Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Top Ten Time Machine

It's the time of year for top ten lists. And 2013 certainly had some movies I loved: I count Passion, To the Wonder, Fruitvale Station, Her, The Past, and The Great Beauty among my favorites. But we have 120 years of cinema to explore, and I don't have a deadline to meet.

So here is an alternate top ten: my ten favorites movies not from 2013 that I watched for the first time in the last year. Perhaps there will be a gem or two below you haven't seen yet. 

1. Dodsworth (1936)

A William Wyler movie often invites the viewer to engage with deep-focus shots, to find relationships between layers of detail in the frame. Yet a moment in Dodsworth - my new favorite Wyler - is interesting to me for what it doesn't let you see. A husband and a wife are undressing in their bedroom. The weariness they both feel in the marriage is echoed in the movement of the camera: as Fran Dodsworth (Ruth Chatterton) begins undressing, the camera tracks past her, paralleling in its modesty Sam Dodsworth's (Walter Huston) gaze away. A few beats later, Fran walks back into frame, dressed; now, the camera tracks away from Sam, who begins his own undressing, in which Fran is equally uninterested. Wyler is maneuvering around the strictures of the Production Code, of course, but these moves do not result in any sort of erotic titillation or thematic ambiguity. Wyler's point at this moment is direct: Fran and Sam are simply tired of looking at one another. Wyler (working from a novel by Sinclair Lewis) uses this expertly staged scene as a starting point for his exploration of the differences (especially in social values) that will eventually drive Sam and Fran apart.

2. Two Portraits Diptych: Anything Else and Shooting Scripts (1981)

The ability to learn about, and acquire, objects like Chicago Media Works's excellent four-disc set Peter Thompson: 6 Cinematic Essays, 2 Interviews +... is a benefit of cinephilia in the social media age. I'm still working my way through it, having watched about half of it, but I am already enchanted by the content of the first disc, two portraits by Thompson, shot in 1981, of his parents. Anything Else, about his father, is particularly moving. Against slow-moving footage of his father in an airline terminal (and, at the end of the film, briefly, a garden), Thompson shares simple memories and facts ("He slept through any noise") about the man. The film takes a moment in the man of a life - a walk in an airline terminal - and expands it to the duration of an entire film, layering thoughts and memories upon the moment until it expands in a number of directions. In the liner notes, Thompson (who passed away in 2013) refers to it, alongside Shooting Scripts (a portrait of the filmmaker's mother) as a "portrait of a marriage." What comes through in both shorts is not only the filmmaker's own complicated relationship with his parents, but also a complicated and rewarding relationship with the temporal possibilities of movies.

3. The Daytrippers (1996) 

This is the first feature film directed by Greg Mottola, who has made a lot of very funny follow-ups (Superbad, Adventureland). But The Daytrippers is still his best. It concerns a woman (Hope Davis) who takes a day trip to Manhattan with her family (Parker Posey as her sister, with Liev Schrieber along for the ride), on the suspicion that her husband (Stanley Tucci, a publisher in the city) is having an affair. There are two or three lovely passages in which Davis and Posey have time to establish the sisterly repartee of their characters. My favorite is when they share a cigarette alone, early in the movie. It gives them time to talk about, among other things, their overbearing mother, their contrasting styles of fashion, and their futures. It's a sweet moment created by two of the most talented performers of nineties American indie cinema.

4. Leviathan (2012)

This film - a sensually overwhelming documentary exploring the American fishing industry - is popping up on some 2013 lists, so perhaps I'm cheating a bit by including it here. But by the time I caught up with Leviathan on Blu Ray last month, it already felt like a "past film": it must have been quite amazing to see this on the big screen, but I did not have that opportunity, so I had to let it do its work on me in my home theater. The most quietly amazing moment in the movie is also my favorite moment from any film in the past year. A small bird has found its way onto a fishing boat. The filmmakers, by chance, have spotted it, and will now spend a few minutes with it as it struggles to hop over a partition. In a film without any heroes, this little bird, for a moment, becomes our central character, and its goal - to find a way through, or off, this boat - is riveting. Then, just like that, suddenly, the bird disappears off the side of the boat, its fate as ambiguous as night is inky black in Leviathan's stunning digital imagery. This film is full of such astonishments.

5. Obsession (1976)

Seeing and loving Passion sent me on a bit of a De Palma bender. Obsession stands out. A film very much like Vertigo, about the impossible quest to recreate the dead image of the lover in a living person, Obsession rises above being a simple retread by virtue of its own obsessive devotion to the principle of excess. Yet one of its most beautiful and memorable moments is actually quite sparse and simple. After the death of his wife, a businessman (Cliff Robertson) heads to Italy. He encounters a woman (Genevieve Bujold), assisting on the restoration of a painting in a Florence church, who looks just like his lost beloved. There is no swirling camera or ecstatic montage. He simply looks up at her, and in a low-angle shot, we see what he sees: his past reborn. The dialogue - what Bujold says about the restoration of the painting is clearly meant to parallel the themes of duplication, uncovering, and substitution in the story - lays out the theme of the film explicitly, freeing the viewer to revel in De Palma's style.

6. Amateur (1994)

I count Hal Hartley among my favorite filmmakers, but I did not have the chance to see his celebrated 1994 film Amateur until this past year. Finally seeing the film on a beautiful region 2 Blu Ray from Artificial Eye was a pleasure. A few days before acquiring the disc, I read an interview with Hartley in which he discusses his love for the films of Terrence Malick, particularly the late work. Released in 1994, it's striking that passages in Amateur prefigure the Malick films Hartley would express appreciation for later: the swelling, operatic music (scored by Hartley himself) reminds me of the use of orchestral pieces throughout The New World, The Tree of Life, and To the Wonder; and shots of Martin Donovan framed from behind recall Malick's tendency (which takes flight in The New World) to follow characters with a tracking camera from behind, as if he were encountering them for the first time. Indeed, one of the pleasures of Amateur is that it makes Donovan strange. In 1994, he was already firmly associated with Hartley, but by having Donovan play an amnesiac without a biography and bereft of coherent psychology, Amateur dissolves our preconceptions of how Hartley might use the actor, making the relationship between them fresh and vital again.

7. Remember the Night (1940)

I saw this beautiful Mitchell Leisen film (scripted by Preston Sturges), starring Barabra Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, at the recent Stanwyck retrospective at the Film Forum over winter break in New York. It's a perfect film to see during the holidays. Stanwyck plays a woman (a streetwalker, it is implied) who gets into some legal trouble after stealing jewelry. MacMurray is the prosecutor, but the trial has been delayed until after Christmas. Not wanting Stanwyck to have to stay in prison over the holiday, MacMurray springs for her bail, and ends up taking her along with him on a trip back home to Indiana. Remember the Night is about the space of existential possibility that opens up, and then closes down, in the leisurely time between Christmas and New Year's. Stanwyck's performance is especially fascinating because she beautifully conveys the experience of a woman who never had these possibilities opened up to her before, and who takes profound advantage of them to change her life. The ending is, I think, progressive in terms of gender (for then, and for now), and, like Dodsworth, emotionally honest in a way most Hollywood films of the period weren't. 

8. The Big City (1963)

Every year I see a number of great films for the first time through the Criterion Collection. There are plenty of candidates for the greatest of these from 2013 (Sacha Guitry's Desire and Pearls of the Crown are both difficult to leave off this list), but my favorite was Satyajit Ray's The Big City. This film, Ray's first portrayal of urban life, tells a compelling story of a woman (Madhabi Mukherjee) who decides to go to work to support her family, despite the protestations of her husband. As with his earlier films set in rural areas, The Big City captures the life of its protagonists through concrete moments of lived reality. One lingers: the husband, committed to traditional marital and social relations, spies his wife putting make-up on while having coffee with a male business associate. It's a precise and delicately framed image, but one that feels equally spontaneous and lived-in.

9. Vampir-Cuadecuc (1970)

Like the Peter Thompson set, the complete works of Pere Portabella on DVD is not something I would have ever come across in the era before the Internet. And as with the Thompson set, I'm still making my way through these films. My favorite so far in the collection of this important Catalan filmmaker is on disc 2. Portabella shot this film on the set of a Jesus Franco vampire movie, and, with its use of black-and-white imagery and non-synchronous sound, it acts as something like the subconscious of a finished, polished feature. In an illuminating piece on the film, Jonathan Rosenbaum points out some of the film's larger political and social themes.

10. Man-Proof (1938)

Anyone with Turner Classic Movies has an irreplaceable American cinematheque at the fingertips. But the value of the channel is not so much its screenings of things easily acquirable on DVD or VHS but for those films that you must wait for TCM to show in order to be able to see them at all. A large number of these are Hollywood films from the thirties, many of which were never released on VHS or DVD. I've been waiting to see Man-Proof for a couple of years, and finally got the chance last Spring. It's a little Richard Thorpe ditty from 1938. I love Myrna Loy, and this is one of a number of Myrna Loy movies from the thirties that is now very difficult to see. Loy's character, after being jilted by a lover, claims independence as an illustrator, but then ends up settling for a love affair with a man she (formerly) mostly found annoying. In contrast to Remember the Night and Dodsworth, this movie is evasive of the subject it brings up (female independence) and not terribly progressive. But Loy's performance is, gesture-for-gesture, beautiful: even as the machinations of the classical Hollywood cinema lead her character along a conservative narrative trajectory, Loy finds depth in the living space of her own performance. And I'm reminded once again that total devotion to an actor can help you forget about that pesky question of whether or not the movie itself is all that good.