Looking back at my film diary for 2012: I managed to watch 384 films, that is more than an average of one film per day, not bad, could have been more. Beside films, read many books, watched every single football game of FC Barcelona, they are nothing short of watching a piece of Art in motion, but that is another story.
Here are my picks for the best films of 2012, from what I have seen so far:
Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012) Put Tabu beside Carax’ Holy Motors as two self-conscious film in meditation on the art of cinema, equally beautiful and poetic F.W Murnau’s Tabu, Gomes’ Tabu is the story of two films; one sound, one silent. The first part of the film is the sound one, titled, Lost Paradise, almost a Pedro Costa take on the modern day Lisbon, or even better; Pedro Costa’s imagery and de Olivera’s subtle acting, in which Portuguese Colonialism is a past memory that no one talk about, but the legacy is still present in the old grumpy Aurora, she still prefer to refer to her black maid as a “Witch”, and still talk about witchcraft. But to make up for old grumpy Aurora, you got the silent Miss.Pilar; you don’t find characters like her in many films nowadays, she is so gentle, so simple, caring for others is her top priority, even if those others are thousands of miles away, she cry for no reason but for feeling for others, she pray every night before she goes to sleep, always for others and not herself. The second part of the films is the silent one, the most poetic, and the most beautiful, simply titled, Paradise; The times is the days of Portuguese Colonialism in Africa, the style of the film is that of silent cinema; no dialogue, the music of the soundtracks is a perfect silent film accommodation, those long dissolve from one shot into another, silent acting, no title cards, the only sound are the narrative of Gian Luca, minimalist experimental use of sound, beautiful, lyrical black and white imagery, long tracking shots. Miguel Gomes is a poet of filmmaker, every word of Gian Luca describing his youth is in prose; the story of young and beautiful Aurora, in a tragic love affair, from strangers, to lovers, to the story of two lovers on the run, then distance tragic lovers, in which two lover’s only communication now is lover letters; “If I curse the day I met you, it’s because it was followed by the one when we separated”, pure imagination is at work here, it is not circumstances, but the desire for a tragic ending that make the two lover separate forever, “And despite this love, never buried or defeated, I decided not to look for her”, Gian Luca Ventura is a coward of a characters, he neither can get what he desire, nor get away from it, he live in a times of indecision, as for young Aurora, she live, but with regrets, ” I have to exist, because the life I carry demands so”. Beautiful film.
Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012) In his book, Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud write about the three thing that mankind never could escape from; The interaction with the society we live in, the interaction with other people, and our bodies, that is; sickness, old age and death. Amour is the story of sickness, old age and death, the inescapable facts of life, and the interaction with each other, we rarely see the outside world, the only time we do, is when the husband and wife interact with other people from that outside world, we are stuck in a little apartment, with two people, two old people, the only thing they have is to reflect upon the past and the outside world via books, newspaper and radio (they don’t even have TV), but let us put aside Freud and the story of Amour, rather, let us talk about the style that make this film a meditating watch. If you look at the early silent films of the great Yasujiro Ozu, you will find it very stylish, many scenes in which the camera move, high angle, low angles shot, formal style of filmmaking that we rarely associate with Ozu, and if you look at early and middle Haneke, you find them also very stylish, especially 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, but with Amour, he is becoming almost perfect in taking his style to the simplest, back into a formal style of filmmaking, almost to the silent era. Such style is needed for a film that take place inside a closed space of an apartment. Shooting in interior is always a challenge, for giving the limited space, the director does not have enough choice to maneuver the actor around or the camera, that is why the limit use of space is always a challenge for a good Mise en scène; Hanaek solve is brilliantly, going back to the style of Ozu, by using the furniture, doorways, the walls and the characters to block and change the size of the shot within one camera setup; the two old coupe walk into the house, the camera is setup to a two cowboy medium shot, as they go to hang their cloth, away from the camera, the shot become a two long full shot, even when the characters leave the space, he does not cut, but hold the shot. As for camera movement, the camera follow the behind characters in the corridor when in search of something, or to build up suspense, a little pans, a tilt, to adjust the character’s position and framing, or to change the shot size, the same camera movement is repeated multiple times, giving an overall unity to the style in the film. At times, as the character leave the space, the camera stay, it is the off-screen sound that tell the viewer the present of the character within the frame. Most of the time, we observe the wife through the subject POV of the husband, almost a Hitchockaian use of the shots; we see the husband, he looks, shot of what he see, back to his reaction, at times, his POV shot become an objective of an establishing shot, as he walk into the frame. Perhaps simpler in style, is the coverage shot; when the dialogue is not interesting, Hanake hold the establishing shot for a long time; when it is interesting; after the establishing shot, he cut to two over-the-shoulder shots, back and forth, when it is emotional, it is back and forth medium close up shot of each, couldn’t get simpler, but formal in style than that. You even have the pillow shots of Ozu, not as glamors, nor as poetic; still life shots of the interior of the apartment as transition from one sequence into another. As for the wide shots, there are very few, but when there is one, the space is used like a theatrical stage, characters spread out in one layer, the only time there is depth within the frame is when a character move toward or away from the camera, almost back to the early day of silent filmmaking, with one different; you got dialogue, sound effect and music in Amour, masterful.
Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012) After more than a decade since his last feature film, Carax is back stronger than ever. Take a limousine ride around Paris with Monsieur Oscar on the back seat and Ciline driving, Carax’s a modern day Alphaville take on memory and reflection of cinema, watch it on the big screen, it is not made for TV or Computer screens, and if one has a strong memory of cinema, one will appreciate the genius of the film more. Carax’s most personal film to date is his love poem to cinema, to the past and the future of cinema, the beautiful past, and the future in which cinema become a CGI factory, but he does not reject the future, he only reflect upon it beauty; it is more glamorize to show the the technique of CGI than hiding it, but the emotion can’t be registered truthfully, the actor muse use stylized gestures and movement of the body, Denis Lavant’s dance in the room bring back memory of the ending of another film on the memory of cinema, Clair Denis’ Beau travail. Holy Motors is a combination of short films, each a tribute to a different cinema, it has one thing that many today’s film lack, less dialogue and more visual, cinema that once were cinema. Carax’s memory of cinema reflect upon copying of imagery and characters; the old man from the end of 2001, the factories from Ozu, roads of future from Solaris, Godzilla, the hair from Psycho, sound from Alphaville, Resnai’s Last Years at Marianbad, Rivett’es Umerbela of Chernburg, Hollywood’s musical, perhaps no other is as clear as Edith Scob at the end of the film becoming Christiane again, she is at home once again as if in Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, putting the mask on, “I’m coming home”. The one other film that I could think of with its structure being the memory of cinema is Pedro Costa’s O Sangue. Even the acting in each sequence is in line with cinema’s progress; the Monsieur Merde sequence is pure expressionism, re-carnation of Jekyll and Hyde, Nosferatu, a mix of King Kong and Hunchback of Noter Dame, Lon Chaney alive again, heavy orchestra of silent music on top of it, you even got the iris closing in on the details, Monsieur Merde’s behavior lack logic, like a silent character, he knocks down a blind man out of dozen who sees. What is more classical than a woman lightening a cigarette for a man and vise-verse, the old cliché of Hollywood, the beauty light it for the beast, Monsieur Merde break down cultural perception of what is normal, to him it is normal of a having Hijab fashion show. The file in the car that tell Monsieur Oscar his next assignment is a movie script, the car is like a transition from one sequence into another, moving in time, to the past, to the future, in which even the graves, even when one is dead, one express, “Visit my Website”, the address on the stones. The film open with an audience being hypnotized, they are watching a film, cinema as a hypnotizer, the man is born out of a projector room. You even have an intermission in the middle of the film, Even music is present within its historical content, masterful build up of instrumental music from the basic. Characters are re-creation of a creation, they take over each other’s personality, the murder scene; the murder take over the identity of the victim and vise versa. When the director ask Monsieur Oscar if he still enjoy his job, that of acting, “I’m asking, because some of us think you have looked a bit tired recently. Some don’t believe what they are watching recently” Oscar answers, “I miss the cameras. They used to be heavier than us, then they became smaller than our heads, no you can’t see them at all. So sometimes I too find it hard to believe in it all”, as cinema used to be visual, nowadays they only need microphones than cameras. The director ask again, “Isn’t this nostalgia a bit sentimental?”, It is indeed, if one truly love what cinema once where, one can’t help feeling nostalgic in reflecting upon it. Denis Lavant is a great actor, he act with his body, his eyes, with gestures only, a twisting in the eyes, a move of the shoulder, a perfect classic actor, very few of them around nowadays. He is perfect as Monsieur Oscar, an actor stuck on the screen, each day is a new one but its actions is one that is rehearsed, each night a different house become his home, different characters his wife, lovers, children, friends and enemies, be it real, surreal, abstract, or even plain pure fantasy, he is a man with 11 lives and counting, he is cinema’s creation and nothing more, the most beautiful and deceptive of a manipulative in emotions of all arts. A Masterpiece.
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2012) Ah, the good old love melodrama of the 50s is back with a touch of Davies; the overexposed lightbulb, the rainy pavement, the flashbacks, the good oldies pop music playing on the background and those characters with those lines that are only possible in the realm of the fictions, that can become laughable if it were not at the hand of masters like Sirk, Fassbinder and in the case of The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies. Marvelous, in class with the classic melodramas.
In Another Country (Sang-soo Hong, 2012) There is an honesty in examining relationships in Sang-soo Hong’s film, that very few filmmakers manages to achieve, like Eric Rohmer, he is a distance observer, never forcing himself as a director in manipulating character’s behavior, same is true with the dialogues, it flows out of the character’s mouth and not a written script, improvisation is the trick, like his use of zoom in and out, he examine these relationship, be it a husband to a wife, or total strangers to each with little details, combined with a improvisation in the dialogue, and the acting, that is almost as gestural as in a Tati film, it create comic scenes in which the adults behave like children, even their cruel behaviors are funny, they live in a world of behaving, one person can have multiple identity from once scene into another, that is why Anne (Isabelle Huppert) play different role with each character and within each scene, at times cruel, at time gentle, it is no surprise that she play different role in the film, repeating of the same scenes and characters, but each time differently; she is an actor first, playing a role in “please be my friend” game, as she is chased by two men, she is running away from both, but respectfully, then she is a rich wife, having an affair, playing “follow the leader”, that is, in her imagination, the third one, is a combination of the two, the quite one and the imaginative one, that is where the best scene occurs; Anne having a rhetorical and dialectical conversation with a monk that define what the film is all about. Priceless.
Caesar Must Die aka Cesare deve morire (Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani, 2012) Shakespeare and Cinema are very fond of each other, but it takes great courage for a a filmmaker to renew and adopt Shakespeare to fit the time, so it is with Caesar Must Die, one of the best adaptation of any Shakespearian play that I have seen in a long time, with its simplicity in use of sets, non-professional actors and realism that put to shame the over-the-top and glamorous Hollywood and Kenneth Branagh’s recent adaptation of Shakespeare. The intertwining of documentary, fiction and a play within a play in not something new, but to have it done in a real prison with real inmate, that is something special. The black and white cinematography, the interior of the prison, the raw faces, the amateur performance, it all give a realism in brutality to the film that fit best Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar, it give it a truth that one rarely find in a play, as the performance on the stage became as real as the one on the screen.
On the Road (Walter Salles, 2012) I remember when I first started reading in English, one of the first book that I read was a Penguin version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, it was an intermediate version in which the novel is dumbed down to bits and pieces, despite many scenes missing, I enjoyed reading one of the best book from the Beat Generation, more than half a century later, Kerouac’s writing still held more truth than ever, because it was written from experience and not imagination, from inner truth of someone who had lived, and wrote about a life lived. Sal, he is always going, but he is not going anywhere, he is just going, trying to escape the present emptiness, because he is in love with the old world, he toast when he drink to “To the good, old, dead, demented men we love”, and rebellious Dean add, “And to the West”, there begin the all American journey of the two. Salles beautifully capture that journey of the many roads across all Americana, with the cinematic license to change as he desire Kerouac’s text, that journey of youth, those few precious times that goes by so fast, never to return, be it full of turmoil or be it full of beauty, he gives Kerouac and his world the justice of capturing it to utmost smallest details, always to the point and nothing more, in the abnormal world of youth rebellion, in living fast and dying young.
The Angels’ Share (Ken Loach, 2012) Loach’s cinema can be cruel, but comically cruel, his masterpiece, Kes, is a tragedy in comedy with not a so happy ending, The Angels’ Share is also a tragedy in comedy but with a happy ending, something that Loach rarely does in his films. When in 2011, during the UK youth riot, the debate raged on, on both side, some condemning the young “thugs”, others defending the “dissatisfied youth”, but none wanted to understand these youth, but Loach understand them, and The Angels’ Share is an examination of the inner-city youths, be it a group of young Glaswegian, the story could have been in London or any other town in any other place, they live in a world in which they struggle to find a decent place to sleep, but a world, in which the price of a bottle of whiskey can go as high a £100,000, in a world in which social appearance and character’s one’s past mistake can hunt one forever.
The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev, 2012) I once showed Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker to a friend, after watching it, she said, “The film has a beautiful cinematography, but nothing happens it it”, well, first we have to define what “nothing is”, if three people walking is “something” and it is not “nothing”, then Stalker got something, for it got lots of walking in it, same is true for The Loneliest Planet, it got lots of walking, it got something. To my knowledge, this is Julia Loktev’s second feature film, and my first encounter with her cinema. The Loneliest Planet is similar to Stalker, take out the poetry and the philosophy of Tarkovksy and you got a cheap imitation of the film, not only does the guide person is similar in look to the Stalker, but also is the landscape, the style of the film, the camera moving around, chasing the characters, like a magnet, dragging them along, the whispers, the silence, the music, it is all there, in Stalker, the three take a trip into a world of the unknown Zone, each searching for something, they each have a past, look forward to the future, in The Loneliest Planet, the three are searching for nothing, as they travel the Caucasus mountains, we don’t know about their past, nor their future, the only time that future is mentioned is when the guide talk about his desire to have a “four wheel car”, or when asking the girl which country she has not traveled too, but just as Stalker is a grandeur symphony, The Loneliest Planet is a piece of chamber music, each scene is like an instrument, it stand out, but without the other instrument, it lack a definite sound, it take to finishing the film to get a whole prospect of the beauty of it.
Great ones from 2011, that I watched in 2012:
Faust (Alexander Sokurov, 2011) There are many film adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, the best that I had seen had always been F.W Murnau’s Faust, for it is a fantasy adaptation with no desire to be realistic or true to the book. Sokurov’s Faust is equal in power to that of Murnau, it is a film that only a philosopher of a poet could make it, as complex in nature as Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Sokurov create a world that on the surface seems like a realistic portrayal of the world of Faust, but underneath, it is a metaphor for Faust’s inner dilemmas, so what you end up seeing on the screen, is a world of two, always in conflict with each other, that of the reality and that of the poetic, the outer illusion of what you see, and the inner conflict within it, the battle instead of good and evil become that of the inner and the outer realization of a metaphorical world within Faust, it is a majestic and hypnotizing watch.
Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2011) Zvyagintsev tell a story like a novelist, if he had been born centuries earlier, before the age of cinema, he could have a masterful novelist, perhaps equal in psychology to Doestvosky and in detail to Turgenev. As much as the critics in the West tried their best to make a political film out of Elena, or to describe the world of the film as existing only in the streets of Moscow, it is not so, the streets, the characters and the houses could have been in any modern city of any country in today’s world, Zvyagintsev never been a political filmmaker, rather, his films are an examination of characters in relationship with each others, on the outside pretending to be something, but deep down, they are in turmoil; in The Return, is an examination of a Father’s inner turmoil relationship with his two sons, in The Banishment, a husband to a wife. In Elena, the inner turmoil of the wife is not only psychologically driven by her world being inferior to that of her husband, for she comes from a proletariat class compared to her rich husband, but there is also a mysterious motive of love in her, the love for her children and also the hatred for her husband’s daughter that drive her to commit murder. It is a murder that arises from inner motive hidden inside her, she is not Raskolnikov, she has never imagined, nor planned to murder, it arises from a moment of passion, a split second decision that she think is an act of righteousness. We never truly understand the protagonist in Elena, she remain a mystery, psychologically, we only understand her through her little actions; cleaning the room, cooking, watching TV, shopping, walking, taking a train, it is these little action that show her characters, same is true for the Father in The Return, and the husband in The Banishment, they are mysterious characters that we get a short glimpse of in the cinema cinema of Zvyagintsev, a world with its look dominated by the colors of blue, yellow and white, beautiful cinema. Masterpiece.
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki, 2011) I have to make a confession; I cried at the end of Le Havre, the miracles of a wife being resurrected, a cheery tree blooming in mid winter is Kaurismaki’s optimistic vision of the cinematic possibility of a miracle, if Chaplin has made a film today, it would had been Le Havre, for the heart and the deep rooted sentimentality of the film is pure Chaplin, one good deed from one person can have a profound impact on others, and that is why, the ending of Le Havre is as powerful as that of City Light, we as the viewer are faced with truth that is hard to accept, but we know it is possible, the most optimistic work of Kaurismaki do date.
The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, 2011) Two years ago, Belcourt Theatre in Nashville showed 35mm print of Tarr’s Satantango, more than six hours in length, it was shown in two part with a break for lunch between, it was a great experience in watching one of the best film of the 90s. As for The Turin Horse, I had if for more than a year, a Digital copy of the film, but I did not watch it , for I waited for a the blue-ray version of the film to appear, because it is a sin to watch Tarr film in a low quality version, or on a computer screen, you miss the beauty of it. The Turin Horse is supposedly Tarr’s last film, and no, it is not a story about Nietzsche, and neither it is it of a horse, like the big whale in Werckmeister Harmonies, the horse is only a character that our main characters evolve around it, almost like a pivot, it is the story of a Father and the Daughter, but more than anything, The Turin Horse is an examination of little details that made life once life, little action define the Father and the Daughter; cutting of the wood, building the fire, cooking the potato, washing the cloth, removing the skin of the hot potato, eating the potato, drying up the cloth, getting water from the well, getting dressed, getting undressed, loading a cart, and unloading it, feeding the horse, etc. There is also the action of doing nothing, just sitting and staring, it is a beautiful artificial world that only cinema can produce, and Tarr is bold about it; it is windy, everything in the frame move by the wind, but the trees on the background are not moving, artificial, those long tracking shot that seem to be pushing the character away from us, yet, always following them, beautiful black and white cinematography, the wide room that is a cinematic stage, every prop in it place to utmost detail, like Dryer’s composition, very clean. There is purity in the look of the film, either black, or white, with a light shade of gray. Everything has weight of equal significant in a Tarr film; a character walking, talking, doing something, doing nothing, his face to us, his back to us, a room full of characters or an empty room, a leaf flying amid the wind, it is all equally giving the same time and space on the screen, he is not as a perfectionist as Hitchcock when telling a story, he is rather imperfect of storyteller, but such a lack of perfection in the narrative make his films ever more a meditative watch that leave you with lasting impression, just as Hitchcock always let the viewer knows as much as the characters in the film or even more, when characters look, we see what they are looking at, or a times, we see things that the character never see, we are ahead of them, Tarr does the opposite, we never know what the characters know, let alone know more than them, when they look, they stare, but we never know what they are staring at, we have to guess it, but they are both master filmmakers, because they use the tool of the trade to the extreme edge, in doing so, they reach perfection. What emotion the characters lack in the film is made up for it by the music of Vig Mihaly, almost a silent film orchestral music accommodating the film. As for the dialogue, there are few, for the Father and Daughter in the film live by action and not dialogue, when a visitor talk about the philosophical edge of doom, after a long talk, the Father simply tells him, “Come on, that is rubbish”, words mean nothing to them, only action. Tarr should have been making film in the 50s and 60s, in the days when the giants of cinema made their best, he belong with them, with; Bresson, Bunuel, Ozu, Bergman, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ford, Hawks, Welles, Ray, Dreyer, Antonioni, etc. Tarr’s last film, his farewell to cinema is a beautiful one, and he shall be missed.
Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da aka Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011) Everything in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is hidden, the emotion of the characters are not what they are shown to us through their lengthy dialogue, rather, it is underneath, Ceylan like Tarkovsky, show us that emotion silently through the use of his camera. Like a symphony, the silence is the emotion, the film is divided almost mathematically in various bets of silence, silence in which the camera take on a life of its on as it observe, search, shows the hidden emotion, and it is for the viewer to find. Like Chekhov’s main characters in his stories, the main characters in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia keep their essential emotion to themselves, they are the heart of the film, the Prosecutor and the Doctor. You may call Once Upon a Time in Anatolia as Ceylan’s epic film, more than 2 hour and a half in length, it is a combination of everything that Ceylan had shown in us the past, the landscapes of Kiarostami that dominate Climates, the many tributes to Tarkovsky as in Clouds of May and Kasaba, the Doestovsky’s psychological attitude of the characters in Uzak and Üç Maymun, take all that and add the dark territory of Yilmaz Guney to Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and you have not just a Ceylan’s masterful take on the crime/detective genre, but also, his first epic film. Masterful.
Drive (Nicholas Winding, 2011) What makes Drive such a thrilling watch comes down to its smart combination of genres and styles, characters right out of American cinema of 70s, story of a loner out of European cinema of 60s, a musical soundtrack of 80, mix it with the stylish influence of Wong Kar Wai, combine all that with a tragic Greek play rather than a story, and in Drive you get a thrilling watch, despite the few flows in the film in which the violent is stretched to the limit, it is one to watch.
Another Earth (Mike Cahill, 2011) Well, now you know what it is like to mash together Stanley Kubrick and Krzysztof Kieslowski, you get Another Earth, with its psychological power to grab the viewer into a tale of guilt and redemption mashed into a science-fiction genre with masterfully staged scenes that are equal in power to 2001: A Space odyssey, it has been a while that a film could move a viewer into the edge of wonder watching a scene so powerful and other worldly as the first contact scene between this Earth with Earth 2 in Another Earth, equally powerful to that of Hal 9000 in 2001. For a small budget film, produced, directed, acted, edited and shot with only a handful staff, it is a truly a wonder film to watch, emotionally powerful as it is intellectually manipulative that put to shame a million time a big-budget film like Melancholia. Another Earth is not to be missed.
Meeks Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2011) It has been more than a decade that I had seen a Western so fresh, new and revisionist as Meeks Cutoff. One has to go back to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), as the last great western. A genre never die, but a great film in a genre should always reinvent itself, and it takes Reichardt to do so. With a story-line that mix between Wellman’s Yellow Sky and Ford’s Wagon Masters, Reichardt add a new dimension to the story, that of knowing, asking questions at every turn, just like the history of the West, with its dark tragic past, its brutal treatment of the Native, the guilt of that history that is that nothing short of genocidal, always hidden, rarely questioned with it’s muddy historical accuracy, the film almost become a mediation into that history, a road taken with no end in sight, and the only vision is that of a Native Indian, in which we are unable to communicate, yet it lead us into that unknown territory.
Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011) Margaret is a film about guilt, the inability to face one’s guilt, one of the basic emotion of human, and the opening credit of the film set the tone for it; Tarrega’s lyrical music, Recuerdos de la Alhambra set to the slow motion of a crowd walking the street of NY, the camera is in search of a protagonist, one among the crowd, we find our protagonist, not on the street, but in a classroom, Lisa, a teenager becoming an adult, like all other teenager in the film, she is emotionally in turmoil, unstable, a snub, always arguing for the opposite view just for the sake of arguing, she love debating, love letting other people down, she have a prejudice and limited view of others, even racist when it comes to her view of Arabs and Muslims, she doesn’t like Californian, telling her father, “I don’t go for the Californian type”, as if all the Californian were the same, she even hate Opera, because she “don’t like that kind of singing”, she generalize everything, but she know nothing, she call people “strident” without knowing what the word itself means, if someone is kind to her, she think they want something from her, but if someone ignore her, she is attracted to them, she exchange the boy who is in love with her for a guy for a one night stand, she calculate all her moves, yet always end up in the wrong, a simple search for a cowboy hat bring ever lasting grief not upon herself only, but countless others, she become a different person. The bus incident is the heart of the film, everything in the film evolve around it, that is why it is shot so realistically compare to the the artificiality of other scenes, poor woman, she has been hit by a bus, at first she think she is dead, she is in shock, but when she realize she is dying, she does not want to go, it is hard to portray death, or the moment of dying, that is why the dialogue is so important between the woman dying and Lisa, it get the viewer’s empathy for the two of them, the only time that the viewer sympathize with Lisa, for seeing one dying in front of you is more shocking than hearing about it, when it is a stranger, it is less emotional, as one hear daily of many victims of war, famines, car crashes, murder, etc, they are a mere number, but when face to face, they are human being, and not just a number, that is why others have a hard time relating to the incident as Lisa does, for grief is personal and comes from one experiencing it, she has a hard time herself dealing with it, because she has never cared for anybody or anything truthfully, and those few caring emotional moment with the woman become a paradox for her, her action to erase that guilt for the rest of the film make it even hard for the viewer to sympathize with her, she becomes more of a despicable of a character, because she can’t face the reality in herself, she always pretending, full of fakery, but others see through her, and when they do, all she has to show, is anger, because she is incapable of loving, her mother is no better than her, she is an exact copy, she care more about the first day opening of her play than her daughter’s emotional turmoil, both selfish, caring only for oneself, and her father is another snob, every time he call her, he ask her about “the boyfriend situation”, dysfunctional family at its best, they are cold and heartless, and New York is also cold in the film, distance, and emotionless. The guilt of Lisa is what drive the film, because she was the cause of a death, that guilt make her to lie, not in order to save the driver from punishment, but as a small token of redemption for herself, but its no redemption as she find out, and being a snob, she want to find something to pass the guilt to, for she can’t face the reality within herself, of being guilty, of the inner punishment, she goes as far as to ask the driver to share her guilt equally if not more to lessen her burden, when she fails, she wash one guilt with another one, by wanting to punish the driver, to make him suffer her guilt, to take her responsibility, that is her inner struggle that clashes with outer world, of being guilty and wanting to escape from it, she is annoying not only to everyone in the film, but also to the viewer. Lisa, she is evil, just as nobody in the film want to understand her, so it is with the viewer, she is one character that the viewer love to hate, one of the most despicable character of recent films, and when she lose, her breakdown of confessing to the guilt become a triumph for the viewer; watching the guilty pleasure of her downfall, as more guilt is added to what she suffers from already, at the end, it is the music of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman that closes the film, again the camera searches, this time on the stage, its camera searches among the crowd again, but it easily find Lisa, she is sitting there, she has become one of the crowd.
Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011) You may call Young Adult a modern day take on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; Quixote is a middle aged woman, Mavis Gary, Panza being a former high school friend of her, now on crutches, and Dulcinea del Toboso is her former high school boyfriend whom she now chasing. Mavis pretend to be a successful writer, when not busy writing stories for teenagers, she is watching TV, and the television is always on some reality show on teenagers, she still live in a world of of her high school days, but her friends, and her former town passed that stage many years ago, she take a journey back to her town, to get her former boyfriend back. One of the best scene in the film is when she driving around the town, looking for a decent place to eat dinner, as she looks, it gets worse, all she sees is KenTacoHut; KCF, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, and her face drops more into a dreary mood, shaking her head in disbelief. She was once popular in her little town, in her high school, now living far away, in Minneapolis, she seem to belief that she is leading a fast life in a big city, think of others who are leading a normal life in her former small town as boring, she is a snob, or pretend to be one, she is all appearance, leading an empty life, even if she is a failure, she pretend otherwise, she is always faking it, never could face reality, even when in a bar, she pretend to be busy with her cellphone, typing gibberish, but deep inside, she wishes to be in their shoes. To her love is like in the movies, like The Graduate, she still listen to oldies music, she write for teenagers, she is still a teenager lost in the body and mind of a middle aged woman, so it is no wonder that she can’t expect the fact that the guy she was once in love with in high school is married now and has a child, worse, she can’t imagine he would love his child and his wife, for she think, everyone is selfish like herself, she still think he is meant to be for her, as she shout, “Love conquers all”. She get ready for her date with the guy, put on her best dress, does her hair, manicure, massage, like a first date, but the guy live in a different world, after so many years, meeting again, he invite her to meet in a sport bar, he walk into the bar wearing his home dress, unshaven, sleepy, yet, she still want him, she talk to him romantically, repeat the same sentences she hear from teenager in the street. She star spying on him and his family life, with his old body from high school, both perfect as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; she is a Quixote who is always fantasizing, but Panza alway bring her back to reality, but despite being such a snob and liar, toward the end, like Quixote, you can’t help feeling sorry for her, as her fantasy world become the cruel reality she has been running away from all her life, but as it turn out, her fantasy world might just as well be equal if not better than the reality of the people that live in at her small town pretending to be happy.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011) Watching We Need to Talk About Kevin feels like watching an experimental music video; from orchestral, to bluegrass, country, folks, pop, chorus, classic, rock, classic rock, to the great Lonnie Donegan and Buddy Holly,to Zen, back to bluegrass, with the most memorable of all the tracks being; Washington Phillip’ Mother’s Last Word To Her Son. Coming from Lynne Ramsay, a former photographer, the images in films are still photographs in motion, making the film a combination a dozen or so bits and pieces of experimental filmmaking; with tomatoes and red color being the pivot between the shots, be it tomatoes, catchup, Campbell tomato soup, or egg and tomato omelet, no kidding. It is a bizarre film on a dysfunctional family seemingly leading a normal life. The story of a woman that hate being a mother so much, that she prefer the sound of a drilling machine to that of her baby son crying, Kevin and her Mother seem to be competing as to which one of them is the most despised person in the film, like mother, like son. An arty version of The Omen in the examination of a hate relationship between a Mother and a Son, even the society, the people surrounding the two seem more abnormal than the two, but Kevin, spoiled brat, stand up above the rest, he has to be one of the most despicable character of recent films, yet, after committing the atrocities, he comes out into the spotlight, like a rock star, a decent portrayal of a society in love with violent.
The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011) Alexander Payne set out in The Descendants to make a film about a character who is in a coma, suffering, yet, she is the one that causes the most pain upon the others, making her the most unattractive character in the film. Unlike the many heavy handed sentimental films about the same subject, common to the genre, at the end of The Descendants, Payne arrives at creating one of the most sentimental film of the last few years, for the characters are real three dimensional figures, they all have their faults, cruelty and inner most darkest desires, shown in the most cruelest and humors ways, that reminds one of the cinema of Fellini, but at the end, when the sentimentality arrives, they do care, and we do care, and it is those sincere moments of showing of caring produce an emotional ending to a dark film of a comedy, and we, as viewer, feel it, even if its a short glimpse.
Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2011) There is a short story by Anton Chekhov titled The Duel; in which the the main character in the story is in a relationship with a woman whom he care deeply about, but despise her even more, while eating lunch, he suddenly notice the way she is eating the food, he is displeased by her “white open neck and the little curls at the back of her head”, and a sudden hatred in despise arise him, at that second he recall Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “And he remembered that when Anna Karenina got tired of her husband, what she disliked most of all was his ears, and thought: ‘How true it is, how true!’”, and a feeling of contempt in him lead him to sympathize with those who kill their mistress, but he does not go that far, but Bernie does, poor Bernie; a man who everyone love, everyone want to be with, one that seem to be only capable of loving others before oneself, but end up with the one person (Shirley MacLaine is brilliant in the role of the cold, old, rich widow) who is incapable of love, and a split second is enough for Bernie to act violently; that split second is seeing her chewing the food more that is take to be chewed at lunch table, that is the officially story of the film that everyone in the town love to tell; but can a man like that really exist?, or was he really a monster of an actor that managed to fool a small town and also fool the viewer, as the prosecutor puts it , “There is no doubt in my mind Bernie Tiede is a calculating evil actor”. The genius of the film is the script, the mashing of the holy and the absurd, when a character talk seriously, suddenly a punch line underline the seriousness in the dialogue, when Bernie is been integrated, he confess to the crime “I shot poor Mrs. Nugent four times. With the armadillo gun”, the Sheriff asks, “Then what?”, “Well, then the Lord called her Home”, or when one of her old lady friend try to disclaim the rumors that Bernie might have been a “queer”, because he wore sandals all the time, and he was not married; “Our Lord and Savior always wore sandals and he never married. And he had 12 disciples, and I don`t think any of them ever married. And you never heard anybody in the New Testament say that they was a bunch of queers”, but the genius of Linklater is to take the documentary genre and twist it to a degree that is still manipulative, not to to a degree of a mockumentary, but a fictional take on a narrative story of a film that uses all the manipulative tool of a documentary; the direct interview, the juxtaposition in imagery, newsreel tradition, take on mondo films, mixing of the experiential strand and the interview strand, to create a masterful film of a black comedy, with genuine realistic characters of a fictional creation. I lived in the South and I could pinpoint many of the character in the film as some that I have one encountered, and I couldn’t help but murmur to myself, “How true it is, how true!”
Cinematic ocean is so deep that as you dive to it, you come upon gem after gem, here the precious gems that I discovered (re-discovered) the past year:
The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925) I vividly recall the first time I watched The Big Parade; I checked the film out of the library, it was an old VHS tape, and from the first frame of the film to the last, I was glowed to the screen, for two hours, I did not move from my place, and when the scene came along of John Gilbert in the trenches captures the German soldier, he has already wounded him, for the first time he sees the face of his enemy, he want to kill him to revenge his friends, but he realize he is just a man like himself, and this realization only lead him to more contempt; he light a cigarette to the dying German solider, all the time, pushing his head back forth as if telling him, “You are just like me, why is that? Why should I kill you?”, as I watched that long take of the two of them in the trench, one dying at the hand of other, neither knowing why, nor on how to behave. I could not help repeating to myself loudly, “What a scene, what a genius Vidor is, what genius filmmaking”, and when the end scene came along; the son return, with one leg missing, the poor mother, old and gray, as they embrace each other, flashback over the scene of the son as little child taking his first step, I could not help being moved to the edge of tears, such beauty, honesty and truth in a film is hard to find in today’s cinema, and those battles scenes, even today, more than 80 years later, they are still among the most beautifully choreographed battles scenes ever to have been captured on the screen, they are like symphonies, beat by beat, they build up into a harmonic climax. Genius film.
By the Law aka Po zakonu (Lev Kuleshov, 1926) As a kid, I was madly in love with the world of Jack London, in cold winter nights, I used to read his works under a lamp or a candle light, what a great feeling it was, I must have read White Fang at least three times. The world of Jack London is exotic, but it is cold, not just the snowy landscape, but also the inner soul of his characters, he was not a writer who could write about the inner demons of his characters in such prose as Doestovsky or Turgenev, instead, he wrote naturalistically, using the landscape and the natural forces as a reflection of that souls, human struggle for survival against not only extreme natural forces, but also one another, even if escaping the law of society, man cannot escape the law of other men in condemnation, as it is in his short story, The Unexpected, in which By the Law is based upon. Even in the remote landscape of Yukon, human condemn others in the name of law and religion, in the hand of Kuleshov, Jack London’s story became a psychological struggle within the soul of three characters, the extreme natural forces in the background only awaken the demon in them more, into a point of becoming unbearable to tolerate one another, even there, Queen Victoria condemn men to death, the law of the jungle seem more tolerant than that of humanity, just under an hour in length, By the Law is among the best of silent Kuleshov.
The Holy Mountain (Leni Riefenstahl, 1926) All praise to Leni Riefenstahl as a film director, but what a lousy actor and a dancer she is in The Holy Mountain. What she lack in acting and dancing in the film is taken care of by the beautiful and lyrical cinematography in the film, what a beautiful film. The story of the sea, the mountain, the snow, add to them a triangular love affair and man’s conflict and harmony with nature. Cinema by nature is a medium that once took its inspiration at birth from theater, the horizontal space is what most directors like to photograph and stage their mes-en scene, but in The Holy Mountain, Riefenstahl does the opposite, everything seem to be photographed and composed vertically, even the depth staging is vertically stages, Riefenstahl goes to the extreme as to mask the frame into vertical lines, that is what give the unique beauty to the film. Not to be missed.
Show People (King Vidor, 1928) A King is a King, and King Vidor is King of a giant of silent cinema, and Show People is a masterful examination of the dream factory of the silent Hollywood, made by a man who himself had made some of the best silent film of the era, it is no surprise that the film came out in a year that the talkie began to end the golden age of silent cinema, the glamour of the dream factory is there, but it also a cautious tale of what success might bring upon those who dream it, Vidor knew all about it; from a young company clerk he became one of Hollywood’s most successful director of the silent era, in between he worked as a comedy script writer, then short director of dramatic works, and then an independent producer and director, then taking up his long career at MGM. Show People is an honest film in comedy made by a man who knew all the trick of the trade, all the stars appear in this little charming film, even the great Charlie Chaplin want to have a signature of the leading lady, as he declare, “I like collecting signatures!”, she does not recognize him without his cane and his little mustache, “Who was that little man?” she asks, “That was Charlie Chaplin”, she fades. More than 84 years, it still make us laugh louder than ever and put to shame such mediocre of a lousy film as Michel Hazanvicius’s The Artist that suppose to depict the silent era, give me the genius of Vidor anyway over the counterfeiter Hazanvicius.
The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch, 1929) I’m scratching my head and still thinking if I have ever seen any bad film from Ernst Lubitsch so far? and the answer is, no. The man is so good, he can even make the dead laugh beyond their graves. Among his early sound film, The Love Parade is a part musical and a part nothing, but giveaway film, full of jokes that has nothing to do with the film, almost a Tashlin before there ever was a Tashlin. Take the cross-eyed joke, such masterful touch that only Lubitsch could come upon as making it nothing short of a charming touch, despite its cruelty. The battle of the sexes rages on, this time, with the throne at stake, the throne? that means nothing to the charming Maurice Chevalier, when he says “Nao”, he means, “Nao”, and no Queen can change that “Nao”. Priceless.
Abraham Lincoln (D.W Griffith, 1930) D.W Griffith, that genius of silent cinema, is also a genius of sound cinema, and his small epic take on Abraham Lincoln is a testament to that, it was his first talkie, the sound is used only to signify the important of dialogue in moving the plot forward, other than that, turn the sound off, and you get a perfect silent picture without inner titles. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln is not the story of a towering figure, rather, it is a small lyrical take on a man from his birth to his death, in between; we are with young Abe as he get his first fight, cut woods for others, we see him fall in love madly with Ann Rutledge, his tragic separation from her, from the young lawyer whom everyone look down on to becoming a president in which everyone take him for a dreamer, to his assassination at the hand of Booth. Walter Huston is brilliant in the role of Lincoln, even if it take heavy makeup and fake boots to make him older and taller. Great One.
Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh, 1932) Me and My Gal has to be listed as one of the best sound film of 1932, for its use of multiple narrative, giveaway scenes, and the use of sound to minimum. What start as a day in the life of Sergeant Danny (Spencer Tracy), going around shipyard docks and doing best not to do anything, a slacker who become a hero at the end of the film, and in between, he marries the girl of his life. Notable scenes include a long high angle two take of a monolog between Danny and his girl as they talk about a film that the saw; “I saw a swell picture last night, the name was, was, the Strange something…Strange in the Tubes”, “Oh, I know, I saw that, that is the one where the actor say one thing and a minute later they say out loud what they really think”, “Yeah”. Well my friend, as they are talking on the couch, they say one thing to each other, and in a voice over monolog they say something else to the audience, one of the best love scenes in irony of early sound cinema, everything in the film work that way, the characters say one things, but they mean another thing, at times, the image is at odd with the sound, a wonderful film to watch.
Man of Aran (Robert Flaherty, 1934) In the heart of Flaherty’s cinema is the never ending battle between Men and Nature, the Men might win a battle or two; as Nanook build his igloo in the middle of a snowy storm in Nanook of the North, and the Man of Aran might peddle away into safety in a story sea, but in the end, it is alway Nature that win the war, and the last shots of Man of Aran, the foaming sea leaping into the sky is a testament to that, Nature never lose. So it is with Flaherty, there are more shot of the waves hitting the cost of Aran than than of the three main characters combined, such beautiful imagery. The human are there for the sake of the narrative only, yes, it is improvised, montage is used to create a narrative, for Documentary filmmaking in its nature is as selective if not more abstract than fictional filmmaking, for what is montage than selecting one footage over another? In order to tell the truth, one must re-create that truth, that is why, Man of Aran is a truthful film, true, re-told in a documentary form, and how beautifully it is told, Flaherty was the first, and the greatest among the docu filmmakers, always going back to him.
Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor, 1935) She ask Sylvia, “But were you a girl dressed as a boy? or, are you a boy dressed as a girl?”, and the artist answer back, “Sylvester is Sylvia!”. Katharine Hepburn perhaps gives her best performance, a role that fit her best, masculine-feminine. In the first act she play the role of a ruffian boy, then on the second act, she is the most gentle girl, madly in love, the, in the third act, she is back to the role of the boy, only this time, she has her gentle spirit. The film was a financial disaster upon its release, maybe the public were not ready for such fast paces, genre masquerading, and changing roles of the characters, as everyone act in the film more than one role, each times, not only deceiving the viewer, but also other characters in the film. It is a good one, and the public were wrong as they have been many times.
The Wedding Night (King Vidor, 1935) This is what I miss most about cinema today; the innocent and beautiful characters, the likes of Gary Cooper at the end of The Wedding Night, as he is looking out of the window, imagine Sonya appearing, then disappearing in a simple dissolve, a smile appear, then his eyes full of tears, he looks to the ground, as Vidor fade out to the black with the swollen music, the emotion reach its peak, the image no longer able to sustain its power, that is why the black screen and the music is enough to make the viewer image the emotional state of Cooper, it is Vidor making a sound film, but staying true to his silent cinema. Among simplest and most touching of Vidor’s film, a forgotten masterpiece.
Tsuma Yo Bara No Yo Ni aka Wife! Be Like a Rose! (Mikio Naruse, 1935) Wife! Be Like a Rose! reads like a Chekhov play, so tender, simple, and beautiful little story about simple people unable to compromise the one person they love all, that of a Father, for as his former wife puts is, “Each heart is different”. Indeed, each heart is different from that of the others in Wife! Be Like a Rose!; the story of girl in search for his father, her selfish search lead her to the realization that others happiness does not always depend on our perception of happiness, and sometimes others are unable to express their love through word, so they do it through action, among the many little touching scenes in the film is the scene in which our heroine realize her father does care for her, as he buy her “tangerine and chocolate” at the train station, “Until then I hadn’t felt much affection for him, but such a small thing suddenly made me feel I wanted to keep him near”, only then does she realize his love. The misunderstanding of the daughter is the same as that of the viewer, throughout the film we judge the characters, some as victims and some as villains, only to realize at the end of the film, how wrong we were of out judgment. Among the early best of Naruse’s film on the family relationship, a repeating theme in his cinema. Great one.
Lo Squadrone Bianco aka The White Squadron (Augusto Genina, 1936) I couldn’t help but applaud Lieutenant Mario decision at the end of Lo Squadrone Bianco, as he tell the girl, Cristiana, that once refused his love that “Mario doesn’t exist anymore, Cristiana, he’s left there, under the sands, farewell, Cristiana my place is here”, next shot, we see Cristiana, full of regrets, driving away in the back of a truck, eyes full of tears, as she look back at the empty roads, nothing to see but deserts. Winner of Mussolini’s Cup, the highest cinematic price in Fascist Italy, Lo Squadrone Bianco is the story of a young lover, after been rejected by the women he loves, he decide to join the Italian colonial legion in Libya, chasing rebels in the heat of the desert. I was surprised that rarely does the film ride into the Propaganda territory, instead, the film become a story for survival in a doomed land, a great discovery.
Show Boat (James Whale, 1936) Show Boat is a perfect example of the musical genre that once ruled the screen; a world of believing in suspension of disbelief of the innocent; A man is walking by a boat, well, he is walking and singing with fully orchestrated music accompanying him, he meet a beautiful girl on the boat, sing for her, and he fall in love with her, they are adults, but sing to each other like teenagers in love, and we buy it. Show Boat is a story of two film; the musical numbers of Oscar Hammerstein, with its stereotype portrayal of the African American and the South in general, the second film is a comedy from James Whale, the man behind some of 30s darkest comedies; The Old Dark House, and the horror comedy, The Bride Of Frankenstein, it is this touch of Whale that make the film such a charming watch, with his counter contribution to the music and dance of the African-American, taking it out of the stage into the screen. One of the best and hilarious scene in the film is the reenactment of the way of acting on the stage in the old days, priceless.
Der Herrscher aka The Sovereign (Veit Harlan, 1937) Before R.W Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, there was this little masterpiece made in Nazi Germany by the great Veit Harlan, Der Herrscher, a story of love between an old man and a young girl, deemed as forbidden not by prejudice of society as it is the case of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, but by the greed and envy of knowing that their Father’s vast fortunes will get into the hand of a stranger, the father is a man who rule over 20000 workers, rule over a steel factory, but unable to rule his children, it is materialistic and selfish desire that make the children turn against their father, and in turn, the father to vanish them, in a masterful climatic scene he shout to them, denouncing them “My wife has given birth to dogs, cats, foxes, wolves, for decades they have run around in my house in human shape and have licked my hands and feet, and suddenly they tore me to pieces with their teeth”, all that he deemed in life as to be loved by him turns out to be nothing but an illusion, the only thing remain for him is to return into what he deems as his life’s only achievement; he goes back to his factory, to the machines to find a companion, “One should have machines as companions, machines are decent creatures”. Masterpiece.
Sans Lendemain aka Without Tomorrow (Max Ophuls, 1939) The women in Ophuls film always hide more than they show, not only from other characters in the film, but also from the viewer, they are complex creatures that we never seem to understand, that is why at the end of an Ophuls film, we are left with a feeling of wanting more, of wanting to be more with the characters, take the ending of Sans Lendemain; the widow of a mother, Evelyn, out of pride or out of self pity or out of sacrificed love had just said goodbye to her former lover and her only son, she roam the streets of Paris quietly, meditating on suicide, when her friend tries to comfort her, and alas, even to save her by calling the ship that her lover and son is traveling on, the line fail to connect, but when it does, she is nowhere to be seen, we want to know what happened to her, but Ophuls refuses to let us know, all we have is still life shots of half empty glass, a fogy street, the phone waiting to be answered, back to the fogy streets with only the sound of the friend heard at a distance shouting desperately, “Evelyn, Evelyn”, but Evelyn is nowhere to be seen. Masterful.
Ohm Kruger (Hans Steinhoff, 1941) Emil Jannings is brilliant in the role of Paul Kruger, the first president of the South African Republic and a rebel of the Boer resistance against the British colonial power during the Second Boer War. He lead his nation into a rebellion against the British, only to lose a battle that from the start is that of a lost cause, as the British ruthless military power, (estimated that more than 150,000 civilian died in British Concentration Camps) with funds from the businessman, Cecil Rhodes crush the rebellion and therefore making way for the riches of gold and diamonds of Africa, especially the lucrative Witwatersrand gold mines to flood the European market, even today, Cecil Rhodes’s legacy in monopoly of the trade is still as powerful as the days of the Second Boer War (De Beers companies control close to %50 of world’s Diamonds). For a propaganda film coming out of a Nazi Germany, there has to be a strong leader in the film, calling to arm and mobilization, at times ranting to the extreme, as is the case of Emil Jannings, brilliantly copying Hitler’s manner of speech, but the film also to a degree is historically accurate, take out the cheap anti-English propaganda, and in Ohm Kruger, you got an epic film to watch.
The 47 Ronin: Parts 1 & 2 (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1941-1942) Ah, what a masterpiece in complexity Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin is, made the same year as Citizen Kane, but on the other side of the world. Mizoguchi make the best use of what made the films of Welles, Ford and Wyler great in that period; long takes, depth of filed and camera movement, more than 70 years later, few films has managed to surpass the mastery of Mizoguchi technique of making such complex scenes to such simplicity. It is true, the story has a twist element of war time propaganda to it, with loyalty and honor to one’s superior put above reason, but that does not take away from the greatness and timelessness of this masterpiece, it is one for ages.
Hideko the Bus Conductor aka Hideko no shasho-san (Mikio Naruse, 1941) Just as Setsuko Hara is associated with Ozu, so it is that Hideko Takamine is associated with Naruse, she appeared in 17 of Naruse’s films, and it is hard not to fall in love with her in Hideko the Bus Conductor; such gentle character, so pure, so innocents, in a cheerful film coming out of a Japan that was fighting a brutal war. We are taken in a bus journey, in the rural Japan, in a lazy town, a broken bus that carry few passenger, the times are bad, the bus it is about to go out of business, can’t compete against strong competitor. The bus is a symbol of everything that is innocent, indeed, all the characters riding the bus are simple people; farmers, school children, and peasants, the two people running the bus are the simplest, a driver who get passionate listening to description of the road by our bus conductor, the beautiful, Hideko, always smiling. They lead a simple life, there passions are simple; to make their passengers happy. They live a world of their own, in that of the innocent and goodness, only such world is not possible to last forever, that ironic ending of the film, Naruse give us the info that our characters does not know, the their ride is the last one on the bus, as the owner sell the bus in his office, cut, to the bus ride, the beautiful smile on the happy face of Hideko Takamine is cut to a wide shot of the bus despairing from our view, away from the camera, as it leave behind dust in the mid air, such world is no longer possible. Under one hour in length, Hideko the Bus Conductor is a small masterpiece from the great Naruse.
Hellzapoppin (Henry Potter, 1941) Put Hellzapoppin beside Citzen Kane as two of the most innovative film of the 1941, as a matter of fact, there is a brilliant scene in Hellzapoppin, in which we see the Rosebud sledge on the background as one of the character passes by it, looking at it, then “I thought they burned that”. A complex film in every aspect just as Citizen Kane is, but what is so brilliant about Hellzapoppin is the fact that the film is created right in front of our eyes, as a viewer, we become part of creating the film, even if that means, multiples times characters talk to the viewer as we are a part of the film, breaking a barrier that was a taboo at the time in the art of filmmaking, for the viewer might lose the suspension of belief, for a Hollywood film from 1941, Hellzapoppin is fresh as the day it was made, for it takes everything lightly, and nothing it what it seem to be, a film about filmmaking in the most satiric, comical and silliest way, it is hilarious.
The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, 1941) “He has everything, I have nothing. I just realized, I’m a happy man, he is not” so declare James Cagney toward the end of The Strawberry Blonde, he has the chance to take revenge of the man he most hate, but he decide not too, because he got the Woman that he love most, and the other guy does not. Walsh directed The Strawberry Blonde the same year as he did High Sierra, two film a part from each other in their theme and style, for as High Sierra is an early example of noir/gangster film, The Strawberry Blonde is an innocent story of love, rather too innocent even by 1941′s standard, but it is an honest, masterful depiction of the low middle-class ethnically inhabitants of NY, and Cagney give a wonderful performance as the pretending to be a tough guy who always end up with the blues.
Malombra (Mario Soldati, 1942) Antonio Fogazzar’s novel has been made many times into film, but none of them surpasses Soldati’s adaptation of Malombra. Isa Miranda is brilliant as the young woman who think she is the incarnation of one of her ancestor, Cecilia, the victim of a jalousie husband who had locked her up in a castle to die, she take the role of her to revenge, whereupon, she bring catastrophes upon everyone. I don’t know if Soldati had seen Hitchock’s Rebecca, but the Hitchock’s film seem to have an influence on Malombra; from the use of the castle to the twisting of the plot, to the use of lighting in creating an atmosphere of horror with architecture and space alone. The best thing about Malombra, it leave you wondering to wither there ever was a Cecilia, if there was, did she came back to hunt? Silly question it might be, but the film never answer, it is for you to decide. Among the best of what I had seen of pre Italian neo-realism, I’m sure there are more to discover.
I Married A Witch (Rene Clair, 1942) Love might be stronger than Witchcraft, but it truly take a wizard like Clair to make such a masterpiece of a dark humor into a comedy full of magical touches that leave you rolling around in the floor from laughter. The story of a witch (the beautiful Veronica Lake) with a look that could steal any man’s heart, she come back from the unknown to revenge his accusers, only to take the love potion mistakenly and end up falling in love with him, as her drunken father does his best to ruin the love affair. Masterful.
María Candelaria aka Portrait of Maria (Emillo Fernandez, 1944) Emillo Fernandez, he is a forgotten director, today, he is rather remembered as an actor in Peckinpah and Huston’s films, but also for being the model for the statue of Oscar that is handed out to many each year in Hollywood, but he was also a good director. Before Bunuel landed in Mexico to make his masterpieces, Fernandez had already made a good film, María Candelaria, with the help of Gabriel Figueroa’s beautiful cinematography, the film is as beautiful as any of those he shot for Bunuel. Maria Candelaria, she is beautiful, she is sensitive, she belong to nature, surrounded by flowers, she sell flower, she is innocent, as the painter who narrate her describe her best, “That’s the way natives are, their virtue hasn’t been touched, by money or civilization”, but there is till hatred and pride, and people despise her, not just because of her beauty, but because her mother once was a streetwalker, and in a small traditional community, it is a curse to have a mother like that, and she suffers for it, despite an artificial sentimentality to the story, the film is an honest and truthful depiction of the indigenous population in Mexico, it is one to watch.
The Clock (Vincente Minnelli, 1945) Incredible little film that touches the heart. Before there was Before Sunrise, there was Minnell’s take on two stranger meeting by chance and falling in love, but for an audience in 1945, the only resolution for such story had to be marriage, but even that at the hand of Minnelle become a masterful sketch in humor as the clock tick and the time passes, such precious time for two stranger, to know each other more, as the Milk Man put it, “You can find out about somebody in a minute as by knowing him a lifetime”, in The Clock, 90 minute is enough to know two person, two people in a big city, as Minnelli’s always moving camera capture them among the crowd. Chances are what determines the meeting of the two, just as in life, it is chance the determine the plot of The Clock, little incident lead to another, always in a logical coherence, Minnelli at his best
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945) We are all familiar with the sad rainy window scenes in films; Shot from outside the window, the character gaze into outside world, with rain falling down on the window, it suppose to be a classic scene of sadness, but at the hand of Kazan, it become a symbol of a little girl innocent being washed away, a little girl who is grownup and must face the reality of the world. There is an innocent childish naivety on life in Betty Smith’s semi autobiographical and best-selling first novel, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, and that innocent transmit into the film. Kazan’s first film is a direct transition from the theater to cinema, shot on the Twentieth Century-Fox lot, the film is a theatrical staging, with deep staging camera work to give it a cinematic look. The story of coming of age of a little girl in the poverty stricken Brooklyn tenement of the early 1900s, become the story of a drunken unemployed singer of a father, Johnny Nolan, and his relationship with his daughter, full of charm, and always happy on the outside, the poor man is unable to take the role of a father, rather he become more of a friend to the the girl. The film has its tenders moments, even tear chokers (Francie getting the flower from his Pop at the end), the world that is shown is cruel, but seeing from the eyes of a little girl, it is also innocent and poetic. A decent first film from a man who would make many great films later in his career.
The Three Caballeros (Norman Ferguson, 1945) Take a trip back to a time in which Animation films were as artistic as any live action ones, unlike today’s 3D and CGI over the top imagery, The Three Caballeros is a masterful demonstration in combination of animation and live action imagery into perfect harmony, all hand drawn, the imagery is vividly colorful, with no narrative of a plot, the film become nothing short of a trip into the fantasy land of the imagination rich in music and imagery, perverse in its nature depicting Latin America, but also culturally rich, one of most abstract and beautifully composed musical of a film. Disney’s real forgotten treasure, take a trip with Donald Duck, Joe Carioca and Panchito, you won’t regret it.
Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1946) After Dragonwyck, a year later Mankiewicz memorized the audience with The Ghost and Mrs Muir with his touch of lyricism, but already with Dragonwyck, Mankiewicz demonstrate the genius of what is to come. This time, the innocent woman (Gene Tierney) is not married to a ghost, but rather, to a Patron (Vincent Price) with superiority complex, even in marriage, his superiority take the form of demeaning a son from his wife just as he demand the farmers to lower their hats in his present, the Patron might not be a ghost, but he sure is from another planet, as he lock himself up in a tower, getting highs all day, explaining his dilemma, first by answering his wife’s question as to what he is doing on the tower? “I live”, says the Patron, “I will not live by ordinary standard, I will not run with the pack, I will not be chained into a routine of living which is same with others, I will not look to the ground and move in the ground with the rest, as long as there are those mountain tops and clouds, limitless space”, then he stare at his wife, “I’m sure you are still unable to understand”, poor woman, she does best to say it, “I want to try if you help me”. But she never does understand him nor do we as the audience, for the Patron is a complex character on the screen, a genius creation of Mankiewicz, even as he is taking his last breath, his last words are those of commanding, “That is right, take off your hats in the present of the Patron”. Well my friend, you better take off you hat to this masterpiece, it deserve it.
Spring Awakens aka Haru no mezame (Mikio Naruse, 1947) Among the most honest film on that sensitive period of a person’s life; taking that step from childhood into adolescence, a transition that is more of a tragedy than a normal biological development in a person’s life in a small town of the rural Japan. Three young girls and three young boys, all curious about the change that is taking place, they ask around, unaware of the sexual knowledge, they itch for love, but they do not know why. Spring Awakens is an innocent film on the lives of teenagers, it is no longer possible for cinema to make such innocent film, for a young girl to ask her mother where babies come from, or the inability of the parents to communicate directly with their children on the possibility of adolescence. Left alone, they have to a find out a meaning for themselves, not an easy task, at times they feel like criminal and a victim of a change that it taken place. Lyrical, innocent and beautiful film, in Spring Awakens, Naruse uses nature to reflect the character’s emotional development; the beautiful white clouds, the sunny days, the windy afternoons, to the rainy and darkly stormy afternoon as the film reaches its climax.
Michurin (Alexander Dovzhenko, 1948) In 2007, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ukraine created a beautiful and unique DVD collection entitled Oleksander Dovzhenko: The Cinematographic Legacy, composed of all Dovzhenko’s film, the project was supposed to be in limited edition of one thousand copies, but only a dozen of it were ever printed, and don’t ask me how, but I managed to get a copy of it, it is the gem in my DVD collection, and whenever I feel the urge to appreciate this gem, I gently pull out one of the DVD and watch the gorgeous restoration of the films. Michurin is a film on the life of the Russian biologist Ivan Michurin, who’s small garden later became the pride of Soviet experimental biology, getting praised by both Lenin and Stalin. It has been said that the film was “corrected” for ideological purity when it was on scripting stage, and the end result does reflect that, it got its moments of propaganda, including lasting praise for both Lenin and Stalin from old Michurin. But coming from a poet of a filmmaker, Michurin is a gorgeous colorful film, an inner examination of a man who is obsessed with concurring nature or at least purifying it, as one of the Bourgeois puts it, discussing a man who never leaves his garden as, “Some mixture of Tolstoy, Kropotkin and Darwin”, shot beautifully in vivid colors that is the signature of the Soviet film of the time, including some masterful time-lapping photography, more than 18 years after making his most poetic and lyrical film, Earth, once again, Dovzhenko proves that he is the master poet of cinema, expect some beautiful lyrical imagery. Wonderful film.
Stranitsy zhizni aka Pages of Life (Boris Barnet, 1948) Meet comrade Nina Petrovna Ermakova, a young girl from the countryside who start as a worker in a shipyard in the first year of Stalin’s five year plan, in the span of 16 years, she learn to read and write, become a successful engineer, marries, lose her husband and everything they build in the shipyard during WWII, only, for her to start rebuilding everything form scratch, as she proudly stand in front of a large poster of Stalin, addressing thousands of men working under her, “Dear friends, life is beautiful! How many difficult minutes, How much loss. But we surpassed it all. And we’ll surpass other obstacles if necessary!”, there is your comrade Nina, full of life and joy, after 16 years working, losing everything she had, she still believe, your typical women in a Barnet film, they don’t ask for respect from men, they gain it, take away the propaganda, and you got in Pages of Life a wonderful small film from a master.
Beyond The Forest (King Vidor, 1949) “But I’m not just any woman, I’m Rosa Moline”, so talk to herself Bette Davis as she walk in the rainy night of Chicago, and she is right, she is Rosa Maline, an unhappy wife of a Doctor living in a small town, all her desire is to be free again and marry a rich man, who would buy her mink coats and take her out into the fast life of Chicago, murder is nothing in her plan to achieve that freedom. There is no boundary between what is good and what is bad in Beyond The Forest, that is according to Rosa Moline, she murder and she laugh about it, she kill her own child, and is happy about it, as for her Doctor husband (Joseph Cotten), he is too much of a patient man with her, somewhat unrealistic of a character, but we buy it, and it is his silence against her misdemeanors that drive her to commit more acts of violence. You can’t help feel sorry for Rosa Moline at the end of the film, as she lay dead by the rail tracks, the train is leaving for Chicago, she is not on it, she herself is the executioner of her own dreams that drive her into the doom. Vidor at his best.
Devil’s Doorway (Anthony Mann, 1950) Throughout its history, mankind collectively has committed many crimes in the name of civilization, but rarely does any of it match the atrocity and genocide committed in the so called the “New World”, the founding of a land by wiping out its entire populations, that of the Native. It is no wonder that Mann titled his film, Devil’s Doorway, for its indeed the doorway of the devil as one man take another’s land and property, deny its basic rights, and murder him in the name of the law. The antagonist in the film is a lawyer, represent a law that according to the Marshal of the town, “Treat an Indian less than a Dog”, and the protector of the law is an army that once our Indian hero, Lance Cool (Robert Taylor) served in, the same army take away his land and submit his people into reservation camps, the way of the civilization is the law, and according to the law, as his lawyer puts it, “Under the law, you are not classed as an American citizen”, “What am I?”, the poor guy ask, “You are a ward of the government”. One of the first western that portray the Native as a victim to the expansion of the homesteaders and the expansionist policy to the West, even if that victim is a former army office and a rich landowner, we still sympathize with him, despite the ending, that seem to work both way, as our hero salute the army, his last line; “We’re all gone”, fall down dead. John’s Alton’s cinematography, especially day for night scenes is a must watch.
Arrière-saison aka Backward Season (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1950) A restless woman looking out the window, her husband cutting down trees in the forest, their dog run around in a circle, images that open and closes Arrière-saison, three simple character in a simple short film that speak in images only, pure visual experience, the cinema of Kirsanoff. Priceless.
People Will Talk (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1951) Cary Grant talk so much in People Will Talk that you think the title should have been Gary Grant Will Talk. The story of a doctor and his manservant, wither he is or he is not? at the hand of Mankiewicz becomes not a suspense story of relationship, for the title from the beginning of the film give it all away, but rather it become a wonderful film of one man’s believe in humanity, in one’s gentleness toward others, doing good so that one hand will now know what the other has done, bringing envy of and misunderstanding of many upon him. A wonderful and relaxing watch, charming, one wishes it never to end.
When Worlds Collide (Rudolph Mate, 1951) Hooray for humanity, even if there is only 45 of them left to start a new day of life in the new planet of Zyra. Mate’s When Worlds Collide is among the first dooms day films and still is among the most original, there is no hero steeping up to save earth, rather, at the end, humanity become nothing but the old story of Dog eat Dog as the few struggle to take off to the new planet, many happy to leave the old one behind as it is destroyed amid flames of fire. One that never get old, classic watch.
Shonen-ki aka Boyhood (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951) What can you say about Keisuke Kinoshita? The man can bring to the edge of tear with a single frame, just like Ozu and Naruse, but the different between Keisuke Kinoshita and them is that a family relationship is effected by what shape society, in Boyhood, the son is lost between a country, in which every one beat the drums of war, and his family, his father who is a pacifist and his mother who must try to keep his son’s faith in both humanity and his Father, a relationship is tested by a constant struggle between what is seem to be, and what is not, at the end, it is the Father who triumph, it is the family over the country, love for humanity over hate and revenge, on the way, a boy reaches boyhood. A masterpiece from master made during the Japanese Cinema’s Golden Era.
Dancing Girl aka Maihime (Mikio Naruse, 1951) “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, so said the great Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, a description fit best for Naruse’s Dancing Girl. Based on a novel by Yasunari Kawabata’s, with a script written by Kaneto Shindo, the story of a family on the edge of a volcanic eruption, for the wife loved, and still love another man, with two children, she lead an unhappy life with her husband, she had an affair that everyone knows about, but has managed to live with it for the last 20 years. Such illusion is no longer possible, as our heroine has to make a choice, being a Mother, a Wife, or a Lover. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake has been used so many times in cinema, so many, that is has become a cliché, but it at the hand of Naruse, in the last 3 minute of Dancing Girl, the camera take place of the composer, as the curtain come down in a finally that leave all things as to where they stand as the beginning of the film, again, the Mother has to sacrifice for the sake of the happiness of the children; she is frozen in the garden, eyes full of tears, the husband loom like a towering figure at a distance, as the camera track up to a high-angle two wide shot, they are now both like statues, distance from each others, ta ta ta, taaaaa, fade out to THE END, as the music spill into the black screen, marvelous.
Saikaku ichidai onna aka The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952) It takes two hours for Mizoguchi to tell the story of Oharu, because Mizoguchi is the master of long takes that drag on into eternity, yet, he always manages to get the emotional impact he desires in the viewer, at times, without using a single dialogue, the long tracking shots, the beautiful hight angle panning, just watch the last 6 minute of The Life of Oharu, that six minute is all you need to fall in love with the beauty of his cinema, such masterful use of the camera, the music, the composition that always has three layers; from the foreground, to the middle to the background, like a painter, Mizoguchi carefully arrange his subjects with the camera being his paint brush. In Mizoguchi’s cinema, you alway find a woman character who suffers, sacrifice and always end up a tragic figure, but Oharu has to be the ultimate victim among all of Mizoguchi’s characters, the fall decline and fall of Oharu is the most tragic; from a daughter, to an innocent girl in love, to a courtesan of a lord, to a wife, to a nun, to a prostitute and finally to a beggar, she is a victim of a society that is dominated by feudalism, class different and hierarchy, in which a woman’s role in society is that of being admired as a tool of pleasure by men. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Mizoguchi a feminist director as many has done, but he cared deeply about women’s suffrage, and women in his films always end up in the path of tragedy, in a world full of cruelty, being innocent and being guilty is equally damning, as they flow amid the tide of the time rules by society and not one’s will and action. A masterpiece from the Golden Age of Japanese cinema.
Has Anybody Seen My Gal (Douglas Sirk, 1952) We all know how masterful Sirk is at making melodrama, but I was surprised to see that the master could also do a bit of a comedy and musical, combine them with melodrama in a sentimental story. For what is Has Anybody Seen My Gal but a colorful and lyrical version of a Capara film? It is colorful for its beautiful use of the Technicolor, and it is lyrical for its masterful use of the seasons, Sirk loves to shoot the snowy white winter landscape and the yellow greenish fall, with the fallen leaves almost orang in color. Beside being the first collaboration between Sirk and Hudson, the film was also the first appearance of the young James Dean on the silver screen, he appear on the screen for no more than 15 second, but he leave a yawning of a lasting impression. The little story about a little family in an all little American town in which the appearance of money destroy that is little about them, Sirk’s take on the Americana, light, funny, not as dark or melodramatic as his later films, it is a beautiful one from the heart, and what a beautiful watch.
Kiss Me Kate (George Sidney, 1953) By its nature, the musical genre closest to a theatrical play when it come to cinema, for what challenge more an audience in suspension of belief than a character bursting into song out of nowhere, as the music come in with a chorus on the background, and, they start moving the hips. George Sidney’s Kiss Me Kate is one of the many musical with its plot intertwined with a stage play, it work on four different layers in suspension of belief; you have a film called Kiss Me Kate, within the film there is a play called Kiss Me Kate, within that play is an adaptation of another play called The Taming of the Shrew (I don’t have to tell you whose play that is!), and finally, as a viewer, you become the fourth stage into combing the other three into viewing of a film, that is why, for many viewer, Kiss Me Kate seem like a confused film, but I guarantee you it is not, it is a brilliant watch, and one of the best musicals ever made, and ironically, the film came out the same year as another favorite musical of mine, Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, a film that also work on four layers, for like Kiss Me Kate, it is a film about the theatricality of cinema. Put on your tapping shoe, and have a ago at Kiss Me Kate, you will be rewarded
Another Sky (Gavin Lambert, 1954) A collaborator in many of Nicholas Ray’s script, Gavin Lamber’s own creation, Another Sky is nothing short of a masterpiece, on the surface, it look like a mash between a David Lean film mixed with an Olmi one and lost in the spiritual territory of Dryer, underneath; a story of a doomed love, taking Rose intro the Desert in search for something that she knows clearly that it won’t be found, yet she keep searching for it, that thing is called “love”. A unique film unlike any others.
Toi kumo aka Tattered Wings (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1955) Poor Keizo, you can’t help but feel heartbroken for him, for he can’t get over the only women he ever loved, the shy and beautiful, Fuyuko (Hideko Takamine) . From the first frame of the film, that of a train approaching the camera, as Keizo come home after a long absent, to the last frame of it, a pan from a train leaving to a the cover of a poem book that once Keizo borrowed from Fuyuko. You not only feel heartbroken for Keizo, but also for Fuyuko, because the two are still madly in love with each other, but just as is Keizo is a free man, Fuyuko is a widow with a daughter to be take care off, the dilemma for her is not only of leaving her little daughter, but also the opinion of a population of a town in which everyone seem to know everyone’s else private affair. My favorite Kinoshita film has always been You Were Like a Wild Chrysanthermum; the story of an old man who goes back to visit his village after many years, and on the way, he reflect on the tragic love that he once had, all he could is reflect upon the past, but in Tattered Wing, reflection is not enough, Keizo has a second chance to get the woman he loved, and still is in love with, but not for once, not even when at the end of the film, Fuyuko get the ticket to get on the train and leave with Keizo to Tokyo, not for a second, we, as a viewer get convinced that the two lover will end up together, for all the odds are against them, and Fuyuko is not a woman with free will, as she put is, “I live in the present, but you still dream in the past”, too a realistic to a dreamer, that is the difference between Fuyuko and Keizo. Setsuko Hara might be the greatest of the Japanese actress in the Golden Age era, but in Hideko Takamine, one can’t help but praise the one actress that had the ability to compete with Hara, for like her, when she is on the screen, one can’t help but look at her, she steal the screen. Great film from the golden age of the Japanese cinema.
House Of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, 1955) Robert Ryan is slowly climbing up to become my favorite American actor of the classic cinema, his subtle acting, his minimalist gestures, his calm and then explosive outburst are all made for him in Fuller’s House Of Bamboo, as a psychotic villain of a gangster living in Tokyo and Robert Stack is equally brilliant as an army investigator on an inside mission to track him down. It is tender film in style, but savage and brutal in content, such tendency with the camera, subtle movement to adjust; a little pan or a tilt, then, a long track side-angle, backward or forward. Watch how the characters walk, such grace, they turn, deliver a line, then walk of, each walking pace is calculated to register a movement in emotion. After killing his friend for thinking he was the snitch, watch how Ryan walk back into his house; the camera is a setup in a high side-angle, Ryan walk in screen left, the windows at first block him, until he come into the two third of the right of the frame, then we notice him fully, his head is down, he is dragging his feet, he pause, still looking into the ground, as the servant inform him that he got a visitor, he is listening, but also thinking, he raises his head, “Who?”, he is full of stillness, both hand in a gesture of a fist, when he get no name, he look screen right, take out his hat in a swift, hand it to the servant, then walk toward the camera, as he walk, the camera dolly up, now it is a high-angle, track up and backward, then a swift move to the right, as Ryan closes the door of the room on the right, the camera tricked us, for now, it track back, and dolly down to a two shot, by now we see who the visitor is, it is his inside man, he has come to tell him who the snitch is. That is how masterfully Fuller uses his camera to register little detail as a character’s walking and gesture into an emotional impact, the film is full of it, full of brilliant moments like that, beautiful, tender, raw, and savage. That is the cinema of Sam Fuller.
Stranger on Horseback (Jacques Tourneur, 1955) The same year that Tourneur made his best Western, Wichita, he also made Stranger on Horseback, the story take place in the newly conquered frontier of the West, as powerful landlords once conquered the land, now ruled it according to their pleasure, that of the gun, a newly appointed Judge is determined to bring law and order to the place, that Judge is no other than Joel McCrea, as he ride into the town, reading a book. “A United State circuit Judge needed three things to bring justice to this country; a law book, a horse, and a gun. The further West he got, the less he needed the book”, what follow is one man’s attempt to face an established law based on dog eat dog, at the end, he seem to triumph in bringing justice in one case, but he must use violent in order to do so, he win only after the Landlord decide not to fight anymore a a losing battle not worth fighting for, it is his mercy that save the Judge. Just over an hour in length, the film flow beautifully like a small fable
Ludwig II: Glanz und Ende eines Königs aka Mad Emperor: Ludwig II (Helmut Kautner, 1955) Kautner’s Ludwig II got everything, the music from the operas of Richard Wagner, even Wagner himself is in the film, it has a love story, power struggle, war, romantic and lyrical scenery, brilliant Technicolor cinematography, and it even got Klaus Kinski playing the role of Otto, Ludwig’s schizophrenic brother, a role best fit for him. Beautiful film, with O. W. Fischer playing the role of the romantic king brilliantly, toward the end, he become almost the mirror of Nikolai Cherkasov’s role of Ivan in Eisenstein’s in Ivan the Terrible. Masterful film.
Calle Mayor aka Main Street (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1956) My second film from Bardem, after Death of a Cyclist, and I have to say, Calle Mayor is a masterpiece in psychological suspense. The story of a fallen women become a mediation on the nature of men’s cruelty, the realization of the truth in one’s inner personality as it clashes with that of the culture, the acceptance of such suffering and inability to escape it. Without being too political, any viewer who is familiar with the history of Franco’s Spain, might easily find the similarity of the small providential town and Spain, everyone seem to know everyone else’s little secret, they all behave like one another, or pretend to do, multiple exposure to religious and military imagery, not to mention, the inability of anyone to confess the truth, as the truth seem to harm more than heal. And Betsy Blair, what a performance, even as her voice is dubbed, her facial performance is all needed, the flicker in her eyes, only she could convince a viewer of that innocent look of being in love at the age of 36, yet behaving like a young girl of 16, she is brilliant, and she make the film brilliant with her.
Sudden Rain (Mikio Naruse, 1956) I remember vividly the moments after I watched my first Naruse, Sound of the Mountain, made only two years before Sudden Rain, I was so overwhelmed with emotion at the ending, that I had to re-watch again and again the scene, to know what had made me so overwhelmed, it was two reasons; the mastery of Naruse at building the hidden emotion of the suffering wife to such a peak, when at the end, it is reached, it leave you devastated in expressing such sympathy with her, for hiding emotion is more powerful than showing it, the second reason had to be the great Setsuko Hara, she is so brilliant at playing the suffering wife in both Sound of the Mountain and Sudden Rain, at hiding her emotion, she suffers so much silently, that you have no choice but to feel for her, to empathize with this character whom always at the end breakdown in tears, that is the magic of Setsuko Hara, you never know what her next emotion is, she hide more than she show, she is the moral of every woman that any man would want, yet, in Sudden Rain, her civil servant husband is too busy looking at her neighbor’s wife, worrying about his financial situation and his stomach to notice such a gem, a great film from two of the greatest, two from the golden era of the Japanese cinema, one of them is still alive, the great Setsuko Hara.
The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin, 1956) I have to tell you the truth, I was fooled when The Girl Can’t Help It starting playing, the screen was boxed, and I though my TV set was all wrong, as I was trying to fix it, came along Edmund OBrien, telling us that we are about to see a motion picture in the “grandeur of Cinemascope”, and only then does he push the frame into the sides as the life like color of Deluxe come in also, nice trick from Tashlin. Expect a journey into the world of of Rockabilly and early Rock, one of early film to make use of pop music of the time and use it to the best of the film. For a comedy, you got to have a main character suffer much, he got to be below the common man, and you got the ugliest leading man of Hollywood playing the leading role, Edmund OBrien, and he always manage to get the hottest lady in the film, the bombshell, Jayne Mansfield. And expect to have your Tashlin jokes, clashing the beauty and the beast into one, as it is toward the end of the film; one of the most beautiful love song set to close-up of the most unattractive couples listening to it, hilarious and mocking take of the youth of the day and the music, that of the Rock, in which anybody can write a rock song and get into the top of the chart,, “One rock, two rock, three rocks, four rocks. Big Rocks, Small Rocks, Short Rocks, Talk Rocks”, hilarious in a world of make believe that is no longer possible. Genius.
H-8 (Nikola Tanhofer, 1958) It was Alfred Hitchock who once differed between Suspense and Surprise; Showing a ticking bomb in a car that is about to explode in a designated time is Suspense, but not showing the bomb, the ticking of the clock, just showing the explosion to the audience, that is Surprise. So it is with Nikola Tanhofer’s H-8, a well crafted little film in suspect from former Yugoslavia, the part of today’s Croatia. What start as two men narrating a sporting game, soon become the suspenseful story of a deadly crash between a bus and a truck, at first, the victims are just numbers, but as we begin to know them, each one unique in character, the suspense become a guess game as to “Who is taking what seat in the bus?”, for we are told which passenger in which seat is among the victims, and we wait impatiently to find out. Great one.
Il tempo si e fermato aka Time Stood Still (Ermanno Olmi, 1959) Ah, Olmi, how much I love your early cinema, for your started like a genius of an artist, knowing his art best, for you started simple, all great artist achieve simplicity at the end, but you reached that simplicity in cinema from beginning, for rarely cinema is capable of achieving such simplicity in story and character as in Il tempo si e fermato, indeed time does stand still for Olmi, as he does what he is best at; showing every day life on the screen to such perfection that you get glued watching a man preparing a dinner, even if you had already seen the same action being repeated twice before. There are only three characters in Il tempo si e fermato; one of them last for 5 minute, the other two are the heart of the film, two men, one old and one young, living on a snowy mountain, watching over a dam frozen until summer. What does their lives consists off? Nothing, they sleep, wake up, eat breakfast, maybe ski a little, then eat lunch, eat dinner, play checkers, read a book, prepare their bed, and sleep. That is what Il tempo si e fermato is, only, thought these little action, we are shown two characters and the development of their relationship; from distance and cold observer, to two friend helping each other, for “no man is an island”, as the saying goes. Like Bresson, Olmi’s characters are so real, so genuine, that when the film is over, you keep thinking about them, what ever happened to them? That is why, you never want an Olmi film to end, it is so full of life, so simple, and so beautiful.
The Human Condition (Masaki Kobayashi, 1959- 1961) I had a chance to watch Kobayashi’s The Human Condition Trilogy over a period of one night, a few years ago, I had a chance to watch all three film that make the trilogy in span of three week, in the form of low quality VHS, all three, No Greater Love (1959), The Road to Eternity (1960) and A Soldier’s Prayer (1961). Made in span of three years, one rarely notices the span of time passed between each film, it flows beautifully, unless watched all three together, one misses the real power of the film; the hero’s change from a young naive innocent humanist early in the film to a monster at the end of it; the humans are that monster in time of war, only evil triumph, the bad one win, the good one lose, and as saying goes, “in the land of the blinds, one must cover one’s eyes”, so it goes in times of wars, no matter how hard our hero try to do goodness, one is not enough to change a world full of cruelty, and in the face of institutions made to suppress, one is helpless. Epic filmmaking at its best.
Seryozha aka A Summer to Remember (Georgi Daneliya & Igor Talankin, 1960) Charming little film about the beautiful time in one’s life; that of childhood. A summer in the life of little Serge, from meeting his new father in a beautiful summer day to the end in which separation from his Mother, Father and little Brother become too tragic to bear in the snowy wintter, in between, Seryozha is a film constructed around little sequences of seeing the world from the eyes of a little child; getting his first bicycle ride, his first bad behaviors, meeting his uncle and shouting at him, “You are a fool”, seeing the birth of a little calve, experiencing of the outside world in a little seashell that is brought to them by a ship captain, being separates from his best friends, getting ready for his first day in school, his first and long walk in the corridors into his classrooms, his first envy arose by the birth of his little brother, the dark notion of wishing one’s death in order to punish others, and the moment of realization of knowing the separation from loved one, of growing into the world of the adults, nostalgic and beautiful little film.
Alyonka (Boris Barnet, 1961) Once I was asked a question, “Karzan, what film would you want to live in?”, “I’ll sell my soul to be in the films of Boris Barnet!”, and I still do, because his films are beautiful, they are visual poems, poetic emotions captured in time, once you finish a Barnet film, you feel a tearful joy of experiencing the highest form of art that cinema can ever achieve; that of communicating a truthful emotion that everyone can relate too, once cinema was beautiful, as Alyonka is beautiful; Take a road trip with a handful of characters on the back of an old truck in the vast landscapes of Soviet’s steppe, they each has a story to tell, the pivot to each one’s story is little Alyonka, they all tell simple stories about love, friendship, birth, death, suffering, joy, in a one word, about emotions. It is shot like a colorful silent film, take each frame, it is a postcard made of gold, you laugh and you cry with them, you become their friends, and like all friends, when you are separated from them at the end, you feel nostalgic to the joyful time that you once spent together, and you wonder at their next journey, that is how real characters are in a Barnet film, and in Alyonka, everyone is beautiful, everyone is full of charm, full of grace, even little characters that appear on the screen for a few seconds leave lasting impression; the nurse, the waiter, the little boy of the steppe, the old man, the shepherd, they all smile, full of life, even in time of tragedy, they are still full of life, if only life were as beautiful as the cinema of Boris Barnet, the most Chekhovian among the Soviet filmmakers; such beauty of life in Alyonka comes from a man, who four years later would commit suicide at the age of 63. Another masterpiece from a master, what a joy to watch.
Adieu Philippine (Jacques Rozier, 1962) Ah, the French New Wave, more than 5 decades later, it is still refreshing to watch a French New Wave film than a dozen recent films combined. Everything is so innocent, as if the birth of cinema were not in the late 1800s, but rather, the early 1956s. With its loose plot, giveaway moment, raw cinematography, improvisation, and that wonderful breaking of the third walls, those marvelous scenes when the characters stare at you, from beyond the silver screen, they gesture to you as if you are part of their world, and they of ours, the cinema that should have ended all cinemas. Adieu Philippine is an essential example of the French New Wave watch, a nostalgic one to watch, and that ending, shot at a distance, we are kept in the cold and far away from the characters, yet, it leave you in the edge of tears. Masterful.
Ladybug Ladybug (Frank Perry, 1963) What a brilliant little noble film Ladybug Ladybug is, an absolute masterpiece of amateurish filmmaking, what seem to be a shattered film that is symbolic, amateurish, simple, lyrical, and small, turns little by little into a masterpiece of showing rather than telling. The essence of the film is the collective fear of individuals that is part of the American culture with its politically media frenzy campaigns of manipulating the public, what is so brilliant about Ladybug Ladybug is that we see the fear from the POV of children that are more aware of a world full of madness run by the adults, the fear of an all out nuclear attack slowly show the true characters and morality of the collective madness of a society that few left to think independently on their own, only the children seem to understand the madness, for the adults, they don’t question, they only fear. Ladybug Ladybug is a timeless masterpiece that hold more truth to today’s war and fear mongering state of the public attitude in US as it was true during the nuclear phobia of the 60s. Timeless.
Les veuves de 15 ans aka The Fifteen Year Old Widows (Jean Rouch, 1964) It Just take under half an hour for Rouch’s fictional take on the boring lives and ” commentary on teenagers in Paris in 1964″, more than 48 years later, the lives of today’s teenagers in any materialist country is no different, for the exception they had better taste in music and the arts and dressed better than today’s teenagers. Half the film is one person asking a question, and the other answering, always in search for some meaning a life that is fast, but empty. “Why do you come here then?”, “Cause we don’t have anything else to do”. “Are you happy Veronique?”, “No, but I don’t have time to be unhappy”. “Do you like sex?”, “I did once… but I don’t remember who it was with anymore”. “So why do you keep doing it?”, “To be like everyone else”. “Do you know what the definition of liberty is?”, “Everything is possible, nothing is compulsory. And like that, all alone, you’ve invented liberty”. “What do you want to do later on?”, “Later on I’ll be like everyone else: I’ll be unhappy”. “Do you believe in love?”, “Love… I’d like to believe in it but it’s nasty”. “Family? Do you believe it can still exist?”, “No, I don’t believe it. Family is good for life in the country, but in today’s cities it isn’t possible”. Still, it got a little hope in the end; “Do you think that I can be happy?”, “I think it’s very difficult”, “Even if it’s very difficult, even if I’ve only got one chance in a million, I accept the risk.” Masterful little film.
Chimes At Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965) Welles is not known for directing action sequences, but just watch the 10 minute battle scene in Chimes At Midnight and you will be amazed at the mastery of Welles in creating one of the most memorable battle scenes in any films, The Battle of Shrewsbury, raw, realistic, ugly, brutal and full of humor, as the men battle it out, our hero, Falstaff (played by no other than Welles himself) run from one bushes into another, a coward of a realistic that want to get all the glory, but a genius who knows that the battle is nothing short of a children game, so why not behave like a spoiled child. The story of a friendship betrayed, Welles takes the best from multiple Shakespeare plays with the character, Falstaff at the center of the film, he boats about everything from nothingness, but you can’t help loving the man, for he spoke the truth in the most abstract ways, he is the most theatrical characters among Shakespeare’s plays, and it is not wonder Welles take on the role with a fake nose, for Chimes At Midnight is nothing short of a masterfully crafted cinematic film of capturing a theatrical play, Welles does not shy away from being theatrical, he pushes it to the limit. The Battle of Shrewsbury sequences is one for the ages.
Red Line 7000 (Howard Hawks, 1965) Hawk’s Red Line 7000 open with a frozen image of a racing car in flame and it closes with another frozen image of a racing car in flame, and in between, Red Line 7000 is packed with explosive emotional roller-coaster in the lives of fast driven men as they exchange places on the race and off the race, that is, with the women. Life and the game become a reflection of one another, be it in the clubs or in the racing arena, the battle is to be faster than the man you are leveled with, among the best and early film that tackle the professionals naivety of rivalry in sport, never miss a Hawk film.
The Rounders (Burt Kennedy, 1965) Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford played in many great western, but rarely to such hilarious end as in Kennedy’s The Rounders, despite having a well crafted script, you many call The Rounders, the closes among the Western that has the spirt of its time, that of the French New Wave, with its giveaway moments, characterization and little incidents above the plot, the story of the friendship between two man and a crazy horse, is nothing short of being among the most charming Western ever put on the screen, with Fonda and Ford stealing the show, not to mention the short glimpse of the young Warren Oates. A Peckinpah without the violent, there is even a tribute to Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country. A film about two aging cowboy living in a lost a time.
Young Cassidy (Ford-Cardiff, 1965) The title said a “John Ford Film”, but the directing credit goes Jack Cardiff, and the film, a wonderful adaptation of Irish playwright, Sean O’Casey’s biographical book, Mirror in My House. The now forgotten Sean O’Casey, who once W.B.Yeats labeled him as “Irish Doestovsky”, and in 1930, Hitchock adopted his play, Juno and Paycock into a film. Don’t look for the famed Sean O’Casey in the film, for it is about young Cassidy before, during and shortly after the establishment of the Irish Free State, living in Dublin, in poverty, self educated, working by day, reading and writing by night, he loses everything in life that he loves, only to triumph in his art, a tragic figure he is. It is not hard to tell which scenes in the film belong to Ford and which to Cariff, to name one for each; the sequence of the dying mother is pure Fordian, the visual image speak there, the all sacrificing loving mother, her last act in life was for her son. The worker’s riot sequence has to belong to Cardiff, for Ford never uses such bold violence nor bold montage. Rod Taylor give a brilliant performance, he is as explosive in rage as he is in gentleness. Beautiful, lyrical and nostalgic, cinema as it used to be.
A Falecida aka The Deceased (Leon Hirszman, 1965) Based on a Nelson Rodrigues story, Leon Hirszman’s A Falecida is another dark film from Brazilian Cinema Novo, that dig deep into the nihilistic of the human psyche in which the wife only care for having an expensive funeral as she is on the edge of dying physically, emotionally, she is already dead, as for the husband, impatiently waiting for the Vasco to play Fluminense, and to see his darling Ademir to score, he is more devastated in hearing about Ademir’s injury than his wife’s sickness, he is rather be at the game than at his wife’s funeral, that is why, that ironic ending is so symbolic; is the poor man crying amide the crowd because his wife has past away or is it because Ademir is not playing? You decide. Timeless film from Brazilian Cinema Novo.
Trans-Europ-Express (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1966) Robbe-Grillet’s timeless masterpiece, Trans-Europ-Express, is a film in the process of deconstruction of constructing a narrative film in which past, present, and future are all divided equally on the screen, it is not the first nor the last film of the kind, the first is perhaps no other than Alain Resnais’s L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Robbe-Grillet worked on the film as a screenwriter and dialogist), in Trans-Europ-Express, the narrative is written in a process of seeing what is unknown of becoming known, sound a little abstract, but it is very simple; you are watching a film being made into a film, as characters take both a fictional and a realistic role, you may call the dilemma of poor Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is that of being lost in a fictional film not knowing the logical order of time and space, he has no psychological depth, his mind belong to the viewer, he act as the storyteller wishes him to act, he is confronting and running away from the camera, trying to escape the space and time he is put in, but like a little puppet, he is on a string, played with by Robbe-Grillet, we are constantly remained that not only we are watching a film, but we are in the process of deconstructing of constructing a narrative film based on distortions and contradictions, nothing appear to be what they are, nor anything is what what it seems to be, in Trans-Europ-Express it is even possible for the dead to rise, to stare at us and laugh, “Kids, you been watching a film and nothing else”. Timeless.
War and Peace (Sergey Bondarchuk, 1967) I remember the first time I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I felt in love with the book, so majestic, I felt that I was not reading a book, but rather living it, lived the moments, I felt in love with Natasha just as André does when he listen to her on the balcony, I cried like Natasha when André dies, felt the cloud and the sky as Andre lay on the ground with Napolen looking down on him, “What a beautiful Death”. I felt it, because Tolstoy is God among the all the writers, he is the greatest of them all, and War and Peace is the greatest Novel ever written. So put yourself in the shoes of poor Bondarchuk, how can you make a great film out of the greatest novel ever written? He does it by pulling all the tricks off the the cinematic book, everything that is cinema is capable off, Bondarchuk does it in War and Peace, take the camera, it take the form of all being and none-being, it become a rock, a tree, the sun, the moon, the grass, the rivers, it is everything, among the countless memorable passages in War and Peace is after the hunt, when the Wolf is captured, Tolstoy take us into the mind of that poor Wolf as it observe the madness around, Bondarchuk even capture that moment in the film beautifully as the camera take the POV of the Wolf. Lush, beautiful and pure majestic, a great film from a great novel.
La prise de pouvoir de Louis XIV (Roberto Rossellini, 1967) The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is Rossellini’s first colorful dive into historical films about historical figures that would set his future filmmaking, and it is by far, his best among the many he would make later for Television, and it must be said, although not sure, but the film must have had some influence on Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, not just the slow pace, the realistic and accuracy, the long shots, but even the use of classical music in the film and small details giving to everyday life in the time of the Sun King. The film open with the decline and later death of Cadrinal Richelieu and the rise of Louis XIV, the young king soon portray himself as an absolute ruler over the aristocracy, he might be called the Sun King, but in Rossellini’s film, he is a man no different from others deep down, even if he eat his lunch in a court with hundreds watching his every move, in the end, he is in his room, undressing, with a book in his hand, trying to make out the meaning of it, in La Rochefoucauld’s maxim, “Neither the sun nor death can be gazed upon fixedly”, you might be Louis XIV, but you are just another human. Masterful.
Edipo re aka Oedipus Rex (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967) I always thought that Sophocles wrote King Oedipus to prove his ultimate thought; man was controlled by destiny and not free will, and perhaps, the best examination of that though can be found in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s small masterpiece, Oedipus Rex, a modern take on a post-modern tragic hero, poor Oedipus, he does his best to let his will decide his fate, only to realize in the end, that destiny masters his will, blinded by his own dagger, he shouts to the darkness; “Thus I will no loner see the evil I have suffered and done. In the dark, I will not see what should not be seen. I will not recognize those I wanted to recognize. I should have severed also my ears. To seal up in myself, in my unhappy body. To see and hear nothing again. It is sweet to have the mind outside evil. Impure things must be kept silent, not spoken of, not testified to; Silence!” The next shot; we find the blind Oedipus in the modern day Rome, as he play his flute, he can not, and will not see anymore, he become silence with only music as his companion, he finally has found a way in escaping his destiny, in silence and music.
The Man Without A Map (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1968) The radical Teshigahara of the 60s couldn’t get more radical than this; take Philip Marlow and mash him with Antonion’s Blow-up and you get The Man Without A Map, it is indeed a magnificent films without a map, unlike many detective film, instead of the detective being observer, he get observed, by no other than the camera, no other than the viewer, the film has some of the greatest psychedelic framing ever put on the screen, the camera seem to be high, it is indeed. What you get in The Man Without A Map is nothing, but that is its greatest, you are taking to ride to the nowhere, in which nothing is what it seem to be, everything happened on their own, the only logic is that of searching in the land of the nowhere. A forgotten masterpiece.
Je t’aime, je t’aime (Alain Resnais, 1968) You may call the whole cinema of Alain Resnais as a time machine, in which the image is essentially exist independent from time and space, so it is no wonder that the whole plot of Je t’aime, je t’aime is about a man in search of his past, not his whole past, but rather, a single moment of it, yet, he never seem to capture it, for the past, the present, and the future only exist within one dimension at a time, in attempting to capture all three, one end up in a chase of capturing time itself, but time has no master, but in Je t’aime, je t’aime, cinema captures times, as past, present and future become one, a testimony to an art form that no other can match. Alain Resnais knew it, that is why, his films has captured time itself, in them staying forever young, never getting old. Masterpiece from a master.
Horus, Prince Of The Sun (Isao Takahata, 1968) Among the first collaboration between Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Horus is a landmark animation film from Japan, the one that will set the standard for the rest to follow. With its lyrical and beautiful scene design by Miyazaki, a story that seem to be out of Goethe’s Faust, as the battle of the good vs evil rage on (clear scene reference to Murnau’s Faust is present throughout the film), with a mix of Greek Myth, Russian and Japanese folk song as the chorus sing along. Horus, Prince Of The Sun is a fresh masterpiece today as the day it was made. Simply, beautiful.
Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969) “The Whole World is Watching. The Whole World is Watching”, so echo the sound of the protester over the final scene of Medium Cool, as one camera’s lens zoom into another lens of a camera, that seconds before captured a car crash as an observer. You may call Medium Cool as a film on observation, observed by us the viewer through the lens of a camera, it is about Wexler capturing the moments as they happen, rarely ever attempting to change it. A film on a culture obsessed with observation of violence in both media and real life, it is no wonder that it end with the riot at the Democratic Convention, tanks vs demonstrators. A film that lack narrative must capture moments in observation for it to make the viewer sequence the emotional impact, or rather reflect upon lack of emotion. Medium Cool may seem like a confused film about a confused period of the American culture, it lack narrative, but it make up for by slicing the film into various sequence, each work independent from each other, can be viewed apart from each other, but, combined, it is the best indirect observation of American in late 60s, it is an experimental film made by a man obsessed more with the camera as a tool of capturing reality than telling a narrative fictional tale, that is why, the best scenes in the film are that of documentary nature. We remember Haskell Wexler for his beautiful use of natural light, as a genius cinematographer (think of Days of Heaven), but I tell you this, he was a damn good filmmaker also, and his shortcoming was working in a system that valued fictional filmmaking above all others, and it is no wonder he only managed to make only one film, but a good one.
Rio Lobo (Howard Hawks, 1970) By the time Hawks made Rio Lobo, he had already achieved immortality as that of a master filmmaker, for over 40 years, making one masterpiece after another, so it was no wonder that the master take his craft to the limit of simplicity in Rio Lobo, and the in process, making one of the most charming and lazy Western ever made, it is a wonderful watch, the film drag on so smoothly that by the time it is over, you rarely notice that you have been watching a film for the last two hour, almost a Western meet a Screwball Comedy, with characters driving the film rather than the plot, and they don’t act, they just talk, scenes that seem to have been improvised on the set, just like the opening credit of a hand playing a Guitar, Hawks take us like a string and play with us anyway he pleases, from laughters to share horror of cruelty, and always, he is playing on that middle note, never swinging a note to either side, a master craftsman is always a master, and Hawks has always been a master filmmaker.
Uomini Contro (Francesco Rosi, 1970) In war, everything that is innocent must perish, so it is in Rosi’s Uomini Contro, among one of most realistic anti-war film, set during the trench battles of WWI, with the enemy not being the Austrian, but rather the bureaucracy in the chain of command in the Italian army, as one General is capable of sending thousands of men into their death, the line between tragedy and comedy is drawn to the perfection, the tragedy is so great, that is become comical at times, with the genius behind the film being no other than the great screenwriter, Toni Guerra, I can’t think of any other writing such ironic scenes, that is between sanity and insanity to such tragic scale that is become comical, as is the scenes with the brutal General Leone sending men to death out of nothing but curiosity. Great one.
Minnie and Moskowitz (John Cassavetes, 1971) Minnie and Moskowitz, two loners, in love with Bogart’s film, living in a world that despite them, yet, they want to be loved, to be romantically in love, yet, always end up fighting, then, peace again, for a short time, back fighting again. They are like two children, they never show what they feel, always hiding their emotion, then again, at times they burst open all their desires and feeling, only to hide it again. You may call Cassavetes’ cinema, his films, as a long chain of examination of human relationship, his characters are always desperate for something, they think they know what they want, but when they get it, they feel betrayed by their emotion, that emotion that shift from tenderness into madness in a split second, that is why, every character in a Cassavetes film is a true character, they are not mere fictional creation on the screen, they are real, you feel them, you relate to them, and you know them, then when the film is over, you think about them. That is the genius of Cassavetes, he create a realism that is hard not to relate too, to believe in. Minnie Moore always wear dark glasses, even at night, why? To hide her eyes, because in her eyes is where her emotion is, and she never want you to see it, but you feel it. On the other hand, Seymour Moskowitz is a showman, he want to be seen, to be known, to be observed, but when things get tough, he run away, he does not wear dark glasses to hide his emotion, he either run away, or become violent. They are two people outsider of what society call ‘normal human”, but they are not rebels either, they want to belong, but they have hard time belonging, they are characters of out the beautiful cinema of John Cassavetes.
The Adventures Of Cheburashka (Roman Kachanov, 1971-1983) No other stop-motion animation can top Kachanov’s The Adventures Of Cheburashka with its masterly of technique, form and a heart warming story. The cute little Cheburashka and the wise always forgiven crocodile, Gena, are two eternal characters, it is hard for one not to fall in love with them. Almost a recreation of Chaplin, with sentimentally that are as heart warming as any Chaplin film, the comedy comes from little incidents that are beyond charming. The first scene of the first episode set the tone; little Cheburashka is founded when a grocer open an orange box, poor Cheburashka, thinking he is from a country called “Orange”, and those nostalgic songs, once you heard them, you never forget them.
Sbatti il mostro in Prima Pagina aka Slap the Monster on the Front Page (Marco Bellocchio, 1972) Bellocchio’s film all deal with the dark side of the human psyche lost in the political spectrum, Sbatti il mostro in Prima Pagina is Bellocchio condemnation of the press, that monster that only uplhold what is best fit to sell, to manipulate the public’s opinion with simple propaganda, turning which ever side it best fit, as the manipulative publisher (Gian Maria Volonte) put it best, “We have to be a Protagonist and not just an observer”, only that, the press is the antagonist, the mass is the herd, the innocent are the guilty, the guilty are innocent, even the editor himself is a pawn at the hand of a capitalist owner, making him sing his tunes. Another masterful film from 70s Italy, a thrilling murder mystery with political twist to it that best describe the turmoil of Italy in the 70s.
Blaise Pascal (Roberto Rossellini, 1972) Blair Pascal, the man whom every student remember for the theory of probabilities is just a simple human in Rossellini’s minimalist portrayal of the man who tried once to prove the existence of God by waging at a gambling table, unlike the many glamorized portrayal of of historical figures that Hollywood love to make, in Rossellin’s film, everything is shown to its smallest and realistic detail, as if, a time machine had taking him back to capture the life and death of Blaise Pascal, among memorable scenes included; a somber and masterfully directed death scene in the end of the film, truly brilliant.
Chung Kuo – Cina (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1972) After his triumph, the master of the art cinema of the 60s, in early 70s, Antonioni took a break to make this wonderful documentary for TV on China after the Cultural Revolution, it is about China in 1972, but also about historical China, its culture and people, above all, it is a film about the common people and their daily lives, as Antonioni’s camera zoom into faces trying to register an emotion. Slow in pace, more than 3 hours in length, not a single minute of boredom, for its is a colorful and a beautiful documentary, that neither judge nor condemn, it only shows, not to be missed.
The Visitors (Elia Kazan, 1972) When immoral institutions allow men to act immoral toward others, then, all men are targets. War is immoral, and the men fighting immoral wars become immoral, no matter how hard one try, few of the immoral can become moral, for they lack reason in thinking, acting and behaving. Made during the peak of the Vietnam war, Kazan’s The Visitors is a look at the home front during war time, everything in the film is dreary, a dreary mood, building up to a violent climax, and Kazan’s style help, shaky camera, use of zoom, close framing, naturalistic use of light, and parallel cutting to two different action simultaneously. The war might be at a distance, but the home front is equality violent, even the sport they watch on TV seem to reflect that violent. When the stillness comes before the storm, when the peace lady dance a waltz with the solider, you know it won’t last long, for the two playing the same game won’t play by the same rule, “Lady you are nut, you think you can change the rules in the middle?”. Two different world on a collusion, each going a separate way, with only one thing in common, that of not knowing why. Written by a son, directed by a father aware of the My Lai massacre. Kazan’s The Visitors and Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, two film made in span of a year, reflect not only at the violent nature of a society, but also viewer’s observation of that violence, “It only happen on the screen”, but it happen outside of the screen more often. Kazan’s film fit best with the rest of the many masterpieces of 70s American cinema.
La Maman et la putain (Jean Eustache, 1973) Jut like a Bresson film, no matter how many time you watch La Maman et la putain, you always end up taking the characters in the film for real people, did Alexander marry her at the end? You ask yourself, knowing clearly that Alexander is no other than Jean-Pierre Leaud, in his best performance of any film. La Maman et la putain is among those films that I worship, I adore, I love, and like those other ones, I get back to watching it at least once a year, each time, discovering something new, for it is full of life. You may call it a tale of two film, the first one is all about Alexander talking and talking, then talking and talking to others, he get to like to the talking so much, that he start looking at the camera and talking to us, the second tale of the film is that of him listening, he listen, and listen, he listen s as others talk, yes, it get to a point, that he just stare at us listening. If you ever wanted to watch a film that is true to life, so full of quotation that it become a textbook to quote from, then watch La Maman et la putain, for it is a film to be quoted.
The Gambler (Karl Ruiz, 1974) The brain behind The Gambler is the script by James Toback, more of an adaptation of two masterwork by Doestovsky, The Gambler and Notes from Underground, no man knew more about a Gambler’s obsessions with winning and gambling addiction than Doestovsky, he was a master gambler himself, writing some of his masterpiece just to pay off his debts, the tribute is clear in the film, with quotation and poster of the master hanging all over James Cann’s rooms. The obsession of a true gambler is not just to win, but also, the risk of losing, the higher the risk, the bigger the thrill. Another forgotten one from 70s.
Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975) More than 25 years later, Mandingo is still as provocative as the day it was made, and it is a film that is only possible to have been made in the 70s. It is hard to imagine a big studio with big stars would make such film, with its true portrayal of slavery, rarely does it ask for sympathy from the viewer, rather, it tells it as it is, human psychology in the face of a brutal system, in which a man is valued as a mere commodity. Among the forgotten masterpieces of the 70s American cinema.
Shampoo (Hal Ashby, 1975) One thing is for sure in a Hal Ashby film, everyone speed up at a stop sign. On the surface, Shampoo seem like a simple comedy, but underneath, it is as complex as Renoir’s Rules of the Games. Just notice the droopy face of Nixon on the background, the films almost has a perfect duration running with the election campaign of Nixon, George’s downfall comes at the exact time when Nixon make his winning speech, and to Ashby, the counter-culture revolution seem to have managed to jump another decade, with its hero a hairdresser of a playboy, almost a perfect comic of a tragic hero, as the women always seem to get the best of him, too many is too few as the few become scare. Ashby’s touch is all over the place, with its rapid twist of dark humor that leave you laughing amid the twist of the never ending plots.
Winstanley (Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, 1975) The 17th century social reform and writer, Gerrard Winstanley is more of a mashing figure of Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau and Karl Marx, with his call for the equal sharing and distribution of land, rejection of organized religion, rejection of commodity and money, gaining one’s bread by one’s plowing of the land, and living on earth’s natural resources, creating self-sufficient farming community with his flowers know as the Diggers, despite hard condition and daily attacks by the land owners. To its time, Gerrard Winstanley might have been viewed as an anarchist, but that is nothing compared to some of his followers that include a group that seem to be out of 60′s radical hippie movement, with their rejection of all morality and call for free love, something that make poor Gerrard Winstanley a mere anarchist compare to them. With its historical accuracy, documentary filmmaking that fit best the style of Peter Watkins films, Winstanley is a small masterpiece that put to shame the stylish and big budgets Hollywood production of the time, a film with a big heart.
Galileo (Joseph Losey, 1976) I remember the first time I read Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, I was a kid, and to me the plot of that play was the suspense of wither Galileo would be burned on the stick or not? It was year’s later when I re-read the play in English did I really understood the real plot of the film; how far can a man go to stand for what he believe in? or rather, What is the price to pay for the truth? Just as in the play, in Losey’s film, it is the viewer who decide wither Galileo’s recantation was a failure in character or a wise manipulative decision of a scientist’s responsibility to society, to let the truth out, no matter how late. In the film, Losey is more on the side of Galileo, as in the play, Brecht was more the side of the reader. Losey bring the best out of the play, it is a Brechtian film from a Brecht film, involving the viewer in the watch, as we see Galileo , like a little child, playing with the stars, the great one, always in search for where his next meal would come from, for he love eating, “I get my best ideas over a good meal and a bottle of wine”, so said the wise master. Watching Galileo, brought back all memory of first reading Brecht’s, such a wonderful read it was, and what a wonderful film to watch.
Obsession (Brian DePalma, 1976) If you want to watch a masterpiece, then watch Hitchcock’s Vertigo, then if you want to watch a remake of Vertigo with a thrilling twist, then watch DePalma’s Obsession, a remake so similar than at times you seem to be watching Vertigo complete with Bernard Herman’s score. What makes Vertigo much better film than Obsession is not just mere mastery of Hitchcock’s genius as filmmaker, but Vertigo is made up of two half world, combined into one, the first half we see a realistic world and on the second we seem the creation of that reality through a neurotic mind, as in Obsession, the film start from beginning with the character living in that world which a creation of a neurotic mind in search of lost times in the realistic world. In Obsession, DePalma shows his obsession with the world of Hitchcock, with multiple homage to the master.
Cadaveri eccellenti (Francesco Rosi, 1976) “So, the people will never know the truth?”, “Truth is not always revolutionary”. It is always a delight to discover a masterpieces that influenced the other, as in the case of Rosi’s Cadaveri eccellenti, a masterpiece of politically intervening thriller that has a definite influences on both, Coppela’s The Conversation and Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, in both form and style. The story of a respected detective, played silently and brilliantly by Lino Ventura who end up being the main player of in a surrealist game, Cadavre Exquis, not knowing that he is a pawn of a game with unknown result. The film open with rotten corpses hidden in a basement away from the masses, and end among the statues of the past, in museum shown as the official history, a metaphor for all that is rotten in the official version of the truth as the Stat hold, the official version is known, but the truth remain hidden. A masterpiece, so far, my favorite of Rosi.
Cross of Iron (Sam Peckinpah, 1977) Oh, Sam Peckinpah, you mad genius, for only you, you only, truly understood man’s nature; of that violent animal, always on the path of destruction, so, it is only befitting that one master quote another, as Peckinpah quote Brecht, from The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, in the last credit of Cross of Iron, “Don’t rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again”, even the quoting of Brecht seems like a big nihilist joke from Peckinpah, just as Cross of Iron is a big nihilist joke on war, it is such a savage and mad film, that one can’t help laughing with Steiner, as stills of the real victims of wars appear on the screen, we are laughing at the madness that produce such imagery. What can one say about one of the greatest anti-war masterpiece in the history of cinema? Can one just talk about the cruel landscape? The treachery of war, the bureaucracy of life reflected in the army, as Captain put it, “in civilian as well as in military life, the distinction is made between people”, even in the army, the class struggle must go on. The film might as well have been about Vietnam, for Peckinpah felt passionately about a brutal war raging for no reason other than imperial domination, the saying goes that Peckinpah sent many telegram to Nixon, asking him to investigate the real reason for the war, “Your country and mine needs a strong and direct line to truth. Otherwise we are without honor of ourselves and with the world.” It is ironic that many who criticize Peckinpah’s film at the time for its violence, rarely stood up for the atrocities committed by the American forces in Vietnam, that is what drove Peckinpah’s film to become more violent over time, more sarcastic, and cynical. When a group of animal rights advocate made school children write to him, complaining about a scene in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) in which Billy shoot the heads off live chickens, Peckinpah wrote back to them, explaining how the chicken was saved from a slaughter house, giving more days to live, when killed, was giving to a poor farmer for his dinner, and referring to My Lai massacre in Vietnam, “I am delighted to hear from young people who have a conscience because there is a lot in life to be concerned about. I suggest you ask your teacher to tell you about My Lai and what Lt. Calley did to a 2 1/2 year old child in Vietnam. Explain to her that, although this man committed one of the most terrible crimes, he is coming out on probation after only a few years in jail”, the 2 1/2 year old child was shot on the back with another 347 unarmed Vietnamese men, women, and children by the American forces, an event, even today, very few know about, as the media did then, and now, its best to hide it. Sam Peckinpah, never hide, he shows and Cross of Iron is a complex film that work on many levels, Peckinpah is master at manipulating the viewer into his trickery; you see images, you hear sounds, you hear music, you think, you are manipulated, all three working independently of one another, the end credit is a brilliant example; juxtaposing innocent children song, stills of war atrocities, Brecht’s quotation, and Steiner’s sarcastic laughter, a cynical master, that mad Peckinpah was, and poetry in violence his cinema was.
3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (Isao Takahata, 1978) Ah, Marco, how much I love you, you were the hero of my childhood. The little Marco who leave Genoa, travel all the way from Italy to the most remote part of Argentina in search of her mother, still my favorite animi serious, and Marco still my hero. I loved him so much when I was little, that I cut my hair to his style, I even would try to imitate his talk, the little boy, who always wanted the benefit of others before that of himself. 52 episodes of pure Gold, a nostalgia to watch with childhood memory still intact. Love it beyond love.
Pretty Baby (Luis Malle, 1978) Unlike any other films about the coming of age , Pretty Baby is not about losing innocent, but rather the opposite, of having no innocent but forcing to gain some as Violet is about to reach adulthood, you may call it an anti-coming of age film, for the aging process seem to be reversing as we progress in the film. Looking back to it more than 30 years later, the film is still provocative the day it was made, if the film were to be made today, the chances of its getting a wide theatrical release is very slime not to mention the controversy it might it cause leading to many Studios not even trying to get near it. That last freeze frame of the film is very similar to Truffaute’s 400 Blows, but its meaning is quite the opposite, as in 400 Blows, Doniel is lost, looking into the camera not knowing where to turn, in Pretty Baby, Violet seem to know the full potentiality of herself, she is not lost, she know where she is going, or does she? Each viewer would have to answer that question in their own way
Future Boy Conan (Hayao Miyazaki, 1978) The 26 episode of the animation series, Future Boy Conan was the first work as a director of Hayao Miyazaki, and it was my first encounter with his wonderful world, only back then, as a child watching the series on TV, I did no know who Hayao Miyazaki, yet I felt in love with Conan, watching now the original version over a period three days, it bring back all the childhood memories that I once experienced. Future Boy Conan could be called the root of all Miyazaki’s later works. Growing up as as a child, I was exposed to the animi series of the two masters, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, they were my first love for a world that still is dear to me, that of the animation.
Bye Bye Monkey (Marco Ferreri, 1978) Gérard Depardieuis Lafayette, he is a modern man, his attachment is to a bicycle and a whistle, that is until he get attached to King Kong’s orphaned baby son. Marcello Mastroianni is Luigi , the old type of man, who want attachment from women and positions, everyone is insane in a world full of insanity and weirdness with Ferreri’s surreal imagery dominating the film.
Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Francesco Rosi, 1979) Rosi’s Cristo si è fermato a Eboli is based on the true story of Carlo Levi, among the giants of the 20th century Italian writers. Carlo Levi’s exile to a small poverty stricken town in Southern Italy soon become one man’s meditation and observation of the believes, superstitions, culture, the struggle, sicken and poverty daily lives of the inhabitant of a town, as Mussolini was about to invade Northern Africa. Slow paced, the film is another masterful depiction of the literary works and indeed the creators of those works, Carlo Levi. Masterful.
Lupin III – The Castle of Cagliostro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1979) Miyazaki, you are the god among all the animators, the master of them all. Who else can create a character like Lupin, a thief with a Golden heart, without making it too predictable in his actions? a story that is an animation version of a Hitchcok film , with an action thriller add to it, a story that is politically intriguing; a small kingdom with loyalty run a counterfeiting dynasty, with Interpol, UN, the Soviet and the American all knowing about it, but, only Lupin can crack the case. Magnificent.
Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (Emir Kusturica, 1981) Kusturica’s coming of age story has all the signature of his later style; the irony in dark humor with a touch of sentimentality, the best sequence in the film generalize the whole cinema of Kusturica: The Father is on his death bed as the son read to him the future planing of cultivating the Indian Ocean to fed 145 Billion people by the moving of the earth’s axis, which make the distance of the earth farther from Sun, therefor, less gravity, as men becomes Titans, living an age between 1 to 3 thousands of years, by the time the son finishes his reading, the poor Father is dead, that is your irony in dark humor. Then comes the sentimental scene, as the poor Father is laid on the ground, facing Mecca, the family praying over him, come in the uncle, “What are you doing? He was a Communist”. That is Kusturica, his first feature film, perhaps was his best.
Gauche the Cellist (Isao Takahata, 1982) Based on a short story by Kenji Miyazawa, Takahata’s Gauche the Cellist is about a young man’s search into finding the meaning of his art and taking it to the perfection, after an angry rejection of what truly his art his, he find out toward the end that the inspiration for music does not just comes from him, but rather, it comes from all and for all, including nature, animals and indeed, the universe itself, with lyrical imagery put into animation, add the classical music to it, in Gauche the Cellist you have a lyrical masterpiece in animation.
El Sur (Victor Erice, 1983) Erice is a painter of a poet, he tell a story by painting images with natural lights, add the poetry by using gestures for acting, every frame is like a little postcard, that is, a moving imagery of a postcard. Based on Adelaida García Morales’ short novella, El Sur is the story of a little girl, Estrella, wanting to discover the mysterious world of her Father, that of his past. Distance and cold, the Father rarely speak, he seem to be living in a world of the past, there is a mysterious lover that once he had, who conquered his mind, as he write her name and draw her image, as a young man, he once participated in the Spanish civil war, fought against Franco, was imprisoned, left his homeland in the south forever, he had a father in the south whom he dislike, one day, his Mother visit him, to the delight of little Estrella, but they leave the next day. The world of El Sur is that of hiding emotion, the characters hide more than they tell, the last dinner scene in the restaurant between father and daughter is a perfect example of Erice’s world; Both pretend to be happy, they talk about different subjects, they pretend to understand each other, but their faces, their gestures suggest otherwise, and when Estrella leave her father, sitting alone, at a distance, we know, that it is the last time she will see her, and she does tell us so in the voiceover, “Could I have done more for him than I did at that moment? I always ask myself that. Because that was the last time I ever spoke to him”, next scene; the sun is setting, the camera pan down the river to reveal her father, laying dead, a gun beside him. The film was suppose to have a sequel, in which little Estrella, now a teenager, travel to the south to find the her Father’s mysteries lover, but the producer did not let Erice make the sequel, a pity, because the ending of the film promise an equally beautiful followup of a film. Masterpiece of Spanish Cinema.
Ososhiki aka The Funeral (Juzo Itami, 1984) There is a thin line separating the boundary between the world of tragedy and that of comedy, that of laughters, and that of tears, only few masters can walk on that line, and in doing so, they create a world full of sentimentality, Juzo Itami is among the masters of that world, and from what I have seem from him so far, The Funeral is by far his best, in it, he reach his perfection. Four days in the life of a family as they attend a funeral, or rather, everything you want to know about Japanese funeral but where afraid to ask. The battle between tradition and modernity, customs and behavior, pretending and being, feeling and reacting, all take the form of a drama that slowly shift into a dark comedy, only to end up as a masterpiece on the inability to deal with our inner most emotions. Itami never let one emotion conquer the other, rather, in the span of a spilt second, he take you to one world, then back into the other. That short appearance Chishy Ryu, brought back all the nostalgic memory of Ozu. Masterful.
Hamlet Goes Business (Aki Kaurismaki, 1987) What does Shakespeare, Kaurismaki, a rubber dock, folk music, and the music score from Battleship Potemkin all have in common? They have the film, Hamlet Goes Business, among the most genius modern day adoption of Shakespeare’s immortal play, at the hand of Kaurismaki, Hamlet is a modern day industrialist who plot the murder of his father, then plot the revenge on his uncle in order to take over the business. Dark humored, the film is on the edge of pure insanity, with Hamlet doing his best to compose two line in a lover letter to Ophelia, working out, listening to the blues, reading comic books, and not to forget, buying ice cream for Ophelia. Timeless film from a timeless master.
To Sleep with Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990) Danny Glover is great as a small time Mephistopheles, on visit to an old family friend, turning their world upside down, doing his best with charm to lurk the men into gambling and crime, and to lure the women into leaving them, but he fail miserably thanks to a towering figure of the mother in the family. The only other film that I have seem from Burnett is Killer of Sheep, among one of the best American Independent film of the 70s, To Sleep with Anger is also a great one, an honest film examining in the lives of a middle class African American family that one rarely seen on the screen, characters out of real world and not just a mere fictional creation on the screen, but what make the film so brilliant, is the careful mixing of Glover’s dark humor in treachery to the sentimental portrayal of the mother in a battle of Good vs Evil, the good triumph at the end, a charming little film that was a flop when it was released, it is pity, because it is a great one.
El sol del membrillo aka Quince Tree of the Sun (Víctor Erice, 1992) Made in the same time as Kiarostami’s Close-up, El sol del membrillo is a unique masterpiece of realism lost in the territories of fiction, just as Close-up, we are taking into world that is created right in front of us, in an attempt to capture the process of re-creating reality in the form of fiction, within this form of documentary, Erice, like Kiarostami, create a world of fiction that is more truthful than what we consider to be reality. Just as Antonio López García fails to capture the true essences of the the eponymous quince tree, for once, he fail to create that realism that he is so famous for, Erice delivers in creating his world, that of achieving true artist re-creation of reality. Truly, one of the best of the 90s, one to be hold.
Center Stage aka Actress (Stanley Kwan, 1992) How masterful of a complex film Actress is? Take the following: Maggie Cheung play Maggie Cheung in the film, Maggie Cheung play Ruan Lingyu in the film, Maggie Cheung pretend to play Ruan Lingyu in the film, Maggie Cheung play the fictional role of Ruan Lingyu playing a fictional role in her film, then Ruan Lingyu play Ruan Lingyu. What is shown to us, is a documentary world that is lost in a fictional one, we see Stanley Kwan trying to put together the puzzle of a life of Ruan Lingyu, then we see him direct a fictional film on the life of Ruan Lingyu, we see a world that is dead but alive in the same time, a legend becoming a fact, but a fact that has already become a legend. The best scene that could describe the mastery of creating Cinema, make believe, breaking the third barrier, and as a viewer going for it: A close up of Ruan Lingyu dead, we are in the fictional world, but then, we realize she is breathing, as she become Maggie Cheung playing Ruan Lingyu, back to the real world, then a wide shot of Stanley Kwan shouting cut and telling Maggie Cheung to take a deep breath for the next take, in a fictional world that is a documentary sold to be fiction, then, back to the take on Maggie Cheung as she take the deep breath, the word, “action”, and once again Maggie Cheung become Ruan Lingyu, dead in her coffin, back to the the fictional world, “OK”, Ruan Lingyu, become Maggie Cheung again, but wait, it is not over yet, the shot is cut to; a still of the real Ruan Lingyu, dead on her coffin. The mastery of Actress, in which, everything is cinema, and nothing is. Masterful.
The Last Bolshevik aka Le tombeau d’Alexandre (Chris Marker, 1992) Nostalgic, lyrical, poetic, raw and cynical, few word to describe Marker’s masterful essays on the giant Dinosaurs of the early Soviet cinema, composed as letter to Alexandre Medvedkine, as he reflect on Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin, and the history of the Soviet Union in span of two hour of tour de force, let the image speak.
The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993) I had always thought that Scorsese’s best period lasted up to The King of Comedy, but boy I was wrong, the adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is among his best, and to make one of his best, he takes from the best, from Hitchock’s Vertigo, from Ophul’s Letter to Unknown Women and Lola Montez, and above all, from Visconti’s Senso. One might criticize the heavy handed style, the third-person narration, or the over the top use of props in the film, but at the end, you are left with greatness, the overwhelming emotional power of the film sweep you away back into an age of innocence, an age of two person and their a tragic love affair, Daniel Day-Lewi’s performance is timeless, feel the poor guy’s pain, as unattainable love slowly destroy him.
Three Businessmen (Alex Cox, 1999) Among the most minor work of Cox, Three Businessmen is an absolute timeless masterpiece in minimalism, the most Bunuelian of all Cox’s film, with its use of surreal narrative, leaving only time on the screen as the space become an expandable tablet that draw from the audience’s inner knowledge in adding meaning to the narrative, the film take place all over the world, mainly in Liverpool, as the narrative then shift to Rotterdam, Hong Kong, Tokyo and finally to the Western deserts of the States, for a causal viewer, all seem to take place in Liverpool, as the time shift from one later afternoon toward the next morning, two businessmen, later, plus the third one, discuss nothing, yet, it end up being an interesting watch of reflecting on a time and place passing by, at the current state of the world facing a new millennium, notice the concert poster all over the place.
Telets aka Taurus (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2001) You see the great Lenin suffer like a common man, he is in more of a moral pain than a physical one in his last few days as he is dying, and he knows it, yet, his dilemma of a revolution left behind without him to carry it, is not as server as his dilemma of calculating two numbers, he is in hallucination, a film that uses images and sound reflecting that moral hallucination, after seeing Stalin, Lenin ask at the dinner table, “Who was that Man?”, he already forgotten who Stalin was, for even before is death, Stalin had already him in his hand, with his dark mustache, he tip-tope around the house, looking for his revolutionary pal, to advice him against the plots of “Trotsky”, but it is not politic that is at the center of Telets, but a man’s last few days in life, one by the name of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the man who shook the world once.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica, 2010) I had a Romanian friend who used to look back nostalgically and profoundly at the teims growing up in Romania under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, we see a sleepy world with one man in the center of it, he oversight everything, from constructing mega-buildings to baking the right bread as he drive around Romania in his cheap old model car, the extreme state controlled socialism that Romania once lived under Nicolae Ceausescu compared to the privatization and destruction of state run industries after the collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu made my friend to look back melancholily at the times of long gone. Among the best documentary that I have seen in recent time, in which the image speak itself, home made video and newsreel footage portray a man the way he was, neither judge nor condemn, it is for you to decide who Nicolae Ceausescu was. Not to be missed
O Estranho Caso de Angelica aka The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, 2010) What can one say of de Oliveira, the only great Dinosaur left from silent cinema who still make films, only praise can be bestowed upon the man, de Oliveira made The Strange Case of Angelica when he was 102 years old, just imagine that, but it never shows, it is a film coming from a heart of a young man. The story of a photographer, Isaac, by appearance and look, he look like young de Oliveira, it might as well be a metaphor of himself, he is interested in the old days, the old fashion way of doing things; in the digital age, he still uses film camera, dress like a man out of 40s, always wearing a fedora hat, his room has no TV nor radio, he even talk the old ways, he prefer manual labor to that of the machinery, capturing images of donkey over car, he belong to world not that of today. Above all, he is in love with images, we see everything from his POV, he look, we see, it is the love of the image, of seeing. Even the staging is old fashioned, theatrical staging, everyone has position in the frame, they move, they stop, the camera never move in the real world, but in that of the imagination, if fly, even the special effect is old fashioned, out of silent cinema, at times, the photographers’ camera becomes de Oliveira’s camera, capturing the same imagery; one still, one moving. Poor Isaac, his real world collapses as he enter the world of the hallucinations, that of moving imagery, even when shooting the still photos, he does it in a succession, so when viewed, they create an illusion of movement. As for interacting with other people, he is a loner, people seem boring to him; when walking into a room full of people, the only thing he notice is a vase with a flower, that is the strange case of Isaac.
Here is the the rest of the Diary:
Running on Empty (Sidney Lumet, 1988) The last line of Running on Empty is heart braking not because it is a line coming from an ex-anarchist Father on the run telling his son to cools it, but because it is coming from a man who has to compromise his principles in order for his Son to become something that he once despised; “No, go out there and make a difference. Your mother and I tried. Don’t let anyone tell you any different”
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (Robert Siodmak, 1945) No matter how crafted a film might be, when a few scene toward the end tell the viewer that what they had seen so far has been nothing but an imagination of a pre-planned murder and the film end with a happy ending, then, as a viewer, you think you have being taking for a ride. That is the case of The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, a well crafted noir about Harry who can’t escape the hand of her jealous/psychopathic sister, as she does everything to keep him, the Freudian plot of the film soon lead to a murder being committed, only to have a happy ending scene, telling us that it was all an imaginative murder, that scene alone ruined the whole film.