Thursday, February 14, 2013

My 25 Favourite Classics Seen for the First Time in 2012

Since I had fun doing "It" last year, I thought I would do "It" again this year.  What is "It" you ask?  Well, my funny classic film loving valentines, I will tell you.  "It" is a list of my favourite classic films - but just those classics seen by yours truly, for the first time this past calendar year.  And believe me, even though I celebrated my 45th birthday last year, there were still plenty of classics this old cinephile had yet to see - and some of these were quite good.  Quite good indeed.  So good actually, that the top ten on this list have all been added to my Favourite Films of All-Time list.  Before we get into "It," please allow me to mention one simple ground rule.  In order to make this list, said film must, of course be something I had not seen prior to 2012 (duh!), but said film must also be something I consider a classic.  In other words, it must have been made prior to 1960.  I know, I know, that leaves out some fun, let us call them, semi-classics, that I saw for the first time last year - films such as John Frankenheimer's Seconds or John Ford's 7 Women or Howard Hawks' Hatari! or John Huston's The Misfits or Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! - but hey, we must draw the line somewhere, mustn't we?  Anyway, on with the show.

1. Gun Crazy - Joseph H. Lewis' 1950 genre classic's got everything.  John Dall acting the tough guy, Peggy Cummins rockin' both a pre-Bonnie and Clyde beret and the hottest cowgirl outfit in cinema, and the most fun time to be had in the genre.  All this and an adventurous, rum tum tugger of a crime spree story to boot - and no one was complaining about gun violence after the damn movie.  Well, maybe they were, but still - a fun fun movie indeed.

2. Smiles of a Summer Night - Bergman was one of my first loves when I first started getting into art film around seventeen or so, but for one reason or another, it took me another twenty-seven years to finally see this, one of the Swedish auteur's most acclaimed films.  Now that I finally have, it ranks number two, behind just The Seventh Seal, as my favourite Bergman.  Who knew the guy could be so funny?

3. Gilda - When Rita Hayworth, that titular gold-digging hussy of Charlie Vidor's film, first comes on the screen, her auburn locks (even in black and white) flowing through the air in brazen abandonment, poor hapless Glenn Ford is lost forever.  And guess what?  So are we.

4. Seventh Heaven - I first fell in love with Janet Gaynor in Sunrise.  This film sealed the deal.  Tiny and insecure, but plucky and determined, Gaynor's waifish wanton women here - a little girl lost really - is an amazing performance, and it, along with the aforementioned Sunrise, and her performance in Street Angel (a film that almost made this list), garnered her the very first Academy Award for Best Actress.  Oh yeah, Charles Farrell is in here too.

5. Limelight - This was the final film on my quest to see the 1000 greatest films, and what a way to go out.  Chaplin at his most resplendent.  A tragic tale - Chaplinesque tragic one might even say - that will rip out your heart and then make you laugh at the still beating thing in your hand, before finally ruining you.  Who could ask for anything more.

6. Black Orpheus - A French film made in Brazil, at the height of Carnivale, that happens to be a gorgeous - one could even say succulent, if one were so inclined - piece of cinema.  Taking on the Orphic myth, director Marcel Camus, makes a haunting (excuse me for the rather cliché term) film that is equal parts harrowing and beautiful.  I must admit, I do love a tragic love story, and they do not get much more tragic than this one.

7. Samson and Delilah - Many would claim that a film such as this, with its almost camp feel, would fall under the umbrella of guilty pleasures - but I feel no guilt from any film that I happen to like, so I suppose guiltless pleasures would be as close as we get.  Granted, the film is quite silly at times - between DeMille, Mature and Lamarr, how could it not be - but the film is also a brazen take on sexuality in a time when the production code would not allow a brazen take on sexuality - and between DeMille, Mature and Lamarr, how could it not be.

8. The White Hell of Pitz Palu - I went through a German mountain film period early last year (yeah, you read that right), and I watched all I could get my grubby little hands on.  This one, directed by G.W. Pabst and Arnold Fanck, and starring future infamous filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, is the best of the bunch.  And getting to watch it on the big screen, it felt almost as if I were right up there on that mountain with Leni and the gang.

9. Safe in Hell - As soon as I watched this Wild Bill Wellman-directed film, it automatically became my favourite Pre-Code film.  Sexy Dorothy Mackaill's audacious performance as a fallen woman, hiding from an abusive ex-boyfriend/trick, is one of the best of the day.  In fact, I would say, that a film such as Safe in Hell, is the whole reason the Pre-Code days are so popular with we cinephiles.

10. The Indian Epic - Cheating and including two films in one - The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, make up this two part epic from Fritz Lang, made upon his return home to Germany - this amazing work - Lang's Best!! - was a huge treat to see up on the big screen.  From the underground chases to Debra Paget's oh so lovely snake dance (good thing Lang had left Hollywood, because he would have never gotten that past the Production code, even in 1959). This is the tenth of ten films that I saw for the first time last year, all of whom made my All-Time Favourite Films list.

11. Sawdust and Tinsel - I guess I just cannot stay away from Ingmar Bergman (he is one of only two directors, with two films on this list) these days. Actually, it is a re-love of Bergman, as I had sort of set the director to the side for many years - but now, thanks to this film in particular (seen on New Year's Day 2012), the love is back.

12. The Jungle Book - No, not the 1967 Disney animated film, though that is one of my favourite Disney's, but the 1942 version, directed by Zoltan Korda and starring the enigmatic Sabu.  Beautiful and colourful - Technicolorful to be exact, and that is always the best kind - it is filled with great make-believe grandeur, and who doesn't like that?

13. Louisiana Story - I first heard of this little known film, when I was looking first looking through the Sight & Sound decennial film polls.   This film, directed by Robert J. Flaherty, the man who gave us Nanook of the North, was ranked number five in their first poll back in 1952.  By 1962, the film had dropped off, never to be heard from again - at least on the S&S lists.  Granted, the film may be somewhat manipulative, as it was commissioned by Standard Oil, but there is no denying its visual and narrative beauty.

14. Les Enfants Terribles - This 1950 Jean-Pierre Mellville film, based on the 1929 Jean Cocteau novel, and probably a strong influence on Bernardo Bertolucci's 2003 film, The Dreamers, was a film I honestly was not expecting much out of, when I first saw it.  I'm not sure why, but for some reason, I just wasn't expecting much at all.   Needless to say, I kinda fell in love with this tragic-laced film, hence its inclusion here.

15. Under Capricorn - When cinephiles and scholars talk about the films of Alfred Hitchcock, this 1949 effort, is rarely even mentioned.  But, this oft-maligned, or even worse, oft-forgotten film, though not your typical Hitchcock fare, is an endlessly intriguing film.  That, and the fact that Ingrid Bergman hands in one of her finest performances here, makes Under Capricorn something that should indeed, be spoken of when discussing the films of Sir Hitchcock.

16. Zazie dans le Metro - This absurdly heeelarious French comedy, at first disguises itself as a possible coming of age tale, but eventually explodes into a screwballesque comedy of insanity - replete with visual gags and the most precocious of all cinematic urchins.  Watching it on the big screen, the small crowd gathered, laughed, as they say, our asses off.

17. Mother India - A succulent, metaphorical account of the historical changes in 20th Century India, all done as a strange Hindi epic melodrama.  Probably now my third or fourth favourite Indian film. Star - and Indian legend - Nargis, plays the role of Indian everywoman, everymother.  Her performance is quite astounding indeed, and the film itself looks like some sort of hybrid of Douglas Sirk and Powell/Pressburger.  Beautiful.

18. I Know Where I'm Going! - Between 1943 and 1948, the filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, made an almost unprecedented six full-blown masterpieces in a row.  This one, the last one I had still to see, is number four in this streak, and is a romantic work of great power - even by Powell/Pressburger standards.

19. Que Viva Mexico! - I know we are all supposed to go all Lady Gaga and Baby Goo Goo over Eisenstein and all his Soviet montage buddies, especially the ever-canonical Battleship Potemkin, but I must admit, I think I may just enjoy this never finished Mexican docu-travelogue creature more than any of those early silent Soviet pieces.  The film's strange feel and odd editing choices (many made by co-director, Grigori Aleksandrov, long after Eisenstein's death) make it the most unique of the director's works - and probably the most interesting.

20. People on Sunday - An intriguing 1930 German silent film, that plays as part doc, part drama.  The film is most notable for its crew.  Directed by Curt and Robert Siodmak, produced by Edgar G. Ulmer, photographed by Fred Zinnemann, and written by Billy Wilder.  How's that for a who's who of future directors? 

21. Woman in the Moon - The second film on this list by Fritz Lang (third if one were to count his two-part Indian Epic as two separate films) and a surprisingly enjoyable work.  I say surprising, not because Lang is usually untalented, but because when talk of the director's oeuvre comes around, this film is more oft than not, sorely left out of the conversation.  I personally, like it more than any of Lang's silents, save for Metropolis.  So there!

22. The Docks of New York - A Pre-Pre-Code film by Josef von Sternberg.  Silent and tragic.  Above, I stated how much I love a good tragic romance story (a love that can be attested to by the fact that at least a dozen of the films on this list, could easily fit into such a category) and this one has romantic tragedy in spades, brother.  And some stellar performances from George Bancroft, Betty Compson and  Baclonova.

23. Triumph of the Will - Many call Leni Riefenstahl, at best, a fascist sympathizer, and at worst, a Nazi.  Whether this is true or not, and the romantic in me likes to think that the filmmaker was just trying to make great art, not sinister politics, this film is a goddamn thing of beauty.  A goddamn thing of beauty.

24. Los Olvidados - Luis Buñuel is really a hit or miss kinda guy for me.  I am not a fan of his early surrealist stuff, nor his later return to France works, but I love his Spanish and Mexican periods, which, I suppose, means I love this film.  Well, I do indeed.  It reminds me of the style of art film that I first fell in love with when I was still just a budding young cinephile.  

25. On the Town - I am really surprised I never saw this one before, though parts did seem familiar, so perhaps I did once see it on TV as a kid, but here it is now - and watching this fun musical up on the big screen as I did, was an especially big treat.  Seriously, how can you not just love a film that sings about people riding around in a hole in the ground.

Others that didn't make the final grade, but are still worthy of mention (in no particular order, mind you): The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Hallelujah, Night and the City, Le Corbeau, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The French Can-Can, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Odd Man Out, Street Angel, Orpheus, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, The Golden Coach, Casque d'Or, Tarnished Angels, The Small Back Room, Le Jour Se Lève, Olympia, Holy Mountain, Elephant Boy, Suspense and Les Enfants du Paradis.

Well, that's about it for now.     See ya on the flip side.

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