Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Countdown to Resume October 1

Just to pick a nice point to resume things, everything will go back to the usual schedule to start October. The first day of the month just sounds like an ideal date to resume the countdown -- easy for everyone to remember and at that point, things will have calmed down significantly in my life.

So on October 1st we resume the march through the 80s and on toward the 21st century!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Slight Pause

Just wanted to update everyone that I'm going to have to take a slight break from the (if I do say so myself) impressive pace that the countdown has enjoyed up until this point. I'm proud of keeping up the every other day posting schedule thus far, particularly considering the fact that I'm doing the reviews as I go for the most part. But in the next two weeks I have an incredibly busy schedule with work and also taking the LSAT in considerations of going back to law school.

I'd love to hear thoughts from those that follow the countdown on the best option for these next two weeks. I'd love to think that I could keep writing and also not neglect the necessary cramming/studying that goes along in the final stretch before the test. I suppose could intermittently post what I get done, but I worry that it could be slightly lesser articles that are posted in this period, at least in comparison to what has been done thus far in the countdown. I don't kid myself into thinking that is exactly world-class quality write-ups I'm doing for each year, but I am still relatively proud of the work that has been done for each article so far. So, I'd like to maintain the same kind of writing and work for each year that remains. The other option - and the one that I'm honestly leaning toward - is putting the countdown on hold until I take the test on the 26th and then resuming it as normal after that. This way neither the test of the countdown gets neglected at all.

I hesitated to even put up a post like this, as I worried that it would immediately make people believe that Goodfella's would soon be closing up shop as so many blogs tend to do. I unequivocally, emphatically, one-hundred percent (and whatever other claims can be made) say that this is not the case. I just don't want to do anything sub-par compared to what we've done thus far and the great discussions that have been generated for each year.

So please, let me know what you think on this topic and I'll post a final decision in the next day or so.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

1980: Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)

Released: November 14, 1980 (U.S.)

Director: Martin Scorsese; Screenplay: Paul Schrader and Madrik Martin based on the book by Jake LaMotta with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage; Cinematography: Michael Chapman; Studio: United Artists; Producers: Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler

Cast: Robert De Niro (Jake LaMotta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie LaMotta), Joe Pesci (Joey LaMotta), Frank Vincent (Salvy), Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como), Theresa Saldana (Lenora LaMotta), Mario Gallo (Mario), Johnny Barnes (Sugar Ray Robinson), Don Dunphy (Himself)

Is there any film released in the last 30 years that is as critically acclaimed as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull? If there is, I’m unaware of it. Raging Bull was certainly well received upon its initial release and even voted the best film of the 1980s, but its reputation has done nothing but grow in the years since. It is now routinely placed amongst hallowed company, ranking near the top of “best movies of all time” polls and being considered on the short list of great American films. Right or wrong, love or hate Marty Scorsese, it’s impossible to deny the impact that Raging Bull has had and the legacy it has established. The movie is now routinely submitted as an example of how a major Hollywood production can achieve the same artistic success as more exotic arthouse cinema. In fact, it has also entered into the category of a movie that has generated a backlash precisely because of the praise that it has continued to receive. Disregarding the ridiculousness of such “counteracting criticism,” I think that the movie quite easily lives up to its reputation. This is another example of great American storytelling, documenting one man’s impressive rise and disturbing fall.

If there’s anything that I am more passionate about than movies, it’s boxing. I absolutely love the sport. For a short period of time I was actually fortunate enough to cover it as senior writer for a boxing website, and some of my most cherished memories are sitting ringside for world title fights. There is nothing that can equal the excitement and tension that builds for a championship bout. I bring this up, because it underscores the fact that if anyone is likely to be overly critical of a film that revolves around the sport, it would be me. There are plenty of movies dealing with boxing that have been highly praised by critics that I am indifferent toward. So I’ll just go ahead and say what will be an obvious statement to many, but is still quite subjective: not only is Raging Bull the greatest boxing movie ever made, it’s the greatest sports movie as well.

There is, however, a small caveat. This is another instance where labeling it a “boxing movie” can be too narrow a classification. The movie is not so much about the actual sweet science itself as it is a character study about a fighter. This is not to say that the actual fighting is not significant, because it is an essential element in the personality of Jake LaMotta. But had there never been any fighting filmed, the study of LaMotta’s descent into abuse and personal struggles would still have been riveting. Perhaps this is the key to the movie’s excellence. As revolutionary as the boxing action staged by Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman was at the time, there is a limit to the reality that can be created in choreographing scenes in the ring. No matter how inventive it gets, it is never going to be able to completely recreate the action, drama, and even violence of a live fight. Any movie that is depending on such sequences to carry it will find that they have created a film that might be entertaining one time through, but will otherwise leave little impression. So while Scorsese did focus on attempting to make the boxing scenes as realistic as possible – even attending many fights at Madison Square Garden to pick up on minor visual details to supplement the shots – it is never the essential focus of the story.

The focus is obviously on the story of Jake LaMotta and the rightfully lauded performance of Robert De Niro as the "Bronx Bull." De Niro was actually the genesis of the entire project, as he brought the idea for the biopic to Scorsese. De Niro had become captivated with the story after reading the book while on the set of Bertolucci’s 1900. Initially spurning the idea, Scorsese eventually came onboard and things began to fall into place. An initial screenplay written by Madrik Martin was unimpressive and so Scorsese turned to Paul Schrader to craft and hone the script. The two had already had great success, along with De Niro, with 1976’s Taxi Driver. It evidently was Schrader who added another essential ingredient to the story, inserting the character Jake’s brother Joey, played brilliantly by Joe Pesci, into the script. De Niro used method acting for the part, meeting extensively with Jake LaMotta himself, along with brief periods with his ex-wife Vicki and brother Joey. De Niro even embarked on a serious boxing training regimen under the tutelage of LaMotta himself and legendary trainer Al Silvani. After the movie’s release, LaMotta would comment that De Niro actually possessed some natural in-ring talent.

But again, it’s not the in-ring talent that is most astounding about De Niro’s performance. It’s the ability for him to take the mental anguish that haunted the life of Jake La Motta and make it seem real. A less talented actor would try and capture the shocking and violent mood swings that would characterize the life of LaMotta and have them come across as fake and overly bi-polar. With De Niro it feels absolutely genuine. Early in the movie it becomes apparent that this is a man on the fast track to greatness and fame in his sport. LaMotta is one of the best fighters in the world, inching ever closer to a coveted world title. He has every reason to be content, and even happy, with the life that he is leading. When he meets a neighborhood teenager Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and the two soon fall in love, it seems like this is the best life that a young fighter from the Bronx could hope for. Yet for the entirety of the film, it is as if he is never truly happy. There are odd moments when he might laugh or smile – usually when he is trying to seduce Vickie or another female – but there is always a disturbing uneasiness underlying everything that he does. LaMotta’s insecurities simply will not allow him to be content. Convinced that everyone is out to get him – his trainer/brother, his own wife, organized crime – Jake responds the best way that he knows how, by lashing out violently. I maintain that the strength of De Niro’s performance lies in the ability to make such eruptions believable, rather than violence just for the sake of it. This is a paranoid man in a fight with himself, but who can never seem to overcome the demons that he harbors. I love this movie, but to this day I still am unsettled by some of things done by LaMotta throughout the story. That’s how powerful some of the scenes are. When Jake pummels his brother Joey, convinced that he had a relationship with Vickie before they were married, it’s incredibly sad and disconcerting.

This is where boxing does become important to the story, however, in that the ring functions as the place where LaMotta can atone for his sins. This is the aspect that apparently drew Scorsese to the picture – to show, in his words, that the ring is “an allegory for life.” LaMotta recognizes that his actions toward people that he cares for are at times hideous and it is as if he goes into the ring and fights to punish himself. To this day the chin and toughness of Jake LaMotta are the stuff of legend in the boxing world. Writers and gym rats around the country still marvel at how a man could absorb punishment like LaMotta (if you don’t believe, just YouTube his “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” fight with Sugar Ray Robinson). As Scorsese and De Niro portray it, this is due to more than just toughness and an unwillingness to lose. It is also penance for LaMotta.

It is a horrifyingly spectacular performance from De Niro, but he is not the only one to shine. This will be something of a confession, and I am in no way diminishing the greatness of De Niro’s performance, but my favorite in the film has always been that of Joe Pesci. I expect near universal disagreement on this point, but it’s just slight personal preference. Say what you will about Joe Pesci and some of his role selections, but at his best (here, Goodfellas, JFK), the man can be a powerhouse. His Joey LaMotta adds both another dramatic subplot to the story, as well as regularly contributing some lighthearted lines to an otherwise bleak tale. Pesci’s performance is so affecting for me because of where the relationship between the two brothers eventually ends. It’s tragic how somebody like Joey can be so loyal to his talented sibling, doing everything from preparing him for fights to keeping the Mafia at arm’s length, and then be treated as Jake treats him. I don’t think I’m being at all melodramatic in saying that it’s heartbreaking.

As is usual in Scorsese’s best films, the supporting cast that fleshes out the environment is equally superb. For someone charged with working opposite Robert De Niro in her very first film role, Moriarty looks far from a rookie. Veteran mob player Frank Vincent is very good as the shifty Salvy, a wannabe wiseguy who is always trying to get close to Jake. And for anyone who is unable to picture Nicholas Colasanto as anyone other Coach in Cheers, he is outstanding as the smooth gangster Tommy Como.

Still, we cannot forget to praise Scorsese. His technical chops are often on display. Few scenes in film are as gorgeous as the opening of De Niro alone in the ring shadowboxing, set to the strains of the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. The decision to film in black and white, at the suggestion of Chapman, turned out to be a wise one. It allowed the movie a very authentic feel, one that captured the feel of a weekend fight cards at the Garden and the smoking back room deals being made by characters like Tommy Como. And for all of the camera virtuosity that Scorsese is routinely associated with, the style throughout much of this movie is almost that of simple voyeurism. It’s nearly documentary-like at times, as if a camera has simply been placed in a room and allowed us to watch the interaction between Jake and others. This works extremely well and gives everything a very realistic veneer.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1980: Burt Lancaster is just all over this countdown! The next best film for me in this year is his leading role in Louis Malle's Atlantic City. This is one that I saw for the first time only about a month ago and it immediately made an impression on me. Lancaster was such a talent and somebody who deserves credit for working in so many different settings and with different directors. The other movies from this year that I would acknowledge would be The Shining (Stanley Kubrick), The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller), The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner).

A glaring omission for me in this year and that I'm really eager to finally see is R.W. Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz. Hopefully this doesn't invalidate my selection in this year in anyway, I just wasn't able to get to it in time (things are busy at the moment). But I'm really looking forward to it!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

1979: Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)

Released: August 15, 1979; August 3, 2001 (Redux)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola; Screenplay: John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola adapted from the novel “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad; Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro; Studio: American Zoetrope; Producer: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Martin Sheen (Captain Willard), Marlon Brando (Colonel Walter E. Kurtz), Robert Duvall (Lt. Colonel William Kilgore), Albert Hall (Chief), Frederic Forrest (Chef), Laurence Fishburne (Mr. Clean), Sam Bottoms (Lance Johnson), Dennis Hopper (Photo Journalist), G.D. Spradlin (Lt. General Corman), Jerry Ziesmer (Intelligence Man), Harrison Ford (Colonel Lucas), Scott Glenn (Captain Richard M. Colby), Bill Graham (Announcer)

- “Charlie don’t surf!”

In the recently completed Best Films of the 1970s poll at Wonders in the Dark, I did the unthinkable. I shocked even myself when I submitted my Top 25 and did not place either The Godfather or The Godfather Part II in the #1 slot. Naturally, they were given the #2 and #3 spots, respectively, and I’ve subsequently chosen each film as the top movie in their years of release. So it is not as if either film had lost any stature in my eyes. The thing was, that as blasphemous as it felt, I had to be honest with myself and finally come to terms with the fact that my favorite Francis Ford Coppola movie is actually this 1979 release. There are a zillion adjectives I could use to express how strongly I feel that this movie truly is. Whether it is the original theatrical release or the restored Redux version – which is the one that I tend to favor – there are very few movies that can match the visceral, gut-level response that Apocalypse Now elicits in me.

Right from the unforgettable opening sequence, the tone for the entire movie is laid out. Rarely has pop music been used to such magnificent and haunting effect as Coppola’s use of the epic closer of The Doors debut album. Having not even been alive while the Vietnam War was being waged, I cannot use firsthand experience to make such a claim, but for me personally just hearing the music of The Doors brings images of the war to mind. But I have heard precisely such sentiments from those that were actually there. I am still struck by our very own visitor here, John Greco, who I remember relating that he was stationed in Vietnam in the late 60’s and that he too is basically incapable of separating the music of The Doors from the war. “The End” is a song that is evocative enough on its own, but put into the context of the bombs exploding and forests erupting in flames it is as if this music was created for just such a purpose. The music and the visuals make clear that this will be a journey toward a preordained catastrophic conclusion.

The amazing thing about Apocalypse Now is that right from the start of production it appeared that the movie itself was heading toward a preordained catastrophic conclusion. At the urging of Francis Ford Coppola for him to write a movie about Vietnam, the screenplay had actually been written by John Milius in the late 1960s. He in turn decided to use Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness as a parable for the war. According to Coppola, he originally had no intention of directing the movie himself. This allowed George Lucas to acquire the rights and begin the early steps of film production (I have nothing against Lucas at all, but can you imagine that?). Fortunately for fans of this film, Lucas got sidetracked with the making and success of American Graffiti, and then would move ahead with creating a certain franchise that you may have heard of. This meant that by the mid-1970s, Milius’s script was lying dormant and without a director. Determined to see the film made, after completing The Godfather II, Coppola himself finally decided to take the reigns. Settling on the Philippines to shoot, production got underway early in 1976.

Yes, I said 1976, and since the movie wasn’t released until 1979, it underscores the problems that were experienced along the way. The story of the making of this movie is legendary and in fact resulted in the outstanding documentary Hearts of Darkness, which is highly recommended. You almost couldn’t make up how many things went wrong. Right from the start, casting was an issue. The role of Willard was supposedly offered to a wide-range of A-list stars that turned it down, leading to Harvey Keitel originally being cast. After just a few days of shooting, Coppola found himself unhappy with Keitel’s performance and quickly made the move to replace him, flying in Martin Sheen to take over.

A shoot that was originally supposed to last under six months was extended significantly when a typhoon destroyed large portions of the sets. When everyone finally returned to the Philippines and resumed shooting, the headliner Marlon Brando arrived and instantly proved himself to be as difficult as commonly labeled. He showed up out of shape, overweight for a man supposed to be playing an Army colonel. He also was unhappy with some of the dialogue written for Kurtz and began working with Coppola to rewrite some of it. Things took a dire turn in March of 1977 when Martin Sheen, only 35-years of age at the time, suffered a heart attack and was forced to miss weeks of shooting. Couple all of these problems with the fact that Coppola never felt comfortable with how to end the film, meaning that he was essentially going to have to wing it, and it sounds like a nightmare scenario. Post-production began in the summer of 1977, with Coppola experiencing even more obstacles during editing. These ranged from things such as vacillating on whether to use narration, soundtrack issues, and variety of others that I won’t fully go into. Needless to say, the story of the entire production process is nearly as entertaining as the film itself and again I definitely recommend checking out the documentary made by Coppola’s wife Eleanor.

While panned by some critics upon its initial release, the movie was still actually more successful than some seem to acknowledge. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1979 and also did well at the box office. Still, this is a movie that has seen its reputation do nothing but grow over time. It is now widely regarded as being among the finest American films ever made, particularly from the 1970s on. I won’t argue at all with that assessment, and similar to what I did in write-ups concerning The Godfather films, I’ll go forward just by highlighting key elements of the movie that are most striking to me. And I’m going to go ahead and take for granted that I’m referring to the expanded Redux version.

For those that might not be aware, I suppose I can offer a short plot synopsis, as the plot itself is incredibly simple and some would argue unimportant. It is about a Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who is sent on a secret mission deep into Cambodia in order to “terminate” the command of an officer that seems to have gone mad. The commander is Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who at one time was a rising star in the military but is now said to be controlling his own renegade force of native troops deep in the jungle. In order to make it to the Colonel, Willard is given a ride aboard a Navy patrol boat captained by George Phillips, known to his three man crew as Chief (Albert Hall). Accompanied by crew members Chef (Fredric Forest), Clean (Laurence Fishburne) and Lance (Sam Bottoms), they begin an epic journey down the river, experiencing everything from Playboy playmates to French settlers to the usual violence associated with the struggle.

The thing that has always struck me is that movies this serious and heavy aren’t supposed to be this much fun. This is grave stuff being dealt with, addressing a conflict that remains controversial to this day. There is violence performed casually, inner-torment put on display for the audience to fully experience and yet the entire thing manages to be so… enjoyable. I almost feel ashamed saying this, but there is no other way to describe it. And I don’t know if I even have a valid explanation for why or how the movie manages to be so amusing. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that it probably has to do with two things: the unique and quirky characters found throughout the story and the absolute absurdness of much of what happens. On the first point, one needs look no further than Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore, the surfing enthusiast who delivers the legendary “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” line. Or there is Dennis Hopper’s Photo Journalist, a manic sometime follower of Kurtz whose personality is all over the place. The second point – that of the absurdity of all that is happening – I also think is important, as there are certain situations that one can do nothing but take in and enjoy or even laugh. Things can be so heavy that to take them completely seriously is almost too much, if that makes any sense at all.

The other apparent characteristic in this movie and that seems to be a recurring theme in Coppola’s stellar 70s output, is the conglomeration of astounding performances. There are not just a few soaring performances that carry the entire production – everyone contributes. I know fans of Badlands will dispute this claim, but I feel that Martin Sheen was never better. While not on-screen for the majority of the film, Marlon Brando possessed the right persona and attitude needed for Colonel Kurtz. As already mentioned, Duvall’s Kilgore and Hopper as the photographer are unforgettable. I’m partial to Duvall anyway, but he is absolutely electric during the short amount of time that he is actually in the movie. His fawning over Lance the surfer is genuinely funny. Everybody involved with the patrol boat leaves an impression, particularly Fredric Forest as Chef and the young Laurence Fishburne as Clean. Clean’s death and burial is quite memorable.

Yet tons of praise has to be heaped on Coppola himself. For all of the difficulties and obstacles encountered along the way, he stuck it out. Facing the risk of personal financial ruin, he was determined to see that the film was ultimately finished and released. Looking at it now, it’s easy to recognize that it was no easy task to tackle the war in Vietnam in such a grandiose way and do it allegorically through Joseph Conrad. This certainly contributed to many audiences being puzzled over what they had just seen. But in the end, it is the main factor in the timelessness of it all. The fact that the story is taking place in Vietnam is incidental. It’s all about the journey and the struggle that Willard goes through in the process. It could be transplanted to other settings and time periods and still be effective. That being said, I don’t want to imagine it being located anywhere but in Vietnam. It just feels like such a perfect marriage of story and setting. The vision of Coppola is displayed beautifully by the great Vittorio Storaro. I have already professed my love for Storaro’s work when praising Bertolucci’s The Conformist, but his work here is just as impressive. There are shots of both unspeakable horror and unbelievable beauty.

I have said many times that I don’t know if this is an accurate portrayal of the Vietnam experience, but it perfectly captures the experience as I personally think it would have been. This is moviemaking of the highest degree and another film that I never tire of re-watching. The #1 film of a single year is too small a title for this and as I said at the beginning of this review, I consider it to be the best film of the entire decade.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1979:
I'll be somewhat brief in this section, as nothing really approaches Apocalypse Now, but I'll list other favorites for the year -

- Manhattan (Woody Allen)
- The Marriage of Maria Braun (R.W. Fassbinder)
- Being There (Hal Ashby)
- Vengeance Is Mine (Shohei Imamura)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

1978: Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick)

Released: September 13, 1978

Director: Terrence Malick; Screenplay: Terrence Malick; Cinematography: Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Producers: Burt Schneider and Harold Schneider; Music: Ennio Morricone

Richard Gere (Bill), Brooke Adams (Abby), Sam Shepard (The Farmer), Linda Manz (Linda), Robert J. Wilke (The Farm Foreman)

- "Nobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half angel and half devil in you."

I’ve mentioned it a few times on the blog, but I love Terrence Malick. Of the four films that he has released, only Badlands ranks below “masterpiece” in my own personal and highly subjective rankings. The other three have an extraordinary hypnotic effect on me. The visuals are not only stunningly beautiful, they are powerful to the point of completely engrossing me in the entire experience. All three of the films that I am referring to – Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World – are as gorgeous as films can be, with every shot worthy of being framed and put on display in a museum or art gallery. But of the three, even thirty-one years after its release, Days of Heaven maintains a lofty position in terms of its look. It could be argued that for all of the technological advances in photography and movie-making in general, there has still yet to be a film made that is as beautiful as Days of Heaven.

This is a review that might be shorter than most, as I don’t consider myself a strong enough writer to put into words the power of the images in this movie. It’s something that simply has to be experienced, absorbed, and then reflected upon. It’s another instance of a movie that is likely to creep up on you, leaving you feeling a little cold or underwhelmed on a first estimation, but one that will have images seared in your mind. Malick’s debut film Badlands also contained its share of impressive photography, but the director did not yet fully employ the contemplative style that has come to be his trademark. The use of narration to frame a story and sometimes even convey character sentiments, as is customary in Malick films, was there. But in Badlands, there was still a traditional storyline. The travails of Kit and Holly were still a revamping of the enduring lovers on the run tale. In his second effort, Malick would almost completely abandon the notion of a plot-driven storyline, and instead work to use images and carefully constructed scenarios to try and get an emotional response from the viewer.

This is not to say that there is no storyline. In fact, the story itself has become more and more compelling to me the more times I watch. The tale is set in 1916, just before the United States enters the First World War. Bill (Richard Gere), a laborer in Chicago, is involved in an altercation on the job and inadvertently kills a co-worker. He quickly goes on the run, taking his teenage sister Linda (Linda Manz) and girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and flees to the farmland of the Texas Panhandle. The three manage to get hired as seasonal workers on a large farm in the area, owned by a young farmer (Sam Shepard) who is dying from a mysterious illness. The Farmer is taken by Abby, quickly falling for her, and when Bill learns of the health issues of the man he encourages Abby to marry him and inherit his fortune. Abby reluctantly agrees, convincing the farmer that Bill and Linda are her siblings. Things appear to be going smoothly until the true nature of the relationship begins to emerge and Abby actually begins to fall in love with Sam. In reading this synopsis, I can see that this actually sounds like something of a soap opera, but it does not at all play this way. The pace is very laid-back, and all of this just seems to flow into being, rather than being propelled to any kind of predetermined outcome.

I have often seen the story referred to as “biblical” and this is a fitting description. And I don’t even know that I can explain why such a description is so appropriate, but it just feels right. Perhaps it’s the fact that the title of the film comes from the Bible. Or the fact that in the shattering conclusion, a plague of biblical proportions reigns down and punishes all involved. The story is at times triumphant, at times heartbreakingly sad, and even without the usual action or plot-forwarding devices being employed, it has never failed to hold my attention. It may move slowly, but that is to the film’s credit, as it gives more time to take in the scenery. Make no mistake – no matter how interesting or uninteresting you might find the storyline, it’s the photography that sets this film apart.

Not being one that is all that familiar with movie production, I’ll admit to not knowing how much praise should be given to the director and how much to the cinematographer for the look of a film. With it being the chief domain of cinematographers, it would make sense to give them the lion’s share. I bring it up though, because considering that _every_ Malick film looks spectacular, and that he has worked with a different cinematographer on each of the four, I’d be willing to wager a cold one that Malick is a major factor in the beauty of his films. So I’ll go ahead and honor both Malick and cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler for the accomplishment. Almendros was the original director of photography, but due to time issues he had to leave before the film was completed and Wexler was brought in to finish up. The most amazing thing to me is the fact that Almendros was losing his eyesight at this time and still managed to do such exquisite work. It is interesting to read the comments Almendros would later make concerning the photography and production, as he would acknowledge that Malick made it very clear to him that he wanted a film told through images. Almendros also often referred to the practice of shooting during what he called the “magic hour,” which is the time period just before the sun is setting. While it sometimes made filming a bit more difficult, the results speak for themselves. The effect of shooting at the “magic hour” is seen throughout, as the natural light displayed in shots bounces off the scenic plains and is breathtaking.

Also contributing significantly to the mood of the film is the typically gorgeous score from Ennio Morricone. While it is not as flashy as some of his other well-known work, it fits the photography and style of the movie perfectly. The music is as laid-back and thoughtful as the images, which in my opinion is one of the highest compliments that can be given to a film composer's work.

I’ll just stop now. I’m assuming most have seen this – if you haven’t, you need to. You might not like it nearly as much as I do, but I guarantee that you will appreciate the beauty of what you see. Days of Heaven is poetry through pictures and it still amazes me that Malick would walk away from filmmaking for twenty years after it was released. Hey, maybe he was just following the old show biz adage: leave ‘em wanting more.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1978:
I have trouble comparing documentaries or concert films with traditional movies, so I usually consider them separately. That being said, I should point out how much I love Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz. The Band are one of my favorite groups, and along with the guest performances, it's legendary stuff that is captured in the film. This is the only one from this year that could have seriously contended in knocking off Days of Heaven, but as I said, it's hard for me to compare concert films to traditional motion pictures. The other movies of this year that stand out for me are: The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Ermanno Olmi), Coming Home (Hal Ashby), Violette (Claude Chabrol), Midnight Express (Alan Parker), and, although I think it would have benefited greatly from better editing, The Deer Hunter (Cimino).

Sunday, September 6, 2009

1977: Annie Hall (Woody Allen)

Released: April 20, 1977

Director: Woody Allen; Screenplay: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman; Cinematography: Gordon Willis; Studio: United Artists; Producers: Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins

Cast: Woody Allen (Alvy Singer), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Tony Roberts (Rob), Carol Kane (Allison), Paul Simon (Tony Lacey), Shelley Duvall (Pam), Janet Margolin (Robin), Christopher Walken (Duane Hall)

- "I don't want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light."

I’ve always liked Woody Allen, but until I started going through a rough outline of selections for this countdown, I didn’t realize just how profound an impact a large number of his films have had on me. It was driven home to me by the fact that this 1977 Best Picture recipient, which many consider to be his finest achievement, could potentially not even be among my three or four favorites that he ever directed. I say “could potentially” because ranking favorite Woody films is a futile exercise for me, and one that has me constantly second-guessing and contradicting myself. For a man that has been so prolific, it is amazing how high quality his work has been – even his lesser efforts have aspects to be appreciated. Certainly not all of his films are masterpieces, but all of them can be enjoyed on some level.

I have to admit that I wavered somewhat on this pick. After completing the aforementioned rough outline, I thought to myself – “Can I actually have four Woody Allen movies in this countdown? Even I didn’t know I liked him that much…” Since doing more viewing and re-visiting of films, I’ll go ahead and give a preview in admitting that there likely will not be four movies from the Woodman in the countdown, but it still shows high highly I regard him at his best. The writing is just irresistible to me, the dry humor and sarcastic observations fitting perfectly with my own sense of humor.

In my own assessment, Allen certainly made other films that were more visually impressive (Manhattan) or that were flat-out more philosophically complex (Crimes and Misdemeanors), but I contend that he never wrote a screenplay wittier than that of Annie Hall. The story follows the prototypical Woody Allen character, Alvy Singer, as he wanders through his life in search of a lasting romantic relationship. Alvy is a comedian who possesses significant neuroses – he is obsessed with such macabre things as dying and the Holocaust, and is convinced that nearly everyone who is not Jewish is anti-Semitic. Although he has already had two failed marriages, he almost immediately falls for Annie (Diane Keaton). The relationship between them follows a path similar to the rollercoaster that Alvy grew up under, with Annie’s insecurities constantly coming into conflict with Alvy’s paranoia.

Rather than simply tell the story of the relationship with Annie, the movie also creatively uses flashbacks to explain Alvy’s history with other women. We are shown how he came to meet his two ex-wives and the way that those relationships quickly deteriorated. The flashbacks are actually used quite unconventionally, with characters being able to be on-screen with their past selves and to converse with other random characters that suddenly appear in the frame. Without strong writing, such situations would come across as hokey, but Woody is skillful enough to ensure that viewers are laughing at what is taking place, thus deflecting any negative attention toward this breaking of conventions. He also manages to utilize things like cartoon animation and split-screens into the movie, but they are not as obtrusive as one would expect, and actually work quite well.

The flashbacks themselves are some of the most entertaining parts for me, as they are like a roadmap of Alvy’s life, weaving him through various periods of 20th century culture. We see him meet his first wife at a rally for Adlai Stevenson. He subsequently marries Allison (Carol Kane), but soon is unable to concentrate even on making love with her because he has become so preoccupied with the findings of the Warren Commission. His analysis of their findings, and his reasoning for why he believes that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have been the lone gunman, is a great comedy routine. It is hilarious as he begins to lump in anyone and everyone into the conspiracy, with Allison patronizingly playing along. It is one of my favorite scenes in the film, but it is just one of many individual sequences that sparkle throughout. In fact, the entire movie does feel a bit episodic, but is never disjointed to the point of feeling rambling. Woody’s writing ties everything together snugly.

The chemistry between Allen and Keaton is what makes the “romantic” aspect of this so-labeled romantic comedy work. As good as they would be together two years later in Manhattan, to me this is their best performance working opposite each other. Whereas the coming together of their characters in Manhattan felt a bit manufactured to me, here it feels very natural. It feels very much like Woody has simply placed a camera in a room and given the audience a peak into the lives of two very neurotic personalities. Alvy and Annie are two people who have anxieties that expose themselves to the type of relationship that they find themselves in.

My favorite and most quotable lines are too numerous to repeat, so I’ll avoid that exercise (although I do have to admit that it would be fun to try and list my favorites!). I’ll just reinforce the fact that it is ultimately Woody’s screenplay that makes this such a great movie. The writing manages to cover everything from relationships, to the drug culture of the 70s, to those moving to Hollywood with big dreams, and so much more, and do so effortlessly. This movie would kick off an unbelievable streak of creativity and while it might not necessarily be my favorite of his films, it is one that is in regular rotation and that never ceases to be funny.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1977: Not a lot of great movies for me in 1977, but a number of films that I definitely like. I very nearly chose Robert Altman's 3 Women, an interesting entry in Altman's filmography. It is very similar to Persona, but not quite at the same level. The other close contender comes from the first female to enter the countdown, with the Soviet director Larisa Shepitko's The Ascent. It's a harrowing story of Soviet partisans resisting the Nazi invasion and is one that is not easily forgotten.

That is the extent of serious contenders for me in this year. Other films worth mentioning for me are: Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett), Soldier of Orange (Paul Verhoeven) and, yes for the entertainment value, I'll throw in Star Wars (George Lucas).

Friday, September 4, 2009

1976: Mr. Klein (Joseph Losey)

Released: October 27, 1976

a.k.a.: Monsieur Klein

Director: Joseph Losey; Screenplay: Franco Solinas and Fernando Morandi; Cinematography: Gerry Fisher; Studio: Adel Productions; Producer: Alain Delon

Cast: Alain Delon (Robert Klein), Jeanne Moreau (Florence), Francine Berge (Nicole), Juliet Berto (Jeanine), Michael Lonsdale (Pierre)

There are a multitude of legendary films that were released in 1976, but for once I completely escape the charge of following the crowd with my selection. The big name movies of the year were very tempting for me – Martin Scorsese has long been a favorite and many contend that Taxi Driver is his finest achievement. Sidney Lumet could have taken the top spot in back-to-back years based upon the strength of the satirical Network. Even Clint Eastwood came very close with what I consider to be his first undisputed classic western, The Outlaw Josey Wales. All three are outstanding films, and yet I’m still caught in the spell of mystery and intrigue that is woven through Mr. Klein. Each time I watch it I seem to pick up on something that I missed in previous viewings, and even though I’m still not completely certain that I could outline a completely consistent summary of what transpires, I’m always up for trying to do so anyway.

For a movie that was made by a well-known director and that debuted at Cannes where it lost out on the top prize only because of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, this is a relatively unfamiliar title to most people. I’m not claiming that it’s completely unknown, and perhaps I’m simply behind the times and everyone actually has seen it, but based on its credits and accomplishments it is not as recognized as one would expect. Perhaps part of it is due to the circumstances under which director Joseph Losey left the United States and Hollywood. Soon after becoming an accomplished noir and thriller director, Losey found himself blacklisted and a victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee. But even this doesn’t really explain it, as Losey would go on to direct many celebrated films in London, most notably 1963’s excellent The Servant. After a highly successful debut at Cannes, Mr. Klein debuted in France and flopped. Opinion has since turned somewhat and become more positive, but it’s still an unknown commodity to non-cineastes. The regulars reading this have probably seen it or are at least familiar with it, but trust me when I say that your average movie fan is clueless about it.

All of this is basically my roundabout way of getting to the point that I might be stepping out on a limb with this selection, and I recognize this. Enigmatic stories like this can produce radically different reactions. I would not be shocked if many knowledgeable folks consider this to be a bust or at least not being anywhere near the equal of the other fine films of the year. This is what keeps things interesting though, so I look forward to seeing how others respond to the film.

The crux of the film hinges on the fact that the surname “Klein” is one that is common to many cultures. It can be German, French, Jewish, Catholic and many other subgroups. This is a key point, because the Robert Klein (Alain Delon) that is the main character of the film comes from a family that has long been French Catholic. Living in Paris during the war, Klein operates as an art dealer who is capitalizing on the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Realizing that many Jews are in need of cash quickly and thus will unload their artwork at bargain prices, he begins buying and reselling them for a profit. He makes a good living in the trade, becoming a playboy of sorts, living in a posh apartment and having girls pursuing him. Things take a sudden turn, however, when he opens his door one morning and sees a Jewish newspaper addressed to him. Klein quickly becomes concerned, as the names of all of the subscribers to the newspaper have been turned over to the authorities and he worries that he might now become a target himself.

Klein them begins a fanatical search to try and uncover the circumstances of this mix-up. Gradually, he begins to discover that there is another Robert Klein, who is in fact Jewish, that appears to be trying to set him up to take the fall for him. There are various twists and turns that take place, but I don’t want to ruin any of the experience for anyone who has not yet seen the film. But what I will point out is that Losey truly is a master at slowly and gradually building tension; with each added wrinkle or discovery that Klein makes, things grow even more eerie. In fact, at times I even began to question whether what I was watching was reality or some kind of hallucination.

As far as acting goes, I would also have to say that this is among the best that I have seen from Alain Delon. He certainly was in movies that I think are superior to Mr. Klein, but in those the brilliance of his performance resulted from body language and the way that he carried himself. The detached, coldblooded loner is something Delon mastered very early in his career. In this case, Delon plays Klein as a man who becomes completely obsessed with finding out why he is being set up by the other Mr. Klein. He is understandably frantic about what might happen if he is labeled a Jew, but the paranoia manages to move beyond even that. At a certain point, Klein obtains the means to prove his family heritage and absolve him from any of the charges he is facing. Even this is not enough, however, as he is more concerned with finding out whom the other man is and why he concocted the entire scheme.

Again, I could be completely wrong and not realize that everyone has seen this, but for those that have not I won’t go deep into plot or interpretation. I will comment, however, on the issue of what statement is being made concerning those who observed the persecution of Jews. Is Losey placing blame on anyone or any particular group? I don’t know that I could pinpoint a particular group of people, so much as they seem to be commenting on everyone that stood by and watched the subjugation take place. It doesn’t come across so much as finger pointing as asking, “can you believe people allowed it to happen like this?”

This is not going to be a film for everyone, but it’s one that has obviously drawn me in.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1976: The three films I mentioned at the beginning of this write-up are the three highest-finishing runners up. I don't consider Taxi Driver to be quite as good or enjoyable as other favorite Scorseses, but it's undeniable a great movie. De Niro has yet another outstanding performance. His body of work in this decade is nearly incomparable. Being a huge fan of westerns and Clint Eastwood as a director, The Outlaw Josey Wales will always remain a top selection. Network ranks behind only Dog Day Afternoon for my favorite from Sidney Lumet.

Some of the other films that I really like from this year, but are slightly below the others: 1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci), Rocky (John G. Avildsen), All the President's Men (Alan J. Pakula), Cria Cuervos (Carlos Saura), and The Shootist (Don Siegel).

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

1975: Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet)

Released: September 21, 1975

Director: Sidney Lumet; Screenplay: Frank Pierson, based upon the Time Magazine article “The Boys in the Bank” by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore; Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producers: Martin Bregman and Martin Elfand

Cast: Al Pacino (Sonny Wortzik), John Cazale (Salvatore “Sal” Naturile), Detective Sgt. Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning), Agent Sheldon (James Broderick), Agent Murphy (Lance Henriksen), Leon Shermer (Chris Sarandon), Sylvia (Penelope Allen), Mulvaney (Sully Boyar), Angie (Susan Peretz), Jenny (Carol Kane), Stevie (Gary Springer), Howard Calvin (John Marriott)


For a movie that has a soundtrack consisting of just a single song, Sidney Lumet and company make excellent use of it to open this 1975 bank heist film. It is an integral part of what is one of my favorite opening sequences. To the strains of Elton John’s Amoreena (off of what I consider to be Sir Elton's finest album, Tumbleweed Connection), Lumet guides the audience through various views of people hustling and bustling around New York City. We see construction workers digging on a sidewalk; people walking down the street; window shoppers; kids playing. And in the background, Elton sings over the piano and electric guitar riffs. It’s like the grungy, less romantic answer to the even more spectacular opening sequence that Woody Allen would use in Manhattan. Both are superb filmmaking, and in reviewing films for a 1975 selection, seeing these first few moments of the film reminded me how much I enjoy Dog Day Afternoon.

I see 1975 as another year that has a large number of worthy candidates, although on a personal enjoyment scale they don't quite stack up to some of the preceding years. That’s a highly subjective statement, obviously, and there are a number of movies released in this year that are iconic for a lot of movie fans. Still, having a number of films bunched together makes picking one for a countdown like this even more difficult. I went back and forth on this pick, but ultimately decided to go with a stellar Al Pacino performance for the third time in four years.

The great appeal of Dog Day Afternoon, for me, is that it can be appreciated for a variety of different reasons. Do you want to just sit back and take in a thrilling bank robbery adventure? Dog Day Afternoon fits the bill. Want to watch a film that encapsulates many feelings toward the authorities and establishment that were percolating throughout the nation at this time? Dog Day Afternoon fits the bill. Wish to see a film that makes creative, yet very pointed commentary on something as vital to everyday life as the media? Dog Day Afternoon certainly does this. Or maybe you wish to take in the dark humor that is associated with the various bumbling and plotting of Sonny and Sal as they try to pull of the heist? Even though the material is quite serious, there are certainly laugh out loud moments peppered throughout the film.

The bank robbery is underway right at the start of the film, as Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and sidekick Sal (John Cazale) enter a bank in Brooklyn with the intention of getting in and out quickly. Instead, things immediately take a turn for the worse. Their third accomplice gets cold feet midway through the robbery and leaves. Then, when trying to burn bank records that would track some of their loot, Sonny unwittingly alerts people across the street to smoke coming out of the building. Hundreds of police officers quickly surround the bank, meaning that Sonny and Sal now find themselves in a hostage situation and scrambling to devise a plan to get away unscathed. Sonny engages in negotiations with Detective Moretti (Charles Durning), trying to secure a plane to fly he and his accomplice out of the country. Throughout all of this, large crowds have begun to gather around the building, with spectators rooting on Sonny as some kind of working class anti-hero. When Sonny, an acknowledged Vietnam veteran and ex-con, emerges from the bank and begins taunting the police with chants of “Attica! Attica!” the crowd responds with cheers. The media begins to swarm, calling Sonny for questions inside the bank and generally turning the entire thing into a live, prime time circus.

It's actually pretty standard fare as far as bank heist movies go, but what sets Dog Day Afternoon apart from any other is Al Pacino. I wouldn’t refer to this as my favorite performance of his career, but I would certainly be inclined to give it the nod as his best. As the pressure begins to mount in the standoff, Sonny begins to break under the pressure and Pacino explicitly carries out this disintegration for all to see. Pacino is perfect as the fast-talking, streetwise Sonny, a guy who is obviously one can short of a six pack but yet is smart enough to keep the surrounding police on their toes. The tighter things get in the negotiations, the more the sweat begins to roll down Sonny’s face. Through Pacino’s speech and mannerisms, you are able to feel the anxiety as it increases. As the entire situation begins to go turn into an unmitigated disaster, the physical appearance of Sonny begins to follow suit. And yet, throughout it all, it becomes apparent that Sonny is different from the usual coldhearted bank robbers portrayed in such films. He seems to genuinely care about the fate of the hostages he is holding, even to the point that they seem to have developed uncommon bonds amongst each other.

Also worthy of praise is the performance of Durning as Moretti. The interaction between Moretti and Sonny feels so natural, which is quite the compliment considering how unnatural the entire situation is. The flow of dialogue and banter back and forth between the two is just so smooth – it is rapid-fire and tense, yet it never feels like someone is reading it from a script. It very much feels like how one would expect people to talk in such a situation. John Cazale is also his usual solid self, doing what he does best: playing a dimwitted man who finds himself in a situation well over his head. In this case, however, Sal is beyond even the dullness of Fredo Corleone. Sal is quite obviously not completely there mentally. Still, he is committed to seeing the robbery carried out to the end, and much of the comedy in the film is a result of Sal’s comments and ideas.

I can see where many would find this to be rather cheesy and the performance from Pacino over the top. Perhaps in spots it is. Even so, I have always found it entertaining and think that the ideas put forth through Sonny about the media looking forward to showing the guts of people like his sprayed across the sidewalk to be pretty accurate. It might be a movie that is forever attached to the era of the 1970s, but certain aspects like this give it appeal that stretches into the present.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1975:
There were basically four other films that seriously factored into my decision for this year. These four are basically interchangeable for me in terms of ranking, and any of them could have been chosen for this year and I would have been fine with it. But, obviously, the whole point of this countdown is to try and make tough decisions like this. At any rate, here are the four: First is Robert Altman's most acclaimed film, Nashville which has been imitated many times over the years. It's not my favorite Altman, but it's close. Next is the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Jaws, which some cast aside as mere popcorn entertainment but it is a truly suspenseful film. In preparing for this year I finally watched Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, which is a very good film. The thing that held it back from the top spot for me is the fact that I definitely preferred the first half of the movie, before he turned into the titled Barry Lyndon, and felt that the second half started to drag somewhat. And finally, for an underrated contender, I also seriously considered Stuart Cooper's Overlord which is an incredible blending of documentary footage and original shooting. It is very well made and another that I'm glad I was finally able to see.

Two common favorites from this year that I imagine will have support are One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir). I have personally never been a big fan of One Flew, so it was never a contender. And to this day, even after watching it a few times, I'm still not completely sure what to make of Picnic at Hanging Rock. It's on that fine line of either really liking or hating, and I'm not sure which side I'm on.