31 December 2010

My Annual Top Ten List

My 2010 Top Ten Films

1. Winter's Bone
2. Black Swan
3. The White Ribbon
4. True Grit
5. Vincere
6. The American
7. The Ghost Writer
8. Shutter Island
9. A Prophet
10. The Town
Honorable Mention: The Fighter, Howl, The Social Network and Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone. Runners Up: Natalie Portman (Black Swan),  Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Vincere) and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit).
Best Actor: James Franco (Howl) Runners Up: Leonardo DiCaprio (Shutter Island) Jeff Bridges (True Grit) and Colin Firth (King's Speech).
Best Supporting Actress: Mila Kunis (Black Swan)
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale (The Fighter)

29 December 2010

Quintuplets, Vengeance, Stuttering, Black Shirts & Murder -- Catching Up With Some of the Films I've Seen Lately

I've recently enjoyed that most treasured of all interludes, time off. Absent travel, the two best ways to occupy such time is with family or films. I've been lucky enough to do both. Details of conversations with nephews, children or others are not likely to interest the general reader, so I'll report instead on some of the films I've seen of late.

Holy Multiple Births! or The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944). These past three years I've listed this film from Preston Sturges as one of my favorite Christmas movies. Indeed I watch it almost every December. While I'm beginning to re-think Miracle as a Holiday flick, I am hardening my position that it is joy to behold. The real miracle, of course, is that Sturges slipped this by the censors who, in days of yore, cared not for pregnancy, pre-marital sex or women going unpunished for naughty behavior. The prudes! This is not Andy Hardy's small town USA. For one thing some of the characters are, well, real characters. No better example than the father of the bride, Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest). He's a kick, which is appropriate to say because he's constantly trying to kick one of his daughter's in the fanny and in turn landing on his own. The older daughter Trudy is the blinkered, dizzy but lovable blonde who gets, "in a family way" under circumstances that only Sturges could create. Diana Lynn is an underrated delight as the wise cracking and wise beyond her years 14 year-old kid sister. The hapless wonder in the story is the lovelorn Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) who'll go to any lengths for his beloved Trudy. Bumbling, stumbling and fumbling all the way, Norval is just a sweetie pie that anyone would root for. Like the other half dozen or so classics Sturges made in a period of under ten years (with nary a thing before or after to boast of) Miracle is witty, silly, improbable and utterly delightful. So maybe while it's not a true Christmas film, it is a true wonder.

The Coen Brothers Go West or True Grit. I think it's safe to assert that, at least in this writer's humble opinion, the title of best working American director is a tie between Joel and Ethan Coen, who conveniently are brothers and work together. In recent years they've offered No Country for Old Men (2007), A Serious Man (2009) and now True Grit. Three films from radically different genres (and if you can figure out the genres of the former two, more power to ya). True Grit is a clearly a western. It's somewhat of a surprise that the Coens would make such a conventional film. It's no surprise that these fine craftsmen would do such a bang up job. This is not a re-make of the 1969 film of the same name which starred John Wayne. It is instead a more faithful telling of the novel of the same name penned by Charles Portis.  (As per custom, the Coens did their own adapting.) I'm not in a position to compare the two films as I never bothered with the first. Still, its impossible to imagine that John Wayne did more with the role of Rooster Cogburn than did Jeff Bridges. I've seen enough of Wayne to state with confidence that he couldn't have matched Bridges' spitting, muttering, cussing and quite obviously stinky interpretation of the lawman. Bridges was a positive wonder to watch. He was clearly having a rollicking good time in the role and inviting us to enjoy the journey with him. Meanwhile newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, a mere 13 years old during filming, is amazing as Mattie Ross. The phrase, she more than held her own, springs immediately to mind. Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper are also along for the ride and contribute mightily to it. But it is the Coens who should earn the most encomiums. They re-created the proverbial Old West as well if not better than has been done before. If ever a film felt like it existed in the time period and place it depicted, this one did.

How Stuttering Can Be a Royal Pain or The King's Speech. They might as well hand the Best Actor Academy Award to Colin Forth now and dispense with the nominations. I'm not suggesting that he should win or for that matter that he shouldn't, just that he will. He was considered an unofficial runner up to the aforementioned Mr. Bridges last year and he gives a wonderful performance in a prestige film this year. The King's Speech is a classy production all the way. Then again so are those Masterpiece Theater production that PBS shows on Sunday nights. This film had all the emotional heft of one of those stagey-looking productions. One of the problems being the focus on a man's (yes, I know, he was the bloody King of England) speech impediment. For crying out loud this King assumed the throne when his brother abdicated to marry an American divorcée. Then there was the little business of World War II breaking out during his reign. Both these events are treated as sidebars in the story of the stubborn prince-cum-king learning to appreciate and profit from his unconventional tutor (Geoffrey Rush). The King's Speech looked damn nice and flowed along quite well with Firth's performance a real highlight.  But I could have seen the same quality on PBS and saved the $10.

The Two Mrs. Mussolinis or Vincere (2009). Earlier this year this wonderful film from Italy snuck into a few theaters across America and then snuck right back out. Some of us were lucky enough to catch it. Happily it's now available on DVD and can be watched as part of Netflix's Instant program. Do yourself a favor and see it. It is the story of Ida Dasler who was almost certainly a mistress of Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini (before he assumed power) and claimed to be his first wife and mother to his son. Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Dasler gives one of those performances covering many years in the life of a historical figure that leaves one in awe (think Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (2007)). She is lusty, tempestuous, beautiful and utterly mad. We in turn feel much of what she's going through. The first half of the film follows her with Mussolini as he rises from newspaper editor to Il Duce. It is rich, panoramic and blends historical footage with red hot sex and passions of all variety. Then as Mussolini must protect his legitimate relationship and secure his place in history, Ida is frozen from his life. As this is her story, we see no more of him (except in some more archival scenes) and the story slows considerably. It is now about a woman's hopeless efforts to claim the man she loves for her very own. Does she go mad or is this alleged insanity a means of "getting her out of the way?" In either case the focus has changed and some viewers have evidently felt cheated. But it is honest film making and still makes for compelling viewing. If Mezzogiorno isn't enough to hold your attention you weren't paying attention in the first place.

How to Murder Your Mistress or Match Point (2005). I've been on a Woody Allen kick for over a month that shows no signs of abating. This was my third viewing of Match Point and it is a classic example of a film that gets ever so much better with each viewing. The little details of "what happens" increasingly seem merely to serve the bigger questions the film asks and the manner in which the story is told. The idea of killing an inconvenient mistress was not new to Allen who'd explored it in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). However, Match Point does not presume to explore moral questions. We are simply watching a cold calculating young man, Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who's principally employed charm and grace to attain all of life's luxuries. If a murder is needed to protect all he's accumulated, so be it. He's results-oriented. Match Point is one of the many Allen films to ask serious questions about its characters and thus of its audience. It also ponders the imponderable role of luck in one's life, another occasional Allen theme. On the surface Match Point is a simple, elegant film about a man's rise and his use of the ultimate crime in the service of his success. But upon repeat viewings we see more subtlety in Chris and how he maneuvers. We also see, in sharper focus, the banality of his wife and her very well-to-do family and infuriating innocence and naiveté of his lover, (Scarlett Johansson). It's impossible to conceive a list of top ten Allen films which omits it.

24 December 2010

A Merry Christmas From Streams of Unconsciousness!

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew.  "Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!" - From 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens.

21 December 2010

Perfection and Sanity are Boring, Black Swan is Not

Tonight the University of Connecticut women's basketball team set a new record for consecutive wins. I find such perfection boring. Americans are supposed to love underdogs but at least in the world of sports, supposedly flawless teams and players are revered. When one commits an error they are said to be "only human." Humans, in all their imperfection are endlessly fascinating and entertaining. Winning every damn time is ho hum.

Sanity, while functional, is also quite tedious. The sober and sensible make for good accountants but not terribly interesting subjects of art. It is when the mind veers of course that the fun begins.

All of this brings me to Black Swan the new film from director Darren Aronofsky. The story centers around a ballet dancer, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) tapped for the lead in a new production of Swan Lake. I am going to go ahead and say that in this film viewers come to expect the unexpected and are never disappointed.

Nina is one of the best kind of film characters, the totally obsessed. Many an outstanding movie has featured a totally obsessed lead who either becomes blind to realities other than their pursuit or begins to twist and turn that pursuit to fit their twisting and turning minds. Of course ballet is one of those uber competitive fields that requires a stubborn single mindedness. Nina has tunnel vision and it is all in the direction of her art at which she hopes to be...perfect.

Many of us seek various forms of perfection. In 12 step programs we are taught to eschew such notions realizing that happiness lies in constant progress. Nina could have used a support group, but then, when we should have found the time?

So is Nina not sane? What a loaded question and anyway its the wrong one to ask. The Black Swan can have audiences asking all sorts of questions and trying to figure out this that and the other. Trust me, its the wrong approach. Better to just go for the ride. If anything comes to you along the way, why that's a bonus.

I thought, and I'll have legions disagree with this, I know, Portman underplayed the role. It was the right choice too. Nina is not a terribly interesting person with the major exception, of course, of her inner life that is the real soul of the story. What exactly is going on in Nina's mind and why is something we can wrestle with, but it could drive us to the same mental state as she's in.

Nina has creepy relationship with her stage mom (Barbara Hershey) with whom she shares an apartment and a love/hate/sister/loathing/coaching relationship. French actor Vincent Cassel plays the director who she classifies as "brilliant." He may well be but he also introduces a heavy dose of sexuality to his relationships with lead dancers. Winona Ryder plays Beth who has outlived her usefulness as either a dancer or lover.

But the story's real wild card is Lily (Mila Kunis). What is she exactly? A rival? A pal? A lover? An alternate? A doppelganger? She's infinitely more interesting than Nina, at least outwardly. At least we think so. As for her inner life...well, we've got enough to sort out Nina.

Black Swan is a confusing movie if you try to make sense of it. It would require dicing and mincing and dissecting something that flows. Maybe you can analyze samples. I didn't always know whether what we were seeing was real or Nina's imagination or a dream or a vision. I eventually decided not to worry about it.

I keep coming back to this point about not over analyzing the film, or for that matter analyzing it all. With 24 hour news and sports channels, Americans have gotten used to having every bit of minutia parsed for their benefit. Many people of us choose to join in the fun. So we end up looking at every single tree and missing the beauty of the forest. So what I'm saying is that Black Swan is beautiful

It's beautiful for all its visceral imagery. The blood, the toe nails, the scratches, the distorted feet and everything else about it that explores the messy parts of the body warping business that is ballet and the mind warping world of the obsessed.

Have I not adequately addressed what it's about? How about this: the insanity of seeking perfection.

20 December 2010

It's A Wonderful Film, Thoughts on a Holiday Classic

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is a seasonal favorite principally for its sentimental message about the importance of appreciating the life you have. But is great -- I mean truly great -- cinema as repeat viewings reveal. Here are some of my observations from my most recent screening.

We all see movies through are own prisms. I increasingly see IAWL as an anti-capitalist diatribe and for that I love it. Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) --an overweight Dick Cheney -- seeks to gobble up everything is his path and damn the consequences to the hoi polloi.  He can be likened to a voracious monster devouring obstructions in the relentless drive to be fed. Potter consumes money in all its forms. In Potter's world there is no room for sentiment. He is the ultimate man of business. As George Bailey (James Stewart) says to him: "Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be." Potter is Wal-Mart....

To save George and counter the machinations of Potter it requires the efforts of Clarence (Henry Travers). As Clarence is an angel what we have here is a case of divine intervention. There exists a powerful belief in angels in many religions and cultures, even among those who do not accept the notion of a sole deity. They serve as a link to another world while providing protection and guidance. Part of the charm of IAWL is that Clarence is no winged cherub. Instead he is a bumbling older chap who totes about a copy of Tom Sawyer. I've never known anyone who has had a moment's hesitation in accepting Clarence as an angel. Our imaginations are perfectly open to this man being a representative of heaven. I can't help but think that somehow this speaks well of us....

My goodness Stewart and Barrymore give boffo performances. Stewart could have played George Bailey as an everyman and audiences would have been perfectly happy. But George is a very well-defined character. He is at once personally ambitious and deeply committed to his community to the point of being self sacrificing. He is, in short, torn. George longs to travel the globe and build. But he is an integral part of a town that he loves as it loves him. Stewart is often remembered for featuring in an extraordinary array of classic films. Less remembered is that he was so much a part of what made these films indelible through his powerful acting. This is evident in IAWL where he captures the incredible dichotomy of George's inner turmoil. It is an emotional and enthralling performance. Seemingly less complicated is the role of Potter, but another actor could have mucked it up by turning him into a cartoon character. This is Barrymore and he manages to make Potter evil incarnate and still frighteningly real. Every syllable, every slight head movement is given weight and adds to the depth of his performance. Potter, as played by Barrymore, is all the more horrible because he is flesh and blood....

You can pick up a lot of early/mid 20th century history from IAWL. The Roaring Twenties, the Depression, the war boom, scrap drives, the Charleston, bank runs, bank closures to name but a few references. There is also a very rich slice of Americana. This is a very American film, as were most of Capra's movies from the mid 1930s on. It is rich in detail of American life and also the big issues. There is a juxtaposition of evil and good, with the good personified by honest working men, more than willing to give the next guy a hand....

IAWL has one of the greater supporting casts you'll ever hope to meet. Ward Bond (who was in more classic Hollywood films then anyone I can name) along with Frank Faylen formed the original Bert and Ernie. H.B. Warner was Mr. Gower and did a lot with a small but key role. Thomas Mitchell was Uncle Billy and confirmed his place -- in my humble opinion -- as the greatest supporting actor of his time. Gloria Grahame, Beulah Bondi, the aforementioned Travers, Sheldon Leonard and the ubiquitous Charles Lane featured....

Yes I've thus far excluded mention of Donna Reed. At the risk of sowing marital discord in my own humble home I'll say that among other things, in IAWL she was a real dish. Reed did not have an a great career in film but prospered mightily on TV. She was, to be honest, a somewhat limited actress. However she was a perfect Mary Bailey. We did not need broad strokes from her. The story called for Mary to be a loving wife who'd wanted George for a husband since childhood. Reed's career started just as the great female roles were becoming a thing of the past. Frankly I doubt she could have handled them. But she was letter perfect for the TV show that bore her name. In other words she was the ideal actress to play the post war American housewife. But I close by returning to the original comment in this paragraph because I can't get it out of my mind -- she was a real dish....

12 December 2010

For the Third Year in Succession I Offer 12 Films for Your 12 Days of Christmas

Tis' the season for Holiday themed films. Here are twelve of my favorites. You'll note that some are not strictly speaking Christmas movies. Indeed the most revered of all, It's A Wonderful Life, begins and ends on Christmas but most of it takes place at other times of the year. That's consistent with many of the movies on my list, if they aren't plain and simple Christmas movies they at least end during the holiday. That's one reason I don't include the delightful Bachelor Mother (1939) starring Ginger Rogers. It begins in the Christmas season but the rest of the movie is after the holiday. It thus doesn't have the holiday feel to it. So although in point of fact there's not a lot of Christmas in The Man Who Came to Dinner, for example, it's a season staple and makes my list as it ends on December 25. Enough preamble, here are movies to make your holiday all the brighter.

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) An obvious choice. I never tire of great films and this is one of the best of all time, Christmas related or otherwise. Jimmy Stewart is at his best as we all know but so is Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore and the rest of director Frank Capra's great cast. This is a movie that has stayed with me all my life as a reminder to be forever thankful of what I do have and not to under estimate the role each of us plays in one another's lives. Some people think its sappy and sentimental. Yeah, well its well done sap and sentiment.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) You're not going to get any more Christmasy than this classic. My fave, Barbara Stanwyck, stars as a magazine writer who's boss, an avuncular Sydney Greenstreet, has her host a war hero in the kind of rustic traditional Xmas she extols in her columns. Problem is that Stanwyck's character is a big faker and has to go through all manner of shenanigans to pull the wool over everyone's eyes including the heroic sailor, the handsome and humble Dennis Morgan. You'll not find a warmer, fuzzier, cozier Christmas film. It's funny too.

Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) One of the great film's from Preston Sturges' brief but spectacular run of classics. It's another film that begins and ends at Christmas. The usual Sturges' troupe is on hand led by William Demarest as Constable Kockenlocker (great name). Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken co-star. It's a typically frenetic and witty Sturges comedy. Slipping this one by the censors was the true miracle of Morgan's Creek.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) I've never seen anyone else in the role so I'm really not qualified to say but I can't imagine anyone better suited than Monty Wooley to play Sheridan Whiteside. What ego, what pomposity, what fun. Whiteside is of course the world famous columnist of print and radio whose fall down wet steps make him the unwelcome house guest in a small town home. Along for the fun are Bette Davis as his erstwhile assistant, the delicious Ann Sheridan and Jimmy Durante essentially playing themselves.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) Very little of the holiday season is present in this Ernst Lubitsch classic, but it ends on Christmas Eve. The director's famous "touch" is evident in this story of two store clerks who anonymously fall in love as pen pals. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star but Frank Morgan as the store owner is a scene stealer. It's one of the better done love stories of all time.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Stay the hell away from the newer and far inferior version. This original stars Edmund Gwen as Santa Claus. Is he really Saint Nicholas? So it would seem. He'll at least have you believing he's the best cinematic Santa of all time.

Home Alone (1990) The mark of a really good comedy is that it remains funny with each viewing. This is the best of the many films writer, director, producer John Hughes cranked out in the 80s and 90s. Obviously star Macaulay Caulkin had a lot to do with the film's surprising success. He plays an eight year old left behind when the family jets off to France for Christmas (hey, that's what we're about to do!). Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, as the two burgulars he terrorizes, help with the mirth-making. There's also a touching element to the story. Not to be forgotten is John Candy's cameo -- polka, polka, polka!

Home Alone 2 (1992) A sequel that's almost as good as the original! Another holiday miracle. Caulkin, his family and Pesci and Stern are back but this time the setting is New York and the cameo is provided by our old friend Bracken. The laughs continue and so too does the holiday message.
The Santa Clause (1994) By all means pass on all the dreadful sequels to this Tim Allen vehicle. Ahh but the original is a delight with an interesting take on the whole Santa, elves and reindeer business. I haven't seen Allen in much I've liked but he comes through here in the story of an ordinary bloke who falls into the role of being the real Saint Nick. Some people think he's loony but he's got a surprise for them.

Scrooge (1951) For my money (albeit there's not a lot of it) Alastair Sim is the best Ebeneezer Scrooge in film history. Its not surprising then that this is the best cinematic version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It is very dark when it needs to be and brightens up nicely when its supposed to. Along with It's A Wonderful Life, this is the ultimate secular holiday story, with its story of redemption and hope.

A Christmas Carol (1984) This was actually a made for TV movie but I don't see why that should exclude it. George C. Scott is Scrooge and though no Sim he's damn good. While the previously mentioned film makes a strong case for a black and white telling of the story, this film makes a compelling argument for a color version. This is a wonderful film directed by Clive Donner.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Something for the kiddies that Mom and Dad can enjoy. The Muppet's appeal to all ages, of course, and so does Michael Caine as Scrooge. From what I remember of the Muppet films from when my children were wee ones this is the best of the lot. It's a musical with tunes that will dance in your head along with visions of sugar plums.

I'd also like to draw your attention to a few other Yule related flicks to help get you into the spirit of the season. They are: Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)Elf (2003)Holiday Affair (1949)A Christmas Story (1983) and The Bishop's Wife (1947). I have also posted a classic Christmas cartoon featuring Pluto for your viewing enjoyment.

Also for your consideration are these shorter Christmas tales: A Charlie Brown Christmas (never ever gets old and its got a great message); How the Grinch Stole Christmas (not the poxy film version, you've got to have Karloff!); Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (a staple of my childhood); the many Simpson's Christmas episodes available on DVD, the Twilight Zone's Night of the Meek (stars Art Carney); and the brand new A Colbert Christmas The Greatest Gift of All! (irreverent holiday fun).

10 December 2010

Here's to You Mrs. Robinson and Mr. Nichols and Mr. Hoffman and to The Graduate in General

Ben Braddock is every young man who has suddenly stopped along the way to a contented and successful life and asked: "what am I doing? And why?"

There are many individuals blessed with great talent and ambition who sail through school, land a dream job and find the perfect mate. They even sometimes live, "happily ever after." Ho hum. These people often lack vision beyond what they can accomplish towards their careers. They're also generally absent self awareness and so are naturally less aware of others. They disgust me.

Director Mike Nicholas' film, The Graduate (1967) is about a young man (Dustin Hoffman) who has the courage to ask what its all about. Welcome to angst.

Funny thing about stopping to sort out your life, other people don't necessarily appreciate it or even understand what the hell you're doing. The Graduate is a film that captures this quite well.

It shouldn't be altogether surprising that a young man in such a state might fall into a loveless affair with an older woman. Directionless people often end up in strange places. Similarly, meeting a fetching young woman with whom he gets along could cause an over reaction and an irrational, albeit romantic, notion to pursue said female to the ends of the Earth. Or at least to Berkeley. Now consider for a moment that the new found love is the daughter of the older woman. Such a story!

Based on the novel of the same name by Charles Webb with a screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, The Graduate's story is not an easy one to tell cinematically. It is rich fodder for the overly melodramatic or cliched romantic comedy. But this is an utterly irresistible film even 43 years after its release when it was downright ground breaking. Nicholas use of a score by Simon and Garfunkel is one of cinema's greatest ever pairings of pop music and film. But what becomes more evident with each viewing is how perfectly paced a film The Graduate is. It positively flies along when the story calls for it and takes its sweet time when that's the order of the day. In that respect it mirrors life. We've all had hours, days weeks and years that fly by leaving only the flimsiest of memories. While conversely experiencing hours, minutes and seconds that go in very slow motion and are never to be forgotten. The Graduate is a film that respects this.

Nicholas was also more clever by half than even the best in his field in creating this classic. Symbolism is everywhere such as Ben behind glass in key moments. The perfectly executed transitional montages were revelatory in 1967 and remain fresh today.

Like the best of European cinema The Graduate is not overly reliant on dialogue. We neither need nor want the "big speech" moments that mar so many movies and give them an unreal quality. Indeed it is the very realness of what The Graduate is communicating in its refreshingly vibrant way that makes it hold up.

There is the final beauty of The Graduate's ending with the wedding kidnapping which steers wildly away from reality until slumping us right back into it as the couple sit in the back of the bus headed who knows where. For this is so often the final verdict of our mad impulses and risks, we're still often left wondering where we're going.

Everything had to fit in order for The Graduate to achieve its lasting success. This included the unforgettable creation of the original MILF, that ultimate middle aged seductress, Mrs. Robinson by Anne Bancroft. That she didn't earn an Oscar for her performance, is further advance that the Academy Awards are a long running joke. Dustin Hoffman became an instant star upon the film's release. IMDb will tell you all you need to know about who was considered for the role, none of them could have held the proverbial candle to what Hoffman did.

What Hoffman did was perfectly capture that sad, lonely individual rebellion of the man who senses that too much isn't enough and in fact isn't anything at all. He stops his life cold to ask the greatest question a person can ponder: why? This does not make him gallant or pretty, or even particularly smart. Observing Ben's behavior as a rude, sullen clumsy and ungrateful git proves that. But it does make him a seminal cinematic figure in a film that has earned its own importance.

The Graduate asks the big questions, and leaves the audience to answer. How about that?

(For more on The Graduate see the wonderful book, Pictures at A Revolution, Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris.)

06 December 2010

500 Days of Cider Passion Memories Actually -- Thoughts on Recent Films I've Watched

Much to the delight of scores of readers I've been largely absent from film blogging of late. As punishment to those of you who've particularly enjoyed the scarcity of my posts, I now present some thoughts on but a few of the movies I've enjoyed (or sat through, as the case may be) recently.

Love Actually (2003). I nestled on the sofa between my two daughters yesterday to watch this light romantic comedy. An hour earlier I had enjoyed some freshly baked sugar cookies. Love Actually is the cinematic equivalent of sugar cookies. It's a hard film to resist what with a cast that includes Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson and Kiera Knightley to name but a few. It's set in London in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Viewers get to follow a series of romances among members of the upper middle and just plain old upper class. There is nothing the least bit unpredictable or interesting about any of the characters or their fates. Their stories, by the way, are always accompanied by the perfect song or the strains of an orchestra -- just like in real life! (It was eerie to watch Neeson play a man whose wife has just died considering the very fate befell him a few years later). Grant as the the British prime minister is, for the lack of a better word, silly. When he publicly scolds the US president (Billy Bob Thornton) at a joining press conference and to wild applause, the shark has been jumped with a triple summersault. Love, of course, prevails in all the stories, giving a maximum awww effect to audiences. All told this is a Hallmark card without so much as a personal signature. Perfectly worded and ultimately hollow. I preferred the sugar cookies. At least I could dunk them in my tea.

Stardust Memories (1980). One of the best things about this Woody Allen film is that it really annoyed those film critics with outsized egos. Take for example the winner of the  lifetime achievement in pretentious film criticism, Pauline Kael. Critics felt, as did many civilian film goers, that Allen's fans were being singled out for ridicule in this supposedly autobiographical film. Surely skin so thin must be virtually translucent! Film fans should not be considered off limits for satire. Especially from a director who considers himself fair game. Stardust Memories is clearly a rip off of Fellini's 8 1/2 and Allen would no doubt be the first to admit it. It is the story of a writer/actor/director juggling the vagaries of fame and romances while attending a retrospective of his own work. Stardust Memories is by turns hilarious and a rich commentary on the perils of celebrity. Its poor notices stained the film's reputation but it is a delight for Allen fans and the general public, if only they give it a whirl.

Cider House Rules (1999). I recently began teaching an ESL class on learning English through modern films. The first movie we watched was not of my selection. CHR was a much praised film upon its release garnering seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture. It is based on a wonderful novel of the same name by John Irving and did earn a best adapted screenplay win as well as statuette for Michael Caine as Best Supporting Actor. I make the following comments about the movie, which I'd not seen since it's first run, knowing full well that its director Lasse Hallstrom is a native of Sweden. CHR is a very American movie. It's perfectly charming with a touch of comedy, romance and social messages of great importance. In addition to Caine the cast includes Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo and Jane Alexander. In many respects it is a "perfect" film because there's nothing much about it to cause complaint. But that's largely because it takes no chances. Set in New England there are abundant opportunities to view the scenery and make it part of the film. The camera, sadly, never lingers. Though over two hours, CHR flies by. It never contemplates it moves from one scene to the next overwhelming us with smart dialogue. John Ford is considered the most American of directors yet his style could be distinctly European, limiting talking whenever possible and utilizing nature at every turn. He'd have done wonders with this story. Hallstrom made a lovely movie that has been pleasing audiences for over a decade. It could have been so much more.

500 Days of Summer (2009). Not often, but sometimes, a new movie comes along that however briefly restores my faith in the modern American film. Such was the case last year when 500 days hit screens. This was the second movie I showed to my class (chock full of current idioms, a language teacher's delight). It's a film that turns the whole notion of romantic comedy on its head. The comedy is there but the cool thing is it all fits with the story. There are no superfluous characters tacked on for easy laughs. There are no cheap and easy sex or flatulence jokes. Also it is refreshing -- and this is no spoiler because we know it from the get go -- that this is not going to be another they-lived-happily-ever-after story. Been there done that to the nth degree. The situations, the feelings, the emotions all feel so real for any of us who have fallen in love and thought, stupidly, that it would last. (Okay sometimes it does but usually there is trial and error required). Joseph Gordon Leavitt as the lead character proves capable of carrying a film. It is through him that we can experience the incredible ride of falling head over heals then landing on our heads. My students loved it despite their limitations with English. It tells a universal story of heartbreak with verve and courage. See here Hollywood, you released this film and proved that you can be real with audiences and let them have fun in the bargain. More please.

The Passion of Anna (1969). As my good friend Monty Python would say: and now for something completely different. I've been bingeing on Bergman lately (Ingmar). Until recently I'd only ever seen five of his films (loved four of them). I've tripled that total in the past six weeks and loved most of what I've seen, liking the rest. The Passion of Anna was the latest and its in the loved category. It's a mark of the great Swede's genius that he could make such seemingly dark films probing the depths of the weightiest issues humankind faces and create entertainment out of it. There is not an ounce of cheap sentiment. There is no snappy dialogue, no trivialities, no hokey music. The films are beautifully shot and stripped down to the bare essence of the story. Revealing deep truths and providing compelling character studies. POA is a study of four characters living on an island. There are their interactions. Their emotional turmoil. This being Bergman there is silence, God's of course. And there are faces which Bergman used to great effect in telling his stories. POA is as mysterious and unknowable as questions about life itself. And just as wonderful.

Is that all? Hardly. But this was meant to be a sample anyway. Despite your repeated requests to the contrary, I'll try not to be such a stranger. New job and all, you understand. I now leave you with these two non film items.

From the spam folder. About once a week I go to the trouble of emptying the spam folder in my email account. On rare occasions I will trouble to actually read some of the aforesaid garbage just for giggles. I got a real doozy yesterday from a Robert Hill, the subject line was promising,  International Monetary Fund Agency. I present the entire message here verbatim: "Mr. Lonato Paul told us that you are dead, is it truth or not?" I was tempted to reply as follows: "Sadly the reports of my demise are quite true. I write to you from the afterlife where we still have email access. Best wishes!" I thought better of this plan. Lo and behold later in the day Mr. Hill fired off the same missive. I don't know who this Lonato Paul is, but his information is the bunk. At this writing I'm still among the living and plan to remain so as long as humanly possible.

Overheard on the subway. This was the beginning of a cell phone conversation: "Bad news from Wachovia in Sacramento. The first and third floor urinals did not pass inspection." One can only imagine the impact this information will have on the stock market, now that it has "leaked."

17 November 2010

God, Faith, Morality and Right vs. Wrong, The Heavy Fare Served by Allen and Bergman in Two of Their Greatest Films

Wood chipper accident kills tree trimmer
Henry K. Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
(11-16) 14:41 PST CONCORD -- A tree trimmer was killed in a freak accident in Concord when a rope to which he was attached became entangled in a wood chipper, authorities said Tuesday.
Antonio Barajas, 33, of Concord suffered a fatal head injury Monday when he was slammed against a gate of the chipper as it was operating on Snowberry Court, near Cowell and Ygnacio Valley roads, said Krisann Chazarik, spokeswoman for Cal/OSHA.
The agency is investigating the accident, which happened at 1:30 p.m.
Barajas was wearing a climbing rope, which became caught in tree limbs that were being fed into the chipper, Chazarik said. He did not actually end up in the machine, authorities said.
Barajas was a seven-year employee of Traverso Tree Service of Walnut Creek. Five other workers were trimming trees, but none saw the accident, said Alyce Traverso, the company's office manager and wife of the owner.
"They just heard the chipper make a whir sound," Traverso said.
Barajas leaves behind a wife and their 8-month-old son, she said.

The very nature of existence and the real or imagined presence of God in our lives. The fundamental difference between right and wrong.  Great stuff for heated debate, philosophical musings or lengthy discussion. But can you make a film of it?

Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen did, and quite successfully at that.

Though they dared to tackle these issues on numerous occasions (Allen is still at it) I think their best works in this regard are Bergman's Winter Light (1963) and Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).

They are in some respects a cinematic odd couple. Allen is a New York born Jew and Bergman (he died in 2007) a Swedish born Lutheran. While both were college dropouts, Bergman started his professional career in the theater while Allen was initially a comic. Yet both started directing at a young age, though Allen's earlier films were strictly comedy and many of his later ones have either been comedies or heavily laced with humor.

Of course, Bergman was a huge influence on Allen who has never hidden his admiration for the great Swede. Indeed in his film Manhattan (1979) Allen's character Isaac Davis claims that Bergman is the only true genius in film. It is not then surprising that Allen has tackled the central issues of human existence in many of his movies ala Bergman.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors we are introduced to a pillar of society, a renowned opthamologist who is being honored at a swanky dinner for his charitable fundraising efforts. Martin Landau as Judah Rosenthal is as genial, affable and respectable man as you'd ever want to meet. But he's also got a neurotic mistress (Angelica Huston) who is threatening to expose their affair. Judah's shady brother (Jerry Orbach) offers a solution -- having her "taken care of." Can Judah even contemplate such an option? To save his marriage and career he sure can and does.

To what extremes will an otherwise moral man go to protect himself? It is in the contemplation of okaying the deed and in living with the consequences, that Judah struggles mightily with his conscience. Though raised in a Jewish home, he is no longer a believer. Yet he seeks counsel from a patient who is a rabbi (Sam Waterson) and their discussion includes the question of whether we can have a moral compass without a belief in God. This element is added: Judah well remembers his father's admonition that "the eyes of God are watching us always" a powerful memory, particularly for an opthamologist. And oh by the way, the rabbi/patient, this truly moral man, is slowly going blind.

Allen's character is an unsuccessful documentary film maker who is saddled with making a film about his super successful brother in law, a God like TV producer (Alan Alda). He'd rather be doing a film on an aged philosopher who shares great insight into the nature of man including his relationship with, who else, God.

Questions of right and wrong, good and evil, faith and secularism permeate Crimes and Misdemeanors, a heavily layered film which reveals more of itself with each viewing. Lesser characters and events take on greater meaning as one studies the film closely and begins to realize that there are are no lesser characters or events.
Winter Light centers around a Lutheran pastor (Gunnar Bjornstrand) who is suffering from a severe crisis of faith. All he wants is for God to speak to him. Instead he is faced with God's silence. Not an uncommon malady for any one, even a man of the cloth.

The pastor counsels a parishioner (Max Van Sydow) who is depressed owing to his belief that a nuclear holocaust is right around the corner. He is suicidal and the pastor is of no help. How can the pastor assure anyone of God's divine grace and eternal love when he doubts the very existence of God himself? The outcome for the parishioner is inevitable.

The pastor is an austere, sullen man whose entire persona seems perfectly in keeping with the harsh Swedish Winter and the rigid lifelessness of Scandinavian Lutheranism. I speak as someone so raised. The iconography is spare and dark, the services dry and rote. Bergman, himself the son of a Lutheran minister, perfectly captures the solemnity and lack of emotion in the services, the cinematic opposite of Fellini's Italian Catholicism. The very barren landscape of the Pastor's church is highlighted by the meager turnouts. It's all enough to make one wonder why anyone wouldn't question his faith.

Happily the pastor is much loved by a woman. Sadly he is incapable or uninterested in accepting her unconditional love. Worse, he is cruel towards her.

It hardly seems like the makings of a watchable film. But Winter Light is not only intriguing for the issues its explores, but is beautifully told by Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. By the framing of shots and the use of light, the movement of a character into and out of light or darkness, invite us to ask questions about the characters, faith and God's silence. And as in Crimes in Misdemeanors, there are no small characters or events.

Judah claims that "God is a luxury I can't afford." In Winter Light the sexton of the church supposes that Christ's greatest hardship was being seized by doubt in his final moments and facing, "God's silence." It's not the stuff of most films but when handled by directors like Bergman and Allen, the weightiest of questions seem perfectly appropriate to tackle in a film. Wow.

10 November 2010

For Veteran's Day, Some of the Best Movies of Our Lives, With Veterans Even

You'll see a lot of suggestions for films to watch on or around Veteran's Day and I'm here to provide still more. However, unlike other bloggers, critics or reviewers, the suggestions here are not just war pictures. Mine all feature a war veteran or two. It is, after all, veteran's who we honor on November 11 (nee Armistice Day). Brief digression: I can't be the only one who's excited about next year's Veteran's Day, specifically when the clock tolls 11:11 am. Yes, it'll be 11:11 on 11/11/11. How cool is that?

A second brief digression. It is a scandal that while the United States "honors its troops" at every possible occasion, veterans here practically have to go begging for the most basic services, especially those who are disabled as a consequence of combat.

Here are now are a few films for your Veteran's Day, all with veterans featured prominently.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). This is the mother of all veteran's films. The multi Oscar winner is first and last about the fates of three veterans returning to their hometown at the end of World War II. It has the immediacy of having been made at the very time it depicts. Some of the best movies about an event or time period are ones that are made contemporarily. This is a case in point. While Hollywood has churned out umpteen films about WWII, this is one of a handful to deal specifically with the lot of those fighting men upon their return home. Dana Andrews, Fredric March and Harold Russell play the trio and, along with co stars Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright, form one of the greatest ensemble casts of all time. You'll not see a better depiction of the difficulties faced by ex servicemen in adjusting to civilian life. The idea of picking up where one left off after facing the holocaust of war is laughable. Nothing is the same even when returning to a stable family. Imagine being without such a home or without one's hands. The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the better films of any kind ever made. On the topic of veterans, it's the gold standard.

Heroes For Sale (1933). Among the scars and hardships a solider can return from war with is an addiction to drugs, often painkillers that were administered to ease the suffering caused by battle injuries. Meet Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) the main character in this tale. His addiction costs him his job and after rehab, sends him on the road seeking better prospects. Add to that, the medal for bravery in the line of fire he deserved has gone to another, a coward at that. Holmes overcomes hardships only to be one of the many victims of the Great Depression. A terrific film from America's most under appreciated director, William Wellman.

The Roaring Twenties (1939). Another wonderful movie that follows the exploits of an American GI returning from the Great War. This time its Eddie Bartlett played by James Cagney in one of his many outstanding performances. Talk about not honoring vets, Bartlett can't get his old job back! One thing leads to another and the next thing you know Eddie is in the bootlegging game. And before you know it he's got his own gang and is raking in the dough. Sadly, this is a rise and fall story. It's not too much of a stretch to suggest that the failure of the country to take care of its vets led the previously honest Eddie to a life of crime, a life cut short at that.

Born on the 4th of July (1989). Strictly in terms of showing the lot of veteran, this Oliver Stone film is second only to Best Years. This is the true story of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic who entered the army a gun ho "love it or leave it" patriot and returned from the war a paraplegic as the result of a gunshot wound. It was not long after coming home that Kovic made the radical transformation into a an outspoken opponent of the war. Born on the 4th follows Kovic's life from entering the war, fighting, hospitalization and through anti war activism. Tom Cruise gave the best performance of his career to date in the starring role.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962). It's bad enough to re-adjust to society after fighting in a war but when you've unknowingly been brainwashed into being a political assassin, well that just sucks. Such is the fate of returning Korean War POW Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) in this political thriller from director John Frankenheimer. Fellow POW Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) was not similarly programmed but he's dealing with some serious post traumatic stress disorder in the form of cryptic dreams about their experiences. Not terribly realistic (or is it?) but still a helluva film and a powerful look at PTSD.

06 November 2010

The Virgin Spring, An Example of Bergman's Touch

I am a great believer in having as many types of films made as possible. Along with a laugh-a-minute Marx Brothers comedy, you need a good mystery and of course a film that asks the most serious of questions.

It is the latter category in which the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman excelled.  As evidence I submit The Virgin Spring (1960) which I watched today for the first time.

Towards the end of the film Max Van Sydow's character, Tore speaks to the heavens saying: "You see it, God, you see it. The innocent child's death and my revenge. You allowed it. I don't understand you. Yet now I beg your forgiveness. I know no other way to be reconciled with my own hands. I know no other way to live."

It takes extraordinary courage to make a film that asks profound questions about existence, especially when it goes in with no preconceptions about what the answers are. Bergman specialized in such films. The Seventh Seal (1957) being just one other example.

In Virgin Spring, God is the main character. We never, of course, see the supreme being and he or she is only seldom referenced, but its God's movie all the way.

The Virgin Spring is the story of a wealthy family in rural 14th century Sweden whose teenage daughter is raped and murdered while journeying to the nearest church by goat herders. The synopsis seems hardly likely to encourage people to see the film, but its done pretty well for its self since being released 50 years ago, including recognition at the Oscars, Cannes and the Golden Globes.

What has drawn viewers and critical acclaim to the film undoubtedly has to do with Bergman's effective way of telling the story and the questions that story asks about, among other things, faith. Lubitsch had a "touch" with his films that made them clever, witty and appealing. Bergman similarly had a touch. One that made the kind of unsavory fare served in The Virgin Spring palatable. Characters were multi dimensional irrespective of how much screen time they had. The worst of the lot were always clearly human and despite their actions, tolerable to watch. Protagonists were flawed (i.e. human) and sentiment was nowhere to be seen.

In Virgin Spring we are invited to watch. The camera allows us to get aquatinted with characters but not intimate. Medium shots with sparing use of close ups keep the film a viewing experience but an engrossing one. It is thus easier to form our own judgments about events and people. The victim here has a half sister who is culpable in her fate. She is at once sympathetic and abhorrent. The vengeful father is more complex that most films would allow him to be too. He is both unwavering in his convictions and doubtful after their outcomes.

Bergman was a complete filmmaker in that he had no major weaknesses. This overall competence allowed him to take on the heaviest of material and not only not make a mess of it but make something quite special.

There is a wonderful simplicity to The Virgin Spring. This makes it all the easier to feel God's presence in the story. We need not be believers ourselves, just needing to accept the fact that a higher power is very much at work in the minds of the characters.

Faith is a heavy cross to bear and can serve as a wonderful reward to the believer. It is also tested mightily throughout a lifetime. It is further complicated by the unique relationship with and perception of their higher power that each believer brings to this most special relationship.

The Virgin Spring can seem a difficult movie to watch. But it's a beautifully told story that rewards us with a golden opportunity to consider some of the central issues of life. I think it so cool that you can get that out of movie.

03 November 2010

I Love a Parade

Photos from today's San Francisco Giants' victory parade. All taken by my oldest daughter.
Our view down the parade route.
The parade was led by the world's greatest marching band, the University of California marching band. (Go Bears!)
Giants' GM Brian Sabean accepts my apology for having ever doubted him.
Manager Bruce Bochy and the World Series trophy.
SF Mayor and California Lt. Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, a life long Giants' fan.
Game 4 hero rookie pitcher Madison Bumgarner.
Closer Brian Wilson parties like a rock star.
Catcher and superstar Buster Posey.
Bay Area native veteran slugger Pat Burrell.
And so it ends. That's my index finger indicating the Giants' position in the baseball world.

01 November 2010

At Long Last!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The first baseball game I remember going to was game one of the 1962 World Series (I'd been to many before). I was eight that year when the Giants lost in seven games to the Yankees. We were so close that I naturally assumed that a title was coming "next year." Little did I know that next year would be 48 years later.

The San Francisco Giants have been one of the great loves of my life. I have alternately enjoyed them and suffered because of them through a little bit of thick and a whole lot of thin. But when you love someone or something unconditionally you stick to it no matter what.

I'm so happy tonight that the Giants are at long last World Champions. For the team and for all the fans like me who've adored the Orange and Black, whether for 50 years, 20 or 13 like my oldest daughter (I told her I was so happy she didn't have to wait as long as I did for this experience).

I can't help but think of many past Giants who I rooted on: Cap Peterson, Ed Bailey, Jim Davenport, Willies Mays and McCovey, Juan Marichal, Jack and Will Clark, Ray Sadecki, the Baby Bull, John "The Count" Montefusco, Jeff Leonard, Kevin Mitchell, Johnnie LeMaster, Tito Fuentes, Jimmy Ray Hart, Ty Cline, Ron Pruitt, Mike Krukow, Duane Kuiper, Juan Uribe, Robbie Thompson, Mike Sadecki, Billy Swift, Randy Moffit, Greg Minton, Bobby Bonds, Steve Scarsone to name but a few.

I also want to give a shout out to some of the people who've taken in Giant games with me over the years: My late great parents, my big brother, Megan Elizabeth, Miranda Kathryn, My Giants brother Paul, Phil, Johnny, Keith, my handsome young nephews, Harvard Steve, Gary, my darling wife, Tim, Jeremy, Jesse, Michael, Natalie, Eric, George and of course many more.

Holy Christy Mathewson, the Giants are World Champions!

30 October 2010

For Your Halloween Enjoyment, The Wilhelm Scream

I'll let Wikipedia explain: The Wilhelm scream is a frequently-used film and television stock sound effect first used in 1951 for the film Distant Drums. The effect gained new popularity (its use often becoming an in-joke) after it was used in Star Wars and many other blockbuster films as well as television programs and video games. The scream is often used when someone is either pierced with an arrow or falls to his death from a great height, or because of an explosion.
The Wilhelm scream has become a well-known cinematic sound cliché, and is claimed to have been used in over 216 films and even certain video games.
The sound is named for Private Wilhelm, a character in The Charge at Feather River, a 1953 western in which the character is shot with an arrow. This was believed to be the second movie to use the sound effect and its first use from the Warner Brothers stock sound library.

24 October 2010

A Streams of Unconsciousness Classic: Trick or Treat or Movie, In it's Third Edition, This Time With No New Content

It is my pleasure to bring to you my third annual Halloween appropriate films post. Last year I added a few films to the last. This year I've nothing to add, so comprehensive were my first two posts. The paragraph below starts last year's post.

In October of last year I wrote a widely acclaimed post with recommended Halloween season films for your viewing pleasure. As a service to my readers (both of us) I am reproducing that post in toto below. As an added bonus I am suggesting a half dozen other Halloween appropriate films that you may enjoy, all good for scare, a laugh or at least your amusement. So within this post you'll find films that feature isolated castles, terrifying ghosts, hideous monsters, strange apparitions, mysterious powers, blood curdling screams and things that go bump in the night. Most of all you'll find some wonderful cinematic alternatives to bumming candy off your neighbors or enduring a silly costume party.

First the post titled "Trick Treat or Movie" from October 23, 2008.

Halloween is just around the corner (how's that for hokey intro!). Many of us old geezers no longer play dress up. And if the kiddies are too old to trick or treat (at least with parents in tow) we're free to stay at home and enjoy a scary movie or two.

Hollywood has been churning out horror films since the silent era. Sadly, the genre has recently morphed into slasher films that emphasize gratuitous gore. But there's still plenty to choose from from days of yore. Here's a sampling of choices for your Halloween viewing pleasure.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Not just the best of the classic horror films of the Thirties, a wonderful film in its own right. The great James Whale's direction along with an intelligent script for a seemingly preposterous story outshine even the magical performance of Boris Karloff. Colin "it's Alive!" Clive is the now conflicted scientist and Elsa Lanchester is the blushing young bride. But Ernest Thesiger as the evil Dr. Pretorious is an absolute scene-stealer. This is a must-see film.

Frankenstein (1931) How about a shout out for the original? While out shined by the sequel its still an excellent film. Clive, Karloff and the prototype of the angry mob star. Excellent cinematography and some touching moments highlight this classic.

The Old Dark House (1932) It was a dark and stormy night. Let's see a group of travelers seek refuge from a driving rainstorm in a forbidding looking mansion. What could go wrong? You'll see. The residents are a decidedly odd lot with a temperamental butler. Amazing cast including Melvyn Douglass, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton that man Karloff again and the delightful Thesiger (watch and listen as he offers his guests potatoes). This is my third straight Whale selection. Obviously he had the Gothic horror story down cold.

Alien (1979) No, no, no it's not science fiction it's a horror film. This time the role of the haunted mansion is played by a space ship and the victims/heroes are astronauts. This does not change the fact that all the elements of the horror film are at work. While the Alien is terrifying (and set the standard for many years to come) it's those moments when it is lurking off screen that are tense and scary.

The Exorcist (1973) I was reading the book in college on a weekend when my roommates all happened to be out of town. I slept in the living room with lights on and though not a religious man I've worn a cross around my neck ever since. The movie is just as frightening even after repeat viewings.  An innocent young lass is possessed by the devil (don't you just hate that). Satan is profane, duplicitous and oh so dangerous. A great film by any standard.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) I like this better than the original (my God I've got a sequel and a re-make on this list, who'd of thunk). An absolutely terrifying concept expertly done by director Philip Kaufman. Alien clones are invading bodies and the human race is in peril. Will star Donald Sutherland save humanity or fall victim to this alien plot? The very notion of retaining your human form but your mind being taken over is chilling (hey, that sounds like Scientology!).

Psycho (1960) I know you've seen it a few times already but like a lot of Hitchcock's finest it gets better with each viewing. It never loses its suspense (how did Hitch do that?).  Just don't think about it in the shower. Janet Leigh and Vera Miles star along with the creepy Anthony Perkins and his..um "mom.."

Young Frankenstein (1974) Why not some Halloween chuckles? I've never been a huge Mel Brooks fan but I love this film. This is, of course the classic send off of the Frankenstein film with Gene Wilder as the doctor and Peter Boyle as the monster. The all star cast includes Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman and Marty Feldman as the funniest Igor you'll ever see.

The Ring (2002) What's this? I have a film of recent vintage? Yes. I obviously quite liked it. It's a mystery as much as a horror film (many scary movies are) with an intelligent plot. The opportunity to enjoy Naomi Watts is a plus. She's both a great beauty and a great actress.

The Shining (1980) If he'd a mind to Stanley Kubrick could likely have directed a lot of good horror films and Jack Nicholson could have starred in them. Their respective directing and acting styles lent themselves to the genre.  The Shining is proof. A family of caretakers in a snowed in mountain resort. The father goes bats. Supernatural events take place. Kudos to Stephen King's story and Kubrick's adaptation of it.

Omen (1976) What could possibly be scarier than the anti-Christ?  I can't think of anything either. Gregory Peck is an American statesman who's got the bad fortune of being the anti-Christ's father (and you thought your kid was a little devil). Richard Donner was the perfect man to direct this. It's got grisly deaths, tension and excitement and maybe a little something for bible thumpers and agnostics alike to think about.  There are sequels and remakes aplenty but stick to this, the original.

Rosemary's Baby (1968) What could be worse than fathering the devil? How about giving birth to it? That was Mia Farrow's lot in this wonderfully scary Roman Polanski film. The worst part is that everyone seems to be in on it. Not knowing whom you can trust is scary stuff indeed. What's really scary is when there's such a sense of normalcy but you gradually discover something is amiss. Horribly so.

Dracula (1931) We close with this absolute classic. No one will ever be better in the title role than was Bela Lugosi. His performance is one of the reasons that this Dracula version ages so well. A seductive and intelligent demon is the worst kind to deal with. Repeat viewings only increase the film's allure.

And now for this year's addendum.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Here's a real poser, try providing a synopsis of this movie. Suffice it to say everyone should see it at least once. Many have seen it dozens and dozens of times. The ultimate cult classic. Tim Curry as...whatever he is, steals the show So what is it? Why it's....

It's just a jump to the left.
And then a step to the right.
With your hand on your hips.
You bring your knees in tight.
But it's the pelvic thrust.
They really drive you insane.
Let's do the Time Warp again.
Let's do the Time Warp again.
Poltergeist (1982). I watched it again this weekend for the first time science it first hit theaters (thanks TCM). I'm pleased to say it holds up pretty well. By no means a classic but it does tap into some very real fears: loss of a child; not safe in your own home; unseen forces at work and goblins in your TV set of all places. It's also a cautionary tale about building tract houses over graveyards.

The Invisible Man (1933). I love this movie. The feature film debut of the great Claude Rains (photo above) and what a debut it was. He's a cackling but diabolical mad scientist who's gone and got himself invisible (don't you just hate when that happens?). He checks into a typical English country tavern to try to sort things out and the next thing you know Una O'Connor is screeching left and right. Another horror classic from my man James Whale.

Carrie (1976). The granddaddy of all oh-my-God-I-totally-didn't-see-that-coming-I-thought-all-the-scariness-was-over movies -- to coin a phrase. Brian DePalma directed, Sissy Spacek  stars in this story of a teen with telekinetic powers This is not someone you want to p*ss off and wouldn't you know, pretty much all of her classmates conspire to humiliate her, and at the prom no less. Hell hath no fury like a girl with telekinesis scorned.

The Mummy (1932). Our old friend Karloff again, this time he's all wrapped up in his work (pause while readers roll on the floor emitting gales of laughter). For God's sakes folks don't waste your time with any of those silly Brendan Fraser mummy movies of recent vintage, you want this classic. British explorers discover an old Egyptian tomb  and let loose a killer mummy. This was an easy sell for audiences back in its time because of the supposed curse on discoverers (disturbers) of King Tut's tomb. Karloff is wonderful as is a supporting cast that's mostly unfamiliar to today's viewers.

Nosferatu (1922). Today silly vampire movies are a dime a dozen. We've even had silly vampire TV shows with equally silly slayers of said vampires. It's being done -- you should excuse the expression -- to death. But here we have the original, preceding even Lugosi's blood loving count by nearly a decade. Moreover it comes from legendary German director F.W.  Murnau. I'll not say more about it now because I'm going to screen Nosferatu in a day or so and do a separate post on it soon.

A few of other titles to consider: Aliens (1986), Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), The Blob (1958), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Tremors (1990), The Wolf Man (1941), The Haunting (1963).