This year, I’m eschewing ranking for this list because it’s too damned hard and opting instead for plain old chronology. So, here are my ten best twentieth century films I saw in 2014, in the order that I saw them
Lord of the Flies (1990)
I had seen Peter Brook’s 1963 adaptation of William Golding’s novel but Harry Hook’s version is a different animal. Where Brook was psychological and haunting, Hook is blunt and visceral in a way that is at times overly literal in both its adaptation and its metaphors but, with the help of Martin Fuhrer’s tactile cinematography, lingering on blood and smoke and flesh, it manages to be quite impactful in its own right.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
I always have to include one or more classic movie I’d never gotten around to before. I watched a ton of Cassavetes this year and it was hard to narrow it down to one (especially given the enticingly banal way he presents Los Angeles in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). But I had to go with this one because, along with Faces, it’s perhaps the most representative, in that its live-wire sense of realism and improvisation makes it feel almost as if it willed itself to life without any director at all.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)
There’s an uneasy feeling that comes with watching many of the films of Pedro Almodóvar. His stories are often told with a devil-may-care exuberance despite being stuffed with unsavory and downright upsetting subjects and events. This film not only fits right in; it may be the uneasiest of all because it trusts the viewer to understand the awfulness on parade even when it seems that none of the characters does. The production design, art direction, cinematography and even the score (by none other than Ennio Morricone) make everything feel like a lavish circus act.
Vengeance Is Mine (1979)
Vengeance Is Mine is crammed with so many vicious murders and explicit sex scenes that a cursory appraisal could see it as mere pulp. But director Shohei Imamura is presenting auncompromised breakdown of Japanese life in the decades after World War II. Even a very old country with all its traditions can’t hide from humanity’s rotten core. The lead character,Enokizu, may be a murderer but he’s not the only transgressor. He’s not even the only killer. Everyone he meets in is a liar or a cheater or a peddler of vice or all of the above. Imamura’s compelling, if disturbing, view of mankind is that it is not getting better or worse but simply hurtling perpetually forward, barely cognizant of the damage in its wake.
There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954)
The title and the song are famous but this film never seems to make it onto the lists of the best movie musicals. There are good reasons why, such as its uneven pacing and lack of any real conflict until a rushed dilemma in the final act. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be overcome by Walter Lang’s staging of the individual numbers. When Donald O’Connor sings about being in love while dancing with fountain statuary come to life, it’s so marvelous that it doesn’t matter how undercooked the love story actually is.
Ten Seconds to Hell (1959)
Okay, so the movie is not as badass as the title promises but Ten Seconds to Hell, from the great Robert Aldrich, has plenty of thrills. It’s also easy to cut the film some slack once you learn that the studio cut a half hour out of it against Aldrich’s wishes. As a result, he took his name off as producer but not director.The major character arcs suffer but the sequences of JackPalance and company defusing unexploded ordnance in Berlin after World War II are tense as can be.
I’m pretty well-versed in Buster Keaton’s features but his shorts are largely undiscovered country for me. I saw “Cops” at an outdoor screening downtown at the Los Angeles Film Festival and, even in the brief running time, felt transported to Keaton’s heyday. I think that’s because so much of his camera and stunt work (he grabs onto a passing car at full speed to make a getaway!) is still so invigorating today.
I wouldn’t call my enjoyment of Jennifer ironic. Nor would I be so highfalutin as to call it esoteric. Maybe the word I’m looking for is the annoyingly nebulous “meta.” Being aware of the film as a quickie cash-in on the popularity of Carrie lends a knowing interest to every choice. In some ways, it’s a spot-on rip-off, such as Jennifer’s homelife with a religious nut of a single parent. But the tweaks range of lazy (she lives with her dad instead of her mom) to hilarious (instead of being pyrokinetic, Jennifer can summon snakes of all sizes out of thin air) to actually pretty interesting (her status as a scholarship student at a prep school makes the tale of class struggles immediate and allows for the introduction of an extra villain to kill in the form of the headmistress).
I Vinti (1953)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s I Vinti (The Vanquished) is a triptych of stories about murder. More specifically, the stories are about young (roughly college-aged) European boys and girls committing murder. In France, a group of friends plots to murder and rob one of their own on a picnic because they believe him to be rich. In Italy, a university student gets fed up with the prescribed life path he’s on and joins up with the mafia; he shoots and kills an innocent man in the process of running away from the cops. And in England, a well-mannered loner kills a woman simply to commit the perfect crime but then realizes it’s no fun if no one knows about it and decides to tell everyone anyway. The crimes very nearly earn the oft-employed descriptor “senseless” and Antonioni depicts them with a sickeningly matter of fact gaze.
We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972)
We Won’t Grow Old Together traces years in the relationship of its main characters, Jean and Catherine, but, in contrast to the fluffy romance tales that only depict courtship and laughs and love-making, director Maurice Pialat only shows us the couple at its worst. We see Jean pout manipulatively and, when that fails, resort to physically manhandling Catherine. Occasionally, we see Catherine finally get fed up with Jean’s behavior and his insults and leave, only to be back in an hour or a week. As the story progresses, though, so does Catherine. As she locates her strength and grows apart from Jean, it would be easy for Pialatto revel in his protagonist’s comeuppance – in fact, We Won’t Grow Old Together would still be a decent film if he did. Instead, he makes us feel a bit bad for the son of a bitch.