Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Movies Of The Year: 1968

Now this is a great year. Four indisputable classics, along with plenty of other pretty good movies. It's also got the most moves I've seen since 1972.

12. Romeo And Juliet - This gauzy adaptation is far inferior to the lively Baz Luhrman film that ranked 11th in 1996. It's directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who also directed the Mel Gibson version of Hamlet (#8, 1990), which too is much better than this film. Both the leads are very pretty.

11. The Love Bug - The best movie about a sentient car ever made. Director Robert Stevenson did almost all the truly great live-action Disney films: Mary Poppins, Darby O'Gill And The Little People, Old Yeller, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones, and so on.

10. The Odd Couple - The movie version of the play that turned into a TV series. Neil Simon wrote the screenplay and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau start the legendary onscreen collaboration that would ultimately lead to the genius of Grumpier Old Men (#75, 1995).

9. Planet Of The Apes - One of the greatest of all camp classics. It lead to a second career peak for star Charlton Heston. The man who played Moses and Ben-Hur soon become the greatest of all crappy SF movie actors in films like this, The Omega Man and Soylent Green. Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter co-star. You remember Hunter as the Stella that Brando was yelling about in A Streetcar Named Desire. She won and Oscar for that, but not for this.

8. Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day - The second of three animated Disney Pooh movies. This is the one that introduces Piglet and Tigger. I read the Tao Of Pooh in high school and it's a great book. I never got around to reading The Te Of Piglet though, so I don't know what that's about.

7. Bullitt - The ultra-cool Steve McQueen stars in this otherwise unremarkable cop movie. It's got one of the all-time great car chases, right up there with The French Connection (#8, 1971) and Ronin (#15, 1998). And it co-stars Jaqueline Bisset, Norman Fell, Robert Vaughn and Robert Duvall.

6. Night Of The Living Dead - A transitional film between the old b-movie horror films of the 50s and 60s and the splatter films of the late 70s and 80s. George Romero's first Zombie movie is also the best. It's ultra low-budget, more taught and suspenseful than the latter three films (Dawn Of The Dead, #7, 1978; Day Of Thee Dead, #24, 1985; and Land Of The Dead, #30, 2005) which are more about social satire and action than anything else. First a hysterical woman, then a heroic black men, then a lunatic family hide from the zombies in a farmhouse and are surrounded. The scenes are intercut with the coverage of the zombie attacks on TV, in a kind of homage to 50s sci-fi films. It's a perfect example of it's genre, as scary as any horror film ever.

5. Barbarella - The movie that gave Duran Duran their name. Jane Fonda plays a secret agent (in space!) who must track down a missing and evil scientist who wants to destroy the universe, or something. Along the way, she often finds herself in various states of undress, falls in love with a pretty blind angel and must confront the dangers of the evil scientist's Excessive Machine. The best movie about sex ever made.

4. Rosemary's Baby - The other side of the sex coin is this film, wherein Mia Farrow becomes impregnated with Satan's baby. Farrow's terrific, as is John Cassavetes as her husband. Ruth Gordon won an Oscar for playing the annoying neighbor, but I really just find her annoying. Maybe director Roman Polanski's best film, though most would claim Chinatown is better. Certainly one of the creepiest movies I've ever seen.

3. Once Upon A Time In The West - Sergio Leone's masterpiece is this summation of everything the Western genre represents. It's the story of how civilization came to be imposed upon chaos. All Westerns are about that conflict, some more explicitly than others. In this sense, this film is the purest expression of the genre. Henry Fonda famously plays against type as the villain, in one of the better performances of his career. In his character, the twin evils of murderous outlawry and rampant capitalism are united. Opposed to him are Jason Robards, as the honorable thief type perfected by Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, and Charles Bronson, also playing somewhat against type as the nameless harmonica-playing, revenge-seeking hero. Claudia Cardinale plays the widow of a visionary man who wanted to build a town in the middle of a desert, which, like I said, is what it's all about. If Unforgiven (#1, 1992) represents the thematic end of the Western, then this represents its pinnacle.

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey - Speaking of genres, I once wrote a paper about 2001 in which I argued that science-fiction is not a genre, but rather a mode or a setting. It makes sense really: what does films like Star Wars, Alien, Solaris, Blade Runner and 2001 have in common but being set in the future with as yet undeveloped technology? It'd be like calling Gone With The Wind, Ben-Hur, All Quiet On The Western Front, Caligula and The Life Of Brian all part of the same genre simply because they all take place in the past.

Anyway, 2001's a great movie, on of the few pre-Star Wars films whose special effects still hold up over time. It's split in thirds: the first section, about the monkeys, is my favorite; the second, about the computer, is the most accessible, it's often remarked how Hal is the most human character in the movie; the third, about, well, that depends. It's weird and trippy and it is what you make of it. I think it's supposed to be about the evolution of humankind into a purer consciousness, unbound by physical limitations (which is why you can't see the aliens). But it's not really clear.

1. The Lion In Winter - An idiosyncratic pick for the top spot to be sure. I can't objectively argue that this is a better film than the previous two, but there's no doubt which among them is my favorite. Being essentially a filmed play, the movie doesn't have any of the stylistic elements you look for in a great film, but it does have a plethora of fantastic performances and one of my favorite scripts of all-time. At Christmastime 1183, the royal family of England gathers to figure out who's going to be the new heir to the throne. King Henry wants troglodyte John to succeed him, Queen Eleanor (of Aquitaine) wants Richard (the Lion-Heart), and nobody likes Geoffrey. Joining the party are Henry's girlfriend Alys and her brother Philip, the King Of France. Whoever marries Alys gets to be King. The dialogue is a retro-screwball-comedy dialogue, which makes a nice anachronistic contrast with the period-specific grimy sets and props. The actors are uniformly outstanding. Katherine Hepburn won her third Oscar as the Queen, Peter O'Toole was robbed, again, for playing the King. Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton make their film debuts as Richard and Philip and Nigel Terry plays John (he was Arthur in Excalibur (#7, 1981). It was written by James Goldman (William's brother) and based on his play. One of my all-time favorite films.

Some pretty good Unseen movies this year, most notably the ones by Truffaut, Brooks, and Cassavettes. though I hear the Russian version of War And Peace is really good. It can't be worse than the Hollywood one with Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda playing Russians.

The Producers
Where Eagles Dare
The Party
Hang 'Em High
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
The Green Berets
The Thomas Crown Affair
If . . . .
Funny Girl
Ice Station Zebra
Stolen Kisses
The Bride Wore Black
Finian's Rainbow
War And Peace
Monterey Pop
Rachel, Rachel

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Movies Of The Year: 1969

A strange mix of movies this year: foreign art classics and American Westerns. And another year where all of the movies I've seen are pretty good.

9. Take The Money And Run - One of my least favorite Woody Allen movies is this uneven film where he tries to be a bank robber. There are some very funny bits, but on the whole, the movie doesn't really work. The scene where the bank teller he's robbing can't read the handwriting on the note he's given her is a classic.

8. Easy Rider - Overrated by boomer culture, but there's some great stuff in this movie, mostly in the breakthrough performance by Jack Nicholson. After years on the fringes of Hollywood, this is the movie that finally made him a star. The New Orleans sequence, wherein director Dennis Hopper set the cast loose in Mardi Gras with a bunch of 16mm cameras is just plain annoying.

7. On Her Majesty's Secret Service - This underrated Bond film is the only one that starred George Lazenby. He isn't particularly great, but the Bond movieness of it is as Bond movieish as any of Connery's films. Plus it has by far the best ending to any Bond movie, and one of the best action movie endings of all-time. If you've seen the movie, you know what I mean, if not. . . . go watch it and find out.

6. True Grit - John Wayne won his lifetime achievement award Oscar for his performance in this film. He's good, but it's certainly not a remarkable job he does. Not as good as his work in The Searchers or Rio Bravo or Red River or even The Quiet Man, but it's still a lot of fun. The movie itself is fun too: it's a relic and it knows it.

5. Z - Mystery-thriller about the overthrow of the liberal Greek government. It stars Yves Montand (The Wages Of Fear, Le Cercle Rouge), Irene Papas (The Guns Of Navaronne) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (Three Colors: Red). The director, Costa-Gavras, was one of many directors to have a cameo in Spies Like Us (#22, 1985). Set the template for all the political thrillers to come in the 70s, like The Parallax View (#5, 1974) and All The President's Men (#5, 1976). As far as I can tell, it's just a coincidence that all three of those movies are #5 in their year.

4. The Wild Bunch - Sam Peckinpaugh's apocalyptic Western is great, but I've seen it at least three times and it's never been able to stick in my memory. I remember individual parts of it, the brilliant opening sequence especially, but I just can't recall the whole of the film. The mood is what's important though, as Peckinpaugh turns the romantic, mythic Western into a chaotic, bloody hell, and that's always fun. Ernest Borgnine, who I don't really have an opinion of, and William Holden, who I've just never liked, are the unlikely stars, along with Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates.

3. The Sorrow And The Pity - The only movie Woody Allen wants to watch in Annie Hall is this very long documentary about France during the Nazi occupation during World War II. The film is endlessly fascinating. The director, Marcel Ophüls (son of the great director Max Ophüls) interviews regular Frenchmen, collaborators, unrepentant fascists, people who claim to have been in the Resistance and people who actually were in the Resistance. One of the greatest documentaries of all-time.

2. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid - This almost impossible not to like film, written by the great William Goldman and directed by George Roy Hill stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford as real-life bank robbers who get chased all the out way out of the US and to Bolivia. If you didn't already know that, then I congratulate you on finally awaking from your coma. For creating the buddy-action-comedy genre, the film world is forever in debt to this film.

1. Andrei Rublev - I just wrote about this earlier this week, you can read those comments here. It's a beautiful film by trendy movie geek icon Andrei Tarkovsky about a legendary Russian icon painter. It isn't a traditional biopic by any means, and that's a good thing. Rublev himself is only in about half the film. The movie seems more a chronicle of the moral chaos of the time: a mass gathering of witches, a Mongol invasion, a hot-air balloon ride, the difficulties of converting Russia to Christianity and how that religion can explain all the horrible things in the world, and how to make a really big bell. It's a massive and serious film about serious things, but unlike with Solaris, Tarkovsky is able to let the movie, and his characters breathe. By the end, there's still some hope for redemption for humanity (through art, naturally).

Not much I'm too concerned about having missed from this year. I've seen parts of Midnight Cowboy, but slept through most of it. I've had it on VHS for a decade and never gotten around to it.

Midnight Cowboy
The Italian Job
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
Paint Your Wagon
Hello, Dolly!
The Prime Of Miss Jean brodie
Alice's Restaurant
The Great Silence
My Night At Maud's
The Passion Of Anna
Goodbye Mr. Chips
Medium Cool