“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”
—Norma Desmond, Sunset Blvd.
You say that you’re really into old movies and you can’t get enough of the classics but you just haven’t found a way to love silent cinema? You say that all your friends are doing the silents and you feel left out? You say that you too want to be part of the early cinema crowd but just haven’t found your way to loving the movies before sound?
Even among many classic cinema buff, silent movies can appear alien and unfriendly, a duty more than a treat. And it shouldn’t be that way at all. In their day, silent films were a universal entertainment, a truly popular art that transcended language and culture.
There are those who think of silent films as primitive and naïve. Some were, to be sure, but movies grew up quickly in those early years. Those primitive experiments and one-shot gags matured into feature films in under two decades, and the knockabout slapstick comedies of the Keystone Kops gave way to the comic grace of Charlie Chaplin and the invention of Buster Keaton just a few years.
And then there’s those scratchy, poorly-preserved prints that were often presented at wrong projection speeds that made everything look sped up and absurd. It’s hard to appreciate let alone recognize the scope and technical wonder of the silent extravaganzas under such conditions.
Thanks to the efforts of film preservationists, a new spirit of cooperation between international film archives, and new digital tools, those days are fast disappearing. Silent cinema is getting a makeover and audiences are finally getting a chance to see the glamor and splendor that original audiences saw when they went out to the flickers.
There is a universe of films, genres, moods, sensibilities and styles to be discovered in the thirty-plus years of cinema before the introduction of sound changed the way films were made and experienced. This isn’t necessarily a list of the greatest or the most important silent films (though there are some of both sprinkled through), but rather a selection of the most entertaining and engaging films of the era. Consider it a place to start your appreciation of the glory and grandeur that was the cinema before sound.
A Trip to the Moon (1902, Georges Méliès)
You want to get an idea of how lavish and creative the so-called primitives could be? Magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès was a pioneering special effects artist and a fantasist with an unbound imagination, but more than anything else he was a showman and A Trip to the Moon is his most ambitious spectacle. Thanks to the painstaking restoration of the sole surviving hand-painted print of the film by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, we can now see what enthralled audiences at the turn of the 20th century: a picture-book fantasy brought to life as a work of pure, playful imagination with crazy special effects and delirious color. Accompany this with a screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and you might just come away with a new appreciation for the early years of filmmaking. And if this inspires more interest in the pre-feature era of filmmaking, try the fantasies of Ferdinand Zecca and the work of Alice Guy-Blaché, the most versatile filmmaker of her era.
Film history discovered and rediscovered on Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats.
We never stop recovering our film history. In 2014 alone we found a 1916 version of Sherlock Holmes starring the legendary stage actor William Gillette (the only known footage of the man considered the definitive Holmes of his era in character) and an unfinished orphan film shot in 1913 starring black Broadway star Bert Williams.
The digital tools have given filmmakers, producers, studios and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods and the transition from film prints to theatrical digital formats for repertory and revival showings has created new incentives to restore and remaster classic films for new theatrical screenings. (There’s plenty of controversy over this shift, with many partisans arguing that movies shot and originally shown in celluloid should be preserved and only screened that way.)
But it’s still a specialized audience and film lovers outside of major metropolitan areas often have no opportunities to see these restorations and revivals on the screen. At least until they are made available to home video formats. For instance, while the new restoration of the original Todd AO version of Oklahoma! premiered at the Turner Classic Movies festival in April, it has yet to reach audiences outside of specialty theaters and the China Film Archive restoration of the 1934 Chinese classic The Goddess has only shown in film festivals.
So this list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks and restorations of great films and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers at home in 2014. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers now have a chance to see regardless of where they live, as long as they have a web connection and a Blu-ray player.
Too Much Johnson (1938) (Fandor, streaming)
The home video event of 2014 is not a disc debut or a Blu-ray special edition but a piece of lost film history found, restored and streamed on the web. Shot by Orson Welles in 1938 (two years before he went to Hollywood and began production on Citizen Kane) as a kind of experiment to accompany a stage production of the theater farce Too Much Johnson, the film was never finished by Welles beyond a continuity work print that was thought to have been destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970. The 35mm nitrate work print was found in 2013 in a warehouse in Italy (in Pordenone, as it happens, home to the greatest silent film festival in the world) and restored in an international effort. After a series of special screenings, the film (in both the original 66-minute work print and a 34-minute “reimagined” version, with outtakes and duplicate shots removed and footage edited into an “educated guess” of how it would have played in finished form) was made available to audiences the world over for free via the National Film Preservation Foundation website and in an HD edition through Fandor. I celebrated the film and its discovery for Keyframe earlier this year.
Sex sells, as the saying goes, and movie producers, distributors and exhibitors have known this since pictures began to move.
In That’s Sexploitation, filmmaker Frank Henenlotter and exploitation legend David Friedman celebrate the freewheeling culture of sexploitation, the sensationalistic underground of independent filmmakers and studios who cashed in on promises of carnal thrills and forbidden spectacle, specifically naked flesh (mostly female). These are the films that sprung up between the cracks of the production code and studio restrictions and, as the moniker suggests, they aimed straight for the lurid and the tawdry.
But not all films that sold themselves with the promise of erotic thrills and taboo-busting presentations of sexuality were a matter of pure exploitation. American movies started taking on adults themes once again in the fifties while films from the more permissive Europe blurred the lines between art and erotica as they explored sexuality with both a maturity and a more graphic explicitness. In other words, people got naked and shared bed right on the screen. “That’s not smut, that’s art,” was the implicit argument, even if it was the sex that the exhibitors marketed.
Here are ten films from the heady days of the sexual revolution to the present that smudge the line between art and exploitation. Sex may be the subject, the subtext, or the motivation, but promise of steamy spectacle and erotic delights was used attract patrons that normally might not otherwise attend such fare and give them the cinematic equivalent to the time-honored justification for purchasing Playboy magazine: “I get it for the articles.”
Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963) Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
Here are two examples of marketing skin to attract audiences to challenging films from European intellectual filmmakers. Contempt (1963) is an unlikely meeting between nouvelle vague legend Jean-Luc Godard’s anti-Hollywood sensibility and the showman aesthetic of (uncredited) producer Joseph E. Levine in an international co-production about the clash between art and commerce, the politics of artistic integrity and compromise and the dissolution of love. To meet his producer’s demands, Godard added an opening bedroom scene and inserted pin-up style nude shots of star Brigitte Bardot. Wouldn’t you know he actually makes them work as a comment on the very process of filmmaking compromise? Blow-Up (1966), the English-language debut of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, is an existential murder mystery starring David Hemmings as a jaded fashion photographer who may have taken a picture of murder and Vanessa Redgrave as the mystery woman of his photograph. Set in swinging London, full of mod fashions, free love, a score by Herbie Hancock and an appearance by the Yardbirds, it’s a timepiece by way of Antonioni’s brand of contemporary alienation and it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was also the first mainstream movie to show female pubic hair (however fleetingly) and that was a bigger selling point for a lot of the patrons.
By the time the Oscars air on March 2, most moviegoers will not have been able to get to theaters to see all the nominees. But thanks to the era of DVD, Blu-ray, streaming video and movies on demand, those who really want to cram for Hollywood’s big night can catch up on a bunch of the films at home.
Some of the front-runners still require a theater trip (more on that later), but for those of you who want to order in and prep for your office pool from the comfort of your own couch, it’s possible to cover a lot of ground.
The biggest talkers
“Dallas Buyers Club” picked up six nominations, including best picture and best original screenplay, but its best chances are in the acting categories, where Matthew McConaughey is a front-runner for best actor and Jared Leto is up in the supporting actor category. The two already took home Golden Globes for their performances. It’s available on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD, and On Demand.
“Captain Phillips” also received six nominations, including best picture, adapted screenplay, and actor in a supporting role for Barkhad Abdi, a non-actor who made a vivid debut in the role of a Somali pirate. Star Tom Hanks was overlooked for his equally strong performance. It’s available on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD, and On Demand.
Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” earned Cate Blanchett her sixth Oscar nomination and she is a wonder as a Blanche DuBois in contemporary San Francisco. That would make fellow nominee Sally Hawkins (up for best supporting actress) the film’s Stella. It’s available on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD, and On Demand.
Welcome 2014 with one last look back at the best releases of 2013, as seen by the contributors to Parallax View and a few notable Seattle-based film critics.
1. Her (Spike Jonze)
2. Blue is the Warmest Color / La vie d’Adèle (Abdellatif Kechiche)
3. Something in the Air / Apres Mai (Olivier Assayas)
4. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)
5. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
6. Nebraska (Alexander Payne)
7. Drug War (Johnnie To)
8. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (dir: Alain Resnais)
9. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)
10. Byzantium (Neil Jordan)
Twelve more: Bastards / Les Salauds (Claire Denis), Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler), Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen), Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron), Mud (Jeff Nichols), Night Across the Street (Raul Ruiz), Museum Hours (Jem Cohen), Short Term 12 (Destin Creton), Stoker (Park Chan-wook), Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley), The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
Best festival film I saw in 2013 without a release: What Now? Remind Me (Joaquim Pinto)
2. The Great Beauty
4. Before Midnight
5. All Is Lost
7. Stories We Tell
8. The Act of Killing
9. (tie) In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter / Cutie and the Boxer
We know that DVD and Blu-ray are losing sales ground to digital and streaming, but the epitaphs for physical media are premature. Every year sees another crop of restorations and revivals rolling out in superb and sometimes lavish editions.
Of course there are the upgrades, the previously available classics in newly-restored editions and state-of-the-art digital remasters, but what excites me are the debuts, the films that have never been on disc before and the personal discoveries of films that, while not exactly unknown, have been largely forgotten because of their unavailability.
Here are my perfectly subjective picks for the top ten disc debuts: the greatest classics, rediscoveries, and revivals that made their first appearance in 2013.
In alphabetical order:
French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923-1928 (Flicker Alley) presents of the American home video debut of five silent classics from Film Albatros, a French studio founded by Russian artists: The Burning Crucible (1923), Kean (1924), The Late Mathias Pascal (1926), Gribiche (1926), and The New Gentlemen (1928). The Late Mathias Pascal, a fabulist epic directed by Marcel L’Herbier (also released separately on Blu-ray), and Jacques Feyder’s sophisticated romantic comedy-turned-political satire The New Gentlemen are the crown jewels of the set but all entertaining and revealing examples of the sophisticated filmmaking coming out of France in the twenties. Each are mastered from 2009 restorations from La Cinématèque Français and feature newly-recorded original scores. DVD.
MSN Movies recently polled the contributors to submit a list of their favorite films. Not a list of the best films ever made, or the most important, or most significant. This was about personal favorites, the films we return to, the films we love.
Four Seattle film writers — all of them contributors to Parallax View at one time or another — participated in the poll and contributed short essays on a select few of the ultimate list of 100 films. Click on the names below to read the essays.
Welcome 2013 with one last look back at the best releases of 2011, as seen by the contributors to Parallax View and a few notable Seattle-based film critics.
1. Holy Motors
2. Zero Dark Thirty
3. Moonrise Kingdom
4. Margaret (2011 in NY and LA, didn’t screen elsewhere until 2012)
6. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
7. The Master
8. The Turin Horse
10. This is Not a Film
Ten more: Amour, Barbara, Deep Blue Sea, Django Unchained, Hyde Park on Hudson, I Wish, The Kid With a Bike, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Magic Mike
My greatest cinematic events of 2012
Hands down the cinematic experience of 2012 for me was the American premier of the complete restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) with live accompaniment by Oakland East Bay Symphony conducted by Carl Davis. The density of Gance’s ideas, the frisson of his images and experiments in cinematic expression, and the complicated perspectives on the legacy of Napoleon have a weight that is undeniable. And watching the full 5 ½ Napoleon with a live orchestra in a magnificent theater elevates the film to a cinematic experience without parallel, and that experience electrifies the storytelling and imagery.
Local (Seattle) Event: Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy, one-night-only at Grand Illusion. It was a perfect marriage of film and venue: the tiny, independent house with a storied history and an audience of regulars, and a scrappy compilation movie with some surreal moments and a climax that manages to bring over dozen films into the same narrative universe, if only for this moment. And hey, don’t crowd me, man.
1. Rust and Bone
5. Holy Motors
6. The Master
7. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
8. Life of Pi
(the first nine in alphabetical order, the last as the film of the—um—year) Holy Motors, Hugo, Lincoln, Margaret, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Rust and Bone, Silver Linings Playbook, Tabu, Take this Waltz, and La Rabbia: the Rage of Pasolini (“a film released, in what must have been an infinitely less compelling form, in 1963, but listed this year by the National Gallery of Art as a “Washington Premiere” in a form so imbued with greatness it triggered a private pre-New Years Pasolini epiphany”).
1. Holy Motors
2. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
3. The Deep Blue Sea
7. Moonrise Kingdom
8. The Turin Horse
9. This is Not a Film
10. The Master
Technically, Kenneth Lonergan’s remarkable Margaret may not have qualified as a 2012 film (a few people saw it in 2011), but the years he spent in the editing room paid off in this story of a high-strung teenager (Anna Paquin) who causes a horrendous traffic accident. The writer-director’s unique focus on responsibility–and its limits–led to the creation of the year’s most haunting and original film. Almost equally affecting were Michael Haneke’s wrenching account of an older couple facing the end of their relationship, Amour, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, about an American personality cult spinning out of control. Among the most playful new movies: Wes Anderson’s tale of romantic runaways, Moonrise Kingdom, and Richard Linklater’s stranger-than-fiction Jack Black vehicle, Bernie. The latter, like Ben Affleck’s self-assured Argo, Steven Spielberg’s painstaking Lincoln, and Kathryn Bigelow’s vigorous Zero Dark Thirty, is based on fact. Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games took a popular young-adult book and made something majestic of it. Northwest filmmaker Jon Garcia’s The Falls, a perfectly cast love story about 20-year-old Mormon missionaries, was the best of several strong gay films.
A second 10: Rust and Bone, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, Keep the Lights On, Barbara, A Royal Affair, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, Queen of Versailles, Any Day Now.
1. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel)
2. Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
3. Neighbouring Sounds/O som ao redor (Kleber Mendonça Filho)
4. In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo)
5. Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers)
6. small roads (James Benning)
7. Viola (Matias Piniero)
8. O Gebo e a Sombra/Gebo and the Shadow (Manoel de Oliveira)
9. Vers Madrid/The Burning Bright (Sylvain George)
10. Arraianos (Eloy Enciso)
Anna Karenina Argo The Avengers The Deep Blue Sea Flight I Wish Lincoln Margaret Pina Ruby Sparks
Ten more terrific movies, any of which might have slipped into my first ten on a different day: A Cat in Paris, Bernie, Liberal Arts, The Master, Middle of Nowhere, Moonrise Kingdom, A Royal Affair, The Sessions, The Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall, Smashed. OK, that’s 11. So be it.
Best 2012 movies that haven’t opened in Seattle yet (but I’ve seen them): Amour, Zero Dark Thirty
1. Zero Dark Thirty
3. The Master
5. Holy Motors
6. Django Unchained
7. Moonrise Kingdom
8. Silver Linings Playbook
9. The Deep Blue Sea
1. The Turin Horse
2. The Kid with a Bike
3. Moonrise Kingdom
5. The Master
6. Holy Motors
7. This Is Not a Film
8. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
9. Not Fade Away
10. The Loneliest Planet
1. Django Unchained
2. Holy Motors
6. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
8. The Master
9. The Grey
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
It is appropriate that they just took “There she is, Miss America” away from Bert Parks. I too have been deprived of the opportunity to sing my same old song again. One could say rhetorically that after 1978 the movies had nowhere to go but up; but rhetoric is one thing and the art-industry’s capacity for self-degradation quite another. And ’79 did see a few films as empty, ugly, and offensively inept as any dreck of previous seasons: Bloodline, Prophecy, Nightwing, Sunburn, Love and Bullets, Ashanti, and the phenomenally successful Meatballs—as drecky dreck as ever dreck was. But they didn’t taint the whole scene, didn’t seem the dominant alternative to excellence. If only one or two films suggested a radical breakthrough into new zones of artistry or film consciousness, nevertheless an astounding number of movies managed to be lively, personal, nonderivative. François Truffaut may have made an utterly superfluous Antoine Doinel compendium like Love on the Run, and Federico Fellini wasted his time on Orchestra Rehearsal, an only half-good idea for a movie done with about a third of the zest and invention we’d expect of him. But good men like Blake Edwards and Peter Bogdanovich seemed to have got better; at least they were getting more credit for the beauties and intelligence of their work than they had in years. Whatever they had must have been catching because even hacks and/or poseurs like Ted Kotcheff, Peter Yates, William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack, and Arthur Hiller signed their names to very agreeable movies (North Dallas Forty, Breaking Away, The Brinks Job, The Electric Horseman, and The In-Laws, respectively). Going to the movies got to seem more like a pleasant pastime again instead of a masochistic compulsion.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
I felt a little off-balance throughout film year 1977, and it took me most of that time to figure out why. Even eccentric filmwatchers fall into patterns of expectation, and my Platonic Ideal of eccentricity was taking a beating. Too many of the big, heavily financed productions the freewheeling freelance looks forward to trashing turned out to be not bad films at all. By reverse token, the year was virtually devoid of sleepers—the unexpected, born-to-be-lost-in-the-shuffle beauties like Gumshoe, BadCompany, CharleyVarrick and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia the enterprising commentator looks forward to saving for posterity and, in the meantime, directing a few adventurous viewers toward. Just why there were no sleepers is hard to say. Maybe there is so much written on film nowadays that every film’s fair chance at the limelight is conceded in advance. Add to this that the Jet City has acquired an industry rep for scaring up an audience for movies that die on the vine elsewhere. Then too, in recent years we have been dubiously blessed with at least one exhibitor willing to cry sleeper every other week, so that the term has tended to be devalued hereabouts—especially when many of the so-called sleepers have proved resolutely undistinguished.
It just may be that the biggest and, in its rather trivial way, happiest surprise of the year was a George Roy Hill movie that most reviewers suddenly felt compelled to attack for having the flaws all the director’s more popular works have manifested in abundance; I went into that in my quickie of Slap Shot in MTN 54, and I continue to recall this rowdy, raunchy, sharply acted sports comedy with pleasure. And while I was liking a movie by a director I normally find exasperating in the extreme, I was let down—anywhere from mildly to precipitously—by such customarily reliable types as Sam Peckinpah (Cross of Iron), Don Siegel (Telefon), Michael Ritchie (Semi-Tough), Dick Richard (March or Die), and Robert Aldrich (The Choirboys—though not so much Twilight’sLast Gleaming). Fred Zinnemann compelled respect and gratitude for his impeccable craftsmanship, if not necessarily artistry, in Julia. Herbert Ross astonished by coming on like, of all things, a personal director in The Turning Point and, to a lesser extent, TheGoodbye Girl. Robert Benton fell a little short of the promise of Bad Company with The Late Show, but that film was one of the early pleasures of the year all the same.