Talking Movies

August 15, 2017

100 Best Films of the Century (sic)

Poring over Barry Norman’s ‘100 Best Films of the Century’ list last month set off musings on what a personal version of such a list would be. All such lists are entirely personal, and deeply speculative, but it’s time to be more ambitious/foolhardy than heretofore and nail this blog’s colours to the mast. Norman unapologetically focused on Old Hollywood, but Talking Movies has more regard than he for the 1980s and 1990s. The years to 1939 are allocated 10 films, and each decade thereafter gets 10 films, with an additional 10 films chosen to make up any egregious omissions. What is an egregious omission, or addition for that matter, is naturally a matter of opinion. Like the truest lists this was written quickly with little revision. If you don’t trust your own instincts why would you ever trust anyone else’s?

The first day to 1939

Nosferatu, The Lodger, M, King Kong, It Happened One Night, The 39 Steps, A Night at the Opera, Top Hat, Secret Agent, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Gone with the Wind

1940 to 1969

His Girl Friday, Rebecca, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Shadow of a Doubt, The Big Sleep, The Stranger, Rope, The Third Man

Strangers on a Train, The Lavender Hill Mob, Singin’ in the Rain, Them!, Rear Window, High Society, Moby Dick, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rio Bravo

Last Year in Marienbad, The Manchurian Candidate, The Birds, The Great Escape, Billy Liar, Dr. Strangelove, Goldfinger, Dr. Zhivago, The Sound of Music, The Good The Bad And The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Ma Nuit Chez Maud, The Italian Job

1970 to 1999

Kelly’s Heroes, Aguirre the wrath of God, The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, Star Wars, Superman, Apocalypse Now

The Blues Brothers, Chariots of Fire, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Aliens, Blue Velvet, Wall Street, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Die Hard

JFK, My Own Private Idaho, The Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2, The Age of Innocence, Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, Speed, The Usual Suspects, Scream, The Matrix, Fight Club

2000 to the present day

Memento, Almost Famous, Moulin Rouge!, Ocean’s Eleven, Donnie Darko, The Rules of Attraction, The Lord of the Rings, Team America, Brick, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight

Inception, Scott Pilgrims Vs the World, Incendies, Skyfall, Mud, This is the End, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Birdman, High-Rise, 20th Century Women

July 28, 2017

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan follows his longest film with his shortest since his 1998 debut Following, with which it shares a tricky approach to time and story.

France is sucker-punched and on its way to falling. The British Expeditionary Force is leaving it to its fate and retreating through the only open port, Dunkirk, that England might still have an army with which to fight on. On the Mole Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) spend a week organising the evacuation of soldiers, with the difficulty of a shallow beach and one quay making a perfect target for Stuka dive-bombers. On a Little Ship Dawson (Mark Rylance) pilots his way across the Channel over a long day, with son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and stowaway George (Barry Keoghan). On a ticking clock of one hour’s fuel RAF aces Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) attempt to fend off some of the Lutwaffe’s endless attacks on the beach and convoys. Their stories intersect tensely, complexly.

Nolan hasn’t made as abstract a film as this since Following. To a large degree the presence of some Nolan repertory and a host of familiar faces lends a degree of depth to the characterisation not perhaps there simply in the spare scripting. And it is spare. The majority of screen time belongs to Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), who meet on the desolate beach, and try to stay alive thru repeated attacks, and the dubious comradeship of Alex (Harry Styles). And for the majority of their screen time, they are silent. But the film is not. Viewed in IMAX this is absolutely deafening, with Hans Zimmer’s score interrogating the line with sound design as it throws anachronistic synth blasts amidst the ticking pocket-watch effect, and, startlingly, quotes Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ Variation at high points of tension and release.

On his second collaboration with Hoyte Van Hoytema it’s still unclear whether he and Nolan are less interested in the shadows and earth tones of Wally Pfister’s palate or simply have lucked into two stories that required large swathes of white and blue. One thing that looks unique is the aerial dogfights, IMAX cameras attached to Spitfires these have a dizzying sense of reality: this is a pilot’s eye-view of combat and it’s madly disorienting. And, as the inevitability of Hardy’s choice to not return from France approaches, symptomatic of this film’s remarkable sense of dread. You can no more criticise Nolan for not following the Blake Snyder beats than you could attack Jackson Pollock for failing at figurative art. He can do that supremely well, he’s choosing not to. And making you look, follow, and feel without using words.

And, without using any words, Nolan plays a game with time that makes Dunkirk a film that will amply repay repeat viewings. As the timelines intersect you realise that events that looked simple are a lot more complicated, sometimes even the reverse of what you thought you’d understood. And the same is true for characterisation. At times it feels like Nolan is answering the tiresome critics who attacked Inception and Interstellar for having too much exposition, even as they complained they couldn’t understand them – for all the explanations. And, if those critics insist on taking the ridiculous Billington on Stoppard line of Nolan being all head and no heart, he has the ultimate conjuring trick; Nolan makes us care, with our guts in knots, for people whose names we’re not even sure about, let alone their back-story and motivations.

Nolan has taken a touchstone of British culture and produced a film with a lean running time but a Lean epic quality by viewing the world-changing through the personal.

5/5

October 14, 2015

David Lean at the Lighthouse

As the last thoughts of an Indian summer disappear, the leaves fall everywhere, and scarves and hats are disinterred and pressed in to use, the Lighthouse announces a Lean season.

David Lean landscape Low Res

Afternoons with David Lean will take place throughout November, with one of England’s finest film directors working on the largest cinematic canvasses imaginable. And Lean’s precision as a director and the scale of his work have no finer representation than the first film Lawrence of Arabia. Meanwhile the 50th anniversary of Lean’s Russian revolutionary romance Doctor Zhivago is marked at the end of the month with a newly restored re-release.

 

Lawrence of Arabia

1 & 4 Nov, 2pm

Lean may have clashed with cinematographer Freddie Young (“Don’t teach your grandmother how to suck eggs” the older man barked at Lean), but their collaboration betrays no signs of that tension. Shimmering sands are scored by Maurice Jarre’s unforgettable theme, Omar Sharif’s arrival is legendarily menacing and mysterious, and Peter O’Toole makes an unforgettable leading man debut as TE Lawrence. Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and Anthony Quinn co-star as the Machiavellian players surrounding the enigmatic Lawrence’s attempts to inspire an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire in WWI.

 

Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=330

 

The Bridge on the River Kwai

8 & 11 November, 3pm

This World War II drama marked the beginning of Lean’s epic phase, with a tremendous use of a whistled ‘Colonel Bogey’s March’. POW British soldiers begin construction of a bridge under the leadership of Alec Guinness’ noble commanding officer. But James Donald’s Doctor soon realises that Colonel Nicholson has lost his grip. Jack Hawkins and William Holden are in the jungles on a mission to destroy the bridge. Little do they know that by its completion they might as well propose blowing up Colonel Nicholson…

 

Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=18344

 

Ryan’s Daughter

15 & 18 November, 2pm

Lean’s third successive collaboration with Freddie Young and screenwriter Robert Bolt proved the moment when the wheels fell off the wagon, leading to a 14 year cinematic silence from Lean. The heroine was played by Bolt’s wife Sarah Miles, a less than convincing young Irishwoman, and her affair with a British soldier was doomed by the casting of troubled Christopher Jones who didn’t act onscreen for thirty years after this outing. Trevor Howard, John Mills and Robert Mitchum all did their best, but a love story with unconvincing lovers…

 

Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=12884

 

Brief Encounter

22 & 25 November, 4pm

The sole entry in this season from the smaller-scale Lean is a love story scripted by another frequent collaborator Noel Coward from his own play. Housewife Celia Johnson is tempted to have an affair with a doctor she meets by chance at a train station, played by Trevor Howard. Brief Encounter’s use of Rachmaninov’s heart-rending 2nd Piano Concerto was extremely influential, and it remains a key influence on cinematic romance. Repressed, simmering passion of noble, thwarted lovers is quite similarly at play in Wong’s In the Mood for Love.

 

 Tickets available here:  http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=20967

 

Doctor Zhivago

From 27 November…

After the all-male heroics of Lawrence, Lean, Bolt, and Young reunited for a romance on a similar epic scale. Spanning decades of modern Russian history Boris Pasternak’s novel became a totemic cinematic love story, with Maurice Jarre’s balalaika-led ‘Lara’s Theme’ taking on a life of its own. Omar Sharif’s titular medic spends his life torn between two women, Geraldine Chaplin and Lara herself, Julie Christie. Tom Courtenay, Rod Steiger and Ralph Richardson are memorable supporting players fleshing out the fall of Tsarist Russia and the madness of the Russian Civil War.

 

 Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=355

April 1, 2010

Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation)

So, for this the final part of the three-part series, it is finally time to examine the Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation) to see historically what has been most popular with audiences. And the answer (un)surprisingly tends towards the gimmicky, the romantic, the big broad brushstrokes, the zeitgeisty, and the already popular from other mediums…

10  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
9    The Exorcist
8    Dr Zhivago
7    Jaws
6    Titanic
5   The Ten Commandments
4    E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial
3    The Sound of Music
2    Star Wars
1    Gone with the Wind

Gimmickry showcasing of spectacle, especially spectacle unavailable to TV, is important in a number of these films. The Exorcist was full of grotesque effects that TV legally couldn’t replicate. Dr Zhivago and The Ten Commandments showcased the widescreen landscapes TV couldn’t do with The Ten Commandments also being a special-effects extravaganza as well as having the proverbial ‘cast of thousands’. Star Wars was of course mind-blowing when released because of its complete reversal of previous film-making methods involving model-work, and Gone with the Wind was both in the expensive and new ‘glorious technicolour’ as well as being so lavishly produced that a Confederate veteran famously complained of the burning of Atlanta sequence that “If we’d a had that many men we’d a won the damn war!”. Jaws was nearly the pinnacle of the 1970s obsession with shooting on location, 1937’s Snow White was a risky gamble that audiences would accept feature-length animations (you’re welcome Pixar), and Titanic was a monumental folly of integrating huge sets with unprecedented use of CGI.

We criticised Avatar for using broad brushstrokes but many of these films use such a large canvas you’d have needed a damn mop. The difference is craft… Jaws was such a superbly directed suspenser that Hitchcock handed the torch to Spielberg, who then reduced children and their parents to blubbering wrecks with E.T.’s outrageous emotional manipulation. The Sound of Music showcases its joyous musical numbers with a much sharper script that you remember, and Satan Vs Christ is enlivened by a sub-plot of some depth about faith and doubt in The Exorcist. Lean never lost sight of his characters’ emotional truth in Dr Zhivago’s epic landscapes and The Ten Commandments was filled with charismatic performances, while Snow White and Star Wars enacted their simple archetypes with great charm. Gone with the Wind meanwhile successfully melds an intimate love story with an epic backdrop with humour, romance and compelling dramatic grandeur.

I’ve previously argued Gone with the Wind’s release just before the world plunged into World War II was apt as people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling through. Stephen King argued that The Exorcist appealed to parents concerned about losing their kids… and those teenagers, eager for shocks. Jaws was a subtle allegory of post-Watergate political tensions, Star Wars showcased the all-American optimism that had been so lacking in 1970s cinema, while Charlton Heston’s Moses appeared in Eisenhower’s reign as President during which Ike added references to God to both dollar bills and the Oath of Allegiance. Critics meanwhile noted E. T. as one of the first mainstream films that was informed by the new baby-boomer experience of a divorced father’s absence from a middle-class white family and the bitter cost on the children.

A number of these films were adapting already popular material. Snow White was a universally beloved fairytale, while The Exorcist, Dr Zhivago, Jaws and Gone with the Wind had all been bestselling novels, and Cecil B DeMille was dramatising the Bible. Robert Wise was adapting a hugely popular stage musical from the reigning kings of Broadway, while Star Wars drips with archetypal elements from Joseph Campbell’s rummaging thru the heroic legends of the world’s ancient cultures, and everyone thought Titanic was clichéd in the way Avatar was clichéd in its use of over-familiar story tropes, and on top of a famous event to boot. E.T. is the only original script here which would have been completely unpredictable to audiences. Perhaps the decline of reading as attention-spans collapse has eliminated the universal reception possible to films in the past, especially Gone with the Wind whose casting of Scarlett O’Hara was as protracted and famous as it was simply because so many people already had their image of Scarlett from reading Margaret Mitchell’s book. The new impossibility of gathering a monolithic audience in any sphere of entertainment means no film will ever top Gone with the Wind.

Oddly enough for an age that regards romance as a structural necessity regrettably foisted onto blockbusters or the stock-in-trade of the worst genre in the world (rom-com) we find romance dominating half these films. Snow White is the idealised fairytale romance, Omar Shariff and Julie Christie are thwarted lovers married to the wrong people in David Lean’s swooning 1965 epic, while forbidden romance again figures in Maria’s transformation from nun governess to beloved stepmother of the Von Trapp family, and Titanic is the archetypal American romance between an uptown girl and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. And of course the most tormented, dysfunctional, sweeping romance of them all stands at the very zenith. “Our love is epic”, Logan Echolls told Veronica Mars, “Epic?” “Epic. Spanning continents and decades. There’s betrayal, bloodshed and heartbreak. Epic.” And damn if Epic Love isn’t still the top film of all time. From the Golden Age of Hollywood comes the mythic love story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler’s romance while the Confederacy burns around them.

Titanic is the only film made since 1982 on the list. Seven of these films overcame television, with Titanic also defeating the ubiquity of video which removed the urgency of seeing something ‘only in theatres’, but we are now at an historic low for cinema-going. Why is a question for future postings…

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