Best of the Best
 (candidates for my "top 200" all time list - from any year)

Most recent reviews posted on: November 3, 2005 

The Last Letter, documentarist Frederick Wiseman's only fictional film, an unusual sort of Holocaust tale.
Pather Panchali, first in the Apu Trilogy, Sanyajit Ray's three masterpieces about a poor Indian boy's growth into manhood.

Reviews by title, , in alphabetical order...

APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1979, remade 2001).  New cut of the stupendous, surreal antiwar film.  It isn't "redux" but a cut that adds back about 45 minutes of footage deleted from the original (mostly of a dinner at a French plantation upriver; and a few feet of a sex romp with stranded Playboy Bunnies in a swap for diesel fuel).  In this case, more is better. Among the highlights is the attack on a village by Robert Duvall's lusty forces.  The final scenes in which Willard (Martin Sheen) rises from the river to stalk and kill the mad Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), then moves through the still and reverent crowd of Kurtz's followers, now ready to forswear their allegiance to Willard, bears all the marks of great ancient Greek tragedy - the stylization, the inevitability of Kurtz's fall and Willard's act, the grand cosmic scale of the events.  Few American films can measure up to this one.  It is certainly one of the very finest antiwar films, and one of the three best films to come out of Viet Nam (the others: Platoon and Coming Home).  Grade: A+

 

BALLAD OF NARAYAMA  (Shohei Imamura, Japan, 1983)  Imamura’s incredible re-creation of life in a small mountain village before the turn of the 20th century.  Details of family life and community mores and rituals are marvelous to behold.  (In Japanese)  (seen in 1998)  Grade: A+


THE CELLULOID CLOSET  (Robert Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, US, 1995).  Outstanding documentary about the depiction of homosexuality in American film.  Done in a chronological order and within the social context of the times at each waypoint, we see how homophilia appears in disguised and subliminal ways, then gradually comes out of the closet more recently.  There are clips from over 100 films, dating from the silent era, as well as interviews with writers and actors.  Grade: A+ 

    

THE CHAMPAGNE SAFARI (George Ungar, Canada, 1995).   Citizen Kane meets Fitzcarraldo.  That is the sense one has viewing the Champagne Safari, Canadian animator George Ungar's award winning documentary on the life and times of Charles Bedaux, a French-born American eccentric who made a fortune in the 1930s as one of the first self styled industrial efficiency experts.  In his 1936 film, Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin portrayed with only a little exaggeration the application of Bedaux's ideas, boosting the productivity of men on the assembly line by analyzing, programming and accelerating their movements like any other machine - the ultimate dehumanization of labor, Karl Marx's worst fears come true.  When he wasn't reaping rewards as a consultant to General Electric, DuPont, or Nazi industrialists, or partying with the likes of Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor (they were married at Bedaux's Loire Valley estate), Bedaux dreamed up travel adventures.  He was the first to cross the Sahara Desert by car.  And in the summer of 1934 he staged his most outlandish expedition: departing from Edmonton, Alberta, he sought to travel by car across the Rockies with the publicly avowed goal of opening a new trade route to the north Pacific Ocean.  His pal Emil Citroen provided a fleet of nickel-plated halftrack trucks.  Fifty three local cowboys were recruited to accompany the caravan on horseback.  Bedaux himself meticulously planned and procured all the supplies, including cases of caviar and French champagne.  His wife and current mistress both came along (Bedaux insisted that the women be close friends), as did the Holloywood cinematographer, Floyd Crosby.  Crosby, who would win an Oscar for shooting High Noon two decades later, was hired to film the expedition, directed, of course, by Charles Bedaux himself.   

 

The trip foundered disastrously (although two monuments to it remain:  a mountain in the still remote reaches of northeast British Columbia named for Bedaux, and one of the Citroen halftracks, housed in the Reynolds Museum, in Wetaskiwin, south of Edmonton).  The film - five hours of it - disappeared.  Bedaux ultimately was charged with a unique form of treason - industrial collaboration with the Nazis, but before he could be tried, while under house arrest in Florida, in 1944, he suicided.  (Or was it murder?)  Years later, Ungar read about the expedition and thought it might make good material for a five minute animated film.  But in the late 1970s the film of the 1934 expedition resurfaced in France.  Ungar got access to it and embarked on a painstaking 16 year artistic ordeal that has yielded this first rate documentary.  Ungar intersperses Crosby's old nitrate footage with other carefully researched material on Bedaux.  The expedition serves as a metaphor not only for Bedaux's life but, by implication, for the not uncommon fate of other megalomaniacal eccentrics whose sole purposes are the accumulation of wealth and power, and whose values are without moral foundation apart from allegiance to their own visions.  In the process, Ungar manages to avoid moralizing, showing us instead how Bedaux's ruthless system for improving industrial productivity ironically seemed to be rooted in the hardships he himself endured as a young immigrant laborer and his desire to bring a greater sense of value to the workers' lot.  Grade: A+  

 

CHUNHYUNG  (Im Kwon Taek, South Korea, 2001).  A veteran filmmaker hardly known in the West ingeniously presents an 18th Century love story of a young nobleman and a courtesan’s daughter.  Realization of the story is achieved by a careful interweaving of a live pansori performance (singer, drummer, responsive audience) and a gorgeously, languidly film enactment of the tale.  This is an inestimably valuable work, a grand example of the application of film to the preservation of culturally treasured performing arts. Grade: A+

 

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON   (Ang Lee, Taiwan, 2000).  The critics seem to agree that this could be the finest oriental martial arts film ever made.  The action is a series of gravity defying, graceful airborne dances.  The story has enough human depth to overcome any sense of silliness.  It is based on a several century old genre of Chinese pulp novels called wuxia tales, all about wandering heroes, lonely men and women often living in restless solitude, their lives devoted to justice or duty more than love.  They are masters of fighting, sometimes mystical in its power, and victims of tragic collisions between desire and responsibility.  This film well captures each of these wuxia elements.  The characters are terrific.  This is escapist entertainment at the highest level.  (In Mandarin)  Grade: A

 

DECALOGUE   (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1988).  Ten one-hour dramas, each loosely based on one of the 10 Commandments, made for Polish TV.  All concern characters who live in the same drab high rise apartment complex in Warsaw.  The films are stupendous enactments of circumstances that are both contemporary and timeless. Although there is some variation in dramatic values from episode to episode, the majority are entirely arresting.  (In Polish)  (series seen in 2000)  Grade: A+

 

THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST    (Robert Bresson, France, 1950).  This was Bresson's third feature length film, made after Angels of Sin  in 1943 and Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne  in 1945 - both of which were made during the Nazi occupation and then after Bresson had been interred as prisoner of war for 9 months in Germany. Diary is one of three films - along with A Man Escaped  (1956) and Pickpocket  (1959) - said by Anthony Lane to represent Bresson at his best, in the 1950s.  This and the other Bresson films mentioned below are part of a retrospective of 10 of his 11 feature length films brought together by James Quandt, of the Cinematheque Ontario, first shown in Toronto, later at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in early 1999. In this, his longest film, a young priest seems to have everything going against him: he is socially awkward and diffident, lacking in the skills to manage his first assignment out of seminary, as parish priest in a small village church, he is morose and melancholy, virtually no one in the village takes well to him, and he is dying of cancer of the stomach.  Nevertheless, he is able to transcend his dilemma and touch several lives, including an older priest from whom he often seeks advice, a young girl in his catechism class, and the wife of the leading citizen of the town, a countess who herself has suffered from depression for years since the death of her young son.  The drama is poignant, rich, vivid.  Bresson uses a camera in the most delicate manner.  Often stationary, he lets the action come to the camera, and he also often uses sound out of view to complete the scene. A remarkable, completely accessible, though decidedly heavy dose of the human struggle to move from torment to grace. (In French)  (seen in 2000) Grade: A

 

A FORGOTTEN LIGHT   (Vladimir Michalek, Czech Republic, 1997)  Spellbinding story of a Czech priest (Boleslav Polivka) who defies the communist government in an effort to keep his church operating.  One of several wonderful films made in the post-communist Czech Republic.  Grade: A+

THE GLEANERS AND I (Agnes Varda, France, 2000). Varda, now in her 70s, has been making films for half a century. In this gently provocative film, a unique road movie, she leads us on a tour through France to document contemporary gleaning, defined technically as harvesting leftover produce that comes from sprouts, i.e., from the ground (as opposed to picking, which applies to produce that hangs from trees, bushes or vines). Varda narrates the entire film and begins by showing us Millet's famous painting (and ends the film with another, showing gleaners running from an oncoming storm). She takes us from potato fields to urban dumpsters and introduces us to people who sustain themselves with food from these sources. We learn, among other things, that potatoes above a certain size, and those that are irregular like the heart shapes that fascinate Varda, are rejected and dumped back into the fields. Unfortunately, few who desperately need such gleanings live close to the fields or even know that ton after ton of good food is to be found there. We meet a man that Varda felt was one of the most impressive characters she encountered on this unusual tour. Living in a rent controlled highrise, he has exclusively lived on dumpster food and discarded vegetables for 10 years. He is a self -taught expert on nutrition. He has never been made ill from his diet of gleanings. He scavenges food not because poverty forces him, but because he deplores waste. It is an ethical proposition for him. Possessing a masters degree, he works at a day job but also voluntarily teaches English to African immigrants who live in his building, having devised an entire curriculum himself. There is a delightful sense of joy shared in his classes. We also meet gypsies and other people on the margins and down on their luck who glean so as not to starve.

Varda expands the idea of gleaning to include other forms. She takes us to a town where the local government prints maps marked with drop off points where anyone can leave furniture and other articles they wish to discard. We follow a fellow who makes his living by cruising these sites regularly for items to recycle and sell. He says you have to get out early and be quick about it, for the competition is tough. We visit artists who create assemblages from found (gleaned) artifacts and visit an old stonemason who has created vast structures like the Watts Towers composed of stones, dolls and much else. Varda goes further, suggesting that most of us approach the acquisition of new information as gleaners. And she shows us a suitcase full of mementos from a trip she took to Japan to demonstrate that we even glean the manifestations of other cultures for our benefit by such collecting. She introduces us to lawyers and judges who explore French laws that govern gleaning and the ownership of discarded goods. And, of course, we inevitably meet representatives of farms, vineyards and corporations that forbid gleaning. One supermarket invited retaliation from street youths for spraying food discards with bleach to avert gleaning from their dumpsters (the kids were making too big a mess back there, the manager tells us).

Along the way Varda occasionally meanders into her preoccupations with aging. She proudly shows off her new, lightweight digital video camera and tells us only half jokingly that it is a boon to her narcissism. See, she says, I can hold this camera with my right hand and photograph my left. And so we are treated to shots of her combing her hair, which is thinning, and shots of her left hand as she wistfully discusses how the skin is now so different from in her youth that it is like some unknown animal to her. She can be suddenly playful. Riding along a freeway, passing freight trucks, she shoots through the fingers of her left hand as they form a circle of steadily decreasing diameter. We see a truck in the hole framed by her fingers and then she closes her hand as if she has captured the truck. Near the end she gleans a discarded clock with no hands on a clear lucite support, and shoots her own smiling elfin face gliding across the frames behind the clock as she says "A clock with no hands is my kind of thing." By the end, we have seen how poverty, ethical principle and custom all can motivate the search for leftovers. Varda finds dignity in people everywhere, because she approaches them with respect. This lovely subtle film, never didactic, schools us aplenty but does so with grace and good humor. I think this is a classic. (In French)  Grade: A+

HEARTS AND MINDS (Peter Davis, US, 1974).  An astonishing chronicle of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, made immediately after our withdrawal from that country, when passions were highest.  Davis draws upon professional news film and video footage, amateur films made by US military personnel in Vietnam, North Vietnamese sources, and extensive interviews with a wide range of people - from Walt Rostow to Clark Clifford to Daniel Ellsberg, from disabled participants in the war to draft dodgers to returning POWs to families who lost their sons – to create an amazing, indelibly memorable montage of often contradictory testimony about our deeply wasteful years of involvement in that war.  There is film footage of scenes seared in our memories from famous still photos (the napalmed children walking frantically and aimlessly up a road; the young Vietnamese man, hands tied, shot in the head by police in the middle of a city street).  William Westmoreland speaks of the lack of value placed on individual lives by Orientals, just after we have seen a North Vietnamese farmer anguishing in grief after his daughters were killed by our bombs.  In his own interviews, Davis holds the camera for long intervals on his interviewees, after the typical “newsbite” statements they have made at first, and we see so much more revealed in these lingering follow up moments:  Ellsberg crying after speaking of Robert Kennedy’s assassination; Rostow nastily putting Davis down for asking him to review the reasons for us entering and escalating the war, as if everyone already knew and agreed upon these.  Ellsberg recounts how the public was lied to by five successive presidents about circumstances in Vietnam (from Truman to Nixon).  There is no end to the drama, irony and heartache of these scenes and testaments to one of the two worst chapters in American history (our Civil War is the other, of course). Ellsberg sums it all up best when he says, “…some people have wondered if we were on the wrong side in Vietnam.  We were the wrong side…”  An unspeakably powerful film.  Grade: A+

 

INGMAR BERGMAN: ON LIFE AND WORK   (Jorn Donner, Germany, 1998)  Documentary featuring extraordinary interviews of Bergman. (In German and Swedish) Grade: A+

 

IVAN THE TERRIBLE - Part (Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1944).  An incredible film, made at Stalin's order because he believed that Ivan, the first Czar of Russia, and he stood for many of the same ideas, especially the notion that harsh tactics, including purges and other cruelties, were justified in the cause to unify all the Russias. Both also trusted the common masses more than the elite of Russian society.  Part 1 of this film traces the rise to power of Ivan, and ends while he is in his prime, after the death of his first wife, Anastasia, and before the cruel excesses of his decline began.  Scene making (composition), scene transitions, use of music, and constant use of closeups of the outsized characters in this drama are startling, heroic, even epic in nature.  A spellbinding film, marred, perhaps, only by the wild eyed staginess of many actors, recalling the stylized acting of the silent film era.  (In Russian)  (seen in 1999)  Grade: A+

 

JALSAGHAR (The Music Room)  (Satyajit Ray, India, 1958).  Chhabi Biswas is Bisamvhar Roy, last in a line of Indian aristocrats, who lives in a crumbling palace as the level of the nearby river rises steadily, soon to erode the very palace itself. He broods about the past, his wealth and pleasure in being the acknowledged leader of the area, and his love for his wife and only child, a son.  Those two die when a boat capsizes on the river in a storm on a night when he is putting on one of his lavish musical productions for the leading men of the community.  But after these deaths he shuts himself away for years.  However, near the end, angry at the success of a sleazy loan shark who now gives the best musical parties, he sacrifices his last resources to sponsor one final extravagant party and humiliates his rival.  This is a marvelous story of the end of traditional aristocracy in India, and a showcase for some great traditional singing, instrumental and dance performances.  Spellbinding film. (In Hindi)  (seen in 2000).  Grade: A+

 

THE LAST LETTER (La Dernière lettre) (Frederick Wiseman, France/US, 2002, 61 min.). This is a fictional account of the final letter written by a Ukranian Jewish physician to her son, a scientist in Mosow, on the eve of her execution with other Jews of her village, which had recently been occupied by the German army, in 1941. The screenplay and monologue, both written by Wiseman, were adapted from a novel written by Russian author Vasili Grossman (1905-1964) but discovered and published posthumously 15 years after his death. (Grossman’s own mother died under similar circumstances.) The production is a monologue in which actress Catherine Samie, playing the woman Anna Semyonovna, gives the content of her long letter to her absent son in the form of a monologue. In this monologue she speaks austerely but also at times with barely bridled passion. She describes in painful detail the ordeal of the Jews in her village after the Germans arrive. The progressive series of privations and limits, then a forced move to a fenced ghetto at the town center. Finally news that men have been conscripted to dig the trenches that will become common graves for the rest. The letter closes with a poignant expression of a mother’s passionate love for her son. Wiseman has shot in black and white. The staging is spare; there really is no visible set. Only geometric forms of light and darkness, in part created by a backlit open doorway that Mrs. Semyanovna’s silhouetted image crosses now and then. She is dressed in a black gown ornamented only by a yellow Star of David. In many scenes we simply see her tautly drawn face, wanly lit, her white hair swept back severely. Sometimes her black silhouette is multiplied, using multiple dim lights, so that we see four or five dark images of her, sometimes gesturing with slow, broad arm movements as she speaks. The effects of this staging are profoundly elegiac and sad. A powerful production, the first non-documentary Wiseman has created in his long and brilliant filmmaking career, this perofrmance has the feel of a Greek tragedy. (In French) Grade: A

 

L’ATALANTE    (Jean Vigo, France, 1934). One of the classics of cinema and for good reason.  So much is here: marvelous camera work, wonderful locations, enchanting performances, comic interludes punctuating the romantic tale, a great character actor (Michel Simon as the worldly wise giant pixie of an old mariner, Pere Jules) whose scene stealing is a perfect counterpoint to the rather ordinary travails of the young newlywed couple.  The couple - a country village girl (Dita Parlo) and river barge captain (Jean Daste) - honeymoon aboard the barge L'Atalante, which runs on the Seine between Paris and LeHavre.  They fall out when he does not keep his promise to show her the sights of Paris, and she runs off to see for herself.  In spite, he embarks to the next port, stranding her.  But Pere Jules saves the day by finding her and the couple reunite ecstatically.  The film poetically captures the lovers' struggles and the old seaman's nostalgia.  Great scenes include Pere Jules showing off his memorabilia from his adventures in ports around the world to the bride (including his great puppet musical conductor), a young vaudeville magician/musician who flirts with her, the dreamy agonies of the newlyweds,  as they toss and turn in separate beds while apart, and Pere Jules demonstrating his wrestling techniques on the deck of the barge.  The poetry, mystery and classic status of this film are enhanced by the fact that this was the precocious Vigo's only feature length film, as he died at 29 of tuberculosis before it was released, and by the star crossed history of the film itself.  It was edited over and over and never shown as Vigo intended until 1990, when an original print of his cut was discovered in the British Film Archive, the reels never having been taken out of their cans before!  This is the stuff of film legend.  Watching this movie, with it's incredible artistry, its sophisticated mastery of the medium, it's easy to forget how early in filmmaking history it was made.  And, ironically, its authenticity would not be repeated today (everything was done on location) except perhaps by a Dogme 95 director. (In French) (seen in 2000) Grade: A+

 

THE LEOPARD  (Il Gattopardo)  (Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1963).  New DVD from Criterion Collection of the 185 minute Italian version of Visconti’s lushly photographed, majestically presented period classic about the passing of aristocratic life in Sicily as the unification of Italy into a modern state is transpiring in the mid-19th Century.  Visconti, descended from an aristocratic family but a Marxist himself, well understood the clash of values and destinies represented by the political forces at work in that era: the old order of separate fiefdoms beholden to one or another royal line of outsiders versus a new, unified, more independent Italy, governed by a monarchy with at least some trappings of democracy.  And he is sympathetic to both sides in this epic struggle.  Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) is the Prince of Salina, a rich and powerful Sicilian landowner in Salerno.  The Prince is the metaphorical leopard, a lordly, physically imposing, shrewdly pragmatic and decisive man. The story of the film is Don Fabrizio’s story, based on a novel by Giuseppi Lampedusa, himself descended from an aristocratic Sicilian family (his titles were Duke of Palma, and Prince of Lampedusa).  The novel was published in 1958, the year following his death.  The film, which is said to be highly faithful to the novel, is centered on events around 1860, when war breaks out in Naples and Sicily between the nationalistic forces led by Garibaldi, representing King Victor Emmanuel, who is forming a national government from his base in the north, in Turin, and forces of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, embracing Naples and Sicily, to which Don Fabrizio has been loyal.  In the screenplay, Visconti omitted only the final two chapters of the novel, which concern events occurring years later.

 

Don Fabrizio is a realist.  He knows that his power and wealth will gradually be lost as, inevitably, the new, unified nation emerges.  But he also sees that there is little alternative.  Thus he can only tolerantly give his blessings when a favorite young relation, his nephew Tancredi (a dashing, impetuous Alain Delon), joins Garibaldi’s forces.  He also sees that Tancredi is ambitious and opportunistic, and so Don Fabrizio rejects the idea that the flirtation between his daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi) and Tancredi should lead to a marriage proposal.  He reasons that she is too socially shy, for one thing, and that one seventh of his estate (he has seven children) will hardly make a sufficient dowry to underwrite an ambitious political career for Tancredi.   As they do every year, the large family moves from their farm above Palermo to the summer palace in a small mountain town, where the mayor, Don Calogero (Paolo Stoppa) a nouveau riche buffoon, holds forth.  The long journey is in itself a pageant, emphasizing the differences between peasant life in the back country and the leisurely indulgences of the aristocratic family, whose servants spread large clothes for elaborate picnics along the way (though they must spend nights in crowded, squalid inns, the only thing available).  When they arrive at the village for the summer, they first attend a Te Deum service that is as much in their honor as The Lord’s.

 

To everyone’s surprise, Don Calogero has a spectacularly gorgeous daughter, Angelica (a lusty Claudia Cardinale), who stirs the attention not only of Tancredi but also of Don Fabrizio.   The Prince learns from a hunting buddy, Don Ciccio (Serge Reggiani) that Don Calogero is indeed extremely wealthy thanks to some savvy land deals.  Don Fabrizio also sees that, for better or worse, men like Calogero, commoners with boundless ambitions for wealth and political power, represent Italy’s future.  Secure in the opinion that Angelica and Tancredi are a natural match, Don Fabrizio proceeds to negotiate a marriage arrangement, one that will not only assure support for Tancredi’s career but also provide possibly some financial hedge against future retrenchment in the Salina fortunes.  We learn of Don Fabrizio’s perspectives in a series of notable conversations, with his wife, Princess Stella (Rina Morelli), the family priest, Father Pirrone (Romolo Valle), and an emissary from the Turin government, Cavalier Chevalley (Leslie French).  And we learn more about the differences between the perspectives of the aristocracy and the commoners from Father Pirrone as he chats with others at an inn.

 

The film ends with a long (45 minutes) dress ball at the palace of another prince.  This sequence draws together the various themes in the film: the elegance of the old aristocracy but also their shallowness; how oblivious these people are, or at least try to be, to the massive socio-political changes at hand; the crassness and vanity of the military officers and the mayor, Don Calogero, who represent the new order; the dominance and dazzle, if not refinement, that Tancredi and Angelina exude; and, most of all, the detachment and weariness of the Prince, who sees only too clearly in the mock gaiety and puffery of the guests that his preferred world is passing.  His estrangement is the film’s final statement, when he walks off toward his palace into the night shadows, alone. 

 

The story of one social order passing, as another takes its place, is universal and timeless.  The breathtaking widescreen cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno has been widely praised through the years.  The entire film was made at locations in Sicily.  Rotunno uses grand, sweeping exterior shots of the parched countryside to as much advantage as the ornate interiors of palaces and more common places.  What makes this film truly exceptional is Visconti’s success in crafting an epic historical drama that also contains a more intimate drama of richly etched, nuanced characters.  The acting of every player I’ve cited above is exceptional.  Visconti needed American studio money to complete his film.  To get this funding required that he use an actor as the prince who was “bankable” in the U.S.  Visconti wanted Brando or Olivier, but neither was available.  Lancaster was proposed by the U.S. backers, and Visconti grudgingly accepted “this cowboy” as he referred to Lancaster.  (Alain Delon got a private dressing room on the sets; Lancaster did not).  In fact Lancaster proved to be superb.  He spoke his lines in English, and Visconti worked hard to dub them in Italian in a convincing manner (good synchronization, a voice with tonal qualities fitting Lancaster’s physical presence).  The effort was entirely successful.  Visconti’s eventual respect for Lancaster led to their collaboration 12 years later on Visconti’s penultimate film, Conversation Piece, and Lancaster attended Visconti’s funeral two years later.  Leopard was the 1963 Palme d’Or winner for best film at Cannes.  It is considered perhaps one of Visconti’s three finest films, along with Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and Senso (1954).  (In Italian) 

 

The recently issued 3-disk Criterion DVD set includes this version, originally distributed in Europe, the U. S. version (in English), a documentary on the making of the film, and a long critical commentary, among other extras.  The U.S. version is 25 minutes shorter, and the film suffers from the deletions (Visconti was horrified with it, claiming it was no longer his film).  Lancaster’s own voice is much softer than the dubbed Italian voice in the longer version, and this gives a different, more reflective, even reticent quality, to his character at times.  The result is at odds with the intended thrust of Don Fabrizio’s manner as intensely passionate and forceful.  Given that every other aspect of Lancaster’s performance is identical in the two versions, the marked contrast shows how important voice is in establishing character. (Seen in 2004)  Grade: A

 

THE MAGIC FLUTE (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1973). Probably the finest film realization of a classical opera performance ever brought to the screen. Mozart’s delightful work was filmed during a live performance in Swedish before a small audience. The players are uniformly handsome, their voices quite fine. Almost every minute of the performance is photographed intimately in close-ups. (Some close-ups were reshot with the players lip-synching their singing to fit with the original performance soundtrack.) The final production was first shown on television on New Years Day, 1975. Before and during the overture the camera gazes on the audience. At intermission we glimpse the players taking a break or preparing for their next entrances. Bergman’s obsessive focus throughout the film on a particular young girl in the audience becomes somewhat annoying, but this is the only flaw in an otherwise mesmerizing performance. (Seen last in 2003) Grade: A

 

MARCELLO MASTROIANI: I REMEMBER, YES I REMEMBER  (Anna Maria Tato, Italy, 1999)  "Docu-autobio" of MM's life and career, made by his companion during the last 20 years of his life. Interviews were made shortly before his recent death, at age 72.  He worked incessantly, acting in 170 films.  He spent 10 years on the stage first, and his first bit part was done at age 11.  This is a marvelous account.  His interviews are leisurely, languid, effortless and almost poetic reminiscences.  It helps that they are shot in a variety of settings.  He speaks lovingly of the directors who helped him to grow as a film actor.  The clips from his films are used always to advantage.  (One only wishes that it were sometimes made more clear what film was being excerpted.)  His career coincides with the great postwar period of Italian filmmaking, and he was the star of so many memorable films, that this wonderful biography reveals much about film in general during this long period.  A monumental contribution to film history and an intimate examination of one of its most luminous star actors. (Add:  Tato, in a selfless gesture, never shows herself asking questions in the interviews [she or someone must be conducting the sessions].  As a result of this discretion,  MM's reminiscences appear to be shared directly with the viewer. Sheer genius!)  (In Italian)  Grade: A+

 

MR. DEATH:  The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.   (Errol Morris, US, 2000).  Morris keeps getting better as a filmmaker, and nothing he's done so far is more important than this extraordinary study of the human capacity to hold blindly to convictions, to cherished beliefs, in the face of all the available facts and logic.  Or, as David Denby has put in, this is 'one of the great movies about stupidity' ever made.  Here once again, as in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Morris discovers and interviews a person with a truly weird occupation.  Fred Leuchter found a niche no one was filling:  designing execution machines for state prisons that work reliably, safely, and, if you'll pardon the oxymoron, humanely, i.e., to reduce suffering of the felon during the execution procedure.  The first half of the film chronicles the development of this unusual lifework.   Leuchter grew up in the shadow of such a prison, in Massachusetts, where his father worked as a guard.  As a child he once sat in the prison's electric chair and explored death row cells where, among others, Sacco and Vanzetti had been housed.  He learned pickpocketing skills from inmates.  Leuchter is nothing if not impassioned - he shows in many ways a tendency to commit himself headlong to deep involvement in anything he tries, whether or not it is in his best interests.  He drinks 40 cups of coffee a day and smokes 6 packs of cigarettes.  He grew up believing in capital punishment.  But from his contact with inmates, he formed the view that prisoners on death row were no different from other people, and deserved not to suffer while being executed.  Hence his occupation, motivated it seems by a peculiar innocent humanity.  But, as Leuchter himself is the first to admit, the fact that he became proficient in designing one form of machine (electric chairs) is no guarantee that he could design machines operating on very different principles (lethal injection machines, gas chambers, lynching platforms).  Yet he was recruited to design all of these by officials in several states.

 

By the same logic, there is no reason to expect that, because he had consulted on the design of a prison gas chamber or two, this untrained and uncredentialed man, lacking licensure in engineering and having had no formal training in chemistry or chemical analysis, or forensic science, could act competently as an expert witness to determine scientifically whether people were gassed at Nazi concentration camps.  But that is exactly what he agreed to become, in a career turn that has been his undoing. This story makes up the second half of Morris's film.  Ernst Zündel, a German national living in Canada and an outspoken Holocaust revisionist, was indicted under an intriguing Canadian law, an exception to free speech, which holds it to be a felony to publish material the goal of which is to cause harm to a racial or ethnic minority. In tracts denying the fact of the Holocaust, Zündel had violated this law, the government determined.  And Zündel's defense lawyers sent for Leuchter, hoping he could somehow disprove that gas was used in the camps, that they were not death camps but rather slave labor camps.  Leuchter fairly jumped at the chance, ironically spending his honeymoon in 1989 surreptitiously analyzing the design of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and chipping away material from their crumbling walls, defacing the ruins while illegally collecting these specimen to have them later tested for cyanide.  As shown later, he hadn't the slightest idea what he was doing.  He didn't know the most rudimentary facts about cyanide, for example, that it only penetrates stone to a thickness of 10 microns, far more shallow than the diameter of a human hair, so that his deeply chipped, pulverized rock samples could not possibly test positive.  Nor did he review any of the Nazi archival material that alludes to cyanide containing gas procured for the camps.  His report offered in testimony at the Kündel trial was thoroughly discredited, and Kündel was found guilty.  But this did not stop Leuchter from becoming a darling of the Holocaust revisionist lecture circuit worldwide, a status in which he basked.  However, he became labeled as an anti-semitic at home, and, one thing leading to another, he lost work in his execution machine trade, and subsequently lost his home, money and wife, in a sad downward spiral of events which apparently is not over yet.

How could anyone have had Leuchter's audacity to suppose that such an endeavor as his Auschwitz misadventure was necessary or justified?  How could he brazenly and knowingly deface the ruins of the chambers at Auschwitz, a protected national monument?  How could he decide, once and for all, while in Poland, that he was absolutely correct in assuming that people were never gassed there by the Nazis, a conviction that has never yielded to the facts (the historical record, chemical scientific expertise) presented at Kündel's trial and even in this film (which Leuchter has watched and said he enjoyed).  Robert Jan van Pelt, a Holocaust historian, calls Leuchter "...an innocent.  An innocent simpleton."  It is easy to see him as a sort of sad and uninsightful, if monstrous, fellow alright.  But Morris takes some pains not to so categorize him.  Indeed, one of the strengths of this film is its nonjudgmental, balanced account that, if anything, gives Leuchter far more "air time" to exposit his perspective than his detractors are given.  Of course Morris must know full well that his audiences will see the monstrous side of Leuchter without the need for props: Morris simply gives Leuchter enough rope to hang himself.  Painlessly.

 Apart from its content, it should be noted that this film shows technical genius.  It is the most artistically crafted documentary I have seen since The Photographer .  The opening and closing credit sequences are stunning: arcing electrical charges permeate a dark blue black scene as a man ascends through nearly open space in an elevator shaped like a giant birdcage.  Early on we get to know Leuchter glimpsing part of his face surreally in a car's rear view mirror.  Chamber music sets a sweetly haunting counterpoint to the macabre content of the film.  The editing is superb, seamless, often surprising.  When Leuchter goes to Poland in 1989, the cockpit of the plane he takes is Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 footage over Nurenberg.  This inventiveness, this mixing of artifice with fact, is a method of seeking what Werner Herzog calls "ecstatic truth" - a transcendental truth about human nature that goes beyond the biographical facts of one man's life.  (Herzog, incidentally, considers Morris one of the finest documentarians around, a 'true source of joy.')   Morris's purpose here, by telling us a story about Fred Leuchter, is to show us an important and very worrisome thing about all of us: this tendency to hold onto our convictions at all costs.  Like every problematic facet of human nature, there is enormous potential for both good and evil in this tendency.  Here, as so often is the case in political opinion, religion and racial bigotry, we see the dark side of our reluctance to be swayed by valid information and good sense.  Grade: A+          

 

MY BEST FIEND   (Werner Herzog, Germany, 1999).  Herzog's chronicle of his incredible love-hate relationship with Klaus Kinski.  It began when Herzog was 13, and Kinski, then a young actor, lived across the wall from Herzog's family (his siblings and single mother) in a Münich boarding house.  Kinski's demonic paroxysms of violent rage are well documented here, as are his occasional capacity for tenderness and his remarkable acting talents.  My diagnoses:  Herzog: obsessed with making films in impossible locations, but otherwise normal; Kinski: severe borderline personality disorder, capable of brief moments of psychotic behavior, in a person with extraordinary acting talent and narcissism.  (In German with English dubbing by Herzog, who narrates).  Grade: A+

 

PATHER PANCHALI (Pathera Pancali) (Song of the Little Road) (Satyajit Ray, India, 1955, 126 m.). First film of Ray’s (1921-1992) “Apu Trilogy.” A poor Bengali family survives in a village but wider horizons tempt the father. The protection of family members' reputations, the relationship of the family group to an elderly 'Auntie', and first confrontations with death contribute to the early development of the boy, Apu. His father's dreams prevail over the objections of his mother so that at the end of the film the family moves to the city of Benares. [Apu's experiences are followed in the second film of the trilogy, The Unvanquished (Aparajito), and his growth to early manhood in the final film, The World of Apu (Apur Sansar). Based on the novel, "Pathera Panchali" by Bibhuti Bandopadaya.]

This is one of the most visually beautiful, sparely poetic films in the history of cinema. The cinematography, by Subrata Mitra, often focuses for long takes on the faces of villagers – not only on Apu and his family but on others attractive for the sheer unusualness of their looks, postures and movements. These portraits, often brought into bold relief by intense light and shadow effects, reminds me of Eisenstein. But equally spellbinding are longer, wider shots of nature: lilypads ruffled by the wind; water beetles spronging along the rippling lambent surface of a pond. Just when one feels lulled by the simple, repetitive tasks of daily life of these people, about to conclude that this film is simply a staged piece of anthropology, Robert Flaherty style, suddenly a dramatic confrontation will erupt, gripping the viewer with tension and empathy for these people. Apu’s youthful, boyish joy is tinged with his sober absorbtion of death (his old “Auntie,” his teenage sister -playmate and scourge - Durga).

Art direction by Bansi Chandragupta, editing by Dulal Dutta and music by then 34 year old Ravi Shankar - who was born not far from the site of this film, in West Bengal - round out the expert team working with Ray to make the film so memorable. Actors included Kanu Banerjee (Harihar Ray, Apu’s father), Karuna Banerjee (Sarbojaya Ray, Apu’s mother), Subir Banerjee (Apu), Uma Das Gupta (Durga), and Chunibala Devi (Indir Thakrun, called “Auntie”; the aging actress came out of long retirement to play this role, and she died shortly before the film was released, but fortunately after Ray had taken a copy to show her at her home). (In Bengali) (In B & W). Grade: A+ (11/02/05)

 

THE PHOTOGRAPHER  (Dariusz Jablonski, Poland, 1998)  Documentary about the Nazi-run Lodz Ghetto in WW II Poland.  Exquisitely blends recently discovered color slides by a German accountant, B&W footage of present day Lodz, narration from Nazi documents, powerful music and the reflections of a survivor.  Ironically, this film is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.  A masterpiece of creative documentary filmmaking.  Grade: A+

 

RULES OF THE GAME (Jean Renoir, France, 1939).  Renoir's critique of the supercilious, self indulgent nature of French society at the brink of WWII.  Story turns around a lengthy houseparty at the country estate of a wealthy Parisian couple, she the daughter of a famous Viennese conductor, he a rich wastrel preoccupied with his love life and collecting extravagant antique motorized musical toys.  No one escapes Renoir's satirical scalpel here.  Ostensibly a knock on idle aristocratic Parisian society, in fact the servants fare no better, behaving with equal absurdity and self-absorbtion.  Everyone seems to be chasing everyone else in various exual roundelays that cross class boundaries at times.  There are many funny moments, often bittersweet.  This is the seminal "upstairs downstairs" drama.  Not a film for those who react badly to misuse of animals: gratuitously large numbers of rabbits and pheasants are shot in a memorable game hunt that could prophetically have represented the Maginot Line.  Renoir himself plays Octave, a genial fellow who tries to help others.  He is a failed musician who aptly describes himself as a social parasite who would starve if not for his friends' hospitality.  Marcel Dalio gets most of the good lines as Robert, the rich host.  The film was cut before its first release in Paris, cut again after outraging initial audiences, banned by the Vichy government as demoralizing, then banned again by the Nazis.  The original negative was later destroyed by an Allied bombing of the film studio at Boulogne.  The picture was reassembled from 200 cans of film and bits of soundtrack, and this lovingly reconstructed print finally premiered at the 1959 Venice Film Festival.  Truffaut said of it, "the most important filmmaker in the most important film."  Pauline Kael agreed, calling it "perhaps the most influential of all French films." (In French) (Most recent viewing 2001)  Grade: A+

 

TOKYO STORY   (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953). Ozu's masterpiece and frequent entrant in all time top film lists.  An aging couple from a small coastal city journey to Tokyo to visit their grown children and their families:  the eldest son, a struggling family doctor, his wife and two sons; the elder daughter, a hard-bitten beauty shop owner and her husband; and Noriko, the widowed daughter-in-law, whose husband, the middle son, was killed in the war 8 years earlier (the youngest son lives in Osaka where he is a railroad clerk - they see him on the way - and the younger daughter lives with the parents and stays behind because of school teaching commitments).  Nearly everyone is estranged and preoccupied, it seems, and neither Tokyo offspring wants to spend time with the parents, so they foist them off on Noriko for a day or two and then send them off to a spa hotel.  But the parents don't like the Club Med atmosphere there and decide to go home, passing through Tokyo again briefly and unannounced along the way.  The mother becomes very ill on the journey home and dies at home shortly thereafter.  The children seem unaffected and stay there with their father for as brief a time as custom permits, then all leave.  Noriko, who embodies a more kind and generous spirit, does stay on for awhile, and there is a touching scene near the end when the widowed father tells Noriko how much his wife and he have appreciated her.  The youngest daughter and Noriko also have a moving exchange, when the daughter expresses her outrage at the selfishness of her older sibs but is calmed by Noriko's more philosophical and forgiving comments.  Underlying the story are the themes of grief about the losses brought about by the war and the new preoccupation with self advancement in the younger adult generation, with the concomitant loss of traditional filial honor and ties to the parents.  There are some wonderfully humorous details.  While packing for the trip to Tokyo, the father misplaces an inflatable pillow and repeatedly insists that he gave it to his wife to pack, but of course he later finds it in his own case.  In a scene on a bus, everyone's head bobs in unison as the bus jogs along, and syncopated music accompanies the bobbing. The father has a reunion with two old pals who have moved to Tokyo and they all get humorously drunk, complaining about their living children, sharing their grief about the dead ones, and recalling geisha girlfriends from the past.  A rich and comprehensible drama of family life amidst a culture in deep transition. (In Japanese) (seen in 2000) Grade: A+

 

UNDERGROUND  (Emir Kusturica, Yugoslavia, 1995)       Stupendous, surreal tragicomedy about the oppression of the Yugoslavian people over 50 years, starting with the Croatian-Nazi occupation in WW II and leading on through the years of Tito’s regime to the present day.  Full of outrageous characters, scenes and music.  Grade: A+

 

“UP”  Series  (Michael Apted, UK).  Fourteen English 7 year olds - upper and working class, at least one black - were interviewed in 1963 for a British TV feature called 7 Up.  Apted, who worked on the production, decided to revisit these young people every 7 years since, producing 14 Up, 21 Up, etc.  The most recent, 42 Up, screened in 2000.  In 35 Up, there is the high level of thoughtful, articulate self expression in the responses of almost everyone to Apted's rather clumsy, often unempathic questioning of them. Julie, Lynn and Sue - working class kids - are especially wise as 35 year olds.  The very much troubled Neil, isolated and on the dole and living in a remote village in the Shetland Islands, provides the most distressing story.  In 42 Up, Neil has stabilized, having moved to London where he has unpaid job as Councilman, which engages his energies and intelligence. Grade: A+

 

WHEN WE WERE KINGS (Leon Gast, US, 1997).  Perhaps the most splendid sports docu ever made, partly because of the subject: Muhammad Ali’s astonishing ko of George Foreman in 1974 in Zaire; and partly because of the incredible footage itself, shot by at least five cinematographers and edited with great skill over many years by Gast, Taylor Hackford and others.  But mainly this film is memorable because it fully captures one of the two most shining examples of why Ali is truly a person of heroic proportions, in an era when heroes have become very scarce indeed. (The other great example was Ali’s refusal to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, a decision that cost him dearly in many ways.)  (1997 Oscar winner for best docu)  (Most recent viewing:  2002).  Grade:  A+

 

THE WIDOW OF ST. PIERRE (Patrice Leconte, France, 2001). Leconte is fascinated by eccentric love stories, where the participants are gorgeous women drawn to offbeat men. In Monsieur Hire, the hero is an unattractive shy voyeur. In The Hairdresser's Husband, he is an aging but charming drifter who dances funky routines to amuse his partner in the evenings. In The Girl on the Bridge he is an itinerant circus knife thrower down on his luck. Now, in Widow, Leconte has given us another such story, but much more besides. The story, based on fact, is set in 1850 on the bleak little island of St. Pierre, an isolated French outpost off Newfoundland. Jean (played by the incomparable Daniel Auteuil, who worked so well with Leconte in Girl on the Bridge) is an enigmatic, maverick French army captain in charge of the local garrison. His wife, Pauline, also known as "Madame La," short for Madame La Capitain (a starkly pale Juliette Binoche), is independent, resourceful, upper class, and not a little mysterious herself. They are obviously very much in love and trying to make the best of this dreadful assignment, to which Jean has presumably been banished because of his unruly tendencies. A murder occurs on the island and the confessed guilty man, Neel, a stooped, hulking fisherman (played by Emir Kusturica, Serbian director of the recent standout films Underground and Black Cat, White Cat), is entrusted to Jean to be confined in the military fort over the winter, until a guillotine and executioner can be shipped in to mete out Neel's fate (the French word for widow also was used as a slang for guillotine in that era).

Pauline is taken with Neel immediately and in ways we cannot altogether fathom. She and Jean decide that Neel is harmless (he had commited the murder in a drunken haze, had an alcoholic blackout for the event, and was deeply remorseful at his trial) and give him the run of the place; he retires to his unlocked cell only at night. He becomes what Jean calls Pauline's "protegé." She teaches him to read, build a greenhouse and raise plants. She finds other work for him at homes of villagers and escorts him to these jobs. People begin to talk. "He's in her skirts," several say. Neel emerges as a local hero after he saves a woman's life and puts out a fire in the town's only tavern. In time no one wants to see him "topped" (the euphemism for beheading), especially after he and a local widow fall in love and marry. No one, that is, except the town fathers, law-and-order types who naturally are outraged to see a lowlife murderer elevated by popular adulation and equally furious to see this development encouraged, even sponsored, by La Capitain and his wife. Several smaller players are quite good, especially the governor and his father. The acting challenges facing the three principals are formidable, and each brings off their turn brilliantly. Binoche must somehow convey strength and a considerable will within the bounds of upper class poise and self control. She proceeds unconventionally, audaciously really, and very much in the public eye, yet must make an effort to minimize any untoward reflection on her husband's situation and standing. Not that she can succeed, but she must make the attempt. All of this she does through a quiet, understated, incredibly restrained performance in which her silent physical bearing, her carriage, carries her messages to everyone. Kusturica, for his part, is up to the considerable challenge of his even more complex role. He must compose his character of equal parts as unschooled oaf, repentent but also anxious killer (his accomplice in the crime accidentally died when both were stoned after the trial, and some of the soldiers at the fort would as soon lock him up and throw away the key), grateful but uneasy pupil of the aristocratic Pauline, tender swain to his Jeanne-Marie, skilled and tireless worker, and principled man of honor. Kusturica manages to suggest all of these aspects very ably.

But it is Auteuil's character who is central to this drama, a character portrayed as vastly more complex than anyone else here. Auteuil's typically subtle alterations in facial expression range through twinkle eyed lust, tenderness, humor, compassion, forbearance, defiance, steely resolve and grave dignity. His every instinct seems pacifistic, restrained, determinedly opposed to the use of force. He refuses to consider using his troops in a manner that even suggests that they might harm townsfolk, even as the town fathers, faced with an uprising if they carry out Neel's execution, wish that he would. Yet out for a gallop on his newly arrived black stallion, he cuts a figure of ramrod military correctness. He regards Pauline with crystal clear passionate love and a deep, unthreatened pleasure in supporting her desire to habilitate Neel into a solid citizen. His regard for Neel is more nuanced and mysterious. He has little to do with the man, though we gather that he must respect him. In fact Jean and Neel have much in common. They share the dubious distinction of each having placed himself in a precarious dilemma in life. "Madame La likes desperate cases, first her husband and now this murderer," a local citizen observes. Jean’s objectives are to protect his prisoner while treating him with the utmost humanity, to honor his wife's prerogatives, and to defend his, Pauline's and Neel's' interests against the backlash of antipathy from the governor and other town bigwigs, so that no blood is shed.

The film is gloriously photographed on location on small islands in the maritime provinces of eastern Canada. The costumes are excellent. Some people liked the music, a Hollywoodish Montovani-like classical score, but I did not. To me it is melodramatic, manipulative schmaltz that is absolutely cloying at times, the only sour note, pardon the pun, in this otherwise finely crafted work. The resolution of the story is an inevitable one, given the twin French passions for bureaucratic rectitude and for topping people. But that is really a subordinate matter, for this is a tale of three unusual personalities and the sentiments that bind them together in varying ways. Shawn Levy comments in his review that something seems to be missing in this film. Granted, it lacks the buoyancy that made Hairdresser’s Husband feel so good, or that lifted the middle segments of Girl on the Bridge. My partner wonders if it is passion that is lacking. Perhaps desperation forces passion underground or tempers it with caution, with reserve. I think Leconte is driving at passion here. But it is a different sort, one that has to do with adherence to certain ideals, not simply devotion to people. Both couples - Jean and Pauline, Neel and Jeanne-Marie - seem enough in love with each other. But the passions of this film run differently. Neel passionately refuses to take advantage of Pauline's kindnesses, for this means putting her and her husband in peril. Jean is passionate about honoring Pauline's desires. Jean and Pauline draw courage from their own love to strike for something far more sweeping. The drama transcends a typical love story and in the end it is set against war and against capital punishment, and for freedom and human dignity. Perhaps it is love of these conditions that truly binds Jean and Pauline together. Le Conte’s best film yet and a classic nominee for my list. (In French) Grade: A

 Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN (And Your Mother Too) (Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico, 2002). That rarest of film forms: a perfect comedy that also reveals more somber aspects of human nature and social ills. Hilarious, very sexy story of two 17 year old buddies and a 28 year old woman who drive off in search of adventure. With elegance, precision and a light touch, this film plumbs many ironies (both universal and distinctly Mexican) about social class and economic privilege, adolescent sexuality and friendship, life and death.  I have been told that the VHS/DVD version is edited to omit some of the sexier moments.  If true, that could be a significant loss.  (In Spanish) Grade: A