Tue 9 Jan 2007
And to go along with the top 10 of 2006, here are ten older films I especially enjoyed last year.
1. Woman Ascending the Stairs
It’s hard to believe the Mikio Naruse retrospective at the Film Center was only eleven months ago. And while it didn’t achieve the heights of the Ozu retro from the year before, it did feature this masterpiece. Hideko Takamine, who appeared in many of Naruse’s features, stars as a middle-aged geisha who must find a way to buy a bar of her own or get married to a man she doesn’t really love. Naruse’s best films are melodramatic and deeply affecting without being sentimental, and Takamine gives a towering performance.
2. The New World
Director Terrence Malick returned to theaters with a gorgeous tone poem set around the story of Pocahontas and John Smith, but it’s really a meditation on innocence and loss, nature and civilization. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot Children of Men) create images of extraordinary beauty that have lingered in my mind ever since I saw it in January. And the use of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” is especially transfixing. It might be Malick’s best film, and that’s saying a great, great deal. — full review
3. All that Heaven Allows
I waited to see this Douglas Sirk weepie until I could see it on the big screen, and I’m glad I did. His spectacular widescreen color compositions are amazing to behold, but those would be empty eye-candy without a powerful script about conformity in the ‘50s and excellent lead performances from Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.
Northwestern’s Block Cinema included this Ernie Gehr experimental film on one of their programs. Shot in a glass elevator on the outside of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, the film repeats a slow trip up and down. But with each variation, Gehr changes our perspective through how the camera is placed, what’s in focus, or how the film is edited. A city film that’s also a reflection on the process of seeing.
Somehow I had missed this quintessential Paul Newman performance until Doc Films showed it, and it’s just as iconic, if not more, than his turns in Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy. Add in stunning widescreen cinematography from James Wong Howe (one of classic Hollywood’s best) and a stark script about a bickering family of ranchers, and you’ve got a masterpiece.
6. Far Side of the Moon
I wasn’t familiar with the work of Robert Lepage until I saw this riveting, wonderfully creative drama. An adaptation of his own play, he also stars as twin brothers coping with their mother’s death. The track record of director-actors isn’t a good one, but Lepage brings together the cerebral and comical for a marvelous mix.
7. Flowers of St. Francis
Pure joy! Roberto Rossellini provides a portrait of St. Francis that makes the monastic life seem exuberant and delightful. Moments of deep spirituality combine with hilariously earthy moments for a religious film that even atheists can enjoy.
8. Best of Norman McLaren
McLaren was a well-known Canadian animator who’s been largely ignored in the States, but this traveling program of his shorts (tied in with the release of a seven-disc dvd set) was a revelation. I could take or leave the live-actor, stop-motion animation, but his traditional animation, often set to jazz music, is simply awesome. And while watching it, I suddenly realized where the inspiration for half of Sesame Street came from.
9. Land of Silence and Darkness
An early Werner Herzog documentary that focuses on a group of people who are both deaf and blind. An older woman named Fini Straubinger emerges as the film’s focus, and her enormous personality is captivating. Herzog brings his customary mystical touch to bear and creates a documentary of stunning beauty and power.
10. Counsellor at Law
I haven’t seen even close to all of William Wyler’s oeuvre, but what I’ve seen (The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, Funny Girl) has left me underwhelmed. But that’s not true of this crackerjack law-firm drama. The great John Barrymore plays a lawyer who’s left his working-class roots behind, and Wyler expertly juggles issues of class and politics while creating a thoroughly enjoyable drama about a man walking an ethical tightrope. The script, with its rapid-fire and witty dialogue, shows its theatrical origins, but Wyler uses the office setting (and some glorious high-contrast lighting at the climax) to strong effect.
And since we’re here, how about two more pairs…
Borzage x 2
This year was my first encounter with director Frank Borzage, and now I want to see as much as I can. Especially if they star the spectacular Janet Gaynor. Street Angel and Lucky Star are late silent works, and Gaynor is absolutely luminous in both, while Borzage’s trademark romanticism uses silent cinema tropes to full effect.
Mizoguchi x 2
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums and The Sisters of the Gion won’t displace Ugetsu or Sansho the Bailiff from my list of favorite Mizoguchis, but it was a thrill to see them on the big screen. Chrysanthemums, in particular, was a reminder of how Mizoguchi, more than any other director, uses space to tell his story. His long diagonal shots and particularly the contrast between foreground and background reveal how flat most other films are.
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