Saturday, January 11, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013

Inspired by the terrific blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I've decided to list some of the best older films I saw for the first time in 2013 (listed in the order I watched them). This year, I watched 186 movies for the first time, and these were the cream of the crop among non-new releases. Several of these appeared on the AFI's "100 Years, 100 Laughs" list of top comedies, which I'm trying to see all of (just 13 to go!). I know this is a bit late - we’re eleven whole days into 2014, and I'm still thinking about the old movies I saw in 2013 - but here they are:
Cleopatra (1963)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz's epic has a reputation for being a gigantic, bloated mess, but it's really only the first of those things. It's a huge undertaking, but it also remembers to be a thoroughly absorbing story. More accurately, it's two absorbing stories separated by an intermission. It feels like a first movie (let's call it "Caesar and Cleopatra") immediately followed by its sequel ("Antony and Cleopatra"). The first half is the superior half, but that's mostly because Rex Harrison's Caesar is a far more interesting character than Richard Burton's Marc Antony. That said, the second half is helped by the eye-poppingly gorgeous battle scenes, and Elizabeth Taylor is magnetic throughout.

Reds (1981)
I watched Reds immediately after Cleopatra, and I was surprised by quickly it moves compared to the older movie. I tend to run hot or cold on Warren Beatty, but this is some of the best work I've seen from him either in front of or behind the camera. I wanted to watch Jack Hall and Louise Bryant live their entire lives in real time. It's easy to forget that Warren Beatty has only directed four movies (the same number as Gene Wilder!), because this movie seems like the work of a veteran.

Ikiru (1952)/Stray Dog (1949)
Hulu offered all of the Akira Kurosawa movies in their collection for free during one weekend this spring, and I took advantage of it by watching five, doubling the amount of his movies I'd seen. The other three - Throne of Blood, the hilarious Sanjuro, and the surprisingly effective WWII propaganda drama The Most Beautiful - were all terrific as well, as I'd recommend them to anyone. But these were the two that really stuck with me, and that cemented Takashi Shimura as my favorite member of Kurosawa's repertory company. He's wonderful as Toshiro Mifune's laid-back mentor cop in Stray Dog, but he's even better in Ikiru, as an elderly government working stiff who decides to make a difference when he finds out he has stomach cancer. It's not just my favorite Kurosawa movie, it's genuinely one of the best movies I've ever seen.

From Russia with Love (1963)
After I saw Skyfall in February (my second-ever James Bond movie), I decided to make a project of watching the entire series. This is my favorite without question. It's lower-key than most of its successors, with a tight story that allows the tension to build and build throughout the first two-thirds, leading to a final act that's full of tremendous action sequences. It also has the best guest characters in the series, particularly sadistic SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya). (NOTE: I previously wrote about On Her Majesty's Secret Service, now my 2nd-favorite entry in the series.)

Design for Living (1933)
Ernst Lubitsch is my favorite director, and it's always a delight to discover another one of his masterpieces. That's especially true when the star is Miriam Hopkins, his best leading lady. Here she's joined by Gary Cooper and Fredric March, as a love triangle who decide to try a completely platonic living arrangement. They all have great chemistry with each other, and Ben Hecht's screenplay is full of hilarious lines ("Immorality may be fun, but it isn't fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day.") 

What's Up Doc? (1972)
Intended as a modern-day take on the screwball comedy, which was then three decades past its heyday, What's Up Doc? is now four decades old itself, which makes for a somewhat strange experience. It's almost like watching a 30s movie and a 70s and the same time. In any case, it's still 94 minutes of solid laughs. Ryan O'Neal is no Cary Grant, but Barbra Streisand is amazing (I've never been a fan, and I've never found her at all attractive, but she's both hilarious and sexy in this). And they're surrounded by people like Kenneth Mars, Madeline Kahn, and Austin Pendleton, which certainly helps a lot.

Going in Style (1979)
Before Martin Brest directed action comedies Beverly Hills Cop and Gigli, he made this charming little caper movie about three elderly roommates (George Burns, Lee Strasberg, and Art Carney, who was 61 years old, about two decades younger than his co-stars) who decide to alleviate their boredom by robbing a bank. It's very funny, but more impressively, it's also an interesting meditation on aging and on losing people close to you.  

The Late Show (1977) 
This was the second-straight Art Carney movie I watched during my free trial of Warner Instant Archive, and the combination of the two gave me a new respect for him as an actor. Robert Benton's neo-noir came out just two years before Going in Style, but Carney's shaggy middle-aged detective seems like he could be the son of his character in the later movie. I've always known Carney as a comedic actor, but this is largely a serious (if sarcastic role). The same is true of Lily Tomlin, who does fine work as Carney's distressed client. Best of all, the movie tells a satisfying mystery story.
Blonde Crazy (1931)/Lady Killer (1933)
Two more that I watched on Warner Instant Archive, both directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring James Cagney. Overall, I prefer Lady Killer, which gives Cagney the chance to spoof his image by casting him as a small-time crook with an interesting face who gets cast as an extra in the movies and then becomes a big star. That story could easily be a mess, but it doesn't matter, because Cagney is so charismatic and he has such strong chemistry with Mae Clarke as his con-woman love interest. Blonde Crazy is slightly less memorable because the story is more generic, but it does pair him with Joan Blondell, always his best match, and it's a blast watching them joke and laugh and threaten each other. 

Robin and Marian (1976)
After the unpleasant Man of Steel, I rediscovered my love of Superman by watching the underrated Superman III. That led to watch a bunch of other Richard Lester movies, including the following two gems. Robin & Marian shows a beautiful reunion between the middle-aged characters from Robin Hood, who have the good fortune of being played by Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. It's the best sequel I never knew I wanted. It's a lovely mix of melancholy and joy, a rousing adventure story about how much people change as they get older.

The Bed-Sitting Room (1969)
Lester's The Bed-Sitting Room is nothing like that at all. It's a droll comedy set in the aftermath of a nuclear attack on Britain, where the few remaining survivors try to carry on as though nothing has changed. They never say "bomb," prefer euphemisms like "the rude thing." It's all very silly, but it made me laugh loudly and frequently. Actors wandering politely around the rubble include Roy Kinnear, Marty Feldman, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Spike Milligan. 

Duck, You Sucker! (1971)
The only film Sergio Leone made between Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968 and Once Upon a Time in America in 1984, this film doesn't get discussed nearly as much as either of them (or his earlier work with Clint Eastwood). Having seen it, I can't imagine why. Sure, Rod Steiger's Mexican accent is ridiculous, but his bandit and James Coburn's Irish ex-pat make a great team. The banter between the two makes this maybe Leone's funniest movie, and it's visually beautiful as well (particularly during the bucolic flashbacks to Coburn's happier days).

The Great Dictator (1940)
I finally got the chance to see this - my first sound movie from Charlie Chaplin - when my wife got me the Criterion DVD for my birthday. I always expected it to be kind of overwrought, particularly with Chaplin playing both leads. It does feel like two different movies, but they're both highly enjoyable. The Jewish barber is in the vein of City Lights, while the Hitler/Hynkel stuff is closer to something like Duck Soup. The former is sweet enough and the latter is surreal enough that it all works. I even enjoyed the climactic speech, because Chaplin invests it with such passion.

The Doll (1919)
Just as The Great Dictator was my first sound Chaplin, The Doll is my first silent Lubitsch movie. I wouldn't put it at the top of his filmography (Trouble in Paradise!), but I was delighted to find that it's certainly in the discussion. The movie begins with an image of Lubitsch building the tiny set on a table, which sets the perfect storybook tone. It's about a baron who orders his foppish nephew to get married. The nephew tries to marry a life-size clockwork doll so he can secure his inheritance without actually having to touch a yucky girl. Surprisingly, things get more ridiculous from there.

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
I've been a fan of director Preston Sturges for years, but I'd mostly only seen the films in this DVD box set. I finally got my hands on a copy of Creek. Turns out that it's his best movie I've seen yet. When a small town girl (Betty Hutton) is impregnated by a departing soldier she just met, she turns to the local sap who's been in love with her for years (Eddie Bracken) for help. Her dad gets mad, things get ridiculous, and Bracken is so nervous that it appears he could shake out of his skin at any time. This is the kind of movie that'll make your head spin - the pace never slows down for a minute, and it's exhilarating.

Hellzapoppin' (1941)
Years after reading Jaime Weinman's intriguing post about Hellzapoppin', I finally looked upon it with my own eyes. I mostly agree with Weinman - after the first ten minutes, it becomes a conventional, moderately amusing Universal comedy in the mold of Abbott & Costello movies. That's fine - and it has Martha Raye, who's terrific - but that first reel is a marvel, one of the funniest sequences I've ever seen on film. Olsen & Johnson wander around a silly "Hell" set from one gag to the next, all the while complaining that they have to star in a typical movie with a story. I can't help but agree with them.

The Navigator (1924)
True fact: I always thought Buster Keaton played a navigator in this movie. He doesn't. He plays a rich young man who books a ship called "The Navigator" for his honeymoon cruise (before he's actually proposed, naturally). After Betsy (Kathryn McGuire, who is wonderful) rejects him, the two end up on the ship together anyway. Cannibal stereotypes aside, this is a great one. The love story is touching, the action sequences are genuinely exciting, and it's full of hilarious sequences (particularly a card game in the rain).

The Court Jester (1956)
Outside of White Christmas (an annual tradition in my house growing up) and his episode of The Muppet Show, Danny Kaye has been a big blind spot for me. The Court Jester makes me want to change that. Every single thing about this movie works - it's laugh-out-loud funny, it's a rousing adventure, the songs are memorable (particularly the opening number, "Life Could Not Better Be," which has been in my head ever since), and the actors are all perfectly cast. I don't have children yet, but if I ever do, I'm going to make sure they see this long before their late 20s.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Tea Time in the TARDIS

For the past few holidays, my wife and I have listened to Doctor Who audio stories starring Paul McGann in the car. We've heard about a dozen so far.

I can't recommend them highly enough. There are some stinkers, of course, but I'd say the batting average is about equal to any season of the current series. Standout stories include:

"Storm Warning," the first 8th Doctor story, which is about the crash of the R101 airship.

"Seasons of Fear" by Paul Cornell and Caroline Symcox, where the Doctor jumps through time chasing an immortal despot.

"Chimes of Midnight" by Robert Shearman (who wrote "Dalek" in S1), a creepy and beautiful Christmas story set at an English manor in 1906.

"Embrace the Darkness," a trapped-on-a-space-station style episode on a planet with no sun. The Doctor visits Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" basically. One of the best uses of the audio medium I've heard.

"Time of the Daleks," a story that lets the Daleks pose as Shakespeare enthusiasts and somehow makes it both hilarious and terrifying.

McGann is a wonderful Doctor - calmer and more straight-forward than the manic Tennant/Smith-types, but just as excited to be traveling the universe. He says things like "I've caught a chill of gloom" and makes them sound relaxed and natural. I dislike the TV movie as much as anyone, but 8 is quickly becoming one of my favorite Doctors.

The same is true of India Fisher as companion Charley Pollard. She's from 1930, which makes for a nice change from the recent TV companions (and makes me wish even more that Moffat had gone with Victorian Clara). 

She's also my favorite type of companion - smart, capable, naturally curious, always up for any kind of adventure. Since the stories are 2 hours long, she and the Doctor often get split up, and she's always fascinating to hear on her own.

So yeah, Doctor Who audios. Quality merchandise.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Favorite Movie of the Year

This morning, I decided it would be fun to make a list of my favorite feature film from each calendar year starting in 1922 (the earliest year from which I've seen a feature, according to my database of every movie I've ever seen). I recognize that this is a fool's endeavor to some degree. There's no real reason to compare The Wizard of Oz and Ninotchka, say, or Beauty & the Beast and Terminator 2. All of those films are wonderful.

But I had fun doing it, so here we are. I've not saying that these are objectively the best movies from each year. Lord knows I haven't seen enough movies to make an informed statement about that. These are simply my personal favorites out of the films I've seen so far. Regardless of quality, these are my favorite. I thought about putting A Clockwork Orange for 1971, for example, but my heart wouldn't let me put anything other than Willy Wonka. Some years, obviously, were harder to choose than others. Some of them would likely be different if I sat down to do this on a different day. But for right now, here they are:

1922 - Grandma’s Boy (Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor)

1923 - Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton)

1924 - Girl Shy (Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor)

1925 - The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin)

1926 - Metropolis (Fritz Lang)

1927 - The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman)


1929 - The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch)

1930 - Animal Crackers (Victor Heerman)

1931 - Frankenstein (James Whale)

1932 - Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch)

1933 - Duck Soup (Leo McCarey)

1934 - The Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke)

1935 - Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)

1936 - My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava)

1937 - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand)

1938 - The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz & William Keighley)

1939 - The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming)

1940 - His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)

1941 - The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges)

1942 - To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)

1943 - Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)

1944 - Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra)

1945 - Christmas in Connecticut (Peter Godfrey)

1946 - It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)

1947 - Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

1948 - Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)

1949 - Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer)

1950 - Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder)

1951 - Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock)

1952 - Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen)

1953 - Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder)

1954 - The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa)

1955 - Marty (Delbert Mann)

1956 - Giant (George Stevens)

1957 - 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet)

1958 - The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa)

1959 - North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)

1960 - The Apartment (Billy Wilder)

1961 - One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder)

1962 - To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan)

1963 - From Russia With Love (Terence Young)

1964 - Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick)

1965 - Help! (Richard Lester)

1966 - The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder)

1967 - The Firemen’s Ball (Milos Forman)

1968 - The Producers (Mel Brooks)

1969 - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill)

1970 - Patton (Franklin Schaffner)

1971 - Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart)

1972 - The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)

1973 - American Graffiti (George Lucas)

1974 - Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks)

1975 - One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman)

1976 - Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)

1977 - Annie Hall (Woody Allen)

1978 - Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner)

1979 - The Muppet Movie (James Frawley)

1980 - Airplane! (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams & Jerry Zucker)

1981 - Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg)

1982 - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer)

1983 - A Christmas Story (Bob Clark)

1984 - Amadeus (Milos Forman)

1985 - Brazil (Terry Gilliam)

1986 - Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz)

1987 - The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner)

1988 - My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki)

1989 - Say Anything (Cameron Crowe)

1990 - Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton)

1991 - Beauty & the Beast (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise)

1992 - The Muppet Christmas Carol (Brian Henson)

1993 - Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi)

1994 - The Hudsucker Proxy (Joel Coen)

1995 - Toy Story (John Lasseter)

1996 - That Thing You Do! (Tom Hanks)

1997 - Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)

1998 - Rushmore (Wes Anderson)

1999 - The Iron Giant (Brad Bird)

2000 - Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe)

2001 - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (Peter Jackson)

2002 - In America (Jim Sheridan)

2003 - Big Fish (Tim Burton)

2004 - The Incredibles (Brad Bird)

2005 - Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman)

2006 - The Prestige (Christopher Nolan)

2007 - Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright)

2008 - The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)

2009 - Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)

2010 - Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)

2011 - Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)

2012 - Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow)

2013 - Wadjda (Haifaa al-Mansour)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

By the end of 2012, I'd seen one James Bond movie in my entire life - Dr. No, about five years earlier. But in February, I saw Skyfall in the theater and loved it. So I decided to go back and watch all of the others, bouncing around chronologically so I'd remember them better. I figured I'd better remember the details of, say, two Connery movies if I watched a Moore, a Brosnan, and a Dalton in between. So far it's going pretty well.

Today I watched On Her Majesty's Secret Service. My goodness, what a movie. (Spoilers follow)

OHMSS might be my favorite of the 9 Bond movies I've seen so far, but I suspect I love it for the same reason that a lot of people hate it. It's basically a movie about what it would be like if James Bond was a real person. We still get puns like "He's branched off" and some other silliness like that, but it's mostly much more low-key that I except from Bond.

It's not terribly far off from the Connery movies, but everything feels a bit rougher, and I really like that. Lazenby isn't as handsome or charming as Connery or even Moore, but I think that works here. He's Bond without the Hollywood facade - he's basically just a guy. He tries to strangle a guy with a ski, and he slaps Diana Rigg like he means it. He's the perfect Bond for this movie, but I'm glad he didn't come back. This movie almost breaks the format. There's really no way to continue from here.

But I've always kind of thought that Bond was a terrible person, and this movie doesn't pretend otherwise. When he's in Switzerland, out of Tracy's sight, he messes around with a bunch of women. That's what James Bond *would* do - he's a hornball and a creep. I don't think that it's a coincidence that in the same movie where Bond says "I love you," he also uses the same cheesy lines to seduce two random women in a row.

Which means that the Tracy story shouldn't work as well as it does, but Diana Rigg is wonderful, which helps. And I really like that we see them fall in love through a montage only, as though the filmmakers knew there was nothing specific they could show that could convince us James Bond would stop hitting on everything in sight.

Instead, they sell it through Tracy's demeanor. She's smart, thoughtful, and independent - quite the opposite of the typical "Bond girl." She gets in that dig at her dad, scoffing off his instructions to "obey your husband." In short, she's more of an actual person, and that's what it takes to get Bond to actually commit. And it's what makes the ending a real heartbreaker. This isn't some caricature like Mary Goodnight dying.

And the same goes for everyone else. They're less-caricatured versions of themselves. M is angrier than usual, because he's tired of Bond's nonsense. Miss Moneypenny tries to flirt as she always does, but Bond cuts her off because Connery's smirk is gone and he's actually invested in his job for once. Q stands around in M's office having a normal conversation. They're recognizably the same characters, but they're all played a bit more loosely than they had been (or would be in the Moore movies).

It's not a perfect movie. The odd pacing really does make the trip to Switzerland feel like a different film. But even that works as a strength, I think. It feels like the filmmakers knew this was their only chance to tell a story about this version of Bond, so they had to incorporate a more typical adventure - one where he doesn't get married and lose his wife tragically.  

They also bothered to show the minutiae of spy work in a way I haven't yet seen. When he first gets to Switzerland, we follow Bond as he makes his way to the Institute and meets Fraulein Bunt. This occurs almost in real time, as do other bits, such as his speech at dinner about what genealogy is. I can see how some people would feel this stuff is just slow, but I think it reminds us again that this is a more realistic Bond. We see the grunt work, instead of just the glamor.

That tone reaches its peak in the final moments. After Blofeld and Fraulein Bunt drive by, Bond jumps into the car, excitedly proclaiming "It's Blofeld!" like he and Tracy are going to go on an adventure. But they aren't. Not this time. This time it's real life, and people die. And we close on a Bond who doesn't quite know what to do, tearfully insisting that they have all the time in the world.

It's lovely. I can't wait to watch it again.