Friday, 12 August 2016

Rick's 100 favourite movies: Part 4

Hello. Here's the final part of my top 100 countdown, containing my favourite 25 films.

The others parts are here: 100-76, 75-51 and 50-26.

25. Les quatre cents coups (François Truffaut, 1959)

A film that changed my life. Truffaut's debut is a masterpiece on any terms, and was my gateway film to the joys of world cinema, and to cinema as a whole. Full review.

24. Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936)
This is my ultimate comfort movie: I must have seen it 50 times. Aside from one broad slapstick set-piece, a dated Chinese valet and Tracy's competent but uninspired performance, everything works. Loy and Powell simply sparkle together - she at her most arch, warm and beautiful, he turning every line into a mellifluous wonder - while Harlow is in unmissable screwball overdrive, displaying what a truly superb comedian she'd become by this time. Snappily, imaginatively directed by Jack Conway, it's highly quotable, richly romantic and intensely, intensely funny. In fact, it's just about as good as movies get.

23. The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)
King Vidor's emotionally overpowering WWI film – of layabout aristo John Gilbert going off to fight in a fug of patriotism, falling in love with French farmgirl Renée Adorée, then finding that war is hell – was a critical and box-office sensation in 1925, and remains unsurpassed in the genre. With a lighthearted first half followed by a brutal second, it's a seamless whole formed of countless unforgettable vignettes, its knockabout comedy and beguiling romance giving way to taut, then horrific action sequences emphasising the brutal lottery of battle. Adorée learning to chew gum; Gilbert arsing about with a barrel on his head, then later sharing a shellhole with the dying German he's just shot; that astonishing ending – its classic scenes are legion, each blessed by an astounding visual poetry. Best of all is the lovers' devastating farewell, one of my favourite scenes in movies, in which a departing Gilbert – finally prised from Adorée's grip – flings his treasured possessions at her from the back of a truck. Finding that he has nothing else of value to throw, he takes off a boot, and chucks that instead. She cradles it in her arms, before collapsing on the road, alone. She's great, as the sexy, pure-hearted, then bereft love interest. And Gilbert's excellent too: this is Exhibit A for the case that his damaged reputation is ill-deserved. The Big Parade made a star out of him, and made the career of Vidor, who would create another contender for 'finest film of the silent era' – The Crowd – and then the first great American talkie (and singie), Hallelujah!

22. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

"For the animals that didn’t have a daddy to put them on the boat, the end of the world already happened. They’re down below, trying to breathe through water." What a stunning, dreamlike film this is, and what a beautiful, credible and unique performance lies at its centre, courtesy of the then six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, whose Hushpuppy is one of the great characters of recent decades. More here.

21. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)
Gus Van Sant’s dazzling, gutting, phantasmagorical Rent Boy Henry IV. Full review here.

20. Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)
That Richard III scene. Oof. Two reviews here.

19. The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

Like nothing else ever seen in American romantic-comedy. Review.

18. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
Sometimes you rage against the cinematic canon, and sometimes you it's just dead right. Capra's best, Riskin's best, Stewart's best. Just about perfection, and a film that celebrates at once individuality and communality. You have to go through so much pain for the ending, and it's worth it every time. See you at Christmas.

17. How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941)
John Ford's much-maligned film about Welsh miners beat Citizen Kane to the Best Picture Oscar, and rightly so. The opening passage *is* cinema, though only the version of it that we got, the US release doesn't compare.

16. Lucky Star (Frank Borzage, 1929)

Everything Gaynor does is remarkable on one level or another. Review.

15. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)
"I knew these people, these two people..."

14. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
The best opening and closing shots in cinema, and what's in between isn't bad either. By my all-time favourite director, and the highest-placed of four John Ford films in this list. I wrote 4,000 words on it here.

13. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

"No. I'm nobody's little weasel." A wise, warm, whimsical piece of perfection, blessed with an unparalleled Parisian atmosphere and centred on a performance of uncommon brilliance. Review.

12. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944)
Intrigue and self-revelation amidst the ghosts and games of wartime Britain. Powell and Pressburger fashioned a unique atmosphere in this erotic story of faith and renewal.

11. The Dead (John Huston, 1987)
Oh man, that ending. A dying John Huston took the greatest short story ever written and made a film every bit as good - and perhaps even better.

10. Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990)

Stillman's unique worldview powers this astonishingly clever, literate and moving rom-com about a working class Marxist seduced by the aristocratic set he happens upon. Chris Eigeman's Nick is the funniest character in the history of movies.

9. Major Barbara (Gabriel Pascal, 1941)
"Did you believe that I was a deserter? That I, who have stood in the streets, and taken my people to my heart, and talked of the holiest and greatest things with them, could ever turn back and chatter foolishly to fashionable people about nothing in a drawing room?" A beautiful, enrapturing performance from the incomparable Wendy Hiller: the perfect, compassionate, warm and beating heart of a satirical, often cynical Bernard Shaw gabfest that cocks a snook at temperance, the Sally Army and those who see nobility in poverty. Many words here.

8. Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988/2002)
This film isn't perfect but it means so much to me for innumerable reasons. Morricone's score, Tornatore's evocation of Sicily and the magic of movies, and two of my favourite performances of all time (from the young and old Totos) are some (but not all) of them. The film that everyone knows is the 1989 'International Version', but the troubling, more jaundiced 2002 Director's Cut is even better (if markedly less escapist). Review here.

7. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945)

James Dunn towers above all as the twinkly-eyed Irish charmer beset by guilt and self-loathing: the definitive cinematic pipe dreamer. Review.

6. The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927)
"It must be wonderful to be a prince," muses one of the town kids, studying a portrait of the student prince (Novarro). On this evidence, not so much, but then isn't life just about enjoying those perfect moments when they come? This film has more than almost any other. More here.

5. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943)
Powell and Pressburger's masterpiece about what it means to be British, and at war. Filled with romance, invention and a sad, quiet and reflective wisdom, it's also a film about what it means to be old and sidelined.

4. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)


A melancholy, bitingly hilarious crystallisation of teen ennui, which sees school leaver Thora Birch gravitate towards loner-with-lumbar-support Steve Buscemi. Beautifully written, superbly played and endlessly quotable. "It's America, dude, learn the rules."

3. Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
You won't forget this documentary in a hurry: four years (and three hours) in the company of two teenage basketball players from inner-city Illinois who dream of the big-time, seeing the NBA as their ticket out of poverty. Shocking, exhilarating and heartbreaking, with astonishing twists of fate, it's a virtuosic, unforgettable film that has as much to say about life itself than any other movie I've ever seen.

2. Les enfants du paradis (Marcel Carne, 1945)
The towering achievement of French cinema: a portrait of a vanished world, a hymn to the art of acting and an allegory about Free France, boasting three of the finest performances ever committed to celluloid. Carné's handling is breathtaking, Prevert's script is clever, witty and worldly-wise and the timeless story seems to grow in strength and resonance with each passing year. More here.

1. Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940)

A witty, knockabout Preston Sturges comedy that slips gently into an extraordinarily powerful articulation of romantic love: romantic love as both the saviour of and ultimate threat to family, career and existence itself. Review.

***

Thanks for reading. A few dull stats:

By country:
US: 64
UK: 14
France: 12
Italy: 2
Brazil: 1
Hong Kong: 1
Denmark: 1
Sweden: 1
NZ: 1
Various: 3

By decade:
1920s: 7
1930s: 9
1940s: 16
1950s: 16
1960s: 8
1970s: 6
1980s: 13
1990s: 13
2000s: 7
2010s: 5

Most represented director: John Ford (4)
Colour/black and white: 51/49
Silent films: 8
Musicals: 5
Documentaries: 1
Films in which Eddie Bracken is mistaken for a war hero: 1

And here's the list in pictoral format.

Jean Renoir's The River – Reviews #238

A few thoughts on a fascinating film.



The River (Jean Renoir, 1951) – Shot entirely on location in India, this was Renoir's first film in colour and his favourite of his works; Scorsese called it, along with the The Red Shoes, "the most beautiful colour film ever made". Its making launched Satyajit Ray on his career, author Rumer Godden preferred it to the celebrated screen version of another of her stories – Black Narcissus – and it was the primary influence on Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, which lifted liberally from The River.

For all of those reasons, and having seen a couple of clips from the movie, I’d wanted to see it for years. And it's nearly great, even partly great, with its passages of visual poetry, its affecting vignettes, its painterly approach – as close as the director ever came to homaging his father, the great impressionist painter, Auguste. But it falls frustratingly short of consistent and total greatness, and I think that’s because of Renoir's standing at the time.


Patricia Walters (left) severely out of her depth in Renoir's exquisite film.

Sacked by RKO and out of favour in France (who saw his taking of American citizenship as a betrayal), he couldn't afford to bring first choice Marlon Brando out to play Captain John – the one-legged soldier who inflames the passions of three very different adolescents – and so this pivotal role was played by Thomas E. Breen, who could draw on his real-life experiences to play the part, having lost a leg in the war, but was unfortunately crap. The central character was also handed to a non-professional, Patricia Walters, whose realisation of the bookish innocent, Harriet, is stilted to the point of acute embarrassment. Everybody's.


Burnier's extraordinary dance sequence.

There's so much here that's staggeringly impressive, from Claude Renoir's vivid three-strip cinematography to the heartfelt, nuanced supporting performances from Nora Swinburne (as Harriet's mother) and Radha Burnier (playing the mixed-race teenager Melanie, singularly uncomfortable in her position between worlds), and a succession of outrageously impressive artistic decisions. That includes a fantastic, fantastical story-within-a-film featuring Burnier as a dancing goddess, Renoir's limited equipment (no dollies) forcing her to provide the shifting perspective in a way that makes it much more interesting and exciting.

Elsewhere, he presents a glorious montage of riverlife focusing on the multitude of banks of steps leading down to the water, while the director's decision to incorporate passages of rich Godden prose is an inspired one, with June Hillman's lyrical delivery enhancing the film's steady, backwards-looking mythos, charged with romance, poignancy and pain. Godden, who despised the studio-bound artificiality of Powell and Pressburger's erotic adaptation of Black Narcissus, was heavily involved on set, scripting, advising on shots and even incorporating a new character, Melanie, whose initial fate was dismissed by the observing Ray as "unrealistic and sentimental" and so junked. His involvement with the film was actually less than often suggested, though - he had no official role and only attended the set on weekends (due to a day job in advertising), and when he finally saw the finished film more than 15 years later, he declared that there was very little of value, except background colour and a climactic scene concerning Harriet. (Certainly there are many who've lambasted the film for presenting a 'colonial' view of India but, y'know, India was a colony and the book is based on a story by an Englishwoman who lived there, so...)


Adrienne Corri as the cruel, insecure Valerie.

I'm in a big Renoir phase at the moment. I feel a great personal connection to his films, particularly the understated humanity he captures in grace notes and vignettes, and this film's preoccupation with the loss of innocence is something that really speaks to me. The atmosphere, layered with beguiling imagery and diegetic Indian music; the gentle rhythms; the unexpected, imaginatively-devised set-pieces; the adorable little kid, Bogey; Adrienne Corri's tantalising characterisation as the cruel, flirtatious, insecure Valerie; Arthur Shields' brilliant monologue near the close (which is cut oddly short - shades of Ray Collins in Welles' butchered Ambersons); its circular ruminations on death and rebirth – The River slowly casts a spell on you.

But that spell is rudely interrupted at regular intervals by the nondescript Breen (who reminds me of abysmal Hollywood comedian Red Skelton) and the horribly miscast Walters. Either Renoir had Truffaut's problem of not being able to tell when an English-speaking actor was giving a bad performance, or he didn't have the resources to do anything about it. The film, after all, was being bankrolled by a florist. The severe problems in performance are also accompanied by a few instances of bizarrely functional staging amidst the majesty, reminding me of film historian Joseph McBride's complaint that director Mervyn LeRoy, after taking over Mister Roberts from John Ford, essentially just made the case stand in a line.



For all its brilliance, then, Renoir's favourite of his own works isn't mine, though I defy anyone not to find moments of greatness within it. (3.5)

***

Thanks for reading. Two of my favourite Renoir films are reviewed elsewhere on the site: Partie de campagne (which is also in Part 1 of my all-time top 100) and French Cancan.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Rick's 100 favourite movies: Part 3

This is the third of four posts about my favourite movies, taking in everything from Elia Kazan's apologia for informing to Pixar's finest film, via martial arts, pastries and Lillian Gish with a big gun.

Part 1 (100-76) is here, and part 2 (75-51) can be found here.

50. Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937)

A crackling feminist masterpiece that passes the Bechdel Test 90 times a minute, as a flawless ensemble cast trades blistering, bitchy, pitch-black wisecracks while hanging out in a theatrical boarding house for women. It's also the tearjerker to end them all, though it only seems to be me who feels that way. Full review.

49. The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
Sex and death in Texas, as dissolution sweeps an ailing town and its picture house gets ready to close. Ben Johnson gives one of my favourite performances, as that old, sad voice of reason, Sam the Lion, delivering a waterside monologue that's perhaps the best three minutes of the New Hollywood.

48. The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)
One of the great late silents, with Vidor interrogating the American Dream like the big leftie he was. Completely heartbreaking.

47. The Dreamlife of Angels (Erich Zonka, 1998)

Profound, poignant film about the friendship that develops – and then unravels – between two young women who meet at a factory in Lille. Ila (Élodie Bouchez) is friendly, compassionate and happy to ask for help; self-centred Maria (Natacha Régnier) throws her pride and practicality to the wind as she embarks on a self-destructive affair with an utter shit. A wise, insightful and immersive study of human relationships, and the nature of friendship, with exceptional performances from the two leads – especially the big-eyed, expressive Bouchez.

46. Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
Unforgiven is Clint Eastwood's masterpiece: a towering dismantling of Western mythos, extraordinary in every way. I wrote one of my best pieces on it.

45. Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)
"I want... to die." *sob*

44. On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)

With Les 400 Coups (see the final part of the list!) and Star Wars, this was the movie that got me into movies, and inspired a Marlon Brando obsession that's never really gone away. I must have seen it 30 times. It's also fascinating – though troubling – from a historical perspective, as writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan's apologia for naming names to HUAC. I still know the entire taxicab scene off by heart. Try me.

43. Le Doulos (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)
Melville par excellence, with Belmondo at his best and a killer twist.

42. Blessed Event (Roy Del Ruth, 1932)
Arguably the greatest comedy film of all time, with “that kid from advertising” Alvin Roberts (Lee Tracy) commandeering his newspaper’s society section, and turning it into the filthiest gossip column in America. Tracy is my favourite male actor and was once one of the biggest stars in the world, until the Production Code outlawed his brand of comedy and he compounded matters by allegedly urinating on the Mexican Army, with the result that he was unceremoniously fired by the biggest film studio in the world. I've reviewed the film here, and written about Tracy here.

41. Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955)

Bergman does sex comedy - and the result is a deep, delicate, just about perfect movie, like the best of Lubitsch and Ophüls mixed with Partie de campagne. And while it's influenced everyone from New York-based Jewish songwriter Stephen Sondheim to New York-based Jewish filmmaker Woody Allen, the original remains by far the best. A lawyer, his young wife, his mistress, her lover, her lover's wife, the mistress's mother, the lawyer's son and a couple of horny servants flirt, argue and try to cop off with each other (except the mum), the whole group ultimately coming together for a sunlit weekend in the country. Beautifully written, acted and photographed, it's equal parts sentiment, melancholia, absurdism, witty badinage, and timeless, mind-expanding philosophy on the nature of love, lust and language, full of surprises, clever bon mots and rich characterisation. There's even a bit where someone falls in a puddle.

40. Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen, 1984)

Danny Rose: What'd you do, you divorced him, or got a separation, or what?
Tina Vitale: Nah, some guy shot him in the eyes.
Danny Rose: Really? He's blind?
Tina Vitale: Dead.
Danny Rose: Dead. Of course, 'cause the bullets go right through.

I don't think this is Woody's greatest film, but it's the one I return to most often: a sweet, funny, utterly charming tall tale - with hidden emotional heft - about a loveable Broadway talent agent (Woody Allen) trying to escort his best client's mistress (Mia Farrow) to a crucial show, and unwittingly incurring the wrath of the mafia. What seems at first glance a slight, minor movie holds untold pleasures, from Allen's script - stuffed with gems - to Gordon Willis's mesmerising monochrome cinematography, and an unforgettable, uncharacteristic performance from an unrecognisable Farrow, as the forceful, temperamental Tina Vitale, her late husband a juice man for the mob. "He made juice for the mob?" asks a baffled Allen.

39. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)

Crouching Tiger is one of the great films of last decade, often claustrophobic in scale, but epic in its treatment of human emotion, and chock-full of magic, magnificence and good old-fashioned fucking mayhem. It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful - hell, it is beautiful - and where it's going, we don't needs roads, or even floors. Much more on it here.

38. The Bakery Girl of Monceau (Éric Rohmer, 1963)
A mesmerising, intoxicating Rohmer short that's as close to a personal manifesto as you'll ever see on screen. His enduring preoccupation was where eroticism touches romance, and his view of both was heady, wise, ironic. After the false start that was the director's abysmal debut feature, the tedious, neorealist Signe du Lion, this story of a law student (Barbet Schroeder) flirting with a counter girl at a Parisian bakery (Claudine Soubrier) as he waits for his true love (Michèle Girardon) to walk past is extraordinarily affecting, honest and insightful: grubbily conspiratorial as we're asked to see everything from his jaundiced viewpoint (it's a 'moral tale' in so much as it's about personal morality), a little eerie as it ponders fate and chance, and gloriously sensual when they duck into an alleyway to talk and he starts stroking her neck. The first of Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, and – at 23 minutes – the best film I've seen this year.

37. Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959)

An astonishing movie that I only heard of for the first time in May; it sounded amazing, so I got a ticket to a BFI screening. It's the Orpheus myth transplanted to the Rio Carnival, with womanising guitarist Breno Mello falling in love with pure, troubled Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). They dance, have sex, and save one another, but his feisty ex-girlfriend and Eurydice's psychotic, death-faced stalker hint at the unlikeliness of a happy ending. It's a feast for the eyes and ears, with impossibly vibrant Eastman Color cinematography showcasing Rio and its carnival (those yellows!), invigorating dance and intoxicating bossa nova music, while the story moves effortlessly from utterly joyous to blackly terrifying and then abstractly spiritual. Perhaps it runs out of steam towards the very end, but for the most part it captures Rio with a startling immediacy: its characters pulsating with passion, natural charm and an unapologetic, everyday eroticism. The story - adapted from a Brazilian play - struck me as one of those high-concept ideas that might extract a certain truth from its material by dropping it into Rio. In actuality, it's difficult to believe when watching Black Orpheus that it would or could make sense anywhere else, such is the film's complete conviction, and the virtuosic skill that Camus displays in meshing these diverse elements together, while capturing the penury, charm and beauty of the setting, and inspiring a host of pitch perfect performances. It's extraordinary.

36. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928)
One of the high watermarks of silent cinema: a stunningly atmospheric drama ignited by a tour-de-force performance from the incomparable Lillian Gish, who plays a tormented, tortured waif driven to madness as she’s buffeted by a desert wind and by unfettered male sexual aggression. More here.

35. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)
My favourite performance of all time, courtesy of the incomparable Emily Watson. I also find von Trier the most interesting director working today.

34. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)

Debra Granik's feminist masterwork is the key film of the decade so far: an unorthodox, spine-tingling thriller, a humanist fable, and a staggering study of a good person under almost intolerable pressure. In her breakout role, Jennifer Lawrence is Ree Dolly, a strong, selfless, smart-mouthed 17-year-old living with her vacant mother and two young siblings in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. Once it ran with bootleg moonshine, now this here's Meth Country, and if her crystal-cooking father doesn't turn up for his court hearing, they're going to lose the house, the woods and the whole family unit. So Ree sets out in search of him, facing threats, silence and regular beatings from pinch-faced people who share a lot of the same blood that runs in her veins, and down her face. Full review here.

33. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
From the astute, literate voiceover and classic freeze-frame that launches the story, via stinging one-liners, sublime reaction faces and a litany of unimprovable set-pieces, to one of the most memorable, satisfying (and scary) endings in the history of movies, All About Eve is a landmark of Hollywood’s Golden Age: an unassailable classic with the kind of dialogue that a moviegoer dreams about. More here.

32. The Snowman (Dianne Jackson and Jimmy T. Murakami, 1982)
What Christmas Eves were invented for (as well as venerating the baby Jesus), and the first film I ever loved.

31. The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992)
The twist. That twist. This mercurial masterpiece of ‘90s cinema has now been reduced to just one thing. Not that its twist isn’t magnificent, but it’s certainly not the film’s raison d’etre, or its reason to be celebrated. It doesn’t explain why the film continues to enrapture, enthral and grow in emotional resonance as the years pass and the viewings rack up. And, unlike most twists, it doesn’t come at the end, but at the halfway point, meaning that if you’ve avoided seeing the film because you think you know how it ends – you really don’t. Full review.

30. Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)

My favourite musical, starring my favourite musical star, Fred Astaire. The immortal 'Cheek to Cheek' is unquestionably the highlight, but this slice of ineffable, irrepressible escapism is stuffed with great jokes, timeless Irving Berlin songs and irreproachable dancing.

29. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939)
Garbo Laughs! And Ernst Lubitsch reminds everyone once again that he's the best director of romantic comedies in the history of movies.

28. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
One of the great films, a beguiling, bewitching, sometimes bewildering collision of Gothic horror and fairytale, a haunting, hypnotic vision of pure evil, of goodness, of redemption, of innocence lost and perhaps regained, of greed and guilt, loss, delusion, sexual obsession and puritanical perversion. It has some weak acting, wild lurches in tone and even a little Schufftan silliness, and yet also many of the most striking, magical sequences of its era, climaxing with a half-hour confrontation between good and evil that is amongst the most indelibly artistic and impossibly moving passages of pure cinema ever put onto celluloid. And just when you think it can’t get any better, silent screen icon Lillian Gish turns up, armed with the only truly worthy role of her sound career. Full write-up here.

27. Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings, 1942)

Incredible short from propagandist (and anarchist, and surrealist) Humphrey Jennings, one of my favourite filmmakers. Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and Diary for Timothy are his most well-known films, and this one contains my favourite shot in his ouevre (it's the bloke exhaling smoke through his nose while watching Flanagan and Allen), though most of his work from 1939 onwards is great, especially Spare Time and The Silent Village.

26. Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009)
This is the review I wrote for the paper when it came out: "PIXAR'S latest - and greatest - is a very special piece of work, a deliriously enjoyable yarn that packs a considerable emotional wallop. It begins, gloriously, with a scrupulously detailed faux '30s newsreel, as a Lindbergh-esque aviator - Charles Muntz - returns triumphant from exploring the Venezuelan wilds only to fall from grace amidst accusations of fakery. Watching, transfixed, is Carl Fredricksen, a bespectacled, toothy wannabe adventurer. Returning home from the theatre, he stumbles across a fellow Muntz afficionado, the talkative Ellie, and a friendship blossoms. Through an exquisite, intensely moving wordless montage ('Married Life'), we see Carl and Ellie's life together, as they fall in love, marry and grow old, their dream of exploring South America dashed time and again - the savings jar smashed and raided to cover house repairs and hospital bills. Ending with Ellie's passing, this four minute sequence is a bold, breathtakingly brilliant bit of moviemaking that evokes It's a Wonderful Life and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with that exalted predecessor. Having lost his wife, and set to relinquish his home and independence, retired balloon salesman Carl (voiced by Edward Asner) does the only thing he can, affixing 20,000 balloons to his house in a bid to fly it to Paradise Falls - the lost world of Muntz's famous mission. Accidentally along for the ride is Russell, a young Wilderness Explorer who's desperate to secure his "assisting the elderly" badge and has been hunting for a snipe under the porch. From then on in, all bets are off, as the film's boundless imagination and anarchic sensibility conjure up a world of neurotic talking dogs, androgynous, chocolate-gobbling birds and paranoid adventurers, whilst never forgetting that we care what happens to its damaged, appealing central duo. Hysterically funny and emotionally resonant, Up hums with invention from first frame to last and, in having the guts to tackle big subjects with honesty, subtlety and intelligence, emerges as one of the finest films of recent years.

***



Thanks for reading.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Bette Davis, Heaven's Gate and the legacy of Hitler's favourite film - Reviews #237

I had a holiday the other week, and watched eight films. I've written about them here:



Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) − I love the idea of Heaven's Gate − a peerlessly ambitious artistic statement patronised and dismissed upon release but now rightly given its place among the all-time greats − but the reality is that while every shot is astonishingly and violently beautiful, it's also incredibly boring, Cimino much more interested in creating a world than telling a story. All there is, across 317 minutes on PAL DVD, is a tired love triangle against the backdrop of the Johnston County Wars.

Vilmos Zsigmond had shot three of the best-looking Westerns of all-time before this one: psychedelic experiments The Argument and The Hired Hand, and Altman's grubbily realistic McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which had set the genre off in a new direction. Heaven's Gate, now the most notorious flop in Hollywood history, began with Cimino going 10 days behind schedule two weeks into filming, and on course to spend 500% more than the original budget, due to his painstaking approach, while included demands for 70 takes of many scenes, and his view of each shot as a painting to be filled in by extras.

The resulting imagery is like nothing else in cinema: the shadow of a gunman on a drying sheet, then a dying man seen through the bullet hole ripped in it; skateboarding ranchers dancing in sync in the Heaven's Gate chapel; workers toiling in a spring field; mercenaries appearing over the brow of a hill; endless clouds of smoke and dust backlit by the broiling sun. And it's all accompanied by David Mansfield's magnificent score, which feels totally authentic and utterly fresh.

If this was a tone poem: fine, but it's not, as it spends an inordinate amount of time on its story, with every single scene outstaying its welcome. Cimino offers us nothing to get our teeth into: there's no emotional connection with any of these dislikeable, poorly-drawn characters, except perhaps for John Hurt's dissolute sell-out, and he isn't necessarily believable in this context, even though the actor himself is absolutely sensational. There's one scene between boring gruff Jim (Kris Kristofferson) and confusing, French Ella (Isabelle Huppert) near the end that I found quite affecting, but across three-and-a-half hours, two minutes of emotional interest is quite a poor ratio.

There are quotes all over the DVD case telling me that it's a neglected masterpiece, but it's simply not, and that does a disservice to all the genuinely great movies that can't find an audience because we're too busy pretending that this flaccid, tedious, miraculously-photographed bore is worthy of critical and popular rehabilitation. I don't doubt that Hollywood moneymen relished the opportunity to seize back artistic control from the directors who had briefly held the advantage, but Cimino didn't half give them a good excuse. (2)


Hubris central: Michael Cimino chuckles about going over the one-million-feet-of-film mark, little realising that he'll never be allowed to shoot a major movie again.

Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate (Michael Epstein, 2004) − It seems an easy, lazy jibe to say that this doc is more entertaining than Cimino's film, so I'll do that. It's a fun, fast-moving chronicle of What Went Wrong, with a mixture of talking heads (producers, the assistant editor, a few cast members, and archive interview footage of Cimino, who declined to be interviewed), contextualisation provided by narrator Willem Dafoe and some old news clips, and a handful of illustrative snippets from the movie itself, though it's slightly ridiculous that considering the director shot 250 hours of footage, and we spend so much of the movie talking about his method and the vastly differing takes he requested, that there isn't a single frame of unreleased film in this making-of documentary. You're only really getting the headlines here, but it's such a cracking story that anyone interested in movie history is going to love it. (3)

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
Dangerous (Alfred E. Green, 1935)
− For 50 minutes, this is a quite brilliant drama of sexual obsession, with Franchot Tone as an architect falling for a boozy, washed-up actress (Bette Davis) who's 'jinxed' a half-dozen men, as well as half of Broadway. It's not dissimilar to Of Human Bondage (it even trades on the likeness in the trailer), the film that made Davis's name the previous year and in which her filthy commoner drove Leslie Howard half-insane, though the tone – like its leading man – is a little lighter, while her character is smarter, more sentimental and much more likeable than the cruel, gobby waitress she played there.

It's interesting how much this movie's concerns foreshadow film noir, in which happily married men willingly jack in the American Dream when their dicks start making decisions for them, and Davis was never more fascinating or sexy than she is here - even if her opening two scenes may suggest otherwise! In fact, I've never seen her better than she is for two-thirds of this movie: slipping so casually and convincingly between modes and moods, crafting something timeless from shreds of script, that it's like watching real life, only much more exciting. She's aided by direction that catches her in a succession of Ernest Haller close-ups: harsh and overlit at first, then lush and lingering, lit like a heart-melting dream. Tone, for what it's worth, is giving one of the best performances of an often disappointingly mild and unambitious career, with Alison Skipworth offering solid support as his stoically loyal housekeeper.

Then the film takes a sharp left into melodrama and off a cliff. Of Human Bondage was released three days before the strict imposition of the censorious Production Code, and while it also goes big at the close, it merely loses some momentum, rather than turning into a travesty. By Christmas Day 1935, when Dangerous came out, Hollywood still hadn't worked out how to incorporate the often absurd new rules – which determined that characters must be punished for any behaviour that transgressed its strict teachings on personal morality – without screwing up the endings of its movies. This one becomes so suddenly and violently unhappy at adulterous love that it turns its female protagonist into a psychopath and then forces her to cloyingly repent, a development that's both hideously conceived and incompetently executed.

That's a major disappointment, but it doesn't detract from the enrapturing, adult first 50. I'm glad that the DVD I ordered of '40s rom-com Come Live with Me arrived with this printed on it instead.

***



Margin for Error (Otto Preminger, 1943) − I only happened to see this because it's on a DVD with a film I really like: A Royal Scandal, Tallulah Bankhead's best cinematic vehicle, which was started by rom-com master Ernst Lubitsch but completed − after his untimely demise − by stable-mate Otto Preminger, who also directed Margin for Error. It's the first movie I've ever seen starring wise-cracking radio comic Milton Berle, and I was expecting dated gags and excessive mugging, like you'd get with a George Formby or Eddie Cantor vehicle. Actually, he slots quite effortlessly into this fascinating time capsule, playing a Jewish beat cop who's asked to guard the Nazi consulate in New York, locking horns with a hulking Teutonic sadist played, not unsurprisingly, by hulking Teutonic sadist Preminger.

Its propagandist elements are immediately apparent, but they're handled in a really great way, right from the framing sequence aboard a Naval ship, in which sailor Berle tells his mates to lay off the German-American in their midst (Carl Esmond), who it soon transpires was a Nazi functionary before something changed his mind: cue the flashback. That story ultimately gets a little bogged down towards the end, with a succession of developments more reminiscent of farce than thriller, but for the most part it's a very entertaining ride, with Berle a pleasant hero and Poldi Dur an absolute joy as his love interest: a sweet, cheery German maid just getting to grips with her first smattering of English phrases. Joan Bennett, meanwhile, is cast in the recurring 'attractive woman who naively married a Nazi' role − a key tenet of just about every WWII propaganda film made in Hollywood − though she isn't given a great to deal to do, leaving Preminger and Esmond to make the best of the rest.

You'd be unlikely to mistake it for great art, but it's surprisingly zippy and fun, and − from a historical standpoint − the treatment of anti-Semitism and democratic duty is really interesting throughout. I enjoyed it a lot. (3)

***


I'll let you know if you're being unbearable.

Nobody’s Fool (Robert Benton, 1994) − A gentle, sentimental comedy-drama from director Robert Benton, which is rather off-puttingly smug, perhaps because it stars two actors who are almost supernaturally pleased with themselves: Paul Newman (who I quite like) and Bruce Willis (who I don't really). Newman is Sully (not the blue guy from Monsters, Inc., a different chap), a construction worker dealing with a bum knee, a weird rivalry with his boss (Willis) and the reappearance of the son he abandoned as a baby (Dylan Walsh).

It's Americana of a sort, though it often feels like a TV movie, with a cheap look and a mawkish Howard Shore score, and every time it feels like it's finally getting going, with Newman offering some affecting bit of pathos or sparring pleasantly with Willis's wife (the perpetually excellent Melanie Griffith), its momentum ebbs away again thanks to some annoying line or unrealistic development − like the ridiculous sequence that leads to Sully's arrest.

There's something here: an acknowledgement of life's compromises, an understanding of the nature of redemption, and a small-town atmosphere that at times sparkles with life (Newman's encounter with nemesis Josef Sommer in a packed greasy spoon cafe is delightful), but it's obscured by self-satisfaction, strained comedy and a broadness of approach that's not worthy of Benton's undoubted talent, or indeed Jessica Tandy's persuasive supporting performance as a non-conformist pensioner who's Sully's only real defender. (2.5)

***



The Real Glory (Henry Hathaway, 1939) − Hollywood has always been happy to recycle its hits, and for a while it made a heap of money from clones of Lives of a Bengal Lancer, the hugely successful 1935 movie that had the dubious distinction of being Adolf Hitler's favourite film. As late as 1951 studios were still sending three brothers-in-arms to the colonies for rambunctious, action-packed adventures with more than a little comedy, culminating in the absolutely delightful and almost unknown Soldiers Three, but it was in the late '30s that this cottage industry really thrived, and in cinema's greatest year - 1939 - it made three: George Stevens' crowd-pleaser Gunga Din (a classic in its own right), the sound remake of Beau Geste (admittedly a shot-for-shot update of a silent Ronald Colman vehicle) and The Real Glory, which reunited the star and director of Bengal Lancer: Gary Cooper and Henry Hathaway.

It's the weakest of the three - too damn depressing to be escapism (hurray, cholera!) and too light on action - but there are some fine moments: renegade medic Cooper fighting off his pursuers on a bridge, Reginald Owen (one of my least favourite actors) acknowledging his debt to a hated junior, and the overdue but impressive battle set-piece that closes the picture. There's also a decent cast (if better on paper than in reality), typical of a Sam Goldwyn production in that it's a) thoughtfully assembled and b) includes David Niven, one of the few actors on permanent contract to the mogul.

Cooper is among the performers I hold most dear - a taciturn pretty-boy as popular with male audiences as female, who defined a certain sort of unintellectual all-American stoicism, and was often perfect within his clear limitations - and even when he's not quite in peak form (here he's a little too hesitant and shambling), he's fun to watch. Broderick Crawford and David Niven do what they can with rather one-dimensional roles, and Andrea Leeds − who gave one of the best performances of the decade in Gregory La Cava's Stage Door − makes a rare, sweet appearance as the army brat for whom choosing between these three men is no choice at all. Reginald Owen spent most of his screen career bellowing witlessly in an English voice which seems particularly modulated to loosen the bowels, but here he effectively embodies the destructive obstinacy of commanders that had typified the early staged of the Great War.

Indeed, the story has resonances that stretch far beyond its setting in the Philippines at the turn of the century. Its story about how America must train an indigenous army to fight for itself, while avoiding conflicts in the jungle, is fascinating seen through the prism of 'Nam, while an enemy who take on suicidal missions to kill Westerners in order to reach paradise (including hacking uniformed servicemen to death in public) is extraordinarily timely. That also probably played into my experience of the film, which was fine if not necessarily much fun. (2.5)

***



The April Fools (Stuart Rosenberg, 1969) − A frequently insincere, disorientatingly cartoonish and very irritating rom-com, with investment banker (that's not rhyming slang) Jack Lemmon going to a swinging '60s party held by new boss Peter Lawford, and running off with the guy's wife (Catherine Deneuve).

There are some nice sentimental moments between Lemmon and Deneuve, a few interesting and unexpected jokes, and reasonable bit parts for Myrna Loy and Charles Boyer − Golden Age legends making their first appearance together, as doting senior citizens − but Lawford is so odd, unappealing and otherworldly in his Rat Pack ieration (I know him better as a boy-next-door pin-up in '40s MGM movies), and the film is mostly concerned with lampooning a world so of its time that to modern eyes this satire is barely intelligible and certainly not entertaining.

The April Fools seems to think it's A Thousand Clowns II, but the weirdly alienating effect it conjures is more like reading Fahrenheit 451. It also has the Lemmon Problem: like Mickey Rooney, Lemmon was a very gifted actor, with an unexpectedly affecting sensitivity, who quickly became absolutely unbearable if he was allowed to flex his 'comedic' muscles unrestrained. I spent at least half of this film wanting to flex my own muscles by punching him in the face. (1.5)

See also: Lemmon's best film was The Apartment, though his finest performance surely came in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.

***



Séraphine (Martin Provost, 2008) − This is such a wonderful film: a movie about art, which is itself great art, taking the kind of real-life story that’s usually done in some hideous, schmaltzy way and ruthlessly rooting out every last bit of sentiment. Each choice it makes, from the delayed gratification of its opening (we don’t see a single painting for a good 40 minutes) to the marginal catharsis of the denouement is perfect, and the result is a French film in the traditions of Renoir, Bresson and the Dardenne brothers: humanist, intelligent and confrontational; about loneliness, connection and the sacrifices we make to create; a film that fights cruelty with an implacable, steely gentleness, a film that shakes you up and changes you.

Yolande Moreau is the titular figure, a cleaner in 1914 France who in the terminology of the period is “touched in the head”, her disability seeming to bring her closer to God. Scrabbling together enough money and materials – through menial work and digging on the riverbanks – to explore and indulge her passion for painting, she comes into contact with the German art dealer and expert (Ulrich Tukur) who launched Braque and Picasso on their careers. He is smitten by her work, while she is gratified, astonished and suspicious. As she begins to explore her talent, the touch paper of World War One is lit, making her patron persona non grata.

It’s such a different sort of movie: spiritually profound, quietly sincere, unusually yet perfectly-paced: not rushing to introduce its obscure, anti-social heroine, taking her faith seriously, and finding both humour and poignancy in her singularity and complete lack of interest in societal niceties or norms. Moreau is absolutely sensational – she won the Cesar for Best Actress, but by immersing herself in this character, not through twitches, short-cuts and glip paraphrasing – and so is everything that surrounds her, from the film’s interest in the details of everyday life in 1914, 1927, 1935, to its handsome but credible cinematography, and its contention that poverty, mental illness, a lack of education – none of these are a barrier to creating earth-shaking art. (4)

See also: This film vaulted into my favourite 100 movies list, which began over here.

***

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

REVIEW: Groundhog Day at The Old Vic

6 August 2016, matinee



It's incredibly rare that an actor takes a role indelibly associated with someone else and makes it completely, and perhaps irrevocably, their own. But that's what's happened with Groundhog Day's Phil Connors in this musical adaptation of Harold Ramis's 1993 film, from the creative team behind the West End's Matilda. As realised by Broadway star Andy Karl − lent to the production under a special deal with American Equity − Connors is a comic whirlwind, powering a jawdropping production that's both a technical and an artistic triumph, using a rotating stage and several travelators, a song style fusing Lorenz Hart with hip hop, and an inspired broadening of its focus to wring every laugh, gasp and tear from the source material, and from its audience.

The plot, an It's a Wonderful Life for the early '90s, concerns celebrity weatherman Phil Connors (originally played by Bill Murray), who's trapped in Punxsutawney, Philadelphia on the small town's folksy Groundhog Day, by a storm that he had failed to predict. He wakes up the next morning to find that it's Groundhog Day again, and again, and again, and again, and again...

I can't remember the last time I enjoyed any play − or gig, film, perhaps even book − as much as Groundhog Day, an endlessly inventive production that's simultaneously thrilling as a theatrical achievement and as an uplifting and daring story of redemption. It's handsome, exuberant and magical, escapism with an undercurrent of melancholy and malaise, at times as chilly as its environs, at others as seductive as its snowscapes. The play changes a few things from the film through necessity - Phil now shoots his groundhog adversary, rather than driving him off a cliff; the build-up is chopped so that he no longer makes a disastrous impression on his producer, Rita, the day before departure; the presumably expensive 'I Got You Babe' no longer signals his continuing presence in Groundhog Day - and others through choice, notably inserting a funny but unnecessary scene in which Connors seeks various solutions to his problem (including an enema, alternative remedies and a lecture from a priest), as well as fleshing out four minor characters who previously just existed in Phil's story.

Insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, one-night-stand Nancy and the two hicks with whom Phil goes joyriding were largely just plot catalysts in the film, but here they're treated seriously and given both a spotlight and a song with which to share their innermost thoughts, fears and insecurities. Phil can't escape his own situation due to a quirk of the universe or an act of God, but for these people that sense of stasis is simply their life, and this musical builds on a single throwaway gag in the film to inject a sense of tragedy and far-sighted humanity that I found really powerful, especially in the hands of Tim Minchin, a gobsmackingly-talented songwriter and slightly tiresome atheism activist whose compositions here are truly extraordinary: gentle, humanist, desperately funny and always balancing the need to both be about these characters and possess a universality that makes them transcend above and endure beyond their immediate context. They also mirror the play's preoccupation with time, in both form and content, and Minchin has a great habit of wrapping up his songs in intensely dense, rhyming wordplay, fostering a sense of delayed gratification that means by the time he breaks the spell we're gagging for both melodic resolution and unequivocal lyrical expression. He can't help himself including a couple of slightly incongruous, heavy-handed jabs at religion, but I think we can let it slide.



Another thing the play does brilliantly is interpreting Connors' shifts in mood and perspective − from confusion to depression to debauchery to frustrated calculation, heartfelt sensitivity and finally flowering self-worth − through the musical theatre medium. That means Karl's hilarious swagger as he realises his power (and his brilliant asides, like vindictively attacking a child with a snowball while simultaneously attempting to get inside Rita's pants), but also director Matthew Warchus's staging, in which the dancing, celebrating and guileless townfolk's performance, lighting and choreography reflects the character's worldview, appearing ominous, adorable or mere putty in his hands, depending entirely on Phil.

The rotating stage allows us to wake up again and again in his bed (sometimes contained in a tight set, sometimes spaced out, sometimes just alone on the vast expanse of the Old Vic stage), blackouts and quick set changes allow him to pursue Rita through trial and error, while − in one virtuosic scene rife with misdirection − he repeatedly kills himself, then pops up again at 6am, elsewhere on the stage.

Karl's physicality, amiability and superb comic timing are complemented by Carlyss Peer, a Holby City veteran who I was astonished to learn afterwards was making her musical theatre debut. Her intrinsic warmth and sensational voice, her fusion of sweetness and steel, and her articulation of the character's internal complexity − incorporating a subtle but radiant sensuality − sell you completely on Connors' desire to reform on her behalf, while the chemistry they create, ebbing and flowing as his character shuffles through the seven stages of responding to a perpetual Groundhog Day, is completely believable and utterly persuasive.

There are a couple of incidental shortcomings, I suppose − the song in which Phil considers both medical and spiritual solutions seems more like Minchin ticking off predictable enemies like the church and reiki practitioners than advancing the story or the characterisation, and there's one member of the ensemble I've seen before and am not a huge fan of (it seems unnecessary and churlish to name them) − but I found more to entertain and enrapture than in perhaps any production I've ever seen.

Before I moved to London in 2013, I'd never seen a West End play, and my knowledge and experience of theatre remains strictly limited, but this is comfortably in the top four productions I've ever been lucky enough to see (with The Book of Mormon, Skylight and A View from the Bridge), a creative triumph in which all those involved seem to be at the peak of their powers, and everything gels, an impression epitomised by a succession of remarkably intricate sequences utilising an arsenal of hardware, propelled by an apparently boundless sense of ambition, and realised in the most apparently effortless, exultant way.

The coup de grace is Karl's performance, a larger-than-life characterisation that distils Phil Connors' essence, and from that lifeblood creates a succession of unforgettable Phils, each flawlessly formed around a conspicuous imperfection, then given license to steal this incredible show, again and again and again.

***

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Rick's 100 favourite movies: Part 2

Here's the second of four posts on my favourite films, from Ryan Gosling as a crack addict to Emma Thompson improving Jane Austen, via Charlie Chaplin, rainy France and the slums of Sao Paolo.

You can find the first post here.

75. Little Fugitive (Ray Ashley and Morris Engel, 1953)

Spellbinding, utterly original indie, shot on location in NYC, about a seven-year-old boy (Richie Andrusco) who believes he's killed his brother (Richard Brewster), and so flees to Coney Island. Review.

74. Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959)
The best of Boetticher's 'Ranown' films, perfectly balanced between action, emotion and humour, and with sublime Cinemascope compositions that I'd never really appreciated until I saw it on the big screen today. Randolph Scott is another of his grim, grey anti-heroes, this time a bounty hunter taking giggling James Best to a hanging, accompanied by two gunmen who want a piece of the action (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn), and a widow with enormous pointy boobs and the voice of Marilyn Monroe (Karen Steele). It's exquisitely done, with Roberts absolutely unforgettable as the laidback, uber-cool Sam Boone, whose inscrutable code of ethics seem to be leading us inexorably to a shootout. The final shot is extraordinary. There's more on the film here.

73. Pixote (Hector Babenco, 1981)

The poetry of poverty. This was unavailable for years. I saved up to buy a VHS for £30 on eBay that turned out to be a bootleg. Best decision I ever made.

72. My Childhood (Bill Douglas, 1972)
This blew me away. Douglas made only three short features and the socio-political epic Comrades before his untimely death at the age of 57. This, his debut, is a grainy, uncompromising slice of neorealism – the closest British cinema has come to a Bicycle Thieves or Pather Panchali – shot through with sincerity, compassion and a unique eye for poetic detail. The performances from the two kids (who both died tragically young) are breathtaking and the scene in which the elder, Hughie Restorick, spins and dances atop a bridge in swirling, billowing train smoke is a shot of pure joy in a film dominated by monochrome sadness.

71. Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006)
As the hollow-eyed lost soul stumbling from one catastrophe to another, Gosling offers a method masterclass that blends quiet tragedy with wry black humour. Full review.

70. One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)

A sister to The Crying Game (which is coming up later): nasty violence, comic smarts and a big beating heart, not to mention a fondness for a dock-off twist.

69. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
Not Chaplin's funniest film, but his most poignant and beautiful, with *that* ending.

68. A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954)

There aren't many films better than A Star Is Born, the 1937 tragedy that defined most of the rules about how Hollywood saw itself - sprinkled with stardust, drowning in self-loathing - but this remake is one of them. It's more than just a semi-musical update in widescreen and Technicolor, its songs haunt the action, enhancing the air of fatalism and desperation. It's also difficult to detach its atmosphere of ennui and addiction from the story of its star, who died just 15 years later after a succession of personal catastrophes, aged just 47. It's probably the best film Judy Garland ever made and it's certainly both her best performance and the closest she came to a personal statement on film: the show must go on - and it will, mesmerically - but look at the human cost. Judy is Esther Blodgett (shades of her birth name, Frances Gumm), who becomes a star under the name of Vicki Lester and the tutelage of boyfriend Norman Maine (James Mason), a Hollywood heavyweight and helpless alcoholic whose career is heading for the gutter. The film is a gutting, brilliant blend of cynicism and sentiment that's both appalled and entranced by Hollywood - and the starmakers, sycophants and hypocrites who populate it. It scores massively in its performances, though its wildcard is the chemistry they create: when they're bantering they're irresistible, and when they're falling apart, it's almost unwatchable. A Star Is Born is also lit by a slew of brilliant numbers. Top of the pile are 'Born in a Trunk' – added at the 11th hour – an extended, diverse production number in the 'American in Paris Ballet'/'Broadway Melody' vein - 'Lose That Long Face', a knockabout ode to looking on the bright side, and 'The Man That Got Away', perhaps the best song ever put on screen. In it, the only thing more extraordinary than what Garland is doing with her body – apparently trying to rid herself of the song via impassioned posturing – is what she's doing with her voice. That peerless, unapproachable instrument had lost the flawlessness of youth, but gained a remarkable power, as well as a quality and expressiveness akin to Billie Holiday's. Every facet of it is evident in that haunting vocal, which appears when the film is at its most carefree, but foreshadows the movie's central tragedy. The film's invention and heart-stopping evocation of the purest human emotion is perhaps best illustrated by a moment in the 'Born in the Trunk' number. Recounting her singing debut, Garland's vaudevillian (she's playing a character in a number from a film-within-a-film!) goes into corniness overdrive, recalling her dad encouraging her from the wings: "Papa shouted: 'This is it kid, sing…'" A pause, then Garland – dressed in pale blue – starts that old standard with a tranquillity and simplicity that sends a shiver down the spine. "I'll get by," she croons, "As long as I have you..." Throughout, this one-of-a-kind film - a romance, fairytale and Hollywood tragedy rolled into one - destroys you with its story, but exalts you with its realisation.

67. Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)
At one point Dorothy and her pet hen and the weird pumpkin thing escape from a woman who has thousands of heads in jars by getting on a sofa which is also a moose with ferns for wings and making it fly. Five stars.

66. The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies, 1992)
A trip through Terence Davies's memory: guilt and beauty and sexual awakening. The Tammy sequence is my favourite bit of '90s cinema. I interviewed Davies about this movie here.

65. Becket (Peter Glenville, 1964)

The best film I've ever seen about faith. Burton acts everyone else off the screen.

64. The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)
This translation of John Steinbeck's immense novel about a Dust Bowl family searching for work and dignity in California is a major work of art in its own right: bristling, poetic and throbbing with anger at the injustice visited upon working people, and filled with stunning imagery and some wonderful acting. Fonda's climactic monologue is is another league. Full review.

63. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
Yes I would like to cry a lot, thank you.

62. Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982)
One of the great films. Hoffman is sublime, Lange is the last word in love interests, there's superb comic support from Bill Murray and George Gaynes, and the film refuses to treat any of its characters as a joke (not Durning and not Garr), dealing deftly but properly with every serious issue it raises. It's a rare film that employs drag to interrogate gender stereotypes, not to sit lazily with them, smirking away. It's streaked with greasepaint, charmingly scored, richly romantic, hysterically funny and remarkably poignant. And the last 40 minutes is just utterly sensational. More here.

61. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)
John Ford's last word on the Western.

60. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)

An exhilarating feminist actioner that unleashes torrents of water on the risible '80s Mad Max films from an improbably great height. First off, Ratty Rockatansky has had an upgrade (from Mel Gibson to Tom Hardy); secondly, he's in league with a bunch of gun-toting, patriarchy-defying harem escapees, one of whom (Charlize Theron) can shoot a hell of a lot better than him - and knows it. Introducing such additional, agreeable novelties as grenade-lobbing pole vaulters, a guitar that's also a flamethrower, and a steady, beating heart where once there was none, it's a crunching, breathless, vital piece of genre joy that rewrites most of the rules and resets the action clock to Year Zero. There are moments near the film's beginning where you worry that Miller has again pitched us into a world it's frankly no fun to visit, but as soon as it gets moving - in both senses of the word - it really gets moving. Kudos too for a blockbuster that sees human nature as truly complex and transmutable, epitomised by Nicholas Hoult's pale, Valhalla-bound cult flunkey. Favourite moment? Hardy's little backwards-looking thumbs up, as the first crack appears in his nominal hero's selfish, hard-bitten persona.

59. After the Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke II, 1936)
Even better than the first, with Loy and Powell their usual sensational team, and given the room to show it, navigating a great plot that gives them plenty of room for comic diversion.

58. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

Until Dancer in the Dark came along, this was the gloomiest musical ever made. No real songs, though every word is sung, as it chucks it down in pastel-pretty Cherbourg, and Catherine Deneuve embarks on an ill-advised love affair...

57. Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
Buster's best, though everything he did in the '20s is great. No-one had a decade like it until Woody Allen's 1980s.

56. In My Father’s Den (Brad McGann, 2004)
This film's brilliance, drawn from its unconventionality and unwillingness to deliver any kind of false happy ending, is epitomised by how it handles one key exchange. In the not dissimilar You Can Count on Me, Ruffalo comes up against his child's odious stepfather and pummels his face to the point of oblivion. Here Macfadyen tries the same thing but gets kicked down some steps, his face bleeding. "Prick," mutters his assailant. The great lost film of last decade. See it.

55. Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995)


It’s one of the defining scenes of ‘90s British cinema: a star on the cusp of supernova, accompanied by a stunning Patrick Doyle score and Michael Coulter’s sumptuous cinematography, all of it capturing a very old-fashioned sort of English vision. Kate Winslet’s Marianne walks purposefully, forlornly through the driving rain to a hill overlooking her lost love’s house. “Love is not love,” she says, leaning on Shakespearean sonnet in her hour of need, “Which alters when it alteration finds/Or bends with the remover to remove:/O no! It is an ever-fixèd mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken…” Then the poetry dries up and she just breathes: “Willoughby, oh Willoughby... Willoughby... Willoughby.” I've written about this film a lot over the past couple of years. There's a review here and a feature here.

54. Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960)
"I want to make a movie about five brothers," director Luchino Visconti said, "like five fingers on a hand." Yeah, we know what a fucking hand looks like, thanks mate. Its sexual politics is extremely troubling, but Rocco's marriage of neorealism and melodrama makes for compelling viewing, helped by wonderful cinematography and a stunning cast.

53. Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1996)

There aren’t many films that change the way you see the world. Or many pieces of art, for that matter. Secrets & Lies does just that. It's brilliantly conceived, bracingly authentic and emotionally overpowering, opting at its climax not for soap or sentiment, but something truly remarkable: the truth. More here.

52. The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)
There are outstanding musical sequences at every turn. The stars’ emotionally overwhelming, artistically dazzling 'Dancing in the Dark' number and hilarious, imaginative, outrageously sensual Girl Hunt ballet are justly celebrated, but the production number montage is no less astounding: four routines in four different styles, almost back-to-back and every one of them smacked way out of the park: the old-fashioned uplift of ‘New Sun in the Sky’, Buchanan and Astaire radiating old-fashioned class in ‘I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan’, Fabray’s glorious handling of the melody in the old-fashioned ‘Louisiana Hayride’ and of course three faux-infants shuffling from one leg to the other in the hysterically silly ‘Triplets’. Full review.

51. Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950)
Tourneur takes a break from defining the horror film and the noir to give us a chunk of gobsmacking Americana, as a gun-toting preacher (though not in the mad way like Harry Powers) played by Joel McCrea brings peace and justice to a small town. It fascinatingly prefigures To Kill a Mockingbird in several respects, but is also an astoundingly powerful movie on its own terms. The central set-piece, in which McCrea faces down a lynch mob of white supremacists, makes me astonished that it isn't better known.

***

Thanks for reading. The final 50 are coming up soon, across two posts. Here's the list so far, in an unwieldy, not-quite-high-res poster format:









Thursday, 4 August 2016

Rick's 100 favourite movies: Part 1



I love movies. The film bug got me when I was 13. I was nursing a knee injury and looking for something to do that didn't involve playing football. I saw Star Wars, then not long afterwards On the Waterfront and Les 400 Coups, and that was that. Since then, my obsessions have moved from method-ish tough guys like Brando, John Garfield and Jean Gabin (and the juvenile delinquent poster boys such as Jean-Pierre Leaud), through the Empire, Leonard Maltin and Cahiers canons, to the current state of affairs, a heady, happy place where I can watch anything, enjoy the connections between everything, and mine whatever I like, lauding unheralded celluloid heroes like Lillian Gish and Jack Conway, trumpeting B-movie mystery-comedies from the 1940s (a constant and total favourite) and arguing the case for maligned or barely seen movies, whether it's MGM's "chocolate box" Little Women, Bernard Shaw's miraculous Major Barbara, or astounding arthouse movies such as The DreamLife of Angels and Seraphine.

As a massive nerd, I've always been an obsessive list-maker, as well as a journalist and writer, so I can tell you how many feature films I've seen (4,137), which ones I've seen on the big screen, and what the best movie I saw in 2011 was (Ghost World, again). Now and then I'll put together a list of my favourite movies. I have far more than a hundred favourites, but it's a fun game to play and hopefully representative of what I love about cinema: its ability to transport and transform, and its use as a crutch, a time machine and a tool for social change, in the best and worst senses of all those ideas. I created a new list this week (looking at the last top 100 I compiled, at the end of 2014, I've swapped out a quarter of the hundred), so I thought I'd share it with you here. Numbers 100-76 are below, with the others coming up soon. Did I mention that I love movies?

100. The Killer (John Woo, 1989)

Woo's A Better Tomorrow had as good a plot, and his Hard Boiled matched this one for action, but The Killer was by far the director's most effective marriage of the two, as noble hitman Chow Yun-Fat attempts to pay back the innocent woman caught in the crossfire, bringing him into conflict - and then partnership - with cop Danny Lee. It's full of breathtaking shoot-outs (yes of course with doves) and effective reflection, transcending its pulpy origins to become the definitive modern action film.

99. Little Women (Mervyn LeRoy, 1949)
A bewitching, exceptionally rewarding adaptation lit by Allyson's warm characterisation, O'Brien's lump-to-the-throat emoting and cinematography and music that - at least to me - seems perfectly pitched. Full review.

98. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen, 2013)
Unusually and arrestingly affecting. Perhaps my relationship with the Coens could yet blossom. Full review.

97. Forbidden Games (Rene Clement, 1952)
Its high points are so high, its view of childhood so arresting and deftly realised, that poorly-framed interiors and a handful of duff scenes seem a little beside the point. Full review.

96. Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954)
Is it better than Singin' in the Rain? Well, no, but this is 'favourites', not 'best'. Enrapturing and deeply moving, with an ending that destroys and exalts me every time. Watch 'The Heather on the Hill' here.

95. Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, 1944)

Perhaps the best of Sturges' immortal satires, though they're all pretty special. He coached star Eddie Bracken intensely on both this and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and the results are astonishing.

94. The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, 1970)
"Daddy! My daddy!"

93. Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1950)
A dazzling film, containing one of the three or four best female performances in American cinema in the shape of Judy Holliday's endearing, eye-wateringly hilarious Billie Dawn. Born Yesterday is a flawless metaphor about the working classes and the emancipating power of knowledge posing as an utterly delightful romantic comedy. Full review.

92. The Iceman Cometh (John Frankenheimer, 1973)
One of the great casts brings to life one of the great plays. I love the 1960 TV version with Jason Robards (who did more than anyone to reinvigorate interest in the work), and he's a better Hickey than Lee Marvin, but screen titans Robert Ryan and Fredric March are in sensational form.

91. Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)
Appallingly and sickeningly misogynistic, but that opening 40 is like nothing else I've ever seen, an astounding meditation on the impermanence of memory and the fatal allure of the past. I was obsessed with watching the film as a teenager, and completely overwhelmed by it when I did.

90. My Life as a Dog (see below)

"This movie, directed and largely written by Lasse Hallström and released in 1985, when he was thirty-nine and I was sixty-three, made me like life and human beings much more than I had ever done before. Quite a favour!” - Kurt Vonnegut

89. A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)
Chaplin said this was the best movie ever made about America, and who am I to disagree? The pre-crash Monty Clift was surely the handsomest man ever to have lived.

88. Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
Probably Woody's best movie, though I have another of his films higher up since I watch it the most. Review.

87.Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
It's a shame I can't watch this any more because I hate Polanski so much (though I can watch Woody Allen films, apparently). Still, I know the script off by heart, so perhaps I can just say it to myself. In some ways it's the ultimate '70s movie, a paranoid howl of despair that explodes genre convention, but it's also a gorgeous homage to the '40s, full of the most extraordinary Robert Towne dialogue.

86. The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (Peter Godfrey, 1939)
Probably my favourite studio-era B-movie, though Confessions of Boston Blackie and The Saint in New York are up there too. A mixture of thriller tropes and screwball comedy, with Ida Lupino in incredible form as PI Warren William's dizzy new girlfriend, and Rita Hayworth as the femme fatale, just months from Only Angels Have Wings.

85. Séraphine (Martin Provost, 2008)

It’s such a different sort of movie: spiritually profound, quietly sincere, unusually yet perfectly-paced: not rushing to introduce its obscure, anti-social heroine, taking her faith seriously, and finding both humour and poignancy in her singularity and complete lack of interest in societal niceties or norms. Full review.

84. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013)
A plotless ramble through the life of a 27-year-old dancer - who encounters assorted epiphanies and disappointments - shot like Woody's Manhattan or À bout de souffle, scripted with a nod to Whit Stillman and emanating its writer-director's usual good-natured angst, uncertainty about contemporary life and warm-hearted, off-kilter sentimentality. Full review.

83. Partie de campagne (Jean Renoir, 1936)
Renoir couldn't be bothered to finish this film because it kept raining. Review.

82. The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941)
Writer Lillian Hellman’s vision of America – imagined by Gregg Toland, enlivened by a killer ensemble, given order by the gifted Wyler – is far darker than anyone could have expected, the blanched Davis poisoned by greed, leaving goodness, humanity and virtue all gasping for breath. Full review.

81. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
This film is just so, so good. More than 20 years on, the freshness and effortlessness of it all is still astounding. Its vernacular. Its spiky, absurdist humour. Its moments of heart. Those long, wordless takes. The diner. The toaster. The watch up Walken’s ass. The legion of stylised lines that never feel mannered or forced. Actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Travolta and Uma Thurman producing performances from nowhere that continue to reward and astound. QT hasn’t done anything comparable since. Nowadays I will him to succeed – and with Django he did – but there was a brief time when all you could do was watch in slack-jawed amazement as he created dizzying, dazzling films that re-wrote the rules of genre cinema.

80. Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984)

"A sad, scintillating film." Full review.

79. A Thousand Clowns (Fred Coe, 1965)
85% of this film resulted in outright, prolonged laughter. 60% visibly moved me. 100% of Robards' performance is beyond brilliant.

78. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973)
"This is real life. But with better dialogue." Full review.

77. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)
I had this in my previous two lists too.

76. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau, 1927)
Perhaps the most famous silent film of all, and one of the best, equipped with an emotional tractor beam too often absent from Murnau’s eye-wideningly inventive works. Full review.

***

Thanks for reading. The other 75 are coming up soon, here's the list so far: