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Instant Classics: Criterion on Netflix #151-175

Welcome back to my ongoing and ultimately futile effort to review every single Criterion Collection film before they are retconned off of Netflix Instant Watch. After last week’s frankly lackluster reviews of some truly spectacular films, I have decided to put the boot to my own ass and try to write this column with the passion and insight that I know I am capable of. Apologies to anyone who’s first encounter with this site was my last piece. I think you’ll find this one to be far more entertaining and, just maybe, somewhat enlightening.

-151. Traffic (Steven Soderburgh, 2000) [Unavailable]

I haven’t seen this film since it came out, but if memory serves, it was just a boilerplate drugs ‘n’ guns story with some semi-innovative cinematography from a director who had already made the best films of his career. Remember when the War on Drugs was America’s biggest threat? I’m reasonably willing to bet that, in the wake of 9/11, two (three?) actual wars and the horrifying explosion of drug-related violence in Mexico, this film comes across today as an unbearably outdated and quaint cautionary tale to a world that hadn’t seen anything yet.

-152. George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000) [Unavailable]

This is one of those movies that I’ve been hearing people rave about for years but never bothered looking into. Wish I could say otherwise, but there it is.

-153. General Idi Amin Dada (Barbet Schroeder, 1974)

In 1974, documentarian Barbet Schroeder secured unparalleled access to one of the most enigmatic dictators of the 20th century: Ugandan President Idi Amin. The resulting film is an unabashed look at what happens when an honest-to-god madman walks the halls of power. The film follows Amin, who clearly saw the project as propaganda piece, through a plethora of staged meet-and-greets, military inspections and candid conversations with the dictator his early life, Israel and the responsibilities of ruling a once-prosperous African nation.

Whatever Amin’s intentions for the film may have been, the camera’s unblinking eye captured many moments where the usually charming and urbane General would talk himself off-message and briefly pull back the curtain on his delusional worldview and unhinged emotional status. Amin is so charming that, were it not for Schroeder’s constant off-camera reminders that the man was responsible for genocide-level slayings of his own people, he could have easily managed to come off as merely a somewhat backward, but ultimately harmless, man-child playing at being President. The fact that we live in a political climate that often finds itself dominated by the whichever candidate is the most congenial rather than the one who is the most capable, makes this film a powerful shot across the bow of the modern voting public.

-154. The Horse’s Mouth (Ronald Neame, 1958) [Unavailable]

Haven’t heard of it before but: a dark, British comedy written by and starring a young Alec Guinness? Sign me up.
Side Note: Available online at Criterion.com

-155. Tokyo Olympiad ( Kon Ichikawa, 1965) [Unavailable]

While this film is supposed to feature some really groundbreaking cinematography, I just can’t help but feel underwhelmed by the prospect of watching a nearly 3 hour long film about the 1964 Olympics. Hell, I don’t even spend that much time watching the Olympics when they’re happening live on TV.

-156. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)

Pieced together from various interviews with military brass, discharged soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, newsreel presidential addresses and on-the-ground camera work, Hearts and Minds is THE documentary on the Vietnam War. Released in 1974, less than a year before the war would end, the film pulled all the disparate feelings towards the conflict that had been building up in the American consciousness for two decades and laid everything out in a vicious and visceral knockout punch aimed squarely at anyone who might still be on the fence. In fact, the movie was so controversial, that it’s original release was impeded and litigated against until all it received was a one week run in Los Angeles. And the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

While the film does use interviews with people on both sides of the famously divisive war’s opinion gulf, it’s impossible to ignore it’s underlying message when you see a sobbing relative of a dead Vietnamese soldier throwing herself onto his coffin while then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland intones, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Utterly unflinching in it’s depiction of one of our worst military disasters, Hearts and Minds blazed the trail and set the example that would later make documentaries like No End in Sight and Restrepo shining examples of how patriotism and unthinking compliance with a government’s agenda are not the same thing.

-157. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) [Unavailable]

Wait, it’s been TEN YEARS since this film came out?! I am so old right now…

-158. The Importance of Being Earnest (Anthony Asquith, 1952)

Based on Oscar Wilde’s most popular work, the film recounts the efforts of Jack Worthing (Michael Redgrave) to secure the hand of young Gwendolyn (Joan Greenwood) in marriage. Problem is, she is under the impression that his name is really Earnest, which is the only name that will do for her prospective husband. The confusion stems from the fact that Jack lives two lives, one as Jack when in London and one as Earnest when he is at his country manor taking care of his young ward, Cecily (Dorothy Tutin). He tells Cecily that Earnest is his screw-up brother who he must constantly bail out of trouble, in order to avoid the constant pressure of being her legal guardian. Further complicating matters is Jack’s ne’er-do-well friend, Algernon (Michael Denison) who, upon hearing of Cecily’s wit and beauty, shows up at Jack’s manor in the guise of Earnest in the hopes of wooing the girl.

Witty and wry humor abound in this pointed critique of Victorian culture, which was so predominant at the time Wilde wrote it. While I’m not a huge fan of Victorian romances, this one comes off at a rather breezy clip and is over before any of the characters get too huffy and overbearing. Watch it with your mom. You know you forgot to call her, anyways.

-159. Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa, 1965) [Unavailable]

Bwah-huh? A Kurosawa flick that’s not available for streaming? It’s like I’m doing penance for that single, solitary Bergman film I got to stream last week.

-160. A Nous la Liberte (Rene Clair, 1931) [Unavailable]

As early French comedies are not my cinematic forte, I have no comment with which to, er, comment.

-161. Under the Roofs of Paris (Rene Clair, 1930) [Unavailable]

Same statement as the above film, only swap “comedy” for “ romance” and multiply the sentiment by a damn sight.

-162. Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsey, 1999)

Set in the public housing projects of Glasgow, Scotland during the infamous garbage strike of 1973, Ratcatcher follows 12-year-old James as he grows up in some of the worst living conditions in the Western World. Living with his alcoholic father (Tommy Flanagan), beleaguered mother and two sisters, James must wrestle with his guilt after the inadvertent drowning of his friend as well as his burgeoning adolescence. Despite being a tough little kid, his hopes for the future seem on the verge of being swallowed the the ever-deepening morass of crime, filth and poverty that surrounds his daily life.

This film has the distinction of being one of the few English language films I’ve ever seen that I’m glad featured subtitles. Most of the characters, many of whom were portrayed by non-actors, sport Glaswegian accents that are so thick a slang-heavy, that even my Anglophile ears could hardly pick out what was being said. Luckily, Ramsey decided to eschew an overabundance of dialog in favor of long, haunting shots of the rust-and-concrete hell that she sends her characters to. Though much of it is filmed outdoors, the camera sticks close to it’s subjects, be they human or merely man-made, and enhances the sickening feeling of being a rat trapped in maze with no exits.

-163. Hopscotch (Ronald Neame, 1980)

The late, great Walter Matthau plays Walter Kendig, the CIA’s most talented field agent, who’s waging an ever-warming Cold War. After Kendig lets his KGB counterpart off the hook, he is called back to Washington and informed that he is being busted down to desk duty for the rest of his career. He becomes infuriated by his demotion and flees to his lover (Glenda Jackson) in Austria, where he proceeds to write his “memoirs” of all the CIA, KGB and (especially) former boss, Myerson’s (Ned Beatty) dirty secrets for the enjoyment of the reading public. Anxious to avoid his impending embarrassment, Myerson charges Kendig’s former protege, Cutter (Sam Waterson) to find and eliminate Kendig before his book goes to press.

Sounds like some good, old-fashioned 80’s cloak and dagger stuff, right? Wrong! This film is a manic and somewhat screwball comedy that pokes good-natured fun at the Cold War paranoia that had been rapidly slackening for the previous decade. Matthau is his typical, schlubby self as he leads his incompetent adversaries on a merry chase across the globe. A true product of the post-Nixon era, which gave birth to both the scathing documentary and wry political comedy genres in America. While lots of lightweight fun, I’m not entirely sure what it’s doing in the Collection.

-164. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is a psychologist set to evaluate the conditions on a space station that is orbiting the distant ocean planet of Solaris. While scientists have been studying the planet for many years, the research close to the surface has proven hazardous and so the sprawling space station now only supports a three man crew. Upon arrival, Kris discovers that one of the scientists is dead and the other two are evasive and uncooperative. While walking through the empty halls of the half deserted station, Kris begins to suspect that they are not the only people on board. Sure enough, his suspicions are confirmed when he wakes up one morning to the sight of his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who has been dead for ten years.

Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, this film is a beautiful and quiet at space itself. While the film’s set design and contemplative manner owe an undeniable debt to Stanley Kubrick’s take on 2001, it stands on it’s own two feet as a meditation of the complexities of human interaction, emotion and, most importantly, communication. Tarkovsy was a master of narrative tone, which he proved here beyond a shadow of a doubt. Where a lesser director would have opted for sudden musical cues and bombastic set pieces to drive their point home, Tarkovsy uses a nearly inaudible aria, the tinkling of wind chimes or even just a shift in film coloration to enchant, provoke and unnerve at the slightest whim.

(Side Note: The 2002 remake is garbage. Don’t take my word for it, though. When speaking about the original film, Salman Rushdie said that it “needs to be seen as widely as possible before it’s transformed by Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron into what they ludicrously threaten will be ‘2001 meets Last Tango in Paris in space’. What, sex in space with floating butter? Tarkovsky must be turning over in his grave.” Moral: You just don’t piss off a man who’s had a jihad called down on his head.)

-165. Man Bites Dog (Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzei and Benoit Poelvoorde, 1992)

This mockumentary about two Belgian documentarians following around an urbane and charismatic serial killer, stars the film’s co-directors acting under their real names. Remy and Andre are the filmmakers who have taken it upon themselves to uncover the psyche of a madman, played by Benoit. As they are shown the tools of the trade, as well as it’s “occupational hazards” by an eager-to-please Benoit, the line between the subject and the observers becomes increasingly blurred and soon the documentarians begin to take a supporting role in their own film and Benoit’s rapidly increasing body count.

Originally released under the more provocative title of C’est Arrive Pres de Chez Vous (“It Happened in Your Neighborhood“) this is one of the all-time blackest of black comedies. The genius of the film lies in it’s portrayal of Benoit: he is intelligent, artistic and kind toward those he considers to be his friends and family, but turns into a cavalier and unfeeling murderer at the drop of a hat. In this, his character is not so far removed from the real life madness that is on display in General Idi Amin Dada. Even though Benoit is the central character, it is the film crew’s actions that provide the movie’s most devastating sucker punch. While at first unsettled by what they see, soon become fascinated with Benoit’s macabre profession, much in the same way we see the modern explosion of interest in reality shows and videos of all stripes. In never turning the camera off when the possibility of a good shot presents itself, Man Bites Dog dares to confront filmmakers, producers and especially the viewers with the notion that, by their continued production and consumption of this horrible parade of the worst aspects of humanity, they themselves become complicit in the perpetuation of that which they claim to abhor. Well recommended for anyone who likes their social commentary with teeth.

-166. Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986) [Tragically Unavailable]

My absolute favorite films from one of my all-time favorite directors starring one of my unquestionably favorite musicians. See this movie by any means necessary.

[admin. note: In a fit of unseen synchronicity, IOC recently ran a Great Scenes post from Down By Law here]

-167. The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (Various, 1967) [Unavailable]

You know, it really irks me that Criterion gave individual spine numbers to box sets and then continued on numbering the films contained in said box set. How is the obsessive-compulsive in me supposed to arrange that on my shelf in numerical spine order? Apparently it irked IMDB too, because they don’t have a listing for it.

-168. Monterey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) [Unavailable]

See above. Or below for that matter.

-169. Jimi Plays Monterey & Shake! Otis at Monterey (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) [Unavailable]

Companion pieces to the hippie music documentary in the entry above, that is bundled together in the box set featured in the entry above that. Marks the point in history when Monterey first became associated with insufferable douchebags.

-170. Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932) [Unavailable]

Remember what I said earlier about French comedies and romances from the 30’s? Let’s bundle American romantic comedies from the 30’s in with them.

-171. Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963) [Unavailable]

Was really looking forward to reviewing this. Never fear! It’s made it’s way to the top of my DVD queue and will be getting a full treatment in the near future.

-172. Pepe Le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937) [Unavailable]

Remember what I said about French comedies and romances from the 30’s? I am the exact opposite with French gangster films of that same era, or any era, really. This film cut the path that the likes of Bob le Flambeur and Le Samourai would later tread to stunning effect.

-173. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943)

A sprawling, comedic effort from The Archers, this film follows the military career of Gen. Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) through the Boer War and First and Second World Wars. Candy starts and unlikely friendship with a German army officer (Anton Walbrook) and has various romantic inclinations toward three different women, all played by Deborah Kerr, over the course of his life as he watches the world and it’s notion of how to fight warfare, leave him in the pages of forgotten history.

What. A. Slog. Right from the start it’s all zany musical cues, scenery-chewing line delivery and “Pip Pip Cherrio I Dare Say Wot Wot” to the point where I found it hard to believe that this film was made by actual Brits. Everyone in it is such an over-the-top caricature that it felt like I was spending three hours (yeah, never getting that time back) inside the brain of some hick from Arkansas who had been asked to describe forty years of British military actions without having ever met an Englishman and only a rudimentary grasp European history. While it was considered highly subversive and critical of the military establishment when it was released as well as having helped pioneer the Technicolor era, I found literally every other aspect of this film to be unbearably grating. And yet? No less a cinematic luminary that David Mamet claims it as his favorite film! What the hell is going on?! Perhaps one day I will finally realize why all these incredibly talented directors, for whom I have so much respect, are so enamored with what I consider to be some of Powell and Pressburger’s most unwatchable films. Wether or not I do, one thing is for certain, that enlightenment won’t come from watching this film again.

-174. Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Goddard, 1964) [Unavailable]

Portrait of a Netflix: loves Kurosawa and Michael Powell; hates Bergman, Goddard and Hitchcock. What an asshole.

-175. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)

Based on the semi-autobiographical, cult classic book by the inventor of Gonzo journalism himself, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. The story, such as it is, follows Raul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) as they take a trip to Las Vegas where they are to report on a motorcycle race. Due to the inclusion of “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine…a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls” the assignment takes a very forgone and brain-melting detour into the depths of the American psyche in the early 70’s.

The film, like the book, is howlingly funny mainly due to the fact that Gilliam allows Thompson’s original, razor-sharp prose to dominate the film. Depp and Del Toro share a magically abusive on-screen chemistry that brings the two characters (which are in fact hyper-embellished stand-in’s for Thompson and his friend, Oscar Zeta Acosta) to sweaty, wild-eyed life. Adding to this is Gilliam’s notorious, madman directorial style which produced wildfire-caliber sparks when played against Thompson’s narcotic agitprop. The camera zooms through hellish hallucinations and even-more hellish realities to leave the viewer dumped out at the end of the film with the same exhausted feeling you get when you spend a day riding rollercoasters at an amusement park.

Fun fact: I have seen this film more times than any other film ever made. When I was 18 and fresh out of my parents house, I embraced the drug culture with open, eager arms. This film became something of a mantra for me and my roommates who would rush home from work nearly every day for months on end to absorb every scrap of it’s twisted, cynical and yet, strangely hopeful account of two men searching for truth, justice and the American Way with the aid of a laundry list of illicit substances. I found this film at a time when I was in the process of rejecting the suburban, Christian fundaments of my upbringing and searching for something, anything at all, to latch on to. At first the film seemed to be a simple, amoral glorification of all things drug-induced. Upon further repeated viewings, however, I began to feel the full impact of Thompson’s words. The drugs, while taking somewhat of a top billing in the film, were simply the fuel for his quest, not the destination. It’s not a celebration of getting fucked up, but rather a eulogy for the decency, honesty and, incredibly enough, morality that Thompson perceived as lacking in the post-hippie-Watergate-Vietnam hellscape that was his understanding of America at that time. Further delving into Thompson’s serious journalistic efforts, in fact, was one of the strongest of my motivations to become a writer. While I have since outgrown both my druggy phase and this film’s somewhat juvenile world-view, the best I can sum up my continued love for it is by paraphrasing the Good Doctor himself: I wouldn’t recommend films that glorify sex, drugs or insanity to everyone, but they’ve always worked for me.

Well that was an interesting little block. I like how the whole thing was bookended by such polar opposites as Traffic and Fear and Loathing. While I do hope for less whackadoo British comedies in the future, any week I get to re-watch three films that are in my all time top 50 (Solaris, Man Bites Dog, Fear and Loathing) is a good week in my book.

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May 16, 2011   2 Comments

Instant Classics: Criterion on Netflix #26-50

Welcome back to Instant Classics, my continuing mission to watch and review every sing Criterion Collection film that is currently streaming on Netflix Instant Watch. Last week we discovered only a paltry 10 out of the first 25 films released through Criterion are available for streaming. This week is looking much better, with 16 of the next 25 up and running. Let’s get this show on the road.

-26. The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie, 1980)

What a hell of a way to start off the week! John Mackenzie’s early 80’s British gangster flick comes screaming off the screen like it just ate Guy Ritchie for breakfast. Bob Hoskins is brilliant as bull-headed crime boss Harold Shand who is making one last attempt to go legit buy having a hand in the redevelopment of the London waterfront. When a series of bomb attacks and assassinations directed at his empire threaten to derail his plans, Harold must take action the only way he knows how: tearing a Harold sized hole through the London underground.

Hoskins imbues every second he is onscreen with a vein-popping, thinly controlled cockney rage the likes of which the world would not see again until Steven Soderbergh unleashed The Limey nearly two decades later. He wraps the film up with one of the most deliciously vicious anti-American rants ever committed to celluloid. Helen Mirren kills it (as usual) in the role of Harold’s wife, Victoria, providing the brainy counterbalance to Harold’s brawny ravings that might just be the key to getting him through this mess he’s found himself in. The entire proceedings are soundtracked by a punchy synth score that has just enough thematic callbacks to the swinging 60’s to remind you where this film’s roots are. Keep an eye out for a ton of future stars in bit roles, including P.H. Moriarty, Alan Ford and an extremely young Pierce Brosnan.

-27. Flesh for Frankenstein (Paul Morrissey & Antonio Margheriti, 1973)

Shlock and awe. This Paul Morrissey directed take on the classic Frankenstein story is all blood, breasts and bizarre performances. Udo Kier brings the role of Baron von Frankenstein to crazed, glistening life while surrounded by a multicultural cast who spray improvised-sounding dialog through a dazzling array of clashing accents. The Baron wishes to make a race of super-Serbians(?!) who will not only begin a new race but answer solely to him. In his endeavor to finish the male counterpart of his monstrous Adam and Eve, he settles on the head of a local farmhand who was rather attached to it. Later on, the farmhand’s friend (Joe Dallesandro) recognizes the fact that the farmhand’s head is not where it ought to be and a whole cavalcade of intestine spilling, spine-cracking mayhem ensues.

Mawkish gore and neo-eugenisist sensibilities jockey with full frontal nudity and anachronistic set pieces for screen time. If I had to pick one line to sum up this movie in it’s entirety, it would be Frankenstein’s words to his assistant (Arno Juerging, looking like the love child of Tim Robbins and Martin Freeman), immediately after he has dry humped the corpse of one of his creations: “To know death, Otto, you must fuck life…in zee gall bladder!” Priceless.

(Side Note: Screenwriter Tonino Guerra also penned Fellini’s Amacord. Talk about range.)

-28. Blood for Dracula (Paul Morrissey, 1974)

When Flesh for Frankenstein wrapped under budget and schedule, the ever-thrifty Paul Morrisey decided to craft this mostly improvised companion piece out of the same cast, crew and set pieces. Even the roles are recycled: Udo Kier is still hamming it up in the title role, Arno Juerging is still a sleazy little lackey and Joe Dallesandro is still sexing all the ladies while dropping his “New Yawk” accent into a film full of Europeans. Aside from the basic storyline and a couple new faces (including a cameo from Roman Polanski), the only notable differences between the two films is less gore and more nudity, as well as a shift in tone from vaguely fascist to overtly Marxist. If there was ever a doubt that Morrisey was the king of camp, this film puts that debate to rest.

-29. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)

Jeez, if there’s one thing Australian cinema has imparted to us, it’s to not go screwing around in the outback. Based on the best selling book of the same name, the story is deceptively simple: a group of Victorian-era schoolgirls who go missing while on a class outing and are never heard from again. When the investigation into the vanishings prove increasingly more fruitless, the ensuing sense of panic creates far reaching shockwaves that throw the lives of anyone even remotely involved into utter turmoil.

Like Walkabout before it, Picnic explores the popular Aussie theme of “cultured” Europeans finding themselves at odds with their newly claimed environment and/or native peoples. Peter Weir utilizes soft focus camerawork and a haunting, pan pipe-driven score to give the story an extra haze of dreaminess and delirium that is so contagious, you might want to notify a friend of your whereabouts before attempting to view this film for yourself.

-30. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)

One of the best films ever made from one of the greatest directors in history, Fritz Lang broke so much ground here, you’d think he was building a skyscraper. Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers and especially Freddy Kruger all owe their very existence to this portrayal of the world’s first on-screen serial killer. The basic story is that of a major German city gripped by the fear of a rampaging child killer (Peter Lorre). The police are clueless, the population is frenzied and only the city’s criminal underground seems to be making any headway in hunting the murderer down before another innocent child meet their grisly fate.

It is absolutely impossible to understate to impact this movie had on the filmic world. Lorre’s character is the archetype for every sweaty, bug-eyed pervert who would follow in his creepy wake. The storyline was one of the first to be ripped from the headlines, as it is based on the then-recent events surrounding the “Dusseldorf Vampire”. Lorre’s whistling of In the Hall of the Mountain King not only popularized the use of leitmotif in cinema, but cemented Edvard Grieg’s classic tune as one of the most ominous pieces of music ever written. On top of it all you have Lang at his finest, using silence to balance sound in the same way a tattoo artist uses negative space to create depth and texture. Worth watching if only for the ultra-rare sight of a genre being both invented and perfected all in one fell swoop.

(Side Note: It’s not part of the Collection but Fritz Lang’s other magnum opus, Metropolis, is available on Instant Watch in it’s complete, restored format and original orchestral score. Well worth checking out.)

-31-32. Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946) and Oliver Twist (David Lean, 1948)

Representing the early stages of work for director David Lean as well as for the great Alec Guinness, I can’t really dig on these films for the sole fact that I hate Charles Dickens from the bottom of my black little heart. While Guinness is fantastic in both of these films, Lean really shines insomuch as he manages to boil Dickens’ sprawling prattle down to a couple hours of screen time. So there you have it, great director, great acting, some moments of really beautiful camerawork… and Charles Dickens. If for some reason you happen to like Dickens, then these are two of the best adaptations of any of his works. If you, like me, think Dickens and Tolstoy are two of the most over-celebrated hacks of the literary world, then you can still catch that Lean/Guinness magic by watching The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Just not on Netflix Instant Watch, of course.

-33. Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922) [Unavailable]

Pretty ambivalent about this one. While it has the distinction of being one of the first documentaries ever filmed, it also has a notorious reputation for being shamelessly staged and anglicized at every turn. If nothing else, the film is an interesting time capsule of Western attitudes toward “primitives”.

-34.Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966) [Unavailable]

Was really looking forward to this, as I’m trying to expand my exposure to Russian cinema. Oh, well. Guess I’ll have to stick it in the old-fashioned queue.

-35. Diabolique (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s follow up to the powerful The Wages of Fear cemented his legacy as one of the masters of the thriller genre. Diabolique is the story of Christina (Clouzot’s wife, Vera, easily one of the most beautiful women to have ever lived), her chauvinistic husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) who openly cavorts with his mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret). The two women, instead of being antagonistic, bond over their mutual hatred of Michel’s behavior. Nicole eventually convinces a hesitant Christina that they should kill Michel and be done with his lechery once and for all. Once decided, they hatch a scheme in which they sedate Michel, drown him in a bathtub and chuck his body into a swimming pool to make it look like an accident. The perfectly laid plan unravels however, when Michel’s body never resurfaces in the pool and, in fact, disappears altogether.

A fantastic study of loyalty and betrayal, wrapped in an intriguing blend of murder mystery, film noir, and gothic horror. Clouzot is at the top of his game here, proving that a well placed light in a room full of shadows and ominous set pieces can be more terrifying than all the “gotcha”-style musical cheap shots that are stock and trade of the modern horror genre.

(Side Note: The message at the end of the film is possibly the first-ever anti-spoiler warning, in which the filmmaker implores the audience not to be diaboliques [devils] by giving away the twist at the end of the film.)

-36. The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

If one wanted to back up the claim that they just don’t make movies like they used to, this would be a powerful piece of corroborating evidence. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s thriller follows four European drifters who are down and out in an anonymous South American Country; the charming yet contemptible Mario, boisterous Luigi (weird, right?), unflappable Bimba and the sleazy and conniving Jo. When an American-owned oil well explodes, the company hires these four men to drive trucks full of nitroglycerin that will be used to put out the fire. The catch is, it’s 1953 and neither road maintenance nor suspension technology had progressed to the point of being even remotely safe.

Clocking in at a hefty 131 minutes, the first hour is all getting-to-know-you and set-up. Enjoy that, because the next hour and half is going to be non-stop, tooth-grinding tension. As someone who once drove a large truck though a narrow mountain road, this film dredges up all kinds of unpleasant flashbacks. Every bump, every rock, every twitch carries enough toe-curling power to put Alfred Hitchcock to shame (which he actually did when he beat Hitch to buying the film rights for Diabolique). The camera pairs agonizingly long shots of crucial minutiae such as wheels slowly spinning out in muck and taught wires pulled to their breaking point with the tightly framed faces of men who’s nerves and minds are fraying beyond all hope of repair. This film is one ordeal you should be proud to put yourself through.

-37. Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam, 1981)

Ah, Terry Gilliam, you crazy bastard. Unfolding like a children’s fairy tale as told by a PCP-smoking Brother’s Grimm, Time Bandits is the story of a neglected young boy named Kevin who discovers one night that his closet has become a space-time portal. The next night, six dwarves pop out of it. They are in possession of a map that they stole from the Supreme Being, that shows every hole in the space-time continuum which they have been using to travel through the continuum stealing treasures from various historical figures. Kevin gets accidently carried off into the portal with them as they bounce through history, encountering the likes of Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood and Agamemnon (Sean Connery). Throughout their journey’s they are pursued not only by the disembodied, Gilliam-illustrated head of the Supreme Being, but also by the mysterious Evil, played to bone dry perfection by David Warner and the gnarliest prosthetic fingernails I have ever seen.

No one else, living or dead, can unfurl a pure sense of childlike wonder with a winking snap of droll Brit humor into a (mostly) coherent feature length film like Gilliam. While his stories sometimes struggle to connect with their own characters, Gilliam’s visual style is always impeccable, if perhaps not entirely historically accurate. It must be said, however, that anyone quibbling over historic inaccuracies in a movie the features six time traveling dwarven thieves, is probably not up to the task of appreciating any of Gilliam’s work anyways.

-38. Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki, 1967)

An absolute classic yakuza flick from one of my all time favorite directors, Seijun Suzuki. Hanada (Joe Shishido) is the third highest ranked hitman in all of Japan. He kills his way through the underworld at the behest of his boss until he botches a contract from a beautiful woman and finds himself the target of the Number One assassin.

Talk about going against the grain, this film is so wonderfully weird and psychotic that it got Suzuki blacklisted from Japanese cinema for an entire decade. He took what was supposed to be a stock B-movie yakuza script and infused it with jumbled timelines, hallucinatory animations and the sexual fetishization of steamed rice, all while battling the Nikkatsu film studio for creative control. The film bombed upon release but has since been recognized as the masterpiece of absurdist cinema that it is, and has gone on to inspire the styles of such luminaries as Jim Jarmusch, Park Chan-Wook and Quentin Tarantino.

Seijun Suzuki’s masterpiece – and one of my favorite films of all time – was previously reviewed on the IOC here -admin.

-39. Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

Yet another dizzying journey into the gritty world of the Tokyo yakuza from master director Seijun Suzuki. The story follows Phoenix Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a yakuza thug who finds himself suddenly unemployed when his gang boss gives up the yakuza lifestyle to go straight. He refuses a job offer from a rival gang and fearing for his safety, takes his former boss’ advice and leaves town. It soon becomes apparent that his old boss may not have Tetsu’s best interests in mind and Tetsu is forced to choose between his loyalty and his life.

Where Branded to Kill was shot in sullen, yet spastic black and white, Tokyo Drifter color codes it’s characters and their moral orientations vividly. While not as unstrung as Branded, this movie is still an excellent example of Suzuki’s manic storytelling and intoxicating shooting style.

-40. Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998) [Unavailable]

Over the last ten films, we’ve seen excellent installments from such heavyweights as Lang, Lean, Gilliam and Suzuki so it only makes sense that the next film Criterion featured would be from… wait, what the hell? I will be eternally befuddled as to why this cinematic abortion was included in the Collection. Easily one of my least favorite films of all time. At least it’s not streaming.

-41. Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1944)

A film adapted from one of worlds greatest playwrights, by one of the worlds greatest actors who, incidentally, is also the director. Can you guess what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to do when it was released? That’s right, they snubbed it! Nominated it for four awards and gave it none. Well, Laurence Olivier did get an honorary award for starring, directing and producing the film as well as for having more talent in his fingernail clippings than all the other winners combined. Upon receiving the “award” Olivier (who would later go on to be Knighted, Baroned, respected as the finest actor of his and many other generations, buried in the same graveyard as British kings and in a cruel twist, resurrected to appear in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) reportedly shrugged, knocked back a liter of cognac and gave it to his chauffeur as a tip.

Oh, incidentally, the movie is pretty damn good, too.

-42. Fishing With John (John Lurie, 1992) [Unavailable]

Nooooooo! I love this criminally under-appreciated and short-lived TV show almost as much as I hate Armageddon. This show was the very definition of dry satire, featuring the crazed genius of Tom Waits, Willem Defoe, and Dennis Hopper.

-43. Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook, 1963)

I hardly think I’m fit to even comment on this film adaptation of William Golding’s seminal novel about practically every animalistic instinct that manifests in humanity. In it’s most literal sense, it’s the story of a group of young boys who are stranded on an island that are in dire need of adult supervision. At first they band together to build a signal fire to alert any passing ships of their presence, but when the specter of a possible monster is discovered, they quickly devolve into a vicious, tribal mentality. On a metaphorical or philosophical level, however, the story delves themes are much, much deeper, such as relationships of command and the conflicts between church and state, none of which I have the room to delve into here.

While Peter Brook’s film diverges somewhat from the novel, it manages to retain the brutal thrust of Golding’s words with the added punch of being able to physically see the children going feral. From the gritty opening montage to the precociously admirable acting job of it’s young cast, this film stands testament to the fact that good writing will always shine through, but if you go the extra mile with the film production, you’ll end up with a classic on your hands.

-44. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948)

My disinterest in ballet is so strong that it almost caused me to miss out on the schizophrenic genius that is Black Swan. Because of that same disinterest, I actually waited until I had seen all the other films on this list before watching this and then fell asleep in the middle of it. Twice.
The basic story is that of Vicky (Moira Shearer), a young ballet dancer that joins the dance troupe of the demanding yet inspired Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). Boris pushes Vicky to be his new prima ballerina but a love interest in the form of the new musical composer might get in the way of her passion for ballet. Roughly three dance pieces later, I was out like a light. Twice.

This is not saying the film is necessarily bad, mind you, just that if failed to appeal to me on a storyline level. The cinematography is sumptuous in a way only early Technicolor could be, the sets are beautifully crafted and there are some delightfully campy performances, all of which were constantly being interrupted by big ballet numbers. This is the same reason I dislike musicals: whenever the music starts, the story stops. But hey, Marty Scorsese loved it and Darren Aronofsky clearly lifted some thematic elements in making Black Swan, so maybe I’m just some barbarian who falls asleep in movies. Twice.

-45. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997) [Unavailable]

One of only two Iranian films in the Collection. Sadly, I know nothing about it.

-46. The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932) [Unavailable]

Haven’t seen it, but from what I understand it inspired the AMC daytime bellwether Surviving the Game, starring Ice-T, Rutger Hauer and Gary Busey. So there’s that.

-47. Insomnia (Erik Skjoldbjærg, 1997) [Unavailable]

Not to be confused with the remake staring post-”hooah” Al Pacino. This Norwegian thriller is and arrhythmic rollercoaster ride through one man’s rapidly devolving psyche.

-48. Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959)

Marcel Camus’ vivid re-imagining of the ancient Greek myth was shot in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro with all the sights and sounds that he could cram onto film. The opening shot literally explodes into the midst of the Brazilian Carnivale, where newly arrived Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) finds herself lost and confused in the chaos until she climbs aboard a trolley driven by Orfeu (Breno Mello). Even though Orfeu is already engaged to the overbearing Mira, the connection between them rapidly becomes undeniable. It is soon revealed that Eurydice is on the run from a sinister masked man, who is none other than the coolest looking depiction of Death this side of The Seventh Seal. In the midst of Mira’s mounting suspicions and Carnivale’s increasing fever pitch, Death succeeds in his mission and Eurydice is accidentally killed by Orfeu’s own hand. Grief-stricken, Orfeu embarks on a journey to reclaim the soul of his beloved.

Where the song and dance routine cluttered up the narrative of The Red Shoes, here they weave seamlessly into the very fabric of the Favelas in which they were shot and enhance the strikingly beautiful and increasingly hallucinogenic visual style that is this film’s calling card. While Portuguese is not one of those languages where I can tell if the performances are good or bad, it really doesn’t matter either way since pretty much every frame is so packed to the gills with symbolism that you could watch this one with the subtitles off and still perfectly understand what’s going down.

(Side Note: Netflix’s refusal to stream the Criterion films in HD is obnoxious under most circumstances. In the case of Black Orpheus, it’s practically criminal.)

-49/50. Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957) and And The Ship Sails On (Federico Fellini, 1983) [Unavailable]

Two more Fellini movies, neither of which I’ve seen. Might be good, might not; I’ll probably never know ‘cause they aren’t streaming and I’m not a Fellini fan.

Well, it looks like I won’t be making any fans in the coveted Fellini-watching, Dickens-reading, ballet dancer demographic. Also people who are named Michael Bay probably wouldn’t care for this column but studies show that a shocking 9 out of 10 Michael Bays are illiterate. Sad. Give the teachers their collective bargaining, y’all. See you next week.

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March 7, 2011   4 Comments

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