2006 Top Ten: Older Films

Top ten lists for new releases are sometimes a nice barometer of the state of the art, but often I’m much more interested in lists of older films. Aside from the obvious reasons (dude, the cinema’s over a hundred years old!), they’re usually comprised of better movies that are also more readily available on DVD, so they’re more useful as viewing guides. Secondly, they tell me what films are contributing to a critic’s (in the loosest sense of the word) current perceptions and judgments (or if they’re contributing at all). And finally, I simply spend a lot more time each year reading and thinking about and watching older movies once you figure in worldwide DVD releases, mail-order rental subscription, library records, bookstore haunts, and a host of revival screenings every week here in Los Angeles.

Ten favorite films (alphabetically) I discovered this year for the first time:

ï 21-87 (Arthur Lipsett, 1964)

I had heard about Lipsett through his fans (George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick) but it wasn’t until a snowy day last April in Toronto’s Mediatheque of the National Film Board that I got to see this masterpiece of a collage film. According to Fred Camper, the NFB “hated it and later threw most of the prints in the garbage,” and according to this year’s documentary, Remembering Arthur, the institution claimed it only had room for one artist and that was already filled by Norman McLaren. If both assertions are true, it’s no wonder McLaren’s films have been released and rereleased on DVD while Lipsett’s continue to remain widely unseen. Nine-and-a-half minutes long, 21-87 is as potent a cinematic experience as you’re likely to have. David Thomson once wrote, “If you woke up tomorrow and it was just you and the invading inhabitants from Saturn, or somewhere, and they said ‘What is this thing called movie?’ (and they had only a couple of minutes) you could show them a Fred Astaire dance, or a panning shot from Renoir, or you could settle for La JetÈe…” You could also show them 21-87.

ï Barefoot Gen (Keiji Nakazawa and Mori Masaki, 1983)

I first heard of Nakazawa’s autobiographical manga based on his experience as a child in Hiroshima the day the bomb was dropped in last year’s Oscar-nominated short documentary, The Mushroom Club. The clips included caused me to track down Masaki’s anime adaptation, and it’s a predictably harrowing film at times; what I didn’t expect was its broad humor and bitter critique of Japanese militarism. I’ve long placed Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) on my all-time favorite anime lists, and this film deserves equal consideration.

ï Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)

I’ve had the Spanish DVD of what many critics are increasingly regarding as Welles’ ultimate masterpiece for years, but its mediocre quality kept me from watching it until earlier this year after listening to James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s excellent commentary on Criterion’s Mr. Arkadin–and the film’s exuberance and charm absolutely dazzled me. In June, Roger Ebert added the film to his Great Movies essays and claimed a restoration was in the works. Its humor and pathos are uproarious and perfectly timed, its brutal war scene should be a standard text in film schools, and its tender view of aging and separation is deeply felt and memorable.

ï Histoire(s) du cinÈma (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988)

Thanks to the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (and especially Cinema Scope‘s Robert Koehler), I was finally able to see this at UCLA last spring at a screening that proved to be unexpectedly (but wonderfully) sold-out–the Archive had to add another screening to compensate the shut-outs. The film is just as profound and encyclopedic as you’ve heard, and I say that even though our print from Gaumont was only sporadically subtitled (rumor has it that Godard has continually re-edited the film, which would also explain its ever-delayed French DVD release). While it’s no substitute for experiencing the film’s layered aural and visual textures, Celine Scemama has gone to a lot of trouble diagramming the film second-by-second (although it helps if you read French).

ï The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)

While my tastes lean toward contemplative dramas, I’m an avid fan of effective genre films, and Clayton’s supremely unnerving adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw was one of my year’s theatrical high points. The film’s lush, widescreen, black-and-white cinematography by Freddie Francis (The Elephant Man, The Straight Story) envelops the viewer in a haunted Victorian mansion in ways that suggest it’s the missing link between Last Year at Marienbad and The Shining, and Clayton’s aggressive ambient sounds help to ratchet up the psychological tension. The BFI released a new print on R2 DVD recently–not to be missed.

ï Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)

The invasion and occupation of Iraq has occasioned more than a few historical repetitions; one of the most unfortunate is the difficulties returning soldiers face in regards to PTSD and mental health services. During WWII, the US army asked Captain Huston to make a propaganda film about “psychoneurotic” illnesses and their treatments. Huston filmed (with famed cinematographer Stanley Cortez) interviews with returning soldiers at New York’s Mason Hospital and assembled this incisive and compelling–if necessarily dated–account. Immediately, somebody decided the last thing the public should know about war was its affect on the soldiers, and the film was suppressed by the Army from 1946 to 1980, when Huston and others managed to compel its release. Count yourself lucky that you can now watch it for free in its entirety on Google Video, although I was fortunate enough to catch it at LACMA’s Cortez retrospective earlier this year.

ï Love (Karoly Makk, 1971)

To hear this film described–a young Hungarian woman reads letters to her ailing mother-in-law, ostensibly written by her long-jailed husband but, in fact, written by herself–you might think it sounds terribly melodramatic, even trite. But director Makk’s unsentimental understanding of the material (based on two short stories) and astonishing formal precision (memory montages that resemble rapid-fire flipbooks of everyday objects and places) keep the film provocative, closely observed, and genuinely moving. The husband is a political prisoner of R·kosi’s postwar communist regime, but in Makk’s mid-sixties Hungary, it apparently still took him five years to get the censors to approve his film’s release. By maintaining a careful atmosphere of uncertainty, the film ensures a solid foundation for the characters and events it depicts and resonates as a European masterwork.

ï Moonrise (Frank Borzage, 1948)

By sheer coincidence, I had the great fortune to theatrically screen three Borzage films this year: Moonrise, Seventh Heaven (1927), and Lucky Star (1929), and loved them all. Why oh why hasn’t someone released his entire oeuvre on DVD? (Rumor has it that the BFI is eyeing some titles for 2007.) This unusually dark and brooding late work by Hollywood’s supreme romanticist tells the story of a child whose father is executed for a crime and who grows into adulthood as a social misfit harboring fears for his own soul. James Quandt has suggested the film can be read as a forerunner to Bresson, and with its stark beauty and emphasis on the moral struggle between fate and chance, it’s easy to imagine why. The film’s noir lighting is partly due to Borzage and partly due to cinematographer John L. Russell (Psycho).

ï The Story of the Fox (Ladislaw Starewicz, 1937)

Now this was a rarity that deserves much wider discovery–a masterpiece of puppetry by Starewicz, one of the cinema’s greatest animators (cinephiles might recall his macabre short film The Mascot included with Image’s Vampyr DVD). An epic of stop motion, the film recounts a fantasy medieval world of courtly animals, where a crafty fox plays cruel tricks on forest denizens and incurs the wrath of the lion king, who unleashes his armies in response. The backgrounds are superb and the subtleties of facial and bodily movement are extraordinary. I would watch it (with my young nephews) five times over the latest Pixar extravaganza. At our screening at the American Cinematheque, we were told a Starewicz retrospective is in the works, so keep an eye out.

ï Waiting for Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2002)

Sissako’s Bamako was one of the highlights of this year’s TIFF, but my experience of it was overshadowed by having seen his earlier film at the Los Angeles Film Festival just a few weeks before. A visually stunning and elliptical movie set in the coastal desert of Mauritania, the film offers a teen drifter’s impressions regarding the townspeople of Nouadhibou shortly before he emigrates to Europe. Sissako’s poetic sensibility is acute, and the rhythm he creates juxtaposing character, action, and landscape is by turns poignant, infectious, and humorous (particularly in regards to a small boy and his handyman grandfather). If you saw Bamako and recall the small bits of character study and narrative sprinkled throughout, you’ll get some idea of Sissako’s confident and memorable assembly here.

(Other discoveries include Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan, Costa’s Casa De Lava, Suleiman’s Chronicle of a Disappearance, Gavaldon’s Macario, Lewis’ The Nutty Professor, Viola’s The Passing, Sokurov’s The Second Circle, Yanagimachi’s Who’s Camus Anyway?, and documentaries and early features by the Dardennes.)

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