Saturday, June 19, 2010

Best of the Decade - The Fifties

At long last! If my intermittent post may indicate much more research than I could have anticipated went into this list, some of which was probably unnecessary, but well I always look forward to getting a chance to revisit some classics. This list was interesting because I knew what the #1 would be and had no clue whatsoever after that. Until last night I didn't even know which 10 films would make the list let alone where they'd place. I would say this is much better informed than my previous three lists. One unofficial new rule I've imposed is that I have to see every film on the list at least twice, which makes perfect sense. After all can you really consider something one of your favorite films with only one viewing? So revisiting a few of these served double duty. On the one hand it was "research" to see if it still had what it took to make the list, and the other was just the joy of revisiting a film I knew was already great. In the constant stream of new movies to watch and rent its often hard to find the time or an excuse to spend time with some old friends.

As for the decade itself you can imagine it had a few developments. For the first time in the Western world people were being introduced to Asian cinema. The appearance of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 was nothing short of revelatory. For the first time people outside of Asia got a chance to see what Japan was doing and therefore caused everyone to scramble to see just what they had been missing. Kurosawa's film opened the door and Kenji Mizoguchi promptly followed with his own Golden Lion winning films. Ozu continued what he started in Late Spring with a string of near perfect family dramas. Mikio Naruse also seemed to hit a stride producing some of his best remembered films including Mother, Flowing, and my personal favorite Floating Clouds. With Gate of Hell (Japan's first Technicolor film) and Godzilla their films proved to be box office friendly as well as just appeasing art house crowds. Second tier directors like Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi, and Kaneto Shindo also proved there were great rewards beyond the "big four". By the end of the decade a new crop of Japanese filmmakers led by Shohei Immamura and Nagisa Oshima would lead one of the cinema's most fruitful "New Waves".

Did someone say "New Wave"? It's nearly impossible to mention the 50s without discussing what the French were up to and their grand daddy of all film movements. Although some debate exists as to when the group of films was consciously referred to as a movement many people point to the release of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless which just celebrated its 50th Anniversary. Before Godard's film though Eric Rohmer (Signs of Leo), Claude Chabrol (Le Beau Serge), Louis Malle (Les Amants, Elevator to the Gallows), Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour), and Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) among too many others to list ushered in a new generation of filmmaking in France. Led by the Cahiers du Cinema critics who began to practice what they preached, this group took hold of French cinema and captured the world's attention and will probably forever be considered the true turning point in modern cinema. Their innovations constitute the most significant leap forward for the cinema since the advent of sound.

To say that France simply got their act together at the end of the decade is significantly slighting the remarkable films that came out before. Although some were criticized by the critics as being too pedestrian there were any number of new wave precursors. Had Max Ophuls not passed away in mid-decade he may have had the best decade of anyone in the 50s. He began with La Ronde and followed it with a trio of films equally impressive and far superior to any of the Hollywood productions he made in the 40s. Robert Bresson developed and refined his own brand of cinema with Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and finally Pickpocket, each film better than the last. Jacques Tati helped redefine comedy with his bumbling Mr. Hulot in M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle. Henri-Georges Clouzot was earning a reputation as the "French Hitchcock" with Les Diaboliques and Wages of Fear.

In Eastern Europe their began a period of De-Stalinization where numerous new state sponsored film schools sprang up. Although Czechoslovakia wouldn't draw much international attention until the mid-60s their counterparts in Hungary and particularly Poland were were helping to define Eastern European cinema. Even the Soviet Union was getting back to making adventurous and artistic cinema with films like The Cranes are Flying which takes deep focus photography to absurd new heights. However internationally it was the two Andrzej's in Poland that drew the most attention, Munk and Wajda were the leading filmmakers in what was rapidly becoming a very artistically viable Poland.

Although India had been making films for decades and was producing more films than any country in the world these very rarely if ever found their way to the Western world. That all changed with Satyajit's Ray's Pather Panchali. Recalling the Neo-Realists from a decade ago Ray made a remarkably powerful film in the country and seemed to ignore every convention of Indian filmmaking, even putting the film in Bengali as opposed to the Bollywood standard of Hindi. Ray helped open the door to some other Indian filmmakers looking to break from the chains of Bollywood filmmaking. Although these films are virtually impossible to find outside of Ray there has been a slow resurgence of the films of Ritwik Ghatak who only made 8 feature films before dying in 1976. Although many point to his Pathetic Fallacy in 1958 as a landmark Indian film, he really wouldn't hit his stride until the 60s. However the door was open by Ray whose Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu) remain India's most celebrated films outside of India of course. Bollywood isn't to be completely dismissed in this period which arguably saw some of its very best films with Paper Flowers, Awara, and Mother India among many others.

Although 1952 effectively saw the end of Neo-Realism in Italy with Umberto D, Italy didn't exactly drop off the map cinematically. In fact the 50s may have been even more important for Italy in the long run. Both Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni made their first films and would help to move Italian cinema away from the old post war style into an exciting new wave of films about the upper class, existentialism, human relationships, and even a wonderful string of black comedies. Roberto Rossellini, arguably the most important figure in the earlier movement did more to usher in the new guard with his 1953 film Voyage in Italy, a film which seems unforgivably ignored in the US to this day (still never released on DVD here). It's tale of a disaffected married couple losing their love and civil manners to each other amongst ancient ruins and statues still can touch some raw nerves today. Rossellini did more than just make films with Ingrid Bergman though, he actually cast Vittorio De Seca to appear in General della Rovere which is only now beginning to be recognized as the classic it is. He also offered his own entry in the 50s series of films of faith with Flowers of St. Francis (luckily these last two films are available in very good condition on DVD). Luchino Visconti began his change from his earlier Neo-Realist works to his more operatic style that would focus on the fading aristocracy (the world Visconti was born into) and would be his lasting legacy beginning with Senso in 1954. Fellini however would probably make the greatest splash internationally (and this would amplify tenfold in the 60s) winning back to back Foreign Language Film Oscars with La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. With films like this, who needs Neo-Realism?

I have left our good old domestic friends out of the equation. Hollywood went through their own minor crisis (if it were major Hollywood wouldn't have survived). TV started driving down cinema attendance so enterprising producers started thinking of any gimmick to get people back to theaters. Cinemerama, 3-D, Technicolor, Cinemascope, and my personal favorite Smell-o-vision which I still wonder if that was real or a wonderful legend that sprang up. Studios took one of two approaches, either create a big massive "must see" film that couldn't be seen on that small fuzzy TV, or make a super cheap film market it to teenagers on dates and turn a small profit. The "Grindhouse" film got its first start in drive-ins that sprang up all over America. Vincent Price went from contract character actor at Fox to a household name and the King of Horror. Price was also well on board with TV, appearing on a number of game shows including an estimated 1000 episodes of The Hollywood Squares. Horror films were given a nice revival thanks in part to England's Hammer Studios which quickly found great success revamping horror stories for a new generation in bloody Technicolor. Universal added their last great monster to their impressive collection with The Creature From the Black Lagoon (one of which was released in 3-D no less). A good time for creature features. The modern science fiction film also sprang up with pictures like The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, and my personal favorite Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

There were no shortage of "prestige pictures" made that decade as well. Henry Koster's The Robe was the first film in Cinemascope and well its basically an excuse to throw as much as you can fit in a wide screen image. Hollywood wouldn't give up on the Roman epic however and would achieve a sort of industry perfection (and temporary salvation) with Ben-Hur. Today's Hollywood owes a great deal of debt to that of the 50s. Considering today the 3-D wave is back upon us, so are huge ridiculous over the top productions (Avatar, Clash of the Titans) mixed with cheap remakes and horror sequels (Saw whatever, Nightmare on Elm Street again). History is certainly repeating itself, so lets hope that someone in this generation can measure up to Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock who probably had the best decades of anyone in America (coincidentally neither of them are natives). Hitchcock (ever the self promoter) became the most recognizable director in the world thanks in part to his own TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was his films however that really cemented his status. Although his decade may have seemed uneven at times (Stage Fright, I Confess, The Trouble With Harry) it was a quartet of masterpieces that will forever endear him to audiences the world over (Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest). In the process he became something of a poster child for Cahiers' Auteur Theory (along with 50s cult figures Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray, and Douglas Sirk). Billy Wilder's 50s output was much more solid throughout (Love in the Afternoon and Spirit of St. Louis notwithstanding). Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, and Some Like it Hot make a strong case for any filmmaker and might just indicate that Wilder was not to be trifled with. Internationally perhaps only Kurosawa (Rashomon, The Idiot, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress) could really measure up. However this is all a matter of opinion, but I would seriously question anyone's taste in cinema if they didn't at least give Wilder some credit for his incredibly impressive streak of 50s films.

I can go on, in fact many, many books have been written about this very subject, but I'm sure I've bored you all enough, its time to get to the list, or at least the warning to the list. This list will please approximately one person, and that's me. I said from the start these are my choices so I'm in no way trying to offer some universally acclaimed bunch of films. That said I definitely have limited my idiosyncratic choices. Only two films on the list failed to receive a 5 star rating on AMG ( and those two films received a 4 1/2 star rating so it isn't like there will be an entry that will make you vomit with disgust. If you've read the last three lists you know that I don't always select the most critically acclaimed film of a decade (Battleship Potemkin, Rules of the Game) and this is only amplified here. Three films from the 50s made the last Sight and Sound top 10 in 2002 (the most from any decade). Of those three only one of them made my list, and if you know me you'll probably guess which one it is, provided of course you're familiar with the Sight and Sound poll. Keep in mind again that there is only room for 10 films. I could have easily made a top ten of all French films or all Japanese films but well I spread the wealth. Many indispensable masterpieces that no list should be without will not be on this list so I'm prepared to handle all criticisms, but as always I will make a case for every film on the list and keep in mind every film has been seen at least twice, sometimes many many many more times and I've revisited nearly every film on this list very recently so nothing is on here based on a foggy memory or reputation. I spent far too long (over a month) researching this list and although I could have gone on I decided I can only fit ten films and I've done more than enough. I've decided for this list to offer a "special jury prize" for one particular film. This isn't a cheating method to put more than ten films on the list because aesthetically the film I selected is downright laughably awful, and since it is nearly impossible to find I couldn't watch it a second time (oh how I'd love to), but it's unavailability is exactly why I need to draw attention to it here. I surprised myself a bit at the numbering, so here goes I think it'll be interesting, and very balanced.

10. Ordet (1955) Denmark Carl Theodor Dreyer

Following a rather prolific first decade in film Dreyer abruptly changed pace with 1931's Vampyr, arguably the strangest and most surreal vampire movie you'll ever see. He seemed to average about one film/masterpiece a decade. To me 1955s Ordet may be his greatest film ever. I'm not a religious man, and some would say neither was Dreyer, but this is easily the greatest film of faith ever made. It is also perhaps the most brilliantly directed film since Citizen Kane. Dreyer had completely reinvented his style from the silent era and perfected his mise-en-scene with this picture. Style and substance met for a perfect blend of everything great about the cinema. Rather than cut, Dreyer always seems to prefer to move his camera, whether its the family trying to find Johannes (Preben Leerdorff-Rye) in a field, or a never ending conversation in the living room. Everything is in focus and the pacing seems to pull you into a comfortable almost sleepwalking lull. The film and the slow controlled dialogue makes it feel like it may all be a dream. It is a film that can question your faith and reaffirm your faith in the cinema. So simple, so enchanting, so moving, this is transcendental filmmaking 101 so quiet and haunting. It is certainly not for all tastes, but for those adventurous this is what makes Dreyer so incredibly brilliant.

9. Seven Samurai (1954) Japan Akira Kurosawa

I'm sure some may have wondered if I didn't just hate Japanese film when you consider this is the first Japanese film to make any of these lists. This was the first Japanese film I had seen and it was hardly what I expected. This felt more like a Western than a samurai film and its length was epic on a scale I couldn't have imagined. What's so profound is that although at 204 minutes nothing seems unnecessary. I wonder if any scene in this film is truly dispensable. Kurosawa was never a filmmaker to make an epic for epic's sake, and the production of this film was infamous. It went ludicrously over budget and over schedule and was largely a failure upon its release, making its way to America in a severely truncated version that remained the only one circulating for nearly 4 decades. The full cut was something of a "what if" on the scale of The Magnificent Ambersons or Greed, which made its eventual restoration so monumental. Kurosawa beat American's at their own game, and although The Magnificent Seven might be a decent film it doesn't even come close to matching this films intensity and bravado. Some people might prefer the much more reserved Tokyo Story, but for me and a lot of other people this could very well be the greatest Japanese film ever made. The high water mark for a national cinema that first garnered international attention in the 50s.

8. Ben-Hur (1959) US William Wyler

Not content with merely two best director Oscars and two best picture winners, William Wyler topped himself with MGM's monumental remake of Ben-Hur. This film is bigger in every regard from the 1925 Fred Niblo directed version. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that earlier incarnation but everything is outdone here. Perhaps it took 6 years or so for filmmakers to figure out exactly what to do with the expansive widescreen canvas. Art direction in any film has never been better, because after all nothing brings out the big guns quite like an epic period production. Wyler's complete command of the most intimate conversations, prisons, and monumental action sequences show a consummate professional employed to a task fitting his immense skills. It seemed Hollywood was trying for years to make a film like this, and they would fail miserably trying to duplicate its success in the years to come, but for once everything seemed to click winning 11 Oscars for its trouble. If Triumph of the Will was a demonstration of the Nazis power in 1934, this film could be seen as a full scale document of what Hollywood could do if they got their act together. I don't mean to imply anything comparing the two, but above all the splendor and over the top set pieces is a truly moving and compelling story of a man who goes from riches to rags to riches again and seems to single-handedly defeat the Roman empire (or one small part of it) on his way to salvation and redemption. The 1925 version was subtitled "A Tale of the Christ" but here Christ is more an inconsequential character who happens to show up at a few choice moments to color the film. A much wiser choice than to make yet another film about Christ's life which would fail too many times to count. Charlton Heston at his finest and the ultimate achievement of a failing studio system out to save itself at all costs, it worked.

7. The Seventh Seal (1957) Sweden Ingmar Bergman

Just as Denmark and Japan had their first entries on one of these lists this is Sweden's first entry. Of all the filmmakers to make an international splash in the 50s none to me was more important or better than Ingmar Bergman. His importance to Swedish cinema is monumental, but his influence to nearly every serious minded personal filmmaker to come after him cannot be calculated. Although most of his earlier films from the decade merely hinted at his talent, with good scenes or themes but lacking an overall cohesive unity, The Seventh Seal was the film that finally broke it all open. A then profound question of faith and the search for god in a plague infested world that has no sign of the almighty. Antonius Block's (Max Von Sydow) quest to return home and ward off death just long enough to find some answers to life's ultimate questions is the stuff of philosophical dreams still today. He comes to a conclusion that Bergman seems to have shared, that there couldn't be a god. His confrontation with a crazy woman who is going to be burned for having had carnal knowledge with the devil winds up realizing all too late that it wasn't the devil at all. Fabulous set pieces and a world of death and decay, that isn't without an occasional bit of humor (one rather humorous scene involving death cutting down a tree to retrieve the actor who just faked his own death). Although Wild Strawberries would be nearly as good and even more influential (to Woody Allen anyways), it is this film that forever cemented Ingmar Bergman and the one I think will stick with you the longest.

6. On the Waterfront (1954) US Elia Kazan

It seems impossible to read or discuss this film without someone mentioning its politics and the fact that many saw it as Kazan's excuse for naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee earlier in the decade. I knew nothing of this when I first saw it, and upon subsequent viewings this bit of information has done nothing to color my attitude towards the film. Even more than Streetcar Named Desire this is Brando at his most iconic and a virtual textbook for "the method". The story is just outright compelling no matter how you take it. Although it seems every year in some Oscar montage we're reminded that Terry (Brando) "Coulda been a contender", the film is far above a simple tagline. It's supporting cast which included Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger is all pitch perfect. However aside from Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg's politics this is really Brando's show. He's bumbles his lines and fidgets with anything he can get his hands on, preferring to spend time with his birds on the roof when he starts to change it is extraordinary. His intensity boils over and he's provided theater students with great monologues for decades to come. Although informers have never really been portrayed in a good light, it's Terry's transformation that leaves us all convinced that he clearly did the right thing and that things could be better. Kazan was on a role in the 50s but this might be his best film throughout his career.

5. The Searchers (1956) US John Ford

It may seem odd that this is the first Ford film to appear on a best of the decade list for me. That's not a knock on Ford whose long been one of my favorites, but well he's never made a better film than The Searchers. The highwater mark in his legendary string of films with John Wayne, and undoubtedly the greatest Western film ever made in Hollywood. Shot in the iconic Monument Valley and featuring the type of social and psychological complexity that characterized the Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart Westerns of the period, Ford does them one better. Featuring Wayne in one of his least sympathetic roles (he's a stubborn ex-confederate racist who seems more determined to kill Comanches than rescue his niece) it may also be Wayne's best performance. Much longer than their typical collaboration it's epic quality allows much greater time for nuance and psychological depth. The film isn't without many of Ford's trademarks including a bar fight or two, some family meals, manly bonding, and the humanist quality to do the "right thing". Featuring a young Natalie Wood as Ethan's kidnapped niece it is her presence that eventually helps redeem Wayne's Ethan Edwards. With tremendous Technicolor photography by Winton C. Hoch and another legendary Max Steiner score this film surprisingly didn't resonate with audiences in 1956. Ford who had already won 4 best directing Oscars couldn't muster a single nomination for this picture and it wasn't until Ford was done directing that his work was re-evaluated and people could see just how remarkable The Searchers was, one of the direct precursors to the revisionist westerns of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone.

4. Ace in the Hole (1951) US Billy Wilder

Well I'd already mentioned somewhere that Billy Wilder was on a role in the 50s. You could just as easily pick a masterpiece out of a hat for him (much like Keaton in the 20s), however Ace in the Hole might just be his very best film. It may be too late to stop repeating myself but essentially any film on this list could very well be the best of its respective filmmaker. I came very close to selecting Some Like It Hot but that film has a flaw that isn't terribly fair to the film itself. Nearly every list will put Some Like it Hot as the funniest film of all time, a claim that frankly isn't true. Funny yes, great yes, but the funniest ever? Nowhere close, not to say that Ace in the Hole is a funnier film. It's humor is sly and dark, but this is possibly Wilder's least funny film in the 50s. His remarkable follow up to Sunset Boulevard it was a disaster when released and kept out of print for years. Even when countless Wilder films were being released on DVD this was surprisingly left out, thank goodness yet again for the Criterion collection. I was able to see the film on the big screen with a relatively older crowd (go figure) and everyone was laughing it up. Interesting what an audience can do for a black comedy. Kirk Douglas is at his best (he had seemingly countless memorable performances in the 50s, but this might be his most daring work). The cynical carnival that pops up and everyone's eating up this rather incidental but tragic story is nothing new. Anyone remember the balloon boy from last year? Not very different here, but here stylized with great deep focus photography a relatively unknown but competent supporting cast this is Hollywood at its cynical best. The fact that the film stayed out of circulation for so long may indicate that people may still not be able to take this, but they would be severely missing out.

3. Ashes and Diamonds (1958) - Andrzej Wajda

The last in an unofficial trilogy that announced the arrival of Andrzej Wajda and Polish cinema to an international audience. The films apparent anti-communist stance (made possible by a period of De-Stalinization) was not approved by the Soviet Union. It was shown out of competition at Cannes (where Kanal won the top prize a year before) and quickly was elevated to the status of masterpiece. Despite any number of great films from Wajda and other Poles, this could still be the best film from that nation. Drawing a huge influence from American directors like William Wyler and more specifically Orson Welles, Wajda made a stylized account of the end of WWII but not the end of the fight. A pair of resistance fighters begin the day killing two innocent workers they mistake for a communist minister. With the job undone they find themselves in the same hotel but questioning whether or not they need to continue this fight, especially after just ending the fight with the fascists. With remarkable deep space compositions and plenty of low angle shots the film can be seen as a Polish Citizen Kane, and its status as Poland's greatest film can substantiate that in another regard. Condensing the time span of the novel from two weeks to 24 hours Wajda's film is all the more suspenseful and poignant. Made legendary by the performance of Zbigniew Cybulski whose charm seems to work not just on the audience but men and women in the story alike. There is no shortage of reasons to love this film, its style, compositions, story, politics, ambiguity this may not be the punch to the gut Kanal was but over time this has shined the brightest.

2. Los Olvidados (1950) Mexico Luis Buñuel

I'm probably as surprised as you are that this film made it all the way to #2. Similar to when I revisited Ashes and Diamonds I spent the majority of this film nodding my head thinking "oh my god this is great". A delicious antidote to the syrupy and sympathetic children/victims of De Seca's Neo-Realist films, this is Buñuel through and through. The first significant Mexican film to gain international acclaim which served as the catalyst for Buñuel's most fruitful and creative period. This was not his first Mexican film, but after a near two decade period of seclusion the once promising surrealist was little more than a footnote in film history, right alongside Jean Epistein, Marcel L'Herbier, and others. This film announced his international return, a resurrection of some of those surrealist themes (two brilliant sequences) and would mark Buñuel as something of an ageless director who seemed to get better as he got older. In his Mexico City children are as awful as adults. Kids rob a blind man (who deserves it and salivates over a young girl and beats another child abandoned by his real father), they steal a cripples cart he uses to move around and kick it down a hill. Parents don't care about their kids or the kids don't even know their parents. Violent unsympathetic and offering no easy solutions to some very real and difficult problems, Buñuel doesn't seem too concerned with exploiting his tragic circumstances it remains a landmark of world cinema, that did as much to end Neo-Realism as the commercial failure of Umberto D.

1. Singin' in the Rain (1952) US Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

This was a no doubter. Sorry right now that Tokyo Story, Vertigo, Rashomon, Some Like it Hot, and The Apu Trilogy didn't make the cut. I imagine if I live to 100 I'll still think Singin' in the Rain is the greatest musical ever made. The best film of the 50s is also one of its funniest, a perfect film that cries out for multiple viewings revealing new details and nuances each time around. The songs are terminally catchy and at any given time I can find myself humming one of them while walking around the house. It's structure even plays off some of the cliches of flashbacks of story in the introduction where Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) tells his rags to riches story and his dignity first voice over contrasts sharply with the vaudeville and low brow reality of his rise to fame. Also a hilarious send up of Hollywood's occasionally disastrous transition to sound as well as lampooning a host of costumed melodrama pictures (seen one, seen 'em all). A trio of stars (Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds) who are charming, hilarious and forever endearing. Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont is a surrogate for Clara Bow and any number of thick accented silent actors with horrible voices to transfer to sound. She is also so callous and manipulating and an interesting character who seems at the most odd times to rise above her "dumb blond" persona to one up her studio bosses. This is the textbook by which all musicals should be judged. Unfortunately Hollywood would have a habit of making their musicals more and more serious and in the meantime sabotaging all that was good about them in the first place. Like too many great films of the decade this was overlooked upon its release, failing to receive any of the accolades awarded Kelly's previous An American in Paris which set the standard for artistic musical comedy. Watching the two back to back though, clearly the wrong film won the Oscar. How much more can you say about the best of the decade?

Special Jury Prize - Corn's-A-Poppin' (1951-56) US Robert Woodburn

In the world of cult films and strange oddities released to DVD I pray every night before I go to bed that whoever the hell owns the rights to this film (or some enterprising bootlegger who can get a hold of a print) will grace this world with a copy of this supreme camp classic for public consumption. There is so little out there on this film. Few people even know when it was made, there is evidence that it was never shown commercially, perhaps never even leaving the confines of Kansas City where it was shot and produced. Its a historical curiosity for fans of Robert Altman who wrote the screenplay and never so much as acknowledged the film afterwards. I got a chance to see it thanks to some enterprising programmer at Doc Films where they were billing it as their greatest discovery, they were right. Like Edward D. Wood Jr.'s Glenn Or Glenda? this is so bad it surreal and brilliant. The story is preposterous about a local popcorn maker named Thaddeus Pinwhistle (how cool is that?) who has his own small variety show on local TV. There's a crooked PR man named Waldo Crommitt whose been hired by another company to sabotage his popcorn and his TV show. He hires a hideously ugly and untalented singer to butcher songs but luckily Little Cora Rice and her brother Johnny (with his Cowtown Wranglers) are able to find a woman who makes extra fluffy popcorn who soon falls in love with Mr. Pinwhistle and amongst some bizarre musical numbers the day is saved. Does this entice you to want to watch it? It should but keep in mind no words can really describe the brilliance of this film. I'm still prone to burst into "Running After Love" or "I Want a Balloon" with the only friend of mine who went to see the film with me. Oh cruel fate if you can release Fool's Gold and Failure to Launch on DVD, why not this? Through some strange reason the trailer is available online, so feel free to watch:

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An explanation for procrastination

Some of you may be eagerly awaiting my next top ten, the 1950s. Wondering where your personal favorites will pop up whether or not I'll agree with the general consensus on Vertigo, Tokyo Story, Singin' in the Rain, On the Waterfront, and countless others. Well you'll have to wait, hopefully not for long but well I unleashed a monster and I'm having fun dealing with it.

Before making my list for the 40s I decided to revisit a couple of films. Mostly films that weren't currently going to be on my list (Laura, Late Spring, The Red Shoes) with the intention of seeing whether or not they could elevate themselves. After all these three films in particular I have owned on DVD for several years and had been waiting for an excuse to revisit for quite awhile. Looking at my 20s and 30s list I wish I could have done the same. Little would I know that the newly restored Metropolis would be coming to Chicago this week (I may have delayed this whole top ten project). I wanted an "excuse" to revisit Battleship Potemkin, The General, and maybe even a Von Stroheim film or two. Luckily I may have found an excuse.

I Love a Lot of Lists

My friends are going through a list of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die. I gave it a glance and realized oh no I've only seen about 913 of them (that number's gone up a bit since but whose counting?) My friends however are much further behind me and they might just take their entire lives to see them all. However whenever I stop by their house I can easily bring a film I want an excuse to rewatch and help them cross it off their list. I was disturbed to find that in a list of 1001 films Elia Kazan's East of Eden wasn't one of them. I figured all three James Dean films would be relatively required viewing (Giant the possible exception), but considering I find East of Eden the best of the three it seems an outright crime. It's omission isn't something to get too worked up about but the fact that Mel Gibson has three films as a director makes my head spin. I recently watched Apocalypto and well its a nice little practical joke. A generic chase/action film disguised as well meaning art by using unknown actors and putting it another forgotten language. I can understand the inclusion of Braveheart (it did win a billion Oscars) and even Passion of the Christ (since its notoriety would lend it to the "see it before you die" category), but who could have possibly recommended Apocalypto? Rest easy I rented it from the library so none of my hard earned money was spent on it (unless of course I return it late oh no!) Well it goes into the same debate that always comes up with these giant lists.

Sins of omission are never that great. However the bigger the list the bigger the sin of omission. By limiting my own best of the decade lists to top tens lets me off the hook for the most part. No one raised too many eyebrows when Rules of the Game didn't make my 30s list because after all I did have The Grand Illusion. Likewise The General Line seemed like a welcome alternative to Potemkin rather than outright blasphemy. Murnau was represented by what I hope most people would consider his best film with Sunrise, so no one really bitched about The Last Laugh or Nosferatu (although I'm sure a few people were a little let down it wasn't on there). When you make a top 100 list the crime gets a little bigger however. I might shake my head in disappointment to see Citizen Kane #15 on your all time list, but I'll realize that it's at least on the list. However if it isn't on your entire top 100, then I might question your taste. The more films I watch though the more I realize how small a number 100 is at least when discussing the all time films.

A top 1000 leaves little excuse not to include a "super classic". Jonathan Rosenbaum's list made me scratch my head a number of times but two particular omissions seem almost comical, Casablanca and The Godfather. That's right look at his top 1000, neither film is on it. I can understand someone leaving them out of a top ten, perhaps even a top 100, but I don't think I'll ever live long enough to believe there are 1000 films better than The Godfather or Casablanca. However I do admire certain oddball choices on his list (its mostly odd to be honest), but leaving out those two (amongst others who don't seem as substantial) seems downright self indulgent. However The Wizard of Oz wasn't in my top ten of the 30s, and probably wouldn't be in my top 100, but I'm sure if I was putting together a top 1000 (don't worry I'm not . . . yet) it would at least get a mention.

The 1001 list however earns a certain degree of leeway by being titled "Films to See Before You Die", which has a tendency to stress historical importance over quality. For that reason East of Eden should still be on it, but I'll get over it trust me. Clearly films like Salo, Pink Flamingos, or The Hills Have Eyes won't be ranking too high in critic polls they do fit into a category of "must see" movies simply for their audacity. Even the common folk who don't know that much about film constantly bring up Salo as the penultimate European Cult film and one of the most frequent films I get asked whether I've seen (I have seen it in case you're wondering). Somehow Cannibal Holocaust also gets mentioned a lot but well it seems the Italians had a minor monopoly on disgusting trash for awhile. Waters' film is a must see for any serious cult fan, and if you're disturbed by a 5 second scene at the end featuring dog feces eating keep in mind there is much worse for the 85 minutes or so before that happens. I saw it, enjoyed it, but I'm not too sure I'd rush to see it again but I love that special feeling to pat myself on the back and say "I've seen it", but that goes for any number of films.

As you may have surmised I'm a bit of a list junkie. My entire cinematic odyssey is owed to lists. It started with the AFI's 100 Years 100 Movies list made in 1998 and went off from there. Entertainment Weekly made their own top 100 about a year later which in part was a rebuttal to the problems of the populist AFI list but also served to be my first introduction to foreign language films. This is where I first heard of Seven Samurai, The Bicycle Thief, 8 1/2, and a whole lot of other films that may now seem second nature to a cinephile. After all every classic we hear about over and over again has an origin. There's always a first time we see it listed, and for me EW's list did a great deal to introduce me to some of world cinema's finest directors. I eventually crossed off all 100 films on each list (took about 6 months for the AFI list, about 6 years for the EW list) and along the way tackled many, many other minor and major lists. Very rarely do I come across a top 100 or top 1000 that I've seen every film from. There's always a couple surprises and a few films that I've been avoiding for awhile that pop up. Fine I always say, gets me a chance to cross off a few films I know damn well I probably should have watched 5-10 years ago.

One friend, who shall remain nameless and since he reads this blog he'll know exactly who I'm talking about has one question anytime a top 1000 list captures my eye: "Any Naruse or Pialat?" We all have different criteria for what makes a list credible. Perhaps my own definition is which "usual suspect" is excluded. My criteria isn't too great considering that when a particular classic that I find a little overrated is left off I usually applaud the list but if one of my favorites is left off I want to condemn (Rosenbaum's list an example of both). Naruse and Pialat are a good indicator. However I wonder if I made my own monumental list how well represented they'd be. I've seen about 7 films from Mikio Naruse and I'm not sure I have a clear cut favorite, perhaps Floating Clouds but in addition to needing to see more of his work I could also use a few repeat screenings of everything I've already seen. Maurice Pialat is a little more difficult, more of his work is coming out (including Naked Childhood on Criterion so check your calendar), but as of now I've only seen about 5 of his films. Loulou and A Nos Amours are both masterpieces in my opinion, but well those fall into the popular picks that anyone would make if in fact they'd have a Pialat film. So who knows how credible my own top 1000 would be, one of many reasons I'm not making that list anytime soon.

Research, Research, and More Research

Here I am rambling again, the point was research. I did virtually none for my first two top tens (the truth revealed at last!), instead relying on memory and a lifetime of movie watching. After a little for the 40s I did and am continuing to do a ton for the 50s. At first it was going to be a few masterpieces that would probably make my list but needed a fresh viewing (since in some cases I hadn't watched them in 9 or more years). So I watched Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal again, then Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, and then things started to get silly. I went to my basement to raid my collection, started making a mental note of what to look for when I went to the library, started browsing a list of favorites for nearly every film I felt wasn't fresh enough in my head, and well here we are. It's been long enough since my last list to provide a rather well informed top ten of the decade but there are some things I need to get to first. For starters I need to finish re-watching the Apu Trilogy (World of Apu is all that remains), I want to see the Criterion transfers of Andrzej Wajda's WWII trilogy (A Generation, Kanal, and Ashes and Diamonds), Billy Wilder's Witness For the Prosecution, Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy, Kenji Mizoguchi's Life of Oharu, and well too many others to list.

So here I am back at the start. Research begets more research. Similar to how a list of movies to watch seems to grow as it shrinks, the more we watch the more we realize we need to see. Research in film is very true to this. Revisiting one Kurosawa film made me want to rewatch Rashomon and Ikiru. Seeing one Kazan film made me want to watch On the Waterfront again. The Seventh Seal made me feel like I needed another look at Wild Strawberries. Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole made me think of Sunset Boulevard and Witness for the Prosecution. Jacques Tati's M. Hulot's Holiday made me think of Mon Oncle. Well there are countless other instances and that's why I essentially am no closer to finish this upcoming decade than I was a month ago.

Hell this whole by decade project was a way to procrastinate and by some research time before making my best of the 2000s list and I'm sure you're still waiting for my top ten of 2009. That list can and will be done probably soon I think I'm about caught up on 2009's best offerings. Despite having seen more films from the last decade than virtually any other I still think I need to do more work (the more you see the more you realize you need to see). My 50s list is making me wish I had made a concession to make a separate foreign language top ten. Hell in the case of the 50s I could probably make a top ten of just Japanese films and draw few complaints. Unfortunately one of my favorite films of the 50s is virtually impossible to rewatch, Robert Woodburn's Corn's-a-Poppin' and I would forever be grateful if you found a copy. So who knows how this thing will turn out.

I'd like to set a rule that I have to see every film from my top ten at least two times, hence I would avoid the over enthusiastic first response, and secondly it gives me an excuse to revisit my favorites. Looking ahead to the 60s the research for that will be even more exhaustive, but in a fun way. In other words keep checking in, I will be posting, and I will be updating my top tens but if you're wondering why the hell I'm taking so long I hope this blog entry will help explain it. Ironically I know as soon as I post my next list that I agonize over for so long someone's going to jump up and say "No ______ man this list sucks!"

Thank you and good night