Happy New Year!
Here are the Movies of the Year 2013.
The list is relatively short this year, partly because I didn't watch as many movies (often falling asleep trying) and partly because I didn't get around to writing notes about them in a timely fashion. So here's what we have.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928): Steamboat Bill hasn't seen his son since his son was a baby, but now Steamboat Bill, Jr., is coming from Boston to visit his father, owner of a passenger steamboat on the Mississippi River. Dad expects his son to be a chip off the old block, a rough, rugged slab of a man, but Junior is slight and slender Buster Keaton, outrageously dressed in frippery finery, topped with a beret and besmirched with a ludicrously thin moustache.The first segment of the movie concerns the father's discomfort with this boy and his attempts to transform him into something more macho. These efforts go wrong, very comically and very inventively. Attention then turns to the plot, a Romeo & Juliet affair, in which Keaton and a young woman he knows from Boston are forbidden to marry by their fathers, who are rival steamboat captains, each out to dominate the river trade. Then there's the justly famous final act, an astounding set piece involving a hurricane that destroys almost everything in the town and provides excuses for some of Keaton's most impressive and mind-boggling work. It's this scene that gave the world the priceless bit of the side of a house falling on Keaton, who is, miraculously, standing in the exact spot for an open window to save him.
Modern Times (1936): Did George Orwell see this movie? He would have appreciated the satire of capitalism that runs through it, but he might have found inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four in the factory scenes in the beginning of the movie, with the all-seeing boss watching and dominating the employees by use of two-way television screens. Very Big Brother. The scene of Chaplin going through the machinery is the most famous image from this movie but there's so much else to recommend it, such as Chaplin's cocaine freak-out in prison, his delirious fantasy of middle-class suburban life and of course his wonderful nonsense song at the end. Paulette Goddard, with her wild eyes and exuberant beauty, is a great match for him, though one wonders about the love story part of the plot, as her character is supposed to be a minor.
Les Lyonnais (A Gang Story, 2011): Serge and Momon are two Romany gypsies who have been steadfast friends since childhood. After learning how to heist from a gang that uses the loot to fund right-wing political groups, Momon and Serge start their own band of gypsies, Les Lyonnais or the Lyons gang. They do very well for themselves until somebody talks to the cops and hefty jail sentences are handed out. All that is in the past, though, the 1970s. In present day, Momon is wealthy and more or less retired, the owner of a bar and a beautiful house, still happily married to the same woman for decades—she did thirty months in jail for him at one point—and a proud grandfather seven times so far. But his current comfortable situation is being threatened by the past, in the form of Serge, who is in jail facing life in prison, which isn't a long sentence in this case since some gangsters he's apparently crossed are determined to kill him. Momon hasn't seen Serge in thirteen years but their friendship is closer to brotherhood and Momon will risk everything for Serge. The results are a mess, to put it mildly. Les Lyonnais recalls (without imitating) several classics of the genre: the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, The Godfather, GoodFellas and The Brothers Rico. (The actor who plays Momon looks a bit like Richard Conte and would be a good Parker in a film adaptation of a Richard Stark novel.) This absorbing and tough crime drama is one of the best gangster movies I've seen recently.
Une aussi long absence (The Long Absence, 1961): Thérèse runs a cafe in a small Parisian suburb. Teenagers hang out there to play pinball and listen to jazz on the jukebox while the adults stop in to eat and drink and, in one memorable scene, listen to the radio broadcast of the Tour de France. Thérèse has a thing going with a truck driver who passes through regularly but this comes to and end when she decides that a local tramp, who has amnesia and can't remember anything about his past, is her husband, who disappeared while serving in the military during World War 2. The movie delicately charts Thérèse's emotional journey from complacency to hope, passing through fear, excitement, frustration and anger on the way. While the story has considerable potential for allegory—with exploitable themes that would include the nature of identity, of truth, the devastation of war, coping with loss and so on—all elements are held firmly down to earth and the movie is admirably steady, unpretentious and lightly handled, strongly reminiscent of an Alice Munro story. Une aussi long absence was co-written by Marguerite Duras and the credits include Alain Resnais among a group of people who collaborated on the movie in some capacity. The photography is beautiful and Georges Delerue's score is perfect.
Transatlantic (1931): Edmund Lowe is a breezy, likable sort of rogue who's managed to get on board a transatlantic steamer just before the police get him. He's wanted for questioning and he doesn’t want to be questioned. Also on board are a millionaire banker who's breaking his wife's heart by neglecting her for the attentions of a gold-digging Swedish dancer, an old man who has just retired from a life of constant toil and put all of his savings in the banker’s investment company, the old man's lovely young daughter and a gang of vicious thieves who intend to rob the banker. This all gets very complicated and culminates in a frenzied action sequence during a violent storm at sea. (Much of the climax, which takes place in the engine room, anticipates the exciting conclusion of Hitchcock’s Secret Agent.) The real star of this Grand Hotel-like, proto-disaster movie—though there isn't an actual disaster—is James Wong Howe's stunning photography. There are incredible camera moves and effects, starting with the very first shot which might have been for 1931 what the opening shot of Touch of Evil was for 1958. Almost every frame seems to have been artistically and intelligently composed. The print I saw wasn't great but Howe's genius was clear enough despite that.
Simya-ui FM (Midnight FM, 2010): Go Seon-yeong used to be a television reporter before she got in trouble for making an on-air comment about a miscarriage of justice. In the years since then, she's had her own very popular late-night radio show where she plays music from film soundtracks, talks about what's on her mind and takes calls from listeners. Tonight is her last broadcast, though, as she leaves for New York to get an operation for her younger daughter, who is unable to speak or make any kind of vocal sound because of a throat condition. Go's number-one fan happens to be a psycho killer who takes her sister and daughters hostage and makes contact with Go, demanding that her last show follow his exact specifications. That her stalker is seriously dangerous and crazy is established right away. Thus begins a nightmare of violence and suspense, as Go struggles to follow the killer's insane demands, deal with her producers (who don't know what's going on), handle another psycho fan who's in the studio with her (and, in a nice twist, turns out to be rather helpful) and, of course, rescue her children. I won't deny that there is much that is contrived about the story, but it moves along quickly and intelligently enough to forgive a certain amount of over-reaching for the sake of entertainment. It's not stuck in the radio station either. Go Seon-yeong is smart and determined. Forced to keep her show on the air or else, Go jumps into a broadcast van and burns rubber for her apartment building. There are many references to Taxi Driver and some of the concept is similar to the excellent Bayside Shakedown spin-off movie Negotiator Mashita Masayoshi.
Nowhere To Go (1958): Paul Gregory has a great plan for a robbery. He befriends a wealthy widow who wants to sell her husband's coin collection. He steals it and sells it himself, to a reputable dealer who thinks he acts on the woman's behalf. So far, so good. She'll get the coins back, which are insured for more money than the sale brought, anyway, and Gregory has his cash safely put away in a safe-deposit box. His plan even includes his own arrest. He expects to get five years and maybe serve three, getting time off for good behavior. He's shocked to get a sentence of ten years, which precipitates his escape from prison and scramble to get his cash and leave the country before recapture. But there are problems, not the least of which is being double-crossed by his partner, played by Bernard Lee of James Bond film fame. Each step leads to another twist in the road and another near escape in this tense and exciting, hard-boiled and down-beat crime film. Gregory is admirably resourceful and thoroughly tainted by crime and corruption. He would have been a good choice to play the main character in an adaptation of one of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels.
Primer (2004): In the short documentary film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Herzog remarks that money doesn't make films. Primer is a case in point. It is probably the best extremely low-budget movie ever made, with a price tag of $7000 and practically no shortcomings at all, not even aesthetic ones. It looks great and doesn't even fall back on the popular and economical "found footage" conceit. What really counts, it turns out, is vision and determination. Shane Carruth knew what movie he wanted to make and wrote it, directed it, edited it, scored it, starred in it and who knows what else. He found people willing to collaborate and work very hard—certain scenes, just of people talking, were rehearsed for months until the complicated dialogue flowed naturally—and wrote the script to incorporate as many locations as possible that he knew he could use for free. (His parents' house gets a lot of screen time.) But the most important thing about Primer is that it's the ultimate time-travel movie. There will always be time-travel movies but it's hard to imagine any that will be more hardcore about the concept than Primer. (The same is true of serial-killer movies and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.) There's no point in saying much about the story except that it's about two guys who accidentally invent a time machine and what happens to them as a result. It's very demanding on the brain. I've seen it twice and read a few things about it and I still don't understand a lot of it. But this is a rare case of confusion leading to satisfaction instead of to frustration.
Harry in Your Pocket (1973): This isn't a great movie. Right off the bat there are some very awkwardly contrived bits that are too obviously designed to set up the relationships necessary for the rather familiar story to unfold in just the way you expect it to. So what's good about it? Basically, the fact that it's about one of the world's greatest pickpockets, played by an amused and confident James Coburn. The scenes of him and his team fleecing crowds in Seattle, Victoria (BC) and Salt Lake City, often in beautiful slow-motion photography that exploits the picturesque locations, accompanied by some of Lalo Schifrin's most hauntingly lovely and hypnotic music are what I appreciated most when I saw Harry in Your Pocket on late-night television twenty years ago and again, as a Warner Archives DVD last spring. Producer and director Bruce Geller was the creator of Mission: Impossible and brings his affinity for this type of material to this story of a somewhat similar group. (Perhaps this is also why Schifrin got the job to score it.) As far as pickpocket movies go, it's better than Sparrow, not as good as Pick-Up on South Street.
The House on 56th Street: This is one of my new favorite pre-Code movies. Kay Francis is amazing as a woman who goes from chorus girl to society lady to mother to convict to international gambler to New York City's first female blackjack dealer in a speakeasy. The first five or so minutes aren't very promising but once it gets going, the story twists and turns and the contrivances become more daring so gradually that the insanely audacious coincidences at the end of the film seem like no big deal, just the kind of thing that happens. It's all held together by Francis's brilliant and accomplished performance, which is understated and nuanced while encompassing several extremes of emotions and a character who reinvents herself at least three times.
The Trip (20): Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play themselves, touring restaurants in the north of England for a newspaper feature Coogan is writing. Coogan had hoped to bring his girlfriend but she’s put their relationship on hold while she departs for the US and some good career moves. Coogan's career, meanwhile, seems to be standing still except for those times when it's sinking or retreating. He has his own Hollywood fantasy—featuring Ben Stiller—as well as a number of anxieties that are eating away at his soul. He and Brydon have a competitive relationship. Brydon is the happily married man with a baby daughter. He appears to have it all, in that he's happy in his personal and professional life. Coogan is happy in neither and not sure what to do about it. So he tries to score as many points off Brydon as possible, to do better impressions than he does, tell funnier jokes, be wittier and more inventive. Coogan's real problem is that he's middle-aged but acts like he's in his twenties and he's too smart to be fooled by his own performance. And so the movie goes, as the two of them breeze through the countryside and encounter rarefied cuisine and the homes of famous poets. The Trip exists in the middle of a triangulated space whose three points are My Dinner with Andre, Withnail and I and The Two in Tracksuits. It's rather wonderful and I laughed out loud several times, never more heartily than during their duelling Michael Caine impressions. (That's a bit I could happily watch over and over again.) How did this movie ever get made, I wondered at the end. It didn't. It's been assembled from a six-part BBC television series, which explains why the deleted scenes on the DVD are as long as the film itself. I'd like to see the original episodes one of these days.
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937): Ah, the 1930s, when escapism was packaged with wit, charm and sophistication. All those terms apply here, though this is also a bluff, heart adventure fantasy with a touch of "Boys' Own" atmosphere. Ronald Colman plays two parts, a dissolute, selfish, playboy prince about to be crowned king, and a distant twin cousin, a British gentleman on a fishing holiday. When the prince's evil brother (Raymond Massey) puts the prince temporarily out of action in order to seize the throne in his place, the vacationing fisherman is persuaded to pretend to be king for a day, thus saving the country from dictatorship and martial law. The ruse is discovered, however, and the real king is kidnapped and held prisoner, forcing the charade to be maintained and causing the fake king and the real queen (the wonderful Madeleine Carroll) to fall in love. Things get even more complicated from there and lead to an action-packed climax featuring a sword fight between Colman and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who plays one of the great movie villains here. The photography is by one of the great artists in the field, James Wong Howe, and is exquisite and intelligent, composing images that harmonize with the screenplay and the inner life of the characters.
Control (2007): Sometimes I'm in the mood to watch a movie that I think of as being more textural than narrative. Jean-Pierre Melville's films are like this; so are some others, not many. This is one. Shot in black and white and based on Ian Curtis's widow’s memoir, it unobtrusively presents biographical scenes that accumulate into a compelling portrait. It's heartbreaking to watch and impossible not to look at. The photography and performances are excellent, as is the attention to detail. One of my favorite moments involved the Joy Division drummer overdubbing a rhythm part using only an aerosol spray can. The music is great, too. I only knew their one huge hit ("Love Will Tear Us Apart") and enjoyed the other songs. Ian Curtis appears to have been something of a prototypical Kurt Cobain, with a slightly different set of advantages and disadvantages. I'll watch this again someday.
The T.A.M.I. Show (1964): This concert film from 1964—well, perhaps you only need to know some of the performers: James Brown, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Lesley Gore, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Martha & The Vandellas, Jan & Dean…. Need I go on? It's absolutely mindblowing. My main interest was in seeing Lesley Gore. I'd only ever seen her lip synch some of her songs in a movie or two. She's unique among the artists in that she’s the only one who doesn’t try to work sex appeal. She's fantastic, though! Another stand out was Marvin Gaye. I don't think I’d ever seen him so young before. And it was touching to see Dennis Wilson, full of energy and excitement, the only Beach Boy who isn't standing still. But the all-time, absolute best act of all is undeniably James Brown. This is one of his most powerful and intense performances. The Rolling Stones follow him and close the show, but they’re weak tea to Brown's double espresso.
La foire aux chimères (1946, Carnival of Illusions a.k.a. Devil and the Angel): The great Erich Von Stroheim is the master technician at a company that makes counterfeit-proof banknotes for 22 different countries. About half of his face is disfigured by scars, presumably a wound inflicted during the First World War. He's exacting in his work and a lonely man. Demanding, punctilious and humorless, he's feared and, behind his back, mocked by his employees. On the night of his fiftieth birthday he attends a carnival and is enraptured by a beautiful woman who appears as if his longing brought a fantasy to life. She's blind, has a seeing-eye goat and works for the circus in a knife-throwing act. Stroheim and Jeanne fall in love and probably could live happily ever after if it weren't for the various complexities and themes that snake through the film. There are devils and angels, dreams and reality, real things and fakes, truth and lies, devotions and betrayals, all with depth and meaning, none just dropped into the story on a whim. This isn't a simplistic Beauty and Beast type story. It reminded me of films as varied as The Face Behind the Mask, Wings of Desire, Angel-A, Hangover Square and even Psycho. The photography is brilliant and Paul Misraki's score is compelling.
La grande bellezza (2013, The Great Beauty): The team of director Paolo Sorrentino and actor Toni Servillo is one reason to keep faith in the possibilities of film as an art form. Their latest collaboration is a stunning explosion of beauty and wonder. It most likely owes some inspiration to La dolce vita, being about a writer who, since a celebrated first novel, has spent his time living the high life and being a famous and powerful personality instead of exploring his own potential. The film flirts with the profundities of life, love and death and coquettishly refuses to make clear what we're seeing. Are we witnessing this man's life or his fantasies or the second novel that he might finally be writing? (It could also be a combination of all three.) Sorrentino's latest supports Fellini's view of life as the most colorful and fantastic experience possible: art and circuses are but imitatins. As with Il divo, La grande bellezza is one breathtakingly beautiful sequence after another. The artistry involved in every aspect is astonishing.
Chonmage Purin (2010, A Boy and His Samurai): Ever since I saw Yoshihiro Nakamura's Jaaji no futari (Two People in Tracksuits), I’ve been following his career with interest. This is most recent movie of his that I've seen and it's typically wonderful and low key. It's about a single mom who's struggling to balance her domestic life, which involves a kindergarten-age son, with her high-pressure job. She's always the first to leave the office, making her the target of contempt and hostility from her co-workers. One day, though, she and her son meet a samurai in front of a supermarket. He's traveled through time about 180 years. One minute he was praying in front of a shrine, next thing he knew he was in modern-day Tokyo. This is not exactly a new idea for a plot, but Nakamura takes it in his own quirky direction. After getting the lay of the land, this samurai devotes himself to taking care of the household for our heroine, cooking and cleaning and looking after the boy. In time he becomes the de factor father and husband. But he also gets very interested in baking, thanks to daytime television cooking shows. He and the boy enter a father-and-child baking contest, get to the finals and…. Well, that’s enough. This movie isn't for everybody but for me it was charming, delightful and gently touching. Nakamura has recreated some of the magic of Hollywood's Golden Age and brought it smoothly into the twenty-first century.
Hell's Half Acre (1954): This unusually sleazy and violent film noir set in Hawaii is a retired gangster named Chet Chester who has way too much on his plate. Former partners are trying to blackmail him, somebody has killed his lover, the police are after him and, just when you thought things couldn't get complicated, the woman he married before he changed identities and faked his own death has just shown up in Honolulu looking for him. What tipped her off were the lyrics to a popular song—written by Chester! This is a lean, mean movie, perfectly paced, with a story that appears to have been influenced by Pepe le Moko. The Asian members of the cast play important roles and are mostly not stereotypes. Elsa Lanchester has a supporting role as an extremely helpful taxi driver. The photography is excellent, often using camera movements instead of cuts to show important details. There are a few touches that wouldn't be out of place in a Hitchcock film. The Hawaii location adds considerably to the atmosphere and there are even some surfers! The music is also very good, with many island touches and prominent guitar playing. I'd love to have the soundtrack!