2011 January 05 • Wednesday
Here are the fifty-two Movies of the Year 2010, selected from the more than 300 I watched. I'd already seen a few of these before.
The Verdict (1946): Don Siegel’s first movie is an excellent locked room mystery with superb photography by Ernest Haller. Sydney Greenstreet is a prosecutor who discovers that he’s sent an innocent man to the gallows. Forced to resign in disgrace, he’s further humiliated to see his obtuse and scheming young rival take over his position. When Greenstreet’s neighbor is discovered murdered in his bed, with all doors and windows locked from the inside, the new prosecutor is baffled and must eat the words he spoke earlier to Greenstreet, that there is always a clue if one knows where to find it. Clueless in more ways than one, he must ask for Greenstreet’s help and Greenstreet obliges, accompanied by his best friend, a dissolute artist wonderfully played by Peter Lorre. The solution to the mystery was a complete surprise to me. Too bad this movie doesn't have a better title.
The Sin of Nora Moran (1933): What should have been a standard melodrama is rendered as pure cinematic excitement by way of camera movement, editing, lighting and a sophisticated narrative device in which a condemned woman dreams of the events that led to her doom. She occasionally appeals to the author of her life and her fellow characters to allow something different to happen, to change the future. It’s hopeless, of course; her story is being told in flashback and she’s already dead. Orphaned first by her natural parents and then by her foster parents after they are killed in a car accident, Nora Moran tries to make a living in New York City as a dancer. She never gets a break, though, and joins a traveling circus. After the lion tamer rapes her, she quits and ends up with a job as a chorus girl, then becomes a married man’s mistress. This man will soon be governor, though, and his handlers see Moran as a liability. She ends up sacrificing everything for him. This exercise in dazzling storytelling and cinematic technique was apparently an influence on Citizen Kane.
Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953): The movie begins with Madame de… going through her closets and drawers trying to decide what to sell to get money to pay off her debts. She and her husband are idle and rich, content with a superficial existence. They float on the surface of upper-class comfort; a written prelude to the movie supposes that nothing remarkable ever would have happened to them if it weren’t for the earrings. Madame de… can’t part with her furs or her emeralds. The earrings, a wedding present from her husband, are what she likes least. She sells them to the jeweler who sold them to her husband. She covers their loss by pretending she lost them at the opera. (The opera is based on the Orpheus myth: Madame de… is similar to Eurydice in that both are destroyed because their lovers doubt them.) When the loss is reported as theft, the jeweler, wishing to avoid a scandal but needing the jewels to be available for resale, tells the husband what happened. The husband buys the earrings again, then gives them to his mistress. The earrings change hands several more times, each time marking a progression in the narrative, as General and Madame de…’s easy lives are made more difficult by the awakening of serious emotions. An Italian diplomat, played beautifully by Vittorio de Sica, falls in love with Madame de…, and she with him. Madame and the General have their affairs, but none that has ever mattered before. With a real emotional life come jealousy, anger, pride. While many stories describe a descent into tragedy, the story of Madame de… is a glide into tragedy. It’s shocking how easily yet inevitably the opening tone of frivolity segues into grim poignancy.
Executive Action (1973): About halfway through the year 1963, a few rich, paranoid, bigoted, right-wing oil-men decide that their survival depends on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This spellbinding and understated drama calmly and quietly displays their reasons and their method: three gunmen, with Oswald as a fall guy not involved in the crime at all. Burt Lancaster is the fixer, who has arranged such things in other countries on behalf of oil-company interests. This job will be his biggest and, he decides, his last. Robert Ryan, who masterfully tosses out ironic lines instead of milking them, thus making them most effective, is the main instigator of the plot. Instead of a world of 7 billion people of mixed races, his vision for the future calls for about 500 million Caucasians. Except for an awkward reading aloud of on-screen text at the beginning and ending of the movie, the audience’s intelligence is never insulted. Naturally we know the plot will succeed; as in all the best crime films, the mechanics of the job are the main interest and source of excitement.
Paranormal Activity (2009): Katie has memories of being haunted by something that would whisper her name and appear at the foot of her bed when she was eight years old. Her younger sister witnessed the apparition as well, and both sisters were terrified by it. Their house mysteriously burned down, the family moved and that was that. Until now, when Katie, in her twenties, is living with her boyfriend Micah, a day trader whose world view could hardly be more mundane. Unidentifiable nocturnal noises have made Katie wonder if the spirit from her childhood has returned. Micah determines to use a video camera and digital audio recorder to capture any supernatural phenomena, and the story is told through the lens of this camera. This technique generated a lot of attention for The Blair Witch Project, but Paranormal Activity has more in common with the solidly constructed and smoothly executed ghost stories of a hundred years ago. The believability and banality of the people and their environment are established. A psychic visits and tells them that his specialty is ghosts, i.e., human spirits, and what they describe sounds not human, perhaps a demon. He encourages them to contact a demonologist he knows. Of course they don’t do this—the plot demands that they don't—but the reason why is a nice twist. Micah insists that this is his house and Katie is his girl. He wants to deal with the problem, his rival, in his own way. Thus the camera and several other not very serious or impressive approaches. (Micah actually makes things worse by egging on and taunting Katie’s otherwordly stalker.) While on one level Paranormal Activity is a story of haunting and torment, on another it’s a story of two controlling, possessive men fighting over a woman: what she wants for herself is irrelevant to both of them. The movie is very well written and blossoms within its self-imposed limitations of the single camera and single set. The DVD contains an “alternate” ending that is almost certainly what the filmmakers intended, as it better suits the story and contains responses to scenes in the beginning of the film. The “theatrical” ending is flashier and will make you jump, but feels like the “Hollywood” ending.
Anne of the Indies (1951): Excellent swashbuckling adventure film about a female captain of a pirate ship. Anne Providence and her brother were orphans raised by the infamous Blackbeard. Anne is looting and sinking as many British ships as possible, and killing all hands, to avenge the death of her brother, executed by the British for piracy. When she finds a Frenchman in irons aboard a British vessel, she allows him to join her. This leads to love, betrayal and several other satisfying plot twists. The movie has fun with gender roles: Anne asks the Frenchman to choose whatever he wants from their latest spoils and he takes a frilly dress while Anne picks a sword. Anne is tough, vicious and an excellent fighter. Her character maintains her integrity to the end, and the other female lead is also strong and fearless, though the opposite of Anne in every other way. It’s worth noting that, unlike several tough female leads in recent movies, no excuse is made for Anne being so tough: she just is. (In the execrable Avengers movie and the otherwise good Mr. Brooks, Uma Thurman’s and Demi Moore’s characters both had fathers who wanted a son, not a daughter. The implication is that these women can take care of themselves so well because they’re trying to be like men. This is insulting and the "real" Emma Peel would have found it absurd.) Director Jacques Tourneur does a wonderful job of composing the frames, keeping foreground and background alive with activity and placing the main characters in subtle frames within the frame. Great music by Franz Waxman, too, featuring an impressive violin soloist.
The Mask of Dimitrios (1944): This adaptation of Eric Ambler’s wonderful thriller, which inspired Graham Greene’s The Third Man, is the Citizen Kane of international intrigue. (Citizen Kane has a very similar plot; Welles's later Mr. Arkadin, a.k.a. Confidential Report, has an almost identical plot.) Peter Lorre plays a writer of detective stories who hears of the notorious Dimitrios, a manipulative, heartless murderer, thief, blackmailer and spy. Seemingly indomitable in life, Dimitrios has been found dead on an Istanbul beach. The chief of police tells Lorre about him at a party. Curious to know more, Lorre views the body in the morgue, then travels Europe interviewing various people who knew the dead man, in order to get a picture of Dimitrios’s life. His activity attracts the attention of a mysterious character played by Sydney Greenstreet, also interested in tracing the dead man. Greenstreet follows Lorre and then... well, I won’t ruin it. But it’s a lot of fun. Lorre and Greenstreet are both talented professionals who relax and have fun with their roles, and their pleasure spreads to the viewer. Adolph Deutsch, who scored The Maltese Falcon, creates the perfect musical atmospheres for this combination of mystery, chase, comedy, romance and thriller.
Cinematic Titanic: "East Meets Watts" (2010): This recording of a live Cinematic Titanic performance had me breathless with laughter at certain points. The Al Adamson-directed movie is a ludicrous mash-up of kung fu, blaxploitation and The Defiant Ones. Tough black guy “Stud Brown” and Hong Kong martial arts expert "Larry Chin" are handcuffed together by a corrupt cop played by Aldo Ray—he sure saw better days—but they escape and, uh, look for the Chinese guy’s brother who was maybe murdered when he found out about some plot to flood the ghetto with heroin. Or something.
Confessione di un commissario di polizia al procuratore della repubblica (Confessions of a Police Commissioner to the District Attorney, 1971): Solid Italian crime drama about a new district attorney (Franco Nero) who refuses to believe that there are criminals the law can’t touch. The police commissioner, jaded by years of seeing the powerful get away with murder, graft and anything else they want, has given up on the law and is attempting to remove the most severe offenders by illegal means. As the movie begins, he engineers the release of a man from a mental asylum, and gets the man to kill one of these well-connected crooks. The attempt fails, though, and the district attorney catches on to what happened. Now the commissioner has to worry about his own arrest. Absorbing and particularly well photographed, with great music and an interesting, two-sided ending.
Johnny Eager (1942): An unusually complex crime drama with multiple ironies, twists and reversals. Few people are what they appear to be. The title character, well played by Robert Taylor, is a ruthless gangster who casually injures, murders or otherwise callously disposes of anybody who is in his way or no longer useful. On parole, he pretends to be an honest taxi cab driver. At night and in the safety of his headquarters he changes his hack uniform for an expensive tailored suit. The plot concerns his actually falling in love for the first time, with Lana Turner, who happens to be the daughter of his nemesis, prosecutor Edward Arnold. So hard is his heart that Eager takes a long time to recognize what feelings he has, and why. With them come faint signals from his conscience, something nobody would have credited him with possessing. All this would be bad enough, as Turner could have him sent back to jail for parole violation just by a slip of the tongue in the presence of her father or her fiancé, whom she immediately dumps for Eager. But Eager also has to contend with his new race track scheme, in which he’s invested hundreds of thousands of dollars, and mutiny in the ranks. It concludes with a stunning shoot-out set piece, with brilliant set design and photography. Steam rises from the manholes and the "el" rattles by, casting light from its windows onto the buildings. Bronislau Kaper’s effective score frequently references “Melancholy Baby”. It has some slight similarities to Out of the Past, and an unusually emotional ending. It almost trips into melodrama but just barely avoids taking on that much more weight.
Il bell'Antonio (1960): Marcello Mastroianni is Antonio, a handsome young man just returned from Rome to his native Catania. It seems the whole city is buzzing with gossip about his sexual exploits and how irresistible he is to women. His parents are anxious to arrange his marriage to the daughter of an important family but Antonio isn’t interested. What nobody suspects is that sex makes Antonio physically ill. When he was eighteen, he was in the process of losing his virginity when he felt too sick to continue. He’s never gotten closer to consummation than that, and it’s his hard luck that he lives in a place where a “real man” is judged by his libido. When Antonio sees a photo of Barbara, the woman his parents want him to marry, he sees an angel and falls in love immediately. And why not? She’s played by Claudia Cardinale. The two marry and for a few months are blissfully happy in a loving partnership without even a suggestion of carnality. Nobody has ever told Barbara the facts of life and she has no way of knowing that anything might be unusual about their life together. They live in an idyllic orange orchard and if their situation suggests the Eden myth, that’s no coincidence. There’s always a snake, sooner or later, and Antonio and Barbara cannot be allowed their unconventional contentment. The story inexorably flows toward a tragic, devastating conclusion. The cinematography is beautiful and Piero Piccioni’s jazz-tinged score provides the perfect accompaniment. The performances are all great but the two leads are especially good (as those two always are). The screenplay is intelligent, daring and uncompromising.
Dancing Girl (Maihime, 1951): Another Mikio Naruse-directed adapatation of a Yasunari Kawabata novel, another masterpiece. The main character is a woman in her forties, a former ballet dancer whose chances of a professional career were destroyed by World War 2. Now she’s a ballet teacher and her twenty-year-old daughter is her most promising student. As they prepare for the young woman’s upcoming performance, as the lead in Swan Lake, the family begins to fall apart. For the last twenty years, the ballet teacher has been having an affair with a married man. Her husband is aware of it, and angry about it, but has responded by having a secret life of his own, publishing academic text books and depositing the earnings into his own private bank account, while his family sells their possessions to make ends meet. Their two children are aware of their parents’ unhappiness, and this leads the daughter to reject a marriage proposal and to have serious doubts about a career as a ballet dancer. Her parents don’t make marriage look desirable at all, and she’s conscious of the fact that she’s become a surrogate for her mother’s unfulfilled dreams. As if that weren’t enough, her former ballet teacher, who was also her mother’s old dance partner, ekes out a living as a bus driver. The son alternates between being hostile to his mother and protective of her, particularly where her uncouth and lecherous manager is concerned. All the characters remember being happier during the war, when they had much less freedom. Is freedom the problem?
Tsuki to Cherry (Moon and Cherry, 2004): A 21-year-old man is pressed into joining an erotic literature club. He’s surprised to learn that the club has a female member—and it turns out that she’s the most talented writer of them all, the only one who’s serious about the club’s goal. She’s also already working professionally, writing serial novels for money. Her new one is about an older woman who seduces a virgin man. The new club member is a virgin, and the writer presses him into service, seducing him and then throwing him into various sexual situations—with a dominatrix, a prostitute, etc.—so she can write about it for her novel. He falls in love with her and it seems sometimes that she cares for him too. But he can’t be sure if his feelings are returned or if she only wants to use him for material and will dump him when she finishes her book. Like many recent Japanese movies, Moon and Cherry presumably began with an excellent screenplay; the actors contribute impeccable performances and the visual construction is so well thought out that you might forget that it was shot on digital video.
Kenju zankoku monogatari (Cruel Gun Story, 1964): Excellent crime drama with Jo Shishido as an ex-con persuaded to heist an armored car carrying cash from a race track. His sister’s been in a wheelchair since a hit-and-run years ago, and he needs the money to pay for an operation for her. Shishido assembles the team, goes over the plan and then almost everything goes gloriously wrong. While the movie’s fast pace and emphasis on action recall the great American gangster films of the ‘30s, the fatalism and doom bring to mind the brilliant contributions that France has made to the genre. Fantastic music and splendid black-and-white photography. Shishido, almost always in sunglasses, has rarely looked cooler.
Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de on ciclista, 1955): Brilliant Spanish movie about a man and a woman who hit a bicyclist with their car while returning from an adulterous tryst. The cyclist is still alive but they leave him to die rather than risk exposing their affair. Everything unravels from there, as we explore their complex feelings and relationships. An art critic insinuates that he is aware of their crime but the couple can’t be sure if he means their affair or their homicide. I’d never before heard of Juan Antonio Bardem, who wrote and directed this movie, but his work here is astounding, beyond impressive. There are several scenes that make use of the medium's vocabulary as effectively as anything in Hitchcock. Death of a Cyclist is part vicious social satire, part suspense thriller, complete cinematic tour de force.
Kiru (Destiny's Son, 1962): Director Kenji Misumi’s visual style is so striking, original and audacious that when this movie began, at a Japan Society screening, I thought something was wrong with the projector, that the film had slipped off the reel or something. It’s about a young man who was orphaned when his parents sacrificed their lives to save the honor of their clan, despite their lord’s lack of worthiness. The man, an “ill-fated child” grown up, suffers the murders of his foster father and sister by jealous neighbors. He kills the neighbors and hits the road, eventually becoming the bodyguard and companion of the shogun’s inspector. This leads to more treachery by dishonorable and vain lords, and ultimately tragedy. The ending of the film is truly shocking: like the ending of Jacques Tourneur’s Circle of Danger, shocking because of its departure from convention. Throughout Misumi employs a startling visual style, at times surreal in the manner of an Escher print, and an unusually imaginative approach to sound. The sound track is extraordinarily spacious, interpolating sporadic bird calls into long stretches of silence. The music is excellent and also spare. Raizo Ichikawa, known as the Japanese James Dean, is mesmerizing in the lead role. His demonstration of the “shamisen” sword stance, which is known to be “evil” and not part of “fencing etiquette”, is as memorable as Tatsuya Nakadai’s disturbing “negative” sword posture in Sword of Doom. This is one of the most interesting and most memorable samurai movies I’ve ever seen.
Highway 301 (1950): This crime drama begins with a grim voiceover denouncing everything you’re about to see. The admonition is cemented to an unprecedented degree by filmed speeches by no fewer than three governors. The filmmakers did well to pre-empt critics of Highway 301. It’s insanely violent by the standards of its day and, despite the hammering of the “crime does not pay” message, whatever enjoyment the audience might derive from the movie is almost certainly meant to come from the sleazy and brutal behavior of the main characters. They’re bank robbers who have been successfully smashing and grabbing around a few Southern states for a while. They don’t mind killing people who get in their way and they have caveman attitudes about women and sex. There’s not much story and even less plot and this may be why it can hold on so tightly to the viewer’s interest. In its almost total dependence on action and its remorselessly sparse vision it’s almost like a prototypical Assault on Precinct 13.
Zombieland (2009): Hollywood's response to Shaun of the Dead was extremely enjoyable and one of the best American movies of its year. It begins as The Odd Couple with zombies as neurotic geek Jesse Eisenberg drives around the wasteland with wild and crazy guy Woody Harrelson. Eisenberg is searching for his parents, Harrelson for a Twinkie. Thankfully, the filmmakers realize we’re all familiar with the conventions of the genre and don’t waste any of our time going over old business. The two guys meet up with two sisters, con artists who get the jump on them not once, but twice. Eventually they all travel together, becoming a family by the end of the movie. It’s very funny, very well made and pleasurable. Bill Murray has a wonderful cameo appearance as himself.
Devil's Doorway (1950): Excellent western that makes a tense and compelling drama out of institutionalized racism without being at all heavy handed or didactic. Any collaboration between director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton is worthy of attention, but this movie is a high point. This is one of the best black-and-white movies ever made, and includes a truly frightening bar scene that presents the rage, hatred and bloodlust lurking beneath the surfaces of so-called civilized people. Robert Taylor is an American Indian and a decorated Civil War veteran, with a Congressional Medal of Honor. The law doesn’t recognize Indians as Americans, though, so he has no legal right to his land. A bigoted lawyer—an ancestor of today’s right-wing TV and radio personalities, as was a similar character in the no less effective The Ox-bow Incident—pits desperate homesteaders against Taylor in an effort to be malicious. The Indian goes to the only other lawyer in town for help but almost gives up without starting when he discovers that the other lawyer is a woman. His recognition of his own prejudice intensifies the drama and raises the stakes. Naturally, a subplot involving their romantic feelings for each other also arises. Great movie, and in some ways a prototype for First Blood.
Veneno para las hadas (Poison for the Fairies, 1984): Possibly an influence on Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, this story of a disturbing relationship between two schoolgirls is a perfect drama, beautifully shot and presented with exquisite subtlety and suspense. A girl whose parents died in a car accident years ago is being brought up by her elderly grandmother and superstitious housekeeper. From them she hears stories of witches and fairies and pacts with the devil and she’s still at an age where these tales seem as plausible as anything else. A new girl arrives at school, the privileged daughter of two loving and wealthy parents. The two girls become friends, though there is an imbalance of power between them. The new girl has everything the parentless girl lacks but wants: parents, of course, but also various luxuries and comforts. To get at these things, and also because it’s natural for children to seize and exercise power if they can, the parentless girl identifies herself as a witch to the new girl. Through a startling coincidence, the claim is supported by what appears to be unimpeachable evidence. This gives the “witch” serious new muscle to flex but also an unforeseen risk: witches are well known monsters and there are established methods of dealing with them...
First Blood (1982): While it's extremely satisfying as a pure action movie, First Blood is also a harsh indictment of militarism and machismo. Vietnam vet John Rambo (named by his creator after Rimbaud) is looking for his old combat buddy, the only other surviving member of a special team of Green Berets. Talking to the woman at his friend’s old address, Rambo is obviously nervous and as desperate for affection as a puppy. His friend is dead, cancer, a result of the Agent Orange used in the war. Killed in Vietnam and didn’t even know it, as Rambo remarks later. Rambo proceeds on foot to the nearby town of Hope, Washington, to get something to eat, but sheriff Brian Dennehy picks him up and drives him to the town line with instructions to keep going. They don’t like drifters, especially unshaven drifters with long hair. Rambo is in the right here, and the cops are in the wrong, but Rambo is responsibe for what happens next: he didn’t start it, but he escalates it. He walks back into town. The police are happy to escalate it a bit more, and then Rambo escalates it a whole lot more than they would have thought possible. Soon it’s Rambo against the town. Tomorrow, the world? The safest way to exploit violence and other unsavory box office attractions is to pretend you're condemning them, and the common defense is that enjoying the spectacle could lead to realizing one's involvement in what it represents. War is over if you want it, as Yoko Ono would put it (though she appears to have a lot more faith in the power of advertising than I do).
Linkeroever (Left Bank, 2008): A young Flemish woman is on her way to a career as a professional athlete. She qualifies for an upcoming race in Portugal when the emergence of a blood disease causes her to drop out. Since her whole life has been about training and discipline, with little in the way of socializing or having a good time in the way that “ordinary” people do, she’s inclined to return the romantic attention recently shown to her by the handsome dean of the Archers’ Guild. He lives in an apartment in a neighborhood called the Left Bank, a somewhat suburban area of Antwerp. Our heroine practically moves in with him and becomes involved in the mystery of the disappearance of the woman who had lived in the same apartment before them. As she gets more involved, her health problems increase: her vagina starts to secrete a black, powdery substance, and a knee injury swells larger and larger and starts to grow hair. Left Bank is a smooth, quiet thriller apparently influenced by Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man. The photography is beautiful without ever being flashy, and the tone is consistently restrained, despite considerable exploitation potential.
American Psycho (2000): Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s gory shock/chic novel was ahead of its time and on my short list of movies that are better than their source novels. I think many viewers decided to write off the movie before they saw it, on account of their impressions of the book. Ten years or so later, we can notice how the American Psycho's witty opening credits concept, and much else, reappeared on the popular television show Dexter. The satire element, of yuppies run amok in a world they invented, where your worth is measured by your business card and your ability to get reservations at expensive and cloistered restaurants (one of the best running gags in the film), makes you wish that Sex & the City had chose satire instead of sentiment. Harron has made an Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion for the United States of Ronald Reagan. Christian Bale is perfectly cast as the supreme yuppie/serial killer whose ghastly true nature is hidden by the soullessness of his class and milieu. Willem Defoe has fun with his role as a police officer, Chloe Sevigny plays Bale’s secretary with the right blend of fear, contempt and attraction, and Reese Witherspoon is perfect as Bale’s fiancée.
Desperate (1947): One of Anthony Mann’s better crime films, with astounding cinematography by George Diskant. A trucker is duped into helping gangsters move stolen goods. He manages to tip off the police, which leads to a shoot-out in which the crime boss’s brother kills a cop and gets arrested. To save his brother from the electric chair, the boss (Raymond Burr) wants the trucker to turn himself in and take the rap. If he refuses, they’ll take it out on his pregnant wife. The trucker escapes and hits the road with his wife, with the gangsters in pursuit. The bad luck they have is worthy of the tortured and despairing plot of a Cornell Woolrich story. There’s an interesting scene at the end involving three men, guns and a clock, with shots tight on the men’s faces and then just their eyes; it could be the prototype for Sergio Leone’s westerns, or at least the gundowns at the end of For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Z (1969): In an unnamed country, the deputy of the opposition party is a loud voice for nuclear disarmament and world peace. A doctor and a former star athlete, the deputy has a good chance of winning the next election. He has two problems. The first is that he’s been cheating on his wife and a divorce is imminent. The second problem is that the military and the police have conspired to murder him after he speaks at a peace rally. The movie, adapted from a novel based on a real political assassination in Greece, begins a few hours before the rally, and tells the story of the murder, the cover-up and the investigation. Yves Montand as the deputy and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the prosecutor are both perfectly cast. Both of their roles are dangerously close to being ideals more than real people (despite the deputy’s philandering and the prosecutor’s initial skepticism about murder or conspiracy) but the actors’ relaxed underplaying of these potentially melodramatic parts brings the characters to nuanced life. The film is also perfectly shot and constructed. Mikis Theodorakis’s music provides effective and exciting backgrounds, despite the composer’s being under house arrest in Greece and unable even to read a script, much less see a cut of the movie, which was shot in Algeria. Z has some superficial similarities to Antonioni’s Blow-Up, but is a much better movie. (o6/o5 (May 6th), the last movie by murdered filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, seemed an obvious attempt to emulate both Blow-Up and Z.)
Helvetica (2007): It’s only with considerable effort that I watch documentaries. If more of them were as good as this one, less effort would be needed. Helvetica is a Swiss typeface that has practially taken over the world. As the movie demonstrates (with glee), Helvetica is everywhere (though the movie doesn't get the facts straight about Helvetica and New York City's MTA). Why? And what, if anything, does it mean? These questions don’t exactly get answered, but there’s considerable entertainment to be had in exploring them. The filmmakers do what documentary filmmakers should do: they talk to people with both passion and expertise, people of varying opinions. After hearing some graphic designers enthuse about Helvetica, you find yourself also loving Helvetica. But then the anti-Helvetica crowd takes the stand, and they’re just as persuasive. Fascinating and entertaining, this movie literally changed the way I see the world. I can no longer take a walk without thinking, "That’s Helvetica; that’s not Helvetica."
Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam (The Devil Strikes at Night, 1957): Near the end of World War 2, a German detective resumes his duties as a police officer after being wounded on the front line. As he investigates a recent murder, he notices a similarity to another murder, then another. It seems a serial killer is at work. Pressured by the Gestapo to make sure that the murderer is the right kind of culprit, to aid the passage of a law that would allow them to arrest anybody on eugenic grounds—the serial killer should be insane or an alcoholic, or be related to an insane or alcoholic person, or simply not be of pure Aryan stock—the detective strives only to find the actual killer without worrying about the political consequences. That won't be good for his career. Nothing new about how horrible the Nazis were, but the police procedural angle and the craftsmanship of the production make this into something different.
Dear Doctor (2009): Miwa Nishikawa’s first feature, Sway, established her as a writer and director interested in exploring the nuances and complexities of how people create their own "truth", especially the "truth" of their important personal relationships. Her second feature, Dear Doctor, continues to explore this territory and is a flawless drama, character study and philosophical examination. The beloved doctor in a remote village disappears one day and investigating police officers discover that he wasn’t actually a doctor at all. He was posing as one, presumably to receive the generous government stipend that comes with the post. The story follows the police officers as, Citizen Kane-style, they talk to various people who knew the doctor in order to piece together the puzzle of the missing man’s life. Flashbacks show us how the doctor earned the love and trust of his community and how, perhaps, he actually might have been a great doctor after all—even though he isn’t a doctor. The key to the whole thing turns out to be a reclusive widow with stomach cancer, and the doctor’s response to her dilemma. It’s remarkable how many great, thoughtful and unusual movies come out of Japan these days.
Internes Can't Take Money (1937): Pauline Kael once wrote that no actress of Hollywood’s Golden Age got into more melodramatic situations than Barbara Stanwyck did. Internes Can’t Take Money, the first Dr. Kildare movie, must be one of the most melodramatic roles Stanwyck ever played. Joel McCrea is the upright young doctor who crosses paths with ex-con Stanwyck. She was never guilty of any crime, but her husband was a bank robber and she went to jail because a jury didn’t believe she wasn’t in on it. Now she’s out and she’s looking for her daughter, a baby at the time she went inside. The only one who might be able to help her is her husband’s sleazy former partner, who got away from the heist with both liberty and riches, and he’s made it clear that he wants her, body and soul, before he tells her where her daughter is. Meanwhile Stanwyck is working her fingers to the bone to pay stoolies for any leads at all. Lucky for her, Dr. Kildare is smitten with her and calls in a favor: he saved a gangster’s life, for which service he cannot, as the title informs us, take money. Fast paced, well photographed and never boring, this is another excellent example of how great Hollywood could be in the 1930s.
Stars in My Crown (1950): Joel McCrea is the pastor in a nineteenth-century American town and "Stars in My Crown" is his favorite hymn. The movie is both a human interest drama and an ode to the spirit of Christian faith. Directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, it’s surprisingly exciting and moving. I was actually near tears at the end. There are several different storylines to follow, the main ones concerning pride and greed. Pride is illustrated both by the pastor and by the town’s doctor, each colliding with the other as they go about their rounds, each holding the other in a kind of contempt. An outbreak of typhoid causes the pastor to humble himself when the doctor suggests that the pastor, whose son was one of the first victims of the disease, could be spreading the disease as he goes about his routine visits with the townspeople. When the doctor’s beloved is stricken with the disease and beyond the help of medicine, the doctor must humble himself and summon the pastor for spiritual assistance. The greed story concerns an old African-American man whose property happens to contain valuable mineral deposits that a local man wants to mine. The elderly man has lived his whole life in his house on his land and has no intention to sell and move. Frustrated and frantic for money, a posse dresses up as Ku Klux Klan members, calling themselves The Knightriders, and burn a cross on his lawn. When this doesn’t change the man’s mind, the posse decides to lynch him. The climax of the movie is brilliant as it shows the pastor, a veteran of the Civil War, refusing to take up arms but putting his faith in the power of love to defend the target.
Comanche Station (1960): Nancy Gates has been abducted by Indians. Randolph Scott makes a trade for her, and they start to head back to Gates’s husband. They run into Claude Akins and his two hired guns who were hoping to find Gates themselves so they could claim the $5000 reward Gates’s husband is offering for her return. Gates despises Scott for being interested in a bounty when she thought he was being noble. As it turns out, Scott was being noble and didn’t know or care about the reward. His own wife had been abducted by Indians years ago and every time he hears about a woman in a similar situation he rushes to find out if it’s his long-lost love. The reward is good for the return of Gates dead or alive and Akins and Scott are already old enemies. Scott thinks Akins should have been hung for an Indian massacre he perpetrated. While the group is getting tenser and more dangerous, and the characters reveal more of themselves, Indians are menacing them from the all around. Scott suspects that Akins and his pals have been on a scalp hunt. It’s an unusually complex story, with a powerful twist at the end, which also leaves an impression of complicated and unresolved feelings, of the characters’ sticking with unsatisfactory lives because they feel obligated to do so. I can see why Budd Boetticher is such an admired director. As in a Jean-Pierre Melville movie, every shot, ever camera movement, every composition seems perfect and unhurried. The first several minutes of the film have no dialogue and the blue sky and brown land divide the frame horizontally in so many shots that the color scheme becomes part of the theme of the movie, of divided natures and people torn between desire and duty.
Un Prophet (A Prophet, 2009): Brilliant, riveting prison/crime drama about a man named Malik, an Arab immigrant in France who transforms from a nonentity to a leader. The movie begins with his admittance to prison, where he’s been sentenced to six years for assaulting a police officer. He says he’s innocent and I’m inclined to believe him, based on what the movie shows us of his character. Much of what happens inside the walls is controlled by Corsican prisoners with links to powerful organized crime figures outside. When they need to kill a witness being held in the Muslim section of the jail, they force Malik to do it. Once he does, he’s under their protection, which means that he gets some cigarettes and nicer clothes and gets to be their slave. The Corsican prisoner in charge is named Cesare, one of a number of delicate threads linking Malik’s story to the Christ myth. Like Christ, Malik is something of a prophet; by the end of the film he has his disciples.
Spoorloos (The Vanishing, 1988): A brilliant psychological suspense story and a truly frightening horror film completely devoid of exploitation elements: no sex, no blood, almost nothing but people talking. But it’s riveting and dreadful with a devastating ending that ties together the characters’ dreams, nightmares, thoughts and conversations about fate. The story is simple. A young man and woman are on vacation together. They stop at a gas station. The woman goes inside to get something to drink and never comes back. Perhaps her disappearance had something to do with another man who’s pretending to have an injured arm. The movie shifts its focus to this character, then returns to the young man from the gas station. Years later, he’s still trying to find out what happened to his girlfriend and is spending all the money he has on an advertising campaign. I can’t say anymore about it. I thought about this movie quite a bit after I watched it. Make sure you see the original, not the American remake.
(Pale Flower, 1964): Riveting existential crime drama about a gangster who gets out of jail only to find that the killing he did time for is now totally meaningless. He had murdered a member of a rival gang, but now that gang and his own are incorporated and everybody’s friends—except for one young punk who wants to avenge the murdered man’s death. The ex-con meets a young woman at a gambling hall. She bets big and loses big—and she wants to lose more. She’s a fast-living nihilist trying to find kicks, or what Elmore Leonard might call a big bounce. The gangster takes her to some high stakes games where a junkie assassin from Hong Kong catches her eye. Beautiful black and white photography and a brilliant score by Toru Takemitsu transform a simple, almost action-less story into New Wave noir art.
Ip Man 2 (2010): A by-the-book sequel and a good one. Ip Man’s foes in the first movie were the Japanese occupation forces, and in this one, set in Hong Kong, the British are the villains. There are the same over-the-top xenophobic caricatures and the final fight scene between Ip Man and a British super-boxer is as unfair as the soccer game in Victory. Still, we watch these movies for the action scenes, and Ip Man 2 doesn’t disappoint. A scene where Ip Man fights a few kung fu masters while standing on a table is a highlight, and the big final battle is very exciting. Sammo Hung is a rival kung fu teacher and Simon Yam returns as Ip Man’s brother (not the same after getting a bullet in the head).
Aa bakudan (Oh Bomb!, 1964): Probably the most unusual adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich story ever made, this movie is typical of director Kihachi Okamoto’s work from the 1960s. The basic plot is familiar enough: a gangster gets out of prison to find that his old gang has incorporated and is more interested in politics and business than old-fashioned crime. He’d been in jail for killing a member of a rival gang and now the gangs are working together. Pale Flower, for instance, has the same starting point. What’s taken from Woolrich is the idea of planting a bomb in a fountain pen in order to kill the pen’s owner, only to have the pen move from person to person, always in danger of going off. What makes it pure Okamoto is the abandonment of realism in favor of absurdism and medium-warping mayhem. The beginning of the film is presented as a Noh play, complete with ritualized movements and mannered speeches. Later on there’s a song-and-dance routine in a bank. Not only culture and money are mocked—so are religion, family, politics and sex. It’s easy to see why Okamoto’s movies might not have done so well at the box office. Anybody hoping for a straightforward genre exercise or just sane entertainment is going to be disappointed.
Kuki ningyo (Air Doll, 2009): An inflatable sex doll becomes human one day, ventures forth into the world, gets a job at the local video store and falls in love. She observes that “life contains its own absence”, that those who have not found love are pouring themselves into a substitute. A girl without a mother clings to her doll. A lonely elderly woman is obsessed with local crime. A young man is addicted to his computer. And of course some have inflatable sex dolls. The doll of the title finds love with the young man who works with her at the video store. Their love-making involves his deflating her and blowing her back up, literally filling her with himself. Not exploitative in the least, Air Doll is a restrained and thoughtful meditation on human love and life, a Pinocchio for the twenty-first century. The title character is brilliantly brought to life by Bae Du-na.
5150 Rue des Ormes (5150 Elm's Way, 2009): A young man wipes out on his bicycle (when a black cat crosses his path, believe it or not) and rings the nearest doorbell to call for a taxi. Whoops. Turns out the house belongs to a family of religious nuts and the patriarch was just about to murder a drug dealer. That’s his hobby, killing the "unrighteous". He, of course is righteous. The young man presents them with a dilemma. He doesn’t deserve to die but they can’t just let him go. They keep him prisoner for several weeks, during which time the young man makes some inept escape attempts. (He seems to have an aversion to breaking windows on the ground floor). Eventually the father decides to play chess with him. If the young man can win just one game, he’ll go free. The father, who belongs to a chess club and plays at tournament level, has never lost a game in his life. This Canadian nightmare drama was impressive, well written, well acted and well made (though the ending wasn't as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be).
Jesus Christus Erlöser (Jesus Christ Savior, 2008) Not so much a documentary as a document of a disastrous one-man show about Jesus Christ that Klaus Kinski attempted to perform. It seems that about half of the audience was there in good faith, but the other half was there to mock the big movie star for what they assumed to be insincere and hypocritical moralizing and false piety. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Kinski. He’s trying to be provocative without being pretentious, referring critically to the Vietnam war and repeating Christ’s words about rejecting material wealth. Of course, this is where the hecklers have a point. He’s a rich movie star. Shouldn’t he practice what he preaches? Kinski at first tries to ignore the unruly part of the audience but he soon explodes as attention and control are taken from him. His apoplexy and hatred of his tormentors also contradicts the message he supposedly wants to give (turn the other cheek, etc.), thus encouraging continued mockery. He storms off stage threatening never to return several times. He starts over several times, in the end trying to give his performance to a small group of true believers, well after midnight. A must-see for the Kinski fan and a fascinating fly-on-the-wall sort of movie.
La tète contre les murs (Head Against the Wall, 1959): Sort of a precursor to A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s about a ne’er-do-well who ends up in a mental asylum controlled by a rigid, unimaginative, authoritarian doctor. The hero isn’t admirable in any way, but we desperately want him out of there. An alternative treatment by a humane, progressive-minded doctor (played by Paul Meurisse, who played the leader of the Resistance in Army of Shadows) exists but is limited to only a few patients. This other doctor doesn’t think the main character is mentally ill at all, but he lacks the power to do anything about it. Features an interesting billiards scene and a harrowing ending.
Red Riding: In The Year of Our Lord 1974 (2009): A reporter in Yorkshire thinks the sex murder of a child might be connected to earlier reported disappearances of children. A friend of his thinks a local, rich property developer might be implicated, and apparently gets killed for this thought. The police are more frightening than the murderers—or are they the murderers? Brilliantly photographed, moody and complex, this was a very impressive crime drama, haunting and unsettling. It’s the first part of a trilogy and watching all three in a row is the way to go.
Red Riding: In The Year of Our Lord 1980 (2009): The second part has a London detective overseeing the police’s investigation of another sex murder in Yorkshire. He had been there before to look into the constabulary’s handling of a shooting massacre. He made enemies then and he’s still got them now. He’s also accompanied by a female officer with whom he’s had an affair. She’s drawn to a priest who is suspiciously connected to recent events. Once again, the Yorkshire cops are terrifying. Like the first movie, this is a bleak and despairing tale, briliantly told, with impressive photography.
Red Riding: In The Year of Our Lord 1983 (2009): Part three brings all the threads together in the unlikely hands of an overweight, underachieving lawyer who’s spurred into action by blatant police resistance to his handling of an appeal for the man convicted of the sex killing in the first movie. That man obviously seems to be a scapegoat for somebody else—or perhaps for more than one person. The conclusion of the series hangs on the conscience of one of the main characters. By the end of the trilogy you feel like you’ve seen some kind of epic.
Il giardino delle delizie (The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1967): A brilliant and haunting movie, the kind that gives art movies a good name. Carlo is filled with despair and anxiety on his wedding night, and flashbacks and fantasies show us why. Ever since he was a child he’s received contradictory and twisted messages about love and sex. As a boy he’s told by his priest that impure thoughts are a sin, then he’s sexually molested by his teacher. He grows up to be a doctor, but as a child his precocious interest in the human body and, for example, where babies come from prompted disgust and rejection by his parents. The only reason he and Carla have gotten married is because she’s pregnant, and neither of them really knows the other. Apparently about twenty minutes or more were cut out of this movie to appease censors. It would be great to see the complete work. It also has brilliant photography and one of Ennio Morricone’s best scores.
Fisshu sutori (Fish Story, 2009): The premise of the movie is that "Fish Story", an obscure punk rock song recorded by a pre-Sex Pistols Japanese band, literally saves the world. The movie begins a few years in the future, in a deserted Tokyo. A meteor is about to hit Earth and destroy all life. People have fled the cities in the vain hopes that getting to higher ground will save them from destruction. But there are still a few people hanging out in a record store in Tokyo, and the song "Fish Story" comes up in conversation. Flashbacks show us the recording of the song, the story of the band, and how listening to the song changed people’s lives over the decades. One such change ends up creating the planet’s savior. It’s a fun, interesting and intelligent movie, especially rewarding for music geeks. "Fish Story" is a great song, too.
Le petit lieutenant (The Young Lieutenant, 2005): Great police drama about the first assignment of a recent police academy graduate, the young lieutenant of the title. Starting out as a detective in Paris, he works for an older female cop who has just returned to active duty. She’s going to AA meetings and is drawn to the young man because if her son were still alive, he’d be the same age. The police part of the plot concerns the murders of homeless East European immigrants and while it’s an absorbing story, the real interest lies in the characters and how we gradually learn about them and see them learn about each other. Terrific performances all around, and an intelligent, dignified screenplay make this an unusually rewarding policier.
Hot Saturday (1932): Sort of a pre-Code Philadelphia Story or His Girl Friday, with Nancy Carroll as a small-town girl forced to choose between rich, womanizing playboy Cary Grant (who has a Japanese servant, a spiffy mansion and the best bootleg booze around) and her childhood sweetheart, a stolid, successful geologist played by Randolph Scott. When she spends a chaste night at Grant’s, after fending off a sexual assault by a "respectable" co-worker, her reputation is trashed. But maybe the demonic Cary Grant is a better catch than the judgemental and parent-approved Randolph Scott…. It’s startling to see a movie from the 1930s which shows a bunch of young people who don’t want to do much else than get wasted and have sex. I guess that’s why they came up with the Morality Code!
La corruzione (Corruption, 1968): At their graduation ceremony, young men are told that the only two classes that exist are Catholic and Marxist. As they’re leaving an elite and expensive prep school, no doubt to follow in the footsteps of their wealthy parents, they already belong to the world as Marx saw it, or so it seems to their headmaster. One student, though, is determined to rebel against his businessman father and enter the priesthood, even though he’s not suited for it. Like his mother, who hides from his father by way of a mysterious, presumably psychosomatic illness that requires massive amounts of sedation, he’s running away from the world instead of trying to find a place in it. The movie is about the battle of wills between the father and son, the corruptor and the innocent, as the father uses every weapon in his considerable arsenal to gain control of the son. Like Il bell’Antonio, also drected by Mauro Bolognini, it’s brilliantly written, intelligent and moving, with great photography, great music and a pitiless dissection of the life-destroying hypocrisies of society.
Il giorno della civetta (The Day of the Owl, 1968): Franco Nero is an honest and determined new police commissioner investigating a murder in a small town in Sicily. The victim won a lucrative construction bid but refused to give the kickbacks and graft that the local crime syndicate demanded. Claudia Cardinale plays a local woman whose husband witnesses the crime and then disappears. Nero tries to convince her to help his investigation but she’s reluctant to go against the local mafioso, who has always been the real power in the town—unless, of course, her husband has also been murdered to cover up the first crime. This adaptation of a Leonardo Sciascia novel is intelligent and restrained, with great performances and excellent cinematography and music. (The score, by Giovanni Fusco, features a theme which is similar to Nino Rota's famous Godfather theme.)
La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion, 1937): Ostensibly a story about two French officers who escape from a German POW camp during World War 1, this beautiful movie is really about the artificial (and illusory) ways human beings separate themselves from each other. Class seems to be the strongest or most common source of division: the French officers who escape don’t want to bring their aristocrat fellow officer with them as his different upbringing and values makes them ill at ease. The aristocrat's take on their situation is that a golf course is for playing golf, a tennis court is for tennis and a prison camp is for escaping. He’s aware of their preference and takes it in stride—as he goes off to sacrifice himself for them he puts on his white gloves, to his comrades’ incredulity. He has a true friendship with the only other aristocrat in the camp, but this person is the German officer in charge. (Erich von Stroheim’s performance as this character is very moving and he has many of the best lines.) This is one of the few perfect movies, in which everything is impeccably balanced and nuanced, all the characters are complex and believable and each event obeys perfectly the logic of the story and the setting.
Der räuber (The Robber, 2010): A convicted bank robber spends all his prison time running, on a treadmill in his cell or outside in the exercise yard. When he gets paroled, he enters marathons and breaks records, becoming Austria’s champion runner. He also robs banks. Both activities are compulsions and don’t seem to bring him much pleasure. He has to do them. This interesting movie seems to have taken Godard’s Breathless as a template. Both tell stories of antiheroes who run and run until they run out of breath. (À bout de souffle, the original French title of Breathless, would be translated more accurately as Out of Breath.) But while Godard’s movie is about a charismatic villain who actually enjoys much of what he does, Der räuber is about the kind of character you might find in a Patricia Highsmith novel. It’s grim but very well made, asserting a stubbornly realistic approach, even to the extent of using almost no underscore at all, just source music. (Like Belmondo in Breathless, the robber can’t be in a car without turning on the radio.) There’s also a terrifically exciting footchase after a botched robbery attempt and an abruptly startling scene of violent nastiness.
Celda 211 (Cell 211, 2009): I didn’t think there was much of anything new that could be done with prison movies, but this excellent Spanish thriller generates almost unbearable suspense and tension with an ingenious premise. Juan has a pregnant wife and a new job as a prison guard. Hoping to make a good impression, he shows up at work a day early just to introduce himself and be shown around. Construction work in a part of the prison causes a chunk of debris to fall on his head, knocking him unconscious. The guards showing him around carry him into the empty cell 211 and place him on the bed—and then a riot begins. The prisoners, all violent criminals, many serving life sentences without chance of parole, take over the block and the two guards run for their lives, leaving Juan alone in the cell. When Juan regains consciousness and realizes what’s happening, he immediately gets rid of his shoelaces, belt and wallet, and claims to be a new inmate. Almost immediately he’s taken under the wing of Malamadre, leader of the riot. The development of both character and situation from this point is unflinching and will please admirers of hard-boiled storytelling.