Friday, August 03, 2012
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.