This includes a lot of tips from my friends’ lists—I’m grateful for the leads.
The muy bueno:
Two Lovers has a great subject—how we fall for the flake we can’t have instead of the safe, solid thing that will love us back—and it evokes the bizarre feeling of danger that falling in love can bring like no other movie I know. A crying shame if this really is Joaquin Phoenix’s goodbye, though I’ll bet good money it’s not. The director, James Gray, also writes great vernacular dialogue that’s easy on the ear, as when Paltrow tells Phoenix to meet her downstairs “in, like, thirty minutes.” The difference between that and “in a half hour” sounds trivial, I know, but in Paltrow’s mouth it’s a line that both sings and sounds totally natural.
Manufactured Landscapes – “Ms. Sensory Delight? I’d like you to meet Mr. Intellectual Horror…”
Memories of Murder – Joon-ho Bong’s epic about the hunt for a serial killer, focusing on the conflict between the provincial cops and the big-city expert who comes to help. (Shades of One False Move, while, considering the tonal and thematic overlap, Fincher must have seen this pre-Zodiac.) Some terrific direction here, especially during an overworked cop’s beautifully staged freak-out in a cafe. It also has a great, haunting ending.
The Triplets of Belleville
Caché – Haneke’s masterpiece about a man tormented by something he did at the age of six.
The Enemy Below – Dryly intelligent U-boat chase done as a cat-and-mouse game between Robert Mitchum (above the water) and Curt Jurgens (below it). Dick Powell directed, and he handled the action scenes as Busby Berkeley might have, with wide aerial shots of the depth-charges going off in symmetric but syncopated patterns.
Desert Fury – Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott, Mary Astor, and John Hodiak have at it in Lewis Allen’s cactus noir. With its swirling score, lurid Technicolor, and full-armed face-slappings, it can put you in mind of Duel in the Sun or Johnny Guitar, yet at heart it’s just a story about some all-too-human shlemiels. As the Nevada saloon-owner “Fritzi” Astor has one of her great woman-of-the-world roles, and Wendell Corey, as Hodiak’s henchman who has a crush on his boss, keeps tipping his hand so often and so completely you’re surprised when the other characters don’t step back from him and say, “Dude, have you not ever heard of a subtext?”
I Walk Alone – In his next assignment, Lancaster played a Prohibition-era gangster who gets out of stir in the late ’40s only to find that his rackets have all been turned into Big Business. It doesn’t make any difference to him, though, because, like Lee Marvin in Point Blank, he wants his money! Which, translated, means, “Watch your ass, Kirk Douglas…”
Worth the ride:
I’m Not There – A very mixed bag, but that “Goin’ to Acapulco” sequence hit me where I live.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Ulzana’s Raid – A satisfying Robert Aldrich Western with some hardcore Apache roastings and one brilliant little sequence: two Indians track each other down opposite sides of a rocky spine that creases a mountainside.
Run Silent, Run Deep – Another good submarine movie, this time with Gable and Lancaster. Lots of well-done tension, which is, as advertised, silent. Features Jack Warden and Don Rickles, from when they still had hair.
The Black Cat – Ulmer’s 1934 adaptation of Poe has nothing to do with Poe or any other discernable source. What it does have are some great (if cheap) Expressionist visuals plus a pair of fine giggly camp performances by Karloff and Lugosi.
Duma – Carroll Ballard’s apathy towards storytelling logic—shaky enough in 1996’s Fly Away Home, which Duma copies right down to the dead parent—makes this one register like an exquisitely-shot Disney picture. When there’s no follow-through to anything, and you can even let your pet cheetah run loose in a primary school without consequences, it’s impossible to form a stake in the proceedings. Shenanigans like that may be fine for preteens (even there I’m torn), but Ballard is treated as a serious filmmaker, and in some places with reverence. It’s getting to be a joke.
Edge of the City – Martin Ritt’s 1957 debut, with Cassavetes and Poitier playing friends and freightworkers in the NYC rail yards, treads pretty heavily on On the Waterfront‘s corns. Cassavetes is fine and Ruby Dee is on absolute fire, and the film makes a conscientious effort to show regular people leading regular lives, but it’s overwritten, Poitier overdoes it as a young man who’s excited by life’s possibilities, and its climax is the silliest fight with baling hooks you’re ever gonna see.
Funny Games (the ’97 original) and Code Unknown
A Plague on Your Ocular Nerve:
The Girl in Black Stockings – A bore despite having Marie Windsor, Anne Bancroft, and Mamie Van Doren all stuffed into one movie. The Miami Story is some gangster tripe with Barry Sullivan. Jennifer is an update of The Turn of the Screw with Ida Lupino and her then-hubby Howard Duff, doomed by a lack of imagination and endless padding.
Two Smart People was Jules Dassin’s last picture before embarking on his otherworldly run of Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway, Night and the City and Rififi. The leap was prodigious. Two Smart People follows a pack of grifters and cops who are all chasing the same bag of negotiable securities across country. Things come to head at Mardi Gras, where Elijah Cook, Jr., dressed in fool’s motley, is killed, and an unwitting crowd carries him away, tossing his rag-doll corpse in the air with a blanket as they dance down the street. Nothing else in the movie comes close to that wild image; nor does it help that the leads—John Hodiak and Lucille Ball—are almost awesomely bad. When she tries to be sexual, Ball is, in fact, repellent.