Tuesday, June 29, 2010

#16: Fritz Lang

- "“Each picture has some sort of rhythm which only the director can give it. He has to be like the captain of a ship.”

Everyone reading this will likely agree that if Fritz Lang never came to the United States in 1936, his output in his native Germany alone would have still been strong enough to warrant placement in a countdown of this scope. Indeed, when you see my ranking of his films below, the top three all come from Lang’s pre-Hollywood days. But I am guessing that most people reading this are also similar to me in that they first came to Lang through his much more widely-available – and arguably more accessible – Hollywood films. Once I made my way through those that were easier to come by, it was inevitable to move on to his more critically acclaimed early days and see how the Lang legend was built. It was surprisingly difficult for me to try and compare and rank the films from these two distinct periods in Lang’s work, particularly when factoring in the fables and tales that have grown concerning the production of many of Lang’s early films. In terms of that hard-to-define quality of “greatness,” few if any of Lang’s American movies can trump those from Germany. Even so, I do love Lang’s American work, almost as much as his earlier German period, and in terms of favorites I place the best of his American work quite high.

These two separate phases make Lang’s complete body of work all the more fascinating, in my opinion, as it is interesting to observe the similarities and differences between them. In visual terms, there is no question that the more experimental and interesting work was done in Germany, as the cinematography and camera work in masterpieces like Metropolis and Destiny are still a marvel to behold almost a century later. His pictures of the 1920s display flair and style that almost immediately identify them as Fritz Lang films. I acknowledge that Metropolis is the greater and better film, but I have recently fallen in love with Destiny and am amazed at how beautifully eerie the cinematography is in that one. It is absolutely brilliant.

His best work on the western side of the Atlantic unquestionably centered on highly skilled crime dramas. Focusing less on technical artistry and experimentation, dark narratives and storytelling characterize these films. Taking a cue from what I consider the best movie he ever made – 1931’s M – Lang became a master at tackling dark subject matter, and even more impressively dark characters. The leading men and women in Lang movies like Fury, You Only Live Once, Scarlet Street, The Big Heat, and others seem like people predestined to hardship and suffering. Even the most hardened, bitter characters are rendered at least somewhat sympathetic in the way that Lang and his collaborators portray them. This ability is a main reason why Lang is one of the few men of the era who can stake a legitimate claim to being the greatest director of film noir. I don’t quite personally give him that mantle, but he is very close.

The sheer number of outstanding films in his total filmography might be the most impressive thing. I have ranked 20, which is nowhere near his entire output, and there honestly is not a bad movie in the entire list. Not all of them are M or Metropolis, and not all of them would be considered favorites, but all are enjoyable and worth seeking out.

1. M (1931)
2. Metropolis (1927)
3. Destiny (1921)
4. Scarlet Street (1945)
5. The Big Heat (1953)
6. While the City Sleeps (1956)
7. Die Nibelungen (1924)
8. Spies (1928)
9. Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
10. Clash by Night (1952)
11. House by the River (1950)
12. Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)
13. You Only Live Once (1937)
14. The Blue Gardenia (1953)
15. The Woman in the Window (1944)
16. Hangmen Also Die! (1943)
17. Fury (1936)
18. Western Union (1941)
19. Man Hunt (1941)
20. Secret Beyond the Door (1948)

Up next: We go BLIND! Now things will be like countdowns of the past. Folks making submitting their own lists will not suffer, as I am highly unlikely to roll out a director that people are completely unfamiliar with. Plus, with two days for each entry, there is plenty of time. So the tension mounts! (LOL)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

#17: Ernst Lubitsch

I challenge any fan of classic cinema to watch that clip and not be completely put in the mood to watch the first Ernst Lubitsch film that you can get your hands on. Hearing Billy Wilder talk about Lubitsch, the man he unceasingly championed as his personal idol in Hollywood, truly is inspiring. His love of Lubitsch has become well known through the often repeated story of how Wilder hung a single sign in his office door that asked: “What would Lubitsch do?” The famed “Lubitsch Touch” is what Wilder continually strove to reach. To see an aging Wilder in the above clip, an undisputed master of direction himself, get that glint in his eye as he meticulously describes a scene Lubitsch created decades earlier (although, the astute Lubitsch fan will notice that he ultimately does reference the wrong film!) reiterates why Lubitsch remains such a fascinating director. Very few contemporaries of the sound era could direct comedy as magnificently as Lubitsch. Even today, he towers above contemporary directors.

The fact that so many accomplished directors themselves seemed keen to declare him the greatest director of comedy speaks volumes. Defining the “Lubitsch Touch” is an elusive task, and I’m sure that everyone has a slightly different explanation of what it means. Lately, though, for me the term has come to symbolize Lubitsch’s ability to make absolutely timeless films. His best work remains just as dynamic today as it did when it first premiered. These films maintain the air of sophistication that Lubitsch did better than anyone, while at the same time preserving the underlying sensual nature of his stories. The placement and movement of his camera created tension and sensuality that never would have slipped by Hays Code censors in more demonstrative form. The physical romance that runs through most of his stories takes place off camera, but he is skilled enough to make sure that the seductiveness and sexuality of it all remains palpable.

But who am I to try and describe in words the brilliance of Lubitsch? His films really just need to be experienced. So, on with the list! And I realize that the number of movies I have seen from Lubitsch is nowhere near being complete. He still has a number of musicals and films from his early years that I have yet to see. Everything I have seen, I love, which speaks well about any "new" Lubitsch movies I watch in the future. And while I'm at it, I'd like to point out how close I came to bumping To Be or Not to Be to the top of the list. It and Trouble in Paradise are two of the funniest movies I have ever seen. I couldn't quite supplant Trouble in Paradise, but it is so close. The next four in line could probably go in any order, but this is how I feel at the moment.

1. Trouble in Paradise (1932)
2. To Be or Not to Be (1942)
3. Heaven Can Wait (1943)
4. Ninotchka (1939)
5. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
6. The Merry Widow (1934)
7. Cluny Brown (1946)
8. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
9. The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927)
10. Design for Living (1933)
11. Broken Lullaby (1932)

Next in line: Fritz Lang.

Friday, June 25, 2010

#18: Brian De Palma

- "So I like to try to go back and develop pure visual storytelling. Because to me, it's one of the most exciting aspects of making movies and almost a lost art at this point."

Brian De Palma can split film critics and moviegoers faster than anyone, Steven Spielberg included. What is so interesting in regard to De Palma is that there is rarely any middle ground in assessing his body of work. To those that appreciate him, De Palma is a technical virtuoso who has inherited the mantle of his cinematic idols. For those that don’t care for his films, he has simply made a career out of producing cheap, second-rate imitations of Hitchcock and other legitimate giants. Where do you fall in this debate? Is there any middle ground among those that dare to venture to each newly-released and critically-panned De Palma film?

Where I fall on the spectrum is obvious since he is included in this list. I have always had at least a limited interest in De Palma, but it was only recently that I went on a serious binge. I had actually shied away from some of his more maligned efforts, figuring if they were panned _that_ badly, then everybody couldn’t be completely wrong… right? Wrong. What is commonly listed as being among his worst films is now sitting atop my list of favorites. And as my appreciation of De Palma’s visual style has continued to increase, so too has my appreciation of his earlier films, as I went back and re-watched movies that I had not seen in some time.

De Palma is one of the great visual stylists working today. Those that dislike his films in general are likely to deny such praise, but I stand by it. The man does things with the camera and editing that rarely fail to impress me. Maybe someone will not enjoy the story, but I am amazed that fans of cinema are not at least mildly interested or impressed by his visual flair. De Palma gets playful, exulting in what he can do with the camera and the film, and this is often interpreted as being tricky and rendering his stories incomprehensible. Certainly, many of his stories can be hard to follow at times. But in most cases, repeat viewings show that De Palma has actually laid things out. The clues might not be easy to pick up, but they are there. Rather than concentrating on them, though, I recommend just taking in the wonderful atmosphere and scenes that De Palma revels in creating. Finding a coherent story and interpretation will be there on repeat viewings.

I’ll be particularly interested to hear thoughts from everyone on some of De Palma’s more reviled films that I hold dear – particularly The Black Dahlia and Mission to Mars. Both have been completely torn apart by critics, but I think they are very, very good.

1. The Black Dahlia (2006)
2. Carlito’s Way (1993)
3. Dressed to Kill (1980)
4. Blow Out (1981)
5. Scarface (1983)
6. Femme Fatale (2002)
7. The Untouchables (1987)
8. Mission to Mars (2000)
9. The Fury (1978)
10. Casualties of War (1989)
11. Body Double (1984)
12. Sisters (1973)
13. Obsession (1976)
14. Carrie (1976)
15. Raising Cain (1992)
16. Greetings (1968)
17. Mission Impossible (1996)
18. Hi, Mom! (1970)
19. Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
20. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
21. Snake Eyes (1998)
22. Murder a la Mod (1968)

Next we come to the man with the famous Touch: Ernst Lubitsch.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

#19: Anthony Mann

- “The shock of glimpsing an entire life, an entire world, in a single little shot is much more important than the most brilliant dialogue.”

Anthony Mann & The Western Renaissance

I post the link to this wonderfully written article, titled “Anthony Mann & The Western Renaissance,” because writer Peter Wild raises a key point that factors into my own assessment of the career of Anthony Mann. Wild’s piece deals with the recent mini-renaissance of high-quality westerns that have been released – The Assassination of Jesse James, the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, The Proposition, Seraphim Falls – and argues that many key elements in these films are heavily influenced by Mann’s work in the genre five decades earlier. It is a very interesting read, and I encourage anyone interested to read through the whole thing, but there is one point in particular that I want to highlight. Wild brings up the fact that there isn’t a single Anthony Mann western that one would likely hold up as “the greatest western ever made.” John Ford has The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and My Darling Clementine. Howard Hawks has Rio Bravo and Red River. Clint Eastwood has Unforgiven. Sam Peckinpah has The Wild Bunch. All have, at one time or another, been listed as possible candidates as the best western of all time.

Despite making a number of outstanding westerns, Anthony Mann has no such signature film. His cycle of Jimmy Stewart westerns is universally praised. Man of the West, seen as one of Gary Cooper’s final great performances, is highly regarded by critics. Overlooked gems such as The Furies have been rediscovered and re-released in the past few years and are beginning to be appreciated. But even I, as a huge Anthony Mann fan, don’t know that I would put forth just one of these westerns as possibly the best ever made. Instead, as Wild points out in his article, the power of Mann’s westerns is apparent when considered in total. Individually, they might not reach the heights of the best Ford or Hawks western, but cumulatively they make up a body of work that places Mann as an equal of any other director to work in the genre. The same kind of argument could probably be extended to cover his work in film noir as well. In my opinion, none of his noirs are quite to that “greatest of all time” level, but when you look at how consistently outstanding his work is and consider a body of work that includes gems like T-Men, Raw Deal, Side Street, Border Incident, and even a noirish thriller like Reign of Terror, it becomes apparent that he really is one of the best.

Particularly with his westerns, I think the main reason why it is not easy to select just one or two of them as his best are that they are all of a consistently high quality. The five “psychological westerns” that Mann made with James Stewart are all great films. But which one is the best? Ask five different movie fans and you could get five different answers. Then you have to consider accomplishments like Man of the West, The Furies, and even Devil’s Doorway which is an overlooked gem. Such consistency makes it hard to pinpoint exactly which of Mann’s westerns deserve to be championed as worthy of the lofty labels mentioned earlier.

And this is without even mentioning the final stage of Mann’s career, that of the epic adventure. I have only seen El Cid from this stage, but I absolutely love it, as I do Mann’s entire output. He was a workingman’s director, who gradually moved his way up through Hollywood and pieced together a wonderful career. There is not a bad film listed below.

1. The Man from Laramie (1955)
2. Bend of the River (1953)
3. T-Men (1947)
4. El Cid (1961)
5. Winchester ‘73 (1950)
6. The Furies (1950)
7. Man of the West (1958)
8. The Naked Spur (1953)
9. Raw Deal (1948)
10. Reign of Terror (1949)
11. Devil’s Doorway (1950)
12. The Tall Target (1951)
13. The Far Country (1954)
14. Side Street (1950)
15. The Tin Star (1957)
16. Men in War (1957)
17. He Walked by Night (officially credited to Alfred L. Werker) (1948)
18. Border Incident (1949)
19. Strategic Air Command (1955)

Reactions to the next entry ought to be interesting and all over the map. Up next is the always controversial Brian De Palma.

And just as a general note, I decided that we're going to the "blind countdown" mode at the midway point, so 15 and in. That's the perk of running things, I can switch it up slightly at my own whim! Revealing each director in advance only gives one off day to prepare any kind of list. But with two days allotted for each posting, the blind reveal still allows a second day for comments and lists. So, to heighten drama for the second half, I think it will work well.

Monday, June 21, 2010

#20: John Huston

- "Hollywood has always been a cage... a cage to catch our dreams."

I am in no way suggesting that John Huston should be classified as an “underrated” director. How could he be, considering that a number of his top films are rightly regarded as being among the finest ever produced in Hollywood. I do think, though, that his top two or three movies (and I suppose his role in Roman Polanksi’s Chinatown) are viewed as a complete summary of the man’s extraordinary career, which is a shame because there is so much more there. To be certain, his most famous pictures – The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle – deserve all of the acclaim that they receive. I love every one of them. But his lesser-known films are of such high quality, it amazes me that they are not more widely praised. The Misfits receives publicity because of the stars attached to it – it was the final film for both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift gave one his final performances, and Arthur Miller penned the screenplay – but it deserves recognition as the equal of Huston’s best work. Fat City is one of the four or five best boxing films ever made. The Dead is beautifully poetic. The Night of the Iguana might be my favorite screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams.

This is a man who continued making outstanding films for over forty years, remaining interesting through every phase.

Most of Huston’s films have a general vibe or feeling that make it known that he is the guiding force of his projects. I have seen his auterist credentials questioned, but I rarely have trouble recognizing Huston's style. His movies may not have been personal, but they contained similar threads that stamped them as John Huston films. Part of this I’m sure is due to the fact that, at least early in his career, he almost always had a hand in writing the scripts that he directed. His talents as a writer deserve nearly as much praise as those as a director. Being involved in projects from this early stage allowed Huston to instill a trademark understated cynicism to every film. It isn’t cynicism like one gets from a Billy Wilder film, where Billy is poking fun at everyone and everything. It is a cynicism where a fateful break, a stretch of bad luck, or good old ironic twists triumph in the end. His heroes come oh-so-close to fairytale endings, but never quite get there. Is it a pessimistic view? Some could read it that way, but to me it just feels realistic.

A connection to a modern director that I always think about is a lineage from John Huston and his early crime genre work and current crime film specialist Michael Mann. Both men set up great set pieces centered on heists and mysteries, but both Huston and Mann are more interested in examining why the participants are involved in the schemes and what compels them to take such risks. The heists or action is just the means by which they can examine their main characters.

1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
2. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
3. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
4. Fat City (1972)
5. The Night of the Iguana (1964)
6. Key Largo (1948)
7. The Misfits (1961)
8. The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
9. The Dead (1987)
10. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
11. The African Queen (1951)
12. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)
13. Under the Volcano (1984)
14. Wise Blood (1979)
15. In This Our Life (1942)
16. The Unforgiven (1960)
17. Beat the Devil (1953)
18. Prizzi’s Honor (1985)

Up next, a man who dabbled in many styles and produced classics in all of them: Anthony Mann.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

#21: Robert Siodmak

In case my counting down my 100 favorite films noir did not give it away, I’ll reiterate the fact that I am a film noir junkie. I try and see anything and everything resembling a noir that I possibly can. I have seen a lot in the short amount of time that I have been obsessed and feel like I have a pretty good handle on the greatest stylists in the genre/style. A number of the finest directors to ever work in United States at some point dabbled in noir – Wilder, Lang, Hawks, Tourneur, Ray, Huston, Welles, the list could go on. Some of these names will be, and already have been, featured in this favorite directors series. And even with such giants of cinema, if exclusively considering true noirs produced by such directors, I don’t think that I would choose any of them as my personal favorite handlers of noir. If forced to make such a selection, I’d actually have to go with this man: Robert Siodmak. He made two of the finest noirs of all time, a handful of others of high quality, and was instrumental in developing the template that others followed throughout the classic noir period.

Born to Polish Jewish parents in Germany at the turn of the century, Siodmak was successful in German cinema in the 1920s before the Nazi rise to power. For obvious reasons, he was not a favorite of the Party. Unfortunately, I have not seen any of the work he produced in his native country, but when Universal Studios signed Siodmak to a seven-year contract in 1943, he quickly developed the distinctive style that he has come to be identified with. The horror picture Son of Dracula features expressionistic lighting and visual style that Siodmak would perfect a few years later, allowing him to take a rather standard B-movie storyline and give it a noir feeling. By 1944, Siodmak would embark on a string of noirs and noirish thrillers that matches up favorably with any of his contemporaries – The Suspect, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, Criss Cross, and The File on Thelma Jordan all in a five-year period.

Clearly, he did not _only_ make noirs. The Spiral Staircase, The Suspect, Son of Dracula, even The Dark Mirror all contain elements similar to noir, but are not fully enmeshed in the style/genre. So to call him a one-trick pony would be an overstatement. His horror work is just as superlative, with a masterwork like The Spiral Staircase arguably being an even greater visual achievement than his best noirs. Just thinking of the movie the word “black” comes to mind. Dark, dark black. Black to the point of zero visibility. The kind of shadowy, dark black sets that only could be achieved on a sound stage in the classic studio system. It really has to be seen to be appreciated.

Even so, there is a reason that the zenith of Siodmak’s days in Hollywood came at the height of the classic noir cycle. By the mid-1950s, his career was already on a downward path. But watching the movies produced during the decade-long burst of creativity that contains Siodmak’s finest work, it should be quite obvious why I think so highly of him. His use of lighting and shadows is like a textbook in noir. His depiction of anguished characters, carrying baggage from past lives or relationships, is always compelling. Siodmak is certainly not underrated by those that have any familiarity with his work, but his name remains one that deserves to be more well-known. I rank him a master director.

1. Criss Cross (1949)
2. The Killers (1946)
3. Cry of the City (1948)
4. The Spiral Staircase (1945)
5. The Suspect (1945)
6. The File on Thelma Jordan (1950)
7. Phantom Lady (1944)
8. Christmas Holiday (1944)
9. The Dark Mirror (1946)
10. Son of Dracula (1943)
11. Custer of the West (1967)

Next in the countdown is a contemporary of Siodmak's and another man with multiple great noirs (among others) to credit: John Huston.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

#22: Stanley Kubrick

- "If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed."

In terms of greatness this place - as was John Ford's on Tuesday - is far too low. The Kubrick legacy is one that has aged very well as his status as one of the finest directors to ever work in the medium remains as strong as ever. Ranking him here is no disrespect at all, but simply a matter of personal tastes. When you scroll the bottom of this entry and look at how I rank my favorite Kubrick films, you will notice that my ordering is certainly unique. Normally, devoted Kubrick followers place A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey at, or at least near, the top. My taste runs contrary to the traditional viewpoint though, which I think says a lot about the overall body of work Kubrick produced over his forty-plus years in cinema. The fact that I can come up with such a different ordering of his films, placing his two most critically-acclaimed movies outside of the top half of the rankings, shows how strong his filmography is. Depending on your taste or preferences, there is something in his work for everyone. I am a sucker for crime dramas and historical epics – thus I gravitate toward classics like The Killing, Paths of Glory, and Barry Lyndon. Others might prefer the more experimental or science fiction, which means that Clockwork and 2001 would justifiably be pushed toward the top. Of course, this doesn’t exactly explain something like Dr. Strangelove, but that movie is beyond classification…

I would point out that this is probably the first time that I have finally decided to boost Dr. Strangelove to the top of a Kubrick list. Ever since I watched The Killing, it has been firmly planted as my personal favorite. Dr. Stranglove I enjoyed from the get-go, but it is a movie that has grown even better for me over time and repeat viewings. My sense of humor is dry and dark anyway, and since Strangelove is as black as a newly-laid driveway, it was likely inevitable that it would come to be my favorite Kubrick.

What has struck me most in my recent Kubrick viewings is (no surprise) the unmatched visual sense that he possessed. A fact that I knew, but never really gave much thought to until I was reminded of it once again by John Greco at Twenty Four Frames, is that Kubrick began work as a semi-professional photographer while still a teenager. A famous photo that he sold to Look Magazine while only 16 can be easily found at various spots on the ‘net. This still photographer’s eye can be seen in the impeccable taste he shows in framing shots. Every movie he ever filmed displays incredible images, regardless of the director of photography or other principals behind the camera. This tells me that Kubrick remained the guiding force and reason for this continued visual excellence.

1. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
2. The Killing (1956)
3. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
4. Paths of Glory (1957)
5. The Shining (1980)
6. Barry Lyndon (1975)
7. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
9. Lolita (1962)
10. Spartacus (1960)
11. Killer’s Kiss (1955)
12. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Next in the series is the the underrated noir and thriller specialist Robert Siodmak.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

#23: John Ford

-“My name is John Ford and I make Westerns.”

I almost feel guilty at placing John Ford at this point in the countdown, as his shadow looms large over so many areas of film history. Nearly every post-1930s director has cited Ford as a major influence on their work – titans such as Kurosawa, Welles and Scorsese have at various times basically declared him to be their favorite director. Bergman declared him the greatest director to ever live. There are even moments when I feel like I should do the same. Why then is he #22 and not closer to the top? In going back through as much of his catalog as I could in preparation for this entry, I came to realize that my passion for his films has much variation. When I watch what I consider to be Ford at his best – The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Grapes of Wrath to name a few – that feeling of watching a master craftsman comes over me. It really does seem like I am witnessing a director without peers. At other times, though, I honestly get a bit listless toward some of his output. It’s not that I think he has made many bad films – quite the contrary, I don’t think any in my list below would be classified as “bad.” Still, a number of them do not necessarily move me one way or the other.

But I don’t want people to think that I am being negative toward Ford. Obviously I am not or he wouldn’t even be in a countdown of this nature. I’m just giving something of an explanation as to why a man who has made multiple films that are of the 10/10 variety for me isn’t in the upper half of this series. Ultimately though, as I said in a past thread here, I tend not to get bogged down in the number of misses a director or artist puts out. I am primarily interested in seeing how high someone can reach with their best output. And as I remarked earlier, Ford at his best is nearly incomparable, particularly in his most famous of genres. Anyone championing The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as the best western ever made wouldn’t get an argument from me. I might personally place a few before them, but I completely understand the sentiment. As quickly as everyone identifies Ford with the western, though, there is much more to his overall body of work. What stands out to me most, in examining the entire length of his career, is the love that Ford had with the idea of America. He exhibits a fascination with the building of the nation, the myths and fables that developed in the process, and putting his own stamp on the retelling of American history. You can nearly trace the course of American history through his films – from the Revolutionary era of Drums Along the Mohawk, to the early days of President Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln, through his triumphs in the American West, all the way through the two World Wars. Historical accuracy is oftentimes dubious at best, but that is not the point. Ford works as a storyteller, not a documentarian, and the results speak for themselves. What makes his version of American history so irresistible is the visual beauty that he gives it all. To this day, no one has shot the expanses of the West as magnificently as did Ford. And it’s not just in the sweeping vista shots that Ford shows his genius. His more subtle touches are equally as impressive. Just watch the first appearance of John Wayne in Stagecoach. It is a simple, yet utterly spectacular introduction of one of the most iconic figures in movie history.

I suppose the finest compliment that could be given to Ford’s work – and one that the old curmudgeon would have appreciated – is how embedded in the American fabric are his films. To many, John Ford and his movies ARE the Wild West.

And before anyone faints at seeing it that low, I'll just say now that I have always had problems with My Darling Clementine. Normally I can get past most any historical inaccuracies - after all, how else can something like JFK or The New World be all-time favorite films? - but with Clementine I never can. They get to me every time, with my viewing last week being no exception. Is this a result of being too familiar with the Earp and Holiday stories? Perhaps, but I'm not really sure. In the end, it looks great but outside of that it doesn't do much for me.

1. The Searchers (1956)
2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
3. Stagecoach (1939)
4. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
5. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
6. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
7. Fort Apache (1948)
8. They Were Expendable (1945)
9. Wagon Master (1950)
10. The Informer (1935)
11. The Long Voyage Home (1940)
12. The Quiet Man (1952)
13. How Green Was My Valley (1941)
14. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)
15. Mister Roberts (1955)
16. Rio Grande (1950)
17. My Darling Clementine (1946)
18. Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
19. The Lost Patrol (1934)

The next entry deals with a man that some consider to be the greatest director of all time: Stanley Kubrick.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

#24: Clint Eastwood

- "I love every aspect of the creation of motion pictures and I guess I am committed to it for life."

Is there a more iconic figure in Hollywood today? The question could probably even be framed as “in all of cinema?” Including each facets of his career, meaning both acting and directing, I don’t think there is. The personas he developed as an actor have become completely enmeshed in pop culture. I dare say there isn’t a single person older than their teens that doesn’t know about The Man With No Name or Dirty Harry. But this series is not about great leading roles, it’s about directors. And whether or not the public at large recognizes it or not, Eastwood’s talents behind the camera exceed those he displays in front of it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Eastwood the actor – when he is selective and carefully chooses the proper roles, he is outstanding. What never ceases to fascinate me about him, though, is his willingness to branch out as a director. By this, I mean that although he is still immediately linked to westerns, he has shown himself capable of directing a variety of genre films. And he has succeeded in almost every endeavor. Westerns, crime dramas, war movies, mysteries… the man can handle anything.

Even so, as a huge fan of his work, even I still find it hard to separate Eastwood from the genre in which he made a name for himself. While not every western that he has directed has been great, he has two undisputed masterpieces in The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven. I would argue that High Plains Drifter is incredibly underrated and borders on such an honor, but I don’t think there is any debate regarding Josey Wales and Unforgiven.

I also find something very appealing about the way that he revisits various themes and styles throughout his work. Distinctive visual styles are maintained through various periods, as he teamed up with specific cinematographers and worked through whole cycles with them. Right from the start in his directorial career he collaborated with Bruce Surtees, whose darkened, hazy cinematography added an edge to every story. When he stopped working with Surtees in the 1980s, Surtees’ former camera operator Jack N. Green stepped in and provided continuity. In fact, it could be argued that the films took an even starker visual style. Just watch Unforgiven; even in lighter moments, there is something gloomy about it all. And finally, the third and current phase with Tom Stern has been equally as impressive, resulting in visual marvels like Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Eastwood’s style might not have as much of the visual flair of his mentors such as Sergio Leone, but I like his approach. He teams himself with talented people (like the aforementioned cinematographers) and opts for a slightly less daring use of the camera. What makes up for any lack of bold directorial flourishes is the man’s innate storytelling ability. Some just have a natural affinity for storytelling, and like Howard Hawks, Clint Eastwood has it.

There are certainly some duds in Eastwood’s total filmography, but at the top of his game he is among the best living directors.

1. Unforgiven (1992)
2. Mystic River (2003)
3. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
4. High Plains Drifter (1973)
5. Gran Torino (2008)
6. Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)
7. A Perfect World (1993)
8. Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
9. Play Misty for Me (1971)
10. Changeling (2008)
11. Bird (1988)
12. Pale Rider (1985)
13. The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
14. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
15. Blood Work (2002)
16. Breezy (1973)
17. Absolute Power (1997)
18. Heartbreak Ridge (1986)
19. Space Cowboys (2000)
20. Honkytonk Man (1982)
21. The Gauntlet (1977)

Up next is a master of classic Hollywood and arguably the greatest of all western directors: John Ford.

Friday, June 11, 2010

#25: Woody Allen

- "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying."

The thought of trying to make it through Woody’s entire filmography before starting this project was nearly enough to call the whole thing off. It would be a virtual impossibility, unless I watched absolutely nothing from anyone but Woody and thus had gaping holes in the lists for many other directors. At the same time, leaving Woody out of such a list would be a total lie on my part – there is little doubt that he ranks among my twenty-five favorite directors. So, with that in mind, I tried to pick and choose as best I could, getting to as many of his films that I had not seen in such a short span of time. His work rate over the last few years makes things infinitely more difficult, as even at 75 years of age, the man still manages to crank out a film every year. Even if they are not of the high quality of his best work, you have to admire the dedication. Anyone willing to do that kind of work after accomplishing as much as Allen has must truly love what he is doing.

It is kind of easy to take potshots at Woody now, considering that his indefatigable work rate has resulted in a number of bad films and that the salacious details of his personal life are now the punch lines to jokes that he would have been making in his prime. While I personally think that his production in the 2000s has been better than it is generally regarded, that wouldn’t be the defense that I would offer when arguing why the man is an all-time great. The 1980s, for me, are far and away my favorite period of Allen filmmaking, as I think his run with Mia Farrow in that decade eclipses even his great collaborations with Diane Keaton. There is much personal preference in that statement, I know, but I don’t hesitate in making such a claim - his 70s output is great as well. More specifically, though, what separates Woody from so many of his contemporaries is his versatility. Fans of his work recognize it quite often, but to the general movie fan at large, a perception still persists that Allen is little more than a comic. Comedy is certainly incorporated in some form into all of his films, but his body of work is incredibly diverse. In the 1980s, specifically, you get to see nearly every facet of immense talent – the satirical side in Stardust Memories; the farcical mockumentary Zelig; the traditional Allen-type film in Broadway Danny Rose; the nostalgia of The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days; the romantic comedy of Hannah and Her Sisters; the serious drama of Crimes and Misdemeanors. Going further back than the 80s, you see even greater versatility in the physical comedy of films like Bananas. There may be unifying themes and elements in each of these films, but to argue that they are all alike is ludicrous.

As for the assertion that Allen always plays himself in his movies, or at the very least is playing the same persona, I can’t necessarily argue. His characters do tend to mirror each other. I would counter in saying that many a great Hollywood star put together amazing careers playing similar characters (John Wayne, Jimmy Cagney), but even that claim is almost unnecessary. I would never argue that Allen is the same kind of acting talent as Wayne or Cagney - he most definitely does not. The thing is, though, he doesn’t need to be. His strengths lie in his direction and his writing. The writing in particular is second-to-none. His acting is not needed to carry one of his films. What should never be overlooked is how good he is at handling a lot of talented actors and using his script to have them play off of each other. For me, Hannah and Her Sisters is the prime example of this.

So here is a Woody Allen list that, unfortunately, comes nowhere near covering his entire filmography. Even still, there are a lot of great films listed here.

1. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
2. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
3. Annie Hall (1977)
4. Radio Days (1987)
5. Zelig (1983)
6. Manhattan (1979)
7. Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
8. Love and Death (1975)
9. Sleeper (1973)
10. Match Point (2005)
11. Husbands and Wives (1992)
12. Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
13. Interiors (1978)
14. Deconstructing Harry (1997)
15. Stardust Memories (1980)
16. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
17. Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
18. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
19. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
20. Scoop (2006)
21. Melinda and Melinda (2004)
22. Bananas (1971)
23. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

And still so many to see!

Next up is a true icon and, according to many here at Goodfellas, the man who should properly be called the hardest-working American senior citizen in cinema: Clint Eastwood.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

#26: Michael Mann

- "A 65-ft.-wide screen and 500 people reacting to the movie... there is nothing like that experience."

Michael Mann is what I would call a stylish classical director. In an era when the crime drama became “Tarantino-ed,” full of witty dialog, pop culture references, and non-linear structures, Mann has remained true to traditional storytelling. Although he made a name for himself well before this phenomenon became all the rage, Mann continued making his own classical style of crime dramas throughout this period, completely impervious to the trend. Instead, Mann stayed committed to what he does best. Rather than hinging his narratives on mysteries or spectacle, Mann takes relatively traditional storylines and tells them in a conventional manner. He never resorts to tricks or relies upon mysteries and novel structure. Mann unfolds crime dramas in the tradition of John Huston or Nicholas Ray. He isn’t so much interested in the crime as in the criminals. His stylishness comes from his experimental attitude toward technology and his incredible sense of pacing to action sequences. Where a Tarantino film, or those of his countless imitators, seems cool because of a certain hip factor, Michael Mann’s films are just flat-out cool. They look cool, the atmosphere is cool, they are shot in a manner that conveys the steady vision of the director – they are just flat-out smooth. Comparing trendy directors output to the work of Mann is like holding up the latest pop star to Frank Sinatra. One is a fad, another is eternally cool. Mann is more the Francis Albert type…

The irony for me is that I frame all of this Mann discussion in terms of the crime dramas that have made him famous, when my favorite film of his might actually be a historical romance. I _love_ The Last of the Mohicans. Of course, my reputation for being a sucker for gorgeously photographed historical pieces like this is well established. For now I will tentatively stick to Heat being my favorite of his films, but it’s really close. The other thing that I love about Mann is that he keeps making films precisely as he wants to make them. For the entire decade he has been making crime thrillers where he just drops the audience right into the middle of the story, without any regard for background or supplementary information. If you can keep up, the result has been a wild ride in every instance. If not, as has happened with many critics, the films are panned. Personally, I think he had a wonderful run in the 2000s.

1. Heat (1995)
2. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
3. Thief (1981)
4. Collateral (2004)
5. Miami Vice (2006)
6. Public Enemies (2009)
7. The Insider (1999)
8. Ali (2001)
9. Manhunter (1986)

Next in line is comedy legend, and arguably the hardest working senior citizen in cinema, Woody Allen.

Monday, June 7, 2010

#27: Jacques Tati

- "Either it comes off or it doesn't... there's no safety net."

Here is one of my most recent infatuations in cinema, as lately I have fallen completely in love with the films of Jacques Tati. Considering his small body of work it could potentially be difficult to compare him to other titans of comedy, such as Keaton or Chaplin who made numerous features and shorts in their careers. But his genius is completely put across in this abbreviated filmography, as he ingeniously created a singular style and character that stands out from anything else I have ever seen on film.

Tati’s style really is unlike anyone before or since. The influence of the two other comedic geniuses I mentioned is apparent, but Tati’s work is distinctive from both of them. Tati did not make silent films. His beloved Mr. Hulot may have essentially been a mute, but the sounds that permeate the rest of his films are one of the most distinctive features of his work. Tati utilized sound – both of the natural atmosphere and exaggerated sound effects – better than anyone. Simple noises and effects are repeated throughout the course of each film and never fail elicit a chuckle or sly smile from me. Who can forget things like: the swinging door in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday; the sound of the spewing water of the fountain in Mon Oncle, or the clinking of the entrance gate in the same film; the whooshing of the padded chairs in Playtime? And the noises of the natural world are swirling around everything that Hulot does. He lets the sound of the seaside wash over everything Hulot’s Holiday. The machinery, cars and other technologies in Playtime and Trafic are constantly heard, regardless of whatever else is taking place.

His visual style is equally as distinctive. The near complete lack of close-ups creates an interesting dynamic, as rather than always focusing on carefully orchestrated gags, Tati allows the camera to always take in big, wide shots. The audience sees _everything_. Sometimes in fact, such as in Playtime, there is almost too much to take in. You have to watch scenes multiple times to appreciate every nuance. In comedic terms, the effect is equally as interesting. Often, the hilarious antics of Mr. Hulot are actually taking place in the background – so you see things like Hulot awkwardly doing calisthenics on the beach from a distance, while watching normal, everyday scenes in the foreground. It is a unique way to film the antics and gags of a master comedian, which works far better in execution than description.

It is also important to point out that the majority of his comedy isn’t of the Keaton or Chaplin laugh out loud variety – at least in my opinion. Rather, Tati’s humor is more the creation of a story or atmosphere that leaves a perpetual smile on your face. Just seeing the way Tati moves and walks as Mr. Hulot is enough to make me grin. This breezy style of storytelling is off-putting for many, but I find it all incredibly charming. Apparently Tati would meticulously choreograph many of the stunts and gags in his films, which is surprising to me in the sense that everything else about his films screams “laid-back.” Much of the comedy is akin to a joke without a punch line. But there really is no need for a punch line, as his movies are a continually running joke that you never want to end.

I have only seen four of his features. My recent purchase of an all-region DVD player and ordering of Jour de fete from out of the country was not fast enough, as the disc has not arrived yet. Even so, based on only four films, he is more than deserving of this ranking. The top three are essentially interchangeable, although I do slightly lean toward Mon Oncle and Mr. Hulot's Holiday placing a bit ahead of the more celebrated Playtime.

1. Mon Oncle (1958)
2. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
3. Playtime (1967)
4. Trafic (1971)

For the next entry we come back to the present day United States with crime drama specialist Michael Mann.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

#28: Carl Theodor Dreyer

- "There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration."

There will be entries where I have seen very few films from the director, but those select few have had such an impact on me that I must include them in this countdown. Carl Th. Dreyer is a unique example of this issue, though, because he doesn’t have a great number of films easily available to watch. I have seen what I have been able to acquire and all five movies that I have seen have been devastating. As someone who initially had trouble getting into silent cinema, it was Dreyer that made me a believer. If it wasn’t for watching The Passion of Joan of Arc on a cold, dark fall evening, I don’t know that I ever would have done the slight “toe dip” into silent films that I have. It was one of those benchmark movie-watching experiences that I love to talk about.

The stories Dreyer tells are draining, to say the least, so they are not ones that I return to often when I sit down to enjoy a film. The artistry, though, is spectacular, which means once you have the inclination to begin a Dreyer film that you are not going to be able to tear yourself away until it is finished. While undoubtedly gloomy in tone, Dreyer’s stories are as compelling as cinema gets. They hit me like a punch to the gut every time. I have a similar uneasiness whenever I watch his cinema, expecting something bad or unfortunate to befall the characters at any moment. And eventually, something does happen. The genius of Dreyer, and why even if his films are draining for me I continue to return to them, is that he never fails to offer at least a sliver of hope to the viewer. Things might not turn out well for the characters, but there is something inspirational or moving to those watching the drama.

I realize that The Passion of Joan of Arc will likely be the pick for everyone as Dreyer's best film and I would certainly agree. However, I have to put in a strong word for Ordet. I would never dare rank it about Joan, but on a strictly favorites list it is a near dead heat for me. Ordet haunted me (in a good way) like few other films I have ever watched. The atmosphere is eerie, bordering on terrifying, and yet it ultimately becomes yet uplifting. The lighting and camerawork Dreyer uses in the cramped confines of the country home are miraculous. Such a great film.

All five of the films listed below are very good, if not flat-out great. My question to everyone else is what are the other essential Dreyer films that I need to seek out ASAP?

1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
2. Ordet (1955)
3. Day of Wrath (1943)
4. Vampyr (1932)
5. Gertrud (1964)

Next up is French comedic master Jacques Tati.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

#29: Nicholas Ray

- "That’s the obligation of the filmmaker or the theater worker – to give a heightened sense of experience to the people who pay to come to see his work."

Would it be cliché to open an entry on Nicholas Ray by marveling at how the French adored the mercurial director? Anytime a survey of Ray’s career is discussed, or analysis of his work attempted, it is mentioned that during the 1950s few American directors were held in such high regard at Cahiers du Cinema as Ray. Jean-Luc Godard in particular appeared to worship the man, once boldly declaring: “The cinema is Nicholas Ray.” At his best, I don’t know that I would necessarily argue with the sentiments of Godard and other leaders of the French New Wave. The sentiments expressed in Godard’s comment are justifiable considering the skills displayed in Ray’s moviemaking. In the hands of directors of lesser ability, a number of his films would play as little more that pulpy melodrama. As great as movies like They Live By Night and Rebel Without a Cause are, without Ray’s guidance I would argue that they would be average films at best.

Why was Ray able to transform potentially sappy material such as these (among others) and produce classics of American cinema? His visual storytelling, using the camera as an artist would a brush, is always impressive. But most importantly is the delicate way that he handled the themes that most interested him. Similar to how Howard Hawks would become a master at examining the bonds between men in nearly all of his greatest films, Nick Ray studied how outcasts managed to make their way in the world. The ability to convey an unrelenting sense of isolation permeates much of Ray’s work. Rather than being completely depressing, though, Ray also gives these characters glimpses of reconnecting with people or society at large. They might not always get there – such as Jim in Rebel Without a Cause or Dix in In a Lonely Place – but there is at least a glimmer of hope that they might.

I said it multiple times during the noir countdown, but revisiting a number of his best films increased my appreciation of his work even more. I still have a number of Ray films that I need to get to, which I think will shoot him even higher up a list like this. I still have not come close to seeing his entire body of work, but those top 6-7 are incredible. In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar are two that I love, love, love. And The Lusty Men is a definite sleeper, a film that will remind Peckinpah fans of his later movie Junior Bonner.

1. In a Lonely Place (1950)
2. Johnny Guitar (1954)
3. The Lusty Men (1952)
4. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
5. They Live By Night (1949)
6. On Dangerous Ground (1952)
7. Bigger Than Life (1956)
8. Bitter Victory (1958)
9. The Savage Innocents (1960)
10. Party Girl (1958)
11. King of Kings (1961)

Next up is Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

#30: Steven Spielberg

- “I dream for a living.”

Check your elitism at the door if you wish to proceed with the first entry in this series. And I'll note up front that this one is significantly longer than other entries will be... as you'll see, I go off on some tangents here, just to get some thoughts out there!

I’m kidding with the elitism crack, but there is at least a grain of truth in such sarcasm. I thought I’d kick things off with a man who can divide “serious movie fans” as fast as Brian De Palma. The backlash that has developed against Steven Spielberg in some quarters is mindboggling. I hate to use the word elitist, but it definitely comes across that way. In some quarters of the internet movie community, simply admitting to be a fan of Spielberg’s films is enough to get labeled as a mindless sheep of big-budget Hollywood; as someone incapable of appreciating more subtle, toned down cinema.

I am honestly not pointing this finger at any of the folks that frequent Goodfella’s. Really, none of the blogs that I regularly visit fall victim to such a ridiculous viewpoint. But if you don’t believe me, I urge you to check out various forums and message boards devoted to movies or certain DVD labels and see for yourself. The enormity of the box office numbers that his films generate is likely the first cause of the counterattack. Beyond that though, the general complaint about Spielberg being labeled not just a profitable director, but a genuinely great one, is that most of his films lack the true depth and substance of peers like Scorsese, Coppola, and others. Even more damning, they say, is that he simply panders to cheap emotional reactions from the audience rather than allowing poignant drama to develop naturally. This phenomenon has been most noticeable to me among self-anointed amateur “cineastes” that tend to balk at all things overtly commercial, but it’s evident among a number of critics and historians too. Just read some of the professional assessments of his work:

"As America in the 1990s moves slowly away from the Reagan era, will Spielberg find new materials and adult themes, or will he seek continuing refuge in tried and true formulas? And will those formulas continue to work? And finally, will Spielberg manage to successfully mediate his apparent dual interests - being a modern day mogul in the style of Walt Disney or Cecil B. De Mille as well as being a respected artist whose work requires no apology?" - Charles Derry (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
"While it is impossible to deny either his Midas touch or his extraordinary technical proficiency, it has nonetheless become increasingly clear in recent years that he is perhaps more at home with sentimental 'family' fodder than with more sophisticated material." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

Are these people serious? I don’t understand why some are so quick to assume that “commercially successful” and “artistically significant” have to be mutually exclusive. Spielberg has at times fallen into the trap perpetually occupied by his good friend George Lucas of simply overwhelming audiences with special effects. But beneath any effects that Spielberg might employ, the skill he possesses is, in my opinion, undeniable. His technical chops are so well-established in fact, that he is often criticized for being too reliant upon such cold, detached skills. What I think is overlooked is just how good of a storyteller he is. Perhaps he doesn’t have the auterist credentials of other successful directors who rose to prominence in the same era, but the man has a track record of producing compelling stories, regardless of the genre he is working in. Is Raiders of the Lost Ark a matinee action adventure? Yep, it sure is. But even while making a movie that had every intention of breaking the bank at the box office, Spielberg and company simultaneously created a character that people cared and fell in love with. I see nothing wrong with avoiding great philosophical thoughts or statements, and simply concentrating on crafting enjoyable, well-told stories. Is that not what many great directors (Hitchcock comes to mind) set out to do?

Then, when Spielberg did decide to tackle mature themes and stories, he took some flack for those as well. There was still something to nitpick in each of these efforts. Some argue that much of Saving Private Ryan’s reputation is built solely on the famed beach landing. Is this the case? Of course, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the drama is unimportant. The craziest accusation I have seen leveled against Spielberg is that with Schindler’s List – which is unquestionably his artistic zenith – that he intentionally “manipulated” how the audience should respond to Holocaust atrocities. What?! At any rate, I’ll stop reeling off the ludicrous accusations I have seen thrown at the monstrosity that is the Spielberg box office machine. I’ll simply close by saying that I enjoy each stage of Spielberg’s career – his early adventurous cycle and his later, more mature works. In the new millennium he seems to have caught a second (or third) wind and has produced some wonderful films.

Below is my ranking of his films that I have seen (which clearly is not all of them), based purely on personal preference. In terms of greatness, I don’t think there is any question that Schindler’s List would have to be placed at the top. There are a number of his films I still have not seen, and not every one included here is one I actually like, but I think this is a resume that is strong through the Top 10-12.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
2. Schindler’s List (1993)
3. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
6. Jaws (1975)
7. Munich (2005)
8. Empire of the Sun (1987)
9. Duel (1971)
10. Jurassic Park (1993)
11. Catch Me if You Can (2002)
12. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
13. Minority Report (2002)
14. The Color Purple (1985)
15. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
16. The Sugarland Express (1974)
17. Amistad (1997)
18. Hook (1991)
19. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
20. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

- Up next in the countdown: Nicholas Ray. And as a TCM alert to those in the States, one of Ray's more celebrated yet harder-to-locate films THE LUSTY MEN will be shown Wednesday June 2 at 2:00 PM. Set the DVRs or VCRs as necessary.

Also, my hope is to keep discussion centered on the director of the day, holding off the next revealed entry until it's actually posted. Everyone probably already knows this, but it's worth typing it anyway. So all Nick Ray nuts, you'll have to wait until Thursday! (LOL)