A selection of capsule reviews written for Cine-File.info in 2012.
After Tomorrow (Frank Borzage, 1932)
A couple of good kids in love (Charles Farrell, Marian Nixon) find themselves repeatedly having to postpone their marriage in this exceptional Depression-era romance—a potent mix of Pre-Code candor, elegant James Wong Howe camera movements, evocative production design (by William Darling), and Frank Borzage's unmatched sense for how desire and anxiety can seem to reshape space itself. Like many films of the period, this possesses a remarkable (by today's standards) intelligence about how communities and families work (the depiction of Nixon's relationship to her father, played by William Collier Sr., being just one striking example), but what stands out the most is the way Borzage seamlessly integrates the sensual world of the central couple into what is ostensibly a "social," ensemble-based narrative; the close-up of Nixon's face as she tilts her head back, eyes closed, in anticipation of a kiss from Farrell stands as one of the great erotic images of early American sound filmmaking.
Les Anges du Peche (Robert Bresson, 1943)
Despite—or because of—its overtly religious subject matter, Robert Bresson's "conventional" first feature—about an order of nuns who specialize in looking after female ex-cons—is the one (aside from, of course, his debut short, Public Affairs) that most thoroughly hints at his Surrealist roots. Made before Bresson started putting his theories about editing, framing and acting into practice, the film has a style that's essentially syncretic, repurposing "mainstream" (or "mainstream at the time") ideas about how a camera should move, how a film should be edited, how actors should perform, and how a story should be told toward its own ends; it teeters somewhere between reverence and absurdism, with Bresson interjecting the melodramatic plot with scenes of nuns scurrying around at night, nuns hiding in shadows, nuns arguing—their hoods always comically flapping in the wind. From Public Affairs through L'Argent, Bresson displayed a generally ironic stance toward human behavior and social hierarchies—regardless of what you've heard, this is no different.
Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
Time has been incredibly kind to Jean-Luc Godard's lightweight "crime movie," a notable flop in its time, which has emerged, nearly half-a-century later, as one of the filmmaker's most enduringly (and endearingly) popular films. A seemingly tossed-off distillation of the themes, obsessions, and techniques of JLG's early period, this loose adaptation of a largely-forgotten American pulp novel—Fool's Gold, by Dolores Hitchens—stars Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur as a couple of incompetent dreamer hoods, and Godard's then-wife and muse Anna Karina as a girl they meet in their English class and rope into helping them commit a robbery. Karina gives what is perhaps her definitive performance, combining tragedy, resolve, and girlish charm into a single enigmatic package, and the film's giddy, scuzzy style—packed tight with references, meta-jokes, and directorial flight-of fancy—is downright intoxicating. If you've never seen a Godard film, this might be the place to start.
The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1954)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz's pseudo-novelistic filmmaking style—talky, writerly, structurally ungainly, heavy on foregrounded detail—reached something of an apex with this lengthy-by-50s-standards showbiz drama about a Mankiewicz-like writer/director (Humphrey Bogart) who makes a star out of a Rita Hayworth-like nightclub dancer (Ava Gardner) in a world where everybody talks kind of like Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz's literary aspirations—which had taken on tighter (Letter to Three Wives) and more broadly-appealing (All About Eve) forms before—are here at their messiest and most personal; this is the work of an obsessive, catty wit. Like the film itself, Jack Cardiff's Technicolor cinematography achieves a striking balance between garishness and shadow.
Before the Revolution (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1964)
Bernardo Bertolucci's second feature is a time capsule of what hip, ambitious filmmaking was expected to look like in the post-New Wave era: emotionally and politically committed, tonally disjointed, with lots of hidden-camera crowd scenes and dramatic close-ups that crop off the tops of actor's heads. Bertolucci was only 22 when he directed the film, and it certainly shows in the movie's self-serious plot (a take-off of The Charterhouse of Parma with a brooding Bertolucci stand-in worrying about his commitment to Communism) and dialogue. Still, it'd be a mistake to write the film off as juvenilia; in its own earnest and unselfconscious way, it represents the clearest expression of the director's central theme—the intersection of the private erotic and the public political—and the young Bertolucci's willingness to experiment with and even break form—playing with editing, camera movements, and framing—is bold and ballsy. Not a perfect film, but one that everyone should see.
Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996)
Part of the enduring popularity of Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders (playing Thursday; see above) is owed to the tremendous influence the film had on the American independent filmmakers who emerged in the 1980s and '90s, serving as a sort of how-to template (and reference point) for Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Hal Hartley's Simple Men, the work of Quentin Tarantino (whose production company is named after the film's French title), and Wes Anderson's debut, a comic fantasy about two friends (Luke and Owen Wilson, in their screen debuts) who aspire to become world-class criminals. Expanded from a short film (which, unlike the feature but very like Band of Outsiders, was shot in black-and-white and Academy Ratio), Bottle Rocket weds Anderson's storybook eccentricity to a more naturalistic style. It's easily Anderson's goofiest and most relaxed movie: a likeably slack and damn funny comedy that also presents first drafts of the themes—jealousy, friendship, and characters whose worldviews are out of proportion—that have since dominated Anderson's career.
The Brasher Doubloon (John Brahm, 1947)
In the space of less than six months—from August 1946 to February 1947—American moviegoers were treated to three different versions of Raymond Chandler's popular Philip Marlowe character: Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep, an off-screen Robert Montgomery in the actor/director's first-person oddity Lady in the Lake, and the charisma-free George Montgomery (no relation) in this B take on The High Window (already adapted a few years prior as Time to Kill). A strapping former stuntman of questionable acting ability, Montgomery is a poor match for the baroque sensibilities of stubborn noir stylist/cuculoris addict John Brahm—but the ever-resourceful director manages to make up for Montgomery's shortcomings, cultivating an eccentric atmosphere through careful use of unusual lighting schemes, creepy compositions, and, most notably, a lot of well-chosen bit players. Brahm had a rich eye for casting character actors (he did, after all, put Laird Cregar in a lead role twice), and The Brasher Doubloon features a rogue's gallery of memorable mugs, including perennial old-timer Houseley Stevenson, grapefruit-nosed toughie Jack Overman, and the Mephistophelean, lazy-eyed Alfred Linder (uncredited, as always).
Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004)
Johnnie To's crackling action movie/media satire/filmmaking master class begins with a virtuoso seven-minute-long take and only gets better from there. Following a botched police bust, a group of criminals holes up in an apartment building and takes a few hostages; pretty soon, their stand-off with the cops devolves into posturing and one-upmanship, with each side doing their darnedest to manipulate the pesky TV news reporters gathered at the scene. An unmatched craftsman of choreographed action and suspense, To is at the top of his game here: his use of cranes, zooms, dollies, depth-of-field, and shifting perspectives is nothing short of dazzling. But what makes this movie such a goddamn masterpiece is the way it also functions as a grand statement of artistic principles—a film about how images work, what makes them exhilarating, and how they can be manipulated.
Bullet in the Head (John Woo, 1990)
Color, movement, physical dexterity, symbolism, choreography, artificiality, formal confluence, romanticism—reduce the stylized Hong Kong action movie to its most important parts, and what you end up with is a pretty apt description of the mid-20th century movie musical; just substitute gunfights for song-and-dance numbers. Nowhere is this relationship between the two genres more blatant than in John Woo's Minnelli-influenced Vietnam War epic, an ambitious corrective to The Deer Hunter (a movie that also wears its Minnelli influence on its sleeve) that flopped hard at the box office back in 1990. Opening with an extended audio-visual jam on the Monkees' "I'm a Believer," Bullet in the Head follows three HK street toughs (Jacky Cheung, Waise Lee, and the shorter/cooler of Hong Kong's two Tony Leungs) who decide that they can make a quick buck in the totally-not-dangerous Saigon war profiteering industry and get their lives ruined in the process. While all of Woo's HK action films are melodramatic (have you seen The Killer lately?), none of them foreground the melodrama the way Bullet does; the film's distinctive blend of soapy plotting, choreographed violence, and expressionist color verges on the hallucinatory.
Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011)
An investment banker (Kate Winslet) and her Blackberry-addicted corporate lawyer husband (Christoph Waltz) are trapped by escalatingly-absurd social circumstances in the Brooklyn apartment of a housewares salesman (John C. Reilly) and a high-minded writer (Jodie Foster) in Roman Polanski's brief comedy of bourgeois mores and misbehavior. The film's confined setting—the living room of the apartment, with occasional detours to such geographically remote locations as the kitchen, the bathroom and the hallway—serves as a showcase for Polanski's keen mise-en-scene and the meticulous production design of Dean Tavoularis (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now); they imbue the whole thing with a heightened sense of constructed reality—one where every detail counts.
Centennial Summer (Otto Preminger, 1946)
If Otto Preminger sounds like an odd choice of director for a golly-gee Americana musical, it's because he was; still, that didn't stop 20th Century Fox from putting him at the helm of this Jerome Kern-scored soufflé about two sisters (Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell) who fall for a Frenchman (Cornel Wilde, sounding vaguely Quebecois) during the lead-up to Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exposition. Bizarrely, the whole thing works; it's far and away the best of Preminger's three forays into the genre, achieving a sense of balance absent from the later Carmen Jones and Porgy & Bess, and the director's distinctive cool-as-a-cucumber style results in some of the most elegantly understated musical numbers ever committed to three-strip Technicolor.
Charulata (Satyajit Ray, 1964)
Though his name is familiar to American cinephiles and his debut feature, Pather Panchali, has been a staple of film school curricula for decades, Satyajit Ray remains something of an unknown quantity in the United States: a writer and filmmaker with a vast and diverse body of work who is known chiefly for a handful of early features. If you only known Ray for his Apu trilogy—or for his reputation as a dude who, like, made some important movies—then this nuanced masterpiece about a lonely, neglected upper-class housewife in 19th century Calcutta should be an eye-opener. The son and grandson of illustrators, Ray had a background in graphic design (Pather Panchali was adapted from a novel for which Ray has designed the cover), and his masterful sense of visual composition comes to the forefront in Charulata, a film where the visible—the framings, the careful dolly movements, even the wallpaper—somehow communicates invisible undercurrents and subtexts. The gorgeous score—composed by Ray himself—is nothing to sneeze at either.
Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, 1960)
Part ethnographic survey, part theoretical discourse, part filmmaking free-for-all, this seminal gabfest takes a documentary gimmick—set up a camera and a microphone on the street and then ask random passerby whether they're happy—and breaks it apart; the result is not only a revealing and important document of a time and a place, but also a landmark examination of how people perceive themselves and of how cinema works. Describing the project as "self-reflexive" would be an understatement; co-directors Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin employ a discursive structure that blends the increasingly candid and probing interviews with in-depth discussions of the interviewees' responses and comments on the film as a work-in-progress, in effect expanding its scope from everyday French life circa 1960 to the broader question of whether cinema is even capable of tackling such a subject. With its extensive use of handheld cameras and direct sound, this film helped legitimize cinema verité as a genre, though it doesn't completely adhere to that—or any other—documentary technique; part of what makes this so enthralling as filmmaking is the way Rouch and Morin leap from approach to approach, seemingly willing to try anything in order to answer the ambitious questions they pose for themselves.
The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, 2011)
Alex Ross Perry's shoestring-budget tour de force is one of the best and boldest American independent films of the last decade: a challenge to conventions of taste, tone, and what indie movies are supposed to look and move like that also manages to be both funny and genuinely tragic. Drawing equally from Philip Roth and late-period Jerry Lewis, the film follows a pair of loser siblings (Perry and co-writer Carlen Altman) who while away the hours verbally attacking each other—that is, when they're not busy being mocked by the dipshits, assholes, and outright dicks of the world they inhabit. The humor ranges from slapstick to hateful, and Sean Price William's black-and-white 16mm camerawork runs the gamut from shaky handheld to complex zoom-and-dolly shots, but there's nothing slapdash about this all-over-the-place movie—its wild stylistic and tonal detours are all informed by a bleak but ultimately sympathetic view of human life and longing, which comes to the fore in the film's gut-wrenching single-take climax. This is American cinema at its purest and nastiest.
Come Back Africa (Lionel Rogosin, 1960)
A contemporary and kindred spirit to Jean Rouch and Morris Engel, the early American independent Lionel Rogosin has become one of the decade's major cinephilic rediscoveries. Rogosin's Skid Row-set boundary-blurrer On the Bowery was restored and screened to great acclaim last year; on its heels comes the restoration of Rogosin's even more ambitious second feature, Come Back Africa, a new print of which will be one of the centerpieces of Facets' annual African Diaspora Festival. Shot on the sly in South Africa using a cast of non-professional actors, the film is a candid and at times brutally honest look at life under apartheid. Rogosin's political anger is palpable, but what comes through even more strongly is his unparalleled gift for portraiture; as in On the Bowery, his way of photographing his subjects' faces recalls Rembrandt more than Italian Neo-Realism.
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)
David Cronenberg's Don DeLillo adaptation is compacted and claustrophobic—verbally, structurally, visually. Set over over the course of a single day, the film follows Manhattan billionaire Eric Packer (gloomy pretty boy du jour Robert Pattinson) as he talks with advisors, gets a prostate exam, fucks, tries to buy the Rothko Chapel, and watches his financial empire disappear—all without having to leave the confines of his ultra-luxe limo. Working with an intentionally artificial style, Cronenberg crafts Packer's high-tech stretch into a microcosm of the late capitalist world: a moral vacuum where everything exists only in abstract terms. The film's most unsettling implications, however, come from the scenes where Packer ventures outside—and into a world that's isn't all that different from the one he's carefully micromanaged for himself.
Dark Command (Raoul Walsh, 1940)
While serious-minded John Ford and the Western revisionists that followed his lead were keen to debunk American legends, Raoul Walsh never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn; Walsh's "fact-based" films are so loose that they could qualify as historical fan fiction—which isn't to say there's anything remotely reverential about them. This flavorful Western recasts the Civil War's notorious Lawrence Massacre as a love triangle; Walter Pidgeon plays Confederate guerilla William Quantrill (renamed "Cantrell" here) and Walsh discovery John Wayne is the raw-potato-chewin' dentist's-assistant-turned-marshall who vies with him for the affections of a good local girl (Claire Trevor). This may sound like fluff, but Walsh—American cinema's patron saint of existential tension and pent-up manic energy—fills the movie up with enough low-angle shots, silhouettes, shadows, and moments of stark pitch-blackness to qualify it as an early Western noir.
Flowing (Mikio Naruse, 1956)
Inspired, like Kenji Mizoguchi's contemporaneous Street of Shame, by the Japanese government's decision to criminalize organized prostitution in 1956, this candid ensemble drama is set around a declining geisha house. A cast of acting heavyweights—including Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, and Haruko Sugimura—play the women whose livelihoods depend on this fading business, which in turn depends on a fading way of life; Naruse's vision is anything but sentimental, suggesting that the characters are as hopeless and worthless in the new, "progressive" society as they were in the outmoded system of values it was created to replace. Though for the most part Naruse sticks with perspective of a middle-aged maid (Tanaka) who takes a job at the geisha house, it's the director's muse, Hideko Takamine—playing the part of the madam's "modern" daughter—who truly represents the film's outlook: a character with no place in the old world and no chance in the new one.
Fulltime Killer (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai, 2001)
More or less a live action cartoon, this colorful, kinetic action movie was directed in collaboration by Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai, a seemingly unlikely pair whose longstanding creative partnership is arguably the single most fruitful collaboration in contemporary cinema. Wai has an outsize imagination and a predilection for oddball characters and twists, while To is an old-school craftsman with a gift for composing action and delineating group dynamics; they jam like great musicians, with To's intelligence and wit playing off of Wai's quirky, out-there ideas. The plot here has something to do with two hit men vying for the affection of a video store clerk, but it serves mostly as an excuse for To & Wai to riff on their favorites movies and create some bravura action sequences. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but goddamn if it ain't fun.
Hard Boiled (John Woo, 1992)
Somewhere between silly and sublime, the pièce de résistance of John Woo's Hong Kong career turns pulp cheese into pop ballet—fluid, extravagant, and totally enamored with its own sense of cool. Chow Yun-Fat stars as Tequila (a name that only John Woo—or a ten-year-old boy—could love), a clarinet-playing cop who teams up with an undercover loner (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) to take down a triad boss (Anthony Wong), shoot a lot of people, and rescue some adorable babies. Woo's worldview—overwrought, slightly homoerotic, with some entry-level metaphysics and psychology thrown in for good measure—may be reductive, but damn if it doesn't have a certain brutal grace to it; the way he turns the characters into bodies in motion—charging at one another, leaping through space, getting showered with shards of glass—is engrossing and often just plain beautiful.
Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)
Martin Scorsese's ain't-cinema-grand tearjerker—stills from which will illustrate the entry for "sincere" in future editions of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary—is one helluva odd movie: a gee-whiz showcase of digital technology that is explicitly about the importance of preserving film history, a two-hour-plus boys' adventure (complete with the usual trappings of orphanhood, self-discovery, and adult intrigue) in which very little actually happens, and a $150 million tentpole picture that feels deeply personal (to borrow a phrase from the Chicago Reader's Ben Sachs, this is Scorsese in full-on "hoarder" mode, cramming the mise-en-scene with throwaway reference to James Joyce, Louis Feuillade, and whatever else his hyperactive brain free-associates with the film's pre-war Paris setting). It's also pretty close to being a work of art. With every new filmmaking technology at his disposal, Scorsese creates a hyper-detailed alternate universe, a place where cinema functions as an upsetting force—opening up new possibilities, shifting the status quo, healing old wounds and bringing out the good in seemingly bad people. It's hopeful, naïve, and intoxicating.
The Innkeepers (Ti West, 2011)
A couple of schmoes (Sara Paxton, Pat Healy) work their last shifts at a bankrupt—and possibly haunted—New England hotel in the latest from low-key throwback horror specialist Ti West. The essence of West's style is a reversal of the usual ratio of drama to genre action: the shocking stuff is reduced to a compact minimum (in this case, the last 20 or so minutes), and build-up and details are expanded until they nearly swallow up the whole movie. West knows how to craft a creepy, suspenseful sequence (one scene involving Paxton wandering the hotel's first floor with a microphone comes to mind), but even more impressive is his willingness to apply his chops to more mundane stuff; in many ways, this is one of the most accurate portrayals of what it's like to work a boring, repetitive minimum-wage job to make its way to American screens in some time.
Keoma (Enzo G. Castellari, 1976)
By the mid-1970s, the spaghetti Western had largely run its course, lapsing into self-parody (intentional and otherwise); this grim, dusty showdown movie by Enzo G. Castellari—a specialist in slam-bang action who never met a slow motion shot he didn't love—marked one of the last serious attempts at reviving the genre. Franco Nero plays a shaggy-haired gunfighter returning to his plague-ridden hometown; not much is new here in terms of themes or plot, but Castellari's forceful technique—which runs the gamut from cheesy to sublime to sublimely cheesy—is an effect in and of itself, and his sense of widescreen composition gives it all a sense of urgency.
The Last Circus (Alex de la Iglesia, 2010)
Alex de la Iglesia—Spain's premier purveyor of frenetic violence, wide-angle lenses, and Steadicam shots—has long been obsessed with social outcasts, doubling, and characters overcome by jealousy; these themes—inextricably linked in de la Iglesia's movie-obsessed misfit worldview—get one of their finest workouts in The Last Circus, a bleak, gory and often very funny black comedy about two clowns vying for the love of an acrobat in early '70s Spain. The opening scene—which depicts a group of Republican soldiers forcibly conscripting a circus during the Spanish Civil War—deftly sets the tone: pessimistic, gleefully perverse, disturbing (this film may hold the record for having the most characters get shot in the head on-screen)—but also, like all of de la Iglesia's work, deeply affectionate. There are loads of directors out there who make films that are sympathetic to human nobility; de la Iglesia may be the only one to be truly sympathetic toward out-and-out ugliness.
The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper, 1971)
Hot off the unexpected success of Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper was give complete creative control and a considerable amount of studio funding to make this quasi-fable about a stuntman (Hopper) who gets roped into a movie cargo cult in the jungles of Peru. Shot on location with a cast seemingly composed of whoever Hopper felt like hanging out with at the time—including Sam Fuller, Kris Kristofferson, Michelle Phillips, Peter Fonda, Sylvia Miles and Dean Stockwell—and edited over the course of a year at Hopper's remote, gun-and-groupie-filled compound, it's a jumbled, intentionally-fragmentary mess—but also a singular and serious (albeit coked-up) artistic statement by a man attempting to make an anti-Hollywood movie on Hollywood's dime. Hopper might've not accomplished everything he set out to do, but the result is still unpredictable and one-of-a-kind.
Late August, Early September (Olivier Assayas, 1998)
Before establishing himself as the preeminent stylist of globalized paranoia, Olivier Assayas penned a handful of screenplays for André Téchiné; this exceptional ensemble drama—cast with a Who's Who of up-and-coming French actors circa 1998—feels like Assayas' tribute to his mentor. The fascination with weather and changing seasons, the chaptered narrative, the prickly and self-destructive characters, the focus on cycles, departures, and interpersonal relationships—nearly all of Téchiné's pet themes and subjects are present and accounted for. The big giveaway that this is un film de Olivier Assayas and not de André Téchiné is the style: jittery, kinetic, slightly disorienting, with a motile camera that is pretty much the opposite of Téchiné's plaintive-but-unsentimental visual classicism. Look out for Cine-File favorite (and future Mrs. Olivier Assayas) Mia Hansen-Løve in a small but key role.
Lives of Performers (Yvonne Rainer, 1972)
Yvonne Rainer was already well-known as a dancer when she took up cinema, and so perhaps the best way to approach her filmmaking (which would eventually supersede dance as her medium-of-choice) is as a "choreography of ideas." Lives of Performers, Rainer's seminal first feature, has many things in common with her dance work: a stripped-down "no style," "no virtuosity" ethos (which extends from the unshowy camerawork—by avant-garde mainstay Babette Mangolte—to the intentionally dulled performances); a sense that points (movements in dance, ideas in film) have been intentionally spaced far apart (or in some cases staggered) in order for each mundane statement or gesture to register and develop in its own, bloom-like way; and a flat tone that—while hardly abrasive—can be a tad difficult. As a choreographer, Rainer was hell-bent on avoiding showmanship—technique, spectacle, and what she called "the seduction of the spectator by the wiles of the performer"—at all costs, and that mindset continued on to her film work; it's this sense of openness and ideological transparency (Rainer's work can be too on-the-nose, but it's never manipulative) that's made her such an enduring influence on the American avant-garde. Rainer will appear in person, where you can ask about second-wave feminism and her Biggie-vs.-Tupac-level beef with Marina Abramovic.
Lured (Douglas Sirk, 1947)
Douglas Sirk was only active as a filmmaker for about 25 years, producing his most-widely known and influential works—the multi-layered mise-en-scene-master-class melodramas which made him a favorite of queer filmmakers and dry film studies types (or, in the case of Todd Haynes, queer filmmakers who are also dry film studies types) the world over—in the last five years of his career. This quasi-noir—about a brassy American dancer (Lucille Ball) serving as live bait in a Scotland Yard plot to catch a serial killer—was made during a lengthy transitional period in Sirk's life, coming after his departure from Germany but before he established himself as the preeminent stylist of blockbuster Hollywood weepies; like many of the films from Sirk's "first twenty years," it's overdue for reappraisal. Sirk's images are famous for communicating that which the characters cannot see (he once compared his films to mirrors reflecting blind men); the tone of the acting and dialogue here might be light, but the compositions are often nervy and claustrophobic, hinting at a menacing evil that lurks beneath the breezy surface.
Navajo Joe (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)
Brusquer and visually more brutish than his contemporary (and longtime friend) Sergio Leone, the prolific Sergio Corbucci had an equal—if not greater—influence on the development of the Italian Western; while Leone made the genre respectable by giving it a highfalutin' patina of decay and decline, Corbucci brought on the blood'n'guts, cranking up the meanspiritedness until it solidified into something like a worldview. Made the same year as his seminal Django, Navajo Joe centers on a Navajo Indian (Burt Reynolds, of all people) seeking vengeance against the bandits who attacked his village; the revenge set-up is typically Corbuccian, as is the brutal, bloody conclusion.
Old Boy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
Park Chan-wook's slick mindfuck single-handedly launched a vogue for all things Korean among Stateside genre enthusiasts; it may not hold much water as narrative, but as a display of technical skill and showmanship, it's hard to beat. The premise is, admittedly, pretty damn neat: ordinary schlub Dae-su (revenge movie staple Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped and held prisoner in a cell for fifteen years; suddenly released by his mysterious captors, he must now figure out who held him prisoner and why. The double-revenge plot—Dae-su seeks revenge against his captor, who in turn kept him prisoner as part of an elaborate retribution—is a bit of a MacGuffin; for all of its (underdeveloped) capital-T Themes, this is really a movie about Park's ability to construct a grisly, entertaining sequence—something that he does very, very well.
Sign of Leo (Eric Rohmer, 1962)
Always a bit of a goofball, Eric Rohmer made his feature directing debut with this broad fable about an American expat who believes he's inherited a fortune, spends money freely, and then ends up down and out on the muggy streets of Paris. While the movie bears little resemblance to Rohmer's subsequent work, its detailed mise-en-scene, 1930's-style acting, and limber camerawork all point to the appreciation for classical filmmaking that lay behind the French New Wave's radical innovations—not to mention the finely-tuned, subtle style Rohmer himself would later develop. Like Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs to Us, which screened earlier in the same series, this was a commercial flop in its time; long neglected, it is ripe for re-appreciation. As was customary for the early New Wave films, the film is chock full of director cameos; look out for Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Resnais, and perennial scene-stealer Jean-Luc Godard.
Terror in a Texas Town (Joseph H. Lewis, 1958)
This sublime Western oddity was the last film directed by Joseph H. Lewis, one of the true, undisputed artists of the American B film. The script, by blacklistee Dalton Trumbo, is pure Lefty pulp: a harpoon-toting Swede (Sterling Hayden) must defend the hardworking people of his frontier hometown against a rotund, waistcoat'd capitalist (Sebastian Cabot) and his black-gloved henchman. Lewis' expressive, exaggerated, slightly nightmarish style renders everything in outsize, cartoony dimensions; it's a film of big faces, big gestures, and big empty spaces—all best appreciated on a big screen.
Too Late Blues (John Cassavetes, 1961)
Pure hepcat pulp, John Cassavetes' second feature uses the story of a jazz pianist (hairpiece-wearing crooner Bobby Darin) to jam on a pretty familiar theme: the principled dude growing progressively less and less principled under the influence of comfort, money, and two-timing dames. Produced as part of a disastrous directing contract with Paramount, it's slicker, more studio-bound, and—in terms of narrative—clunkier, nastier, and more formulaic than the work Cassavetes is best known for. However, it's also sincere, emotionally raw, and impeccably acted, with the dialogue's rich macho chatter more than making up for the bare TV-style sets in terms of atmosphere and flavor. Pretty much the definition of a compromised picture—a movie about New York and the dangers of selling out shot on a major studio's backlot—this isn't without its flaws, but it still warrants rediscovery, at the very least for a supporting performance from veteran TV producer Everett Chambers (who produced Johnny Staccato and would later work on Cassavetes regular Peter Falk's Columbo; also, uh, Airwolf) that stands as one of the all-time great one-off acting turns.
Turn the Key Softly (Jack Lee, 1953)
A one-time photographer, documentary filmmaker (in Britain's seminal GPO Film Unit and its equally-important successor, Crown Films—studios which, in their combined two-decade existence, produced work by Humphrey Jennings, Norman McLaren, Len Lye, Anthony Asquith, and Benjamin Britten), and assistant to architect-turned-director Alberto Cavalcanti, Jack Lee brings all three of those backgrounds to this understated realist drama about three female petty criminals—a patsy (Yvonne Mitchell), a hooker (Joan Collins), and an elderly shoplifter (Kathleen Harrison)—on their first day out of prison. The film is driven by the same subdued classical style familiar from countless British films of the period, but Lee shakes things up a bit by occasionally integrating location shooting, which displays a remarkable sensitivity to drizzling rain, city bustle, and London's peculiarly cramped architecture. Preceded by Jean Negulesco's short Damon Runyon adaptation At the Stroke of Twelve (1941); it's a Negulesco that isn't in color or 'Scope, and cinephile folk wisdom—which posits that Negulesco was very good until widescreen, and absolutely terrible afterward—suggests that it'll be pretty good.
Twenty Cigarettes (James Benning, 2011)
Unlike the landscapes, bodies of water, roads, or buildings he usually trains his camera on, the subjects in James Benning's new feature—twenty different people, each framed from roughly the chest up and each smoking a cigarette—are aware of the filmmaker's presence; the result is alternately fascinating or frustrating, depending on how much each smoker plays to the camera—the less a subject poses or postures (I'm lookin' at you, Smoker #2), the better Benning's long-take, static camera approach works.
Untamed (Mikio Naruse, 1957)
Like many of Mikio Naruse's longer features, this Meiji Era-set drama has an episodic, cyclical plot, following headstrong Oshima (Hideko Takamine) from one dramatic vignette to another, each one ending with our heroine more or less where she started—if not worse off. The vision that emerges is overwhelmingly pessimistic; Oshima is easily one of the most independent protagonists in the Naruse-Takamine oeuvre (Naruse himself described her as the "opposite" of the Takamine character in Floating Clouds), which makes her plight—betrayed, abandoned, and shunted off at every available opportunity—seem even more desperate and gives the nominally happy ending a sour aftertaste.
Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011)
Andrew Haigh, a longtime assistant editor with a resume that includes three Ridley Scott movies, brings an impressive organizational intelligence and eye for detail to his micro-budgeted second feature — a seemingly homemade talkfest about two guys who hook up at a bar and then end up spending most of a weekend hanging out together. It's a very conscious foray into the long-standing British tradition of astutely-observed, performance-centered realist dramas (the timeframe-defining title was inspired by Karel Reisz's 1960 debut, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning — which, like Weekend, was set in Nottingham), though Haigh's film distinguishes itself from all of the other sad bloke snapshots out there through its remarkable candor and sense of intimacy with the two leads (Chris New and Tom Cullen, both sporting the world's most impeccable three-day beards). Weekend was one of two notable 2011 releases to be shot entirely on the Canon 5D Mk II (the other being Monte Hellman's Road to Nowhere); Urszula Pontikos' shallow-focus-heavy cinematography makes often beautiful use of the tiny camera's capabilities.
Yearning (Mikio Naruse, 1964)
Doc Films' Mikio Naruse/Hideko Takamine series closes with this late masterpiece about a widow (Takamine) whose rebellious brother-in-law (Yûzô Kayama) unexpectedly confesses his love for her. Working in the most anachronistic (and dream-like) of shooting formats, anamorphic black & white, Naruse frames the characters against backgrounds—Takamine's can-cluttered and claustrophobic grocery store, outdoor vistas—that seem to push on them from behind, further adding to the film's pervasive dramatic unease. The director's sense of editing and composition—as well as his eye for the hassles of lower-middle-class life and familial obligation—are at their peak here, coming together into a rich, psychologically complex exploration of his favorite subject: the impossibility of happiness.