Saturday, April 19, 2008

My Ten Favourite Films Missing from the TSPDT Top 1000:

I've been trudging my way through the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Top 1000 for a few months now, and I'm glad that you've eagerly followed my adventures thus far - yes, I'm talking to you. There's only one of you, so I couldn't possibly be referring to anybody else!

Anyway, just to show that I'm not completely obsessed with this single greatest films list, I've decided to mount a top ten of my favourite films that DO NOT appear on the list at all. There are some rather unconventional choices, to be sure, but rest assured that each of these films means a lot to me. In keeping true to the chronological bias of my source list, I've deliberately excluded any films from 1990 onwards, otherwise I'd be forced to profess my undying love of all things Lord of the Rings... and I'm not yet ready to lose your respect and admiration.

10) Koneko monogatari {The Adventures of Milo and Otis} (1986 / Masanori Hata / Japan)
My only Japanese film on the list: is it a Kurosawa? Is it an Ozu? Is it a Mizoguchi? I'm afraid that you're all a long way off! As a young boy, I had an almost-obsessive love of animals and adventure, and so it should come as no surprise that The Adventures of Milo and Otis was one of my all-time favourite childhood films. Originally a darker Japanese film entitled Koneko monogatari {A Kitten's Story / The Adventures of Chatran}, the extensive 400,000 feet of footage from one-time director Masanori Hata was taken by Columbia Pictures and completely changed, trimmed and Westernised into a touching children's tale. In an adventure entirely devoid of human presence, mischievous feline Milo finds himself swept downriver, with loyal canine pal Otis in hot pursuit, and the pair find themselves faced with the natural beauty and terror of the unfamiliar Japanese wilderness. This film is a genuine treat.

9) The Untouchables (1987 / Brian De Palma/ USA)
After years of shamelessly imitating Alfred Hitchcock's film-making style, De Palma finally came into his own, and the railway station shootout in The Untouchables – a respectful homage to Eisenstein's "Odessa Steps" sequence – is a perfect organism of suspense and intrigue, every minute detail absorbed by the audience with a continually-quickening heartbeat. Kevin Costner stars as Agent Eliot Ness, whose dedication towards bringing down arrogant and brutal gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) has been constantly thwarted by the corruption rampant throughout the police force. Sean Connery deservedly received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Ness' brisk, irritable and racist mentor. As far as gangster pictures not directed by Francis Ford Coppola are concerned, this is about as good as they come.

8) Le Voyage à travers l'impossible {The Impossible Voyage} (1904 / Georges Méliès / France)
Released in 1904, cinematic magician Georges Méliès' The Impossible Voyage often stands in the shadow of the filmmaker's earlier success Le Voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), which has long-since earned itself the label of a cinematic classic. In many ways, however, this film is the superior of the two, brimming with stunning set and model-work, creative visual effects, an exciting around-the-world journey and no shortage of imagination. Some viewers may find it difficult to accept the film's questionable take on science and logic, but this all adds to the charm of it. Méliès – a master of magician's tricks, puffs of smoke and impossible disappearances – was never concerned with reality, but with transporting his audiences into a world quite unlike their own. In an era where so many directors were neither daring nor imaginative enough to make the impossible happen on screen, Le Voyage à travers l'impossible is the pinnacle of early film-making.
7) Watership Down (1978 / Martin Rosen / UK)
It would have taken a mighty piece of filmmaking to make me forget that I hate rabbits, and yet Watership Down (1978) had me utterly engaged from the opening moments. Not only did I care about Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig, but I genuinely fell in love with them, and for 100 minutes I was completely absorbed in their strenuous but noble struggle for survival. This mature and intelligent animated film unfolds in the English countryside, as a group of estranged rabbits trudge across the rolling hills in search of a new home. In a series of fascinating, and occasionally frightening, episodes, the animals encounter countless predators who would happily make a meal of them - eagles, dogs, cats, humans - but their greatest obstacle lies in the nasty, tyrannical Chief-Rabbit, General Woundwort, a bloated, domineering lump of a villain who is both reminiscent of George Orwell's Napolean and, oddly enough, Orson Welles' Police Captain Hank Quinlan.
6) Angels with Dirty Faces (1938 / Michael Curtiz / USA)
Angels with Dirty Faces, one of a string of gangster/crime pictures that frequented Hollywood throughout the 1930s, was a film that I really only watched to see Humphrey Bogart playing a bad guy. However, it was the performance of Mr. James Cagney – of whom I'd often heard, but never seen – that truly inspired my admiration, delivering surely one of the most memorable displays of acting ever seen. Two childhood friends (Cagney and Pat O'Brien), via a twisted act of fate, find themselves taking drastically different paths in life; Rocky Sullivan becomes immersed in a life of crime, and his old friend heads towards the Church, from which he tries to prevent the next generation from going astray. Curtiz, despite his occasional tendency to moralise, effortlessly constructs an intense atmosphere around his dynamite cast of characters, and the image of struggling shadows on the wall has never left such an indellible mark.

5) Frau im Mond {Woman in the Moon} (1929 / Fritz Lang / Germany)
Fritz Lang followed his big-budget box-office flop Metropolis (1927) with yet another big-budget box-office flop. Unlike the former, however, the march of time has caused Woman in the Moon to sink almost into obscurity, which is a shame for one of the silent era's most ambitious cinematic projects. When an eccentric scientist predicts the existence of gold on the far side of the Moon, one intrepid entrepreneur plans a rocket journey to find out for himself. However, a small faction of greedy, elite businessmen hears of these plans and hires the slick, slimy-haired mercenary Mr. Turner to gain control of the expedition. The storyline is one of the purest early examples of science-fiction, steeped in crime, corruption and espionage, and, not only are the visual effects extremely impressive, but Lang tried to be as scientifically-accurate as possible. Just try to overlook the breathable Lunar atmosphere!
4) Die Brücke {The Bridge} (1959 / Bernhard Wicki / West Germany)
When I blindly snatched a VHS copy of this film off the library shelf, I could never have known that I was about to watch one of the most outstanding WWII films ever made, a harrowing, uncompromising tale of the futility of war and the tragic loss of childhood life and innocence. In the closing months of the War, with Germany at its knees, seven idealistic teenagers join the armed forces. In order to spare them certain death, the boys are posted at a small concrete bridge on the outskirts of a small town. This particular crossing is strategically insignificant, and the commanders plan to demolish it as soon as the Americans arrive, but the boys are not privy to this information. When, indeed, the Americans do reach the bridge in a trio of tanks, the seven young recruits launch a full offensive, a tragedy of misguided courage that results in a devastating bloodbath.
3) Obchod na korze {The Shop on Main Street} (1965 / Ján Kadar, Elmar Klos / Czechoslovakia)
The Shop on Main Street is a truly remarkable film, a gentle mix of comedy and tragedy that manages to tug at our heartstrings without ever resorting to unnecessary violence or over-the-top melodrama. It is 1942, and World War Two is in full force. Tono Brtko (Jozef Króner), a poor Aryan carpenter in a Slovak town, is placed in charge of a Jewish button shop on Main Street, where the the old and senile Mrs. Lautmann (Ida Kaminska), who doesn't realise that a war is going on, naturally assumes that Brtko is here as her assistant. Fittingly, the pair received a special mention at the Cannes Film Festival for their acting performances, and the film itself won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for Czechoslovakia at the 1966 Academy Awards.
2) Fail-Safe (1964 / Sidney Lumet / USA)
Sidney's Lumet's Cold War-era thriller, Fail-Safe, is, put quite simply, one of the most engaging films I have ever experienced, a masterpiece of paranoia and destruction. During the 1950s and 60s, the possibility of a nuclear war must have seemed a terrifying inevitability, and many filmmakers exploited this fear for maximum effect, though none more effectively than Lumet with this film. Fail-Safe takes a scenario that sounds remarkably like Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) and, with meticulous patience and a stealthily-mounting sense of dread, builds towards a single devastating climax. The soundtrack screams an indecipherable mishmash of radio static, piercing feedback and human suffering. Never has a film cut so effectively to black.
1) Skazka skazok {Tale of Tales} (1979 / Yuriy Norshteyn / Soviet Union)
In 1984, in an event held in conjunction with the Los Angeles Olympics, the Animation Olympiad jury attempted to recognise the single greatest animated film of all time. Despite a wealth of worthy candidates, one film was ultimately crowned with the grand title: that film, of course, was Tale of Tales. Norshteyn's masterpiece, created with a meticulous animation process for which most animators lack the patience, is a triumph of stunning animation, ambient sound and a stirring classical score. The 30-minute is comprised of a series of related sequences, each metaphorically rooted in the history of the Soviet Union, every frame so breathtakingly beautiful that you can do little but stare in captivation. We're all still waiting on The Overcoat, the feature-length masterpiece on which Norshteyn has been working since 1981.
What are a few of your own unsung masterpieces? I'd be very interested in hearing from as many people as possible (which means I'll be expecting at least one reply).


Target #207: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, William Keighley, Michael Curtiz)

TSPDT placing: #441
Directed by: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
Written by: Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller, Rowland Leigh (uncredited)
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette, Alan Hale, Melville Cooper, Ian Hunter

By the end of the 1930s, Warner Bros. had released a string of successful gangster pictures, but consistently encountered difficulties with the enforcement of Production Code. The studio temporarily found refuge from censorship by setting their sights on a swashbuckling historical adventure – the classic English folktale of Robin Hood, the humble crusader of Sherwood Forest. One of the earliest feature-length films to be filmed in three-strip Technicolor, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is a dazzling cinematic adventure, featuring unparalleled sequences of action and sword fights, a classic romantic subplot, and superb characterisations from an impressive cast. Errol Flynn, one of the earliest Australian actors to strike it big in Hollywood, is the charming and dashing titular character, a mischievous but venerable champion of the poor and oppressed Saxons. William Keighley was the picture's original director, but – perhaps due to illness, or because the studio wanted to "spice up" the action sequences – he was later replaced by Michael Curtiz; both men received on screen credit. With an epic budget of $200 million, the 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' was reportedly the most expensive ever made, but proved a major success for the studio, who immediately cast Flynn and co-star Olivia de Havilland in another two Technicolor epics {the Western Dodge City (1939) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)} – the pair had already starred together in two films previously, both directed by Michael Curtiz. Olivia de Havilland is sweet and elegant as Maid Marian, though I daresay that much of her beauty goes to waste hidden beneath a headpiece, which she only removes for one scene.

Whether he's swinging gleefully from a rope, or splitting his opponents' arrows in two, Errol Flynn's Robin Hood is a hero that the audience can really cheer for. He can be a rascal at times, and has a haughty chuckle that infuriates his enemies, but, when the time calls for it, he can be suitably serious and determined, not to mention unflinchingly patriotic. It's the role that Flynn will always be remembered for. The film's two major villains are played with wicked charisma by Claude Rains, as the treacherous Prince John, and Basil Rathbone {before he immortalised himself playing Sherlock Holmes} as Robin Hood's sleazy romantic competitor, Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Screenwriters Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller play heedlessly with British history, but to adhere strictly to the facts would have been to rob the film of its fanciful, good-natured charm. This film was not the first to feature the adventures of England's favourite folk hero; Robin Hood had appeared in no less than ten films previously, though Douglas Fairbanks's 1922 incarnation is the only popularly-known example. Countless subsequent versions have followed, but few have even come close to approaching Flynn's dashing portrayal of the master marksman. The Adventures of Robin Hood is certainly not the most sophisticated film you'll see from 1938 {Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) is currently my favourite}, but it's just so jam-packed with action, comedy and romance that it's difficult to find another film that delivers so effectively in sheer entertainment.

Currently my #3 film of 1938:
1) Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz)
2) The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock)
3) The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, William Keighley)


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Target #206: Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman)

TSPDT placing: #32
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Written by: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook, Gunnar Björnstrand

Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966) opens with a bewildering montage of sounds and images, a frenzied newsreel of sex, death, cinema and comedy. The sequence is so far removed from my previous experience with the director that its effect is jarring, shocking; I momentarily wondered if I'd hit a wrong button and started playing Buñuel's Un chien andalou (1929) by mistake. I question Bergman's motives for including such an uncharacteristic opening, for it appears to have very little to do with the narrative that follows. Is this montage - an account of the sickening and concealed horrors and desires of society - a possible explanation for Elisabeth's continued silence? Even so, it all seems somewhat exploitative, as though Bergman was simply going for shock-value, obliterating any notions of subtlety with which I had begun to associate him {though I'll admit that the strength of The Seventh Seal (1957) arose from its not-so-subtle representation of Death}. The opening scene concludes with a young boy awakening in the morgue, his hand outstretched towards the vague image of a woman's face. Elisabeth's unloved child? Alma's aborted fetus? An amalgamation of both, perhaps?

An endless line of critics, it seems, have celebrated Persona as a masterpiece, and among the greatest films ever made. I'd hate to be the lone voice of dissent, but the film is certainly the lesser of the three Bergmans I've hitherto seen, if only due to the noticeable absence of the good-natured humour to be found in both The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957). If, indeed, I were to describe Persona as a masterpiece, it would be in regards to the visuals, which, photographed by long-time Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist, are beyond description in their detail and intimacy. The film takes particular interest in the human face, and entire conversations of words and emotions are played out through the communication of the eyes, and the glimmering hint of a smile on the lips. There is one immortal moment in the film when Bergman juxtaposes the faces of each woman onto the screen, merging Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann) and Alma (Bibi Andersson) into a single entity.

Persona also includes one of the most vivid depictions of sex that I've ever seen. Though the film shows us nothing, Alma's whispered description of an intimate encounter on the beach is staggering in its effectiveness; her words allow the viewer to formulate their own visuals, every emotion and nuance perfectly incorporated from the rich story we are being told. Though I may exhaust hours spouting the merits of Ingmar Bergman's film, I can't escape the fact that watching Persona felt very much like a chore. The film boasts a relatively short running time, but it never seems to attain any comfortable sense of rhythm, and, by the film's end, I was left wondering just what the film was trying to get at. Bergman includes various allusions to Bertolt Brecht's "Verfremdungseffekt" effect – highlighting the inherent artificiality of the cinematic medium – with the film at one point appearing to burn; but, unlike in Fellini's 8½ (1963), these self-referential flourishes seem to serve little foreseeable purpose. Am I looking too far into this film for meaning? Or am I not looking far enough? Even just hours afterwards, another layer of meaning has unfurled itself. Maybe it'll get better.

Currently my #4 film of 1966:
1) La Battaglia di Algeri {The Battle of Algiers} (Gillo Pontecorvo)
2) Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo {The Good, the Bad and the Ugly} (Sergio Leone)
3) The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder)
4) Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
5) Torn Curtain (Alfred Hitchcock)