Friday, December 27, 2013

My Top 50 First-Time Watches of 2013

This was the year I was fortunate enough to see a notable rise in my freelance bookings, and thus my writing mainly focused on new releases (I will try and include some blog-exclusive material in the coming year, but I admit it's a low priority compared to my deadline gigs). Even with my attentions turned to new material, however, I still made a number of thrilling discoveries this year, from the Westerns I binged on to write a piece related to marathons of directors like John Ford and Roberto Rossellini. All in all, I saw many new-to-me films I adored, but these 50 are the cream of the crop. Several have already settled in among my favorite movies.

1. The Age of the Medici (Roberto Rossellini, 1973)

A stand-in for the many Rossellini films I watched for the first time this year, all of which were rewarding and a hefty amount of which I would call some of the best films I've ever seen. The best, though, was this three-part work for Italian television, which conjured the Renaissance in material terms that made the strongest depiction of the ineffable inspiration that drove the single greatest artistic movement in history. Rossellini's period Italy is free of the grimmer realities of peasantry, but the case he makes for the Renaissance as a once-in-a-millennium meeting point of art, science, religion and, most important of all, monetary funding is his finest offering of making tangible the intricate, nuanced realities (and the myths that grow from them) that make up history. And the subtle manner in which he turns every shot into an echo of Renaissance painting and sculpture thoroughly debases the notion that his TV work represented an abandonment of formal properties.

2. Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

Mythology and verité converge in Jacques Rivette, in which female archetypes are drawn equally from paganism and pulp and are then collapsed through cross-pollination that sands away binary distinctions into something more abstract and complex. Noir provides the foundation for the film, but its gray areas are ones of identity, not morality, a fitting shift for a filmmaker so attuned to performance as a theatrical affect and a natural state of human interaction.

3. Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo (Jean-Luc Godard, 1993)

Godard, armed with a single photograph, summarizes a specific war, war in general, the inadequacy of art to effect positive social impact and why the artist must continue on anyway. And he does it all in just over two minutes. Late Godard is cryptic and cerebral, but never so concisely ordered as this gorgeous, far-reaching thesis.

4. French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1955)

Jean Renoir does not make the sets of French Cancan pop so much as he folds his people into their two-dimensional space, making moving Belle Epoque paintings that avoid the still life of tableaux vivants for exuberantly mobile flatness. Color and motion have rarely been rendered more vividly, and for all the ebullience of the film, it hones in on a complex vision of art in all its maddening and affirming glory.

5. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)

Beau Travail is a work of total poetry, narratively simplifying its source Melville text (turning the ambiguous motive of Billy Budd's harassing officer into an all but openly stated case of violent sexual repression) but aesthetically abstracting its content. The images by now are legion: sweating bodies of Legionnaires training in the desert, a man dying of thirst as he lays in a salt field that looks like a patch of snow amid the sand, and, of course, the oneiric coda of the film, in which a man at last admits his urges in the second before he pulls the trigger against his head, a self-confession in the form of interpretive dance that may be Denis Lavant's finest on-screen moment to date. How has this film not been snapped up by one of the specialty DVD labels for a high-quality release?

6. Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984)

Not technically Cassavetes' final feature, this is nevertheless his true send-off, and what a swan song it is. After getting past the surface-level understanding of the director—"naturalism" and "improv" (the latter of which is not even accurate—I've become more attuned to his genuinely adventurous, well-considered direction, which is on full display here. Look at how he cuts across Rowlands' divorce deposition diagonally, honing in on the daughter as she shatters her mother's world by calmly stating she wants to live with her father, or the detached, empathetic humor of shots of characters caving under the pressure of their connection (or lack thereof) to loved ones. Its last act, which culminates in a sly role reversal of siblings, is downright operatic, yet it still feels so lived-in and raw as to be tangible.

7. Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932)

More sharply lensed than most of the early-'30s American films, Love Me Tonight is also one of the most effortlessly charming, so infectiously giddy that even its social context of withering, hollow aristocracy is second to its good vibes. Solos do not last long in this film, as a romantic song begun by one yearning soul soon attracts others who take up its verses, until a kind of message relay is made as that song is carried far and wide. Its use of early sound is every bit as impressive as Fritz Lang's in M, complex and ambitious from the composition that arises from street noise that opens the film. As a Pre-Code musical starring Maurice Chevalier, Lubitsch comparisons are inevitable, but this just may top even that director's early musical work.

8. Ulzana’s Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1972)

About as close to a fitting adaptation of Blood Meridian as we're ever likely to get, and it was released a full decade before Cormac McCarthy put out his magnum opus. The film envisions all-out war between white and red, a war of attrition in which neither side will show mercy in order to obtain or defend what they feel is rightfully theirs. Racism and desire collide, leaving only total annihilation in their wake. Labeled as a Vietnam allegory, the film is outside any one conflict, instead an unbearably real vision of war as a concept, an event of total devastation for all who fight it, and those who happen to be within firing distance.

9. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)

Has the Lubitsch touch ever been so self-evident as it is here, a film so good-natured, and gently wry that even a suicide attempt comes off as liltingly comic instead of grotesque? Minuscule ironies abound, especially when the lovers reveal themselves to each other, their illumination occurring in a room where they have just turned out all the lights. I love, love, love Jimmy Stewart and struggle to think of a better performance than the one he gives here, which is just huffy enough to let him have fun while also playing it straight.

10. Percevel le Gallois (Éric Rohmer, 1978)

Rohmer's simple (but never simplistic) direction is set totally aside for this surreal realization of Arthurian language, though in truth it is merely the logical reflection of Rohmer's faithfulness to his chosen texts. Perceval resembles a medieval tapestry, colorful but basic, limited in movement but vast in the epics it conjures with its images. The finale, which honors the incomplete nature of Chrétien de Troyes' story, adds a vicious, ironic punch by cutting away from the Passion Play just as the dead Jesus descends into Hell before resurrection to show Perceval himself heading into an unknown future. It is a caustic comment on blind, self-denying devotion from the New Wave's most devout member, and all the more scathing for its maker's religiosity.

Best of the rest:

11. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
12. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
13. Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)
14. The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)
15.Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)
16. Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955)
17. (tie) Zabriskie Point/The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970/1975)
18. The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin, 1956)
19. The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford, 1953)
20. From the Journals of Jean Seberg (Mark Rappaport, 1995)
21. Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975)
22. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
23. Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1950)
24. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)
25. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
26. Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
27. Throw Down (Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, 2004)
28. I Am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964)
29. By the Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet, 1936)
30. Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971)
31. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondō, 1995)
32. Charulata (Satyajit Ray, 1964)
33. Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)
34. Halloween II (Rob Zombie, 2009)
35. My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Aleksei German, 1986)
36. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)
37. Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé, 1987)
38. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
39. The Patsy (Jerry Lewis, 1964)
40. The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)
41. The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)
42. Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001)
43. The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov, 1968)
44. Still Life (Jia Zhangke, 2006)
45. Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983)
46. The Thomas Crown Affair (John McTiernan, 1999)
47. 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
48. Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960)
49. Nightjohn (Charles Burnett, 1996)
50. Track of the Cat (William A. Wellman, 1954)


  1. Really bummed that I missed Ulzana's Raid at the Harvard Film Archive a few months back. Very nice list, though I'm surprised to not see The Mirror higher up. Also a big fan of Millennium Mambo and All That Heaven Allows.

  2. To be honest, after the first 10 (and maybe not even them), this isn't really a ranking because I loved all of these so much.

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