Sunday, January 10, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: The Best (New to Me) Films from This Semester

Now that we've covered the most challenging films of the semester, we'll move on to the films that I greatly enjoyed and were new to me. Afterward we'll get to the great films that I'd seen before but hadn't written about here yet.

But for now, check out these fascinating films.

From "American Masterworks"

The Manchurian Candidate (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1963)

The Manchurian Candidate is a truly remarkable feat of political-thriller filmmaking. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) return to the United States after being captured in Manchuria during the Korean War, with Shaw returning home to his power-minded mother (Angela Lansbury). Marco, however, suspects that something happened in Manchuria that neither one of them fully remembers, setting off a chain of events that unravels a terrifying conspiracy. Frankenheimer imbues every scene with unnerving paranoia, and he makes terrific use of the film's editing to further disorient the viewer. The performances are also great, especially Lansbury in what may be the greatest work of her career, though that could be said of Harvey and Sinatra as well. My advice: skip the 2004 remake with Denzel Washington and check out the classic.

Angels with Dirty Faces (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1937)

Perhaps the finest of the Depression-era gangster films, Angels with Dirty Faces stars James Cagney as gangster Rocky Sullivan, recently released from prison and hoping to go straight. His childhood friend Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien) is now a priest, and it's through him that Rocky becomes a quasi-mentor for a gang of children that call themselves the Dead End Kids. Naturally, Rocky's old life comes back to haunt him, forcing him to make a choice between going back to his old ways or continuing on his new path. Cagney and O'Brien are both terrific in their roles, and Curtiz creates a fully-realized world for these characters to inhabit in the detailed, lived-in neighborhood. It's a fine example of studio-system filmmaking.

Films from Douglas Sirk, Andy Warhol, and Michael Powell after the jump.

Imitation of Life (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1959)

It's a common practice to disregard melodrama: it's too cheesy, too emotionally manipulative, it's not "real" enough to be considered good. These are all nonsensical excuses, of course, and nobody proved the value of melodrama quite like Sirk. Imitation of Life stars Lana Turner as aspiring Broadway actress Lora and Juanita Moore as her maid and confidant Annie, charting both of their lives as Lora finds success as the expense of her daughter (Sandra Dee) and Annie deals with the fractured relationship with her light-skinned daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). Tackling thorny issues of race and motherhood, the film is a startling work, filmed in luscious color by Sirk. It's plenty emotional too, thanks for stunning performances all around but especially from Moore and Kohner. There's no stopping the tears from flowing.

Salt of the Earth (dir. Herbert J. Bibermann, 1953)

Though it is rarely discussed in cinephile circles, Salt of the Earth holds a very notable distinction: it is the only film to be blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare of the 1950s. The film was made by blacklisted filmmakers, including Bibermann, writer Michael Wilson, producer Paul Jarrico, and actor Will Geer, and centers on a strike by Mexican-American miners in a New Mexico town. Anchored by a revelatory performance by Rosaura Revueltas, the film is a remarkable vision of liberal utopia, one in which gender equality is treated just as seriously as racial equality and the success of the strike is dependent on everyone coming together as a community. It's hard to imagine such a film even being made today. That it was made in the oppressive political climate of the 1950s is even more astonishing.

Nothing But a Man (dir. Michael Roemer, 1964)

Nothing But a Man, reportedly one of Malcolm X's favorite films, follows railroad worker Duff (Ivan Dixon) as he navigates through the racism of the American South. What makes this film so rewarding is the sensitivity with which Roemer treats this story, crafting a slice-of-life film that feels remarkably intimate. Holding the whole thing together is Dixon, a magnetic performer with Broadway experience who makes every weary expression a story unto itself. This is a film that demands to be discussed more.

From "Avant-Garde Cinema"

Tongues Untied (dir. Marlon Riggs, 1989)

Riggs' video documentary caused a stir when it was first aired in 1989 when Pat Buchanan used the film to accuse then-President George H.W. Bush of using taxpayer money to fund pornography (the film was partially funded by PBS). But the conservative uproar diminished what a truly captivating and important document this film is. Riggs' documentary explores the experience of being black and gay in America in the 1980s through a series of creatively-staged segments. "Snap!thology" is a highly-entertaining breakdown of "the snap" done in the style of an instructional video. Conversely, another segment finds Riggs confronting his experiences with racism as a child through an unconventional collage of poetry and performances. This is a film that's definitely worth checking out if you have an interest in identity politics.

Outer and Inner Space (dir. Andy Warhol, 1966)

Like The Chelsea Girls, Warhol employs double-projection in Outer and Inner Space. The interesting wrinkle in this film, however, is that each reel features two different films: frequent Warhol model/collaborator Edie Sedgwick is interviewed while another filmed interview of Sedgwick plays on a television behind her. There are moments where Sedgwick interacts with the television - she's startled by a sneeze, for example - and the interplay between all four Edies is a fascinating thing to watch. Sedgwick is a captivating figure, making the film a must-see for Warhol fans.

Art Herstory (dir. Hermine Freed, 1974)

Freed's film is a fascinating exercise in feminist filmmaking. The videotape features Freed edited into well-known paintings and narrating from the characters' perspective. By doing so, Freed gives female subjects voices that have been lost in the praise of the male artists, and she does so with humor and irreverence that keeps the proceedings fresh. It's an unexpected, thoughtful, and engaging work.

From "Gender and Horror"

Naboer (Next Door) (dir. Pål Sletaune, 2005)

Sletaune's film stars Norwegian superstar Kristoffer Joner as John, a man dealing with the end of a long-term relationship who is invited into his attractive neighbors' apartment to help move furniture. To say anymore would spoil the labyrinthine pleasures (as they are) of figuring this film out. What I will say is that Sletaune's sleight-of-hand direction is masterfully played, and Joner's performance is remarkable, as are Cecilie Mosli's and Julia Schacht's. Horror fans should definitely seek this one out.

The Loved Ones (dir. Sean Byrne, 2009)

When we watched this film in class, our professor sold it to us as "an Australian Carrie." That's only partially true, however, in that both feature a high school dance and a terrifying teenage girl. Lola (Robin McLeavy) asks Brent (Xavier Samuel) to the dance, but he quickly learns why he shouldn't have agreed to it. The film takes some wild turns that give it a thrilling recklessness, as it feels as if it could go off the rails at any moment. What keeps the film together is Byrne's tilt-a-whirl direction and McLeavy's wild-eyed performance, as well as healthy doses of both humor and horror. It's a remarkable, unexpectedly fun film.

Peeping Tom (dir. Michael Powell, 1960)

Peeping Tom has a reputation for two reasons: it preceded the similarly-themed Psycho in the United Kingdom by a few months, and it single-handedly ended Powell's filmmaking career (British moral gatekeepers were not fond of the film). The film is a film scholar's dream: a cameraman (Carl Boehm) films his victims as he murders them with a knife concealed in his tripod, a perfect examination of voyeurism in film. But more than that, the film is surprisingly captivating. Boehm, in one of the Austrian's few English-language roles, is excellent as the tightly-controlled Mark, and Powell favorite Moira Shearer delivers a scene-stealing turn as an actress. Powell, unsurprisingly, constructs the film with eye-catching color and staging, making for a memorably visual experience. It makes for a fascinating companion piece for Hitchcock's classic.

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