Wednesday, May 29, 2013
"A game-legged old man and a drunk. That's all you got?" "That's what I got."
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of The Howard Hawks Blogathon occurring through May at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover
By Edward Copeland
After the opening credits end, Howard Hawks begins Rio Bravo with a sequence somewhat unusual for a Western, or, for that matter, any film made in 1959. On the other hand, beneath the surface of Rio Bravo you'll find many more layers than your typical Western. The scene almost plays as if it hails from the silent era as a haggard-looking Dean Martin tentatively enters a large establishment providing libations, meals and even barber services. Martin's character's face tells you that he wants to resist liquor's siren call, but he's weak and he struggles. A man at the bar (Claude Akins) spots him after purchasing his own drink. He flashes Martin a smile, gestures at his glass and asks with his eyes whether Martin desires one. Aside from the film score and the ambient noise of the establishment's environs, no dialogue emanates from any of the characters that Hawks' camera focuses upon in this scene that's practically choreographed in mime. Martin's character replies with an eager but wordless "yes" and Akins tosses a coin — into a spittoon — laughing with his buddies (the closest thing to a human voice heard in this building) as Martin's character's desperation outweighs his pride and he gets down on his hands and knees, prepared to retrieve the money from the spit-out tobacco. Before he can, a foot kicks the spittoon out of the way and he looks up to see John Wayne towering above him in a great low-angle shot looking up at The Duke and giving him one of his many great screen entrances. His character's arrival also sets several of the story's strands into motion. You see, the man (Akins) taunting Dude (Martin) happens to be Joe Burdette, the blackest sheep of a powerful clan that gets away with practically anything it wants to do. Joe oversteps this time though as he continues to tease Dude after a brawl that includes the man who kicked over the spittoon, Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne), Dude's boss when he's sober enough to carry out duties as deputy. Joe and his buddies keep harassing Dude when a sympathetic patron (Bing Russell) steps in, urging Joe to cut it out — still through gestures, not words. Joe Burdette doesn't take criticism well and shoots the unarmed man to death and exits the building to stagger to another saloon. Chance soon enters behind and speaks the film's first line, "Joe, you're under arrest."
Burdette and his buddies don't take the sheriff seriously and seem intent to mow the lawman down when a still-shaky Dude arrives as backup, having composed himself enough to shoot the guns out of a couple of bad guys' hands. Seems Dude might have a drinking problem, but he's also Chance's deputy, and the lawmen take Joe into custody where the movie's waiting game begins. Can Chance, Duke (always battling the battle) and Chance's other deputy, Stumpy (Walter Brennan), aging and falling apart physically, keep Joe locked up until the U.S. marshal's arrival several days later to take Joe into custody for trial before Burdette's clan tries to free him In a few short minutes of screentime, the main story that drives most of Rio Bravo's 2 hours and 20 minutes has been set. Sideplots await, but all basically will converge in the main thread. Though nearly 2½ hours long, Hawks doesn't rush his film along, yet somehow he still keeps it moving and it holds its length incredibly well.
I'm not reporting earth-shattering news when I inform readers that Howard Hawks belongs to that select group of directors who excelled in every genre he attempted. One thing that sets Rio Bravo apart from Hawks' other works is that, while it resides in the Western genre, it snatches from many others — romantic comedies, war tales, detective stories, social dramas, even musicals. As film critic Richard Schickel says on a commentary track for Rio Bravo, Hawks liked saying that he loved to steal from himself. He'd do it again by practically remaking Rio Bravo as El Dorado eight years later, once again starring Wayne but with Robert Mitchum in the Dean Martin role. The plots diverge enough, as do the characters, (Mitchum plays a drunken sheriff as opposed to deputy while Wayne took on the role of gunfighter for hire helping a rancher's family get even with the rival rancher who killed their patriarch) to prevent it from being an exact facsimile. (Another shared aspect between the two films: screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote Rio Bravo with Jules Furthman and wrote El Dorado by herself.) In the case of Rio Bravo, dialogue in the romantic sparring between Chance (Wayne) and possibly shady lady Feathers (Angie Dickinson) sounds lifted directly from To Have and Have Not, which Furthman co-wrote with William Faulkner. The relationship between Chance and Stumpy seems like a continuation of the one Wayne's Dunson and Brennan's Groot had in Red River, only minus Dunson's darkness. Part of Howard Hawks' greatness grew from his gift of swiping things from his previous films while changing the recipe just enough to make it fresh — a skill other self-plagiarists such as John Hughes never pulled off since they lacked Hawks' inherent talent, skill and imagination.
Hawks originally intended the action and imagery that runs beneath the opening credits to be its own sequence in the film, but later decided just to use it to accompany the list of cast and crew to a quieter piece of Dimitri Tiomkin's score before the set piece in the bar officially launches Rio Bravo. He films the footage of a wagon train caravan at such a distance that you can't readily identify its contents or characters, but a careful viewer connects it later as being the approach of the wagon train of Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), who turns up shortly after the opening incident. At first, the audience can't be certain how to take the arrival of this man and his large crew, which includes a young gunman named Colorado (played by Ricky Nelson, teen idol and sitcom star at the time, who turns in a solid performance). For all the audience knows, these could be people sent to break Joe Burdette out of the jail where Stumpy handles most of his supervision. Dude, by then sobered up and handling more of his duties as deputy to Chance's Presidio County Texas sheriff, stops the wagon train in the middle of the town's main thoroughfare and insists that Wheeler and all of his men remove their weapons and hang them on a fence. They'll be free to collect the firearms when they depart the town again. (Wouldn't you love to watch Rio Bravo with the National Rifle Association's head flunky Wayne LaPierre and see how he reacts to law enforcement working for John Wayne in a Western that enforcing those rules?) Wheeler and those in his employ grumble at first, but soon comply. When Chance shows up, we realize he and Wheeler go way back on friendly terms, though Wheeler advises the sheriff they need to be careful where they store their cargo — it contains a large amount of dynamite. (Paging Chekhov if you don't think that's going to pay off somewhere down the road.)
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"My Rifle, My Pony and Me" (Rio Bravo tribute, Part II)
While Sheriff Chance took on a major task by arresting Joe Burdette and incarcerating him in his small Presidio County jail, with Stumpy left to guard the bad guy most of the time, he still bears the responsibility for maintaining the law elsewhere in his town, something he accomplishes through street patrols and his nights staying at The Hotel Alamo (of all the names to pick) run by Carlos Robante (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) and his wife Consuela (Estelita Rodriguez). One night, a poker game piques his interest as two of the players (Angie Dickinson, Walter Barnes) fit the profile of two hustlers warned about on handbills. After a cursory investigation, Chance arrests the woman, who goes by the name Feathers. She declares her innocence and Chance fails to find the crooked cards on her after she's left the table following a huge winning streak. When he returns though, he does find the stacked deck on the man, who has raked it in since her departure and tells him to return his ill-gotten gains and be on the morning stagecoach. He suggests that Feathers do the same, but she decides to stick around.
That next day, the Burdettes arrive as expected, led by Joe's smooth brother Nathan (John Russell, the gaunt, veteran actor of mostly Westerns where he usually played the villain. His second-to-last film was as the cold-blooded killer in Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider). He asks Chance why the streets appear so full of people. Chance offers no explanation, but suggests that perhaps gawkers came to town, drawn to the possibility that the Burdettes planned to put on a show.
Chance makes his nightly trek to the Hotel Alamo. When he gets there, Spencer pulls him over for a drink. The wagon master has heard of the trouble Chance faces. "A game-legged old man and a drunk. That's all you got?" Spencer asks in disbelief. "That's what I got," Chance responds. Spencer offers himself and his men as help against the Burdettes, but the sheriff expresses reluctance to take responsibility for others. He does ask about the confident young gunman Colorado that Spencer has hired. If he is as good as he thinks he is and lacks the family ties of the older men, Chance would be willing to take him on if Colorado agrees. Spencer calls Colorado over, but the young man politely declines, earning Chance's respect for being smart enough to know when to sit out a fight. Not long afterward, while Feathers flirts again and Chance urges her to get on the morning stage, shots ring out on the street and Spencer falls dead. Later, Nathan Burdette makes his first visit to see his brother Joe, despite Stumpy's withering verbal assaults, at the jail. First, Nathan wants the sheriff to explain why his brother looks so beat up. "He didn't take too kindly to being arrested for murder," Chance tells Nathan while Joe denies the shooting was murder. Nathan asks how Chance can be so certain or, at the very least, why Joe isn't being tried where the alleged murder occurred. Chance nixes that idea, content to let the U.S. marshal handle Joe Burdette and try him elsewhere. Nathan silkily makes no overt threats, but certainly implies that Joe might not remain in the Presidio County jail by the time that marshal shows up, especially if the sheriff relies on a drunk and an old man as his backup. Chance isn't in a mood to hide his cards. "You're a rich man, Burdette. Big ranch, pay a lot of people to do what you want 'em to do. And you got a brother. He's no good but he's your brother. He committed 20 murders you'd try and see he didn't hang for 'em," the sheriff spits out. "I don't like that kinda talk. Now you're practically accusing me," Nathan Burdette says, but Chance continues. "Let's get this straight. You don't like? I don't like a lot of things. I don't like your men sittin' on the road bottling up this town. I don't like your men watching us, trying to catch us with our backs turned. And I don't like it when a friend of mine offers to help and 20 minutes later he's dead! And i don't like you, Burdette, because you set it up." If war wasn't brewing before, it was now.
The murder of Spencer fully incorporates the last two major characters more fully into the film and the action. With his boss dead, Colorado at first finds himself content to take his pay from the slain wagon master's possessions and remains determined to mind his own business. Once he witnesses some more of the Burdette brutality, Colorado decides to join up and Chance deputizes him. Colorado becomes part of the team and helps Chance escape an ambush, an ambush for which the sheriff seems prepared to occur, quickly pumping off rounds from his rifle. "You always leave the carbine cocked?" Colorado asks. "Only when I carry it," Chance replies. Originally, Hawks opposed casting Ricky Nelson, though the director admits he probably boosted box office. He had sought someone popular with young viewers, but felt Nelson — who turned 18 during filming — lacked age and experience for the part. Hawks had chased Elvis Presley for the role, but as often was the case, Col. Tom Parker demanded too much money for his client and the Rio Bravo production had to take a pass. The pseudo love affair between Feathers and Chance also heats up, though Wayne's discomfort with the romantic scenes with Dickinson is readily apparent. Wayne felt uneasy about the 25-year age gap between him and Dickinson. On top of that, nervous studio bosses wanted no implication made that Chance and Feathers ever sleep together. Double entendres and innuendos abound, but truthfully more sparks fly in brief scenes between Martin and Dickinson and Nelson and Dickinson than ever produce friction in the Wayne-Dickinson scenes. What becomes most interesting about the relationship between Feathers and Chance is Feathers' transformation into the sheriff's protector, keeping watch over him as he sleeps to make sure that no Burdette makes a move on him.
You don't need to know how the rest of Rio Bravo unfolds. Besides, part of what makes the film so fascinating and more than your ordinary Western comes from the multiple tones Hawks balances. A viewer seeing Rio Bravo for the first time couldn't positively predict what mood shall prevail by the final reel: light-hearted, tragic, heroic, romantic, some combination of those elements. At any given moment, you might change your mind. Most of this uncertainty reflects the nature of the character Dude. With the possible exception of Feathers, almost every other character in the film stays on a static path. Dude captures our attention the most because of the dynamics within him. Will he maintain the upper hand in his battle with booze or will he fall off the wagon again and if he does, what consequences does that have for the others? Even sober, he's prone to depression, low self-esteem and self-pity. Still, he can croon a song or be a crack shot. A part this multifaceted requires a talented actor and back when Rio Bravo was made, Dean Martin wouldn't be one of the first names to jump to your mind. However, in the years 1958 and 1959, soon after the end of his partnership with Jerry Lewis, Martin turned in two impressive performances (perhaps three, but I haven't seen 1958's The Young Lions). In 1958, he gave a great turn as a professional gambler Bama Dillert in Vincente Minnelli's adaptation of the James Jones novel Some Came Running starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. He followed that with his astoundingly good work in Rio Bravo. While Martin continue to make entertaining films, for some reason those two years stand out as an aberration and he never got roles as good as Bama Dillert or Dude again.
Hawks' behind-the-scenes collaborators provided as much of the magic of Rio Bravo as its cast. From Russell Harlan's crisp and lush cinematography to Tiomkin's score that complements Hawks' leisurely pacing well. Tiomkin also teamed with lyricist Paul Francis West for the film's songs — "Cindy" and "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" in the extended musical interlude by Dude, Stumpy and Colorado as well as the title song. Reportedly, Wayne joined the singing at one point until they decided it inappropriate for the sheriff to take part (and also because the Duke allegedly could not carry a tune). In another instance of borrowing from past work, at Wayne's suggestion, Tiomkin actually reworked the theme to Red River into the song "My Rifle, My Pony and Me." Tiomkin also composed "Degüello," aka "The Cutthroat Song," which the Burdettes play to psych out the good guys guarding Joe. The film claims the music comes from Mexico where Santa Anna's soldiers played it continuously to unnerve those holed up inside the Alamo. Wayne loved the music and the story so much, even though the tale wasn't true, he used it in his film The Alamo the following year. His screenwriting team of Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett both had worked with Hawks as a team and separately before and after Rio Bravo. Previously, Furthman and Brackett co-wrote Hawks' classic 1946 take on The Big Sleep. Furthman also co-wrote Come and Get It and To Have and Have Not and did a solo turn on Only Angels Have Wings. The legendary Brackett, despite her extensive screenwriting work, made a name for herself as a novelist, largely in the male-dominated field of science fiction. In Schickel's commentary, he refers to Brackett as an example of a real life Hawksian woman. In fact, before her death, the last screenplay she co-wrote was The Empire Strikes Back. In another non-Hawks project, she returned to Philip Marlowe when she wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. In addition to the Hawks titles already mentioned for Brackett, she also wrote the screenplay for 1962's Hatari! and co-wrote 1970's Rio Lobo. The DVD commentary also includes director John Carpenter, who names Hawks as his favorite director, and paid tribute to Leigh Brackett by naming the sheriff in the original Halloween after her.
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Monday, May 20, 2013
Prison of My Dreams
By Edward Copeland
As I snap the cuffs on Will Smith's wrists, I try to look stern and sympathetic simultaneously. "I take no pleasure in having to do this, Mr. Smith, but it's for your own good as well as the good of the public. Hopefully, your stay will be a short one." I'm taking Smith to serve his sentence in the Copeland Penitentiary for Bad Film Ideas. The actor received a summary conviction with the recent announcement of his interest of remaking Sam Peckinpah's classic Western The Wild Bunch. We had no choice. Trying to do a new version of such a revered film would be bad enough, but when you read the details that explain it would be a modern version involving the DEA and drug cartels, it sounds as if it's only stealing the title. We couldn't risk this debacle-in-development from getting to pre-production. Smith needed to be jailed until he regained his senses.
Now, if Smith breaks quickly, his sentence should be short since this idea didn't originate with him. Warner Bros. has toyed with the idea of a remake for more than a decade with various names such as the late director Tony Scott and stars such as Tom Cruise mentioned. If it were possible to put an entire studio into permanent solitary confinement, I would do it. Johnny Depp, pictured above being taken the prison to serve his time, had a longer time behind bars when he announced his intention to make a new version of The Thin Man and to take on William Powell's trademark role of Nick Charles. Thankfully, that talk disappeared once we locked up Depp for awhile and he hasn't mentioned it since. It's great that Depp loves The Thin Man — but the original remains and people should watch it. (If only the prison existed before Gus Van Sant got his cuckoo idea of doing a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho in color.)
Look at the case of something that happened before the Copeland Penitentiary opened when Russell Brand remade Arthur with Brand in the Dudley Moore role and Helen Mirren taking over for John Gielgud. It sounded like a bad idea on paper, looked more horrendous when commercials and trailers appeared and received mostly bad reviews. (I did enjoy that the original in 1981 grossed more than the remake's budget which flopped badly.) What disturbed me was that the original Arthur never received a DVD release in the proper ratio and when the remake came out, they released a Blu-ray that forced you to get it with its awful sequel Arthur 2: On the Rocks.
Therein lies the dangers of remakes of great films. With technology constantly changing and money always an issue, at some point they'll start leaving us with the fresher versions, assuming that younger audiences won't know or care to see the classics. I'd try to talk them into how much money they'd save if they just re-released older films to theaters without having to spend all that money on new movies, but they won't go for it. Besides, making movies cost WAY too much to make and see today and the best stuff gets made on television anyway.
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Friday, May 17, 2013
Enough beef for hungry cinephiles
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared Sept. 30, 2008. I'm re-posting it as part of The Howard Hawks Blogathon occurring through May 31 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover
By Edward Copeland
Has any filmmaker shown mastery in more genres than Howard Hawks? Sixty years ago today, Hawks released one of his best Westerns (not a motel) in Red River, which also gave John Wayne one of his best roles and Montgomery Clift a notable early screen appearance.
Hawks made other great Westerns (most notably Rio Bravo, which also featured Wayne and Walter Brennan), but Red River, despite its abrupt climax, remains my favorite with its tale of a long cattle drive, surrogate father-son conflict and unmistakable gay subtext. Wayne admittedly was a limited actor, but he always was at his best when he played a character steeped in darkness and obsession such as Thomas Dunson here or Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers. He's helped immeasurably by getting to act opposite the young Clift, the antithesis of acting style when compared to Wayne. Hawks' direction of the film itself truly amazes, especially in the many scenes of the huge numbers of cattle, all done in the days without the easy out of CGI (A scene of the drive even earned a shoutout in Peter Bogdanovich's great 1971 film The Last Picture Show). He also manages to include plenty of his trademark humor, mostly through the ensemble of supporting character actors led by Brennan (whose character loses his false teeth in a poker game) and including Hank Worden (the decrepit waiter in Twin Peaks for those unfamiliar with the name) who gets plenty of throwaway lines such as how he doesn't like when things go good or bad, he just wants them to go in between.
Hawks even manages to toss in what may be an example of the ultimate Hawksian woman with Joanne Dru as Tess Millay, who doesn't let a little thing such as an arrow stop her from nagging a man with questions. Hawks astounds viewers to this day with his versatility among genres: Westerns, screwball comedies, musicals, war films, noirs, sci-fi — pick a genre and Hawks probably took it on and scored. It's a mystery to me why his name isn't brought up more by people other than the most obsessive film buffs. Red River isn't my favorite Hawks, but it's one of his many great ones and continues to entertain after 60 years.
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Thursday, May 16, 2013
Leave the rooster story alone. That's human interest.
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared Jan. 18, 2010. I'm re-posting it as part of The Howard Hawks Blogathon occurring through May 31 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover
By Edward Copeland
The list of remakes that exceed the original is a short one, especially when the original was a good one, but there never has been a better remake than Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday, which took the brilliance of The Front Page and turned it to genius by making its high-energy farce of an editor determined by hook or by crook to hang on to his star reporter by turning the roles of the two men into ex-spouses. Icing this delicious cake, which marks its 70th anniversary today, comes from casting Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as the leads.
Words open His Girl Friday declaring that it takes place in the dark ages of journalism when getting that story justified anything short of murder, but insists that it bears no resemblance to the press of its day, 1940 in this case. What saddens me today is, despite the ethical lapses and underhandedness and downright lies committed by the reporters in this version (and really all versions based on the original play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, themselves once Chicago journalists), their energetic devotion to capturing the story seems downright heroic compared to the herd mentality and lack of intellectual curiosity we see exhibited most of the time today by pack journalists such as the White House press corps. It's really why the first two film versions of the play are the only ones that work. The 1931 Lewis Milestone adaptation starring Adolphe Menjou definitely belonged to its time and Hawks' take with its inspired twist came along close enough to remain relevant. When Billy Wilder tried to remake the original in 1974 as a period piece with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, it fell flat because in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, journalists actually existed in a moment of heroism for their profession. The 1988 disaster Switching Channels returned to the His Girl Friday model with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner and tried to set it in the world of cable news but the only update they came up with was hiding the fugitive in a copy machine instead of a rolltop desk.
Each time I write one of these anniversary tributes, no matter how many times I've seen the film in question (and I can't count that high when we're discussing Friday, I try to watch the movie again, in a quest for fresh thoughts and reminders of lines that may have slipped my mind. In nearly every, case I notice something new (and with the rapid-fire pace of Friday's dialogue, remembering them all borders on impossible). What stood out as I started this salute wasn't just the work-a-day newshounds it depicts compared to the state of the industry today but the social subtext emerged more prominently this time. It's not that I've missed or ignored it before, but it's the light-speed comic hijinks that keeps me coming back. The story's main focus may concern Walter Burns (Grant), that sneaky editor of the Morning Post, trying to keep his ex-wife Hildy Johnson (Russell) from leaving the paper and his life to wed insurance agent Bruce Baldwin, who looks like that fellow in the movies, you know, Ralph Bellamy (who fortunately plays Bruce). However, the story Walter uses to keep his hooks into Hildy concerns that of Earl Williams (John Qualen), a man who killed a cop and received a ticket on a bullet train to the gallows by a politically hungry Republican mayor with an eye on unseating the Democratic, anti-death penalty governor, despite the fact the reporters and many others believe Earl's mental illness should stop his hanging. Qualen, a solid character actor in many films, and Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), a woman who befriended Earl prior to the slaying and who the tabloids misrepresent as his lover and a prostitute, stand apart as the only characters in this screwball farce who play it completely straight. (In an all-time bit of miscasting, in the Wilder remake, Carol Burnett got the Mollie Malloy role. Of course, the nearly 50-year-old Jack Lemmon also was engaged to the 28-year-old Susan Sarandon in that film.) His Girl Friday requires neither Qualen nor Mack to garner laughs like every other character. As the courthouse reporters behave particularly cruelly to Mollie at one point, only Hildy comforts her. "They ain't human," Mollie cries. "I know," Hildy sympathizes. "They're newspapermen." Hildy realizes the jobless Earl spent too much time listening to socialist speeches in the park and his fascination with the concept of "production for use" led to his fatal error.
Social message aside, it's the earth-shattering cosmic comic chemistry of Grant and Russell, aided by Bellamy's perfect innocent foil and countless supporting vets. (One of them, Billy Gilbert, plays Mr. Pettibone (Roz holds his tie in the photo above) and I wish I could have found a good closeup photo of him because I think it's hysterical how much 9/11 mastermind/terrorist asshole Khalid Sheikh Mohammed resembles Gilbert in KSM's arrest mugshot.) The lines come fast and furious. While many do come from the original Hecht-MacArthur play, Hawks gets the credit for the film's amazing speed (though screenwriter Charles Lederer deserves more kudos). Still, in the end, Cary and Roz make the dialogue sizzle and Grant's physical touches serve as a master class in comic movement on film. Watch every little bounce he makes as Hildy kicks him beneath the table when he's trying to get things past poor Bruce and you'll crack up every time. Originally, I was writing down all my favorite lines, planning to try to work them all into this tribute, but then I thought: Maybe not everyone has seen His Girl Friday, even after 70 years,
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Thursday, April 04, 2013
Roger Ebert (1942-2013)
By Edward Copeland
If there ever were a reason to brush the cobwebs off my long-dormant blog, today provided it. I wasn't going to waste my thoughts on the passing of Roger Ebert on a note on Facebook or try to squeeze them into multiple 140-word tweets on Twitter. He deserves much more than that and so do I. I'm still forced to use a limited technology, but I'll try to make the best of it.
I debated whether or not to use a photo or Roger solo or Siskel & Ebert together again, but I felt I had to acknowledge them both. It would be nice to say that my interest in film criticism began pouring over the works of Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Manny Farber and the like, but that wouldn't be true. I'm a child of television and those two men up there and their PBS television show Sneak Previews, which I first saw in fourth grade, was my first exposure to movie criticisms. I already was a budding film buff, but this was new to me.
During the many years that Roger and Gene worked together on their various shows — going from Sneak Previews to At the Movies to Siskel & Ebert & the Movies before simplifying to plain Siskel & Ebert — I attempted to watch faithfully, not an easy task given the constant switch in TV stations and time periods that come with syndicated fare. I also developed my own voice and did begin reading those other critics, as well as the many books Roger put out himself. I can't remember how many editions of his Movie Home Companion I had.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I wrote both men, seeking advice about the path to film criticism. Siskel never responded, but Roger returned a great form letter that apologized for being a form letter and mentioned how when he was young he had written a letter to Betty Furness, having a crush on the actress turned TV fixture. He received a form letter along with what supposedly was one of Ms. Furness' hairpins and that inspired him try to personalize his necessary form letters for the piles of mail he got just a bit. During senior year of high school, members of our newspaper and yearbook staffs went to a national journalism convention in Chicago and we toured the Sun-Times. I noticed a staff phone directory on a desk and jotted down Roger's extension, but I never worked up the guts to call it.
The only time I actually was in the same room with Roger was at the 1995 junket for Casino in New York. I wish I'd stopped to say hi, but it was a news conference setup with Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Martin Scorsese seated at a long table. When the Q&A was over, I had to make a beeline to Scorsese.
Roger truly entered my life in the past couple of years when, much to my surprise, he wrote a piece about online criticism for The Wall Street Journal and listed this blog as one of his must-reads. I had no idea that he even knew who I was. Later, with details too complicated to go in, he saved my bacon when I had started work on a 20th anniversary piece on The Larry Sanders Show — including interviews with many people in front of and behind the cameras — and despite it not being movie-related, he gave me a home. I also got to give him a funny story about Gene that he didn't know, thanks to Joshua Malina.
Roger Ebert adapted to the Internet amazingly well, especially Twitter. Small compensation for losing the ability to speak, but it kept him vibrant. He was a champion fighting against the perils put upon him over the past several years, yet it only sharpened his already great writing ability. I miss my friend, even if we never met. Good night, you generous talented man. The balcony will be closed in your honor.
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Friday, August 03, 2012
Edward Copeland's Top 100 of 2012 (100-81)
With the release of the latest Sight & Sound poll, conducted every 10 years to determine the all-time best films, The House Next Door blog of Slant Magazine invited some of us not lucky enough to contribute to the S&S list to submit our own Top 10s to The House, which posted mine today. Sight & Sound magazine, a publication of the British Film Institute, began its survey in 1952, using only critics. Its 2002 list boasted its largest sample yet, receiving ballots from 145 film critics, writers and scholars as well as 108 directors. The results can be found here, though a note claims the page isn't actively maintained, though it appears complete to me. Since I planned to revise my personal Top 10, posted as part of my Top 100 in 2007, I figured I owed it to my entire Top 100 to redo my entire list. As before, my rule is simple: A film must be at least 10 years old to appear on my list. Therefore, movies released between 1998 and 2002 might appear on this list whereas they couldn't on the 2007 version. The most difficult part of assembling these lists always involves determining rankings. It's an arbitrary process and once you get past the Top 10 or 20, not only do the placements seem rather meaningless but inclusion and exclusions of films begin to weigh on you. In fact, selecting No. 1 remains easy but if I could, I'd have tied Numbers 2 through 20 or so at No. 2. A lot of great films didn't make this 100 through no fault of their own, falling victim to my whim at the moment I made the decision of what made the cut and where it went. In parentheses after a director's name, you'll find a film's 2007 rank or, if it's new to the list, you'll see NR for not ranked or NE for not eligible. I also should note that this does not mean the return of this blog. I had committed to taking part in The House's feature prior to pulling the plug and completed most of this before signing off.
Part of the arbitrary nature of this list (and from the very first all-time 10-best list I compiled in high school) was to try to make sure I represented my favorite directors while still allowing for those films that might be a more singular achievement. (For example, my first high school list had to be sure to include a Woody Allen, a Huston, a Hitchcock, a Wilder, a Truffaut, an Altman.) The more great cinema you see, the harder it becomes to justify that since lots of directors deserve recognition and many films might be a filmmaker's strongest work. As I've caught up with a lot of Werner Herzog's work over the years, I felt he'd earned inclusion. I was torn between choosing Nosferatu or Aguirre: The Wrath of God to represent him, but opted for the vampire tale because Herzog's "reversioning" of Murnau's silent classic manages to be both a masterpiece of atmospherics and the best version of the Dracula tale put on screen.
Pedro Almodóvar’s career evolution has taken an arc that I imagine few could have anticipated. I know I certainly didn’t back in the 1980s, when his films mainly consisted of camp, color and sexual obsession. Around the time of 1997’s Live Flesh, the Spanish filmmaker’s style took an abrupt change, filtering genres through his unique perspective to exhilarating results that continue through last year’s The Skin I Live In. The greatest of this run of seven features happens to be the most recent film to make this new Top 100 list. Telling the story of two men caring for women they love, both of whom happen to be comatose, Almodóvar’s Oscar-winning screenplay manages to balance humor, pathos and even outlandish touches you’d never expect to make one helluva movie and the writer-director’s best film so far.
Littered along the highways of film history lie multiple tales of adversity breeding triumphs of cinema. As director Jules Dassin faced a possible subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee, presumably followed by blacklisting, at the end of the 1940s, producer Darryl Zanuck gave him an exit strategy. Dassin flew to London to hurriedly begin filming an adaptation of the novel Night and the City, which he’d never read, and as a result produced one of the greatest noirs of all time. Not only did he make the movie on the fly, Zanuck even stuck him with creating a role for Gene Tierney, nearly suicidal after a bad love affair. The novel’s author, Gerald Kersh, hated the movie about hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) scheming to bring Greco-Roman wrestling to London while ducking all sorts of colorful characters played by wonderful actors such as Francis L. Sullivan, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom, Hugh Marlowe and Mike Mazurki. Of course, Kersh’s gripe was understandable — the film bore no resemblance whatsoever to his novel other than the title. However, that didn’t prevent it from being a damn fine film.
It takes a lot to fool me and, in retrospect, I should have seen the final twist coming, but I didn't because Sayles crafted in his best film a compelling story in which the plot turn was unexpected and the movie’s story didn't hinge on it. Even if the secret never had been revealed, this portrait of skeletons from the past and their influence on the lives of people in the present still would resonate. Sayles assembles a helluva ensemble including Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Morton and, in one great single scene, Frances McDormand, to name but a few. Sayles has made some good films since Lone Star, but none come close to equaling the artistry, vitality and humanity of this one. I await another great one from him.
Set piece after set piece, Hitchcock puts Cary Grant through the paces and pulls the viewer along to his most purely entertaining offering. Grant never loses his cool as he's hunted by everyone, James Mason makes a suave bad guy and Martin Landau a perfectly sinister hired thug. With cameos by four former U.S. presidents. There's not much else to say about it: It's not an exercise in style or filled with layers and depth, it's just damn fun. In fact, it’s as much a comedy as a thriller.
There's something to be said for quitting while you're ahead and Charles Laughton, one of the finest screen actors ever, certainly did with the only film he ever directed. The film's influences seem more prevalent than people who have actually seen this disturbing thriller with the great Robert Mitchum as the creepy preacher with love on one hand and hate on the other and the legendary Lillian Gish as the equivalent of the old woman who lived in a shoe, assuming the old woman was well armed.
In describing the film that put Kurosawa on the world’s radar as a major filmmaker, I’m going to let Robert Altman speak for me. This quote comes from his introduction to the Criterion Collection edition of the movie. "Rashomon is the most interesting, for me, of Kurosawa's films.…The main thing here is that when one sees a film you see the characters on screen.…You see very specific things — you see a tree, you see a sword — so one takes that as truth, but in this film, you take it as truth and then you find out it's not necessarily true and you see these various versions of the episode that has taken place that these people are talking about. You're never told which is true and which isn't true which leads you to the proper conclusion that it's all true and none of it's true. It becomes a poem and it cracks this visual thing that we have in our minds that if we see it, it must be a fact. In reading, in radio — where you don't have these specific visuals — your mind is making them up. What my mind makes up and what your mind makes up…is never the same."
For years, my standard response when asked about Raging Bull was that it was a film easier to admire than love. Each time that I’d see the movie again though, that point-of-view became less satisfactory because, as any great film should, the film kept rising higher in my esteem. In the film's opening moments, when Robert De Niro plays the older, fat Jake preparing for his lounge act in 1964 before it cuts to the ripped fighter in 1941, even though I consciously know both versions of La Motta were played by the same actor and that De Niro was that actor, the performance so entrances that I actually ask, "Who is this guy and why hasn't he made more movies?" To gaze at the way he sculpted his body into the shape of a believable middleweight boxer, sweat glistening in Michael Chapman's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, truly makes an impressive achievement. Acting isn't the proper word for what De Niro does here. He doesn't portray Jake La Motta, he becomes Jake La Motta, or at least the screen version, and leaves all vestiges of Robert De Niro somewhere else. Even when De Niro turns in good or great work in other roles, they never come as close to complete immersion as his La Motta does.
"Out of the worst crime novels I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I've ever seen," François Truffaut wrote about Rififi in his book The Films in My Life. I haven't read the Auguste Le Breton novel, but I don't doubt Truffaut's word. Dassin structures the film like a solid three-act play. Act I: Planning the heist. Act II: Carrying it out. Act III: The aftermath. Dassin fine-tunes each of the film's element to the point that Rififi practically runs as a machine all its own. The various characters behave more as chess pieces to be moved around as the story's game requires than as representatives of people. One single sequence though makes Rififi a landmark both in films and particularly heist movies: the robbery itself. Dassin films this in a 32-minute long silent sequence. No one speaks. Keeping everything as quiet as possible becomes the thieves' No. 1 priority. It's absolutely riveting. You'll be holding your breath as if you were involved in the crime yourself.
Howard Hawks appears for the first time on the list with a Western starring John Wayne that turned out to be so much fun they remade it (more or less) seven years later as El Dorado. I’ll stick with the original where the Duke’s allies include a great Dean Martin as a soused deputy sheriff, young Ricky Nelson and the always wily Walter Brennan. Wayne even gets to romance Angie Dickinson. No deep themes hidden here, though it's more layered than your typical Western. Still, that doesn't mean you can't kick up your spurs and enjoy.
The first time was the charm. One of the few insightful comments I heard on the 2007 AFI special was when Martin Scorsese said that in many ways he finds the primitive stop-motion effects of the original King Kong more impressive than later CGI versions. He's absolutely right. The 1933 version also offers more thrills and emotions (and in half the time) than Peter Jackson's technically superior but dramatically inferior and unnecessary remake. Let’s not even discuss the 1976 version.
When L.A. Confidential debuted on this list in its first year of eligibility in 2007, I wrote, “Of the films of fairly recent vintage, this is one that grows stronger each time I see it, earning comparisons to the great Chinatown…Well acted (even if Kim Basinger's Oscar was beyond generous), well written and well directed, I believe L.A. Confidential’s reputation will only grow greater as the years go on — yet it lost the Oscar (and a spot on the AFI list) to the insipid Titanic.” When I re-watched the film recently, my prediction proved to be spot-on as it only deepens as an experience and an entertainment as time passes. It still boggles my mind that with Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey and James Cromwell (just to name four) delivering impeccable work that only Basinger landed a nomination, but losing best picture and director to James Cameron and Titanic remains the bigger crime.
Simply put: The tensest comedy ever made and perhaps Scorsese's most underrated film. Griffin Dunne plays the perfect beleaguered straight man enveloped by a universe of misfits and oddballs in lower Manhattan when all he wanted to do was get laid. It’s hard to imagine that this movie nearly became a Tim Burton project, but thanks to the many setbacks Scorsese endured attempting to make The Last Temptation of Christ, the film ended up being his — and recharged his batteries as well. While Scorsese has made great films since, I’d love to see him step back sometime and make another indie feature like After Hours on the fly just to see what happens. Joseph Minion wrote an excellent script and this represents one case where I think the changed ending actually proves superior to the originally intended one. By the way, whatever happened to Joseph Minion?
Watchability often gets undervalued when rating a film's worth, but I never tire of sitting through this thrill ride. One aspect that has impressed me since I first saw it as a teen back in 1985 (and I went two nights in a row, dragging my parents to it on the second) was its attention to detail such as Marty arriving in 1955 and mowing down a pine tree on the farm of the deranged man trying to “breed pines.” Then, when he returns to 1985, Twin Pines Mall now bears the sign Lone Pine Mall. It’s just a quiet sight gag in the background without any overt attempt to call attention to the joke. You either catch it or you don’t. I always admire films that respect audiences like that, especially when they happen to be this much fun. With equal touches of satire, suspense and genuine emotion, Back to the Future elicits pure joy. No matter how many times I see it, the final sequence where they prepare to send Marty back to 1985 holds me in rapt attention as I wonder if this time might be the time he doesn't actually make it.
A comedy about the Vietnam War that's full of blood and set in Korea, just as a matter of subterfuge. The film that put Altman on the map and inspired one of TV's best comedies (until it got too full of itself), MASH still holds up with its brilliant ensemble and wicked wit. I still wish the TV show had kept that theme song with its lyrics. Through early morning fog I see/visions of the things to be/the pains that are withheld for me/I realize and I can see.../That suicide is painless/It brings on many changes/and I can take or leave it if I please.
Back in 1985, before Goodfellas and The Sopranos really mixed mob stories with jet black comedy, the great director John Huston, in his second-to-last film, brought to the screen an adaptation of Richard Condon's Mafia satire Prizzi's Honor, complete with great performances and some of the most memorable lines ever collected in a single film. Huston may have been in the twilight of his days, but his filmmaking prowess was as strong as ever. Jack Nicholson disappeared into the role of Charley Partanna more than he had any role in recent memory. Kathleen Turner matched well with Nicholson as Charley's love whose work outside the house causes problems. William Hickey gave an eccentric and indelible portrait of the aging don. Finally, John's daughter Anjelica made up for a misfire of an acting debut decades earlier with her brilliant performance as the scheming Maerose and took home one of the most deserved supporting actress Oscars ever given.
Before Zhang Yimou started being obsessed with spectacle and martial arts, film after film, he produced some of the greatest personal stories in the history of movies, especially when his muse was the great and beautiful Gong Li. This film was their first truly flawless effort as Gong plays the young bride of a powerful lord who already has multiple wives and who encourages the sometimes brutal competition between the women.
"The film actually is like a snail — it kind of turns in on itself and becomes itself," Altman describes his film in an interview on its DVD. One of the many "comebacks" of Robert Altman's career, this brilliant Hollywood satire holds up viewing after viewing because it's so much more than merely a satire. Thanks to Tim Robbins' superb performance as the sympathetic heel of a Hollywood executive and the cynical yet deeper emotional punch of Michael Tolkin's script, Altman wows from the opening eight-minute take to one of the greatest final punchlines in movie history. However, the more times you see it, the more you discover to see. While some specific references have aged, the movie's relevance remains — now more than ever.
Schindler’s List marked an important moment in Spielberg’s development as a filmmaker: Peter Pan finally grew up. It’s a harrowing, well-made movie that everyone should see. At the same time, I can foresee a time when it slips off this list entirely. It isn’t the fault of the film — I find it nearly flawless. However, if someone placed a gun to my head and ordered me to choose to watch either Schindler’s or one of Spielberg’s best post-1993 films such as Catch Me If You Can or Minority Report, I’d opt for one of the latter two. Are they better films than Schindler’s List? I can’t say that. However, the epic holocaust tale isn’t a film you find yourself wanting to pop a bowl of popcorn and watching on a whim. As I said earlier, for me at least, rewatchability remains an important factor. I’ve seen Schindler’s List three times but I haven’t reached the point where I want to go through that wrenching experience again.
Bergman once said that by the time he was done making Wild Strawberries, the film really belonged more to Victor Sjöström, who played Borg, the renowned professor and lauded physician about to receive an honorary degree. The film marked Sjöström 's return from semi-retirement, but he already was a legend as the first true Swedish acting-directing star. Borg decides to drive his old Packard to the event instead of flying to meet his son. The journey becomes more than just a road trip for the professor, but a metaphysical trek through his past as he questions what led him to this moment. As the car winds closer to the ceremony, Borg's inner journey does as well as he comes to realize that for all his scientific training, the only thing he can't analyze is himself. "The day's clear reality dissolves into even clearer remnants of memory," he says. Wild Strawberries represents Bergman growing into his powers as a filmmaker and while it may concern a 78-year-old man examining his life, the subject proves as timeless for people of any age as the film itself.
Labels: Almodóvar, Altman, D. Zanuck, Dassin, Hawks, Herzog, Hitchcock, Huston, Ingmar Bergman, Kurosawa, Laughton, Lists, Murnau, Sayles, Scorsese, Spielberg, Tim Burton, Truffaut, Zemeckis, Zhang Yimou
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Edward Copeland's Top 100 of 2012 (80-61)
People like to mock Frank Capra as simple-minded at times and this film especially, but it remains a rousing indictment of corruption in Washington that echoes to this very day. It's too bad that a filibuster doesn't still mean that a senator has to do what Jefferson Smith did and hold the floor for as long as he can instead of the procedural gimmick it's turned into today that prevents legislation from moving out of the Senate. Still, whenever I catch Mr. Smith, no matter how long it has been on, I have to watch until the end. It's the curse of being both a movie buff and a political junkie. In a way, with recent events, it seems to have a bit of timeliness beneath the treacle and idealistic love of how this country should work.
When people think Ingmar Bergman, they think heavy, but here flows one of his lightest and most enjoyable concoctions. In an introduction made for the Criterion edition of the film, Bergman remarks how Smiles changed everything for him. At the time, he was broke and living off the actress Bibi Andersson when his studio entered the film at Cannes and it won a prize (best poetic humor) and became an international success. Bergman says it was a turning point for both him and his studio, earning him free rein to go on and make even more of the greatest films of all time. The film contains obvious echoes of The Rules of the Game, though Smiles more than stands on its own with its tale of love and adultery, male vanity and female cunning, aging and youth. It's not only a delight as a film but inspired the great Stephen Sondheim to write one of his earliest great scores as composer and lyricist in A Little Night Music. Isn't it rich?
The Weinstein P.R. machine spun so much press off this film's twist that I think it takes away from how great a movie had developed before that plot turn even happens. I was fortunate enough to see it early, before the hype went into overdrive, so I thought another story turn was the "twist" and relaxed and the real twist took me by complete, wonderful surprise. I hope someday new viewers will be able to see the film without knowing what lies ahead. Even if they don’t though, they will see a great study in human nature as well as great performances from Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, Miranda Richardson and Jaye Davidson.
While Spike Lee still has talent to spare, he has yet to come close to equaling the power of his third film and its study of one hot day in Bedford Stuy. His strongest work has flourished in his documentaries, especially his pair of post-Katrina films When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts and If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise and the feature Inside Man. Something tells me he’ll come back eventually. More than 20 years later, Do the Right Thing retains the power it unleashed in 1989 as that breed of film that has become rarer and rarer: the conversation starter.
The film marketed as Bergman's "last feature" truly is one of his best, painting a vast semiautobiographical canvas of two children from a large theatrical family who find their lives upended when their mother weds an authoritarian monster of a minister. Beyond the narrative, Sven Nykvist's photography, Anna Asp’s art direction, Susanne Lingheim’s sets and Marik Vos’ costumes present a sumptuous feast for the eyes. Its three-hour running time flies by and watching the 312-minute cut Bergman originally made for Swedish television proves even more rewarding.
Bogie got one of his best roles, John Huston made one of his greatest films (winning his only two Oscars for writing and directing) and his old man got a supporting actor Oscar in the deal as well. When you see Walter Huston do his mocking, triumphant little dance, you want to join in. Sierra Madre wasn’t John Huston’s only classic starring Humphrey Bogart released in 1948 either. The two also collaborated on Key Largo, While it’s good, it’s this film with its prospecting south of the border that’s the real keeper.
Here comes Howard Hawks again and Cary Grant (playing a nerd, believe it or not) as well. (I haven't added it up, but I suspect Grant appears in more movies on this list than any other actor). Katharine Hepburn's most inspired performance powers this screwiest of screwball comedies as her flighty socialite wreaks havoc on the world of Grant’s mild-mannered paleontologist. All of this and a leopard or two, too.
Salieri may consider himself the "patron saint of mediocrity," but little can be called mediocre about Forman's adaptation of Peter Shaffer's play. F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were both brilliant and you can't really argue against its musical score. The unitiated might suspect slowgoing in a period costume drama such as this, but they haven't seen enough and certainly not Amadeus which overflows with humor and light as well as its darker elements.
There wouldn't be a Breakfast Club without a Virginia Woolf, but I don't hold that against Edward Albee or his great play turned into a superb movie by Mike Nichols. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were never better and while the truth games and verbal battles make you cringe, you can't avert your eyes from their power. Albee's play marks its 50th anniversary this year and it still packs a punch a half-century later.
To me, one of the crimes of both versions of the AFI list is that Psycho is the only representation of black-and-white Hitchcock, as if no one noticed him until he started working in color, but nothing is further from the truth and Notorious is one of the best examples of that. The kiss between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant remains one of the most sensual images ever put on celluloid and Claude Rains is superb as the conflicted heavy of the piece.
This film shouldn't work and it probably wouldn't if its stellar cast hadn't saved it. Kazan and Budd Schulberg's attempt to justify their actions during the McCarthy hearings doesn't quite work as an allegory, but the film itself works as a powerful story thanks to the indelible performances it contains. Brando earns the big kudos but the solid work of Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and especially Lee J. Cobb shouldn't be forgotten.
As digital projection sounds the death knell for celluloid, I feel even more grateful that when I saw Lawrence of Arabia for the first time, I saw the restored, 70mm print in a theater released for its 25th anniversary. I never could watch the cropped, pan-and-scan versions on TV. It’s a shame that more classics fail to get re-released outside major markets, but with the digital future, it’s almost moot. As for the film itself, if it weren't for the weaker second half, this movie that almost defines epic would have landed higher on this list. Still, with its stunning cinematography, gorgeous score and great Peter O'Toole performance, it belongs on the list nonetheless.
When I made my 2007 list, I admitted being torn between including 8½ or Nights of Cabiria to represent Fellini and I ended up opting for 8½. In the intervening five years, I’ve watched both films again and my preference clearly leans to Cabiria. While Giulietta Masina's remarkable performance as the title character might break your heart at times, more often than not, she'll leave you smiling, even if it's a sad smile. While Masina initially wins you over when seeing the film the first few times, on later viewings I've found the movie itself richer. It's constructed almost as a perfect circle, a ring of hell if you will, from which Cabiria would like to escape. "Everyone has a secret agony," a character tells her at one point and as much as Cabiria might try to avoid it, she hopes to abandon her life. First, she sees fun in a brief sojourn with a celebrated movie star (Amedeo Narrazi) that in a way predicts Pretty Woman some 30 years down the road, though without the manufactured happy ending. Fellini grounds Nights of Cabiria in reality, a world where the poor are forced to live in caves and anyone can be a victim. In another incident, when Cabiria realizes that once again she's been gypped, it leads to an ending that manages to be touching, magical and inspiring, all at the same time, ending with one of film's greatest close-ups.
Kirk Douglas probably was miscast, but this early Kubrick doesn't get the kudos it deserves and it certainly bears up better over the years than some of his later works such as A Clockwork Orange. Paths of Glory centers on one particular battle between the French and the German, where the poor French troops are outmanned and outgunned, but that's no excuse for disobeying orders in the eyes of one general. Kubrick often tackled the futility of war and its inherent contradictions, but he really knocked it out of the park with this one.
Of the many collaborations between Zhang Yimou and Gong Li, this one remains my favorite, even though it's less heralded than many of his others. Gong and Ge You portray a married couple and we follow their lives in a kaleidoscopic tour of Chinese history, beginning with the civil war in the 1940s and passing through The Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and a few years beyond. Epic while staying focused and personal in the telling, if you haven't seen To Live, you should. This might end up being Zhang’s masterpiece.
Another instance of the all-too-rare occurrence of a sequel that's better the film that spawned it. Whale's funny follow-up to his own Frankenstein contains most of the classic moments you probably associate with the story: the blind hermit, "She's alive!" and much more. It also adds some pure wackiness such as Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius, with madder plans than Colin Clive’s original Dr. Frankenstein himself. We also get to hear Boris Karloff speak his first words as the monster and Elsa Lanchester play a dual role: Mary Shelley in a funny prologue setting up the sequel and as the bride herself. It’s a hoot from start to finish — and even manages to toss in a scare or two amidst the laughs.
Just as McCabe & Mrs. Miller isn't exactly a Western, it's not strictly a character study either. First and foremost, it's a Robert Altman film, one of those times when the late director got a hold of financing, cameras, actors, a crew and the things he needed for what intrigued him at that moment and did his cinematic dance, part strictly thought out, much improvised and lots that came about by happy accident. That style didn't always work throughout his long career, but when it did, magic resulted. As Pauline Kael wrote in her July 3, 1971, review of the film in The New Yorker, "Though Altman's method is a step toward a new kind of movie naturalism, the technique may seem mannered to those who are put off by the violation of custom — as if he simply didn't want to be straightforward about his storytelling.…He can't be straightforward in the old way, because he's improvising meanings and connections, trying to find his movie in the course of making it…" It took me about three viewings to warm to McCabe. Now, it stands as one of my very favorite Altman films and I can see it climbing higher in the future the more I watch it.
Even with a distance of more than a decade, I find it difficult deciding where to place newer films amid the established classics, but Memento continues to excite me more than any other new movie I saw between 1998 and 2002. The film surpasses the accusations of detractors who see it as merely a gimmick. It also manages to be both funny and heartbreaking as it spins the tale of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man suffering from short-term memory loss that prevents him from remembering anything after a single day. Not helpful when you’re trying to solve your wife’s murder. The film that put Nolan on the map remains my favorite of his works. Pearce gives a great performance as do Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss. It feels as if in the wake of Nolan’s Batman films and Inception, Memento has slipped from many long-term memories. It shouldn’t be forgotten.
When I first saw de Sica's masterpiece, English speakers knew it as The Bicycle Thief. It's only been recently that we've learned the more correct English translation. I guess his film still has things to teach us today. De Sica mastered the art of making films that plucked on a viewer’s heart strings without being so sentimental that it bred resentment. Shoeshine plays like a rough draft for Bicycle Thieves and he later made the great Umberto D., but I have to opt for the simple heartbreaking beauty of Bicycle Thieves and that unforgettable final shot.
A meditation on life, the universe and everything and, for a film whose story begins with a chess game between a knight back from the Crusades and Death for the knight's life as the Black Plague spreads chaos around them, it has a bit more humor than you'd expect. The film also marked the first teaming of Bergman with Max von Sydow, who portrays the knight. It sets the stage for many of the themes Bergman would return again and again throughout his career dealing with God, faith and so much more.
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Edward Copeland's Top 100 of 2012 (60-41)
Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Italian neorealist movement. This story of Italians fighting back against fascism and the Nazis during World War II plays as powerful and moving today as it ever did, with a great cast led by Anna Magnani, who appears in one of the film's most memorable sequences. Despite being generally hard on the film, Manny Farber declared Open City the best film released in the U.S. in 1946 and called Magnani’s performance “the most perfect job by an actress in years and years.”
A breathtaking debut that launched a mostly great film series about Truffaut's screen alter ego, Antoine Doinel, and containing perhaps the most famous freeze frame in film history. It's not bad as a coming-of-age picture either. While The 400 Blows stands alone as the best of the Antoine Doinel films, it’s fascinating to watch Jean-Pierre Leaud play the character from an adolescent to an adult. In its own way, the film resembles the first installment of a fictional version of Michael Apted’s Up documentary series only focusing on a single character.
Pollack didn't just direct and act in this comic masterpiece, he really played tailor as well, stitching together multiple versions of its screenplay to come up with the exquisite finished garment. Dustin Hoffman's brilliant performance as perfectionist pain-in-the-ass actor Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, the female persona he creates to get work, stands as the crowning achievement of his acting career. It doesn't hurt to be surrounded by an equally solid ensemble that includes Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, George Gaynes, Doris Belack, Geena Davis and a nearly all-improvised role by Bill Murray.
Preminger’s crowning achievement could be a routine noirish mystery if it weren’t for its great ensemble of Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price and, most of all, Clifton Webb delivering its wry and witty dialogue by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt (with alleged uncredited contributions from Ring Lardner Jr.). A couple of examples: Price as Laura’s cad of a fiancé Shelby Carpenter declaring ,"I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes" and Webb as bitchy newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker describing his work, "I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom." Laura could be called the All About Eve of film noir mysteries.
Every time I hear that a friend or acquaintance is going to have a baby, I make the same simple request: Do everything in their power to keep all knowledge of this movie away from them until they see it. I would have loved to have seen it without knowing that the shower scene was coming or the truth about Norman Bates. I hope others can have that experience.
One of the biggest jumps of any films from the last list. When revisiting The Last Picture Show for its 40th anniversary last year after having not seen the movie in years, it truly captivated me with its stark beauty. Despite its setting in 1951 in a small Texas town, it contains a universality that resonates today both in human and economic terms. Plot doesn't drive the story — character, not only of the people but of the town itself, does. While you watch the movie, you aren't concerned with what happens next or how the film ends because you realize that life will go on for most of these fictional folks you've come to know. It's telling a coming-of-age story — several in fact — and not all concern the teen characters in the tale. It's also about love and loss, not always in the present tense.
Not only does Broadcast News hold up to repeated viewings, it holds such a special place in my heart that I almost can’t view it rationally. I overidentify with Albert Brooks’ character of Aaron Altman and I’ve known a couple of women with similarities to Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig. More importantly, James L. Brooks wrote and directed a very funny and touching valentine to the decline in television news standards and set it against an unrequited love triangle (with William Hurt’s Tom Grunick filling the third point as well as representing TV news’s deterioration). The supporting cast also aids the entertaining proceedings with the likes of Robert Prosky, Joan Cusack, Lois Chiles, Peter Hackes, Christian Clemenson and Jack Nicholson as the anchor of the network’s evening news.
Even people who view Capra as a sentimental sap tend to like this great madcap romantic romp thanks to the great chemistry of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The first film to sweep the top five categories at the Oscar continues to hold up thanks in no small part to the chemistry between Gable and Colbert. Memorable scenes pile up one after another involving great character actors such as Roscoe Karns and Alan Hale Sr. Perhaps the most magical scene comes when Colbert’s Ellie asks Gable’s Peter if he's ever been in love while on opposite sides of the blanket and he momentarily gets serious, wistfully describing his ideal woman while Ellie slowly melts on the other side of the blanket. May the walls of Jericho always fall.
Here comes Hitch again with his most personal and, in many ways, disturbing film about love and obsession and the need to replace what one has lost. It also happens to be another of my great moviegoing experiences, having been able to see the 1996 restoration at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York. Robert Burks’ cinematography never came across as vividly, especially the reds in the scenes set at Ernie’s. James Stewart delivered one of his best performances as a former cop, already damaged psychologically, pushed further to the edge when he falls for a woman named Madeline (Kim Novak) that he’s been hired to follow and later when he meets her doppelganger and attempts to make her over in Madeline’s image.
As the years roll by, many find themselves less enthused by Tarantino's film. I am not among their ranks, finding that I'm as enthralled, entertained and as giddy as I was the first time I saw it whenever I see any part of it again. Similarly, my faith in Quentin remains strong as well, especially in the wake of Inglourious Basterds, which I definitely could see on a list like this once it reaches its eligibility if it holds up as well as it has so far.
Billy Wilder made so many great comedies with varying levels of pathos that it's hard to pick just one. I considered Some Like It Hot and One, Two Three, but this one remains for me his best film among the ones played primarily for laughs. In the wake of Mad Men, the film proves particularly interesting to watch (even if Roger Sterling thinks female elevator operators defy reality).
Even before the recent passing of Andy Griffith, I had decided that I had to make a spot for A Face in the Crowd on this list. As far as I’m concerned, it undoubtedly stands as Kazan’s best film and as a bit of a prescient one. Without this film, I’m not sure Paddy Chayefsky would have been inspired nearly 20 years later to write Network. Budd Schulberg deserves the bulk of the credit, adapting A Face in the Crowd from a short story he wrote called “Arkansas Traveler.” The film broke ground in its depiction of the convergence and intermingling of the media, corporate and political worlds. In addition to Griffith’s stellar performance as Lonesome Rhodes, the cast includes exemplary work from Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau and Tony Franciosa. Mike Wallace, John Cameron Swayze and Walter Winchell even make cameos as themselves. The film’s reputation should only grow.
When one of the early moments of a movie shows Edward Norton squeezed against the man breasts of a sobbing Meat Loaf, it boggles my mind how many people who saw Fight Club when it came out didn’t immediately recognize the film as a satire. Every time I’ve watched this film, I’ve loved it more than I did originally. To further emphasize its strength, the first time I saw it, I already knew the twist because of an out-of-nowhere comment by David Thomson in a completely unrelated article in The New York Times. Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Jim Uhl’s screenplay and David Fincher’s direction spin a funhouse tour of the consumer culture, self-help groups and machismo. Norton turns in a great performance as always as do Brad Pitt as the devil on his shoulder and Helena Bonham-Carter as a twisted kindred spirit.
A running gag between Wagstaff and I in recent years is that I believe Die Hard is the greatest film ever made. OK, I don't really believe that, but this is one of the best, especially as far as action goes and Alan Rickman remains one of the all-time great movie villains. In addition to having a great bad guy, what sets Die Hard apart from other action films is that its hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis) isn't superhuman. By the end of the movie, he looks as if he's been through hell.
This film doesn't get mentioned as often as it should, but its portrait of the perils of vigilante justice comes through as strongly today as I imagine it did when it was originally released. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan try to speak for calm and rationality against the horde ready to inflict mob violence.
The time is over for the debate as to whether the Oscar this classic silent won in the Academy's first year was the equivalent of "best picture." All that needs to be said is that is a great film, Academy seal of approval or not. It remains both heartbreaking and beautiful 85 years after its debut.
The Godfather Part II may have won best picture in 1974, but for my money it wasn't even the best Coppola film that year, let alone the best picture (not that it isn't good). This simple tale of an eavesdropping expert (Gene Hackman giving one of his best, most restrained performances) experiencing sudden moral qualms remains riveting and thoughtful to this day.
Supposedly, Hitchcock often named this gem as his personal favorite of his films and it certainly remains one of his best with its dry, mordant wit and a great lead in Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie, worshipped by Teresa Wright as his niece Charlie. Much comic relief gets provided by Henry Travers as young Charlie's father and Hume Cronyn as his murder mystery-loving friend.
I'm not talking to you Travis, but about you, and Scorsese and Paul Schrader's dark, modern spin on The Searchers only grows more stunning as the years roll on. Robert De Niro gives one of his greatest performances and, for my money, this may remain Jodie Foster's finest work.
Jean Renoir made a lot of great films and at least two unquestionable masterpieces, including this one, yet you seldom hear his name come up unless you are talking with real cinephiles. Shameful — because his films don't belong to elite tastes: They belong to everyone. This vivid portrait of WWI prisoners of war proves that since it was the very first time the Academy bothered to nominate a foreign language film for best picture. It should have won too.
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