This is a continuation of notes on films I’ve watched this year. There’s ample opportunity with the strong recommendation to stay indoors. I went with a few mini-goals: ten films from Roger Ebert’s selection of great movies, five films by John Ford, film films with Henry Fonda, five Westerns, five films from 1939: Hollywood’s greatest year (there will be some overlap), five French films and five plague films (to make it a bigger challenge, zombie movies are exempt.)
Movie #31/ New Movie #18/ John Ford Film #2/ Henry Fonda Film #1/ “Greatest Year” Film #1/ 1930s Movie #3: Drums Along the Mohawk
I had seen one John Ford film earlier in the year with Steamboat ‘Round the Bend, but I do aim to get some more use out of the massive Ford at Fox box set I’ve had for years. This is probably one of the least-remembered Ford/ Fonda collaborations. It was just bad luck to have a star-studded drama about newlyweds dealing with pivotal moments in American history come out in the same year as Gone With the Wind. This is an okay drama about the revolutionary war, which gets better with the arrival of Edna May Oliver’s tough as nails widow, a curmudgeonly boss and ally. It’s John Ford’s third best film from an year with Young Mr Lincoln and Stagecoach, but it’s alright.
Movie #32/ New Film #19/ John Ford Film #3/ 1930s Movie #4: Doctor Bull
The first collaboration between John Ford and Will Rogers suffers from some technical limitations that make it difficult to recommend (it was an early sound film so the quality isn’t great even before considering the need for a more complex restoration.) This is the kind of story of one man standing up for old-fashioned small-town values that Capra would handle a lot better, although it is a decent showcase for one of the biggest movie stars of his day.
Movie #33/ 2010s Movie #3/ Plague Movie #1: Contagion
This medical procedural has gotten much more relevant lately, as the situation is no longer a weird hypothetical but similar to something we’re dealing with now. It’s exceptional at showing the potential effects of a new pandemic, intersected with smaller stories.
Movie #34/ New Movie #20/ 1970s Movie #5/ Plague Movie #2: The Crazies
George Romero’s non-zombie movie about a plague that makes people go crazy is certainly not subtle, but it’s interesting to see a contagion film where the main civilian characters get into fatal encounters with the army. This is a story where there are no bad guys, and everyone’s out for themselves. It shows the potential chaos of a crisis.
Movie #35/ 2000s Movie #2: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Extended Edition)
The Lord of the Rings trilogy continues to hold up. Peter Jackson & company avoid the problems of an overstuffed middle film, by setting up some of the most extraordinary battles in fantasy films, and showcasing Andy Serkis’ Gollum, a different type of monster: pathetic and tragic, but still dangerous.
Movie #36/ John Ford Film #4/ Henry Fonda Film #2/ “Greatest Year” Film #2/ 1930s Movie #5/ Criterion Edition #3: Young Mr Lincoln
Only three Criterion editions so far this year? I’ve been slacking. The Criterion Disc 1 is curiously in the Ford at Fox DVD set, but not Disc 2. This is an interesting period legal drama, illustrating some of the legends about young Abraham Lincoln. Henry Fonda doesn’t exactly disappear into the role, but it does fit his stoic but friendly demeanor.
Movie #37/ John Ford Film #5/ Henry Fonda Film #3/ 1940s Film #1/ Ebert Favorite #1/ Western #1: My Darling Clementine
Watching this, I’m almost convinced that no Western could be better. There are so many beats that are standard for westerns, but they work here because it’s so mythic, depicting events that will be etched in the nation’s memory. The rivalry between Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp and Victor Mature’s dying Doc Holiday does take some different turns, overshadowing the cattle thieves who are the ostensible villains, although they get their moments.
Movie #38/ New Movie #21/ 1980s Movie #1/ Plague Movie #3: Flesh & Blood
The final collaboration between Paul Verhoeven & Rutger Hauer certainly shows the horrors of medieval Europe, in a way Game of Thrones fans might appreciate. It’s pretty nasty, with betrayal, rape, and the plague, although there is substance to it, in the stories of survival at any cost during changing times.
Movie #39/ Ebert Favorite #2/ Henry Fonda Film #4/ 1940s Movie #2: The Lady Eve
It’s Preston Sturges at his wittiest, Henry Fonda as an occasionally goofball straight man, and Barbara Stanwyck as the con artist who falls for him. Very funny and very charming.
Movie #40/ New Film#22/ “Greatest Year” Film #3/ 1930s Movie #6: Gunga Din
Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr make for a fun trio in an adventure movie, although it seems kinda slow after all the pastiches of the era (Spielberg’s Indiana Jones, Joe Johnston’s Captain America.)
Movie #41/ New Film#23/ 1990s Movie #5: The Snapper
This is a solid dramedy by Stephen Frears about a large tight-knit Irish family that has to adjust when the oldest daughter is pregnant and won’t say who the father is. It’s elevated by little touches that highlight the family and the culture.
Movie #42/ 1970s Movie #6/ Plague Movie #4: Invasion of the Body Snatchers
With the Coronavirus, I can identify a lot more with the scenes where the main characters are worried about whether strangers will be able to pass on their condition. This is an effective invasion film, showing the arrival of something truly alien, and a slow building of paranoia.
Movie #43/ 1940s Movie #3/ Ebert Favorite #3: Laura
The noir classic of an investigator who falls in love with the woman whose murder he is trying to solve is elevated by Clifton Webb’s toxic broadcaster, and some classic twists that really change the story.
Movie #44/ Silent Movie #2/ Ebert Favorite #4: Phantom of the Opera (Kino Restoration)
The Kino restoration is fantastic, showcasing the fantastic set design, as well as innovative uses of tinting/ color. Lon Chaney’s Phantom remains one of the great silent villains; sympathetic but also quite mad.
Movie #45/ New Movie #24/ French Movie #1/ Silent Movie #3/ Ebert Favorite #5: The Fall of the House of Usher
This adaptation of several Edgar Allan Poe stories is short, but dreamlike. The sense of atmosphere and the visuals are extraordinary.
Movie #46/ “Greatest Year” Film #4/ 1930s Movie #7: Ninotchka
It might not be that surprising that a collaboration between Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder results in one of the wittiest scripts ever, a clash of cultures of the freedom and decadence of France versus the coldness and efficiency of the Soviet Union, as exemplified in a romance between Greta Garbo’s initially cold Soviet envoy and Melvin Douglas’s debonair playboy.
Movie #47/ New Film #25/ 1990s Movie #6/ Ebert Favorite #6/ Finnish Film #2/ Criterion Edition #4: The Match Factory Girl
Aki Kaurismäki tells a story of a melodramatic situation, with a character who is barely expressive. There’s a scene where she writes a letter, and seems to talk more and with greater emotion than in the rest of the film combined. The style is fantastic, and there are some really great touches that establish the reasons for her simple but extraordinary revenge.
Movie #48/ New Film #26/ 1950s Movie #2/ French Film #3/ Criterion Edition #5: The Lovers
Louis Malle’s French New Wave drama provides an unconventional resolution to a love triangle as a house-wife deals with a stiff husband insisting the blowhard boyfriend come for a visit. Then her car breaks down, and a third option emerges.
Movie #49/ New Film #27/ 2010s Movie #4: Byzantium
This is an odd vampire film by Neil Jordan. The concept of an immortal mother and daughter seemingly close in age has a lot of potential. The scenes largely cover their origins in Britain during the Napoleonic wars and the modern era, with nothing in between, so this is a film I didn’t like that much, but could imagine as a TV show. It unravels pretty easily if you pull some threads apart, and the final showdown seems artificial, but there’s some good to it.
Movie #50/ 1960s Movie #3/ Henry Fonda Film #5/ Western #2: Once Upon a Time in the West
Seeing it after binging a few Henry Fonda films does highlight the boldness and effectiveness of the decision to cast him as the villain. There is a greater maturity to this than in the Dollars trilogy, exploring some common western themes (the changing of an era, a gunslinger seeking revenge on behalf of a loved one) with Leone’s signature aesthetic and a tremendous score by Ennio Morricone.
Movie #51/ New Movie #28/ 1980s Movie #2/ Plague Movie #5: The Navigator A Medieval Odyssey
This is an interesting film in terms of perspective, as medieval villagers travel to a strange land: 1980s New Zealand. There’s some fun with the culture clash, decent stakes due to a kid’s prophecy, and some final twists that address some potential problems with the rules of the narrative.
Movie #52/ New Film #29/ John Ford Film #5/ Silent Movie #4/ Western #3: 3 Bad Men
This John Ford silent western is fun, as three likable scoundrels take it upon themselves to protect a young woman. But it’s also quite busy, dumping a lot of characters into a historically volatile time. Still, the payoff is fantastic with the final stand of the antiheroes.
Movie #53/ 2000s Film #3/ French Film #3: Amelie
A quirky and fun film about a strange woman who decides to be an agent of good after changing one person’s life for the better, elevated by all the details about the people in her life, the elaborateness of her plans to change everyone else, and her own struggles to accept the risks of seeking happiness for herself.
Movie #54/ 1930s Movie #8/ Greatest Year #5/ Western #4: Destry Ride Again
Jimmy Stewart is pretty good as a man with modern (at least during 1939) sensibilities trying to change a nightmarish section of the American west. The film doesn’t quite live up to the courage of its convictions, with a competent but generic conclusion. Marlene Dietrich is great as a flawed woman inspired to do good.
Movie #55/ New Film #30/ 1960s Movie #4/ Ebert Favorite #7/ French Film #4/ Criterion Edition #6: Battle of Algiers
Some parts of the film do benefit from an understanding of a generations old struggle, although the Criterion collection has a lot of extras if you’re unclear about which group was responsible for which attack. The neorealist take on the conflicts between Algerian rebels and the French military highlights the shortcomings of both sides in a relatively nuanced way. This film has been used as an instruction manual by some groups, although that’s more about their problems than the movie’s.
Movie #56/ New Movie #31/ 1960s Movie #5/ Criterion Edition #7: A Safe Place
This was in a box set of BBS films, showcasing a production company that was really important in the early days of the New Hollywood. It’s one of the lesser known films, although noteworthy for brief appearances by Orson Welles as a magician and Jack Nicholson as the type of jerk he plays so well in the 70s. It’s a convoluted narrative, jumping around in time, dealing with a main character who doesn’t have the tightest grip on reality. Despite the flaws, there is a tremendous understanding of character.
Movie #56/ 1950s Movie #3/ Ebert Favorite #8/ Western #5: Shane
This is a western with more green than I’m used to, taking a standard but certainly well-told story of a gunslinger getting involved in a clash between locals and ruthless criminals to another level with the relationship between the man and a boy he meets. Other great features include Jack Palanche’s man in the black hat, the main bad guy’s understandable motives, and the question of whether Alan Ladd’s generally likable Shane can fit in modern society. This is a film that understands that change comes with winners and losers, with the mastermind of the criminals trying to protect his way of life, albeit one that harmed others.
Movie #57/ New Movie #32/ 1990s Movie #4/ Ebert Favorite #7: Contact
This is almost a sci-fi procedural, taking us through first contact step by step, emphasizing the political drama (including seamless insertions of actual Bill Clinton footage), character focus and moral questions more than the stuff about aliens and terrorists. It’s slow at times, and a bit obvious in some of the arguments about faith VS science, but it goes in some interesting directions, and does have a believable vision of what it would be like to meet visitors from another planet.
Movie #58/ New Movie #33/ 1960s Movie #6/ Czech Film #9/ Criterion Edition #8: A Report on the Party and the Guests
I’ll admit I picked this as the shortest film in Criterion’s “Pearls of the Czech New Wave” box set. It’s a solid but brief fable of parkgoers encountering strange bureaucrats who invite them to a party, and slowly strip away their sense that they have rights worth protecting.
Movie #60/ New Film #34/ 1950s Movie #4/ Ebert Favorite #10/ French Film #5: A Man Escaped
This is an astounding minimalist film that reminds me a lot of The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film Bresson essentially remade but didn’t like. Usually, films where the style is supposed to be stripped of artifice are bleak and pessimistic, but this one takes it in a different direction. There is great power in the story of someone overcoming the terrible circumstances depicted so effectively and unambiguously. Yes, a man is a prisoner of the Nazis, with limited understandings of his environment, but that makes it all the more impressive when he determines a potential escape.
My French films did include a silent movie, and an Italian-Algerian production that was heavily in the French language and starred a French actor. At the moment, I could certainly accept the argument that Henry Fonda may have been John Ford’s best collaborator, although that’ll probably change after I see a few John Ford/ John Wayne films.