2011 — Best Old Films
With Skandies season now upon us (Mike has begun the 20-1 countdown here), I’m going to be writing a lot about my ballot and the top films of 2011 the next three weeks. The plan (fingers crossed) is for one post a day, alternating between my Skandies ballot category-by-category and my annual Top 10 films list, which I haven’t actually revealed anywhere (though if you follow my Twitter feed or look at my screening log, you have a pretty good sense of what will turn up). I’m almost certain to take a day or two off, at least for a planned New York trip, but I will do my best to see this through by giving myself a concrete “assignment” to write every day.
With just nine Skandies categories, I needed a tenth “category” post to fill out the symmetry, so I decided on the 10 Best Old Films of 2011. With one exception, explained there, all these films were unseen by me as of Jan. 1, 2011, and all of them received my highest grade for a first-time viewing (9). Rather than rank them against each other, I’ve just decided to put them in chronological order. I’ve also made liberal use of any tweets I wrote about the films immediately upon or shortly after exiting the theater.
One thing I hope might be valuable in this list, though I also can see it being intimidating, is making concrete the fact that the cinema canon is a literally endless source of new pleasures. Even someone like myself, who was asked semi-rhetorically a few weeks ago whether there was any film he hadn’t seen, can always find more. Whether it’s discovering a new auteur, seeing every last film of a favorite director in hopes of finding one more pearl, or being surprised and reconsidering old ideas (and there are examples here of all these phenomena), there’s always something new and so cinephilia never gets old.
THE BIG HEAT (Fritz Lang, USA, 1953)
I actually had to stop viewing THE BIG HEAT at about the halfway point and watch the second half on another day. Not because of late-night tiredness, as often happens even with great films, but because I could not emotionally process what I had just seen. If you’ve seen the movie, you probably know what plot point I’m talking about — as I said, it occurs at about the midpoint. “Fritz … you CANNOT do that in an American genre picture,” I said to myself. Now I also have to walk back something I’d long thought — that Lang more or less lost “It” in the 1950s. While that era still has some of his weaker efforts … not here. His direction is as deterministic and ferocious as ever, and Fate and Vengeance every bit as present. In the film’s most famous scene (no, not the midpoint scene), Lang shows us the prop that will be used. I went in knowing what the scene was, so I was “primed,” but he then keeps the camera more or less where it is, using only an offscreen voice / sound effect to convey the use of that prop. Lee Marvin and Glenn Ford are maybe trying a bit too hard (again maybe by design, especially with Ford) but Gloria Grahame absolutely steals the picture. THE BIG HEAT would be perfect if it had ended two minutes earlier. But even that ending (coda, really) is so mousy and insipid that I can’t shake off a suspicion that Lang made it mousy and insipid as a deliberate F-U to studio codes — “all THAT is supposed to end on THIS as a happy ending?” basically. And there is one other time where I’m morally certain Lang played up insipid genre requirements, like a fighter might paw out a weak jab before … BOOM!!! (And thanks James.)
THE MUSIC ROOM (Satyajit Ray, India, 1958)
I pretty much said everything I have to say about this film last month.
ONE, TWO, THREE (Billy Wilder, USA, 1961)
On the surface, this film doesn’t belong here, because I’d seen it before — at least three times. But I bumped it up to a 9 from a 7 (which had itself been an upgrade from a 4), and I’m also including it to make a critical Confession. The reason for the progressively higher grades was less that the film grew on me (though it did) but more from having to overcome critical cowardice. I had to buck up to bring myself to openly admit I’d laughed at and thoroughly enjoyed a film that Pauline Kael had savaged and her review of which (one of the pieces in her seminal “I Lost It At The Movies”) I had read before seeing the film. Shameful, I know, but there it is. Andrew Sarris didn’t like it either, calling it tasteless, and I have to wonder whether there was an element of “too soon” in their rejection of a film that turns the division of Berlin into a slapstick farce just months after the Wall was built, an event that probably had a 9/11-like impact on Americans in 1961. Regardless, in 2011, I just finally let the film entertain me and while, yes, it is louder and more frenetic than SOME LIKE IT HOT — it still has Cagney as the calm(?) center of his self-created cyclone. Whatever messes appear, he will know what to do. And he does, though not without cutting corners. Also, seeing it for the first time after years of liberal product placement in comedies, it was surprisingly bracing to see a film as unapologetically anti-Communist as this. Sure, Cagney is an “Ugly American” businessman, but he’s far smarter and more charming than the dedicated Communists and has the virtue of having no scruples (or ideology) that would justify, in his mind, all manner of oppression. It was genius to have Buchholz shrilly overdo even Cagney’s OneTwoThree finger-snapping verbal slapstick to the point that there’s no possibility of identifying with this self-deluded East German martinet. My point is not “right per-se good, left per-se bad” exactly, but more like that ONE TWO THREE’s political agnosticism and/or anti-left satire has the virtue of being new and exotic, even 50 years later. Or, as someone Sarris would call “a certain lady critic” once wrote about I’M ALL RIGHT JACK, “the satire of union practices … is so accurately aimed — and we are so unused to it — that it comes off much the better.” Phew.
THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (Peter Yates, USA, 1973)
Here’s a measure of how gripping I found this film and its easy, unobtrusive familiarity: The first words in my viewing notes are “[Yates] picks up 2nd bank robbery at a later point” — which refers to a scene I just measured on the DVD as occurring more than 50 minutes into the film. It’s not as operatic as THE GODFATHER, as procedurally tight as DAY OF THE JACKAL, or has spectacularly over-planned crimes as THE DARK KNIGHT. But it still develops white-knuckle tension in a more-realistic key — I was truly reminded of an old-age Dardennes at times. Like Mitchum himself in the 1970s, the film is tough, but world-weary at his time maybe slipping past him and also having become petit bourgeois in milieu / morals. We feel it when Mitchum says “so you want me to be a permanent fink?” There’s a low-key confidence in the film’s every gesture and every particular — not pushing the “pahk the cah in Hahvuhd Yahd” accents; how Yates handles a newspaper’s front page (we visualize it so strongly we don’t have to see it); and even a line like “why so goddamn serious” (speaking of THE DARK KNIGHT) is swallowed (though “April Fool, mutha-fuckaz” FTW). I’m still unsure whether I think the last scene overdoes the “pigeons” metaphor, but in this key, it certainly has a perfect last line — “have a nice day.”
ALLONSANFAN (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy, 1974)
Are we certain the Tavianis are leftists? To be sure, there can be no reasonable doubting of their biography and declared sympathies, but it really is hard to reconcile that knowledge with what we see here. ALLONSANFAN is nothing if not an ironic tale about the delusions of revolutionary twits and their fellow travelers, who wind up having to lie to themselves to maintain their self-image. Like many an Italian film of this period, it’s grandly operatic. The opening credits and first shot couldn’t make it more explicit that this is politics as performance, even if the rest of the film hadn’t been dominated by awesome musical themes, especially the thunderous Ennio Morricone dance-march that Tarantino used over the closing credits of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. At one point, the Tavianis use that theme to make it look like this rag-tag band of red-clad revolutionaries is literally dancing about, doing a tarantella. Oh … and nobody who hasn’t seen ALLONSANFAN may dump on Tarantino as a promiscuous magpie. BASTERDS and ALLONSANFAN comment/critique each other as deeply as if they were made for that explicit purpose. Both films are, at bottom, about revolutionary delusions and the homages in BASTERDS go far beyond the use of Morricone — particular shots and gestures at key points get repackaged and recoded. And here is the Morricone piece …
PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (Tim Burton, USA, 1985)
Speaking of Italy … has there ever been a movie that may as well have been called BICYCLE THIEF less like DeSica? Indeed, structurally THIEF and PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE are the same film — daily life, theft, picaresque hunt, and a second theft with an ensuing chase near the end. But while DeSica made an anti-cinema anti-escapist film, Burton cranked the escapist cinephilia up to 11, making essentially one long meta-cinematic piece. ADVENTURE is a loving homage to the innocent joy of pure cinema, with a succession of scenes done in the style of various cinematic genres — Hitchcock, film noir, monster movie, musical, etc — presided over by another Italian (Fellini) and his view of life as circus, the whole plot circling back to the movies, as Fellini used the circus in such films as 8 1/2. Danny Elfman’s score, heavily influenced by Nino Rota and his score for Fellini’s THE CLOWNS, is one of the best I’ve ever heard on a non-musical movie, absorbing the right style for the films being visually cited. Elfman acknowledged Rota and Hitchcock favorite Bernard Herrmann as defining influences on PEE-WEE. We can see the latter in the post-theft scene of Pee-Wee seeing bikes everywhere — the premise, cutting, and scoring of Hitchcock’s “guilty conscience” montages. But because the substance is very different — both in content and context — PEE-WEE is that rare bird, a parody that’s funny and charming even if you don’t “get” the specific references. Paul Reubens also created a character so childlike that he can believe in all this impossible meta-cinematic fantasy being spun around him, as if it were natural. But as someone who didn’t watch PEE-WEE as a boy and then as a man knew him largely for porn-theater arrests, I have to say this was my most unexpected new pleasure of 2011.
THE FOUR ADVENTURES OF REINETTE AND MIRABELLE (Eric Rohmer, France, 1989)
Let me give this film what may seem like a back-handed compliment. The two principal characters (guess the names … guess) are as smart as the dumbest people I know in real life. ADVENTURES wasn’t terribly popular at the time (and Rohmer’s public image was made in the 1970s) but I think it is, along with MY NIGHT WITH MAUD, the best example of his reputation as a director who lets his characters debate “issues” in their lives. My only slight reservation is that while the first of the four short stories (“The Blue Hour”) is the best on its own and it does get the two women together and set up the “Town Mouse and Country Mouse” dynamic between them, it still doesn’t quite “fit” the themes that unites the other three — all about the ethics of money and property. Those episodes have some sitcommy plotting and might seem a little simple-minded on the surface, but the ironies build and reverberate until they’re considerably more than the sum of their parts. Reinette is among the most huggable, nonchurchy Catholic characters I ever seen — moralistic even approaching the point of scrupulosity without ever coming across as self-righteous (maybe because it’s primarily her own actions she’s liable to be questioning). And while Mirabelle’s bourgeois pragmatism means she fits in better in Paris, her indifference starts to wear thin, on me anyway. Regardless, Rohmer takes the time (and gives his characters the needed articulateness) to flesh out both women’s worldviews on such matters as giving money to beggars and tipping waiters. All four end on memorable punchlines that define the role of talk and of money in Reinette’s travel from country to Paris. Among Rohmer’s best, and the big discovery for me at the big Rohmer retro in Washington over the summer.
SAFE (Todd Haynes, USA, 1995)
Are we sure Stanley Kubrick didn’t make this film under a fake name during EYES WIDE SHUT down time? Seriously, it’s the most dialectical critique of modernity and its diseases since Hitchcock, with second half turning on the first. You get the chilly, precise Kubrickian framing and a mood of determinism, but (unlike often with later Kubrick films), Haynes got a great performance at his film’s center, one of the best of Julianne Moore’s career, which is saying something. Her character, especially in the first half, is continually crushed by Haynes’ framing and compositions and yet believably gains in autonomy and sickness both as the film progresses. She’s a coquette who blooms rancidly. Shocked to learn, from reading SAFE’s Rotten Tomatoes page, that many people back then didn’t realize that “pollution” was nothing but a MacGuffin. If you think this is a movie about environmental illness or allergies or chemical waste or whatnot, then the second half, once Moore is at Wrenwood (which might as well have been called The Evangelical Church of AIDS), is bound to come across as disconnected and irrelevant. The last shot too caused confusion, though I have to wonder whether it’s possible not to hear what Moore is saying/whispering to the camera. What happens is crystal clear though (and this isn’t really a spoiler out of context) — the most chilling recitation of the line “I love you” in the history of the movies. Too bad Haynes ripped the idea and the point off from Cantet’s TIME OUT (ducks).
FAST CHEAP AND OUT OF CONTROL (Errol Morris, USA, 1997)
Lions and robots and shrubs, oh my … with rats and SewerCam FTW!!! Seriously, one of the most remarkably structured and “heady” documentaries ever. Morris weaves four profiles — shrubbist, lion tamer, rat biologist and robot builder — entirely on thematic grounds, as if mimicking the fugue structure of Griffith’s INTOLERANCE, while still doing clear exposition. He’s helped enormously by a scorer who sounds superficially like (ick) Philip Glass, but more tuneful and less repetitive — “dramatic” in other words. Morris also often uses a voice clip from Person A and an image from Person B’s story, and remarkably it seems just as relevant — indeed, it often will take a moment to realize that A is talking, rather than B. A true “orchestration” of multiple topics united by a theme, FAST CHEAP presents the ultimate existentiell — Being toward Death (or obsolescence, replacement) and man’s efforts to cheat that through ever-more-fragile “legacy” — in these cases all having to do with animals. The last clause may seem superficial, but that’s what makes FAST CHEAP about Man rather than (just) these four men. Animals are metaphors that eventually (in the robot builder) get reversed — man becoming the Creator, rather than the Creature. And most importantly … it’s about as fun and entertaining as any film one could compose those last few sentences about.
DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT (Julia Loktev, USA, 2006)
There are scenes here that, anachronism aside, could have made this film look like the FAIL-SAFE of suicide-bomber movies to FOUR LIONS’s DR. STRANGELOVE. (That would not be a good thing, BTW.) It helps that we really don’t learn for certain what The Cause is, though we can make a few inferences — maybe something like the Earth Liberation Front. But the specifics are clearly secondary, which blessedly prevents both the film from bogging down in substantive political discussion and reducing viewers’ reactions to that substance and/or their opinion of ELF, or whoever. Instead, anchored around a brilliant minimalist performance by Luisa Williams, DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT is more like an existential experience of actually BEING a terrorist on a mission. It’s as materialist as (what I’ve seen of) the Berlin School, with a white-knuckle story premise and direction as urgent as the Dardennes. Every choice made by Loktev is the right one — shaving; the video and its brutal final cutaway; “Leah Cruz” and Aries; eating a candy apple (which somehow comes to contain the universe by having nothing else in it; think Jeanne Moreau walking through the city in LA NOTTE). The premise gets strung out maybe a little past its sell-by date, but the film rallies back with the cruelest urination scene ever (have to be vague, but it’s not kinky) and a whispered last line that changes what DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT is about — not terrorism exactly, but terrorism as metaphor for something else. One other thing the film also gets across without pushing it — how terrorism functions as theatricality, with rehearsal scenes worthy of Stewart prepping Novak in the second half of VERTIGO.