Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cahiers Du Cinema's Top 100, or How I Learned To Stop Making Lists & Just Love Movies

The long-running French film journal Cahiers Du Cinema (I can never pronounce it right) recently released their latest list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, as voted by French critics, directors, industry poobahs. I've never cared for such lists. I suppose this one provides as good an opportunity as any to demonstrate why. First, here's how they rank 'em:

Citizen Kane - Orson Welles
The Night of the Hunter - Charles Laughton
The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) - Jean Renoir
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (L'Aurore) - Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
L'Atalante - Jean Vigo
M - Fritz Lang
Singin' in the Rain - Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock
Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis) - Marcel Carné
The Searchers - John Ford
Greed - Erich von Stroheim
Rio Bravo - Howard Hawkes
To Be or Not to Be - Ernst Lubitsch
Tokyo Story - Yasujiro Ozu
Contempt (Le Mépris) - Jean-Luc Godard
Tales of Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari) - Kenji Mizoguchi
City Lights - Charlie Chaplin
The General - Buster Keaton
Nosferatu the Vampire - Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
The Music Room - Satyajit Ray
Freaks - Tod Browning
Johnny Guitar - Nicholas Ray
The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) - Jean Eustache
The Great Dictator - Charlie Chaplin
The Leopard (Le Guépard) - Luchino Visconti
Hiroshima, My Love - Alain Resnais
The Box of Pandora (Loulou) - Georg Wilhelm Pabst
North by Northwest - Alfred Hitchcock
Pickpocket - Robert Bresson
Golden Helmet (Casque d'or) - Jacques Becker
The Barefoot Contessa - Joseph Mankiewitz
Moonfleet - Fritz Lang
Diamond Earrings (Madame de…) - Max Ophüls
Pleasure - Max Ophüls
The Deer Hunter - Michael Cimino
The Adventure - Michelangelo Antonioni
Battleship Potemkin - Sergei M. Eisenstein
Notorious - Alfred Hitchcock
Ivan the Terrible - Sergei M. Eisenstein
The Godfather - Francis Ford Coppola
Touch of Evil - Orson Welles
The Wind - Victor Sjöström
2001: A Space Odyssey - Stanley Kubrick
Fanny and Alexander - Ingmar Bergman
The Crowd - King Vidor
8 1/2 - Federico Fellini
La Jetée - Chris Marker
Pierrot le Fou - Jean-Luc Godard
Confessions of a Cheat (Le Roman d'un tricheur) - Sacha Guitry
Amarcord - Federico Fellini
Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) - Jean Cocteau
Some Like It Hot - Billy Wilder
Some Came Running - Vincente Minnelli
Gertrud - Carl Theodor Dreyer
King Kong - Ernst Shoedsack & Merian J. Cooper
Laura - Otto Preminger
The Seven Samurai - Akira Kurosawa
The 400 Blows - François Truffaut
La Dolce Vita - Federico Fellini
The Dead - John Huston
Trouble in Paradise - Ernst Lubitsch
It's a Wonderful Life - Frank Capra
Monsieur Verdoux - Charlie Chaplin
The Passion of Joan of Arc - Carl Theodor Dreyer
À bout de souffle - Jean-Luc Godard
Apocalypse Now - Francis Ford Coppola
Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick
La Grande Illusion - Jean Renoir
Intolerance - David Wark Griffith
A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne) - Jean Renoir
Playtime - Jacques Tati
Rome, Open City - Roberto Rossellini
Livia (Senso) - Luchino Visconti
Modern Times - Charlie Chaplin
Van Gogh - Maurice Pialat
An Affair to Remember - Leo McCarey
Andrei Rublev - Andrei Tarkovsky
The Scarlet Empress - Joseph von Sternberg
Sansho the Bailiff - Kenji Mizoguchi
Talk to Her - Pedro Almodóvar
The Party - Blake Edwards
Tabu - Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
The Bandwagon - Vincente Minnelli
A Star Is Born - George Cukor
Mr. Hulot's Holiday - Jacques Tati
America, America - Elia Kazan
El - Luis Buñuel
Kiss Me Deadly - Robert Aldrich
Once Upon a Time in America - Sergio Leone
Daybreak (Le Jour se lève) - Marcel Carné
Letter from an Unknown Woman - Max Ophüls
Lola - Jacques Demy
Manhattan - Woody Allen
Mulholland Dr. - David Lynch
My Night at Maud's (Ma nuit chez Maud) - Eric Rohmer
Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) - Alain Resnais
The Gold Rush - Charlie Chaplin
Scarface - Howard Hawks
Bicycle Thieves - Vittorio de Sica
Napoléon - Abel Gance

I tend to see such lists as a waste of time. The reason I've never been fond of them is that they can never work--the cinema is simply too vast a realm to be done justice by such an instrument. No matter how good any such list is, it still has more holes than a Swiss cheese, and it's just as easy to effectively pick apart. This one is no different. To wit:

Sergio Leone gets the nod for ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, but not for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, which is a better movie. OAUTIA is also great, to be sure, and probably belongs on this list, as well, but if one is going to pick only one Leone, it has to be WEST.

I've never seen EL, so I don't know where I'd put it myself, but that's the only Luis Bunuel film on the list, which seems very wrong. I'd certainly place him among the best the medium has ever produced, and would rate several of his films higher than any number that appear on the list. My personal favorite is also one of his most obscure: SIMON OF THE DESERT.

Like Bunuel, Akira Kurosawa is also criminally underrepresented here--only SEVEN SAMURAI. It certainly belongs there, but Kurosawa is arguably the greatest overall filmmaker who ever lived. There are more than half a dozen of his features that should be there. It's particularly surprising that RASHOMON is absent. It usually scores even better than SEVEN SAMURAI in these lists.

Ingmar Bergman has only FANNY & ALEXANDER, which isn't even his best work. That honor goes to THE SEVENTH SEAL, and it's rather remarkable to me that it's a film that doesn't even rate. For whatever reason, Bergman--once considered a god among filmmakers--was downgraded in critical opinion in the last few decades. I'm not sure why; he's still one of the best. Personally, I'd have also put HOUR OF THE WOLF and maybe even THE VIRGIN SPRING ahead of F&A.

Dreyer gets two nods, including one for THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC--probably his best film--but his DAY OF WRATH doesn't make the cut. Surprising, considering many of the films that do.

Hitchcock has the opposite problem; as usual, he's overrepresented. VERTIGO belongs on the list. The other two are gratuitous.

Stanley Kubrick is misrepresented, here; BARRY LYNDON and 2001. DR. STRANGELOVE is easily his best film, but doesn't even rate, and any number of his other movies belong ahead of BARRY LYNDON.

John Huston rates only with THE DEAD. No TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. No MISFITS. No ASPHALT JUNGLE. THE MALTESE FALCON isn't there, either, but, as great as it is, I've never thought of it as top 100 material.

Speaking of asphalt jungles, noir in general is grossly underrepresented, here. Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY rates, and, in fact, always ranks high in these sorts of projects, but it has never been worthy of its reputation. Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL is the only other noir picture of the classical era included on the list, and the only one that actually deserves to be there. In film noir, Orson Welles, alone, made MR. ARKADIN, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, and starred in THE THIRD MAN, all of which leave KISS ME DEADLY in the dust. Nick Ray, who only gets the nod for JOHNNY GUITAR, made, within noir alone, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT,ON DANGEROUS GROUND, and, in particular, IN A LONELY PLACE. Jacques Tourneur gets no notice for any of his films, which is, in itself, a crime, but it's a particularly aggravated crime for the exclusion of OUT OF THE PAST, one of the absolute best noir pictures. Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD is nowhere to be seen. Robert Wise gets no notice for THE SET-UP. Kubrick's THE KILLING is AWOL. I could list these all day long. Noir was an astonishing genre. It produced a string of genuine classics, and KISS ME DEADLY wouldn't even rank in the top 20. Maybe not the top 50. Frenchies named film noir; come on, fellas--get with it!

There are several other glaring omissions. There isn't a single Martin Scorsese film. Not one. CASABLANCA (the absolute apex of the assembly-line Hollywood studio system, and one of the finest films ever made) doesn't rate. Werner Herzog is entirely unrepresented (No AGUIRRE, no FITZCARRALDO). Hawks gets the nod for RIO BRAVO (a programmer Western), but not for THE BIG SLEEP.

This being a product of the French, Charlie Chaplin has to be insanely overrepresented, but five films--more than any other director--is taking the absurd to new levels (for my part, I probably wouldn't include any Chaplin).

Then, there are those selections that just leave me scratching my head in befuddlement. FREAKS? THE DEER HUNTER? THE SEARCHERS? What the hell...? THE SEARCHERS always polls above its merits (Hawks' RED RIVER does, as well), so maybe that isn't such a surprise, but I keep expecting history to finally catch up with it. Looks like history hasn't done it yet. That doesn't make THE SEARCHERS any better, though. FREAKS is essentially a novelty film by a minor director that someone in France must have overhyped to an insane degree--it certainly doesn't belong anywhere near any such list of this sort (particularly when not a one of the genuinely excellent horror films of its era are included). Neither does Truffaut's THE 400 BLOWS, which seems forever held in a high esteem it does practically nothing to earn.

Even a genuinely great movie like NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is greately overrated by appearing here, particularly as high on the list as it appears. I say this as a sincere, committed fan of that film for much of my life. I love it. The movie is just incredible for most of its running time, but unfortunately, when it gets to the final act, it progressively disintegrates. The crash is hard, and it is jarring, a brutal shift in tone that takes us to a trite ending that looks and feels like nothing so much as one of those inane studio imposition on an already-finished picture we've seen so often over the years (shades of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS). That's enough of a flaw to drop its ranking well out of a top 100.

There are some pleasant surprises, as well. KING KONG and APOCALYPSE NOW certainly belong in that category, and it's good to see David Lynch and Pedro Almodovar get a little respect. Far more of the picks, however, are befuddling. A stray misfire or two would be somewhat forgivable, but, in this case, there are a lot of them, and their presence requires totally excluding too many obvious, deserving picks.

But, as I said before, any list like this can be torn to pieces with a little thought. It's why I don't like 'em. If I made a list of my own 100 personal favorites, I could then rip it to shreds in exactly the same way I've been ripping up this one. Pitting against one another films as different as CHILDREN OF PARADISE, SOME LIKE IT HOT, and APOCALYPSE NOW doesn't serve any useful end. The cinema is vast and has something for everyone. It should be enjoyed, not listed.

--j.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THE DEVIL'S REJECTS: The Critics Rave!

Saw Rob Zombie's THE DEVIL'S REJECTS back in 2005 at a midnight show the night before its big national release. Came home that night and immediately put this together:

THE DEVIL'S REJECTS: The Critics Rave!

"Offensively inhuman, uninspired and cruelly unoriginal."
--Robert K. Elder, CHICAGO TRIBUNE

"A reprehensible and loathsome journey of excess...any redeeming value is well hidden. "
--Edward Douglas, COMINGSOON.NET

"The Devil's Rejects doesn't just deserve to be rejected, but to be buried in a hole so dank that no one will discover it."
--James Berardinelli, REELVIEWS

"A Reject Indeed. Zombie horror film unwatchable."
--Angela Baldassarre, SYMPATICO.CA

"Zombie doesn't appear to have any other goals besides assaulting the viewer with gore and callousness."
--Paul Doro, MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

"...there's little pleasure to be found in a movie of this nature."
--Peter Debruge, MIAMI HERALD

"Crass, vacuous exercise in grind-house stylistics."
--Kevin Crust, LOS ANGELES TIMES

"Here is a gaudy vomitorium of a movie, violent, nauseating and really a pretty good example of its genre. If you are a hardened horror movie fan capable of appreciating skill and wit in the service of the deliberately disgusting, 'The Devil's Rejects' may exercise a certain strange charm. If on the other hand you close your eyes if a scene gets icky, here is a movie to see with blinders on, because it starts at icky and descends relentlessly through depraved and nauseating to the embrace of road kill."
--Roger Ebert, CHICAGO SUN TIMES

See it! You'll be glad you did, you sick bastiches!

--j.

Monday, December 15, 2008

POSSESSION (1981)

This remarkable film has been allowed to remain out-of-print for quite some time, now. Only a few weeks ago, Blue Underground was scheduled to re-release it, as they do with so many old Anchor Bay titles, but this has either been delayed or canceled entirely, which is very unfortunate. Here's my review of it, written back in the spring:

Fri., 11 April, 2008

Back in 1980, Polish director Andrej Zulawski had an idea for a movie. Trying to sum it up, he probably made it sound overly "arty" and convoluted so he simplified his pitch--he told an American distributor it was about a beautiful girl who gets fucked by an octopus. What's even more astonishing about that tale is that, on that description, the distributor bought it and ponied up part of the money Zulawski needed to make the picture. The result was POSSESSION, starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. My cinematic studies were rather extensive last year--probably a few hundred movies, in all--but POSSESSION was one of the absolute best I saw all year and one of the most intense movies I've ever seen. I felt utterly drained after watching it. It's exhausting, to be sure, but in a good way.

The aforementioned "octopus" wasn't really an octopus but it was a monster with a lot of arms and it did fuck Isabelle Adjani. The movie isn't "about" that, though. It's actually a very intense, visceral study of the disintegration of a once-functional marriage. Art reflected life--POSSESSION was made right after the traumatic collapse of Zulawski's own marriage. His film offers an excruciatingly detailed and unflinching map of the emotional landscape of two people whose relationship has disintegrated and left them in absolute agony, their lives in pieces and the two of them trapped in a sort of emotional limbo. They can't stand to be together. They can't stand to be apart. Isabelle Adjani, lost in her pain and seemingly verging on madness, gives birth to a monster, a literal physical representation of her emotional state. At first, it's in a constant state of evolution. She sequesters it away, cares for it, nurtures it and yes, is fucked by it, until it finishes its last transformation. That transformation is a major plot twist. It's the sort of thing I should have seen coming but totally missed until the big reveal at the end. It is said that "a picture speaks a thousand words." The reveal near the end of this ups the word-count substantially.

And that isn't even the end, yet. Zulawski sees the end of this relationship as something akin to the end of the world. And in the movie, this is literally the case.

(How's that for a hook?)

Zulawski shot and edited the film in a raw, frenetic style. The camera, as agitated and unstable as the characters, is forever moving, moving, moving, covering most of the interaction between the two leads in tight, claustrophobic shots that bore in so closely we can almost count the pores in their faces. Adjani, in particular, has a remarkable face for film and Zulawski makes perhaps the best use of it of any of her directors over the years. For their part, Neill and Adjani are just excellent and in a pair of extraordinarily demanding parts that could have been disastrous in lesser hands (and, one suspects, would have sent most thespians running home, crying for momma). Adjani was unnerved, even horrified, by the intensity of the film, dubbing it "psychological pornography." The Cannes Film Festival awarded her Best Actress for her work on it.

POSSESSION is rather long, just over two hours. Back in the mid-'80s, it was released on video in the U.S. in a substantially butchered version--the distributors apparently tried to re-edit it into something like an exploitation film. Needless to say, it quickly died (I can't even imagine who would have come up with such a project, or how they'd have gone about it). Luckily, at the dawn of DVD, good ol' Anchor Bay--back before they'd become a recurring joke/tragedy themselves--came along and saved it, releasing it in its complete form in the U.S. for the first time, accompanied by a very good Zulawski commentary track. I bought this one virtually blind last year, having read a single laudatory review that told almost nothing of the plot. I'm very glad I did.

In a sign of how badly Anchor Bay has stumbled since selling out to Starz, POSSESSION has been allowed to go out of print and stay that way for quite some time. But they do offer us ROSEANNE: THE COMPLETE 5th SEASON. A real monster, to be sure, but one that fucks us instead of Isabelle Adjani.

--j.