Friday, August 03, 2012
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).