Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Finalizing Plans for the Noir Top 100

I know it’s been quiet around these parts lately. I’ve been recharging the creative and writing juices after completed the annual countdown and watching noirs like a madman in preparation for the next project. I’m just throwing up something now to kind of finalize plans and map out how I’m envisioning things playing out.

As I mentioned in the last post, the definition of “film noir” means different things to different people. Rather than trying to settle on one universal definition that everyone can agree with, I’m taking the advice of one of the greatest visitors of the blog, Samuel Wilson, and simply rolling with my own definition of noir. Some films will be included that others don’t feel qualify and I’m sure that I’ll also leave some out that others think should be in the countdown. But I think this is what can be incredibly interesting for those following things. As we get near the top spots, there can suspense about both the ordering of selections and even about whether certain “borderline noirs” will even be included.

Right now, the plan is for the countdown to begin after the holidays – I’m thinking that Monday January 4 sounds like a good starting point. It will proceed as I previously described, with extended (1-page) capsule reviews and analysis of one film per day. Similar to the Year’s Best Countdown, this will not really be a “greatest” noirs list, but will be more reflective of my personal taste – which, I’m guessing, will be much more interesting to people than the usual suspects being recycled. Of course, a lot of those films that appear on “greatest” lists are going to be found in my countdown as well, but not all of them. Some beloved and well-regarded noirs will not be among my Top 100. I actually think that the ranking is what will be most interesting to people. I don’t know that the countdown will feature an abundance of rare films or noirs that have been seen by very few people, although there will be a few of these. The most interesting aspect will be how I order things and how the debates ensue from the rankings.

And one other caveat is that I will not be bound by previous rankings I’ve made, such as my Top 100 of all time list… my tastes and preferences change far too often to be beholden to a list of just a few weeks ago! :)

Sound like a plan? I’m really looking forward to getting things going! I’ll be using the next few weeks before it starts to get in as many new noirs as I can so as to make my list as complete as possible. There are still so many hard-to-get noirs that I simply won’t be able to see before the countdown begins, but there will still be a number of excellent films to discuss.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Planning for the Film Noir List...

OK, it’s been a while since I have posted anything, but I’ve been taking something of a break from blogging and gearing up for the next project. After talking to folks here and seeing comments on the various propositions, I’m going to go ahead with plans for a 100-film countdown of noirs. I suppose you could call it a Top 100, but it’s essentially going to be my personal taste in countdown my favorites in the genre. I haven’t seen everything, as many noir aficionados on the ‘net have, but I’ve seen quite a bit and think that I can do some interesting things with. At the very least, I’ll highlight some overlooked favorites of mine that others may not have seen.

The major issue that comes up in beginning a countdown for film noir is how it is being defined. Is it the strict time frame of 1941-1958 as is often cited? Does it run all the way to the present and include all variety of neo-noirs? How do you handle Hitchcock – noir or not noir? Things like this are what I have been trying to work out in my mind over the last week or two. As was discussed in the last post, I’ve decided that I am for the most part not going to include neo-noirs, because there are many lesser-known classic noirs that I would rather make sure are included. I would rather like to look at the neo-noirs separately afterwards. At the same time, I don’t intend to force myself to stick to the traditional 1941-1958 time frame, and freely admit that movies like Sam Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. are going to be included, despite falling outside of that period. Still, I don’t want to make so inclusive that many well-known classic films begin clogging things up. What I am leaning toward doing is if it is borderline whether or not a movie is “noir,” the way I can figure to get a resolute answer is to check if it is included in something like Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir Encyclopedia. I know it sounds like an arbitrary selection as the final authority, but it would at least be consistent and make decisions on things like which Hitchcock should be included (Notorious, Strangers on a Train) and which should not (Vertigo). Would this system be perfect? Of course not, as I’m not so sure that Vertigo is not a noir in my opinion. But it at least sets a framework and ensures that something other than the usual suspects are in the Top 100. Any thoughts on this are definitely wanted.

As I also said in previous posts, I think the intention with these pieces will be that they are slightly shorter in length than some of the essays from the Year’s Best. In all honesty, my goal would be to try and do one single-spaced page for each film – enough to whet the appetite for those that haven’t seen it and to put in my two cents on why I am a fan. The shorter length in no way implies less quality, as is evidence by the outstanding work done by somebody like Allan at WitD or even Shubhajit with his insightful capsule reviews. The one-page goal would also allow me to attempt to try an everyday pace. Whether or not that is doable remains to be seen, but I think it’s certainly realistic. The ideal start time for me would be the New Year, as it allows the chaotic holidays to have run their course and to start everything fresh.

Thoughts, questions, concerns, issues… post ‘em all and we will proceed!

Monday, November 30, 2009

What to do next...

I'm wondering if folks would be interested if I did go with a noir countdown? I could probably even make that one a 100-movie countdown, but at that length there would be some non-favorites that started the countdown. But, the plus for doing a Top 100 would be that there are some noirs that I would enjoy writing about that might not make a Top 50. It would actually be more like a Favorite 100, but that's pretty much what the Year's Best was anyway! I guess it's kind of a catch-22. I've seen over 100 noirs, so compiling a list is not the issue, but including some at the end of the list that I might not necessarily care for could be a bit misleading.

What I would have in mind is doing a countdown like this starting after the holidays. It would probably be something more akin to the write-ups that Allan does at WitD, meaning not some of the monstrosities that I churned out for the Top 100 (although I say this now, and being long-winded at times, I might not stick to it). As Allan proves, though, being able write reviews within a confined amount of space is an art unto itself and is actually (I think) at times more difficult. Basically, I'm just looking for thoughts for everybody that checks in here. I'm not going to do something if nobody has any interest in it, because while I do write for myself, the fun for me in these countdowns is having others chime in and comment in the process.

Top 100

At the suggestion of MovieMan, who thought it might be interesting to see what a complete Top 100 for me would look like, I have attempted the near impossible task of ranking 100 favorite movies. I took the basis of the ordering of my Year's Best selections, then interspersed films that were not included in the countdown. Trying to gauge exactly where these other films fit was interesting, resulting in a number of selections in the countdown being bumped entirely from the Top 100. I did change the ordering of the original 79 films, leaving them as I ranked them on Saturday. All that I did was add others that, for whatever reason, were not able to be chosen as the top film of their specific year. For ease in spotting which films I added, I've put additions in bold.

Needless to say, doing something of this nature is like splitting hairs. There are movies ranked in the 40s or 50s in this list that at another time could be near my Top 10. So, the only criteria used was what I'm feeling as my favorite at the moment. But, as I said in my last post, I love trying to do stuff like this - particularly making lists of this sort at various times, comparing them to how I ranked things in the past.

Maybe this is milking the Year's Best out even further, but I enjoyed trying to do this... and it's my blog, so that's good enough of a reason! :) Oh, and in the comments section I might discuss what I might be doing next with the blog (of course it's going to be oriented toward some sort of ranking or countdown).

1. Rear Window (1954, Hitchcock)
2. Goodfellas (1990, Scorsese)
3. Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Mackendrick)
4. The Godfather (1972, Coppola)
5. JFK (1991, Stone)
6. Out of the Past (1947, Tourneur)
7. The New World (2005, Malick)
8. Casablanca (1942, Curtiz
9. Rio Bravo (1959, Hawks)
10. The Conformist (1970, Bertolucci)
11. The Lady Eve (1941, Sturges)
12. Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Aldrich)
13. Apocalypse Now (1979, Coppola)
14. Unforgiven (1992, Eastwood)
15. The Godfather Part II (1974, Coppola)
16. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Dominik)
17. Army of Shadows (1969, Melville)
18. Angels With Dirty Faces (1938, Curtiz)
19. Trouble in Paradise (1932, Lubitsch)
20. Psycho (1960, Hitchcock)
21. Mafioso (1962, Lattuada)
22. Raging Bull (1980, Scorsese)
23. The Big Lebowski (1998, Coens)
24. All About Eve (1950, Mankiewicz)
25. The Apartment (1960, Wilder)
26. Gone With the Wind (1939, Fleming)
27. Le Samourai (1967, Melville)
28. Mulholland Dr. (2001, Lynch)
29. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973, Peckinpah)
30. Criss Cross (1949, Siodmak)
31. To Be or Not to Be (1942, Lubitsch)
32. Back to the Future (1985, Zemeckis)
33. Modern Times (1936, Chaplin)
34. Sherlock, Jr. (1924, Keaton)
35. Once Upon a Time in America (1984, Leone)
36. The Killers (1946, Siodmak)
37. Sunset Boulevard (1950, Wilder)
38. Days of Heaven (1978, Malick)
39. The Searchers (1956, Ford)
40. The Killing (1956, Kubrick)
41. L.A. Confidential (1997, Hanson)
42. Touchez pas au grisbi (1954, Becker)
43. Rebecca (1940, Hitchcock)
44. The Last of the Mohicans (1992, Mann)
45. Hamlet (1964, Kuzintsev)
46. Red River (1948, Hawks)
47. Pulp Fiction (1994, Tarantino)
48. M (1932, Lang)
49. Lost Highway (1997, Lynch)
50. Henry V (1989, Branagh)
51. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, Wyler)
52. I Walked with a Zombie (1943, Tourneur)
53. The Conversation (1974, Coppola)
54. The Thin Man (1934, Van Dyke)
55. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, Allen)
56. Lost in Translation (2003, Coppola)
57. In a Lonely Place (1950, Ray)
58. Double Indemnity (1944, Wilder)
59. Lone Star (1996, Sayles)
60. The Roaring Twenties (1939, Walsh)
61. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Leone)
62. The Asphalt Jungle (1950, Huston)
63. The Thin Red Line (1998, Malick)
64. A Place in the Sun (1951, Stevens)
65. The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Demme)
66. Fitzcarraldo (1982, Herzog)
67. Madame de... (1953, Ophuls)
68. The Burmese Harp (1956, Ichikawa)
69. Dr. Strangelove (1964, Kubrick)
70. The Innocents (1961, Clayton)
71. Citizen Kane (1941, Kane)
72. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971, Altman)
73. Scarlet Street (1945, Lang)
74. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, Huston)
75. On the Waterfront (1954, Kazan)
76. Persona (1966, Bergman)
77. The Palm Beach Story (1942, Sturges)
78. Rififi (1955, Dassin)
79. Black Robe (1991, Beresford)
80. Zodiac (2007, Fincher)
81. El Verdugo (1963, Berlanga)
82. The Letter (1940, Wyler)
83. The Remains of the Day (1993, Ivory)
84. Amadeus (1984, Foreman)
85. Schindler's List (1993, Spielberg)
86. Miller's Crossing (1990, Coens)
87. Downfall (2004, Hirschbiegel)
88. A Star is Born (1937, Wellman)
89. The Rules of the Game (1939, Renoir)
90. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Allen)
91. Chinatown (1974, Polanski)
92. Mr. Klein (1976, Losey)
93. Repulsion (1965, Polanski)
94. Au Revoir les Enfants (1987, Malle)
95. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Spielberg)
96. Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972, Herzog)
97. Flame & Citron (2008, Madsen)
98. Casque d'or (1952, Becker)
99. Diabolique (Clouzot, 1955)
100. The Steel Helmet (1950, Fuller)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Year's Best Wrap Up

The countdown began exactly six months ago today. All the way back on May 28, with the posting of a review of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, the countdown began and now we’ve made it all the way through 2008. At the start, I had only a general idea how the entire thing would work out – if I would have the stamina to pump out enough quality writing to keep things interesting and, even more importantly, if I had enough movie knowledge to make justifiable selections. There were two small breaks in the process, but for the majority of the countdown, the every other day schedule was followed and worked well. With the exception of a few reviews that were posted prior to the start of the project, I wrote all of the reviews as we went, mainly because I wanted the luxury of being able to include newly-seen films into the countdown if I watched them in time. This meant sometimes I was able to work ahead and have reviews for the next few years ready and waiting, while others I had to scramble to get them done to remain on schedule. But through it all, I had a blast.

The major reason it was so much fun for me was everybody that followed and joined in on the selections. So to everyone, I owe huge thanks. The number of followers steadily grew as we progressed through the years, but a number of people have remained in involved since day one. Sam Juliano is one of the nicest guys in the world and has ceaselessly encouraged me in this project and also brought it to the attention of readers at his excellent Wonders in the Dark blog. John Greco, who does excellent work of his own at Twenty Four Frames, has been here since day one of the blog and has been a part of the countdown the entire way through. Judy from Movie Classics has been along for the entire ride. Samuel Wilson, who keeps a pace even more impressive than my own at his Mondo 70, is also a charter member of the countdown. I thank all of you for sticking it out for the entire ride. Other great contributors have been a significant factor as well. MovieMan joined in on selections late, but made a herculean effort to catching up with us in 1990 in a matter of a week or two. He’s been around ever since, adding his own selections and opinions. Shubhajit is constantly involved. Just another film blog joined us late in the countdown, but his contributions have been excellent. And there have been many others intermittently jumping into the fray – David Schleicher, Troy Olson, C.K. Dexter Haven, Ed Howard, Angelo, Stephen, CagneyFan, Sebina, and if I’m leaving anybody out I apologize. Truly, the reason it has been so enjoyable for me is the comments and interaction and seeing everyone else’s selections.

I thought I might just do a round-up post, with some statistics on the countdown and also an “On Second Thought” section in which I point out years where I would possible change my selection now if I had a second opportunity. I figured it would be a nice way to recap all the fun we (at least I hope “we” and not just “I”) have had for the last six months.


I acknowledged from the start that due to my viewing history, the selections were going to have an extremely English-speaking or Hollywood slant. That certainly proved to be the case, but there were still a number of films from around the world that I included in the countdown. Here are some breakdowns for the countries.

- France: 7 films
- Germany: 6 films
- Italy: 4 films (counting Once Upon a Time in the West, even though it's in English)
- Brazil: 1 film
- Denmark: 1 film
- Poland: 1 film
- Soviet Union: 1 film
- Spain: 1 film
- Sweden: 1 film

This shows that there is much world cinema I need to get to, but I thankfully avoided what my worst fear was going in – a situation where virtually everything was from Hollywood. So some good and bad come from these statistics. The other plus concerning world cinema is the fact that a lot of people listed films that I have never seen, or some cases had no idea about, that I can now look for and watch. My list of things to watch, just from recommendations in this countdown, is enormous.


I was also very interested to see which directors would make multiple appearances and who would ultimately have the highest number of movies selected. Here are some stats on multiple appearances:

- Alfred Hitchcock: 3 films (1940-Rebecca; 1954-Rear Window; 1960-Psycho)
- Francis Ford Coppola: 3 films (1972-The Godfather; 1974-The Godfather Part II; 1979-Apocalypse Now)
- Martin Scorsese: 3 films (1980-Raging Bull; 1983-The King of Comedy; 1990-Goodfellas)
- Fritz Lang: 2 films (1931-M; 1945-Scarlet Street)
- Michael Curtiz: 2 films (1938-Angles With Dirty Faces; 1942: Casablanca)
- Jacques Tourneur: 2 films (1943-I Walked with a Zombie; 1947-Out of the Past)
- Robert Siodmak: 2 films (1946-The Killers; 1949-Criss Cross)
- Howard Hawks: 2 films (1948-Red River; 1959-Rio Bravo)
- Jean-Pierre Melville: 2 films (1967-Le Samourai; 1969-Army of Shadows)
- Sergio Leone: 2 films (1968-Once Upon a Time in the West; 1984-Once Upon a Time in America)
- Woody Allen: 2 films (1977-Annie Hall; 1986-Hannah and Her Sisters)
- Terrence Malick: 2 films (1978-Days of Heaven; 2005-The New World)

I'm glad to see some directors make the list with more than one film -- guys like Curtiz and Tourneur are often given credit only for their single biggest films, so it was nice to show that they were far more important than just Casablanca and Out of the Past. And while it might be entirely a reflection of my personal tastes, I like seeing Robert Siodmak pop up on the countdown multiple times.


Whether it was because I saw a movie after I had already made a selection or because I simply changed my mind later in the countdown, there are a few choices that I would probably do differently now. This isn’t meant to invalidate any of my original selections; I stand by all of them. It just highlights how tight some of these selections can be, and how depending on the day, the answers can vary. I think it’s an interesting thing to consider how tastes or viewpoints might have changed over the course of the countdown.

1939 – My original selection in this year was The Rules of the Game, the all-time classic from Jean Renoir. I found the selection funny, though, because with my usual Hollywood slant, I managed to not pick a single film from Tinseltown in what is considered the greatest year in Hollywood history. My opinion of The Rules of the Game has not gone down at all, but the way I feel toward the immortal Gone With the Wind has only increased. I now find the movie simply irresistible. Never has the term “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” been so applicable. The epic story, the sweeping scale of everything, the instantly-recognizable score – it’s the studio system at its finest. For anyone who loves the film, I certainly recommend checking out the 70th Anniversary Edition DVDs that were released about two weeks ago. I bought the Ultimate Collector’s Edition, which is a six-disc monstrosity that has enough extras to keep you busy for weeks.

1941 – Yes, I would replace the film that is commonly cited as the greatest ever made, which would mean not a single work from Orson Welles in the entire project. Shortly after the countdown began, I went on a Preston Sturges binge and he quickly has become a personal favorite. 1941 was the biggest year of Sturges’ career, as he released two of his most acclaimed films in The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels. Both are must-sees, but I consider The Lady Eve to be the finest film that Sturges made in his short but productive career. There was no better comedy writer in Hollywood in this era, and he makes the zany screwball farce seem so genuine, helped greatly by performances from Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda and the stock players that are found in all of his films. There is no question that this is one that I would definitely have to switch.

– I don’t know that I would definitely change my pick for 1960, as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is on a shortlist of my all-time favorite films. But I do have to admit that if I was making the selection right now, it’s highly possible that I would instead go with Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Not only is it among the funniest comedies ever made, containing a usual superb Jack Lemmon performance, but the black and white photography from Joseph LaShelle is incredible. The black shades are pitch-black, creating quite the contrasts. So, this might not necessarily be a complete change, but it would be much closer than my original selection process.

2009 – I didn’t want to make a full-blown selection for this year since it has not completely run its course yet. Plus, the main issue of not having seen enough films. But if I would make a pick, it would have to be Pixar’s fabulous Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson). I loved it so much that I’m now planning on going back and catching up on all of the Pixar films, very few of which I have seen. Of those that I’ve actually watched, I would rank Up as my favorite. The opening twenty minutes are silent film of the highest order, on par with anything I’ve ever seen. It’s akin to a 20th century version of Buster Keaton or Chaplin. Having never been a big fan of animation, this one was a revelation for me.

If anybody else would like to throw in what would be their top film for 2009, by all means put the in the comments section here. As I said, I can use any and all selections for this year, having seen very little.


For ranking junkies like me and Sam, we’ve never seen a list of movies we didn’t want to try and put in some kind of order. I’m sure that there are others reading this that have similar list-making addictions. So one afternoon I had the idea of attempting to rank my choices for each year. Admittedly, a lot of films are interchangeable in terms of where I would rank them – it just depends on when I’m putting them in order. The only criterion for the list is personal preference. The Top 20 could probably be inverted and I wouldn’t argue too much. A frivolous exercise, I’m sure, but I live for making such lists and rankings!

1. Rear Window (1954, Hitchcock)
2. Goodfellas (1990, Scorsese)
3. Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Mackendrick)
4. The Godfather (1972, Coppola)
5. JFK (1991, Stone)
6. Out of the Past (1947, Tourneur)
7. The New World (2005, Malick)
8. Casablanca (1942, Curtiz)
9. Rio Bravo (1959, Hawks)
10. The Conformist (1970, Bertolucci)
11. Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Aldrich)
12. Apocalypse Now (1979, Coppola)
13. Unforgiven (1992, Eastwood)
14. The Godfather Part II (1974, Coppola)
15. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Dominik)
16. Army of Shadows (1969, Melville)
17. Angels With Dirty Faces (1938, Curtiz)
18. Trouble in Paradise (1932, Lubitsch)
19. Psycho (1960, Hitchcock)
20. Mafioso (1962, Lattuada)
21. Raging Bull (1980, Scorsese)
22. The Big Lebowski (1998, Coen Brothers)
23. All About Eve (1950, Mankiewicz)
24. Le Samourai (Melville, 1967)
25. Mulholland Dr. (2001, Lynch)
26. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973, Peckinpah)
27. Criss Cross (1949, Siodmak)
28. Back to the Future (1985, Zemeckis)
29. Modern Times (1936, Chaplin)
30. Once Upon a Time in America (1984, Leone)
31. The Killers 1946, Siodmak)
32. Days of Heaven (1978, Malick)
33. The Searchers (1956, Ford)
34. L.A. Confidential (1997, Hanson)
35. Rebecca (1940, Hitchcock)
36. Hamlet (1964, Kozintsev)
37. Red River (1948, Hawks)
38. Pulp Fiction (1994, Tarantino)
39. M (1932, Lang)
40. Henry V (1989, Branagh)
41. I Walked with a Zombie (1943, Tourneur)
42. The Thin Man (1934, Van Dyke)
43. Lost in Translation (2003, Coppola)
44. Double Indemnity (1944, Wilder)
45. Lone Star (1996, Sayles)
46. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Leone)
47. A Place in the Sun (1951, Stevens)
48. Fitzcarraldo (1982, Herzog)
49. Madame de... (1953, Ophuls)
50. The Innocents (1951, Clayton)
51. Citizen Kane (1941, Welles)
52. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971, Altman)
53. Scarlet Street (1945, Lang)
54. Persona (1966, Bergman)
55. El Verdugo (1963, Berlanga)
56. The Remains of the Day (1993, Ivory)
57. Downfall (2004, Hirschbiegel)
58. A Star is Born (1937, Wellman)
59. The Rules of the Game (1939, Renoir)
60. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Allen)
61. Mr. Klein (1976, Losey)
62. Repulsion (1965, Polanski)
63. Au Revoir les Enfants (1987, Malle)
64. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, spielberg)
65. Flame & Citron (2008, Madsen)
66. Casque d'or (1952, Becker)
67. The Lives of Others (2006, von Donnersmarck)
68. City of God (2002, Meirelles)
69. Cinema Paradiso (1988, Tornatore)
70. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, Lee)
71. Heat (1995, Mann)
72. Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Wajda)
73. Eyes Wide Shut (1999, Kubrick)
74. Dog Day Afternoon (1975, Lumet)
75. Annie Hall (1977, Allen)
76. The King of Comedy (1983, Scorsese)
77. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933, Capra)
78. Les Miserables (1935, Boleslawski)
79. Der blaue Engel (1930, von Sternberg)

Once again, thanks to everyone who was a part of the entire process. It was great fun! Who knows what I’ll do next, so I’m open to any suggestions.

Friday, November 27, 2009

2008: Flame & Citron (Ole Christian Madsen)

Released: March 28, 2008

a.k.a.: Flammen & Citronen

Director: Ole Christian Madsen; Screenplay: Ole Christian Madsen and Lars Andersen; Cinematography: Jorgen Johansson; Studio: Nimbus Film Productions; Producer: Lars Bredo Rahbek

Cast: Thure Lindhart (Flammen/Flame), Mads Mikkelsen (Citronen/Citron), Stine Stengade (Ketty Selmer), Peter Mygind (Aksel Winther), Mille Lehfeldt (Bodil), Christian Berkel (Karl-Heinz Hoffman – Gestapo Leader), Hanns Zischler (Gilbert – German Colonel), Stine Stengade (Ketty) Claus Riis Østergaard (Bananen), Flemming Enevold (Spex), Lars Mikkelsen (Frode Jacobsen aka Ravnen), Jesper Christiensen (Flammens Far)

- “Do you remember when they arrived? Do you remember April 9th?”

Any selections I make for 2008 and 2009 come with major caveats – I simply haven’t seen everything that I probably should before making a pick. This pertains especially for 2009. I still go to the movies when I can, but I’m one who tends to wait and watch films on DVD in the home theater versus going to the cinema as much as I should. What that means, though, is that I end up being a few months behind on keeping up on newer releases. This issue was compounded even more this year, as when I would normally have been catching up on anything I missed in ’08 I was instead engaged in this wonderful odyssey that has been the Year’s Best Countdown. With all that being said, I think that I’m able to make a solid selection for 2008, even if I haven’t necessarily seen every possible contender.

And I’m going with something of an obscure pick for the year. I’ll be interested to see how many people have seen this Danish film. It received all-around positive reviews, but it only saw release in select theaters and cities. There is one person who deserves sole credit for my viewing of this film – the man who has been here at Goodfella’s since day one, Sam Juliano. Sam saw this one in theaters over the summer and, knowing my tastes for noir and historical thrillers, recommended it as a film that he felt I would enjoy. His high praise intrigued me, but living nowhere near an arthouse theater that would screen a film like this, I wasn’t going to hold my breath. I thought I would simply have wait and hope that it would be released on DVD in the states sometime in the near future. I did, however, discover that IFC had acquired the rights to distribute it in the United States. Knowing that they often offered contemporary films through their On Demand cable service, I decided to give it a shot. Fortunately for me, it was there. I ordered and was once again reminded how many top-notch films are released each year throughout the world that I don’t have the slightest inkling of. It was just good fortune that Sam saw it and recommended it.

Set in occupied Denmark in 1944, the story is inspired by the real-life exploits of two resistance fighters who operated as a hit squad against collaborating countrymen and the occasional Gestapo officer. The pair is known as Flammen (Flame) and Citronen (Citron) which roughly translates as “Flame” and “Lemon” in English. Flame’s (Thure Lindhart) nickname is derived from the fiery red hair that he boldly refuses to cover when he performs a hit. Citron (Mads Mikkelesen) gets his name due to his having worked at the Citroën car factory in Copenhagen before joining the resistance. They make an unlikely duo – Flame is young and brash, fully confident in his abilities to complete any assignment given him. Citron, on the other hand, is reserved, fidgety, always on edge. Both try to live by the code of only killing Danish collaborators, not having a desire to go for German soldiers. Their leader Askel Winther (Peter Mygind), however, is not as principled. He rises to lead the Danish resistance because of supposed connections to the Allies in London, but it is a tenuous connection at best. As Flame and Citron realize that they are now being sent to hunt Nazis and ex-German officers, they begin to question the motives of their leader. Is Winther working for his country or trying to play out personal vendettas? The intrigue is further heightened when a mysterious femme fatale (Stine Stengade) interjects herself into the machinations of the resistance group.

Although set in World War II Europe, it is just as much a noir as a war film. The characters are very much out of the traditional noir mold, finding themselves in circumstances they never imagined being a part of. And because of these situations they are in, they are prodded into doing things that they originally swore they would not do. For Flame, this means continually bending his rules on who he would hunt. Originally it was just men of Denmark who collaborated with Nazis. Then he agreed to kill Germans. This then leads to him reluctantly murdering a woman, which in turn leads to a job where a child is killed. These are things Flame never intended to be a part of, but he is in so deep with the resistance movement he feels like he has to follow through. Similar developments occur to Citron, who tries to shield his wife and daughter from the dangerous world he operates in. Citron sickens himself when he is reduced to robbing a store run by a Nazi businessman in order to feed his family. Both Flame and Citron are unquestionably the protagonists of the film, but in true noir fashion, they are not the crystal clean good guys in white hats. The moral ambiguity of their actions is obvious. If the characters themselves grapple with their roles as assassins, then it even makes the viewer question if what they are doing is justified because of the war.

It’s not just the characters that have the classic noir or gangster vibe. Director Ole Christian Madsen and his crew bring the occupied city of Copenhagen to life similar to how American masters like Robert Siodmak and Michael Curtiz were able to do with Los Angeles and New York. Perhaps an even better comparison would be with other visually spectacular neo-noirs like L.A. Confidential. But even that comparison isn’t perfect, as Flame & Citron doesn’t feel anywhere near as slick as did L.A. Confidential. Everything is in color, but outside of the title character’s flaming red hair, the tones are muted to create the properly overcast atmosphere. At the time of its release, this was the most expensive Danish film ever made and it’s obvious that a bulk of the funding went into recreating the Copenhagen of 1944. Everything feels legit – the streets, the storefronts, the clothes, the cars, the guns. There is a horrific beauty to seeing the city in this period.

There are some virtuoso moments in the film, particularly from the standpoint of directing and editing. The opening fifteen minutes the film is spectacular, using a mixture of archival wartime recordings and original scenes. Playing newsreel footage of the Nazi Army rolling into Denmark, Flame narrates with a series of questions addressed to the collaborators that he targets. “Do you remember April 9th?” he asks, answering quickly with, “I think you do.” He continues with voiceover narration and thoughts as he and his partner travel across town with the day’s assignments. Along the way, Citron too takes the time to reflect on what has led him to this point, reminiscing about how he watched the Nazi stormtroopers march through the center of the city. The sight upset him so badly that he literally became sick at his stomach. All this leads into another montage of historical footage and newly produced shots to quickly enlighten the uninformed viewer. It’s an incredible opening sequence, on par with the kind of editing seen in Oliver Stone’s JFK.

The most obvious influence is also one that has been acknowledged by Madsen – Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows. It can be excused if it ends up being a slightly inferior offspring from Melville’s 1969 masterpiece. That description is not at all a slight, because it is a short list of films that I think equal the achievement of Army of Shadows. There is also more than enough variation to separate Flame & Citron from Army of Shadows, allowing it to occupy its own unique position. Although lead characters grappling with their actions in wartime is similar to that in Melville’s film, this one is slightly less cerebral. There is a bit more emphasis on action, putting the big budget to use in choreographing hip gunplay sequences. As I said, it is not at the level of the great Melville, but it’s a worthy follow-up and one that I hope everyone that reads the blog will eventually get a chance to see.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 2008:
My first runner-up decision is another movie that is related to World War II. I’ve seen wildly varying reviews on Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, which initially gave me some pause going into it. I now see it as a great purchase. Kate Winslet rightfully took home a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Hanna Schmitz. As I said at the beginning, I haven’t seen everything from last year, but others that I would recognize as favorites would be: Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes), The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky), Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood), Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle), and Wall-E (Andrew Stanton). Outside of Flame & Citron and The Reader, though, I have to say not a lot of great films for me.

There are plenty that I still need to see: Waltz With Bashir, The Class, The Hurt Locker, Frost/Nixon, Milk, and a long one that I loaned to my brother and never got back, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)

Released: September 21, 2007

Director: Andrew Dominik; Screenplay: Andrew Dominik based on the novel of the same name by Ron Hansen; Cinematography: Roger Deakins; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producers: Ridley Scott, Jules Daly, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, and David Valdes

Cast: Brad Pitt (Jesse James), Casey Affleck (Robert “Bob” Ford), Sam Rockwell (Charley Ford), Paul Schneider (Dick Liddil), Jeremy Renner (Wood Hite), Sam Shepard (Frank James), Garret Dillahunt (Ed Miller), Mary-Louise Parker (Zerelda “Zee” James), Zooey Deschanel (Dorothy Evans), Alison Elliot (Martha Bolton), Kailin See (Sarah Hite), James Carville (Gov. Thomas T. Crittenden), Michael Parks (Henry Craig), Ted Levine (Sheriff James Timberlake), Michael Copeman (Ed O’Kelley), Hugh Ross (Narrator)

- “Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?”

Now we arrive at my final true contender for the top film of the 2000s. When I repeated numerous times that there were two films remaining in the decade that I put on the same lofty pedestal as a masterpiece like Mulholland Dr., I had to bite my tongue to not start discussing them right away. I managed to keep from spilling the beans on The New World and now, fortunately, we’ve reached 2007 and I can begin my gushing for this most lyrical of westerns. I had also dropped another slight hint as to the possible appearance of this film in the countdown in 1992’s review of Unforgiven. In praising that Eastwood film, I declared that it was at such a high level that there was only one other western released in the last 30 years that approached it. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (hereafter to be abbreviated as simply The Assassination of Jesse James), is that one western. And not only does it approach the greatness of Unforgiven, it is every bit an equal.

Before going straight into discussing it, though, I want to stop and acknowledge what an incredible year 2007 was for American cinema. It was a good year for movies around the world, but in particular American filmmakers trotted out one brilliant film after another. Two of the most acclaimed of the decade, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, were locked in a dead heat for Best Picture. Both routinely appear near the top of “best of the decade” polls. Celebrated films like Zodiac, Juno, Michael Clayton, and Eastern Promises would have been standouts in nearly any year. Pixar released another standout with Ratatouille. And if you want to cheat a bit and expand things to “English-speaking cinema” and include the British-led Atonement, the list becomes even more impressive. In my opinion, this is one of the finest years in American film in recent memory.

All of which may explain why a film like The Assassination of Jesse James received such little mainstream buzz in terms of awards, best films lists, and other superficial achievements. There were certainly critics who championed the film, and from doing a little surfing around the blogosphere I see that there are a considerable number of cineastes who rank it as high as I do. Still, there is no question that it was often lost in the shuffle of the great films listed above, frequently ignored in the debate that raged between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Rest assured, there is no debate or indecision here. In a year that could have been a major headache to choose a single top film, The Assassination of Jesse James makes the selection a no-brainer. Not only do I think it’s the top film of 2007, but I would put it in the top two or three of the decade and equally as high on a personal all-time westerns list.

Andrew Dominik’s film is a western in setting and subject matter, but not necessarily in the traditional style. To be sure, it contains a few sequences of customary gunplay and tough guy machismo, but these are spaced intermittently across the nearly three-hour runtime. Normally a western without shootouts is like a comedy without jokes, but the story adapted from Ron Hansen’s novel is not concerned with the actual violence and robberies of Jesse James and his gang. There is no need to continually showcase violent sequences. It is rightfully assumed that after seeing just a single spectacular train robbery, the audience is fully aware of the violence and ruthlessness that Jesse is capable of. Instead, the focus is on the myth that comes to surround everything about the notorious outlaw. It is hero worship played out in the nineteenth century, as a man who makes his living sticking up rail lines and killing those who get in his way has achieved celebrity status throughout the country. The plot unfolds as a psychoanalytic study of both the icon Jesse James and admirer Robert Ford. The closer Bob gets to his idol, the quicker the myth of the benevolent bandit begins to crumble.

The story opens as the gang of Jesse (Brad Pitt) and Frank (Sam Shepard) James assemble in preparation of a daring train robbery. Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), who has spent his entire adolescence following the exploits of the James brothers, approaches and begs both Jesse and Frank to let him come along on the raid. After being rebuffed by the cantankerous Frank, he manages to convince Jesse to allow him to join the gang. Helping his cause is the fact that his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) is a longtime cohort. The actual robbery, taking place within the first fifteen minutes, might be the most spectacular sequence of the entire film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is in complete control, using contrasting lights and shadows in constructing an eerie montage. The use of flickering lights and torches, creating dancing shadows in the nearby woods and playing across the vigilante masks of the gang contribute to a haunting atmosphere. Something as simple as tracking the front headlight of the approaching train, making it the only thing to pierce the blackness of the dark night, is brilliant in its simplicity.

The gang disperses after the robbery and the story follows them to various locations. Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) and Jesse’s cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) travel to Kentucky to stay with James relatives. Charley travels to stay with the brothers’ widowed sister Martha (Alison Elliot). Bob, meanwhile, is on cloud nine when Jesse instructs him to stay back. Other gang members are immediately jealous and Bob basks in the minor distinction. Jesse slowly begins to learn what a hero he has long been to Bob. Growing up, Bob kept a shoebox full of James-related mementos, ranging from newspaper clippings to nickel books glorifying the outlaw. Jesse seems to keep Bob around out of a combination of enjoying the ego boost brought by having a young sycophant at hand and to use him as his personal gofer. But the closer Bob gets to his idol, the less enamored he remains. Far from the Robin Hood portrayed in the news clippings, he finds himself constantly on the receiving end of Jesse’s manic outbursts. He becomes a witness to the insecure, vindictive personality of a man on the run. This is not a glamorous life led by Jesse and his family. Forced to constantly move from one safe house to another, and always convinced that those closest to him are plotting his demise, Jesse manages to alienate someone who once looked up to him as a parishioner would a minister.

Aspiring to the same fame and celebrity as Jesse, Bob realizes that he will never achieve it by tagging along as a sidekick. Instead, he decides to get in touch with Police Commissioner Henry Craig (Michael Parks), declaring that he can lead the authorities to the most famous outlaw in the world. After striking an official deal with the governor of Missouri (James Carville), Bob also brings his brother Charley and Dick Liddil into the plot. The story then is converted into a cat and mouse game, as Bob maneuvers to stay close enough to Jesse to bring about his capture, but not reveal his intentions to the always-suspicious killer. The tension is heightened with each passing moment, as it eventually becomes clear that the two sides in the “struggle” are playing out a shadowboxing routine. Jesse seems to know that somebody in his gang has turned on him, but never directly acts on his suspicion. Bob and Charley remain in constant fear that Jesse will uncover their conspiracy, but feel themselves in too deep to turn back.

The title of the film gives away the end of the chess game, but I won’t reveal the exact mechanics of how it plays out. There is some irony in the title though, as Bob is not exactly portrayed as a coward. As a quirky, shifty person, yes, but not necessarily a coward. And Jesse is not the traditional romanticized outlaw seen as central characters of most westerns. He is hardly likable. Thus, at least in my mind, I never experienced much sympathy for the situation Jesse found himself in. The final chapter to the story serves as a coda in the life of the man who killed Jesse James. Believing that this feat would lead him to great fame and fortune, Bob is instead haunted by the entire episode, earning a living by reenacting the assassination in a stage play. Labeled a coward and a traitor, he becomes one of the most despised personalities in the country.

The most obvious comparison for a film like this would be with a filmmaker that I have praised quite a bit recently – Terrence Malick. Visually, there are a number of similarities to Malick’s Days of Heaven. I don’t know enough about the mechanics to say whether the films are similar in technical respects, but The Assassination often has scenic shots of nature that are similar to those in Days of Heaven. Additionally, it adopts a pace similar to that found in all of Malick’s work, moving quite leisurely, completely unconcerned with how long it takes the story to progress. The thing that Dominik’s screenplay possesses that might appeal to a larger audience than Malick films is the ability to guide the leisurely pace toward tension-filled high points. There are a number of scenes that are as intense as anything you’ll find in a top-notch thriller. In particular, I think that the dinner sequence, when Jesse unexpectedly drops in on the Ford brothers at their sister’s home, to be one of the finest in the film. As Jesse and Charley laugh at Bob for his hero worship as a young boy, the friction builds. Everyone there is terrified of saying the wrong word that will set Jesse off. But after the nonstop prodding from the outlaw, Bob becomes so incensed that he can’t resist the urge to respond. There is also a memorable scene when Jesse is standing on a frozen lake, asking Charley if he ever considered suicide. As he does this, he begins firing rounds from his six-shooter into the ice. With each shot, you see Charley wince in fear that the entire pond of ice is going to collapse beneath them.

The other understandable parallel to Malick is due to the heavy use of narration. This is probably the most criticized element of the entire film. Many are turned off by narration of any kind, but in this instance there are actual specific complaints about the voice-overs that guide the viewer. The fact that some of the narration describes specific actions, in some cases even as they are being performed on-screen, led certain critics to liken it to watching an audio book being read. I couldn’t disagree more, and in fact I think that the narration is fitting. Why do I say this? Because even when it is doing something that could be incredibly annoying, such as describing action as we watch it, the language is overly literary and flowery. What this means is, it sounds like it is being read from a pulp or dime novel about Jesse James that would have been published in that era. I think it corresponds perfectly to the overall tone of the film.

I already mentioned the train robbery, but Roger Deakins deserves praise for more than just this single sequence. Deakins might be the MVP of the entire year in film, as not only is he responsible for the photography here but also in the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men. Both of his efforts were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost to There Will Be Blood (oddly enough, Deakins is a startling 0-8 at the Oscars). I understand how meaningless such awards ultimately are, but it’s impressive to be nominated twice in the same category in a single year. Had I been the final arbiter, Deakins would have won the honor for The Assassination of Jesse James. I don’t know how else to describe the cinematography except to call it beautifully bleak. The outdoor shots are expansive and picturesque, but always maintain a desolate air about them. The Days of Heaven comparison is apt, except that everything appears to take place in under an overcast sky rather than at the “magic hour.”

Deakins is the consummate pro, someone who is easy to take for granted because you always expect superior work from him. The same thing could even be said about Brad Pitt. While not necessarily considered the most talented actor in Hollywood, he does consistently turn out solid performances. Here, his turn as Jesse James comes off much better than I expected going in. I honestly thought it had disaster written all over it, but he shines as the calculating gunman. Hopefully it doesn’t seem like I’m giving Pitt short shrift, but the most satisfying thing about the film is a pair of revelatory performances. The first is that of the director, Andrew Dominik. I have not seen his debut film, 2000’s Chopper, but by all accounts there was nothing there to indicate that he would come up with something like this in his sophomore effort. It takes confidence to make a film like this, one that is certain to alienate a lot of viewers. He does it assertively and in my opinion never falters. The other is Casey Affleck. Affleck is at times annoying, funny, neurotic, lovable – in short, the perfect Bob Ford. He is a multifaceted person who develops into a most unlikely lead character.

All this time and not even a mention of the unorthodox score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that is able to get under your skin at the most tense moments. This just goes to show how much there is to explore in this film and how rewarding it can be on repeat viewings. I just hope that Dominik stays active and doesn’t begin releasing movies at a Malick-like pace. Get to work, Andrew!

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 2007:
I’ve already listed a number of films from what I consider to be a monstrous year in film. My favorites are mostly in American cinema, but I’ll go ahead and try and list what would be the rest of my Top 10.

2. Zodiac (David Fincher) – My favorite Fincher film
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson) – My favorite PTA film
4. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg) - My favorite Cronenberg film
5. No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers)
6. The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitsky)
7. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck)
8. Atonement (Joe Wright)
9. Juno (Jason Reitman)
10. Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy)

There are some obvious omissions, particularly not having seen The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and also highlighting my lack of familiarity with Pixar in not having seen Ratatouille.

Monday, November 23, 2009

2006: The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

Released: March 23, 2006 (Germany)

a.k.a.: Das Leben der Anderen

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; Screenplay: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; Cinematography: Hagen Bogdanski; Studio: Beuna Vista International; Producers: Max Wiedemann, Quirin Berg, and Dirk Hamm

Cast: Ulrich Mühe (Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler), Martina Gedeck (Christa-Maria Sieland), Sebastian Koch (Georg Dreyman), Ulrich Tukur (Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz), Thomas Thieme (Minister Bruno Hempf), Hans-Uwe Bauer (Paul Hauser), Volkmar Kleinert (Albert Jerska), Matthias Brenner (Karl Wallner)

For the second time in three years, I turn to Germany for my top film. Not since the first two years of the countdown (all the way back in May!), when I chose The Blue Angel and M for 1930 and ’31, have films from Deutschland popped up so close together. Oddly enough, both of these films from the current decade deal with dark periods in German history. As was covered in the review of Downfall, the final days of Hitler’s Third Reich are played out at a frenetic, almost real-time pace in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s stellar work. The formula for writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut film is quite different. Rather than bombarding the viewer with the immediacy of a dire situation, he crafts a story that slowly builds tension, creeping up on climaxes that are bubbling over with anxiety.

The setting is East Germany in 1984, a time when socialists still ruled the nation, but when protesters and intellectuals are routinely speaking out against the repressive regime. Maintaining control of the ruling elite is the secret police of the East German state, the dreaded Ministry for State Security, or “Stasi.” This is an organization that specialized in covert operations utilized to spy on and uncover enemies of the state. The extent of the operations of the organization is staggering even now – 68,000 full-time employees, as well as utilizing nearly 300,000 part-time workers and operatives over the course of its existence. In addition, the Stasi cultivated an army of informants to clandestinely report on the activities of neighbors, co-workers, relatives, and anyone else that could be under scrutiny as a “class enemy.”

One of the Stasi’s most successful employees is Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an expert in the disciplines of interrogations and covert intelligence gathering. So efficient is Wiesler that he is in charge of instructing new recruits at the Stasi academy in the art of extracting confessions from suspects. The methods used to obtain such confessions – sleep deprivation, constant questioning, threats toward family members – would make the admissions dubious to most impartial observers, but Wiesler views them as foolproof tactics. A former classmate and current superior of Wiesler, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) comes to Wiesler in order to initiate surveillance on the most successful playwright in East Germany, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). On the surface, Dreyman looks like a loyal socialist, but party higher-ups begin to suspect that he, like many other artists, may secretly harbor anti-GRD feelings. Thus, Grubitz and Party Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) decide that he needs to be placed under surveillance. Grubitz approaches Wiesler, having him set up the operation.

Wiesler wires Dreyman’s apartment and constructs a control room on the top floor. As he spies on them, the reasoning for putting Dreyman under surveillance slowly begins to emerge. When Wiesler spots Dreyman’s girlfriend Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck) with Minister Hempf, he begins to understand the goal of the operation is not preserving the security of the state. Over the course of his work, Wiesler gradually begins to relate to Dreyman and Christa-Maria. Almost as if he is living vicariously through the couple, Wiesler’s commitment to the cause begins to wane. Taking chances that he would not normally have considered, Wiesler actually begins to leave out key information from the reports that he submits to Grubitz. The result is that no incriminating evidence is found against Dreyman, which infuriates Hempf.

Part of the true reason that no incriminating evidence is found to smear Dreyman is that initially he is not actually a subversive. Although many of his peers in the theater world are dissidents, Dreyman is almost apolitical. If he is not an outright supporter of the GDR, then he at least is someone who has made peace with the way the system is. While Wiesler is undoubtedly the main character of the film, the most interesting aspect of the story to me is the development of Dreyman. When he is put under surveillance, it becomes obvious that he has no desire to be a part of the resistance. His only goal is to be able to continue to be able to write, which is guaranteed by staying out of the rough and tumble business of politics in the GDR. It is only once surveillance has begun on him that he even slightly ventures into publishing something political.

I am not going to go much further in terms of plot, because although I’m guessing that a lot of folks have seen this, but it’s one that needs to be experienced with at least some degree of freshness the first time around. So, to those who still haven’t had the pleasure, I won’t reveal too much. I do, though, want to comment on the conclusion and say that I love it. Rather than wrapping things up with the most obvious, pat ending that anyone could see coming, von Donnersmarck keeps it understated. It's feel good not in an overly sentimental kind of way, but rather very modestly. I hate to sound schmaltzy myself, but this is a movie that gives a reassuring assessment of the ability of one person to decide to do the right thing, regardless of the outside pressure.

The performances are all around solid. Mühe as Wiesler is the prototypical dedicated, methodical bureaucrat. Koch plays Dreyman as the writer who will do anything for his art. The best performance probably comes from Tukur as Anton Grubitz, a man who fashions himself as dedicated to the tenets of the state, but who’s only true ambition is personal career advancement. The true star of the entire film is von Donnersmarck. The script which he penned is tight, using very deliberate pacing and style to make the climaxes unbelievably thrilling. Long sections of the film will seem to repeat snippets of dialogue and situations, but they only lull the viewer into a sense of familiarity that is quickly shattered when tension-filled scenes pop up. As a director making his debut, von Donnersmarck also displays incredible control. While not exactly the most scientific scale to judge such things, the movie looks exactly as a westerner like myself has been led to believe cities behind the Iron Curtain would look. Everything is drab and dull, with each building looking exactly like the next. The coloring of the sets and scenery is equally bland, creating an air of monotony that accentuates the pacing of the story.

Perhaps part of me being drawn to this film is that I see a lot of elements from other all-time favorites. Every time that I watch it, I am reminded of a classic like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, another tale of a man becoming disillusioned in an authoritarian state. It’s also impossible not to relate it to one of Francis Ford Coppola’s finest, The Conversation, which touches on the way that surveillance can affect both the watcher and the watched. I don’t think that The Lives of Others is quite at the same level as these two films, but few are. It is an amazing achievement as a debut film and one that is poignant enough to stay with you well after you finish it.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 2006: I came very, very close to going with Paul Greengrass’ United 93. I think it’s a remarkable achievement, and one which I originally questioned coming so soon after September 11. But it’s handled well and the intensity that is able to be created in another real-time like production is impressive. Clint Eastwood also released one excellent and one OK film in 2006. Screenwriter Paul “I have a message and I’m going to pound it into your head” Haggis gets into the way too much in Flags of Our Fathers. Letters from Iwo Jima is certainly the superior of the two and ranks high on any Eastwood list. I am happy that The Departed finally got Marty Scorsese his long-deserved Oscars, but it’s a movie that I seem to like less the more that I watch it. I still like it, but where I once felt it to be among Scorsese’s best, I no longer think that is the case. Still, it remains a top film for 2006. A movie from this year that continues to keep me puzzled is Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. It might be one of the best movies I’ve seen or it might be a dud – and I honestly can’t decide which one I feel is the case! It’s one that I probably need to continue to revisit. Others I have to acknowledge: Apocalypto (Mel Gibson), Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro), Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick), and Inside Man (Spike Lee).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

2005: The New World (Terrence Malick)

Released: December 25, 2005

Director: Terrence Malick; Screenplay: Terrence Malick; Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki; Studio: New Line Cinema; Producers: Sarah Green and Terrence Malick

Cast: Colin Farrell (Captain John Smith), Q’Orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas), Christopher Plummer (Captain Christopher Newport), Christian Bale (John Rolfe), August Schellenberg (Chief Powhatan), Wes Studi (Opchanacanough), Yorick van Wageningen (Captain Argall), Raoul Trujillo (Tomocomo), Michael Greyeyes (Rupwew), Irene Bedard (Pocahontas’ Mother), Kalani Queypo (Parahunt)

“How much they err,
that think every one which has been at Virginia
understand or knows what Virginia is.”

This film and the experience I had watching it for the first time is unlike anything I’ve ever felt from a movie. I talked about the incredible feeling I had after viewing Mulholland Dr. and how the enigmatic nature of it left me endlessly fascinated. This is different. There, I was intrigued by the story, wondering if I could put all of the pieces together and try to understand how it played out. With The New World, it was an all-encompassing, overwhelming onslaught of all the senses. I doubt that I’m even eloquent enough to put the feeling into words. It had then, and still has to this day, the ability to put me in a trance-like state whenever I watch it. The photography is stunningly beautiful, possibly the most impressive I’ve ever seen. The music is sublime, perfectly capturing the moods experienced throughout the film. The direction is lyrical, like watching a director write a poem through images. I just become completely immersed in the world that Terrence Malick creates.

This will be an interesting write-up, as so much of what I am attempting to communicate has to be experienced to be appreciated. And at times it might read like something of a love letter, which will be interesting for a lot of folks because I’m almost certain that some readers will completely abhor this film. I’ve been anxious to reach this year in the countdown so I could try to get down some thoughts on this movie, and also because I am eager to see if there are others that are as enamored by it as I am.

In the last few years of the countdown, I mentioned that there are two more films that challenge Mulholland Dr. as my top film for the entire decade. That statement was actually a bit misleading, but only because I needed to at least maintain some kind of suspense. The truth of the matter is this: although Mulholland Dr. and a future entry in this countdown come close, The New World is my #1 for all of the 2000s. And if I were to try to make an all-time list, it would place very, very high. I’m talking Top 10 or higher. I love this film that much. My guess is that whether someone cares for The New World is dependent upon their overall feelings toward director Terrence Malick. The typical elements of a Malick film are apparent – voiceover narration, loose and meandering storyline, and, most importantly, unmatched visual beauty. Where I am in regards to Malick overall is obvious and has been stated multiple times on the blog. With the exception of Badlands, I consider the other films on his resume to be bona fide masterpieces. But I’m of the opinion that The New World exceeds anything else that the famed recluse has done.

This is the story of the settlement of Jamestown, told through the often repeated myth of the romance that developed between Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Powhatan princess Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). Malick creates a world that is a blend of documented history and folklore. He pays strict attention to many historical details that add to a feeling of legitimacy – things like filming on location in a tributary of the James River and constructing complete replicas of the Jamestown settlement and Powhatan villages. A bevy of experts and consultants were hired to ensure that everything from style of dress, tools, and crops in nearby fields matched those used by natives of the time. The stickler Malick even hired a linguist and forced native actors to partially learn a dialect of Algonquin that, outside of a handful of natives and academics, had been extinct for nearly 200 hundred years. The result is an authenticity that is unmatched by similar historical epics. Perhaps some of these details could have been faked and the general audience would have been none the wiser. But the deliberation that was put into even the most minor details is obvious and it truly sells the idea that the production is as close to Jamestown in 1607 as any film can get.

Where the story diverges from the historical record is in the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas. There is no doubt that the two met each other in Jamestown, and by Smith’s own account she saved him from execution at the hands of Powhatan leaders. There is no evidence, however, that the two developed the kind of romantic relationship that has become legendary, repeated in everything from novels to Disney movies. None of this matters, though. I said it earlier in my review of JFK, but I still maintain that Roger Ebert was correct when he declared that facts belong in print, while movies are about emotions. Malick’s intention was never to make a movie that strictly adheres to documented fact. His films are about feelings. He set out to make a movie that examines what happens when cultures clash, how the passions of ordinary people can be subsumed by inexorable outside forces. And, in my opinion, to show the beauty that existed in both the people and the culture of natives long before being “civilized” by Europeans.

There are three cuts of the film that exist on various world releases, but in the States there are primarily two versions – the theatrical 125-minute release and the 175-minute extended cut. The differences between the two are just the ability of Malick to stretch in certain sequences, providing even more shots of the natural landscape. If I was recommending the film to a newcomer, I would say start with the theatrical release, then if you enjoy that move on to the expanded version. When I personally revisit the film, I almost always reach for the extended cut. But both versions have their worth, as certain sequences are edited a bit different in each cut, producing different responses when you watch them.

I don’t know that a plot synopsis of either version will help all that much for someone who hasn’t seen the film. So much of the story is seemingly random scenes that allow the viewer a window to simply observe the beauty of the land. I don’t even know how Malick wrote a screenplay for much of it. Things like Pocahontas dancing in wheat fields, natives examining the structure of shelters built by the colonists, or the complete lack of dialogue in large sections in favor of natural outdoor noises and the wonderful soundtrack. These are things that I can’t really describe; they simply have to been seen to understand what I am talking about. And they are not going to be for everyone – a lot of people who watch it will feel that the entire thing is wandering aimlessly from one pointless scene to the next. If that’s the case, I’m under no illusion of being able to convince anyone otherwise. But what I think this style does is convey the wonderment of the entire situation. Just stop and consider what it must have been like for two cultures, both essentially unaware of the other, to first make contact? Think about that. Imagine how the natives must have felt to see massive ships sailing into their harbors. Or the mix of excitement and terror that the English certainly experienced in trying to establish a colony in this foreign land. Malick’s imagery perfectly captures this astonishment. In such a situation, it would be impossible _not_ to stop and marvel at everything around you, and this is what Malick forces the viewer to do.

This means that plot and storyline ultimately takes a back seat to the visuals. But this in no way implies that there is not a compelling tale being told. There is an aching beauty in the relationship developed between Smith and Pocahontas. In watching it progress, I found it impossible not to also feel an inevitable gloom about it all. Farrell and Kilcher have such chemistry together that it only heightens the sadness surrounding a relationship that you know cannot work. The scenes near the end of the film, when the two are reunited in England after years of separation, are among the most melancholy I’ve seen. Kilcher was just 14-years old when shooting began on the film, which is probably the most shocking fact about the entire film. She turns in a performance that is mature well beyond her years. Farrell is very good and deserves credit for contributing to the dynamic between the two, but I never got the feeling that his role was one that couldn’t have been filled by many other actors. Kilcher’s performance, on the other hand, is singular. It has the elements of a great silent film performance, as the subtleties of tone of voice and body language are essential to putting it over. It is a remarkable film debut and I am not exaggerating at all in saying that it's among the finest performances that I've seen in a long time.

It cannot be forgotten, though, that this is a Terrence Malick film, meaning that no matter how strong the acting performances the true standouts remain those behind the camera. This fact alone is enough to turn off newcomers to his work, but I find something appealing about knowing that you’re watching an artist in complete control of what he is crafting. In Malick’s four major motion pictures, he hired a different cinematographer for each film. And yet in each case, he appears to best the amazing photography accomplished in his previous efforts. What this tells me is that regardless of who is his DP, Malick is a significant contributor in achieving the look of all of his films. In The New World he worked with one of the best in the business today, Emmanuel Lubezki. There are other outstanding achievements on Lubezki’s resume, but in my opinion not even the work he did in a film like Children of Men approaches the triumph achieved here. Lubezki and Malick decided to attempt to shoot the entire movie without artificial lighting, instead relying on the natural scenery and illumination of the Chickahominy River. In later interviews, Lubezki commented on the fact that he was terribly nervous about the proposition and often told Malick that he doubted they could pull it off. Malick was reassuring, telling his cinematographer that he wouldn’t have asked him to do it if he didn’t honestly believe that he had the ability. The decision to photograph the film was as important as the tactic of shooting during the “magic hour” in Days of Heaven. The result is a vibrant film, with visuals to rival something one would see on Discovery’s Planet Earth.

The soundtrack must also be acknowledged, if for nothing else than to recognize the disgusting amount of talent utilized by Malick in putting it together. James Horner was commissioned to write the entire soundtrack, but quickly ran into obstacles in working with the director. Due to Malick’s constant reshoots and edits, Horner was forced to continually write and rewrite the music for scenes. The result was a finished score that at times did not fit the flow of the film. Rather than reject it outright, Malick utilized it in parts, but in others inserted famed pieces from such musical luminaries as Richard Wagner and Mozart. Not a bad trio, eh? James Horner, one of the most renowned conductors of film scores, along with two of the most celebrated musicians who ever lived. Horner’s contributions are impressive, but the musical centerpieces are those from Wagner and Mozart. The use of Wagner’s prelude to Das Rheingold, particularly at the start of the film as the English ships are first entering Jamestown harbor, is the most fitting piece of music that could have been chosen. It goes perfectly with the theme of discovery. The second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 is used to accentuate the more downbeat, mournful moments of the story. Just the opening notes of the piano in that piece are enough to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

I was originally concerned that this post would be shorter than usual, as I felt myself unable to articulate the power this movie has over me. Fortunately, no one has ever accused me of being into the whole brevity thing, and it felt good to finally pen something on a film that until this point I’ve hesitated to even really discuss. I recognize that this is not a film for everyone, but there are actually times that I like this to be the case, as it almost feels like I’m in on a secret that few others get. I’ll close in a way that I think is most befitting this film, by simply display some of the more spectacular images seen throughout. Even these beautiful screenshots don't do justice to a lot of the scenes.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 2005: After my gushing over The New World, it should be obvious that there is no other film that ever truly contended for the top spot. That being said, there are still a number of other films from this year that I think are outstanding. The first runner-up would have to be John Hillcoat’s Australian western The Proposition. It was a movie that I knew nothing about, outside of reading a random blurb that recommended it as a well-done modern western. It certainly lived up to that billing. Woody Allen’s Match Point might owe a lot to his earlier Crimes and Misdemeanors, and even more so to George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, but it’s still an excellent thriller in its own right. I would probably rank it as Woody’s best film since Crimes and Misdemeanors. One movie that bombed upon its initial release, but was saved by the release of a director’s cut on DVD is Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. I might rank it much higher than others, but I think in director’s cut form that it is a very good pop history epic. And being a major boxing fan, I have to admit to liking Cinderalla Man. It utilizes some of the usual sports clichés, but Paul Giamatti’s performance is more than enough to elevate it. Finally, I think that Steven Spielberg’s Munich works quite well in spots, but fizzles toward the end as Spielberg seems uncertain of the proper conclusion.

Arguably the two most highly acclaimed films of the year are ones that have never been particular favorites. My suspicion is that some will cite Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain as the best film of this year, but it never really worked for me. And I think that David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is an average crime drama.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

2004: Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel)

Released: September 16, 2004 (Germany)

a.k.a.: Der Untergang

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel; Screenplay: Bernd Eichinger based on the book “Bis zur letzten Stunde” by Joachim Fest, Traudl Junge and Melissa Muller; Cinematography: Rainer Klausmann; Studio: Constantin Film; Producer: Bernd Eichinger

Bruno Ganz (Adolf Hitler), Alexandra Maria Lara (Traudl Junge), Juliane Kohler (Eva Braun), Thomas Kretschmann (SS-Gruppenfuhrer Hermann Fegelein), Christian Redl (Generaloberst Alfred Jodl), Ulrich Matthes (Joseph Goebbels), Carinna Harfouch (Magda Goebbels), Heino Ferch (Albert Speer), Andre Hennicke (SS-Brigagefuhrer Wilhelm Monke), Ulrich Noethen (Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler), Christian Berkel (Ernst-Gunther Schenck), Rolf Kanies (Hans Krebs)

I have a feeling that this one could divide readers here at the blog nearly as widely is it did the country of Germany upon its release. As someone who is obsessed with history and loves nothing more than a solidly-constructed historical drama, perhaps I am the perfect mark for such a film. There has always been an air of mystery surrounding the closing of the Third Reich, specifically concerning the final days of Adolf Hitler. In all honesty, I knew very little about the frenetic circumstances of this period, outside of the usual random trivia and general World War II history. So it is little surprise that I found it engrossing to be given a first-person view of the disintegration of both an evil empire and an equally evil man.

The story recounts the final twelve days in the life of Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz), watching him spend this time with a large entourage in an underground bunker. It is April 1945 and the Third Reich is on its last legs – the Americans and British are advancing from the West, while the Russians are closing in even quicker from the East. With constant bombing and artillery peppering the city, Berlin is a smoldering mess, with all buildings and houses being turned to rubble. The majority of the story takes place in the subterranean Fuhrerbunker, constructed underneath buildings in the government district of Berlin. Entry into this claustrophobic world is provided by following the character of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler’s personal secretary. She is hired by Hitler in the early 1940s and by this point in the war has obviously developed a sense of loyalty toward her boss. When much of the staff decides to leave Berlin before the city is overrun, Traudl declares that she will stick by Hitler until the end.

What the audience is able to witness in this claustrophobic world is the breakdown of a man who, in his own words in the film, singlehandedly conquered Europe. His generals and advisors recognize that there is no stopping the Allies at this point – Berlin is going to fall and it is going to happen very soon. Whether Hitler understands this is up for debate. At certain times he begins planning for his suicide, as if he has come to terms with the fact that the war is lost. At others, he plans counterattacks for units that don’t exist or plots strategies to prolong a war that moments ago he had declared he was done fighting. Since none of his generals have the courage to tell him the truth, Hitler operates in a pseudo-dream world in which he is never certain whether he should continue fighting or simply end it all. Along the way, a veritable who’s who of historical Nazi characters is seen. Eva Braun, Hitler’s longtime girlfriend whom he marries just before both commit suicide. Joseph Goebbels, a loyal Nazi until the end. Goebbels’ wife Marga, who performs acts that are enough to make anyone sick at their stomach. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS who begins secretly planning to negotiate with the Allies in order to secure advantageous terms for himself and other high ranking party members. Albert Speer, the architect turned war production chief.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s attempt to tell this compelling story was not received warmly by everyone in his home country. As is understandably the case, depictions of this period in German history have remained controversial ever since the war ended. The government has tightly regulated the ability of artists and the media to create portrayals of Hitler and the Nazi party. Although these sentiments may not have been as strong as in the initial post-war years, these unofficial (and in some cases, official) prohibitions remained applicable even in 2003. In making Downfall, Hirschbiegel directly challenged one of the most significant of these remaining restrictions – depicting a realistic, German-speaking Adolf Hitler as the lead character in a film. As if this would not be controversial enough, the way in which Hitler is portrayed would draw even greater fury.

Evidently, much of Germany was not yet prepared for a film to show the psychopathic leader as someone capable of being every bit as human as the average person. The furor arose over the personal approach taken in telling the story of Hitler’s final days. To be certain, there are plenty of maniacal moments – bone-chilling sequences in which he casually discusses executions and deaths of his own German citizens. But there are also moments when the mass murder is portrayed as caring and at times quite charming.

Where I come down in assessing the film is obvious. I choose it as my number one for the year, so these are obviously not issues that affected my appreciation of it. But I can appreciate where the reaction of a large section of the German population was coming from. Bruno Ganz’s chilling portrayal of Hitler at times does border on showing him as a sympathetic figure. This is not the prototypical depiction of Hitler, a madman who does nothing but plot genocide and war crimes. In this film he is also seen patting young German boys on the head, receiving children like a favorite uncle, or showing compassion for the females stuck with him under the Chancellery. It is understandable that some might see this as unjustly creating sympathy for Hitler, depicting his final twelve days in the bunker as some kind of heroic trip toward martyrdom. For me, though, the fleshing out of Adolf Hitler on a personal level only made him even more disturbing. The fact that someone this charismatic could move from patting children on the head one moment, to in the next instant condemning the entire civilian population of Berlin to death is shocking. It is an unnerving and powerful juxtaposition. The other striking dynamic to the film is Hirschbiegel’s portrayal of those around Hitler. It is shocking how even generals who know that the war is lost, refuse to turn their back on the man that has lead them to this point of destruction. There is a scene in the film when Hitler is told that an army led by General Steiner will not be able to attack as he ordered. Hitler then declares that the Army has failed him and that he is finished with it all – in so many words, he tells them that they are on their own from there on out. And even then, a number of generals refuse to abandon the man.

The performance from Ganz is stunning. Even if one is turned off by the subject matter of the film, or completely disagrees with the method of storytelling, I don’t think anyone can deny the level of Ganz’s achievement. Aside from the similarities in physical appearance, Ganz also spent time studying a rare audio recording of Hitler in order to mimic his actual voice and speech patterns. This is not an easy performance to pull off as there is a risk of being too over the top, of playing Hitler as a caricature of the arm-waving, spittle-flying orator at the podium that everyone pictures when his name is mentioned. Ganz embraces this image at times, but adds enough nuances to keep from approaching campy territory. And Ganz’s is not the only standout role. If Carinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels isn’t enough to horrify you, then I don’t know what will. The way that she justifies giving her children cyanide is enough to make even the most coldhearted viewer squirm.

Outside of Ganz, what ultimately makes the film work for me is the style adopted by Hirschbiegel. Even though we know that the story is unfolding over the course of nearly two weeks, the action has a real-time feel to it. So many things are taking place in such a short period of time, and in such a confined area, and Hirschbiegel never lets the audience forget it. Cuts between characters and scenes – including some sequences taking place on the war-torn streets of Berlin – come quickly and one on top of the other, building tension for a story that has an ending that everyone already knows.

I’ll be interested to see how others assess this one. I find it unsettling in content, but unbelievably compelling in its execution.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 2004: This was a toss up for me between my actual choice and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. I know that I rate The Aviator a bit higher than most – I actually rank it as my #3 or #4 favorite Scorsese film – but we all know that personal taste is going to play a role at various points in this countdown. It’s interesting to see Marty use such a bright, slick production style. Outside of these two at the top, other favorites for the year include: Collateral (Michael Mann), Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood), Sideways (Alexander Payne), Bad Education (Pedro Almodovar), and Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston).

Not exactly a banner year, in my estimation, but solid.