This past year, along with all the great theatrical releases that wowed (see my Top 20 of 2013), I committed to participating in a series of posts that seems to be managed and championed by Ryan McNeil of The Matinee called “The Blindspots”. Along with all my other writings over the last year as it turned to the last third I fell off somewhat, but I called out twelve films at the beginning of the year that I promise I’d finally make myself watch, here are the results of those twelve films and me:
Schindler’s List (1993) (dir. Steven Speilberg)
The movie constantly strives to show power. To show the power one has over the people. It goes so far as to actually discuss it openly between our two characters of dominance where Schindler tells Amon his true power lies not in his ability to take away the life of a Jew but to allow them to keep it, to pardon them.
M (1931) (dir. Fritz Lang)
Where I feel the most interest for me though came in the procedure itself. When the film finally identifies our murderer (Peter Lorre) we’re given this small moment of brilliance that just feels so right. It’s hard for us to somehow conceive how much easier or harder it was to accomplish these procedures that we take for granted in police narratives of this age, but something so simple as marking the back of a man’s coat by chalking a M on your hand so that the rest of the eyes and ears are able to follow him discreetly makes everything else (which is monotonous procedure) work so much more as an act of cinema.
Close-Up (1990) (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
Using the word documentary feels almost dismissive of what Kiarostami is able to accomplish with this film. Where elements are filmed as happens and others re-enacted (for the sake of narrative) it never feels completely directed or forced in any way. Even scenes, like the trial, gives an uncertain feeling as to whether we’re watching the real thing or a re-enactment. This is to the film’s benefit as it ties in further into the filmmaking idea of how this drive and passion that pushed Sabzian to lie about being Makhmalbaf out of a love for cinema even more apparent.
The Night of the Hunter (1955) (dir. Charles Laughton)
While the thematic terror is an element that creates approximately 80% of the tension in the film, more than any acting greatness that is Robert Mitchum or the narrative, it’s the visual sense that the film gives that pulls this off. As mentioned, the first time we know that Powell has reached the Harpers is by a shadow that envelopes the children in their home. More than once Charles Laughton uses the image of shadows to convey this sense of terror. The visual ability of the director is what makes every frame of Mitchum (and his ever present shadow) is what makes the film as palpable as it is. When we have the moment of John and Pearl escaping you’d expect for that visual motif to change, but it doesn’t and it’s only at the very end is it that the film finally feels to come into the light.
All About Eve (1950) (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Even when the film reaches its climax and we’re given this cyclical nod with Eve in her hotel room after having accepted her award with a very Margo-like demeanor; very somber and slightly disgusted with her reality it should be cliche and annoying but it works. The worst part of it is that we never feel this as a sign of Eve becoming saddened by the results of her efforts, we see her as accomplished and successful. Not just critically and financially but also personally.
Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) (dir. Werner Herzog)
A part of me wants to love this movie. It feels so much like what Malick achieved with The New World (my favourite of his films); and at the same time I feel like this is the film that most easily explains to me how those who dislike The New World felt watching that film.
Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), while on this expedition for El Dorado is given second in command to a smaller team to find their way out of the jungle. The film allows us to focus on the process of Aguirre’s claim to fame as the man behind the curtain of every turn. When he saw that he was unable to control the expedition to his benefit he saw fit the make sure that it became that way in short order. It’s great.
At the same time though the film feels like a general slog of a story where from the outset, watching these conquistadors seeing their own demise in the near future, we have no hope for the story or our characters. Aguirre almost feels like he’s supposed to be the villain you love to hate that we’re forced to associate with, but I ended up distancing myself from him as much as possible.
In the Mood For Love (2000) (dir. Wong Kar Wai)
Adultery is a strong word and has always been seemingly well defined in the construct of society. However, In the Mood for Love starts to question the limits of that definition and asks us when it’s worth re-evaluating that word. There is a point in the film where we are led to believe that Mrs. Chow and Mr. Chan are having an affair, whether together or separately is undetermined. When Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan decide to spend more time together it begins with the line of, “We won’t be like them” which admits to the dark road they are about to travel down but walks down it with the intention of it remaining pure.
Metropolis (1927) (dir. Fritz Lang)
The film’s imagery is anything but subtle. There are times when Fritz Lang actually looks to remind us of the themes he wants to portray numerous times through imagery. The same narration that opens the film, of the mediator, is repeated numerous times through Maria’s preaching to the workers and when the finale comes around. The same thing happens with the Babel imagery. Early on when Freder first is inspired to speak to his father about his suffering brothers in the machine room he screams, “to the new Tower of Babel,” and later on the film explains – in almost a scripture like manner — the imagery and meaning of the Woman of Babel who inspires all of these sins that eventually leads to the death of a people only to have the Machine Man version of Marie be placed into that exact same imagery so much so that the film would overlay the presented image of the Woman of Babel when evil Marie appears to remind us.
Sherlock, Jr. (1924) (dir. Buster Keaton)
Where this film rises above a lot of even today’s films is in it’s visuals. Something about films of today are so understandable by the audience. When someone goes to watch Avengersthere is an understanding by him and the film even before a frame is shown that we already know how 99% of the film was made and the part of one’s brain that spends rattling around trying to figure out how we got a Hulk to take down a big Alien ship living thingy (whatever that was) is completely disengaged through the experience. However, watching Sherlock Jrthat part of your brain is constantly engaged attempting to figure it all out because unlike with today’s films there is no understanding before the film begins.
Breathless (1959) (dir. Jean Luc-Godard)
At the time the first thought I had when the credits began to roll was instantaneously to have someone explain this French New Wave to me. I know what it is and have seen a couple of films from it’s time, only to feel lost about it all. It’s realism and paired down productions create mood that I adore, but this film felt like a loss of story. There was nothing to truly latch onto as opposed to the likes of Frances Ha, which takes it’s entire feel and style from the films of this era but adds something more to the mix that I feel filmmakers then didn’t care for.
Godard asks me to follow his protagonist into nothingness as the film devolves into a very odd state of affairs and just a random smattering of meetings that shift from being adorable to frustratingly uninteresting.
Double Indemnity (1944) (dir. Billy Wilder)
Is this the year I dislike noir cinema? Something about this film rubbed me the wrong way. Noir cinema, more than a visual style and general dark toned revenge/mystery stories, rely on a sense of intrigue that I felt this film lacked for me. Another big thing that these films live on is general badassness. We love the hard as nails cop going after the bad guy and questioning who’s really the worst person of the two sides. Here it’s an insurance salesman who always have the right selection of words to go together, and it’s great, but at the same time it comes off as no better than The Counselor where we want to take a minute or two to deconstruct each sentence and by the time we’ve caught up we’ve lost the film and any focus the film had with us.
Touch of Evil (1958) (dir. Orson Welles)
So… remember I talked about noir? This is noir. With a Mexican Charlton Heston and a fat Orson Welles playing off one another to solve this crime and see where justice really lies we have nothing but great dark gritty police stories to fill that part of our mind which loves to hate bad people and loves even more to see the morally good succeed in the end. The direction making the film feel as fluid as possible and writing keeping us on our toes while never losing us keeps this film entertaining and amazingly enjoyable to watch.