Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My End of the Year Summary

Last December I posted a Top 25 of 2010 list to round out the year and discuss my favorite new movies. I'm going to be doing something a little different this time around, for a couple of reasons: 1) I enjoyed in 2011 easily the most productive year of movie watching I've ever had (right around 500 total viewings) and 2) despite that quantity, only a small percentage represent new releases. Not to say that I saw no new movies at all, just not quite as many as I normally do (nevertheless I have tacked on my top 10 of the year at the bottom of the post). On the whole, it was for me a year of cinema defined more by digging into the past than swimming with the present, and so it would only make sense to create a wrap-up post focusing more on that experience.

I have organized the below as follows: there is the Movie of the Year, which was my single favorite older film discovery from 2011, followed by a couple of runners-up for that spot. Then there are two categories, The Masterpieces and The Gems, which are also comprised solely of titles I viewed for the first time in 2011. The Masterpieces (and I know some people, myself occasionally included, have a problem with how easily that label can be bandied about, but it gets the point across here) are the movies that were my highlights from the year, the ones that quite simply struck me the hardest, that occupied my thoughts and/or emotions the most, the movies I look forward to living with from here on out. The Gems are the movies that, while not quite "masterpiece" level, made a significant impression on me in one positive way or another, and I feel like giving them a shout out. Some of the Gems could be said to have minimal or dismal reputations, and many of them I came to with not much in the way of expectation, but all of them blindsided me by how much I liked them. I have also imposed on myself a rule of selecting only one film per director between all categories, and in a year where a large portion of my time was spent really sinking my teeth into the vast filmographies of more than a few directors, this can be seen as limiting in a sense, but it's the tack I've decided to take, if only to give this post a measure of economy. So just keep in mind that below when you run across a movie from the likes of, say, Ford, Walsh, Chabrol, Preminger, to name a few, the listed movie is the one I've chosen to put down, but it is also acting in a sense as a stand-in for a good handful of other great movies. Below the Masterpieces and Gems, I also have a few other random categories, where I do things like highlight a few of my favorite acting performances from all my first time viewings, list a few distinguished titles that didn't do as much for me as I'd hoped, and list a handful of my favorite pieces of film writing I discovered during the year.

When I originally set out to draft this post, I did so with the intention of writing a little something about each movie I selected, but as I went through my viewing logs and began assembling everything, it quickly became apparent that such an endeavor would be a much more exhaustive one than I had allotted time for, so I have to be content with simply listing everything sans comment. And in any case I'm not even sure that I could do justice to some of my experiences with these movies at this point in time. Maybe eventually. I guess that's what the blog here is for. Here it is:

Movie of the Year: The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford, 1953)

First runner-up: Through the Forest (Jean-Paul Civeyrac, 2005)

Second runner-up (tie): Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975)

The Hired Hand (Peter Fonda, 1975)

The Masterpieces (37 total titles; in alphabetical order)
2/Duo (Nobuhiro Suwa, 1997); 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (Eric Rohmer, 1987); Afraid to Talk (Edward L. Cahn, 1932); Allures (Jordan Belson, 1961); Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (Martin Arnold, 1998); Anticipation of the Night (Stan Brakhage, 1958); Au bord du lac (Patrick Bokanowski, 1994); Betty (Claude Chabrol, 1992); The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh, 1930); Claire Dolan (Lodge Kerrigan, 1998); Cracking Up (Jerry Lewis, 1983); The Dangerous Thread of Things (Eros) (Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004); Deep In the Woods (Lionel Deplanque, 2000); Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, 2009); Experiment Perilous (Jacques Tourneur, 1944); Four Nights of a Dreamer (Robert Bresson, 1971); Gamer (Neveldine/Taylor, 2009); Gertrud (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1964); He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjostrom, 1924); Hell's Hinges (William S, Hart, 1916); The Hills Have Eyes (Alexandre Aja, 2006); I Was Born, But...(Yasujiro Ozu, 1932); India: Matri Bhumi (Roberto Rossellini, 1959); The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau, 1924); Lazybones (Frank Borzage, 1925); Le Plaisir (Max Ophuls, 1952); The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942); Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin, 1947); The Moon Is Blue (Otto Preminger, 1953); Ne Change Rien (Pedro Costa, 2009); New Rose Hotel (Abel Ferrara, 1998); Not Reconciled (Straub-Huillet, 1965); Queen of Diamonds (Nina Menkes, 1991); The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (Budd Boetticher, 1960); The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949); These Are the Damned (Joseph Losey, 1963); Winchester '73 (Anthony Mann, 1950)

The Gems (24 total titles; in alphabetical order) 
The 51 File (Michel Deville, 1978); The Beast of the City (Charles Brabin, 1932); Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971); Downstairs (Monta Bell, 1932); Ghosts (Christian Petzold, 2005); Gold of the Seven Saints (Gordon Douglas, 1961); Hotel (Jessica Hausner, 2004); Housekeeping (Bill Forsyth, 1987); I Can See You (Graham Reznick, 2008); Just Before Dawn (Jeff Lieberman, 1981); The Letter (Jean de Limur, 1929); Little Murders (Alan Arkin, 1971); Moonfleet (Fritz Lang, 1955); Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947); Noon Wine (Sam Peckinpah, 1966); Office Killer (Cindy Sherman, 1997); Payday (Daryl Duke, 1973); Quiet Please: Murder (John Larkin, 1942); Scream of Fear (Seth Holt, 1961); Sharky's Machine (Burt Reynolds, 1981); Some Call It Loving (James B. Harris, 1973);
Symptoms (Jose Ramon Larraz, 1974); Thirteen Women (George Archainbaud, 1932); Whistle and I'll Come to You (Jonathan Miller, 1968)


Performance of the Year (female) - Jeanne Eagles in The Letter (1929)
runners-up: Marie Trintignant in Betty (1992), Angela Pleasence in Symptoms (1974), Katrin Cartlidge in Claire Dolan (1998), Makiko Watanabe in 2/Duo (1997)

Performance of the Year (male) - Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
runners-up: Jerry Lewis in Cracking Up (1983), Jimmy Stewart in The Naked Spur (1953), Stacy Keach in Fat City (1972), Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh (1924)

Performance of the Year (animal) - Raimu the monkey in India: Matri Bhumi (1959)

Director I spent the most time with in 2011 - John Ford (48 movies, 61 viewings)

Movies with lofty reputations that I didn't connect with - The Butcher (Claude Chabrol), Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr), The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock), Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku), Accident (Joseph Losey)

Movie I previously disliked that I came to love this year - Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996) 

Movie I previously loved that lost a little something for me this year - Carlito's Way (Brian De Palma, 1993)

Original score I could not stop listening to - The Hired Hand (Bruce Langhorne)

Favorite film writing/criticism discoveries of the year, both new and old:
- The Doddering Relics of a Lost Cause by Jonathan Rosenbaum
- Craig Keller on Cindy Sherman's Office Killer
- Depression, Melancholia, and Me: Lars von Trier's Politics of Displeasure by Trevor Link
- Phil Coldiron on Sleepwalk and House of Tolerance
- Crisis, Creation, Compulsion - Dave Kehr on Raoul Walsh
- The Essential - Jacques Rivette on Preminger's The Moon Is Blue
- A Closed Door That Leaves Us Guessing - transcript of a Pedro Costa lecture
- The Searchers - Dismantled by Ross Gibson
- The Conversations: Terrence Malick pt. 1 and pt. 2 by Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy
- Think But This... David Phelps on Rivette's 36 vues du Pic-St Loup (from Girish Shambu and Adrian Martin's LOLA issue 1 )
- Zach Campbell's Counter Canon: A Viewing List
- Film Socialisme Annotated translated by David Phelps
- The Magnificent Ambersons: What's Past is Prologue by Jim Emerson
- Steven Shaviro on Neveldine/Taylor's Gamer
- "The Tree of Life": Great Events and Ordinary People by Adrian Martin
- The Dynamics of the Image, or Civeyrac Matters by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky
- Poor, Old, Hollywood - Andy Rector on Losey's The Lawless
- Vertigo Variations by B. Kite and Alexander Points-Zollo - pt. 1 / pt.2 / pt. 3
- Perspective Reperceived: Brakhage's Anticipation of the Night by Ken Kelman (not online; found in The Essential Cinema: Essays on the films in the collection of Anthology Film Archives, Volume One)
- Experiment Perilous by Chris Fujiwara (not online; chapter in the book Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall)
- The Sun Shines Bright by Tag Gallagher (chapter in the book John Ford: The Man and His Films, which can be downloaded here)


I'm not going to bother listing all of the 2011 releases I still need to catch up with; suffice it to say that there are a boatload, and hopefully it will be sooner rather than later before I get the opportunity to see them all. Out of everything in front of me, I'm most looking forward to A Dangerous Method, Margaret, House of Tolerance and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. As it stands now, here is, in roughly preferential order, my ten favorites:

Top 10 of the Year

1) Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
2) The Tree of Life (Terence Malick)
3) You Are Here (Daniel Cockburn)
4) Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
5) Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
6) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
7) Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)
8) Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman)
9) El Sicario: Room 164 (Gianfranco Rosi)
10) The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)


I'd love to hear about any of your favorite film discoveries from the year, newer and/or older. Please feel free to post them in the comments. Happy New Year!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Reindeer Games

I'll say it: I'm a pretty big fan of Frankenheimer's Reindeer Games, and I'd even go so far as to call it one of my favorite Christmas movies. It's not a great movie, not at all, but it's not trying to be, and in fact it's one of those odd cases where the glaring weaknesses and the stuff that really works seem inextricably bound, in the sense that the creative and logical potholes of Ehren Kruger's ludicrous script seem to at times quite literally be feeding the intense charisma and attention to expressive tone and form that Frankenheimer brings to the table throughout. He directs the hell out of the thing, giving the quieter moments a certain warm modesty that throws the explosions of over-the-top violence into stark contrast, creating a certain animated rhythm of oscillation that one wants to call bold if only for the sustained energy of its fitfulness (the longer, vastly superior director's cut is the one to see in this and every respect).

There's also the spirit of Tourneur lurking about at times, not just in the odd angles, and the similar spatial and compositional ideas at work (in particular a certain way of stacking faces and bodies in the frame that brings out the emotional dynamics of a given moment through a layering of postures and expressions) but also in the keen sensitivity to weather. Nightfall seems to be an obvious touchstone, and the plot of Frankenheimer's film even suggests an inverse of Tourneur's excellent snow blasted noir: Nightfall deals with a man who unwillingly falls into a web of treachery revolving around a large amount of stolen money, in which he is forced on the lam and into a new identity in order to extricate himself, while Reindeer Games follows a man who voluntarily claims a new identity, and because of it finds himself entangled in a scheme revolving around a large amount of stolen money in which he is compelled to act out a perpetuating cycle of destructive behavior as he sinks deeper and deeper into the muck.

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Little Things

It's funny how sometimes a little moment will sneak itself into a movie and completely change the way we experience it. The film in question: Wellman's Across the Wide Missouri (1951), a visually stunning frontier tale shot almost entirely in the Rocky Mountains. The spectacle of the backdrop outsizes and upstages the drama at pretty much every turn, but this is undoubtedly more to do with the studio's butchery - they not only chopped an hour off Wellman's original cut, but retrofitted a voice-over narration that turns everything into a flashback - than it does with any paltriness of directorial vision. As is, at a mere 78 minutes, it's an interesting enough movie, and aside from the gorgeous photography, there is an unusual amount of careful attention paid to depicting the richness of Indian culture, and no less than three languages spoken at regularity throughout. There's also a bit of a playful streak present (uncharacteristic for later Wellman in my experience) punctuated by moments of stark cruelty: it contains without a doubt one of the most cold-blooded, out-of-left-field murders of a major character I've ever seen.

Anyway, the alluded to moment occurs around two-thirds of the way through the running time, during a scene between the fur-trapper played by Clark Gable and his wife (María Elena Marqués), a Blackfoot Indian he originally married to gain access to bountiful beaver land, but has since fallen in love with. He is telling her about the land he comes from (Kentucky), and teaching her how to say "bluegrass", and at the end of the scene he bends over the table she's sitting at to deliver a kiss. Wellman cuts to a shot from behind this kiss, placing the elbow of Gable (who was 50 when Across the Wide Missouri was shot) near the center of the frame as it bears the brunt of his body weight. As Gable is coming up from the kiss, his arm slightly but very noticeably begins to tremble under the strain. It's tough to tell whether or not Wellman intended to have a visual signifier of the aging process be the star of this scene, nonetheless the effect of the moment is undeniable: Gable's character, who up until this moment had been portrayed as nothing short of the essence of bluster and opportunism on two feet, becomes a bit rickety, a bit vulnerable, much more human. A few scenes later, after his wife tells him of her pregnancy, we can't help now but detect more than a hint of poignant desperation as he races around his little community feverishly delivering the news. And because he has from this moment become, in a way, a much different character, so too does the movie becomes a different movie, one not so much about a poacher who discovers tolerance and love, but about a man who can sense his own mortality, and who slowly begins giving into the quiet, vital impulse of ensuring that his house is in order for everything that will remain and come after him. It gives moments like the one below, with Gable staring at his wife and newborn through the doorway, a very sad, almost Fordian resonance - moments concerning everything but the moments themselves:

Friday, December 2, 2011

Capsule Reviews 12/2/11

Up the River (John Ford, 1930) - This early sound Fox comedy finds its strengths in leisurely pacing and breezy tone, and features entertaining early performances from both Tracy and Bogart (in their first and second film roles, respectively) as a pair of cons from very different backgrounds who befriend one another in the hoosegow and loosely glide around a plot involving love, scams and baseball. As was often the case with Ford comedies of the era, it relies heavily on vignette technique and is generally less concerned with matters of landscape and atmosphere, though dabs of expressionism seep through occasionally, such as in the excellent opening prison break sequence. The result is pleasingly winsome, loony comedy, far from Ford's forte but more than adequately rendered here, interspersed with the usual reflective Fordian touches, including a melancholic neighborhood hay ride (the best scene in the film), as well as heavy and affecting use of the parade-style music the director would return to so often throughout his career.

The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934) - A meager British patrol traipse aimlessly about the Mesopotamian desert during World War I after their commander is killed by an Arab sniper. The troop eventually reaches shelter in the form of a desolate oasis, setting into motion their slow, methodical eradication by the faceless death that surrounds them from seemingly every direction. Ford's vision for the material is lean, dreadful and hallucinatory; he clearly conceives of this increasingly unhinged community as a portrait of terror, and in everything from the rhythmic pattern of deaths to the arc of McGlaglen's "final girl"-esque character, the film can pretty accurately be labeled a proto-slasher, and it's easily the closest thing to a true horror film Ford ever made (the casting of Bela Lugosi in a particularly maniacal role is not happenstance). But the actual Fordian moments are few and far between, and writer Dudley Nichols' deathly banal dialogue and schematic scenarios hold it back from every really taking off. To top it all, Ford had wanted the movie completely musicless, but at the eleventh hour Max Steiner was commissioned by the studio to compose one of his truly abysmal Mickey Mousing scores; it completely saps the images and sequences of their emotional tension, and for that it was awarded the Oscar.

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962) - In this micro-budgeted cult horror fave (the sole feature from industrial filmmaker Herk Havey) a young church organist survives a fatal drag race crash and treks off to Salt Lake City for a new job, hounded by terrible visions at every step. What is lacking in direction and veneer is more than made up for with a genuine sense of desolation, and a particularly firm grasp of one simple but oft-overlooked Horror truth: that creepy architecture and atmosphere are almost entirely dependent on the human presence. Only in the compressed nightmare logic of its final sequences does the movie give form to its most scattershot impulses and begin to resemble something of an authentic vision, but as an overall mood piece its effectiveness and eeriness if difficult to deny. The striking on-location photography (in and around Salt Lake City, in particular the creepy Saltair Pavillion) and unconventional casting of non-professional locals go a long way towards instilling the movie with its distinct, lasting character, and its influence over a certain kind of low-budget horror filmmaking - beginning with and epitomized by Romero's Night of the Living Dead - can still be felt strongly today.

The Ninth Configuration (William Peter Blatty, 1980) - The opening scene is in effect a litmus test of one's appreciation for what's to come: over Denny Brooks' bittersweet ballad 'San Antone', images of moons and spaceships and fog-shrouded gothic castles and grieving men fill the screen, a strangely stirring cornucopia of discordant emotions and tones that acts as a microcosm for the utterly unclassifiable two hours to come. Here Blatty adapts his novel Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, the tale of a madman on a personal pilgrimage in an experimental military psychiatric residence, and it seems that for many critics the film stands as an exercise in the dangers of granting a writer privilege over the cinematic vision of his own material. However it is precisely Blatty's rough-hewn, personal urgency behind the camera that gives the movie so much of its mysterious power; one gets the sense that a more objective, surer hand would have resulted in a far less interesting result. A cast of formidable character actors and an award-winning screenplay have done nothing to salvage Configuration from obscurity over the years, and Blatty would go on to direct only one other feature, 1990's Exorcist III. If the latter stands as the more successful effort (indeed it's one of the better horror films of the 90s), it's because Blatty brought to it a more orderly, formalist approach that better served both his weighty concerns of faith and sacrifice, as well as his gestures toward the surreal. The seeds of a personal omniverse are scattered between the two movies, resulting in some interesting criss-crossing references, however they are united most prominently perhaps by Blatty's overt love for the patter of rain against a window.

The Killer Is Loose (Budd Boetticher, 1956) - After a single viewing I'm tempted to dub The Killer Is Loose both a small masterpiece, and perhaps the most undervalued entry in Boetticher's oeuvre. A cop (Joseph Cotton), while arresting a crooked bank clerk (Wendell Corey), accidentally kills the latter's wife. Years pass, and the psychopathic criminal escapes from prison to exact his revenge on Cotton and his wife, leaving behind a slew of bodies as he inches closer toward his ultimate targets. The thing that jumps out most is how harsh and tactile the violence here is: a prison driver is murdered by Corey for his vehicle, but his body isn't simply dumped out of the truck, the camera follows closely as it splashes raggedly, sloppily into a filthy ditch of mud; in the scene where Corey visits and eventually murders his former army sergeant (the best in the movie, a model of ominous, sustained tension), a body isn't simply shot and killed, it flails violently, with milk bottles shattering and kitchen cookware exploding. A fairly jarring depiction for its day, and one that clearly anticipates the stark, brutal mode of bloodshed found in Boetticher's later work. Corey is fantastic through all this as the deadpan, volatile killer, and in his possessed, post-murder proclamations of helplessness and his climactic excursion into cross-dressing, he acts as a walking perversion of the famous credo that proliferates the Ranown cycle: "A man can do that". There is also fascinating use of sound and off-screen space to heighten the ever-present sense of anxiety and to construct moments of pure portent: Corey staring up into the cloudless sky and being met with a large rumble of thunder after escaping prison is one of the most haunting moments in all of Boetticher. This was the last feature the great director would make before jumping into the Westerns that inarguably comprise the apex of his career, and if those films represent an unusually rarefied level of B-movie craftsmanship in the history of American cinema, The Killer Is Loose as their antecedent deserves at least a passing mention in the conversation. It's lean, expressive, gripping stuff, and I can't wait to sit down with it again.