The Greatest Films of the 21st Century

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I suffer from chronic list fatigue, initially eager to scroll through the latest re-ordering of greatest hits, but inevitably collapse into a heap before I ingest the whole thing. Enter the BBC to test my illness. Yesterday they unveiled the results of their mammoth “Greatest Films of the 21st Century” poll, in which 177 critics submitted their top movies of the current century. It confirms that David Lynch’s  fractured, terrifying Hollywood fairy tale Mulholland Drive (2001) is the consensus film of the age. It has been topping lists of this ilk for years now, and I welcome a film so mysterious as our millennium-overlord. My narcolepsy is triggered not by the quality of the works cited, but the recycled nature of the discourse it elicits, which tends to ignore the films entirely for a “this-over-that” essentialism that reduces complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list. Which reminds me, now it is time for me to reduce complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list! Below you’ll find my top ten films of the 21st Century that were not included in the BBC’s top twenty five, in a modest effort to expand the conversation.

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Angie Dickinson in Cry Terror! (1958)

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Angie Dickinson in 1958
Angie Dickinson takes center stage in TCM’s ongoing Summer Under the Stars programming today. The leggy mid-western beauty first achieved widespread general and critical attention for her role in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) airing 10 PM EST/7 PM PST. Hawks often referred to the actress as his “discovery” but in truth, Dickinson had appeared in a number of films and television dramas before making Rio Bravo. One of her most interesting early roles can be found in the low-budget crime thriller, Cry Terror! (1958) also airing early Friday morning at 4 AM EST/1 AM PST.

In Cry Terror! Dickinson plays the no nonsense Eileen Kelly, a dangerous dame who plants a bomb on a plane as part of a deadly extortion scheme mastermind by Paul Hoplin (Rod Steiger). A weapon-wielding thug (Jack Klugman) and pill-popping rapist (Neville Brand) comprise the rest of this terror inflicting goon squad who frame an innocent man named Jim Molar (James Mason) for their crimes. When their plans start to unravel, they kidnap Molar’s young daughter (Terry Ann Ross) and wife (Inger Stevens), forcing them to take-part in their nefarious plans. Amid all the chaos, a crack team of FBI investigators (Kenneth Tobey, Barney Phillips & Jack Kruschen) is called in to help put the extortion gang behind bars.

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Past Lives: Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963)

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“In general I am not interested in the events themselves but in what happens afterwards. Not the departure, but the return.” – Jean Cayrol

In Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963), the repressed past infiltrates the present like a fungal growth slowly inching across the frame. A pre-World War II lover and a ghostly memory from Algiers fill the gaps in the lives of the Aughain family of Boulogne-sur-mer, a sleepy, emptied out seaside town just waiting to be possessed. Alain Resnais’ follow-up to Last Year at Marienbad (’61), Muriel has a materialist, tactile sense of place, established through rapid montages of everyday objects, whereas Marienbad’s amorphous no-place was shot with languorous long takes. The shift can be attributed to his collaborators, moving from nouveau roman author/filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet on Marienbad to Jean Cayrol on Muriel. Cayrol was a poet and concentration camp survivor who had provided the text for Resnais’ Night and Fog. He has these characters bear the physical weight of history, something that slows their steps and hunches their backs, and this lurch can now be seen on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. 

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Roddy McDowall: Celebrity Photographer

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Roddy McDowall surrounded by some of the celebrity portraits he took

On Monday, Aug. 15, Roddy McDowall will be headlining TCM’s Summer Under the Stars line-up. McDowell spent most of his life in the spotlight after landing his first film role in the British children’s film Scruffy (1938) when he was only 10-years-old. In 1940 his family relocated to Los Angeles to escape the London Blitz following the outbreak of WW2 and soon afterward he appeared in the Oscar-winning drama How Green Was My Valley (1941) directed by John Ford. The film made McDowell a household name and the acclaimed child actor quickly landed parts in a number of family friendly films including My Friend Flicka (1943) and Lassie Come Home (1943). In the 1950s, McDowall took a break from Hollywood and practiced his craft on stage but he returned in 1960 and continued to act in movies and television until his death in 1998.

During his long career, McDowall developed a passion for photography and Hollywood history. He revered his fellow actors and began snapping candid pictures of his costars on and off set when he was just a teenager. As he got older, McDowall’s obsession developed into a serious artistic pursuit and he became a highly respected professional photographer. His photos appeared in many prestigious magazines including LIFE, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Architectural Digest, Premiere and Playboy and his work was displayed in galleries. He also shot album covers and book jacket portraits for a number of famous friends.

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Opiate of the Masses: Silk Stockings (1957)

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Silk Stockings (1957) is remembered less for what it is than what it represents – the end of the Golden Age of MGM musicals. It was adapted from the last musical Cole Porter wrote for the stage, contains Fred Astaire’s final leading performance, and was director Rouben Mamoulian’s farewell feature film. Viewed outside of that melancholic context, the film is a peppy Cold War burlesque that turns the ideological battle of Communism and capitalism into a decision between cold logic and effortless entertainment (guess what wins). Astaire reunites with his Band Wagon co-star Cyd Charisse to solve East-West relations through dance and expensive undergarments. An enormous hit in its time, it was the highest grossing musical to ever play Radio City Music Hall, but its reputation has suffered since. Silk Stockings deserves a better fate than to be an answer to an end-of-career trivia question, and  Warner Archive is helping by releasing it on Blu-ray. It will also screen on TCM this coming Sunday, August 14th, at 6PM.
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Give Us Absolution

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The passing of screenwriter and playwright Peter Shaffer this summer (June 6, to be precise) is another reminder of how most successful writers tend to be remembered for one or two signature works. In this case, all of his obituaries focused on two titles, both of which he translated from stage to screen himself: Equus, filmed in 1977 by Sidney Lumet with Richard Burton and Peter Firth, and Amadeus, turned into an Oscar-winning 1984 film directed by Milos Forman with F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce.

Less remarked upon but not entirely ignored was the fact that Peter was preceded into this world by five minutes in 1926 by a twin brother, Anthony Shaffer,  who also turned a successful, Edgar Award-winning 1970 play into a hit film: Sleuth (1972), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.  (Harold Pinter later overhauled it considerably for a 2007 version directed by Kenneth Branagh, with Caine switching roles opposite Jude Law.) [...MORE]

Love Triangle: It’s a Date (1940)

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“Film for film, William A. Seiter may have given more pleasure to more people than any other director of the classical Hollywood era.” – Dave Kehr, Film Comment

William A. Seiter made companionable films, ones populated with sly comic actors given room to work. He started directing silent short comedies in 1915 and ended working on the television sitcom The Gale Storm Show in 1960. In between he was a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. Less known today are the four 1940s musical comedies he made with star Deanna “Winnipeg’s Sweetheart” Durbin, a cute Canadian teen with a legit soprano singing voice who became a sensation, and was the highest paid actress in Hollywood by 1947 (she retired the following year at age 26). Warner Archive released the first of these, It’s A Date (1940), on DVD last month, and it’s a divertingly funny love triangle, pitting mother (Kay Francis) and daughter (Durbin) against each other for a plum acting role as well as the love of Walter Pidgeon. The set-up is a frame for Seiter and cast to hang gags on, and the deep bench of character players includes Eugene Pallette, Samuel S. Hinds, and S.Z. Sakall.

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July 30, 2016
David Kalat
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I Did It My Way (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Buster Keaton’s Doughboys)

So, gentle readers, this is my farewell. I started writing for TCM’s website ten years ago; I joined the Movie Morlocks six years ago. Since my debut here in the fall of 2010 I’ve posted over 300 blog posts. Between the Morlocks posts and my work on the website, I’ve contributed significantly more than 500,000 words—the equivalent of something like 6 full-length books.

It has been a phenomenal experience. I’ve been so grateful for the opportunity to share the stage with my fellow Morlocks—an extraordinary collection of worldclass film writers—and speak to such an engaged, knowledgeable audience. It’s been a blast. But I’ve chosen to resign from TCM so I can spend more time yelling at the raccoons in my neighborhood. Raccoons have got to be an atheist’s best argument for evolution—what Intelligent Deisgner worth his salt would deliberately invent hyper-intelligent trash-eating scavengers with thumbs? And really, if after 500,000 words I haven’t totally exhausted everything I could possibly have to say about classic movies, you’ve got to agree I’ve certainly long ago run out of useful or interesting things to say.

In the spirit of going out as I came in, I’m going to take my final post as an excuse to once again bang the drum in favor of an unloved, underappreciated gem by a slapstick clown. My first post was about Charlie Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races, and today I’ll go down swinging in favor of Buster Keaton’s MGM talkie Doughboys. Yes. Seriously. Come on, click the fold to keep reading –this will be our last time together, let’s make it special!

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KEYWORDS: Buster Keaton, Doughboys, MGM
COMMENTS: 18
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Summer of Rohmer: The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007)

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I am ending my Summer of Rohmer series with a film set in the spring. Yes, it is a shocking betrayal of the series’ seasonal brand, but I was eager to revisit The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), and extend my stay in Rohmer’s world. Over the last six weeks I have traveled to a variety of France’s hottest vacation spots for romantic anxiety, from a Saint-Tropez country house in La Collectionneuse (1967) to Dinard, the beachside town in A Summer’s Tale (1997).  The Romance of Astrea and Celadon transported me to the valley of the Sioule in Auvergne, a bucolic green landscape for star-crossed lovers in 5th-century Gaul to suffer in. For his final feature (he passed away in 2010), Rohmer adapted Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astree (ca. 1607 – 1627), a 5,000 page hit at the royal courts. Rohmer focused on the spine of the digressive novel – the romance between the shepherd Celadon and the shepherdess Astrea, and the miscommunication, madness, and masquerades that delay their union. Though set millennia in the past, the film works over familiar Rohmerian ground, as it ponders the nature of love and fidelity, while trying to square the contradictory impulses of each.

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Summer of Rohmer: A Summer’s Tale (1996)

 

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My summer of Rohmer enters its fifth week by docking at the rocky Breton seaside town of Dinard, the location of A Summer’s Tale (1996). Like all of Eric Rohmer’s summer vacation films, it is about hesitation and uncertainty, the holidays a transient borderland before the return to adulthood, when decisions have to be made. A Summer’s Tale involves a moody engineering student and hopeful musician named Gaspard who is romantically entangled with three women on the beach. He is entranced by the idea of love but is rather afraid of the physical reality, and masters the art of the indeterminate reply, a master of escape. One of Rohmer’s few male protagonists (the film often feels like a throwback to the masculine bull sessions of the Moral Tales), Gaspard is reported to be a highly autobiographical character who runs through a composite of events from the director’s life. Rohmer doesn’t look back with nostalgia, but with a lucid gimlet eye, his Gaspard one of high ideals and evasive, indecisive actions. A Summer’s Tale is streaming on Netflix, and is available on DVD from Big World Pictures.

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