Saturday, April 3, 2010

Michael J. Anderson's Retrospective and Older Favorites of 2009

Born to Be Bad
Silent & Classical Hollywood: All I Desire (Douglas Sirk, 1953), Bachelor Flat (Frank Tashlin, 1962), Back Street (John M. Stahl, 1932), The Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955), Blonde Crazy (Roy Del Ruth, 1931), The Blue Bird (Maurice Tourneur, 1918), Bombshell (Victor Fleming, 1933), Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950), By Candlelight (James Whale, 1933), City Streets (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931), The Cobweb (Vincente Minnelli, 1955), Crime and Punishment (Josef von Sternberg, 1935), The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, 1941), Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960), Female (Michael Curtiz, William Dieterle & William A. Wellman, 1933), Forbidden (Frank R. Capra, 1932), Four Daughters (Michael Curtiz, 1938), The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950), Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! (Lewis Milestone, 1933), Home from the Hill (Vincente Minnelli, 1960), Hot Saturday (William A. Seiter, 1932), Human Desire (Fritz Lang, 1954), If Only You Could Cook (William A. Seiter, 1935), The Impatient Maiden (James Whale, 1932), The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933), The Killer is Loose (Budd Boetticher, 1956), Lazybones (Frank Borzage, 1925), The Man I Killed (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932), Mantrap (Victor Fleming, 1926), Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh, 1932), Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941), Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur, 1957), The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932), Other Men's Women (William A. Wellman, 1931), Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958), The Petrified Forest (Archie L. Mayo, 1936), The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson, 1955), Regeneration (Raoul Walsh, 1915), The River (Frank Borzage, 1929), The Savage Innocents (Nicholas Ray, 1960), The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927), Susan Slept Here (Frank Tashlin, 1954), There's Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956), These Three (William Wyler, 1936), Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minnelli, 1962), The Unsuspected (Michael Curtiz, 1947), Western Union (Fritz Lang, 1941), Wichita (Jacques Tourneur, 1955), Wild Boys of the Road (William A. Wellman, 1933), Wild River (Elia Kazan, 1960)

Used Cars
New Hollywood: Breezy (Clint Eastwood, 1973), Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood, 1980), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder, 1970), Thief (Michael Mann, 1981), Used Cars (Robert Zemeckis, 1980)

World Cinema: L'Argent (Marcel L'Herbier, 1928), Dry Summer (Metin Erksan, 1964), Intentions of Murder (Shohei Imamura, 1964), The President (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1919), A Swedish Love Story (Roy Andersson, 1970)

Indian Cinema: The Big City (Satyajit Ray, 1963), Days and Nights in the Forest (Satyajit Ray, 1970), Guide (Vijay Anand, 1965), Kanchenjungha (Satyajit Ray, 1962), Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (Abrar Alvi, 1962)

Jeremi Szaniawski's Ten Best Films of 2009

The White Ribbon
1. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
2. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)
3. Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
4. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold)
5. Oxygen/Kislorod (Ivan Vyrypaev)
6. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, 2007)
7. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)
8. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)
9. Mr. Nobody (
Jaco Van Dormael)
10. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)

Jeremi is a PhD candidate in Film Studies and Slavic Languages and Literature at Yale University.

Alberto Zambenedetti's Ten Best Films of 2009

The Hangover
1. Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)
2. The Hangover (Todd Phillips)
3. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)
4. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008)
5. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)
6. Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)
7. Moon (Duncan Jones)
8. Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
9. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)
10. Crank: High Voltage (Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor)

Alberto is a PhD candidate at New York University.

Richard Suchenski's Best of 2009 & the Decade

Around a Small Mountain
Best of 2009

1. Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette, France/Italy)
2. Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, France/Italy)
3. Le streghe, femmes entre elles (Jean-Marie Straub, France/Italy)
4. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Austria/Germany/France/Italy)
5. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Germany/France/Sweden/Italy/Poland)
6. White Material (Claire Denis, France)
7. Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, Italy/France)
8. Villa Amalia (Benoît Jacquot, France/Switzerland)
9. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
10. Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/Spain/France)

-->Runners-Up (Alphabetical): The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (Werner Herzog) [Diptych], Bright Star (Jane Campion), La danse: Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris (Frederick Wiseman), Everyone Else (Maren Ade), Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson), In Comparison (Harun Farocki), Journal and Remarks (David Gatten), A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (Apichatpong Weerasethakul), The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch), Ne Change Rien (Pedro Costa)
In Praise of Love
Best of the Decade

1. Eniaios [Orders 1-5] (Gregory Markopoulos, 1947-2004/2008, USA/Greece)* 2. The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him (Stan Brakhage, 2000, USA) 3. In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard, 2001, France/Switzerland) 4. My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure (Robert Beavers, 1966-2002/2005, Greece/Switzerland/Italy/USA)* 5. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000, Hong Kong/France) 6. Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000, Taiwan/Japan) 7. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000, Hungary/Italy/Germany/France) 8. Platform (Jia Zhang-ke, 2000, China) 9. Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006, Portugal/France/Switzerland) 10. [Three-way tie] Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006, Thailand/France/Austria) / These Encounters of Theirs (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (2006, Italy/France) / Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002, Russia/Germany)

*These are cycles rather than individual films, but since they were first screened publicly this decade, I think they deserve their place on this list even if they were started many years ago. To balance the list out, I have provided a three-way tie for the bottom slot.
Richard is a joint PhD candidate in Film Studies and History of Art at Yale University

Lisa K. Broad's Ten Best Films of the 2000s

Still Life
1. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000, Hungary)
2. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001, United States)
3. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006, Thailand/France/Austria)
4. Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, 2004, France)
5. Still Life (Jia Zhangke, 2006, China)
6. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005, United States)
7. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007, United States)
8. Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002, Russia)
9. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, 2007, Mexico)
10. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008, Japan)

Runners-up: Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2006), A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005), Exiled (Johnnie To, 2006), Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008), Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso, 2004).

Ten Best Films of the 2000s

Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002, Thailand/France)
Winner of the Un Certain regard prize at Cannes, structuralist-trained filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Blissfully Yours can be read fruitfully in terms of its binaries, both thematically and formally - male/female, city/country, civilization/savagery, medicine/superstition, driving/walking, old/young, employed/unemployed, Thai/Burmese, objective/subjective, index/sign, on-screen/off-, shot/reverse - yet it is those moments, the odd, apaque gestures and modernist excesses that truly capture our attention: from the endless traversals of the semi-urban and rural landscapes, to the credit sequence inserted forty-plus minutes into the film's run time (a threshold over which the film's second half can be intuited) to an unexpectedly vivid sexual encounter on the edge of the Thai jungle. In light of recent Asian art cinema, in fact, Blissfully Yours, in its occasional indecipherablity, emerges less as modernist than post-modernist with an emphasis on the "post." Apichatpong's total breakthrough, to put it succinctly, represents the arrival of the 21st century art cinema, highlighting the new century's distance from late 20th century European-influenced modernism as practiced by its greatest practitioners Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007, France)
In remaking Albert Lamorisse's 1956 French children's classic The Red Balloon, the Taiwanese-based Hou has created the year's most multi-layered mediation on its subject: namely of the melancholic content of the source material and its process of reproduction in Flight of the Red Balloon. This is a work where each formal element retains a narrative and thematic significance, whether it is the piano score that conveys the young boy's psychology or the camera movements that transit between the spaces in front of and behind the Taiwanese puppet stage (thus doing the formal work of de-mystification). In other words, The Flight of the Red Balloon is one more masterpiece from a filmmaker who has been making nothing but for the past two decades.

Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003, Taiwan)
Goodbye Dragon Inn represents 2003's most distinctive example of a filmmaker recreating the language of the medium in the image of his or her subject matter. In this case, Tsai manipulates film time (the long take) and film space (the long shot) for the purpose of communicating the loneliness of a group of movie house patrons and employees on the day of a theatre's closing. Though Tsai's film succeeds in maintaining a comic tone throughout much of the work - be it somebody chewing too loudly in the theatre, or standing in the urinal immediately beside the only other person in the bathroom - there is a deep and undeniable undercurrent of unhappiness that imbues the work. Finally, people are alone, with little hope for remedy: in Goodbye Dragon Inn, characters hoping for a meaningful romantic connection constantly miss one another. One of the most beautiful examples, for instance, is the burning cigarette that the crippled theatre employee finds on missing her coworker again. A second is the film's first lines of dialogue, occurring nearly one hour into the work: a young man approaches another for a tryst, only to discover, ironically, that the other gentleman does not even speak the same language. Moreover, its location is not incidental to its theme: that the narrative occurs in an old movie palace awaiting closure broadens the film into a critique of the current inadequacy of film culture -- few remain in the seats for King Hu's 1966 classic, Dragon Inn. And at the same time, the space becomes the perfect platform for Tsai's thought: here is a place where people find themselves in close proximity, even as they fail to interact with one another.

I'm Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, 2001, France/Portugal)
Nonagenarian master Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home is the most perfect final film made, with one caveat: it would not be the director's last. Following his performance as a 400 year-old king in Ionesco's "Exit the King," Michel Piccoli's lead is informed of his wife's death by messengers waiting just off stage. In a stroke, Oliveira has thus established the two principle themes of his work - mortality and the relationship between theatre and cinema. In each case, the director develops his thesis before deconstructing the logic upon which it is built. As to the former, after an elided period of bereavement, Piccoli's character slowly re-acclimates himself to the everyday, becoming once again a man of vigor, whether it is in his play with his grandchildren or in his acceptance of a part in an English-language film adaptation of Joyce to be directed by John Malkovich's filmmaker. However, during the course of the production, Piccoli's character wearies, finally walking off set with his declaration, "I'm going home." As he steps out costumed into the Parisian sunlight, Oliveira suddenly eviscerates the distinction he has spent the duration of the film constructing - namely between theatre, the space of art, and cinema which is equated with life. Nonetheless, in this single, concluding gesture, the director shows the separation to be artificial, thereby reestablishing his on-going belief in cinema as open-aired theatre. Thus, I'm Going Home can be read as a film about its medium, which can be read similarly in the film's slow integration of sound, thereby allegorizing the medium's own early transition. Surely this is a fitting subject for Oliveira, the cinema's last remaining silent filmmaker - and a fitting subject for the great final film that never was, thankfully.

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001, United States/France)
Begun as an American television pilot, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive certainly would have been the most surreal program ever to grace this country's small screen, had it not been cancelled prior to its premiere. As it stands, Lynch's supreme masterpiece distinguishes itself from its latter-day Hollywood counterparts for its thorough integration of dream-inspired logic into the structure of the narrative. Said differently, everything in Mulholland Drive is a dream, or better yet, a nightmare. Lynch's 'City of Dreams' is truly nightmarish, a company town whose system destroys its wide-eyed newbies. Then again, Lynch's victims are not quite as helpless as this cursory description, or the opening passage of the film would suggest. Naomi Watt's Betty is not the naif that we are initially led to believe; she is instead a performer intent on using Los Angeles to achieve her ultimate purpose, stardom. To be sure, Lynch's work allegorizes the star system, but truly it is more than this. Following Jacques Rivette's lead in Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Mulholland Drive is a meditation on the nature of performance in the film medium: actor is divested from role via the characters' conscious creations of their identities (the amensiac Rita takes her name from a Gilda poster) and later in Lynch's reversals and denials of said identities. As such, Lynch calls attention to the gap between character and performance, thereby revealing the scaffolding of his work.

Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003, United States)
Like Unforgiven (1992) more than a decade earlier, Mystic River functions as a career-summarizing masterwork, coalescing the director's principle preoccupations into a single, classically-composed narrative. The film opens with three young boys carving their names into fresh concrete. Before one of them has finished, two police officers catch the young vandals in the act. The pair haul away the young man and proceeded to sexual molest him. Flash ahead to their adulthood, where the victimized child is now a mentally and emotionally crippled adult (played brilliantly by Tim Robbins). The incomplete vandalism thus becomes a metaphor for this child robbed of his youthful innocence -- a major theme in many of Eastwood's best, including his 1993 masterpiece, A Perfect World. Sean Penn also stars as the second grown child, now a small-time crime boss. As the story moves forward, his teenage daughter is raped and brutally murdered. Enter Kevin Bacon, the third of the three young men, who has since become a Boston police officer. As the investigation progresses slowly, Penn, unwilling to wait for justice to be meted, sets off to avenge his daughter's death. This provides the moral of Mystic River, the unintended consequences of vigilantism, which also confers upon the film its self-consciousness: provided that Eastwood is famous for his 'Man with No Name' and 'Dirty Harry' personas, it would seem that he is now asking what if any role his creations play in the proliferation of violence in American society. The somewhat contentious final scene indicates his complicity. Mystic River thus joins the very best of Hollywood past in enjoining a taut classical narrative and a procedural self-consciousness.

Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002, Russia/Germany)
The fact that Russian Ark is comprised only of one 96-minute shot may give one the wrong impression about the film: that it is primarily a technical tour-de-force. While of course this unprecedented formal accomplishment is the most striking feature of its form, it is all-the-same a formal strategy subservient to its broader thematic concerns. With Russian Ark, director Aleksandr Sokurov has forged an ark of his own out of the world's largest museum, St. Petersburg's Hermitage, filling it thus with time. As the director moves his DV camera through the historic space, one moment in time collapses into another as Sokurov shuttles his spectator through three hundred years of Russian history. Consequently, multiple historical moments manifest themselves within the space of a single frame, provided that there is no cutting to delineate separate moments in time. In this way, it becomes clear that the film image is both time and space, though conceptually, it need not represent a single unity of the two. Time is thus spatialized in the image, as a single frame may contain at once multiple moments in time; a structure as old as the Hermitage is thus the perfect environment for the film, given its long history and succession of events. Pursuant to this grand history, Russian Ark becomes a film about the decline of European civilization, concluding in the emotional sweep present in the ultimate ball sequence (and subsequent exodus of the costumed revilers). With their departure, what remains is Russian Ark itself, an aesthetic object preserving Europe's high-art tradition as it targets not only its modern-day viewers, but also those in centuries to come.

Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002, France/Iran/United States)
With Ten, Iran's greatest filmmaker has simultaneously forged a work that is thoroughly consistent with his corpus, even as it signifies a new direction. Here, Abbas Kiarostami's "half-made" cinema serves a relatively new purpose: sociopolitical change. As always, Kiarostami forces his audience to work in their interpretation of his film, prompting his viewer to create an aesthetic object from the ideas and questions included therein. (Certainly, there is an analogy between Kiarostami's framing and his view of cinema's relation to the broader world: in both cases, that which is presented is far less than that which isn't.) Indeed, Ten is less a political statement per se than it is a series of questions and problems that Kiarostami implores his audience to address. In the case of Ten, each of its open-ended interrogations relate to the role of women in Iranian society, whether it is divorce or motherhood that is at issue. Yet, as admirably as Kiarostami maintains a space for disagreement within the narration of his film, he does seem to give a sense of where he stands with Ten: the emblematic image of the woman removing her veil to reveal her shaved head no doubt communicates a concise political viewpoint. However, it is still a film that demands the viewer to interpret the issues in their own way, no less than Kiarostami's radical limitation of space demands the viewer to fill in the off-camera space that his mise-en-scene elides. In this way, Ten extends the director's aesthetic into this new subject matter, even as it remains the simplest of all the director's films: the camera leaves the space of the car only once to show a prostitute at work. This paring down of the film's visual content is facilitated by his use of digital technology for the second time. His previous venture, ABC Africa (2001) thus appears to be the transitional work in his corpus -- both for use of this technology and its social content.

Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000, Hungary/Italy/
Germany/France)
"What they think is ridiculous. They think because they are afraid. He says he likes it when things fall apart." Werckmeister Harmonies represents one of Béla Tarr's clearest yet distillations of his worldview: the world was created and ordered, but ever since, things have been falling apart, disintegrating. The picture opens with the arrival of a carnival in a bleak rural Hungarian community. The principle attraction of this traveling show is a dead whale, which Tarr will come to bestow with metaphorical significance, even if he refuses to define what precisely that significance is. Indeed, as things begin to break down, the audiences is compelled to ask whether the arrival of this creature has some sort of causal connection to burgeoning chaos. Yet, as the opening dialogue makes clear, Tarr refuses to grant myth any sort of authority in explaining the decaying order. Concurrently, Tarr adopts a visual strategy to accentuate this philosophy: his extended traveling takes often begin with a maximum degree of visual clarity and conclude with a spatial uncertainty to underscore the moral one. When Tarr does offer a rare point of clarity, it serves to undercut the false assumptions that the viewers may have developed toward his narrative - as when a helicopter appears late in the film to shatter the illusion that this is a work situated at the turn of the last century, which Tarr may suggest through the backwardness of his village, but which he never states directly. Importantly, this is a work of the fin-de-sicle to be sure, but it is the post-communist end of this century rather than the previous one.

Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000, Taiwan/Japan)
Winner of numerous international awards, including the 'Best Director' prize at the Cannes international film festival and the National Society of Film Critics' top award - the first foreign-language film to receive this honor in 15 years - Edward Yang's Yi Yi contains more than virtually any other film ever made. What is meant by more is not excess, but rather the full scope of existence: comedy and tragedy, happiness and sadness, feeling and empathy, the physical and the metaphysical, art and life. Indeed, Yi Yi represents nothing more than it does a prayer, offered on the part of its maker for its many characters who continue to make the same mistakes in their lives, generation after generation. After all, the literal translation of the title is 'One One,' intimating precisely this sort of repetition, which is likewise picked up in the names of the younger generation's protagonists, Ting Ting and Yang Yang. The latter, a clear stand-in for the director, becomes a photographer in order that he might show people the half of life that they do not normally see: in this case, the backs of their heads. His engagement is thus art, as his older sister, who repeats the same romantic mistakes as her father, chooses to speak to her comatose grandmother, who thusly becomes a stand in for god. At one point she even breaks from her coma (her silence) to comfort the young girl, even if it remains unclear as to whether this represents a literal occurrence. Either way, Yang's is a film that intentionally confronts as much of life as possible, offering open conclusions to the eternal questions it raises.

Note: In the original incarnation of this list, The Headless Woman was included to Ten's exclusion. Upon a subsequent viewing of Ten, I have made the change - which in no way changes this writer's high regard for Martel's outstanding film, still one of the decade's best.

Ten Best Éric Rohmer Directed Films

Ma nuit chez Maud/My Night at Maud's
1. Le Rayon vert/The Green Ray/Summer (1986)
2. Ma nuit chez Maud/My Night at Maud's (1969)
3. L'ami de mon amie/My Girlfriend's Boyfriend/Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987)
4. Le genou de Claire/Claire's Knee (1970)
5. Perceval le Gallois/Perceval (1978)
6. Conte d'automne/An Autumn Tale (1998)
7. La femme de l'aviateur/The Aviator's Wife (1981)
8. Le beau mariage/A Good Marriage (1982)
9. L'anglaise et le duc/The Lady and the Duke (2001)
10. Pauline à la plage/Pauline at the Beach (1983)

Plus, ten runners-up: Conte d'hiver/A Tale of Winter (1992), Les nuits de la pleine lune/Full Moon in Paris (1984), Les amours d'Astrée et de Céladon/The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), Le signe du lion/The Sign of Leo (1959), Die Marquise von O.../The Marquise of O (1976), Conte de printemps/A Tale of Springtime (1990), La Collectionneuse (1967), Les rendez-vous de Paris/Rendezvous in Paris (1995), Conte d'été/A Summer's Tale (1996), La boulangère de Monceau/The Girl at the Monceau Bakery (1963)

This list was updated 1/12/2010 upon the news of Éric Rohmer's passing.

Ten Best Clint Eastwood Directed Films

The Outlaw Josey Wales
1. A Perfect World (1993)
2. Sudden Impact (1983)
3. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
4. Mystic River (2003)
5. Bronco Billy (1980) 
6. Unforgiven (1992)
7. The Gauntlet (1977)
8. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
9. The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
10. White Hunter, Black Heart (1990)

Plus, ten runners-up: Gran Torino (2008), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), Breezy (1973), Bird (1988), Space Cowboys (2000), Honkeytonk Man (1982), Firefox (1982), High Plains Drifter (1973), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Absolute Power (1997)

Updated: 10/4/2010

Ten Best Films' Pre-Code Favorites of 2009

Blonde Crazy (Roy Del Ruth, 1931, Warner Bros.)
When Andrew Sarris claimed that Casablanca (1942) was "the most decisive exception to the auteur theory," clearly he had forgotten Roy Del Ruth's Blonde Crazy. Roy Del Ruth? Del Ruth's direction here borders on the genuinely experimental with his recourse to fantasy in a sequence strung together with multiple super-impositions, and in the elan of his overhead mobile framing of a local jail. Add to this Kubec Glasmon and John Bright's sparking dialogue - again, who? - and the charismatic, wise-cracking performances of the great James Cagney and Joan Blondell, and Blonde Crazy surely rates among the greatest Hollywood films of a lesser artistic pedigree.

Bombshell (Victor Fleming, 1933, M.-G.-M.)
A highpoint in Pre-Hays Code-era self-reflexivity, Bombsell involves re-shoots of the prior Victor Fleming-Jean Harlow smash hit Red Dust (1932), with the latter playing herself in this portrait of the perfectly vacuous star, Lola Burns. Harlow's Burns, however, is no match for Lee Tracy's epically manipulative press agent, who orchestrates Burns's contact with and exclusion from proper society. Fleming's direction, with the exception of a Trouble in Paradise (1932)-brand opening montage that confirms Burns's stardom, is very clean and classical, frequently motivated by figure movement within the frame. Bombshell is quite conceivably Fleming's best film.

City Streets (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931, Paramount)
See Lisa K. Broad's outstanding appreciation at Tativille.

Female (Michael Curtiz, William Dieterle and William A. Wellman, 1933, Warner Bros.)
There were amoral films made during the Pre-Code era and then there were amoral films. This Michael Curtiz signed picture (he was responsible, purportedly, only for the re-shoots, with William A. Wellman directing the majority of the film's scenes) certainly fits in the latter category, with Ruth Chatterton's auto executive callously seducing her more dashing male employees - she serves her pursuits vodka to "fortify" their "courage." In the end, Chatterton's exec opts for love over business, providing an unexpectedly conventional conclusion to what had been otherwise substantially radical stuff. Plus, and this is a very big plus, Female features extraordinary locations shot at Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis Hose.

Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! (Lewis Milestone, 1933, United Artists)
The strangest film on this or really any list, Lewis Milestone's career peak is also one of the best. With its sing-song dialogue, moments of microscopic, Eisensteinian montage, extremely mobile framing, and frequent looks into the camera, Milestone throws off virtually every popular cinema convention of the capitalist society that Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! seeks to critique. Gleefully supportive of life on the bum, Milestone and screenwriter Ben Hecht's opus advocates for a communal life and free moral system that clearly resides outside of American norms. Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! is likewise noteworthy, though far more trivially, for providing one of the oddest understandings of amnesia ever committed to the screen.

Hot Saturday (William A. Seiter, 1932, Paramount)
Of all the films cited on this list, Seiter's Hot Saturday excels every other in its singular expression of place: here, a presumably Southern small town, surrounded by pinewood forests and pristine lakes, lensed gorgeously, especially in the deep dark of night, by Arthur L. Todd. The under-appreciated Nancy Carroll (see also The Man I Killed) and a rather young, and of course, quite dashing Cary Grant co-star in this portrait of small-town bigotry, which in this instance leads to a convincingly modern conclusion. But it is the careful construed atmosphere that most stays in the mind, making this one of the first films among the ten that I am looking forward to revisiting.

The Man I Killed (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932, Paramount)
See my full-length piece at affiliate site Tativille.

Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh, 1932, Fox)
Were I pressed to recommend a single film on this list, Me and My Gal would be it. Walsh's film is deliriously playful in its usage of nascent sound technologies: we get self-assured, gum-chewing dialogue from the film's exceptional leads, Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett; a mute witness to the film's crimes; and most spectacularly, internal monologues spoken in conversation, spoofing 1932 experiment Strange Interlude. It is moreover an absolute genre mash-up combining elements of romantic comedy, vaudeville and the gangster film, among others. Indeed, it becomes ever clearer that Walsh's best work was in the gangster film, whether it was Regeneration (1915), The Roaring Twenties (1939), White Heat (1949), or perhaps the greatest of all his films, Me and My Gal.

The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932, Universal)
One of the genuinely great Universal horror titles of the Pre-Code years, The Old Dark House first off offers up a cast unrivaled among those works mentioned on this list: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton in his first American film, Raymond Massey, and the very alluring Gloria Stuart, a mere sixty-five years before her appearance in Titanic. Second, The Old Dark House provides unparalleled atmosphere in its secluded, hillside mansion, stumbled upon by a group of travelers stranded by a torrential, nocturnal downpour. Third, there is the film's distinctly terrifying denouement, this is one of Whale's scariest films...

Other Men's Women (William A. Wellman, 1931, Warner Bros.)
The Pre-Code auteur discovery of 2009, thanks in no small measure to Turner Classics's Fobidden Hollywood, Vol. 3 box-set, is undeniably William A. Wellman, whose work in this period (see for example also Female, Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Sale; all 1933) seems to qualitatively dwarf his overall output in the coming two decades. Other Men's Women in particular rates among the better films of the era, with its displaced memory of the First World War - in the person of its wounded veteran - the sexual energy suggested by the film's title, and most remarkably of all, its sense of the kinetic: as in Wild Boys of the Road, Wellman closes his film with a pure expression of movement that as always expresses the very nature of the medium.

Note: The ten films selected were each pictures that I saw for the first time in 2009. Many are available on DVD and/or screen regularly on Turner Classic Movies. Because I am limiting myself only to first time viewings, I have not included anything by Howard Hawks, Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, Frank Borzage, and so on, along with only a single title by Ernst Lubitsch. Were I doing a proper Pre-Code top ten, one could be certain that my list would be heavily represented by the aforesaid directors. For further favorites, see my ten best lists of the 1930s.

Ten Best Films' 2008 Mini-Poll

1. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
126 points (AJ, LB, MA, ML, MS, PK, RSu, RSw)

2. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
87 points (AJ, LB, MA, RSu, RSw)

3. Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry)
81 points (AZ, LB, MA, ML, PK)

4. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
68.5 points (LB, MA, RSu, RSw)

5. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
65 points (AJ, KW, MS, RSw)
6. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
58 points (AZ, KW, ML, MS)
7. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)
54.5 points (AJ, AZ, MS)

8. (tie) Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007)
50 points (AJ, PK, RSw)*
8. (tie) Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
50 points (AZ, KW, MS)
10. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood)
46 points (AJ, PK, RSw)

11. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
45 (AZ, ML, MS)
12. Sparrow (Johnnie To)
43.5 (LB, ML, RSw)
13. WALL·E (Andrew Stanton)
39 (AJ, ML, PK)
14. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)
34 (KW, RSu)
15. (tie) In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, 2007)
33.5 (MA, RSw)*

15. (tie) Still Life (Jia Zhangke, 2006)
33.5 (PK, RSw)*
17. (tie) Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita)
33 (LB, ML)
17. (tie) Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky)
33 (LB, RSu)
19. (tie) The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, 2007)
31 (LB, MA)*

19. (tie) JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri)
31 (AZ, ML)
19. (tie) The Wrestler (Darren Arnofosky) - 31 (AZ, MS)

Also receiving multiple citations: Milk (Gus Van Sant) - 30 (KW, MS); RR (James Benning, 2007) - 27 (MA, RSu); Step Brothers (Adam McKay) - 23 (AJ, PK); Chouga (Darezhan Omirbaev) - 22 (MA, RSu).

Note: Films featuring an asterisk [*] were selected by at least one participant in 2007, thereby lowering their totals - and rankings - this year.

Scoring: Each citation receives ten points with an additional ten for a first place citation, nine for second, and so on, on down to one for tenth. This method of scoring is intended to give appropriate weight to those films that were included on more than one list.

Contributors: The above list is comprised of top ten selections made by Andrea Janes (AJ), Alberto Zambenedetti (AZ), Karen Wang (KW), Lisa K. Broad (LB), Michael J. Anderson (MA), Mike Lyon (ML), Matt Singer (MS), P.L. Kerpius (PK), Richard Suchenski (RSu) and R. Emmet Sweeney (RSw).

2008: Lisa K. Broad

Sparrow
1. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
2. Two Lovers (James Gray, United States)
3. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
4. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina/France/
Italy/Spain)
5. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France)
6. Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, United States)
7. Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita, Japan)
8. Sparrow (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)
9. Redbelt (David Mamet, United States)
10. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, France/Germany)

Ten Best Films of 2008

1. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina/France/
Italy/Spain)
The clear choice for the year's best, Lucrecia Martel's third feature articulates its female lead's psychological distress in terms of a narrative opacity that lifts in tandem with its heroine's renewed perception of her world. This cognizance, however, does not extend to the level of the social, which Martel analyzes in a mise-en-scène that continually reserves focus for her female protagonist while locating society's more marginal figures in an out-of-focus periphery. As with her 2001 La Ciénaga, Martel powerfully visualizes her metaphor - though, it is worth adding, she does so to a much more rigorous degree in The Headless Woman. Form and subject are indeed remade into one in this foremost masterpiece of the new Argentine cinema.


2. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
J-horror maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa's generic change of pace represents nothing less than the director's best, savaging his nation's institutions (namely, the Japanese patriarchy, capitalist system, postwar anti-militarism and familial structure) and self-image, within a subtly expressionistic visually field. Timely mining remarkably similar thematic terrain to Laurent Cantet's Time Out (2001) with its out-of-work company man going to work daily, Kurosawa extends his critique to the film's other three family members who each challenge the authority of the aforesaid institutions. Kurosawa, however, reserves a revolutionary narrative "earthquake" or reversal for the final act, providing the ideal impetus for the film's ethos of resistance.

3. Shirin (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)
Shirin represents a new point of extremum in Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami's aesthetic-defining exploration off-camera space: here Kiarostami presents an entire, ninety-minute narrative feature off screen. As we hear the film's dialogues, sound effects and conventional scoring, Kiarostami invites us to in effect make the film we never see, to supply it with a style, a visual look and so on. On-screen, Shirin presents more than one hundred, almost uniformly beautiful Persian actresses (and, jarringly, Juliette Binoche) as they react to the picture that we never see. Their performances, however, register excesses underscoring the gap between their gestures and what appears on the unseen screen.

4. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France)
Yet another filmmaker working at his peak, Olivier Assayas essentially adopts the pattern of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times (2005) in remaking his own corpus - especially his previous peak Cold Water (1994) and the fine Late August, Early September (1998) - through a three-part structure. While less clearly demarcated than in the Hou, each segment centers on a generation, who demonstrate France's evolving materialistic values. In fact, Assayas seems most critical of his own age-group, positioned between their family-minded elders and communitarian juniors. This is Assayas at both his most French and Asian, registering their distinctive naturalisms through an often mobile camera.

5. Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina/France/Netherlands/
Germany/Spain)
Emphasizing tactile experience and sensory memory to extraordinary effect, Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool adopts a conventional modernist strategy of long, often static takes to procure these realist qualities. Alonso likewise often holds his shots well beyond their narrative purpose has concluded, thus providing a visual analogy for his narrative structure: Liverpool continues even after on-screen subject Farrel has left the field-of-vision for the final time, thus emphasizing the robustness of life that this single film is unable to contain in its entirety. In other words, Alonso adapts modernist film language in the image of a narrative that seeks to do the same.

6. Two Lovers (James Gray, United States)
Perhaps the past year's biggest surprise - in spite of writer-director James Gray's notable previous forays into the Russian world of Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, Little Odessa (1994) and We Own the Night (2007); Gray is, in this regard, the supreme hedgehog of the US cinema, never straying very far from home - Two Lovers is easily 2008's most precise piece of American filmmaking. Modifying its classical decoupage in the variable image of superlative lead Joaquin Phoenix's variable psychology, Two Lovers offers a very traditional Jewish morality to replace the explicitly aestheticized romance of Phoenix and WASP love interest Gwyneth Paltrow. French critics a -->gain appear to be on the vanguard when it comes to the American Gray.

7. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, France/Germany)
Claire Denis's latest is the filmmaker in her most effective idiom, the romantic narrative poetics of her Friday Night (2002), following on the substantially more obscure fragmentation of the director's L'Intrus (2004). Here, as with her 1999 Beau Travail, movement returns to the fore, though in this instance it is less fetishistic exposition than the construction of a pattern of living particular to Paris's outer-suburb African immigrant community. These mobile, train-situated framings provide one of many echoes with Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring (1949) source - as do the film's rice-cookers, static corridor set-ups, and its' concluding wedding - that Denis nevertheless transforms in the image of a racially-mixed 21st century France.

8. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
One of this year's series of narratives depicting a rare family gathering, A Christmas Tale distinguishes itself for the pure bravado of Arnaud Desplechin's post-classical (and post-modern) direction. Adopting essentially every technique available to the filmmaker - from a shadow play to split-screen - Desplechin utilizes each as a means of maintaining a moment-to-moment quality of formal surprise; Desplechin, in other words, dislodges his signifiers from what they signify, selecting strategies instead for their syntactic effectiveness. This is filmmaking at its most free and intuitive, qualities that are no less present in the director's outstanding My Sex Life... or How I Got into an Argument (1996) and Kings and Queen (2004).

9. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, United States)
That Gran Torino represents actor-director Eastwood's best work in four years should come as no surprise: after all, this is the septuagenarian hyphenate's first on-camera turn since his 2004 masterpiece Million Dollar BabyGran Torino showcases Eastwood's latest 'Dirty Harry' incarnation in his scenery-chewing best, very much in the supremely-entertaining Heartbreak Ridge (1986) mold. That Gran Torino also represents, reportedly, Eastwood's final on-screen performance insures the film's importance to the director's career-spanning examination of the aforesaid archetype he first created in Siegel's film. In Harry's final act, Walt Kowalski transforms himself into Christ-like sacrifice. Pure pleasure for auteurists everywhere.

10. Our Beloved Month of August (Miguel Gomes, Portugal/France)
The work of former film critic Gomes, Our Beloved Month of August forces its viewer to consider how works of cinema are commonly constructed, with sound recorded or created independently of the images captured on-camera. In so doing, the spectator is disabused of the incorrect impression that sound issues from the same location as the image, an impression that most films work hard to elicit. In this way, which is to say according to its substantial self-reflexivity, Gomes's work reflects his national cinema's profoundly modernist orientation. Gomes has also produced a film that traces the creditable looseness of its subject to the film's many key collaborators (a point made especially in its closing credits). In this respect, Gomes reminds us of something else that is essential to cinema: namely, that films are rarely created by lone artists.