1954 Ten Best Movies

Toshiro Mifune, Seven Samurai

This is another year where one of the greatest movies ever made comes in at the #2 slot (see also 1948). How could I relegate Sansho the Bailiff, Kenji Mizoguchi’s epic masterpiece, which on certain days and in certain moods I think might be the best film in cinema history, to runner-up status? Only because in 1954 Mizoguchi’s countryman Akira Kurosawa made perhaps the all-time Movie in the same year, an achievement difficult to deny.

Or vice versa. Maybe the only movie that could top the visceral excitement of Seven Samurai is the mystical journey taken in Sansho. The two films are dissimilar but each leaves you with the sense of having taken a voyage, in space but also in time: each traces an epic arc that makes the world look different in the aftermath. Yes, people say that about movies; but in this case, the trip is vast.

The undeniable Japanese surge during this era (which, on a less exalted level, also included the first Godzilla movie in 1954) is matched by other national cinemas, for the 1950s was a remarkable decade in film in general. ’54 doesn’t stand out as the best year of the decade – the European directors who will dominate the generation to come are still sorting themselves out somehow – but it’s still strong at the top. In Hollywood, the phase of grown-up social-relevence films was topped by On the Waterfront, and the tendency to locate the unease beneath the postwar boom years was getting underway (Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession opened the door to his string of classics). And Hitchcock was Hitchcock, but even more so. The ten best movies of 1954:

1. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa)

2. Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi)

3. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock)

4. On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan)

5. Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini)

6. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray)

7. La Strada (Federico Fellini)

8. The Far Country (Anthony Mann)

9. A Star is Born (George Cukor)

10. Crime Wave (Andre de Toth)

The good year for Italian cinema continues with the next slot: Luchino Visconti’s Senso, which ties with Magnificent Obsession as rich melodramas writ large. Speaking of which, Gordon Douglas’s Young at Heart is a superb drama that contrasts dark (Frank Sinatra) with light (Doris Day) in a really interesting way. And the first half of Sabrina is one of the best movies Billy Wilder made, and the rest isn’t bad, either.

In the next bunch there’s the Huston lark Beat the Devil, David Lean’s impeccably-made Hobson’s Choice, and three Bunuel pictures: Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Wuthering Heights, and Illusion Travels by Streetcar. Ingmar Bergman did the excellent A Lesson in Love and Jacques Becker did the irresistible Touchez pas au Grisbi, a memorable evocation of the man’s-man world of the French crime picture.

And a special 1954 award to John Williams – the actor, not the composer – who played the police inspector in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (a performance the director was clearly enjoying) and Audrey Hepburn’s scrupulous father in Sabrina. That’s an awfully fine year for a character actor who never really ascended the heights.

Sex and the Sands of Time (Weekly Links)

Abu Dhabi Doo (actual joke from Sex and the City 2)

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, plus picks for SIFF.

Sex and the City 2. “Daft.”

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. “Very safe, as though everybody involved knew they couldn’t blow it with a new Disney franchise resting on this.”

A string of capsule reviews for the upcoming week at the Seattle International Film Festival.

And on KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about TV series endings and the way a cultural phenomenon can be a part of one’s life by osmosis (in other words, I never watched Lost). Listen here; the “Cultural Moment” bit begins about 14 minutes in.

Movie Diary 5/26/2010

Okay, catching up on a few days’ worth.

Sex and the City 2 (Michael Patrick King, 2010). Mind-boggling on many levels. The gals go to Abu Dhabi and liberate the oppressed females there, whilst hunting for shoe bargains. The one-liners are seamier than a 1967 episode of “The Dean Martin Show.” (full review 5/27)

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Mike Newell, 2010). Buff star Jake Gyllenhaal is fortunate not to cross sand dunes with SATC 2‘s Samantha, lest this Disney would-be franchise lose its PG-13 rating. Based on a video game, but without the soul (full review 5/28)

Imani (Caroline Kamya, 2010). Not visually distinguished, but this filmed-in-Uganda story deftly sketches the bargains that must be made in a compromised society – a series of decisions that lead to a fairly devastating ending. (screens at Seattle International Film Festival 6/4, 6/6, 6/11)

Cyrus (Duplass brothers, 2010). John C. Reilly man-childing it into a scruffy relationship with Marisa Tomei, whose grown son (Jonah Hill, never more lethally glazed) is a problem. (full review 7/2)

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010). An exceptionally sure-footed film set in the Missouri Ozarks, where the rules of behavior seem to be a few hundred years old, and not beholden to official law. I haven’t seen Granik’s Down to the Bone, but will have to now. (screens at SIFF 5/28, 5/30)

The Oath (Laura Poitras, 2010). Much to be scared about in this doc profiling an Afghanistan cab driver with Osama bin Laden connections, and his brother-in-law, whose stay in Guantanamo Bay was lengthy. (full review 6/18)

Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz, 2009). The sequel to Happiness is as sour as expected, which is maybe a problem; Solondz’ ear is still sharp and so is his control with actors. (screens at SIFF 5/29, 5/31)

Get Him to the Greek (Nicholas Stoller, 2010). Given the talent overlap with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a little more tidiness was indicated. (full review 6/4)

The Sentimental Engine Slayer (Omar Rodriguez Lopez, 2010). It is not always clear what is going on in this film directed by/starring the musician behind Mars Volta, but at least something is going on – the attempt is worth noting. (screens at SIFF 6/10, 6/11)

1965 Ten Best Movies

The #1 box-office movie of 1965 is The Sound of Music, that giant canvas of nunneries, the Alps, and humorless Nazis. The movie does too much reverent genuflecting and most of the children are nauseatingly indulged, but I am able to watch and enjoy it (I could hardly say otherwise, having once taken the Sound of Music van tour in Salzburg, which is much less grand than it sounds, even if it doesn’t sound that grand). But what’s striking about the movie is its slowness and its unembarrassed size – despite that ol’ sobersides Robert Wise trying to jazz things up with the now-here-now-there location cutting on “Do-Re-Mi.”

"These are a few of my favorite things..." Belmondo and Karina in Pierrot le fou

Slowness and size mark a number of 1965’s films, as though film history had pointed the way there. Not just the big hits of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago or Blake Edwards’ Great Race, two epics by good directors that seem affected by the expansiveness of the era (although Zhivago is still a lush experience in many ways – see here for more – and The Great Race would have been high on my list if I’d made out a “best movies” tally in 1965), but the make-it-large impulse also expressed itself as far afield as Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits and Kurosawa’s Red Beard, so something must have been in the air. Maybe the future of film would turn out to be this: inspired by spectacle and widescreen and family-protected safeness, pictures would just keep getting slower and larger and more official.

It didn’t happen, because already by 1965 the termites were chewing away at the foundations of this tendency, and a couple of years later the whole thing would collapse under the assault of Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider and all that. But maybe ’65 feels like a shallow year for great ones because of the top-heavy nature of the mainstream.

One of the most influential termites was Jean-Luc Godard, who was then busily re-making the rules of the cinema (and who, as I write this, is still irritating people, as his latest film at Cannes 2010 is causing short-fused critics to scratch their middlebrows). In my listings thus far Godard has been getting repeatedly denied – he’s got the #2 slot in ’62 and ’63, and #3 in ’60 and ’64. But it’s hard to deny Pierrot le fou, which is both a quintessential movie and also against movies in its restless, divided way. Every arts-besotted person should fall in love with this movie at the age of 21; you’re missing something urgent if you don’t.

The films of another 1960s termite, Richard Lester, were also chipping away. Help! was the Beatles movie that came after the acknowledged joy of A Hard Day’s Night, and it suffers accordingly in the conventional wisdom. To which one can only say, if you needed further proof that conventional wisdom is always wrong, this is it. Help! is glorious. (And Lester also knocked out The Knack that year, blithely announcing that certain people were at the height of their powers.)

The center couldn’t hold for much longer after this. The best movies of 1965:

1. Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard)

2. Help! (Richard Lester)

3. Repulsion (Roman Polanski)

4. For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone)

5. Major Dundee (Sam Peckinpah)

6. Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard)

7. The Knack…and How to Get It (Richard Lester)

8. In Harm’s Way and Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger)

10. Ride in the Whirlwind (Monte Hellman)

Leone’s spaghetti helping is even better than his first Eastwood picture; and if Peckinpah was working in a more traditional Western format, he nevertheless made Major Dundee feel like something new and exciting. Hellman’s B-movie quickie, written by Jack Nicholson, is in the same genre, but with its own distinctive breath and mood. As for Repulsion, more at length here.

Also-ran-wise: I do like Doctor Zhivago, mostly, and The Collector (William Wyler) is special, too. Mickey One (Arthur Penn) is a daring little U.S. effort at something different, The War Game (Peter Watkins) is a once-seen-never-forgotten experience, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt) a genuinely brisk, bleak adaptation of John Le Carre.

Oddities: the only film (I think) shot in Esperanto, Incubus, stars William Shatner in an oddly Bergmanesque scenario. Tony Richardson’s film of The Loved One is never as funny or outrageous as you want it to be, despite some moments. The Rabbit is Me (Kurt Maetzig) and Born in ’45 (Jurgen Bottcher) are intriguing artifacts from the East German cinema. And it must be said, sympathetically but firmly, that Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer) does not actually live up to its title, as much as one would wish it to – though the title does point us away from the stately style of the year’s box-office champ.


This piece on Repulsion was written, like the Rosemary’s Baby essay, for a Polanski series at the University of Washington in 1986.–Robert Horton

There’s this rabbit, you see, this rabbit that is first mentioned in the opening minutes of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and actually appears in the flesh a few minutes after that. It’s intended as dinner for Carol (Catherine Deneuve) and her sister and her sister’s man, and it’s arranged very nicely on a clean white plate in the fridge: all curled up in the fetal position, looking like some monstrous abortion from a godless time, prehistoric or post-nuclear. (This freakish beatie is surely the uncredited physical prototype for the squalling, rampaging creatures of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Ridley Scott’s Alien.) We will return to the festering rabbity horror throughout the film, as its putrescence escalates while our heroine goes increasingly insane. The rabbit is her mind, or is in her mind, no doubt; we witness this lapin tartare growing more fetid and disagreeable while her face remains as beautiful and bland as it was in the opening moments of the film, when we see a big close-up of her mask-like, utterly imperturbable face, staring into nothingness.

But then the rabbit is only the most fragrant and memorable part of Carol’s apartment, which itself serves as a picture of Dorian Gray, cracking and shivering and expanding while she remains shy and immaculate. The film is an extended game of point-of-view, during which the everyday flotsam of reality—street musicians, sugar cubes, laughing nuns, stray toothbrushes, tintinnabulating bells, fender benders, and a “poor bunny”—appear warped by a mad perspective.

Polanski forces the issue of point-of-view from the outset. After all, the film begins with the camera seeming to pull out of the pupil of an eye that will turn out to belong to Carol (the credits float across the image like mucus drifting over an eyeball). We’re explicitly locked into Carol’s vision, and the hysterical world she will survey over the next 105 minutes of screentime amounts to an exploration of her disintegrating mind. Polanski doesn’t make us take this on faith, however; he’s scrupulous in establishing her point of view.

Consider, for instance, the remarkable scene just after Carol’s sister leaves to go out to dinner, early in the film. Carole stares into a metal tea kettle, which effectively distorts her image. Polanski goes from that to the peeping-hole in the door, another lens that queers the vision. Then the camera, apparently unattached to Carol, looks about the apartment: at the children’s toys on the table, out the window at the white nuns and black nuns scurrying below, then across the wall to a vaguely Japanese artwork hanging there, to the phonograph and the Edith Piaf record sitting by it, to more trinkets on the mantle, finally to a photograph of a family, dominated by the central presence of a young, angelically blonde girl staring off into space. These shots are an evocative view of Carol’s world: the distorted vision, the seemingly arrested development of a child, the bottled-up repression of the nuns, the irrelevant dislocation of a Japanese print in a South Kensington flat, the unconscious sorrow suggested by Piaf, the extremely spooky look on the little girl’s face of being there but also being…somewhere else.

The cracks in the wall show another form of Polanski’s strict, no-cheating approach to submerging us in Carol’s point of view. The first mention of a crack comes during a conversation with her sister; sis is in the background, Carol is looking toward the camera in the foreground, off to the side, absently. Evidently she’s looking at the wall, because she mutters, very quietly, “We must have this crack mended.” Polanski will do nothing so gauche as to show us the wall—which is, presumably, unblemished—nothing that gives us the high-sign that “It’s all in her mind!” The phrase is simply dropped into the dialogue, but we can see that her sister does not respond to the comment about the crack, and that there probably isn’t one.

Later, after the couple has left to visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Carol is alone in the apartment. For the first time, Polanski uses that awful craaaacking sound, and shows us the wall busting its seams. But he does it by the rules: first the sound, as we look at Carol’s face—and then a sharp, second-long cut to a close-up of Carol’s eye—and then the sight of the wall gaping open. Polanski didn’t have to insert that close-up of Carol’s eye—I mean, we’ve got the idea by now, right?—but he is one of the most careful directors alive today, and everything that exists in the frame matters to him. That’s why it’s important that this first visualization of Carol’s cracking psyche follows certain rules. Besides, Polanski is a director fascinated with eyes, as the essential organ for a character’s, or a director’s, vision. He likes making you see things in a way you’ve never seen them before, and he’ll blow out your eyes—figuratively, that is, although sometimes, as in Chinatown, literally—to make you see things his way.

Repulsion is full of details that simmer mysteriously. Polanski makes a close-up of hands peeling potatoes seem vaguely sinister, even if we don’t know yet that the potatoes will grow as deformed as Carol’s thoughts. A glove being pulled from fingers—the fingers of a manicurist—seems oddly resistant. In the end these hand images will climax in the animation of the walls in the apartment. The other weird details—the sucking of sugar, the wrestling on telly, the postcard with the conspicuously off-center Italian tower—accumulate and create a palpable sense of disquietude. The cinema of Roman Polanski is rife with the ordinary being uncanny.

Polanski had the apartment built to differing dimensions, so that in some scenes the living room seems small, in others expansive; and so on with the other spaces inside, especially that horrible hallway. He also uses wide-angle lenses to distort space (a practice that prompted cinematographer Gil Gaylor to mutter, “I hate doing this to a beautiful woman,” as reported in Polanski’s autobiography, Roman). Polanski’s orchestration of these odd elements is brilliant, and communicates as fine a portrait of madness as any on screen. But the apartment is only the most striking of the film’s locales. Polanski charges the other, more banal, avenues too.

The film begins in the beauty salon, which is both sterile and grotesque (its grotesqueries need not be catalogued). The other key locations are the streets of London. At first, these would seem to be beyond the reach of even Polanski’s considerable talents of art direction; those wide-angle lenses aren’t going to do him much good out there. But Polanski’s deviousness is boundless. A crack on the sidewalk can be spellbinding. A car accident is unsettling even when in happens in the background. A simple plate of fish & chips (while no rotting rabbit, mind you) looks static and gross.

And then there are the scenes in which Carol is not even present (and when we say that the film is seen through her point-of-view, that’s not the same as saying that we literally see things through her eyes). The ultra-strange conversation in the pub between Colin and his chums is informed by the same kind of misunderstanding of male-female relations and sexual terror that we see in Carol. And it ends, incongruously, with Colin’s garrulous mate urging him to “Relax, take it easy, enjoy life”—and then planting a kiss directly on Colin’s lips. Colin’s drawing his hand across his mouth echoes Carol’s gesture, when Colin had kissed her.

Even sanity rings with offbeat inflection. The sister’s man seems healthy enough, but his farewell to Carol—”Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do”—is in the realm of the absurd. And his note to her on the postcard, “Don’t make too much Dolce Vita,” is like a terrible, cruel joke. The thought of Carol making anything remotely like la dolce vita is so ridiculous, the note becomes hurtfully pointed, like laughingly telling a quiet person to quit talking so much. Then there’s Carol’s only friend, the girl at the beauty salon, who responds to Carol’s tale of solitude by saying, “That’s enough to drive anyone up the wall!”—a loaded phrase within the design of the movie. She goes on to describe her merriment at seeing a Chaplin picture, and advises Carol to go out and see a movie. This brings the film’s most poignant throwaway moment: Carol says, “I’d love to!”, clearly hoping her friend might invite her out; but the friend doesn’t quite cross that line, the friendly hand is not extended, and Carol goes home alone to play out the final acts of her drama. By the way, the Chaplin film is The Gold Rush, and the scene the friend describes is the one in which Chaplin and his companion, delirious from hunger and cabin fever, go slightly insane, and Charlie appears to be a chicken—another story of cooped-up madness and distorted perspective. Polanski is thorough.

We end with the eye again, with the photograph. We’ve been given no explanation for Carol’s madness; we have seen only its persuasive reality. The clue of the photograph suggests that the sickness has been there for a long time, and is connected with Carol’s daydreaming, her fantasy, her imagination. That may disturb us most of all: that the dreamer’s reaction to civilization is to go insane, or enter an alternate reality. It’s a final tribute to Polanski’s skill that he doesn’t just submit this as an idea, but as a spookily haunting image. That little girl—who could be a young Catherine Deneuve—is a frightening and impenetrable figure because, like the first close-up of Carol, her face, eyes, posture, spirit communicate the presence of absolutely nothing.

Mother and Shrek (Weekly Links)

Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, at SIFF

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, and more.

Shrek Forever After. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Seeing an ogre in 3-D has never been on my bucket list, but that didn’t stop the “Shrek” team from jumping on the latest wave of the visual fad. Yes, folks, it’s a Shrek so close you can almost smell him.

See what I mean? Not a selling point. Nevertheless, “Shrek Forever After” tries to pump a little life into the animated franchise (originally based on William Steig’s fairy tale book), with installment #4. This sequel must be counted a slight improvement over the previous “Shrek the Third,” and it does have a rather ingenious storyline. This is an “alternate reality” Shrek tale.

We find the lovable ogre (voiced, as ever, by Mike Myers) missing his life as a bachelor ogre—before marrying Fiona (Cameron Diaz), before having kids, before becoming thoroughly domesticated. In a weak moment with the sorcerer Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), Shrek enters a bargain that will allow him to enjoy one day of ogre-ness. Alas, in “It’s a Wonderful Life” fashion, he finds himself living in a nightmare version of his old life.

In the funniest variation on this new reality, the formerly preening Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) has become a tubby house cat. Donkey (Eddie Murphy), though much abused in the topsy-turvy world, is still irrepressible, and Fiona has become a warrior-queen of the ogre nation.

The lesson? Don’t trust Rumpelstiltskin. The diminutive villain, who strongly resembles a troll doll when he puts on his orange fright wig, makes for an amusingly screechy bad guy.

The self-contained nature of the plot means that director Mike Mitchell (“Sky High”) doesn’t have to laboriously tie up all the story threads from before, which seems to free up the movie. And, a real plus, this fourth “Shrek” doesn’t lean as heavily on 21st-century pop-culture gags for so many jokes, although there are still a few too many hit songs infiltrating the soundtrack.

Which leaves us with the 3-D. “Shrek Forever After” scores points for having fun with the process, but not depending on it for its impact.

Given Shrek’s tendency to extract his own ear wax, this restraint is clearly a good thing. And occasionally—the sight of witches flying through the night sky, for instance—the movie becomes a cool visual treat.

If this really is the final chapter in the “Shrek” series, it’s a spirited enough way to go out—and I say that as someone who never really warmed up to the franchise in the first place. But it might go in another direction: a “Puss in Boots” vehicle is being planned—and with Antonio Banderas such a lively voice actor, that might be a great idea.

Mother and Child. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The sheer seriousness of “Mother and Child” is oddly refreshing: this study of the connections between women of different generations is never less than grave in its assessment of the human condition.

Given that it’s coming out during the summer movie season, this qualifies as a change of pace. “Mother and Child” is a “hyperlink” movie, one of those multi-character pieces where the relationships amongst people slowly reveal themselves to be connected.

A quick introduction lets us know that Karen (Annette Bening), now in her fifties, gave up a daughter for adoption after an unplanned pregnancy in her teens. Unmarried and now caring for her aging mother (Eileen Ryan), Karen is defensive and brittle about her life.

We also meet Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), an ice-cold attorney who’s pure ambition: newly arrived at an L.A. law firm, she seduces her boss (Samuel L. Jackson) in a businesslike way. She also admits she was adopted many years earlier….

Woven into these stories is the saga of Lucy (Kerry Washington, from “The Last King of Scotland”), who is looking into adopting a baby with her husband. The birth mother (excellent Shareeka Epps) is wary and demanding of these prospective parents.

There are other characters as well: Jimmy Smits does nicely as Karen’s beefy, gregarious co-worker, David Morse is his usual intense self in a brief appearance that lasts about as long as his “Hurt Locker” role, Cherry Jones is a nun who brings story threads together, and S. Epatha Merkerson (“Law & Order”) has at least one bring-the-house-down scene as Lucy’s no-nonsense mother.

These hyperlink films can seem forced, and this one doesn’t escape that feeling. But writer-director Rodrigo Garcia, whose “Nine Lives” was a well-calibrated look at women, does his best to keep the film from becoming a mathematical formula.

Garcia, the son of the Nobel-prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, creates specific characters, not types, and clearly encourages his actors to flesh out those roles. Thus Annette Bening and Naomi Watts can’t bid for the audience’s sympathy as they play their frequently unpleasant characters—a daunting actor’s task, but superbly achieved in both cases.

For a movie that does at times seem diagrammed out, “Mother and Child” manages to convey a sense of airiness, especially on Karen’s journey, which leads her from her tightly-controlled world to a new kind of looseness. That alone makes the movie worth a look.

Kites. “This is not one of those cases where ‘loopy’ translates to ‘good.'”

180 Degrees South. “A hymn to wanderlust.”

Preview of the 36th Seattle International Film Festival, plus some capsule reviews for the upcoming week’s slate. (Dead links; see below)

By Robert Horton

The Seattle International Film Festival began in 1976 at the Moore theater in downtown Seattle, moved over to Capitol Hill’s Egyptian, and eventually included theaters around the city and the eastside. And now it’s come to Everett.

For the first time this year SIFF spreads its mighty bulk to include eight days at the Everett Performing Arts Center, from May 27 through June 3. The usual sprawl, over 250 feature films and counting, will arrange itself at SIFF Cinema, Egyptian, Neptune, Pacific Place, Uptown, Harvard Exit, Admiral, and Kirkland Performance Center. You almost have no excuse for not seeing a movie during the next month, even accidentally.

The festival officially kicked off last night with the opening gala at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, a showing of “The Extra Man,” with star Paul Dano (of “There Will Be Blood”) in attendance.

Starting today, the madness truly kicks in, and runs until June 13, when the closing night gala (featuring the well-reviewed new indie, “Get Low”) brings the curtain down at Pacific Place.

Until then, we’ll see the usual collection of spotlights (“New Spanish Cinema,” for instance), special guests, zany midnight movies, panels, family films, and shorts.

The special tribute guest this year is Edward Norton, the actor who has gotten a lot of love for his tendency to take on edgy projects; he’ll show his new picture (“Leaves of Grass,” directed by Tim Blake Nelson, also in attendance) and answer questions in an onstage interview on June 4.

At other times that weekend, a trio of Norton’s movies will screen: “American History X,” “Fight Club,” and “25th Hour.” There’s a good chance he’ll show up to introduce at least a couple of those.

Musical tie-ins will also bring some special guests. Stephen Merritt, the leader of the wonderful band Magnetic Fields, will present a live music performance for the 1916 silent film “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” at the Paramount on June 9.

Another silent film, “Riders of the Purple Sage” (1925), will be scored live by the Northwest band the Maldives, May 25 at Triple Door. Piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin underscores “A Spray of Plum Blossoms” (1931), a rare Chinese film, at SIFF Cinema May 30.

Other “archival” movie presentations include a quartet of pictures restored by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, presented on Saturday afternoons at the Harvard Exit. They are John Ford’s “Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939), Jean Renoir’s beautiful India saga “The River” (1951), Luchino Visconti’s “Senso” (1954), and John Cassavetes’ jazzy debut as director, “Shadows” (1959).

We’ll also see a three-movie salute to Leonard Bernstein (part of a city-wide celebration of the composer-conductor), with films that include Bernstein compositions: “On the Town,” “On the Waterfront,” and of course “West Side Story.”

SIFF offers more than 50 documentaries, which means you could have a major film festival just by looking at nonfiction titles. These include profiles (of Condoleeza Rice, William S. Burroughs, and comedian Bill Hicks, among others), social-message pictures (“Countdown to Zero,” on the current nuclear threat), and performance (“Ride, Rise, Roar,” a fun look at a David Byrne concert tour).

The festival has a large section of locally-produced movies this year, including one recent Oscar nominee—in the short documentary category—chronicling a former Washington governor’s involvement in the Death with Dignity law in 2008: “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner.”

A delightful piece of music history, “Wheedle’s Groove” shines a light on the Northwest soul scene in the Sixties and Seventies, a busy world that almost broke into the mainstream.

Another doc, “Chihuly Fire & Light,” looks at the inescapable glass artist, while “Amplified Seattle” cruises through performances by no fewer than 13 Seattle bands.

Also in the local category, “Bass Ackwards” is a new feature from “Walking to Werner” director Linas Phillips, who again stars in his own picture. And you have to be curious about “Senior Prom,” which was directed by a 17-year-old Mountlake Terrace High School student, Nicholas Terry, using his classmates as actors.

SIFF has some oddball “event” evenings, one-time-only happenings that can be memorable. For instance, the sing-a-long to “Grease” at SIFF Cinema on June 12, which will presumably have onscreen lyrics; or “Cane Toads: The Conquest—in 3D,” a look at the infestation of said amphibian in Australia—all in three glorious dimensions! (May 28, Neptune).

As for the Everett leg of the festival (during which the Seattle theaters will continue full-blast), its official opening night film is “Mao’s Last Dancer,” a sure-fire crowd-pleaser about a ballet dancer from communist China who got a taste of the West in 1981. Party will follow; plans are for director Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy”) to be in attendance.

Along with these special items, parties, and competitions, there’s the meat of SIFF’s line-up: a sprawling collection of international films and American indies. Navigating through this mess of a schedule is daunting; you can look for favorite filmmakers, countries of origin, or genres, and still not know what you might be getting.

Of course, you could also read our weekly capsule reviews, and get some tips there. The schedule itself can be found online at the festival’s website, siff.net, and SIFF’s portable floppy Film Guide (new this year, and a handier thing to carry around than the massive catalog, although that exists this year too) is available.

Did we mention that this is officially the 36th annual Seattle International Film Festival? And that the thing just seems to get larger every year? If not, duly noted—and here we go again.


Some recommendations for the upcoming week at the Seattle International Film Festival:

“Katalin Varga.” A grim journey is traced in this Hungarian-Romanian drama: a woman searches for the man who raped her years earlier—but the final sequences are not necessarily the ending you might expect. Shot in the moody Carpathian Mountains. Today, 2 p.m., Pacific Place; Monday 9 p.m., Admiral; Wednesday, 7 p.m., Uptown.

“Air Doll.” A life-size blow-up doll comes to life and is curious about the world around her. Given the excellent track record of director Hirokazu Kore-eda (“After Life,” “Nobody Knows”), this one’s a disappointment. Today, 4 p.m., Neptune; Monday, 9:30 p.m., Neptune.

“Soul Kitchen.” Achtung, people: this German comedy might be the feel-good movie of the year. A ragtag collection of down-and-outers gathers around a rundown restaurant in Hamburg, warmly imagined by director Fatih Akin (“The Edge of Heaven”). Except for a few conventional jokes in the second half, the movie earns its laughter, and even the end credits are a gas. Today, 7 p.m., Uptown; Sunday, 1 p.m., Uptown.

“Bass Ackwards.” Seattle filmmaker Linas Phillips, creator of the offbeat documentaries “Walking to Werner” and “Great Speeches from a Dying World,” goes fictional in this cross-country road trip. At least it seems to be fictional, even though he plays a character named Linas in it—a slight, breezy wisp of a movie. Today, 9:45 p.m., Harvard Exit; Sunday, 3:45 p.m., Harvard Exit.

“City of Life and Death.” Director Lu Chuan’s unblinking dramatic account of the Japanese invasion of Nanking (now Nanjing) in the 1930s. Be warned: this is an excellent film, but it is unsparing in its depiction of the barbarism of the occupying army, and the plain black-and-white photography offers no solace. Saturday 11 a.m., Egyptian; Tuesday 6:30 p.m., Neptune. (This will also play in Everett on May 30.)

“Shadows.” As a tie-in with the Martin Scorsese-sponsored Film Foundation, here’s a reportedly restored print of the first film directed by John Cassavetes, then a young actor restless to create a new kind of film. In many ways the movie’s a mess, but it sure captures a moment in culture: 1959 Manhattan. Saturday, 1:45 p.m., Harvard Exit.

“I Am Love.” A wildly arty (yet somehow irresistible) creation that combines luscious Italian images, the music of John Adams, and a big-scaled performance by Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton. She plays a middle-aged wife and mother who becomes infatuated with a much younger man. Saturday, 7 p.m., Egyptian; Sunday 4:15 p.m., Egyptian. (In Everett May 28.)

“The Concert.” This deeply silly crowd-pleaser is a cinch to become one of the most popular movies in the festival, despite its unbelievable premise, which involves a Moscow janitor (and former symphony conductor) pulling together a massive orchestral concert in Paris. Today, 7 p.m., Egyptian; Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Egyptian. (In Everett May 28.)

“On the Town.” Part of a mini-Leonard Bernstein tribute, here’s the 1949 musical about sailors out on a New York spree that showcases some delightful Bernstein numbers. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra lead the cast—not a bad start on a fun troupe. Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Harvard Exit.

“Like You Know it All.” An extremely droll offering from one of South Korea’s best filmmakers, Hong Sang-soo, about a movie director visiting a film festival (and later a school), and the various problems he endures—or causes. Maybe not a laughfest, but a very amusing film. Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., Pacific Place; Wednesday, 6:30 p.m., Pacific Place.

“Skeletons.” British humor in an absurdist vein, about a pair of traveling—well, I’m not sure what to call them, except that they visit homes and exorcise dark secrets from the inhabitants (metaphysical chimney sweeps?). The two lead performers are quite funny, but I wish the movie had more zip, and maybe explained itself just a bit more. Wednesday, 9:15 p.m., Harvard Exit.

“Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema.” Informative account of the history of experimental films, with an emphasis on Mekas, whose career is not just as a filmmaker but also a critic and archivist of the avant-garde in the U.S. Directed by old pro Chuck Workman, who has a great eye for telling excerpts. Thursday, 7 p.m., SIFF Cinema.

And more on SIFF, from KUOW’s “Weekday,” this time in conversation with SIFF Artistic Director Carl Spence and host Marcie Sillman: here. The movie bit kicks in at the 14-minute mark.

Movie Diary 5/19/2010

Countdown to Zero (Lucy Walker, 2010). Just when you thought we’d passed through the “Duck and Cover” and “No Nukes” periods, here comes a movie to remind us that the real nuclear threat comes from rogue states and individual crazies. (screens at Seattle International Film Festival 6/2,  6/3)

Mao’s Last Dancer (Bruce Beresford, 2010). Based on a true tale of a Chinese ballet dancer who came to Texas in the early 1980s, before China had discovered the Yao Ming approach to cultural sharing. (screens at SIFF 5/27, 5/29, 5/30)

Kites (Anurag Basu, 2010). For what it’s worth, this is the 130-minute version of an insane Bollywood picture set in Las Vegas; a shorter version is promised, prepared under the supervision of Brett Ratner. Those elements promise more fun than is actually on view. (full review 5/21)

Green for Danger (Sidney Gilliat, 1946). Nice British whodunit with Alastair Sim acting up as an inspector looking into a series of hospital murders; the spectre of death by V-1 bomb is still very much in the atmosphere, despite the playful tone.

Movie Diary 5/17/2010

Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009). A little Canadian-flavored horror, with Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as researchers doing Frankensteinian tinkering in the lab. Lesson: Never have sex with your experiment. (full review 6/4)

It’s a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod, 1934). Periodic viewing of an essential. Hard to pick a favorite scene from this W.C. Fields classic – Mr. Muckle? Picnic on the grass? The mystery of a man searching for Carl LaFong?

Marwencol (Jeff Malberg, 2010). Kind of an amazing portrait of a head-injury victim who creates a doll world of unfolding WWII tableaux – which he then photographs, superbly. I think this has Synecdoche, N.Y. beat. (plays in Seattle International Film Festival 5/30, 5/31)

Like You Know It All (Hong Sang-soo, 2009). Droll and very funny portrait of a film director in a couple of rhyming situations: as a judge at a film festival and as a guest speaker at an island university. (screens at SIFF 5/25, 5/26, 5/28)

Ride, Rise, Roar (David Hillman Curtis, 2010). Concert/backstrage preparation movie about a David Byrne tour. Makes me feel foolish about not paying more attention to Byrne lately. Around the time he puts on a tutu, you realize he can hardly do wrong. (screens at SIFF 5/28, 5/29, 6/3)

Cargo (Ivan Engler, 2009). Among Swiss sci-fi pictures, one of the better entries. On its own, hard to distinguish from so many others. (screens at SIFF 6/8, 6/11, 6/12)

Double Take (Johan Grimonprez, 2009). Wiggy number that uses clips of Alfred Hitchcock from his TV series intros and staged trailers, to summon up a storyline out of a Borges story about (I guess) the falsity of duality. (screens at SIFF 6/4, 6/6)

180 Degrees South (Chris Malloy, 2010). Easy enough to go along on this backpackin’ trip to Patagonia; pleasant endless-summer wish fulfillment, even though somebody must’ve been paying for it. (full review 5/21)

Looking for Eric (Ken Loach, 2009). Loach still surveying lower-class Britain, but this time with magical realism. I have no problem with that. (full review 5/28)

Shrek Forever After (Mike Mitchell, 2010). Ogre still green, but in 3-D. If you didn’t like Shrek before, you won’t now. (full review 5/21)

1923 Ten Best Movies

Another early-’20s list limited by the availability of what’s see-able these days. Like other years around it, 1923 contains serious attempts to define the way the cinema could be an art form in step with the other legitimate arts and not merely a disreputable distraction for the uncouth. Thus in the U.S. Chaplin makes an art film, A Woman of Paris, that leaves the Tramp offscreen and by god actually succeeds in being a masterwork; and in France the pre-Napoleon Abel Gance mounted a colossally serious (sometimes laboriously so) epic of rails and quasi-incestuous anguish and Sisiphysian lifecycles, La Roue.

But in the end I give the edge to Buster Keaton, whose Our Hospitality is decidedly less serious but almost seamless in its grace, structure, and humor. The “other” comic genius of the time, Harold Lloyd, released one of his most famous pictures, Safety Last, a delightful movie that nevertheless allows us to firmly state that Chaplin and Keaton fully deserve to be in a league of their own, with everybody else in comedy at least one level down. But Lloyd is still brilliant. The ten best movies of 1923:

1. Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone)

2. A Woman of Paris (Charlie Chaplin)

3. La Roue (Abel Gance)

4. Safety Last (Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor)

5. The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille)

6. Three Ages (Buster Keaton)

7. Warning Shadows (Arthur Robison)

8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley)

9. The Grub Stake (Nell Shipman, Bert Van Tuyle)

10. The Pilgrim (Charlie Chaplin)

Keaton had a good year, with The Balloonatic and The Love Nest also in release. I saw The Covered Wagon (James Cruze) once upon a time, but if it left an impression back in my teen years (when silent films were a curiosity to be considered along with those movies where you had to read the words in English at the bottom of the screen), it’s gone now. And if you ever get a chance to see The Grub Stake, a wild Alaskan adventure from one of the celebrated women filmmakers of the era, don’t pass it up.

Just Letters to Robin (Weekly Links)

Blanchett, Crowe, Robin Hood

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, and more.

Robin Hood. “Leaves behind the twinkle of Errol Flynn.”

Letters to Juliet. “The peculiar, slightly spooky quality of Amanda Seyfried.”

Just Wright. “Mostly left up to the actors.”

The Secret of Kells. “You’ll need to be an animation buff to really swoon over it.”

On our “Cultural Moment” segment on KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about depictions of Mohammed and other religious figures, and the free-speech issues that attend; listen here. The movie bit begins around the 14-minute mark.

Also I contribute an old program note to the special Sam Peckinpah section at Parallax View, on the subject of Ride the High Country. My piece isn’t much beyond an introduction, but check out the strong writing on a great American filmmaker in the rest of the section.