Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
We'll start with the obvious. My local arthouse cinema does a relatively new thing called "Secret Cinema" on the first Friday of every month. A selected person curates a couple hours of film culled from the cinema's archives with the audience unaware of the film(s) until the moment they begin. On one occasion, my former professor was the curator, and as I know his tastes in film, I knew I wouldn't be disappointed. He chose three shorts, all on 16mm, instead of one feature (which would have also been on 16mm, probably). The cinema has a professional projectionist, full time, so we were in good hands with regards to the films' presentation. The first film was Buster Keaton's superb Sherlock, Jr.
I do watch a lot of Hollywood blockbusters, despite being bored by many of them. They tend to include a lot of sound and fury, a lot of incident without thought, a lot of characterization without nuance, stunts for the sake of them. They're bloated, not simply temporally, but with everything possible. On the opposite end, Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. does more in 49 minutes than 99% of all action films made afterwards.
Not only is the film formally inventive (the cinema sequences) but also self-reflective on cinema itself, without being annoyingly self-important about it. Instead, Keaton's legendary stony face takes us through a joyous romp featuring stellar stunts that come from situations and moments of character that arise organically. There are more thrills in this than in all 4 Transformers films.
Of course, one is tempted to over-praise Keaton for the stunts as he did them himself—no stuntmen. However, knowing that he did them sans harness or safety measures doesn't intrinsically make them more thrilling. What makes the setpieces work is Keaton's commitment and his understanding of the rhythms of such action. It's not just stunt, stunt, stunt. Instead, it's a melody of stunts that rhyme, echo, subvert. Consider the bit where Keaton jumps through the window and slides onto the table, kicking the villain out of the house. This is rhymed a minute later when Keaton jumps out of the window into the clothes, giving him an immediate disguise. It's both funny and impressive.
After watching this, I immediately gobbled up a bunch more of his shorts. I'm saving The General and the other big ones. Keaton is much more up my alley than the sentimental Chaplin or the clownish Lloyd.
I've always been a samurai fan, and even a fan of Japan ever since I was a wee one and my dad gave me James Clavell's Shogun. I've seen Seven Samurai and a couple other Kurosawas but I thought it time to delve deeper into chanbara.
Harakiri is a masterpiece of composition and direction. Even if the film hadn't been touching and heartbreaking, I would have loved the film just for its careful use of symmetry and squares, as the above still shows. Japanese architecture in the feudal period lends itself to cinema if only because the canvas of the film frame holds smaller and smaller squares so comfortably. Director Kobayashi uses symmetry and such tools of composition not in a fussy way, making the images static or delicate, but in an organic and thematically appropriate way.
The plot of the film, that the rigid codes of harakiri can be manipulated, for either good or bad (or both), mirrors the composition. The boxes that characters find themselves in are externalized in doorways, in windows. Kobayashi's direction recalled Ozu's in Tokyo Story (which I also watched this year for the first time). Ozu keeps the camera at a certain height with little change in altitude but uses architecture and homes to perform the symbolic labour; similarly, Kobayashi uses a static or slow moving camera to showcase the imprisoning power of samurai codes.
The lead actor, Tatsuya Nakadai, imbues his character with this gruff ferocity, a quiet potentiality for destruction or anger. He's wise and wily. This is the same actor who plays the gun crazy goon in Kurosawa's Yojimbo. He feels like a completely different person in this film as his performance is so transformative and complete. I didn't even realize who the actor was until I checked his Letterboxd page. He also plays the insane but powerful samurai in The Sword of Doom (which was super good up until the cliffhanger that's never resolved as there were no sequels). Nakadai's work in Harakiri is absolutely revelatory—in a film already bursting with great things, he stands out.
The Train (1964)
I've always enjoyed the "men on a mission" film subgenre; a ragtag group of competent but mentally shaky men are coerced into or convinced to a probably suicidal attack on a powerful enemy. It's a classic genre as its so utterly lean and with its blurry generic borders, able to fit in other genres. Probably my favourite example is Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which still stands as my favourite Tarantino film. Since the "men on a mission" idea can skim over so many different executions, it varies in tone wildly. Some are cartoonish (the aforementioned Inglourious Basterds) while others are grim (The Eiger Sanction). John Frankenheimer's The Train finds the most heartbreaking way to use this genre. The film was not one I had heard of but I'm so happy that I saw it.
Burt Lancaster, an actor of quiet athleticism and sombre delivery plays a French Resistance fighter as well as station master for a railway. He is tasked by Paul Scofield's aesthete gentle villain with running a train full of stolen French art from France to Germany all while the Nazi regime quickly crumbles. The film is a series of desperate attempts at sabotage by the Resistance led by Lancaster and a series of defensive attacks by the Nazis, led by Scofield. The dichotomy between the two is more than their physical presence, but a deep difference, completely insurmountable. Lancaster's Labiche doesn't even like or care about the art; he simply wants to return what belongs to France. Scofield's Von Waldheim appreciates the treasures on an almost physical level; he chides his soldiers that handle the art without care. Yet there's a odd sense of respect between the two, the respect of adversaries.
It's the careful and efficient command of character that elevates The Train to the pantheon of great action cinema. The film doesn't need an hour of prologue to establish its characters; rather, characterization is drawn through incident, such as the lengths the Resistance will go through or how Labiche treats a woman who hides him. Consider that The Dirty Dozen takes almost an hour and 40 minutes before the mission begins whereas The Train begins in about 15 minutes, maybe even less. Obviously, these are two different films with different objectives. I don't mean to disparage The Dirty Dozen which is good. Merely, I use the film to illustrate the latter's ruthless efficiency.
The Train is also helped by Frankenheimer's cool and taut direction. Rail switches are a beautifully cinematic bit of machinery, with its loud click and pendulous swing. Frankenheimer uses switches with devastatingly suspenseful results. The Resistance use their knowledge of the switches to divert the train without the Nazis being aware and the director shoots the switches as if the whole world depends on them. And in a way, they do.
The Church (1989)
Look at this incredible fucking poster
Apparently, Michele Soavi was an assistant director for Dario Argento and Terry Gilliam before getting a chance to work on a film in the Demons franchise (of which I love the first two; I had the old Anchor Bay 2 disc version for years). Nothing about the Demons franchise could prepare you for the utterly stylish and supremely confident work Soavi did on his second film.
From its opening period prologue right to the existential ending, Soavi directs the shit out of every single scene—not necessarily flashy or trying too hard, but imbuing each and every moment with the appropriate tension and atmosphere necessary. Soavi has absolutely soaked this film with dread and horror; countless horror directors would probably give their right arm for even half of Soavi's command of tone.
The Church is superficially similar to the first two Demons films: a group of people are locked in a single setting and besieged by possessed people who kill the protagonists in increasingly gruesome and gory ways. The first film used a sort of punk attitude and the trappings of a late night B-movie where the second film used a postpunk soundtrack and a more Cronenbergian attitude towards media and television. Soavi's film eschews the possession angle and punk or postpunk aesthetics. Instead, he made a loving tribute to the mystical and horrific mysteries of the Catholic Church. He confines most of the action to the titular church, a giant cathedral erected over a medieval mass grave (as one does), and has the genre's resident "scientist" figure accidentally open up the grave, resulting in mass murder and hysteria.
Yet, Soavi isn't terribly interested in gore or even shock. He uses The Church as a vehicle to explore the thin line between the Church's supernatural dogma and the evils of folklore, the rituals of Catholicism against the rituals of dark magic. Sequences of mysticism and ceremonies permeate throughout the film. One of the most thrilling sequences involves the aforementioned scientist figure opening up the rift (see pic above). Almost entirely without dialogue, the neon soaked scene unfolds slowly, less about scaring and more about unnerving the viewer. The dude breaks the seal just to learn more, a sacrilegious echo of Eve, and chaos slowly infects his mind, leading him to hallucinate.
Many people have commented that unlike the other Demons films, The Church takes it sweet sweet time to unleash the insanity. Somebody pegged it at around 80 minutes into it, which seems like a long time to invest in a story that's fairly thin. I can't disagree with this assessment; the film is slow and methodical, glacially paced in comparison with its older siblings. However, thanks to Soavi's dominance of visually arresting imagery, I was mesmerized by the film. At no point was I ever bored or distracted. I can think of no other film from 2015 that commanded my attention so completely.
I love this movie so much, I'm worried about watching Soavi's other films for fear of being disappointed.
Come and See (1985)
The strangest comparison I can make is that this film reminded me a lot of Sam Raimi's early work. Most assuredly not in terms of tone as this film is one of the most harrowing I've ever sat through, but regarding aesthetics. Elem Klimov uses a very athletic Steadicam to capture the horror of war, but he also drenches his canvas in a multitude of colours: browns, reds, blues, blacks, and more reds. Raimi's Evil Dead films are superficially similar in that he also mobilizes a wide palette and a restless camera, but there the similarities end. Come and See is a film interested only in demonstrating the absolute corrupting effect of war.
Just looking into the eyes of the protagonist stirs the feelings I suffered during my watch: the nausea, the anxiety, the heartache, the helplessness. Klimov apparently filmed the movie in sequence, letting the experiences and horrors concatenate for Flyora, the lead character. I tend to put a lot of stock into my affective responses, as aforementioned; watching this character suffer for 2 hours made me feel awful to a unprecedented degree, an affective "success" then.
Come and See is mostly episodic, showcasing in allegorical sequences the horror of war and the political instability of Russia during this time. For about half of the film, Flyora displays agency, an effort to positively affect the fight against Nazis, except he's too young, too inexperienced, and completely ignorant of war. All of his efforts lead to disaster, to the death of his comrades. In a fit of patriotism, he abandons his mother and sisters to fight, but his absconding into the wild leaves his family without protection and ultimately leads to their death at the hands of Nazis.
Flyora's sanity is tested over and over and ultimately, he loses it. The character of Flyora is required to hold as much symbolic weight as possible, as he represents both a Soviet optimism and an innocence completely evacuated of humanity over the course of war.
Somebody famous once said that it's impossible to make an anti-war film. What they mean is that war films inadvertently glorify war through cinematic techniques, which undermines any critique of war the film is going for. I believe Come and See is the only exception to this rule that I have seen. At no point does this film ever come close to unwittingly exalt war. The terrors of war are written over and over again on the protagonist's face.
Come and See works so successfully that I'm not sure I can bear to watch it again. But I must. Aesthetically, it's one of the best films I've ever seen in my life. Emotionally, it's completely devastating. This movie is harrowing, absolutely harrowing.
The Betrayal (1966)
I'd heard of this film due to its legendary climax, in which the lead fights and wins over 200 samurai. Only Zatoichi it seems has racked up a competing body count.
Luckily, The Betrayal is more than its climax. The film leading up to the climax is a tender and careful exploration of bushido and all the ways it's a prison. The protagonist has an unwavering support of honour and loyalty, and he's willing to take the fall for a fellow samurai in order to keep the clan's honour. His punishment is exile for a year, during which he takes odd jobs, not all of them samurai related. During this time, his belief in the system is methodically broken down by a corrupt system that allows for the wily to game it for their benefit. His lowest moment comes when he sees his ex-fiance working in a brothel. Her status is intrinsically tied to his and therefore his fall is also her fall. He prostrates himself at the feet of the brothel owner, swearing fealty in exchange for her freedom. He wants for her a freedom that he will never have. The brothel owner betrays him and leads the protagonist's enemies to the town. There, he ferociously kills every last one of them.
The choreography of this sequence is incredible. Instead of the blurry confusing mess of so-called realistic battles (eg. Saving Private Ryan, Age of Ultron), this film displays an impressive patience in observing a rhythm and escalation. Instead of just the protagonist stabbing people for twenty minutes, the antagonists demonstrate forethought and logic; they use various tools, such as ladders, to imprison him, which works both as a strategy of battle and as a metaphor for the protagonist's position. The ladder is really a synecdoche for the whole sequence. While other movies in this mould use action solely as a method of thrilling the audience, The Betrayal uses this climactic massacre to thrill and to perform further the film's symbolic labour. The destruction of all these men is not simply their deaths, but the protagonist's self-destruction. Through their deaths, he destroys himself.
This is completely different than most action movies and it was a breath of fresh air. This is an ephemeral B-movie, with the intentions of being disposable, a cheapie shoved into theatres to make a quick buck. Whereas films such as Age of Ultron are made with the intention of lasting forever. It was resolutely made to have a huge cultural impact. Yet, I wonder, in cases like this, if The Betrayal will ever have a turn around, a critical resurgence thanks to a high-def, lovingly restored, full of extras Blu-ray. It's films like (and all of the above frankly) that deserve such care when schlock and shit like Age of Ultron with its disgustingly high budget and low competency hold the public's interest.
The Great Silence (1968)
Sergio Corbucci has often been called the "wrong Sergio" who came in at the wrong time. His Westerns were unfairly compared to Leone's only because of their similar conditions of production (Italian crews and locales, etc) and their shared genres (a stylized Western). However, from what I've seen of Corbucci, they were working in wildly different modes. I watched Corbucci's Django (1966) expecting something like Leone's stylized Westerns, but instead I got a radical revisionist Western full of mud, gore, bleakness, and nihilism. Django ends with the protagonist having his hands broken and irreparably damaged and his mission of revenge tainted by bitter fruits. I loved it. I then hopped onto Corbucci's later Western The Great Silence and I fell in love.
Klaus Kinski plays perhaps one of the most ruthless villains ever to grace the screen and he's matched only slightly by the ruthlessness of the silent protagonist. Filmed in winter, without the dust and the tumbleweeds, The Great Silence is almost oppressively bleak. Corbucci uses the tropes and trappings of the Spaghetti Western, including a great Ennio Morricone soundtrack and subverts them for an anti-authoritarian stance. Corbucci's mute protagonist is vulnerable, wounded, almost sensitive, while the bounty hunters led by Kinski's Loco are insane and capitalism personified. In fact, the antagonists are almost entirely motivated by profit, leading to Corbucci's most subversive element: his radical leftism injected into what is often otherwise a fairly right wing genre.
There's a lot to unpack in The Great Silence, which is of course one reason why it's on this list. The film is relentlessly bleak. Other films might have killed their protagonists, but not like this one. This movie revels in the nihilism. It's even interesting how "weak" the protagonist is in comparison with other heroes of the Western. I've already mentioned that he's mute, but he's also not quite as "technically" proficient in gunplay; he wields an automatic rifle, giving him an advantage of speed over his enemies. The Great Silence is fairly clear that Loco is the superior gunman. In other films, Loco might have been the hero.
While not the first Western to be set in winter, this is one of the first I've seen. Its wintry snowy conditions increase the desperation and need in the characters as staying outside even one night could be fatal. It's also, obviously, metaphorical, symbolizing the cold ruthlessness of capitalism that motivates the villains. The attention to such details is what propels The Great Silence from competent Western into greatness. Truly a movie deserving of care and adoration from a major home video label.
Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
According to an email I received from Letterboxd detailing my year in review, the actor I watched the most in 2015 was Mark Hamill, followed closely by Domhnall Gleeson. In terms of director, I saw more films like Zhang Yimou than any other director. A goal that popped up without my explicit declaration was to see every collaboration between Yimou and Gong Li. I ended up seeing 7 of Yimou's films and 5 of his 8 collaborations with Gong Li. Of all the Yimou films that I have watched, none completely commanded my attention and emotions like Raise the Red Lantern did.
Mostly, I started with Red Sorghum (1987) because I was exhausted with Hollywood's insistence on an exclusively "orange and teal" colour palette. I was starved of colour. I had heard that one reason why Chinese film of the 80s and 90s was so expressionistic with colour is because Technicolor, deprived of a market in North America, looked East for business and the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers was happy to help. Red Sorghum was beautiful and affecting, but I felt somewhat adrift. This was, after all, my first experience with Chinese film other than wuxia and Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987) Yet, I persisted with Yimou, going on to see To Live (1994), Ju Dou (1990), The Story of Qiu Ju (1994), and Raise the Red Lantern all within a month or so. They're all terrific, but this one in question is the best and most powerful.
Raise the Red Lantern succeeds because of the simplicity of the premise: a rich man has multiple wives and brings in a fourth, Gong Li. Whenever the husband wishes to sleep with a particular wife, there's a whole ceremony, involving the raising of hundreds of lanterns, which Yimou depicts in painstaking detail. Li's character must contend with a lascivious husband and jealous, manipulative wives. Whichever wife gets the "honour" of the husband's attention also receives pampering and special treatment from the servants, thus putting the concubines in direct competition with each other.
It's the easiest reading in the world to see Raise the Red Lantern as feminist: patriarchy often forces women to compete with each other for the scraps men allow them to have. The husband is rarely (if ever, I forget) shown in the film, making him a shadowy abstract that the women speak of only as a power exercised upon them. The feminist reading is even more palpable in the denouement of the film, as Li's character accidentally reveals information she shouldn't about a fellow concubine that results in that concubine's death. Her complicity in the patriarchal machinations is complete: she is as much an oppressor as she is oppressed.
Gong Li's acting is superb. With the exception of her odd turn in Mann's Miami Vice (2006), I have seen Li give a powerful, stellar, and technically perfect performance in every film. Her very participation in a film elevates it thanks to her commanding presence and physical and nuanced emoting. While I might think her performance in Qiu Ju is slightly better, this does not diminish the excellence she displays in this movie. It's a combination of her physicality (she is a progenitor of the Keira Knightley school of acting which is to let one's jaw do a lot of the emoting) and her eyes.
Plus the colours, oh my god the colours. Yimou's choice in cinematography is sumptuous, sensual, opulent, and always thematically appropriate. This isn't simply colour for the sake of it, but colour that shows the audience information, either emotional or characterization. While the "red" in the title does show up in abundance, Yimou uses a rather wide palette, deploying gorgeous blues and greens in costuming and setting, to highlight differences between wives, between characters and their respective stations. This movie is fucking gorgeous.
I could have chosen a bunch more films for this "discoveries" post as I saw some incredible things. Some honourable mentions include: Yimou's Ju Dou, Corbucci's Django (1966), Ernst Lubitsch's Angel (1937), Peter Watkins' La commune (Paris 1871) (2000), Maurice Pialat's À nos amours (1983), and Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast (1965). I could list a bunch more, but I don't want to overwhelm myself.
In 2016, I hope to finish out the Yimou-Li films, re-watch Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), and chip away at my watchlist on Letterboxd. I also wouldn't mind re-watching Dario Argento's stuff, because I haven't seen any of them since I was like 18-19, and I don't remember much.