Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Movie Journal: May

Isabelle Adjani in Possession (1981)
I watched 38 films in May, which breaks down into 31 features and 7 shorts. One of those viewings was a rewatch of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, a film that I love more and more with each viewing, and which I find myself revisiting every few years. In addition to being an emotionally draining experience and a virtuoso display of editing and pacing (it's three hours long and it feels like maybe half that), I always forget at least five or six of the famous actors who are in it, so even though I know the layout of the film pretty well at this point, it's still able to surprise. It also gets funnier and funnier with each viewing, possibly because the story gets a little less overwhelming each time, so the genuinely funny moments don't get lost as easily as they did on my first viewing.

The worst film I watched all month was David A. Stewart's Honest, which I watched purely to discuss it on this episode of Shot/Reverse Shot. As bad as a Swinging London-set film, shot by The Other One from Eurythmics, starring three-quarters of All Saints and drenched in all the worst excesses of post-Guy Ritchie British gangster films may sound, I was still surprised by how dreary the whole thing was. I was hoping for camp value - and it does deliver that during a climactic scene involving the Irish neighbour from Shameless, a machete and a fortuitous watermelon - but for the most part it's just incompetent enough to be bad, but not incompetent enough to be compelling.

Fair play to the supporting actors, though, many of whom have gone on to find work in things like the Twilight series, Doctor Who and Game of Thrones, instead of having their careers fatally derailed by association.

Now, to the good stuff. Here are the ten best films that I watched for the very first time in May of 2016.

1. Sergeant Rutledge (dir. John Ford, 1960)

This hit something of a sweet spot for me since it combines two genres that I'm predisposed to like - courtroom dramas and Westerns - and handled both halves of that equation beautifully. In telling the story of a black cavalry Sergeant (Woody Strode) who is accused of rape and murder, and of the lieutenant who defends him (Jeffrey Hunter), Ford creates a compelling mystery that explores issues of class and race with a touch which is both light yet morally serious. The heavy use of flashbacks also means that he can use the occasional shootout to take the action out of the courthouse, but even when it's just men berating each other it's hugely fun to watch, in no small part thanks to Hunter's intense earnestness.

2. Love & Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman, 2016)

The combination of Whit Stillman and Jane Austen seems so natural that it's hard to believe that it hasn't happened already. Stillman's wry, playful sensibility, which was used to great effect to lovingly skewer the foibles of WASPish types in Metropolitan and Barcelona, translates well to Georgian England, a society every bit as obsessed with propriety and etiquette as the ones that produced his earlier classics. Aside from the sharp writing, which is a joy, it's the performances that shine through. Kate Beckinsale is better than she's ever been as the ruthless Lady Susan, an inveterate schemer who's so far ahead of the people whose lives she is manipulating that she barely bats an eyelid even when her plans are found out. She's a wonderfully complex protagonist who goes from hero to villain from moment to moment, but always seems to be having so much fun that, even when I didn't want her to succeed, I found myself rooting for her. Special notice also has to go to Tom Bennett, who is hilarious as an oafish suitor for Lady Susan's daughter. No one has made peas such a rich source for comedy.

3. The Three Musketeers (dir. Richard Lester, 1973)

Speaking of high-spirited literary adaptations, Lester's take on Alexandre Dumas' swashbuckler has been on my radar for years, both for its surprising legacy (Lester shot so much footage that the film was split in two, even though the actors were only paid for one film, which led to lengthy legal battles that changed how actors' contracts are written) and because I'd heard that it was a raucous good time. That last claim is undoubtedly true, because this slapstick heavy version of the tale, shot through with the pop-art energy that defined Lester's work in the '60s, is a bawdy, rowdy take on the novel that treats the source material seriously while also making the characters look like charming idiots. Also, with a cast that includes Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch and Christopher Lee, it's not lacking in interesting performances.

4. Dodsworth (dir. William Wyler, 1936)

It's always nice to be reminded that entertainment and nuance can coexist in a single film, instead of being separated and sent off into their respective ghettos. Walter Huston plays a recently retired industrialist who goes on a European vacation with his wife (Ruth Chatterton) to mark the beginning of a new phase of their lives. Unfortunately, time alone together quickly reveals that the couple don't really have that much in common, and over the course of the film both halves of the marriage are drawn to other potential loves (including David Niven and Mary Astor). What's great about the film is that it's not only funny and moves along at a rapid pace, but it's genuinely thoughtful in its examination of how routine can mask the ways intimacy and love can disappear over time. The film sides more with Huston than with Chatterton, overall, but it doesn't take the easy route of demonising her, instead arguing that some marriages weren't meant to last.

5. Only Angels Have Wings (dir. Howard Hawks, 1939)

One of my favourite things about Howard Hawks is that he was a consummate professional who idealised consummate professionals. He was a director in the classic Hollywood mold who came in, did his job, then moved on to the next one, jumping  between disparate genres easily. But despite a varied filmography, you can detect a consistent love for people who are good at their jobs and always try to do their best in any situation. Only Angels Have Wings is a great example of that, in no small part because its setting - a rickety airline which flies through a dangerous pass in the Andes - allows for disaster to strike at almost any moment, necessitating professionalism and integrity at all times. In between the tense flying scenes, there's a wonderful romance between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, and plenty of the witty interplay and sense of camaraderie that marks the best of Hawks' work.

6. Possession (dir. Andrzej Żuławski, 1981)

I've wanted to see this ever since Mark Kermode used it as a reference point when describing Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, a film which I have mixed feelings about but which is certainly unforgettable. Having now seen it, I can definitely see the similarities, and now realise just how much Von Trier was holding back in his tale of derangement. The film starts at a pitched intensity that most films would reserve for their final moments, then just keeps getting more and audacious as the story, which is initially about a married couple (played by Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani) splitting up, gets ever stranger. Possession is often pegged as a horror or a psychological thriller, which makes sense since one of the characters cuts into their own neck with a turkey carver at one point, but it's more of a waking nightmare. Sure, it's scary, but mainly it's strange and disquieting. The characters look and act like people, but every action and emotion is taken to such an extreme that it takes on the heightened reality of a hallucination. An utterly unique experience that I'll be mulling over for a while.

7. Smoke (dir. Wayne Wang, 1995)

Quite possibly the most '90s indie film ever made, partly because everyone who worked in indie films in the '90s is in it, Wang's picaresque look at the lives of the clientele of a tobacco shop in Brooklyn makes for some low stakes fun. Like the books of Paul Auster, who wrote the screenplay, it's as much a work of philosophy as it is drama since the characters all get opportunities to explain their views on life and love, but the writing and the performances (particularly from Harvey Keitel as the owner of the tobacco show) are so specific and grounded that they feel like real people. Unusually loquacious people, but people nonetheless.

8. Crossfire (dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1947)

A terrific noir that mixes in a social message amidst all the hardboiled dialogue and moody lighting. Robert Young plays a detective who is called in to investigate a murder which may have been committed by a soldier. As the mystery unfolds through flashbacks, the ugly motive for the killing starts to come into view through the film's crackerjack pacing and complicated, occasionally bitter and hateful characters.

9. Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (dir. Dušan Makavejev, 1967)

A film which boasts one of the best titles ever, and one of the most unexpectedly practical, since that comma marks the dividing line between two connected but very different films. The first details the growing relationship between a young Hungarian switchboard operator (Eva Ras) and a Muslim sanitation inspector (Slobodan Aligrudić) and it's a funny, sensual story about young love. The second half is a clinical account of the investigation into the switchboard operator's death, and it uses testimony from "experts" to talk about the link between sex and death, and the forensic details of uncovering how and why people die. The contrast between the two halves and the ways in which they intersect make it at once invigorating and deeply sad.

10. A Bigger Splash (dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2015)

Rarely has a film been more deserving of the term "sultry". Guadagnino's woozy drama about a rock star (Tilda Swinton) recuperating in Italy with her lover (Matthias Schoenaerts) after an operation on her vocal chords, and how their solitude is disrupted by the sudden arrival of an old collaborator (Ralph Fiennes) and his young daughter (Dakota Johnson), is about as hot and claustrophobic as cinema gets. As the story unfolds and details about the characters' pasts are revealed, it is able to shift between moments of rambunctiousness (most notably Fiennes' dance to St. Vincent covering The Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue") to ones of dread and uncertainty. Those subtle shifts in mood, accentuated by the film's washed out cinematography, give it the feel of a fun holiday that is just starting to sour.