We’re winding down the year of film that was 2015 – already critics are inundating our Twitter feeds and blogrolls with endless Top 10 lists and back-and-forth debates about the merits of movies that the general public still won’t get to see until at least February. It’s still a few weeks before I join in the fray with the 9th Annual EMOs (Ethan’s Makeshift Oscars), but I’ve been considering how, while rewarding/mocking the new releases of 2015 is fun and all, it isn’t entirely reflective of my experience of the year in film. Every year, between visits to the theater to see the latest Marvel monstrosity, I continue my personal cinematic education in the form of DVD rentals from the public library, Criterion Blu-Ray sales, repertory screenings, etc. Sometimes I take the time to talk about these films from years past in this space – my MoMA Mia series this past summer, for instance – or maybe I’ll take a moment to write a snarky tweet, but far too often I let these experiences go by without further comment.
So I’m unveiling what I hope will be a new annual tradition – the first-ever ERPs (Ethan’s Repertory Picks). These will not be as exhaustive as the EMOs – it’s rather difficult, even with my anal list-making habits, to keep track of every pre-2015 film I watched in the past year, and frankly, ain’t nobody got time for that anyway. But what I can do is give out some notices and recommendations regarding the films that, for whatever reason, stood out to me the most this year. Then we’ll wrap things up with a Top 10, Classic-Style.
(And, for the record, I feel pretty safe handing these out now, because the rest of the December will almost certainly be consumed by catching up with 2015 releases before awards season, along with repeat viewings of “The Muppet Christmas Carol”)
For When You, Like a Good Soviet, Are Feeling Exceptionally Literally-Minded: “Nine Days Of One Year” (1962), Mikhail Romm
It’s pretty much all there in the title, except for the fatal radiation poisoning. Which is, tragically, far less exciting than it sounds.
For Proof That Even Legendary Art-House Directors Choke on the Middle Entry of a Trilogy: “La Notte” (1961), Michelangelo Antonioni
I honestly didn’t think it would be possible for Antonioni-ennui to sink in while watching people as beautiful as Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau and Monica Vitti, but dear lord did I not care about a single person in this film.
For A Reminder That American Politics Could Always Suck Even More: “The Confession” (1970), “State of Siege” (1972), Costa-Gavras
I mean I’m not saying it couldn’t happen at all, but at least right this second I am not really concerned about being arrested by apparatchiki.
For When You Run Out of Funny Animal Videos on YouTube: “Cat Ballou” (1965), Elliot Silverstein
To think that in the ’60s you had to shell out $5 in order to see a drunk horse.
For Prestige Filmmaking That Just Smothers All the Talented People Involved With Its Sheer Competence: “The English Patient” (1996), Anthony Minghella
There is a reason “Oscar bait” is associated with bland, tasteful period pieces, and this movie is pretty much it. Well, that and “Dances With Wolves.” And “Driving Miss Daisy.” And “War Horse.” And “Out of Africa.” And “Forrest Gump”…
For When You Loved “Mad Max: Fury Road” And Want More And It’s Just So Sad They Never Made An Original Or A Third One, Isn’t That Weird? : “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (1981), George Miller
Strangest franchise numbering outside of the “Fast and Furious” movies, really.
For When You Want to See John Wayne Wear a Uniform That Really Makes His Eyes Pop: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), John Ford
Honestly, the far more momentous John Wayne-related cinematic moment of the year came from Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This, where I learned that John Wayne once looked like this.
I mean, what?
For When You Need to Trick Your Horror-Movie-Loving Friend Into Watching a Landmark Work of American Neorealism:
“Killer of Sheep” (1978), Charles Burnett
Most misleading title ever? Discuss.
For the “Freaky Friday” Fans: “Cobra Woman” (1944), Robert Siodmak
I really think the body-swap genre could be revived with a copious amount of dick snakes.
For When You Just Need Some Anna Karina In Your Life, Which Is Every Moment of Every Day, Duh: “Vivra Sa Vie” (1962) and “Pierrot Le Fou” (1965), Jean-Luc Godard
Which I’m pretty sure is literally the reason for these movies existing in the first place.
For When You’re Just in the Mood to Feel Shit About Everything: “Prisoners” (2013), Denis Villeneuve
Cue the Tegan and Sara: *Everything is awesooooooome….everything is cool when you’re part of a team….*
For a Reminder That “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” Is Intended To Be the Most Depressing Holiday Song Ever Written: “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), Vincente Minnelli
Was Judy Garland ever allowed to be happy? Like, in an unqualified, non-melancholic way?
For When You’ve Just Watched “Going Clear” And Thought, You Know What That Movie Needed, Was More Rock Hudson: “Magnificent Obsession” (1954), Douglas Sirk
I couldn’t in good conscience include it in my Top 10 here, but just know that there was possibly no other film this year that I received as much entertainment from.
For When You’re Wondering Why Sam Spade Never Went Undercover As a Palm-Reading Psychic: “In the Palm of Your Hand” (1951), Roberto Galvaldón
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well.
For a Depressing Reminder That Philip Seymour Hoffman Was Better At Acting Than You Will Be At Anything Ever: “25th Hour” (2002), Spike Lee
Also that Spike Lee is one of the most talented working directors in the world and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.
For Celebrating the Eternal and Engimatic Majesty That Was Ingrid Bergman’s Accent: “Gaslight” (1944), George Cukor, and “Journey to Italy” (1954), Roberto Rossellini
In fact, throw in Angela Lansbury, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten and we should just rename “Gaslight” to “A Cavalcade of Accents.” It would restore the twist ending while we’re at it.
For When You’re Too Cheap to Rent “Bonnie and Clyde”: “Gun Crazy” (1950), Joseph H. Lewis
Probably about 80% as good, but with 100% more Russ Tamblyn.
For Sunny, Warm Summer Days, Because Watching These In the Winter Might Put You On Immediate Suicide Watch: “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), “Winter Light” (1962), “The Silence” (1963), Ingmar Bergman
I mean, I guess Sweden has to balance out the universal healthcare, 100% literacy rate and low unemployment somehow. Perpetual theological/existential crisis seems fair enough.
For the Scorsese Fan In Your Life Who Could Maybe Watch Something With Non-White People Once In a While: “City of God” (2002), Fernando Meirelles
I’m not saying you should be wary of super-Scorsese enthusiasts, but I’m not not saying that.
For Horror Enthusiasts Who Know the True Enemy is Diabeetus: “The Thing” (1982), John Carpenter
The other enemy is CGI.
Top 10 Repertory Films of 2015
10. “This Is Not a Film” (2011), Jafar Panahi
In 2010, the Iranian government placed internationally-acclaimed director Jafar Panahi under house arrest and barred him from making a film for 20 years. Only a year later, “This Is Not a Film” arrived at the Cannes Film Festival – smuggled on a flash drive inside a cake. Part documentary, part video diary, and part declaration of political defiance, Panahi’s film is an astounding and utterly unique reflection on the political, moral and philosophical quandaries facing artists in Iran. Its difficult to say much about the film’s production, as Panahi’s sentence has included a prohibition from giving interviews, but the messy and improvised feel of “This Is Not a Film” may in fact be quite calculated, all the better to reveal the compulsion and spontaneity that drives Panahi, and many other artists across history, to create. Few movies are so radical in their simplicity.
9. “Rocco and His Brothers” (1960), Luchino Visconti
A riveting family epic that combines the gritty, working-class aesthetics of Italian neorealism with operatic emotion. Sibling rivalries of mythology proportion (featuring that modern Adonis himself, Alain Delon) play out in dingy communal apartments and rubble-strewn backlots, captured in the unwavering clarity of Visconti’s deep focus. Two scenes of sexual assault (both against the same, pitiable target) remain among the most brutal, visceral experiences of this or any other year, all the more shocking considering the time in which the film was produced.
8. “3 Women” (1977), Robert Altman
I never realized what a great tragedy it is that Ingmar Bergman never worked with Shelly Duvall, but Altman’s own, mumbly take on Bergman’s trademark crises of identity and sexuality is certainly a suitable approximation. Fascinating enough as an oddball drama about mismatched roommates for its first half, “3 Women” really turns into something special in its woozy, eerie denouement, as Duvall and Sissy Spacek play out their “Persona”-esque role reversal while Janice Rule insistently and methodically paints the most unsettling murals I’ve ever seen. Kudos to the production design and to Charles Rosher Jr.’s camera for its bleary, restless observation of Altman’s enigmatic tale.
7. “Paths of Glory” (1957), Stanley Kubrick
“Paths of Glory” is one of the most blisteringly efficient films I’ve ever seen. In less than 90 minutes, Kubrick jams in the horror, folly and injustice of the First World War – with no scrimping on the spectacle, either. Kirk Douglas gives an extraordinary lead performance, more complex than the usual paragons of virtue at the center of other cinematic anti-war screeds: his righteousness is never in doubt, but there’s a distinct sense he might snap and murder his superior officers for their gross inhumanity at any moment. And therein lies the inescapable, cyclical grind of war, something that good men can rail against but still find themselves consumed by. Features the kind of stunning visual imagery you expect from Kubrick.
6. “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” (2003), Kim Ki-duk
Gentle, lyrical, meditative – Kim Ki-duk’s masterpiece is as easy and comforting to step into as a hot bath. The curious settings and characters – the film never really leaves the floating retreat of a monk and his young apprentice isolated in the Korean wilderness – feel slipped out of time, in an otherworldly reverie. But intrusions from the outside world (both literal and emotional/intellectual) cloud the film’s calm, reflective waters. Are we meant to take the narrative seriously, as the story of one man’s weaving spiritual journey? Does the seasonal structure hint at a broader allegory for enlightenment? One gets the sense that repeat viewings could give the same kind of fresh contemplation through repetitive action as walking a labyrinth.
5. “The River” (1951), Jean Renoir
Like the previous film, another unhurried, observational piece in love with both the natural beauty of its lush, exotic location and the quiet, ordinary people who inhabit it. Renoir suggests a true coexistence of race and culture in his depiction of a British family in barely post-imperial India – life, love and longing allowed to unfold leisurely, without trumped-up conflict or drama. Stunning Technicolor photography captures local tradition and custom without condescension or possessiveness; it is enough for Renoir to witness and pass along events without claiming to understand or explain them.
4. “Blow-Up” (1966), Michelangelo Antonioni
Thomas (David Hemmings) leads a typical Antonionian life of empty hedonism as a fashion photographer, until the moment when, by chance, he photographs a couple walking together in a park. There is a conflict, or an embrace, and then…what? Thomas has potentially witnessed a murder, or perhaps not. A body appears and disappears again. The woman involves arrives at Thomas’ studio, agitated, but offering no answers. Obsessed, Thomas enlarges his photographs from the scene, again and again, hoping to gain a solution through empirical evidence. But the more he scrutinizes, the more abstract his situation becomes. This is Antonioni at his most quietly riveting – Thomas’ professionalism is fascinating in its single-minded determination, but his goal may be a fool’s errand. Is the illusion of purpose as sustaining as purpose itself?
3. “All That Jazz” (1979), Bob Fosse
An explosion of color, movement, and sound choreographed by one of the best there has ever been at doing just that. Bob Fosse’s vaguely autobiographical fever dream of life on Broadway is more intensely personal than “Cabaret”, and thus crackles with electricity that even that other masterwork can’t quite match. Roy Scheider is stunning – it wasn’t until the very last scene of the movie that I realized the man convincingly, brilliantly played a famed Broadway dancer/choreographer for two hours, despite clearly not being able to dance a lick. That performance takes an exceptional kind of confidence to pull off, but Fosse had more than enough of that to share.
2. “Johnny Guitar” (1954), Nicholas Ray
The original “Mad Max: Fury Road” – come for the familiar male lead, stay for the gonzo committed female performance. Joan Crawford was an odd star and an odder person, but “Johnny Guitar” shows what she could bring to the table: presence, and enough of it to make basically three films at once. Revenge Western, revisionist romance, lesbian psychosexual drama – Nicholas Ray was operating on several different layers here, and Crawford’s knocking them all out of the park. Everyone else, cast and crew both, more or less stay out of her way, and that’s exactly how it should be.
1. “Cat People” (1942), Jacques Tournear
The most special films, and film experiences, often come from lowered expectations. In other words, there are movies that have no right to be as good as they are, and that’s kind of why we love them so much. “Cat People” might be the most extreme example of that I’ve ever encountered. The script is daft, the actors are a B-list studio’s C-list squad – and yet, under Jacques Tournear’s direction and producer Val Lewton’s creative guidance, something utterly magic happens. In Tournear’s shadows we find something as primal and atavistic as the forces that supposedly possess our doomed heroine: an utterly satisfying, riveting, beautiful, innovative entertainment.
And a final word….
While on the subject of old films, I also just want to take the opportunity to recommend one more thing. I did not watch this movie in 2015, for the first time or otherwise – but this is the year we lost Chantal Akerman, whose “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” remains one of the greatest movies you can experience, in this year or any other. It is not a simple sit, and it really deserves to be seen on the big screen – but if you do watch it at home, do yourself, and Akerman, a favor and commit to it. Turn off your phone. Resist the urge to pause, to take a break. Don’t fight the mundanity – think about what it’s doing to you, and why Akerman’s doing it. She was one of the greats, and deserves to be seen and discussed as one.