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TSPDT 1-18: L’Atalante (1934)

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I'm starting a new project that will take me at least through next year by going through the films I have not seen of They Shoot Pictures Don't They.  It is arguably the most comprehensive and varied "best ever" list assembled.  If I have seen a film on the list previously, I will write short thoughts followed by a full review of the unseen film alternating between the top and bottom of the list.  Today's film is number eighteen, Jean Vigo's L'Atalante.

1. Citizen Kane (Like) - The film so good it's given us an exhausting comparison to films not named Citizen Kane even outside cinema. Citizen Kane remains a propulsive steamroller of style while creating the eternally young myth of auteur perfection in Welles.

2. Vertigo (Like) - One of the benefits of going through this list will be filling in my Hitchcock blank spaces. Blissfully, Vertigo's alternately nightmarish and hypnotic presentation of desire, fear, and obsession haunts and thrills in equal measure.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Like) - Discussed at this link.

4. The Rules of the Game (Like) - Renoir is a filmmaker I came to gradually, needing to see the goofy Boudu Saved from Drowning and Grand Illusion before returning to The Rules of the Game. The second time through its gentle humanism and dense storytelling riveted me.

5. Tokyo Story (Like) - The only Ozu I've seen (and something I look forward to correcting). Tokyo Story is heartbreaking in its low-key poeticism, letting the relative peace of each composition settle in before the inevitable march of time and increasing callousness of the children send their elders off into the abyss.

6. The Godfather (Indifference) - Some films, like Citizen Kane, survive the way pop culture has integrated almost every scene into various works of art. Not The Godfather, where Brando's mushmouthed performance and dreadfully slow pace sapped my interest in watching the others for some time.

7. (Like) - In truth, there are better films exploring the space of imagination and memory than Fellini's. But that doesn't stop from being a lot of playful fun with a touch of melancholy and inventive camerawork to maneuver around tech limits at the time.

8. Sunrise (Like) - Thankfully, I rarely encounter people who resist watching films not made in the last ten years. If I ever do, I'd find a way to quickly put Murnau's Sunrise on. One of the most gorgeously shot films ever made with timeless romantic tension.

9. The Searchers (Indifference) - The beginning and end of The Searchers is ambiguous American filmmaking at its best. The middle is a plodding western I could do without.

10. Seven Samurai (Like) - Discussed at this link.

11. Apocalypse Now (Like) - Not the best of the Vietnam films, but the one that takes the most daring creative steps in putting us in the maddening cycle of violence that seems without end.

12. Singin' in the Rain (Like) - What a dazzler made from spare parts with its tongue in its cheek and its heart in the heavens. Brilliant physical comedy from Donald O'Connor, endless enthusiasm from Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly's carefree dance with the camera and rain, and hearing Jean Hagen's voice for the first time. Singin' in the Rain is truly magical.

13. Bicycle Thieves (Indifference) - File Italian neorealism under "not my thing". I'm open to that changing over the course of this list, but Bicycle Thieves left me cold rather than invested.

14. Battleship Potemkin (Indifference) - See above. I will not discount Eisenstein's importance on cinematic craft and theory, but this was a chore to get through outside the terrifying Odessa Steps sequence.

15. Taxi Driver (Like) - Not my favorite Scorsese but damn close. The bitter loneliness of Travis Bickle led to one of the most misapplied quotes in cinematic history. But the film itself with its hellish streets, subtle racism, and threat of misogynistic violence remains painfully relevant today.

16. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Like) - I didn't realize my copy of The Passion of Joan of Arc had an accompanying musical score because I was so spellbound by Joan's torment at the hands of men committing venial sins. Sunrise may be the better "gateway" picture into early cinema, but this is arguably the first fully transcendent spiritual experience film could provide.

17. Breathless (Like) - I have a love/meh relationship with Godard. Breathless glided over me the first time through. Then I felt the urge to watch it again. And again. And again. By my fourth or fifth time I realized Godard's effortless cool and metatextual vision hooked me deep.

18. L'Atalante -

L'Aatalante took aim and struck mightily against my Achilles Heel - sincerity.  Not sincerity stewed in melancholy (though there's a helping of that), nor sincerity with the easy gloss of sentimentality (dash of this as well), but sincerity through the weathered emotions of a man past his prime trudging himself up from his depression to help two lovers find their way.  Jean Vigo willed himself through his final days to make L'Atalante, and it's hard not to sense his feelings on his imminent death tied with the Jules (Michel Simon), the first mate who's seen it all but has little to call his own.

I could make the visual argument that Jules' story runs parallel to that of the just-married Juliette (Dita Parlo) and Jean (Jean Dasté) if not for one curious shot during L'Atalante's opening scenes. Jules leads the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) by the hand to prepare a warm reception for the newlyweds.  Despite Jules' dedication to the task at hand, Vigo halts the momentum to allow time for Jules to say a quick prayer at the church.  It's the first of many time Jules sneaks off to try and have a life of his own before his duties put him back where he's supposed to be.


Wilder: Mauvise Graine (aka Bad Seed) (1934)

In the 30's, in Paris, the playboy Henri Pasquier (Pierre Mingand) is supported by his father, Dr. Pasquier, with money and a brand new car. When Dr. Pasquier decides to suspend the allowance and sell the car to force Henri to get a job, Henri leaves home and associates to a gang of car thieves. Henri falls in love for the thief Jeannette (Danielle Darrieux), and when they are betrayed by their boss, they decide to move to Casablanca and straighten out their lives.

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Mauvise Graine is a light... something. It kind of dances between light comedy and light drama and left me without much more than light boredom. Most of the film concerns itself with the joyrides of the car thieves and their activities-- the gang even has a picnic down at the beach!-- moreso than heavy moralizing or emotions. Billy Wilder's desires as a screenwriter/director are typical of his early work, in that the light, playful tone bleeds through more of the heavy moments.

There are two main themes that Mauvise circles around, the first being, obviously, how cars function as an extension of masculinity. Henri is driven into a hypnotic obsession when his father takes his car from him, especially since he'd planned to use it to woo a pretty girl he met at the auto shop earlier in the day. He is on uneven ground until he becomes a car thief; now more powerful than a mere car owner, he can woo a female car thief. She's uses car owners as toys, but finds Henri the car thief to be irresistible and charming.

This leads directly into the other, more subtle theme about the exploitation of power by those who have it, and how that eventually destroys and injures when it deflates. Henri craves power as he sees himself above office work despite not having a job in his life. The criminal thrill that enraptures him when he finally sees the money floating in is almost silly; while his friend, Jean (Raymond Galle), makes a tearful goodbye to Henri's father, Henri was downstairs stealing a car that simply looked appealing to him.

Worse still, Henri decides after his first heist that he's underpaid and starts needling the head of the ring for more dough. This results in a battle of the wills, one which spills out into a fist fight and car chase. Henri can't handle authority, and his inability to deal with that is what eventually forces him to meet a downbeat ending.

All this nonsense about Henri doesn't tell you one important thing about him though: he's a deeply unappealing character. Headstrong and flirty with a leading man's smile, but so deeply broken by his obsession with power and his penis that the film never manages to get you to root for him. Ryan: do you think Wilder wanted us to hate privileged Henri so much? Or am I just turning into a bitter old hag?


The Lawless Frontier (1934)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Most Western films, those aimed and made at a base level, are intensely boring. I mean no offense by this, but when there's a genre that's popular solely for its tropes, it becomes saturated with a number of like minded film to the point of tedium. Go to your local videostore and count the number of hitmen/strippers with a heart of gold fighting the mob movies you can count. My guess is that you'll give up before the movies do.

But, Westerns. White hats, black hats, and maybe some Indians for good measure. While the Western genre says a lot about the American consciousness, most Western movies don't mean much outside of some gun play unless the attached director is named Ford, Mann, Leone, or Eastwood.

When a genre is sufficiently insular, its tropes go past cliched to become dependable. The hero of The Lawless Frontier is a good man seeking revenge on the man who killed his father. The squadron of bandidos who did it are bad. He defeats them, gets the girl, saves the day. Huzzah.


Danny’s Picks: Best Movies I Saw in ’10

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Danny COMMENTARYHey everyone. I'm kind of late to the 2010 farewell gala, and, frankly, I have my reasons, as silly as they may be. Andrew and Ryan do much more with modern films than I do, and even though I spent the last two weeks hunting down Oscar bait like crazy, very few of the films I saw in '10 left me with much impression.

Since current films aren't really my bag, I thought I'd get more mileage by sharing with you the top 25  films I saw for the first time in 2010. A few are from the year itself, a number are leftovers from 2009 that I'd missed, and some were just a handful of gems that I hadn't seen before. These are in alphabetical order, but all movies that I wholeheartedly recommend: