Friday, May 17, 2013
Enough beef for hungry cinephiles
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared Sept. 30, 2008. I'm re-posting it as part of The Howard Hawks Blogathon occurring through May 31 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover
By Edward Copeland
Has any filmmaker shown mastery in more genres than Howard Hawks? Sixty years ago today, Hawks released one of his best Westerns (not a motel) in Red River, which also gave John Wayne one of his best roles and Montgomery Clift a notable early screen appearance.
Hawks made other great Westerns (most notably Rio Bravo, which also featured Wayne and Walter Brennan), but Red River, despite its abrupt climax, remains my favorite with its tale of a long cattle drive, surrogate father-son conflict and unmistakable gay subtext. Wayne admittedly was a limited actor, but he always was at his best when he played a character steeped in darkness and obsession such as Thomas Dunson here or Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers. He's helped immeasurably by getting to act opposite the young Clift, the antithesis of acting style when compared to Wayne. Hawks' direction of the film itself truly amazes, especially in the many scenes of the huge numbers of cattle, all done in the days without the easy out of CGI (A scene of the drive even earned a shoutout in Peter Bogdanovich's great 1971 film The Last Picture Show). He also manages to include plenty of his trademark humor, mostly through the ensemble of supporting character actors led by Brennan (whose character loses his false teeth in a poker game) and including Hank Worden (the decrepit waiter in Twin Peaks for those unfamiliar with the name) who gets plenty of throwaway lines such as how he doesn't like when things go good or bad, he just wants them to go in between.
Hawks even manages to toss in what may be an example of the ultimate Hawksian woman with Joanne Dru as Tess Millay, who doesn't let a little thing such as an arrow stop her from nagging a man with questions. Hawks astounds viewers to this day with his versatility among genres: Westerns, screwball comedies, musicals, war films, noirs, sci-fi — pick a genre and Hawks probably took it on and scored. It's a mystery to me why his name isn't brought up more by people other than the most obsessive film buffs. Red River isn't my favorite Hawks, but it's one of his many great ones and continues to entertain after 60 years.
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Thursday, May 16, 2013
Leave the rooster story alone. That's human interest.
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared Jan. 18, 2010. I'm re-posting it as part of The Howard Hawks Blogathon occurring through May 31 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover
By Edward Copeland
The list of remakes that exceed the original is a short one, especially when the original was a good one, but there never has been a better remake than Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday, which took the brilliance of The Front Page and turned it to genius by making its high-energy farce of an editor determined by hook or by crook to hang on to his star reporter by turning the roles of the two men into ex-spouses. Icing this delicious cake, which marks its 70th anniversary today, comes from casting Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as the leads.
Words open His Girl Friday declaring that it takes place in the dark ages of journalism when getting that story justified anything short of murder, but insists that it bears no resemblance to the press of its day, 1940 in this case. What saddens me today is, despite the ethical lapses and underhandedness and downright lies committed by the reporters in this version (and really all versions based on the original play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, themselves once Chicago journalists), their energetic devotion to capturing the story seems downright heroic compared to the herd mentality and lack of intellectual curiosity we see exhibited most of the time today by pack journalists such as the White House press corps. It's really why the first two film versions of the play are the only ones that work. The 1931 Lewis Milestone adaptation starring Adolphe Menjou definitely belonged to its time and Hawks' take with its inspired twist came along close enough to remain relevant. When Billy Wilder tried to remake the original in 1974 as a period piece with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, it fell flat because in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, journalists actually existed in a moment of heroism for their profession. The 1988 disaster Switching Channels returned to the His Girl Friday model with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner and tried to set it in the world of cable news but the only update they came up with was hiding the fugitive in a copy machine instead of a rolltop desk.
Each time I write one of these anniversary tributes, no matter how many times I've seen the film in question (and I can't count that high when we're discussing Friday, I try to watch the movie again, in a quest for fresh thoughts and reminders of lines that may have slipped my mind. In nearly every, case I notice something new (and with the rapid-fire pace of Friday's dialogue, remembering them all borders on impossible). What stood out as I started this salute wasn't just the work-a-day newshounds it depicts compared to the state of the industry today but the social subtext emerged more prominently this time. It's not that I've missed or ignored it before, but it's the light-speed comic hijinks that keeps me coming back. The story's main focus may concern Walter Burns (Grant), that sneaky editor of the Morning Post, trying to keep his ex-wife Hildy Johnson (Russell) from leaving the paper and his life to wed insurance agent Bruce Baldwin, who looks like that fellow in the movies, you know, Ralph Bellamy (who fortunately plays Bruce). However, the story Walter uses to keep his hooks into Hildy concerns that of Earl Williams (John Qualen), a man who killed a cop and received a ticket on a bullet train to the gallows by a politically hungry Republican mayor with an eye on unseating the Democratic, anti-death penalty governor, despite the fact the reporters and many others believe Earl's mental illness should stop his hanging. Qualen, a solid character actor in many films, and Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), a woman who befriended Earl prior to the slaying and who the tabloids misrepresent as his lover and a prostitute, stand apart as the only characters in this screwball farce who play it completely straight. (In an all-time bit of miscasting, in the Wilder remake, Carol Burnett got the Mollie Malloy role. Of course, the nearly 50-year-old Jack Lemmon also was engaged to the 28-year-old Susan Sarandon in that film.) His Girl Friday requires neither Qualen nor Mack to garner laughs like every other character. As the courthouse reporters behave particularly cruelly to Mollie at one point, only Hildy comforts her. "They ain't human," Mollie cries. "I know," Hildy sympathizes. "They're newspapermen." Hildy realizes the jobless Earl spent too much time listening to socialist speeches in the park and his fascination with the concept of "production for use" led to his fatal error.
Social message aside, it's the earth-shattering cosmic comic chemistry of Grant and Russell, aided by Bellamy's perfect innocent foil and countless supporting vets. (One of them, Billy Gilbert, plays Mr. Pettibone (Roz holds his tie in the photo above) and I wish I could have found a good closeup photo of him because I think it's hysterical how much 9/11 mastermind/terrorist asshole Khalid Sheikh Mohammed resembles Gilbert in KSM's arrest mugshot.) The lines come fast and furious. While many do come from the original Hecht-MacArthur play, Hawks gets the credit for the film's amazing speed (though screenwriter Charles Lederer deserves more kudos). Still, in the end, Cary and Roz make the dialogue sizzle and Grant's physical touches serve as a master class in comic movement on film. Watch every little bounce he makes as Hildy kicks him beneath the table when he's trying to get things past poor Bruce and you'll crack up every time. Originally, I was writing down all my favorite lines, planning to try to work them all into this tribute, but then I thought: Maybe not everyone has seen His Girl Friday, even after 70 years,
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Thursday, April 04, 2013
Roger Ebert (1942-2013)
By Edward Copeland
If there ever were a reason to brush the cobwebs off my long-dormant blog, today provided it. I wasn't going to waste my thoughts on the passing of Roger Ebert on a note on Facebook or try to squeeze them into multiple 140-word tweets on Twitter. He deserves much more than that and so do I. I'm still forced to use a limited technology, but I'll try to make the best of it.
I debated whether or not to use a photo or Roger solo or Siskel & Ebert together again, but I felt I had to acknowledge them both. It would be nice to say that my interest in film criticism began pouring over the works of Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Manny Farber and the like, but that wouldn't be true. I'm a child of television and those two men up there and their PBS television show Sneak Previews, which I first saw in fourth grade, was my first exposure to movie criticisms. I already was a budding film buff, but this was new to me.
During the many years that Roger and Gene worked together on their various shows — going from Sneak Previews to At the Movies to Siskel & Ebert & the Movies before simplifying to plain Siskel & Ebert — I attempted to watch faithfully, not an easy task given the constant switch in TV stations and time periods that come with syndicated fare. I also developed my own voice and did begin reading those other critics, as well as the many books Roger put out himself. I can't remember how many editions of his Movie Home Companion I had.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I wrote both men, seeking advice about the path to film criticism. Siskel never responded, but Roger returned a great form letter that apologized for being a form letter and mentioned how when he was young he had written a letter to Betty Furness, having a crush on the actress turned TV fixture. He received a form letter along with what supposedly was one of Ms. Furness' hairpins and that inspired him try to personalize his necessary form letters for the piles of mail he got just a bit. During senior year of high school, members of our newspaper and yearbook staffs went to a national journalism convention in Chicago and we toured the Sun-Times. I noticed a staff phone directory on a desk and jotted down Roger's extension, but I never worked up the guts to call it.
The only time I actually was in the same room with Roger was at the 1995 junket for Casino in New York. I wish I'd stopped to say hi, but it was a news conference setup with Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Martin Scorsese seated at a long table. When the Q&A was over, I had to make a beeline to Scorsese.
Roger truly entered my life in the past couple of years when, much to my surprise, he wrote a piece about online criticism for The Wall Street Journal and listed this blog as one of his must-reads. I had no idea that he even knew who I was. Later, with details too complicated to go in, he saved my bacon when I had started work on a 20th anniversary piece on The Larry Sanders Show — including interviews with many people in front of and behind the cameras — and despite it not being movie-related, he gave me a home. I also got to give him a funny story about Gene that he didn't know, thanks to Joshua Malina.
Roger Ebert adapted to the Internet amazingly well, especially Twitter. Small compensation for losing the ability to speak, but it kept him vibrant. He was a champion fighting against the perils put upon him over the past several years, yet it only sharpened his already great writing ability. I miss my friend, even if we never met. Good night, you generous talented man. The balcony will be closed in your honor.
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Friday, August 03, 2012
Edward Copeland's Top 100 of 2012 (100-81)
With the release of the latest Sight & Sound poll, conducted every 10 years to determine the all-time best films, The House Next Door blog of Slant Magazine invited some of us not lucky enough to contribute to the S&S list to submit our own Top 10s to The House, which posted mine today. Sight & Sound magazine, a publication of the British Film Institute, began its survey in 1952, using only critics. Its 2002 list boasted its largest sample yet, receiving ballots from 145 film critics, writers and scholars as well as 108 directors. The results can be found here, though a note claims the page isn't actively maintained, though it appears complete to me. Since I planned to revise my personal Top 10, posted as part of my Top 100 in 2007, I figured I owed it to my entire Top 100 to redo my entire list. As before, my rule is simple: A film must be at least 10 years old to appear on my list. Therefore, movies released between 1998 and 2002 might appear on this list whereas they couldn't on the 2007 version. The most difficult part of assembling these lists always involves determining rankings. It's an arbitrary process and once you get past the Top 10 or 20, not only do the placements seem rather meaningless but inclusion and exclusions of films begin to weigh on you. In fact, selecting No. 1 remains easy but if I could, I'd have tied Numbers 2 through 20 or so at No. 2. A lot of great films didn't make this 100 through no fault of their own, falling victim to my whim at the moment I made the decision of what made the cut and where it went. In parentheses after a director's name, you'll find a film's 2007 rank or, if it's new to the list, you'll see NR for not ranked or NE for not eligible. I also should note that this does not mean the return of this blog. I had committed to taking part in The House's feature prior to pulling the plug and completed most of this before signing off.
Part of the arbitrary nature of this list (and from the very first all-time 10-best list I compiled in high school) was to try to make sure I represented my favorite directors while still allowing for those films that might be a more singular achievement. (For example, my first high school list had to be sure to include a Woody Allen, a Huston, a Hitchcock, a Wilder, a Truffaut, an Altman.) The more great cinema you see, the harder it becomes to justify that since lots of directors deserve recognition and many films might be a filmmaker's strongest work. As I've caught up with a lot of Werner Herzog's work over the years, I felt he'd earned inclusion. I was torn between choosing Nosferatu or Aguirre: The Wrath of God to represent him, but opted for the vampire tale because Herzog's "reversioning" of Murnau's silent classic manages to be both a masterpiece of atmospherics and the best version of the Dracula tale put on screen.
Pedro Almodóvar’s career evolution has taken an arc that I imagine few could have anticipated. I know I certainly didn’t back in the 1980s, when his films mainly consisted of camp, color and sexual obsession. Around the time of 1997’s Live Flesh, the Spanish filmmaker’s style took an abrupt change, filtering genres through his unique perspective to exhilarating results that continue through last year’s The Skin I Live In. The greatest of this run of seven features happens to be the most recent film to make this new Top 100 list. Telling the story of two men caring for women they love, both of whom happen to be comatose, Almodóvar’s Oscar-winning screenplay manages to balance humor, pathos and even outlandish touches you’d never expect to make one helluva movie and the writer-director’s best film so far.
Littered along the highways of film history lie multiple tales of adversity breeding triumphs of cinema. As director Jules Dassin faced a possible subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee, presumably followed by blacklisting, at the end of the 1940s, producer Darryl Zanuck gave him an exit strategy. Dassin flew to London to hurriedly begin filming an adaptation of the novel Night and the City, which he’d never read, and as a result produced one of the greatest noirs of all time. Not only did he make the movie on the fly, Zanuck even stuck him with creating a role for Gene Tierney, nearly suicidal after a bad love affair. The novel’s author, Gerald Kersh, hated the movie about hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) scheming to bring Greco-Roman wrestling to London while ducking all sorts of colorful characters played by wonderful actors such as Francis L. Sullivan, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom, Hugh Marlowe and Mike Mazurki. Of course, Kersh’s gripe was understandable — the film bore no resemblance whatsoever to his novel other than the title. However, that didn’t prevent it from being a damn fine film.
It takes a lot to fool me and, in retrospect, I should have seen the final twist coming, but I didn't because Sayles crafted in his best film a compelling story in which the plot turn was unexpected and the movie’s story didn't hinge on it. Even if the secret never had been revealed, this portrait of skeletons from the past and their influence on the lives of people in the present still would resonate. Sayles assembles a helluva ensemble including Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Morton and, in one great single scene, Frances McDormand, to name but a few. Sayles has made some good films since Lone Star, but none come close to equaling the artistry, vitality and humanity of this one. I await another great one from him.
Set piece after set piece, Hitchcock puts Cary Grant through the paces and pulls the viewer along to his most purely entertaining offering. Grant never loses his cool as he's hunted by everyone, James Mason makes a suave bad guy and Martin Landau a perfectly sinister hired thug. With cameos by four former U.S. presidents. There's not much else to say about it: It's not an exercise in style or filled with layers and depth, it's just damn fun. In fact, it’s as much a comedy as a thriller.
There's something to be said for quitting while you're ahead and Charles Laughton, one of the finest screen actors ever, certainly did with the only film he ever directed. The film's influences seem more prevalent than people who have actually seen this disturbing thriller with the great Robert Mitchum as the creepy preacher with love on one hand and hate on the other and the legendary Lillian Gish as the equivalent of the old woman who lived in a shoe, assuming the old woman was well armed.
In describing the film that put Kurosawa on the world’s radar as a major filmmaker, I’m going to let Robert Altman speak for me. This quote comes from his introduction to the Criterion Collection edition of the movie. "Rashomon is the most interesting, for me, of Kurosawa's films.…The main thing here is that when one sees a film you see the characters on screen.…You see very specific things — you see a tree, you see a sword — so one takes that as truth, but in this film, you take it as truth and then you find out it's not necessarily true and you see these various versions of the episode that has taken place that these people are talking about. You're never told which is true and which isn't true which leads you to the proper conclusion that it's all true and none of it's true. It becomes a poem and it cracks this visual thing that we have in our minds that if we see it, it must be a fact. In reading, in radio — where you don't have these specific visuals — your mind is making them up. What my mind makes up and what your mind makes up…is never the same."
For years, my standard response when asked about Raging Bull was that it was a film easier to admire than love. Each time that I’d see the movie again though, that point-of-view became less satisfactory because, as any great film should, the film kept rising higher in my esteem. In the film's opening moments, when Robert De Niro plays the older, fat Jake preparing for his lounge act in 1964 before it cuts to the ripped fighter in 1941, even though I consciously know both versions of La Motta were played by the same actor and that De Niro was that actor, the performance so entrances that I actually ask, "Who is this guy and why hasn't he made more movies?" To gaze at the way he sculpted his body into the shape of a believable middleweight boxer, sweat glistening in Michael Chapman's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, truly makes an impressive achievement. Acting isn't the proper word for what De Niro does here. He doesn't portray Jake La Motta, he becomes Jake La Motta, or at least the screen version, and leaves all vestiges of Robert De Niro somewhere else. Even when De Niro turns in good or great work in other roles, they never come as close to complete immersion as his La Motta does.
"Out of the worst crime novels I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I've ever seen," François Truffaut wrote about Rififi in his book The Films in My Life. I haven't read the Auguste Le Breton novel, but I don't doubt Truffaut's word. Dassin structures the film like a solid three-act play. Act I: Planning the heist. Act II: Carrying it out. Act III: The aftermath. Dassin fine-tunes each of the film's element to the point that Rififi practically runs as a machine all its own. The various characters behave more as chess pieces to be moved around as the story's game requires than as representatives of people. One single sequence though makes Rififi a landmark both in films and particularly heist movies: the robbery itself. Dassin films this in a 32-minute long silent sequence. No one speaks. Keeping everything as quiet as possible becomes the thieves' No. 1 priority. It's absolutely riveting. You'll be holding your breath as if you were involved in the crime yourself.
Howard Hawks appears for the first time on the list with a Western starring John Wayne that turned out to be so much fun they remade it seven years later. I’ll stick with the original where the Duke’s allies include a great Dean Martin as a souses sheriff, young Ricky Nelson and the always wily Walter Brennan. Wayne even gets to romance Angie Dickinson. No deep themes hidden here: Just kick up your spurs and enjoy.
The first time was the charm. One of the few insightful comments I heard on the 2007 AFI special was when Martin Scorsese said that in many ways he finds the primitive stop-motion effects of the original King Kong more impressive than later CGI versions. He's absolutely right. The 1933 version also offers more thrills and emotions (and in half the time) than Peter Jackson's technically superior but dramatically inferior and unnecessary remake. Let’s not even discuss the 1976 version.
When L.A. Confidential debuted on this list in its first year of eligibility in 2007, I wrote, “Of the films of fairly recent vintage, this is one that grows stronger each time I see it, earning comparisons to the great Chinatown…Well acted (even if Kim Basinger's Oscar was beyond generous), well written and well directed, I believe L.A. Confidential’s reputation will only grow greater as the years go on — yet it lost the Oscar (and a spot on the AFI list) to the insipid Titanic.” When I re-watched the film recently, my prediction proved to be spot-on as it only deepens as an experience and an entertainment as time passes. It still boggles my mind that with Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey and James Cromwell (just to name four) delivering impeccable work that only Basinger landed a nomination, but losing best picture and director to James Cameron and Titanic remains the bigger crime.
Simply put: The tensest comedy ever made and perhaps Scorsese's most underrated film. Griffin Dunne plays the perfect beleaguered straight man enveloped by a universe of misfits and oddballs in lower Manhattan when all he wanted to do was get laid. It’s hard to imagine that this movie nearly became a Tim Burton project, but thanks to the many setbacks Scorsese endured attempting to make The Last Temptation of Christ, the film ended up being his — and recharged his batteries as well. While Scorsese has made great films since, I’d love to see him step back sometime and make another indie feature like After Hours on the fly just to see what happens. Joseph Minion wrote an excellent script and this represents one case where I think the changed ending actually proves superior to the originally intended one. By the way, whatever happened to Joseph Minion?
Watchability often gets undervalued when rating a film's worth, but I never tire of sitting through this thrill ride. One aspect that has impressed me since I first saw it as a teen back in 1985 (and I went two nights in a row, dragging my parents to it on the second) was its attention to detail such as Marty arriving in 1955 and mowing down a pine tree on the farm of the deranged man trying to “breed pines.” Then, when he returns to 1985, Twin Pines Mall now bears the sign Lone Pine Mall. It’s just a quiet sight gag in the background without any overt attempt to call attention to the joke. You either catch it or you don’t. I always admire films that respect audiences like that, especially when they happen to be this much fun. With equal touches of satire, suspense and genuine emotion, Back to the Future elicits pure joy. No matter how many times I see it, the final sequence where they prepare to send Marty back to 1985 holds me in rapt attention as I wonder if this time might be the time he doesn't actually make it.
A comedy about the Vietnam War that's full of blood and set in Korea, just as a matter of subterfuge. The film that put Altman on the map and inspired one of TV's best comedies (until it got too full of itself), MASH still holds up with its brilliant ensemble and wicked wit. I still wish the TV show had kept that theme song with its lyrics. Through early morning fog I see/visions of the things to be/the pains that are withheld for me/I realize and I can see.../That suicide is painless/It brings on many changes/and I can take or leave it if I please.
Back in 1985, before Goodfellas and The Sopranos really mixed mob stories with jet black comedy, the great director John Huston, in his second-to-last film, brought to the screen an adaptation of Richard Condon's Mafia satire Prizzi's Honor, complete with great performances and some of the most memorable lines ever collected in a single film. Huston may have been in the twilight of his days, but his filmmaking prowess was as strong as ever. Jack Nicholson disappeared into the role of Charley Partanna more than he had any role in recent memory. Kathleen Turner matched well with Nicholson as Charley's love whose work outside the house causes problems. William Hickey gave an eccentric and indelible portrait of the aging don. Finally, John's daughter Anjelica made up for a misfire of an acting debut decades earlier with her brilliant performance as the scheming Maerose and took home one of the most deserved supporting actress Oscars ever given.
Before Zhang Yimou started being obsessed with spectacle and martial arts, film after film, he produced some of the greatest personal stories in the history of movies, especially when his muse was the great and beautiful Gong Li. This film was their first truly flawless effort as Gong plays the young bride of a powerful lord who already has multiple wives and who encourages the sometimes brutal competition between the women.
"The film actually is like a snail — it kind of turns in on itself and becomes itself," Altman describes his film in an interview on its DVD. One of the many "comebacks" of Robert Altman's career, this brilliant Hollywood satire holds up viewing after viewing because it's so much more than merely a satire. Thanks to Tim Robbins' superb performance as the sympathetic heel of a Hollywood executive and the cynical yet deeper emotional punch of Michael Tolkin's script, Altman wows from the opening eight-minute take to one of the greatest final punchlines in movie history. However, the more times you see it, the more you discover to see. While some specific references have aged, the movie's relevance remains — now more than ever.
Schindler’s List marked an important moment in Spielberg’s development as a filmmaker: Peter Pan finally grew up. It’s a harrowing, well-made movie that everyone should see. At the same time, I can foresee a time when it slips off this list entirely. It isn’t the fault of the film — I find it nearly flawless. However, if someone placed a gun to my head and ordered me to choose to watch either Schindler’s or one of Spielberg’s best post-1993 films such as Catch Me If You Can or Minority Report, I’d opt for one of the latter two. Are they better films than Schindler’s List? I can’t say that. However, the epic holocaust tale isn’t a film you find yourself wanting to pop a bowl of popcorn and watching on a whim. As I said earlier, for me at least, rewatchability remains an important factor. I’ve seen Schindler’s List three times but I haven’t reached the point where I want to go through that wrenching experience again.
Bergman once said that by the time he was done making Wild Strawberries, the film really belonged more to Victor Sjöström, who played Borg, the renowned professor and lauded physician about to receive an honorary degree. The film marked Sjöström 's return from semi-retirement, but he already was a legend as the first true Swedish acting-directing star. Borg decides to drive his old Packard to the event instead of flying to meet his son. The journey becomes more than just a road trip for the professor, but a metaphysical trek through his past as he questions what led him to this moment. As the car winds closer to the ceremony, Borg's inner journey does as well as he comes to realize that for all his scientific training, the only thing he can't analyze is himself. "The day's clear reality dissolves into even clearer remnants of memory," he says. Wild Strawberries represents Bergman growing into his powers as a filmmaker and while it may concern a 78-year-old man examining his life, the subject proves as timeless for people of any age as the film itself.
Labels: Almodóvar, Altman, D. Zanuck, Dassin, Hawks, Herzog, Hitchcock, Huston, Ingmar Bergman, Kurosawa, Laughton, Lists, Murnau, Sayles, Scorsese, Spielberg, Tim Burton, Truffaut, Zemeckis, Zhang Yimou
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Edward Copeland's Top 100 of 2012 (80-61)
People like to mock Frank Capra as simple-minded at times and this film especially, but it remains a rousing indictment of corruption in Washington that echoes to this very day. It's too bad that a filibuster doesn't still mean that a senator has to do what Jefferson Smith did and hold the floor for as long as he can instead of the procedural gimmick it's turned into today that prevents legislation from moving out of the Senate. Still, whenever I catch Mr. Smith, no matter how long it has been on, I have to watch until the end. It's the curse of being both a movie buff and a political junkie. In a way, with recent events, it seems to have a bit of timeliness beneath the treacle and idealistic love of how this country should work.
When people think Ingmar Bergman, they think heavy, but here flows one of his lightest and most enjoyable concoctions. In an introduction made for the Criterion edition of the film, Bergman remarks how Smiles changed everything for him. At the time, he was broke and living off the actress Bibi Andersson when his studio entered the film at Cannes and it won a prize (best poetic humor) and became an international success. Bergman says it was a turning point for both him and his studio, earning him free rein to go on and make even more of the greatest films of all time. The film contains obvious echoes of The Rules of the Game, though Smiles more than stands on its own with its tale of love and adultery, male vanity and female cunning, aging and youth. It's not only a delight as a film but inspired the great Stephen Sondheim to write one of his earliest great scores as composer and lyricist in A Little Night Music. Isn't it rich?
The Weinstein P.R. machine spun so much press off this film's twist that I think it takes away from how great a movie had developed before that plot turn even happens. I was fortunate enough to see it early, before the hype went into overdrive, so I thought another story turn was the "twist" and relaxed and the real twist took me by complete, wonderful surprise. I hope someday new viewers will be able to see the film without knowing what lies ahead. Even if they don’t though, they will see a great study in human nature as well as great performances from Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, Miranda Richardson and Jaye Davidson.
While Spike Lee still has talent to spare, he has yet to come close to equaling the power of his third film and its study of one hot day in Bedford Stuy. His strongest work has flourished in his documentaries, especially his pair of post-Katrina films When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts and If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise and the feature Inside Man. Something tells me he’ll come back eventually. More than 20 years later, Do the Right Thing retains the power it unleashed in 1989 as that breed of film that has become rarer and rarer: the conversation starter.
The film marketed as Bergman's "last feature" truly is one of his best, painting a vast semiautobiographical canvas of two children from a large theatrical family who find their lives upended when their mother weds an authoritarian monster of a minister. Beyond the narrative, Sven Nykvist's photography, Anna Asp’s art direction, Susanne Lingheim’s sets and Marik Vos’ costumes present a sumptuous feast for the eyes. Its three-hour running time flies by and watching the 312-minute cut Bergman originally made for Swedish television proves even more rewarding.
Bogie got one of his best roles, John Huston made one of his greatest films (winning his only two Oscars for writing and directing) and his old man got a supporting actor Oscar in the deal as well. When you see Walter Huston do his mocking, triumphant little dance, you want to join in. Sierra Madre wasn’t John Huston’s only classic starring Humphrey Bogart released in 1948 either. The two also collaborated on Key Largo, While it’s good, it’s this film with its prospecting south of the border that’s the real keeper.
Here comes Howard Hawks again and Cary Grant (playing a nerd, believe it or not) as well. (I haven't added it up, but I suspect Grant appears in more movies on this list than any other actor). Katharine Hepburn's most inspired performance powers this screwiest of screwball comedies as her flighty socialite wreaks havoc on the world of Grant’s mild-mannered paleontologist. All of this and a leopard or two, too.
Salieri may consider himself the "patron saint of mediocrity," but little can be called mediocre about Forman's adaptation of Peter Shaffer's play. F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were both brilliant and you can't really argue against its musical score. The unitiated might suspect slowgoing in a period costume drama such as this, but they haven't seen enough and certainly not Amadeus which overflows with humor and light as well as its darker elements.
There wouldn't be a Breakfast Club without a Virginia Woolf, but I don't hold that against Edward Albee or his great play turned into a superb movie by Mike Nichols. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were never better and while the truth games and verbal battles make you cringe, you can't avert your eyes from their power. Albee's play marks its 50th anniversary this year and it still packs a punch a half-century later.
To me, one of the crimes of both versions of the AFI list is that Psycho is the only representation of black-and-white Hitchcock, as if no one noticed him until he started working in color, but nothing is further from the truth and Notorious is one of the best examples of that. The kiss between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant remains one of the most sensual images ever put on celluloid and Claude Rains is superb as the conflicted heavy of the piece.
This film shouldn't work and it probably wouldn't if its stellar cast hadn't saved it. Kazan and Budd Schulberg's attempt to justify their actions during the McCarthy hearings doesn't quite work as an allegory, but the film itself works as a powerful story thanks to the indelible performances it contains. Brando earns the big kudos but the solid work of Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and especially Lee J. Cobb shouldn't be forgotten.
As digital projection sounds the death knell for celluloid, I feel even more grateful that when I saw Lawrence of Arabia for the first time, I saw the restored, 70mm print in a theater released for its 25th anniversary. I never could watch the cropped, pan-and-scan versions on TV. It’s a shame that more classics fail to get re-released outside major markets, but with the digital future, it’s almost moot. As for the film itself, if it weren't for the weaker second half, this movie that almost defines epic would have landed higher on this list. Still, with its stunning cinematography, gorgeous score and great Peter O'Toole performance, it belongs on the list nonetheless.
When I made my 2007 list, I admitted being torn between including 8½ or Nights of Cabiria to represent Fellini and I ended up opting for 8½. In the intervening five years, I’ve watched both films again and my preference clearly leans to Cabiria. While Giulietta Masina's remarkable performance as the title character might break your heart at times, more often than not, she'll leave you smiling, even if it's a sad smile. While Masina initially wins you over when seeing the film the first few times, on later viewings I've found the movie itself richer. It's constructed almost as a perfect circle, a ring of hell if you will, from which Cabiria would like to escape. "Everyone has a secret agony," a character tells her at one point and as much as Cabiria might try to avoid it, she hopes to abandon her life. First, she sees fun in a brief sojourn with a celebrated movie star (Amedeo Narrazi) that in a way predicts Pretty Woman some 30 years down the road, though without the manufactured happy ending. Fellini grounds Nights of Cabiria in reality, a world where the poor are forced to live in caves and anyone can be a victim. In another incident, when Cabiria realizes that once again she's been gypped, it leads to an ending that manages to be touching, magical and inspiring, all at the same time, ending with one of film's greatest close-ups.
Kirk Douglas probably was miscast, but this early Kubrick doesn't get the kudos it deserves and it certainly bears up better over the years than some of his later works such as A Clockwork Orange. Paths of Glory centers on one particular battle between the French and the German, where the poor French troops are outmanned and outgunned, but that's no excuse for disobeying orders in the eyes of one general. Kubrick often tackled the futility of war and its inherent contradictions, but he really knocked it out of the park with this one.
Of the many collaborations between Zhang Yimou and Gong Li, this one remains my favorite, even though it's less heralded than many of his others. Gong and Ge You portray a married couple and we follow their lives in a kaleidoscopic tour of Chinese history, beginning with the civil war in the 1940s and passing through The Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and a few years beyond. Epic while staying focused and personal in the telling, if you haven't seen To Live, you should. This might end up being Zhang’s masterpiece.
Another instance of the all-too-rare occurrence of a sequel that's better the film that spawned it. Whale's funny follow-up to his own Frankenstein contains most of the classic moments you probably associate with the story: the blind hermit, "She's alive!" and much more. It also adds some pure wackiness such as Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius, with madder plans than Colin Clive’s original Dr. Frankenstein himself. We also get to hear Boris Karloff speak his first words as the monster and Elsa Lanchester play a dual role: Mary Shelley in a funny prologue setting up the sequel and as the bride herself. It’s a hoot from start to finish — and even manages to toss in a scare or two amidst the laughs.
Just as McCabe & Mrs. Miller isn't exactly a Western, it's not strictly a character study either. First and foremost, it's a Robert Altman film, one of those times when the late director got a hold of financing, cameras, actors, a crew and the things he needed for what intrigued him at that moment and did his cinematic dance, part strictly thought out, much improvised and lots that came about by happy accident. That style didn't always work throughout his long career, but when it did, magic resulted. As Pauline Kael wrote in her July 3, 1971, review of the film in The New Yorker, "Though Altman's method is a step toward a new kind of movie naturalism, the technique may seem mannered to those who are put off by the violation of custom — as if he simply didn't want to be straightforward about his storytelling.…He can't be straightforward in the old way, because he's improvising meanings and connections, trying to find his movie in the course of making it…" It took me about three viewings to warm to McCabe. Now, it stands as one of my very favorite Altman films and I can see it climbing higher in the future the more I watch it.
Even with a distance of more than a decade, I find it difficult deciding where to place newer films amid the established classics, but Memento continues to excite me more than any other new movie I saw between 1998 and 2002. The film surpasses the accusations of detractors who see it as merely a gimmick. It also manages to be both funny and heartbreaking as it spins the tale of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man suffering from short-term memory loss that prevents him from remembering anything after a single day. Not helpful when you’re trying to solve your wife’s murder. The film that put Nolan on the map remains my favorite of his works. Pearce gives a great performance as do Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss. It feels as if in the wake of Nolan’s Batman films and Inception, Memento has slipped from many long-term memories. It shouldn’t be forgotten.
When I first saw de Sica's masterpiece, English speakers knew it as The Bicycle Thief. It's only been recently that we've learned the more correct English translation. I guess his film still has things to teach us today. De Sica mastered the art of making films that plucked on a viewer’s heart strings without being so sentimental that it bred resentment. Shoeshine plays like a rough draft for Bicycle Thieves and he later made the great Umberto D., but I have to opt for the simple heartbreaking beauty of Bicycle Thieves and that unforgettable final shot.
A meditation on life, the universe and everything and, for a film whose story begins with a chess game between a knight back from the Crusades and Death for the knight's life as the Black Plague spreads chaos around them, it has a bit more humor than you'd expect. The film also marked the first teaming of Bergman with Max von Sydow, who portrays the knight. It sets the stage for many of the themes Bergman would return again and again throughout his career dealing with God, faith and so much more.
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Edward Copeland's Top 100 of 2012 (60-41)
Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Italian neorealist movement. This story of Italians fighting back against fascism and the Nazis during World War II plays as powerful and moving today as it ever did, with a great cast led by Anna Magnani, who appears in one of the film's most memorable sequences. Despite being generally hard on the film, Manny Farber declared Open City the best film released in the U.S. in 1946 and called Magnani’s performance “the most perfect job by an actress in years and years.”
A breathtaking debut that launched a mostly great film series about Truffaut's screen alter ego, Antoine Doinel, and containing perhaps the most famous freeze frame in film history. It's not bad as a coming-of-age picture either. While The 400 Blows stands alone as the best of the Antoine Doinel films, it’s fascinating to watch Jean-Pierre Leaud play the character from an adolescent to an adult. In its own way, the film resembles the first installment of a fictional version of Michael Apted’s Up documentary series only focusing on a single character.
Pollack didn't just direct and act in this comic masterpiece, he really played tailor as well, stitching together multiple versions of its screenplay to come up with the exquisite finished garment. Dustin Hoffman's brilliant performance as perfectionist pain-in-the-ass actor Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, the female persona he creates to get work, stands as the crowning achievement of his acting career. It doesn't hurt to be surrounded by an equally solid ensemble that includes Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, George Gaynes, Doris Belack, Geena Davis and a nearly all-improvised role by Bill Murray.
Preminger’s crowning achievement could be a routine noirish mystery if it weren’t for its great ensemble of Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price and, most of all, Clifton Webb delivering its wry and witty dialogue by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt (with alleged uncredited contributions from Ring Lardner Jr.). A couple of examples: Price as Laura’s cad of a fiancé Shelby Carpenter declaring ,"I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes" and Webb as bitchy newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker describing his work, "I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom." Laura could be called the All About Eve of film noir mysteries.
Every time I hear that a friend or acquaintance is going to have a baby, I make the same simple request: Do everything in their power to keep all knowledge of this movie away from them until they see it. I would have loved to have seen it without knowing that the shower scene was coming or the truth about Norman Bates. I hope others can have that experience.
One of the biggest jumps of any films from the last list. When revisiting The Last Picture Show for its 40th anniversary last year after having not seen the movie in years, it truly captivated me with its stark beauty. Despite its setting in 1951 in a small Texas town, it contains a universality that resonates today both in human and economic terms. Plot doesn't drive the story — character, not only of the people but of the town itself, does. While you watch the movie, you aren't concerned with what happens next or how the film ends because you realize that life will go on for most of these fictional folks you've come to know. It's telling a coming-of-age story — several in fact — and not all concern the teen characters in the tale. It's also about love and loss, not always in the present tense.
Not only does Broadcast News hold up to repeated viewings, it holds such a special place in my heart that I almost can’t view it rationally. I overidentify with Albert Brooks’ character of Aaron Altman and I’ve known a couple of women with similarities to Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig. More importantly, James L. Brooks wrote and directed a very funny and touching valentine to the decline in television news standards and set it against an unrequited love triangle (with William Hurt’s Tom Grunick filling the third point as well as representing TV news’s deterioration). The supporting cast also aids the entertaining proceedings with the likes of Robert Prosky, Joan Cusack, Lois Chiles, Peter Hackes, Christian Clemenson and Jack Nicholson as the anchor of the network’s evening news.
Even people who view Capra as a sentimental sap tend to like this great madcap romantic romp thanks to the great chemistry of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The first film to sweep the top five categories at the Oscar continues to hold up thanks in no small part to the chemistry between Gable and Colbert. Memorable scenes pile up one after another involving great character actors such as Roscoe Karns and Alan Hale Sr. Perhaps the most magical scene comes when Colbert’s Ellie asks Gable’s Peter if he's ever been in love while on opposite sides of the blanket and he momentarily gets serious, wistfully describing his ideal woman while Ellie slowly melts on the other side of the blanket. May the walls of Jericho always fall.
Here comes Hitch again with his most personal and, in many ways, disturbing film about love and obsession and the need to replace what one has lost. It also happens to be another of my great moviegoing experiences, having been able to see the 1996 restoration at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York. Robert Burks’ cinematography never came across as vividly, especially the reds in the scenes set at Ernie’s. James Stewart delivered one of his best performances as a former cop, already damaged psychologically, pushed further to the edge when he falls for a woman named Madeline (Kim Novak) that he’s been hired to follow and later when he meets her doppelganger and attempts to make her over in Madeline’s image.
As the years roll by, many find themselves less enthused by Tarantino's film. I am not among their ranks, finding that I'm as enthralled, entertained and as giddy as I was the first time I saw it whenever I see any part of it again. Similarly, my faith in Quentin remains strong as well, especially in the wake of Inglourious Basterds, which I definitely could see on a list like this once it reaches its eligibility if it holds up as well as it has so far.
Billy Wilder made so many great comedies with varying levels of pathos that it's hard to pick just one. I considered Some Like It Hot and One, Two Three, but this one remains for me his best film among the ones played primarily for laughs. In the wake of Mad Men, the film proves particularly interesting to watch (even if Roger Sterling thinks female elevator operators defy reality).
Even before the recent passing of Andy Griffith, I had decided that I had to make a spot for A Face in the Crowd on this list. As far as I’m concerned, it undoubtedly stands as Kazan’s best film and as a bit of a prescient one. Without this film, I’m not sure Paddy Chayefsky would have been inspired nearly 20 years later to write Network. Budd Schulberg deserves the bulk of the credit, adapting A Face in the Crowd from a short story he wrote called “Arkansas Traveler.” The film broke ground in its depiction of the convergence and intermingling of the media, corporate and political worlds. In addition to Griffith’s stellar performance as Lonesome Rhodes, the cast includes exemplary work from Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau and Tony Franciosa. Mike Wallace, John Cameron Swayze and Walter Winchell even make cameos as themselves. The film’s reputation should only grow.
When one of the early moments of a movie shows Edward Norton squeezed against the man breasts of a sobbing Meat Loaf, it boggles my mind how many people who saw Fight Club when it came out didn’t immediately recognize the film as a satire. Every time I’ve watched this film, I’ve loved it more than I did originally. To further emphasize its strength, the first time I saw it, I already knew the twist because of an out-of-nowhere comment by David Thomson in a completely unrelated article in The New York Times. Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Jim Uhl’s screenplay and David Fincher’s direction spin a funhouse tour of the consumer culture, self-help groups and machismo. Norton turns in a great performance as always as do Brad Pitt as the devil on his shoulder and Helena Bonham-Carter as a twisted kindred spirit.
A running gag between Wagstaff and I in recent years is that I believe Die Hard is the greatest film ever made. OK, I don't really believe that, but this is one of the best, especially as far as action goes and Alan Rickman remains one of the all-time great movie villains. In addition to having a great bad guy, what sets Die Hard apart from other action films is that its hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis) isn't superhuman. By the end of the movie, he looks as if he's been through hell.
This film doesn't get mentioned as often as it should, but its portrait of the perils of vigilante justice comes through as strongly today as I imagine it did when it was originally released. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan try to speak for calm and rationality against the horde ready to inflict mob violence.
The time is over for the debate as to whether the Oscar this classic silent won in the Academy's first year was the equivalent of "best picture." All that needs to be said is that is a great film, Academy seal of approval or not. It remains both heartbreaking and beautiful 85 years after its debut.
The Godfather Part II may have won best picture in 1974, but for my money it wasn't even the best Coppola film that year, let alone the best picture (not that it isn't good). This simple tale of an eavesdropping expert (Gene Hackman giving one of his best, most restrained performances) experiencing sudden moral qualms remains riveting and thoughtful to this day.
Supposedly, Hitchcock often named this gem as his personal favorite of his films and it certainly remains one of his best with its dry, mordant wit and a great lead in Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie, worshipped by Teresa Wright as his niece Charlie. Much comic relief gets provided by Henry Travers as young Charlie's father and Hume Cronyn as his murder mystery-loving friend.
I'm not talking to you Travis, but about you, and Scorsese and Paul Schrader's dark, modern spin on The Searchers only grows more stunning as the years roll on. Robert De Niro gives one of his greatest performances and, for my money, this may remain Jodie Foster's finest work.
Jean Renoir made a lot of great films and at least two unquestionable masterpieces, including this one, yet you seldom hear his name come up unless you are talking with real cinephiles. Shameful — because his films don't belong to elite tastes: They belong to everyone. This vivid portrait of WWI prisoners of war proves that since it was the very first time the Academy bothered to nominate a foreign language film for best picture. It should have won too.
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Edward Copeland's Top 100 of 2012 (40-21)
Fritz Lang made a lot of good movies, but nothing equaled this tale told in his native language. Peter Lorre made his mark as the hunted child killer in a film filled with atmosphere, suspense and thought.
Kept from the public for years after its initial release, the one plus to its exile was that I experienced this masterpiece of a political thriller — 50 years old this year — for the first time on the big screen in a crisp, black-and-white print. I hope that Jonathan Demme’s misguided idea of trying to remake this classic didn’t sour the original or scare younger viewers away from seeking out Frankenheimer’s version. The 1962 Manchurian Candidate contains many attributes that make it worth recommending, but every film lover must witness Angela Lansbury’s portrayal of Mrs. Iselin, a contender for the top 10 screen villains of all time.
My much-missed dog Leland Palmer Copeland didn’t usually watch TV, but whenever this classic came on, she was drawn to it. One time, Leland even seemed to sit on the couch and watch it from beginning to end. Maybe it was the music, maybe it was the colors. The sad side effect of Leland’s affection for this film that no one truly ever outgrows is that now that she isn’t here to watch it Dorothy and her friends with me any longer, Oz sometimes proves too painful for me to revisit.
No one gives this film the credit for its darkness that it really deserves. This isn't sappy sentimental drivel; this is about a man who feels as if he's been pissed on all his life and finally reaches the end of his rope. James Stewart's talent, Capra's gifts and the script by Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett make George Bailey's journey plausible and touching. Only a Mr. Potter could hate this film.
Howard Hawks directed John Wayne to his second-greatest performance in this thrilling tale of a cattle drive and bitter rivalries. It also contains the perfect example of a Hawksian woman as Joanne Dru keeps talking, even with an arrow protruding from her body. I feel as if Hawks has slipped some in esteem among the old masters as far as the younger critics out there go. This master of nearly all genres seems long overdue for resurgence.
I wrote in my 2007 list that The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde constantly swap slots for my choice as the best film of 1967 and damn if they haven’t done it again five years later. One of the many great lines in 2009’s (500) Days of Summer comes when the narrator, in describing Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, says that an early exposure to sad British pop music and a misreading of The Graduate led him to believe that the search for love always leads to The One. (If I’m still around to make another top 100 in 2019, I suspect you’ll find (500) Days of Summer there — after multiple viewings I believe it’s the 21st century Annie Hall.) Back to The Graduate itself, Nichols’ direction looks better with each viewing and the cast remains remarkable. It’s just that my reaction to the story itself that waxes and wanes. It’s never bad – it’s just that sometimes I find myself loving it a bit less than the last time.
The history of movies doesn’t lack for great teamings of directors and actors and the man who more or less made John Wayne an icon with the way he introduced him as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach also directed the Duke to his best acting performance here. Wayne always worked as a good guy, but he proved his acting chops when someone inserted an element of darkness into his characters. The Searchers also has proved to be a useful template for many other films, most notably Taxi Driver and Paul Schrader’s Hardcore. Ford brought a lot of great imagery to this story and it arguably contains the greatest closing shot of his long career.
As I foretold a couple notches back when writing about The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde holds the higher esteem in my heart in this snapshot in time. Perhaps it’s a side effect of the journey I took through Penn’s entire filmography following his death, but it’s a great film regardless. Each time I watch it again I become more convinced — harrowing moments of violence aside — this truly plays as much as a comedy as The Graduate. At the time I re-visited it, watching how the Depression-era bank robbers became folk heroes to the masses, the resonance with the destruction 21st century Wall Street bankers wreaked on our nation’s economy was easier to identify with than ever before.
In the 1927-28 contest for "Artistic Quality of Production" at the Oscars, this film faced off against Sunrise and Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness. While Sunrise won and I wouldn’t argue against its status as a superb film (It’s not that far back on this list after all), I admit to preferring Vidor's film and its tale of striving to succeed as everything in the world appears to conspire to keep you down.
There's a good reason that so many cite Robert Towne's screenplay as one of the great examples of writing for film. If only all scripts (including some of Towne’s) were this superb. It remains one of the best examples of a modern noir, filmed in color, as well as Polanski’s best work. Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes came in his unbelievable and unforgettable run of great 1970s performances that began with 1969’s Easy Rider. It also gives us one of the sickest screen villains in Noah Cross, played so well by John Huston. Chinatown always will live on in the pantheon of film’s with last lines so memorable even people who’ve never seen it know the words.
You know 1950 was a great year for movies released in the United States when a picture as great as All About Eve only finishes third on my list for that year (behind The Third Man and Sunset Blvd.). That takes nothing away from All About Eve though with its brittle and brilliant dialogue and multiple great performances, including Bette Davis’ best, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter and, most especially, George Sanders as Addison DeWitt.
Death comes in large doses in The Wild Bunch, but its violence, despite Peckinpah turning the carnage into quasi-ballet-like imagery, isn’t what makes the film so remarkable. The film delivers its true eulogy not for its human characters but for the death of an era and a way of life. As with so many of Peckinpah’s great films, too many misunderstood the film’s intent but The Wild Bunch only grows more evocative and timeless with age, thanks in large part to its ensemble of acting veterans who display the film’s themes through every crease and line on their faces. With the recent death of Ernest Borgnine, Jaime Sanchez (Angel) remains the last living actor who belonged to the bunch.
Billy Wilder (like Howard Hawks) had the talent to soar in almost any genre and this quintessential film noir is a supreme example. How it lost the Oscar to Going My Way and Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson failed to get nominations still puzzles me. Wait — no it doesn't. The Academy picks wrong much more often than they pick right. Barbara Stanwyck gave a lot of great performances, but Phyllis Dietrichson may have topped them all — and if she didn’t, the others better look out.
Kurosawa gets routinely mentioned by many as a master (and deservedly so), thanks mainly to his great sword-laden epics, but for me this "modern" film stands high as one of his strongest, telling the sad story of a long suffering bureaucrat who seeks meaning in life when he's diagnosed with terminal cancer. A truly touching, remarkable film.
Has there ever been a more touching image placed on film that the ending of this silent film, made well after silent films were dead, when the newly sighted blind girl realizes her benefactor was a little tramp? I don't think so either.
The film that marked Woody’s leap from pure comedy to something more still stands as one of his very best 35 years later. With a structure that deserves comparisons to Citizen Kane in that you’re never quite sure what comes next that guarantees a perpetual freshness no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Allen threw almost every trick he could think of into Annie Hall — animated sequences, subtitles to translate what characters really thought, split screens (even if they actually filmed scenes in a room with a divider — and produced an instant classic. Diane Keaton delights as the title character, the film overflows with priceless lines and timeless sequences and the first great Christopher Walken monologue.
It's almost become shorthand to argue that Part II bests Part I in The Godfather trilogy, but I disagree. The original still takes the top spot in my book. I don't think the crosscutting of Michael and young Vito ever quite meshes and instead interrupts the rhythm of Part II. No such problem in the original, an example of making a movie masterpiece out of a pulpy novel. Examining the film more closely again earlier this year for its 40th anniversary while I enjoyed and admired it as much as ever, for the first time I had to acknowledge that unlike later mob classics such as Goodfellas or TV’s Sopranos, The Godfather does romanticize the Corleones. You never see innocents suffer from their line of work — Vito even denies they’re killers. It doesn’t change the film’s status as a fine piece of cinematic art, but it did make me think harder about it than I had before.
Many directors deliver great one-two punches in terms of brilliant consecutive films and Lumet pulled off one of the best of them in 1975 and 1976, beginning with this masterpiece based on a true bank robbery. Al Pacino delivers what may be one of his top two or three performances. It also contains the best work of the sadly too brief career of John Cazale and a peerless ensemble. Lumet’s direction aided by the editing of Dede Allen produced one of the most re-watchable films of all time. If I run across it on TV, even cut up, I stay glued to the end.
After more than 70 years, John Huston’s directing debut still sizzles. Watching Bogart embrace his first real role as a good guy exhilarates the viewer as he thrusts and parries with the delightful supporting cast of Mary Astor, Ward Bond, Elisha Cook Jr., Gladys George, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Barton McClane and Lee Patrick. What many forget about the film comes in that unforgettable climax that basically consists of five characters talking to each other for nearly 30 minutes — and it’s riveting.
The film that really put Spielberg on the pop culture map remains to me his greatest accomplishment. Two distinct and perfect halves: Terror on the beach followed by the brilliance of three men on a boat. It's also an example of how sometimes trashy novels can be turned into true works of film art in a way great novels usually miss the mark in translation (though Peter Benchley's novel at least killed Hooper off as well leaving nonexpert waterphobe Brody as the victor and sole survivor, which would have made for a slightly better ending but I'm nitpicking).
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Edward Copeland's Top 100 of 2012 (20-1)
Charlie Chaplin was audacious enough to continue making silent films (although he did allow for sound effects and an occasional song) all the way to 1936. In my opinion, he saved the Little Tramp's best for last in this hysterical tale of man vs. the modern age. The comedy is as funny as you'd expect and even more pointed than usual. Since Chaplin knew the Little Tramp was making his swan song, he even let him waddle off into the sunrise. Sound didn't stop Chaplin, who had two great sound efforts to come with The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. Still, his early works are the most precious gifts. Truly, his silence was golden.
When compiling the 2007 list, I feared it was becoming too Hitchcock-centric, forcing the omission of other great filmmakers but dammit, he made so many films that mean so much to me, it would be dishonest to place a quota on him. In the intervening five years, seeing Strangers several more times only has lifted it in my extreme. Hitch's directing gifts come off at his most stylish and Robert Walker's wondrous performance as the sensitive sociopath Bruno who expects the wimpy Farley Granger to live up to his part of a hypothetical murder deal remains chilling (and darkly funny) to this day. One of the biggest leaps from the last list.
Buster Keaton always shares the title with Charlie Chaplin as one of the two great silent clowns and The General continues to be Keaton’s masterpiece 85 years later. However, while it doesn’t lack for laughs, the film more accurately could be called an adventure than a comedy. The realism of the film’s Civil War setting also proves quite striking and even though Keaton’s character Johnny Gray fights for the Confederacy against the Union, neither side comes off as particularly villainous and the film doesn’t contain the racist elements of something like Birth of a Nation. The film’s humor stems from Johnny’s two loves: his train and the woman he longs for who won’t love him until he joins the war effort, even though he’s been rejected as a fighter because of his skills as an engineer. The General never grows old.
When Mickey (Woody Allen), depressed and suicidal, wanders into a movie theater in Hannah and Her Sisters, it's this inspired mixture of lunacy that brings him back around. After all, who can sit through Duck Soup and not feel better afterward. The question as to which Marx Brothers vehicle was the best got settled a long time ago and Duck Soup won. With its classic mirror scene and the loosest of plots designed to make the insanity of war look even crazier, I never get tired of Duck Soup. Watch it if only for the great Margaret Dumont. Remember, you are fighting for her honor, which is more than she ever did.
As a journalist, His Girl Friday contains one of my favorite nonsequiturs in the history of film. Delivered with frantic panache by Cary Grant as unscrupulous newspaper editor Walter Burns: "Leave the rooster story alone. That's human interest." Oh yeah, this may also be one of the funniest films ever made with rapid fire dialogue, a great sparring partner for Grant in Rosalind Russell and a priceless supporting cast to boot. It's the best remake ever made (and the film it was based on, The Front Page, is pretty damn good too). Making Hildy Johnson a woman and Burns' ex-wife was a stroke of genius. Besides, when you watch any version of this story where Walter and Hildy are both men, it's clear this isn't a platonic working relationship. I don't advise any more remakes (forget Switching Channels, if you can), but I wonder how it would play if the leads were two gay men?
As I wrote when marking the 100th anniversary of Reed's birth (forgive my self-plagiarism, but it makes this enterprise go faster), "Rewatching The Third Man recently, it once again captivated me from the moment the great zither music by Anton Karas begins to play over the credits.…If you haven't seen The Third Man (and shame on you if you call yourself a film buff and you haven't), watching the Criterion DVD really is the way to go, not only for a crisp print but to be able to compare the different versions offered for British and U.S. audiences (though only the different openings are included — we don't see what 17 minutes David Selznick cut for American audiences). With its great scenes of Vienna, sly performances and perhaps the greatest entrance of any character in movie history, The Third Man stays near the top of all films ever made, even nearly 60 years after its release."
I don’t know what I was thinking ranking Seven Samurai so low on my 2007 list. Having seen it a couple more times since, I’ve rectified that error. All films this long should hold their length as well as this rollicking adventure does. Each time I see it, it transfixes me from beginning to end. Hacks like Michael Bay should look to a film such as Seven Samurai and discover how characters trump stunts, explosions and special effects in great action-adventure films. It's amazing that with such a large cast, not just of the title samurai but of the farmers they defend as well, the actors and Kurosawa develop so many distinct and worthy portraits. Granted, the running time helps, but they establish characters rather quickly from Takashi Shimura (unrecognizable from his role as the dying bureaucrat in Ikiru) as the lead samurai organizing the mission to the brilliant Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo, a reckless samurai haunted by his past as a farmer's son. Full of action, humor, sadness, a bit of romance and plenty of heart, its influence on so many films that have come since can’t be calculated.
Currently, we live in a time of a vicious circle: Movies inspire theatrical musicals which in turn become movie musicals (or in most cases, don't. Don't be looking for Leap of Faith: The Musical on the big screen anytime soon). Still, there was a time when musicals were created as motion pictures. Singin' in the Rain remains the very best example of one of those. The songs soar, the dance numbers inspire and the performances evoke joy. On top of that, it's even a Hollywood story, set in the awkward time between silent film and sound and milking plenty of laughs from the situation, especially through the spectacular performance of Jean Hagen as a silent superstar with a voice hardly made for sound and a personality barely suitable for Earth. Gene Kelly gives his best performance, a young Debbie Reynolds shines and Donald O'Connor makes us all laugh. Decades later, Singin' in the Rain got transformed (if that's the right word) a Broadway stage version. It wasn't very good. Stick with the movie.
When I wrote about this film for the Screenwriting Blog-a-Thon hosted by Mystery Man on Film in 2007, I said, "As far as I'm concerned, this film is Allen's masterpiece. Others will cite Annie Hall or Manhattan or some other titles and while I love Annie Hall and many others well, over time The Purple Rose of Cairo is the Allen screenplay that has reserved the fondest place in my heart. The screenplay isn't saddled with any extraneous scenes and no sequence falls flat as it builds toward its bittersweet ending. For me, it's Woody Allen's greatest screenplay and one of the best ever written as well." I've been pleasantly surprised at the number of people who have said to me since I wrote that how they agree, even among moviegoers who declare themselves not to like Woody Allen as a rule. It's the perfect blend of comedy, fantasy and realism and one of the greatest depictions of the magic of movies ever put on film. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, when Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) and his pith helmet step off the screen, the repercussions end up being both hilarious, touching and painfully real.
While for me Jules and Jim stands as the high watermark of the French New Wave films, when you look objectively at the story of Jules and Jim, it may employ many of that movement's techniques but many aspects of Truffaut's film set it apart from its cinematic brethren such as its period setting and a time span that covers more than two decades separates it from the movement as well. However, that doesn’t affect the film’s magnificence. In a funny way, the 1962 film forecast the free love movement to come later that decade except its source material happened to be a semiautobiographical novel set in the early part of the 20th century. The prurience though lies in the mind of the fuddy duddy because part of what makes Jules and Jim so special comes from Truffaut's refusal to pass any judgment, be it positive or negative, upon the behavior of his characters. Despite the director's own criticism many years down the road that the film isn't cruel enough when it comes to love, the three main characters do suffer by the end but he doesn't paint it as punishment for their sins. In a 1977 interview, Truffaut said he thought he was "too young" when he made Jules and Jim. If he'd made it at any other age, it wouldn't be the same movie and probably wouldn't hold the same appeal for so many. For Jules and Jim to grab you, really grab you, I think you need to be young when you see it the first time, and that's why Truffaut, not yet 30 but captivated by the novel since 25, had to be young as well.
Wilder’s screenplay with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. proves surprisingly malleable, never fitting easily into one genre and playing differently in each viewing. It can be the darkest of Hollywood satires or the tragedy of a woman driven insane by a world that’s passed her by. Gloria Swanson’s brilliant performance as Norma Desmond can come off as a vulnerable madwoman or a master manipulator. Similarly, William Holden’s down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis looks like a shallow opportunist in some scenes, an in-over-his-head dupe in others. The layers make Sunset Blvd. fresh and endlessly watchable. Wilder and his co-writers always produced great dialogue, but I believe Sunset Blvd. stands as Wilder’s greatest work as a director as well.
Hitchcock blessed us with so many classics, it’s hard to pick the best. This list contains seven Hitchcocks, but Rear Window stands tallest to me. I’ll allow two great directors to state my case. First, François Truffaut from The Films in My Life: “Rear Window is…a film about the impossibility of happiness, about dirty linen that gets washed in the courtyard; a film about moral solitude, an extraordinary symphony of daily life and ruined dreams." From David Lynch, as he wrote in Catching the Big Fish: “It's magical and everybody who sees it feels that. It's so nice to go back and visit that place." David, I couldn’t agree more.
Goodfellas rarely gets selected as the premier example of Scorsese’s brilliance as a filmmaker — and that’s a damn shame because, within its two hour and 20 minute running time, Goodfellas not only encapsulates Scorsese and filmmaking at their best but might be the director’s most personal film. If you wanted to demonstrate practically any aspect of moviemaking to a novice — editing, tracking shots, reverse pans, effective use of popular music — Scorsese disguised a film school in the form of this feature film about low-level gangsters. Goodfellas also happens to be the director’s most re-watchable film and, in a career stocked with masterpieces, it remains my favorite.
Every time I return to Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient screenplay, something new leaps out that I didn’t catch before. Most recently, it’s from one of Howard Beale’s monologues once he’s become the UBS network’s star. As part of the speech, delivered by the late, great Peter Finch, Beale tells his viewers, “Because you people, and 62 million other Americans, are listening to me right now. Because less than three percent of you people read books! Because less than 15 percent of you read newspapers!” Chayefsky died long before the Web revolution so remember that the next time someone blames the newspaper industry's death on the Internet. Better yet, watch Network and revel in the delicious words, magnificent ensemble and Lumet’s fine direction.
Many prefer the Kubrick of 2001: a Space Odyssey or later works such as A Clockwork Orange or Barry Lyndon, but I’ve always found him best when satirical, especially when that sharp humor took aim at the futility of war as in the underrated Full Metal Jacket, the great Paths of Glory and the best of the bunch, the incomparable Dr. Strangelove. To take the prospect of nuclear apocalypse instigated by a general driven mad by his impotence and produce one of the wall-to-wall funniest films ever was no small achievement, but having Peter Sellers in his multiple roles, Sterling Hayden and, most of all, George C. Scott’s hyperbolic, acrobatic and energetic work as Gen. Buck Turgidson, sure helped. That's not to mention Slim Pickens and Keenan Wynn as well and the surreal beauty of that closing of multiple mushroom clouds backed by that wonderfully ironic song.
So rarely does the best picture Oscar go to the best film, it always amazes me that the Academy recognized Casablanca (though for 1943, since it didn’t open in L.A. until a few months after its New York premiere). Claude Rains’ irreplaceable Captain Renault may say, “The Germans have outlawed miracles,” but the most miraculous thing of all was that a screenplay without an ending and based on an unproduced play managed to coalesce into the finest movie the Hollywood studio system ever produced. With a superb ensemble of character actors and stars delivering dialogue with more memorable lines than nearly any other film ever, courtesy of screenwriters Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, play it forever, Sam.
It does worry me that we seem to lack a filmmaker as ballsy as Robert Altman was (first person to suggest Paul Thomas Anderson gets punched in the face). Thankfully, he left us his body of work (some dogs to be certain, but the ecstasies we receive from his great ones allow us to forgive). For me, Nashville never wavers from its spot at the top of the Altman charts. It’s a musical, but not really. It’s about politics, but not really. We get to watch 24 characters intersect (or not) as Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewksbury design a tapestry displaying a picture of America on the eve of its bicentennial. It also presents ideas that in their own way prove as prescient as those in Network.
Many of the greatest films turn out to be examples of triumph over adversity and that certainly proved to be the case with Children of Paradise, Carné’s two-part masterpiece made during the Nazi occupation of France. When I wrote at length about this deceptively simple tale of mimes and actors, criminals and the aristocracy, I said that if I revised my 2007 list, the film likely would rise higher than its 18th rank. As you see, it most definitely has. Better to experience its beauty and magic than attempt to briefly describe it.
One wonders what the total would be if we calculated the number of words written extolling the brilliance and significance of Orson Welles’ filmmaking debut. Granted, the curmudgeons and contrarians exist and while not a day goes by that I don’t remind someone that all opinions are subjective by definition, Citizen Kane looms as the behemoth that practically defies that statement. Its status as a cinematic masterpiece comes close to being an objective truth. I have nothing new to add about this wonder. The film speaks for itself.
After what I wrote about Citizen Kane, you’d think it would rest in my top spot, but Renoir’s exquisite tragicomedy grabbed a foothold in my Top 10 as soon as I saw it in college and it took only one or two more viewings for Rules to clinch the No. 1 perch where it’s remained for more than two decades. Something personal within the film (too much identification with Renoir’s character of Octave; the character of Christine, who seems to cast a spell over all men who cross her path) hooks me in above and beyond the film’s artistry. If that explanation seems skimpy, I defer to what Octave says, "The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons."
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