My 2014 in Film
These are the best older movies I saw all year.
One Way Passage (Tay Garnett, 1932)
Heartbreaking in every sense, formally inventive, and just damn great.
Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh, 1932)
If this film was nothing but Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett trading barbs, it would be a masterpiece. And, yet, they exist and there’s a plot and there are characters and dialogue and a million other pleasures (characters address the camera directly, the play with VO, etc.) that both distract, enhance and make the whole thing feel like a bit of play. I could watch movies like this forever.
The Bells of St. Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945)
It all comes down to those final 5 minutes. Bing Crosby suppressing everything inside of himself, McCarey giving us that incredible profile of his face, tempestuous emotions barely hinted at, and finally that final act of confession. Those last 5 minutes are nothing short of miraculous in their mastery of filmmaking. The rest ain’t bad either.
Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948)
“These are our heroes, our fathers who made us what we are today; in a way, they are ourselves. A Kubrick applies placeboes to our consciences, showing us that evil, warped men cause evil; but Ford makes us uncomfortable, showing us that fine, noble people cause
evil — and reminding us that, however much we decry what they did, we are not about to undo their work.” – Tag Gallagher
Way of a Gaucho (Jacques Tourneur, 1952)
Play it with Jauja and let it rip.
Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955)
A series of confrontations without resolution; a film that begs for some kind of release but never quite gives you any. It’s basically a series of encounters that explore the main relationship between the main couple, hitting at it from new angles, showing new developments and wrinkles, but basically remaining at a sort of stasis. Naruse’s brilliance is exploiting that lack of forward movement, restaging it as a sort of sad dance between the two main characters that only has one ending.
Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
Nothing less than a comic tour de force by Marylin Monroe in surely one of the great performances of all time
Wild River (Elia Kazan, 1960)
Although its insights and exploration of the American South are part of the reason why Wild River is great, what I end coming up back to is Lee Remick. The film juxtaposes the stillness, the severity and passivity of Montgomery Clift beautifully against the rawness of Remick. There’s a keys scene late in the film where Remick implores Clift to take her with him where she allows herself to be as vulnerable as any actor I’ve ever seen. She cycles through a series of complex emotions, all expressed in a series of hesitant facial expressions and stop-start line readings that’s as masterful a bit of acting that I’ve ever seen. But it’s the scene that finds both of them covered in mud, their entire dynamic expressed in a couple of line exchanges, that renders me speechless in its resigned beauty; its masterful staging and execution just a nice bonus. Whole movie’s sorta like that.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961)
Two drifters off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see
We’re after the same rainbow’s end
Waiting ’round the bend, my huckleberry friend
Moon river and me
Donovan’s Reef (John Ford, 1963)
It takes a master to be this casually simple, to almost seem dramatically slack, as if nothing important is happening on the screen. It’s the personality that shapes the film, the spirit behind it, that gives grace to Lee Marvin’s silly antics (his fascination with the model train set!), and that dramatizes, without ever descending into preachiness, a community built upon shared history and pain (the war and its aftermath links everyone). The film’s treatment of miscegenation and racial tolerance is simply the logical outgrowth of its handling of community – everyone understands each other, and where they come from – and it’s beautiful.
Lifeguard (Daniel Petrie, 1976)
Sensitively acted and directed, Lifeguard is almost completely unlike what its poster would suggest. Instead of “every girl’s summer dream,” the film sets out to show the various moral choices available to Sam Elliott’s titular lifeguard. The film’s humor and more 70’s shit elements (little miniature stories like the flasher or the teen gropers) serve to balance the detours into moodier territory. That “territory” is ostensibly the film’s actual subject, and here is where it excels. The film’s ambivalent attitude towards its main character is there at every turn; instead of judging Elliott, it seems to be interested in what sort of decisions he’ll make about the life he wants to lead. That’s rare.
Parvarish (Manmohan Desai, 1977)
The three Manmohan Desai films I’ve seen all featured pre-credit prologues that posed moral questions that the film would then go on to, at length, answer. Parvarish revolves around the question of nurture vs. nature, but it weaves its explorations of that idea into a series of hugely entertaining set pieces and riffs and, of course, musical numbers. My favorite number might be the duet between Shabana and Neetu, where they go around stealing a bunch of watches and wallets and proclaim that all property belongs to the public. I mean, of course.
They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich, 1981)
Classic screwball conventions filtered thru New Hollywood eyes. A film in love with movies and life, puzzles puzzles, just unbelievably perfect. And also corny. Staging its goofy caper moments in real city streets, scoring its celebratory (and more dazzling) stylistic and narrative coups to country music, tossing off its frequently brilliant dialogue like it doesn’t even matter, and, best of all, making every moment profoundly warm and funny while still embodying a hint of melancholy because things never work out this way, only in the movies – all of this embodied at every point by Ben Gazzara’s face, which seems to have internalized the film’s philosophy. So: you could say it’s a little sad and a little funny.
Victor Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982)
Trying to think of what to say about this film, but nothing I came up with came anywhere near the brilliant summation in Dave Kehr’s capsule review: “Blake Edwards’s 1982 sex comedy has the most beautiful range of tones of any American film of its period: it is a work of dry wit, high slapstick, black despair, romantic warmth, and penetrating intelligence.” So there you have it.
Shanghai Blues (Tsui Hark, 1984)
A romantic comedy deeply rooted in particular historical place, where the fates of its characters are not determined solely by the particular of the plot, but also the currents of history. Tsui treats this moment not as background, but rather the instigator – what makes the events possible – and gives it proper weight. This is a miracle of a film. All of the setpieces, whether comic or romantic, are inventive and fun. But it’s in the beautiful realization of the character arcs (how the ending mirrors the beginning) and how its final goodbye is shaped by the weight of history that the film becomes truly great. Plus that final song, come on!
Sound and Fury (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1988)
Brisseau, for some reason tagged as a social realist thanks to this film and some earlier work, here expertly mines his milieu of social housing, schools and youth for his own purposes. Instead of underplaying his on-the-nose metaphor of innocence for his main lead, he actually does something interesting with it. Brisseau takes the metaphor and moves it past the figurative level, where the viewer is simply asked to make a connection, to something more primal, more mystical, something that aims for the unconscious, where it must be accepted as simple fact. The effect is immense simply because Brisseau risks failure at every turn.
Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988)
As usual with Davies, this is immaculate, perfect filmmaking. Building off the achievements of his earlier trilogy, and specially the aesthetic advances he made on Death and Transfiguration, his first feature is a amalgamation of memory, song and family. Flashes of brutality are peppered throughout, and it’s only in the beautiful songs of Davies’ characters that they find any solace. Davies’ beautiful tableaux, dissolving into each other, linked by song, are some of my favorite movie memories of 2014.
Les Sieges de l’Alcazar (Luc Moullet, 1989)
Delightful romantic comedy set in the midst of the 50’s Cahiers/Positif rivalry. It’s basically cinephile catnip. Hilarious start to finish – because of how specific about cinephilia it is – but also a snapshot of communal moviegoing that doesn’t quite exist anymore. Moullet allows for a certain romantic nostalgia for this era, while still lovingly skewering it. My favorite part is that one young critic who names Sam Newfield as “the only filmmaker who excites me.” Same critic later calls a fellow colleague who’s making their first film a traitor. It’s the little things.
Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma, 1993)
“Carlito’s Way is—no kidding—a story of spiritual rebirth: a mythic western in Seventies crime thriller drag about a man who realizes, deep into his forties, that the thug life he’d killed to create is in fact an imitation of life—not just immoral and shallow, but silly and boring.” – MSZ
New Rose Hotel (Abel Ferrara, 1998)
A Ferrara remix of Notorious that is less interested in its cyberpunk international intrigue plotting than the freeform dissolve heavy collapsing of time and space, bending over backwards to depict the relationship between its three main characters, and how easily it becomes convoluted due to the exploitation at the heart of it. Stylistically, this is rapturously beautiful; a mixture of reds and blues bathing several scenes of intimacy, interiors that never quite spatially cohere, and an ending that goes on forever, as Dafoe’s character wallows in despair. Truly mesmerizing work that simply refuses to settle down and have you make sense of it, forever out of reach.
Love and Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000)
An intelligent adult romance that treats both sides of the couple with equal complexity and gives each character their own narrative and aspirations. It also grounds its characters within a specific milieu that’s explored with sensitivity, and allows for nuance and depth in character relations. My favorite moment in the film is probably the final Dennis Haybert / Omar Epps heart to heart. It shows the care that Prince-Bythewood has for her characters that she also takes the time to develop the character’s parents, because along with basketball, they also act as the moral foundation for who they eventually become. And, of course, parts of this are just beautiful and romantic like few movies I know of. The entire basketball strip game is pitch perfect, along with its callback at film’s end. Just extremely well-done mainstream filmmaking.
Maqbool (Vishal Bhardwaj, 2003)
Bhardwaj’s 2nd feature, and first of his Shakespeare trilogy, recasts Macbeth into a tale of the Indian underworld. Maqbool moves with an intensity and intelligence that’s largely thanks to the consummate skill of its cast. Featuring of a who’s who of Indian’s most respected actors, the acting in this film is subtle and soulful, embodied here by Irrfan Khan’s and Pankaj Kapur’s twin MPV performances. Each man quiet and demure, their faces often still, masking the deep undercurrents of thought roiling about in there, delivers all-time great performance. Kapur’s performance in particular, his shuffling gait, unhurried and soft-spoken delivery, hearkens to something like Brando in The Godfather. Tabu’s very existence, tempting men, with her moles, her gaze, everything about her, just impossible. Bhardwaj’s crime drama also works as as interesting reworking of Macbeth, adding some wrinkles here and there (the sections emphasizing the questions of lust and paternity are probably the most interesting) to the text, while also having some stuff with it (the references to the Bollywood/mafia connection are pretty hilarious).
Spanglish (James L. Brooks, 2004)
What I value about this film (and about the Brooks films I’ve seen, I suppose) is his tendency to populate his film with relentlessly odd characterizations. How Do You Know works because its characters are constantly engaging in self-analysis, the film rubbing them up against characters don’t really require that level of introspection. It makes for an interesting frisson, if you will. Spanglish is similarly interesting for the peculiarity of the reactions. Sandler is something of a small miracle here; every action and facial tic is constantly unpredictable. The way he handles things or doesn’t handle them constantly surprising. Paz Vega’s character is more conventional in how she’s portrayed, but is also given her own eccentricities (the way she admits that she was being hypocritical is maybe my favorite scene, or her final scene with her daughter…) Tea Leoni’s housewife character draws the most interesting and ambiguous responses; she’s proof of Brooks’ self-conscious attempts at complex characterization and neurosis, but her performance almost reaches kabuki-levels of stylization and weirdness (I’ve never seen someone with such a pained/strained look on their face) that constantly push the film into territory that’s uncomfortable and strange.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)
I realize it works as pitch black comedy, but this works the best as dogged procedural. Each character Lazarescu meets has a checklist that they work through as they inspect his body, ask the same exact questions, and run this situation through their own training, judgment and indifference. The unvarnished style and pallid color scheme only serve to highlight how awful everything that’s happening is. But, as the process, fastidious and necessary, grows more and more absurd as the night wears on, which is where the comedy comes in, specially as the doctors start basically acting like assholes.
Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006)
Structured around a series of repeating motifs: Ventura in a room with another, listening, his letter, his silence, shadows. Costa has come through the other side after In Vanda’s Room, where his subjects completely determined the form and structure of the film, to here where he feels more comfortable shaping them to his own needs. The most interesting development is the inclusion of some surreal elements, which lend parts of the film a mythic quality, like the film’s environment is an expression of Ventura’s mind.
Night and Day (Hong Sangsoo, 2008)
The Hong male writ large.
Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009)
Part of the reason why this film packs such a wallop is how closely it sticks to Cornish’s perspective. This isn’t dainty costume drama, but an often passionate tale of first love that (like Scorsese’s Age of Innocence) is enacted through and sticks to the social codes of the its setting. It’s undeniably intimate and it often feels undeniably beautiful precisely because of what doesn’t happen. Its explication of how a poem works invariably describes the mode this film operates in, preferring sensations, textures and emotional logic to a clean and tidy progression of plot details. That final quick fadeout is as enigmatic as anything else in cinema.
Mausam (Pankar Kapur, 2011)
Unlike Jab Tak Hai Jaan, this is actually a successful attempt at an old-fashioned romantic melodrama. Not that it comes from another era, but rather that it tries to take seriously its character’s emotions and actions and doesn’t shy away from exploring them with true heft and consideration.
Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap, 2012)
First half tells of origins: grudges, fathers, sons, marriages, history. Second half then systematically obliterates all those things. The time we spend in that first half is crucial – the mini narratives (detours into lust, pot smoke, aviator glasses, and more) are told with verve, color and energy – because of how sharply they contrast with the overwhelming violence of the second half. The Bollywood myths of its characters are brought into relief in the second half as its characters struggle to act out the roles they envision for themselves. Kashyap’s pop historical vision is one forged with blood, incredible songs, and a lot of guys trying to be the hero.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)
I was only vaguely familiar with Hertzfeldt’s work before this so I was completely unprepared for how emotionally far-reaching and how inventive its techniques are. It’s honestly damn overwhelming what a perfect object it is. Hard to know what to say about it.
Hercules and the Captive Women (Vittorio Cottafavi, 1961)
Immaculate staging anchors this film. Cottafavi’s directions of brawls is as good as Ford’s! A film of simple pleasures and mysterious strengths. Hard to say why I liked it so much, but Hercules being a giant asshole is surely part of it!
Enter the Fat Dragon (Sammo Hung, 1978)
*writes compare/contrast essay on Robert Clouse’s stodgy, personality vacuum direction in Enter the Dragon versus Sammo Hung’s always fleet and agile HK-rooted mise en scene*
Angel Guts: Red Classroom (Chusei Sone, 1979)
What I said you to then… remains true today. Get out of this place. You shouldn’t be here.
There’s something about pink film that can just spook the very core of your soul. It’s probably because the form allows for, and encourages, subject matter that can often be depressing and horrifying. The film begins with depravity then struggles to head toward innocence. But inevitably it all ends in disappointment and disillusionment. The film’s boldest stylistic coup is the distortion the film applies to a key rendezvous in the film when the depths of Nami’s issues becomes clear (her sadness, her fury). But it’s the film’s ending that serves as the true gut punch. The film truly descends into hell, and the promises made earlier in the film, seen in an incredible long shot, are rebuked and forgotten. The film’s final two shots are stunning (the shock of that closeup, and then the abstract reflected body) are rich in ambiguity and power, evoking nothing less than The Third Man. As the film’s evocative theme song plays in the background, these lost souls stumble into the night.
Hardly Working (Jerry Lewis, 1980)
Begins with a curious greatest hits montage of Lewis’ past bits scored to Who’s Minding the Store‘s great typewriter scene, serving as both commentary on Lewis the actor/director’s past triumphs and also as back story to the clown figure of this new movie. Moves on to scene after scene of Lewis trying and failing to assimilate to normal society – Lewis acting as instigator of a thousand small disasters at whatever job he chooses to try next. Even after watching most of his films, HARDLY WORKING still registered as completely bizarre. Lewis is so oddly mannerist; he stretches the fabric of the world at will just to accommodate his gags, discarding things like emotional tenor, logic or causality. If it gets in the way of the scene, the timing of it, then it must go. What this leaves us with is Lewis bending the world and its people to his own peculiar point of view, shredding its plot progression into a series of stop-start sequences that hang around ill-fitting, and turning his characters into Bressonian after school special wannabes. The whole thing is bizarre and weird and desperate. As it should be.
Blue Rain Osaka (Masaru Konuma, 1983)
My quippy take on this is that it’s basically like a pink version of Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Past lovers, secret meetings, and a giant brawl that almost caps off the action of the film – it’s pretty good.
Darr (Yash Chopra, 1993)
The first musical number tells us everything: starting with a creepy scene of voyeurism where Juhi Chawla’s character, Kiran, almost disrobes to the song’s lyrics coyly suggesting that regardless of her consent, Kiran will be his. Darr doesn’t start in the realm of pure romantic love; instead it begins with a love that has morphed into a dangerous obsession. The imagery of this number is all subterfuge: Kiran believes she’s being serenaded by her lover and rushes toward him carelessly, her trek through a tree-lined path and empty hallways perhaps leading toward her doom.
Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994)
So eccentric and rambunctious. Instead of the ostentatious crescendos and moral algebra at play in something like Princess Mononoke (which I love), Pom Poko flows freely from vignette to vignette, only allowing its implications to surface in outbursts. At points, it felt like some political insurgent movie that just happened that star tanuki. At others, it felt like some kinda lost family melodrama (those final transformations one last hurrah for now gone way of life). It’s bizarre and troubling and beautiful.
Hollow Man (Paul Verhoeven, 2000)
It’s probably a credit to Verhoeven’s vision and the general hatefulness here that I thought for a long time how a pink film version of this would turn out. The film begins with Bacon but when he disappears cedes control of the narrative to other characters. Verhoeven’s camera, however, often assumes his POV, usually to horrific effect. His complexity is laid bare in those moments, not only stylistically, but also thematically – he will always align himself with that he critiques, take on its characteristics and exploit their effectiveness, even as he eviscerates them ideologically.
The Brothers Solomon (Bob Odenkirk, 2007)
The real trick here is how unabashedly sweet and good-natured Forte and Arnett play the brothers. And when they do break a mean-spirited crack, they only do so for the best reasons (the “look at the tits on that one” joke probably made me laugh more than anything else I saw all year). The reason why the film works is because it embraces the insanity of its characters and their logic all the while building off the emotional core that is the brothers’ bond with each other. It’s uneven, but goddamn funny.
Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012)
Though similar in plot and structure, this couldn’t be further away from the cold, brutally efficient world of Gareth Evans’ The Raid. This film’s sensibility is far more fluid and ambiguous; ranging from ridiculous splatterfest to druggy atmospherics and other weirdo pockets. Truly disreputable and dangerous because its characters are at one with their world and because the film plunges head first into it as well.