12 January 2009

Out of the Past

Over at the Movie Nerd Discussion Group, we have an annual tradition in which people list the ten favorite older movies they saw for the first time over the just-completed calendar year. Here are mine.

01. Violence at Noon (1966, Nagisa Oshima)

One of the most formally dazzling movies ever made, to the point where its content, despite being fairly adventurous in its own right, becomes virtually irrelevant. Oshima takes a meat cleaver to conventional film grammar from the get-go and then keeps reinventing his style roughly every three to four minutes for the duration, to consistently jaw-dropping effect. I have rarely spent so many consecutive minutes feeling almost nothing but awe. It kinda made my brain hurt.

02. Angel Face (1952, Otto Preminger)

This marks the second consecutive year that Preminger has placed either 1st or 2nd on my annual list. Angel Face isn't quite the decades-ahead-of-its-time, mindbending masterpiece that Daisy Kenyon turned out to be, but it does have a similarly modernist feel, particularly in the way that Robert Mitchum's hardheaded fall guy refuses to play his assigned noir role. So much more mature and uncompromising than today's anemic notion of "quality drama"—both Hollywood and indie—that you can't help but weep for what's been lost.

03. Too Late Blues (1961, John Cassavetes)

Blasphemy alert: This commercial-minded Bobby Darin vehicle, which as far as I can tell generally gets lumped together with A Child Is Waiting and dismissed as minor by fanboys and scholars alike, is easily my favorite Cassavetes joint to date. (Face-saving disclaimer: I haven't yet seen Husbands, Opening Night or Chinese Bookie.) To my mind it features all of his strengths and avoids most of his weaknesses—most crucially, the sense that you're watching something that was hastily thrown together for this week's acting workshop. And he directs with a keen eye for composition that surfaces only sporadically in his later, more celebrated work. Most surprising rep experience of the year in a walk.

04. All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)

Finally. And I don't know what I was expecting after two decades of anticipation (I'm really stubborn about waiting for films to turn up on the big screen), but it certainly wasn't anything this phantasmagoric. Showed the scene where Fosse removes everything on the soundtrack save for incidental restless noises—drumming fingers, burning cigarette paper, squeaking chairs—at last month's clip party, but the effect was somewhat diminished by the concurrent sound of a mother walking her equally restless baby up and down the host's hardwood floor.

05. U.S. Go Home (1994, Claire Denis)

"Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge...": Greatest. Series. Ever. I'd rank this a tiny notch below Cold Water and Wild Reeds, but it's yet another magnificent evocation of adolescent turmoil, likewise operating in a mode that one might call "sensually uncertain." Scads of bonus points for having American initiative represented by Vincent Gallo, in what amounts to a dry run for his aggressively insecure Billy Brown.

06. Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962, Sidney Lumet)

Admittedly not much of a movie per se, but four superb actors performing one of the greatest plays ever written is still four superb actors performing one of the greatest plays ever written. Lumet wisely stays out of the way for the most part, simply giving each member of his high-strung quartet an opportunity to drive O'Neill's shameful memories home. Maybe it was just that I'd only read the play (way back in high school)—this was my first time ever seeing it actually performed. Wow.

07. The Mirror (1975, Andrei Tarkovsky)

Another purely formal exercise—this time in a register that usually doesn't quite work for me, viz. the so-called "tone poem." But for some reason I just flat-out surrendered to Tarkovsky's exquisite, almost animistic imagery (did Malick see this right before making Days of Heaven?), scarcely concerning myself with What It All Means. It's a state of mind I'd like to achieve more frequently, to be honest.

08. The Big Sky (1952, Howard Hawks)

Ho-hum, another terrific Hawks picture. This one loses its nerve a bit in the final moments, as I recall (w/r/t Boone and the Indian chick), and takes its sweet digressive time about its central journey, but is otherwise typically aces. If nothing else, Hawks should have received some sort of special Oscar for devising a scene in which someone's finger is amputated sans anaesthetic or surgical instruments and somehow making it almost fucking jolly rather than awful or harrowing.

09. I Want to Live! (1958, Robert Wise)

Almost undoubtedly a crock of shit, just-the-facts-wise, but it's a phenomenally entertaining crock of shit, distinguished by Wise's moody high-contrast b&w photography and Hayward's flinty showboating. Kind of amazing that it hasn't been remade; I would think every A-list actress in Hollywood would have it in development somewhere.

10. Escape (1948, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

To be honest, I couldn't even remember what this was when I first saw the title—had to look it up. (That's why I allot ratings, by the way. When you see this many movies, you just plain forget a lot of them, so it's helpful to have a record of what you thought, even if it's just a stupid numeral.) And then, oh, right, Rex Harrison as an innocent man on the run—but only because of his innate sense of rectitude, which he doggedly refuses to compromise even though he's perfectly happy to give justice the finger when he feels it's gone astray. Sort of a proto-Fugitive, but with a more philosophical bent. Great fun.

OTHER FILMS I QUITE ENJOYED LAST YEAR: Carrie ('52 Wyler); Cluny Brown ('46 Lubitsch); Crime Without Passion ('34 Hecht & MacArthur); Diary of a Shinjuku Thief ('68 Oshima); The Driver ('72 Hill); Fallen Angel ('45 Preminger); Happiness ('34 Medvedkin); The Human Condition, Part I: No Greater Love ('59 Kobayashi) [but not the subsequent parts]; I Am Curious (Yellow) ('67 Sjöman); Le Petit soldat ('63 Godard); The Long Riders ('80 Hill); Me and My Gal ('32 Walsh); Men in War ('57 Mann); My Life to Live ('62 Godard); The Other Sister ('46 Gavaldón); The Smiling Lieutenant ('31 Lubitsch); A Summer at Grandpa's ('84 Hou); The Sword of Doom ('66 Okamoto); Uneasy Riders ('00 Sinapi); Western Union ('41 Lang); Wild Animals ('97 Kim)

And just to reassure you that I'm still out to lunch...

CANONICAL TYPE PICTURES THAT MADE ME FEEL LIKE A PHILISTINE: Alexander Nevsky ('38 Eisenstein); Angels With Dirty Faces ('38 Curtiz); Antonio das Mortes ('69 Rocha); Branded to Kill ('67 Suzuki) [I actually kinda liked this, but relative to its reputation it was a massive disappointment]; The Fury ('78 De Palma) [are you people serious?]; Gaslight ('44 Cukor) [don't like the original either]; Gertrud ('64 Dreyer) [the inverse of Long Day's Journey: great filmmaking, but bad acting and a lousy play]; Going Places ('74 Blier) [utterly repugnant, one of the worst films I've ever seen]; Gone to Earth ('50 Powell & Pressburger); Kagemusha ('80 Kurosawa); Man of Iron ('81 Wajda) [so dull it scared me away from the rest of the Wajda retro]; Monsieur Verdoux ('47 Chaplin) [neither clever nor funny, and hardly subversive]; Night and Fog in Japan ('60 Oshima); The Night of the Shooting Stars ('82 Tavianis); Taking Off ('71 Forman); The Thief of Bagdad ('24 Walsh); Tokyo Drifter ('66 Suzuki) [see Branded to Kill]


Anonymous said...

Really? All That Jazz went this long? I'm surprised by that one.

Eric Henderson said...

It might please you to know that I'm right there with you on NIGHT AND FOG IN JAPAN. Which is boring as ass.