2011 Ten Best Movies

Oldman's Smiley: TTSS

And we wrap up 2011 with another list, this one for the Herald. Read the story here.

The actual lists of best (and worst!) are arranged as a slideshow, so you have to do a lot of clicking. I know – ugh. Sorry! I will shortly post the list here in simple-to-read order.

In the interests of un-asked-for completism, and to gather them all in one post for my Year-by-Year Best Movies category tab, here are other Ten Best tangents:

Video of the Critics Wrap at the Frye Art Museum (Kathleen Murphy, Jim Emerson, Andrew Wright and meself talking about the movies of 2011).

A KUOW “Weekday” session with Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy, and yours truly, on the best of ’11. Hosted by Steve Scher.

My ballot for Indiewire’s poll, and their overall results.

No new reviews for the Herald this week, and no new KUOW session either. In other words, a typical last-week-of-December pause in the onslaught.

At What a Feeling!, catch up on Eighties-ness with vintage reviews of Ken (King Frat) Wiederhorn’s Meatballs Part II, and John G. Avildsen’s Happy New Year. The latter allows a tip of the hat to the late Peter Falk, and some sort of sideways chance to ring in the new year. Thanks for reading The Crop Duster, and I’ll see you in 2012.


Best of 2010 (Weekly Links)

Tahar Rahim, A Prophet

As always, a slow week for new openings; but I wrote these for the Herald:

Best movies of 2010. Which also includes the worst.

Made in Dagenham. “Artificially inflated by pop songs and cutesy mannerisms.”

And more best of 2010: On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about the list. Listen to the archived version here; the movie bit kicks in at the 14:00 point.

You can watch the abridged version of the Critics Wrap 2010, in which an esteemed panel sorts the movies of the year. It’s broadcast today on the Seattle Channel (channel 21 in Seattle) at 1 p.m. or 5 p.m., or New Year’s Day at 1 p.m.; or just watch the thing online.

Indiewire did their critics’ poll, with results here; my ballot, too.

Today’s movie at my other website, What a Feeling!: Drugstore Cowboy. Other postings this week at the ever-growing swamp of 1980s movie-ness include the Two Coreys in Dream a Little Dream and Charles Bronson in Messenger of Death.

1946 Ten Best Movies

James Stewart, on the possibility of shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet.

I began giving over my Sunday mornings to this project in the first week of 2009, and now we’ve run out the string: ten-best lists for every year going back to 1919, beyond which I will need to do much more movie-watching to assemble something remotely respectable. After taking next Sunday off (the Port Townsend Film Festival looms, although “looms” isn’t quite the right word), I will begin writing Sunday Crop Duster entries on a “movie of the week,” the definition of which has yet to be, ah, defined.

The #1 for 1946 is a well-known picture that was once not well-known. When I began seeing It’s a Wonderful Life on late-night TV it was actually something of a cult movie, not having been re-discovered yet, which made it seem all the more unusual and unexpected and privileged: a cautionary note about the American Dream, despite the happy ending. Frank Capra’s fable is a painstakingly thorough and well-constructed picture (that newel post!) but almost seems out of his control at times. It’s a complicated movie, all about dreams and disappointments and seeing the here and now, and it shifts itself in interesting ways the older you get.

For the best of the rest, Hitchcock and John Ford merely contribute a couple of their finest pictures, and the Powell-Pressburger A Matter of Life and Death stands with the Capra film as a fantasy that uses a supernatural device to deliver a philosophical look at existence. Notorious is one of the most perfectly-realized movies ever made, but this time the riches of Capra and P&P rule the year. The ten best movies of 1946:

1. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)

2. A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

3. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)

4. My Darling Clementine (John Ford)

5. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)

6. The Stranger (Orson Welles)

7. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)

8. Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau)

9. Let There Be Light (John Huston)

10. The Murderers Are Among Us (Wolfgang Staude) and Paisa (Roberto Rossellini)

Let There Be Light is the war documentary, shot at a psychiatric hospital for returning WWII vets, that was banned for decades and is still difficult to see now. Shot to convey uplift about the success stories of soldiers getting treatment for psychological wounds, the film nevertheless gives an unflinching and unsettling look at the toll of combat (it is unforgettably narrated by Walter Huston: “Here are men who tremble…”). The Best Years of Our Lives also looks at returning veterans, and is one of those rare big Hollywood films that aims to capture its moment and succeeds.

The #10 slot are “rubble films,” shot in the remnants of real places: Staudte’s film is the fountainhead of East German cinema, Rossellini’s is a collection of war stories. (Apologies to Shoeshine, which I can’t really “place,” not having seen it since an adolescent viewing.) Just missing the cut is David Lean’s Great Expectations, an impeccable Dickens adaptation.

There are some noir films in the next rung of titles, including Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia, and Roy William Neill’s Black Angel. Not quite as keen on Charles Vidor’s Gilda as everybody else is, but it’s in there. And enjoyable works by a couple of continental sophisticates: Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown and Douglas Sirk’s A Scandal in Paris.

There must be a place for King Vidor’s (and Selznick’s) Duel in the Sun, as well as a much less heated western, Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage. Mark Robson’s Bedlam holds up the Val Lewton quality horror run, and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Utamaro and His Five Women points the way to subsequent classics from this director. A pair of delicious British mysteries from the team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, Green for Danger and I See a Dark Stranger, indicate a rich period for Brit-film.

That’s that. Enough with the list-making for a while. I can hear the bells of St. Mark’s Cathedral from my window, so I suppose an angel just got his wings. Thanks for reading these things – now if I can figure out a way to make them browsable in chronological order….

1920 Ten Best Movies

The #1 this year was not difficult for me; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not a musty old film classic but a truly unnerving and gripping experience (especially when seen in a restored print, as has been possible in recent years). A great flowering of German Expressionism, but a very exotic, death-scented blossom, Caligari presents a world in which everything is distorted and intense, and where people are under the sway of hypnosis or madness. A handy description of going to the movies, which makes Caligari one of the great reminders that movies can be mirrors. A funhouse mirror? Maybe, maybe not so much.

The runner-up is one of D.W. Griffith’s big ones, a large canvas that allows Griffith to flex his considerable muscles in the arenas of melodrama and suspense. Some of my other faves are movies from directors who are not necessarily visionaries or great stylists, but who managed to make striking star vehicles (Lon Chaney, in The Penalty) or unusual stand-alone landmarks.

In the latter category is Within Our Gates, an early feature by Oscar Micheaux, the pioneering African-American director. Micheaux would later adopt cheapjack work habits to get his projects made, and the films suffered accordingly, but this one is a remarkable “outsider” movie that takes a scathing look at various aspects of race (there are a couple of Uncle Tom characters who receive just desserts) and has a rich aura of folk art about it.

There may well be ten other titles that belong on a list, but I haven’t seen them yet. 1920 is far back enough to challenge even an avid curiosity about film. So, if not the ten best movies of 1920, then at least here are ten of the best movies of 1920:

1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene)

2. Way Down East (D.W. Griffith)

3. One Week (Buster Keaton)

4. The Golem (Paul Wegener)

5. Within Our Gates (Oscar Micheaux)

6. The Penalty (Wallace Worsley)

7. Why Change Your Wife? (Cecil B. DeMille)

8. The Parson’s Widow (Carl-Th. Dreyer)

9. Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch)

10. Something New (Nell Shipman, Bert Van Tuyle)

The Shipman picture is a wacky advertisment for a car, but it has a dizzy pleasure to it. And Chaney goes all the way in The Penalty, a truly perverse exercise in sado-masochism. Perhaps an equally definitive actor’s picture is The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo), a Douglas Fairbanks vehicle. Lubitsch also did Sumurun, a lavish hothouse Arabian Nights thing in which Lubitsch himself plays an important role.

I have a 1919 list posted too, but that’s about as far back as I can go without making a more devoted survey of Teens cinema – maybe someday. So after beginning these lists at the start of 2009, I can call it a day after next week, the final installment in the “Year by Year Best Movies” haul (although I will officially add the ’09 and ’10 lists and who-knows-how-many-more later). And then I’ll have a different Crop Duster offering on Sundays, just to mix up the format.

2001 Ten Best Movies

Jeanne Balibar, Va Savoir

2001 was the only year I ever went to the Cannes Film Festival, and looking over the year’s most significant movies I can see what an influence the experience had on my list-making – including the top slot. Almost a decade later, Jacques Rivette’s Va Savoir does not seem to have established itself as a towering work in the director’s career, nor did it make a huge impact on Best of the Oughts surveys. But seeing it at Cannes (not at the press screening but at its regular public bow, with Rivette in attendance) it looked like a breathless, suspended, wise masterpiece, made with no strain showing whatsoever.

My 2001 accounting has many examples of the kind of international arthouse director who dominated the big film festivals at that exact moment, including some titles I saw first at Cannes. Ah, who could forget crowding into a small theater lobby (not one of the festival’s official showcases, but just a multiplex used for the many market screenings that happen during Cannes) and throwing shoulders and hips to hold your place in the grim jostle to make sure you got into a screening of…the new Jean-Luc Godard movie? Wow, this thing must have box-office smash written all over it, right? I liked Éloge de l’amour pretty well, as it turned out, and it held up again a year later, when it finally came to open in the U.S.

Godard takes a swipe at Steven Spielberg in that movie, but Spielberg got the best of him this year. I saw A.I. twice in the same week, and it remains a evocative experience, with the ghost of Stanley Kubrick’s original plan for the project still in evidence; the eerie performances by Haley Joel Osment and a phlegmatic teddy bear contribute to the effect. And David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive turned out to be a double-dipper for me as well: when I watched it at a regular press screening early in the year I thought it was not-quite-digestible Lynch; then seeing it again in an empty house on a dark night later in the year, it scared the bejeezus out of me. It’s an open system (in a way Lost Highway, for instance, is closed), a mystery that sends its tentacles out in a thousand directions. Yet somehow it is utterly lucid.

It was a year for complicated, elliptical, ambitious pictures, so let me explain a couple of exceptions to that rule. Lagaan and Ghosts of Mars both transport the viewer into something close to the original building blocks of film language, with glorious results. Lagaan is a near-four-hour Bollywood picture that might have been made by someone who had only recently absorbed the basic storytelling tenets of D.W. Griffith. It is about cricket, a sport that, as an American, I know absolutely nothing about. But watch this movie and you will be stomping your feet in fervor, because during its final hour nothing else in the world will matter to you except the defeat of the rotten British cricketeers by the plucky Indian upstarts. On some level – not an exclusive level, but an important one – movies were made to do this.

Ghosts of Mars is just a John Carpenter B-movie, but I admire it for exactly that – for the getting right of certain fundamentals, executed with grace under budgetary pressure. But what has Carpenter been doing since making it?

On with it. The ten or so best movies of 2001:

1. Va Savoir (Jacques Rivette)

2. A.I. (Steven Spielberg)

3. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)

4. The Lady and the Duke (Eric Rohmer)

5. Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat)

6. Time Out (Laurent Cantet)

7. Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker)

8. Late Marriage (Dover Koshashivili)

9. Ghosts of Mars (John Carpenter)

10. Éloge de l’amour (Jean-Luc Godard), La cienaga (Lucretia Martel), What Time Is It There? (Ming-Liang Tsai)

Obviously the #10 spot stands for that raft of international arthouse titles, but one could also make the case for Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (Isabelle Huppert putting other actors of her generation on notice), Shohei Imamura’s Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day, Nanni Moretti’s The Son’s Room, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, and Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone. Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips was a beautiful piece that kicked off the excellent decade he had. Also in that category, it was a slightly off year for Hou Hsiao-hsien (Millennium Mambo) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar), though both movies have interest.

My list at the time had The Tailor of Panama, directed by John Boorman from the le Carré novel, which I still think is terrific even if it stumbles in its final reels. A couple of overlooked comedies I liked a lot were Jesse Peretz’s The Chateau (with hilarious turns by future Apatow players Paul Rudd and Romany Malco) and Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale, which works nicely on its own peculiar terms.

I never quite warmed up to Gosford Park or The Royal Tenenbaums, even though they contain many nice things, and someday I will watch The Man Who Wasn’t There again, a film that missed traction the first time around. There was a lot of love for Y Tu Mama Tambien at the time, another movie I don’t esteem as much as the general consensus.

Credit is due to Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Rose Troche’s The Safety of Objects, a pair that rhyme in my memory, and good times were had by Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, and Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing. Crazier outliers include Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love and Billy Morrisette’s Scotland PA, both cockeyed literary efforts. And the year is not complete (although the year in question was probably 2004, when it was generally reviewed, but IMDb has it as a 2001 minting) without The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, Larry Blamire’s send-up of a certain kind of Fifties monster movie – the kind of thing that people tend to get completely wrong, but this movie gets completely right.

1931 Ten Best Movies

Movie restorations are good and admirable and the people who do them are to be commended. On the other hand, setting things right with a movie can mess with your relationship with that film. Which is my way of saying that in restored versions of Fritz Lang’s M, I greatly miss the little swatch of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” that played under the opening credits, a credit sequence that I guess must have been cobbled together for some later stage of the film’s distribution (the version one saw on PBS or in 16 mm. prints for years and years), and which has been replaced in restored prints with silent, stark, and very impressive graphic images.

Well, Peter Lorre still whistles the Grieg in the movie, of course, so there’s that. And that whistling, and the thousand other details in this movie, make it a gateway film: see it at age 13, and you will have to find out more about foreign films, these movies from different places and have subtitles at the bottom of the picture. And you’ll never go back. The title alone – how cool is that? – and then the arresting story and the overwhelming atmosphere, and then just when you think you might have it sized up right, Lorre’s child murderer begins speaking at the end, and then you get this feeling maybe this is about more than a murder case, but about something larger, something dark that spills over the strict edges of the movie’s authoritative frames and seems to reach all around the world.

In short, M became one of my favorite movies in adolescence and has never lost its place. The #2 movie for the 1931 list is an all-galaxy masterpiece, too, but this had to be M. The #3 film is by Lang’s fellow German genius, F. W. Murnau (who completed the project he’d begun as a collaboration with documentarian Robert Flaherty), the last movie Murnau made before his early death.

And with that, the man in black will soon be here. The ten best movies of 1931:

1. M (Fritz Lang)

2. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin)

3. Tabu (F.W. Murnau/Robert Flaherty)

4. La Chienne (Jean Renoir)

5. Frankenstein (James Whale)

6. Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg)

7. Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra)

8. À nous la liberté (René Clair)

9. Dracula (Tod Browning)

10. The Public Enemy (William Wellman)

Should find room on there for Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange, an early effort but amazingly assured. Same description applies to La Chienne. Capra and Wellman apply their very American energies to the romantic comedy and the gangster picture; the Capra movie is really ahead of its time, while The Public Enemy is perfectly of it. Dracula gets a rap for being sort of stagey and static, but the opening reels are fluid and unforgettable, and there’s something mysterious and quiet about the whole movie that becomes more mesmerizing the more you see it.

Also-rans include Clair’s Le Million, Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform, Hawks’s The Criminal Code, and Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar. Some directors on the list had strong second movies, including Clair, Capra (The Miracle Woman, with a blazing Barbara Stanwyck performance), and Wellman (Other Men’s Women).  John Ford had Arrowsmith, and G.W. Pabst had two flavorful titles, Kameradschaft and The Threepenny Opera.

Frank Borzage’s Bad Girl and King Vidor’s Street Scene are lesser offerings from major directors, and then you’ve got Monkey Business, which is not the best Marx Brothers movie but has a few absolutely indelible sequences, many involving Groucho in a lady’s stateroom.

1979 Ten Best Movies

Much of 1979 is clearer to me than stuff that happened last week, so sorting through the movies of the year is easier than usual. Maybe it’s the influence of having just read David Thomson’s piece on movies that time forgot (a critic I first read in 1979, for a film class), but there’s a load of splendid 1979 films that have fallen off the grid, although they seemed really vital and important at the time: Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (a warmer and more organic film than his official classics), Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter (stupidly re-titled Head Over Heels but then re-discovered through some smart marketing), Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia, Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers.

Those were small movies, but even somewhat bigger titles such as John Badham’s Dracula (with Frank Langella) and Martin Brest’s Going in Style (a serious comedy about old age, despite a gimmicky-sounding premise) seem to be unmentioned now. For that matter, it’s odd to me that big hits of the year, Blake Edwards’ 10 and Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz, aren’t considered classics.

For all that, it’s a nice year for movies. My #1 is Woody Allen’s best film, which meant a lot to me then and still does. But the other stuff is good, too: 10 is eminently civilized (and has Dudley Moore in his groove), The Marriage of Maria Braun is a feisty director working at full power, and Dawn of the Dead is monumental, and needs no apologies. And Life of Brian is sublime and scathing. The ten best movies of 1979:

1. Manhattan (Woody Allen)

2. 10 (Blake Edwards)

3. The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

4. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero)

5. Winter Kills (William Richert)

6. Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton)

7. Life of Brian (Terry Jones)

8. Ways in the Night (Krzysztof Zanussi) and Camera Buff (Krzysztof Kieslowski)

9. The Wanderers (Philip Kaufman)

We’ll play fair and keep it to ten titles this time, with the two Poles tying. Movies I like for #10: Escape from Alcatraz, Bertolucci’s Luna, Hal Ashby’s Being There, Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine, Cronenberg’s The Brood.

Where are Apocalypse Now (Coppola) and Alien (Ridley Scott)? Right here. Redux or otherwise, Coppola’s film is still a very confused (if undeniably spectacular) proposition, with some hypnotizing aspects; for Alien, I still think my opening-night disappointment holds, but credit to Scott for creating a scene that, on an opening night, rivaled the Psycho shower sequence for sheer chair-climbing surprise: John Hurt’s torso etc.

Other worthies: Time After Time (Nicholas Meyer), one of the many of this era’s films that seemed to get rescued in a theatrical-run second chance; The Tin Drum (Volker Schlondorff); Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Raul Ruiz); Hair (Milos Forman), a nice match of material to a basically counterculture filmmaker; Breaking Away (Peter Yates); All That Jazz (Bob Fosse), which is one of those pretentious movies that manage to be hugely entertaining; The Human Factor (Otto Preminger); Real Life (Albert Brooks); North Dallas Forty (Ted Kotcheff); Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (Allan Arkush); Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (Richard Lester), which has much more grace than a cash-in movie ought to have; and the aforementioned Chilly Scenes and Quadrophenia. And of course there was the Roger Ebert-scripted Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (Russ Meyer), a career culmination for a director with a specific vision.