Friday, August 13, 2010

Directors Series Wrap-Up

OK, so the countdown did not conclude with the exact scenario that I would have chosen, but all in all I still found it to be one of the most rewarding series that I have done in the history of the blog. Perhaps it was not as time-consuming or as in-depth as some of the other countdowns, but it was every bit as difficult to make the list and then to try and rank sometimes massive bodies of work. Still, it was fun for me to do. As everyone who follows the blog knows, I am the type of cineaste that takes great pleasure in re-watching favorites. Sometimes, this works to my detriment, as I re-watch films two and three times at the expense of finally getting to the piles of movies that are waiting to be viewed for the first time. But it works perfectly for an exercise like a favorite directors series, as it was an excuse to go back and watch some all-time favorites.

As for this post, I at least wanted to conclude the series as I have all of the other countdowns with a wrap-up post that ties everything together. As I said from the start, the list would have a slant/bias toward American or English-language directors. This is not because I have anything against world cinema, it's just natural that I would give high positions to what I am more familiar with. Thus, 26 of the 30 directors in the countdown worked in Hollywood at some point in their careers. A number of them were born outside of the United States, and did significant work in Europe, but eventually came to the States and found great success. Perhaps this statistic just shows how little I know about cinema in general, but I make no apologies. Everyone on this list is a master and deserves such recognition. As I continue to become familiar with more and more directors (particularly from around the world), they might knock many of these Americans out of such a list. Until then, I stand by my choices and love the work of each director.

What I thought would be most interesting would be to throw up the names of a dozen directors who I painfully was forced to keep out of the Top 30, along with give a brief thought or explanation on their films or why I didn't include them. Although these aren't really in any particular order, the first name on the list was the hardest one to decide what to do with:

-David Lynch: There were times when I thought Lynch would push for the Top 15. Others, as ultimately happened, I wasn't sure I would even include him. The problem I have with forming an overall opinion of Lynch's work is how I tend to respond to his films. He has a few that I absolutely love and think are masterpieces - Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. But there are others that I flat out dislike - Dune, Wild at Heart, Inland Empire. Even my high regard of Twin Peaks has tempered somewhat. So there is very little middle ground, although Blue Velvet has recently begun to click for me. So basically, it's a very hot-or-cold relationship I have with Lynch, making it very hard to place him in the context of a Top 30. So, I eventually opted to have him just on the outside looking in.

-Michael Curtiz: This would have a been a surprising selection I am sure, but it very nearly happened. And thinking about it now, I easily could have included Curtiz at least at #29 or #30. He might not have the most impressive overall body of work, but he made my favorite movie of the 1930s (Angels With Dirty Faces) and my first or second favorite film of the 1940s (Casablanca). After those two films, though, there is a drop off, with Mildred Pierce being the only other Curtiz film that really does a whole lot for me. Still. those top two are so strong that he very nearly made the list.

-Quentin Tarantino: Similar to the situation I described with David Lynch, I tend to have a hot-or-cold relationship with Tarantino. I still firmly believe that his first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, are miles and miles ahead of anything else he has ever done. I also enjoy Jackie Brown and have recently come around on Iglourious Basterds, but those few in between do nothing for me. The Kill Bill series I have trouble even taking seriously and Death Proof doesn't really thrill me. In initial drafts of my list Tarantino was included, and in looking at things now he probably makes as a strong a case for me as Spielberg or Ray, but I ultimately sided with the two who have more movies that I enjoy.

-Jacques Becker: It is hard not to take into account the small body of work that I have seen from Becker, but this didn't bar him from the list - after all, I also included Jacques Tati. Still, loving only two films from a director makes it hard to rank him over the other giants he was up against. Even so, I still maintain that Touchez pas au grisbi is one of if not the best French gangster films ever made.

-Jules Dassin: Shockingly enough, Dassin was initially a lock for the list. But when I went to make my rankings of his films, I found that I have a Big Four for him and that's it. Rififi, Brute Force and Night and the City are three of the finest noirs and films of an era. Thieves' Highway is also excellent, even if I consider slightly below the other three. Outside of those, I'm not really a fan of much else. I know that many folks consider The Naked City to be a great film but I have never been a fan. Even so, I still consider myself a huge Dassin fan and cherish those four favorites.

-Raoul Walsh: I feel like I still need to see more Walsh, which might have factored into him not being included. What I have seen though are great ones. The Roaring Twenties remains one of my favorite gangster films and in my opinion one of the best of the '30s. The reputation of White Heat speaks for itself. High Sierra is wonderful. Walsh seems to remain something of an overlooked director - everyone recognizes his work, but few think of him for lists like this.

-William Wyler:: Another classic Hollywood director that sometimes gets lumped in with being a "studio director" but who nonetheless made a number of exceptional films. What might have held him back from the list is that aside from my two favorites - The Best Years of Our Lives and The Letter - the rest of his work remains around the "consistently above average" level. By this I mean that they are very, very good films, but not quite great.

-Sergio Leone: Another odd one to rank, as he made two all-time favorites with Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, then a number of films that I just like. The Man With No Name trilogy has a staggering reputation, but I've never really connected with them as so many others have.

-Carol Reed: I've seen a small number of Carol Reed films, but they remain impressive. The The Fallen Idol and The Third Man are an impressive back-to-back combination.

-Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Another studio director that isn't immediately considered for lists like this, but I still love this writer-director's work. All About Eve remains my favorite, but the list of other impressive credits shows his consistency. House of Strangers, Somewhere in the Night, The Barefoot Contessa, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Julius Caesar - all very solid work, some at least bordering on great.

-Akira Kurosawa: My guess is that Kurosawa would have been a lock for most list from everyone else. In a "greatest directors" series, he certainly would have made mine. I certainly appreciate his craft and recognize the talent. But since this is a "favorites" series, and Kurosawa is not a director I consistently reach for when I just want to sit back and enjoy a movie, I opted not to include him. This shouldn't be taken as disliking Kurosawa though. I love Ran, Throne of Blood, and High and Low. If I sometimes have trouble connecting to samurai films, it still doesn't detract from appreciating the overall craftsmanship and storytelling.

-Bernardo Bertolucci: I think so highly of The Conformist (a Top 10 all-time film for me) that I nearly catapulted Bertolucci into the ranks on that alone. Obviously that didn't happen, but I still gave him strong consideration. What probably kept him out is that The Conformist is _so_ far out in front of anything else he has ever made, it just didn't feel like the overall body of work could overtake those I included on the list.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I AM Alive...

Sorry for the lack of updates at the conclusion of the countdown... it was just a convergence of things - me being sick, family coming into town, in the process of moving. I won't bore you with the whole saga, but it certainly was a perfect storm of events to keep me away. Now I am in the process of going on a mini-vacation for the rest of the week, so expect some sort of wrap-up post to the director's countdown sometime next week. I have ended every countdown with a post of this sort, so I think the tradition should continue.

Once again, thanks for all the fun that every one contributed to this latest series. We'll wrap it up with thoughts and whatnot next week!

Friday, July 30, 2010

#1: Alfred Hitchcock

- “Give them pleasure - the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.”

Perhaps it's a cop-out, or maybe I should just delay this posting as I did Billy Wilder's entry, but after the miserable week I have had I am just going forward now. As you'll notice, this is not a completely written out entry as all of the others have been. I had every entry to done well in advance, except for Hitch's, assuming that I would write it this week while posting the first two runners-up. Then I got sick to start the week and am only now beginning to feel human again. Even so, I'm still nowhere near 100% and have an energy level that is zapped very quickly.

Fortunately, though, there was not a whole lot of drama as to who #1 would be once Scorsese and Wilder were off the board. I've waxed lyrical about my love for a number of different Hitchcock films (Rebecca, Rear Window, Psycho), so I'll direct folks there if they want some more in-depth analysis. What I will add is that I tried to play out scenarios where the obvious choice of Hitchcock at #1 wouldn't happen... and I just couldn't do it. He has too many films that I love, a filmography too deep to be matched. I still need to better familiarize myself with his earlier British period, which will likely just increase my love of the Master of Suspense.

Once again, I apologize to end the series like this, but I'm assuming most everyone will understand. The important thing is that I'm on the mend and that everyone can now post their favorite Hitch lists!

1. Rear Window (1954)
2. Psycho (1960)
3. Rebecca (1940)
4. Vertigo (1958)
5. Strangers on a Train (1951)
6. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
7. Dial M for Murder (1954)
8. I Confess (1953)
9. North by Northwest (1959)
10. Notorious (1946)
11. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
12. The Birds (1963)
13. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
14. Frenzy (1972)
15. Marnie (1964)
16. To Catch a Thief (1955)
17. Blackmail (1929)
18. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935)
19. Suspicion (1941)
20. Spellbound (1945)
21. Rope (1948)
22. Saboteur (1942)
23. Lifeboat (1944)
24. The Wrong Man (1956)
25. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
26. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
27. Stage Fright (1950)
28. Torn Curtain (1966)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

#2: Billy Wilder

- “A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”

I love this video and when I saw it for the first time about a month ago while searching for the video I included in the Ernst Lubitsch entry in this series, I vowed that I had to include it in the inevitable Billy Wilder post. For whatever reason, it won't allow emedding, but I encourage everyone to go watch it. It is a great example of that innate gift of storytelling that Wilder possessed – just watch him here, recounting this experience, building it to a climax, but doing so completely off the cuff as if he is just having a conversation with someone. He did the same thing in his screenwriting, effortlessly spinning tales – however believable or not – that are perfectly paced, flawlessly executed and invariably deliver a payoff to live up to any expectations.

While not quite as diverse as the resume of Howard Hawks, Wilder is another classic Hollywood director who tried his hand in a number of genres and hit it out of the park in many different stadiums, so to speak (Hey, the Reds are winning, why not use the baseball metaphor?!). And I don’t mean that he simply made outstanding films in a number of areas, I mean that he helmed movies that are routinely cited as being the best of their kind ever made. Look at the praise they have received. Some Like It Hot was voted the greatest American comedy ever made by the AFI in the year 2000. Double Indemnity is routinely cited as one of the finest films noir ever made. Sunset Boulevard is another classic noir, but transcends such genre classification and is rightly acknowledged as one of the finest movies ever made in Hollywood. With The Apartment, Wilder created not only one of the funniest films of the sound era, but the romantic comedy that countless big budget productions and popular television sitcoms have been mimicking ever since. I could go on with further examples, but anyone familiar with Wilder’s work already knows the score. The man could craft a story in any style or genre and not just make it work, but make it spectacular.

Similar to what I did say for Hawks, though, is that Wilder brought a cohesive vision to each unique project, essentially stamping his own imprint in each genre. Everything Wilder did, no matter how serious, always seems to have been done a bit tongue-in-cheek. Even as Walter and Phyllis were plotting murder in Double Indemnity, the breakneck speed and cadence of the dialog can’t help but make one grin. Ditto for Sunset Boulevard, which at times plays like a black comedy. The outlook that Wilder adopted for much of his work is actually a rather dark, pessimistic one. His films might eventually wind their way to more optimistic territory, but for most of the proceedings Wilder puts on display the sleazy side of human nature. Trysting couples plotting murder for profit. A reporter keeping a man trapped in a cave in order to further is his own career. An insurance man fishing for a promotion by opening his own apartment to company higher-ups to conduct affairs. A down on his luck writer who strings out the money and affection of an ex-star. Initially, these are not immediately likable characters. Yet, Wilder’s wit is enough to keep any of his films from being completely dark. The dialog is so crisp, the situations so entertaining, that eventually you find yourself being won over or rooting for any of them. This of course doesn’t apply to all of his films, but is applicable in many of them.

It must have been easy to impart these themes and views in each of his films, as Wilder co-wrote every film he ever directed. In fact, even after he became one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood, Wilder was still known to view himself primarily as a writer. Just look at his tombstone, which can easily be seen by doing a simple Google search. The only inscription reads: “BILLY WILDER – I’M A WRITER BUT THEN NOBODY’S PERFECT.” Legend has it that Wilder fully threw himself into directing only because he didn’t want to have to hand over his scripts to those that might butcher them. It is thus no coincidence that he co-wrote every film he ever directed. So it is also worth applauding his writing partners I.A.L Diamond and Charles Brackett who worked perfectly with Billy. Even so, while his focus may have been more on the writing process, Wilder was wily enough to team with technical geniuses, resulting in strikingly memorable visuals. Working with legends like John Seitz, Joseph LaShelle, Charles Lang and others meant that all of his films are wonderful to look at. His directorial technique may not have been groundbreaking, but the results were still spectacular.

I still have a way to go before I have made my way through Billy Wilder’s entire filmography. But I can honestly say that I don’t dislike a single one of the nineteen films listed below, which makes me even more excited to finally get to those that I am missing.

1. The Apartment (1960)
2. Double Indemnity (1944)
3. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
4. Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
5. One, Two, Three (1961)
6. Ace in the Hole (1951)
7. A Foreign Affair (1948)
8. Stalag 17 (1953)
9. Kiss Me Stupid (1964)
10. Some Like It Hot (1959)
11. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
12. The Seven Year Itch (1955)
13. Avanti! (1972)
14. The Fortune Cookie (1966)
15. Sabrina (1954)
16. The Lost Weekend (1945)
17. Irma La Douce (1963)
18. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
19. The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)

Monday, July 26, 2010

One day delay...

Unless things change drastically this evening, I am going to push back the countdown by one day and have it resume on Wednesday. I feel absolutely horrible, with what apparently is not official strep throat but feels the same nonetheless, and have no desire to rush the post for tomorrow. It is ready to go, it just needs to be edited, formatted, etc., which isn't an overly difficult task, but just posting this small message is zapping most of my energy. Sorry for the delay, but I just feel like staying in bed all evening and praying I feel better tomorrrow.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

#3: Martin Scorsese

- “Cinema is a matter of what`s in the frame and what`s out.”

The inclusion is no shocker, although the fact that he did not place #1 might be. Just looking at the name of this blog should give away the fact that Martin Scorsese is not only one of my favorite directors, but also one of the most important in my development as a lover of cinema. He was the first director that made me consciously realize that I was watching a man who excelled at making crossover films – entertaining enough to appeal to a mass audience yet weighty enough for serious scholars and critics to sink their teeth into. It is no coincidence that this blog is named after my favorite Scorsese film. I watched Goodfellas as a kid who was obsessed with all things organized crime and was more interested in anything gangster-related than I was in movies. I came away completely obsessed with film. I knew nothing about technical achievements (and I suppose you could argue I still don’t!), but I was aware enough recognize the sensation that some of Scorsese’s skills produced – the legendary tracking shot at the Copa, the use of “Layla” while revealing the dead bodies. Those moments are what drew me toward appreciating films as more than just simple entertainment.

Really, that opening paragraph alone should be enough to justify placement in a personal favorites list. His films – and Goodfellas in particular – were and are that important to me. I relish each phase of his career. I love the early indie feel of Mean Streets and Who’s That Knocking at My Door? The middle period that produced classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The King of Comedy is now the stuff of legend and justifiably so. The 1990s saw him produce what I consider to be the finest gangster film ever made and a number of intriguing genre exercises. Even now, when many are quick to dismiss him as over the hill, I find Scorsese in the last decade to have been spectacular – I still have so much fun watching The Aviator and remain in love with Shutter Island. At no point in my journey through Scorsese’s works have I found myself bored.

Knowing a bit about Scorsese himself, hearing him discuss how he personally fell in love with movies, is also very appealing. Watch any interviews of him discussing his favorite childhood films or admired filmmakers. He gets a glint in his eye when he recalls seeing The Searchers for the first time, or watching a Michael Powell classic like The Red Shoes. Like so many of his contemporaries in the “film school generation,” Scorsese is first and foremost a film fanatic. He loves everything about the cinema and takes great pleasure in drawing attention to his own personal favorites. I love this about Marty. I guess you could argue that this attribute really shouldn’t have an impact in a list like this, but I think it is essential to Scorsese. It fuels that passion that he infuses into all of his work. Someone who didn’t love movies as deeply as does Marty would not be able to keep this up for over thirty years.

His technical chops are well-chronicled, and I touch on just a few of my favorites in that opening paragraph. The talent to combine all of the elements of a movie – camera movement, actors, dialog, soundtrack, pacing – into one cohesive, all-consuming experience is his greatest strength. While this is a series devoted to my favorite directors, Scorsese’s longtime collaborator and friend Thelma Schoonmaker at least deserves credit for an assist, as without her continuing presence Scorsese’s films just wouldn’t feel right. In connection with his long association with Schoonmaker, it is also interesting to note the number of longstanding relationships that Scorsese has developed with various actors and personalities over the years, recalling other great directors that preferred using a stock group of players and associates. It is hard to ponder Scorsese’s career without also bringing to mind personalities like Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci, Paul Schrader, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

This selection was never in doubt. The only drama came from deciding where in the Top 4 he would land. As for my list below, there will be one notable omission from my list – The Last Temptation of Christ. For whatever reason, I still have not seen it and have remained hesitant to do so. I can’t even explain why this has been the case, it simply has. I know many folks consider it be one of Marty’s very best, so I need to make a point of getting to it, which I will eventually. It should also be noted that depending on when you ask me, Goodfellas could be a routine choose as my all-time favorite movie.

Ask me to fiddle with the rankings tomorrow and Scorsese could very easily be #1. So keep that in mind as the remaining two are revealed. Even more so than in the annual countdown and noir series, these rankings are incredibly fluid.

1. Goodfellas (1990)
2. Raging Bull (1980)
3. Taxi Driver (1976)
4. Casino (1995)
5. The King of Comedy (1983)
6. Shutter Island (2010)
7. Mean Streets (1973)
8. The Aviator (2004)
9. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)
10. The Departed (2006)
11. Gangs of New York (2002)
12. The Age of Innocence (1993)
13. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
14. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
15. Kundun (1997)
16. Cape Fear (1991)
17. The Color of Money (1986)
18. After Hours (1985)
19. New York, New York (1977)
20. Boxcar Bertha (1972)

Friday, July 23, 2010

#4: Preston Sturges

- “The most incredible thing about my career is that I had one.”

If there was a dark horse to sneak up and steal the top slot in this countdown, it was certainly Preston Sturges. As the series has progressed, I have gone back and forth over who will occupy that first position and in all honesty, I could make a case for each of the top four. In fact, at various times, I’ve floated the idea in my own mind of completing the countdown with each of them. In this case, it was hard to resist the temptation after re-watching all ten of the Preston Sturges films that I own. Sturges, Chaplin and Malick were the only directors that I did this for and it is no coincidence that this refresher course in each man’s oeuvre cemented such prominent placements. It reminded me that I have still not seen a single poor Sturges film, and even more importantly that his top eight pictures are infinitely enjoyable. Even having seen each of them multiple times, I never fail to laugh and smile in the same spots every single time and discover jokes that I overlooked in previous go-rounds. The writing is so well-crafted, the humor so witty and sly to try and slip things past powerful censors of the day; they are light comedies that actually reward close repeat viewings.

Sturges the man is almost as fascinating as the spectacular body of work that he created. His career path is a complete anomaly, not only because of the short window of time in which he shined but for how he entered the film business. Sturges began his career on Broadway, but even his stint there is unique in that he didn’t even begin writing plays until he was thirty years-old. After quickly finding success on the stage, movie executives came calling and lured him to Hollywood. Sturges spent the 1930s working as a writer-for-hire, penning a number of outstanding screenplays like Easy Living and Remember the Night. As wonderful as the dialogue and comedy are in those underrated films, though, it was the astounding seven comedies he made between 1940 and 1944 that account for the Sturges legacy. The legend of how Sturges managed to convince Paramount Pictures to let him try his hand at directing is one of my favorites. Knowing that he had penned a great script, Sturges took it to Paramount and offered a deal – he would sell it to them for only $1 on the condition that he would be allowed to direct it. The discounted The Great McGinty script was good enough to earn Sturges the first ever Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and the film itself remains a classic. It kicked off arguably the most productive four year span from a director in Hollywood history.

It could be argued that Sturges is so well regarded more for his writing than his directing. When I consider his films, I think more of the humor and dialog of the screenplays than I do virtuoso camera movements or great visuals. But similar to my feelings toward Charlie Chaplin, I don’t think it’s necessary to separate the two components of his work. As Sturges himself would acknowledge, the fact that he wrote his own material was pivotal to his success. “I did all my directing when I wrote the screenplay. It was probably harder for a regular director,” Sturges would reminisce. “He probably had to read the script the night before shooting started.” So there is no question that the writing is integral. But I don’t think that Sturges the director should be completely overlooked. Aside from the humor of his dialog, his best films display a great deal of wonderfully choreographed physical comedy which would seem to require more than a sharp pen. His later classic (“later” in terms of Sturges’ career) Unfaithfully Yours is magically handled from a technical standpoint, weaving together dream sequences seamlessly.

In the end, it matters very little whether you want to specifically credit Sturges the writer or Sturges the director. He was the man at the helm of eight of the greatest comedies I have ever seen. He took the sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch, combined his own brand of screwball antics and situations, and the result was a uniquely Sturges mixture of laugh out loud hilarity, poignant social statements, startling sensuality, and tongue-in-cheek subversiveness. To me, Preston Sturges is at the very least the greatest writer-director of comedy to work in Hollywood in the sound era – if not in any era. His films never fail to make me smile.

1. The Lady Eve (1941)
2. The Palm Beach Story (1942)
3. Christmas in July (1940)
4. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
5. Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
6. Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
7. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
8. The Great McGinty (1940)
9. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)
10. The Great Moment (1944)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

#5: Charles Chaplin

- “I went into the business for the money, and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can't help it. It's the truth.”

Even today, his face is one of the most iconic images in the history of cinema. Just saying his name evokes daydreams of vintage era Hollywood and a period of vibrant creativity in the movie industry. People completely unfamiliar with his films or cinema history are aware of the symbols that he made famous – the Little Tramp Character, the trademark mustache, the top hat and cane. Charlie Chaplin’s contributions to the movie industry cannot be overestimated. As an actor and performer, he was the first comedy megastar of the screen, perfecting a brand of slapstick and physical comedy that has never been equaled. As a pioneer in the industry, Chaplin became one of the first stars to gain virtual autonomy over his projects, writing, directing, producing, starring in, and in many cases writing the music for, his greatest accomplishments. Chaplin the businessman was equally as important. Soon after coming to Hollywood he had already worked his way to being the highest paid actor in the world. In 1919, in hopes of gaining even greater control over every stage of his work, he partnered with fellow film veterans Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks to found United Artists. This was revolutionary for the time.

So to call Chaplin a GIANT is to understate his significance. He is arguably _the_ giant of film.

It’s impossible for me to separate Chaplin the director from Chaplin the actor, or Chaplin the all-around creative genius. And I don’t know that it’s even necessary to do so, even for such a list like this. The reason I say this is because his approach to moviemaking, at least through the most celebrated years of his career, centered on his being able to draw on every talent he possessed in the process of filming. Rarely did he write a completed script before beginning shooting. Instead he started with a general premise, acquired the necessary sets and equipment, and then began tinkering as he went. As one idea came on top of another, the general structure of the film would begin to crystallize and everyone would play off of what developed. The Little Tramp is the perfect character for such a style, as his crazy antics come across just as freewheeling as the director’s.

He was one of the rare comedians who could just as easily make you misty-eyed as he could make you laugh. Aside from the hilarious comedy that is prevalent in his films, it is that sincere heart that infuses Chaplin’s work that appeals most to me. Some may argue that things border on overly sentimental, but the amazing thing is that when Chaplin makes such obvious appeals to emotion, the pathos comes across as genuinely heartfelt. Few directors, actors, or artists period can pull that off and Chaplin did it routinely.

I still have many, many Chaplin shorts to get to, but I feel pretty solid on my ranking of his features.

1. Modern Times (1936)
2. City Lights (1931)
3. The Circus (1928)
4. The Kid (1921)
5. The Gold Rush (1925)
6. The Great Dictator (1940)
7. Limelight (1952)
8. Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
9. A Woman of Paris (1923)
10. A King in New York (1957)
11. A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)


1. The Adventurer (1917)
2. The Cure (1917)
3. Easy Street (1917)
4. The Immigrant (1917)
5. Shoulder Arms (1918)
6. One A.M. (1916)
7. A Dog’s Life (1918)
8. Behind the Screen (1916)
9. The Pilgrim (1923)
10. The Floorwalker (1916)
11. The Idle Class(1921)
12. The Pawnshop (1916)
13. The Vagabond (1916)
14. The Count (1916)
15. The Fireman (1916)
16. The Rounders (1914)

Monday, July 19, 2010

#6: Terrence Malick

- “They’re not intellectual so much as they’re visceral. I don’t know how you explain it… they’re like poems, you know. You can analyze it to death, but it still is not going to get to what this poem is doing to you… to your psyche, your body, you know, it’s never going to solve that.”

- Sam Shepard

Trying to find a quote about direction or film in general from the notoriously reclusive Terrence Malick is a nearly impossible task, so rather than scouring the ‘net looking for one, I thought that this statement from Days of Heaven star Sam Shepard would be the perfect opening to this entry. It comes from one of the extras on the recently released Days of Heaven Criterion Collection, as Shepard describes what drew him to working with Malick. Coming into the project as a writer, Shepard talks about how there was something magnetic in the script, something that pulled him to doing the project, and then attempts to describe Malick's films. And in ruminating on what it is about Malick’s work that maintains such a mesmerizing hold on so many people, he offers this fitting thought. It meshes so perfectly with my own feelings toward Malick’s work that I jotted it down the first time I heard it and vowed to somehow work it into this post.

If placing Francis Ford Coppola was the most difficult task of this project, deciding exactly where to place a man with just four total movies to his credit ran a close second. What exactly do you do with someone who has made only four films over the course of a nearly forty year career? On Thursday in the Coppola entry, I even touched on the fact that at this stage in the countdown that consistency and depth of quality films has to play a role. Such diversity is obviously lacking from a man whose workrate equates to roughly averaging one film released per decade. The issue is compounded by the fact that one of his four films is one that I have only recently begun to grow fond of. So while I might not be maintaining consistency when it comes to criteria in evaluating each director, such standards are irrelevant when I assess my passion for the cinema of Terrence Malick. It is a testament to the transcendent experience of his three films that I do love – two in particular retaining the ability to routinely give me chills at times while watching them – when I do not hesitate in giving Malick such a high placement.

Over the short history of this blog, I have written and discussed Malick’s The New World more than any other film. I’ll direct folks here, where The New World was chosen as my top film of 2005, if anyone is interested in seeing my full thoughts on that film. I also produced a similar post for Days of Heaven, which might not be as gushing as the ’05 entry, but also shows the love I have for that film. What draws me to films like this, which the uninitiated or non-Malick fans find so lumbering and inane? To answer this question, I ultimately return to the Sam Shepard quotation above. I’ve thought many times and can never quite put my finger on it. The more I analyze it, the less I feel like I can explain it. All I know is that Malick’s films have the ability to completely, totally transfix me. The incredibly beautiful images virtually hypnotize me. Even that explanation is an evasion, though, as for me it is more than just the gorgeous cinematography. Many people argue that Malick’s narrative technique leaves much to be desired, but the man has created some of the most powerfully moving drama I’ve ever experienced. The plague and wildfire of Days of Heaven; Witt’s death in The Thin Red Line; the reunion between John Smith and Pocahontas in The New World; and, most especially, the closing sequence with Pocahontas’ death – these scenes are so well done they give me chills. And so as Shepard says, no amount of analysis is going to pinpoint what it is.

Regarding the spectacular visuals in his films, I have written elsewhere about Malick concerning the credit he deserves in this area. Not knowing a whole lot about technical production, I’m always a bit hesitant as to who deserves the bulk of the praise for the look of a film – the director or the cinematographer. Malick’s case is unique though, in that he has worked with a different director of photography on all four of his films, yet all four of them look marvelous. This leads me to believe that Malick himself much be a significant factor in achieving these results.

Malick easily could be a Top 5 selection. Trying to separate favorites at this point is excruciatingly hard. Particularly in this instance, where a movie like The New World is continually inching toward being my all-time favorite film. Perhaps one or two more films like his recent releases and Malick will move toward the very top of a list like this. Bring on Tree of Life!

As a postscript, since I haven't talked about Badlands at all in this post, I thought I would pose this question to everyone. I re-watched it specifically for this series, which was probably the fourth time I've seen it. What struck me about it this time around was how dryly funny it can be. Kit's one-liners and retorts, the off the wall things he says out of nowhere, something about the entire storyline makes me view it as some sort of unique dark comedy. I've never viewed it this way before, but that is all I could think about when watching it this time.

1. The New World (2005)
2. Days of Heaven (1978)
3. The Thin Red Line (1998)
4. Badlands (1973)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

#7: Howard Hawks

- “I'm a storyteller - that's the chief function of a director.”

His is the first name to come to mind when I think of the preeminent American-born directors of the classic Hollywood era. Many of his contemporaries, both in terms of time period and actual talent or stature, immigrated to America and then rose to dominate Hollywood – Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak were just a few of many who were born in Europe and rose to prominence in Tinseltwon. There were also many other outstanding Americans rising to prominence around the same time – indeed, other great American directors like Anthony Mann and John Huston have already been featured in this series. But in my mind, when I think of the archetypal American director of the period, it is always Howard Hawks.

What makes this such a natural belief is that Hawks not only dabbled in nearly every significant genre of the 30s, 40s and 50s, he produced all-time classics. His comedies of the 1930s are considered to be not only among the best screwball comedies, but some of the funniest movies ever made. Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday are routinely listed among the greatest comedies. His original version of Scarface in 1932 is arguably the best of the classic gangster films. The Big Sleep is among a handful of absolutely essential films noir that anyone wishing to familiarize themselves with the genre/style must see early in their quest. Air Force is as good as out-and-out propaganda films get. To Have and Have Not is as close as anyone would ever come to matching Casablanca. The Thing From Another World (which he is commonly assumed to have handled much of the directorial duties on) is a splendid piece of 1950s science-fiction and horror. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a musical comedy par excellence, which even someone like myself who normally has no interest in such films finds outstanding. And westerns like Rio Bravo and Red River are as incredible a one-two western punch as any director – Ford, Mann, Leone, Eastwood, anyone – ever made.

I could go on listing examples, but I think you get the point. There are other directors that can match his versatility, but I can count on one hand the directors who can match his mastery of such different genres and styles. Why was he so successful while moving in such varying fields? It might play like a broken record in these parts, as regulars here at Goodfella’s have heard me say it again and again, but Howard Hawks is simply one of the finest storytellers in the history of cinema. He might not have been a writer like other greats such as Wilder, Welles, and others. But he worked with a core group of writers that brought staggering talent to the page – Jules Furthmann, Leigh Brackett, Ben Hecth, William Faulkner – and whose screenplays inevitable possessed the characteristics that have now come to be recognized as “Hawksian.” Themes concerning friendship, professionalism, and seeing a job through to very end regardless of the consequences are the foundations of a Hawks drama. I still maintain that no one, not even the great Sam Peckinpah, ever handled ideas of bonding and close, intense friendship among male characters better than Hawks.

So with such versatility and excellence, it is easy to understand why I revere Howard Hawks. This is a placement that I almost regret, as I want to nudge him just a little higher. For now, I can’t as the competition is getting far too tough. Suffice to say that from this point on, the list could be inverted and I wouldn’t really quibble with the rankings.

1. Rio Bravo (1959)
2. Red River (1948)
3. The Big Sleep (1946)
4. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
5. To Have and Have Not (1944)
6. Scarface (1932)
7. Twentieth Century (1934)
8. His Girl Friday (1940)
9. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
10. Air Force (1943)
11. Monkey Business (1952)
12. The Thing from Another World (1951)
13. El Dorado (1967)
14. The Criminal Code (1931)
15. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
16. Tiger Shark (1932)
17. Sergeant York (1941)
18. Ball of Fire (1941)
19. Rio Lobo (1970)