Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Top 12 Older Films I Saw in 2010

The debilitating and often-unavoidable sameness of Top 10 Films of the Year lists can be a bit wearying – I really can’t remember which critics had The Fighter or The Social Network or Black Swan on their lists and which ones didn’t, for example, and at this point I kind of don’t care anymore. A much more interesting – and, I’d like to think, revealing – kind of list would be one featuring older films a given person/critic/writer/moviegoer saw and loved in a given year. You know, the movies you either finally caught up with or somehow chanced upon that rocked your world. I suppose I’ll be offering up an actual Top 10 List for 2010 soon enough (still a couple of major releases I need to see, so I don’t miss my chance to be the 459th person to top ten True Grit). But for now, here’s a list I feel a lot more strongly about: The Top 12 Older Films I Discovered in 2010. In no particular order:

[UPDATE: And it almost goes without saying, of course, that I'm eager to hear/read/see other people's lists as well.]

The Blizzard (Vladimir Basov, 1964)
Ever since I saw it briefly mentioned in one of those Cahiers du Cinema “best films of the year” lists from the ‘60s, I’ve wanted to see this – and I finally managed to this year, and it was somehow as deliriously evocative as I’d imagined all these years. The story is a simple Pushkin tale, and the film itself is quite short, but the result is a work of completely outsize emotions, where every camera move and cut and music cue seems to bring the world crashing down around it. Amazing. It certainly doesn’t hurt matters that this features some of the most amazing work of composer Georgy Sviridov’s career. Here's a clip:

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Robert Altman, 1982)
Is everyone aware of what a goddamn near-masterpiece this film is? Altman had directed Ed Graczyk’s play on stage and got the chance to do it for TV – with a bit of initiative, he turned it into an actual feature and got it released in theaters, despite the fact that it’s all confined to one set. This is supposedly from that period when Altman had fallen out of favor, which makes it doubly criminal that it contains some of his best work, with that irresistible interplay of irony and warmth that is his unmistakable cinematic worldview. Watch the tragedy creep in slowly and gradually take hold of the room.

The State I Am In (Christian Petzold, 2000)
Petzold’s Jerichow, released in New York a couple of years ago, seemed to me to be 2/3 of a great movie, which was enough to make me seek out his other work, but I didn’t get to this one until I did a “Vulture Recommends” with Olivier Assayas in which I had him recommend five films about terrorism. (You can find his list buried somewhere on this page.) He compared this to Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty -- which I also revisited in the wake of that interview, and discovered to be even more of a masterpiece this time around. So, y’know, thanks, Olivier Assayas.

Men of Novgorod, or A Good Lad (Boris Barnet, 1943)
The Old Rider, or The Old Jockey, or The Old Horseman (Boris Barnet, 1959)
Slowly, painfully unearthing the films of Soviet director Barnet has been something of a project for the past few years for myself and my friend Dan Sallitt. These two are key works that took a while for us to find in versions we could watch and understand, but they were well worth the effort. Ostensibly, they’re two very different films – the former is a poetically infused, stylized war movie-cum-musical, the latter a tender drama about an aging jockey. But through both of them, Barnet’s surprising humanity shines through, as well as his deft, light touch with the darkest of subject matter.

La Via del Petrolio (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1967)
Bertolucci’s elusive TV documentary about oil, made between Before the Revolution and Partner, was finally restored a couple of years ago, and its appearance at the recent MoMA retro was, frankly, the highlight of my December. I was truly shocked at how much of a genuine Bertolucci film it was – with its constantly seeking camerawork, its deliberate references to the cinematic and cultural past, and, most importantly, its aching sense of place. It pretends to be about oil but like all Bertolucci films it’s actually about geography, both human and social – beginning in the oilfields of Iran, traveling via ship across Suez, and finally journeying through the heart of Europe, charting entire worlds along the way.

Out of the Blue (Dennis Hopper, 1980)
It’s amazing that Dennis Hopper was still thought of as a doped-out, washed-up freak when he made this magnificent coming-of-age film with Linda Manz. In its own way, it’s as electrifyingly American a film as Easy Rider, but it has a tender, generous dimension all its own. We may have lost Hopper this year, but there’s so much left to discover from his career.

The Widow Couderc (Pierre Granier-Deferre, 1971)
The cinema of Pierre Granier-Deferre was another discovery this year, and he seems right up my alley -- a once-successful European director of prestige pictures now barely acknowledged outside of his home country. (See also: Bolognini, Mauro and Scola, Ettore.) Couderc concerns a strangely suspect passion that develops between a tormented widow (Simone Signoret, but of course) and the handsome, mysterious drifter (Alain Delon) she hires to help out on her farm; and in the graceful tension with which it builds its odd central affair, it’s a riveting work.

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, 1971)
Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s absolutely deranged Euro-sploitation take on John Ford’s English Renaissance warhorse of the stage was a natural for me, as it features a score by Ennio Morricone, cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, editing by Franco Arcalli – aka Bertolucci’s old crew – not to mention costume design by Gabriella Pescucci. So it looks and sounds great, even as it goes into surreal realms of sex and gore – a supremely watchable unwatchable film. Here's a totally demure trailer, of sorts:

The Cinema of Arthur Lipsett
My pal Bruce Bennett turned me on to this guy – here’s a piece Bruce wrote about him for The New York Sun in 2008 – and I must say, Lipsett lives up to his billing as one of the most energetic and playful experimental found-footage filmmakers of the mid-20th century. As Bruce puts it: “He used the cutting room to put consumerism, religious dogma, suffocating mass-media bullying, and popular culture's cancerous mutation under the knife via the flickering pictures and purling noises and voices he juxtaposed.” I really should’ve known about this guy before. Specific titles I’d recommend: “Very Nice, Very Nice,” “Free Fall, “21-87.”

A Cold Wind in August (Alexander Singer, 1961)
Singer was an early, early associate (and, I think, high school bud) of Stanley Kubrick’s, but I’d never bothered to watch any of his films before this. He appears to have had a brief career in features (some may recall his totally bizarre contribution to the Spaghetti Western genre, Captain Apache, aka Deathwork, starring Lee Van Cleef), and then gone on to a pretty busy career in TV. This was his breakthrough film, a modest indie melodrama (when barely anybody knew what those words together meant) about a young man’s heated relationship with an older woman. 

The Lake of the Dead (Kare Bergstrom, 1958)
You would not think that a Norwegian horror film from 1958 would still be genuinely lose-your-shit scary. You would be wrong.

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