Friday, December 30, 2011

And a Happy New Year! At Least 100 Reasons to Be Happy

Jewish Week has my interview with Michel Hazanavicius up on the website. I very much liked The Artist, especially if you put it in the context of his first two features, the OSS 117 reboots. If those were odes to dumb humor that isn't very funny, The Artist is a warm, humane and sweet-tempered blend of comedy and melodrama that reminded me more of Leo McCarey than Hazanavicius's beloved Billy Wilder. (Although one could argue that the late Wilder films fit that description quite well.) I'm not saying it will make my ten-best list; in fact, I can almost guarantee it won't. But sometimes you see a film and it just has "Honorable Mention" status written all over it. The Artist feels like that to me, and that's an entirely -- no pun intended, for once -- honorable thing.

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So the year is almost over, I'm already steaming ahead through the films from next year's New York Jewish Film Festival (and a promising lot they are). But the members of the New York Independent Film Critics Circle (better known as "the Ira voters") are busily compiling their 100-best lists, which I will be tabulating on New Year's Day or thereabouts. My list has been pretty much complete for many weeks. So in honor of the impending change of calendar, here it is for your perusal and amusement. (Listing is alphabetical. If you count them and find more than 100 films, let me know.)

An Autumn Afternoon -- Yasujiro Ozu

Advise and Consent -- Otto Preminger

Affair to Remember, An -- Leo McCarey

Aguirre, the Wrath of God -- Werner Herzog

Anatomy of a Murder -- Otto Preminger

Andrei Rublev -- Andrei Tarkovsky

Ballet -- Frederick Wiseman

Bend of the River -- Anthony Mann

Big Heat, The -- Fritz Lang

Big Red One, The (restored version) -- Samuel Fuller

Bigger Than Life -- Nicholas Ray

Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The -- Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Blue -- Kzrstyof Kieslowski

Caro Diario -- Nanni Moretti

Casablanca -- Michael Curtiz

Celine and Julie Go Boating -- Jacques Rivette

Chimes at Midnight -- Orson Welles

Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, The -- Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet

Cluny Brown -- Ernst Lubitsch

Contempt -- Jean-Luc Godard

Crime of M. Lange, The -- Jean Renoir

Day of Wrath -- Carl Dreyer

Detour -- Edgar G. Ulmer

Diary of a Country Priest -- Robert Bresson

Elena et les hommes -- Jean Renoir

Empress Yang Kwei Fei, The -- Kenji Mizoguchi

Floating Weeds -- Yasujiro Ozu

Flowers of St. Francis, The – Roberto Rossellini

Force of Evil – Abraham Polonsky

French Can-Can -- Jean Renoir

Great Dictator, The -- Charles Chaplin

Gun Crazy -- Joseph H. Lewis

Home from the Hill -- Vincente Minnelli

I Know Where I'm Going -- Michael Powell

Imitation of Life -- Douglas Sirk

It's a Wonderful Life -- Frank Capra

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles -- Chantal Akerman

Kings of the Road -- Wim Wenders

Kippur -- Amos Gitai

Kiss Me Deadly -- Robert Aldrich

Lancelot du Lac -- Robert Bresson

Le Samourai -- Jean-Pierre Melville

Leopard, The -- Luchino Visconti

Letter from an Unknown Woman -- Max Ophuls

Madame de . . . -- Max Ophuls

Magnificent Ambersons, The -- Orson Welles

Man Who Loved Women, The -- Blake Edwards

Man with a Movie Camera -- Dziga Vertov

Marnie -- Alfred Hitchcock

Mattei Affair, The -- Francesco Rosi

Memory of Justice, The -- Marcel Ophuls

Messiah, The – Roberto Rossellini

Miracle of Morgan's Creek, The -- Preston Sturges

Moses und Aron -- Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet

Mother and the Whore, The – Jean Eustache

My Darling Clementine -- John Ford

Naked Spur, The -- Anthony Mann

Near Death -- Frederick Wiseman

Night of the Hunter -- Charles Laughton

Numero Deux -- Jean-Luc Godard

Once Upon a Time In the West -- Sergio Leone

Ordet -- Carl Dreyer

Pandora's Box -- G.W. Pabst

Peeping Tom -- Michael Powell

Phantom of Liberty, The -- Luis Bunuel

Philadelphia Story, The -- George Cukor

Play Dirty -- Andre DeToth

Playtime -- Jacques Tati

Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The -- Billy Wilder

Providence -- Alain Resnais

Ride Lonesome -- Budd Boetticher

Ride the High Country – Sam Peckinpah

Rio Bravo -- Howard Hawks

Salvatore Giuiliano -- Francesco Rosi

Sans Soleil -- Chris Marker

Satantango – Bela Tarr

Scarface – Howard Hawks

Scarlet Empress, The -- Josef von Sternberg

Searchers, The -- John Ford

Senso -- Luchino Visconti

Shanghai Gesture, The -- Josef von Sternberg

Sherlock, Jr. -- Buster Keaton

Shoah -- Claude Lanzmann

Shock Corridor -- Samuel Fuller

Shop Around the Corner, The -- Ernst Lubitsch

Sunrise -- F.W. Murnau

The Lady Eve -- Preston Sturges

The Servant -- Joseph Losey

The Wedding March -- Erich von Stroheim

Travels with My Aunt -- George Cukor

Truck, The -- Marguerite Duras

True-Heart Susie -- D.W. Griffith

Utamaro and His Five Women -- Kenji Mizoguchi

Vertigo -- Alfred Hitchcock

Viaggio in Italia -- Roberto Rossellini

Viridiana -- Luis Bunuel

While the City Sleeps -- Fritz Lang

White Heat -- Raoul Walsh

Wild Bunch, The – Sam Peckinpah

Young Mr. Lincoln -- John Ford


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Slightly Bizarre Xmas Gift from Kino Lorber

So a very charming FedEx deliverywoman came to my door this morning -- late enough that I was comparatively speaking awake -- and handed me a large package from Kino Lorber, always an exciting prospect. I opened it and was amused to find four films by the French erotic horror maven Jean Rollin, a reissue of the 1979 documentary Swastika and, to my great delight, the DVD of JLG's Filme Socialisme. When the Godard played the NY Film Festival last year, I was, like most of my colleagues, sort of stumped by the "navaho subtitles," as he called them. My aural French isn't good enough to follow much of the untranslated dialogue and the passages in German (among other languages) left me completely bewildered. (My German vocabulary was acquired from WWII movies and Fassbinder films, so I can say useful things like "Don't shoot" and "Filthy little whore.")

Given the enormous controversy over Godard's attitude to Jews, I decided to tread lightly in writing about the film. But here comes the good part: the new DVD release has both Godard's original, all-but-useless subtitles and a complete English translation as well. I don't know it that will put an end to my ambivalence, but it can't hurt.

Of course, I won't get to the film until I've made a thorough study of the Rollins. Gotta keep your priorities straight.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Everything That Degrades Culture . . . .

Interesting, disturbing item in today's Independent of London about two Parisian art cinemas that are "on strike" for Christmas in protest against the overwhelming favoritism shown the large chain cinemas in that city. We're no longer looking at the refusal to let smaller houses book American blockbusters; one of these theaters was beat out for Kaurismaki's Le Havre. (Granted it's a French-language film -- and a very good one -- but it's Kaurismaki for crissake.) Although, as the story notes, Frédéric Mitterrand, the culture minister, once was the manager of one of the theaters in question, there isn't likely to be much help as long as Sarkozy, the vest-pocket edition of Blair and Bush, is PM.

Of course, what is needed is some variation on the Paramount consent decree, forcing the theater chains to break their cozy relationship with the distributors, but it appears to me that the relationship is more complex than it was in the US in the '30s and '40s where the chains were simply owned by the studios (an admirable piece of vertical integration if I ever saw one). It's almost unnecessary to add that the Paramount decree was whittled away in the years after it was issued until Ronald Reagan shitcanned it completely as a gesture of gratitude to the studios who had made his entire career possible. Somewhere in Hell, Jack Warner was smiling broadly, albeit briefly, that day.

It seems to this rather underinformed observer that the best approach to keeping your home-grown cinemas strong -- and I mean both producers and end-users -- is an arrangement like South Korea's, a quota system that requires a substantial percentage of the films shown theatrically to be Korean-made. South Korea has one of the most vital national cinemas in the world today, and it's not hard to see why.

However, that doesn't really address the concerns of the theater owners in the Independent article. I don't know exactly what they can do, but I don't expect them to get help from their old employee.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Adding Another Dimension

It's tempting when watching Pina, Wim Wenders 3-D documentary and homage to Pina Bausch, to wonder what Wenders would have done with the format on some of his earlier excursions into non-fiction film. (The crags of Nick Ray's battered, weary face would probably translated rather well into 3-D for Lightning Over Water.) But you get what you get, and a dance film, which is what Pina is intermittently, should use space at least as satisfyingly as one on cave paintings. I say that as one who will almost certainly have Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams on his ten-best list when the Iras roll around (in late March, by the way).

And, in fact, the dance sequences in Pina are frequently among the most exhilarating moments in the film, as much for the flailing, atomic energy that drove Bausch's choreography and her core of longtime collaborators, as for anything Wenders does with the format. What he brings to the party is a series of candid, charming recollections by those dancers, all of whom speak of Bausch with real love, stuck in front of a blank, dark gray background that makes them pop out into "space" like animated figures. Taken in tandem with footage of Bausch working with her compnay, and the oddly fragmented contemporary dance footage -- Wenders seems as unwilling to give us a whole performance as Godard was in One P.M. -- the result is an inventive, quirky film that reflects its subject as much as its director. It's about two weeks since I saw Pina and to be absolutely honest, I still haven't made up my mind about it, but the fact that I've continued thinking on its merits suggests that it must be pretty good.

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One of the more pleasant resurrection acts in contemporary film criticism is the revival of Movie, the British film journal that was, for all intents and purposes, an English-language counterpart of Cahiers du Cinema, an outpost of committed auteurism in the sea of vaguely liberal-humanist dithering that was Anglophone film criticism in the '50s and early '60s. Ian Cameron, the founder, died a couple of years ago, and Robin Wood, who was one of its clearest thinkers and best writers, did likewise. But the University of Warwick has helped bring the magazine back to life as an open-source on-line publication. The latest issue of the new series is up on their website, devoted mostly to the American films of Fritz Lang, an eminently worthy topic for discussion. You can find it here. And well you should.


Friday, December 16, 2011

For Polanski, a Different Kind of Carnage

I reviewed Carnage, the new Roman Polanski film, when it opened the NY Film Festival back in September. Of course, since this blog was in limbo, you may not have known about or seen that review. But with the film finally receiving its theatrical premiere, just in time for the Oscar noms, I think it's worth including it here:

There is a tiny detail in Carnage, the new Roman Polanski film which opened this year’s New York Film Festival, something small but telling in the excellent production design by Dean Tavoularis. The film, which is almost a verbatim rendering of Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, is a sardonic reflection on how well-intentioned and soi-disant sophisticated New Yorkers deal with the intrusion of violence on a small scale into their lives. As part of Tavoularis’s living room set, in which most of the action takes place, there is a piano with music stand, complete with assorted sheet music. On the corner of an open page of music one spies what appears to be blood spatter. As the film works through its brief 80-minute duration, we see that image again but closer and eventually it comes to resemble a cartoon splotch like something out of the kids’ cable channel Nickelodeon.

That gradual transformation is a perfect visual metaphor for the trajectory of Polanski’s film. At the outset, it seems to be a somewhat barbed satire on class relations in New York, with the upper-class Cowans (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) visiting the middle-class Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), to put to rest a playground incident in which their son Zachary hit Ethan Longstreet with a stick, knocking out a couple of teeth, the sort of altercation between ten-year-olds that used to be settled between the kids.

Reza’s play takes the two couples through all the possible stages of negotiation, from obsequiousness through belligerence and back again, with the women pairing off against the men, the couples against one another and everyone else against Penelope (Foster), the lone holdout voice for some mushy version of enlightened progressivism. Reza ruthlessly caricatures every possible point of view from left to right until the verbiage becomes just so much point-scoring silliness. It’s a feast for four actors looking for a play that reads like the result of one improv game too many, and Winslet, Waltz and Reilly are clearly having a ball switching sides for every possible permutation.

But it is Foster who is the revelation here. Playing a demented version of her touchy-feely mom act, she gradually transmutes into a character out of a Tex Avery cartoon. You keep waiting for her head to explode, her eyes to bug out on stalks, her tongue to wrap itself around her necking while stars burst out of her nose and smoke gushes from her ears. She and Polanski manage to find the next nearest thing and the result is simply hilarious.

Therein lies the basic problem with the film, or at any rate, the play. It’s a live-action Warner Brothers Merry Melodie run amok. Polanski plays against the text’s overload by parsing the visual tracking deftly, shifting power vectors between the characters with a deadpan precision that makes the whole thing tick over like a finely honed machine. For a guy whose childhood was spent running from the Nazis, this is a cakewalk, and the threat of violence, never very serious, is given as much weight as it deserves, which is very little.

As a result, Carnage is minor Polanski, deliciously well crafted and very, very funny, but rather inconsequential, a showcase for some very clever acting turns, bracketed a smart pair of bookend scenes that take the film briefly outdoors without doing violence to its essential structure.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

After a Long Hard Summer . . . .

Not dead yet, folks.

In fact, I'm adding a few new elements to my ever-expanding media empire. I'm now tweeting from @GRCommunicati13, and have become the artistic director (or whatever title you choose) of the Washington Heights Film Class. So if you want to hear me expound and expatiate in person, here's your chance. All joking aside, I think the class will be great fun for all and if you are in the NYC area, heartily recommend it. I can promise you that you will actually learn something and will see some very good films, and the price is absurdly reasonable, if you'll pardon the oxymoron.

I saw Wim Wenders's excursion into 3-D, Pina, last night, and will have more to say shortly. The film is utterly fascinating, although I haven't made up my mind on it just yet. Stay tuned.