Tag: Frank Borzage

Rebooting my top 100 movies list

It’s been a few years since I first made my top 100 movies list. Since then each yearly iteration has felt like just that, an iteration. Some new movies appear and there’s some shifting in the numbering but mostly it’s all the same stuff. So this year, with the help of Letterboxd‘s clever Seen It and Lists features, I’m making a new one. In the spirit of The Amazing Spider-Man, it’s time for a reboot. I’m sure there’ll be 50 or so similar films, if not more. That’s not really the point. The idea here is to attack the list with new eyes, eyes of a guy that has seen 2311 movies over the course of his 25 years instead of probably around half that when I made my first list those years ago.

Letterboxd came into my life only recently, with its nifty design and clever social-networking twist on the movie database website. I started by just chronicling the new movies I’d seen. Maybe writing a brief review; a line or two. And then I started going back through the years and clicking the little eye on every movie I could remember seeing. I started in 2013 and went backwards towards the dawn of cinema. It was, in part, a trip through my childhood. As I approached the middle of the 2000’s I noticed that I was clicking fewer and fewer films for any given year. It seems that 2006 or 2005 was the start of my real love affair with film, though even through 1999 I had gone back and seen a lot of the big films. After ’99, though, it was mostly a wasteland of horrible kiddy movies and some of the tent-pole blockbusters of my youth. Godzilla‘s poor attempt at taking over the US, the intense stupidity of Kazaam, that other dinosaur movie from 1993, We’re Back. None of these have a shot at my top 100, unfortunately. And then the 80’s came along and I clicked even fewer of those little eyes, since I was only a kid for two of those years and I probably wasn’t watching any movies at the time. Even if I was, I certainly wasn’t going to remember them. So the 80’s contain some of the bigger films from the era, but it’s a bit more slim pickins. About 1/3 of the movies I’ve seen come from the last ten years. The first 80 or so years of cinema, up through 1979, account for less than half of the movies I’ve seen. Basically all of this is to say, don’t judge me, I’m still new at this.

I’ve seen a lot of the classics, though. I just crossed off Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Cabaret, and Aguirre: The Wrath of God in the past few months. I’ve got to start delving into the kind of second-tier movies from the 70’s back. Looking at the movies I love from these past few years, it’s often those smaller movies that I latch on to and begin to have a shot at my top 100 list. You’ll also probably notice a lot of movies from three directors of the golden age of Hollywood’s studio system: Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Frank Borzage. When I was at the University of Connecticut I took one class four times, each semester focusing on a different director or genre. Each of those directors was the focus for a semester, with the last being a general comedy class. So I got to see between 12 and 15 movies from each of them, mostly great ones. You’ll notice at least two from each on my previous top 100 list. Everybody knows Hawks and Ford but fewer know the wondrous Borzage. I urge anybody reading this to seek out his films. They may be hard to find but if you give them a chance you’ll likely fall in love with his romantic and passionate style. He’s the best.

So here’s how it’ll work. After checking off every movie I can remember seeing, I went through and added any movie I though might be top 100 material to a list. There are 205 movies on that list at this moment, though there may be another by the end of tonight (I’m going to complete the Before trilogy with the Midnight entry after work). From that list I’ll pick out the movies that are must haves. Magnolia, my number one last year, will certainly be making a return appearance. I watched it again very recently and was only reminded of just how great it is. Blade Runner, obviously. Jurassic Park, assuredly. But the rest, you never know. That’s why it will be so much fun. Stay tuned for either further updates or the beginning of The List posts. And be my friend on Letterboxd.

Movie Review: Sweet Smell of Success

How many noir films have no murder in them? Even Frank Borzage’s anti-noir, Moonrise, has a murder at the center of it. But Sweet Smell of Success has no murder and very little physical violence. All the jabs are verbal. And awesome. This is the best script out of the 8 or so 1957 films I’ve seen. Each character is well written and quick on their feet. Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a press agent who’s looking to become as influential as his idol and sometimes-employer J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a gossip columnist for the Broadway scene and the biggest guy on the block. He’s got senators and singers sucking up to him every night, just hoping to get mentioned in his column – in a positive way, of course. Hunsecker tells Falco he’ll write up something nice about Falco’s uncle’s night club if Falco will break up the affair between Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) – his sister – and a young leader of a lounge band, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Complicated, yes, and it took a good third of the film to figure out who was who and why they mattered, but that’s part of the fun of a film like this.

Sweet Smell of Success is about ambition, obviously. It’s nothing new to see how far people without morals (or people who will repress their morals) will go in order to to achieve their goals. That’s the gist of about 1/4th of all movies. Maybe 1/5th, I haven’t checked the updated numbers. Either way, it’s not the plot that matters here. It exists just to get our characters to show their true colors. Most of these colors are dark and twisted. Like an inverted rainbow. The beleaguered beau, Steve Dallas, and his girlfriend, Susan Hunsecker are the only two main characters that have some kind of goodness in them. They aren’t manipulative at their core, though in the end even they must play the game in order to get out of it. It’s a cynical, messed-up world, but it’s fun to visit because everybody is so witty.

I’m just going to lay out a few examples of the dialogue and japes here, because anything else wouldn’t get at how wonderful the script is.

J.J. Hunsecker: What’s this boy got that Susie likes?
Sidney Falco: Integrity – acute, like indigestion.

J.J. Hunsecker: You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.

Sidney Falco: If I’m gonna go out on a limb for you, you gotta know what’s involved!
J.J. Hunsecker: My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.

Steve: Mr. Hunsecker, you’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!

J.J. Hunsecker: Son, I don’t relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don’t you just shuffle along?

Sidney Falco: The cat’s in a bag and the bag’s in a river.

J.J. Hunsecker: I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.

J.J. Hunsecker: Sidney, conjugate me a verb. For instance, “to promise.”

Sidney Falco: Dallas, your mouth is as big as a basket and twice as empty!

Ok, enough cheating. The movie looks great, as most noirs do. Full of deep shadows and glaring lights. There’s no gray area here, not in grimy New York City. You’re either in or you’re out. Up or down. Left or right. Right or wrong. A success or a failure. But if you’re a success at being a dirtbag what does that get you? A whole lot of bad feelings and friends that aren’t friendly. That Sweet Smell of Success reeks.

Top 100 Films: The _2’s

The penultimate segment of the list! A lot of physical films this time around. Only two were released after the year I was born, though only two are in black and white. Many of the films take place in only a few locations. Also, they’re all great.

92. The Wrestler (2008)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei

And now, I’m an old broken down piece of meat… and I’m alone. And I deserve to be alone. I just don’t want you to hate me.

That this film and Black Swan were once the same script makes total sense. Both examine how the body suffers from performance and willpower. The Wrestler is more grounded and heartfelt, though not sentimentally so. Rourke and Tomei give great, real performances and Aronofsky keeps everything immediate.

82. Days of Heaven (1978)

Directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Richard Gere and Brooke Adams

Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.

Malick loves him some voice-over and pretty pictures. This tale of depression-era farming and a simmering romance is beautifully shot and told. The locust scene is spectacular filmmaking.

72. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Directed by Charles Crichton. Starring John Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis

Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself.” And the London Underground is not a political movement.

One of the smartest movies I’ve seen, A Fish Called Wanda is a hilariously absurd film that manages to get some real emotion in while crushing dogs under pianos. Kevin Kline won an Oscar for his performance as the monumentally stupid and confident Otto and he deserved it.

62. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Directed by Elia Kazan. Starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando

I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.

The key word for this movie is heat. There’s the obvious and overwhelming sense of heat in terms of temperature but the real heat comes from the characters. There’s something boiling under everybody’s surface and as the film goes on it gets closer and closer to exploding. Kazan cleverly changes the room where the majority of the film takes place to get more and more claustrophobic as the movie progresses.

52. 7th Heaven (1927)

Directed by Frank Borzage. Starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell

Chico… Diane… Heaven.

Though I don’t like it as much as Lucky Star, 7th Heaven is another fantastic film pairing Gaynor and Farrell under the direction of Borzage. There’s a lot about levels and rising and falling, along with some terrific romance and Borzage’s typical miraculous ending.

42. Die Hard (1988)

Directed by John McTiernan. Starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman

“And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” Benefits of a classical education.

Yes, for those of you that didn’t know, my blog name is a quote from Die Hard. It’s the best of the 80’s and 90’s action films, mostly because of Willis and Rickman and their superb bantering. Die Hard is a movie that will never age.

32. North by Northwest (1959)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint

No. No. Mother, I have not been drinking. No. No. these two men, they poured a whole bottle of bourbon into me. No, they didn’t give me a chaser.

Cary Grant is one of the best people ever. This is scientifically proven. Here he gets to be caught up in a smuggling plot and a delightfully devious romance. When I finished watching it I remarked that it felt very modern and retro at the same time. I could see Steven Soderbergh doing a remake like he did the Ocean’s movies. But they wouldn’t have Cary Grant and that would be a travesty.

22. Fantasia (1940)

And then we hear the “Ave Maria”, with its message of the triumph of hope and life over the powers of despair and death.

Fantasia was supposed to be the beginning of a continued experiment where Disney would create a visual accompaniment to a work of classical music every year and put it on the front end of their flagship releases. That, unfortunately, didn’t happen. Fantastia is a fantastic work of art in its own right, though. Each piece works for me and the animation is beautiful and compelling. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 60 years for another sequel.

12. Jaws (1975)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss

Martin, it’s all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, “Huh? What?” You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.

If you haven’t seen Jaws I don’t know what you’re doing reading this list. The original summer blockbuster, it has a lot more depth than most of the crap we get during the summer now. It is superbly directed and the acting is just great. Where is the Quint speech about the Indianapolis in Transformers or the restraint about showing the bad guy in the later Pirates films? Yeah, the shark they built didn’t work so Spielberg couldn’t show it but the way he handled that technical glitch created one of the most terrifying monsters in cinema history.

2. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Ivana Baquero and Sergi López

The moon will be full in three days. Your spirit shall forever remain among the humans. You shall age like them, you shall die like them, and all memory of you shall fade in time. And we’ll vanish along with it. You will never see us again.

More of a war drama than a fairy tale, Pan’s Labyrinth subverts expectations at every moment. The real world horror is worse than any fantasy could be, thanks to an all-time great performance by Sergi López as the evil step-father and fascist general. Whether the fantasy world exists outside of Ofelia’s head isn’t important because it is entirely her story and it is real for her. Another film where I wouldn’t change a thing.

The other parts of the list:

The _0’s section

The _9’s section

The _8’s section

The _7’s section

The _6’s section

The _5’s section

The _4’s section

The _3’s section

The _2’s section

The _1’s section

Top 100 Films: The _6’s

Today’s portion of the list is the _6’s. That means that by the end of this post you’ll know half of my top 100! Hooray! Today brings 3 sci-fi movies, 3 dystopias, 3 tragedies, 2 movies by one director, back to back, and only three from before I was born! New Things! Enjoy.

96. Minority Report (2005)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton

I’m sorry John, but you’re going to have to run again.

Spielberg has three periods of his career. This film is the best example of his latest period. He’s still got the goods when it comes to action and a slick visual style, but for some reason people don’t appreciate these films as much. Minority Report is a great action movie and a bit of a thinker, it can’t be all bad.

86. A Serious Man (2009)

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Kind

The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.

The Coens make smart movies about people doing dumb things. In A Serious Man their main character has a lot of bad things happen to him and he can’t figure out why. It’s a semi-modern retelling of the story of Job, except funny. The ending is ambiguous as they like to do, but it fits in with the rest of the story.

76. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Directed by David Yates. Starring Daniel Radcliffe and Imelda Staunton

Look at it this way: every great wizard in history has started out as nothing more than we are now – students. If they can do it, why not us?

Now that the Harry Potter series is complete, I can safely call this one the best of the bunch. The first in David Yates’ tenure at the helm, this movie has one of the best on screen villains in Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge. She’s the epitome of mundane evil, a person who doesn’t stomp around and kill people but is still clearly villainous. And then throw in the first big magic battle and you’ve got a great film.

66. Brazil (1984)

Directed by Terry Gilliam. Starring Jonathan Pryce and Kim Greist

I assure you, Mrs. Buttle, the Ministry is very scrupulous about following up and eradicating any error. If you have any complaints which you’d like to make, I’d be more than happy to send you the appropriate forms.

It makes sense that a former member of Monty Python would make such a crazy movie. It also makes sense that a person whose job is making movies would be familiar with bureaucracy. What doesn’t make sense, at least on first sight, is that it would be such a funny and beautiful film. Brazil is satire of the highest order, a dystopian vision of a future run on paperwork. And plastic surgery to the extreme.

56. Children of Men (2006)

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Starring Clive Owen and Clare-Hope Ashitey

A hundred years from now there won’t be one sad fuck to look at any of this. What keeps you going?

What happens when there’s no hope in the world. Children of Men subtly realizes this through overheard news reports and glimpses of graffiti. Everything is messed up. Impeccably directed and full of strong performances, the action scenes are among the best of the decade.

46. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Directed by Julian Schnabel. Starring Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner

Hold fast to the human inside of you and you’ll survive.

Movies are often kinetic, movie from one place to another as quickly as a cut can be. But this one stays mostly confined to one space and, at times, one point of view. Amalric’s character is paralyzed except for one eye, and the movie covers the way he deals with the situation and the beginnings of his book (which eventually turned into the movie). It’s a gorgeous film, heartbreaking and inspiring.

36. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth

I don’t wanna kill anybody. But if I gotta get out that door, and you’re standing in my way, one way or the other, you’re gettin’ outta my way.

Here’s another angry men locked in a room yelling at each other movie. This one has the benefit of a great script and great performances. But when I rewatched it recently what stood out most to me was the sure-handed direction. It must be one of the best debut films I’ve seen.

26. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Brad Pitt and Mélanie Laurent

We have all our rotten eggs in one basket. The objective of the operation: blow up the basket.

Some people complain that Tarantino is only able to rip off other movies and that he never does anything with his “homages”. Inglourious Basterds is proof that he’s got a lot more going on than just taking scenes from movies nobody else has seen. A treatise on the power of film to rile up the audience, IB deftly shows us Nazis cheering at the death of American soldiers only to have us cheer at the death of powerful Nazis. With clever dialogue scenes and bang up action scenes, this one has it all.

16. Three Comrades (1938)

Directed by Frank Borzage. Starring Margaret Sullavan and Robert Taylor

May I drink to that please? To nice weather for drifters!

A love story of the highest order. The only screenwriting credit for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Margaret Sullavan. Frank Borzage. A beautiful story beautifully told. Check this review.

6. The Shining (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall

No sir, you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I ought to know: I’ve always been here.

The scariest movie of all time. The story of a family deteriorating with ghosts and elevators full of blood. It’s the little touches that make this movie tick, like the shot of the man in the dog/bear suit as Jack is chasing Wendy. It’s different from the book, but different in a good way.

The other parts of The List:

The _0’s section

The _9’s section

The _8’s section

The _7’s section

The _6’s section

The _5’s section

The _4’s section

The _3’s section

The _2’s section

The _1’s section

Top 100 Films: The _8’s

Today brings the films in my top 100 whose spots end in the digit 8! Arbitrary-ocity!

In today’s list we have two films that have two female leads (and one with no women at all), two or three horror films, and one movie by a bad director! And now, the list.

98. In the Loop (2009)

Directed by Armando Iannucci. Starring Tom Hollander and Peter Capaldi

Well, I don’t want to be accused of micro-managing, but I cannot understand why I Heart Huckabees is on a list of DVD’s considered suitable for armed-forces entertainment. That self-indulgent crap is not suitable for combat troops.

The fastest movie since His Girl Friday, In the Loop is a hilarious look at the run-up to a war in the Middle East. Peter Capaldi’s frothy, foul-mouthed string-puller who has lost track of which strings are which is the breakout star of the film, and Tom Hollander plays a guy who seems to have risen to a position that he is horrendously unqualified for. It’s complicated, swift, and one of the best comedies I’ve seen.

88. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Directed by Rob Reiner. Starring Michael McKean and Christopher Guest

As long as there’s you know, sex and drugs, I can do without the rock and roll.

The best of the faux-documentaries I’ve seen, This Is Spinal Tap is widely loved. There are so many great segments, and the frame of a documentaries makes everything even funnier. If you haven’t, check out the DVD commentary track, which sports the guys in character complaining about how poorly the movie makes them look. It’s almost as good as the  regular movie.

78. How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Directed by John Ford. Starring Roddy McDowall and Maureen O’Hara

Huw, I thought when I was a young man that I would conquer the world with truth. I thought I would lead an army greater than Alexander ever dreamed of, not to conquer nations, but to liberate mankind. With truth.

Notorious as the movie that beat Citiczen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar, How Green Was My Valley gets too little credit for being a great movie in its own right. A coming of age movie and a love letter to Wales, it feels like an epic while being a study of this family. It’s also impeccably directed, as you would expect from John Ford.

68. RoboCop (1987)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Starring Peter Weller and Nancy Allen

Let me make something clear to you. He doesn’t have a name. He’s a program. He’s a product.

Much like his other films (Total Recall, Starship Troopers, and even Showgirls) RoboCop is steeped in genre elements and is a darkly comic satire. And let’s throw a little Christ imagery in there, too. Also, lots of blood and stuff.

58. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Directed by George A. Romero. Starring Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea

Now get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there, but I’m boss up here!

This is, I think, the only film on my list that is directed by a bad director. George A. Romero has continued to go back to his zombie filled universe with diminishing returns. I feel like he almost lucked into this one, working within such limited constraints can sometimes get you a better result than when you have even a little more freedom. Unlike any of the sequels, this movie is terrifying, oddly pretty, and the message is hidden rather than the raison d’être, which is a problem with all of his other movies. But this one is awesome.

48. Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Directed by David Lynch. Starring Naomi Watts and Laura Harring

It’ll be just like in the movies. Pretending to be somebody else.

I feel like I understood this movie less and less as it went along. Then I mostly understood it directly after watching it. And now I have no clue. I do know that it’s a fascinating film to watch, at times funny, strange, scary (the Winkies man still haunts my dreams) and gorgeous. Most of it probably doesn’t happen or something, right? If none of this makes any sense I suppose the writeup will emulate the film.

38. 12 Angry Men (1957)

Directed by Sidney Lumet. Starring Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb

I don’t believe I have to be loyal to one side or the other. I’m simply asking questions.

12 guys yelling at each other in a room. None of them have names for most of the film, and you can really get to understand the people behind the juror number. Henry Fonda is, as always, an amazing actor, and Sidney Lumet gets a lot out of his single setting. It feels as claustrophobic as it should. And it’s a cool look at the U.S. justice system.

28. 127 Hours (2010)

Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring James Franco and a rock

This rock has been waiting for me my entire life. Its entire life, ever since it was a bit of a meteorite a million, billion years ago. In space. It’s been waiting, to come here. Right, right here. I’ve been moving towards it my entire life. The minute I was born, every breath that I’ve taken, ever action has been leading me to this crack on the out surface.

That’s a really long quote, so I’ll be brief here. A movie about being alone and the necessity of other people. James Franco’s performance practically is the movie, and although he’s a bit hit and miss in general, he’s truly great here. And Danny Boyle’s camera adds so much to the film, going crazy when Franco’s being frenetic, settling down as his body starts to slow. Check my review.

18. The Exorcist (1973)

Directed by William Friedkin. Starring Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair

You’re telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor? Is that it?

I have a lot of horror on my list and, though there are a few more above this one, I don’t know if any are as objectively terrifying as The Exorcist. Sound design really makes this one tick. And Ellen Burstyn’s performance grounds the film in a mother’s love and fear for her daughter. It’s as real as a horror movie gets.

8. Lucky Star (1929)

Directed by Frank Borzage. Starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell

You’re a cannibal and a dirty, no-good low-down little thief!

Borzage does transcendent romance so well, everybody else might as well give up. The tale of an injured soldier and a lovable scamp, the two must fix each other through the power of their love. When filmed with Borzage’s wonderful, poetic camera you believe that true love will conquer all.

The other parts of the list:

The _0’s section

The _9’s section

The _8’s section

The _7’s section

The _6’s section

The _5’s section

The _4’s section

The _3’s section

The _2’s section

The _1’s section