1/ The 10 best films I watched this year are:
Brief Encounter (1945): Voted to be the most romantic film of all time, this David Lean film goes against the usual motifs of romance films: the actor and actress are not glamorous, the love story is an affair between 2 married people, the affair begins with the man's help for a woman that has grit in her eye and ends with a shoulder squeeze and is unconsummated. Brief Encounter begins with the scene of the 2 characters at the tea shop, there's a sense of awkwardness, and a vague feeling in the air of something unsaid, but we don't yet know what's going on- it's only later when the narrative goes back to the beginning and all the incidents unfold before us and gradually lead to this scene again, that it becomes particularly beautiful and moving. I've written about it here and here.
12 Angry Men (1957): The best courtroom film, whose actions actually don't take place in a courtroom. Sidney Lumet demonstrates how he can make a film almost set in only 1 room, and make it work- except for the opening and a brief scene outside the courthouse in the end, the entire film takes place in the jury room. It's driven by characters and emotions- Sidney Lumet uses heat to create a sense of claustrophobia and worsen the tense, stressful, irritable atmosphere, as he has done in Dog Day Afternoon. Regarding plot, a man is convicted, 12 men who don't know him and don't know each other walk into a room to decide his fate; 11 men think "guilty", only 1 man, played by Henry Fonda, thinks "probably not", and slowly he breaks their arguments and convinces everyone else. 12 Angry Men is about law and the concept of reasonable doubt, about the job of jurors, about persuasion, about evidence and logic, about reason and prejudices, about justice, about conscience, about standing up for what you believe in even if everyone else in the room disagrees with you.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957): The best courtroom film if 12 Angry Men is excluded because strictly speaking it isn't set in a courtroom. Or the courtroom film with the best twist. Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton are wonderful, and if the film isn't as often mentioned as it should be, the simple reason is that it's made by the man who made the masterpieces Sunset Blvd and The Apartment, which naturally overshadow everything else. I briefly wrote about it once.
Le notti di Cabiria (1957): This is early Federico Fellini, before he created Felliniesque films and started being accused of being fanciful and self-indulgent, but it's unmistakably a film by Fellini: Nino Rota music, dancing, parties, magic shows, clowns, a female Charlie Chaplin, a scene of hypnotism, religion, smooth camera movements, people walking as though dancing to music. The film starts with an ordinary story and a stock character, a naive prostitute with a golden heart looking for love in vain, but Fellini works wonders. It is sad but not cynical, moving but not sentimental. A comparison with Sweet Charity shows how restraint, how controlled and unsentimental Le notti di Cabiria is, Fellini knows when it's enough, and refuses to make his Cabiria self-pitying. I've written about it here and here.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970): Billy Wilder is often cynical, this is when he's most humane. Roger Ebert thinks that after some interesting scenes at the beginning, the film tells an ordinary Sherlock Holmes adventure- even though he's my hero in film criticism, his assessment is mistaken. On the surface, it's just another adventure, but Wilder makes Holmes more human by letting him fail and giving us a glimpse of his vulnerabilities. Like Fellini and other great writers, Wilder doesn't exploit emotions, he knows when it's enough, he allows silence to suggest more and invites the audience to fill in. A melancholic film, partly thanks to the use of Tchaikovsky's music. I once wrote about it here.
Chinatown (1974): Roman Polanski at his best. I remember those days when my favourite film ever was The Pianist; then I was unimpressed with Rosemary's Baby, rather scared but underwhelmed by The Tenant, puzzled about Bitter Moon, critical of Repulsion, and was for some time indifferent to Polanski. Knife in the Water is great, in its subtleties, I just didn't have the same enthusiasm as a few years ago. Now Chinatown makes me think I have to watch again the films mentioned above (except Repulsion, because I've never seen Catherine Deneuve as a good actress, and she looks too classy for the role), and other films by Polanski. Jack Nicholson plays a Bogart character that looks tougher, more aggressive, but has a heart and a conscience and even some kind of idealism behind his cynicism, wit and sharp tongue.
The Godfather Part II (1974): Is part I better or part II better? It is unfair to say, when part I I've watched 3-4 or even 5 times, and watched part II for the 1st time this year. Francis Ford Coppola does several remarkable things here: he creates a sequel-prequel on a par with the 1st film, he gets from Al Pacino a performance almost as great and memorable as Marlon Brando's performance as the Godfather, and if part I sees the mafia from within and might make people like being part of the mafia, because of the power, principles, sense of a large family, and stress on honour and loyalty, part II portrays the mafia as a lot more violent and ruthless. One may say that Michael betrays his father's values and has no heart, thus isolating himself and making everyone enemies. On the other hand, it's not hard to understand his disillusionment, disappointment and distrust, when the people closest to his family and even his own brother betray him. At the same time, the plot of the young Vito lets us see that violence has always been there, since the beginning- it's just violence begetting violence.Part I is about a powerful man. Part II is about a lonely and self-destructive man.
Annie Hall (1977): I wrote about it a few days ago.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): I also wrote about it a few days ago (a novelistic approach). There are 2 plots, with counterparts and opposites (the Judah in the Misdemeanors plot is Lester, a successful but pompous, self-important, ridiculous film producer; the Ben in the Misdemeanors plot is Cliff). Woody Allen combines the 2 plots together by analogy, by film scenes Cliff watches with his niece that echo scenes in the Crimes plot, by the talk between Cliff and Judah at the end of the film, and by the the-evil-are-reward-the-innocent-are-punished conclusion. The 2 strongest performances are from Martin Landau and Alan Alda, who play the 2 douchebags.
Birdman (2014): If you break down Birdman to its basic plot, it's a story of a faded film star unable to come to terms with ageing and being forgotten or replaced, which would place it in the same basket as Sunset Blvd, All about Eve, The Artist or Clouds of Sils Maria, but it doesn't belong there, because of Alejandro G. Iñárritu's treatment of the basic story and handling of the material. In fact, Birdman doesn't belong to anything, any genre: it has been seen as "a black-humor film, a mental health film, a realism/surrealism/magical realism film, a dark-humor parody film, a film of psychological realism, a failed domestic reconciliation drama, or a film concerning theatrical realism and naturalism". Iñárritu puts much in it that sometimes the film feels a bit messy, but the approach is so creative, particularly in the use of the Birdman figure, with all the imagined flying scenes, that the experience is thrilling. 1 of the most brilliant films produced in recent years.
2/ I watched 18 films again. Some of them pale a bit when viewed again, like Match Point and Mother (South Korea). Anatomy of a Murder is still good but the 2nd time felt a bit slow. Scarface is no longer a favourite. Charlie's Angels now appears unbelievably silly, especially as this time I notice its so-called feminism. A Room with a View still puzzles. Some Like It Hot and Bringing Up Baby are still fresh and hilarious. Some films, no matter how many times I've watched them, are forever wonderful and captivating: The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring. Psycho gets better the 2nd time.
3/ Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring is the most zen, poetic film about life. The 4 seasons are the 4 periods in a person's life. The film is full of symbols, many of which may be lost to people unfamiliar with Buddhism. What do they mean, the doors that close nothing out or in, for example? Roger Ebert thinks: "They are not symbols, I think, but lessons. They teach the inhabitants that it is important to follow custom and tradition, to go the same way that others have gone, to respect what has been left for them." Again here I differ from him: in my interpretation, the doors are only symbolic- barriers are in the mind, if you ignore right and wrong and decide to cross the barrier, as the young monk does in the film, no door can hinder your way. The doors close nothing because they can block nothing. However, even if we don't catch all the symbols and understand their meaning, we can still see it as a beautiful film about the different stages in life, and each episode/part is like a koan, about cruelty to animals, about sexual desire and desire for possession, about anger and jealousy and murder and then remorse and repentance and redemption, etc. There is little dialogue, but Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring says a lot, and each time, something new.
The only puzzlement is: how is it that such a beautiful, thought-provoking film could have been made by the same man who made those twisted films Dream, Samaritan Girl, The Bow and, worst of all, Pietà?
4/ The most important directors to me this year are Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini and Alfred Hitchcock.
By Wilder, so far I've seen Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The 7 Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, One, Two, Three, Irma la Douce, The Fortune Cookie and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. 12 films. In terms of cinematography, techniques, he can't compare with, say, Kubrick, he started out as a screenwriter, his strengths are in plot, dialogue, details, characterisation and working with actors. When he's great, he does everything perfectly, as though effortlessly. When he's not so great, he's never really bad- his weaker films always have some "saving grace", like charming Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, sly Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie or energetic James Cagney in One, Two, Three.
Woody Allen is different from Billy Wilder and not as diverse, but there are a few similarities: both are cynical, both are extremely witty and can be funny, satirical as well as hysterical and absurd, both are not innovative in techniques. I've watched Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love and Blue Jasmine. 11 films in total, which is very little, considering how many films he has made. It means something though- I didn't care much for Woody Allen till recently, as I realise that in recent years he hasn't made anything really good that can be on a par with Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors, which means that I will search for his earlier films instead of watching Irrational Man. Think about it: how many people can write and direct and act and do all well? It is unfortunate that many people dismiss his works because of his personal life, or interpret them in its light.
If the films of Wilder and Allen show the primacy of writing, Fellini's art is about images. Fantasy, dreams, childhood memories. Some directors please the eyes with epic scenes and stunning visual effects but forget the brains, some directors create good films but forget that film is a different medium, using a different language and having different advantages, and Fellini makes wonderful use of cinematic language- he uses images where someone else, a weaker or less confident director, would use voice-over as a short cut. So far I've watched 7 films: I vitelloni, La strada, Le notti di Cabiria, La dolce vita, 8 1/2, Fellini Satyricon and Amarcord. With a bit of Fellini's Casanova. Even whilst personally preferring early Fellini to late Fellini, I don't see him as indulgent- in fact, I like Amarcord and see 8 1/2 as a masterpiece and intend to watch more of his works.
Last but not least, another director I love and consider important to me this year is Hitchcock. My knowledge of his long career is limited, only 10 films: Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie and Family Plot, with a bit of Rebecca and a bit of Strangers on a Train. I might have watched Foreign Correspondent. Not all of these films are well-done: Rope, also inspired by Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment like Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors, goes well for most of the film and falls flat in the end, because James Stewart's character's sudden realisation is weak and unconvincing; Marnie is interesting, but there is a problem with the psychology (the incident can't explain Marnie's hatred of men and her mother's apparent dislike of her); The Man Who Knew Too Much has 2 main characters that are too slow, thoughtless and dim-witted. But they aren't that bad- perhaps I'm more critical of them than they deserve because I've seen Hitchcock at his best, like Vertigo and Psycho and The Birds, which show him as the undisputed master of suspense. The Trouble with Harry is another favourite, partly because it's so uncharacteristic of Hitchcock.
5/ This year I watched 7 films produced in 2015.
Furious 7 and Mission: Impossible- Rouge Nation are well-done and highly entertaining. Magic Mike XXL is entertaining, but in terms of plot is weaker than the 1st film. Spectre is visually pleasing and no more, it offers nothing new about James Bond and has 2 forgettable Bond girls and is almost as bad as Quantum of Solace (may I mention in passing that Lea Seydoux's light blue satin dress doesn't look good on her skin and doesn't go well at all with her dark lip colour?). Daniel Craig is very good as James Bond, better than Pierce Brosnan, but his best Bond film is still Casino Royale.
A Most Violent Year is good but perhaps will soon be forgotten.
Far from the Madding Crowd seems a bit weak, even though I haven't read the book to compare. Carey Mulligan delivers a striking performance that runs the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B. As I understand, Bathsheba has 3 different kinds of feeling for the 3 men, and Carey Mulligan shows no distinction. However, it made me want to read the novel, that is probably good enough (I almost didn't read Mansfield Park because of the 1999 film, for example).
Bridge of Spies is good. Tom Hanks in this film isn't very different from himself in Saving Mr Banks, but James B. Donovan is such a fascinating, admirable person that it doesn't matter.
I feel less alone. I'm 1 of the people not wild about Tokyo Story. It is good, yes, but is it that good? It's the same way everyone else praises Boyhood to the sky and I alone dislike it.
So next year:
- I have to watch more Ozu. Even if I never warm to Ozu (we can't expect ourselves to like all directors), at least I'll know what I'm talking about.
- There are other directors I have to see or know better. Priorities: Akira Kurosawa, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonio, Luis Bunuel, Roman Polanski.
HAPPY NEW YEAR, FOLKS. I wish you all peace, joy, luck, good health and success.