Wednesday, July 09, 2008

List - Half yearly top 10

More listmania. Since it is already July I thought let's make a list of 10 favourite films of the year so far. More often than not catching up with the classics becomes a somewhat predictable experience, specially when you have already read about the films in question. It is not necessarily about the plot but in more general terms... the element of surprise is often missing. (Really, I should have seen most of these when I was a kid.) So while making the list I concentrated on films which took me by surprise. Last week I saw Jean Renoir's The River, which was beautiful in a very top 10-ish way, but not different or any more than what I had expected it to be. That's why it is not on this list.

Annyway here it goes...

1. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls)
2. Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk)
3. Cria Cuervos (Carlos Saura)
4. Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi)
5. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann)
6. Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger)
7. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
8. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse)
9. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
10. A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan)


puccinio said...

What did you expect from ''The River''?

When I first saw it, I heard it was one of the most beautiful colour films ever made and it's very serene and mystical. The film I saw was indeed very beautiful but the colours were more subtle and soft and not as bright as advertised and the main thing is the story itself which is a mixture of documentary, travelogue, melodrama, fantasy and musical. And the film which is based a lot on Hindu philosophy doesn't descend into any mysticism of the sort.

But I can see what you say. Many times when you hear so much about the film it becomes hard to really look at the film with fresh eyes because you think you've already seen it. But then occassionally you see the film and realize that much of what's written on it is based on misunderstandings
...''It's A Wonderful Life!'' is the definitive example. It's been calcified as a Christmas movie for years, when it's actually the greatest remake of ''Citizen Kane'' in film history.

''The River'' is also a film that should be seen more than once because it's a very complex film and since it doesn't have a plot or elements like climax(the film doesn't end, it just stops) it's hard to really put it in words.

My recent discoveries this year,
a top 3.I haven't seen many new stuff this year but old films that I saw which bowled me over...

I finally saw ''The Thief of Bagdad'' made in 1940 by Alexander Korda(which among it's 6 directors includes one Michael Powell). I thought it would be a kind of a late-Orientalist film fantasy but it's actually a Jorge Luis Borges like take on fantasy where the plot frequently slides into asides, episodes and then doubles back to the main storyline. And the film although set as an Arabian fantasy at the time when the British empire was still standing(and having interests in the countries fantasized herein) it's actually pretty left-wing as well. And the colours are to die for and Miklos Rosza's music is fantastic.

Alain Resnais' ''Providence'' is an English language film he made starring John Gielgud(in his favourite film performance), Dirk Bogarde and Ellen Burstyn. It's quite a disturbing(and really funny) look into the creative process of a novelist(Gielgud) who's writing a book. It's amazing. One of Resnais' best. And like ''The Thief of Bagdad'' it has a great Miklos Rozsa score.

I have always underrated John Huston as a poseur and a minor artist but I have changed my opinion this year. The film that changed it is his last film, ''The Dead''. Based on James Joyce's final story of Dubliners this is an unbelievable literary adaptation of the highest calibre but it's also pure cinema. I've seen it 6 times this year alone. And it's made me re-evaluate all his films and even his work as an actor.

Most films I've seen this year(and the 3 above) revolve around literature one way or another. I've actually read more this year than usual. Must be a connection there.

pucinio said...

I can't believe I forgot to mention this film. I saw it years ago on a broken down ragged print. This time I saw it on a better, beautiful transfer on Spanish DVD(where I bought a lot of stuff when I went there this year, Spain is nice!).

Orson Welles' ''Chimes at Midnight'' which is one of ten greatest films ever made. Welles himself said it was his best but the whole world refused to see it. It's his most mature, most funny and really his most sad film. He adaped the Henry IV-Henry V cycle of Shakespeare, also threw in dashes of ''Richard II'' and other plays and had Ralph Richardson read excerpts from Raphael Holinshed for narration. The film is a tragedy revolving around Sir John Falstaff and it's one of the great film adaptations of literature.

Alok said...

I expected the same things. I had read that marin scorsese thought it was the most beautiful colour film ever made. i also knew that it wouldn't be garish or showy (like in bollywood), but yes watching it was indeed an experience. not just colours the way he uses natural light in the outdoor scenes is also amazing... many of those scenes are direct out of his father's paintings...

also the documentary part... I love it when background locations and landscapes are not merely used a backdrop but closely merge with the main events in the story. (One reason why I love those old Italian neo-realist films so much.) The River of course as the title makes it clear is also the story of the location and its sights and sounds and not just the people.

The incident with the kid might have surprised other viewers but I somehow knew that something like it was coming (i didn't know about it from reading reviews) and the same for the reaction of the other people to it... the cycle of life and death and so on. I also knew that Satyajit Ray worked as an apprentice on this film and his apu trilogy explores the same grounds stylistically and thematically.

I haven't seen any of the four films you mention and I am not familiar with the one by Resnais at all. The Dead is high up on my list. I love his early work a lot ... The Asphalt Jungle, Treasure of the Sierra Madre & The African Queen are huge personal favourites and i also love key largo and the maltese falcon. I think, like Wilder another very popular but critically maligned director, he is given a raw deal by snobbish film critics. I don't think a director should necessarily have a consistent and identifiable visual style... it is still possible to evaluate a film on its own merits and as collaborative works.

Alok said...

and yes "It's a Wonderful Life" will be very high up on the list surprise films. I had no idea that the film would be so dark and would have so much despair. The same is true for Billy Wilder's The Apartment. People see it as a comedy but it leaves me feeling very very depressed and bitter. May be I am just not optimistic like the rest of the people!

puccinio said...

Well my problems with Huston initially was the whole masculine-macho ethos of his early work not him not having a distinct visual style(i've never had such shallow auteurist sensibility). That's why I never warmed up to ''Sierra Madre''(maybe I'll see it again) and much preferred ''Beat The Devil'' among the Bogart movies(although it has to be said that Jennifer Jones really steals the film from Bogie in that one and is the anchor of the film).

Of is early pictures, ''The Asphalt Jungle'' was my big favourite, a still radical crime film that if we are to believe Jean-Pierre Melville(who calls it the greatest film) exhausts all possibilities of the basic crime plot.

And since we brought up Renoir, well he made a film in the 50's about Toulouse-Lautrec called ''Moulin Rouge'' which in a very mannerist style apes Lautrec's palette(in the same way of the finale of ''An American in Paris''). Renoir himself did his own fictionalized take on that famous night-club and made ''French CanCan'', an absinthe-dream of a film that made Huston look bland. I think Huston became really great in the 60's and from there never looked back. One film which I saw recently of his confirms it, it's
''Reflections in a Golden Eye'', adapted from a Carson McCullers book of the same name. It's too early for me to call it a masterpiece but it's a spellbinding film and it's one of Brando's greatest performances. It also shows you can shoot a film entirely in gold tints and still be unbelievable beautiful.

many of those scenes are direct out of his father's paintings...

Many of those were literally paintings as well. He and his DP(nephew Claude Renoir) went and literally painted scenes at times. He got the jump on Antonioni in "Red Desert". Renoir himself said later that all his life he was trying to avoid his father's influence but realized at the end that his films were very much like Pierre-Auguste's and he was pretty happy at the failure.

I also knew that Satyajit Ray worked as an apprentice on this film

According to Ray, he only visited the set and his time with Renoir was mostly as a source for information on the local areas. So not sure about apprentice there. Ray himself didn't see it until years later in a private screening along with Renoir in America.

He said that he knew he wouldn't like it very much(although he thought it was good) because Renoir told him that his film would be essentially an outsider's view of India, not unlike Gauguin's paintings of Tahiti and Ray(who as a young man was aching to make films about India) was dissappointed that a real artist like Renoir wasn't interested in the India known by the Indians.

But Renoir did that intentionally because he knew that he couldn't speak for India as a Frenchman who never visited the country before he read Rumer Godden's book, his previous view being informed by Forster's ''A Passage to India''(which is better than Kipling I guess).

Moreover he made changes to the story(the Radha character who's Anglo-Indian wasn't in the book at all, Renoir made it up when he met the actress and felt that she should be in the film) to emphasize and underline that.

And his film is fairly critical of colonialist views like the American running away further from America to other lands as if they only existed to solve his ego. The film is essentially about acceptance of change, of death as being the way of living life. As he says to Harriet at the end, "With every person you meet, you live a little and you die a little." It's also a pretty good educational film on Hinduism, most Indian friends tell me it's very accurate in those details.

Alok said...

Yes I can confirm that as well. The background details in the film are uncannily accurate, the native dialect, the musical intruments, the festivals and the customs, the rangoli (the colourful geometrical design on the ground which is meant as a sign of welcome) with which the film starts ... all of these are thought of and executed with extreme care and attention to detail. Bansi Chandragupta who collaborated with Ray was in charge of the production design of the film. Renoir also says that one french woman (I forget her name) at the french embassy in Kolkata helped her with the local details. It is really a remarkable job. The film is without doubt an outsider's view but the symapathy and attention to detail can't be mistaken.

About Huston.. there is definitely a masculine and macho sensibility at work there but he is not a masculinist and never indulges in masculine triumphalism (at least in these early films that i have seen)... there is a dark and tragic undercurrent to these masculine figures. The African Queen in fact is somewhat an anomaly... Bogart is so mellowed and subdued by Katharine Hepburn's presence. They are both marvellous in it.

Alok said...

And his film is fairly critical of colonialist views like the American running away further from America to other lands as if they only existed to solve his ego.

This is interesting. Wes Anderson said that Renoir and The River influenced him while making The Darjeeling Limited and his film is exactly what you are saying... one whole culture reduced to a therapeutic use! Or may be we are meant to see it satirically...

puccinio said...

The film is without doubt an outsider's view but the symapathy and attention to detail can't be mistaken.

Renoir loved India. His autobiography(more a memoir) has lot of anecdotes about his stay there(though strangely there's no mention of meeting Ray, but I suppose he wanted to outline the less famous Bengali people who helped him out). He spent nearly two years in India and wasn't interested in the touristic visions.

For instance he refused to see the Taj Mahal because of it's reputation as a tourist spot(Renoir hated tourists and never visited many of France's famous monuments either...for instance he never visited the Eiffel Tower). He also struggled to get finance for the film because Hollywood studios thought all films on India meant either ''Gunga Din'' or ''Lives of the Bengal Dancer'' and ''The River'' got made thanks to independent financing by an American florist.

''The River'' was a big success and was essentially seen by many as Renoir's comeback after the
"dark ages" of Hollywood(which isn't really dark though creatively constrained certainly) and it marked the beginning of Renoir's final, less prolific but creatively adventurous phase.

Renoir right upto his last film(the remarkable ''Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir'') was never bogged down in one style and liked pushing the barriers and experimenting. His film style from ''The River'' changed almost film-to-film.

Or may be we are meant to see it satirically...

I haven't seen the film. I like Wes Anderson a lot so I don't think it would be very simple. Besides, his film is set in contemporary India which isn't the same India of ''The River''. I heard the film is dedicated to Ray.

There are a lot of traps that Occidental film-makers fall into or allow themselves to fall into when they deal with societies opposite theirs. America being as monolithic as it is falls into that trap quite often as does France and especially Britain.

Films like ''The River'' is rare even among Frenchmen where many of them have a lot of colonialist attitudes still(the current Prez especially). Renoir is of a very rare breed as an artist and a human being. Among Americans, Martin Scorsese whose
''Kundun''(very inspired by Renoir's film) also escaped that.

So it's not that these film-makers shouldn't make these films or cannot make it at all...

Coming to Huston, his ''The Man Who Would Be King'' is a very clever subversion of the Kipling story it's based on, his story is more mythical and ironic. So his film can be seen as the parody of the ''Gunga Din'' kind of films.

The Kipling story is a warning parable to the dangers of selfish adventuring but Huston indicts the British Empire which Kipling doesn't even mention(a Barthesian structuring absence if there ever was one) and would never think of being on the same level of the two rogues of the story.

Huston's earlier films irritated me somewhat because while it's certainly not a paean to male virility and the like the fact is he still makes the spectacle of that masculinity kind of tragic instead of going after the basis of it. ''Sierra Madre''(a precursor to and inferior than the Kipling film) is an example of that. That and these films often felt very portentous. ''The Asphalt Jungle'' his first major film was a step up because he managed to in that film touch on the themes visually(he showed it on the screen) rather than drive after it abstractedly. But he became better and matured and had practically one of the greatest late phases any director ever had.

whyaduck said...

films i did not expect anything but were great (as much I recall):
*loulou - pialat (this one hit me like a damn truck.)
*platform - jia zhang-ke
*water drops on burning rocks - francois ozon
*woman is the future of man - sang-soo hong
*in your hands - annette k. olesen
*the disenchanted - benoit jacquot
*gilda - charles vidor
*pola x - leos carax
*gyoygy palfi - hukkle

Films I expected to be up there and were:
*Pedro costa - all his films (what a find!)
*jacque rivette - celine et julie...!
*jean eustache - the mother and the whore
*ritwik ghatak - komal gandhar

Films with expectations, but disspointed me:
*Betrayed - costas-gavras
*hardcore - paul schrader
*summer palace - ye lou
*dear wendy - thomas vinterberg
*2 days in paris - julie delpy
*alexandra - alexander sokurov

Alok said...

I haven't seen most on your list yet, still operating on a somewhat lower level of cinephilia! I have been reading about Pedro Costa for sometime now, very high expectations now...

Jia Zhang-ke was a major discovery for me too. I was knocked over specially by The World and Still Life and loved Platform a lot too.

Agree about Loulou. Isabelle Huppert is an expert in that truck-hitting genre. Need to explore some of Pialat's other works.

puccinio said...

Be sure to see Pialat's ''Van Gogh'', it's the best film about him, though ironically the least accurate. Other Pialat must-sees include ''A Nos Amours'' and ''Under the Sun of Satan'' as well as an early film of his called ''We Will Not Go Grow Old Together''.

As for Isabelle Huppert and trucks which hit. Be sure to see Joseph Losey's ''La Truite'', she does the truck-hitting in that great, dark comedy.

Alok said...

A Nous Amours is available on DVD, have been thinking of picking it up for some time.

Thanks for the recs. As for Isabelle Huppert I am always very careful :)

whyaduck said...

alok: oh, i too myself am not much of a cinephile! I went through your blog and have not seen much of the films that you have. I find that my tendencies gravitate towards films that have not been reviewed or much touted around. for eg: i love godard but have not seen his more "popular" films, but have seen those not part of the cannon. strange disease that, which i've not been able to shed! :)
re loulou: what hit me was Pialat and not Huppert. I found Huppert was great in the film, as she always is, but Pialat's touch just blew me away. absolutely.

i glanced over your review on Tourneur's "I Walked with a Zombie". Costa's 'Casa De Lava' seems highly influenced by that film.

puccinio: van gogh is a great film, no? In fact, i feel, every frame is a painting in its own right. though, i would like to assume, with high probability, that the "inaccuracy" is what Pialat was trying to achieve - maybe. There is a rant in "A Nos Amours" where Pialat goes, during the dinner scene, something like (no spoilers), "People think that Van Gogh was a sad person because he said that the only thing that will survive is sadness, but i feel what he meant was that all humans were sad. Which does not mean Van Gogh was a sad personality..." or something to that effect..i don't recall properly, which I think attests to his artistic license in that film. I heard about 'We Will Not Go Grow Old Together', but have not been able to catch it. :( His debut film is being released on DVD in the UK - 'L'Enfance Nue'.

puccinio said...

To whyaduck :

Yeah. His ''Van Gogh'' was a very revisionist view of the Dutchman. Unlike Minnelli's ''Lust for Life'' or Altman's ''Vincent and Theo''(both very good films) it's more comic, more vivacious about the painter. The reason for that I think is because the film is about Van Gogh as being essentially a painter of the common people and that his paintings celebrate the small joys and great sadness of their lives which he understood at first hand.

The revision is there in casting Jacques Dutronc(the Bob Dylan of Paris) as the painter and the first scene where he steps off that train like Jean Gabin in the 30's French Cinema or not.

In fact, i feel, every frame is a painting in its own right

I am not so sure. People often talk about painterly scenes in cinema when discussing great compositions. In most cases such compositions are too mannerist and static. Pialat's composition in a moving picture medium is basically in the movement, the mise-en-scene. In that respects it makes sense why he quotes the two great motion picture painters of cinema...John Ford and Jean Renoir.