Top Ten By Year: 1943


For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column:
I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen. 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 and now 1943. Next I’ll be doing 1992.

I’m going to keep this intro short because my write-ups ended up being way longer than I’d anticipated. It’s been so insightful spending time with 1943. Hollywood during WWII is endlessly interesting, if not so much for the output as a whole (though there’s lots of great stuff as always), than for the extratextual and historical elements. I was able to learn a lot about the era; about the portrayal of war before and during, how nationalities, their various struggles and how our enemies were represented for better or worse, the relationship between the government and Hollywood, and the image, propaganda and narratives that were being sold to the general public during an uncertain time of crisis. I highly recommend reading Thomas Doherty’s “Projections of War” and this year’s “Five Came Back” by Mark Harris (surely the best book you’ll read from this year).

The ratio of films I’d not seen before research versus films I’d already seen is quite different from other years I’ve done so far. While 4 of my 5 honorable mentions are new-to-me films, 8 out of the 10 on this list I’d seen before, and I revisited all of them for this list. This is also the most ‘typical’ list of the ones I’ve created so far. Most of these are quite well-known, at least within film circles.

1943 saw debuts from major filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa (Sanshiro Sugata), Robert Bresson (Angels of Sin), Vincente Minnelli (Cabin in the Sky), and Luchino Visconti (Ossessione). This was my most exhaustive year in terms of re-watching everything I’d already seen from 1943. In particular I was able to get a lot more out of I Walked with a Zombie this time around, a film that left me unenthused when I first saw it several years ago. For all the polished message films about virtue and American democratic values, there’s a lot of grit, fatalism, and darkness to be found. You just have to watch the Val Lewton-produced films from RKO to see that.Lewton used the freedom of low-budget quickies as a template for innovative atmosphere and despairing messages. A new kind of horror happening right under everyone’s nose.

Everyone is looking for a culprit. There’s a lot of finger-pointing in 1943. Just look at Day of Wrath, The Ox-Bow Incident, Le Corbeau, and to lesser degrees Hangmen Also Die! and The Leopard Man. There were other ways of dealing with wartime in film as well; by not dealing with it. Already by 1943 audiences would be starting to get weary of the corny rabbles of patriotism, looking for pure escapist fare. The prime example of this is The Man in Grey, setting Gainsborough trend for tailor made bodice-rippers targeting female audiences on the British homefront. Being a big animation fan, I also took the time to watch a ton of cartoon shorts spanning mostly from Looney Tunes to Tex Avery.

Now to pay tribute to five films that did not make my final cut, all of which I highly recommend seeking out if you haven’t seen them already:

Angels of Sin (or Angels of the Streets) (Bresson) (France): Renée Faure gives an engagingly stand-out classical performance of conviction in Robert Bresson’s debut (his pre-formalist days) which equates nunneries and prison as places of protection and possible reform.

The Constant Nymph (Goulding) (USA): Rarely seen for seventy years due to legal rights, this flagrantly romantic film features a twenty-four year old Joan Fontaine uniquely capturing the awkwardness of adolescence and giving a career-best performance as Tessa. In many ways a companion piece and warm-up to Letter of an Unknown Woman with Fontaine playing a teen, tragic overtones, musician male leads, and the connectivity of music bringing it all together.

The Man in Grey (Arliss) (UK): A deliciously nasty piece of work, setting the standard template for the Gainsborough melodrama, a subset of films wildly popular with British female audiences during WWII for their aggressively escapist lasciviousness. Made me realize fully that I like my melodrama gnarled and perverse. Margaret Lockwood does wicked better than anyone.

Meshes of the Afternoon (Daren/Hammid) (US): A landmark experimental short and a touchstone of feminist filmmaking. Cyclical and symbolic, it represents the psyche in such unsettling and inventive ways. Teiji Ito’s music, added with the approval of Deren in 1959, is integral; the perfect companion of aural unfamiliarity to Deren’s images.

This Land is Mine (Renoir) (US):
Narrative propaganda that works, rife with talky preachiness that manages to strike a chord by stressing the importance of words and ideas against Nazi occupation. Charles Laughton’s transformation from mama’s boy coward to proud martyr is important, but George Sanders’s supporting arc as an informer and collaborator is even more important and resonant.

Biggest Disappointments:
Air Force
Cabin in the Sky
Watch on the Rhine
Jane Eyre
So Proudly We Hail!
Sanshiro Sugata
The Human Comedy
Lady of Burlesque
La Main du Diable

Blind Spots: (not exhaustive):
Portrait of Maria, Hitler’s Madman, The Song of Bernadette, Sahara, The Fallen Sparrow, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Journey into Fear, Hitler’s Children, Munchhausen, My Learned Friend, Destination Tokyo, Le voyageur de la Toussaint

Complete List of 1943 Films Seen: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research)
Air Force, Angels of the Streets, Cabin in the Sky, The Constant Nymph, Day of Wrath, The Eternal Return, Le Corbeau, Five Graves to Cairo, Flesh and Fantasy, The Gang’s All Here, The Ghost Ship, Hangmen Also Die!, The Hard Way, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, I Walked with a Zombie, La Main du Diable, Lady of Burlesque, The Leopard Man, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Man in Grey, Meshes of the Afternoon, The More the Merrier, Old Acquaintance, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Seventh Victim, Shadow of a Doubt, So Proudly We Hail!, This Land is Mine, Watch on the Rhine, Jane Eyre, Lumiere d’ete, Ossessione, Sanshiro Sugata, Stormy Weather

Shorts:
“A Corny Concerto”, “Red Hot Riding Hood”, “Who Killed Who?”, “Tortoise Wins by a Hare”, “The Wise Quacking Duck”, “Der Fuehrer’s Face”, “Falling Hare”, “Dumb Hounded”, “The Aristo-Cat”, “Scrap Happy Daffy”, “Pigs in a Polka”, “Jack-Wabbit and the Beanstalk”, “Education for Death”, “Chicken Little”, “Reason and Emotion”, “Wackiki Wabbit”, “Porky Pig’s Feat”

bfi carl dreyer day of wrath dvd review 2950
10. Day of Wrath (Dreyer) (Denmark) 

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first film after an eleven-year absence sees love regarded with corruption of the soul through religious persecution. This is material that in someone else’s hands might have read as rote or derivative. Its perspective is intimidating to parse through. My inability to get a grip on it guarantees its future value to me over the years. There’s an ambiguity to the proceedings as it suggests, through cross-cutting, that maybe Anne (Lisbeth Movin) does possess some kind of witchcraft (as in Ordet, higher forces or abilities are affirmed) as passed down by her mother. But it’s a separate issue; not placed in support of the religious persecution but seemingly vice versa, as if the power of suggestion initiates self-fulfilling prophecies. It complicates how we interpret the story, but not, critically, what happens within the story. In the end it doesn’t matter whether or not Anne has some unconscious power; the point is that that both possibilities would have led to the same place; Anne being targeted.

The pace is methodical and foreboding. Everyone moves with cautious intent. Anne is the odd one out (in many ways actually) intermittently trying to break out of the film’s rhythm with a hasty kind of half-prance. It’s a subtle and affecting way of showing how Anne has had the life sucked out of her before even having a chance to live, stripped down to devout duty. She comes to life as the film progresses, only to have it thrown back in her face. The softness of the birches contrasts the hardness of the austere interiors, with Lisbeth Movin’s face bridging the two by embodying both. As beautiful and alluring as the film is, it’s really Movin’s performance and general presence I connect with most in Day of Wrath. She has such a striking face, all archness and piercing eyes. Herlofs Marte (Anne Svierkier), a physical evocation of Anne’s mother, haunts the entire film after her fiery fate.

The Seventh Victim
9. The Seventh Victim (Robson) (US)
This was a film I liked enough the first time I saw it but it didn’t live up to what I was hoping it’d be. I felt it was marred down by extraneous characters, a flat romance, underdeveloped relationships/knowledge of past relationships, and a group of elderly Satanists that don’t feel threatening at all. This time, while some of those issues haven’t gone away, the message of the piece and what it turns out to be is downright audacious, casting only the kind of spell that Val Lewton’s RKO cycle can lay claim to. Mark Robson’s debut shows he can hold his own with Jacques Tourneur, having learned the ropes well from his editing work with him and Orson Welles.

The Seventh Victim plunges into the depths of melancholia, the inescapable pull of death. It’s a sort of horror film noir packaged in a detective story. Its philosophy, which Lewton admitted flat-out, is to embrace death. It’s a shocking statement, one that RKO only gets away with because the film wasn’t top brass enough for anyone to take notice. The Satanists are not the enemy. They are an empty placeholder, an unsuccessful attempt by Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) to find meaning within the darkness. They are similarly desperate, a mundane and hypocritically confused group. Jean Brooks, in an iconic role, dons a fur coat and jet black hair severely framing her face; protective shields against the world.

Kim Hunter, in her film debut, travels from the safe confines of echoing Latin and stained glass to the New York jungle. Her sisterly connection with Jacqueline is spoken of, never felt. Jacqueline is too far gone to the other side, their experiences too dissonant. There’s a real hopelessness to how little exists between them once they’re finally brought together, purposeful or not.

There’s a point midway where the story is plagued by unanswered questions and you think ‘what in the fresh hell is going on?!’. Like something out of the mind of David Lynch. On the surface it’s guided by Hunter’s search, but she and the film are actually guided by Lewton and Robson’s symbolic imagery; hanging nooses, locked rooms, and staircases. There’s even a pre-Psycho shower scene, but instead of murder, vital information is passed between women through curtains, shadows, and nakedness, lending to the lesbian undertones.

Jacqueline’s perspective takes over for the final twenty minutes, and it’s the film’s big takeaway. We realize Kim Hunter, the poet, and the husband have been a means to an end. Her famous walk through the streets, fleeing from her pursuer, is a walk of the mind. She resists but it’s futile. Her search for a light at the end of the tunnel is conveyed through the lighting, the unwanted bacchanal celebrations of a theater troupe her only undesirable out. And then there’s that profound exchange with Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), a dying specter who makes herself known at the very end. The scene stops me dead in my tracks. Mimi runs towards a last burst of life. Jacqueline limps resignedly towards death. They meet in the middle. The Seventh Victim may look like it’s about missing sisters and Satanists, but it’s not. To Die, Or Not To Die. That is the question.

The Hard Way 8
8
The Hard Way (Sherman) (US)
One of the best rags-to-riches showbiz claw-my-way-to-the-top yarns with older sis making sure little sis’s dreams of performing on the stage are realized. They rise up from an unhappy marriage, grey dowdy graduation dresses, and endless soot to contracts, furs and success.

Ida Lupino’s eye-on-the-prize performance is electric (though she apparently was not fond of her work here), constantly looking for ways out and up, unabashedly seizing upon questionable opportunities that present themselves, gradually unable to tell the difference between success and personal happiness. Joan Leslie is equally good, like a 40′s Jennifer Jason Leigh (with a dash of Larisa Oleynik?). She is increasingly torn and devastated, loyalty in check far past its expiration date.

And the two male counterparts, played by Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, are just as engaging! Not something a lot of female-led films of 1943 can lay claim to. Paul (Morgan) sees through Helen and the two have a great dynamic as she tries to suppress feelings for someone who loathes yet admires her. Al (Carson) is an earnest and naive schlub whose pride and blinders prove too much. What I loved most about The Hard Way is the careful and complicated evolution between all four characters, with attention paid to who they are within themselves and in relation to each other through time as paths cross and double-cross. There’s a development in Act 2 that completely took me off guard. The direction and staging enhance our understandings of the character dynamics and includes visually stimulating and slightly surreal montage sequences.

colonel-blimp-3

7. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell/Pressburger) (UK)
Are you starting to get a sense of how packed this list is?

It takes some time, at least I find, to get on the wavelength of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It’s a treaty on what it means to be British, more specifically in wartime. Between that and its microscopic deconstruction of societal rituals it can be hard to engage with it at first. Then it gradually becomes more attachable, and long after it’s over it feels like a warm blanket (especially when Deborah Kerr is onscreen) that drapes itself over you, that effervescent Powell/Pressburger touch. It’s not entirely a comedy, a drama, or a war film. It’s all three with dashes of fantasy and dreamlike flourishes, most notably Kerr’s three character performance as the evolving youthful woman through the ages, going in and out of the lives of Clive and Theo through the decades. Re-watching this and Heaven Can Wait for this list, it’s interesting that, despite their similarities, the former spans seventy years of life removed from history, and the latter spans forty years of history through people. It’s less concerned with how others are during war, instead asking how the collective British ‘we’ functions as a people during conflict. It’s patriotic, but not blind, swerving in more ways than one from what British cinema tends to be. It’s lavish and heightened, and also dares to feature a sympathetic German as a central character during WWII.

Speaking of Anton Walbrook, he’s such a favorite; one of the sexiest and most arresting actors to watch. Will someone just have an Anton Walbrook marathon with me where we watch all of the films? His speech, which serves as the film’s nucleus, is one of the most encompassing speeches I’ve ever seen. All in one take, almost two decades of personal history summed up in the afterglow of loss. He slowly summons the attention of everyone in the room, and of us. Powell films the speech all in one take, with an invisibly slow push-in. By the end, we’ve lost time from falling into Walbrook’s eyes and words.

Powell is brilliant at staging scenes; blocking and shot choices contain voluminous treasures. The beer hall scene is a perfect example of his precision. Everything, from the use of Technicolor to the film’s intricate structure, courtesy of Pressburger, is precise and dignified without being stuffy. The way time passes, with the big game hunting montage and the browsing of an intimate photo album, are by turns witty and weepy.

Traditional British values are mourned and tribute is paid to the importance of ritual by putting them front and center. Notice how we go through all the preparation for the duel only not to see it. But it’s not a simplistic ‘Remember the way things used to be’ story. We learn and see what Clive can’t; that right is not might. Unlike Clive, the film acknowledges the necessity of change for better or worse. Clive is always one step behind himself, realizing his love for Edith too late. You can clearly see the moment he realizes. It’s heartbreaking, especially because Edith has also been torn, looking for a sign from him. The scenes with Clive, Edith and Theo in the hospital are my favorites. A growing camaraderie and kinship emerges between the three, a bond that comes to exist again but in a much different form, and never fully regained.

Leopard_Man
6. The Leopard Man (Tourneur) (US)

It’s the structure of The Leopard Man that leaps out at you, so ahead of its time, postmodern to the point where even today it’s still somewhat jarring to see a film led entirely by fate. Clo-Clo (Margo), oblivious harbinger of doom, brushes past the lives of eventual victims (thereby controlling the narrative) who we proceed to follow. The film has uncommon empathy for its victims, so much so that it dictates structure and content. These women are made human before death, given context and individual meaning.

The scenes of moonlit pursuit produce some of Jacques Tourneur’s strongest work. The most chilling moments? My vote goes to those immediately proceeding death when the pursuit stops and everything is still. The banging of the door and subsequent blood seeping underneath, the weight on the branch, the mirror closing and Clo-Clo’s desperate screams. Then there are Clo-Clo’s clickety-clacks, which we eventually recognize as the sound of death. The film neatly fits in with Tourneur’s fatalism. The fountain with its floating ball, guided and held up by something bigger than itself; not a higher being, but inescapable circumstance.

The killer’s identity is clear pretty early on, but it’s notably only when the first death occurs, the one committed by the frightened and threatened leopard, that Galbraith opens himself up to opportunity and urge. That “kink in the brain” addresses the makeup of a killer with animal instinct (as predator, not killer for sustenance or out of fear), connecting leopard and man thematically as opposed to the forced RKO title of ‘The Leopard Man’. The events may cause the central couple we repeatedly return to to ‘go soft’  but they cause Galbraith to go hard, giving in and letting go.

The Ox-Bow Incident

5. The Ox-Bow Incident (Wellman) (US)
It’s never a mystery whether the three men in the hands of a vengeful posse actually killed Larry Kinkaid. It’s clear they didn’t. The point is casting a judging eye at vigilantism, revenge for revenge sake, and the unapologetic out-for-blood mentality of an angry mob that swiftly ignores law. Relatively speaking, it’s an easy point to make. Just like the mobs themselves, films like this are never subtle. But The Ox-Bow Incident is a sort of marvel all the same. It’s pure emotive power is raw and kind of overwhelming by the end. The cumulative impact of injustice creeps up on you. The senselessness of it. And that Kinkaid isn’t even dead? Forget about it. It’s an unforgiving film; enraged and resentful.

It’s surely one of the most efficient films ever made. Clocking in at seventy-five minutes, screenwriters and filmmakers could still stand to learn a lot about storytelling from The Ox-Bow Incident. It manages to introduce and juggle about a dozen characters, all of them distinct, even those operating within caricature. They are one body broken apart into individual participants by the script. Gil and Art (Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan) are our entry point. They start out with their own hang-ups and are gradually drawn into the scenario that unfolds before them. Fonda’s Gil is a despondent man, his character coming through strongly despite this not being his story. Anthony Quinn’s presence injects some commentary on racism; Juan is entirely unsurprised by the events. He knows enough about people, and the way he’s likely been treated in life, to know they won’t get out of this one. And Dana Andrews. Poor terrified Dana Andrews, openly scared of dying and of leaving his wife and kids. The camera crunches him in more than anyone.

William Wellman had to fight a long time for this to get made, the compromise being that Darryl Zanuck threw it into the cheap pile. The resulting artificial sets mandate Wellman’s direction. He shifts focus away from the flat landscape and onto people and their faces. Ugly, hankering faces. People are constantly crammed on multiple planes within compositions. It’s so claustrophobic, the camera creating boundaries for people who have none. The mob puts the men on ‘trial’ while the camera in turn puts the mob on trial.

gangsallhere4
4. The Gang’s All Here
 (Berkeley) (US)

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. Color is used for grand elegiac expression, such as the “Paducah” under an 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. 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 another favorite.

Le Corbeau

3. Le Corbeau (Clouzot) (France)
A particularly unsparing look at humanity and our ability to turn on each other, Le Corbeau has been dirtied by history from the day it exited the womb. Made by the German funded Continental Films, Henri-Georges Clouzot was banned from making films until 1947 (lifted from its initial lifelong stamp). It was seen as Anti-French at the time it was made, it is now seen in a more Anti-Nazi light and more broadly an Anti-People light. The misanthropy is locked and loaded even though room is made for people to find each other and for the guilty to go punished.

Le Corbeau addresses the power, cowardice and impact of omnipresent anonymity in a small town that collapses like a house of cards as secrets are exposed within the community. Someone is watching. Everyone is being watched by one of their own. Dark humor is found in the recesses and hypocrisies of a town thrown unto upheaval. The power of the letters is constantly given weight by Clouzot. During a funeral procession, a letter is seen in the road by everyone who passes. Nobody will pick it up; they avoid it like the plague, acknowledging its hold on them through nervous neglect. There’s even a letter point-of-view shot as everyone steps around it, a child eventually picking it up. Then there’s the shot of the letter floating down from the rafters of the church. It’s a perfect, almost pitiful evocation of how beholden the townspeople are to their own secrets. The world Clouzot depicts feels so insular and gradually uncontrollable in its futility, most notably during a sequence in which the accused Marie flees from the crowd. Shots become exaggerated and canted, sound becomes chaotic and inescapable. It’s the film’s most blatant callback to German Expressionism.

Poison pen letters would suggest based on immediate assumptions, a female culprit. But it’s not, not really, and the women of Le Corbeau are an atypical group who flip-flop expectations at every turn. I love that Denise, presented as a supporting suspicious sexpot, is ultimately presented as good, even inheriting the role of romantic lead. Her physical ailment leaves her clamoring for sexual affirmation, a need to assert herself while simultaneously listless and feigning additional illness. The nurturing Laura, a woman who seems destined for better things, is at once duplicitous and a victim. The vengeful mother, executor of justice, takes matters into her own hands, and is the one to restore the natural order. How are we meant to feel about that final act? It’s up to us. The final shot sees her as a floating faceless figure, slowly disappearing down the narrow alleyway without a trace, leaving the crime scene in our dirty hands.

Shadow of a Doubt pic 3
2.
 Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock) (US)
Easily the film I’m most familiar with on this list, having seen it many times. More misanthropy! This time with Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie. “Did you know the world is a foul sty?” Listening to him, he’s a kind of murderous Eeyore. The idealized duality, which Hitchcock emphasizes in many ways including how the two are introduced, that Charlie imagines between her and her uncle is completely shattered. It’s about two sides of the same coin, the innocuous (not just with Charlie’s small-town boredom but with how Joseph and his friend lightly but minutely discuss murder; it’s abstract and distant for them, a part of other people’s stories) going head-to-head with its opposite.

Shadow of a Doubt is also importantly about the nature of family, and what happens when the veil is lifted on someone you thought you knew; someone who you are bonded with by blood. Not only all that, but someone you put all your hopes and dreams into. This is where Hitchcock gets all the suspense; by understanding that the central tug-of-war is the discrepancy between who Charlie and the family think Uncle Charlie is and who he actually is. Visual and aural cues like the emerald ring, the waltz, and the newspaper are so the audience, we at the top of the information hierarchy, can brim with tension from start to finish.

Joseph Cotten is menacing as Uncle Charlie, seething with disgust all around. Cotten also lends a depressive edge to his performance, hinting at something unquenchable. There’s also a bit of sexual tension between the Charlies. Hitchcock and screenwriters Thornton Wilder (!), Sally Benson, and Alma Reville inject such salty eccentricity from top-to-bottom. This may be a thriller, but there’s so much trademark humor to be found (mostly character based) from Hume Cronyn offering Henry Travers hypothetically poisoned mushrooms, to the precocious Ann. Small-town life is gently poked at with a loving touch. The rug isn’t pulled out from under Charlie to throw her so-called woes in her face, but to make her appreciate the family she has right in front of her.

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1. The More the Merrier (Stevens) (US)
I’m just head over heels in love with this movie, which takes the then-serious housing shortage in Washington D.C during the war and makes a screwball comedy out of it! The More the Merrier marks George Stevens’s last foray into comedic territory. He left immediately after the film’s completion to join the U.S Army Signal Corps, and his experiences during the war would dramatically shift the kinds of films he’d be making thereafter. This is one of the sexiest romantic comedies of the studio era. In fact it’s damn near erotic. It hilariously scrutinizes how our trio in close quarters shares space from the sitcom-esque sequence with the hectic schedule, the crowded closeness of the premise, and Jean Arthur’s increasing loss of control in her own home.

Stevens often shoots from outside the apartment looking in, using the windows as frames within frames, closing the characters in with each other and using the same techniques to bring them harmoniously together whether they like it or not. This brings the audience into the equation, involving us in the intimacy between Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea. The three leads are magnificent, career-best work from all. Jean Arthur is smoldering through her character’s button-cute type-A way. Joel McCrea is impossibly sexy, the opposite of Arthur in his quiet flirtatiousness and at times childishness. Charles Coburn, in an Oscar-winning role, could have been a sentimental eccentric old coot, but the writing and performance make it so much more. The dynamics between the three are so organic and joyous to watch unfold, especially the way factions within emerge such as the antagonistic boys club versus their target Arthur.

And that eroticism I mentioned earlier between Arthur and McCrea? Oh, it’s there. Just look at the scene when he gives her the suitcase, his face close to hers, showing her all the compartments. Or the long take starring Body Language with the two strolling down the street. It doesn’t get sexier than this sequence folks. Like, I think I stopped breathing during it. It’s a dance between the two. He’s outright pawing at her, she’s being coy. What are they talking about? Is anyone even listening? I don’t even know how this all got past the censors, because once they sit on the steps he starting feeling her up, his hand obsessing over her face, neck, and shoulder. Mein Gott. Or that bedroom scene, with the camera bringing the two bedrooms together as they longingly lust after one another in their separate beds. The two actors have a special onscreen connection. In an early scene, the two dance in separate spaces with themselves, the camera linking them in their adorable awkwardness. Then in a later scene, the two sit across from each other at dinner with Coburn and Arthur’s fiancee. Sharing a private moment unbeknownst to the other two, they stare at each other moving their shoulders and body ever-so-slightly to the music. The sly cuteness of it all is too much.

But what about that ending? I’d love to hear what others think of it because it leaves me with a sad and peculiar taste. It uses the WWII movie trope of the quickie marriage and then settles the couple into a tired marriage with lots of Arthur wailing. That this is my favorite film of 1943, despite going off-center in its finish, goes a long way in conveying just how much I’m in love with this film.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #57-61


Hangmen Also Die!

#57. Hangmen Also Die! (1943, Lang)
I already have more appreciation for Hangmen Also Die! since watching it, especially in comparison to my largely indifferent gut in media res reaction. The lead actors are unable to make a connection with the audience, there are some moderately significant pacing problems and an unappealing stiltedness to its visual flow. Of Fritz Lang’s WWII quartet, the only other one I’ve seen is Man Hunt, which I felt similarly cold towards. Said quartet has been pretty uniformly overlooked in Lang’s filmography, but there have thankfully been recent surges in exploration and newfound adoration. I’m of two minds with Hangmen Also Die! because it (and Man Hunt), unsurprisingly given Lang’s (and other collaborators here) background and even his somewhat murky politics, engages with WWII in more complex ways that many other films of the time.

Its focus is on a more aggressive and far-reaching brand of anti-Fascist solidarity, going so much further than standard calls of resistance. The Czech underground movement in the film is not alone in defiance. The entire population is, without fail, as openly defiant as they are capable of being. This allows for a conspiratorial final act with such a satisfying and elaborate pay-off. The Nazi characters are portrayed with some degree of specificity; they are full-blooded bullies with subtle shadings as opposed to generically über-efficient. It’ll be hard to forget the eccentric cruelty of an elderly woman being forced to pick up part of a broken chair over and over. But it is Czaka, the traitor, who is seen as the worst offender, and that final act pay-off I mentioned is the film and characters going payback mode on his sorry ass. Hangmen Also Die! is a morale builder, like so many, but a pricklier and moodier kind. I get the sense my appreciation for it will grow as I revisit it years from now.

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#58. Air Force (1943, Hawks)
Surely one of the more objectively successful combat WWII-era films with its progressively concise team-as-singular-entity function. It’s also a perfect example of what the WWII combat film is meant to do in theory; turn the vague and often withheld details of the war into a specific entertainment-based narrative for the civilian audience. It gives a sense of context, something to grasp onto, however inaccurate, in the face of uncertainty. The B-17 is depicted as a sacred weapon and carrier of dutiful familial male bonding. It’s a perfect fit for Hawks. James Wong Howe shoots interiors with multiple men almost always in frame. Instead of reading as claustrophobic, it’s made to feel like a comfortable connective space. Less guided by plot points, more pushed forward by acts of teamwork that show the supportive and determined morale of the crew.

But here’s the rub; combat films couldn’t be of less personal interest to me. It says something that with so many 1943 combat films to choose from, and reading a handful of books on WWII films, that Air Force was the only one of its kind I put on my 1943 watchlist. Air Force is important for the time for successfully offering a scenario of idealized collaborative nobility, but it doesn’t transfer to either today (it’s part of the wartime package but racism abounds), or to my own personal taste, as something I could connect with despite the nice ensemble work and genuine feeling of camaraderie.

Old Acquaintance

#59. Old Acquaintance (1943, Sherman)
Exactly the kind of ‘women’s picture’ I instantly flock to. Though it, of course, suggests that women can’t have both love and a career, its central female-driven study of lifelong friendships somewhat eclipses its more dated cautionary elements. It asks why oh why would someone, in this case Bette Davis, stay friends with someone, in this case Miriam Hopkins, so ceaselessly toxic? Davis’s Kit deserves to be treated so much better. Her best friend happens to be insufferable, dismissive, competitive, insulting and shrill. Kit’s accommodations don’t come from meekness or weakness; it’s voluntary loyalty bordering on martyrdom. She knows Millie’s more questionable traits come from a deep seeded jealousy and insecurity. It’s an extreme case of accepting someone for who they are, for having empathy and understanding when others, justifiably, don’t.

Split into three time periods, Davis is something divine in the first act which sees the characters at their youngest. She is breezily boyish and slack. She even goes to bed pantsless! Kit stays awesome pretty much throughout, but those first thirty minutes are to die for. Davis also plays a character who, in the last half, has to come to terms with dating a significantly younger man, and this seven years before All About Eve. This final half is a bit unfocused with its added youthful players and an newly introduced love triangle that Davis seems altogether too above being involved in. Although the same thing could be said for the love triangle of the first half, as Millie’s husband is a complacent sad sack too cowardly to do something about his own unhappiness.

I’m so fond of the end and its lack of sturdy conclusion in the traditional studio sense; two women, finding solace in forgiveness and each other even with the icky twinge of successful women = sacrificial element. But it’s more. That sense is there, but it circles back to the affirmation of loyalty. And if it puts forth that the two are mutually exclusive, at the very least it doesn’t suggest Kit and Millie made the wrong choice.

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#60. Nymphomaniac Volume II (2014, von Trier)
This second volume makes way for Joe and Seligman to openly discuss the structure of her storytelling and his literalizations. This allows their dialogue to freely move into much touchier, sometimes revelatory, sometimes squicky kinds of talk about such topics as sexual reactions to pain, pedophilia, and the use of the word ‘negro’. Joe reveals herself to be uncompromisingly direct to a fault, that directness stemming from her overreaching tendency to label herself (‘calling a spade a spade’), ushering in a more extreme variant of sexuality to the forefront in content and dialogue. Von Trier’s willingness to engage in a self-dialogue of sorts is rewarding in its matter-of-factness. Joe’s comments about pedophilia in particular are pretty much word-for-word in line with my own thoughts, well, outside of that ‘bloody medal’ bit.

I wish the second half felt consistently successful, but instead it’s anchored and labored. By far what I liked most was the Jamie Bell chapter. Although I think S&M is too often depicted in film with a desperate air, the way it is handled here completely fit within the circumstances of Joe’s predicament and mined engaging thematic territory. Jamie Bell, along with Stellan Skargaard and Uma Thurman are co-MVPs within the opus. His downcast routine-operating sadist blends a peculiar mix of directness and indirectness. The last chapter, Joe’s search and upbringing of a protegee, feels of a different realm and disengagement sets in never to be reclaimed. A final reel recasting of Shia Labeouf to reflect the passing of time is the final step to said realm. Nothing onscreen at that point feels connected to what came before, especially since Gainsbourg and LaBeouf are allowed to share scenes together earlier on. Joe’s rock-bottom moment proves indecipherable and grotesquely over-the-top from all angles (P pees on her? Fucking seriously?).

The final minute is meant to be confrontational but feels like a lazy fuck-you cop-out, von Trier carelessly shooting his own film in the face. Taken as a whole, Nymphomaniac is wildly inconsistent (I’d like to see the eventual 5-hour cut). Joe has high highs and low lows and so does the film; sometimes they match, sometimes not. While it isn’t one of my favorites from von Trier, I loved its structure, its enthusiasm for conversational discourse, and the ways it unsexily portrays sex as something at once explainable and inexplicable, and as relating to all things existential.

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#61. The American Friend (1977, Wenders)
I really need to make sure to consider and write down thoughts on a film soon after seeing it because I tend to get backed up quickly and now it’s been over a week since seeing this and I have no insights! And that’s with me jotting down thoughts in a notebook before even typing stuff up. But anyways, this is my first Wim Wenders film, which I realize is somewhat ridiculous. I’m in love with this. It’s a Ripley adaptation really in name only. The story is presented in a deceptively straight-forward way only to gradually reveal itself as existing on a different and slightly parallel plane from A to B, between traditional narrative and something hovering just above it, reality and concreteness just barely out of reach. There’s an eventual  prioritization of atmosphere and an unspoken mystique to everything. The two main characters and their motivations seem endlessly available for mining. Bruno Ganz is stellar, internally clinging to life, unwilling and skeptical, then all at once in too deep. Ganz singing “Baby you can drive my car” to himself is a perfect thing. And this might be the most hypnotic I’ve seen Dennis Hopper; quietly indecipherable and genuinely haunting. The visual component is a thing of green-and-yellow-hued beauty. The subway and train sequences are old-fashioned suspense in the best sense. Wenders’s regular cinematographer Robby Müller creates some of the best photography to come out of the 70’s.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #47-56


I have no idea how to write about WWII propaganda, even well-made and entertaining pieces. I recently purchased On the Front Lines from Walt Disney’s Treasury Series, which collects a selected group of wartime shorts. During the war, the Disney studio’s output was making almost exclusively WWII-related works from countless training videos for armed forces and entertainment bits for those on the homefront. During these years, the studio itself was even armed and protected like a military base. This period in Disney history is woefully underwritten about. The books written about WWII Hollywood treat it like a footnote, though they were far and away producing more than anyone else, and an indispensable source for armed forces at the time. These shorts I review here fall in the entertainment category. Cartoons take a special kind of blunt reductivism within the propaganda sphere. It’s worth pondering what exactly the government was aiming to sell the American public with these shorts as well as if whether or not it accurately lined up with the general public’s perceptions. Thoughts on these four shorts will be more a collection of observations than summarized thoughts.

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#47. Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943, Kinney) (USA)

  • The life of a Nazi and fascism seen as nightmarish all-work-and-no-play, almost inviting an implied empathy for anyone operating within its warped depiction of Germanic life.
  • Aroma de Bacon & Eggs
  • Literal yellowface. Even by 1940’s standards, the hyper-overt racism is supremely uncomfortable. But it falls in line with Japanese representation during WWII, being far more barbaric and grossly offensive than other Axis powers appaearances.
  • The structure is built heavily around the famous title song which is played out in full.
  • The climax is easily the highlight in which the short goes all Dumbo on us re: Donald’s escalating insanity making way for surreal disembodied color blocked images colliding into a cymbal crashing wake-up call.
  • Brought around to American democratic values at the end, where Donald (a super-patriot based on his room decor!) wakes up and is oh-so-grateful to be an American.

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#48. Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1943, Geronimi) (USA)

  • Hitler youth as depicted by Disney, making for a weirdly abstract timeline.
  • Narrator is just-the-facts stern, giving a removed and deliberately unrelatable feel. The use of non-subtitled German language has similar effect.
  • Always acknowledges the master race but never the racial violence/hatred as the logical endpoint to that concept.
  • Adapted from a novel by someone who lived in German for nine years.
  • Awkward bit of apparently mandatory comedy doesn’t work at all.
  • Interestingly, another case of empathy towards those indoctrinated, anger directed at the big guns so to speak, and not the common folk.
  • May be my personal preference of the four watched, as there’s so much to pick over and admire as far as its effectiveness, execution and curio value.

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#49. Reason and Emotion (1943, Roberts) (USA)

  • Tries to take our brain impulses and depict them as corporeal figures in an ongoing battle for dominance. Reason is an upper-crust fuddy-duddy. Emotion is a proto-Flinstones reject.
  • There are few moments in anything more amusing than when the short oh-so-subtly reveals its agenda, going from frivolous high-concept to propaganda. “That’s right emotion. Go ahead! Push reason out of the way. That’s great. That’s fine…for Hitler!”
  • Still, its relative indirectness makes it a welcome change of pace from the previous two.

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#50. Chicken Little (1943, Geronimi) (USA)

  • Perhaps the most effective, or at least the most transferable, when looking at these with a modern eye because it uses the fable as a cautionary WWII allegory. Unfortunately it is overall not very engaging.
  • Chicken Little himself is a particularly snotty little puke, even by this tale’s standards, prime for feeding lies and jump-starting chaos.
  • The end represents how dangerous face value beliefs and fed false truths are, which not only speaks to the nature of propaganda itself (the most resonant thing about the short) but to nurture-based sociopolitical norms.
  • Bleak as fuck end, even by this fable’s standards. Holy hell.

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#51. Fox and His Friends (1975, Fassbinder) (West Germany)
These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important than self-respect. These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important period. Every single Fassbinder film is politically charged (on a broad level, but of course with specificity to West Germany), about the losing battle with societal norms.  For him there is no winning and everything is a compromise. Because if you turn to terrorism or anarchy or simple rejection, you still operate and are defined by those same constructs, just in opposition as opposed to compliance. Money catapults Fox, makes him useable. And Fox is gullible, bordering on willfully I would argue; sucked dry. Fassbinder’s other major career-spanning theme, masochism, specifically in relation to what he would dubiously call ‘love’, is also present. Well, that’s not much of an observation. It’s also in every single film of his. Mirrors are a visual cue as reflection of what is right in front of Fox’s nose.

Augen is truly despicable. I mean he really has to be one of the most distasteful characters I’ve ever come across. I loved Fassbinder as Fox, his eager-to-please naivete.  The rhinestone ‘FOX’ on the back of his denim jacket might as well say ‘SUCKER’. His unassuming character remains unconverted in spirit, but his identity, possessions and agency are corrupted. It’s very easy to spot the film’s downward trajectory because Fox’s ability to be deceived is made very clear both to us and everyone around him from the get-go, making his fate that much harder to watch. The final shot is searing stuff, carnival music bringing us back full circle under wildly bleak circumstances. Everyone has used him, nobody will stay with him even in death. Even the camera is fleeting, having gotten his story, backing away from him like a stranger. Use of “Bird on the Wire” potent and anticipatory, not to mention most welcomed.

– Fox’s telephone joke? ADORABLE.

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#52. Veronica Mars (2014, Thomas) (USA)

Like a full season crammed into about two and a half episodes. This sounds like an insult, so let’s switch ‘crammed’ for ‘distilled’, because I pretty much loved this. After some clunky recapping, we’re right back in Veronica’s head and all is right with the world. It clicks along with just the right amount of ups and downs. Veronica’s just-when-I-thought-I-was-out (OK nine years is not ‘just’) arc is used as a foundation with which to build stakes and revisit and reestablish old patterns and connections to the past. Even the central mystery harkens back to a high school-era crime. The titular character’s ten-year reunion takes place a year before mine would theoretically occur, thus my headspace  heavily related to the do-we-ever-really-change concerns. Most major players are serviced at least in some regard. That the film feels undercooked at intervals, as opposed to undercooked and rushed, is a bit of a feat considering how much ground is covered.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there lacks a big-screen feel to Veronica Mars; this is more made-for-TV movie territory in layout and stature. Most impressive is now largely natural the continuation felt, biting quickness and California-noir all fully intact.

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#53. Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (2014, von Trier) (Denmark, etc)
It’s difficult to have any conclusive thoughts when I’ve only seen half the final product (though I pretty much know most of what happens in Volume 2), but I’ll jot down some thoughts. Von Trier embeds twinkles of playful humor into the deliberately unsexy provocation this time around, and it largely works to his advantage. It’s easy and natural to focus on the cobwebs of by turns messy and provoking gender politics to be found. I still say that von Trier puts more thoughtful care into his female characters, which are Trier surrogates to begin with (which yes, brings us back around to the male but the point remains), than most male directors, regardless of what he puts them through. I’ve always found that suffering to be explicitly linked to himself, making it impossible to toss off as a function of misogyny. A film about a specific self-destructive case of hypersexuality isn’t going to be sex positive, because it’s not really going to be about sex. It’s about the strands of habitual addiction and damaging compulsions that can coincide with it, male or female. This isn’t sex with consequences. This is sex as unquenchable fulfillment within the human condition. Sex as desperate momentary grabs at feeling alive. This isn’t about women. It’s at even broader and far more specific. This is about people. And this is about Joe.

What makes Lars von Trier films so singular is that they increasingly feel like a form of self-therapy; he’s exposed and inextricably linked to his work, not as a filmmaker but as a deeply thoughtful, endlessly wily, and haunted man. Nymphomaniac is about unfillable emptiness. For all the wildly entertaining but misrepresentative marketing, the sex scenes, and the body doubles, the structure emerges as most engaging. The framing device as open-ended dialogue approaches philosophical, but is mainly based around Stellan Skarsgaard’s Seligman and his inability to relate to human experience, bringing his education and esoteric knowledge to the forefront, regularly chiming in the only way he knows how. These cultural reference points even dictate the chapter titles and guide Joe along with his room full of coincidental reminders. Skarsgaard is doing unsung wonders with that role by the way.

Speaking of unsung work, Stacy Martin as younger Joe gives a very subtle and perceptive performance. She remains stoic and removed, because her Joe doesn’t have to answer to anybody. Chapters 3 & 5 stand out. Chapter 4 stops the film dead in its tracks. Partly Christian Slater’s fault, whose tree-loving dad I don’t buy. But it’s mostly von Trier’s fault for indulging in monotonous drudgery for an extended period of time with no impact. Uma Thurman is everything you’ve heard. It’s a tour-de-force from an actress not given many opportunities to show what’s she’s capable of. Shia LaBeouf’s accent is a joke, which is a shame because I’m one of the people who thinks, nay knows, he can act. That accent isn’t strengthening my case though. Overall a solid entry, not ultimately one of my very favorites from the Dane; but as always, lots to chew on. Seeing Volume 2 on Monday night.

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#53. Ernest and Celestine (2014, Aubier, Patar, Renner)
(France/Belgium)
Sweet-natured beyond reproach, fully enlivening two distinct worlds (that of bears and mice) which are inextricably and antagonistically defined by the other. The lumbering wannabe thespian Ernest and the sprightly artistic Celestine enter a mutually beneficial dynamic which turns into inseparable friendship. From the creators of A Town Called Panic, the former’s chaos is recalled in spurts (the dual Police chase is a favorite) and calming downtime gives E&C room to blossom with us as witness. The animation has gorgeously fluid backgrounds with a watercolor aesthetic applied to still winters, pastoral spring, and two dream sequences that give more freedom to the animators. The characters themselves have a quickness of movement that also recalls ‘Panic’.

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#54. Little Women (1949, LeRoy)

I’m picky with my Little Women. The 1994 Gilliam Armstrong film is a precious and sacred entity to me, to the point where even the source material itself doesn’t tickle my fancy. But surprisingly, I liked this! Most praiseworthy is its use of Technicolor and all technical contributions to the looks; cinematography, costume, and art direction. So a lot of the mise-en-scène touchstones. It’s one of the most strikingly photographed films I’ve ever seen. There’s an illustrative quality to it, with tones somehow both warm and vibrant, every color fully felt. And the cast mostly meets the criteria. Janet Leigh’s Meg is appropriately just sort of present. Margaret O’Brien makes for a much younger Beth (and edges Claire Danes out of the Weepiest Beth award). Elizabeth Taylor’s distracting blonde wig notwithstanding, gets at the put-upon haughtiness of Amy. And June Allyson, who I don’t normally think of as being an actress I particularly like, makes a wonderful Jo, particularly in her portrayal of Jo’s desire for everything to continue forever unchanged. The men don’t fare well; Laurie is dull as a sack of potatoes and they hilariously cast an Italian actor as Professor Bhaer….while keeping the character German.

Five Graves to Cairo
#55. Five Graves to Cairo (1943, Wilder)

Billy Wilder’s underappreciated second feature film is easy to get undeservedly lost among WWII-era pictures. Adapted from a play originally set during WWI, the isolated action is moved to a hotel in North Africa where espionage, undermining, and deception all run amok by the core cast. Despite its eventual committed seriousness, quite a bit of Five Graves to Cairo is light on its feet, until it isn’t, treating its subject with a winning mix of popcorn fare and brass tacks purposefulness. Fortunio Bonanova’s buffoon of an Italian general pretty succinctly sums up the way Italians were portrayed during wartime; as largely nonthreatening underlings. Erich von Stroheim, one of Wilder’s idols, walks away with the film. His Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is cunning, particular, and direct.

#56. Muppets Most Wanted (2014, Bobin)
Short review/rant coming soon

List: Top 30 Favorite Films of 2013 (#30-16)


I have to admit, 2013 hasn’t quite impressed me the way it’s impressed others. But you have to take that with a grain of salt. I think every year in film is special. I don’t think any one year in film is weak, and when people have stated it in year’s past I just want to pish-posh them away. If you’ve said this, you just haven’t seen enough! But 2013 did, quite simply, herald more disappointments than most years. But I still found plenty to love. I’ve got some major blind spots, the biggest of which I’ll list below. At a certain point, it’s just time to make the damn lists. I tried to see the majority of the films that held the most interest for me. Eventually I’ll catch up with the ones I missed. My top 15 goes up tomorrow.

My other 2013 film lists:
Top 25 Performances https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/list-top-25-performances-from-2013/Top Fives of 2013 (in which I dole out a boatload of superlatives): https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/list-top-fives-of-2013-in-which-i-dole-out-a-boatload-of-superlatives/
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 2013: A Personal Sampling: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/what-ill-remember-about-the-films-of-2013-a-personal-sampling/

Some Major Blind Spots: The Act of Killing, The Great Beauty, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, A Touch of Sin, We Are What We Are, The Square, In a World…, Post Tenebras Lux, All is Lost, Gimme the Loot, Wadjda, To the Wonder, After Tiller, Twenty Feet from Stardom

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Honorable Mention:
Bastards (Denis) (France)
For my honorable mention I’ve chosen a film that has unexpectedly haunted me since viewing it. I like Claire Denis’ latest a lot, but felt it became trapped between her opaque poeticisms and having to fulfill noir tropes left lingering after the dust settles. That being said, I haven’t been able to shake the thing since seeing it, in such a way that the film bares an honorary mention just on that that, let alone its other considerable achievements.

The Selfish Giant
#30. The Selfish Giant (Barnard) (UK)
Clio Barnard’s second film, an outgrowth of and companion piece to her first (the experimental documentary The Arbor), continues to explore life in Bradford where post-industrial environments harbors dire below-the-line living conditions. It also confirms her as a new voice in British cinema. The social consciousness is rooted in drudgery specific to the area where the hum of electricity, and fate, loom over the characters. We see how and why kids would take part in the illegal and lucrative scrap-dealing world as an immediate answer and sole misguided carrier of hope. This is a hankie movie everyone. Big. Time. Hankie Movie.

The catharsis and release that comes at the end, after a period of unerring focus and shock, is sort of soul-shattering. And it illustrates why the film works so well. It often seems hopeless, and there is little good depicted in this world, but The Selfish Giant is punctuated with moments where compassion is a form of exchange between two people. Barnard is also thankfully far more interested in the daily existence, of seeing Arbor and Swifty in their natural habitats than in point-to-point storytelling. I’m absolutely struck by the work of the two lead children, both non-actors who came from the area. Falls in line with British social realism films of yesteryear. Hopeless yet humanistic. Powerful but not plodding.

Byzantium
#29. Byzantium
 (2013, Jordan) (Ireland/UK/USA)
There were a number of films I became very fond of this year that almost made the cut. But time and time again I kept coming back to Neil Jordan’s succulent and underappreciated return to territory the likes of The Company of Wolves and Interview with the Vampire. Byzantium is a tell-tale yarn fraught with dicey dynamics and the eternal past. Saoirse Ronan stands at the center but it’s Gemma Arterton who most captivates. You feel the weight of time and the world on Clara’s shoulders even though she likes to pretend it isn’t there. Moira Buffini, who I’ve come to expect wonderful things from, concocts a vampiric story about women staking a claim for themselves in a male-dominated construct. The lush imagery is supported by the notion that female characters can take control of their own narratives. It has the feel of a successful adaptation, a film about where people land within their own story when their fantastical tale is all said and done.

No Barnal
#28. No (Larrain) (Chile) Fuses form with the period visual language at hand. No’s greatest success is the way it embraces the outlandish humor inherent in selling democracy to the public using advertising language and branding without ever feeling like it side-sweeps what is at stake. It is heavily populated with riotous and invaluable archival footage. The story is told through the assumedly fictional central figure played by Gael García Bernal who strides through the film freely aware that philosophy and political discussion sadly don’t have the market appeal of say, a jingle. It’s very focus further supports this idea as does the low-def 80’s format. Bernal makes his enigma of a cocky wunderkind full stop captivating. It also brings back pleasant yet vague memories of learning about Chile in my Latin American history class.

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#27. The Heat (Feig) (USA)
Melissa McCarthy dusts off one-liners like she’s dealing cards as well as creating a well-rounded character within a comedic framework. McCarthy and Bullock create the best onscreen duo to hit the multiplexes since Hill/Tatum in 21 Jump Street. Not coincidentally, both are buddy-cop films. And unlike 21 Jump Street, which falters in its last third, The Heat manages to stay consistent, its weaknesses trickle in throughout (including a mean-spirited streak) without hindering it too much at any given time. I had such a blast with this, and Feig’s direction really comes through in how he extracts the most laughs out of chaotic situations. Two examples include the scene at the club and the drinking montage.

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#26. It’s a Disaster (Berger) (USA)
Todd Berger’s low-key apocalyptic comedy nails the awkwardness of being thrust into new social entanglements and the weird and thoroughly under-explored dynamic embedded in the dreaded third date. The ensemble have great rapport, and the chamber piece is kept up in the ways characters take off in various amusing reactionary directions. If some of the characters never become interesting or move past their introductory vibe, it’s a relatively minor detractor in what is one of the most consistent and enjoyable comedies I’ve seen in some time. More people need to see this. The final scene is spot-on.

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#25. 12 Years a Slave (McQueen) (USA)
Steve McQueen somewhat inverts his psychological studies from outside-in/how the body inherently relates as vessel between what we see of people and what goes on within. It’s all recognizably McQueen, with suffering as the nucleus. One man’s story, which remains prioritized, is used as a catalyst for taking in, if not directly on, the larger whole, all stemming from the centrality of Solomon. There is an indirect blanket focus on the broader sets of societal and ideological circumstances through character behavior required for atrocities to be normalized. It’s a story of perverse realities, realities that reinforce the importance of always continuing to confront history, to reexamine, to not forget.

McQueen presents the material, with a no safety setting intact. Long takes, shallow focus, the pain showing on the face and being inflicted on the body. I do wonder about the unerring focus on brutality, and if maybe it’s sort of an easily blunt method of addressing the institution of slavery that slides the aforementioned blanket focus I mentioned earlier into the shadows. It’s a complicated topic to be sure, but I have largely appreciated the folks willing to question the film’s merits as opposed to blindly accepting them, even if I feel there’s a lot more going on in the film than the more narrow ways detractors have read it.

And that ending. Solomon is lifted out of hell, and the film comes to a close with a quiet reunion. As Solomon looks on at his family, both familiar and unrecognizable, apologizing for the state of his appearance, the impact of the film hits you all at once. It’s like an unspeakable tidal wave.

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#24. New World (Park) (South Korea)
Mob movies have to work a little extra to earn my commitment. I’m not adverse to them, and there’s actually quite a few I like or love. But it’s not a genre I automatically care about. New World, written and directed by I Saw the Devil scribe Park Hoon-Jung more than earns my commitment. It pulls you in from the word go. It’s more about the characters and how their long-standing relationships go hand-in-hand with the choices that are made than strictly adhering to mob tropes. There is an unforeseen ripple effect that the characters can’t quite define, but they all know it’s there. The parking garage fight scene is a kinetic stunner that I’m still wrapping my mind around. I seriously cannot stress that enough. All of the performances are incredibly strong, none more so than Hwang Jung-min, his doofy swagger acting as a posturing veneer. This is swift, smart, and impressive all-around. It felt like a kind of unspoken love story between two ‘brothers’; the curious coda falls in line with this reading.

Frances Ha
#23. Frances Ha (Baumbach) (USA)
Here’s the thing with Frances Ha. Saw it, loved it, continued to love it, and then a few weeks after seeing it, it left a slightly dissatisfied taste. I’m confident that a re-watch will rectify this strange faded feeling, but for now it gets a lower spot than it otherwise would have. But I’m still in the minority for preferring caustic Jennifer Jason Leigh-collaborative Baumbach over bubbly Greta Gerwig-collaborative Baumbach.

Noah Baumbach revisits the comical sharpness of his roots and the result is a youthful and delectable collaboration with new squeeze Gerwig. It is about the intricacies and intimacies of female friendship and the slow emergence of self-aware maturity. And it ties the two together beautifully. I love its flighty makeshift structure, completely coated in French New Wave sensibilities. It’s equal-parts comprised of full scenes and montage where exchanges and moments are pared down to their minimum for maximum essence. It paints a fairy tale-like picture where the underlying sadness can be overcome because let’s face it, the only thing holding Frances back from putting her best foot forward is herself. She makes some poor decisions along the way in order to live in the past and retain a sense of control but they are ill-advised. Has there been a more pitiful Paris excursion in film?

This would make an excellent double feature with Walking and Talking. Dean and Britta show up again here and this time they have lines! Major bonus points there. I know we all justifiably fawned over the usage of “Modern Love” (though knowing there’s another usage featuring Denis Lavant out there makes me salivating for the latter), but can we stop for a second and appreciate the more memorable multiple usage of Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner”?

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#22. Enough Said (Holofcener) (USA)
Nicole Holofcener tends to deal with wayward women in some sort of semi-self-inflicted crisis. Here, she skillfully observes a woman whose inability to trust her own judgment and have her own experiences gets her into some uncomfortably sticky situations. Enough Said works so well in part because the script openly acknowledges that these characters have a lot of life both behind and ahead of them. It deals very honestly with the fact that budding relationships which come in middle age carry baggage and a past that both must reconcile. Each have daughters, ex-spouses, their own experiences and acquired defense mechanisms. In Hollywood, middle-aged romance is a sort of hazy hiccup in life that must be overlooked or ignored completely, despite being far more interesting for its mature perspective. That attention to relationship history is both the possible savior and destroyer for Eva and Albert’s relationship.

It has its stumbles (rom-com polish, unsubtle reminders, and a corny score) but Holofcener gets at the loss parents experience when their children leave the nest, and the parallel terror of new relationships in middle age when the past lingers and the future is mined with vulnerable uncertainties.

Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/review-enough-said-2013-holofcener/

The Hunt
#21. The Hunt (Vinterberg) (Denmark)
That a film like this is an easy potshot of ‘look how useless people can be’ in a herd mentality scenario doesn’t lessen its impact as heralded by Thomas Vinterberg and powerhouse star Mads Mikkelsen. Links back to the director’s seminal Festen by looking at another accusation of sex abuse, this time a decidedly false one. Vinterberg never lets go of his grip on seeing the constant gears of the snowball effect setting up and going into motion. Standard narrative manipulation aside, everything about this feels like an eerily plausible train wreck you can’t stop from happening. Everybody is depicted as well-meaning individuals whose reactions are understandable (Fanny assailants aside) given the circumstances yet still avoidable. It’s one of the more successfully frustrating ‘audience-can’t-reach-out-and-set-things-straight’ experiences. Its study in mob mentality, importantly a mob mentality rooted in genuine search for justice borne out of rightly placed protection, offers no easy answers as it mourns the loss of innocent and pure interactions between adults and children. Those early scenes can’t even exist in their purity because we know what’s coming. Reliable great Mads Mikkelsen brings all of this home with his kind and giving character, respectable stiff upper-lip slowly giving way.

Drug War
#20. Drug War (To) (China/Hong Kong)
2013 seems to be the year where the film community has collectively taken on To’s intimidating filmography with rigor. It’s an exciting development largely triggered by Drug War’s Western success. Not including Drug War, I’d only seen a couple of To’s films (everyone needs to see The Heroic Trio because it has amazing Hong Kong lady stars becoming superheroes and kicking ass!) and Drug War definitely left me pining for more of his work.

This is rigid, disciplined, alive. Entirely driven, on a content level, by its economic plot mechanics, making up a serious and twisty crime/action film laced with politics of Mainland China where rigidity is a false pretense because everything feels like it can go bust at any second. And oh boy does it ever. On its surface it may on first glance look like a really solid action flick, but when you watch it, it doesn’t quite feel like others of its kind. It’s hermetically sealed and about the illusion of order. Everything is slick (what glorious sound!); not supported by the notion of ‘cool’ so much as the notion of pure craftsmanship. There is an immaculate tracking of space and place. You can tell this is special just in the way it goes about introducing all the key players at the beginning. It doesn’t dumb down character intros but it’s a casually intricate map rooted in clarity. Drug War gets more compelling by the minute and is contains a pretty fantastic female detective played by Huang Yi.

Behind the Candelabra
#19. Behind the Candelabra (Soderbergh) (USA) (aired on HBO)
My favorite Soderbergh film since Traffic, Behind the Candelabra is biographical, campy, comedic, showbizzy, heartwrenching, bizarre and poignant all at once. You could watch it once and latch onto any one of its parallel modes of design. Watch it another time and give yourself over to a different thread. It takes the conventional rise-and-fall relationship trajectory and uses it to explore how toxicity and devotion intermingle. Douglas lets us see a little slime underneath the bedazzle, just enough to really grey things up. This is in the running for Matt Damon’s best work. His Scott is also genuine on one level, but subtly duplicitous in the perks of living the life and the downward spiral he allows himself to go on.

The glitz, cosmetic surgery, PR work and pills make up this fragile veneer where everyone is going big or going home in a constant effort to keep up a transparent lie in more ways than one. Oh, and kudos for Cheyenne Jackson who kills every second of his tiny role. On a final but crucial note, the Matt Damon eye candy is at ridiculously high levels.

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#18. Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche) (France)
A seminal relationship, the search for identity, heartbreak and hope all in extreme close-up, all mapped out on faces. Largely free of narrative commitment, Blue is more tethered to an almost verite-like observation which captures intense personal experience. 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 that belong to Adele. She has a lust for life in eating, dancing, masturbating; the basics of living are depicted through that stumble towards an uncertain identity and sense of self.  Problematic claims aside, there’s an audacity and animalism to the much-talked about sex scenes (our culture’s general prudishness is as much to blame for this as is textual and extratextual context) that is so pulsing, vital, sweaty and real to the relationship that the idea of them, nature of the male gaze and 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).

I was 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. Unbearably palpable is the diner scene towards the end, a wrenching depiction of can’t-go-back heartbreak, regret and pain on both sides. The journey we go on just in that scene is mind-boggling. Blue is also responsible for turning my adoration of Lea Seydoux into full-blown crush territory.

More thoughts here: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/films-seen-in-2013-round-up-235-239/

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#17. Monsters University (Scanlon) (USA)
I have no idea what this film did to catch the amount of undeserved slack it received within the film community upon its release. Aren’t most movies been-there-done-that? Doesn’t execution count for anything? Has Pixar pitted itself into a hole of unreachable expectation? A riff on the college buddy comedy, Monsters University might not pack the kind of next-level emotional wallop of some of Pixar’s output or have the kind of ambition we crave from them, but this was flat-out one of the most entertaining films I saw this year. That anyone could have walked out of this unsatisfied boggles my mind. It’s heartfelt, hilarious and carries a wonderful message on its back that I wish had provoked more discussion.

I find it fairly unconventional for an all-ages film to be this realistic in its message. This isn’t “Reach for the Sky”. This is “Reach for the Sky” but realize it’s okay that you might have to start at the bottom. There’s something bold in stating (in a kids film no less!) that desire and natural talent don’t always have matching levels. Mike wants to scare more than anything in the world. But he’s just average. And that’s okay.  It hits every note it intends to, every joke lands on-target (anyone who lived on a college campus will appreciate a lot of the humor) and Crystal and Goodman lend top-notch voice work in reviving Mike and Sully.

spectacular now

#16. The Spectacular Now (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. We are brought into the characters lives on their own level of experience; first loves, mistakes, conflicting flutters, people letting them down. In the process, we come to care so 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’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. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are revelatory.

More thoughts: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/capsule-reviews-films-seen-in-2014-round-up-1-5/

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #225-234


Playing a bit of catch-up as I’ve fallen behind in transferring these from tumblr to this site but I should be caught up in a couple of days, which means lots of capsule reviews coming your way.

AP FILM REVIEW THE WAY WAY BACK A ENT
225. The Way Way Back (2013, Rash, Faxon)
The Way Way Back gets the awkwardness of teenage male introversion, the kind where simple sentences and basic social interaction is debilitating and near impossible. It’s that time in their lives where some kids struggle to have a personality. BUT! That ends up being the problem, because turns out that our protagonist Duncan is a total blank slate. There is nothing to this character. He has yet to start having any kind of identity and the film tracks the beginning of that change. And so kudos for trying to go past the more put-upon attempts of awkward adolescent characterization. But what makes it all so much worse is the weak script, which is packed from start to finish with cliches that are not supported by much quality or strength. We’ve got the shitty stepdad, the angsty-but-beautiful romantic interest, the carefree male mentor, the summertime job, the kooky side characters, the caring but equally stuck mother, etc. If the film had a stronger script which worked with archetypes instead of lazily playing into them, this could have been a much better film. There is a scene where Duncan has to ask some hip-hop dancers to disburse and the only way they’ll comply is if he dances in front of all the waterpark patrons. It’s a scene that of course ends in applause and a nickname. It is without a doubt one of the worst scenes I’ve seen in a film from any year. The first and last scenes are strong and Carell and particularly Rockwell get a lot of mileage from their characters but this mostly annoyed and grated on me.

The Iceman
#226. The Iceman (2013, Vroman)
So much potential here. A hitman who kills because he likes it, who finds himself having a human connection for the family he helped create. Two ruthless hitmen (the other being Chris Evans) who start out  as competitors and end up a freelance team. There’s a lot to like and Shannon makes the film largely compelling. But it’s too by-the-book, too focused on story when it purports to be a character study, losing sight of itself in the process. The one-scene Franco casting is incredibly useless and distracting. Winona Ryder is unforgivably wasted as ‘the wife’ though she is able to slip in some ambiguity as to what her character may know when she got the chance. It all comes back to what Kuklinski’s family meant to him and how they fit into his life yet they are too often shoved into the background in favor of the more immediately ‘crowd-pleasing’ antics of violent mob politics.

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#227. The Hunt (2013, Vinterberg)
That a film like this is an easy potshot of ‘look how useless people can be’ in a herd mentality scenario doesn’t lessen its impact as heralded by Thomas Vinterberg and powerhouse star Mads Mikkelsen. I had been waiting to see this for quite some time and it did not disappoint. Links back to the director’s seminal Festen by looking at another accusation of sex abuse, this time a decidedly false one. Vinterberg never lets go of his grip on seeing the constant gears of the snowball effect setting up and going into motion. Standard narrative manipulation aside, everything about this feels like an eerily plausible train wreck you can’t stop from happening. Everybody is depicted as well-meaning individuals whose reactions are understandable (Fanny assailants aside) given the circumstances yet still avoidable. It reminded me of Beyond the Hills in that way. It’s one of the more successfully frustrating ‘audience-can’t-reach-out-and-set-things-straight’ experiences. Its study in mob mentality, importantly a mob mentality rooted in genuine search for justice borne out of rightly placed protection, offers no easy answers as it mourns the loss of innocent and pure interactions between adults and children. Those early scenes can’t even exist in their purity because we know what’s coming.

Mikkelsen is really who brings all of this home with his kind and giving character, his respectable stiff upper-lip slowly giving way. That church scene is UNREAL. Some of the best work I’ve seen from him, some of the best work I’ve seen from anyone in a long time. Vinterberg directs assuredly, constantly getting behind the eyes of characters, always tracking those gears. A highlight that comes to mind is the way with absolute clarity we come to understand how Klara comes to her made-up confession. This reminded me that I need to seriously re-watch Festen, a favorite of mine, and also see his supposedly failed English-language efforts which definitely have pockets of appreciators. Its ending is a far more interesting a place to leave off than where the depressing descent of the Danes would leave you to believe we’d land. Also giving really memorable work are Thomas Bo Larsen and young Anika Wedderkopp.

Computer Chess
#228. Computer Chess (2013, Bujalski)
This is actually the only film I’ve seen from ‘mumblecore’ helmer Andrew Bujalski, and it’s an ambitious undertaking. In the simplest of terms it’s a lo-fi analog comedy (but it’s a lot of things, a muted philosophical curio) that sets itself up only to purposely deconstruct at every single turn. It strides off to little side streets, to seek out late-night wanderings. It goes full-on in its public access period piece look, using an old 60’s Sony video camera to catch a flat and fuzzy landscape, ugly and kind of eerie. Bujalski keeps this going with hiccups and a form that defies normal rhythms and expected framing. This is a film that could easily be of one-note existence but Bujalski has so many heady things on his mind and wants to touch on them. Looking back at the pioneers of late 70’s/early 80’s technology who are looking ahead, and not in a nudge-nudge way either. The oddness of the act of computer chess. Possible sentience. Conversations with creations. Cultural movements crossing paths. Getting stuck in filmic loops. Everything is slightly off and it’s hard to put your finger on its brand of off-kilter ‘reality’. It sifts through the steady monotony and looks for real meaning in a gently comedic and deadpan way. It’s sneaky and unexpected, a film that I liked quite a bit even if I don’t have the adoration for it that many do. Wiley Wiggins is just the most.

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#229. No (2013, Larrain)
A wonderful and consistently engaging film on many levels. Fuses form with the visual language at hand. Embraces the absurd humor inherent in the concept of selling democracy to people through advertising language and branding without ever feeling like it side-sweeps what is at stake. Hot diggity all that archival footage is gold. Tells story through assumedly fictional central figure Bernal who strides through the film freely aware that philosophy and political discussion sadly don’t have the market appeal of say, a jingle. The film’s very focus further supports this idea as does its aesthetic low-def 80’s form. Bernal makes his enigma of a cocky wunderkind full stop captivating. So yeah, I really loved this. Brings back vague memories of learning about Chile in my Latin American history class.

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#230. Would You Rather (2013, Levy)
I hope someone remakes this someday because it has a deliciously gruesome concept that is just jackhammered into the ground by a redundantly unimaginative script and some of the worst and clunkiest direction I’ve seen in some time. Levy is at a loss with even simple camera blocking and there’s a jammed wheel-turning to the editing and framing that feels rudimentary. There are also desperate editing techniques that splice in earlier conversations with the present happenings that are meant to keep flow. Still, you’ve got Jeffrey Combs chewing scenery as if his life depended on it and it’s reliably enjoyable to watch him try to single-handedly make up for the entire cast. Oh Sasha Grey. I want to like you but you have maybe six lines and manage to give the worst performance ever with that little. You can tell she had a bigger part but that she’s been edited to shreds in hope to salvage something kind of convincing. But no. I did kind of enjoy Brittany Snow though. But yeah no, this is a big skip.

A Band Called Death
#231. A Band Called Death (2013, Covino and Howlett)
Another doc case of love the subject matter, not the delivery. It’s a more-than-worthy story blandly told. More concerned with surface-level narrative than actually going deep into anything. Which is a shame because deceased brother David seems a tricky figure worth further exploration. Then it spends far too much time on recollections of rediscovery. I don’t need countless people detailing their reaction to hearing this music to know it’s good. The last section is dedicated to that rediscovery and yes, it’s definitely fascinating to see how the internet brings people together and bridges these threads until it gets all the way to Drag City. But full circle with the next-of-kin is a point to hit, not to dwell on to the degree this does. Fabulous and vital music though.

A nos amours
232. À nos amours (1983, Pialat)
The first film by Maurice Pialat I’ve seen. This resonated with me a lot. The way time is handled and depicted reminded me a lot of another recent viewing, Blue is the Warmest Color; in both, time moves at an unacknowledged but somewhat speedy rate. Like a steady speed train through late adolescence filled with exploratory sex and a severe and almost perverse family dysfunction. The whole thing is held in by Bonnaire; resilient, removed, testing the waters, always looking for a way out of whatever the current situation. She is impossibly young here with a wholly distinctive set of features.

The last act and that show-stopper of a dinner scene is the highlight. What rises this above other coming-of-age sex dramas (complete with baby ingenue-of-the-moment) is how Suzanne grappling with who she is and what she wants is equally tied into a domestic situation where surreal hysterics, and other complex forms of familial desire and function, are brought together under one roof. She becomes a scapegoat of blame but is also trying to fill in an emptiness, to prove herself wrong. The brother character is one of the most awful lecherous creatures ever. The scenes between Bonnaire and father (played by the director himself) are particular highlights.

Christmas in July
#233. Christmas in July (1940, Sturges)
Capable of igniting a ‘why don’t they make films like this anymore’ inner monologue. I tend to grapple with Preston Sturges quite a bit but this hit every checkbox of ‘things I enjoy’. Fuck ‘minor’; firing on all cylinders, this breezes by at 67 minutes as ambitious do-gooder Dick Powell is catapulted to false success by a simple prank that inspires reverence in all, simply because an advertising contest supposedly verifies a person’s importance and abilities. There’s quite a bit here about what success is predicated on and how it ties into capitalism and the American Dream. And there’s something striking about the image of a bunch of tired, smoking, arguing white guys pent-up in a meeting room sifting through shitty slogans while 2,947,582 hopefuls wait to hear their fate.

Powell’s slogan is something awful but he’s hedged all his bets on it and we are never allowed to forget it. It’s a zippy, biting riot of a film from start to finish. Powell is excellent but Raymond Walburn is the standout here. His initial conversation with Powell is a HOOT. “I can hardly wait to give you all my money” goes in the Line Deliveries Hall of Fame.

the clock
#234. The Clock (1945, Minnelli)
Proto-Before Sunrise (to be seriously reductive) as made through the studio system. Romance set in an urban landscape where an idealistic but heartfelt depiction of NYC reigns supreme. A city defined by and littered with chance encounters of whirlwind romance and milk runs. Robert Walker and Judy Garland sparkle through their (offscreen) mutually assured destruction. Minnelli’s camera glides through the masses to settle on the meant-to-be pair, further emphasizing how important setting is despite none of the film being shot in NYC.

A couple of the chance encounters fall flat such as Kenneth Wynn’s sloppy drunk and just how honeydew and on-the-nose the milkman and his wife are. And The Clock really loses something when it becomes all about the rush to get married. But it comes back around for a coy morning after sequence that is sexy, sweet, and dialogue-free. The wedding ceremony is an almost comically ugly affair and while my modern eyes wish that Garland’s tears had been about the aftermath of absurd decision-making instead of the makeshift ceremony, that’s nowhere near the kind of film this is, and The Clock remains an infectiously fated romance-drama all the same.

List: Top 30 Fall Films to See (September-December)


We are two weeks into the Fall Movie Season; that lovely time of year when theaters are crowded with anticipated releases big and small. I have to admit that there are not a ton of films I’m dying to see these last several months of the year. My Top 30 is a strong group indeed, but this is the first year in a long time where I didn’t have about 45 films clamming for a spot on the Top 30. To put it simply, several of the bigger fall releases I’m feeling ambivalent towards. These include Flight, Promised Land, The Impossible, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Hyde Park on Hudson and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I’m really looking forward to On the Road, Therese Raquin, Skyfall, Frankenweenie, Detropia, This is 40 and The Sessions but not enough to earn them a spot on the list.

If all of those highly anticipated films do not appear on this list, the question begs; what does? These are the 30 films I am most looking forward to. What are yours?

30. Barbara (Germany)
Synopsis: A doctor working in 1980s East Germany finds herself banished to a small country hospital.

Germany’s official submission for this year’s Oscars. I have yet to see a film directed by Christian Petzhold although I always meant to see Jerichow. I’m always going to be a sucker for films set in East Germany.

29. Lincoln
Synopsis:
As the Civil War nears its end, President Abraham Lincoln clashes with members of his cabinet over the issue of abolishing slavery.

The recently released trailer for Lincoln felt admittedly stuffy and anticlimactic. But I have faith in this film, despite the actors playing historical dress-up vibe and not caring about Spielberg’s 2011 one-two punch of War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. But look at this cast! Look at it! Daniel Day-Lewis appears in one film every few years, so any opportunity to see him on screen must be seized immediately. Especially since his last film role was the start-to-finish miscalculation known as Nine.

28. Dredd 3D
Synopsis:
In a violent, futuristic city where the police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner, a cop teams with a trainee to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug, SLO-MO.

Out of nowhere, Dredd 3D is getting really solid notices. Like, ridiculously solid review. In a world where the film industry deals in remakes and comic book adaptations as a daily ritual, I don’t think anyone had this on their radar. For the countless middling forgettable release and anticipatory disappointments, there aren’t as many ‘where did this come from’ surprises. Alex Garland wrote the screenplay, whose credits include Never Let Me Go, Sunshine and 28 Days Later. Color me intrigued. But if the notices are to be believed, this is more than worth checking out.

Bonus: Olivia Thirlby sporting blonde hair while kicking ass and taking names.

27. Sister (France)
Synopsis: A drama set at a Swiss ski resort and centered on a boy who supports his sister by stealing from wealthy guests.

This sibling drama doesn’t seem to fit too comfortably into any easy box (outside of the aforementioned ‘sibling drama’) which is what draws me to it.  Lea Seydoux continues to stamp her presence as a French arthouse bombshell with her second release of the year after Farewell, My Queen.

26. Smashed
Synopsis: A married couple whose bond is built on a mutual love of alcohol gets their relationship put to the test when the wife decides to get sober.

I have had my eye on Mary Elizabeth Winstead for a while now. Forget Scott Pilgrim. We’re talking the days of Final Destination 3, Death Proof and Black Christmas. Yes that’s right; Black Christmas. Last year she got a starring role in the remake of The Thing, walking away with all of her dignity in a film as forgettable and rote as they come. I think what most people are excited about in regards to Smashed, is Winstead finally gets a chance to show us what she’s got. And by all accounts, it was worth the wait.

Bonus: Aaron Paul, people. Aaron Paul. Aaron Paul: that is all.

25. How to Survive a Plague
Synopsis: The story of two coalitions — ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) — whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.

This documentary has the subject matter and the kind of upcoming exposure to really get some attention. It looks like the type of inspiring impassioned history lesson that I look for in this type of doc.

24. Killing Them Softly
Synopsis: Jackie Cogan is a professional enforcer who investigates a heist that went down during a mob-protected poker game.

I have to admit that the trailer for this left me really underwhelmed and relatively uninterested in the story. However, the pairing of director Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt has me salivating for this. Considering that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is in my top 10 of the 2000’s, you best believe this earned a spot.

23. Argo
Synopsis: As the Iranian revolution reaches a boiling point, a CIA ‘exfiltration’ specialist concocts a risky plan to free six Americans who have found shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador.

Ben Affleck’s first two films managed to impress me enough without bowling me over. But it’s clear the man’s got a sure and efficient directorial hand. The cast, the based on a true story concept and 70’s period detail are all promising, not to mention its warm reception on the festival circuit.

22. Zero Dark Thirty
Synopsis: A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osams Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy SEAL Team 6 in May, 2011.

Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker, chronicling the hunt and kill of Osama Bin Laden. I can’t wait to see how the film depicts its subject matter and how functionally rooted in factual reconstruction it is.

21. The Other Dream Team
Synopsis: The incredible story of the 1992 Lithuanian basketball team, whose athletes struggled under Soviet rule, became symbols of Lithuania’s independence movement, and – with help from the Grateful Dead – triumphed at the Barcelona Olympics.

Been hearing a lot about this documentary (one of only 3 on this list since the majority of documentaries come out during the Spring and Summer months). This is a truly fascinating subject, ripe for potential exploration, and it looks genuinely educational and uplifting to boot.

20. Sleep Tight (Spain)
Synopsis: An embittered concierge at a Barcelona apartment building plots to make one happy-go-lucky resident completely miserable in this psychological thriller from [REC] and [REC 2] co-screenwriter/co-director Jaume Balaguero.

I feel pretty confident that this is going to be a reliable, solid slice of horror. It looks like the kind of low-key, suspense ratcheting creepfest that focuses on its antagonist over other characters. And Spanish directors certainly know how to deliver the scares: The Orphanage, The Devil’s Backbone, REC, The Others and last year’s The Last Circus to name a few obvious examples.

19. V/H/S (seen)
Synopsis: When a group of misfits is hired by an unknown third party to burglarize a desolate house and acquire a rare VHS tape, they discover more found footage than they bargained for.

I’ve already seen this one but this is where it would have been placed. Horror anthologies are always worth a watch and these directors take the stylistic experimentation that videotapes inherently offer, with its glitchy worn-down visuals and static white noise, and channel it through the possibilities of the genre. That alone makes this worth watching. For all the mediocrity of the stories themselves and the fevered gender-based discussion it has incited, V/H/S has a DIY aesthetic that makes its mark.

18. Keep the Lights On
Synopsis: In Manhattan, filmmaker Erik bonds with closeted lawyer Paul after a fling. As their relationship becomes one fueled by highs, lows, and dysfunctional patterns, Erik struggles to negotiate his own boundaries while being true to himself.

This looks emotional and moving with strong lead performances. It has been impressing audiences since Sundance.

17. Bachelorette (seen)
Synopsis: Three friends are asked to be bridesmaids at a wedding of a woman they used to ridicule back in high school.

Another film on the list I have already seen, this is where Leslye Headland’s self-adapted mean streak of a comedy would have been placed.

16. Sinister
Synopsis: Found footage helps a true-crime novelist realize how and why a family was murdered in his new home, though his discoveries put his entire family in the path of a supernatural entity.

Since premiering at SXSW in March, I have heard nothing but good things about this one. Good horror films that get wide releases are far and few between, but this looks like it will garner Insidious levels of attention with the buzz I’ve been hearing.

15. Silver Linings Playbook
Synopsis: After a stint in a mental institution, former teacher Pat Solitano moves back in with his parents and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. Things get more challenging when Pat meets Tiffany, a mysterious girl with problems of her own.

Winning the Audience Award at Toronto today is a huge signifier as to how this film will be received. The trailer didn’t do much to impress, looking too by-the-book with empty quirk thrown in. But all signs point to David O. Russell having a huge hit on his hands post-The Fighter. Russell is one of my favorite directors working today so I cannot wait to see him working in the comedic realm again.

14. Girl Model
Synopsis: A documentary on the modeling industry’s ‘supply chain’ between Siberia, Japan, and the U.S., told through the experiences of the scouts, agencies, and a 13-year-old model.

The second of two documentaries on this list, Girl Model looks like a chilling and illuminating look at the international modeling industry.

13. Seven Psychopaths
Synopsis:
A struggling screenwriter inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster’s beloved Shih Tzu.

Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to In Bruges reunites him with Colin Farrell as well as Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, both of whom starred in his play “A Beheading in Spokane”. McDonagh a master of the kind of dialogue that knows it’s clever, a Snatch-like trait that I usually veer towards not liking. Somehow he pulls this style off with aplomb and if it’s anywhere near as good as In Bruges, we are in for a treat. Oh, and Tom Waits people. Tom. Waits.

12. Wreck-It-Ralph
Summary: A video game villain wants to be a hero and sets out to fulfill his dream, but his quest brings havoc to the whole arcade where he lives.

This is the only children’s film I really can’t wait to see this Fall. The trailer had me full-on cracking up in a way no trailer has in ages and it has got a golden goose of a high concept. Add in the voice work of John C. Reilly at the helm and the smorgasbord of video game references and this looks like a guaranteed winner.

11. Looper
Synopsis: In 2072, when the mob wants to get rid of someone, the target is sent 30 years into the past, where a hired gun awaits. Someone like Joe, who one day learns the mob wants to ‘close the loop’ by transporting back Joe’s future self.

A brainy sci-fi headed by Rian Johnson? The amount of hype going into this one is considerable, but it looks like it will live up to expectations. I’m a huge fan of Brick and Johnson has directed two of the best “Breaking Bad” episodes in existence (“Fly” and “Fifty-One” respectively). So to see him get the opportunity to headline a considerably mounted genre film with its own world and rules is sure to impress. It is already well on its way to its own spot in the pantheon of great sci-fi flicks.

10. Wuthering Heights (Seen)
Synopsis: A poor boy of unknown origins is rescued from poverty and taken in by the Earnshaw family where he develops an intense relationship with his young foster sister, Cathy. Based on the classic novel by Emily Bronte.

I got the opportunity to see this at the Independent Film Festival of Boston and this is where Andrea Arnold’s adaptation would have been placed had I not seen it. It would have been one of my favorite 2012 films had the last hour not been entirely unbearable. Here is my review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/review-wuthering-heights-2012-arnold-iffboston-2012/

9. Django Unchained
Synopsis: With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

I realize that it looks like Quentin Tarantino’s latest gets a pretty low spot. Surely this is Top 5 material, right? Well, while I’m sure this is going to be fantastic, I’m also feeling ready for the director to do something else besides revenge across different genres. But this promises memorable characters, references galore and the type of crackling two-person dialogue scenes we love from him. I think I’m most interested to see how Leonardo DiCaprio fares in one of the auteur’s films and as a villain at that. It’s a much-needed and refreshing step out of his comfort zone.

8. Perks of Being a Wallflower
Synopsis: An introvert freshman is taken under the wings of two seniors who welcome him to the real world.

I’ve had high hopes, really high hopes for this, for a long long time. A lot of us have been waiting forever to see if Stephen Chbosky seminal coming-of-age novel was ever going to be adapted, and lo and behold, the day is almost upon us. It has a remarkable trio of actors in the lead roles. I am particularly amped for Ezra Miller, who quickly climbed his way onto my list of favorite young actors. There hasn’t been a memorable high school flick in a while. And this soundtrack, which takes from the book, is to die for. To. Die. For. The fact that Galaxie 500’s “Tugboat” is going to be in this film is a fact that single-handedly earns ‘Perks’ a spot on the list.

7. A Royal Affair (Denmark)
Synopsis: A young queen, who is married to an insane king, falls secretly in love with her physician – and together they start a revolution that changes a nation forever.

This is shaping up to be a great year for Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. He won Best Actor at Cannes for The Hunt (which will hopefully get a Spring release for 2013), he is set to star in a TV series as Hannibal Lecter and he received excellent notices in the very well-received historical drama A Royal Affair. This looks like an intriguing much better-than-average historical drama that is right up my alley. It also stars Alicia Vikander, a young actress to watch out for who also will appear in Anna Karenina.

6. Rust and Bone (France)
Synopsis: Put in charge of his young son, Ali leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Ali’s bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stephanie suffers a horrible accident.

This being the latest from Jacques Audiard (A Prophet and Read My Lips) with a reportedly stellar lead performance by Marion Cotillard gives this a very high anticipatory spot. Cotillard has been relegated to pretty thankless roles since catapulting to the Hollywood A-List. It’ll be nice to see her in a meaty lead once again.

5. Holy Motors (France)
Synopsis: From dawn to dusk, a few hours in the life of Monsieur Oscar, a shadowy character who journeys from one life to the next. He is, in turn, captain of industry, assassin, beggar, monster, family man…

All I heard during this year’s Cannes coverage was Holy Motors, Holy Motors, Holy Motors (well, that and a certain other film to appear on this list shortly). By all accounts, this is a surreal whackadoo head trip in the best way possible. It seems well on its way to earning a cult status and I intend on checking it out the moment it comes near me.

4. Cloud Atlas
Synopsis: An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

What will likely be the most divisive film to come out this season, I for one am counting down the days until this film gets released. The 6-minute trailer is a thing of beauty, bringing tears to my hypersensitive eyes. We can attribute a lot of this to the inspired use of M83’s brilliant “Outro”.  And I am over halfway through David Mitchell’s novel as we speak.

The way I see it, whether the film turns out to be a disaster or a triumph (or both at the same time), these filmmakers are going for it. The Wackowski’s and Tom Tykwer have together tackled what is widely thought to be an unadaptable novel (more so than most novels given the unadaptable label). It’s weaving six stories in one film, all in different time periods, with the same actors with the tired old theme of interconnectedness. No matter what the outcome, the film will be discussed for years to come. Without having seen it and going on gut instinct, it feels like the type of film that will possibly be reassessed for the positive as decades pass. As you can see, I’m preparing myself for the bashing to come. I can already see that Cloud Atlas is going to bring out the worst in the blogosphere, Prometheus-style. But no matter what the outcome, this is going to be an ambitious, epic and challenging work that nobody can fully write off. It may end up becoming a flop, but it sure as hell will go down swinging.

Ridiculous Bonus: Bae Doona, one of my very favorite actresses working today is going to get some serious international exposure here as Sonmi-451.

3. Amour (Austria)
Synopsis: Georges and Anne are in their eighties. They are cultivated, retired music teachers. Their daughter, who is also a musician, lives abroad with her family. One day, Anne has an attack. The couple’s bond of love is severely tested.

New Micheal Haneke. That not enough for you? It won the Palme D’Or. That still not enough for you? Haneke regular, and my favorite actress, Isabelle Huppert appears. Want more? This is Haneke doing a tearjerker about the elderly with two lead performances that supposedly devastate. My common sense tells me that Amour is going to stomp out my soul. Part of me has been mentally preparing myself for this film since this year’s Cannes.

2. Anna Karenina
Synopsis: Set in late-19th-century Russia high-society, the aristocrat Anna Karenina enters into a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky.

Another film that is sure to divide. Joe Wright’s decision to set the Tolstoy adaptation on a stage and to use theatrical stylization is sure to distract some. But frankly, if all we are left with are the visuals evident in the trailer, this will still likely land a spot on my favorites for the year. The costumes, production design and overall look of the trailer is sickening. Joe Wright is one of my favorite directors working today. He pushes himself into challenging and creative directions that breathe new life into familiar tales. Wright reteaming with Keira Knightley, surely one of modern cinema’s most rewarding director/star collaborations, is always thrilling. The way his camera illuminates this woman (who is already stunning to begin with) is beyond my ability to comprehend. We’ve got a screenplay by the great Tom Stoppard, cinematography by the great Seamus McGarvey, music by the great Dario Marianelli and costume design by the great Jacqueline Durran. So basically what it comes down to is that lots of great people are involved in this. I plan on reading this monster of a novel before the film comes out. Now that’s anticipation for you.

1. The Master
Synopsis: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.

I honestly feel like I don’t even need to put reasons here. It’s at the top of everyone’s list. Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite working director. It’s been 5 years since his last film. This was very close to not getting financed. It’s a near miracle we even get to see this. His films engage me more than any other director. They make me feel things that are unrepeatable, unfamiliar and challenging. His films are dense, complex, elusive, pretentious and indefinably uncomfortable.  I live for his films. And on Friday I will finally be seeing his latest in 70mm. Oh, and welcome back to Joaquin Phoenix. It’s been too long. And if the trailers are any indication, this performance is one for the books.

Screening Log: May 15th-31st, 2012 – Films #146-166


All grades are entirely arbitrary, and represent my own personal response and investment level, not a critical assessment.


146. The Big Clock (1948, Farrow): B+


147. Thieves Highway (1949, Dassin): B+


148. The Shanghai Gesture (1941, von Sternberg): C+


149. Ivan the Terrible Part I (1944, Eisenstein): B+/B


150. The Dark Mirror (1946, Siodmak): B-


151. The Ghost Ship (1943, Robson): B-



152. Foreign Correspondent (1940, Hitchcock)


153. Stray Dog (1949, Kurosawa): B/ B-


154. Oliver Twist (1948, Lean): B+/B

155. The Small Back Room (1949, Powell/Pressburger): B/B-

156. Henry V (1944, Olivier): C/C-

157. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945, Siodmak): B


158. Crossfire (1947, Dmytryk): B+


159. Germany Year Zero (1948, Rossellini): A


160. The Big Heat (1953, Lang): B+


161. Ivan the Terrible Part II (1946/1958, Eisenstein): B+


162. Journey to Italy (1954, Rossellini): B+


163. Take This Waltz (2012, Polley): B+


164. Los Olvidados (1950, Buñuel): A/A-


165. Animal Farm (1954, Halas & Bachelor): C+


165. Ordet (1955, Dreyer): A


166. Polisse (2012, Maiwenn): B