Friday, December 30, 2016

#587: Chungking Express

Directed by: WONG KAR-WAI
1994, TSPDT Rank #192

At long last, I have received my introduction to the work of Wong Kar-Wai with Chungking Express, his breakthrough film. Originally distributed in the U.S. by Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures (a 1990s subsidiary of Miramax), it's quite a bit different than most of the films Quentin Tarantino has chosen to promote over the years. However, it is akin to Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (released the same year) in its brazen originality and playful approach to its material. Its two parallel stories are essentially about being alone in the crowd of a big city - a sentiment which is barely concealed behind a thin veneer of mock seriousness, dizzying camera movements, and blinding neon lights. The two lead characters are both young, perpetually heartbroken male cops, although they are rarely seen fighting crime or doing police work. Their main preoccupation seems to be wandering around the city, going about their daily routines in a daze, and daydreaming about their respective lost loves, while their potential new love interests are caught up in surprising dramas of which their male counterparts remain completely oblivious. Wong's portrayal of modern isolation and longing for connection is both stylish and disorienting - a sort of hyperreality which constantly turns the viewer's perception upside-down and inside-out. The closest American equivalent to Wong's work here is not Quentin Tarantino, but Charlie Kaufman - although even Kaufman has never been able to achieve the uniquely light touch that Wong achieved with this film, while still sustaining an idiosyncratic and existential mood at the same time.

Monday, October 31, 2016

#586: Possession

1981, TSPDT Rank #659

I've watched this film twice now. The first time I was mostly disgusted and annoyed with it (even as a long-time horror fan); partially because of the sick and twisted psycho-sexual gore on display throughout, but possibly even more so because of the almost unbearably aggressive histrionics displayed by its two principles (Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill). However, on my second viewing I went into it with a much less passive mindset, fully prepared to meet its delirious insanity head-on. And I have to say, it's quite something. You're unlikely to find anything else quite like it (which probably explains why its passionate followers are so faithful to its cause), and the performances given by Adjani and Neill are nothing short of awe-inspiring once you tap into their uniquely primal wavelength.

David Cronenberg's early films are probably the film's closest relatives (see Shivers and The Brood), but Andrzej Zulawski takes Cronenberg's detached Canadian body horror and endows it with a manic boost of frenzied emotional horror never seen in Cronenberg's work. The oft-cited hypothesis that sex and horror are inherently related is Zulawski's guiding principle here, and the net result is nothing if not convincing - at least until the inexplicable ending sequence. At this point, Zulawski flies head-first in a paranoid no-man's land which even the film's most devoted fans seem to be at a complete loss to explain. Nevertheless, while it is hardly coherent on the surface, the ending somehow comes off as a thoroughly haunting and unnerving nightmare - the perfect conclusion to the events which preceded it, despite its essentially illogical nature. It could also just be that the film drags you along into its own sea of madness, breaking down your defenses until the insane seems to make some sort of sublime sense. Whatever the case may be, Possession is quite possibly the ultimate dividing line between casual horror fans and those who are more seriously entrenched in the muck and mire of humanity's deepest fears.

#585: Kwaidan

1964, TSPDT Rank #898

For those who are familiar with Kobayashi's uncompromising and socially-conscious psychological dramas (The Human Condition, Harakiri), Kwaidan will probably come as a shock - even if you're somewhat prepared for it, as I was. Knowing that it was actually the follow-up to Harakiri makes it seem all the more out of left field, as this sweeping and richly colorful adaptation of four supernatural folk tales could not be more removed visually from the stark black-and-white agony portrayed in Harakiri. However, the first of the four tales presented in Kwaidan finds us in similar territory in terms of plot, as Kobayashi once again highlights the harsh realities experienced by many unemployed samurai during the peaceful reign of the Tokugawa shogunate, which gave them an exalted position in their social hierarchy but had little use for them otherwise. Still, even in this first tale, historical and social commentary quickly give way to a palpable supernatural undercurrent unlike anything previously seen from Kobayashi.

The second tale is perhaps the best of the four, featuring otherworldly set design work and a story which is firmly rooted in the tantalizing and inexplicable mysteries of the spirit world. The next two tales - one almost half the film's total length and the other barely twenty minutes - each have their moments, but ultimately throw the film off balance. As with many portmanteau/anthology films, the lack of a unifying thread to connect the individual parts leaves the viewer with a collection of cobbled-together impressions, rather than one distinct, cumulative experience. So while I enjoyed each part of the film to some degree (some more than others), the strangely unformed nature of the film detracted somewhat from the experience as a whole. Having seen his mammoth ten-hour trilogy The Human Condition, I know that Kobayashi was capable tying many narrative threads together to form a satisfying whole, but Kwaidan feels strangely unfinished in comparison. However, it's possible that the film might be better approached as a collection of short films - as each is unique and has something to offer, both aesthetically as well as supernaturally. It may also be that the film was intended to express the loose ends and uncertainties present in encounters between the living and the dead in its form as well as its content. In any case, there is still a lot to appreciate here, even if the film's uneven nature ultimately makes it feel like less than the sum of its parts.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

#584: 1900

1976, TSPDT Rank #320

With the release of Last Tango in Paris in 1972, Bernardo Bertolucci had become an infamous international sensation. However, 1900 has much more in common with Bertolucci's 1970 film The Conformist. It starts where that film left off - with the end of World War II and the liberation of Italy from Mussolini's fascist regime in 1945. Also, like The Conformist, 1900 deals with Italy's dark history of fascism and its roots; but instead of exploring this history through a pared-down, psychological character study, as he does in The Conformist, here Bertolucci explores it in the form of a grandiose, archetypal epic. Over the course of the film (which runs over five hours), Bertolucci expresses this history as a battle between the opposing forces of fascism and society - with the oppressive and complex relationship between wealthy landowners and the peasants who worked their land shown as the essential root of the conflict. Although it starts off with a brief introductory sequence set in 1945, the majority of the film plays out in flashback - beginning in 1901, as two children are born on an Italian estate on the same day. One is a fatherless peasant child, while the other is the grandson of the estate's owner. The two children grow up together, but end up on opposite sides as Italy descends into fascism, with more than a hint of Cain and Abel incorporated into the narrative as their lives progress. With such a broad, archetypal focus, the film has a tendency to be morally simplistic and heavy-handed, but Bertolucci uses these qualities to give the film an added level of power - with the qualities of good and evil amplified to dizzying extremes, and the story's potential for nostalgia fully utilized to express the range of emotions which accompany the passage of time. Bertolucci pulled out all the stops with this film - earning the accusations of self-indulgence which have been leveled at him in some respects (particularly in regards to the ridiculous final section), but pulling off something of a flawed masterpiece in the process. For all its flaws, the film is frequently engrossing and unexpectedly powerful, with the sublime cinematography from Vittorio Storaro helping to pull the viewer in as the film unfolds, while amplifying the intensity and potency of the film's moral extremes. Some may not have the patience for Bertolucci's overly grandiose statements, but for those who can overlook the flaws, there is a work of great beauty and audacity waiting to be found underneath them.

Friday, September 30, 2016

#583: Secrets & Lies

Directed by: MIKE LEIGH
1996, TSPDT Rank #679

Secrets & Lies was my introduction to the work of Mike Leigh, and it is a film of immense emotional intensity - in which the small, unspoken pains and uncertainties of each of its characters come together to form a powerful, focused emotional whole. This is a film about insular struggles and deceptions within a British family, and it is largely carried by its excellent ensemble cast - with each actor lending a deep sense of detail and feeling to their respective characters, so that each characters' emotions reverberate into the other characters' scenes and lend meaning to all of the other actors' performances. This kind of cooperative acting goes a long way in making the characters believable as family members - a difficult feat which can be easily taken for granted, especially if it is done well. Leigh's deliberate directing style perfectly complements the actors' performances, and unflinchingly leads the viewer through the film's many uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, moments - with a visual style in which characters are often situated either at an intimate, conversational angle with the viewer or side by side with each other, so that the viewer can see both characters' reactions in real time. The inevitable racial undertones (a black woman discovers that her birth mother is white) are ever-present throughout the film, but they usually remain in the background, with the exception of one key scene. Otherwise, the focus remains on how the family members relate to each other, as family. Most importantly, Leigh manages to put every member of the family on equal footing with one another, and this, along with the deeply felt nature of the film, is what ultimately makes the film worthwhile viewing.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

#582: Diary of a Country Priest

1951, TSPDT Rank #195

According to the description of the film which accompanies the Criterion release (now unfortunately out-of-print), Diary of a Country Priest was the film in which Robert Bresson's distinctive "stylistic philosophy" first came into view. I can't testify to this, since before seeing this film, the only other Bresson films that I had seen were Pickpocket and A Man Escaped (both made later in the 1950s). However, I can say that this is a film of rare beauty - harsh and uncompromising in its approach, but often approaching the sublime in its deceptively simple portrayal of a young Catholic priest's spiritual and physical dilemmas over the course of his assignment to a parish in an unwelcoming country village. And although there are no light or carefree moments to be found within this solemn two-hour film, I do not agree with its categorization as "boring" or "depressing". Bresson's precise and methodical hand constantly propels the film forward, allowing the viewer to empathize with the ailing priest's anguish through the use of frequent narration from the priest's diary, while creating the feeling that not a moment has been wasted. Visually, the film is thoroughly cinematic - featuring a consistently striking palette of sharp black-and-whites which complement Bresson's strong, angular compositions and stark rural settings. The film continues to gain momentum throughout, as the viewer gradually becomes closer to the priest, steadily building to a subdued yet haunting climax in which contact with a higher power can be clearly sensed. As Bresson enthusiasts often point out, the religious potential of the cinematic medium has rarely been pursued by filmmakers, and its presence in Diary of a Country Priest makes for a uniquely affecting and profound viewing experience. Bresson has been on my short list of directors to explore more thoroughly for quite some time now, but having seen this film, I definitely intend to see more of his work in the near future.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

#581: I Was Born, But...

Directed by: YASUJIRO OZU
1932, TSPDT Rank #328

As the earliest Yasujiro Ozu film on the 1,000 Greatest Films (as well as the only one of his silent films to make it on to the list), I Was Born, But... presents Ozu's style as it was still in the process of developing. It's also much lighter in mood than most of Ozu's later, more well-known dramas, highlighting the humorous antics of its child protagonists, as well as their first glimpses of the adult world, which ultimately provide a crushing realization of their father's fallibility. However, while the film initially shows a fair amount of comic promise, it suffers from a plodding middle section which slows its momentum considerably, as too many supporting child characters are introduced, and their comedic scenes become increasingly repetitive and inane in nature. This makes the film feel a bit more uneven than Ozu's later work, although the final half-hour is powerful enough to make up for it.

What ultimately makes this film stand out, despite its flaws, is Ozu's ability to convey a child's perspective while juxtaposing it with that of the adults who effectively rule their lives. Ozu's trademark low-angle visual style works perfectly for showing the world as seen through a child's eyes, but his ability to gracefully switch between low-angle point-of-view shots and long shots, which emphasize the children's small size in comparison to their environment and their parents, lends an air of sophistication to the film which will be instantly recognizable to those familiar with Ozu's later films.  Ozu had yet to perfect the pacing of his films, but his ability to convey family relationships with unmatched level of intimacy and warmth was already in full view with this early silent film.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

#580: The Blood of a Poet

Directed by: JEAN COCTEAU
1930, TSPDT Rank #861

During the introductory sequence of The Blood of a Poet, a series of intertitles describes a poet's work as "a documentary of unreal events". This film was director (and poet) Jean Cocteau's first attempt with the medium, and as such, it functions primarily as a declaration of intent - a poetic meditation on the nature of art and the tortured souls whose solemn task it is to create it. As an attempt to transfer the essence of poetry to film - quite a groundbreaking idea at the time - it emphasizes art's function as a portal to "unreality", while also focusing on the creative process itself, which is depicted as being destructive for its creator - who must either destroy himself in order to create, or destroy his creations in order to save himself. Cocteau's portrayal of the struggle between an artist and his creations is shown from a number of angles, but it is seen to invariably result in the artist's death. The Blood of a Poet is known today as a landmark work of surrealism, but unlike the other famous surrealist film of the early 1930s - Luis Bunuel's L'age D'or - it is less concerned with the hypocrisies of the external world of political authority and religion than it is with the internal world of the artist. In conveying the "unreal events" of this internal world, Cocteau employed a number of innovative techniques which distort the appearance of the on-screen space and the movement of characters within it - creating a distinctive sense of the uncanny which sets this film apart from other surrealist films of its era. It would be over ten years before Cocteau made his return to the screen with his most famous film, Beauty and the Beast, but the "unreal" imagery and dreamlike atmosphere of The Blood of a Poet would go on to influence countless filmmakers and artists in the years to follow, and the film remains a striking work of vision to this day.

Monday, May 30, 2016

#579: La Roue

Directed by: ABEL GANCE
1923, TSPDT Rank #930

Here's another film with a relatively simple narrative which gets stretched across a very long running time. But unlike The Mother and the Whore, this film's length isn't necessarily meant to be a key component of the experience. Instead, it just suggests the seemingly endless supply of bold cinematic ideas possessed by director Abel Gance during its production. The film was originally cut down from an original length of nine hours, and at its current restored length of four and a half hours, it still seems to be bursting at the seams with visual dynamism and stunning displays of technical innovation. The film is unlike just about anything else in the history of cinema, as Gance brings an approach to the medium which is seemingly unconnected to any conception of established rules or conventional approaches to filmmaking, editing, and storytelling. At its most basic narrative level, the film merely tells the story of two men, a railroad engineer and his son, who fall in love with the same woman - the railroad engineer's unofficially adopted daughter. However, Gance proceeds to amplify the tragic implications of the film's narrative to epic proportions - drawing audacious symbolic connections to the myths of Sisyphus and Oedipus Rex, while augmenting his basic narrative with frequent dramatic subplots and multiple climaxes in order to intensify the film's emotional impact. As a viewing experience, the film is more engaging than a French silent film made nearly a century ago has any right to be. And while there are few films which can truly be compared to this one, there are moments which seem to predict the later work of similarly ambitious filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Stan Brakhage. Abel Gance, however, was clearly in a class of his own as a cinematic visionary, and La Roue may be even more successful as a whole than Gance's later masterpiece, Napoleon, in conveying Gance's technical brilliance and desire for boundless narrative scope in his films.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

#578: The Mother and the Whore

Directed by: JEAN EUSTACHE
1973, TSPDT Rank #114

This is probably one of the more elusive films on the 1,000 Greatest Films, so when presented with the opportunity to catch a one-time screening of a 35mm print, I snatched up the chance. I was prepared for a long, dialogue-heavy French film about sex, relationships, love triangles, and pseudo-intellectualism, but what I was not prepared for was how truly unsettling and draining the film would be. The film's protagonist, Alexandre, is a pretentious and hypocritical young bohemian who is the embodiment of the emptiness that he sees in the society that surrounds him. He talks endlessly, but has nothing to say. He attempts to maintain simultaneous relationships with two different women - taking advantage of them physically, emotionally, and financially - while offering nothing but misery to either of them. In fact, Alexandre is such an extreme type of character that viewers of the film could be separated into distinct two categories: those who identify with him and those who find him absolutely contemptible. Most viewers, myself included, would probably fall into the latter category, but it's easy to see how those who identify with Alexandre could come away with a completely different interpretation of the film - seeing Alexandre as a hapless victim instead of as a destructive parasite framed as a criticism of a larger social disease. Still, regardless of your perspective, this film - which was Jean Eustache's debut feature, amazingly enough - is designed to take Alexandre's self-inflicted predicament to its limits, showing both the causes and effects of the damage which he sets in motion with a startling emotional honesty that takes a while to sink in, but is hard to shake once it does.

As with many films which go beyond the three-hour mark despite having a relatively small-scale narrative, the length of the film is a key component of the experience, and I'm sure that watching the film in one sitting makes for a much different experience than watching it in two or three (as most people watching at home seem to do). The first couple hours of the film are relatively light, with an unnamed friend of Alexandre's (who is even more aimless and ridiculous than Alexandre is) coming in at regular intervals for comic relief, as Alexandre's relentless self-absorption and movement between love interests continue on seemingly without consequence. Around the two-hour mark, however, the tone begins to shift very noticeably, as does the nature of the viewing experience. The friction between the three main characters continues to increase, as does the number of long, tortured monologues and lurching transitions from scenes of stifling boredom to frenzied emotional outbursts. Eustache takes each scene all the way to its breaking point before fading to black and immediately launching into the next one. This repetitive raising and lowering of tension, along with the increasingly brutal honesty of the subject matter, becomes almost unbearable as the final hour of the film progresses and the tension continues to rise, eventually culminating in an intense final scene which serves as a frightening mirror image of the opening sequence.

Eustache's technique is merciless but effective, which, along with his use of grainy, documentary-style cinematography, has earned him much-deserved comparisons to John Cassavetes from critics such as Pauline Kael. However, while it's often a less than pleasant viewing experience, The Mother and the Whore is certainly in a class of its own - a singular work which is often as interesting as it is grating, exposing the emptiness and self-destructiveness of its unsavory protagonists in stark, uncompromising detail. It's a film that's worth seeing at least once if the chance arises, if only for those of a certain temperament.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

#577: Late Spring

Directed by: YASUJIRO OZU
1949, TSPDT Rank #65

This film struck me as being relatively light and humorous compared to other family dramas from the latter half of Ozu's career - although I admit that I am not even close to having seen all of them. The story involves a daughter's unwillingness to leave her widowed father in order to get married - a simple plot which Ozu presented numerous variations on over the course of his career. However, Ozu's distinctive low-angle visual style is as humbling and intimate here as it ever was, with some of his best visual poetry also on display - especially in exterior scenes which place the titular season in the foreground. Ozu named many of his films after seasons, and he never assigned his titles arbitrarily. In this case, "late spring" refers to the daughter's state of full bloom, being in her late 20s and almost past the prime marrying age - a point which, from the perspective of the film's characters, makes her marriage a matter of utmost importance. Much of the film assumes a semi-comic tone which keeps it from feeling emotionally overwrought, but the climactic scene between father and daughter, soon before the daughter's impending marriage, must rank among the most powerful moments in Ozu's filmography. It may not pack the same overall emotional punch as Tokyo Story, but nevertheless, Late Spring still displays Ozu's meditative and sensitive approach in full force - making for a feeling of intimacy which few other filmmakers have ever been able to achieve.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

#576: Ossessione

1943, TSPDT Rank #764

This rough and compelling debut film from great Italian director Luchino Visconti, an uncredited adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, "The Postman Always Rings Twice", could hardly be farther removed from its Hollywood counterpart (which came three years later, directed by Tay Garnett, and starring Lana Turner and John Garfield). The Hollywood version of "Postman" was made under the strict supervision of the Breen Office, but nevertheless remains one of the most erotically charged and suspenseful films of all time. Visconti's adaptation, on the other hand, dispenses with eroticism and suspense in exchange for raw, earthy sexuality and the suggestion of brutal violence. In doing so, the focus remains on the motivations behind a murder, as well as the inevitable events which come before and after - but in a style which has much more to do with neorealism than film noir.

#575: Brokeback Mountain

Director: ANG LEE
2005, TSPDT Rank #718

This film is a work of rare simplicity and grace which follows the secret lifelong love affair between two cowboys in the American West during the middle of the 20th-century. The desperation and setting-specific social ramifications of the men's relationship is evocatively portrayed throughout the film, and is perfectly supported by picturesque cinematography and an achingly beautiful score. Heath Ledger gives a brilliant performance which serves as a reminder of the great loss that his death represented, and Jake Gyllenhaal gives his character an emotionally intense energy which makes him the perfect foil for Ledger's highly reserved and repressed character. I admire films which capture the passage of time so well within the constrained length of a feature film, and this film does it exceptionally. Definitely worth seeing for those who enjoy films which attempt to convey the profound highs and lows of relationships, while also conveying the toll that time eventually takes on us all.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

#574: Mad Max 2

Directed by: GEORGE MILLER
1981, TSPDT Rank #515

This film clearly had a substantial budget increase compared to its more humble predecessor, but the increased funds were definitely not squandered here. Actually, Mad Max 2 is probably one of the more successful sequels out there, at least within the realm of well-known action/sci-fi franchises. The bigger budget is used to create more muscular, hard-hitting action sequences, which are framed by a more substantial narrative structure than the first film had - revolving around Max's interactions with a gasoline-hoarding desert tribe and the brutal gang they're at war with. The "dust and diesel" aesthetic is also cranked up to 11 and the action sequences are brimming with wild intensity - the manic and prolonged final chase sequence being the film's highlight. However, despite the film's many good points, some of the first film's mood of post-apocalyptic malaise is lost in the upgrade process, which causes this film to feel more like a different take on a similar concept, rather than a conventional sequel.

2016 list update

Well, it's that time of year again, and yes, I've had another lengthy break from the blog. However, time has proven that no hiatus is permanent here at The Quest for 1,000 Films, and the annual update of the TSPDT list was made available a few days ago, so it seems time to get things up and running again. The new update of the list is the "eleventh official edition", according to the introduction, which you can find, along with the entire list, at I'm happy to report that one of my favorite films, The Wicker Man, has re-entered the list this year at #645, making it this year's highest-ranking entrant onto the list. However, when I first saw The Wicker Man it was not on the list, so as a result I never wrote a post on it for the blog. Of course, one of the flaws of this blog is that the only films open for review are the ones that happen to be on the list in any given year, but even so, I would highly encourage anyone who hasn't seen The Wicker Man to do themselves a favor and do so! I would also argue that the theatrical cut (and not the "director's cut" or the recently-released "final cut") is the best and most effective version of the film, but I may be biased, as it's the first version of the film that I saw years ago. Nevertheless, The Wicker Man is a highly unique and deceptively chilling British horror film which is worth seeing at least once in any version.

One final note: as with last year, the new list has put me ahead in my count by a very small margin. This year it bumped me up by a mere two films from my previous count - from 571 to 573. So therefore my next post (which will be coming very shortly) will be #574. As always, thanks for reading, and I will continue to try to update the blog as consistently as possible.