Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Center Stage (aka Actress) (Kwan)
2. The Big Sleep (Hawks)
3. The African Queen (Huston)
4. Awara (Kapoor)
5. Citizen Kane (Welles)
6. Diabolique (Clouzot)
7. Trouble with the Curve (Lorenz)
8. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman)
9. The Lady Eve (Sturges)
10. The Master (Anderson)

Halloween Screening Alert: The Slumber Party Massacre at Facets Fright School!

On the evening of Saturday, October 13th I will be presenting The Slumber Party Massacre at Facets Multimedia as part of their annual “Fright School” series. This will include a short talk about the film as well as a Q&A afterwards. Any of my students who attend the screening can earn up to TWENTY points extra credit. Refer to the extra credit page of your course website for the exact details. Admission is FREE for Facets members and a lowly $5 for non-members. More information, including directions and ticket info can be found here:

Facets Fright School Schedule

Here is the description of the presentation I wrote for the Facets website:

Drilling Into The Slumber Party Massacre

Produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in 1982 during the height of the original slasher movie boom, The Slumber Party Massacre has developed a well-deserved cult following over the past three decades. Some commentators have dismissed it as just another low-budget horror quickie, while many fans enjoy it as a “so bad it’s good” B-film. Others see it as an intelligent deconstruction of the slasher subgenre while some, including director Amy Jones, view it not as a horror movie at all but as a comedy instead.

The story is certainly familiar: a sexually frustrated, power drill-wielding mass murderer escapes from prison and terrorizes a group of high school-aged girls over the course of one long night. This presentation, however, will take a close look at how Jones and feminist novelist Rita Mae Brown, who wrote the original screenplay, slyly serve up the gore and nudity quotient required by Corman while also subverting the genre’s more disturbing ideological implications through careful choices like showing the killer’s face at the film’s beginning and studiously avoiding subjective shots from the killer’s point-of-view. Currently unavailable for rental through Netflix or Facets, this is a rare opportunity to see this horror/comedy gem.

Hope to see you there!


A Silent French Cinema Primer

Following my French cinema primers covering the Nouvelle Vague and the pre-Nouvelle Vague sound era, today’s post covers what I think are the most essential French movies of the silent era. Although I normally only write about feature films in these primers, I’m going to make an exception for this one so that I can cover some of the most influential French films of the era.

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumieres, France, 1896)

Bertrand Tavernier has referred to this Lumiere Brothers masterpiece as the “first horror movie” because, as legend has it, early audiences reacted to the image of a train moving towards the camera by fleeing in terror. This is a simple “actuality” that depicts just what the title states in a single shot lasting approximately 42 seconds. But it’s also a good example of how well made the Lumiere Brothers’ films were: the dramatic contrast of the black and white cinematography, coupled with the diagonal perspective of the composition, makes the film an aesthetically pleasing experience even when viewed today. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube by clicking the image above.

A Trip to the Moon (Melies, France, 1902)

Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray released earlier this year.

The Life of Christ (AKA The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ) (Guy, France, 1906)

Alice Guy, a true movie pioneer, began her directing career in 1896 and is sometimes credited as the first person to make a narrative film (as opposed to Lumiere-style actualities). A DVD compilation of her work released by Kino in 2009 is a revelation: it contains stunt comedies, panoramic views of exotic places, and fascinating early experiments with sound and color. My favorite of her films that I’ve seen is The Life of Christ, which recounts “the greatest story ever told” in 25 single-shot tableaux-like scenes that, at 33 minutes, made it relatively epic in 1906. Especially effective is the climactic resurrection, which is bolstered by a beautiful score on Kino’s DVD. This is my second favorite Jesus movie after Pasolini’s.

A Child of Paris (Perret, France, 1913)

Also included in Kino’s “Gaumont Treasures” DVD set is a an entire platter devoted to Leonce Perret, an important director previously unknown in the States. The major revelation of the set is A Child of Paris, a feature film from 1913 that is shockingly sophisticated in terms of its cinematography (including the kind of camera movements and oblique compositions that wouldn’t become commonplace for years to come). The Dickensian story concerns a little girl who becomes an orphan, is sent to a boarding school, runs away and then is kidnapped by a gang of thieves. The acting is surprisingly naturalistic for the time and the use of real locations – in Paris and Nice – is impressive in the extreme.

Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915-1916)

The brilliant, prolific Louis Feuillade directed over 600 movies, many of them multi-part serials, before his death at 52. Les Vampires, which is not about vampires but rather a gang of nocturnal thieves who call themselves “The Vampires,” is one of the highlights of his career. The leader of the gang is a woman named Irma Vep (played by the ferocious, outrageously sexy actress Musidora) who finds herself matching wits with ace newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande and his comical sidekick Oscar Mazamette. This was much beloved by the Surrealists for its evocation of an elaborate criminal network festering beneath the surface of mainstream bourgeois society as well as, one presumes, a capture-and-escape narrative loop structure that stands in opposition to the typical closure of Hollywood. Nearly a hundred years later, this 10 part mystery serial has lost none of its power to entertain for the entire duration of its nearly 7 hour running time.

Tih Minh (Feuillade, 1918)

Jacques d’Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancee and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and sensitive government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious Latin origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book. Louis Feuillade’s 12 chapter, 7 hour serial is overflowing with action, thrills, humor and romance, and is a strong contender for the title of the most purely entertaining movie that I have ever seen from any era.

Coeur Fidèle (Epstein, 1923)

My favorite French silent feature is Jean Epstein’s Impressionist masterpiece about a young woman, Marie, whose cruel foster parents force her into a marriage with an unemployed, alcoholic thug ironically named “Petit Paul.” Marie nonetheless continues to pine for her true love, Jean, a local dockworker. This romantic triangle is infused with sublime visuals from beginning to end (including a highly poetic use of superimpositions, rapid-fire cutting and close-ups) that make the film a crushing emotional experience when viewed today. The famous merry-go-round sequence, with its striking imagery and musical rhythms, is one of the glories of the silent cinema.

Ménilmontant (Kirsanoff, 1926)

Dmitri Kirsanoff’s astonishing 38 minute short is arguably the most modern-looking film produced anywhere in the silent era. The story, told without intertitles, revolves around two sisters who, as children living in a small town, tragically witness their parents being murdered. Then, Kirsanoff flashes forward to years later as both sisters are living in Paris and become involved with an evil seducer. But no plot description can do justice to the way Kirsanoff uses his camera like a paintbrush to capture images of incredible beauty and emotional depth. The film’s tempo ranges from fast, Soviet-style montage to a deliberately arty languorousness depending on the mood of the characters, and contributes to an atmosphere of almost unbearable intensity. Finally, there is the brilliantly understated lead performance of Nadia Sibirskaïa (Kirsanoff’s wife) who, in the film’s most celebrated scene, contemplates suicide before changing her mind when a complete stranger offers her bread in a public park. Ménilmontant is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

Napoléon (Gance, 1927)

First, I must confess to having only seen this on VHS tape in a controversial restoration overseen by Francis Ford Coppola that was both incomplete and transferred at the wrong speed. The arguably nationalistic and pro-militaristic content of the film also strikes me as somewhat dubious. But . . . as an insanely gargantuan, impossibly ambitious work of pure cinema, this has few equals. Gance’s film begins with Napoleon as a child engaging in a snowball fight at a military academy and proceeds through many visually astonishing episodes before climaxing, unforgettably, with a three-panelled widescreen sequence that shows Napoleon at the height of his powers invading Italy as the head of the French army. One of my fondest cinephiliac desires is that silent historian Kevin Brownlow’s most recent restoration, which has now swelled to five and a half hours, will make its way to blu-ray soon.

The Little Match Girl (Renoir, 1928)

Although it wasn’t until the sound era that Jean Renoir directed the films that made him immortal (e.g., Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game), I think The Little Match Girl, a 40 minute adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story, is one of his best and most affecting films. The title character is a waif forced to sell matches on the streets in the dead of winter in order to earn her livelihood. While literally freezing to death, the match girl looks through a toy store window and fantasizes that she is inside and that the toys have magically come to life all around her. The dream-like visuals and fantasy element are atypical for Renoir, the humanism is not.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)

After a successful run of films in his native Denmark, Carl Dreyer headed to France for his last silent film, a beautiful dramatization of the life of the beloved saint. Instead of showing Joan’s heroism in battle the way you would expect a biopic to do, Dreyer focuses instead only on the last days of her life as she is tried and executed by an English court. The film’s most notable characteristic is its relentless use of extreme close-ups, which capture every wrinkle on the judges’ evil faces and every nuance of Renee Falconetti’s highly emotive performance in the title role, which remains one of the finest ever captured on celluloid.

Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, 1929)

Luis Bunuel’s directorial debut, based on a script he co-wrote with Salvador Dali, is the most famous Surrealist movie ever – and for good reason. It opens with the shocking image of a man slicing a woman’s eyeball with a straight razor (a shot that is graphically matched with a cutaway image of a cloud drifting in front of the moon) before jumping ahead to “Eight Years Later” and focusing on a new set of characters in scenes that are equally bizarre. But, since Bunuel plays the man with the razor, the function of the prologue is obvious: to announce an all-out assault on the viewer, whose sight, after all, is the most important sense in experiencing a film. Bunuel and Dali’s rule when writing the screenplay was that Un Chien Andalou should be nonsensical to the point of not being interpretable; legions of critics and historians, including me, have ignored their intention ever since.

À propos de Nice (Vigo, 1930)

À propos de Nice is the exceptionally promising debut film of Jean Vigo, whose career was tragically curtailed four years later when he died of tuberculosis at age 29. This begins as a conventional “city symphony”-style travelogue of the title locations before expanding its scope to offer surreal stylistic flourishes and a satirical/critical view of Nice’s wealthy citizens. In 25 minutes, Vigo and his ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman offer up more ideas, visual invention and wit than what you see in most features; the slow-motion, low angled shots of women dancing are particularly memorable for their eroticism.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Berlinger/Sinofsky)
2. Resident Evil: Retribution (Anderson)
3. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
4. The Illusionist (Chomet)
5. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh)
6. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)
7. Mughal-E-Azam (Asif)
8. The Tracker (de Heer)
9. Audition (Miike)
10. Broadway (Fejos)

Now Playing: The Master

The Master
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012, USA

Rating: 9.2

The bottom line: masterful

Opening this Friday in fairly wide release is The Master, the sixth feature film from Paul Thomas Anderson and one that firmly establishes the enterprising 42-year old writer/director as the best at work in America today. No? Then who? Setting aside for the moment the great contemporary American filmmakers who don’t typically write their own scripts (e.g., Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher, Kathryn Bigelow, et al.), it’s curious to note how most American writer/directors fall into one of two categories: those who are directors first and those who are writers first. The former category consists of the likes of Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant, directors who take an image-based approach to cinematic storytelling and write original screenplays mainly in order to give themselves something to direct. Falling into the latter category are the likes of Woody Allen, the Coen brothers, Whit Stillman and Todd Solondz, directors whose films are primarily screenplay-based and who view the act of directing as essentially an extension of the writing process. This isn’t to say that Paul Thomas Anderson is necessarily a greater filmmaker than anyone named above. But, among the rare American writer/directors who can be seen as equally talented across both disciplines, Anderson now strikes me as having the highest combined average (with his stiffest competition coming from Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson). The Master seems to be at once a “quintessential Anderson” film (i.e., one that revisits signature themes and stylistic motifs) as well as one that stakes out bold new territory and pushes the director to the head of his class. He’s now operating at the level of a mid-period Stanley Kubrick and, amazingly, shows the potential of maturing even further. This is a level of mastery that will probably never be attained by, say, Darren Aronofsky, another “Kubrickian” director whom I do admire.

The formidable original screenplay for The Master concerns the rise in popularity of a Scientology-like religion named “The Cause” in the years immediately following WWII. The charismatic guru/con man heading this outfit, and the character for whom the film is named, is Lancaster Dodd, an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in played with great relish by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Interestingly, Dodd is but a supporting character in a scenario that focuses mainly on a new disciple of the Cause, a returning war vet and tortured soul named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in the performance of the year, any year). Freddie is an incurable alcoholic who clearly suffers from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the early scenes detailing his inability to readjust to civilian life are straightforward and dramatically compelling. Things become trickier and more structurally unconventional after Quell meets and instantly falls under the sway of Dodd in a series of scenes that feel like something out of a fairy tale: Quell becomes a stowaway on Dodd’s luxury yacht while fleeing a manslaughter charge. The two men form an immediate and somewhat mysterious bond as Quell is admitted with curious rapidity into Dodd’s inner circle. Without giving away more of the plot, I should point out that it is reductive and simplistic to refer to The Master as Anderson’s “Scientology movie,” as many have done, since the film was clearly not meant as an exposé of any specific religion (even though Anderson leaves little doubt that Dodd, while painted somewhat sympathetically, is indeed a fraud). What I think Anderson is up to is something closer to a super-ambitious attempt to show the specific circumstances – psychological, social, historical, political – under which individuals are likely to become susceptible to cult-like self-help religions in general. Or at least that’s how The Master struck me after seeing it in 70mm at a rare sneak preview at the Music Box last month. Leaving the theater, I admired the fact that it was probably the most grandiose, challenging and thematically dense film of Anderson’s career, but I must also admit I didn’t find it as instantly engrossing as There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights or even Punch Drunk Love. (For the record, I think Hard Eight is an auspicious debut, while Magnolia is the only Anderson movie I actively dislike.)

The more time I’ve had to think about The Master however, the greater it seems. While my initial response was to see it mostly as Freddie’s story, I’m now inclined to think of it more as a provocative depiction of the weird, symbiotic friendship between two very different, and in some ways polar opposite, men. Dodd is, in his own words, “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher” whereas Freddie is the dumbest lead character in any dramatic Hollywood movie in recent memory. Although I don’t share the conviction of some critics that there is anything homoerotic about the bond between Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell (sometimes a passionate hug is just a passionate hug), the film nevertheless does present a kind of bizarre love triangle between Dodd, his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and Freddie. While it’s easy to see what Freddie sees in Dodd (the latter is a typical surrogate father in a series of such characters in the “alternative families” that mark Anderson’s work), the film becomes much richer when one considers what Dodd might see in Freddie. Freddie is a bad boy who lives only for drinking, fucking and fighting, and is therefore unlike anyone else in Dodd’s well-heeled social group. Dodd eagerly drinks Freddie’s poisonous homemade hooch, wrestles with him on the lawn and admonishes him with the phrase “Naughty boy!” in a tone that suggests more envy than genuine resentment. Anderson demonstrates, in a way that rings of psychological truth, how the master needs his servant at least as much as the other way around. If Freddie, then, can be seen as Dodd’s id, it is Peggy who represents the master’s super-ego. She is the Lady MacBeth-like wife, cooing in her husband’s ear while giving him a handjob over the bathroom sink, always trying to spur him and the Cause on to ever-greater heights. Peggy takes the Cause more seriously than anyone, perhaps even more so than Dodd, and thus appears the most wary of the potentially destructive threat that Freddie poses to the group.

Much has been made about The Master being the first narrative film to be shot (almost entirely) on 70mm film stock since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996. As one would expect, it is a marvel to watch from the first frame to the last. The images have a breathtaking clarity that remind us of the impending tragedy of the obsolescence of actual film as a result of the so-called “digital revolution.” They also made me grateful that if anyone in Hollywood is going to be shooting in 70mm, it’s Anderson. As a director, he has always been an impeccable visual stylist but I think he really outdoes himself here, probably because it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to. While Anderson’s well-known preference for bravura long takes is still very much in evidence (check out the epic tracking shot that follows a mink-coated model through a beautifully recreated late 1940s department store), they are ultimately done in a lower-key register than, say, the ostentatious I am Cuba homages in Boogie Nights. This is not the work of an angry young man determined to set the world on fire. It is the more relaxed mastery of a family man in his early forties with nothing much to prove, the work of a supremely confident artist following his instincts and producing effortlessly audacious results. As a piece of pure cinema, there is an organic, Kubrick-Malick meticulousness to The Master‘s overall visual design that will amaze even those who are less than satisfied with it on a dramatic level. Like it or not, this is a must-see big screen experience.

I have said that The Master is structured unconventionally and this may be a curse as well as a blessing. There are two scenes in the film as dramatically electrifying as anything I can recall seeing in a movie theater. The first is a mini-masterpiece of psychological seduction involving Dodd’s “processing” (read: auditing) of Quell, while the other is an explosive confrontation between the same men in adjacent prison cells. Phoenix’s performance in the latter scene is so primal, so animalistic, so beyond the bounds of what we think of as traditional movie acting that it will undoubtedly find a place on many highlight reels: not only those showcasing the best work of Phoenix and Anderson but probably those Great Movie montages on future awards shows as well. Somewhat strangely, these Big Acting Scenes both occur in the film’s first half. Upon first viewing, this made it hard for me not to feel disappointed that there was no comparable Phoenix/Hoffman barnburner in the final act to give the film a stronger sense of dramatic harmony and closure. Instead, we are presented with something more ambivalent and restrained (though I fully get the symbolic significance of Quell accomplishing something in the final scene that he’s wanted but failed to do throughout the rest of the movie); it is essentially the opposite of the galvanizing, exclamation point-like ending of There Will Be Blood. For this and other reasons (the fine Amy Adams is arguably semi-wasted in a role that is less fleshed out than those of her male counterparts), I suspect The Master will be a polarizing movie. But it’s also a film that clearly isn’t revealing all of its secrets on a single viewing and so I’m skeptical of all judgements, including my own, until I’ve had a chance to revisit it. The Master is the first new film I’ve seen since Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy that seems to cry out for multiple viewings. I can’t wait to see it again.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly)
2. M (Lang)
3. Sholay (Sippy)
4. Far From Heaven (Haynes)
5. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
6. The Naked Spur (Mann)
7. The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones)
8. Alien Resurrection (Jeunet)
9. Love Stalker (Glasson/MacLean)
10. Lonesome (Fejos)

My Student Tomato-Meter: 2012 Edition

One year after posting the aggregated results of my average student ratings (on a scale of 1 – 10) for all the films I’ve screened in my classes over the years, I’m now posting the sequel: in the past 12 months I’ve taught an additional 17 classes (six in the fall of 2011, seven in the spring of 2012 and four over the summer) and I have now added the results of these new student ratings to the overall mix. The total list of unique films I’ve shown in film history and aesthetics classes now extends to 132, which means that I screened 54 new films in the past year alone (one of which, starring everyone’s favorite Republican National Convention speaker, now tops the list for the highest rated movie I’ve ever shown). In addition to providing what I hope my readers will find a fascinating insight into what first and second year college students think about a diverse selection of movies, I’d also love for this list to inspire feedback about what essential movies are not listed below that I should consider screening in future classes. So enjoy and please feel free to leave me any feedback you might have.

The complete list in chronological order:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920) – 6.2
Nosferatu (Murnau, Germany, 1922) – 6.4
Our Hospitality (Keaton, USA, 1923) – 8.3
Sherlock Jr. (Keaton, USA, 1924) – 7.8
Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Soviet Union, 1925) – 5.2
The General (Keaton, USA, 1926) – 8.1
Faust (Murnau, Germany, 1926) – 6.9
Sunrise (Murnau, USA, 1927) – 7.0
Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927) – 6.2
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France, 1928) – 7.5
Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Soviet Union, 1929) – 5.5
L’age D’or (Bunuel, France, 1930) – 6.6
City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930) – 6.5
Earth (Dovzhenko, Soviet Union, 1930) – 3.2
City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931) – 8.5
M (Lang, Germany, 1931) – 8.1
L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934) – 6.7
The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937) – 8.5
Grand Illusion (Renoir, France, 1937) – 7.1
Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, USA, 1938) – 8.4
Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Russia, 1938) – 4.6
The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939) – 8.0
Stagecoach (Ford, USA, 1939) – 7.2
The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939) – 6.9
The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, USA, 1940) – 7.4
The Lady Eve (Sturges, USA, 1941) – 8.2
Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941) – 8.2
How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941) – 6.8
Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942) – 7.6
Cat People (Tourneur, USA, 1942) – 5.5
Double Indemnity (Wilder, USA, 1944) – 7.9
To Have and Have Not (Hawks, USA, 1944) – 7.5
Brief Encounter (Lean, England, 1945) – 8.3
Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945) – 7.2
Rome, Open City (Rossellini, Italy, 1945) – 6.9
My Darling Clementine (Ford, USA, 1946) – 7.3
The Big Sleep (Hawks, USA, 1946) – 7.0
The Lady from Shanghai (Welles, USA, 1947) – 8.0
Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947) – 7.3
Bicycle Thieves (de Sica, Italy 1948) – 8.0
Fort Apache (Ford, USA, 1948) – 7.5
Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1948) – 7.1
Pursued (Walsh, USA, 1948) – 6.9
White Heat (Walsh, USA, 1949) – 8.3
Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952) – 9.1
The Band Wagon (Minnelli, USA, 1953) – 8.0
Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, USA, 1953) – 7.8
Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953) – 6.7
Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953) – 6.7
Rear Window (Hitchcock, USA, 1954) – 8.8
Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954) – 8.3
Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954) – 7.0
Pather Panchali (Ray, India, 1955) – 6.4
A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956) – 8.0
The Searchers (John Ford, USA, 1956) – 7.4
Aparajito (Ray, India, 1956) – 6.6
Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958) – 8.8
Some Came Running (Minnelli, USA, 1958) – 8.0
Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958) – 7.6
Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959) – 9.2
The 400 Blows (Truffaut, France, 1959) – 8.9
North By Northwest (Hitchcock, USA, 1959) – 8.6
Rio Bravo (Hawks, USA, 1959) – 8.0
Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959) – 7.3
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France, 1959) – 6.8
Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – 8.9
Breathless (Godard, France, 1960) – 7.7
Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961) – 5.8
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962) – 8.3
Le Doulos (Melville, France, 1962) – 7.1
Contempt (Godard, France, 1963) – 8.3
8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963) – 6.5
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, France, 1964) – 8.3
Onibaba (Shindo, Japan, 1964) – 8.0
Alphaville (Godard, France, 1965) – 6.0
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966) – 9.6
Point Blank (Boorman, USA, 1966) – 7.0
Le Samourai (Melville, France, 1967) – 8.4
Le Boucher (Chabrol, France, 1970) – 7.5
Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, 1971) – 7.7
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman, USA, 1971) – 6.8
Love in the Afternoon (Rohmer, France, 1972) – 8.6
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1973) – 7.8
The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973) – 7.6
Chinatown (Polanski, USA, 1974) – 8.2
Young Frankenstein (Brooks, USA, 1974) – 7.6
Taxi Driver (Scorsese, USA, 1976) – 8.8
Annie Hall (Allen, USA, 1977) – 6.6
Days of Heaven (Malick, USA, 1978) – 7.2
Killer of Sheep (Burnett, USA, 1978) – 7.1
Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA, 1980) – 8.3
Popeye (Altman, USA, 1980) – 5.2
The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones, USA, 1982) – 6.8
A Short Film About Love (Kieslowski, Poland, 1988) – 8.6
The Thin Blue Line (Morris, USA, 1988) – 7.8
The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991) – 8.0
Deep Cover (Duke, USA, 1992) – 8.4
The Player (Altman, USA, 1992) – 8.0
Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993) – 8.1
Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993) 6.3
Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994) – 7.9
A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996) – 5.8
The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997) – 7.2
The Mirror (Panahi, Iran, 1997) – 5.1
The Bird People in China (Miike, Japan, 1998) – 6.6
Ravenous (Bird, UK/USA, 1999) – 8.2
Nowhere to Hide (Lee, S. Korea, 1999) – 7.9
Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999) – 7.6
Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999) – 5.4
Dancer in the Dark (Von Trier, Denmark/Sweden, 2000) – 9.5
JSA: Joint Security Area (Park, S. Korea, 2000) – 8.7
Failan (Song, S. Korea, 2000) – 7.9
The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini, Iran, 2000) – 7.5
In the Mood for Love (Wong, Hong Kong, 2000) – 7.4
The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro, Spain/Mexico, 2001) – 8.6
Mulholland Drive (Lynch, USA, 2001) – 7.7
Avalon (Oshii, Japan/Poland, 2001) – 7.6
Far From Heaven (Haynes, USA, 2002) – 7.9
The Tracker (de Heer, Australia, 2002) – 7.7
Save the Green Planet (Jang, S. Korea, 2003) – 6.8
3-Iron (Kim, S. Korea, 2004) – 8.8
Memories of Murder (Bong, S. Korea, 2004) – 8.5
Grizzly Man (Herzog, USA, 2004) – 8.1
Moolade (Sembene, Senegal, 2004) – 7.8
The Proposition (Hillcoat, Australia, 2005) – 8.1
The Host (Bong, South Korea, 2006) – 8.8
Offside (Panahi, Iran, 2006) – 7.8
Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007) – 9.1
The Social Network (Fincher, USA, 2010) – 8.5
The Hunter (Pitts, Iran, 2010) – 6.8
Drive (Refn, USA, 2011) – 8.1
Sleeping Sickness (Kohler, Germany, 2011) – 6.6

And a countdown of the current top 10 highest rated films:

8. 3-Iron (Kim, S. Korea, 2004 – 8.8
8. The Host (Bong, S. Korea, 2006) – 8.8
8. Rear Window (Hitchcock, USA, 1954) – 8.8
8. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, USA, 1976) – 8.8
8. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958) – 8.8
6. The 400 Blows (Truffaut, France, 1959) – 8.9
6. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – 8.9
4. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952) – 9.1
4. Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007) – 9.1
3. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959) – 9.2
2. Dancer in the Dark (Von Trier, Denmark/Sweden, 2000) – 9.5
1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy/USA, 1966) – 9.6

Intriguingly, only four of last year’s top ten remain in the top ten for this year. To compare this year’s results with last year’s, go here:

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
2. The Last Performance (Fejos)
3. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
4. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
5. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel)
6. Pyaasa (Dutt)
7. The Bride of Frankenstein (Whale)
8. Orphan (Collet-Serra)
9. Damsels in Distress (Stillman)
10. The Gold Rush (Chaplin)

Blu Vamp

Newly released on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber is Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915-1916), one of the greatest and most influential works of the early narrative cinema. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is made from a new HD transfer of a photochemical restoration that was overseen by Jacques Champreux, the director’s grandson, in 1996. This release is massively significant because, unlike most Kino releases of silent French movies, which usually port over the intact (or in some cases truncated) contents of pre-existing region-locked French discs, this is the true world premiere of Les Vampires, or any Feuillade for that matter, in 1080p. It is, as one might expect, a marvel to behold and should be considered a must-own for cinephiles. For those unfamiliar with it, Les Vampires was the result of Feuillade provocatively combining contemporary French pulp fiction with the Balzac-ian notion of secret societies, and then refracting it through his own unique and highly moral sensibility. The finished product is an insanely entertaining mystery serial that went on to exert an explicit influence on everyone from Fritz Lang and Luis Bunuel to George Franju and Jacques Rivette to Olivier Assayas in the present day (and this is to say nothing of the hundreds of directors who were influenced by it indirectly). In short, Les Vampires is the very essence of cinema. To paraphrase something Martin Scorsese said about Sam Fuller, if you don’t love it, then you just don’t love movies.

The most significant directors in the development of cinema prior to 1920 were D.W. Griffith in the United States and Louis Feuillade in France. Like Griffith, the brilliant Feuillade was incredibly prolific; he directed over 600 films, many of them multi-part serials, before his premature death at 52. Unlike Griffith, Feuillade may not have been a pioneer in terms of the specific techniques he employed in lighting, shooting or cutting his movies. (One can find instances of tracking, panning and tilt shots, as well as close-ups of actors’ faces, in Les Vampires but they are used far more sparingly than in Griffith. More often than not, Feuillade preferred to let his scenes unfold in long shots and long takes, a style that used to invite accusations of “theatricality” in some quarters; but, in light of certain European art film trends beginning in the 1960s, his use of depth staging now arguably looks stunning in its modernity.) Feuillade was unquestionably, however, an innovator in terms of his approach to narrative structure. His 1913 release Fantomas, for instance, is credited with being the first “cliffhanger” serial. While the serial format already existed before Feuillade came along, he is believed to be the first filmmaker to wed that particular form with the high concept of suspenseful, “open” endings in an attempt to lure viewers back to the theater week after week to see future serial installments.

Les Vampires, which originally ran in France from November of 1915 through June of 1916 in ten episodes of varying length, has always been Feuillade’s most popular work. It was first famously revived by Henri Langlois at the French Cinematheque in the mid-1940s. Jacques Rivette paid homage to it in his two best films, Out 1 (1971) and Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). And it again piqued international interest in the mid-1990s after Olivier Assayas used it as a major reference point in Irma Vep (where he drew intriguing parallels between Feuillade’s serial and contemporary Hong Kong action films). The perennial popularity of Les Vampires probably stems from its subject: not literal vampires as the title has led many to believe but rather a gang of nocturnal thieves who call themselves “The Vampires.” The leader of the gang is a woman named Irma Vep (played by the ferocious, outrageously sexy actress Musidora) who finds herself matching wits with ace investigative newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) and his comical sidekick Oscar Mazamette (Marcel Levesque). The bad guys, unsurprisingly, have long been the biggest appeal factor; the serial was much beloved by the Surrealists in the 1920s for its evocation of what seemed like an elaborate criminal network festering beneath the surface of mainstream bourgeois society, as well as, one presumes, a capture-and-escape narrative loop structure that stands in opposition to the typical closure of Hollywood cinema. These are qualities that come through amazingly loud and clear on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray, which proves that Les Vampires has lost none of its power to entertain for the entire duration of its nearly 7 hour running time.

The plot of Les Vampires is virtually impossible to summarize because the story of each episode is crammed with plentiful twists and turns and the sprawling, overarching master narrative was not worked out in advance but improvised by the filmmakers as they went along instead. Andre Bazin, in a typically lovely and incisive piece of writing, noted that “(Feuillade) had no idea what would happen next and filmed step by step as the morning’s inspiration came. Both the author and the spectator were in the same situation, namely, that of the King and Scheherazade; the repeated intervals of darkness in the cinema paralleled the separating off of the Thousand and One Nights.” Suffice to say, the narrative ingredients of Les Vampires are quintessential Feuillade: murders, hypnotism, cryptograms, disguises, kidnaps, rescues and escapes. A character known as the “Grand Vampire” murders a wealthy doctor and then assumes his place, entertaining a guest by day but infiltrating his room by night through a secret passageway hidden behind a painting. Similarly, Irma Vep dons many disguises including that of a maid and an office clerk, and even dresses up in drag as a “Viscount” (Musidora was fittingly rediscovered by feminist critics in the 1970s) in order to gain access to different levels of society so that the Vampires can execute their various dastardly schemes. The Vampires ultimately find themselves pitted against not only Guérande and Mazamette but also a rival gang headed by a Spaniard named Juan-José Moréno (who is himself a master of disguise). As the serial progresses, more and more characters are piled on, including wealthy American victims (two of whom, I’m happy to point out, hail from Chicago), as well as love interests for our journalist-heroes.

What is probably the most outrageous narrative contrivance, however, involves a character who (while in disguise, of course) regales a roomful of people by reading aloud from the memoirs of his grandfather, an adventurer who had spent time in Spain a hundred years ago. This allows Feuillade to insert a flashback scene, one that notoriously consisted of bullfight footage from an abandoned movie project that the director had shot in Spain not long before. Adding to all of this nuttiness is the fact that Les Vampires has probably the highest sex and violence quotient of any Feuillade serial; a typical episode contains at least two murders. The first episode is titled “The Severed Head” and includes the grisly discovery of the title body part inside of a hatbox. Another episode contains a scene where a man is killed by being stabbed in the neck with a hairpin before his body is tossed off of a moving train. As for the sex, Irma Vep’s frequent nighttime prowls see her donning a skin-tight black body stocking that, in addition to being fetish-worthy in itself, leaves nothing to the viewer’s imagination concerning what’s underneath in certain lighting conditions. Unsurprisingly, Feuillade was severely criticized for romanticizing his criminal characters by both the wartime French government and the press. Consequently, many commentators feel that he intentionally toned down the explicit content and ratcheted up the moralism for Judex (1916) and other subsequent serials.

I think my personal favorite aspect of Les Vampires may be the performance of Marcel Levesque as Mazamette, which is saying a lot given my boundless enthusiasm for Musidora. Alone among the performers of the film’s ensemble cast, Levesque repeatedly and hilariously breaks the fourth wall by playing directly to the camera (and, by extension, the viewer). Levesque continually winks, nods and smiles in the direction of the camera, as if to say “get a load of this!,” all more than forty years before the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague were credited with introducing similar self-reflexive techniques with their direction of actors. What I find particularly endearing about Levesque’s mugging though is the way that it increases in frequency as the series unfolds. It’s probably the best example of how Feuillade tailored later episodes of his serial to what audiences had responded to positively in the earliest episodes. It’s also a good example of how the joyous nature of cinematic storytelling itself can be seen as Feuillade’s true subject. (Other examples would include scenes where the film’s characters go to the movies: once to a “Gaumont Palace,” a theater owned by the studio that produced Les Vampires, and once to see a documentary that the film’s heroes are stunned to find features their nemeses, the Vampires.) In the end, it is hard not to find infectious one character’s exclamation of “I am a movie fanatic!,” surely one of the most charming intertitles of the entire silent cinema.

What I’ve come to expect from, and love about, Kino Lorber is their resistance to manipulating the image quality of their silent movie releases. While many of their DVDs were problematic in the pre-HD era, the label has really come into its own on Blu-ray. Nothing they do is “over-restored,” a charge that can definitely be leveled against rival labels. Instead, Kino Lorber presents high-quality hi-def transfers of the best surviving silent film elements with flaws intact, just the way they would look if seen projected in 35mm. Fortunately, Les Vampires is in exceptionally good shape for a movie from 1915-1916. This is the third time I’ve seen it in full (following its releases on VHS and DVD from Image Entertainment) and I’ve been increasingly impressed by each upgrade in presentation. Two areas in which the Kino Blu-ray trumps the Image DVD in particular are in its more restrained use of color tinting (the entire film is seen in true black and white with only a sparing use of blue for night sequences) and in a vastly improved English subtitle translation. To be fully candid, the score on the Image DVD by the esteemed Robert Israel is probably superior to the serviceable job by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra included on the Kino, but this is not a big deal. All of the composers, musicians and engineers responsible for writing, compiling, performing and recording these scores have been tasked with the unenviable job of producing 7 hours worth of music for what is probably little to no pay, and so I feel grateful for even serviceable work. My fondest hope is that this Kino Lorber Blu-ray will sell like gangbusters and encourage the label to acquire and release my favorite Feuillade serial: 1919’s Tih-Minh, which I’ve only seen on a bootleg DVD-R taken from fuzzy French VHS tapes with fan-created English subtitles. Even under those less than optimum conditions though, Tih-Minh just might be the only film I’ve seen that I can say is more entertaining than Les Vapmires. Are you listening Kino?

The Blu-ray set of Les Vampires, 6 hours and fifty seven minutes (or the equivalent of at least three feature-length films) spread over two platters, can be purchased for a very reasonable price on amazon here.

Works Cited

Bazin, André. “In Defense of Mixed Cinema.” What Is Cinema?. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California, 2005. pg. 32.

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