Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Review of 2013: Part two - Crazes and discoveries

Here's the second part of my review of the year, dealing not with new movies, but with the best old ones I came across this year. For the other half, my top 10 of 2013, click here.

In brief:

The man and woman of the year. At least for me. (Only for me.)

Crazes: Clara Bow, Clint Eastwood, Michelle Yeoh
Continuing preoccupations: Documentaries, silent film, Myrna Loy
Stuff I caught up on: Martial arts movies, things I taped on video nearly 10 years ago and never watched and then decided I had to because I was having a clear-out.
Revelations: MGM's 1936 Romeo and Juliet being one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever put on film - and Leslie Howard proving that he could be as good at drama as he was at comedy (for once).
A few performances that stuck with me: Clint in Unforgiven, Lake and McCrea in Sullivan's Travels, and, in terms of new ones, the boy (Thomas Doret) in Kid with a Bike.
Happiest surprises: Tootsie being nothing like any other drag film I'd ever seen (more below), Clara Bow offering a vivid, sexually-charged silent counterpoint to the virginal stylings of last year's breakout success, Janet Gaynor. My most(/only) extravagant purchase of the year was an iPhone cover from the BFI shop, showing Gaynor and Charlie Farrell in Street Angel.
Biggest disappointment: Cloudy 2 was so lazy and uninspired that it hurt my feelings.
Oddest films: Abel Gance's Napoleon was immense, avant garde and frequently baffling. And made in 1927. I'd forgotten how incredibly gruelling Dumbo is, especially for a kids' film.
Worst films: In just about any other year, Peggy Sue Got Married would walk it. I think Nicolas Cage's performance might be the worst I have ever seen in a movie. But this was the year I saw What's Your Number? I didn't know films that bad could actually exist.

Napoleon. Never knowingly not massive and arty.

Tell us about some great movies you saw that no-one's really heard of: Clara Bow's last film, Hoop-La, isn't available on DVD, but it should be. It's a staggering last hurrah: not her best movie, but quite possibly her best performance. Union Depot is a terrific Pre-Code cocktail that takes a dozen genres, shakes them and just goes with it. The Silent Partner isn't as well known as some of its '70s crime film cronies, but it's a cut above - if sometimes a little too nasty.
Some favourite moments: The scene between Dustin Hoffman and Charles Durning at the bar in Tootsie handled almost impossible material in the most staggeringly confident, virtuosic manner. The Intouchables made me smile no end, and Myrna got me choked up, as ever, in When Ladies Meet. And some least favourite moments: All of What's Your Number?, Ginger Rogers spoiling otherwise spot-on silent movie pastiches by mugging in Dreamboat, and any scenes featuring '30s annoyance Edna May Oliver, Joan Crawford or Nicolas Cage.
The funniest jokes: Most of Sam Rockwell's patter in The Way, Way Back was ludicrously funny. The "dirty great sea monster" gag in The Pirates! is sublime. Mr Poppy running out of the other door in Nativity! made me lose control of my face.
2013 was... The year I got married and finished the first draft of a book. Woop woop.
Best fight scene: I have a soft spot for the amazing market brawl at the start of Ip Man 2. Shame about the rest of the film.
Best film I saw at the cinema: Frances Ha or Napoleon. I've wanted to see the latter in all of its true glory for nine years, and it didn't disappoint.
I was bored by: A few too many, but Track of the Cat took things to a whole new level. I am reviewing my Mitchum completism as a result, as well as my slavish devotion to Philip French.
I wrote this pretty good review of _______________, you should read it if you have a minute: Remember My Forgotten Man, my favourite production number of all time.
Total number of films I've seen (new watches in brackets): 272 (231)

Most popular decades: 2010s (50 films seen), 1940s (45), 1930s (37), 2000s (31). ***

Top 20 "Discoveries" of 2013
These weren't new releases, just things I caught for the first time in the past 12 months.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012) is remarkable in every way: stunning to look at, full of jaw-droppingly lyrical dialogue and blessed with a triumphant, eminently hummable Cajun soundtrack. Lit by a multitude of brilliant sequences that seem to come out of nowhere, but don't, and dominated by Wallis's heroics (including some excellent screaming), it packs an emotional punch like nothing else I've seen in years. Full review.

2. Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982) is one of the great films, a rare movie that employs drag to interrogate gender stereotypes, not to sit lazily with them, smirking away. It's streaked with greasepaint, charmingly scored, richly romantic, hysterically funny and remarkably poignant. And the last 40 minutes is just utterly sensational. Full review.

3. Mantrap (Victor Fleming, 1926) - Clara Bow is at her absolute best as a combustible bundle of sex who heads to the country, and proceeds to drive all the men completely wild. Mantrap was her favourite of her films, and you can see why. It's lovely to look at, zips by in a flash and has at its centre one of the funniest, sensual and most startlingly charismatic performances I've ever seen. Full review.

4. Intouchables (Oliver Nakache and Eric Toledano, 2011) aka The Intouchables - Ladies and gentleman, I think we have a new comfort movie. And what a beautiful film it is: one of the funniest I've ever seen, and among the sweetest too. Omar Sy is an uneducated Senegalese immigrant from the Projects who applies to become a full-time carer to unhappy, wealthy quadriplegic Francois Cluzet, so he can complete his benefit form. Instead, he gets the job. Cluzet doesn't care about his background, he wants a man without pity, and he gets one - Sy's contempt for modern art, hilarity at high culture, and exuberant dancing to Earth, Wind & Fire are a bonus. Full review.

5. The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011) - One of the finest of the decade so far, a stunning, beautiful and utterly unpredictable comedy-drama, a perfectly-pitched rumination on existence, in all its chaotic, tragi-comic complexity. It's intelligent, incisive and poignant, its nuanced plotting, distinctive dialogue and glorious central performance accompanied by one of the most exquisite scores of recent decades, a Cooder-ish guitar accompaniment rich in authentic Hawaiian flavour. Full review.

6. Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941) - If Ball of Fire is Howard Hawks' best film - his most enchanting, entrancing and affecting - then Sergeant York has a claim to being his greatest: an astonishingly ambitious piece of storytelling, with sweep and style and a tremendous universality, that's also rooted in the personal. Its first half is a pastoral masterpiece (pastorpiece?) in the vein of Tol'able David, staggeringly shot in charcoal tones by Sol Polito, and chronicling hellraiser Alvin York's conversion to Christianity, within an isolated mountain community. The second follows Alvin (Gary Cooper) as he wrestles with his conscience upon being drafted during WWI, and winds up a war hero, via one of the greatest battle sequences ever filmed. Full review.

7. Le gamin au vélo (Dardenne brothers, 2011) aka The Kid with a Bike has elements of fatalism without being pessimistic, tells a simple story that never looks for an easy way out, and eschews sentimentality while radiating a bold and uncompromising sense of humanity. It moved me very deeply. Full review.

8. Wings (William Wellman, 1927) - A landmark of action cinema that perfectly blends jaw-dropping spectacle, intense bromance and compelling human drama. And features a lovely little teddy bear. Full review.

9. Yip Man aka Ip Man (Wilson Yip, 2008) - A back-to-basics kung fu classic with a realistic setting, a powerful story and a series of superbly-choreographed fight scenes that place an accent on technical skill, and possess a heartening reverence for visual clarity. It's also rooted in a stunning evocation of time and place, complete with poignant, beautiful bleached-out cinematography that calls to mind old sepia photos. Full review.

10. Of Mice and Men (Lewis Milestone, 1939) - Lewis Milestone's translation of the Steinbeck novella is an immersive, extraordinary powerful experience, exceptionally well-acted, particularly by Chaney and Meredith, and shot in painterly tones by Norbert Brodine. The two key scenes here - the first concerning the potential shooting of a dog, the second the potential shooting of a man - are dealt with perfectly, eliciting a nauseating dread and bitter anguish quite unlike anything I've felt watching a movie before. Full review.

11. Somewhere in Time (Jeannot Szwarc, 1980) - This time-travelling love story was panned on release, but has since attracted an obsessive following, and with good reason. It's wonderfully imaginative, extremely sure-footed, and has a heightened romantic sensibility reminiscent of both Brief Encounter and The Ghost and Mrs Muir, with a strong sense of conviction and an engaging unpretentiousness across both the performances and direction. Full review.

12. The Hired Hand (Peter Fonda, 1971) is a New Hollywood masterpiece from Peter Fonda, a reflective Western in which redemption comes not through revenge, but romance, in all its selfish, selfless glory. Full review.

13. Un long dimanche de fiançailles (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004) aka A Very Long Engagement - Jeunet’s follow-up to the incomparable Amélie is a transcendent romance, a complex mystery (with no shortage of whimsy) and a chilling evocation of the horror and futility of war, as Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) searches for her fiancé, one of five soldiers sentenced to death for desertion at Bingo Crépuscule three years earlier. It’s an extraordinarily successful melding of apparently incompatible moods and genres. Full review.

14. The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch, 1924) - Lubitsch's favourite of his own films, musicalised by the director eight years later as One Hour with You, is a perfectly crafted comedy-drama on his favoured topic of adultery. It's missing the catchy tunes and lush romanticism of the later film, but it's funnier, sexier and more resonant (thanks to its greater realism): masterfully conceived and directed, and with an exceptional turn from Prevost. Full review.

15. Napoleon (Abel Gance, 1927) - I was lucky enough to see the five-and-a-half-hour reconstruction of this silent epic at the Royal Festival Hall in November. The enduring impression is as if Gance had never seen a film before, and no-one had told him that this simply isn't how it's done. Full review.

16. The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012) - Like Man on Wire, The Imposter features a charismatic Frenchman explaining - direct-to-camera - how he pulled off the impossible. But unlike Philippe Petit - the visionary (and admittedly adulterer) - who walked above cities to bring a sense of wonderment to people's everyday lives, this guy is a sociopath. An incredible story, and a brilliant, compelling and ultimately unforgettable film. Full review.

17. In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen, 1993) goes to show what can be done when you take an unimpeachable idea, build on it cleverly, cast it perfectly and then hand over the reins to someone like Das Boot director Wolfgang Petersen, a filmmaker who knows when to be patient, when to inject a breathless urgency into the narrative and when to linger on a close-up of an old man nodding appreciatively at Rene Russo's bum. An Ennio Morricone score always helps too, of course. Full review.

18. Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen, 1941) - A romantic slow-burner, set in a Mexican border town, with Romanian gigolo Charles Boyer seducing American schoolteacher Olivia De Havilland to get in to the States, then starting to struggle with his conscience. Written in Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's distinctive style, and directed by Mitchell Leisen - the master of the romantic drama, now almost forgotten - it's a simply beautiful movie: one which completely sneaks up on you, with an original set-up, an unusual atmosphere, and superb performances by the leads. Full review.

19. Laugh, Clown, Laugh (Herbert Brenon, 1928) - A gutting, wonderful film and an important one too: in telling the story of a gifted mime who wins every heart except the one he wants, it must surely have influenced the ultimately incomparable Les enfants du paradis. Full review.

20. The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971) - A highlight of ClintFest '13. Siegel's film may not paint on the broadest canvas, but it has as good a feel for the Civil War as any film I've seen, from the sepia-toned credits to the vivid snippets of battle, and, most tellingly here, the realities of living with but not within the conflict: tying a ribbon to your gate as a code for passing soldiers, consuming rumour and counter-rumour of the latest shifts in dominance - a war shadowed in the schoolhouse - and trying to balance one's humanity, or selfish needs, with one's duty. This vividly-recreated world is a backdrop for mind games and power games heated by a bubbling cauldron of awakening sexuality, and heading who-knows-where. Full review.

I've done something about my top "discoveries" for years, but I used to call them "premieres". The new term is more evocative. I borrowed it from this chap.


Old favourites: my top 10 rewatches of the year:

1. The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927) (My favourite film of 2013, all told)
2. Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) aka Amélie (Twice)
3. Wo hu can long (Ang Lee, 2000) aka Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
4. Lucky Star (Frank Borzage, 1929)
5. Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
6. Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)
7. Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959)
8. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973)
9. Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)
10. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)

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