December 23, 2014


Let the proliferation of year-end lists wash over you with a resigned calm. And let me add another one to the ocean of opinion. Today I’m presenting my top ten new-to-me movies of 2014. That is, older films that I have seen for the first time. They are the backbone of any movie-going year, whether it’s catching up to acknowledged classics (for me, The Best Years of Our Lives) or going trawling for obscure auteurist gems (Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, Edward L. Cahn’s Redhead).  It’s a way to draw attention to a wider range of filmgoing possibilities, so you don’t have to read about Boyhood for the bazillionth time (though, if you do, my appreciation is over here). All credit goes to prodigious blogger Brian Saur from Rupert Pupkin Speaks, who collects “Favorite Film Discoveries” from writers, programmers and filmmakers every year, and asked me to contribute once upon a time. I found the exercise invigorating, more so than the usual end-of-year recycling, so you have him to thank or blame.

The films are presented in alphabetical order


The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, directed by William Wyler)

I had been indoctrinated in aversion to Wyler, from half-remembered slams by Andrew Sarris. This is not Sarris’ fault but my own, as he was a persistent re-evaulator, trying to undermine his own biases. But now that I’m here, my goodness what a movie. Wyler was a serviceman for three years, and knew who these men were and how they lived. The deep focus cinematography by Gregg Toland is justly famous, but it’s the gestures inside of it that make it work so beautifully. The orchestration of glances as the family silently reacts to Homer’s amputation isolates him even as he’s surrounded by well-wishers.

On Blu-ray from Warner Brothers


Broken Lullaby (1932, directed by Ernst Lubtisch)

Lubitsch’s only non-comic sound film is a post-traumatic post-WWI drama about a shellshocked vet who seeks penance for bayoneting a German soldier in the trenches. He travels to atone to his victim’s parents, but when he arrives, he can’t bring himself to admit his guilt. Instead he falls in love with their daughter. Like in many of Lubitsch’s comedies, it’s about a man who fakes his life so beautifully he almost makes it come true. It opens with a blast of dialectical montage, cutting rhythmically between a Paris belfry’s bells and a battlefield cannon, the drums of the soldier’s homecoming parade sliced in with a wounded vet’s screams. It is as potent a three minutes as anything Eisenstein concocted. But then, a stylstic shift into daring long takes and a subdued, declamatory kind of acting. There is an unbroken two-minute take of two mothers grieving over their sons that is devastating in its quietude.

Unavailable on home video or VOD


Carnival of Souls (1962, directed by Herk Harvey)

This miraculous motion picture is a dip into the Midwestern uncanny, ghosts haunting the long flat highways and abandoned amusements. It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, undoubtedly aided by viewing it on July 4th weekend, where bottle rockets were popping off behind my head every five minutes. I was too gripped to turn around and look at the firecracking kids outside, for fear I would see that face reflected in the window.

On DVD from Criterion (I watched it on Hulu Plus)


The Clockmaker of St. Paul (1974, directed by Bertrand Tavernier)

Tavernier’s debut feature is a subdued adaptation of a Simenon novel about a habit-minded watchmaker whose estranged son is wanted for murder. Shot in Tavernier’s hometown of Lyon, it traces the father’s ritualized walks through his city as he grapples with this rupture in his life. The outdoor photography is hushed and autumnal,the death of summer framing the father’s unspoken struggle over his son’s situation, which rouses the communist factory workers at which his son worked, as well as the accusatory owners. The father’s motivations and inner being are kept opaque, his inner workings as unfathomable as his clocks are understandable. So when his decision arrives, it is with the gathering force of a thunderbolt.

On Region 2 DVD from Optimum



Forgotten Faces (1928, directed by Victor Schertzinger)

The undisputed highlight of this year’s Capitolfest in Rome, NY, this is a visually extravagant crime melodrama. The story is a convoluted stew  involving gentlemen thieves, orphaned daughters, scheming mothers, and a devoted sidekick named Froggy (William Powell). Not memorable material, but the clarity and elegance of its late silent film style are often overwhelming. There are elegant tracking shots, provocative use of off-screen space, and complicated spiraling sets that are split in half and filmed in a Wes Anderson-esque dollhouse style. It’s enough to make one shake a fist at the sky and rue the coming of sound.

Unavailable on home video or VOD

Annex - Cooper, Gary (Good Sam)_NRFPT_08

Good Sam (1948, directed by Leo McCarey)

I am morally obligated to write about every Leo McCarey movie someday, so this year it was Good Sam, a complicated moral fable about the unintended consequences of doing good. Gary Cooper is Sam, an inveterate do-gooder whose charity consistently leads to troubles, whether its debt, permanent visitors or missing cars. The film’s central theme is the impossibility of saintliness in a consumer society – one in which Sam becomes an object of ridicule (by his boss, his wife and the world at large), rather than lauded for his selflessness. Cooper is appropriately skittish and perpetually aghast, but the real star is Ann Sheridan as his put upon wife. Her acerbic realism cuts the sweetness of Sam’s saintliness, and she provides the greatest laughs in the film – especially when she busts out cackling at Sam as he uncharacteristically runs down a neighbor (who happens to be sitting right behind him).

On Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films


The Long Day Closes (1992, directed by Terence Davies)

Note perfect reminiscence about growing up lonely and growing up in the movies, usually the same thing.

On DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection



Mongo’s Back in Town (1971, directed by Marvin J. Chomsky)

A relentlessly downbeat telefilm noir starring Joe Don Baker as the titular Mongo. Mongo is a beast intent on destroying his hometown. His milquetoast brother summons him back to San Pedro, CA in order to knock off a local competitor, but instead Mongo brings the whole criminal edifice down around everyone’s heads. Baker is gruff and relentless, an analogue to Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank (1967). Nothing will sway Mongo from his own disgust. The rest of the cast includes Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen and Sally Field, all dumb witnesses to Mongo’s clumsy, bloody vengeance.

On MOD-DVD from CBS Films


Redhead (1941, directed by Edward L. Cahn)

I am contractually obligated to write about 10-12 Edward L. Cahn movies this year, and this one was my favorite (When the Clock Strikes finishing a close second). It’s a downbeat suicide comedy about a pair of mismatched lovers(one rich, one poor) who meet each other both on the precipice of leaping off a cliff. They save each other instead, opening a roadside diner and learning how to live on modest means. It’s death-driven, class-conscious comedy only possible in the dark, delightful world of Cahn.

Available to stream on Amazon Instant Video



A Touch of Zen/The Valiant Ones (1969/1975, both directed by King Hu)

One of the major events in NYC was the BAM Cinematek’s King Hu retrospective. I was only able to make it to these two, but they are jaw dropping spectacles. I preferred the relentless logic of The Valiant Ones, in which the intricately choreographed battles are mapped out on chess boards, and each faction is eliminated with unforgiving procession. The earlier Touch of Zen is more inside the head than the hands, a Buddhist fable of enlightenment in which blood turns into told and only through self-abnegation can come glory.

Both are out of print on DVD


Utamaro and his Five Women (1946, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi)

Wherein the life of an artist (here woodblock print portratist Utamaro) is presented as one of continuous battle, in which everyone suffers, his models most of all.

Available on Region 2 DVD from Artificial Eye


January 21, 2014

Annex - Loy, Myrna (Best Years of Our Lives, The)_NRFPT_01

The Academy Awards present what Hollywood considers its best face to the world. Never an objective measure of artistic accomplishment, if such a thing is even possible, it instead functions as a self-justification that the almighty dollar doesn’t decide their every decision. Any self-serious title has a shot at the gold, so it’s only through luck or strong-arm tactics that historically significant work is awarded. Instead of bemoaning the unearned influence of the awards, or the value of this year’s nominations, I’m devoting space to one of those rare, remarkable Best Picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Released late last year in a richly detailed Blu-ray transfer from Warner Brothers, it is a patient, empathetic examination of soldiers re-entering American society following WWII. In its even lighting, off-the-rack costuming and deep focus long takes, Andre Bazin found “the perfect neutrality and transparency of style”.

Director William Wyler was a serviceman for three years, as part of the Eighth Air Force Technical Training Unit, whose orders were to produce films for “public morale and education” and capture “events of historical value.” He accompanied bombing raids from England into Western Europe, filming as much as he could. His technical crew was exposed to the same dangers as the pilots, and Wyler’s sound man Harold Tannenbaum was killed after his B-24 Bomber was gunned down over Brest, France. Wyler grew fond of his crew mates, writing at the time, “they’re the most alert, most alive and most stimulating group of young men I’ve ever met.”  This footage was edited into his War Department documentary about the Memphis Belle bomber, which occasioned the first front page film review in the NY Times’ history (“thorough and vivid”, Bosley Crowther wrote).


After the war Wyler formed Liberty Films with fellow veterans and filmmakers Frank Capra, George Stevens and Samuel Briskin. But before starting out on this new venture, Samuel Goldwyn convinced him to sign on to make The Best Years of Our Lives for his production company. Goldwyn became interested in the project  in 1944, after his wife Frances recommended a Time Magazine story entitled, “The Way Home”, about soldiers re-adjusting to civilian life. He hired MacKinlay Kantor to write a treatment, now titled “Home Again”, and he produced 100 pages of blank verse that eventually turned into the novel Glory For Me (1945). His treatment was thoroughly re-worked by Robert Sherwood, who wrote the shooting script with input from Goldwyn and Wyler. A major change from treatment to script was the transformation of the disabled character, Homer, from a spastic into an amputee. Wyler saw Harold Russell in an educational short, “Diary of a Sergeant”,  who displayed impressive dexterity with his prosthetic hands, after losing both in a 1944 training accident. The non-professional Russell was cast in the film, and would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work, which he would later sell in 1992 for over $60,000.

teresa wright & dana andrews - the best years of our lives 1946

The script follows Homer (Russell), Al (Fredric March) and Fred (Dana Andrews) as they return to their old lives in Boone City, a fictional Midwestern city modeled on Cincinnati. Homer is a sweet, innocent kid who wants to be treated as a normal joe, but is tormented by how his disability unsettles those around him. People subtly shift the direction of their glances and adjust their bodies, Homer’s hooks displacing the normal flow of social intercourse. Bazin writes that “Almost all Wyler’s shots are built like an equation, or perhaps better, like a like a dramatic mechanism whose parallelogram of forces can almost be drawn in geometrical lines.” In these early scenes Homer is expelling force, not gathering it. Sensitive to these disruptions, he avoids his high school sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) for fear she will marry him for pity rather than love. Fred, a much-decorated Air Force Captain, is busted down to an under-employed working man once he’s back in civilian clothes, a glum perfume jockey at a department store – one that swallowed up the soda joint from his youth. He got married a week before shipping out, and his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) acts like they were never hitched. She’s an underwritten nightclub gal, a thrill-seeking golddigger that’s more of a plot point than a character. She is contrasted against Peggy (Teresa Wright), the no-fuss nurse who falls in love with Fred. Al is Peggy’s father, an Army Sergeant who has the cushiest re-entry, with a stable bank job and a loving (if strained) marriage.

Wyler felt he “knew these people”, and spent the production searching for a lucid realism. Today “realism” invokes images of a handheld camera bobbing around the streets of Italy, but Wyler was not after neorealism’s immediacy, but the power of Hollywood technology to create maximum legibility. In Citizen Kane Gregg Toland’s deep focus is maximal, the chiaroscuro and canted angles touches reflecting Kane’s deteriorating psyche. In The Best Years of Our Lives Wyler wanted “a realism that would be as simple as possible.” One that “could follow an action to its end without cutting. The resulting continuity makes the shots more alive, more interesting for the viewer, who can choose of his own will to study a particular character and who can make his own cuts.”


In many ways Wyler was after the one-shot tableaus of early cinema and the Lumieres, only with more depth of field. This strategy emphasizes groupings and separations, weighing each side of the screen. Imbalances in composition undergird those of the characters, whether it’s the panopticon perch of the department store manager overlooking Fred in the extreme distance, or the famous unbalanced shot of Fred in the far left background (phoning Peggy that he can’t see her anymore) and of Al watching Homer play chopsticks on the piano with his Uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael). This sequence is emblematic of Wyler’s process of reduction – hiding an important plot point in the back of the frame while the soundtrack and visual cues direct the eye to the piano, creating tension without need for cross-cutting. That scene marks a temporary fissure in the servicemen’s friendship, initially composed in a tight clump of three aboard the plane to Boone City. They are reunited in another unbalanced composition, a mass of wedding revelers embrace to the right, while a glance from Fred to Peggy connect fore and background in Wyler’s geometric and deeply moving film.