Monday, January 9, 2012

My 25 (or so) Favourite Classic Films First Seen in 2011

Inspired by the always charming, always enjoyable and always cinematically knowledgeable (and always alliterative, nomenclaturally speaking) Self-Styled Siren, I send forth a list of my 25 favourite classic films seen for the first time in 2011.  Classic, of course, being any movie made prior to 1960.  And in keeping with the Siren's choice of keeping the descriptions to a bare bones minimum (actually inspired in turn by Clara at Via Margutta 51) I will try to hold my typically long-winded ramblings to a relative bare bones minimum as well.  So without further ado, here are my favourite classic films seen for the first time in 2011.

Oh wait!   I do have some further ado to put forth - and possibly some rambling (see, I have already begun breaking promises).  In order to keep this list to a nice and tidy twenty-five (yeah, right) I would like to preface said list with a pair of special mentions.  

Powell/Pressburger: It is a rather sad fact but before this past year I had only seen three films by this brilliant British filmmaking duo known collectively as the Archers (Black Narcissus, Tales of Hoffman & of course The Red Shoes - my all-time favourite film if one wishes to keep track of such things).    In 2011, I almost doubled my Powell/Pressburger film viewing prowess, by seeing five of their films for the very first time.   These five films (in order of preference) are The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, Gone to Earth, A Matter of Life and Death & Oh...Rosalinda!!.  Any one of these films could feasibly take the top spot on the below list, so since they are so many and so superior (at least mostly), I have decided to put them in a class all their own.   In actuality this is merely a ploy (a clever ruse if you will) to make more room on the list for even more films since I could not narrow my list down very easily.  The other special mention (just below) is another ploy to do the same damn thing.

Douglas Sirk:  Believe it or not, prior to 2011, I had never seen a film directed by Herr Sirk.  This sad fact was remedied last year by seeing five of his great melodramas (again, in order of preference) - Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession & A Time to Live and a Time to Die.  Again, I believe these to be the proverbial head and shoulders above most of the films I saw in 2011, so they too will get a class all their own.  And again, this is merely part of the aforementioned ploy.  But enough of this.  I promised not to ramble on, so now, (really) without further ado, I give you my 25 favourite classic films seen for the first time in 2011.  I have tried to list these films in relative preferential order, but I think we all know how that ends up, so take the numbering order in any manner you see fit.  Now here they are.

1) Leave Her to Heaven (John Stahl, 1945) - Beautiful and sinister as hell, and with the sexiest overbite in the history of Hollywood, this is Gene Tierney at her wicked best - and the glorious Technicolor (wonderfully and appropriately artificial) looks almost as good as she does.  If you do not believe me, just check out that look she is giving you right now.

2) Cairo Station (Youssef Chahine, 1958) - Very possibly the least known film on this list, this Egyptian film noir(ish) masterpiece (yeah!  I called it that!) is like having Hawks, Hitchcock, Welles, Curtiz and Antonioni all rolled into one.

3) Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) - Taking its place as my new favourite crime caper movie (my new second favourite of the genre can be seen in the number eight spot below), this French heist film is , to borrow an attitude from Mae West, great when it is loud but even greater when it doesn't say a word.

4) Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952) - The best thing to come out of Lang's Hollywood years, and a campy deeelight full of Marlene mayhem (looking a bit older than what she wanted to) and Mel Ferrer and his toothy, snarky grin.  Fun stuff indeed.  My review can be read here.

5) The Last Flight (William Dieterle, 1931) - If the Siren can wax poetic about Edmund Goulding then I can turn critical cartwheels over William Dieterle.  What a great forgotten film (a loving piece in Film Comment made me seek it out), highlighting the equally forgotten (sad as that may be) Richard Barthelmess, David Manners, John Mack Brown and Helen Chandler.  My review can be read here.

6) Partie de campagne (Jean Renoir, 1936) - How could it not be gorgeous - it's Renoir - but even by Renoir standards this forty minute film, based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, and centered around the drop dead gorgeous Sylvia Bataille as an objet d'art, is a complete stunner.

7) Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagen, 1931) - Even taking the sexy lesbian schoolgirl factor out of the mix (I am a guy after all), this early German sound film is more than well worth a look - a long look indeed.  In fact one could (and should) call this film haunting - a term that could go all cliché if one is not careful, but that is not the case here.  Seriously though, this is a very powerful film indeed.  My review can be read here.

8) The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956) - Kubrick's rather demanding style has always appealed to me, and in this early work (his third) you can see that style hidden inside a more classic style.  A great crime caper movie (my second favourite of the genre - see number 3 above) and easy to see the influence on Tarantino later on.

9) The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941) - Another Gene Tierney vehicle (I suppose I was going through a Tierney phase in 2011), this rather sleazy, giddily B-grade picture was a delight from beginning to end.  And not just Tierney (and that overbite) but also Victor Mature (I did say sleazy) and Ona Munson as Mother Gin Sling.  Great stuff indeed.

10) The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921) - One of the creepiest and greatest silent films ever made.  Who knew the Swedes could pull of as much silent era intensity and visual bravura as the Germans.

11) 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) - It is kind of shocking that I went through the first 43 years of my life (the first few understandably so) without ever seeing this film.  Intense and brilliant, this film is the perfect blend of writing, directing and acting.  And the scene where everyone, even the assholes in the group, turn their backs on the racist played by Ed Begley, is simply perfect.

12) The Cobweb (Vincente Minnelli, 1955) - One of the great Minnelli's lesser known works, and a film that is seen as too melodramatic by many, but I was blown away (as they say) by the damned thing.  Granted, I like pretty much anything with Richard Widmark in it, and Gloria Grahame is ooh la la great just about every time out, and I prefer the overly melodramatic, so it was probably a forgone conclusion that I would love this picture.  My review (actually more a list of my 10 favourite things about the film) can be read here.

13) Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, 1935) - Swashbuckling at its very best.  I think I can call this the greatest pirate movie ever made and I would not get much argument.  Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland (their first of an eventual eight films together) and Basil Rathbone as the villain.  What more need be said.  Ahoy mateys, ahoy.

14) Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956) - A cool and pretty keen fifties sci-fi classic (based on The Tempest of all things) that shows a young, pre-parody, Leslie Nielsen as the heroic but somewhat hapless captain of a spacecraft trapped on the titular planet and a very highlighted, and very leggy Anne Francis as the object of the Captain's (and everyone else's) affections.  Oh yeah, and Robby the Robot too.  My review can be read here.

15) The Wild One (László Benedek, 1953) - This is the movie that has Brando in leather, with a revving, hulking machine roaring between his legs.  No, not Last Tango in Paris.  THis is the one with the motorcycles (get your mind out of the gutter).  Cool as can be - and with Lee Marvin to boot.  My review can be read here.

16) The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller, 1951) - Just Fuller's third film and already that growling Fullerian intensity is fully intact.  Thanx to Criterion's great Eclipse series for getting this one two me in such pristine form.  I think I would have to include this in any 10 Favourite war movies list I were to make.

17) The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) - Seen during my summer kick of 1950's sci-fi/fantasy films, this is one of the creepiest movies I saw all year. It just goes and goes and never lets up - not even in the end.

18) Bienvenido Mr. Marshall (Luis Garcia Berlanga, 1953) - I must admit to never having heard of the director before coming across three of his films during My Quest, but I sure am glad I have finally found him.  A screwball kind of film, Berlanga can be called a Spanish Billy Wilder without much fuss.

19) Caged (John Cromwell, 1950) - Subversive and more than bordering on the exploitative, this is a harrowing film and Eleanor Parker hands in a frazzled, frenzied but oh so chilling performance as an innocent turned jaded caged bird.  My review can be read here.

20) The Ballad of Narayama (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958) - Forget Ozu.  Forget Kurosawa.  Forget Mizoguchi and Naruse.  2011 was the year that turned Keisuke Kinoshita into my favourite classic Japanese director.  This film is just beautiful as Kinoshita does wonders with colour.

21) The Silver Chalice (Victor Saville, 1954) - Mockingly nicknamed Paul Newman and the Holy Grail, and hated by Newman himself (this debut film would be the scorn of the actor's career), I quite enjoyed this rather laughable movie just for the very fact that it is so laughable.  And at the top of this laughability - Jack Palance at his most campiest (no need to shut the closet on this performance).  My review can be read here.

22) The Hurricane (John Ford, 1937) - Aside from the fun I had watching this while an actual hurricane was raging outside (or at least the more inland version of such), this is a very fun film in and of itself.  Plus we get to see Dorothy Lamour tied to a palm tree.  My review (or at least some thoughts on the film) can be read here.

23) Fig Leaves (Howard Hawks, 1925) - Howard Hawks does The Flintstones.  This was a surprisingly fun film to watch.  Granted, it was Hawks and I am certainly what one would call a Hitchcocko-Hawksian, but I still did not expect as much out of this silent film as I got.  Seriously, did Hanna and Barbara see this film before creating The Flintstones?  And if you watch, you will see that Howard Hawks invented the snooze alarm.  My review can be read here.

24) The Outlaw (Howard Hughes, 1943) - I think the fact that Howard Hughes invented the underwire bra specifically for Jane Russell (in her film debut) to wear, makes this a very interesting behind-the-scenes tale.  The movie itself is rather simple (Hughes is not a great director), but Russell makes it her own with her very own pair of great assets.

25) My Favorite Wife (Garson Kanin, 1940) - I think the most fun about watching this screwball comedy is watching how nervous the muscled, mostly naked body of Randolph Scott seems to make Cary Grant - especially considering the real life relationship between the two.  It doesn't hurt that Leo McCarey wrote the thing as well.

I could easily keep this list going with such first time fun as Designing Woman, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Blessed Event, Criminal Code, So Young So Bad, Detour, The Miracle Woman, Run For Cover, Untamed, Crossfire, The Egyptian, Ceiling Zero, Girls of the Road, The Hitch-Hiker, The Medium, East of Borneo, Land of the Pharaohs, Side Street, Stranger on the Third Floor and both versions of Dawn Patrol

Also, I suppose a special mention should be made for a great double feature I saw for the first time in 2011.  The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, both directed by Frank Tashlin and the first two starring roles for Jayne Mansfield, are a great pair of self-referential comedies - and I do love self-referential comedies.

One last thing before I shuffle off.  As I made mention to above, I spent a lot of film-watching hours this past summer in the genre of 1950's Sci-fi - most of which I had never seen.  Some of these were really good (The Man From Planet X, Invaders From Mars, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) while some were pretty laughable (The Monolith Monsters, Robot Monster, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) but they were all pretty darn fun - even if in the cheesiest kind of way.  In fact I liked these films so much that I even did a 10 Best 1950's Sci-Fi list for them over at Anomalous Material.

Once again I would like to thank the Self-Styled Siren for her inspiration in making this list.  I hope to do it again next year, and that may include some of the films I have gleaned off of the Siren's list, and will watch for the first time in 2012.


MP said...

Great feature I'm working on mine rightaway!
Happy New Year Kevyn!

Kevyn Knox said...

Yes. I had great fun making this list. A lot of first-timers this year. Some of these make my self-titled Film Historian moniker seem a bit premature. But alas, I will never stop finding new older films to watch.

Dave Enkosky said...

I've got a lot of catching up to do. I've only seen about a quarter of these movies. I'm ashamed to admit it but I haven't even seen a Powell/Pressburger movie yet (yeah, I've seen Peeping Tom, but that was only Powell).

I also went on a Sirk binge this past year. Highly recommend it to anyone.

Kevyn Knox said...

There are many directors I am woefully lacking in knowledge of. Before this past year Powell/Pressburger and Sirk were among them. I of course still have a lot to see in both accounts. Sirk's early German work and his earlier Hollywood stuff and the Archers' I Know Where I am Going and 49th Parallel as well.

But there are still others - Renoir (who I am beginning to remedy), Visconti, De Sica, Wyler, Curtiz, Goulding, McCarey, Anthony Mann.....

We all have a lot of catching up to do.

Ryan McNeil said...

THE KILLING is an all-time fave of mine (Track down Kubrick's short KILLER'S KISS if you can), and I too recently saw 12 ANGRY MEN for the first time...a year ago, I think?

Some classics I've seen for the first time in recent months that I loved...


Here's to more classics in 2012!

Kevyn Knox said...

@Ryan - I actually watched Killer's Kiss as a double feature with The Killing (they are on Criterion disc together).

Chip Lary said...

I've only seen six of those films. I completely agree with your description of Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven. (I still might go for a swim with her, though. She's that beautiful.)

Of the ones I have seen, 12 Angry Men would be at the top of the list.

Kevyn Knox said...

@Chip - go swimming with Gene Tierney? You and me both baby.

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