The past couple of years I’ve compiled a top movie list for each year, taking care to point out that my schedule doesn’t often allow me to stay up-to-date on the most recent films and that the list of movies I offered dealt less with new features and more with whatever worthy films I managed to see that time period. In 2010, it so happened that while I saw more new films than in previous years, I didn’t see enough I that felt I could to put out a definitive top movie list. So I decided to swing completely to the other side of the spectrum and make a list of older films I saw for the first time this past year - and older films only.
They are in no particular order, by the way.
This is a little bit of a cheat as far as my own rules go, because a) I had seen this a long time ago and b) the version I saw was in fact released this past year. But given that it included recently recovered, long-lost film and that I got to see it for the first time on the big screen, it was definitely a new, singular experience. A silent era science fiction epic about the connections between man and machine and society with a distinctive, striking Expressionist style. It was gorgeous and moving. The restored version is now available on DVD.
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
One of the advantages of working at and being involved with the Wexner Center is easy access to the great films they screen. I went to see Five Easy Pieces on a whim, having a free night and a slight curiosity. I didn’t know much about the film beforehand. It blew me away. A complicated character study of a musical savant who rejected his artistically intense family for a life as a blue collar worker, a life about which he is by turns defensive and dismissive. It’s driven by a strong performance by Jack Nicholson, who, for the majority of my generation, has settled into a parody of himself that obscures the raw performances he turned in early in his career. The entire film is subtle and understated in a way that refuses to explain or apologize but still engages you wholly. A seemingly often overlooked gem.
Unrelated funny anecdote: if you’ve seen this film, you know there’s a totally crazy sex scene (involving Sally Struthers, no less), where the couple bounces all over the room and she’s, um, extremely vocal. Right before the scene ended, this gruff old man a couple of rows behind me said, in a decidedly not theater-level voice, “Well, that’s not very realistic.” I’m never going to be able to watch that scene again, or, frankly, any other extreme sex scene, without hearing that man’s commentary echo.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
The most recent, by a wide margin, film on this list, Perfume isn’t a flawless film. Its ambitious take on a novel about an eighteenth century serial killer obsessed with scent falters a bit on a cohesive narrative, but I think its scope and atmosphere come through rather well. I would mostly recommend it for an involving performance by lead Ben Whishaw.
Baby Face (1933)
Pre-code Barbara Stanwyck is a tough-as-nails girl from the wrong side of the tracks who sleeps her way up the corporate ladder. That’s pretty much all there is in terms of plot here. She gets embroiled in a jealousy-induced murder and suicide, but it’s not much more than a nuisance to her. Really, this is a portrait of a thoroughly unrepentant, viciously ambitious and ruthlessly smart woman who has been misused and abused so in return uses what she has to use men and take from them whatever she can get. It’s really a shame that at the end she’s redeemed by true love.
The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
In the wake of Tony Curtis’s 2010 death, I finally saw his performance in The Sweet Smell of Success, and was perversely charmed by the entire film. Full of slimy, desperate characters, ruthless show business business and Burt Lancaster’s disturbing intensity, it’s relentlessly pessimistic. But fascinating to watch the machinations of power work, and break down.
The Circus (1928)
This is another film I saw this year that impacted me not just as a film but an experience. I also saw it at the Wexner Center, as part of the Zoom Family Film Festival, which meant the theater was filled with kids, including my own five-year-old daughter. Seeing a beautiful new print of a classic - and, really, a practically perfect movie - was secondary to the discovery that, yes, in this modern age, children will still laugh like crazy at Charlie Chaplin. I said this before, but it's as simple and true as this - these things endure.