Friday, June 11, 2021

Limelight (1952, Charles Chaplin)

Quest Status: 743 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #558

"I thought you hated the theatre?"
"I do. I also hate the sight of blood, but it's in my veins."
In a way, I could say that I owe my love of film to Charlie Chaplin. The Gold Rush was the stepping stone that led me to look beyond Oscar winners to find great films from the silent era and around the world. It's the movie that made me thirsty for as many films as I could get my hands on, leading me to look for lists like this one. In the short term, it also made me an avid Chaplin fan, leading me seek out all of Chaplin's silent features, and later shorts. The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux came later. But something always kept me from venturing on to Limelight. Although he made two films after this, this one always seemed like Chaplin's swan song, and I preferred my memories of his earlier films to be kept intact - without the taint of melancholy and old age.

Of course, Chaplin's best films always tread the line between comedy and pathos. Limelight is no different. It is a self-indulgent passion project, with a fair amount of material that could have been trimmed to make it tighter and more focused. It's about a washed-up old vaudeville star who saves a beautiful young ballet dancer, only to have her fall hopelessly in love with him - an old man's fantasy which was echoed by Chaplin's own obvious weakness for beautiful young women in his own personal life. Thankfully, Chaplin's Calvero takes the high road in his relationship with Claire Wright's emotionally fragile Theresa, with his greatest fault being his penchant for long-winded philosophical monologues - an unfortunate hallmark of Chaplin's sound films.

So although not without its weaknesses, Limelight is still pure Chaplin. It's one of his most personal films, one which finally bridges the gap between his vaudeville beginnings in London and his success as a Hollywood comedy star. The vaudeville scenes are the unexpected highlight of the film - showing not the Tramp, but Chaplin the entertainer, his craft stripped down to its bare essentials. The collaboration with Buster Keaton at the film's finale only lasts for one brief scene, but it features some brilliant physical comedy that proves that these masters of silent comedy had it in their blood. The film denouement is a mix of heroic, tragic, romantic and poetic. There may have been some delusions of grandeur on Chaplin's part, but there's no doubt that he bared his soul here, in the film that could be seen as the great comedian's last true stand in the limelight.

--- 257 films remaining ---

Monday, May 31, 2021

Spring in a Small Town (1948, Mu Fei)

Quest Status: 742 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #161

Spring in a Small Town is a true rarity: a Chinese film made during the short window between World War II and the rise of Mao. What's even more amazing is that a movie made during this brief and turbulent time period just happens to be one of the few Chinese films included on a master list of the 1,000 Greatest Films ever made.
The film might be best described as the Chinese Sunrise. The ailing heir to a family in decline and his long-suffering wife eke out their daily lives in a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of a small town. Despite the title, the town is never seen - confining our view completely to the insular world of the family estate and the crumbling wall that overlooks the town. One day, a visitor comes in from Shanghai, turning out to be both the husband's lost lost friend and the wife's long lost lover. Sparks immediately fly between the two reunited lovers, but they agonize over their respective responsibilities to the man of the house, resulting in near constant tension.

Although it was made during the sound era (which was late in coming to China), Spring in a Small Town has surprisingly bare-bones sound design. There is hardly any music in the movie, except for brief bookends at the beginning and end of the film. During non-dialogue scenes, the soundtrack often goes silent - even during one emotionally charged scene of passion. The result is a feeling of stifling suffocation, of almost unbearable tension. For a film about unrequited love, it's the perfect effect.

--- 258 films remaining ---

Saturday, May 1, 2021

DOUBLE FEATURE: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors / The Color of Pomegranates

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964, Sergei Parajanov)

Quest Status: 740 / 1000

Like the tall tree that fatally kills the protagonist's brother in the opening scene, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a towering film. The title is fitting: made in the Soviet Union but set in 19th century rural Ukraine, it's a film which evokes a past which had already been forgotten. Watching more than 50 years later, the world that it depicts could just as well be 1,000 years in the past rather than only a century and a half. The language is a regionally specific Ukrainian dialect which would have been all but unintelligible to contemporary Russians, not to mention the costumes and folk music. Director Sergei Parajanov isn't interested in explaining this world to us - just recreating it as best he can and throwing the viewer unassisted, to find their own way or get dragged under by the tide.

Parajanov employs a wide range of bravado visual techniques to immerse the viewer in this disorienting world - including frequent use of handheld camera that mimics the point of view of some unseen observer, or crane shots that emphasize movement in or around the frame. My favorite shot was one which passes over a giant wooden raft as it soars down the river carrying the heartbroken Ivan, whose childhood love has just died in a tragic drowning accident. In the section that follows, Ivan falls into a deep depression, which is captured in grainy black and white scenes, occasionally interrupted by superimposed montages rendered in vivid color for maximum contrast. In the midst of all this visual cacophony, the story often becomes practically nonexistent - especially in the second half, which consists mostly of brief and indistinct vignettes. Still, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is chock full of visual genius that's worth a watch for all fans of the weird and otherworldly.

The Color of Pomegranates (1969, Sergei Parajanov)

Quest Status: 741 / 1000

With his follow-up to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Sergei Parajanov managed to do everything that made Shadows controversial with the Soviet censors--and then took it ten steps further. Various actors portray a poet-like figure who can be seen as a mythic representation of the Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat Nova, although the viewer is given no biographical information about him whatsoever, and what actual events are portrayed are filtered through layers of symbolism and visual poetry. A huge flock of sheep flood into a church to attend a deceased dignitary’s funeral. A nun dressed in white is hoisted up and down by a rope, while other nuns walk up the stairs behind her. Men duel on horses while a bearded man holds a peacock’s beak tenderly in his mouth. An angelic baby is often seen spinning in the background, mystic women hold tapestries and gaze into the camera, and when the poet’s death comes, a green and white Angel of Resurrection douses him with wine (or blood) from a blue urn before sending him to his final rest amongst a sea of candles.
Believe it or not, that list doesn’t even begin to cover all of the weird things that happen in this movie. But besides being a supreme example of weird cinema, The Color of Pomegranates also manages to realize the cinema of poetry that Jean Cocteau strived for but was never quite able to reach. With its three-act structure featuring different actors and settings but united by common symbols and themes, Pomegranates is reminiscent of Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, as well as his final film, The Last Testament of Orpheus. But where Cocteau’s films often feel like incomplete sketches, weighed down by theory and the written word, with Pomegranates, Parajanov succeeded in creating an entirely unique visual language that stands alone in the history of film.

--- 259 films remaining ---

Sunday, April 18, 2021

DOUBLE FEATURE: Dancer in the Dark / Dogville

Dancer in the Dark (2000, Lars von Trier)

Quest Status: 738 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #695

Dancer in the Dark is the third film in Lars von Trier's so called "Golden Heart Trilogy." I haven't seen the second film in the trilogy, The Idiots, but this film is definitely cut from the same cloth as the trilogy's first installment, Breaking the Waves. In Dancer in the Dark, von Trier pays tribute to the pure filmmaking standards laid out by the Dogme 95 manifesto, shooting most of the film himself with low-quality digital cameras, natural lighting and location shooting, but breaks the manifesto's rules on one point - the use of non-diegetic music. Because, in fact, Dancer in the Dark is a musical.

For those coming to this film having seen any of von Trier's other films, he would probably seem like an odd choice to direct a musical. And indeed, the musical elements never really gel with the rest of the film, a depressing melodramatic about an immigrant factory worker whose life spirals into tragedy as she begins to lose her sight. For one thing, the songs (sung by the idiosyncratic Iceland singer and lead actress Björk) are clunky and superfluous - adding little to the film other than giving us a break from the crushing drudgery of the main story. There's also a cruel irony to the musical sequences, which tease us that "nothing dreadful ever happens in a musical" even as von Trier repeatedly reminds us that this is one musical where that rule does not apply.

Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)

Quest Status: 739 / 1000


TSPDT Rank #348

After finishing his "Golden Heart Trilogy" with his first English-language film, Lars von Trier embarked on another (as yet unfinished) trilogy set in the USA - despite the fact that he's never been there, due to a fear of flying. Dogville takes place in a Depression-era town in the Rocky Mountains, although it was filmed entirely on a bare, warehouse-like set with streets, houses, and even the town dog existing only as chalk outlines on the floor. The set is theatrical and minimalist to the extreme, while the story is narrated in Dickensian fashion by John Hurt and divided into nine chapters, evoking a fairy tale atmosphere that clashes with subject matter that grows increasingly bleak as the story unfolds.

Whereas previous films like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark had featured female lead characters made to endure unfathomably painful dilemmas, in Dogville, the humiliation endured by Nicole Kidman's Grace reaches absurd heights unusual even for the misanthropic von Trier. (It's potentially worth mentioning that Dogville features numerous instances of rape, which are largely written off by both the narrator and the other characters.) Because of this, Dogville is often difficult to watch, but it's a stylistic success if nothing else. Despite the minimalist sets, the film envelops the viewer fully in its punishing fantasy world, leading us through a tangled web of situations which force us to ponder the human capacity for cruelty and forgiveness. Still, much like the pretentious and self-important would-be novelist Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), the catalyst behind many of the story's twists and turns, von Trier might be guilty of many of the sins he accuses his characters of in this sprawling portrait of the evil lurking behind the innocent facade of a stereotypical American small town.

--- 261 films remaining ---

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Tin Drum (1979, Volker Schlöndorff)

Quest Status: 737 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #774

Based on a towering literary classic by Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass, The Tin Drum starts from absurdity and builds to insanity, conveying the inexplicability of fascism. It follows a boy named Oskar, the son of an incestuous nymphomaniac conceived from a potato field tryst between a peasant woman and an arsonist. Oskar stops growing at the age of three out of disgust with the adult world, a conscious decision that he disguises by throwing himself down the cellar stairs. Even at birth, he has the body of a six-year-old, which never seems to grow or change, even after his fateful third birthday.

His third birthday is notable, not only for his portentous fall, but for the present that he receives from his mother: a red and white tin drum. He carries it with him everywhere, and whenever some poor soul tries to take it away from him, he screams bloody murder--shattering everything from his teacher’s glasses to cathedral windows across the street. In this way, he soon learns that he can control the adults around him. As he grows older, everyone continues to treat him like a toddler, although he becomes more intelligent and aware of the world around him than he lets on.

At first, we sympathize with Oskar. The world around him is certainly worthy of disgust--even before the Nazis come to the forefront. Director Volker Schlöndorff does his best to make everything seem sick, never shying away from an opportunity to make the viewer uncomfortable. Oskar’s birth is a hellish nightmare vision, and his mother’s incestuous philanderings with her Polish cousin are sweaty and filthy affairs--as far from erotic as possible. Later, during a seaside family outing, Oskar and his parents watch a fisherman haul in a horse head infested with countless squirming eels. His mother vomits, the father takes the eels home and cooks them--only able to convince his wife to eat them after her cousin pleasures her to stop her from crying.

However, as Oskar grows older, we see that his stunted physical growth cannot prevent him from being corrupted by the adult world. After his mother dies from overdosing on raw fish, his grandmother brings in a 16-year-old girl named Maria to help at his father’s grocery store. Being 16 himself, Oskar is filled with lust for the pretty Maria, first feeding her sherbet powder made fizzy with his spit before attempting to seduce her. He’s filled with jealousy when his father also becomes sexually involved with the underage Maria, revealing a monstrous rage that shows that he is capable of just as much cruelty as the adults around him.

But let’s not forget Oskar’s trademark tin drum, often seen as an instrument of protest against the rise of Fascism. Maybe this is the case when Oskar disrupts a Nazi rally by leading the band away from their rigid march into a swinging Blue Danube waltz, to the great distress of the Reich dignataries in attendance. But what about when Oskar joins a troupe of dwarfs in performing for the Nazi occupation forces in France, even looking on as the soldiers gun down a group of nuns collecting shellfish on the beach at Normandy? The film’s central allegory is clearly more complicated and ambiguous than it’s usually made out to be, although its unflinching view of fascism and innocence corrupted gets closer to the soul of Nazism than most films about the era have ever dared.

---263 films remaining---

Saturday, March 27, 2021

REWIND: Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999)

TSPDT Rank #674

Initial viewing: c. 2008

"Only pain and suffering will make you realize who you are. Only when you're in extreme pain, do you realize your own mind."

Takashi Miike is widely known for his outrageous shock tactics and lack of subtlety, but his most famous film, Audition, is notable for its surprising serenity. Make no mistake, Audition is definitely worthy of its classification as a horror film. There are moments that may send the viewer flying out of their seats - many involving a large bag positioned conspicuously in the middle of a tiny, sparsely-lit apartment. But most of the time, it's a quiet and subdued film - a symphony of loneliness and painful memories laced with a dark undercurrent of creeping dread.

The film’s unassuming first act focuses on lonely widower Aoyama’s attempts to find a woman to marry who can live up to the high standard set by his late wife. Despite some subtly unsettling moments, Audition doesn’t really begin to show its hand until Aoyama is already head-over-heels with the girl of his dreams. But this isn’t to say that the film relies completely on the element of surprise. It begins with the death of Aoyama’s wife, whose memory continues to haunt him right up to the moment when he meets his new love, Asami, a young girl fixated on death.

From the moment Asami first shuffles quietly into the audition room, something sets her apart from the women desperately trying to promote themselves in the awkwardly comic montage that precedes her entrance. Aoyama is blind to her oddness, but his producer friend is the voice of reason: there’s just something about Asami that doesn’t feel right to him. She’s too quiet, too polite, too hard to pin down. For Aoyama, however, these are positive attributes, and he soon starts seeing Asami in private. Surprisingly enough, she doesn’t see anything strange about his sleazy method of seduction. To the contrary, she’s grateful for it, and insistently pleads with him to continue taking her out. Intermittent shots of her staring motionless at the telephone in her apartment are the only signs that something is seriously wrong with this picture.

At this point, Miike steers the story into detective territory, as Aoyama begins looking for assurances that Asami is the normal girl that he desperately hopes she is. She mentions a family in Chiba, a part-time job in a Ginza dive bar, and a record company agent, but Aoyama finds none of these. Instead, he finds a perverted old man in a dilapidated ballet studio and tales about a grisly murder involving Asami’s agent and her supposed employer. But by this point, Aoyama is already deep in the girl’s clutches, having pledged his eternal faithfulness after sleeping with her on an ill-advised weekend trip.

The film’s final act is a sweeping tour de force, beginning with an extended dream sequence in which all of the women in Aoyama’s life combine and merge into one. In an audacious subversion of narrative logic, Miike shows us a second version of Aoyama and Asami’s first dates. The scenery is the same, but the conversation is different. Asami describes brutal abuse in her earlier childhood, revealing the lies beneath her calm facade. Again and again, Miike sows subtle seeds of doubt in the viewer’s mind. Exactly how much of what happens is in Aoyama’s head, and which version of the story is the “real” one, is never explicitly drawn out - at least not until the film reaches its horrifying denouement, a proto-torture porn set piece that is both weirder and more concise than anything Eli Roth ever dreamed up. But as infamous as that denouement may be, it’s only one part of the masterfully structured psychological puzzle that is Audition.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988, Terence Davies)

Quest Status: 736 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #271

Usually, a film opens by introducing us to some characters. Then, the characters become part of a story, which envelops them until they emerge at the end, changed by the events that they, and we, have just experienced. Well, Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives doesn't adhere to these rules. It does introduce us to some characters, a working class family in postwar Britain, only it eschews the narrative part of the bargain. There is no story, and no conventional beginning, middle and end. There is no exposition, no easily digestible conflict, no clear sense of place and time. We don't even know very much about the characters. They could be anyone from their place and time--which is Britain from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s.

Nevertheless, the film does have a vague structure. It opens with the wedding of the family's oldest child, one of two sisters. The younger sister was brutally abused by the family's late father, as were her mother and brother. However, the older sister misses her father on her wedding night. The father looms like a specter over the entire film, with happy memories sprinkled among the painful ones. It's a tale as old as time. The father is moody and abusive, the mother is quiet and resilient, defending her husband to the very end--even when her body is covered in bruises.

Images like these flow steadily throughout the film's brief running time. There is no chronological order to the scenes that we see, but the film is divided into two halves--with two separate weddings providing a thread on which the other episodes loosely hang. The title is also split between the two halves--the first entitled Distant Voices and the second Still Lives. The first half is more ethereal and deeply entrenched in memories. The second half revisits the characters at a slightly later date, as the family's son prepares to get married. The father is less present in this section, and there is more emphasis on episodes from the characters' daily lives with their spouses.

However, one element remains a constant throughout both sections. This is the communal singing at the celebration following each wedding, which we drift in and out of between episodes. There are similar moments of spontaneous group singing after the father's funeral, and in a bomb shelter during an WWII air raid (the only time that the war is explicitly referenced in the film). Characters might break into song at any moment, with no accompaniment other than the voices of their friends and family. Music is what gets them through the endless flow of time, the sorrows of their lives, and helps them feel the joy that they crave.

Another constant are shots of light shining through windows, or facades of buildings where the characters live. These buildings are the vessels in which memories are stored. The windows are the portals to seeing them, to accessing that lost era which only comes back in small flashes, like drops of water from a faucet. Occasionally, characters sit motionless and stare at the camera, bringing to mind the uncanny magic of old photographs. These are all stylistic elements which seem to be unique to Davies' deeply personal debut film, all of them geared towards the poetic and the transcendent rather than linear narrative storytelling. Davies' collection of memories is vivid and evocative, but also difficult to penetrate, as we are always on the outside looking in--as if through a window to someone else's mind.

---264 films remaining---

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Underground (1995, Emir Kusturica)

Quest Status: 735 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #294

Underground is a film full of history and chaos, combining the two liberally until they become virtually indistinguishable. It begins with a Felliniesque parade in the street, with two drunken gangsters riding on horseback in front of a brass band. The band will be one of the few constants throughout the story, following the characters through good times and bad. They don’t comment on the action, they just keep repeating the same song again and again--right up until the film’s fantastical Felliniesque ending. Much like the circus in Fellini’s films, the brass band here seems to provide a lifeline to a nostalgic idea of old Yugoslavia, a country that existed “once upon a time.”

While the band can always be relied on to get the characters up and dancing, the rest of the film is an ever-changing whirlwind of a ride that often jumps forward decades in time without a warning and never gives the viewer a chance to catch their breath. The two gangsters we see at the start of the film turn out to be early members of the Communist Party, which initially means robbing banks and stealing from rich people in the name of the poor. Later, it means resisting the German occupation, and later, it means being in a position of adulation and political power, but the characters always remain the same at heart. They’re drunkards, criminals, womanizers, liars and schemers. One friend, Marko, uses his brains to get ahead, eventually tricking the other, Blacky, into living in the cellar with a large group of fellow refugees for 20 years.

While the first part of the film is a frenetic World War II adventure with some off-kilter twists, it’s this central part of the film where the weird factor really comes into play. The underground band of refugees believes that the war is still going on, convinced by Marko into producing weapons for the resistance while he lives a lavish life above ground as a high-ranking Communist official and sells the weapons on the black market. His grandfather is in on the scheme too, manipulating time in the cellar so that everyone believes they’ve only been down there for 15 years--not 20. The twisted treachery of this set-up packs a serious allegorical punch (even before a peripheral character muses that “communism is a cellar”), accusing the Communist leaders on top of profiting off of the lowly common folk down below--who even learn to love them for it and never suspect that they’re being taken advantage of.

Of course, things don’t end in the cellar. A monkey behind the controls of a tank is enough to set a new revolution in motion. But to what end? Kusturica makes it clear that there is none. In the film’s apocalyptic final section, the characters reconvene in a hellish vision of the 1992 Yugoslav wars. There’s not a building left standing, no one left alive who’s not wearing a uniform and carrying a gun. A flaming wheelchair revolves endlessly around an upside-down crucifix, suggesting endless chaos and evil. But those who remain still have their memories, giving them a glimmer of hope that what was lost can someday be regained. Despite its nightmarish finale, Underground is never a preachy or depressing film. It blows up the trajectory of modern Yugoslavian history into a surreal fantasy vision that promises a look at the elusive truth lying beneath it all--even if, as Marko suggests, it all turns out to be nothing but lies in the end.


---265 films remaining---

Monday, March 1, 2021

REWIND: The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)

TSPDT Rank #43

Initial viewing: c. 2007

"Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves..."

The Night of the Hunter is one of the strangest and most unclassifiable films ever to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system. On the surface, it’s a film noir thriller about some hidden bank robbery loot and the ominous preacher who searches for it. But while its basic story may be pure film noir, it’s also a throwback to the broad strokes approach of the silent era--with elements of D.W. Griffith epics, German expressionism, and slapstick comedy all thrown into the mix. Together with its blatantly unrealistic set design, Capra-esque sentimentality, and a larger-than-life performance from Robert Mitchum, these elements all combine to create a beguiling and fantastic film that is as difficult to describe as it is to resist.

Adding to the film’s mystique is the fact that it’s the only film ever to be directed by the great Charles Laughton. A hulking British expat who achieved Hollywood success with his towering performances in films such as The Private Life of Henry VIII, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the 1930s, he was certainly an odd choice to direct a Southern Gothic thriller set on the banks of the Ohio River. But by all accounts, he oversaw the film with a perfectionism and clarity of vision usually only seen from seasoned directors at the peak of their talents. His extensive acting experience also allowed him to develop an usually close bond with his actors, drawing out raw and otherworldly performances that are highly unusual for their era.

Although The Night of the Hunter failed to achieve success upon its initial release, it soon achieved an unusually early cult following--thanks to its regular presence on late night television in the 1960s and ‘70s. Moving with the deliberate logic and uncanny precision of a dream, The Night of the Hunter is perhaps most effective on the young and unsuspecting, like the best horror movies. For those expecting a suspenseful thriller, it will likely seem too strange and tonally inconsistent. At one moment, we see Mitchum’s preacher threaten his two adopted children with a knife--with a casual aura of evil so convincing that we really fear for the children’s lives. But at the next moment, we see him slip on a fruit jar, lumber up the stairs in a parody of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and howl like a wounded animal when the children narrowly escape into the river.

The film’s final act focuses on the children and their attempt to escape from the preacher, with the action taking on the aura of a fairy tale. The children float down the river across a background of twinkling stars and animals twice their size, as lullabies lull them to sleep. When the preacher does appear, he does so only as a silhouette in the distance--a symbol of evil beyond the children’s comprehension. The kindly old woman who comes to their rescue (played by silent era icon Lillian Gish) is just as inconceivably good as the preacher is inconceivably evil. And when the final showdown comes, it remains firmly in the realm of symbolism--with the old woman and the preacher singing competing versions of the same hymn just like they were drawing pistols in the street. Despite its disregard for realism and narrative conventions, The Night of the Hunter always retains its hypnotic pull and childlike urgency. Never before or since has the battle between good and evil felt so elemental.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Holiday (1938, George Cukor)

Quest Status: 734 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #943

Continuing with an era that I've been focusing on a lot recently, I'm back in 1930s Hollywood today with George Cukor's Holiday. This film fits firmly in the screwball tradition of its era, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in the lead roles, spending the entire film unaware that they're in love with each other. However, it's not just stubborn ignorance that keeps them apart. He's an up-and-coming young businessman with a lust for life who does a back flip whenever he feels a worry coming. She's the black sheep of "one of America's sixty families" who spends her time hiding from members of the other 59 in the quaint play room of her family's mansion. They hit it off from the start... right from the moment he announces her engagement to her sister.

The situation is understandable enough. But Hepburn's sister Julia (Doris Nolan) is the film's true mystery. Despite being a proper society girl who dotes on her demanding father, Julia agrees to marry Grant's Johnny Case only 10 days after meeting him. The two have apparently had no discussion about their future together, and, as it turns out, have very different ideas about it. It's difficult to believe that a woman so concerned about financial security and social standing would marry a self-made man with no knowledge or reverence for high society. The film's moral would seem to be "only fools rush in," but Julia is no fool. Does she see Johnny as an exciting escape from the stiffness of her father's world while still being capable of achieving the financial success she desires? Does she assume that Johnny will just automatically adapt to high society with her help? It could also be that not much thought was given to her character during the writing process, but either way, she comes off as uptight and controlling in the film. It's no wonder that Nolan's Hollywood career failed to gain traction after this film, the biggest role she ever got.

One of the promotional posters for Holiday asked moviegoers the question, "If you had $1,000,000... which sister would you choose to spend it with?" Given the extreme disparity between the two sisters, Cukor makes this an easy question for the viewer to answer. But the question itself is interesting. Grant's character is already successful when we meet him - an enterprising young man on his way to making his first million. He finds out that his fiancee comes from a wealthy family only after he proposes - not before. He doesn't need her money, so her father's promises of a job at his bank are worthless to him. It's only a question of how close he will come to compromising his values. Because of this, there's not as much tension here as there is in some of the more famous screwball comedies like His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby. Still, Grant and Hepburn are at their most joyous and effervescent, conveying a life-loving spirit that has been absent from movies for adults for a long time.

---266 films remaining---

Saturday, February 20, 2021

FROM THE VAULTS: Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)

 --Originally written 5/19/2020--

Current TSPDT Rank (2021 Edition): #399

[2020 Edition: N/A]

Under the Skin is a film about aliens, but it’s not exactly the sci-fi thriller you might expect from that description. Jonathan Glazer (whose other films include Sexy Beast and Birth) created a uniquely minimalist alien world for Under the Skin, daring the viewer to piece together the details of the plot from visual hints such as men sinking into a gooey black ether as soon as they try to approach a disrobing Scarlett Johannson. Johannson’s acting is intentionally robotic; she hardly utters a word of dialogue unless she’s trying to pick up a Scottish bloke off the street. In these street scenes, she’s like a psychoanalysis app powered by Siri, bluntly asking personal questions which suggest a desire for intimacy to her male prey but in reality serve only to establish whether the man is lonely and unattached.

But what about her reason for picking up these horny men and luring them to their doom? None of this is explained to the viewer. Even the idea that Johannson and her superior (Jeremy McWilliams) are aliens is only an inference to be drawn from 2001-esque lights and a robotic voice reciting English words in the opening sequence. The two characters don’t exchange a single word of dialogue in the entire film. What happens to the men after they’re captured by Johannson isn’t revealed until over 30 minutes into the film, and even then is only conveyed in the form of an abstract series of nightmare images.

Glazer ostensibly intended to show viewers how aliens might realistically act if they touched down on Earth to suck out the insides of the locals. They probably wouldn’t speak in any human language unless they needed to interact with people directly. They probably wouldn’t show any kind of recognizable emotion. And however they chose to devour their humans, you can bet that it wouldn’t be with a fork and knife. (So how would they do it then? Well, in one ominous scene, we see a man’s body instantaneously collapse into a filmy membrane, followed by a shot of juicy guts rolling down a conveyor belt to be transformed into a bright red beam of light. From there on, it’s anyone’s guess.)

Mica Levi’s dissonant score plays a key role in creating an atmosphere of weirdness and alien loneliness. We feel dread for the fate of the anonymous men before they even start to sink, and moments of silence are given all the more ominous weight by the squirm-inducing punctuation  from Levi’s viola. The absence of music in the street scenes, as Johannson talks to passersby (many amateurs who initially didn’t know they were being filmed), creates a cinéma vérité mood that makes the music all the more effective when it does come in, while also echoing the emptiness of the lives of the men that Johannson preys on.

This is especially pronounced in the film’s pivotal scene, in which Johannson picks up a man with a horribly deformed face (Adam Pearson) on his way to the supermarket at night. In this scene, her exploitation of his loneliness and longing for human connection feels unbearably cruel--a feeling which also registers with her for the first time when she is unable to go through with her nightly ritual and, in doing so, resigns herself to a human life of loneliness . It’s this quality, the delicate balance of realism and otherworldly discomfort which gives the film’s weirdness weight. Under the Skin doesn’t give the viewer any answers or explanation, instead merely posing the question “What would it be like to be an alien among everyday humans?”

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937, Leo McCarey)

Quest Status: 733 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #809

"If it should happen that I don't see you again, it's been very nice knowing you, Miss Breckenridge."

This should be one of the most famous quotes in movie history. It certainly packs more of a punch than "here's looking at you, kid." Of course, this could only happen if more people had seen Make Way for Tomorrow. But today, as in 1937, downward spiral films don't tend to do well at the box office. They might get good reviews, maybe even win an Oscar, or even one day end up in the top 500 of a 1,000 Greatest Films list, but they're not going to have much replay value on TV or inspire many clicks on Netflix. This probably explains why Make Way for Tomorrow has rarely been available on streaming services, except for occasional appearances on the Criterion Channel. Before it was released by Criterion, it was a mere footnote in film history, seen by only the most diehard of film buffs.

Now it's slightly more seen, but only slightly. After all, I've been working on the 1,000 Greatest Films list for over ten years and never got around to watching it until now. It's hard to sit down on the couch after a hard day at work and be depressed for 90 minutes. It's hard to do it on the weekend too. This is the price that filmmakers pay for being willing to stare reality square in the face. The same year that Leo McCarey made this film, he also made The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne - a raucous screwball farce that won him a Best Director award at that year's Academy Awards. But there are no stars in Make Way for Tomorrow. In it, we follow two elderly parents who lose their house to the local bank as they are forced to move in with their children. Neither of the children has room to take them together, so they have to separate. Even then, they're a burden to their children, with no visible path to happiness. Slowly, they begin to realize that they'll always be a burden to someone, and things will never be like they once were.

The most recognizable face in Make Way for Tomorrow for most will probably be Thomas Mitchell, the veteran character actor who most notably played Uncle Billy in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. But the core situation will be painfully recognizable to almost anyone. Parents give everything to raise their children, and then what do they have to show for it? When the parents fall on hard times, or even just want to spend time with their children, they will likely be seen as a burden to the children they worked so hard to raise. Taking an tough and unapologetic stance, McCarey challenges the viewer to consider the situation of Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi), the parents whose children are so anxious to get rid of them, as they mournfully accept that their allotment of happiness has simply run out. Is this situation unavoidable? Would we do the same thing if faced with it in our own lives? Why do children see their elderly parents as such a burden? McCarey doesn't answer these questions, nor does he expect the viewer to, but simply invites them to watch the story of Bark and Lucy and consider it for themselves. The lack of sentimentality is part of what makes Make Way for Tomorrow difficult to watch, but also what makes it such a lasting and meaningful film.

---267 films remaining---

Monday, February 1, 2021

January 2021 Update (+2020 in review)

It's that time of year again - the new TSPDT list update has just been published! Despite all of the hardships and bad news of the past year, there was a silver lining in that I had my most productive year of blogging since I first started this project 11 years ago. It's still not easy to find the time to keep the blog the going, but over the course of the past year, I rediscovered the joy of watching a movie and hammering out a review shortly after. As you can see in the list below, I watched 42 new movies towards my quest over the course of the past year. This year, I hope to at least keep the same pace going, if not surpass it.

Thankfully, the new list update also gave me a slight push forward. Of the 25 new films added to this list this year, I've seen already seen a whopping 15. (I'll be posting a retrospective review of at least one of those within the next week or two.) Of course, I always lose some as well, but I still scored a net gain of 4 films, putting my current total at 732/1000. Almost 3/4 of the way there!

As always, thanks to Bill Georgaris for putting this amazing list together. Check out the details of its creation and the latest update here:

And you can keep detailed tabs on my viewing activity here:

Image result for celine and julie go boating house

January-March 2020
686. Chelsea Girls (1966, Andy Warhol)
687. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977, Luis Buñuel)
688. Los Olvidados (1950, Luis Buñuel)
689. Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974, Jacques Rivette)
690. The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
691. Local Hero (1983, Bill Forsyth)
692. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926, Lotte Reiniger)

Carl Theodor Dreyer: Ordet - The Culturium -

April 2020
693. If... (1968, Lindsay Anderson)
694. O Lucky Man! (1973, Lindsay Anderson)
695. Voyage to Italy (1953, Roberto Rossellini)
696. Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
697. Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
698. Gertrud (1966, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Heroines of Cinema: Tilda Swinton and Sally Potter's Orlando ...

May 2020
699. Triumph of the Will (1935, Leni Riefenstahl)
700. Shoah (1985, Claude Lanzmann)
701. JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)
702. W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971, Dusan Makevejev)
703. Orlando (1992, Sally Potter)

June-July 2020
704. Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi)
705. The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi)
706. Orpheus (1950, Jean Cocteau)
707. Vivre sa vie (1962, Jean-Luc Godard)
708. Hana-bi (1998, Takeshi Kitano)

August 2020
709. Dekalog (1988, Krzysztof Kieslowski)
710. The Last Laugh (1924, F.W. Murnau)
711. Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922, Fritz Lang)
712. Naked (1993, Mike Leigh)
713. The Sacrifice (1986, Andrei Tarkovsky)
714. A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi) 

September-November 2020
715. The Saragossa Manuscript (1965, Wojciech Has)
716. Sátántangó (1994, Béla Tarr)
717. Van Gogh (1991, Maurice Pialat)
718. Tropical Malady (2004, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
719. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
720. Miller's Crossing (1990, Joel & Ethan Coen)
721. The Servant (1963, Joseph Losey)
722. The Piano Teacher (2001, Michael Haneke)

December 2020 - January 2021
723. Irréversible (2002, Gaspar Noé)
724. Caché (2005, Michael Haneke)
725. Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Patricio Guzmán)
726. Grave of the Fireflies (1988, Isao Takahata)
727. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989, Peter Greenaway)
728. Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks)

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks)

Quest Status: 728 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #233

1939... The year of The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. What a different world we see today than the one in those beloved films from Hollywood's Golden Age (especially when it comes to the last of the three). But Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings is one film from that year that doesn't get a lot of fanfare. On the surface, it might seem like a typical Hollywood film to modern viewers. Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Rita Hayworth all share the screen in an imagined South American locale where passions run high, the liquor flows like water, and hard-boiled men do their best to never ask a woman for anything. Everything is shot on a studio backlot and the story swivels on a dime, with increasingly improbable plot twists and dynamic character development. Even so, more than most other films being made by Hollywood at the time, Only Angels offers a view into something real and vital about its era.

It may have been made on a backlot, not in "Barranca," but this tale of daredevil pilots tasked with carrying the mail across a perilous mountain pass is given a boost of startling realism by its director, Howard Hawks, who brought his real-life as a WWI fighter pilot to the film. The dialogue and situations feel realistic not because they were filmed with real stunt pilots in real locations, but because they were overseen by someone who knew the subject. In one early scene, a fresh-faced young pilot who spends the first ten minutes of the film sweet-talking Jean Arthur's bombshell cruise ship entertainer finds himself blinded by fog and unable to return to the air field. Suddenly, the light, almost screwball mood of the film's opening scenes turns to nail-biting suspense as we watch Cary Grant and his team of pilots and radio operators attempt to guide the boy down safely. The attempt is unsuccessful, but there are no orchestral swells on the soundtrack - just the sound of an airplane's engine, the bang of the crash, and the ensuing silence.

But just as soon as the kid meets his untimely death, life in Barranca returns to its normal pace. A round of drinks is ordered and songs are sung, suddenly turning a moment of mourning into a musical. In this way, Hawks manages to cram action, comedy, romance, musical, existential drama, and suspense into a single film. Like the best of Hawks' work, Only Angels Have Wing seems to ramble along effortlessly, throwing the viewer right in the middle of a world that's just as exciting and full of life as its characters. Viewers today might not always recognize the world of 1939 - where women fight for the love of men who refuse to open up to them and the men are tethered to a cult of masculinity where nothing is more important than the perilous jobs they do together. Even so, it's fascinating to see the ideals that people strove for almost 80 years ago - and no one could have brought this world to life as vibrantly as Howard Hawks did here.

-- 272 films remaining---

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989, Peter Greenaway)

Quest Status: 727 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #809

What a film to start the new year with... It's hard to think of a movie more unpleasant than Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. From the opening scene, Greenaway seems to be doing his utmost to disgust and upset the viewer. After a graceful tracking shot that works its way up from a basement where mangy dogs chew on bloody bones to a loading dock awash in neon blue, we watch the titular thief, a criminal boss and restaurant owner, subjects a naked client to a sickening humiliation involving dog excrement, presumably as punishment for being late on his payments. This scene seems strategically positioned to weed out any potential viewers who might not have the stomach to stick around for the rest of the film, as nearly every scene that follows is uncomfortable to watch in one way or another - even if it's just the tension felt watching two lovers make love in a restaurant's holding room for dead poultry.

Most of the film takes place in said restaurant, where all four characters listed in the title congregate nightly over the course of about a week. The aforementioned thief is a degenerate named Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) who fancies himself a restaurateur, despite his lack of obvious lack of knowledge about food or anything having to do with polite culture. He ridicules and abuses everyone in sight, including the long-suffering cook Richard (Richard Bohringer), who is the embodiment of the refined gourmet culture that he despises and simultaneously tries to emulate. Albert's wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) - he calls her "Georgie" - shoulders the brunt of his abuse. He openly gropes her at the dinner table, humiliates her in front of his thugs, and mocks her sophisticated taste in food, but becomes murderously jealous when she starts an illicit affair with a fellow diner, a soft-spoken librarian named Michael (Alan Howard).

At the time of its release, during the height of Thatcher-era Britain, many reviewers saw The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover as a bitter critique of her administration's damaging effect on British society. Today, seeing that the memory of Margaret Thatcher isn't fresh in many peoples' minds anymore, especially outside of the UK, contemporary viewers might be more inclined to read The Cook... in the context of a certain American president's destructive effect on our society and the world at large. Either way, Greenaway himself described the film as a political statement, although left it up to viewers to decide how to interpret that statement.

Regardless of how you choose to read the film's barrage of disgusting imagery and indiscriminate cruelty, trying to place the film within a neat allegorical framework is a fool's errand. But it would be just as foolish to disregard Greenaway's bizarro stylistic innovations, which are ultimately more important than the film's allegorical implications. Set in a world where criminals dress in garish costumes that match the Baroque painting hanging on the wall behind them and change depending on the color scheme of a given room, The Cook... always remains firmly outside of the real world. While Greenaway's style had always been painterly, and here that instinct is taken to the utmost extreme, The Cook... is equally theatrical. The dialogue almost sounds like Shakespeare at times - rambling, gaudy and dramatic - with every character other than the four leads acting as mere ciphers for the main characters to play off of. The sets explode with garish colors and form a self-contained world which we are hardly ever allowed to leave. 

But for all Greenaway's artistic flourishes and provocations, the film's final punchline falls flat. Like the final dish itself, the twist is overcooked and unnecessary. It is all too neatly thought out and artificially constructed, like the film's elaborate sets and color-coded visuals. In short, the defiler of culture is put on trial by his victims and forced to eat the fruits of his cruelty, the byproduct of his destruction. No matter what the film's other parallels with real life might be, this is one aspect that would be impossible to draw any real world parallels to. Even if the rest of the film can be read allegorically, it might be more accurate to read the film's grandiose finale as Greenaway's revenge on everything that he hated about humanity. For him, this revenge was clearly an "affair of the heart," the gut-wrenching final destination of a cinematic tour de force that attempts to cram as many of his artistic ambitions as possible into each frame while making the viewer gorge themself on his misanthropic feast.

-- 273 films remaining---