Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Year in Movies: Some Highlights

I didn't really keep track of the current releases this year. When I did occasionally go out, I mostly found myself in the repertory houses and retrospectives. Out of the current releases only one film makes it to my list of surprises and highlights of the year list (at number 9). Rest all I either saw on DVD or in a few cases as big-screen revivals.

1. Twin Peaks: David Lynch and Mark Frost's TV series turns all the conventions of soap opera and detective genre upside down. It is funny, frightening, moving, romantic, macabre, dreamy and bizarre (of course), often all at the same time - in short it is quintessentially Lynchian. Watching it is like, to use the words spoken by Donna in the series, is having a most terrible nightmare but a nightmare you don't want to wake up from. A perfect introduction to the work of one of the greatest and most singular artists of our time. I had seen around half of the whole series a couple of years back but the new complete DVD set, which includes the two hour pilot in both American and European versions, is a complete revelation.

2. The Threepenny Opera & Pandora's Box by G W Pabst: Two great classics of German cinema get the DVD treatment they deserve. The two-disc criterion DVD editions are like mini-courses in film history, on top of that you can marvel at the wonders of digital restoration as well. I loved Threepenny Opera much more than Pandora's Box which is visually flat and gets into the act only in the final scenes. But as bonus it has Louise Brooks!

3. Films of Pier Paolo Pasolini: This year was also my introduction to the works of the great Italian film director, writer, poet and public intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini. The first thing you notice in his film is his sensibility, which is truly unique and belongs only to him. What took me completely by surprise in particular was his attitude towards religion. It will be very interesting to contrast the expression of religious sensibility in his films with those by Dreyer, Bresson, Bergman or Bunuel. My favourite of all his films is Teorema, a haunting and startling work which risks with appearing ridiculous and is not afraid of Big Ideas. Other films like Accattone, Mamma Roma and specially The Gospel According to St. Matthew are all masterpieces as well. I found his later films The Hawks and the Sparrows, The Decameron and Oedipus Rex extremely baffling and I haven't yet made up my mind about them. The only this is that all these films have remained with me ever since I saw them. Unfortunately most of his films are not available in good DVD editions. Only Mamma Roma is available on the criterion DVD in an excellent transfer.

4. Post-neorealist Italian films: Some great discoveries of the year - Pietro Germi (Divorce Italian Style, Seduced and Abandoned), Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, Christ Stopped at Eboli, Hands over the City), Marco Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket), Ermanno Olmi (Il Posto) & Mario Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street). I specially loved Divorce Italian Style, one of the most hiliarious and biting satires ever made with a memorable turn by Marcello Mastroianni who is so good in it that he eclipses his work in the films of Fellini and Antonioni where he played the roles of suave, sophisticated and polished charmer. Olmi's Il Posto is an Antonioni-style critique of modern industrial society. It also has more warmth which is missing in Antonioni which makes it all the more bleak and sad. Marco Bellochio's blistering debut Fists in the Pocket delivers some real stinging body-blows to the institution of family. It will probably not be to everybody's tastes, even Bunuel was reportedly horrified by its blasphemy, but it is a courageous and unique film nevertheless.

5. Roberto Rossellini: I had previously seen only Rome Open City. This year I was able to explore his other works too. My personal favourite of all was The Flowers of St. Francis. There are no grave and convoluted discussions of theological matters in this film but it probably says more about religion than films which have those. Paisan is probably the greatest achievement of neorealist cinema. I didn't like Germany Year Zero that much. His films with Ingrid Bergman are undeservedly obscure. I saw two of them, Stromboli and Voyage to Italy which are both brilliant portraits of inner spiritual torment and psychological confusion thus proving that he was just as good in capturing inner psychological states in film as he was with the external reality. Martin Scorsese's documentary on Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy offers a brilliant introduction to Rossellini's works.

6. Val Lewton horror films: I have already written about my admiration of these films in recent weeks. So I will not repeat them again. All nine films in the collection are my favourites, some probably more than the other but all are essential must-watch.

7. Hollywood film noirs/crime films: I have been addicted to these black and white films for some time now. So much so that I now feel cheated with happy endings! The list will get very long but special mention must be made of Fritz Lang's films specially Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, Fury and You Live Only Once. Other memorable films I saw this year - Night and the City (Jules Dassin), They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray), Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller), Kiss me Deadly (Robert Aldrich), Angel Face (Otto Preminger), Force of Evil, Body and Soul (Abraham Polonsky), Side Street (Anthony Mann) and so many others, too many to mention here.

8. Berlin Alexanderplatz: An almost unbearably bleak and emotionally exhausting work. This is a vision of world as hell and life as a punishment. It was probably the most demanding thing I saw all this year. Compared to this seven hours of Satantango felt like a walk in the park.

9. Pan's Labyrinth: Now if someone asks me why I fall asleep watching LOTR and spider man movies I can say, it is because they are not like Pan's Labyrinth!

10. Angels in America: Third TV series on the list? What's happening? Mike Nichols' adaptation of Tony Kushner's play is a major triumph, certainly one of the most important American films of recent years. I was surprised by all the critical brouhaha surrounding Brokeback Mountain (which takes almost three hours to show that homosexuals have feelings like other people too!) when Angels of America had already set a very high benchmark in portrayal of homosexuality on screen. Purists will complain, and not without reason, that Nichols downplays the intellectual-Brechtian aspects of the play. Meryl Streep plays three different characters in the play including one of a male rabbi but she is so "good" in a conventional way and under so much make up that you will probably not realize she is the same Meryl Streep who is playing Ethel Rosenberg and the mormon mother of a homosexual son in the same play, which defeats the basic purpose of the making same actor play different roles, which is to consciously point out the aritifice involved in acting and convey a feeling of alienation and distance in the audience. But even after all these criticisms, even at a conventional level, the miniseries is just awesome. Streep and Al Pacino are both as expected simply astonishing but it is actually the cast of young and unknown actors which makes the whole show so mesmerising. Specially Mary Louise-Parker and Jeffrey Wright who both won many awards that year. As a TV-phobic person, it was specially heartening, and indeed chastening, to think that something of this quality and so much depth ever came on mainstream TV.


Szerelem said...

I haven't seen Angels in AMerica but I REALLY want to...I have heard only very good things.

Actually, a lot of really great stuff gets made for TV. I love the Brideshead series as well - its amazing... The Gathering Storm also comes to mind. And Elizabeth was great too... perhaps some material are just better suited for TV.

Alok said...

Brideshead is on my list too. I will get to it soon...

The main problem is that of time. miniseries is even okay... you can find five six hours but watching those mammoth never ending sagas, whichever way you see it is just too much.

About Angels in America, the original two-part play by Tony Kushner is great as well, worth reading on its own.

Madhuri said...

..feel cheated with happy ending... Lol! That's a feeling I experience too often, more so in books.Yesterday after finishing Gabriel's Gift, I realized I disliked it mainly because of the fairytale/Bollywood ending!I think I like tragedy or ambiguity far better.

puccinio said...

Been busy past few days with Christmas(or Pagan-Festival-Co-opted-by-Church-to-get-converts-when-birth-of-founder-is-theologically-applied-to-July)!!!

I didn't know you saw Rossellini's films with Ingrid Bergman. When those films were made, they were criticized for Rossellini selling out by casting a Hollywood actress. Only one community and one magazine(no prizes for guessing who?) championed them as among the only Modernist films that can really compete with the classical art of the ancients.

I am also pumped up to see ''Berlin Alexanderplatz''(I'm a Fassbinder neophyte)

Maybe next year you can see some silent classics like Buster Keaton, Griffith, Eisenstein, Murnau.

Alok said...

Lol! at your definition of Christmas. Good one :)

Yeah I have to see those silent classics. I am somewhat familiar only with the German expressionists.

Next Year I plan to do some film-related readings, that is, other than blogs and reviews. I think I have now a basic familiarity with the major national cinemas, historical film movements and works of important directors... but the trouble is these film books are so damn costly and also hard to get, unless it is some ghost-written autobiography of some hollywood celebrity.

puccinio said...

The best books on film are usually books of interviews with directors or books detailing how films were made. So ''making-of'' books either of the BFI classics(which is really the standard bearer) or other kinds are best. Of course even then you'll have to sift through the ones that tell you the gossip and the ones that actually tell you how that director worked and how the film changed shape and whatnot.

Biographies are a mixed bag. Some are excellent and others not so much.

Here's some books on film that'll help you out.

Peter Bogdanovich...
''Who The Devil's In It''
Conversations with Lang, Hawks, Sternberg, Walsh, Hitchcock and others

''Who The Hell's In It''
Witty personal profiles of great Hollywood stars.

''This Is Orson Welles''
Pretty much the main reference point on any book of Welles. Makes a biography worthless actually.

Tag Gallagher...
''The Cinema of Roberto Rossellini'' or is it ''The Films of Roberto Rossellini''.

Robert Carringer...
''The Making of Citizen Kane''
The very best researched book on the greatest film ever made.

''The Magnificent Ambersons''
The best researched chronicle on one of the ''Venus de Milo'' of Cinema.

Francois Truffaut...

''The Films In My Life''
Among the finest anthology of film criticism ever compiled. Readable, quotable, funny and spontaneous - in the grand French tradition.


Bill Krohn...

''Hitchcock At Work''
The best book on how Alfred H. made his best movies.

Janet Leigh...
Her book on the making of ''Psycho'', I forget the title.

Then moving on to personal reflections by directors.

Buster Keaton...
''My Wonderful World of Slapstick''

Samuel Fuller...
''A Third Face - My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Film-Making''.

Martin Scorsese...
''Scorsese on Scorsese''

That's about the starting point.

Oh and ''Nicholas Ray - An American Journey'' by Bernard Eisenchitz, the best biography in Film Journalism.

I can't say I own all of them(I've read them all) but they're pretty much among the finest books on Film I've ever read.

Some BFI Classics...

''Taxi Driver'' by Amy Taubin.

''In A Lonely Place'' by Dana Polan.

Alok said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I have read the Truffaut books. That interview book by Bogdanovich is also on my to-read list. Also, the Rossellini book is actually called "The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini"..