to be rejected by nearly everybody.

Murder-7
7. Murder by Contract (US, Lerner) (FTV)
An assassin who doesn’t like guns. Prepping over doing. Kicking your feet up and seeing the sights. Those who’ve seen Murder by Contract know how singular it is (Martin Scorsese is chief among them, citing this as a major influence), that it zags where others zig. Removed from almost everything going on in American cinema at the time, it’s a B-movie sunken in its own mellow groove even though the hit job in question has a steadily decreasing deadline. It’s impossible not to think of what Jim Jarmusch would be doing nearly thirty years later. The sparse budget constraints are accompanied by a mulling eccentricity, and a keen sense of humor. Yes, this is one of those films that could easily be described as ‘cool’. Claude (Vince Edwards), our unknowable assassin, is in full control of the existential narrative, even as he struggles to complete his task on time. We’re just happy to be along for that smooth, smooth ride.

Auntie-Mame_2
6. Auntie Mame
(US, DeCosta) (RW)
Why is it that the happy-go-luckiest film from this group is the most difficult to write about? Auntie Mame doesn’t impress so much as it does slap you silly with celebration. Don’t look too hard at those encrusted jewels and turbans or it all falls apart; luckily, the devil-may-care surface is the thing. It’s got a daring lack of conflict. When something major does happen, like, oh, say, poverty or death, it’s treated like a mild speed bump in the jovial banquet that is life. Director Morton DeCosta sets the stage, literally, bringing theater into film and sectioning the episodic structure by incorporating divisive flourishes like punctuated fade-to-black stage lighting.

Reprising her Broadway role, Rosalind Russell’s uproarious high-wire performance (which stupidly lost an Oscar to Susan Hayward) is no small part of what would eventually define Auntie Mame as a seminal camp work. She plays to the camera, going a mile-a-minute (distracting us so much that we almost don’t notice, but definitely do, the cringe-worthy racist caricature that is Ito), and never loses sight of Mame’s humanity, shown through loyalty and protectiveness. Her constantly evolving interior decorating and costumes are by turns lavish and kitsch. As much as it is a fuck-the-haters film about living life to the fullest, it is also about expressing and flaunting oneself through appearances (which is of course assuming everyone has the social status necessary for this kind of living; like I said, don’t look too hard). Devoid of irony, yet self-aware, Mame’s wealthy bohemian and nonconformist ideologies set up indulgent spectacles in presentation and character. I suspect that a film like Auntie Mame was a healthy and mild way for the general public to engage with eccentricity and alternative living in 1958. It offers a non-threatening form of bohemia while tossing in taboo markers like lesbians, unwed pregnancies and excessive casual drinking on the sidelines. It’s made up of whims, moving at Mame’s swift tempo to the next thing and the next, always in transition. Does time fly by too quickly when living life this way?

With sustained conflict-free lightness and class-based exclusivity, films like Gigi and Auntie Mame may be largely unfashionable and easy targets for present day audiences, but they are indicative of the kaleidoscopic universes that Hollywood was still capable of creating in this dwindling stage of the studio game. And I love them both dearly.

touch-of-evil-1958-orson-welles-scene-02
5. Touch of Evil (US, Welles) (RW)
This refers to the reconstructed version of Touch of Evil, put together by editor and audio engineer Walter Murch, producer Rick Schmidlin and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum according to Orson Welles’s famous 58-page memo to Universal which details the ways in which (through both editing and sound) the studio chopped up his vision.

There are only a handful of films that make me want to take a shower afterwards. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one. Touch of Evil is another. To see it is to feel the muck of it all in your bones. Every single thing in Welles’s film about border corruption in no man’s land, from macro to micro, is designed to keep us permanently off axis. The second it starts, with that revelatory three minute plus take, it’s like we’re part of a harshly lit carnival attraction. Everybody keeps losing each other, and the combination of characters is constantly shifting. The conventionalized dialogue is delivered like a relay race, with everybody passing the baton to their ever-changing neighbor. And the streets, even when occupied by people, always feel deserted.

Of course, Touch of Evil wasn’t the exact end of film noir’s Golden Age, but it does make for a hell of a send-off; the genre is flayed open, innards spilling out. Uncompromising in every way, all the latent and pent-up sleaze of decades past rises to the top. At the center of it all and at the edges too, is Welles as Captain Hank Quinlan. While watching him, I couldn’t help but think of a line from Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech in Jaws, spoken with that drawl; “you know the thing about a shark, he’s got…lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye”. With all that extra padding and makeup, Welles looks like he’s made out of wet clay, sputtering around like a wind-up toy, jerking and lumbering this way and that. He muscles his bloated visage into every frame he can, brandishing Quinlan’s nefarious qualities on the outside. Considering that Orson Welles was a legitimate fear of mine for two years during my adolescence (seriously; I couldn’t go into Blockbusters or look through magazines; guidance counselors got involved), it’s no hyperbole to say that Hank Quinlan was, at one point, my literal worst nightmare. Watching Touch of Evil today reminds me that my fear was completely valid.

Kim-Novak-Collection_DVD_R1_Disc2_Bell-Book_03215
4. Bell Book and Candle
(US, Quine) (RW)
Shot after Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak reteamed for Bell Book and Candle, a supernatural comedy that retains Stewart’s obsession with Novak, but trades all of that torment for eccentric frothiness. In the film, Novak casts a literal spell on Stewart. Gillian works for herself, and owns her manipulations, regrets, and the circumstances that lead to her decision (I also love the novelty that someone like Kim Novak is convinced she needs a spell to make someone fall in love with her). Where Vertigo posits Novak as otherworldly through Scottie’s eyes, Bell is about her predicament, breaking through the actress’s distinct brand of impenetrability as well as explicitly engaging with the notion of Novak as feline.

Some may call Bell Book and Candle slight. To me it’s got a brand of lounging whimsy that doesn’t exist today. Sure, it gets up to indulge in some mishaps, but this is primarily a film defined by its quirks (and an alternative Christmas film too!). Witches and warlocks are portrayed as harmless kooky beatniks who blend in with the New York City crowds, and hang at a club called The Zodiac. Jack Lemmon is Gillian’s bongo playing brother and Elsa Lanchester’s her flighty aunt, and she plays it exactly the way you’d imagine.

1958 is the Year of Novak, and her Gillian Holroyd is a hallmark for those of us who appreciate the kinds of presence you can’t buy. Her airs, her clothes, her cat named Pyewacket, her voice like warm honey, and those formidable painted eyebrows. It’s sort of sad that the film systematically strips away her exoticism (her store is even transformed into one of fragile femininity; glass flowers), but what can I say? I’m moved by her conflicting fears and desires to be human, to allow herself to love and be loved. It’s just disappointing that she couldn’t have all this and be a badass witch too. But it gives us a happy ending for Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, and who among us could balk at such a resolution?

The-Tarnished-Angels
3. The Tarnished Angels
(US, Sirk) (FTV)
Douglas Sirk transports the stock players and the baggage of melodrama from the previous year’s Written on the Wind into desolate black-and-white territory with a longtime dream project; an adaptation of William Faulker’s Pylon. It’s about post-WWI identity but feels dislodged from time. Trading a suburban setting for death-defying airshow attractions, a pilot (Robert Stack), his wife (Dorothy Malone), and mechanic (Jack Carson) all live in a sort of lost haze where resignation reigns and communication is vacant. For a how-did-I-get-here-and-why-do-I-stay narrative with so much dialogue and reminiscing, this is all about failure to communicate. And when the unspoken finally is spoken, it is too late. Catharsis and loss are all that’s left.

We enter the trio’s (plus son Jack) lives via Rock Hudson’s reporter character named Devlin. James Harvey writes about Hudson’s performance in his excellent book Movie Love in the Fifties, and it’s not exactly a kindly assessment. I don’t agree with him. Hudson’s boyishly masculine persona works for him, not against him, precisely because it goes against the character, complicating everything about him. If he can’t quite pull off the selfish ‘human interest’ pursuer, torn between observing and participating, it only makes the performance more atypically shaded. Instead of a gruff worn-down alcoholic who pokes his nose where it doesn’t belong, we get a man whose looks hide a self-loathing and constant tension derived from his place within the narrative. In short, Hudson makes Devlin less of an immediately recognizable type, and more of a pretty wayward scavenger hunting for scraps.

Dorothy Malone’s (the film’s true MVP) LaVerne understandably runs hot and cold on him. One the one hand he’s trying to help smooth things over. On the other hand; who the fuck does this guy think he is? He barely knows this woman and thinks he can break in on these three tethered souls, judge them, and then, however sincerely, get involved in their affairs. Back up Rock Hudson; back the fuck up.

Douglas Sirk may have had an arduous experience working in black-and-white Cinemascope, but the film doesn’t show it. He and cinematographer Irving Glassberg create sprawling and glowing images that emphasize alienation and the solitary corners of shared spaces. Doom is everywhere. A shadowy specter appears after two characters kiss. Nightmarish parade masks lunge at us throughout. In truth, I find more resonance in the windswept hauntings of The Tarnished Angels than some of Sirk’s color-embellished stories of suburban pulp.

bonjour1
2. Bonjour Tristesse
(US, Preminger) (FTV)
I had been looking forward to seeing Bonjour Tristesse more than anything else on my watchlist. Turns out my hopes were not unfounded. After Otto Preminger launched Jean Seberg into uncertain fame with the much maligned Saint Joan, he put her through his tyrannical ways again with an adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s steamy and scheming coming-of-age novel. Teardrop stained minimalism courtesy of Saul Bass segues into the dour partying of a black-and-white prologue which in turn gives way to the sunny blue skies of the French Riviera. Of course our young Cecile (Seberg) would see her life in the kinds of extremities that alters film stock.

Almost half of the films on this list take on the personalities of their protagonists in some way. This being Cecile’s story (and her narration), Preminger heavily plays into the adolescent angst angle, so much so that at times we even unfairly balk at Anne’s (Deborah Kerr) seemingly obstructive manner. The bond that Cecile has with her father (David Niven) contains far more, and far less, than an underlying incestual vibe. They are, first and foremost, party companions in a world of their own carefree design. Third parties are welcome on the unspoken understanding that it’s all temporary. Not because father and daughter are inseparable (although they kind of are), but because Raymond isn’t built for monogamy. And responsibility is resolutely not welcome on the premises. Preminger makes Seberg a constant presence within the frame, especially when it’s just Raymond and another woman. She’s always somewhere to be found; after all, she’s part of the package.

Besides the potential end of a lifestyle, the threat of Anne’s presence is even more significant in the way it throws Cecile into self-critical thinking. She begins measuring herself against Anne, looking at herself in the mirror, yelling at herself, cursing herself. She is seeing herself in a way she never has, and she doesn’t like what’s looking back.

An easy case could, and should, be made that David Niven’s Raymond is worse than Cecile. At least she can hide behind misplaced passion, the selfishness of privileged teenage life, and eventual remorse. He however, is passive and remote in a story that theoretically revolves around him. Anne and Cecile are the active parties. They battle over someone who is always present but never fully aware or concerned with the extended showdown going on right in front of him. So when we hear him speak to Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) as overheard by Anne as overheard by Cecile as overheard by us (the specific dialogue of which is, critically, not in the book) it is a shocking and cruel moment; a gut-punch to the heart with irrevocable residual impact.

Jean Seberg is a source of constant fixation for me, a mix of the old and new functions of stardom. New because audiences didn’t quite know what to make of her or her modern look (though Godard did after seeing this film); that boyish frame and pixie blonde hair. Old because Preminger’s attempts to launch her career embodies that classic studio way of thinking in that yes, skill matters, but essence is the true key. Seberg’s abilities are limited, yet she’s intoxicating to watch. There’s a flatness in her voice that works in tandem with the character. She may not have it but she has it, and the latter is what counts.

A couple of times during the black-and-white sequences, Cecile looks at the camera, past us, past anything. That final shot is one of self-loathing; she assesses herself a final time, furiously rubbing that emptiness in as far as it can go. There’s a gaping hole where communication ought to be but isn’t. She and Raymond are trapped in a routine of debauchery. Neither have the maturity necessary for confrontation, so they will remain stuck with the tired routine they had once coveted so dearly.

VertigoMadeleine1

1.Vertigo (US, Hitchcock) (LTF)
There was never any surprise or doubt that Vertigo would be my number one. It’s the film that overtook Citizen Kane as Sight & Sound’s Greatest Film of All Time. It obviously won my Top Ten By Year poll by a landslide even with a juggernaut like Touch of Evil in there. And it’s the second Alfred Hitchcock film to have the top spot on one of my Top Ten By Year lists. The other was my first post for this ongoing project. The year was 1935 and the film was The 39 Steps. Shadow of a Doubt also featured at #2 on my 1943 list.

What do you even say about a film like Vertigo? What strikes me most upon revisiting is it’s the rare film (if anyone can think of others do let me know) that manages to retain its sense of eerie discovery. However well we know the narrative, its almost supernatural hold remains. The ‘mystery’ goes beyond story; it’s pumping in the blood of the thing. It is here that Hitchcock, the definitive deliberate filmmaker, makes what must be his most assured work. While watching, I slowly realized that the entire film consists of two-person scenes (visiting the bookshop with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) and the courtroom are the exceptions and even those…). This thread of narrow focus makes its endless calculations an uncommonly intimate experience.

Vertigo is constantly folding and peering in on itself, presenting mirror images of illusions, the act of watching and following (often accompanied by dissolves) never more to the forefront in a Hitchcock film. We watch, we watch Scottie (James Stewart), we watch Scottie watching. Hitch is Scottie, we’re Scottie and we’re Hitch, the director laid bare like never before or since. Under an auteurist lens, Vertigo is something like the ultimate catnip. He’s not hiding behind any defense mechanisms, no acerbic humor. We’re in the deep end of fetishistic obsession; transformation, blondes, the threshold of death, the list goes on. A woman’s eye becomes something out of a Spirograph, the fairer sex a gateway to a destructive black hole.

With that key perspective change, Scottie and us go our separate ways, while a window into Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) is cracked; something Scottie never gets. She looks at the camera, begging us to understand and forgive her. Her words, intended for him, never reach their destination. The landmarks and streets of San Francisco function as something recognizably concrete amidst all the slippery pieces, visual cues that set the stage for the final third as Scottie doubles back through his own story in a desperate effort to recreate all he has lost. His damaged pride and blindness to his weaknesses sends him into a frenzied tailspin that goes so wrong so quickly. All we can do is wince and watch with knowledge of the truth while he becomes more and more unreachable.

The key to Vertigo, at least for me, is the crucial fact that ‘Madeleine’ is an invention. Even outside of that fact, Scottie is in love with a backlit profile, never a person. ‘Madeleine’s’ nonexistence only further underlines that. He needs to be needed. We see her through his point of view constantly; as a wilting flower, a painting, a puzzle, a ghost; again, never as a person. In line with the story fed to Scottie, she moves as if possessed. She comes with a hazy kind of light. She is immediately positioned and spied upon as an object among either delicate or timeless objects. Madeleine among the flowers, Madeleine as one with the garden, Madeleine in the museum. Kim Novak’s undercurrent of unease about her own perfection plays directly into her performance. There’s a scene where she sits in Scottie’s living room after a faked attempted drowning. It is their first formal meeting. Her hair is in a loose ponytail and she is wearing a red robe with white polka dots. The scene is an anomaly for both Novak and her character. The ‘Madeleine’ costume hangs in the laundry room (the dress is often made visible in the scene). Her face is open and bare; it’s the only time she isn’t made up to be someone else. Neither Madeleine nor the brash Judy, this scene is Kim herself.

I have to end this with a special shout-out to Midge, one of my favorite characters in film and to Barbara Bel Geddes for making the longtime hanger-on the most relatable, lovable and individualistic that type has ever been.

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Top Ten By Year: 1992


I’m going to get right to it since my What I’ll Remember post covers most of what I’ve gotten out of this year in film. You can find previous 1992 installments including Ten Honorable Mentions Edition, What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1992: A Personal Sampling, Voters Poll Results, and Movie Music Mix on my blog. This one’s been a long time coming. I started research for 1992 back in April!

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column:
I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other films from that decade. I am using list-making as a motivation to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. I’ve done 1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, and now 1992. Next I’ll be doing 1958.

Biggest Disappointments:
Swoon
Innocent Blood
In the Soup
Careful
The Story of Qiu Ju
Naked Killer
Once Upon a Crime (re-watch)

Notable Blind Spots: 
Pushing Hands, Unlawful Entry, Vacas, The Oak, La Sentinelle, L;627, Simple Men, This is My Life, The Public Eye, Boomerang, Dragon Inn, Royal Tramp, Love Field, The Wicked City, The Best Intentions, Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, Swordsman II, For a Lost Soldier, Rebels of the Neon God

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1992: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research):
Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer, Aladdin, Bad Lieutenant, Baraka, Basic Instinct, Batman Returns, Beethoven, Benny’s Video, Bitter Moon, Bob Roberts, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Brother’s Keeper, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Candyman, Captain Ron, Careful, Centre Stage, Chaplin, The Crying Game, Damage, Dead Alive, Death Becomes Her, Deep Cover, Doctor Mordrid, Enchanted April, Far and Away, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, A Few Good Men, Forever Young, Full Contact, Gas Food Lodging, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hard Boiled, A Heart in Winter, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, Honeymoon in Vegas, Housesitter, Howards End, Husbands and Wives, Hyenas, Innocent Blood, In the Soup, The Last of the Mohicans, A League of Their Own, Lessons of Darkness, Life and Nothing More, Light Sleeper, Little Heroes, The Living End, The Long Day Closes, Malcolm X, Man Bites Dog, Medicine Man, The Mighty Ducks, Mom and Dad Save the World, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Naked Killer, Noises Off!, Of Mice and Men, Once Upon a Crime, One False Move, Orlando, Out on a Limb, Passion Fish, Peter’s Friends, The Player, Poison Ivy, Police Story 3: Supercop, Porco Rosso, Radio Flyer, Raising Cain, Reservoir Dogs, A River Runs Through It, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, Savage Nights, Scent of a Woman, Singles, Single White Female, Sister Act, Society, Stay Tuned, Strictly Ballroom, The Story of Qiu Ju, Swoon, A Tale of Winter, Tom and Jerry: The Movie, Toys, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Unforgiven, Universal Soldier, Wayne’s World, Where the Day Takes You, Wuthering Heights

FTV: First Time Viewing
RW: Re-watch
LTF: Long-time Favorite

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Top Honorable Mention (think of this as a tie with #10):
Howards End (Ivory) (UK) (RW)
What are other equivalents to the unique narrative bounty of Howards End? Other Merchant/Ivory productions like A Room with a View and Maurice (both impeccable in their own right) have recognizable conflicts and alliances. We know when and how to respond to what’s going on. But Howards End is different. We stand by conflicted while characters make compromises and go back on who we thought they were. Those who fall, fall hard, and those left are happy in a bittersweet sort of way. But it’s inaccurate to use the word happy. Happy and sad, light and dark aren’t exactly visible through lines here. It’s all way more complicated. All the characters besides Vanessa Redgrave, who moonlights over the proceedings as if drawing people together from beyond, are defined by their foibles. Everyone is too much ‘this’ or not enough ‘that’. It has the impeccable period design one expects from Merchant/Ivory, it made Emma Thompson a star in her own right (until then, she was Kenneth Branagh’s wife), and is a painfully human vivisection on class warfare.

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10. Centre Stage (Kwan) (Hong Kong) (RW)
For the few keeping up with these installments, my previous Honorable Mentions post refers to a film I’d been particularly struggling to find a place for–a film I’m moderately conflicted about. Well, this is the one. Centre Stage will not get out of my head. This was my second time seeing it, and it remains an elusive relic. Does this film, a biopic about doomed icon Ruan Lingyu that feels frozen in time and comes bundled up in a meta package, even work? Watching it is like going on a quest through the afterglow of the past. It’s a quest the filmmakers explicitly take part in, and they also come up short. Through the research and production process, can everyone involved reach the essence of who Ruan Lingyu was? Well, no. But that may be the point.

Doused in silky blue lights, this isn’t the past recreated, but reflected back at us, nestled between the actual footage of Ruan and present day interviews. Everything feels like it’s being acted out in an empty deserted hallway, as if life doesn’t exist outside the room that characters inhabit at any given moment. We hear the same music in a dance hall at different intervals, like an echo chamber. The characters are stuck in their parts. Maggie Cheung is stoic, passive, demure. The greatest actress of her time can’t make the greatest actress of her time a compelling figure, and yet she’s outstanding. Ahh, and the heaven sent production and costume designs. It’ll be revisited every so often, and each time I’ll go into it thinking ‘this time I’ll understand who Ruan Lingyu was’. Yet I know that won’t happen. ‘But maybe this time’ is the spell Centre Stage casts.

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9. Bitter Moon (Polanski) (France/UK/US) (FTV)
Perverse, deeply ugly, and comically absurd. At first glance Bitter Moon is just another to emerge out of the trashy kink, boundary pushing erotic thriller trend of the early-to-mid 90’s. But this is Roman Polanski, and the man has got a lot of poisonous and revealing fish to fry. Hiding behind camp and pig masks, this could be his most uncomfortably personal work. At the very least it feels like a purging. The sex relates to the endless potential of corruptible dynamics. Two couples out to sea on an ocean liner (Knife in the Water anyone?), one staid, the other extreme, have more in common than they think. Peter Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner are the purist form of masochistic and manipulative chess game toxicity that can exist in a couple, a toxicity that Polanski posits exists in all of us on some level.

A big question, especially considering it’s what turned so many off at the time of its release; how much control does Polanski have over Bitter Moon’s tonal makeup? It’s a risky piece of work, less from risque content, and more from an unequivocally bizarre sense of self. Is this a joke? Are we in on it? Is Polanski in on it? Does it obstruct viewers from seeing the unpleasantly complicated statement at the center, or does it enable? Is this the only way to present something so dire and hopeless? I see Polanski as having far more control than he was at first credited. Seigner pouring milk all over her breasts, looking like a zombie by the way, as Peter Coyote licks her with George Michael’s “Faith” playing in the background is unequivocal evidence Bitter Moon is meant as a kind of brazenly sadistic circus. While other 90’s erotic thrillers took themselves so seriously, it must have been quite jarring to see a film that at once does not take itself as seriously, yet contains twisted barbs of resonance.

Expanded review here

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8. Glengarry Glen Ross (Foley) (US) (LTF)

“Harriet and Blah-Blah Nyborg”. “Have you made your decision for Christ?!?”. “Because I don’t like you”. “Fuck the Machine!!!”. “Will you go to lunch? Go to lunch! Will you go to lunch?”. “Fuck you–that’s my name”. “Put. That coffee. Down”. “You stupid fucking cunt”. “Your pal closes, and all that comes out of your mouth is bile. Oooh, how fucked up you are”.

The more familiar you are with Glengarry Glen Ross, which at this point is like my film equivalent of a first cousin, the more there is to get out of it. There’s a giddy anticipation that builds leading up to, well, pretty much every line delivery in this thing. It’s no secret that for all the playing at man, swearing as desperate currency, and the repetitive Mamet-isms of the actual text, this is a film erected out of top-level high-wire performances. Whether it’s Al Pacino fully enunciating and emphasizing ev-er-y sing-le syl-la-ble, bringing off-key rhythms to his Ricky Roma Rendition, or early Kevin Spacey reeling in the unmovable dryness he’d later bring to Lester Burnham, everyone is firing on all cylinders even if their characters are sure as hell going nowhere fast.

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7. Deep Cover (Duke) (US) (FTV)
Neo-noir that deals with race relations and the hypocrisy and political corruption within the War on Drugs with surprising directness. Poetically edged hard-boiled narration delivered with the low steady hum of Laurence Fishburne’s cop who grapples with right and wrong, cop or criminal, and questions where can he do the most good within a cracked system that uses his race as an asset for the higher-ups. Then bring in Jeff Goldblum’s indispensable magnetic eccentricity to his role as a slightly unhinged lawyer yuppie, self-described as having a “condescending infatuation with everything black”. Yes, he’s fighting for power and money, but most importantly for respect among the criminal minded. A very moralistically preoccupied film about choices and compromise and defining the invisible line. I thought I had past my expiration date for undercover cop stories, but Deep Cover nixed that with its ability to balance heady and charged politics with two consistently engaging leads that transcend the walking clichés we’re used to seeing.

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6. Brother’s Keeper (Berlinger/Sinofsky) (US) (FTV)
Brother’s Keeper isn’t about whether or not Delbert Ward actually killed his ailing brother Bill. It’s about the dynamics of small communities like Munnsville, NY, where the Wards are fervently supported, without question, by their fellow townspeople. They put up bail money, hold benefit dinners, and attend the trial with all the muster they have. Part of this support has to do with how iconic the Wards (three brothers total, not including the deceased) are within the community. Some kind of know them, some kind of don’t, and a few know them quite well. The populace protects the reclusive, mostly illiterate, and mentally debilitated Delbert (same goes for all three) because he is one of their own. They are, as defender, prosecutor, and populace say, ‘simple folk’. The big city versus little town friction comes into play in a major way, mostly in how the Wards were treated by the higher-ups during crucial events like interrogations and the signing of documents.

Owing great debt to the Maysles Brothers, who the film is dedicated to, we shift between life with the Wards, interviews with the townspeople, and the anticipation and resolution of the trial. Though the filmmakers are clearly fascinated with these subjects and this story in a slightly condescending way (though I really don’t know how one would avoid it), it takes a non-judgmental stance as far as the case itself. This is incredibly gripping and mysterious stuff, with more questions than answers by the end. The camera expertly observes the Wards in their environment, attempting to understand and not able to truly break through the supposed simplicity, which only lends to its power.

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5. The Player (Altman) (US) (RW)

Ever notice that The Player has more handshakes per minute than anything else you’ve ever seen? This is Robert Altman in the belly of the beast, a beast he’s well familiar with, setting up conventions and then playing into them with bite. The reason this and Bob Roberts represent Tim Robbins’s best work is because each magnifies his smug impenetrability in different ways. In The Player, we see every step the pompous ass takes into the mud bath, unable to touch the reality of his situation because he and the film define it within the confines of narrative familiarity. You can track the film’s progress by the degree Griffin’s eyes have glazed over. In Bob Roberts we can’t touch him at all. Not even the camera can get close to him. In one he’s a familiar monster, the other a faceless one. Both are primo schmoozers.

The cameos fold in on themselves, and soon we’re seeing famous people populating the background as extras (oh hey there Jack Lemmon)! This is more plot-driven than some of Altman’s work, and it has to be, because Michael Tolkin’s script grafts the narrative of old onto satire. There’s an intriguing line the director tows between the subjectivity of a man who acts in the form of plot points (that scene when he hams it up for Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett who just laugh at him is gold. You can see ‘why isn’t this working? It works in the movies!’ all over Griffin’s face) and the outside-looking-in gaze that demonstrates how precarious success is in the movie biz. With Griffin’s job in jeopardy from the start, a constant threat is maintained that drives the picture; one minute you’re in, the next you’re out.

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4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch) (US) (RW)
The first time I saw Fire Walk with Me was a week after I’d watched the show, not something I’d necessarily recommend. I walked away from that experience sufficiently disturbed and shaken up, particularly by Sheryl Lee’s work. As a whole though it felt…overreaching. There was a new Donna to get used to, a first act that mistakes deadpan for deadness, Kyle Machlachan’s all too brief and reluctant appearance, some material that’s one step past nonsense, and a significant frequency adjustment from the show. I even remember saying after it was over, “I liked it, but it’s not my Twin Peaks”. Then I waited six years and watched it again for this list, where it sideswiped me like a “BOB” out of hell.

That gap purged me of preconceptions I had taken from the show. It dumped the residue bullshit of seeking out answers to a world that, being Lynch, is an intuitive and abstract kind of hell devoid of rules or explanation. The film simply became Laura’s story. And that’s what it is. Laura’s schizophrenic, mournful, harrowing end. It takes the iconic dead girl trope and makes her whole, beyond the realm of voiceless victim. It’s the Lynch film that is both most and least tethered to reality. By magnifying the trauma and horrors of sexual abuse (and adolescence) as an actual and inescapable hell, by purifying and heightening the emotions in play, it becomes perhaps the most consummate and visceral film on the subject. In “Twin Peaks”, “BOB” is Leland. In Fire Walk with Me, Leland is “BOB”, and it makes all the difference. The supernatural all registers as metaphor here.

Laura Palmer is real to me, and Sheryl Lee is what makes her crushingly real. If there’s a better female performance from the 90’s, I haven’t seen it. She turns herself inside out as Laura, mythic and fragile, self-destructive and strong, youthful and timeless. Laura Palmer is a victim, but there’s nothing submissive or resigned about her. She constantly breaks through the ‘victim’ archetype, and Lynch films her with admirable and melancholy reverence without ever simplifying her down to an object through which we funnel our pity. As Fire Walk with Me ended, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. I sat and cried hard full tears for who knows how long. Laura stayed with me for days after. A week later I was driving, and I started thinking about her, and the tears came again. I can’t think of another instance of such residual impact. But I do know that Laura will always be with me, and with countless others.

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I have to pause here for a special mention to the last fifteen minutes of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, a sequence containing three movements as good as the medium has to offer. The climax is an elegy during the fact, tracking a procession of deaths. It approaches the mainstream climax from an atypical point of execution. Familiar content is presented with the flow of an unstoppable avalanche in slow-motion. The score has two themes competing with each other, one measured, the other bursting to get out from underneath. And then everything slows down with Alice (Jodhi May) on the cliff. Shots and moments are held a few seconds longer than they normally would be. Every glance, every gesture carries weight. Alice’s decision hits so much harder due to how peripheral her and Uncas’s (Eric Schweig) romance has been up to this point. The sidelines function of Alice and Uncas provokes a ‘wait-what-is-she-doing’ response we aren’t prepared for. All we can do is sit frozen, breathing in tandem with the score, the bass signifying the act of letting go, and wait for her to carry out her fateful decision.

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3. Husbands and Wives (Allen) (US) (RW)
It’s safe to say the Mia Farrow era of Woody Allen’s career is my era of choice. The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and this account for my top three. It’s the messy end, an ugly piece that spoons bitter truths out of caustic penetrating humor. The faux-documentary construct illuminates the characters (and their motivations) and their inability to reconcile self-analysis with action, specifically within relationships and marriage. How well do people know themselves, and how does that correlate, or not correlate, with an ability to adapt and/or function with another person? There are different levels of self-awareness and all-too human unseemliness in Gabe (Allen), Judy (Farrow), Sally (Judy Davis), and Jack (Sydney Pollack).

Significance comes through flawed characters and ruptured editing techniques. At times we jump from moment to moment, other times we stay on someone’s face far past our comfort level. At the start it’s the neurotic Sally that seems most intolerable. By the end it’s clear she’s got the best head on her shoulders. She sort of learns from her experiences, or at least knows what she needs in a relationship, realizing that for better and worse her and the deplorable Jack (played with odiousness by Sydney Pollack) should be together. It’s not good or bad. It just…is. Nobody gets off the hook including us; every character succumbs to their worst selves at one point or another or several or many. Our varying esteem (it’s a low bar folks) for them is equated with how upfront they are about themselves to themselves. The dichotomy between this brutal form of measurement (Mia Farrow’s Judy oh-so-interestingly comes out on bottom) and the Bergman influenced dissection of the two couples is where Husbands and Wives finds its tense and mordant complexion.

Michelle Pfeiffier Batman Returns

2. Batman Returns (Burton) (US) (LTF)
I was five when 1992 came along, so my top two are, unsurprisingly, formative works inextricably linked with my childhood; not in mere nostalgia, but deep personal meaning. I like to call Batman Returns a “DNA” film. It’s a phrase I use for formative features (we’ve all got a handful of ’em). They become mythologized, bigger than themselves, immeasurable in impact for the individual.

A knotty, expressionistic, and uncommonly grim superhero film fueled by the Tragic with a Capital T emotional arcs of its villains, this still stands as a risky endeavor. It doesn’t follow a cookie cutter way-to-be. There’s no house style, not a trace of anonymity or comfort. Tim Burton just does whatever the fuck he wants, favoring approach and impression over now-hip grit and the samey-spectacle that came with the advent of CGI. It gleefully eschews fan expectations and even its hero (and hell, even its story) for an imposing and deeply disturbing operatic vision that plays around with the sexual, the psychotic, and the putrefied.

It’s the best Batman film, by far, and my favorite superhero film no contest. Why? Because it isn’t even really a superhero film, and I never view it as such. It’s about the grotesquerie of the Penguin and his search for identity through ‘Oswald’. It’s about Selina Kyle’s reclamation of identity and self through mental collapse and shock. After all this time, Danny DeVito’s Penguin still makes me sick to my stomach with his gallows humor and sullied sweaty sack of a costume, oozing green and going out with a gurgle. But here’s the power of the film; a scene as inherently absurd (one of many) as a group of penguins acting as collective pallbrearers for DeVito’s corpse as they slide him into the sewer water is not only affecting, but genuinely haunting and heavy with tragedy.

And for all its many wonders (Danny Elfman’s ghostly score being at the very top of that list), it all comes down to Michelle Pfeiffier as Catwoman. Some know how much her work here means to me, and they tend to be others (because there are a lot of us)  who’ve been similarly impacted by what she does with this role, which is, well, what doesn’t she do with it? Her Selina grows to own herself at the expense of her sanity. She helps others at the expense of her ‘goodness’. She desperately tries to fill that hole inside her to no avail. The slinky dominatrix garb she makes for herself is a one-off, and by the end the rips and tears are showing the unhinged chaos and suffering underneath. There’s a gravitas to her work that reveals an escalating depth of sorrow. And she gets the last shot of the film; risen, triumphant, and ever-so-slightly nodding at her own perseverance.

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1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson) (US) (LTF)
I’ve been foolishly psyching myself out in regards to writing about The Muppet Christmas Carol because from the start I’ve been treating it as an attempt to convert or convince others of its greatness. Like I have to make up for eye-rolling that may or may not occur from those who will wrongfully dismiss this as a ‘clouded by nostalgia pick’ (though I have more faith in my readers than that). Or maybe I’m just overthinking it.

But I’ve ditched the idea of treating this like a pitch. I’m not going to say much about the film because it’s all there in my heart and in my gut and it’s difficult to extrapolate on the why’s of its effect on me. It’s unbridled joy, and a truly beautiful blend of two iconic properties (The Muppets and Dickens) that services both and compromises neither. Three spirits visit Ebenezer Scrooge, but it’s the spirit of the (then) recently departed Jim Henson that looms largest over the proceedings. A moving air of gratitude blankets all. Not a mournful air, but an appreciative one, a big thank you for your creations and for your preposterous wit and heart. Paul Williams, one of my favorite people ever, graces us with songs that are by turns jolly, chilling, and full of thanks. And all of them memorable; there’s not a dud in the bunch (the cut but narratively essential “When Love is Found” notwithstanding).

Every time I watch it, which used to be many times every Christmas season but has now taken on a one-time-saved-for-last occasion, I look forward to every little bit without fail. Whether it’s fawning over cousin Fred or watching Miss Piggy’s saucy side come out as Mrs. Cratchit when downing a toast like a shot. Or the moment when an annoyed Gonzo and a mischievous Rizzo the Rat (our narrative guides) face each other in silence only for Rizzo to lean forward and lightly kiss Gonzo’s curly nose. Or the power Michael Caine (my ideal Scrooge, this is a performance that, like the rest of the film, is near and dear to me) manages to ingrain in the many reaction/shots of observance he has throughout. His arc is all there in the face. Caine considers this one of his most cherished roles. That the experience meant something to him only makes it resonate even more.

This would rank on a list of my 20 favorite films. I hate to quantify my love for something with amount of tears shed, but emotional response is an easy marker to reference. Every year close to Christmas, Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline shows a print of the film for a sold out crowd of kids and adults alike. Last year was the first time I went, marking the beginning of a new yearly tradition. I steadily cried, no exaggeration, about 75% of the runtime. They weren’t tears of joy or sadness, but tears of meaning; I’m, quite simply, moved by its open heart. And as a gal who doesn’t naturally drift towards heartwarming or uplifting lessons learned, I can say without a doubt, that somehow, someway, this film has grown to mean the world to me.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #140-144


Still trying to catch up here, so these will be much shorter than usual. As I mentioned in my last post, I just got back from a trip, am moving and have a lot of stuff to do, so I’ll get back into a regular rhythm here soon.

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#140. Gas, Food, Lodging (1992, Anders)
“I’m just afraid of running out of daydreams”

The power of artificial melodrama and the voiceover narration of a blossoming adolescent with nobody else to ramble to is our introduction to this frank yet delicate American indie about two sisters and their single mother trying to get by in a New Mexico trailer park. J. Mascis’s score (oh how 90’s) is just right, with plenty of moments when your ear catches just how great his contribution is here. And Fairuza Balk (one of my favorite actresses) is touching as the endearing Shade (oh how 90’s), trying so hard to change her circumstances and those around her with idealistic and naive solutions.

It’s the Little Things:
“Look that’s the best I can do. I’m tired”
“Women are lonely in the 90’s; it’s our new phase”

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#141. Orlando (1992, Potter)
An elaborate mirage on gender identity and stigma, where past and present are just an edit away and where there is little fixture in space even within specific time periods. Sally Potter approaches this Virginia Woolf adaptation (a novel I loved in concept but felt removed from in reading) with witty presentational candor and Tilda Swinton sells it with softness and a hearty wink. Singular, amusing, and honest.

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#142. Mauvais Sang (1986, Carax)
“I love her and she loves me, but she already lights my cigarettes like I do”
“And I hope my prints on you fade”

Leos Carax lets his films live in the moment, forgoing a bigger picture. There’s an impulsive and purely cinematic drive to his work that feels like the process of discovery is taking place as we watch it. Story is a footnote. There’s a half-hearted peripheral disease at work that must have some parallel to the AIDS virus. But none of it works because it doesn’t matter. What matters are these characters defined by clothing, color, and by combinations of aesthetics and effects from silent film, French new wave and modernist techniques. Primary colors are used in a way that predates 1992’s Savage Nights. It’s all been said about the “Modern Love” sequence already but I’ll throw my perfection! exclamation into the mix. Juliette Binoche and a very young Julie Delpy exemplify why they had futures as French movie royalty.

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#143. Step Brothers (2008, McKay)
“Stop being a fucking dinosaur and get a job”

Overflowing with golden line deliveries (seriously, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, in his comedy star career phase, are stellar) this absurdist comedy depicting the extremity of the literal man-child (these aren’t men-children, these are men literally pretending to be children. Like a combination of Dumb and Dumber and Clifford for the aughts.) has a wildly subversive streak, daring to run all the way in one direction with something brazenly meaningless. One of countless examples of how Step Brothers hilariously discards narrative is when we learn that the two step brothers have a sleepwalking problem. It adds nothing to the film, only setting up a later sequence, that also means nothing, in which the two sleepwalk into their parents bedroom with Christmas presents and jerkily chuck them in the air.

Goes for a third act momentum that undercuts the uselessness of what came before but this is trimmer than most mainstream comedies today and also dares people to fucking hate its guts. It shows that black comedies are still possible, if only we were able to notions of realism more. I honestly don’t know the last time I laughed this consistently through a modern comedy. I don’t think I’d like it much with lesser actors in these roles, but Ferrell and Reilly are a perfect match for each other.

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#144. Careful (1992, Maddin)
Careful made me eager to watch the rest of Guy Maddin’s filmography; it’s full of ideas, interwoven humor, photographic verve unlike anything I’ve seen (riffing on German nationalist cinema, Bergfilme in particular, it mimics the two-strip Technicolor process). Despite all this, it mostly drags, at least as much as a film about outlandish incestual desire can. Shows more promise than anything else, and would have been better suited to being a full-on silent film.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #39-46


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#39. Grand Piano (2014, Mira)
Full review over at Criterion Cast: http://criterioncast.com/reviews/catherine-reviews-eugenio-miras-grand-piano-theatrical-review/

From http://www.davidmullenasc.com/gangsallhere4.jpg

#40. The Gang’s All Here (1943, Berkeley)
Busby Berkeley, taking on Technicolor, pushes the visionary of geometric extravaganzas as far as he, or anyone in the studio era, was apt to go. I love getting to that certain point while watching a film when you are asked to just let go and hop on for the ride. The answer may be no as often as yes but those ‘yes’ moments are ones to cherish. My answer to The Gang’s All Here was ‘yes, Yes, YES!’ Color is used for grand elegiac expression, such as the “Paducah” under an all-encompassing lavender swirl that predates what An American in Paris would do with dancing and color eight years later. The camera, and the effects work, is periodically used to disorient, heightening our sense of movement and curiosity to a drug-inducing degree. Eugene Pallete’s disembodied head croaking out a song. A camera that arches and lilts over women holding sexualized bananas. The mere fact that a number called “The Polka Dot Polka” serves as a finale with women in purple outfits that look like futuristic workout gear holding neon-pink lit hula hoops.

It’s also, quite simply, a lot of fun despite a central storyline that can exhaust with boredom. Although it must be said that Berkeley himself seems to view it as filler. What makes up for this is that Alice Faye grew on me, that James Ellison is blissfully absent for the entire second act, and that their romance is amusingly resolved with barely a shrug, an afterthought that clearly doesn’t deserve center stage when there are polka dots to be had.

Carmen Miranda is Queen. It’s taken me this long to actually see her in a film, though I was obviously well aware of her before this. A lot can be said for the ways in which her nationality was used as a gimmick as well as a garish ‘foreign’ stereotype, but what about what’s actually there? How about the performance and the work and the fact that she was able to secure a spot for herself within the studio system where every other star also, it must be said, had a minutely constructed screen persona. Miranda is vibrantly hilarious here, with an innate sense of comic timing, over-the-top in every moment (not just when she has dialogue), with the English language locked-and-loaded as her plaything (notably mainly restricted to our idiosyncratic sayings, not the foundation of the language). To say she steals the movie is an understatement. Berkeley sets up a world where the more heightened the better; a world fit to hold and showcase Miranda at the center. She is the purest harbinger of future camp and drag queen aesthetic and performance in the 1940’s.

Charlotte Greenwood, hip society matron and proto-Marcia Wallace with high-swinging legs is a favorite.

From http://thelastdrivein.com/category/top-classic-horror-films/flesh-and-fantasy-1943/

#41. Flesh and Fantasy (1943, Duvivier) 
Julien Duvivier’s follow-up anthology film to the previous year’s Tales of Manhattan. Dead ringers for three future “Twilight Zone” episodes, the stories address beauty, fate and self-fulfilling prophecies as they are linked to the occult. The first and second shorts, with their darker twinges, were my favorite. The first suffers a bit from its lack of prelude material. That Henrietta’s experience causes the beauty within to not only materialize but to then transition to the outside is frustrating, mainly because it suggests that the two are inseparable. But I loved this for its vaguely Von Sternberg vibe, its haunted yearning, and for Betty Field with her ratchety voice and hollow-lit face. The second story; “You’re going to kill someone Mr. Tyler”. Still cannot get that oft-repeated line out of my head. Who doesn’t relish watching Edward G. Robinson lose his mind, feverishly talking down an imaginary double and his own self-fulfilling impulses? This is some creepy stuff, with a horror-noir lit sensibility. The third story, featuring Charles Boyer and Barbara Stanwyck, is solid if less interesting. Fate is a central sentiment in many romances, and so this plays out more straight-laced than an occult-led story might have you believe. But Boyer and Stanwyck have enough chemistry together to carry it through, as well as the shimmer of Stanwyck’s lyre earrings. The entire film is beautifully photographed, with a constant tangible sense of the other-wordly just within reach.

From http://trueclassics.net/2011/08/11/play-it-on-the-g-string/

#42. Lady of Burlesque (1943, Wellman)
Notable if only for the opportunity of seeing William Wellman and Barbara Stanwyck re-team for a B-movie at the height of her career (or was it?) based on a novel by Gypsy Rose Lee. Stanywyck sings (badly), does splits (!) and cartwheels (no, seriously, it’s awesome). Highlights include the antagonistic romance between Dixie and comic Biff Brannigan and a lived-in seedy setting that the film supports and backs 100%. But this is largely dull, with endless group interrogations and no central mystery for the audience to grab, even if the killer’s motives fall in nicely with the notion of burlesque camaraderie.

From http://acertaincinema.com/media-tags/mickey-rooney/

#43. The Human Comedy (1943, Brown)
Exactly the kind of film that theoretically worked like gangbusters on an American WWII audience looking for idyllic patriotism. Also a prime example of a WWII Hollywood film I find fascinating, for lack of a more original word, as a cultural artifact. It is one of the most inconsistent films I’ve ever seen, wavering from a poignant and studied slice-of-life to the pushed-to-the-hilt brand of saccharine Americana that reads as nauseating today. This was Louis B. Mayer’s baby, with heaven always in sight and lessons always one step away from being learned, all in warm deep focus. The loose vignette-like structure is slightly ahead-of-its-time for Hollywood; narrative takes a backseat to the on-goings in the microcosm homefront town of Ithaca.

Any genuine moments, and there are quite a few, are subsequently undercut by five unbearably syrupy developments or beats that undo anything that rang true mere moments ago. You know it’s rough when they make the illiterate kid’s struggles unintentionally funny by way of overbearing. A prime example of The Human Comedy’s chronic overkill habit comes at the end. The film’s loveliest moment occurs when Mickey Rooney’s Homer (in by far the best work I’ve seen from him) plays horseshoe with James Craig during his walk home; a brief respite before having to deliver some devastating news to his family. This segues into the final scene in which the loss of death is immediately substituted by an orphan character looking to weasel his way into the family before they’ve even learned the horrible news-to-come. What would normally be seen as creepy and invasive and stalker-like is welcomed and championed by the film. Hell, it’s even supported by the dead! We get it; The Human Comedy, like many WWII-era films, promotes a set of ideal and wholesome standards and values with which to strive towards in turbulent times. But by the time the kid in the library just keeps repeating “All these! All these!” over and over again, patience has long lost the battle.

Vivian-Maier-Self-Portrait

#44. Finding Vivian Maier (2014, Maloof & Siskel)
Review coming soon

From http://www.loopedblog.com/the-grand-budapest-hotel-yes-its-whimsical-and-yes-its-a-typical-wes-anderson-delight/

#45. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Anderson)
Short review coming soon

From http://prod.entertainment.telly.sky.com/image/unscaled/2012/02/03/Jane-Eyre-1943-DI-1.jpg

#46. Jane Eyre (1943, Stevenson)
At a certain point, watching the 1943 adaptation of Jane Eyre becomes something approaching painful. This surely has to be one of the worst adaptations of a classic novel out there in the vast world of filmic interpretation. Moves from event to event, unforgivably skipping some (see ya formative Red Room incident), botching others (we don’t even get to see Bertha? Seriously?) to grossly failing to convey or understand the material in any way that would service even a mediocre motion picture. Joan Fontaine brings her permanently pained look to Jane, where characterization fears to tread. Orson Welles seems like he is talking to himself the entire time. He acts for himself, as if unaware that maybe, just maybe, he may want to consider playing a scene with the other people in the room. So the central romance, Jane’s arc, and connecting her emerging adulthood to her childhood experiences all fails to register. Restructuring the purpose and role of Rivers makes little sense from virtually every angle. The sets and photography help us through, evoking an effectively unfamiliar Gothic sensibility.

The last scene is a tour de force of unintentional hilarity. Welles, forever stumbling through his own ruins, momentarily turns into Ron Burgundy, only to then plant the most aggressively awkward kiss of the studio era.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #21-25


Great-Directors-film-stil-007

#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.

laurence-anyways-xavier-dolan-2012-cannes

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.

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#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.

Help!

#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.

The Spy Who Came in fro the Cold

#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.

 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 Round-Up #1-5


Hello all! Welcome to the new year! I’m closing in on my 2013 viewings. There are 5 more available must-sees for me to watch and then I’ll embark on 2013 lists. This year for my round-ups, I’d preferably like to do them in groups of 5. It’ll make for more posts and easier promotion, and more consistency.  I’ll also be keeping monthly track of countries and decades represented at the bottom of certain postsc.

Planet of the Vampires

#1. Planet of the Vampires (1965, Bava) (Spain/Italy)
Slightly ahead of its time with its notion of sci-fi/horror, a genre blend that wasn’t often mixed by 1965. And this isn’t just sci-fi/horror like, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it’s horror in space. Mario Bava does his thing by using the physical space, cavernous ultra-low budget sets, pop color smog, and an eerie electronic score to create an inescapable atmosphere. But here’s the rub; the entire film feels like a total flatline. There’s an inexcusable monotony that takes hold instead of the intended dread. I can’t say I felt one thing during the film. It’s known these days as an uncanny precursor to Alien. Bava often discards characters and story in favor of aesthetics, and he’s praised for this today, but I’m leaning towards not really being a fan of his. Of the four Bava films I’ve seen, only Kill, Baby…Kill! is the only one I’m outright fond of. His brand of atmosphere tends to run transparent and empty for me personally.

Loves of a Blonde 1

2. Loves of a Blonde (1965, Forman) (Czechoslovakia)
Coming-of-age triptych built on a naive clutch for escapism via romance. There is a constant back-and-forth between characters who criss-cross within comic setpieces,  trekking through social and domestic debacles with a wry tracking observation. The first sequence in particular has the camera functioning almost as a sports announcer, catching increasingly lumbering developments from all sides.

Andula’s initial reluctance towards Milda reveals a self-awareness that once distrust turns to trust, she’s all-in. He of course is a cad of the first order, inverting a self-defense lesson to advance upon her as well as a faux-interest in her attempted suicide. The way his methods of persistence casually reveal this fact about Andula reveal an underlying sadness to the film. What impressed me most about it was how Forman’s second work has a quick-witted touch, laced w/ Czech pop music and a kind of farcical comedy-of-errors, but there’s a sincere sadness underneath it all that may or may not be reconcilable.

Bunny Lake is Missing

#3. Bunny Lake is Missing (1965, Preminger) (UK)
Second 1965 film seen based on an Evelyn Piper novel. Could be read from a feminist perspective as it uses the ‘but they do exist!’ film to prey upon our assumptions of women as hysterical and mentally unstable creatures with maternal fixations only to slam it back in our face. There’s also quite a bit of onscreen manipulation to make this possible, most notably if our first shot of Ann had started five seconds earlier.

Once the reveal takes place, we set upon a conventional kind of climax, but it also sets the film free from information withholding (for better or worse), becoming manic with perverse incestuous and infantile elements, and a gloves-come-off formalism by Preminger to match. It’s both conventional and delirious, like watching an extended improv exercise with impossibly high stakes.

The more grounded first two-thirds are won over by the supporting cast of British eccentrics reveling in grotesquerie. There’s Noel Coward as a gay masochist who speaks in drolly slimy propositions. And there’s Martita Hunt as Ada Ford, a retired shut-in who lives in an attic listening to tape recordings of children describing their nightmares. Anna Massey is her upright golden self. Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea give performances that don’t quite fit in with their surroundings but it works, separating them from the rest just as they are in the story. The two groups of performances fall into coarse vs. whimsical. Not sure where Olivier fits in. We’ll put him in the category of ‘Olivier’! There; problem solved.

How about that creepy doll hospital, huh? There’s also a deeply misplaced tie-in with The Zombies (whom I love dearly), foreshadowing future par-for-the-course industry tie-ins of all kinds. The first time appear, on a pub TV, it’s painfully awkward. The second time, played over Ann’s escape from hospital, works really well and predicts the way music will be used in film very shortly afterwards. Preminger uses his busy lingering frames to feel like a maze of the mind, but whose mind, and how do we find out?

spectacular now

#4. The Spectacular Now (2013, Ponsoldt) (USA) 
Indie darling coming-of-age romance based on a YA novel? Doesn’t sound like my cuppa. Oh, but in this case it was. Brings us into the characters lives on their own level of experiencing first loves and mistakes and conflicting flutters and people letting them down. This ushers in a level of investment on our part  uncommon in most romances; we come to care deeply for Sutter and Aimee, separately and, for better or worse, together. Ponsoldt makes us feel like part of the story; we feel as they feel. The uncertainty, the butterflies, the ways people change and don’t change and the self-doubt.

I cannot stress enough how great Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are; it’s to the point of hyperbolic-free ‘revelatory’. Ponsoldt keeps long takes with the two actors, both in frame, so we can see how they share physical space and their physicality with each other. Their scenes feel unrehearsed, clumsy, vulnerable. We catch how substantial and new the blossoming relationship is for her, how casual and freewwheeling for him, and the ensuing changes on each end. We know Sutter. He’s a class clown type, clinging to high school because he sees no forward-motion for himself. He’s always deflecting. Woodley is just as impressive, if not more so, because the film doesn’t favor her perspective and yet she’s able to elevate a ‘nice girl’ role into something so beautiful and fragile. We become so excited for her, and then protective of her.

The Spectacular Now is so good that it manages to come out on top despite falling into a few conventional coming-of-age trappings. The ‘I’m just like my father’ subplot lacks oomph or subtlety. So that unfortunate side-trip takes up a lot of been-there-done-that time. There’s also a framing device that immediately undercuts and underestimates everything between.

I’m über-picky with romance. But I was struck by the maturity with which this story and these characters, even the secondary ones, are crafted. People are neither wholly good or bad, everyone is flawed and capable of weakness, ill-advised coping and the hardships of living with oneself. It’s an obvious truth, and one that films tend to forget in service of tropes. I guess what I’m saying is that The Spectacular Now doesn’t view its characters as characters, it views them as people. And I responded very positively to that.

It also gets the fumbly awkwardness of courtship, particularly the mismatched intentions of them (playing half-hearted and whole-hearted investment off each other) and new-to-them experiences like sex. And I’m not talking movie-awkward, I’m talking awkward-awkward. But a normal kind of awkward. A kind we all relate to and recognize. It’s a quality you can’t miss. It’s due to the performers and that James Ponsoldt is so committed to telling this story with honesty and sincerity.

A final thought was that a new kind of feeling to have towards a coming-of-age romance was conflicted feelings about how I wanted it to end. It’s not cut-and-dry and I found myself wondering ‘what do I want for these two?’ Aimee may be good for Sutter but Sutter really isn’t good for Aimee, and her undying loyalty to him shuts out her own potential. You see it happening; it’s frighteningly casual. When and how the film comments on this is a stand-out. Have I mentioned how great Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are? Because it bares mentioning again.

Also, I think The Spectacular Now would make a fitting double feature with The World’s End.

thepast-berenicebejo

#5. The Past (2013, Farhadi) (France)
Companion piece to A Separation in that it takes a multi-player domestic crisis right up to the point of melodrama, flirts with it, but stays on the side of caution, using its energy and resources to comb through the minefield of clashing perspectives and human emotion. Farhadi’s strength, and the film’s, is his lack of judgment; he acts as a resolute and humanistic seeker of truth and escalating bursts of hardship along the path to dust-settling. I know some reacted negatively to the plot overload, but the film plays with melodrama, and that’s what melodrama is rooted in; heightened plot developments that seem not to cease and which threaten familial or romantic implosion. Maybe it’s because Farhadi feels more naturalistic and observed in formal ways and so the melodrama sticks out as somehow being below him or crass amongst the rest. Me, I like the marriage he finds between the two. It’s hard to call it over-plotted when all of the developments go back to an event that has already taken place; developments simply equal secrets being revealed and confessions being made, in this case like a Matryoshka doll.

What I did take slight  issue with was that there seems to have been a shrill women vs. calm and exhausted men dichotomy set up that felt iffy. Bèrènice Bejo, as great as she is, isn’t afforded quite the same level of understanding as the other characters, most emphatically when placed against Ahmad, who may as well bear the title of Shitstorm Cleaner, the character we most immediately empathize with. I also felt the resolution, or lack thereof, to be limp. Between this and A Separation, Asghar Farhadi is becoming a favorite of mine. I’d really love to see About Elly.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #235-239


Blue-is-the-Warmest-Color

#235. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, Kechiche)
A seminal relationship, the search for identity, heartbreak and hope all in extreme close-up, all mapped out on faces. The 3-hour runtime flew by for me because the film is largely free of narrative commitment, and is more tethered to an almost verite-like observation which captures intense personal experience. The camera is incapable of tearing away from Adele Exarchopoulos and it does so only to attach itself momentarily to Lea Seydoux. There is a ruthless commitment to the vigorous lifeblood of a young woman which is embedded in everything from the extratextual unpleasant filming experiences to the naturalistic self-discovery and epic fumbles of Adele’s character. She has a lust for life in eating, dancing, masturbating; the basics of life and living are depicted through that stumble towards an uncertain identity and sense of self. This goes beyond the depiction of a lesbian romance, existing on a broader level; a lot of the film is of Adele in her various environments, without any additional narrative motivation, almost feeling like a documentary at times. A scene of Adele at a rally early on is absolutely captivating. Environment is established, she is established within it and the film flies free that way. The scene, like most of them, goes on for quite some time and it could have gone on for much longer without any complaints from the peanut gallery.

Time is handled interestingly; quite a bit of it passes, with only one really direct clue at the very end as to just how much. And so time flies by, but the scenes given focus contain a great deal of real-time patience and unfold naturally. Yes, that includes the sex scenes. I think a lot can be said for their problematic claims and yet there’s an audacity and animalism to them that is so pulsing, vital, sweaty and real to their relationship that the idea of them, nature of the content and the actors experience aside, is important. It’s the kind of stark eroticism and explicitly frank depiction of sex I think we need more of. We stay with them to the point where, for better or worse, it feels like we enter another realm and it fits with the film he is making, exploitative or not (to which I say both yes and no).

The unwillingness to tear away from the face at times hurts the film. We are introduced to some potentially compelling aspects to the dynamic of the relationship which are not explored enough. It’s more interested in the lead-up to and aftermath of rather than getting into the nuts-and-bolts of an actual relationship between two women outside of a physical level. And there are other little nitpicks; some on-the-nose dialogue and those completely horrible and unrealistic group of high school girls.

I am especially taken with how meaninglessly Adele fucks up. It’s so spot-on to actual experience. We never see her trying to communicate to Emma how she feels, and her all-too human fuck-up is driven by inexperience with relationships and how to handle their downs, and a general restlessness. We see the moment she realizes the irrevocable damage she has done; those moments when it all slips out of her fingers (in the blink of an eye by the way, in direct contrast to how everything else unfolds) before she’s even begun to process anything is heartbreaking and almost unbearably palpable.

Also almost unbearably palpable is the diner scene towards the end, a wrenching depiction of can’t-go-back heartbreak, regret and pain on both sides. A contender for my favorite scene of the year. The journey we go on just in that scene is mind-boggling.

Lea Seydoux became a favorite of mine last year with Sister and Farewell My Queen. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a full-blown crush/been this attracted to someone in a film. But there you go. I really can’t handle her in this. It’s simply too much for my libido.

This takes an all-too familiar trajectory and at once goes into it on both an extreme micro and macro level. Held together by the astonishing lead performances it’s resonating with a hell of a lot of people and for good reason. It’s told with a patience, fascination and an innate regard to the uniqueness of first experiences and the gift of youth.

Frozen
#236. Frozen (2013, Lee & Buck)
Such a delight from start to finish (but with an asterisk attached). Ultimately about the bond between sisters, a pretty-much-never-broached subject for Disney, charting the paths of the two very different siblings. Two! As in more than one female protagonist! How exciting! And though most of the film sadly hinges on their separation, it all comes back to the Anna and Elsa relationship, which still counts for something. It plays around with expectations quite a bit, effectively promoting the concept of getting to know your ‘soulmate’ and developing a connection and dynamic with them over the traditional ‘princess narratives’ that almost uniformly favor the ‘love at first sight’ sentiment. There’s some direct commentary on this as well as other little subversions along the way.

The voicework is really strong; obviously Idina Menzel stands out through her singing abilities and Kristen Bell infuses a really personable and relatable brand of clumsy naive spunk into Anna.

What strikes me about Frozen is that it feels in the ballpark of greatness, which make its shortcoming that much more irksome. One is that it moves at a too-brisk pace. It felt like there were opportunities for a fleshed-out breather that were missed. I’m also not crazy about several of the songs. Sue me, but I tend to be picky in this regard. Even though we get the showstopper “Let It Go”, something critical like “Do You Want To Build a Snowman” grates on me even as it comes around to a poignant end. Taken as a whole, the songs are just decent; not exemplary. And Olaf? Well, part of me loved the character and part of me would have paid extra money to make him melt. Such is the way of Disney sidekicks.

Lastly, while some of the CGI is beautiful, my nostalgia for hand-drawn animation kicked in and I couldn’t help thinking how much more I’d love this particular film if it weren’t CGI. There’s some stunningly magical imagery, but on the other end of the spectrum some of the animation felt weirdly flat at times, the characters would awkwardly mesh with their environments, and it depicts an world with backgrounds that often felt bland and without dimension or character.

So yes, I do think there are some things holding Frozen back from greatness but this is a film I can see myself watching every so often for sure. I also should probably see Tangled.

At Berkeley
#237. At Berkeley (2013, Wiseman)
Don’t be surprised if this ends up as my #1 of the year. Right now we’re headed in that direction. Legendary Frederick Wiseman makes my ideal kind of documentary and he continues to stay true to his verite, no talking heads, no narration, fly-on-the-wall approach even in his 80’s. He comes back to looking at institutions, this time higher education, after a recent focus on the body in motion, with the 4-hour At Berkeley.

As always, he acts as a guide, not a documentarian with an overt agenda, employing purposeful control over the material in what footage is chosen, the order which it is put in, and where cuts occur. It’s a heavy task, and Wiseman spent 14 months editing this film. He never forces his point-of-view on the viewer, though of course he has one. We are left to make our own judgments; he just gives us the tools and the means. To say it’s engrossing is an understatement. This is a fully comprehensive portrait of the higher education system. We are given highly special access to administrative meetings which tackle budget cuts, class lectures, lively and complex discussions, and a woefully misguided student protest which is kind of embarrassing to be honest.

It’s a thorny film with no easy answers, indeed, no answers at all. For every sliver of hope, there’s something undercutting. For every moment that feels like the system is densely irrevocable, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Hope and hopelessness walk hand-in-hand. Administration is well-meaning and they do an inordinate amount to keep the wheels turning, but them’s tough odds, and the trickle down effect of that effort doesn’t look felt by the students. I can assure you from my own experience it often was not. But then there are moments when the admin feel truly dismissive and disconnected. But there’s passion and determination in the students, even though at times they don’t know what the fuck they are doing (see: aforementioned protest). And then there’s that horribly depressing moment when a student breaks down because of what financial loans are doing to her parents and her own life, with the financial adviser having essentially nothing to reassure raw emotion. So a lot about this film struck close to home for me, I gotta say. But you don’t come out of it feeling sad. You just kind of feel everything.

Byzantium
#238. Byzantium (2013, Jordan)
Tell-tale yarn fraught with dicey dynamics and the eternal past. Centers around Saoirse Ronan but it’s Gemma Arterton who captivated me most. You feel the weight of time and the world on her shoulders even though she likes to pretend it isn’t there. Moira Buffini, who I like quite a lot at this point, concocts a vampiric story of women staking a claim for themselves in a male-dominated construct. Lush imagery supported by the notion that female characters can take control of their own narratives. Caleb Landry Jones confirms that he is this generation’s Crispin Glover, and this is a great thing.

Much Ado About Nothing

#239. Much Ado About Nothing (2013, Whedon)
Sounds like a dream project. One of my favorite Shakespeare plays? Whedon? Populated by Whedon regulars? Check, check, check. But while this playful low-budget adaptation has some delightful highs, I could never shake the whole Whedon-and-his-pals-amuse-and-indulge-themselves-by-performing-Shakespeare thing. Basically taking the Shakespeare parties they’d have and kicking it up a notch. I think that’s what made it charming for so many but it distracted me about 50% of the time. I had a hard time losing myself in it. But it’s thoroughly enjoyable the other half of the time. So there’s that. Acker, Fillion, and Maher are standouts. But ever-so-critically, Alexis Denisof makes a wooden and uninspiring Benedick, which the film never recovers from, to the point where a large part of that 50% comes from his screen-time.