Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Movies Of The Year: 1964

It's been awhile, but back to the lists we go. See The Big List for later year's lists as well as some new disclaimers and methodological explanations.

13. My Fair Lady - As much as I love Audrey Hepburn and flashy hats, I really can't stand this movie. It's big and bloated and obvious and she doesn't do her own singing and did I mention it's long? I don't have anything against Rex Harrison, and he's fine as the professor trying to teach Hepburn's street urchin how to act like a lady. The director, George Cukor goes way back, he did the 1933 version of Little Women (with Katharine Hepburn) along with Sylvia Scarlett, The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, Adam's Rib, Born Yesterday and the Judy garland version of A Star Is Born.

12. Robin And The 7 Hoods - A Rat Pack mob epic (and Robin hood adaptatio) starring the usual suspects (Sinatra, Martin, Davis) along with Peter Falk, Bing Crosby, Tony Randall and Edward G. Robinson. It's nowhere near as fun as Ocean's Eleven (the original, of course) and it's way too long, but it isn't terrible. The director, Gordon Douglas also directed the Unseen sequel In Like Flint, a film that was a major contributor to my irrational fear of insects: the giant ant classic Them!, and a whole lot of B movies going back to the mid-30s.

11. A Shot In The Dark - I probably shouldn't count this, because the only time I've seen it was an old print that had faded to the point everything was pretty much pink. But what the hell, it is a Pink Panther movie, after all. Peter Sellers plays Inspector Clouseau, the clumsy detective who bumbles his way to solving a crime. Sellers is predictably hilarious as he tries to prove that Elke Summer did not commit the murder everyone else thinks she did. Also stars the very great George Sanders (Rebecca, All About Eve) and Tracy Reed, who is also in another film on this list. Can you guess which one?

10. Mary Poppins - The best live-action Disney movie ever? Julie Andrews stars as the singing magic nanny in this musical about the evils of capitalism, Victorian repression and the dangers of feminism. For the first, we have the character of the father, who learns that flying a kite is more fun than working in a bank, along with the old homeless lady with nothing to do but talk to birds as she's been abandoned by an unfeeling system. For the second we have the freedom loving chimney sweeps lead by Ms. Poppins boyfriend, Dick Van Dyke, who dance across the rooftops of London, travel into hallucinatory cartoon worlds via magic sidewalk chalk art and the always funny Ed Wynn in his Uncle Albert/tea party on the ceiling sequence. For the third, we have the children's mother, too busy with her suffragette causes to pay attention to her children, which necessitates the hiring of a magic nanny in the first place. It's a fascinating film, positively bursting with meaning, hidden under a sugary sheen of silly musical tropes.

9. Goldfinger - One of the very best of the James Bond films has Sean Connery pit against Auric Glodfinger, who wants to do something or other to the gold in Fort Knox to destroy the world economy, or something. Along the way he's got to dodge the sinister hat-throwing henchman Oddjob and the feminine wiles of Goldfinger's pilot, the iconically named Pussy Galore. There's no truth to the rumor that being covered in paint causes asphyxiation, by the way, or that the actress in the opening died on set. Some people will believe anything.

8. Gertrud - Director Carl Theodor Dreyer's last film was a flop in it's time (it's easy to see why) and has only recently been rehabilitated into classic status. Jonathan Rosenbaum has written glowingly about and, and while I can't say I agree with him, it certainly is an interesting film. I wrote about it here and I can't say my opinion has changed in the last month. It's a weird, beautiful, intense, exasperating, alienating and, most would say, dreadfully dull film.

7. A Fistful Of Dollars - The first Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone Western is a blatant ripoff of Akira Kurosawa's samurai Western Yojimbo, so much so that Kurosawa actually sued and won against Leone. Based, like the other film, loosely on Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (an entirely different genre of novel from either film), Eastwood plays a drifter who wanders into a violent mess of a town being torn apart by two rival gangs. He proceeds to get himself in-between both groups and play one against the other until they tear each other and the town apart. It's a fine film, but doesn't hold a candle to either Yojimbo or Leone's later epics.

6. The Naked Kiss - Justly famous for it's opening sequence in which a prostitute beats the hell out of a subjective camera (a john who hasn't paid her) with a handbag and has her wig pulled off revealing a Telly Savalas skull. This Samuel Fuller classic only becomes stranger from there. The hooker moves to a small town and tries to rebuild her life by working with handicapped children. She begins a romance with the son of the most powerful family in town and then discovers that there are things far more disturbing beneath the surface of small town America than a bald prostitute beating up a camera. It's got everything you expect and want from a Samuel Fuller movie.

5. Marnie - Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock's most disturbing film is this story of a frigid kleptomaniac woman and the man who loves her, blackmails her, rapes her and forces her to re-experience the childhood trauma that screwed her up in the first place. A lot of Hitchcock's films are expressions of his own neuroses, especially his obsession with blonde women, but this one, with it's sadistic treatment of Tippi Hedren's lead character, combined with what is rumored to be Hitchcock's real-life stalking of Hedren make the film truly perverse. Sean Connery, in an odd comment of his by then famous and misogynistic James Bond persona plays Marnie's husband, who forces her to resolve her issues, among other things.

4. Zulu - One of my all-time favorite war films is this true story of a small band of british troops surrounded by the entire Zulu army. All day and all night they have to hold there fort against the Zulus, despite being outnumbered 4,000 to 140. Michael Caine plays the wholly inexperienced dandy of a commanding officer, who because of seniority cedes command to Stanley Baker's passing engineer. Ulla Jacobson, from Bergman's Smiles Of A Summer Night plays the daughter of a minister who tries to convince them all to run away. Though the Zulus are portrayed more as a mass than as individual characters, it'd be hard to argue that the film doesn't treat them or their cause (the expelling of foreign invaders) unjustly. Director Cy Endfield was a victim of the McCarthy blacklist and moved to England to find work.

3. Band Of Outsiders - The movie that gave Quentin Tarantino his production company's name stars the always great Anna Karina as a girl being romanced by two would-be hoodlums played by Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey. The three of them meet in English class, go out for a soda and one of the greatest dance sequences of all-time (music by Michel Legrand) and hang around, dreaming of being film noir characters. The two guys eventually convince Karina to help them rob her uncle's house. It's not my favorite of Jean-Luc Godard's films, but it might be his most popular and accessible. As such it's as good a place as any to start if you need to familiarize yourself with his work (and you do).

2. The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg - Jacques Demy's melodrama as opera stars Catherine Denueve as the daughter of an Umbrella shop owner who's in love with a mechanic named Guy, played by Nino Castelnuovo. Guy ships off to Algeria for two years, leaving a pregnant Deneuve unable to resist the charms of the wealthy Roland, whom her mother loves and can solve all their financial troubles (the own an umbrella shop, after all). Guy returns to find his Aunt dying, his girlfriend married and his child being raised by another man. The story is the simplest soap opera melodrama, but by virtue of the music, every line of dialogue is sung to a brilliant Michel Legrand score, and the mise en scène (filled with more vibrant than life primary colors) the everyday is elevated to the level of great tragedy. This is what Demy appears to be all about, at least in the two films I've seen of his (Young Girls Of Rochefort, #3, 1967, being the other), showing the beauty of what we tend to see as the mundane of everyday life.

1. Dr. Strangelove - One of my all-time favorite films of any genre is this Stanley Kubrick film about the inevitability and hilarity of nuclear apocalypse. Peter Sellers, of course, is brilliant in a triple role as the eponymous doctor, the ineffective president and the British officer who almost saves the day. Sterling Hayden plays a lunatic general who launches a nuclear strike on the USSR because he's convinced a case of impotence was caused by the communist water fluoridation scheme. Slim Pickens plays the pilot of a B-52 who doesn't get the mission abort code and ends up destroying the world. Rumor is that Kubrick didn't bother to tell Pickens that the movie was a satire and had him play the whole thing straight. true or not, it certainly works. James Earl Jones plays one of Pickens's flight crew, Keenan Wynn has a great little role as a soldier who's a big fan of the Coca-cola corporation, but George C. Scott gives my favorite performance in the film as General Buck Turgidson, the gung ho commander terrified the Russians might see The Big Board. This is what satire is supposed to be: a scathing indictment of the lunacy of Cold War decision-making and paranoia that's as funny and disturbing as it is persuasive.

A lot of great Unseen movies this year as 1964 appears to be another great year for films in general. I've got the new Masters Of Cinema DVD of Kwaidan on the way from the UK, should be here any day now.

A Hard Day's Night
Zorba The Greek
Seven Days In May
Hush. . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte
The Night Of The Iguana
The Pawnbroker
The Fall Of The Roman Empire
The Gospel According To St. Matthew
The Masque Of The Red Death
Woman In The Dunes
Diary Of A Chambermaid
The Killers
The Red Desert
I Am Cuba
7 Faces Of Dr. Lao
The Soft Skin
Cheyanne Autumn

Movie Roundup: Fire Bruce Arena Edition

Some quick comments while watching France attempt to out-lackluster the Americans in the World Cup.

Deadwood - The third season started on Sunday of this great HBO series. Nancy Franklin wrote a comically inept review of it for last week's New Yorker, something film critic Dave Kehr has a nice post about on his blog. Franklin's generally a fine critic, but with this and her inability to understand My Name Is Earl, I fear she may be succumbing to creeping Anthony Lane Syndrome, wherein a reasonably good critic comes to hate the very medium they work in, and thus becomes unable to ever see things for what they are and instead begins to write reviews as if they are competing in a cleverest zinger contest. Anyway, Deadwood's a terrific show, a linguistically obscene, yet poetic, examination of the core conflict at the heart of the whole Western genre: how order comes to be imposed upon chaos. You can phrase it any number of ways: civilization vs. barbarity, capitalism vs. pre-agrarian hunter-gatherers, genocidal white men vs. outgunned indians, and so on, depending on your personal political axe-grind. One of the posters on Kehr's blog points out that Deadwood's Al Swearingen, the murderous, vicious, outrageously profane, amoral saloon keeper who is paradoxically the only hope the community has to avoid being swallowed up by the rapacious laissez-faire capitalist George Hearst, is uncoincidentally quite similar to many of John Wayne's characters, especially Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (a killer who embarks on a decade long quest to rescue his niece only to find that the community he restored has no place for a man like him) and Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (which is what that film is all about: civilization needs these men to tame the wilderness (Indians, outlaws) but once tamed, it has no place for them and they are left, at best, to simply fade away).

Thank You For Smoking - I thought this movie was enjoyable enough while I was watching it, but the more I think about it, the more I don't like it. It supposedly is a satire, but I can't figure out what it's supposed to be satirizing, or even if surrounding one reasonably intelligent protagonist with a world full of blithering idiots actually counts as satire. The problem, I think, is that the film isn't willing to take a stand and either celebrate or indict the protagonist, Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. The thing is, Naylor never says anything all that outrageous, though the movie seems to think it is. The great revelation we get at the end of the film is that adults should have the right to choose whether they want to smoke or not. This is either mind-numbingly obvious or not the least bit funny, either way, it's a pretty lame ending. The film appears to want it both ways, writer-director Jason Reitman wants to make fun of the anti-smoking lobby (an unbelievably stupid Senator played by William H. Macy, shadowy "terrorists" who kidnap Naylor) and the tobacco industry (a pointless character played by Robert Duvall, perhaps meant to satirize old Southern men who like mint juleps? and an ultimately irrelevant subplot involving Rob Lowe, Adam Brody and a whole mess of cheap anti-Hollywood jokes). It's as though the film wants you to think that Naylor's right and personal responsibility is important, but Reitman isn't so sure and doesn't want anyone to think he actually agrees with that. Pointedly, there is no smoking of any kind in the film, in interviews, Reitman has said that he didn't want to glamorize it or make anyone think he might actually approve of the habit. What a mess. It does have its redeeming features though. Most of the funny lines are in the trailer, but the best part of the film is Aaron Eckhart's gleeful performance as Naylor. He perfectly captures the joy Naylor feels when he wins an argument and the childlike gleam in his eye when he gets some of the perks of being a successful lobbyist (a private jet, a trip to Hollywood, Katie Holmes). For a first film, it's really not that bad, and it was fun watching it in a surprisingly crowded theatre for a Monday night many weeks after the movie's release, but I really expected better. The #38 film of 2005.