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Ten “Obscure” Films for Summer Boredom

If you’re a cinephile this list is not for you. These are films that actually are relatively well known amongst people who watch films as a hobby or a snobbish activity (like me). These are films that I consistently find the people I work with or bump into have simple never even heard of. These are all excellent films. If you’ve never heard of a film on this list you should watch it.

10. Warrior

This is my favorite film of all time. I never watch it with anyone because I cry through the whole bloody beautiful affair. It came and went with little fanfare and almost everyone I mention it to has not heard of it. If you haven’t seen this spectacular film watch it tonight.

9. The Big Heat

This is a Noir by one of the great Noir directors: Fritz Lang. It doesn’t feel noirish and it’s very entertaining with some shocking and memorable moments. Of all the film Noirs this maybe the most entertaining for a mainstream audience.

8. Tusk 

This movie is so weird and wonderful. Kevin Smith always makes personal movies but I think this film is more about his soul than any other. It’s almost like watching his personality just play out on screen. But more importantly this film is solid entertainment. And I don’t mean that in a Fast & Furious way I mean you want to keep watching till the end. It’s good.

7. The Naked Spur

Jimmy Stewart in one of his best films and maybe Anthony Mann’s best film period. It’s entertaining and exciting, everything a western should be.

6. Hard Eight

This is PT Anderson’s best film. It is tight, fast, and entertaining. Everything he’s done since then has been very self indulgent. Here he shows why he was able to get more creative control but this is still his finest moment.

5. The Gunfighter

This is often put forward as a psychological western, the kissing cousin to Film Noir. Whatever it is it’s a solid flick. If you like Gregory Peck watch this. It’s a small western in many ways but after High Noon and My Darling Clementine it might be the best b/w western.

4. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

This is probably the most pure Batman film ever made. I think Nolan’s trilogy is the bar for Batman on film (and really it is the definitive Batman story because it actually tells Batman’s whole story, something that doesn’t exist anywhere else and he gives him a happy ending) but this movie is truly amazing. I think in terms of artistic achievement this is as good as anything Disney or Pixar have ever done. It is fun and mysterious but also heartbreaking and very very Batman. It has everything. If you’ve never seen it you need to watch it.

3. Sahara

This is one of the best Bogie films that no one ever talks about. It’s a fun exciting B/W war film with a bit of a Seven Samurai last stand vibe. If you want to see a pure story (everything that happens is a response to the situation) with Bogie as an un ambiguous hero check this film out. This film is not famous anywhere to my knowledge. I only know of it because my Target had it in their bargain area for years. The cover looked stupid. Finally I bought it and loved it. 

2. Scarlet Street

Double Indemnity, Laura, Sunset Boulevard…Scarlet Street is better than them all. Until I saw the number 1 film on this list this was my all time favorite Film Noir. It is one of the best most perfect films ever made. The second Fritz Lang Film on this list. If you wonder why Edward G Robinson is so famous…it’s becsue he was a great actor. This film is basically all him and it’s amazing. The Lady in the Window (also Lang and Robinson) is also very good but far inferior to this film.

1. In a Lonely Place

Bogart’s best performance hands down. Also the best Film Noir and one of the best films about Hollywood. It’s simply fantastic. It also showcases what a fantastic actress Gloria Grahame was. This film fires on all cyclinders. It is perfect. Up there with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonder Life, etc. It should always be in the top ten films ever made but nobody watches it anymore. Go watch it.
Here’s some Hitchcock films you should watch if you haven’t:

Notorious 

Spellbound 

Strangers on a Train

But most importantly: Shadow of a Doubt, probably the best Film Hitch ever made

Also:

The Lady from Shanghai and A touch of evil by Orson Welles

Red River, Rio Bravo and El Dorado by Howard Hawks 

Almost anything by Anthony Mann

& finally 

The Night of the Hunter (almost anything featuring Robert Mitchum)

The Greatest American Films Part 8: Notoriously Overlooked

(I did not realize that I still had 2 blogs active on the old Blogger format, this is a post from about 7 years ago that I found on there, I’m going to rip a few of those old posts and place them here then deactivate my old blog, I can’t say I still stand by this post in particular but maybe I will finally finish my series analyzing each of these films)

For the Seventh entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen Notorious.

In recent months I really feel as if the quality of my posts has gone down. Not that they were ever of a remarkably high quality but they used to be better than they are now. Some of my passion has left me because of stress and my life becoming more focused on family matters, work etc. Blogging doesn’t seem very important right now and neither does film. But I still really enjoy both so I press on.

On this particular film I feel even less passionate. At least to write about it. I feel very strongly about the quality of this film. It is one of my all time favorites. But that’s part of the problem. To me this film speaks for itself, to watch it is to see how brilliant it truly is. And because this is a very under watched film now a days I don’t want to spoil any surprises so I will keep this post short.

This is Hitchcock’s greatest film. Vertigo is a very close second (Shadow of a Doubt is maybe third) but I think this film wins out because ultimately Notorious expresses everything that is great about Hitchcock more succinctly, less pretentiously, and the film is more entertaining as well. Of course ranking Hitchcock is difficult in any case because he made so many masterpieces that are highly influential and very enjoyable to this day. But my gut has always told me to go with this one.

On that note this also happens to be one of Cary Grant’s finest performances. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen him deal with such a challenging performance. He doesn’t have a great deal to actually do in the film but whenever he does something it works perfectly. The same goes for Ingrid Bergman. This is probably her greatest performance. Her character is much more complicated than in Casablanca, though possibly not more so than Gaslight, but what is required of her is more intense and ultimately more moving than either of those films.

In many ways this is a film about one thing: sex. Honestly, at the height of Code Era Hollywood this film is very unapologetically about sex. The title itself refers to Ingrid Bergman’s character. She is Notorious for her promiscuous lifestyle and that is ultimately what causes the main movement of the plot. Everything else is pretty much dressing. This movie is a complicated and realistic love story which is set within a very dramatic Hollywood genre: the spy film. Love, sex, redemption, and spies. It has pretty much everything you could ever want from a movie which is why I also happen to think that this is the greatest film ever made. I put it above Casablanca, Citizen Kane, et al. I mean not high above anything else, just above by a small degree.

But I don’t want to give away anything else. This film is too overlooked nowadays and everyone should see it and love it. I hope you do and do too.

The Greatest American Films Part 7: Dizzy with Obsession

(I did not realize that I still had 2 blogs active on the old Blogger format, this is a post from about 7 years ago that I found on there, I’m going to rip a few of those old posts and place them here then deactivate my old blog, I can’t say I still stand by this post in particular but maybe I will finally finish my series analyzing each of these films)

For the sixth entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen Vertigo.

Many great films can be boiled down to a moral or a theme. Vertigo maybe the single easiest film to narrow down to its essential: obsession. Considered by many to be not only Hitchcock’s greatest film (something which I disagree with) but also Jimmy Stewart’s finest performance, but even if it were not for those things Vertigo would still be remembered as one of the truly great films because it is at the very least the ultimate tale of obsession. Not obsession in a fun or satirical way, but in a deeply tragic and very honest portrayal of something bordering on mental illness. For the modern film goer whose memory ends basically at Star Wars or maybe The Godfather Psycho is probably Hitchcock’s most recognizable film, other than possibly The Birds. And while Psycho is very deserving of its recognition the way in which psychosis is treated in the film is ultimately quite flippant. Norman Bates is an amazing character given amazing breath by Anthony Perkins. But he really only exists to give us thrills, not to meaningfully explore the human soul. Psycho’s buildup should make this very clear. Janet Leigh’s character has next to nothing to do with the actual story yet she receives the most screen time. Why? To deceive the viewer. Her death was shocking to the original viewers of this masterpiece of suspense not because the infamous shower scene is so horrifying (though it is) but because she actually died. She was clearly the main character. She was the only star attached to the project. And they killed her. The closest thing I can think of to this in the last decade or so is when Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten in Deep Blue Sea (a film that shouldn’t even be mentioned on the same page as Hitchcock let alone the same paragraph). It’s shocking because of pop culture, not because of film making prowess. A similar situation can be seen with Tom Skerrit in Alien, though that death is much less manipulative and more thematically story oriented.

Vertigo is almost the exact opposite in that it provides little of the broad Hitchcockian thrills so many people love and is instead a painfully searing examination of obsession and human inability. Jimmy Stewart had already proven several times that he was a soulful and talented actor. Mostly with Frank Capra, who in many ways is the antithesis of Hitchcock as a filmmaker, in pure Americana films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart’s greatest role was of course George Bailey, though not necessarily his greatest performance, in It’s a Wonderful Life. Few films speak more to what it is to be American and at the same time what it is to be a Christian than that Masterpiece. But here we have almost the exact opposite. Whereas Capra’s work with Stewart was always uplifting Hitchcock pulls a real British darkness out of that boyish American face.

The thing that makes Vertigo still so powerful all these years later really is dual: Stewart’s Performance and Hitchcock’s craft. The story is told so deftly and so purely one hardly notices entire stretches of the film that have no dialogue. Indeed these are some of the most powerful and haunting scenes. The poetry and multiple layers of meaning in the titular phrase give the story its force. Vertigo. A paralyzing fear of heights. But it’s also Vertigo, the dizziness of obsession. For the characters are swirled into a nightmare. As betrayal and lies are revealed throughout the rest of the film we find ourselves on the bottom rung of Humanity’s ladder, where our lostness from God, society, law, and ourselves becomes so painfully obvious.

Michael Corleone “logically” thinks himself into hell by conniving and killing. Scottie Ferguson falls and falls hard. He is used and betrayed by others and then ultimately betrayed by his own greatest fear and weakness: Vertigo.

Much has been said and written about this film. Mostly from an artistic standpoint. Stewart’s performance is praised for being cast against type. The cinematography is praised for its greenish hue and use of familiar Northern California landmarks for startlingly effect. But what is truly moving about this film is how Hitchcock’s story telling ability and Stewart’s performance blend so perfectly as to create almost an Icon of the very theme itself. We are totally dizzy. But we are not victims. At any point in the story Scottie could pull himself out of this trap. He could choose to be a hero. But instead he chooses to follow his impulses which lead to a kind of faux adultery and several deaths in the process. Almost like King David. David walks where he shouldn’t be walking one evening and sees Bathsheba. And then from that enormous height he falls, dizzy with obsession, into the greatest sin of his life. How do we get there? By letting ourselves. By walking where we shouldn’t walk. By standing right by the tree that God told us not to eat from.

Scottie knows better. He’s a smart detective, but apparently he’s not wise. He has a bad feeling about this case from the get go but won’t follow his instincts and then temptation sets in, temptation through the deception of his client. But he still follows. Like most great Noir heroes he follows the Femme Fatale to his and her doom. But unlike most Noir heroes Scottie really is a nice guy at heart. He becomes hardened through his experience during the course of the film and that hardening is what leads to his obsession.

This is truly a great film, one of the greatest tragedies of all fiction. It makes us look into an ugly mirror, showing us how far we can fall if we allow ourselves to be deceived and give up our free will in the process. And I’ll leave you with what maybe the most haunting exchange of the entire film:

Judy: “If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?”
Scottie: “Yes. Yes.”

Why Cinema Superheroes are Here to Stay

(This is another old post from my old Blogger blog entitled “As Film Goes By,” keep in mind that this was originally written on 1/28/11, and I think I was essentially correct in most of my predictions and theories)

The two greatest directors working in Hollywood right now are Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky. They are the main reason that I have great hope for Cinema’s future. They are the Hitchcock and Kubrick (respectively) of my generation. The one deals with intelligent and highly entertaining psychological thrillers, which also happen to turn a profit. The other existential dark dramas that often border on the surreal. Hitchcock and Kubrick, exactly.

Nolan and Aronofsky’s films represent the very highest ideals of true auteur cinema: visual story telling that seeks to enthrall and entertain while asking the central questions of human existence. This is art at its best. To quote Steel Magnolias: “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” To be entertained and yet heart broken by the same piece of storytelling is incredibly difficult and yet these artists have done it time and again.

In an age where the word Auteur has lost all serious meaning in popular film criticism these two men have almost singlehandedly taken hold of the idea Sarris and the French film theorists were proposing and fully embodied the Director as Filmmaker and artist. Not only are they making great films but they are involved in every aspect of the film creation process and have formed lasting relationships with wonderful composers and cinematographers. So they’re humble and honest Auteurs as well. They are aware that their success has been related to their trust and relationship with other artists.

The similarities between these two filmmakers start in 1998. They both released black and white low budget independent films. Both films were met with critical success. Both films were odd and unique. Since then their films have differed dramatically. But next year their filmographies will intersect again in a big way. Nolan will be releasing the climax to his Batman Trilogy and Aronofsky will be rounding out his second thematic film trilogy with his first foray into mainstream commercial fair (though it will most likely look like neither). Both films just happen to be about comic book superheroes.

Not much is known at this time about Aronofsky’s The Wolverine. But I predict that it will be the capstone to his second trilogy of films. His first trilogy is about obsession and the forms it can take. The first two end with pretty bleak solutions to the problem of human existence and obsession. The last film has the key to the solution. And this second trilogy is the same, though more complex emotionally.

The Wrestler and Black Swan are character studies of a person whose whole existence is based around a performing art and their subsequent isolation (to be before others is to be truly alone). The Wrestler’s focus is on a low brow performing art, masculinity, and absolute realism. Black Swan is about a very high brow performing art, femininity, and surrealism. Both films end with the Character’s becoming the very embodiment of their particular art and then possibly (spoiler alert) that thing consuming and ultimately killing them. The Wolverine will do all these things as well, except probably not emphasize Logan’s performance of his profession before others. But it will involve Logan being consumed by The Wolverine, just as The Wrestler and Black Swan dealt with their respective characters being consumed by those things. But Aronofsky will have a less bleak ending for Logan, maybe even positive. The Fountain in many ways displays the synthesis between addiction and scientific obsession that are the major themes of Pi and Requiem, while also giving the solution to these respective problems: death to self and union with the divine. The Wolverine will show something similar. And its also interesting to note that Hugh Jackman is playing the main character in both films. Also a comic book film can be considered a sort of half way house between Realism and Surrealism. A serious study of how masculinity and femininity relate to each other will also be involved.

Logan must embrace his destiny while maintaining human relationships, this is where both main characters from The Wrestler and Black Swan failed. He is a killer, and must struggle with this as his telos. John Rambo does the same thing in his film series. But its not killing in itself which is their (John and Logan) life’s work, its the ability to protect others and accomplish heroic feats that no one else can do as they can.

For example, in First Blood John is acting out of rage and frustration. He is not fulfilling his true telos just reveling in violence. But over the course of the next 3 films he embraces that death dealing is his primary talent and uses it to help and protect others. The Wolverine will be part of a similar cycle of futility leading to self discovery. What the characters in the previous two films have done is viewed their telos as the end of their lives, not as a means to the true end of their lives: human relationship aka love. And this is what causes their self destruction. Logan will be forced to deal with genuine human love and how it heals his personal pain, and how his vulnerability, self denial, and love for another will heal another persons pain as well. This will most likely happen in relation to a woman who is close to being his equal in combat. They will form a synthesis completing each other and enabling each other to better fight the narrative’s villain.

And Nolan’s film will be similar in some regards. I predicated that his third Batman film would be ultimately about resurrection as soon as the credits for The Dark Knight began to roll. So you can imagine my excitement when the title for the film was finally released. Batman Begins is about Birth, The Dark Knight is about Death, and The Dark Knight Rises will be about Resurrection. That is a severe gloss on each film, they are more profound than that. But it’s basically the Christological cycle. Batman takes on the guilt and image of Gotham and working from inside that image becomes Gotham’s permanent savior. The Dark Knight Rises will not end with Batman putting down his cape and cowl but taking them on even more fully: he will take them on forever. They will become his permanent identity and Gotham will finally understand that he is their only hope for salvation.

Both of these films will be the best films that are made in 2012, and both will probably be snubbed by many major Awards committees. But what they will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt is that Nolan and Aronofsky are the best they are at what they do and what they do best is pretty nice. They will also finally and fully establish the super hero/comic book film as a serious film genre that opens up new possibilities for mise en scene and other aspects of filmmaking. There are worlds and worlds of characters and storylines just waiting for talented artists to adapt into great films. 2012 may well be the most important year for 21st century cinema.

Needless to say I’m pretty excited.