Inspired by Brian Saur hosting my picks for my favorite first-time watches of 2012 over at his site, I decided to keep closer track of the great films I watched for the first time this year. And given January's general lack of enticing new releases (and my own budgetary reasons for not even exploring some of the potentially intriguing options), I already saw so many great older films that I couldn't let some inevitably slip off the full year later without a mention. That I tried to catch up on some favorite auteurs and discover some new directors to feed my obsessions may account for just how many quality films I saw in the year's first 31 days. And then, I forgot to post it, so now it can account for February, too! Hey, what are you going to do? Anyway, here are the movies I finally got around to at the start of the year:
1. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)
Leone said this was the film where Ford discovered pessimism. Apparently this is the only Ford film Leone ever saw (or at least paid attention to), but never mind that for now. It is certainly the bleakest in a canon typified by failures in victory, forced retirements, and the burial of truth to maintain a false but reassuring sense of order. The latter comes to the fore here, as a man who comes to the West to bring law must instead defend it with a gun. The fallout presents him with the relief of not having taken a life but being tasked for exploiting that death for good, a dab of poison on the sapling of modern civilization. The Searchers was always on the inside looking out, yet the falling action of Liberty Valance is always looking in: looking in on a love lost to circumspect shyness and deluded possessiveness (who knew John Wayne played a Nice Guy™?), looking in on the beginnings of power and a new order, bought by the blood of the old. A bonus bit of withering cynicism: Woody Strode's Pompey forgets the "All men are created equal" line of the Declaration of Independence, and Stewart's Rance replies with a deadpan, "That's all right, a lot of people forget that part."
Other notable Ford discoveries: Judge Priest (1934), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Fort Apache (1948)
2. The Earrings of Madame de... (Max Ophüls, 1953)
Not even sure what to say about this immaculate work of formal perfection without watching it three more times in rapid succession. But damned if its swirling camera movements and florid melodrama don't make the prospect of a rewatch so tantalizing. The opulent earrings announced by the American title—so opulent that even the nobility of the story put themselves into debt for them—are so dense that they anchor Ophüls' camera, and indeed the entire diegetic world, drawing every narrative twist back to itself less through fate than the forces of gravity. If that makes the movements too suspiciously clean to be "real," the surreal prison of privilege conjured by this artificiality becomes human in the agonies it unleashes.
3. Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955)
Naruse’s somber view of Japan’s uncertain postwar reality is related through a woman who cannot let go of a futile, romanticized past. Her doomed love obviously stands in for the dangers of looking too wistfully on a recent cultural past that may have given Japan a sense of nationalist pride but was as damaging when viewed plainly as their slowly rebuilding present. The whole thing is a melodrama, of course, yet Naruse’s direction routinely brings warm flashbacks and heated exchanges back down to the dreary Earth. A true masterpiece.
4. The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)
Minnelli’s musicals may just be the pinnacle of cinematic style. Their perfectly judged affinity for spaces and objects (which does and does not include the performers, who fit within the geometric precision but also subtly bend it to their own will) routinely make the case for the unique properties of filmmaking. That may, indeed, even be the point of this number, which follows the development of a stage musical but gradually reveals itself to be a treatise for cinema taking over on such matters when the stage reaches its limits.The climactic number (a key influence on Michael Jackson, who had much of the “Smooth Criminal” video modeled on it) is as thrilling a demonstration of the irrepressible reaches of imagination afforded by cinema as the twice-as-long ballet that caps An American in Paris.
5. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
Between this and Pola X, 1999 was a banner year for off-kilter but incisive adaptations of Melville's literature. What is most impressive about Denis' accomplishment is how she roots the almost Iago-esque mysteries of the hatred that courses through Billy Budd in its grounding elements of repressed homosexual urges even as her camera abstracts such prosaic reduction into poetry. There are shots in Beau Travail to take the breath away; the one that particularly got under my skin was a shot of the Budd character, marooned in an African desert, almost becoming one with the salt field in which he lies from weakness. Its credits scene could have been a joke in a clumsier artist's hands, but the interpretive dance conjured out of nowhere for Denis Lavant's Claggart figure is such a vivid expression of letting go (in so many ways) that Lavant's Tasmanian devil spinning to Corona becomes of the great images of cinema.
6. Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)
“I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!” So exclaimed John Ford upon seeing his regular leading man, John Wayne, in this film, and indeed it seems as if Ford didn’t start getting his richest Wayne collaborations until after this. Hawks deliciously frames Old vs. New West through the tension of old-school movie stardom (Wayne) and the new, more emotionally raw method acting of Montgomery Clift. Both men, in true Hawksian fashion, must eventually be set straight by a woman. Even outside its sly meta touches, however, Red River rates among the greatest Westerns for its remarkably lacerating vision of capitalism and its corrupting, murderous influence in taming the West’s anarchy. Some like to point out the conservatism of directors like Hawks and Ford, but damned if they didn’t sometimes make films more confrontationally liberal than anything churned out of Hollywood today.
Other notable Hawks discoveries: The Crowd Roars (1932), A Girl in Every Port (1928)
7. I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
My general disgust for the modern overreliance on close-ups and the way that it kills the intended effects of said shots (it is TV shooting foisted onto cinema) is bolstered by the work of Jacques Tourneur, who could communicate more dread and claustrophobia in a long shot that most can pressed against the tear-stricken face of some soon-to-be-victim. To use the term “masterpiece” for so stripped-down and lean seems so wrong, and yet the perfection of the thing, the way its formally rigid, clear image makes for unsettlingly murky narrative twists and thematic meaning. Tourneur does not tackle race head-on, but the general mood of somber post-colonialism that infects this story, the way it keeps blacks under whites and fills whites with newfound ennui and despair, troubles far more than the sight of possible zombies. Here is a film that begins with shots of empty rooms, but feels all the more vacant when it finally settles on people.
Other notable Tourneur discovery: Canyon Passage (1946)
8. Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)
Siodmak’s first American noir is, to these eyes at least, even better than his most celebrated, 1946’s The Killers. It makes noir into a dreamscape, a nightmare world where killers, thugs and marks appear and disapparate into the night; where city streets can be so empty and yet seem so busy; where a quest for justice constantly vacillates in and out of a quest for vengeance. Works even better if you imagine it as Kansas’ wild wish fulfillment fantasy, right down to the eerie perversion of her Hollywood ending, literally trapped in a loop as it repeats on a dictaphone. Full review here.
9. Out of the Blue (Dennis Hopper, 1980)
The destruction that ends Easy Rider is a holocaust of self-martyrdom, a cry of self-possessed agony that those who see America for what it should be will be wiped out by those who wish to keep things as they are. Yet the destructive arc on which Hopper places himself for this subtle spiritual sequel is one of punishment, not cruelty. His alcoholic driver is the sad reality of those naïve countercultural dreams, a man who gets out of prison and returns to a small town that has “dead end” scrawled on it, where the open expanse of America’s natural beauty is now literally a landfill. More arresting than Hopper’s spiraling loser, however, is his punk daughter (Linda Manz), equally enamored with the Pistols and Elvis. Hopper’s linking of the two generational icons contextualizes punk as the next generation’s rebellion against his peers’ own failure to improve the world, even as the affection for Elvis points out the inherent conservatism underneath this supposedly radical movement. This is an empathetic and lacerating film, nihilistic not because of its fondness for Sid Vicious but because, to paraphrase the Neil Young song that recurs throughout, the only way to avoid becoming what you hate is to die young. That Hopper later became a Republican is all too fitting.
10. Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)
Everyone has been recommending this film to me for so long, yet it was Andreas Stoehr’s comparison of the film with A History of Violence that finally got me to stop stalling. Oh how right he was: Man of the West begins with a man who left a life of crime years ago being unceremoniously dumped back at the place he fled. His theatrical act of violence to fit in soon becomes just more violent acts, erasing the distinction between protecting himself and others and resuming his old lifestyle. Mann’s savage West provides no escape here: it’s all just beatings, molestations and killings. When he leaves Gary Cooper’s pithily sympathetic side to stay with a Mexican returning home to find his senselessly murdered wife, Mann says as much about the rapacious, animalistic waste of the Old West as anyone else who came along in later decades. Full review here.
11. Running on Karma (Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, 2003)
am becoming increasingly convinced that, along with Abbas Kiarostami,
Johnnie To is the world's greatest contemporary film director. This mad film is perhaps not a good starting point for the director, but the sheer weird genius of it is a particular delight. A romcom that roots its baggage in past lives, a Zen procedural whose purpose is less the capture of responsible parties than the means of truly preventing violent cycles from perpetuity, this is heady stuff for a movie with Andy Lau in a muscle suit. The final act moves into shocking realms, but even they produce something of hard-won beauty.
Other notable To discoveries: The Mission (1999), Fat Choi Spirit (2002), PTU (2003)
12. Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959)
A bounty hunter’s suspiciously laborious trip to collect his fee is slowly revealed to be a ruse to lure a more personal target into the open. Yet what might seem like a grisly B-western becomes something else as Boetticher bends location shooting to his will in such a way that the real locations almost seem soundstages for the control he exerts. Night scenes have such a dreamy atmosphere that they nearly creep toward noir, while the climax hauntingly circles around a tree gnarled by the souls it has released from their earthly vessels. In less formal matters, Randolph Scott’s surprising virility is also a source of great entertainment.
Other notable Budd Boetticher discovery: A Time for Dying (1969)
13. The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)
If Once Upon a Time in the West is the Godfather II of spaghetti westerns, this is their Taxi Driver, an elegant but nevertheless brutal vision of violence amplified by style but stripped of its operatic remove. Even if he is dubbed, Klaus Kinski makes the most of his simian sneer and bulging eyes, while Jean-Louis Trintignant’s mute bounty hunter is no less striking for his futile (and twisted) image of goodness. The final bloodbath (perfectly legal, as Kinski’s character likes to remind people) crystallizes the whole thematic subversion of the subgenre in one fell, foul swoop.
14. Police Story (Jackie Chan, 1985)
Ignore Hollywood’s botched treatment of Chan, which never gave his comic talents space to shine because it never treated him seriously enough for him to be truly engaging. Instead, check out this directorial effort, which overflows with action dynamism exacerbated and grounded by its Keaton-esque physical comedy. From its opening (which levels a whole village of shanties in a mad car chase), to its freewheeling climax at a mall, Police Story shows off talents of choreography, art direction and comic writing that make it among the best action films of all time.
15. Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924)
parts of Lang’s cinematic telling of the great German myth is the first
and perhaps still best fantasy film epic put to celluloid. It may lack
the psychological immediacy of Lang’s other silent work, but Die Nibelungen,
but the grandeur of its scale and the jaw-dropping finesse of its
technical craft do more with a glorified papier-mâché dragon and
painted, Expressionist backgrounds than Peter Jackson can do with all of
WETA’s CPU power. Computers have taken the magic out of this kind of
movie: compare the impact of seeing digital trolls digitally turn to
digital stone in The Hobbit to the “how did they DO that?” lapse of Atlas-like dwarves fading into granite.
HM: The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh, 2009), Graveyard of Honor (Takashi Miike, 2002), Day of the Outlaw (André de Toth, 1959), Trash (Paul Morrissey, 1970), Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971)