Friday, December 29, 2017

#616: The Fallen Idol

Directed by: CAROL REED
1948, TSPDT Rank #993

Graham Greene, who wrote the short story on which The Fallen Idol was based and also scripted Carol Reed's next two films (The Third Man and Our Man In Havana), once cited this film as his favorite of all the films he had written. And it's an ingenious little film, which brilliantly illustrates a violent clash between the innocence of childhood and the often corrupting influence of adulthood. As a suspense film, it's very unique, as the primary narrative conceit here is that the audience knows that a butler accused of murdering his wife is innocent, although the web of lies which has been spun around the incident makes it nearly impossible to prove this fact. The primary obstacle to the investigation is an ambassador's son (played with wide-eyed obliviousness by Bobby Henrey), who looks up to the butler (portrayed with the perfect balance of coolness and warmth by Ralph Richardson) but is unsure of his innocence and feels obligated to lie to the police in order to protect him. Graham Greene's screenplay shows how the small lies of childhood grow naturally into adult lies which destroy relationships and blur the line between guilt and innocence, while Carol Reed's careful handling of the material results in a briskly paced film which makes its audience think while never failing to be entertaining at the same time.

Friday, December 15, 2017

#615: Oldboy

Directed by: PARK CHAN-WOOK
2003, TSPDT Rank #542

Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is one of the defining films of contemporary Korean cinema - a brooding, Hitchcockian psychological thriller with disturbing sexual undertones and a pervasive sense of unease which begins in the opening minutes of the film and lingers long after the ending credits have finished. It follows a hard-drinking middle-aged businessman named Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who finds himself imprisoned in a hotel-like room for fifteen years, a long period of time which is compressed into a whirlwind prologue sequence - with the man's release seeming to come almost as abruptly as his imprisonment did. As such, we get to know him mainly as man bent on getting revenge, but not before he discovers who imprisoned him and why.

While this might sound like a fairly standard setup for a revenge film, Park takes the premise to unexpected territory in terms of violence and brutality while also probing deeper into the psychological implications of the characters' actions than most revenge films would venture. For while Dae-su's imprisonment is a disturbing concept, Park continually encourages us to question the impact of this experience on his psyche and the motivations of his mysterious captor. Dae-su's sense of reality is never entirely stable; it always seems that he is being set up or toyed with is some way, but it is not clear until very late in the game by who or why. And once these details finally are revealed, it is not comforting to either him or the audience in any respect.

Furthermore, as the harrowing story unfolds and comes into focus, the cruelty to which the characters subject each other becomes as disturbing as the reasons behind their actions. Park ultimately leaves the viewer without much hope for the film's characters, or even assurances of the extent to which their experiences were real. As with many contemporary Korean thrillers and horror films, the lingering effects of memories and personal grievances loom heavily throughout Oldboy. It's an unpleasant and somber film, but Park's use of impressively-choreographed action, together with a complex and visceral plotline, makes it one that is not easily forgotten.

#614: Les enfants du paradis

Directed by: MARCEL CARNÉ
1945, TSPDT Rank #58

This is one of the highest-ranked films on the list that I still hadn't seen, and it did not disappoint. Many others have attempted to convey the idea that the whole world's a stage, but Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert may have done it best with this film. Carné started out as an assistant to Jacques Feyder, eventually becoming one of the leading filmmakers in the French poetic realist movement, making his mark with films such as Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows), Le jour se lève and Hôtel du Nord. But by the time of this film, Carné had traded his pre-noir (and prewar) atmospherics for an 1800s period look and a feel of theatricality, which can sometimes disguise the fact that this is an incredibly graceful and well-structured piece of filmmaking.

A film like Jean Renoir's La bête humaine might suggest that people are defined by the work they do, and with the character of Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a cynical and over-educated petty criminal who scoffs at the romantic rivalries of the other characters in the film and sees himself as the architect of their destruction, Children of Paradise also makes a similar point. The actors and mimes who make up the film's motley cast of characters are often shown at work, each performing their own solitary interpretations of life, but in the end, they are all characters in the same farce - and the roles they play on stage reflect the roles they play in real life. The carnival of life goes on and their romantic yearnings will ultimately be drowned out by the sea of life which continues all around them.

While this film may be more rooted in the past than Carné's earlier work, it nevertheless takes a poetic view of life which has much in common with the famous prewar French films of the 1930s, and its expression and execution of these ideas is second to none. This is definitely an excellent film which I regret not seeing earlier and am sure to revisit in the future.

#613: La bête humaine

Directed by: JEAN RENOIR
1938, TSPDT Rank #854

Like Julien Duvivier's Pépé le moko, Jean Renoir's La bête humaine contains many moments which foreshadow the Hollywood film noir movement of the 1940s and '50s. It tells the story of a railroad worker named Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin in another of his iconic 1930s roles), who witnesses a Le Havre stationmaster (Fernand Leydoux) and his wife (Simone Simon, a mesmerizing femme fatale prototype) returning from the scene of a murder on board a train. Rather than reporting what he saw, he falls in love with the wife - who, in turn, attempts to convince Jacques to kill her husband. The story, based on a novel of the same name by Émile Zola, differs from the typical noir narrative in a number of ways, but its downtrodden mood and story of man blinded by passion may have been a source of influence for Hollywood filmmakers who saw the film.

La bête humaine also devotes a great deal of screen time to showing its main character at work, a common characteristic of the French poetic realist films of this era. The film opens and closes with lengthy sequences that show Jacques driving his beloved locomotive, focusing on the gritty details of the work and evoking the poetic in the everyday. Jacques' romance with the stationmaster's wife pulls him away from this essential part of him, reducing its importance in his life to the point that he turns into a murderous beast - a condition supposedly inherited from the generations of alcoholics before him, although it also works as a convenient poetic allegory for the destructive nature of his romantic relationship.

La bête humaine was one of Renoir's most popular films in France, coming directly between the two major pillars of Renoir's filmography: La grande illusion, his sweeping anti-war statement, and The Rules of the Game, his definitive satire of the French bourgeoisie. The latter of these would be banned in France, making him persona non grata in the world of French cinema and causing him to leave France for an unsuccessful career in Hollywood. It would take decades for Renoir's French films of the 1930s to be reappraised by a new generations of cinephiles, but for a brief moment, La bête humaine placed him at the forefront of French filmmakers, and defined the French poetic realist movement at its height.

Monday, October 30, 2017

#612: Boudu Saved from Drowning

Directed by: JEAN RENOIR
1932, TSPDT Rank #555

Boudu Saved from Drowning, one of Jean Renoir's early sound films, shows the master French director at his most anarchic. He is aided in his all-out skewering of 1930s French bourgeoisie by Michel Simon, the larger than life actor who most modern cinephiles will know best as Père Jules in Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, as well as the humiliated painter Maurice Legrand in Renoir's second sound film, La chienne. In this film, Simon is Boudu, a shambling wreck of a tramp who is rescued from attempted suicide by a middle-class bookseller named named Lestingois. But instead of being grateful to his savior and benefactor, Boudu scorns Lestingois' condescending hospitality and wreaks havoc upon his home in a satirical farce which leaves none of its characters unscathed.

A notoriously difficult actor to work with, Simon once stated that Renoir was one of only three directors that understood him (the other two being Jean Vigo and Sacha Guitry). Boudu was clearly an equal collaboration between the two - Simon created the singular title character (with large doses of inspiration taken from his own personality) and Renoir contributed the poetic visuals and light narrative flow, which dull the edges of the film's razor-sharp satire somewhat... at least for modern audiences. Contemporary French audiences were less subdued by the finer points of Renoir's craft, becoming so scandalized by Boudu's complete disregard for bourgeois order that the police were called in to shut the film down within three days of its premiere.

While Boudu may have lost the incendiary power that it once had, it still gives viewers today a unique glimpse of Michel Simon firing on all cylinders and Jean Renoir beginning to demonstrate his mastery within the sound medium. It's a buoyant and enjoyable film, even if Renoir doesn't give us any easy answers about the characters and their moral standing - instead rendering conventional morality meaningless and encouraging us as viewers to find our way without it.

#611: East of Eden

Directed by: ELIA KAZAN
1955, TSPDT Rank #544

East of Eden is an ambitious Hollywood adaptation of John Steinbeck's career-defining novel about a conflict between fathers and sons which unfolds across multiple generations. Elia Kazan's film adaptation only tackles roughly the final third of the novel, which diminishes the story's scope but allows Kazan to evoke a melodramatic effect out of some of the novel's more minute details instead of attempting to capture the entire narrative arc of Steinbeck's novel. However, the introduction of James Dean in his first starring role has made this film almost as legendary as the novel.

Dean is extremely expressive throughout the film, both physically and emotionally, becoming a sort of walking id exploding into the often predictable world of 1950s Hollywood. Most people who comment on this film see Dean's presence in the film as being overpowering and out of control. But his performance can also be seen as the cinematic equivalent of Elvis Presley's infamous performance on The Ed Sullivan Show - an uninhibited and infectious clarion call signaling the dawning of a new era. Without him, the film might have risked becoming an above-average melodrama with a cast of well-trained actors, but with Dean in the lead role, it became a flawed but powerful suggestion of what screen acting could be. He brought submerged feelings to the surface and used Hollywood sets as a platform for the exorcism of personal demons. It's a startling performance, but one which rings true nevertheless. Dean would refine his abilities in his next two films (Rebel Without a Cause and Giant), but East of Eden allows viewers today to see the raw, unpolished potential that he exhibited in his first major film role.

Monday, October 23, 2017

#610: Pépé le moko

Directed by: JEAN DUVIVIER
1937, TSPDT Rank #990

Pépé le moko is probably one of the most influential films of the 1930s. In Hollywood, it inspired a shot-by-shot remake called Algiers, which starred Charles Boyer in the iconic role played here by Jean Gabin, as well as Hedy Lamarr in a star-making role. Years later, Warner Bros. adapted the story yet again into the screenplay that became Casablanca - one of the most famous romantic films of all time. But Pépé le moko's influence extends far beyond these obvious remakes, as it helped to create the distinctive style which would later be adapted by Hollywood and eventually become known as film noir. The ominous use of light and shadow, the colorful cast of low-lifes, the cynical slang language, and the world-weary criminal who finds his downfall in a romance with an unattainable woman - all of these elements would become familiar features of many a film noir, but they were first crystallized here.

Of course, this is also the film that secured Jean Gabin's status as the foremost icon of prewar French cinema. As Pépé, he is both stylish and brutish, witty and cruel, usually unsentimental but hopelessly nostalgic for earlier days in the streets of Paris. His performance is both simple and evocative - a template for many similar characters in countless later films. It's also a timeless portrayal of French ideals of masculinity and romance, which ironically became essential American values in the films noirs of the 1940s and '50s. So while Pépé le moko may not be the artistic equal of other French films of the era by the likes of Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Marcel Carné, it may be more culturally significant than any of those films, as the film which simultaneously defines both prewar French cinema and the roots of Hollywood film noir.

#609: Accattone

1961, TSPDT Rank #540

Accattone - a born thief and a reluctant pimp - is the low-life character who provides the focus for Pier Paolo Pasolini's bold debut feature as a director. Right out of the gates Pasolini's directorial vision was one of unvarnished beauty and originality. He alternates sweeping panoramic shots of his characters alone in a variety of wide open spaces (city streets, barren fields, courtyards) with closer handheld shots of the characters walking together. The style is striking and poetic, elevating a story would seem to be prime neorealist material into something that's closer to baroque tragedy (aided by the melancholy strains of Bach throughout the film).

Pasolini's affection for characters living on the margins of society is apparent here - as the film progresses we begin to feel a strange sort of detached sympathy for Accattone, a character that steals from the helpless (including his young son), cheats his low-life friends, and exploits a small number of helpless women in order to eat. Our sympathy for Accattone is seemingly derived from his inevitable downfall (which a group of his so-called friends constantly predicts in the manner of a Greek chorus) and the debilitating pangs of conscience which haunt him. In Pasolini's hands, he is almost a martyred figure - someone who will never be able to fit into society, his own vision of a good life, or be worthy of a place in heaven. This hard-edged outlook on modern life is tempered by Pasolini's love of classical form and style, resulting in a film which may have been born from the ashes of neorealism, but which ended up signaling the emergence of a new kind of Italian cinema.

Friday, September 29, 2017

#608: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring

Directed by: KI-DUK KIM
2003, TSPDT Rank #887

Ki-Duk Kim is one of the most controversial directors to emerge from South Korea in recent years, making his mark in the early 2000s with a run of disturbing films about cruelty and violence such as Bad Guy and The Isle. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring was an oddity among this group of films, winning international acclaim and festival awards for its apparently simple tale of a Buddhist monks' journey from childhood to adulthood and, eventually, spiritual mastery.

However, there are a number of disturbing themes in this film as well, which are sometimes masked by the beautiful cinematography of a floating temple and the surrounding forested valley which serve as the film's only settings. In fact, the film's seasonal structure suggests that human nature is cyclical, as well as inherently cruel and violent, even when carefully fostered in a peaceful environment of piety and isolation. The young apprentice tortures animals in the first part of the film, eventually giving in to the temptations of lust and murder, and although he is eventually able to purify his soul through elaborate rituals of self-punishment, his own apprentice is later seen to have inherited the same cruel impulses as he once had (although the versions of the film shown in Western countries only hint at scenes of animal cruelty cut from the original Korean version of the film).

Those who found spiritual solace in the film may have missed the harsh undertones hidden beneath the film's serene and beautiful surface. Kim doesn't take Buddhism literally here (he was raised Christian), instead using it as a symbolic framework for a meditative and disquieting examination of human nature and making many of the films' rituals up himself as a sly inversion of Buddhist teachings. The film has proved successful in the West as an exotic Asian import, but it may take more time for the film's true meaning to be grasped by a wider audience.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

#607: Performance

1970, TSPDT Rank #178

Nicolas Roeg made his directorial debut with this mind-bending psychological thriller, together with his co-director Donald Cammell, who wrote the script, while Roeg took charge of the film's cinematography. As such, the credit for this film, especially its complex themes of identity and the repercussions of performance, should go as much to Cammell as to Roeg, although the fact that Roeg went on to have a much more notable directorial career (with much of his work building upon this film) has led him to be given most of the retrospective credit for it.

Certainly, the stylistic make-up of this film was unlike anything that came before it, which is likely Roeg's doing. He employed audacious cross-cutting throughout the film, while using primitive visual effects to convey abstract psychological themes in a very uncanny way. The presence of Mick Jagger and Stones girlfriend Anita Pallenberg also elevate the film, giving it a dose of rock 'n' roll energy and wild-side flair that conventional British actors wouldn't have been able to convey. Jagger's musical performance in the film isn't all that spectacular, but it performs an important narrative function and allows Roeg and Cammell to make proper use of their famed star.

The other music in the film, provided by Jack Nitzsche, Randy Newman, and others, is uniformly excellent - giving the film a unique, earthy feel which complements its groundbreaking visual style. This unusual confluence of elements has made Performance a veritable cult classic, but Roeg and Cammell probably also deserve a fair amount of credit for liberating films from the burden of linear, reality-based narratives. While others, such as Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni, had tread this ground before, Roeg and Cammell did it here in a particularly arresting and immediate way, resulting in an uncanny film that has influenced many of the most adventurous filmmakers of the past few decades, while continuing to confound expectations today.

#606: The Green Ray

Directed by: ERIC ROHMER
1986, TSPDT Rank #350

Eric Rohmer was a master at exploring the minutiae of human nature, the tiny details within his characters' interactions that hint at some hidden truth not usually discussed or even acknowledged. In The Green Ray, Rohmer eases the viewer into a character study of Delphine, a lonely young woman who finds the prospect of summer vacation unbearable, as she has no one to share it with. At first she just seems indecisive and flighty, but eventually we realize that it's something deeper. She leaves Paris to three different vacation spots, and each time finds herself alone with nature - not comforted, but instead made even more aware of her isolation. These quiet scenes are the most powerful moments in the film: the frame becomes filled with rich greens and blues, and Delphine's inner feelings can be sensed as she moves through the beautiful landscapes in a somber recognition of her empty emotional state.

But Rohmer chooses these moments carefully, never wallowing in them or forcing them upon the audience. Instead, the effect is subtle and fleeting, and the viewer is otherwise given plenty of occasions to watch Delphine in various attempts at social interaction, searching for something to hold on to, attempting to make connections with those around her. Then, Delphine overhears a discussion of Jules Verne's novel The Green Ray, and the rare light effect to which the novel (and the film) owes its title to. This phenomenon is never fully explained, acting as a mysterious force as the film moves towards its conclusion.

While the conclusion is abrupt and ambiguous, it gives the film the feeling of a parable, from which the viewer is meant to draw their own conclusions. Was there value in Delphine's journey, or was it all merely a random series of disappointments followed by an equally random moment of satisfaction? Is there hope in the film's final scene, or is it merely a mirage, to be followed by more misery? Rohmer doesn't answer these questions, leaving the viewer with a feeling that Delphine's journey is only just beginning, and that there's no real resolution in life - only a collection of fleeting moments that we must attempt to make sense of in retrospect.

#605: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

1975, TSPDT Rank #198

If Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life was a celebration of hedonism and sexual freedom in the medieval era, Salò suggests that these qualities have been corrupted by the ruling classes in the modern era. The film transposes the Marquis de Sade's infamous novel, The 120 Days of Sodom, to the Republic of Salò, the fascist regime through which Mussolini ruled Northern Italy with the support of the Nazis between 1943 and 1945. The plot, which follows four fascist leaders as they degrade and torture sixteen lower-class girls and boys, is remarkably similar to Sade's novel, essentially equating the upper-class depravity of libertinism with fascism.

Salò has long been considered one of the most shocking and disturbing films of all time (one of the reasons I had not seen it before now), but while much of its more superficial shock value has worn off due to the recent arrival of "torture porn" films like Hostel and The Human Centipede, what remains most disturbing about the film is its examination of the inherent evil of modern power structures. In fact, beneath every act perpetrated by the four fascists lies a sick satisfaction derived from the feeling of having power over the powerless. During one bout of particularly humiliating torture, one of the men notes that it is his "social privilege" that excites him, and that without inequality, there can be no true happiness.

Although his films were always influenced by his Marxist views, with Salò, Pasolini's philosophy took a decidedly dark turn. Here he makes the grim suggestion that victims are often complicit in their oppression, with the simultaneous assumption that these willing victims are the ones who will eventually become oppressors of others. Those who resist are shown to have little besides a cruel and painful death ahead of them, devoid of honor or dignity, with its only value being to provide the perpetrators and their collaborators with entertainment. Within this context, it seems that Pasolini had abandoned the idea that redemption was possible for humanity, arriving instead at the conclusion that cruelty only gives way to more cruelty in a bottomless downward spiral of meaningless depravity.

Pasolini described Salò as not only a critique of fascism, but of modern society as a whole. He spared no one in his unrelentingly pessimistic vision of humanity, least of all the audiences who would see the film in the aftermath of his brutal murder by a male prostitute only days before the film's premiere. In witnessing the vile events portrayed in the film, without a single protagonist or sympathetic character to identify with, the viewer also becomes implicated in them - as a passive spectator of the brutal and disgusting spectacle which the film presents. While he probably meant this film as more of an angry personal statement than a final testament, Salò ended up becoming both - one of the most uncompromising films ever made as well as a definitively disturbing look at the corrupting nature of modern power structures.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

#604: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Directed by: JAMES CAMERON
1991, TSPDT Rank #648

It's rare that I see a film that I feel truly doesn't belong on a list of the 1,000 Greatest Films, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of those films. It's not a bad film by any means - James Cameron is a consummate craftsman if nothing else - but its formulaic sense of humor and saccharine emotional core (a futuristic killing machine becomes a father figure to a troubled kid and learns what it means to be human as a result) do nothing to add to the interesting and terrifying concept that Cameron laid out in his original Terminator film. In fact, The Terminator is still the only Cameron film I've seen that has any sense of vitality or urgency - like Aliens, Terminator 2 is a sequel that successfully transforms its brilliantly tense and effective predecessor into a bloated, action-packed, and mind-numbing Hollywood product. It's been successful enough to earn a reputation as one of the best action films of all time, and even successful enough to earn a place on the 1,000 Greatest Films. But while this is a precisely-rendered film with cool and stylish visuals, beyond the spectacular, crowd-pleasing veneer, it's completely empty, devoid of any depth, resonance, or creative spark (except for the impressive special effects work). There's just not much to see here besides a finely-tuned action film, and its effectiveness in that arena has surely been dulled by the technological advances in the genre over the past 25 years. But as far as these types of soulless blockbusters go, Terminator 2 is probably still the gold standard.

#603: Heat

Directed by: MICHAEL MANN
1995, TSPDT Rank #368

Heat is a classic film noir updated for the age of blockbuster action thrillers. The setting is the same, Los Angeles, but the landscape is virtually unrecognizable. After fifty years of urban sprawl and population explosion, the city has now grown to an unmanageable size and even the blinding sunlight doesn't help to put anything in perspective. Michael Mann's style is one of cool hues and fluid motion, with editing so slick that scenes often blend together without the viewer noticing that one scene has given way to another. In the film's world, everyone is a liar, a cheat, a maniac, or a combination of the three - not because they want to be, but because they feel they have to be. Everyone acts according to their nature in the end - nothing is truly left to chance. Human nature is brought into the light - no one is innocent, this is not a world of hard-edged blacks and whites anymore.

Overall, Heat is an incredible piece of work. The narrative is masterfully handled, with a world-class cast, and a script that refuses to give in to easy answers. It's the epitome of neo-noir - noir brought into the light and made new. What once lurked in the shadows, just below the surface, has now taken over everyday life. No one is safe, no one is innocent, and there can be no apologies, regrets, or self-pity - just a full-fledged commitment to one's nature, and nothing else.

#602: Kings of the Road

Directed by: WIM WENDERS
1974, TSPDT Rank #289

After the warm-up provided by his previous two films (Alice in the Cities and Wrong Move), Wim Wenders set out to make the ultimate German road movie with Kings of the Road, and I doubt that any other film has as good of a claim to that title. Wenders perfectly conveys both the mood of 1970s West Germany and the feeling of being on a road to nowhere. While Alice in the Cities boasted a much more dynamic chemistry between its two main characters, and Wrong Move had a clearer geographic start and end point, the aimlessness and desolation of Kings of the Road is its greatest attribute and makes it feel like a step forward for Wenders. While the film can feel a bit disjointed at times, it's amazing that it coheres as well as it does when you consider that it was mostly improvised, with no script to follow whatsoever. Wenders and the two main actors (Rüdiger Vogler and Hanns Zischler) clearly had a knack for getting inside the characters' heads and coming up with situations and dialogue which fit the gradually developing mood of the film. Since the viewer spends so much time with these characters, becoming accustomed to their unusual relationship and their various eccentricities, the ending to this purely episodic film ultimately feels so fitting that it seems scripted - even if it wasn't. You could say that this film was a gamble that paid off, or a testament to the possibilities of improvisational filmmaking, but I think that for Wenders, the journey was the destination. He simply took the journey, and in return, he got the film that he wanted to make.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

#601: Alice in the Cities

Directed by: WIM WENDERS
1974, TSPDT Rank #534

Alice in the Cities is a clear precursor to Wim Wender's later film Paris, Texas. Both present a vision of America as seen through European eyes, while portraying unexpected friendships between an adult and a child. However, in this film, we see the desolation and emptiness of America from the perspective of a foreigner (played by Wenders regular Rüdiger Vogler), rather than as a metaphor for an American character's detachment from those around him, and the relationship which develops between the main character and the young girl (Yella Rottlander) entrusted to him by her mother (Elisabeth Kruezer) is more unusual than the relationship between a father and his long-lost son in Paris, Texas. Nevertheless, the roots of that film are here. Cinematographer Robby Müller makes the identical-looking small towns and beaches of the East Coast look as forlorn as the desert landscapes of the Southwest, while the scenes in New York convey contradictory feelings of excitement and alienation - just as in the Houston scenes in Paris, Texas.

Wenders' contempt for television is also on full display here, with Vogler's character delivering multiple speeches against American TV's tendency towards constant commercial breaks and the promotion of an idealized American dream (a late night showing of John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln is used as an example). Unlike television, Alice in the Cities is a collection of fleeting moments, which fade in suddenly and fade out just as quickly - sometimes before they can even be properly registered. Other moments are more extended, such as the many small interactions between Vogler and Rottlander, which serve to gradually establish their relationship and make it believable to the viewer, despite the highly unbelievable nature of the film's overarching storyline. But what all of these moments have in common is that none of them are designed to sell a message or a product. Instead, they stand as a tribute to the unpredictability and inherent value of human relationships, which has remained one of Wenders' guiding principles throughout his career.

#600: Pandora's Box

Directed by: G.W. PABST
1929, TSPDT Rank #262

Louise Brooks is an American anomaly. A girl from Kansas who somehow made her way to Berlin to become a timeless symbol of feminine allure and beauty. She is truly radiant in this film - although she seems to represent the prototypical femme fatale in the collective subconscious, the character of Lulu is really like a ray of light in a world full of chaos and ugliness. Everyone else leads the way to their own demise, all blaming her on their way down. This film is full of Greek tragedy, but is Lulu really a modern-day Pandora, or just a victim of her own otherworldly beauty? That's up to the viewer to decide. Overall, this film is a masterpiece of light and shadow, beauty and darkness - made right at the peak of the silent era, when all the possibilities of the medium were finally being realized. Watching this film unfold, it seems like such a shame to think that this era would be over so suddenly, and with it, Brooks' career. Her moment of stardom was just beginning, and like so many other silent stars, she never really recovered from the transition to sound. As a result, she remains etched upon film history as a beautiful anomaly, a blinding ray of light. And this film, as a whole, is a flickering memory of a time when everything came together for one magnificent moment.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

#599: The Wings of Eagles

Directed by: JOHN FORD
1957, TSPDT Rank #831

Like many of John Ford's non-western films, The Wings of Eagles often flies under the radar in discussions of Ford's work. Released by MGM one year after The Searchers, this biopic about Frank "Spig" Wead, a naval aviation pioneer, screenwriter, and personal friend of Ford's, was also one of the handful of films which Ford could be said to have made primarily for himself. Although he initially had misgivings about directing a biopic on Wead's life, Ford made a tribute to his friend that only he could have achieved. He chose his two favorite actors, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, to play the lead roles in the film, just as they had in The Quiet Man, which paid homage to Ford's Irish heritage in a similar fashion. Wayne and O'Hara play much different roles here, but the effect is largely the same, as Ford's affection for these actors resonates on the screen. Other Ford regulars such as Dan Dailey and Ward Bond deliver memorable performances as well - with Bond portraying a thinly-veiled version of the temperamental director himself, named "John Dodge" to prevent clever viewers from drawing any parallels. Ford's trademark sentimentality and humor are also here in spades, serving less as components of a realistic dramatization of Wead's life than as an expression of love for a departed friend. As the film's conclusion makes overwhelmingly clear, while another director might have crafted a film more faithful to the actual details of Wead's life, no other director would have made a film which feels as deeply personal as this one does.

Monday, May 29, 2017

#598: Yeelen

1987, TSPDT Rank #613

Unlike many other African films, Yeelen is set in pre-colonial times, and as a result it is primarily concerned with painting a picture of the cultures which thrived in what is now Mali around the 13th century (the century from which Mali's most renowned narrative epic, The Epic of Sundiata, dates). The film successfully creates a world which feels both believable and fantastic at the same time, with an aesthetic mastery that prompted critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum to deem it one of the most beautiful African films ever made upon its release. Souleymane Cissé’s career up to this point had consisted primarily of political films, which often had an overtly critical edge, and as a result, many admirers of Cissé’s previous work saw Yeelen as an abandonment of political meaning in favor of pure aesthetics. However, the film can also be seen as Cissé’s attempt to evade the scrutiny of the Malian government, whose suspicions had been aroused by his previous films, by hiding a political message within the "safe" territory of Mali's distant past and traditional epic narratives.

Upon closer examination, Yeelen, which centers on the story of a tyrannical religious leader's attempts to find and kill his ambitious son, can be seen as a meditation on the connections between pre-colonial African traditions and modern abuses of power. The father, Soma, is an esteemed member of the secret Komo society of the Bambara people, which claims to hold a monopoly over all knowledge and power in Bambara society. Soma could be compared with modern dictators like former Malian President Moussa Traoré, who use their status as a way to limit and control others in a despotic form of rule - which has often been viewed as the default form of African politics by Westerners. Soma's son, Nianankoro, on the other hand, can be seen to represent the constructive and liberating potential of African traditions, as he is the only character in the film able to stand up to his father's repressive beliefs and use the secrets of the Komo against them.

In this sense, Yeelen presents African cultural beliefs and traditions as rich, powerful forces which can be used for either good or evil. The film has numerous scenes depicting Komo rituals in full (despite the fact that the meaning of these rituals would be obscure even to most modern-day Malians), and it presents the Bambara and Fulani (or Peul) peoples as vastly different communities with distinct cultures, drawing attention to the arbitrary nature of post-colonial national boundaries. These fact that all of the film's dialogue is in either Bambara or Fula (rather than a colonial language like French) shows that one of Cissé’s aims with this film was to increase international awareness of these cultures and their histories, while also warning Malians and Africans in general of the potential for misuse inherent in traditional belief systems such as those of the Komo. Yeelen is definitely a beautiful film as well, but underneath the hypnotic visuals and apparently obscure storyline await many other layers of meaning for those who wish to unpack them, making each viewing of this film a new experience.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

#597: Black Girl

1966, TSPDT Rank #840

Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène is commonly known as the "father of African cinema" - and for good reason. He is responsible for a lot of firsts in the realm of African cinema: first short film by an African-born filmmaker (Borrom Sarret), first feature film by an African-born filmmaker (Black Girl, aka La Noire de...), first feature film in an African language (Mandabi), etc. So in this context, Black Girl would have been historically significant no matter what its content. However, Sembène rose to the occasion and used his first feature film (financed by the French Cultural Ministry) to convey a piercing allegorical vision of post-colonial Senegal-France relations. The film's protagonist, a young Senegalese woman named Diouanna, represents Senegal in this allegorical context, while her bourgeois French employers, who pay her way to Paris so she can become their housebound maid, represent France. The relationship of the French couple towards Diouanna is sickening and abhorrent - she is treated like an animal, and is expected to live a life which essentially constitutes domestic slavery.

But while the stark presentation of this abusive master-servant relationship would make an effective enough statement on its own, the structure of the film, which intersperses flashbacks from Diouanna's former life in Dakar with scenes from her life in France, makes the film's message infinitely more powerful. In these flashbacks, we see Diouanna's dreams and aspirations for a new life of excitement and freedom, which strike a harsh contrast with the inhumanity of her life in France. Even more importantly, we witness her initial disdain for her native culture, which leads her to see moving to France and experiencing its modern culture and elegance as a preferable alternative to the perceived dead ends of her own community. Of course, this is not what her experience turns out to be, and the juxtaposition of these two settings creates a shattering effect.

Ultimately, Black Girl concerns a tragic failure to connect, as the French and Senegalese characters each seem destined to project their own preconceived notions onto the other in perpetuity. Just as the Senegalese characters are seemingly unable to escape from a servile relationship with their former colonial masters and retrieve their culture from subjugation, the French characters seem doomed to be haunted by the spectre of their colonial injustices. Therefore, whatever opportunity there is for connection is ultimately squandered, as both sides settle into time-honored roles for reasons beyond their understanding. In its uncompromising portrayal of these themes, Ousmane Sembène's first feature film set a powerful precedent for the exploration of African post-colonialism which would remain a dominant focus in his work throughout his career.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

2017 List Update

It's that time of year again - the new TSPDT list has been posted! As usual, some films that I've seen have moved onto the list and some have dropped off (although apparently more of the former, as my count has increased slightly, from 591 to 596, with the new update). The big change this year is that Bill (the man responsible for calculating this master list each year from thousands of lists and polls) has decided to drop a formerly crucial component of his calculation process - the so-called "stood-the-test-of-time" formula, which effectively penalized films released within a 10-year span of the list or poll which listed them. Since this formula served to ensure that the list was perennially skewed towards older films which had "stood the test of time", its removal has allowed some more recent films, such as There Will Be Blood and The Tree of Life, to attain a higher place on the list. I've already seen both of the aforementioned films, but maybe these changes to the list will also result in allowing more films from the past few decades into my future writings.

In other administrative news, I would like to announce ahead of time that I am in the beginning stages of finding a new home for the blog. This move will be fairly far off for the time being, but I hope to ultimately make some substantial changes to the overall appearance and functionality of the blog as a result. If anyone has any thoughts or suggestions on this, feel free to let me know.

And as always, if you are interested in exploring the 1,000 Greatest Films further, I highly recommend going straight to the source:
All thanks are due to Bill Georgaris for his tireless work on this incredible website and list. The list has truly become the gold standard for many die-hard film buffs over the years, and without it, this blog would obviously not exist. So once again, thanks to Bill, and thanks to everyone who reads this blog. I greatly appreciate your interest and support.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

#591: Roma

1972, TSPDT Rank #566

Roma is usually cast as a minor entry in Federico Fellini's filmography, but it is a highly original film nevertheless, and one which can be seen as a cross-section of the elements which Fellini would return to repeatedly throughout the second half of his career. It sits comfortably between Satyricon and Amarcord, arguably the twin pillars of Fellini's latter-day filmography, combining the vivid surrealism and fascination with the distant past seen in Satyricon with the nostalgic and semi-autobiographic evocations of WWII-era Italy which would be explored further in Amarcord. Fellini alternates between these two points of focus throughout the film, while also experimenting with a forward-looking, semi-documentary approach which combines elements of classic city-symphony films like Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera with the cinema-verite style popular at the time of the film's production. However, some sections of the film fail to fit into either of these three categories - such as the famous "ecclesiastical fashion show" sequence, which evades easy description or categorization, while also providing one of the most vivid examples of the term "Fellini-esque" imaginable. This combination of diverse styles and approaches serves to make Roma a truly one-of-a-kind film - one which, out of all Fellini's films, might provide the most wide-ranging view into his singular philosophy and approach to filmmaking.

#590: Thelma & Louise

Directed by: RIDLEY SCOTT
1991, TSPDT Rank #623

When I think of Ridley Scott, I usually associate him with sci-fi thrillers (Alien) and big action films (Gladiator). In Thelma & Louise, however, Scott showcased his ability to make an iconic road movie infused with reckless abandon and desperate passion. The film follows the travels of the two titular friends, on the run after a rebellious weekend in the wilderness takes an unexpected detour into murder - turning the two women into outlaws. The murder victim is a man who seduces Thelma in a bar and attempts to rape her in the parking lot, before being stopped by Louise - who shoots him in cold blood after he fails to show the faintest sign of remorse for his actions. In murdering this man, who would likely be considered innocent under the circumstances by the law, Louise (a woman with an implied rape history herself) effectively avenges herself, Thelma, and all other rape victims who have been blamed for a crime which was perpetrated on them while the real perpetrators were allowed to go free. This aspect alone would explain the film's status as a feminist classic, although the characters of Thelma and Louise help to cement this reputation. Both are extremely well-drawn and complex characters (unusual for female characters in a mainstream Hollywood film, especially of the time period) who act on their own volition and are thoroughly unapologetic about their actions - staging them as a revolt against the society that has oppressed them since birth. These potent themes, along with the wildly shifting power dynamic between the two women as the film progresses, make the film a thrilling and multi-layered experience. While there might be better road movies out there, it is still hard to think of another mainstream Hollywood film of this era that explored such groundbreaking themes while still retaining an undeniable atmosphere of exhilaration.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

#589: Bambi

Directed by: DAVID HAND
1942, TSPDT Rank #568

It takes all kinds of movies to make a list of the 1,000 Greatest Films. Because of this, violent Hong Kong action films can easily sit alongside the early animated features of Disney Studios on this blog. Bambi isn't the first of these early Disney features that I've covered - Fantasia and Dumbo both received reviews in the early days of the blog, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio are among the many films from the TSPDT list which I have seen, but which for whatever reason have flown under the radar of this blog (more on these "undocumented" films to follow in the near future).

Bambi, however, is a film which I had not seen since I was very young. Now that I have more knowledge of how it fits into the larger picture of Disney's early film history, it seems primarily like an attempt to import some of the more pastoral combinations of image and music seen in Fantasia (released two years earlier) into a simple narrative framework. From what I remember, connections could also be made some of the more surreal sequences of Fantasia and Dumbo (the first Disney film to be released in the wake of Fantasia), but in Bambi the focus is much less on narrative and more on creating sequences of pastoral beauty. Parts of the film actually seem like they might have been originally developed for Fantasia before someone had the idea that they could be developed into a standalone feature.

What narrative there is here follows a young deer named Bambi, as he grows up and comes of age, learning the facts of life (and death) in the process. There's also a running line of commentary on the intrusive and destructive effect of humans on the animal world. This theme is expressed in a much more blunt fashion than the Disney/Pixar films of today, with the death of a parent being shown as a normal occurrence for the animals who inhabit this cruel world. While this point of view is sometimes taken to a melodramatic extreme, it is effective nevertheless, and makes the story compelling enough to hold the viewer's attention for an hour and change. However, the film's primary attribute is its incredibly rich hand-drawn animation - which has become possibly even more impressive with time, and the advent of the computer animation era.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

#588: The Killer

Directed by: JOHN WOO
1989, TSPDT Rank #635

The Hong Kong action films of John Woo are in a category of their own, featuring a heady blend of gratuitous gunplay, operatic drama, and screwball comedy which is unparalleled in the action genre. I'm not generally a big fan of action films, but Woo's are unique and audacious enough to keep me interested most of the time - although this preference still tends to get in the way of my enjoyment somewhat. Regardless, The Killer is one of the most renowned of Woo's films, and it shows his style in what is possibly its most distilled state. All of the aforementioned elements of Woo's formula are present in full force throughout this story of a world-weary assassin (played by the ever-present Chow Yun-Fat) and his attempts to go straight, while helping a beautiful singer, whose eyes he accidentally injured during a nightclub shootout, regain her eyesight in the process. Of course, the plot gets much more complicated from there, as Chow is targeted by both the triads he works for and the Hong Kong police after deciding to perform one last hit. Platonic bonds and codes of honor between men are always important themes for Woo, and they are particularly emphasized here - as Chow forms strong bonds with members of both enemy groups over the course of the film. As usual in Woo's films, the philosophical ramifications of these bonds and the symbolism which backs them up (represented, in this case, by a church filled with countless candles and huge statues of the Virgin Mary) are just as important as the gunfights. However, the plot is still propelled primarily by its high-voltage action scenes - with gunfire dialogue for punctuation and equally extravagant doses of masculine melodrama to lend meaning to the action. Woo's filmmaking craft and skill in staging action scenes is impeccable, and his influences on action films from all over the world can be seen throughout this film, as well as his other early works (Hard Boiled is particularly recommended, if you like what you see here).