Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Top Ten Classics I Saw in 2014

And now in no particular order, here is a list of my favorite older films that I saw for the first time in 2014. 

The Pawnbroker (1964) - A great example of the work of Sidney Lumet, a gritty, socially conscious, and deeply personal portrait of an elderly Holocaust survivor who now runs a pawn shop in Harlem, and spends his days loathing everyone he interacts with.  Rod Steiger plays the title character with heartbreaking intensity.  Though it no longer comes across as raw and groundbreaking, the film still manages to deliver some significant punches.

Autumn Sonata (1978) - I adore the pairing of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman in Ingmar Bergman's exploration of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.  I've grown more appreciative of Bergman's smaller, intimate domestic dramas over time, and this one is spectacular in its use of music and the interplay of its troubled characters.  Though not Bergman's final screen credit, the role she plays here serves as the perfect capper to her legendary career.

Black Cat, White Cat (1998) - There's something so wonderfully life-affirming and delightful about the films of Emir Kusturica.  Initially I was a little put-off by the nutty characters and topsy-turvy magical-realist worldbuilding in this one, but as the film chugged along and all the pieces of the story started to come together, it completely won me over.  I can't think of anything else I watched this year that was so funny and sweet and that I'm so happy exists. 

The Quince Tree Sun (1991) - Also known as "Dream of Light."  I don't know what it is about the creation of art that I find so fascinating.  The bulk of this film is devoted to watching Antonio López García paint his quince tree and talk about his life and work.  It's very slow going, but also very engrossing, and ultimately rewarding to see the whole process from start to finish.  Even if García doesn't achieve what he wants, there's no better example of the journey being worth the trip.

Demon Lover Diary (1980) - The chronicle of amateur filmmaker Donald G. Jackson's attempts to make a horror movie, "The Demon Lover," and all the drama and chaos that resulted from its troubled production.  The documentary was pieced together from footage shot by one of the cameramen, who was eventually forced to flee the scene with other members of the crew.  It's a wonderful, bizarre cautionary tale that is as timely as ever in the DIY filmmaking age.

Miracle in Milan (1951) - It took me ages to track down a copy of Vittorio DeSica's whimsical fantasy tale about the poor inhabitants of a shantytown on the edge of Milan.  The film seems to have fallen out of favor since it contains some seriously non-PC and culture-specific elements.  However, I found that the low-budget effects sequences have some real charm to them, and the neo-realist social satire is still sharp and very funny.  It was certainly worth the effort to find. 

Boogie Nights (1997) - I first saw parts of this one as a teenager, but was too intimidated by the subject matter to appreciate the comedy or the humanity of Paul Thomas Anderson's characters.  Upon finally viewing the whole film, I could at last appreciate the magnificent ensemble lead by a resurgent Burt Reynolds, and the daring of a filmmaker who found so much to sympathize with and celebrate among those making their living on the seamier side of the tracks.   

Stroszek (1977) - The American immigrant experience has been the subject of many movies, but nobody's done it quite like Werner Herzog, who happily punctures the myth of the American Dream with a little help from Bruno S. as the title character.  With no shortage of absurd humor, Herzog and Bruno S. explore the heartland and all its promises of comfort and joy, before coming inexorably to the hard truth and the end of their adventures.

Le Beau Serge (1958) - Though it has an important place in the history of cinema as one of the first titles of the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol's "Le Beau Serge" still holds up beautifully on the strength of its narrative and performances.  I got completely caught up in the story of a pair of young men, one successful and one a deadbeat, who reconnect after a long separation, and discover that they have grown too far apart for their friendship to survive.

Feherlofia (1981) - The title translates to "Son of the White Mare," referring to the central character in Marcell Jankovics' beautiful animated fable based on Eastern European legends.  The art design of this feature is unlike anything I've ever seen, a fantastic mix of traditional forms with painstaking hand-drawn animation techniques.  It serves as a good reminder that great films come from everywhere, and that masterpieces like this fall into obscurity every day. 

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