1926 Ten Best Movies

If the Internet Movie Database says that The General opened at the end of 1926 and belongs to that year instead of its often-cited release year of 1927, who am I to argue? It gives us a towering #1 for the year, whereas The General would need to play second fiddle to Sunrise in a 1927 accounting.

Buster Keaton’s most acclaimed feature looks as though it might have been made much earlier – not because of a lack of sophistication, but because the sets, costumes, and locations are convincingly tuned to the Civil War. It’s all so marvelously balanced, the comedy, suspense, romance, historiana; balanced like a man sitting on a locomotive gear that slowly begins to move.

1926 offers up Murnau’s ambitious Faust, an imaginative spectacle that nearly sustains its high level of invention throughout; he was certainly setting the bar for young pups like Alfred Hitchcock, who’d earlier hung around the set of Murnau’s Last Laugh and learned his lessons – Hitchcock’s third finished feature The Lodger indicated a future master stepping up. There was also an auteur waiting to emerge from spud-faced Harry Langdon’s hit comedy The Strong Man, as Frank Capra debuted with a film that in some ways weirdly looks forward to It’s a Wonderful Life. Meanwhile, Garbo was doing her thing (Flesh and the Devil was one of her defining early successes), the Soviets were doing their thing (Mother is out of the playbook on every level), and Leni Riefenstahl was kicking off her career with a death-defying role in a jaw-dropping German “mountain film” (The Holy Mountain). The ten best of 1926:

1. The General (Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman)

2. Faust (F.W. Murnau)

3. The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjostrom)

4. The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock)

5. The Strong Man (Frank Capra)

6. Mother (V.I. Pudovkin)

7. The Holy Mountain (Arnold Fanck)

8. Moana (Robert Flaherty)

9. Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown)

10. Secrets of a Soul (G.W. Pabst)

The last one sneaks in because of its zany Expressionist approach to psychoanalysis; not a great movie, but a great look at what ambitious movie-makers were interested in trying out.  It nips out some very enjoyable star vehicles: Son of the Sheik (Valentino), The Black Pirate (Fairbanks), The Temptress (Garbo). There’s much more of 1926 I have yet to see, but the #1 should be solid.

Let the Quantum In (Weekly Links)

lettheright3A slow week for openings, thanks to 007. My Herald reviews:

Quantum of Solace. (Dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

If you’re wondering about that title, it comes from a short story by Ian Fleming. That’s good enough for the producers of the James Bond series, who use it here as an excuse for the umpteenth go-round with the world’s most durable spy.

“Quantum of Solace” is different from most Bond pictures in that it carries over a plotline from the previous film. Our man 007 (Daniel Craig) is still angry about the events detailed in “Casino Royale,” so he’s especially focused and furious in this one. The story itself is new, with a fresh villain (Mathieu Amalric) who seeks to control the water supply in Third World countries, and a shady woman (Olga Kurylenko, from “Hitman” and “Max Payne”) whose motives are, of course, obscure. Returning characters include Bond’s boss (Judi Dench) and his CIA counterpart (Jeffrey Wright, who gets more juice-per-minute than any other actor around).

“Quantum” has its big action sequences—they fairly dominate the film—and it steams along at a brisk clip. At 106 minutes, this is the trimmest Bond movie ever. The opening scene (traditionally a big stunt piece) gave me pause. Bond is in a car chase along a seacoast, which is theoretically exciting if you can figure out what’s going on. But director Marc Forster cuts every two seconds or so and it’s impossible to know who’s who and where they are.

Uh-oh. Is this “The Bond Ultimatum”?

Someday this kind of cutting is going to look as trendy as Roger Moore’s hair. But while that frantic approach is present in a couple of subsequent battles, thankfully the movie settles down. At which point “Quantum of Silence” becomes a very good Bond film indeed. It all starts with Daniel Craig, who fits the role like he fits his tailored suits. Craig has a compact explosiveness that makes you sense the ticking clock inside the character. In this one, Bond doesn’t drink martinis out of connoisseurship, but to dull the ache.

Forster has been an undistinguished director (“Finding Neverland,” “Stranger Than Fiction”), but he doesn’t get in the way of this outing. And while 007 is good with his hands as usual, he also gets to use his brain. His method of rousting out some bad guys who would otherwise be lost in a crowd at the opera is ingenious. Even the theme song is good. While recent Bond songs have been forgettable, Jack White’s tune (which he sings with Alicia Keys) really sounds like a James Bond theme.

Since 007 spends the entire film brooding about something that happened in the last movie, there’s a distinct heaviness here. It might be nice to change pace next time, with a free-standing story that gets back into the world of espionage rather than revenge. Just don’t change Bonds.

Let the Right One In. (Dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

Somewhere in the suburbs of Stockholm, where the winter days are short and the nights are fit for all manner of nocturnal animals, two 12-year-olds trace lonely, separate paths.

Latchkey kid Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a pale, awkward child, perpetually bullied by other boys. He notices the new girl who moves into the apartment next door, and wonders whether they might be friends. That’s going to be tricky. She is Eli (Lina Leandersson), a dark soul who doesn’t look like she belongs in this clean, cold, IKEA-made world. And indeed she does not. As we glean early on in “Let the Right One In,” Eli is a vampire, and is much older than 12. She’s responsible for the rash of local bloodlettings, yet she takes a shine to the hapless Oskar—who looks like his blood is so thin it’s hardly worth biting him.

Based on a novel by screenwriter John Ajvide Lindquist, “Let the Right One In” is so attuned to adolescent anxiety it could be a really good Young Adult novel, were it not for the occasional bouts of violent bloodsucking. Director Tomas Alfredson understands that the only way to play the material is cool and controlled. He doesn’t hype anything here, and some of the most disturbing moments are played in longshot, which just makes them all the more painful to watch.

Alfredson seems to have composed the film in variations of wintry blue-white, so when a splash of red periodically intrudes on the scene, it’s all the more startling. This is an elegant film, but not so refined that Alfredson won’t get crazy at a moment’s notice (especially during a swimming-pool scene that qualifies as an instant pulp classic). That scene is both chilling and oddly funny, as is much of the picture. There’s an undercurrent of black comedy that runs through the movie, but it never becomes remotely campy.

For such a modern movie, Lindquist’s script uses a number of ultra-traditional vampire conventions; particular significance is given to the idea that a vampire cannot enter a home unbidden, but must be invited in. The vampire genre is so familiar that variations on it had better have something going for them, lest they disappear into the already-crowded field. Novelty alone won’t do it, but the combination of frosty Sweden, lonely adolescents, and deadpan humor will. “Let the Right One In” is eerie proof that the vampire genre has not yet been drained dry.

And for the Seattle Channel, I banter with Nancy Guppy about the new Bond picture and a box set featuring Gregory Peck: here.

I talk with KUOW-FM’s Jeremy Richards about 007 things and Buster Keaton’s The General. The movie talk comes at 38:30, here.

My take on Casino Royale, here.