Monday, October 31, 2016

The Favorites - Gimme Shelter (#7)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Gimme Shelter (1970/USA/dir. Albert & David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin) appeared at #7 on my original list.

What it is • In 1969, the Rolling Stones were on top of the world. A few months before the events captured in this documentary, they were first dubbed "the greatest rock and roll band in the world." That world they were atop of was in turmoil, an ecstatic turmoil if you were young and adventurous enough to take part. No subsequent American epoch can claim a fraction of the energy generated by the counterculture and the intersecting New Left in the autumn of '69. The Stones, ever-eager to capitalize on the zeitgeist, toured the U.S. while pondering how best to connect with this moment. Renowned in subsequent decades for their high ticket prices and uncompromising business sense, they wanted to offer something more idealistic on this tour - their first since 1966 (the Beatles, the Stones, and the Kinks all abstained from touring in that three-year period, some more voluntarily than others). Woodstock had unfolded just a few months earlier, and the Stones proposed their own free concert on the West Coast, relocated at the last minute from San Francisco to the Altamont Speedway. Savvy to the currents of the time, the band chose Albert and David Maysles, perhaps the most celebrated contemporary nonfiction filmmakers, to document their moment of triumph. Unlike the catch-all potpourri of Woodstock, the Maysles' documentary is judicious, focusing on a few key events (aside from some cutaways to press conferences and other interstitial material). The first is the joyous Madison Square Garden concert in November, an exciting but thoroughly professional affair (frenzied fans leaping onstage are wrestled to the ground by perpetually busy bodyguards). Though the emphasis is on the Stones' set, the directors make room for opening act Ike & Tina Turner, who steal the show (a bit defensively, Jagger - shown watching this clip later - mutters, "It's nice to have a chick, occasionally"). The second event is the legal/financial wheeling and dealing of celebrity attorney Melvin Belli as he arranges the Altamont deal, while the third event is a trip to Muscle Shoals. There the Stones record a few tracks that will land on their seminal 1971 album Sticky Fingers. About half the film zeroes in on the fourth, most important event: Altamont. Hippies endure massively bad acid freakouts. The Hell's Angels, disastrously, enforce their notion of security around the stage. Jefferson Airplane is interrupted by violence in the audience, and the members of the Grateful Dead fly away shortly after landing (the Stones took a lot of heat for hiring the Angels, but apparently Jerry Garcia was the one who encouraged them to do so). And finally, the Stones appear before the seething crowd, nervously performing "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Under My Thumb"...as a man is killed before their (and our) eyes. A crucial fifth event - participants visiting the mundane room where Gimme Shelter is being edited - unfolds surrounding all this other material. Mick Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts wearily watch the footage, recognizing that they were present for a decisive, awful moment in rock history, but unable to fully assess its significance or their own responsibility.

Why I like it •

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Favorites - The Passion of Joan of Arc (#8)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928/France/dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer) appeared at #8 on my original list.

What it is • Joan of Arc lived from 1412 to 1431, dying when she was still a teenager; her legendary accomplishments - turning back a British invasion of France, following the voices she heard in her head - were achieved nearly six centuries ago. In over a hundred years of cinema, there have been dozens of adaptations of her life (Wikipedia counts forty - including Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure!). Nine countries have participated (all Western except for Japan - which aired a French opera). Acclaimed directors, including Georges Méliès, Cecil B. DeMille, Victor Fleming, Roberto Rossellini, Otto Preminger, Robert Bresson, Paul Verhoeven, Werner Herzog, Jacques Rivette, and Luc Besson, have offered their interpretations. Geraldine Ferrar, Michèle Morgan, Jean Seberg, Hedy Lamarr, Julie Harris, Geneviève Bujold, Janet Suzman, Sandrine Bonnaire, and Leelee Sobieski have all played Joan - Ingrid Bergman even played her twice, once for her husband (joining a tradition stretching from Méliès' wife Jeanne d'Alcy,  to Besson's wife Milla Jovovich, though d'Alcy didn't marry Melies for another thirty years and Jovovich divorced Besson between the film's production and release). With such a storied history - and I haven't even mentioned the excellent La Marveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d'Arc, which followed the film being reviewed by barely a year - you'd think there would be some difficulty in determining the Joan of Arc masterpiece. But there isn't. The Passion of Joan of Arc routinely appears near the very top of all-time great lists, Carl Theodor Dreyer is widely considered the greatest filmmaker to tackle the topic, and Falconetti is praised as the most superb Joan. That's an understatement, actually; many would rank her performance as the greatest in the entire history of cinema. The Passion of Joan of Arc, which focuses exclusively on the trial and execution of Joan, has a tumultuous history. It was controversial when it was shot - territorial French critics despised the idea of a Dane reproducing their saint - and it was frequently banned and censored. Multiple, corrupted versions existed for decades until the original cut was discovered in the early eighties in, of all places, a Norwegian mental institution. Rather differently from Dreyer's sound films, Passion (considered by many the apex of silent cinema) consists almost entirely of close-ups of actor's faces, a riveting, hypnotic symphony of actors' expressions exemplifying the art of intercutting reaction shots.

Why I like it •

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Favorites - The Godfather Part II (#9)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Godfather Part II (1974/USA/dir. Francis Ford Coppola) appeared at #9 on my original list.

What it is • It is several years after the events of The Godfather (depending on your source, as few as three or as many as seven). Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has moved the family business out west, and the effect is slightly chilling. In the original film, the Mafia already operated on a grandiose political level detached from its reputation for sleazy street crime. Now Michael is fully enmeshed with the political and corporate world of postwar America, and his geographical relocation exacerbates his distance from the old world (as does his visit to Cuba, sitting side by side with the heads of "legitimate" financial powerhouses, further blurring the lines between the Mafia and Big Business). Yet even as we watch the mobsters advance into modernity, we leap back in time to explore their roots: the film actually begins in Sicily, with a young Vito Corleone (Oreste Baldini). As in late fifties American, turn-of-the-century Sicily makes no real distinction between the wealth and power of criminals and politicians: when local kingpin Don Francesco (Giuseppe Sillato) condemns Vito to death for his father's betrayal, there is no greater authority to condemn him, and Vito must flee for his life. In New York of a hundred years ago (where the boy grows up to be portrayed by Robert De Niro), crime is the only available path for the underdog immigrant, the only way he knows he can protect his family. The irony, of course, is that in the present day Michael follows the path his father set forth and it leads not to the preservation, but to the destruction, of his family. Michael's wife Kay (Diane Keaton) is estranged, his son Anthony (James Gounaris) is threatened, and his brother Fredo (John Cazale)...well, poor Fredo. The Godfather Part II portrays the chilling logic of power, its ability to destroy even that which it has been unleashed to protect. If The Godfather suggests a graceful acceptance of this reasoning, Part II bravely follows it through to its bitter end. There aren't many sequels among my Favorites - even when obvious opportunities present themselves (like one of the later Star Wars films) I have a tendency to favor the original over the works following in its footsteps. Unsurprisingly, The Godfather Part II is the film to buck this trend. It's the only sequel to win Best Picture or to place on many Greatest-of-All-Time lists, and amazingly it does so not as an improvement on a first chapter that didn't really have its act together but rather as the extension of one of the most popular, beloved, and acclaimed classics of all time. On my own list, The Godfather appeared in the top twenty, yet here Part II is even higher. And I'm certainly not alone in that preference, no matter how slight, over its iconic predecessor.

Why I like it •

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Favorites - It's a Wonderful Life (#10)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. It's a Wonderful Life (1946/USA/dir. Frank Capra) appeared at #10 on my original list.

What it is • You may know this one: George Bailey (James Stewart) dreams of escaping his small town in upstate New York. Family crises, business troubles, and true love (however he might try to resist it) foil his plans for college, world travel, and a grand career. Threatened with financial catastrophe and public humiliation on Christmas Eve just after World War II, George contemplates suicide but an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who has been told George's life story in a series of "flashbacks," intervenes to show him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he'd never been born, teaching him to be thankful for what he has and proud of what he's accomplished. Well...my Favorites list has hopefully been a healthy mix of under-the-radar recommendations and familiar classics. Few are more familiar than It's a Wonderful Life, certainly as celebrated a movie as Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz though its trajectory is closer to the latter than the former - forgotten for years before television gave it second life. In fact, more than almost any other film in the history of Hollywood, It's a Wonderful Life has become synonymous with a particular ritual - and not just any ritual, but one of the most important in American culture. This has become the Christmas movie since PBS began airing it as holiday counter-programming in the seventies. In the process, attention settled on the "see what life is like if you'd never been born" high concept and especially the exuberant setpiece closing the movie with a joyous bang, all "Auld Lang Syne" and bells ringing on Christmas trees. It goes so well with eggnog and heapings of Christmas dinner crowding the coffee table in front of the TV, carols competing for attention from nearby stereos, and relatives gathered together in a living room, their chatter overwhelming the dialogue onscreen. Perhaps because of this taken-for-granted familiarity, or the fact that the Greatest Generation who experienced its timeline is now in its nineties, or simply because the black-and-white studio style can no longer claim the universality it once held, It's a Wonderful Life's dominance has become more precarious in recent years. More purely light-hearted fare like A Christmas Story (also set in the forties, but shot in color in the eighties) have threatened its perch, as have hundreds of other Christmas films aired on hundreds of other channels (and thousands available on platforms like Netflix) - long gone are the days when families had to select from only a few options for holiday party TV. I think it would be a pity if It's a Wonderful Life did slide back into quasi-obscurity, a favorite among cineastes but unappreciated by the wider public. It's much more than just a feel-good Christmas movie, but that status allows it to slip a deeper perspective and more ambitious approach into a diet of December fluff.

Why I like it •

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Favorites - Citizen Kane (#11)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Citizen Kane (1941/USA/dir. Orson Welles) appeared at #11 on my original list.

What it is • The great man is dead, and he died alone (well, sort of...). But this isn't an ancient legend, and we can't be fooled into believing this titan was universally revered and respected. It's 1941, the age of mass media, an age that Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) himself helped create - as we're reminded more than once. And so, within moments of our grandiose introduction to this larger-than-life character, a rapid-fire newsreel exalts, mocks, glosses, and punctures Kane from all angles. He is an awe-inspiring tycoon and a ludicrous public figure; he is a powerful man of the world and an isolated loner in his private castle; he's a communist and a fascist! The rest of the film both follows and subverts this pattern in more subtle fashion. After that info-battering, a throughline is needed, and it arrives in the hunt for the meaning of "Rosebud," Kane's dying words. A roving reporter (William Alland) interviews a series of figures who knew Kane, each from a different perspective depending on their relationship to him, where he was in his own life when they knew him, and the quirks of their own personalities. The film itself reflects this diversity in almost subliminal ways, shaping its style around the voices of these narrators while reflecting the different eras they inhabit. Citizen Kane is one of the all-time great biographies in any medium, one of the few biopics to transcend the problems that afflict that genre. Shaping an entire lifetime into a two-hour feature isn't easy, but Kane turns those challenges into virtues. It works both as an anthology of interrelated short stories and as a sprawling but cohesive novel. Of course, Citizen Kane is frequently praised as the greatest film of all time due to technique more than narrative: its incredible visual invention and ambition (we all know the litany: the trick shots, the visible ceilings, the deep focus, the long takes, the creative montages, etc etc) amplify the plot, themes, and characters, but also transcend them. At twenty-five, straight from his groundbreaking work in radio and theater, Welles was given the most unusual deal of Hollywood's Golden Age, using it to make a film that both extends and radically re-configures the tools of that particular trade. There's a million things I haven't mentioned here (most notably three words: William Randolph Hearst), and I couldn't even scratch the surface of most in a short capsule piece. Fortunately, there's plenty of other writing on Kane, including some by myself that has been linked below. Besides...

Why I like it •

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Favorites - Jammin' the Blues (#12)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Jammin' the Blues (1944/USA/dir. Gjon Mili) appeared at #12 on my original list.

What it is • The opening credits roll over an abstract shape - two circles, one inside the other. Then the shape tips up, revealing itself as the top of a hat, worn by Lester Young. Slowly he lifts his saxophone to his lips and begins to play, and the whole ten-minute short films reels out effortlessly from that point. Well, not effortlessly exactly. The musicians are in top form, both on the soundtrack filled back to front with three of their songs - "Midnight Symphony" (introduced by a narrator in the only lines of spoken word), "On the Sunny Side of the Street" (the only song with lyrics, sung by Marie Bryant), and the title track (accompanied by an unadorned, infectious dance from Bryant and Archie Savage). They are also working hard in front of the camera, but in a different way: precisely miming to their previous recording in the fashion of MTV music videos that would emerge thirty to forty years later. And behind the scenes, director Gjon Mili - an innovative LIFE photographer - carefully arranges lighting effects and camera movements with director of photography Robert Burks, while setting up the perfectly-timed cut-ins and cutaways for editor Everett Dodd (brilliantly, the movie will sometimes jump to a musician who isn't playing at the moment, as when Young calmly lights a cigarette and watches Bryant perform). All of this hard work feels effortless because it flows so naturally and because everyone seems to be having a good time. I think of the film as being massively underrated (it is), even writing for a caption in my #WatchlistScreenCaps series a few years ago, "The greatest fucking musical of all time, and no one knows it!" (of course when I tweeted this someone enthusiastically identified it right away). In fact, it was selected by the National Film Registery and nominated for Best Short the year it came out. Still, it deserves to be even more widely recognized not just as a notable example of its form but a small, perfectly-crafted masterpiece that can stand with the much longer musical narratives of that time or any other. However you categorize it, Jammin' the Blues sizzles.

Why I like it •

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Favorites - The Mirror (#13)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Mirror (1974/USSR/dir. Andrei Tarkovsky) appeared at #13 on my original list.

What it is • Everything is in luminous black and white, as if the images had been etched in a glowing stone. Awakened by a distant whistle, a child (Filip Yankovsky) slides out of bed and walks toward a large doorway. A split-second before the cut, something white floats through the frame, a garment caught in a gusty breeze even though we're inside. Then we are watching a stern man (Oleg Yankovsky) step out of view, revealing the woman (Margarita Terekhova) whose head he has just soaked. Her hair hangs down in an uncanny fashion that suggests her hair is her face (an effect recalled in the Japanese horror film The Ring and its America remake). We float back as she dangles her wet locks back and forth in slow motion; parts of the ceiling collapse in wet chunks, splashing onto the watery surface of the floor while a flame shoots up out of a stove in the background, an act of lonely defiance amidst the indoor torrent. The woman passes across our sight, parting her hair to reveal a strikingly beautiful face which locks eyes with us for a moment - although in fact this is her reflection, caught in several mirrors clustered around each other. We continue to slide away until all is dark.  •  The scene is set in color, defined by the greenery of the surrounding grass and trees, the brown wood of the log cabin, and the golden-orangish glow cast through the cabin's window. These colors are faded yet somehow still vibrant, exuding a warmth which is soothing, but not quite comforting. The boy and the woman, his mother Maria, huddle outside this cabin and introduce themselves as strangers from Moscow who have been relocated to the countryside. Shivering in the drippy weather, Maria's polite conversation implicitly asks for an invitation inside, but the woman of the cabin (Larisa Tarkovskaya), exuding a quiet defiance, is not particularly forthcoming. The child watches, lips locked and eyes scowling, soaking up the tension without necessarily being able to articulate why it exists. Turning near the window, outlined in the low light's glow, her hair tied in a kerchief so tight it resembles a skull cap, the hostess looks for all the world like a figure out of Vermeer. If the previously described sequence clearly spoke in the silent, subconscious language of dreams this moment plays out as an authentic fragment of reality, poetically pregnant but not revealing its secrets. The significance is locked away beneath the functionality of the gestures and speech.  •  Between these two marks, a boy (the same actor but a different character) wanders through an empty house. A offscreen chorus builds to an ominous crescendo as a frosty smudge on glass evaporates, and then all is quiet again except for a ringing phone. The boy answers it and speaks to his father (the grown version of the boy we saw in the other sequence), who tells him that when he was his age, during the war, he was in love with a redhead. And then we are back in time, looking at this bundled-up girl as she tramps through the snow. The following series of events, photographed in the pale white, blue, and brown of a Russian winter, could almost stand as a self-contained short film - an instructor (Ignat Danitsev) tries to impress firm but not too harsh discipline on a group of very young adolescents, including the stubborn oprhan Asafiev (whose actor I can't find). Asafiev resists his orders and nearly destroys them all with a grenade that fortunately turns out to be a dummy (thinking it's live, the instructor leaps on top of it, ready to sacrifice himself for the hapless child warriors). Then we are suddenly viewing old, scratchy newsreel images of soldiers dragging supplies through icy tundra, thick mud, and rippling waterways. Loud splashes and sighs fill the soundtrack, clearly added afterwards to the pre-existing footage, a present erupting from the past. • I chose all three of these sequences at random, by jumping back and forth across a YouTube video of The Mirror in its entirety. Like fragments half-remembered from a dream, they can hint at hidden treasures. I can't hope to approximate "what it is" in a mere paragraph, however long, so it seemed right to dip inside the film and explore certain moments up close before pulling back to explain why they add up to something so memorable.

Why I like it •

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Favorites - Taxi Driver (#14)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Taxi Driver (1976/USA/dir. Martin Scorsese) appeared at #14 on my original list.

What it is • It is the mid-seventies. That's important, although the film has never ceased to be relevant; if anything, it may be even more pertinent today as the protagonist's profile fits a number of young, lone wolf killers in recent years. Nonethless, Taxi Driver arises from a specific era, in which New York was rough, dirty, and dangerous in the eyes of outsiders and residents alike. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is also a Vietnam veteran, a fact barely referenced in the film - he mentions serving in the Marines during a job interview, and later we see a NLF flag hanging on his wall - yet always hovering on the brink of its consciousness. Post-Watergate cynicism (perhaps also not so out-of-date in 2016) saturates the film's view of politicians and the society they run - it goes without saying that Travis' first target, a Presidential candidate, speaks only in superficial platitudes. The role of the women in the film is also informed by this particular moment, when feminism both rose out of and challenged the counterculture: both Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and Iris (Jodie Foster) seem independent and sexually liberated on the surface, but they are constricted by the aggressive men around them, for whom liberation means entitlement. Iris in particular provides a sensitive portrait of how exploitation and abuse could hover under the guise of freedom: only thirteen, she is pimped by the long-haired, sweet-talking hustler Scout (Harvey Keitel), whom she met at a commune. The movie also exists at the uneasy intersection of sixties rebellion and eighties conformity: Travis is an outcast who, despising other outcasts, desperately wants to "cleanse" his city of its "filth." His phobias are explicitly racially coded, in one of the film's boldest, most pertinent moves - this is an expert portrait of a very particular form of alienation and anxiety, in which an outsider clings desperately to one of the few qualities that makes him an insider: his whiteness (not for nothing was this film modeled after The Searchers). And of course this is a film that could only really thrive in its specific era, a bleak, alienating movie funded by a major studio and turning quite a profit at the box office (albeit small potatoes when compared to the blockbusters that started rolling out a year later). It's funny - working through the qualities that make Taxi Driver such a seventies film, I'm only reminded why it still resonates. Just as Travis' violent purge calms things down until they - inevitably - will simmer to the surface once again, so the topical qualities of Taxi Driver "disappeared" under the glossy superficialities of the eighties, nineties, and zeroes but never really disappeared at all...and now they stare back at us from the mirror with the added charge of forty repressed years.

Why I like it •

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Favorites - The Third Man (#15)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Third Man (1949/UK/dir. Carol Reed) appeared at #15 on my original list.

What it is • "I never knew the Vienna before the war," a cheerful narrator informs us, shortly before disappearing from the film altogether. It's that kind of movie. The music - starting even before this fast-paced opening montage, with the image of a zither playing under the credits - is defiantly incongrous (quite a bit more on that in a moment) with the shadowy streets onscreen and the murky intrigues of the story. Our hero, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) isn't much of a hero at all, an American abroad in a land whose pernicious complications he doesn't understand; the film itself seems to hold him in contempt even as it accepts him as our guide. The flashy title character, Harry Lime, is dead when the film begins and Orson Welles' much-celebrated role in the movie is little more than a cameo in terms of screentime (though boy do those handful of minutes pack a punch). The Third Man is very British in sensibility and attitude, as crisp and curt as Reed and writer Graham Greene could manage, but the two most important characters are American, and this may be the greatest noir, a very American form. Francois Truffaut once grumbled that British cinema was a contradiction in terms but The Third Man is as visually rich as any Hollywood feature with several of the most striking images in cinema history. My favorite is the final shot, as a figure approaches from the horizon, flanked by two symmetrical rows of trees, while leaves flitter down from the sky at random. Moving on a narrative level, striking as pure pictorialism, this single take also evokes the flavor of the entire movie, mixing meticulous order (the trees) with spontaneous energy (the leaves), leavening its air of inevitable fate (the long walk) with bracing dashes of ironic surprise (the unbroken stride, straight past the camera, leaving Holly to smoke his cigarette in bittersweet resignation).

Why I like it •

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Favorites - Meshes of the Afternoon (#16)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943/USA/dir. Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid) appeared at #16 on my original list.

What it is • A woman (Deren) wanders alone through her Los Angeles home and rests in a chair. There, it would seem, she dreams an encounter with an eerie cloaked figure carrying a flower, whose face is a shard of smooth glass: a mirror in which no reflection can be glimpsed. Within this dream, time folds over itself. She is the woman in the window looking down at herself as she passes up the winding path. She is floating up to the ceiling, toppling fluidly down stairs, cascading through window curtains, as if her own house is a space station in which the standard experience of gravity no longer applies. She is still sleeping in the chair, vulnerable to a knife attack from her own goggle-eyed double. Upon near-death a man (Hammid) awakes her, but this encounter too has an unreal tinge. The film ends with a fourth layer of experience, a macabre final image, but is this any more - or less - real than everything else we've seen? This avant-garde masterpiece repeatedly suggests that every clue is a double-edged dagger, most literally when the key which the woman pulls from her mouth transforms into a knife in her open palm. Meshes of the Afternoon teases us with the temptation to make sense of what we see, while refusing to provide any digestible order to reassemble its gorgeous puzzle pieces. The film was creator/director/star Deren's cinematic breakthrough, a collaboration with her husband, the talented cinematographer Hammid, which also contributed to their personal and professional breakup. Deren's later films, for which she receives sole directorial credit, are perhaps more purely obscure and enigmatic; on another day, I could place them above Meshes and in any just analysis At Land and probably Rituals of Transfigured Time would be on equal footing. What uniquely intrigues about Meshes is its existence at the cross-section of narrative and pure experiment, and its touch of Hollywood glamor, reflected in a looking-glass at once more disorienting and far more lucid than the straightforward products of the dream factory.

Why I like it •

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Favorites - Star Wars (#17)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Star Wars (1977/USA/dir. George Lucas) appeared at #17 on my original list.

What it is • Every touchstone of pop mythology has been thrown into the pot and brought to a boil: a poetic/kitschy opening ("A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."), spaceships rumbling overhead, lasers blasting against a starfield, a trek through the desert, an isolated farm, a princess, robots, aliens, a bar crowded with outlandish characters, a black-masked/cowled supervillain, a shrewd old mentor, a wisecracking outlaw, a republic transformed into a ruthless empire, aerial dogfights, shootouts, sword fights, a sneaky rescue operation, heroes disguised as villains, a daring swing across a chasm, a descent into a monster-haunted pit, a fearsome weapon, a noble ragtag resistance, a mystical religious code. The pleasure of Star Wars derives from two sources: the delightful eclecticism with which it gathers together its diverse inspirations, and the awesome clarity and precision with which these disparate elements are coalesced into a unified whole. Star Wars fuses the spirit of backyard play with careful craftsmanship and the result is unlike anything before or since - despite how often its accomplishment has been imitated (most recently by a new Star Wars film, shorne of its creator but still in the thrall of his creation). The story? Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) lives on the spot "furthest from the bright center of the universe," the desert planet Tatooine, but the war between the Empire and the Rebellion comes to him in the form of two droids, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) who arrive with a secret message from Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) for the nearby mysterious recluse Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Escaping his home in the Millennium Falcon, piloted by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Luke will attempt to rescue Leia from the Death Star, while Obi-Wan must face his former pupil turned dark lord, Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones). But you probably already knew that. The context? That you certainly know: Lucas, fresh the popular rock'n'roll nostalgia of American Graffiti and the dystopian sci-fi nightmare of THX-1138, wrote an ambitious, nearly incomprehensible story outline and dedicated himself to realizing its sprawling vision with a makeshift special effects operation and a troubled British production tepidly supported by Twentieth Century Fox. Nothing much was expected (except perhaps a dangerous flop) before the film debuted in 1977 and changed movie history forever, following the lead of The Exorcist and Jaws by cementing box-office blockbusters as Hollywood's mainstay - and identifying the blockbuster with fantastical content, an action-oriented tempo, and a very youthful audience. The legacy? Beyond that broader impact, the film spawned a vast universe of narrative spin-offs, playful merchandise, and three phases of film franchises. First, the two sequels (1980 and 1983) continued this film's story, deepening and darkening until it became an Oedipal struggle between father and son. Second, the three prequels (1999 to 2005), further darkened and expanded the universe while revolutionizing digital effects; this trilogy alienated many fans of the original series from Lucas until the filmmaker was a pariah within the community he himself had invented. Third, an open-ended series of films (2015 to, well, as long as Disney can make money), probably one a year, will continue the story but also expand around its margins with stories taking place in between existing films, focusing on tangents and side characters until no one narrative can define Star Wars anymore. The world of Star Wars has escaped the bounds of its creator, its original audience, the cultural moment that gave it birth, and the very first film phenomenon that initially seemed like a sui generis standalone marvel, not the kickoff of something much bigger. That Star Wars - not Episode IV: A New Hope but simply "Star Wars" - can become obscured by its own legacy, but that's the Star Wars I am here to celebrate. Part Pop Art, part pulp fiction, very much an auteurist project, Star Wars remains startlingly original if you can see through the haze: the home movie as big-screen epic.

Why I like it •

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Favorites - Nights of Cabiria (#18)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Nights of Cabiria (1957/Italy/dir. Federico Fellini) appeared at #18 on my original list.

What it is • Cabiria (Giuletta Masina) is caught between two worlds, though it's clear where she ultimately belongs: she is a prostitute, living amongst the poor in a modest home. In an increasingly prosperous Rome this makes her an outcast, able to interact with wealth through her clients but unable to command it herself. She does own her little house, however, and is able to save up her money, aspiring toward marriage and middle-class comfort. Ironically, these aspirations will harm her more than any limitations: the film opens when a lover nearly drowns her to steal a purse and later a crowd at a magic show will laugh mockingly when, hypnotized, she guilelessly reveals her hopes and dreams. Throughout the movie, naive expectations will be raised only to be crushed by the disillusioning indifference or hostility of those - individuals, institutions, and social forces - more powerful or deceitful than she is. Just like its protagonist, Nights of Cabiria has an interesting place in Fellini's oeuvre, hovering between the lingering neorealism of his early works and the flamboyant flowering of his later, colorful dreamscapes. This in-between status is something Cabiria shares with La Strada, probably Fellini's most celebrated collaboration with his wife Masina, but Cabiria feels just a bit closer to his later works thanks to its setting. We are a dozen years out from the wartime rubble and the capital of Italy is already becoming a glamorous hotspot...for those who can afford the glamor.  Cabiria captures a fifties Rome which Fellini made internationally iconic in his next film, La Dolce Vita. There is an interesting relationship between these two movies: Cabiria, warm and earthy, suffering but full of heart; Dolce Vita, a bit more cerebral, living the "sweet life" but searching for a soul. Both follow a character's episodic ups and downs through Roman days and nights, but one film features a plucky, downtrodden female prostitute and the other stars an aloof, handsome male journalist. There's even a scene in which a suave man makes love to an old flame instead of the woman he picked up on the street - but in La Dolce Vita this scene is told from the john's point of view, whereas in Nights of Cabiria it is told from the streetwalker's. The endings also seem to reflect one another: Cabiria, heartbroken but still spiritually alive, tears and a smile together on her face as she is surrounded by a sea of humanity; Marcello, cheerfully lost as he cannot hear "the call of the angel" from across a shallow stream on a beach.

Why I like it •

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Favorites - The Godfather (#19)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Godfather (1972/USA/dir. Francis Ford Coppola) appeared at #19 on my original list.

What it is • This grand epic, which uses the Mafia as its subject but takes as a model the mythical tales of kings and warriors, begins with the recitation of a sordid crime - the savage beating of a woman by two young men out for a joyride. This showcase for Marlon Brando and Al Pacino (among others) fades up not on their faces but on the unfamiliar expression of theater actor Salvatore Corsitto, born before World War I in Sicily, playing Bonasera the undertaker. This family drama, in which the clan is the most important unit and "Italian" (or really "Sicilian") is the only nationality that matters, begins Bonasera's monologue with the solemn sentence, "I believe in America." Despite its legend, The Godfather is full of surprises right off the bat. Perhaps equally surprising for those who have soaked up its influence from a distance, through the cultural osmosis of cartoons and parodies and casual impressions of Brando's raspy delivery (spoilers ahead if you're one of those people), "the godfather" himself, Vito Corleone, isn't really the main character. The narrative largely belongs to Vito's son Michael, who starts the film as a uniformed Marine hero, the family outsider, and eventually ascends to become the title character himself (literally as well as figuratively: the climactic christening cross-cuts between his ritualistic renunciation of Satan and embrace of brutal violence to solidify his reign over rival families). How many people are left to be surprised by The Godfather? Obviously young potential viewers come of age all the time, but are they interested? This was, in a sense, the crowning achievement of New Hollywood, a marriage of Hollywood glamor and raw violence which could still seem shocking in 1972. It brought together the maverick of the Fifties - Brando, encased in jowly make-up with a dental fixture obscuring his speech - with the new mavericks of the Seventies, behind and in front of the camera, a passing of the torch just as important as the one occurring onscreen. But nearly forty-five years after it became the highest-grossing film of all time, it no longer even cracks the top 500 worldwide box-office hits - it's been nudged out by the action-oriented, adolescent-marketed blockbusters (including several spawned by Coppola's protegee George Lucas) that began dominating the box office just a few years later. Does the film still speak to audiences of the present? Anecdotally, I think it does. It still seems to enthrall viewers, young and old, who come across it in frequent TV airings, home video releases, or digital rentals. The story is well-told, the world is immersive, and most of all the characters are fascinating. If theatrical features no longer seem to follow its form, television most certainly does: The Sopranos, itself godfather of a generation of cable dramas, is impossible to imagine without this film's obvious influence on subject and, more subtly, on form. And most other prestige dramas of the twenty-first century follow the template of a stately style brought to bear on family drama, masculine assertion, and corruption of the individual. Born as a pulp bestseller fifty years ago (author Mario Puzo had resisted writing about Italian gangsters for decades but finally "sold out" in desperation), troubled in production (Coppola didn't want to do it and was nearly fired, along with Pacino, early on), The Godfather has achieved a cultural impact that no one could have predicted.

Why I like it •

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Favorites - Mulholland Drive (#20)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Mulholland Drive (2001/USA/dir. David Lynch) appeared at #20 on my original list.

What it is • So many elements reel us into the first few minutes of Mulholland Drive. A strange, colorful jitterbug swims into view, pop Americana and surreal avant-garde colliding as figures cascade inside one another and repeat across the screen. Then a point of view shot, with heavy breathing on the soundtrack, descends onto a pillow and disappears into darkness. Angelo Badalamenti's instantly evocative score emerges, its synthesized majesty provoking mixed responses so suited to a film about the magic and deception of the film industry: glamor, tragedy, artificiality, deep emotion. The drama begins with a likely murder attempt thwarted by a violent car crash. We meet the potential victim (Laura Elena Harring) whose amnesiac confusion reflects our own: who is she, how did she get here, what does it all mean?? Mulholland Drive is a gripping, carefully-told narrative for all its experimentation. That's what frustrates so many viewers while engrossing others - we are primed to expect answers but we aren't ready for the way they are presented. This desire only escalates as the main plot begins: bright-eyed ingenue Betty (Naomi Watts), an aspiring actress newly arrived in Hollywood, discovers that "Rita" (as the amnesiac names herself) has wandered into her absent aunt's apartment. She vows to unravel the mystery of this beautiful stranger. As the film proceeds, it introduces a separate storyline that seems connected in some subterranean way: a shadowy cabal prevents a film director (Justin Theroux) from executing his desired creative decisions in increasingly baroque, ominous fashion. Meanwhile there are cutaways to other events. A hitman (Mark Pellegrino) goes on a darkly comic killing spree, quite likely stemming from that early aborted assassination. There's even a one-off scene with two men in a diner (Patrick Fischler and Michael Cooke), where one of them describes a terrifying nightmare about a "man behind this place...he's the one doing all these things." The scene ends in one of the most viscerally terrifying moments in cinema history. As we travel between characters and locations, we are given a grand, romantic tour of Los Angeles: the shiny airports, the rundown bungalows, the hidden nightclubs charged with occult energy, auditions in small corner offices and bustling soundstages alike, meetings in cold corporate office buildings and abandoned cowboy ranches with blinking overhead lamps. The spirit of this journey is summoned in a single montage as a series of sinister men, most of whose faces we can't see, call one another - a story of the city's highs and lows expressed in telephones, suggesting that all these levels of reality are interconnected. Where are all these threads taking us? Seemingly patterned along the lines of Grand Canyon or any given Robert Altman film (perhaps Short Cuts if we want to stick with the L.A. theme), Mulholland Drive owes its multiple strands to another source - it began life as a TV pilot for ABC. Like many viewers, I didn't know this when I watched, and the setup seemed perfectly natural. Then the blue box opens...and everything changes.

Why I like it •

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Favorites - On the Waterfront (#21)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. On the Waterfront (1954/USA/dir. Elia Kazan) appeared at #21 on my original list.

What it is • Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) has it...okay. A former boxer whose potential was short-circuited by his loyalty to his mobbed-up brother Charley (Rod Steiger), Terry now "works" on the New Jersey docks but he's given cushy gigs by the grateful Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), boss of the crooked local. Johnny is grateful because when the film begins Terry is already a snitch and a stooge - but he's a snitch and stooge for the hoodlums who already run the docks, not those who want to clean it up. It's the latter possibility many find unpalatable; they are hard-wired to view informing as transgression only when it hurts the powerful. After his collusion results in the death of a friend (Ben Wagner), a guilty Terry begins to fall for the young man's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint). Both she and the hardbitten Father Barry (Karl Malden) prod Terry to "rat" on his protectors for the good of the workers, even though many of them will turn their back on him for his "betrayal." On the Waterfront is in many ways a small, focused film whose gargantuan reputation looms large over movie history. There are two major reasons for the film's notoriety. The first reason is the acting, particularly Brando's (though Steiger deservedly comes in for high praise too), which culminates and has come to define an era of shifting values in screen performance - tilting toward a kind of stylized authenticity rather than the polished sheen of the studio system's Golden Age: New York Method vs. L.A. star power. The second reason is that Kazan, so respected for his sensitivity in crafting believable performance, is slammed for articulating a generalized "defense of the informant" immediately after he himself identified eight Communists before HUAC. Skeptics duly noted the yawning gap between the powerful villains of the film and the beleagured leftists whom Kazan had actually betrayed. I can remember watching the Academy Awards broadcast in 1999 when a nearly 90-year-old Kazan received a lifetime achievement award and a huge swath of the audience refused to applaud - or even booed. The wound still felt fresh a half-century later.

Why I like it •

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Favorites - The Virgin Spring (#22)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Virgin Spring (1960/Sweden/dir. Ingmar Bergman) appeared at #22 on my original list.

What it is • Based on a famous folk ballad, The Virgin Spring may be Bergman's least complicated film about faith: without getting too specific, a Christian noble (Max von Sydow) experiences tragedy, repents after a violent reaction, and experiences a miracle. Viewed this way, it may not be surprising that Bergman was dissatisfied with the movie. While impressed by the naturalistic sun-dappled photography of characters moving through forests (this was one of his earliest ventures with cameraman Sven Nykvist, maybe his closest collaborator behind the camera) he felt his own direction of the action was too derivative. But The Virgin Spring is also one of Bergman's most unflinching explorations of depraved humanity. Despite the simplicity of its storytelling, the emotions run deep. Grief, guilt, lust, resentment, all coalesce in the (double - maybe triple) destruction of innocence, centered on one of the most brutal rape scenes of its time. This resulted in frequent censorship (including one court case between Janus Films and the town of Ft. Worth, Texas, which Ft. Worth won) and later inspired Wes Craven's revenge horror film Last House on the Left. The scene is not particularly graphic. It is psychologically rather than physically raw, terrifying because it depicts the utter helplessness of the victim. Whether or not you agree with The Virgin Spring's view of justice, vengeance, atonement, and divine will, whether you see said view as ambiguous (Bergman introduces an element of rival paganism into the mix, which - as I recall - suggests a struggle of forces rather than a world simply dominated by God's authority), the film's stark content will force you to draw your own conclusions.

Why I like it •

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Favorites - My Night at Maud's (#23)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. My Night at Maud's (1969/France/dir. Eric Rohmer) appeared at #23 on my original list.

What it is • In the ancient, quiet town of Clermont-Ferrand, Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintagnent), a Catholic convert, meets up with an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a Marxist. Contesting the claims of faith, they are particularly captivated by the dilemma of Pascal's wager: the idea that one should choose the less likely but more rewarding prospect. Shortly afterward, Vidal introduces Jean-Louis to a charming divorcee, Maud (Francoise Fabian). The long conversation which unfolds in her apartment, as she invites Jean-Louis to spend the night - platonically or otherwise - is at once a protracted intellectual version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with the gender roles reversed (as I think CriterionCast pointed out) and a test of the philosophical question Jean-Louis and Vidal debated earlier in the film. Jean-Louis has already committed himself, mentally anyway, to Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), a pretty blonde whom he has never met but whom he fell in love with while observing her at Mass. Is she the one he is wagering everything on, sacrificing short-term happiness with Maud for an idealized marriage with her? Or is the other way around; is he going for the safe bet with this quiet, good Catholic girl (or so he believes) and missing out on a riskier but possibly more deeply enriching relationship with Maud? The film holds many ambiguities and conceals several tricks up its sleeve, but despite the cleverness of its overall shape and its fearlessness in articulating every concern (My Night at Maud's has long been synonymous with "talky film") this is also very much an exercise in atmosphere. Like all of Rohmer's Six Moral Tales - this was titled as the third, but released as the fourth - the film is gorgeously shot (in this case and several others by Nestor Almendros) and makes beautiful use of its evocative location. The Moral Tales may be aggressively verbal, but they are also luminously visual.

Why I like it •

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Favorites - Young Mr. Lincoln (#24)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939/USA/dir. John Ford) appeared at #24 on my original list.

What it is • An obscure Illinois lawyer in the 1830s named Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) takes on a court case involving two brothers from a poor family (Richard Cromwell and Eddie Quillan), who have been accused of murder. This will be his first criminal trial, and it will force him to face down a lynch mob and move back and forth across several divides: between the isolated family he's defending and the solid community opposed to them, between the common folk who appreciate his good humor and the local elite who admire his intelligence, and between his own idealistic appeals to higher principles and his shrewd ability to employ emotional manipulation. We meet Lincoln before he's even chosen the law as a vocation, watching as he loses his fiancee Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) and meets his future wife Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver). However, this is not the sort of biopic where we collect the "greatest hits" of a lifetime - it's very much focused on a single period and issue, much like Patton, Selma, or, well, Lincoln. Unlike those films, however, its key incident isn't a momentous turning point in the subject's legend but a much smaller moment, highly fictionalized (the screenplay by Lamar Trotti adapts a key detail from an actual Lincoln case, but it occurred many years later when he was already a national figure, and the circumstances were mostly very different). Perhaps this is what gives the movie its extra edge: the proceedings are allowed to be both low-key and subtly symbolic (Lincoln is encouraged to split the brothers' defense in order to save one, which only now occurs to me as a likely "house divided" nod). Just like Lincoln himself, the film is deceptively low-key in approach while slowly summoning up a deep sense of grandeur and gravity.

Why I like it •

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Favorites - Mamma Roma (#25)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Mamma Roma (1962/Italy/dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini) appeared at #25 on my original list.

What it is • Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani) has paid her dues, sacrificing her son to another family and surviving on her own through prostitution. Now she feels that she has earned the right to a steady, legitimate job in Rome, providing for her adolescent son in the hope that he will achieve a prosperity and happiness. It is not so easy. The past haunts them in various forms, including Carmine (Franco Citti), Mamma Roma's former pimp who claims to have been corrupted by her. Ettore drifts from his mother into the arms of a lively young woman (Silvana Corsini) and a dangerous crowd. We can feel the threats emerging from all directions, as a mother attempts to shield her son from the forces that shaped her own life. This was only the second film by the prolific Pasolini, who would rack up twenty-five credits in his fourteen-year career, cut short by his notorious, shady murder in 1975. It was variously condemned and banned like many of his other movies, although today it seems like one of his most accessible and universal stories (if he was new to directing, he wasn't to writing - this was his twentieth screenplay including the similarly-themed Nights of Cabiria which you'll see covered soon). The film exists at a crossroads (which Pasolini's scripts for Fellini had helped construct) between the grounded, socially-concerned neorealist films of the forties and fifties and the more abrasive, flamboyant features of the sixties by young directors like Marco Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket) and Bernardo Bertolucci, who trained under Pasolini. This context fits the film's narrative, caught between the search for economic security and the temptation of youthful rebellion, and also its style, characterized by sharp cutting and fluid camera movements. There is grace and anxiety in Mamma Roma, released in equal measure by the film's final moments.

Why I like it •

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Favorites - The "Up" Series (#26)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The "Up" Series (UK/dir. Michael Apted, Paul Almond): Seven Up! (1964), 7 Plus Seven (1970), 21 Up (1977), 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1991), 42 Up (1998), 49 Up (2005), 56 Up (2012) appeared at #26 on my original list.

What it is • In the year 1964 the UK was experiencing a particular moment of energetic expansion and optimism. As the Beatles led a worldwide musical revolution, British cinema was launching its own simultaneous invasion: not only did the top Academy Award go to a British film (Tom Jones) for the second year in a row (if we count the previous year's Lawrence of Arabia as British) but six of the top ten U.S. box office hits had British stars and/or settings. In both music and cinema, many of these new pop culture icons were from working-class backgrounds and that autumn the Labour Party would return to power for the first time in over a decade, with a slim majority in the general election - perhaps signaling a rising class consciousness which would inform at least the initial films in the Up series. Nineteen years after World War II, on the cusp of the sixties cultural revolution, this was the perfect time to launch a hugely ambitious film project which remains active today. Of course, this wasn't originally the intention. When World in Action aired the forty-minute special "Seven Up!" in May, it was just one of a season full of investigative documentary episodes. Paul Almond co-conceived and directed it, choosing (with the help of several young assistants) fourteen children from diverse class backgrounds (ten boys, four girls; mostly white with one exception) to explore how their economic situations affected their lives from the young age of seven. Re-aired at Christmas and then, one might have reasonably assumed, destined to be slowly forgotten, the program was inspired by the Jesuit dictum "Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man." One of Almond's assistants, Michael Apted, was fascinated by the implications of this idea and essentially decided to put it to the test. He followed up with the children six years later (presumably seven years after the actual production of the TV special), when they were fourteen. Thus began a pattern which will resume again in three years, when 63 Up re-visits these familiar faces on the cusp of old age, interviewing them to discover their thoughts on Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, and more importantly the personal experiences big and small - illnesses, travels, deaths, births, divorces, marriages - that affected them since Apted's last visit. Each film includes copious clips from those that came before, so that we can see the histories of ordinary lives unfold before our eyes both in the moment and, if we follow the series for years, in real time. This is one of the most unique endeavors in the history of cinema (even something as unusual and celebrated as Boyhood stands in its shadow), and it will likely continue until all the subjects have passed away - Apted, who is about fifteen years older than the participants, has said he hopes his own son will continue the project when he himself has died.

Why I like it •

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Favorites - The Searchers (#27)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Searchers (1956/USA/dir. John Ford) appeared at #27 on my original list.

What it is • Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother's homestead in Texas after a stint in the Confederate Army...three years after the Civil War has ended (Wikipedia picks up on clues that he spent that extra time fighting against the French interventionists and Emperor Maximillian in Mexico). In other words, he is established right away as a rootless wanderer, most notably in the infamous opening shot of a woman opening a door out into the wide open plains, shielding her eyes from the light as a figure rides up on a horse. The ending mirrors this shot, with Ethan turning to walk off the porch and back out into the wilderness as everyone else gathers inside, the door framing his exit as a retreat from civilization. The framing device might suggest that he remains at home in the interim, an oasis of domesticity in a life of exile, but the title gives the game away: Ethan is actually wandering for almost the entire film. There is a difference to the time the film covers: Ethan is searching, not just drifting at random. His very clear goal is to track a Comanche chief (Henry Brandon) so he can avenge the rape and murder of his brother's family and find - perhaps "mercy-kill" - his kidnapped niece (played by siblings Lana and Natalie Wood, as a child and adolescent, respectively). Ethan is a mess of conflicting impulses and signifiers: redeemer of virtue and revenge-obsessed madman, tender uncle and bigoted/misogynist hater of race-mixing, stalwart defender of white civilization and outcast from that same civilization. The movie both embodies classical western forms and subtly subverts them, drawing on the genre conventions that Ford and Wayne helped create while pointing toward the revisionist decades to come. Receiving decent reviews and perhaps turning a modest profit, The Searchers proceeded to disappear for a while; it didn't get much distribution and other Ford films were more frequently celebrated. By the seventies, however, most notably in Taxi Driver, the film had become one of the most influential works of American cinema. Its tough-guy antihero not only shaped the lonely, angry protagonists of New Hollywood but - directly or indirectly - the brooding men of cable TV's Golden Age. In terms of psychological impact alone, it has certainly earned its consistent place as the most acclaimed western of all time.

Why I like it •

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Favorites - Fists in the Pocket (#28)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Fists in the Pocket (1965/Italy/dir. Marco Bellochio) appeared at #28 on my original list.

What it is • Up in the villa overlooking a vast valley, as in an enchanted castle in a child's fable, a family remains frozen in time. Surrounded by old pictures and heirloom furniture, buried in conservative Catholic publications, a blind mother (Liliana Gerace) "watches" over her brood of malcontents: Augusto (Marino Mase), the normal one with a job and a girlfriend in the town below who chafes at his obligations to the rest of the family; Giulia (Paola Pitagora), a striking but immature young woman; Leone (Pier Luigi Troglio), a mentally and physically disabled young man who needs to be looked after; and finally, Alessandro (Lou Castel), the brooding, combustible rebel who slinks around the grounds like a cat, stirring trouble and cultivating his own sense of bitterness. It will ultimately be Ale who concocts a half-cocked plan to violently break this spell - but will he have the courage to follow through on his brutal convictions? When the film was released in the mid-sixties, it felt shocking even amidst its revolutionary milieu. No less a subversive than Luis Bunuel found it too provocative, condemning it as an exercise in bad taste. Much of the movie plays - to me at least - like a black comedy, yet Fists in the Pocket is deadly serious at heart. And the film perfectly matches its beautiful but abrasive, unsettling style to its troubling story. This is one of the all-time great fucked-up family portraits, and deserves to be more widely known.

Why I like it •

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Favorites - Goodfellas (#29)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Goodfellas (1990/USA/dir. Martin Scorsese) appeared at #29 on my original list.

What it is • This is the earliest film on this list that I actually remember being released in theaters. Don't get me wrong - I didn't go anywhere near the theaters showing it (spoilers follow, if that matters at this point). The tale of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a real life Queens hoodlum-turned FBI informant, and his pals Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro), the film is loaded with foul-mouthed tirades and bloody executions, not to mention "adult themes." Seven in the fall of 1990, I was only allowed to see one Joe Pesci movie: Home Alone, in which the hot-tempered little guy's head is merely set on fire rather than shot full of holes. I was very aware of Goodfellas at the time; my father and adult relatives talked about it all the time (my dad explained the plot points, observing that Pesci plays an evil killer yet the film makes you feel sorry for him when he dies). I was old enough to glance through the newspapers and see all the four-star reviews, and to watch the Oscars (well, on videotape the next day, since they were past my bedtime) and see clips of Pesci growling, "You think I'm funny?" Goodfellas' stellar reputation has held for the following quarter-century (it marked that anniversary last year with a tempest-in-a-social-media-teapot about whether or not women liked Goodfellas too - they do). It has remained one of Scorsese's most celebrated films, providing a template, dialogue patter, and cinematic style followed by dozens, if not hundreds, of gangster/drug dealer/con artist film since, including many of Scorsese's own. While he's done a lot of interesting work since 1990, a strong case can be made that none of his subsequent films has been as influential or widely beloved. That's not to knock them; it's just to observe the cinematic juggernaut Goodfellas became in the decades following its debut.

Why I like it •

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Favorites - Red Hot Riding Hood (#30)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Red Hot Riding Hood (1943/USA/dir. Tex Avery) appeared at #30 on my original list.

What it is • We all know the story: a little girl goes romping through the woods to visit her grandma, while a sinister wolf lurks behind the trees ready to lead her astray. As Red Hot Riding Hood opens, a goofy narrator dutifully recites these familiar details, until the irritated wolf whirls around and stares straight out at the audience, lambasting the hidden storyteller. The credits roll again, in flashing neon, baring a subtitle "Something new has been added." That "something new" may be modernity - the new tale unfolds not in a rustic forest but amidst the urban jungle of Los Angeles with spotlights shooting from the skyscraper windows and a Hollywood and Vine street sign wrapped around the wolf's head after he takes a tumble. Or the "something new" might be sex, what was implicit in the original story now brought to the forefront - you'll lose count of the phallic symbols within about ten seconds of this new beginning. Little Red is now involved in a nightclub striptease and the wolf is her biggest fan, flipping between sleazy pickup artist, put-on Euro-sophisticate, and gawky goofball, depending on what he thinks will work. None of it does and as in the fairy tale, he races to Grandma's (some have read her as a bordello madam, awaiting the return of one of her employees) to intercept her and try again. Instead, the old woman who greets him is even hornier than he is, and has a stamina that ultimately defeats the exhausted canine, chasing him through rooms, knocking him out windows, reappearing in doorways when he thinks he's gotten rid of her. None of these descriptions convey the lightning energy of the short itself - it must be watched to be digested. Perhaps the "something new" that's been added is cinema: this is a fairly tale completely reconfigured for a new mass medium, a folk legend given new life by celluloid and the animator's brush.

Why I like it •

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Favorites - Singin' in the Rain (#31)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Singin' in the Rain (1952/USA/dir. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly) appeared at #31 on my original list.

What it is • First off, it's a joyous parade of classic song-and-dance numbers (from the opening umbrella-and-rainslicker trio to the more immortal fedora-and-topcoat solo, from the cheerfully inventive non sequitur "Calendar Girl" to perhaps the best sequence in the whole film, Donald O'Conner's "Make 'Em Laugh"). But we shouldn't let that distract us from one of the best-scripted musical stories of all time; the plot of the film is no mere clothesline revue, nor a series of preparatory notes and steps to position us for the real narrative heavy-lifting of the showpiece songs. Instead, the film could be stripped of all its musical numbers and you'd still be left with one of Hollywood's most memorable romantic comedies, not to mention one of its most charming films about films. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are the most popular stars of the silent cinema - emphasis on "silent," since it turns out Lamont's voice could never withstand public scrutiny. The preview of their first talkie, The Dueling Cavalier, is one of the funniest parodies I've ever seen (worthy of being its own standalone short), especially once the dialogue falls out of sync and lapses into slow motion. Meanwhile, Lockwood is falling in love with Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a dancer willing to prick his pomposity when he's riding high and lift his spirits when he's fallen low. Together, he, Miss Selden, and life-of-the-party songman Cosmo Brown (O'Conner) concoct a brilliant plan to save Lockwood's doomed production (and career). Their joyous feat of creativity, and his romantic chemistry with co-creator Selden, launches Lockwood out into the street where he croons the title number - one of the most blissful moments in movie history.

Why I like it •

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Favorites - Easy Rider (#32)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Easy Rider (1969/USA/dir. Dennis Hopper) appeared at #32 on my original list.

What it is • Two all-American coke dealers (dubbed Captain America and Buffalo Bill, natch) score big and head for Florida, loading up their choppers with their illicit profits (Fonda called the shot of his character shoving a pipe full of cash into his star-spangled gas tank "fucking the flag with money," and the whole film - God love it - is pitched at about that level of visual subtlety). Along the way, they stop by communes, farms, roadside diners, motels (who flash a "No" over their "Vacancy" when they glimpse the bikers' hair and costumes) and even the occasional jail cell. Marijuana is smoked around campfires, acid is dropped at Mardi Gras, and George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) pops up to ride the back of one bike, clad in a goofy gold high school football helmet. The Byrds, The Band, Hendrix, and of course Steppenwolf adorn the soundtrack and the result is a picaresque tour through late sixties America, cemented not just by the audiovisual content but the form: sinuous telephoto pans across objects and faces, quiet verite observations, cuts back and forth across space and time, fish-lensed LSD trips - all the tricks and trades of European cinema brought to bear on very American subject matter. Finally, of course, there's the violence, inescapable in the era of riots, assassinations, and the Vietnam War. An instant hit in '69, regarded more ambivalently later on (and by some, even then) as too self-serious a hippie manifesto, the film carries both a simple-but-effective iconographic power and a more sophisticated combination of elements. Most importantly, it's a joyride, relying on the power of its style to sweep up the viewer.

Why I like it •

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Favorites - White Heat (#33)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. White Heat (1949/USA/dir. Raoul Walsh) appeared at #33 on my original list.

What it is • Eighteen years after his breakthrough in The Public Enemy, long after the model of lean, ruthless Warner gangster pictures had been replaced by brooding, psychological noir, James Cagney played perhaps his most iconic hoodlum. Cody Jarrett, a middle-aged holdup man, is bloodthirsty and brutal with only one weakness - a Freudian devotion to his equally hardbitten Ma (Margaret Wycherly), the only person who can soothe his splitting migraines. Taking the rap for a petty robbery to avoid a much more serious sentence, he finds himself bunkmates with undercover Treasury agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien), who later escapes with him and tries to prevent the next big heist. In the pre-Code era, gangsters were allowed to carry the films by themselves, but later crime films often shifted the focus toward law enforcement, pre-emptively censoring the antisocial tendencies of the genre. Hank is our "good guy" in this film but it's hard not to fall for Cagney's charismatic psychosis. The scene in which he climbs on top of the commissary table, kicking, screaming, and punching out guards in a grieving (but perhaps calculated) temper tantrum is a tour de force of a certain type of acting, neither Method nor classical technique, physical but rooted in emotion.

Why I like it •

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Favorites - Band of Outsiders (#34)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Band of Outsiders (1964/France/dir. Jean-Luc Godard) appeared at #34 on my original list.

What it is • Two wannabe hoodlums, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) enlist an odd, naive young woman, Odile (Anna Karina), into an attempt to rob the bourgeois family she lives with. Romantic, deadpan, perpetually bemused, the trio spends most of the film lounging (and dancing) in cafes, bantering about movies and current events, and deciding who Odile is going to sleep with. As Pauline Kael noted, it comes as a shock when they actually endeavor to commit the crime, as if one type of movie has been dropped down in the middle of another. Godard based the film on the pulp novel Fool's Gold by the Californian crime/western writer Dolores Hitchens. Thus we have another quintessential example of the French New Wave's interest in fusing taut American genre fare with a more leisurely French sensibility; Godard's early work in particular was an exemplar of this tendency from Breathless onward. The influence boomeranged back to America again, impacting the auteurs of New Hollywood down to Quentin Tarantino, who named his production company "Band Apart" - a play on the French title - and many others (while reading into the subject for this review, I even stumbled across an article comparing the dance sequence to Audrey in the diner on Twin Peaks). For such an influential film, Band of Outsiders has a mixed legacy - some consider it very minor Godard (including biographer Richard Brody and perhaps even the director himself), while others mark it among their favorites. Obviously, I'm with the latter group.

Why I like it •

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Favorites - The Man With a Movie Camera (#35)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Man With the Movie Camera (1929/USSR/dir. Dizga Vertov) appeared at #35 on my original list.

What it is • Experimental filmmakers of the twenties had a penchant for "city-poems," documentaries that recorded the daily life of a city, either in short form or, in the case of Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, over the course of an entire feature. The Man With a Movie Camera follows this course with explosive results although - appropriately enough - it "cheats" a bit, using four cities (Kharkiv, Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa) despite implying that we are gazing at a single metropolis. This is in keeping with the spirit of Movie Camera, a defiantly anti-fiction film which is nonetheless lively with creativity. There are a few staged shots, but for the most part this creativity is expressed through manipulation of the image, an anti-"verite" vision of documentary cinema. This ferociously fast visual cascade was radical during the slower-paced silent era and remains startling today. Superimpositions, backwards-motion, kaleidoscopic montages, and buoyant dollies give the movie a sense of endless motion. "Without the Use of Intertitles...Without the Help of a Scenario...Without the Help of Theatre!" the first (and last) title card declares. Vertov, in his early thirties at the time, had already spent years experimenting with revolutionary newsreels and avant-garde shorts, overlapping the two categories and pushing the medium to (and past) its limits. This film was the culmination. If it seemed Vertov was kicking open a door, that door quickly closed: within a decade, severe Socialist Realism was the mandatory state style. Future generations, far afield, would have to pick up where the fiery young turk had left off and today The Man with a Movie Camera seems more relevant than ever. When it unexpectedly cracked the prestigious Sight & Sound top ten for the first time in 2012, David Thomson noted: "Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film is the single work in the new top ten that seems to understand that nervy mixture of interruption and unexpected association" of the online era.

Why I like it •