The Best Films of the 1940s

Its a wonderful Life

1. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra): A film I can’t quite quit. I’ve seen it a million times, yet something draws me back to it each year. Most people grasp on to the inspirational message of a man making a difference, but the darker aspects of it really keep me interested. George Bailey is really a man teetering on the edge of destruction for the most part. I see it like the story of Job of a man waiting for salvation but losing it. The alternate reality of Bedford Falls makes for a wonderful Dickensian nightmare. Yes it turns out alright int the end, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have edge, an unhappy/happy movie.

2. Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges): Here’s another film that doesn’t fit so well into a heartwarming category even on the surface it is. Preston Sturges’ satire on Hollywood has a lot to say about egos, false sentiment, and film making in general as it depicts a Hollywood director who wants to make a film about the common man and feels he must become common in the process. This leads to many hilarious situations, but also scenes full of real emotion and heart. The climactic church house scene where inmates watch a cartoon is one of the great moments ever.

3. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch): The greatest romantic comedy ever produced, a pitch perfect blend of sophistication, humour, and charm. Ernst Lubitsch creates a very modern feel in the story of two lonelyhearts who fall in love while writing anonymous letters to eachother. However in real life they hate eachother. So much about this film can be under the category of they don’t make them like they used to. Made after Europe’s inclusion in the war, it’s a film that is as subtle and delicate as a piece of priceless jewelry and is one of the true pleasures of movie watching.

4. Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu) This could be seen as the beginning of great films directed by Yasujiro Ozu where he would in his own way conquer the 1950s. “Late Spring” follows the story of a father and daughter who are dependent of each other but as the daughter comes of age it becomes time for her to marry much to her dismay. Ozu doesn’t push for things to happen, rather he observes. The film’s ending is wonderfully devastating, and the compositions are always with his films…beautiful.

5. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles): You would see this film on the top of any list, and I’d be remiss not to add it to mine. Welles was a filmmaker of such talent, perhaps the greatest of all filmmakers. I can’t add more, other than this is more than just required viewing for any film fan, but a purely rich and absorbing film.

6. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock): By the 1940s, Hitchcock had come to Hollywood and was pretty much a success right out of the gate. “Notorious” is the crowning jewel at the this time, a noirish romantic spy thriller written by Ben Hecht. Cary Grant is a spy who uses his lover Ingrid Bergman to infiltrate a German (Claude Rains) in order to get government secrets even if it means marrying and sleeping with him. What’s not to love? Grant and Bergman are two of the most perfect people ever put on screen together, the story is dark, and perverse, the intrigue is compelling, and the direction is perfect.

7. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz): Hollywood’s gold standard of studio made movies. The story is probably the best war propaganda film ever made. It’s pretty perfect, and like “It’s a Wonderful Life” a film to watch over again and again just because it’s easy to love.

8. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles): Welles’ follow-up to “Citizen Kane” is the great film of legend. Cut in half without Welles’ permission with a tacked on happy ending he despised. Welles always said the finished film would’ve been greater than “Kane”. What we have is a fascinating masterpiece full of Welles’ great moments that come alive. What should’ve been a game changer is part of Hollywood lore.

9. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks): The pinnacle of screwball comedies, nothing has ever been faster, funnier, or hard boiled at the same time. Cary Grant gives perhaps his best comedic performance (Best dramatic probably “Notorious”), and Rosalind Russell equals him as a newspaper (man!) getting to the bottom of the trial of a man about to be executed. So entertaining, a film that makes me so happy, for so many reasons

10. To Have and Have Not/The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) The great combo of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Becall and Howard Hawks in this duo of great films. The first one feels like the anti-Casablanca where Bogart does the right thing and gets the girl in the end, while the other is a film noir for the ages with a plot that makes less sense the more you think about it. But the magic comes with the great chemistry of Bogart and Becall and Hawks’ direction of action and dialogue. Full of sexual tension, where the stars make love with their words, just wonderful all around.

If I had a number 11, it would go right away towards Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”. Howard Hawks excelled in this decade with two other great films “Ball of Fire” and “Red River”. John Ford had added stark realism in “The Grapes of Wrath” as well as romanticism with “My Darling Clementine”. Val Lewton became the master of horror, specifically with “Cat People”, “I Walked with a Zombie” and “The Seventh Victim”. “The Bicycle Thieves” has not lost any power. The musical “On the Town”. Lubitsch had two more great films “To Be or not to Be” and “Heaven Can Wait” before he called it quits much too soon. Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” is an entertaining and sobering look at alcoholism that hasn’t been matched. Preston Sturges also had “The Lady Eve”, and “Hail the Conquering Hero”, and Welles had another muddled masterpiece with “The Lady from Shanghai”, and Disney had their greatest animated film “Pinocchio”, John Huston has his great “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

Now a shout out to the Film Noirs of this decade like…”Scarlet Street”, “Out of the Past”, “Crossfire”, “The Set-Up”, “Murder My Sweet”, Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”, “Foreign Correspondent”, and his personal favorite “”Shadow of a Doubt”. “Gun Crazy”, “Born to Kill”, “Woman in the Window”, “The Maltese Falcon”, “Strange Impersonation”, “The Letter”, “Mildred Pierce”, “Border Incident”, “Laura”, Kurosawa’s “Straw Dogs”, and James Cagney’s greatest performance in “White Heat”

Have I missed any? I’m sure I did, what’s your favorite film of the 1940s and why? I’d love to hear it.

The Best Films of the 1930s

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Arguably the greatest decade, and for my money the most difficult to narrow down to ten films. But here it goes…

1. Horse Feathers (1932): My favorite comedy of all time. Yes there are better produced, more innovative films of the 1930s but the Marx Brothers never get old for me. They cheer me up when I’m down, they inject life in me when I need it the most. They fill me with a sense of energy, rebellion, and anarchy, I feel replenished when finishing their films. “Horse Feathers” does it for me everytime. The greatest film of the 1930s so now on to the harder ones to categorize.

2. Holiday (1938): Perhaps not the obvious choice of films that starred Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn together but this is one of the most overlooked films of the decade. Hepburn and Grant never feel more human than in this tender comedy about a man about the married but falling for his fiancees more down to earth sister. A great message about not always working for money and doing what you love. I’ve seen this film about a dozen times over the last few years and it’s more richer with each viewing.

3. Bride of Frankenstein (1935): The greatest sequel of all time? Definitely in the running. Really the first blending of horror and comedy, this film ages like a fine wine. It’s as obsessed with death as any Ingmar Bergman film. The creation scene of the bride is one of the most operatic moments in film history, and I get giddy just thinking of it.

4. Top Hat (1935): Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are at their zenith here with their most popular film and their best. Elegant, classy, and with a flare for set decor and design. Watching this you might think Astaire and Rogers beat out the despair of the Great Depression all on their own, perhaps the happiest film ever made.

5. The Rules of the Game (1939) 1939 is considered the greatest year of film in Hollywood, however the best film of that year comes from France from the great director Jean Renoir. Taking place during a weekend party at a country home, it features dramatic and comedic elements of upper and lower class lives coming together ultimately ending in tragedy. Renoir concocts a deep affection towards his characters and their semi-charmed lives which leads to a graver warning ahead that they don’t suspect. Released on the eve of Europe’s entrance into World War 2, it serves as a stark reminder that frivolity can easily lead to chaos.

6. My Man Godfrey (1936): Once upon a time there lived a screwball goddess Carol Lumbard and her perfect counterpart William Powell and together they made magic. This is one of the wittiest, wonderful romantic comedies ever made, it is hard to imagine a comedy being more perfect. Often cited as a benchmark, I would not take anything away from this wonderful film.

7. City Lights (1931): Chaplin’s masterpiece and perhaps the greatest ending to any film ever. What more can be said.

8. Bringing Up Baby (1938): The second film involving Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. This one if much more zany and madcap, Hepburn would never be with crazy again but she’s wonderful. Grant is aloof the whole time and the two make a great pair.

9. I Was Born But…(1932): Japanese film from director Yasujiro Ozu is a charming comedy set in the world of children and how they come to terms with the fact that their father isn’t as great as they think he is when they find out he’s an office drone. A hard pill to take when it comes to growing up, but the film is so charming and accessible, it’s hard to resist.

10. Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Howard Hawks’ ode to flying men who risk their lives each time they have to go up in their airplanes is just about as perfect as you can get featuring Cary Grant (third time on this list) playing the boss of an airline. It’s suspenseful, unsentimental, and real, featuring probably my most favorite death scene of anybody.

Honorable mentions: I could do a million more, but here in no particular order. Adding The Marx Brothers other films “Animal Crackers”, “Monkey Business”, “Duck Soup” and “A Night at the Opera”, also Astaire and Rogers’ “Swing Time”, Frank Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”, “It Happened One Night”, “You Can’t Take it with you” and “Mr. Smith Goes to WAshington”. Renoir’s other masterpiece “Grand Illusion”, “The Thin Man”, W.C. Fields’ “It’s a Gift”. The original “Frankenstein”, along with “The Invisible Man” and “The Mummy”. “King Kong”, “Stagecoach”, “The Lady Vanishes”, “M”, “The Smiling Lieutenant”, “Trouble in Paradise”, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together in “The Black Cat”, “Ninotchka”, “Gone with the Wind”, “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, “Dinner at Eight”, “Night Nurse”, and so, so, so, much more. This was indeed the greatest decade!!!

Top Ten Films of the 1920s

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Hey all I’m still in hibernation mode for a bit. I’m recuperating from finishing a semester of school after a long hiatus from it. I’ll be back hopefully with some blogs, but I just thought it would be fun for a bit by counting down the decades of movies. I did this a number of years ago, listing off my top ten films of each decade, but times have changed, I’ve seen a lot more, my thoughts on some movies have changed,  while others have stayed the same.

The first time I did a list like this, I limited myself of one film per director no matter how much I wanted to put multiple films by the same one. This time, I decided to give myself no limits, I’m putting whatever I want on the list.

That being said I tried not to go overboard on any one director, and as you will see below, in some cases I cheated by claiming top spot to a personal favorite. That may happen again.

We start with the 1920s, where I feel I could put down a rather accurate telling of films made in that era. I could’ve gone with the 1910s but I’m not sure I’ve seen enough films to do a proper top ten list.

Here now is my personal top ten list of the 1920s.

1. Sherlock Jr./ Our Hospitality/The General (Buster Keaton) Right out of the gate, I’m cheating by taking three of Buster Keaton’s greatest films and putting them at number 1. “Sherlock Jr.” is probably the shortest film I’ll put on the list running at a mere 45 minutes though it has been counted by enough people as a feature film to warrant its placement. “Sherlock Jr.” is an inventive look at how we look at movies, also showing the magic of said movies by Buster transporting into one in order to become a famous detective. Here Buster shows us just how much of a magician he is creating gags that look to be out of thin air, and a world all his own that follow his own rules.

“Our Hospitality” works the same way giving Buster ‘s character a chance to shine among a family who are hell-bent on killing him. Keaton delivers some of his most sublime work primarily on a surreal train ride that looks concocted out of a kids toy box. The jokes range from subtle to out there, and deserves multiple viewings

“The General” is probably Keaton’s most celebrated work and most viewed. Mostly seen as a chase film but with so many gags so well-timed, you’ll wonder how he did it all. Thought to be the most expensive film at the time, using real locomotives, in a chase that’s as thrilling and funny as anything you’re bound to see anywhere else.

2. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dryer) Based on the actual testimony given at the trial of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodore Dreyer’s piece is stark, grim, yet transcendent and spiritual. The film is comprised almost entirely of close-ups on the actor’s faces, and no other film has ever shown the power of the close-up better than this film. Dreyer uses minimal sets and designs which compliment the medieval feel. This is really about a person keeping her faith under unspeakable odds to the bitter end.

3. The Circus (Charlie Chaplin) Chaplin had more well-known films in this decade, however I hold a true fondness for “The Circus” which is a wonderful comedy. Chaplin’s tramp has never felt more at home than in a circus playing a clown who has no idea he’s being funny when he’s trying not to be. The ending to this film is among Chaplin’s greatest along with “City Lights”, and it contains probably his best score which was included when Chaplin chose to remaster it.

4. Metropolis (Fritz Lang) The beginning of what we now know as sci-fi. Lang’s film has now become part of pulp culture, it’s probably any hipster’s favorite silent movie. We could talk of the enormous set designs which would go on the influence films like “Blade Runner” or we could talk about the epic story of class separation which is more prevalent now more than ever. The music that goes with the film is among one of silent cinema’s greatest that still exists.

5. The Wildcat (Ernst Lubitsch) Lubitsch is one of the great comedy directors and when sound came along which gave his character’s wit and sophistication, there was no stopping him. However before he got there, he made a number of great silent films, this one being one of this greats. It’s a satire on sex and politics about a randy mountain woman who falls for an equally randy army officer. The sets are wonderfully stylized, and Lubitsch gives off a terrific visual sense of humor to get his double entendres across

6. Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang) Lang’s epic forgotten film hat was recently restored to its four hour glory only a few years ago. Split into two parts the first half tells the legendary German tale of Siegfried which is a wondrous fantasy tale, but then it gets darker in the second half after Siegfried is murdered and his wife seeks revenge. This is the apex of ambitious filmmaking I can’t see Hollywood ever coming close to. The scope of this film is so impressive, it shows how versatile a director Lang was.

7. Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau) Quintessential horror classic based on the story of Dracula is to this day still the best version of the story. Murnau’s gothic horror may not be frightening any more to anyone but it’s hard to deny the storytelling power at work. Still impressive and eerie. Max Schrek makes for the most cryptic vampire in film history.

8. Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst) Once upon a time there was an actress named Louise Brooks who became a sensation appearing in a number of films by German director G.W. Pabst. I have only seen this one and it is one of the most remarkable films ever made. The story centers on a woman who’s lust and tempestuous nature leads to the ruin of all the men she meets as well as herself. Shot in noirish tones before noir was ever a thing, this film is brimming with sexuality, and violence unlike any film made at that time. It made Brooks a star for a short time, but this film has lasted the test of time.

9. The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin) Chaplin’s known masterpiece of this era is probably his all out funniest ever as his tramp travels to the Yukon to catch his share of the money going on. For some reason Chaplin shortened this film when he chose to restore it, and then added unneeded voice narration which is annoying to listen to. Stick with the original silent, longer version.

10. Sunrise (F.W. Murnau) Murnau’s first Hollywood film is a wonderful masterpiece and actually garnered the first and only Oscar under the category of Artistic Achievement. It’s a rather simple story of a man who strays from his wife, tries to kill her, but is redeemed in her eyes, and then they go off to the city to rekindle their love. The story itself is rather secondary after the remarkable technical achievement Murnau is able to pull off. Seeing it now, it feels 50 years ahead of its time.

Honorable mentions: Chaplin’s first feature “The Kid” came this close in making the cut as did the other silent clown’s Harold Lloyd for his film “Safety Last” which has that indelible image of him hanging from a large clock. The Swedish film “The Phantom Carriage” is a wonderful gothic story in the Dickensian tradition. D.W, Griffith had one of his more successful films “Way Down East” which featured Lillian Gish on frozen ice caps, and I bit my tongue trying not to add more Buster Keaton, but I could’ve just as easily brought on “Steamboat Bill Jr.” and “The Navigator”

 

 

Things I Saw in March

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1. Topaz (1969) Hitchcock’s long but intriguing political thriller. His most labyrinth story, with multiple characters doesn’t quite gel but has some great set pieces. *** out of 4

2. Family Plot (1976) Hitchcock’s last film is underrated, very enjoyable light crime caper. Written by “North by Northwest” scribe Ernest Lehman it’s old fashioned for the time it was made, but I wish more films could be this fun. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern are a great duo. *** and a half stars out of 4

3. John Wick Chapter 2 (2017) Speaking of fun, this is so far the most fun I’ve had at the movies. “John Wick Chapter 2” felt more lighter and even more full of adrenaline than the last one. Can’t wait for chapter 3. **** stars out of 4

4. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) I’ve actually never saw this before. This campy right of passage for cult movie fans has its moments of camp and outrageousness. The performances are fun, some of the music is great to sing a long to. Maybe not my kind of cult movie but still worth a look. *** stars out of 4

5. Logan (2017) The supposed swan song of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is a great send off. Ultra-violent, shocking and real. This dark entry to the X-Men franchise is just what the doctor ordered to the bloat of super hero films. Jackman carries it with his charisma and dedication to the character *** and a half stars out of 4

6. Get Out (2017) Another great, entertaining movie I caught this month. This horror/thriller/comedy has twists and turns you don’t see coming. The high concept is the type you believe no matter how out there it gets. The hype is real for this. **** stars out of 4

7. Blonde Venus (1932) Marlene Dietrich is beautiful in the lush melodrama of a woman who cheats on her husband, runs off with her son and becomes a prostitute only to turn into a singing sensation. It might sound ridiculous but it’s rich in imagery and Dietrich is great. Cary Grant adds to the glamour. **** stars out of 4

8. The Hours (2002) The story of three generations of women who are all connected somehow to the story of  Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”. Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep play the women. This is a bittersweet, sad movie or feminist repression, and regret. *** and a half stars out of 4

9. The Devil is a Woman (1935) Marlene Dietrich plays a woman who can lure men with her femininity only to ruin their lives. As in “Blonde Venus” Dietrich is in the hands of master filmmaker Joseph Von Sternberg who photographs the star beautifully here. The story seems choppy, but when the look of a film is this good who cares. *** and a half stars out of 4

10. The Flame of New Orleans (1941) Dietrich plays a woman ready to marry for money until she falls for a strapping young sailor. Slight comedy, but the players are game and the film is enough escapism to enjoy it. *** stars out of 4

11. Golden Earrings (1947) Dietrich is a gypsy who has to help British spy Ray Milland elude the Germans during World War 2. This film hasn’t aged well, but the two stars make up for the short comings. ** and a half stars out of 4

12. Kong: Skull Island (2017) Nice to see King Kong back on the big screen, this nice little monster movie is just what the doctor ordered filled with great monster fights and top notch special effects. The characters are one note for the most part, but when the pedigree is John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, and John C. Reilly among others, who’s complaining. Yes this is mindless monster movie fun, but I got a kinck out of it. *** and a half stars out of 4

13. Pauline at the Beach (1983) My introduction to French filmmaker Erich Rohmer is a great slice of life coming of age romance. A young girl visits her cousins beach side house, and romantic entaglements ensue. What can I say other than this is a very French film which is what’s great about it. It takes its time, nothing too dramatic happens, it’s all about finding love, philosophizing about life, and all that type of stuff the French can do so well. Rohmer hones in on his characters, and gives them the space to move, it’s a freeing film in so many ways. **** stars out of 4

14. Bojack Horseman Season 1 (2014) I started this animated comedy/drama about a washed up Hollywood tv star who also happens to be a horse. Season 1 starts off a bit slow, but it has great depth and insight as it goes along. Season 1 has some of the problems most shows have in the first season, but speaking as someone who has just finished season 2, those problems are rectified. *** stars out of 4

15. Five Came Back (2017) Netflix documentary series based on the book chronicling five famous Hollywood movie directors John Ford, William Wyler, Frank Capra, John Huston, and George Stevens who leave Hollywood at the start of World War 2 to join the war effort. They go with their cameras to document the war coming back with unforgettable footage that would go on to change the way we look at documentaries also film used as propaganda. The film is pretty even handed with commentary by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Paul Greengrass. I wish it got into more detail. This probably could’ve been a longer series, but it was riveting to say the least. *** and a half stars out of 4

16. The Witness (2016) Documentary about the case of Kitty Genovese who was famously murdered in New York with plenty of witnesses who did nothing to help her. The documentary follows Genovese’s brother who goes to find the truth about her murder. Not much is revealed and it feels like the film couldn’t make up its mind if it wanted to be an investigation into the murder or a study on the brother who seems to be finding closure. The finale where he hires an actress to play out his sister’s last moments in front of him was just kinda weird and unsettling. * star out of 4

 

Things I saw in February

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Silence (2016) I talked a little about this great film Here (4 stars out of 4)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) Hitchcock’s remake of his own film he made in 1934. A great thriller of Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day who are ordinary people who stumble upon a political assassination plot. Hitchcock is up to his usual tricks and this makes for an effective if not essential thriller. However it’s difficult to say which film is better, this one or the original. Stewart is the self-assured everyman, while Doris Day has some great scenes as his wife. Crowd-pleasing entertainment. (3.5 stars out of 4)

Jackie (2016) I’m not really a fan of the type of acting Natalie Portman displays here in “Jackie” though it garnered her an Oscar nomination. Portman gets the voice and presence of the former first lady, but it becomes too distracting, and I never forgot I was watching an impression. The story itself feels repetitive and poorly structured going from flashback to flashback of Jackie talking to a reporter, to talking to a priest, to preparing for JFK’s funeral. Thankfully Peter Sarsgaard gives the film a strong presence. (2 stars out of 4)

Manchester by the Sea (2016) One of the big winners at the Oscars was on my top ten list. A great acting showcase for all the performers. Big, long, but all involving. I was never bored with this film and I found it one of the most touching, funny, and honest portraits about death and moving on. (4 stars out of 4)

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) Charming comedy by the director of “We Live in the Shadows” which I loved. This one could’ve been a very sentimental tale, but it’s anything but. An orphan child living in New Zealand goes on the run with his adoptive father in the bush which turns into a madcap, hilarious chase. This film has a great dry sense of humour and winning performances. Don’t forget to check this out. (3.5 stars out of 4)

Sunset Song (2016) A beautiful, quiet, and tragic account of a young Scottish woman and her hard life at the turn of the century. Directed by Terrence Davis, this hearkens back to classic Hollywood women’s pictures particularly those by John Ford. The film boasts extraordinary cinemtography and great performances by everyone. This is epic filmmaking at its best. (4 stars out of 4)

Hidden Figures (2016) The sleeper hit of the season became an Oscar contender and a box office winner. Telling the story of three black women who helped with put the first American in space. The story is very formulaic, you can see the cliches coming a mile away, but you don’t really care because it’s executed so well. The three women played by Tajari P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae are great characters, and they receive great support particularly by Kevin Costner as Henson’s supervisor. Even though the story beats are nothing new here, the subject matter is. (3 stars out of 4)

Torn Curtain (1966) One of Hitchcock’s latter day films isn’t classic, but does hold your interest in a lot of ways. The story concerns a man (Paul Newman) who pretends to defect into the iron curtain to get government secrets, but his unsuspecting wife (Julie Andrews) comes along. They must then try to get back to America without getting caught. The script is at times all over the place and Newman and Andrews feel out of place, Andrews in particular is given nothing to do in the second half of the film. However Hitchcock does deliver some memorable set pieces that do show why he will and always be the master (3 stars out of 4)

Pillow Shots’ Top Ten Best Films of 2016 plus a few more things worth mentioning.

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The Oscars are upon us which brings in the final nail in the coffin of the films of 2016, meaning all discussion of last years films are usually brought to a close and we look ahead to 2017 and see what is different. For the past few weeks I’ve been playing catch up with a lot of films last year had to offer for my own. Even though I’ve missed quite a few that I wish I could’ve seen namely “Paterson”, “Toni Erdmann”, “The Handmaiden”, “Hell or High Water”, “20th Century Women” and “Certain Women” among others, I figured I’ll see them all in their good time. So why lists? Well I guess they’re fun for one thing, but I know it’s difficult comparing one film to another, it’s hard saying one film is the best, and I’ve seen my share of great films this year, in face 2016 has been a fantastic year for films in general, it was hard narrowing down a top ten. So as you will see I didn’t stop with a top ten as I couldn’t leave out some gems that garnered my attention. So without further adieu, here are my top ten films plus ten more for good measure.

1. Silence: A special film in so many ways, this started as a passion project for director Martin Scorsese, something he’s been trying to get off the ground for almost 30 years. There were rumours when Scorsese would begin filming it, but countless delays almost made it seem like it would never see the light of day. Finally the time came where cameras would role on this masterpiece of filmmaking. The film tells the story of Jesuit Priests who travel to Japan to find their old mentor who, it is rumored committed the sin of renouncing his faith which is something unforgivable. Scorsese has battles with religion and spirituality before most prominently in “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Kundun”. But the idea of faith, God, sin, and redemption has found its way in his less obvious films right from the very beginning with his first feature “Who’s That Knocking?” and onward to “Mean Streets”, and “Raging Bull”. “Silence” continues that ongoing struggle we see with him, it’s personal film making on an epic scale, something we see very little of these days. Scorsese has talked of film being like a religious experience for him, just listen to his countless discussions, very few filmmakers carry that passion in them. “Silence” didn’t garner the type of awards attention Scorsese has become accustomed to over the past few years now, instead the Academy chose to award a more straight forward less complex Christian fable with “Hacksaw Ridge” which is shallow by comparison. I believe “Silence” will be regarded as a classic in later years and ranked among the very best Scorsese has to offer.

2. The Lobster: A deadpan comedy directed by the eccentric Yorgos Lanthimos, this sets up a world I have never would have envisioned before. Sort of a post-apocalyptic society where all people must find a mate or else they are transformed into an animal of their choosing. Hilarious, dark, sad, strangely romantic, with an ending that leaves you wondering about the idea of love. A comic masterpiece.

3. A Monster Calls: Sometimes you just judge a film by counting the tears it leaves at the end. Last year “Room” did it, this year it was this wonderful film. So many great family films were made this year, but this was the best. A moving story of a child who’s mother is slowly dying. A great many family films have dealt with grief, but this one pulls no punches, I was a wreck by the end.

4. Love and Friendship: Whit Stillman’s adaption of Jane Austin is in my opinion, the best Jane Austin adaption I have ever seen. Funny, witty, and sophisticated, this is the type of escape film they used to make all the time when audiences hungered for such things. Kate Beckinsale is a wonder, she owns every scene she’s in.

5. Nocturnal Animals: Tom Ford’s wildly entertaining, darkly funny, and twisted tale of love, revenge, and art.

6. The Witch: A dark atmospheric horror folk tale, doesn’t rely on jump scare but rather that feeling of dread. Also a tale of a girl growing into womanhood and how scary that can be.

7. Moonlight: Small, poetic, intimate, and quiet look into a life of a young man growing up in a tough black neighbourhood and coming to terms with his sexuality. Barry Jenkins creates a cinematic sensory overload and it’s quietly moving.

8. Hail Caesar: The Coen Brothers’ latest is a comedy but the second most spiritual film made this year after “Silence”. Hearkening back to golden age Hollywood, the Coen Bros. turn away from nihilism to find something to believe in: the movies! This is their “Sullivan’s Travels”.

9. Knight of Cups: Terrence Malick will always be a man who will never be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am in love with his movies. Like David Lynch, Malick becomes more experimental as he grows older, if you can believe it creating an almost empty landscape for his characters to interact. The story is non-linear mostly told in voice-over, but feels personal, and intimate.

10. Manchester by the Sea: Powerful, long story of grief, and moving on in life. Despite all this, the film is full of warm humour, deep humanity, and understanding. A very feel good movie.

And the 10 more are….

11. Sunset Song

12. La La Land

13. 13th

14. Kubo and the Two Strings

15. The Invitation

16. Midnight Special

17. Arrival

18. Pete’s Dragon

19. The Nice Guys

20. Loving

Best Director:

Martin Scorsese: Silence

Barry Jenkins: Moonlight

Yorgos Lanthimos: The Lobster

J.A. Bayona: A Monster Calls

Tom Ford: Nocturnal Animals

Best Actor:

Denzel Washington: Fences

Colin Farrell: The Lobster

Ryan Gosling: The Nice Guys

Casey Affleck: Manchester by the Sea

Andrew Garfield: Silence

Best Actress:

Kate Beckinsale: Love and Friendship

Sally Field: Hello My Name is Doris

Ruth Negga: Loving

Viola Davis: Fences

Taraji P. Henson: Hidden Figures

Best Supporting Actor:

Michael Shannon: Nocturnal Animals

Tom Bennett: Love and Friendship

Alden Ehrenreich: Hail Caesar

Lucas Hedges: Manchester by the Sea

John Carol Lynch: The Invitation

Best Supporting Actress

Naomi Harris: Moonlight

Rachel Weiz: The Lobster

Michelle Williams: Manchester by the Sea

Angeliki Papoulia: The Lobster

Sigourney Weaver: A Monster Calls

Best Screenplay

The Lobster

Love and Friendship

Manchester by the Sea

A Monster Calls

Hail Caesar

 

 

Things I Saw in January

moonlight2-01. Nocturnal Animals (2016): One of my favorite movies of 2016 to be sure, “Nocturnal Animals”, is a great, darkly funny film from director Tom Ford who hasn’t directed a film since 2009s “A Single Man”. Ford has wonderful look to this film which goes back and forth between the real story of a profoundly sad, empty artist (Amy Adams) who receives a manuscript from her writer ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). The other story that unfolds is what Adams is reading in the manuscript which is a southern gothic tale of revenge from a man who wants justice to the men who raped and murdered his wife and daughter. The story acts as a parallel to Adams’ story in a way as it recounts her unhappiness. The film, for the most part is wildly entertaining and original which great performances from everyone, even though I would say Michael Shannon walks away with the film as Southern Marshall who goes beyond the law, it’s weirdly wonderful and one of my favorite performances of the year. 4 stars out of 4

2. Moonlight (2016): A quiet, and riveting film and one that feels purely cinematic. This one stayed with me for a very long time after, not knowing what I thought of it, but thinking back at it, I came to the conclusion that it is a great film, beautiful and poetic. It tells a somewhat simple story following a young black kid through three stages of his life, from boyhood to manhood. We see basically three separate vignettes as he matures and the incidents which make him into the man he is. This is a film of wonderful self discovery as it deals with identity, finding out the type of person you are, and the idea of being lost and disillusioned. Writer/director Barry Jenkins does a masterful job establishing small intimate scenes with a wonderful cinematic flare. The fact that this film is getting awards attention seems sort of unprecedented, not many films this year can touch the type of artistry on display here. Truly a film that deserves the attention it’s getting. 4 stars out of 4

3. The Trouble with Harry (1955): Alfred Hitchcock’s darkly comic tale involving a group of small town eccentrics and their connection with a dead body that keeps popping up isn’t what I would call one of the master’s most essential films. Still this is a fascinatingly weird film that had me chuckling more than once in its complete grim comedy. In a way it hearkens back to Hitchcock’s early british films that had that same dry wit to it. The film is wonderful to look at, and Edmund Gwenn is a standout as a local hunter, still this is all much ado about nothing. 2 and a half stars out of 4

A Monster Calls (2016): For me 2016 has been a great year in movies, but there have been a lot of overlooked gems mostly in the films for children department. Most children’s films this year have dealt with ideas of orphans and coping with loss most prominently in films like “Pete’s Dragon” and “Kubo and the Two Strings”. “A Monster Calls” falls under this same category and had me bawling uncontrollably in its last act. It deals with a lonely young boy whose mother is dying slowly as he watches her. Throughout the film, he is full of anger, sadness, and loneliness, pretty much everything you feel when you are forced to watch a loved one dying. One evening an old tree comes to life in the form of a monster he tells the boy three stories that all relate to what he’s going through in some way or another, and in the end the boy must tell his story. There is so much about “A Monster Calls” that words so well, I’m not sure why it was so overlooked. A children’s film like this which is also a fantasy showed up nowhere in regular theatres where I am and only showed up in cheap theatres, yet this is the type of children’s film that should be getting some traction. If you look at 2016 and notice all the great family films that were overlooked, it’s a real shame. “A Monster Calls” is for me one of the best movies of 2016 and if you get a chance to see it, go see it! 4 stars out of 4

Fences (2016): Another film I’m catching up with based on the broadway play by August Wilson which garnered Tony awards to its stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Washington directs this film and basically follows the play verbatim, so much so that the playwright receives soul screenwriting credit. This is a purely emotional story of Washington who plays a working man in his fifties, disappointed with the way his life turned out after losing out to a promising career in baseball. His actions end up having dire effects on the people around him, namely his sons, and his wife (Davis). The film remains dialogue heavy but it sings coming out of all the actors, this probably rivals “Malcolm X” as Washington’s best screen performance yet, and he directs the film beautifully as a play adaption, it doesn’t feel closed in like some play to screen films do, he uses wide shots effectively, so we can breathe in the world of the story. The acting never seems to be over the top or theatrical, but more nuanced than you would expect. I hope for all of the awards for Washington and Davis, a real achievement. 3.5 stars out of 4

Split (2017): The latest of M. Night Shyamalan is a nice twisted horror thriller, with a tour de force performance by James Mcavoy to boot. Mcavoy plays a man with split personalities who kidnaps three young teenage girls, but it’s slowly revealed that his motives behind the kidnapping may not be what we expect. This is a nice thriller with unexpected results and good performances. Shyamalan gets a lot of flack for his stories, but he shows that he is a very good director when he wants to be. The ending seemed a little far-fetched and silly in some cases, as Shyamalan grasps for a supernatural twist, but it’s eerie enough the keep your interest, all in all a wonderful genre film that is sure to delight fans. 3 stars out of 4

Rear Window

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“I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long focus lens. Do you suppose it’s ethical even if you prove that he didn’t commit a crime?” So says L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) the hero of “Rear Window”. Maybe it’s because I’m taking an ethics class right now, or maybe because this movie has just fascinated me since I first viewed it as a teenager, but this remains to me the philosophical quandary in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterfully directed classic, my personal favorite of his, and one of the best comments of film as it applies to the audience.

Alfred Hitchcock was a director who made films for the wide audience, and “Rear Window” plays like a crowd pleasing murder mystery/thriller, with charismatic stars James Stewart and Grace Kelly taking the lead and iconic character actress Thelma Ritter tagging along as the comic relief. But “Rear Window” has depths beneath the surface that I feel Hitchcock wanted to explore, for him, he uses the framing device of a man watching his neighbours out the window whilst wondering if one of them killed his wife as a way to explore how he wants us, the audience to view his own movies.

“Rear Window” tells the story of L.B. Jefferies or Jeff (Stewart), an adventurous photographer who is recovering from a broken leg after he takes one too many risks while shooting a photo. We see from the beginning the only thing Jeff does to fill his time is look at his neighbours through his window of his Greenwich Village apartment. At first it seems harmless, many of their neighbours are carrying out their days in their usual routine, but one night Jeff hears a woman scream, and notices one of his neighbours a salesman, making curious trips out in the middle of the night. Could it be that this man may have murdered his wife? Pretty soon Jeff is playing detective with the help of his girlfriend Lisa (Kelly) and his nurse Stella (Ritter), all three of them looking out the Jeff’s window wondering what has happened to the wife, speculating where the man may have buried her, or what clues might be found inside his rose garden.

The idea Hitchcock is making with his three protagonists, but mostly Jeff is that they are fill ins for the audience. As Francois Truffaut pointed out in his indelible book of interviews about Hitchcock, entitled “Hitchcock”, he states “We’re all voyeurs to some extent, if only when we see an intimate film. And James Stewart is exactly in the position of a spectator looking at a movie.”

Hitchcock goes on to claim in the book that he believes everyone is a snooper, we simply can’t help it. Hitchcock is quoted in saying to Truffaut “I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undress for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look…” That is really the business of cinema, we are all the onlookers going into a world we are unfamiliar with because we want to look into the lives of someone else. Hitchcock sees voyeurism the same way he sees cinema, as a way to escape into another world, it points into this psychological obsession of wanting to be able to view someone else as if they don’t know we are watching them.

The idea of cinema as voyeuristic isn’t just implied by the murder mystery storyline Hitchcock establishes in the film, but the entire world seen outside of Jeff’s window. Outside we are given multiple types of human behaviour happening before Jeff’s eyes, represented by each of his neighbours. There is a musician who is frustrated while working on a new song, a lonely middle-aged woman who only wants to find love in her life,  a young married couple who have just moved in after their honeymoon, and an attractive ballet dancer who is usually seen dancing in tight outfits or having fancy cocktail parties with eligible looking bachelors. This fills in a realistic universe for Jeff to see, an uncanny one to real life if you think about how little is shown of this outside world. Hitchcock creates these little vignettes mostly through ambient sound bites from the actors playing the roles, but their lives are mostly related through us visually as if Jeff’s backyard is populated by a silent movie, Hitchcock of course believed in pure cinema and started out in silent film, so this idea that the world reflects the movie is a rather poignant metaphor within the film.

The other main angle to voyeurism comes from the relationship between Jeff and his girlfriend Lisa. The main dramatic through line in the couple’s relationship comes from the fact that Jeff isn’t sure if he wants to marry Lisa as they come from two different worlds; he’s a guerrila photographer who goes out on dangerous assignments, while she is a social butterfly who spends her time at cocktail parties and wearing fancy dresses around town. It isn’t until Lisa becomes embroiled in the murder mystery and in fact puts her own self in danger that Jeff seems to start admiring her. Take the moment where Lisa goes to deliver an envelope to the salesman’s house. Jeff looks at her through his binoculars, as she just evades meeting the would-be murderer, and when she gets back, Jeff has a look of affection that wasn’t seen since. The suggestion might be interpreted that Jeff begins falling for Lisa once she becomes part of the action he is observing, in what might be considered somewhat of a sexual kink for Jeff, he is turned on by watching Lisa in imminent danger. Take that for what you will, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if that might be what Hitchcock had in mind, considering Hitchcock’s own obsession of putting his own women in danger particularly the blondes which Lisa played by the luminous Grace Kelly very much is.

“Rear Window” of course isn’t the only time Hitchcock became obsessed with voyeurism, like all great auteurs, his themes pop up in many of his films. For Hitchcock, he always seems to see us watching, like in the nine minute long silent sequence of James Stewart (again) following Kim Novak in “Vertigo” or Anthony Perkins peeping through the small crack in the wall seeing Janet Leigh undressing, it’s all around his films, but “Rear Window” is the most explicit example on the subject. Hitchcock was one of the great filmmakers, and he understood cinema perhaps greater than anyone else, which is why his films are still studied perhaps more than anyone save Orson Welles by people who want to make movies. But Hitchcock understood his audience perhaps better than anyone else as well. Movies were like an obsession for him, which is probably why he could put himself in the audience seat more than any other filmmaker. When it came to the movies, Hitchcock knew it was a way to live out our fantasies, to live vicariously through other people’s experience, to peer into a world we don’t know, to see, to look, to watch.

My Favorite movies each year since I was born

  1. raging-bull-2_01980-Raging Bull
  2. 1981-My Dinner with Andre
  3. 1982-E.T. The Extraterrestrial
  4. 1983-Zelig
  5. 1984-Stranger than Paradise
  6. 1985-Witness
  7. 1986-Hannah and her Sisters
  8. 1987-Raising Arizona
  9. 1988-The Last Temptation of Christ
  10. 1989-Do the Right Thing
  11. 1990-Miller’s Crossing
  12. 1991-L.A. Story
  13. 1992-Unforgiven
  14. 1993-Schindler’s List
  15. 1994-Three Colors Red
  16. 1995-Heat
  17. 1996-Fargo
  18. 1997-Boogie Nights
  19. 1998-The Thin Red Line
  20. 1999-South Park:Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
  21. 2000-O’ Brother Where Art Thou?
  22. 2001-Mulholland Drive
  23. 2002-Punch Drunk Love
  24. 2003-Kill Bill Vol. 1
  25. 2004-Kill Bill Vol.2
  26. 2005-Munich
  27. 2006-A Prairie Home Companion
  28. 2007-Once
  29. 2008-In Bruges
  30. 2009-Summer Hours
  31. 2010-True Grit
  32. 2011-Midnight in Paris
  33. 2012-Moonrise Kingdom
  34. 2013-Inside Llewyn Davis
  35. 2014-Under the Skin
  36. 2015-Mad Max:Fury Road
  37. 2016-?

Things I Saw in December

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Girl on a Train (2016): This was inspired by the best-selling book from last year, a lot of hype went into it. Emily Blunt is terrific as the alcoholic woman who was scorned by her husband but is now obsessed with a missing girl, as she tries to remember an encounter she had with her while inebriated. So many talented actors pop up in very small supporting roles, you wonder what was the point in having them, but it does make this rather predictable and shoddily shot film bearable to sit through. Forgettable, but Blunt is a great actress. 2 stars out of 4

Green Room (2016) This film goes along with “Don’t Breath” and “The Invitation” as sort of a 2016 trilogy of claustrophobic small spaced horror/thrillers where someone is trying to kill someone else, and they’re trapped. “Green Room” is probably more thriller and less horror, though it does have that sense of dread that something bad is about to happen. It has a sense of humour about it too. When a scene is set up that is so spine chilling, you don’t want to look, you know they are doing a good job. I’m really enjoying these sub-genres, they remain tightly made with good story telling and great performances. 3 stars out of 4

Star Wars: Rogue One (2016): I nice installment into the “Star Wars” franchise. I know I complain that I grow tired of franchise movies always looking the same, but this one directed by “Godzilla” director Gareth Edwards had its own unique look to it. Unlike J.J. Abrams Spielbergesque/Nostalgic aesthetic in “The Force Awakens”, this one looked less familiar. “Star Wars” is known for their spaceship dog fights, but one hasn’t been filmed quite like this, also the ground battles have a uniqueness of their own as well. The characters remain stock clichés from old war movies most of them, but with a b-movie mentality like this, it didn’t bother me. They also played around with the idea of the Force being the of a kind of faith which really hasn’t been explored in this much depth before. One of the best blockbusters of the year. 3.5 stars out of 4

Loving (2016): The second film of the year by one of my favorite newer directors Jeff Nichols after his sci-fi gem “Midnight Special”. This is a more traditional material based on the true tale of the Lovings, an interracial couple who were arrested for being in a mixed marriage, but during the civil rights era changed that law. Nichols never makes this film into your normal bio pic but realizing the Lovings themselves were very low key, keeps things modest and tender like they were to each other. Joel Edgerton is quite affecting and subtle with his depiction of Richard Loving, while Ruth Negga is a pillar of quiet strength playing the wife Mildred. A loving film in every sense of the word. 3.5 stars out of 4

Detective Story (1951): Sort of a lost classic that isn’t talked about enough, this day in the life of a police detective bureau is an absorbing crime drama, and also an interesting character study. Kirk Douglas stars as a dedicated police detective who only sees crime as black and white, that is until his wife becomes involved with an important case he’s been working on. Pretty soon his flaws and prejudices start to show through. While this main drama is going on, there are plenty of smaller dramas happening throughout. Lee Grant is particularly effective as a purse snatcher who seems fascinated with being in a police station, and William Bendix is the voice of reason as Douglas’ seasoned partner. Famed director William Wyler frames his film realistically showing his actors in their natural environment, and affectively using deep focus cameras that he mastered with his film “The Best Years of our Lives”. This is a great film. 4 stars out of 4

No Way Out (1951): This film couldn’t be more relevant today, in one of his earliest roles, Sidney Poitier plays a black doctor who is accused of murder after the brother of a racist criminal (Richard Widmark) dies in his care. The film doesn’t hold back too much on the effects of racism in the fifties, especially in depicting race riots and their aftermath. Poitier is the perfect everyman trying to clear his name while also trying to stop any hateful violence to occur on account of him, while Widmark who was pretty well typecast as psychopaths back then plays one of the most hateful racists in film history, which is a great testament to his talent when you actually feel a bit of sympathy for him in the end. It doesn’t get above being too preachy here and there, but it still stands above some modern films as a realistic depiction of racism in America. 3.5 stars out of 4

Fourteen Hours (1951) One of those films that follows one incident on a single day. This one depicts a man who is threatening to jump off a building, until the police and everyone gets involved to try to talk him down. Paul Douglas plays the traffic cop who is first on the scene and Richard Basehart is the man on the ledge. The two form a bond as things like that happen in films like these. The action moves from the event on the ledge, to the public watching down below. Director Henry Hathaway keeps the tension moving, and the action rising, plus some great support by Agnes Moorehead who plays the batty mother to Basehart. This was also one of Grace Kelly’s earliest roles, which was interesting to see. 3 stars out of 4

La La Land (2016) So much to love in this film that has audiences at an uproar, this feels so close to what we really want from a movie musical, a love story, engaging stars, memorable dance numbers, and that classic Hollywood feel that is so often missed in movies today, often evoked for nostalgia’s sake. My biggest criticism to modern musicals these days is we never really get to see the choreography of the music most of the time; cameras jump around, cutting from the faces to the feet, with no real intention, it becomes maddening. “La La Land” avoids this thanks to Damien Chazelle’s masterful technique, showing bodies in motion, either moving in a traffic jam, or in a magical Hollywood street with two love birds always letting the actors motivate the camera movement, it was just so nice to see, this is from someone who was born to make musicals. I would say the music is more abundant in the first part of the film, and it fades to the background as it becomes a more realistic story of a relationship, but returns in triumph for the finale taking a cue from the famous musicals of Stanley Donen and Vincent Minnelli. The film remains a love letter to Hollywood musicals, but it doesn’t become nostalgic for nostalgic’s sake. It flirts with the idea that the tried and true traditional musical can still have a place in a world that is trying to be modern, but it’s also the tale of two artists who are deeply in love, but also in love with what they do, realizing they can’t have everything. There is so much to admire here, namely the direction and the two leads who are really truly movie stars, yes the hype is real I think so see it already. 4 stars out of 4