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662. Safety Last!

First of all, a shout out to my dad for buying this one for me. Thanks, Dad!

Harold Lloyd, the other-other silent comedy film star, plays an everyman trying to make it in the big city so he can marry his sweetheart. The first half of the movie pokes fun at his low-wage retail job, his snooty boss, his trusting girlfriend, and other such clichés. But the film doesn’t come alive until the second half, when Harold Lloyd (for reasons that don’t really matter) must scale a building. I don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious during a stunt sequence. I could literally feel my heart pounding as he encounters every obstacle one can fathom meeting on the side of a building, with the distant ground level frequently in frame. The highlight, of course, is the iconic hanging-from-a-clock scene, which has been copied and referenced in countless other films and—I swear I didn’t imagine this—a recent makeup commercial. It’s a memorable image that deserves its legendary status, but it’s the entire nail-biting climb from sidewalk to rooftop that makes SAFETY LAST! such an enjoyable classic.

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28. Blood for Dracula

Halloween really is the perfect holiday for a film blog. Last year I paid tribute with ROSEMARY’S BABY, and this year I sat down with Andy Warhol’s BLOOD FOR DRACULA, a film by Paul Morrissey that has nothing to do with Andy Warhol beyond his name. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen its sister film, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, and I don’t remember much about it other than disliking it. So it’s difficult for me to make comparisons. But either BLOOD FOR DRACULA is the much better film, or my expectations have changed over the years. Possibly the latter. I went into this ready for something painfully bad, and was surprised to discover a cohesive narrative and passable acting, with some beautiful sets and lighting, and of course a lot of delightful gore, nudity, and humor. Udo Kier makes for an otherworldly and oddly sympathetic Dracula, who needs virgin blood to stay alive but can’t seem to find any virgins. His rival, played by Joe Dallesandro, is a working class and sexually liberated upstart, which would make him the protagonist in any other film except that he’s also an asshole (and can’t really act). The result is some convoluted and heavy-handed political themes, but that only adds to the camp, which finds its fullest expression in the never-ending sequences of projectile-vomited blood.

So, what do you think I should watch next year?

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591. 12 Angry Men

Although it’s a film about the legal system and the social climate of the 1950s, there is nothing about 12 ANGRY MEN that feels dated. Sidney Lumet’s directorial debut takes place entirely in one afternoon and one jury room, where twelve men must decide the fate of a teenager who has allegedly murdered his father. Eleven are certain of his guilt; one is unsure. It’s that small uncertainty that sets up the simple conflict of the story, and plays out in the most riveting, nuanced manner. In different hands, such a straightforward film could easily turn stale. But clever camerawork, intelligent dialogue, and the slow reveal of information makes the entire journey as entertaining as it is provoking, and easily one of the best courtroom dramas I’ve seen.

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538. Paths of Glory

Considering I call Stanley Kubrick my favorite director, it’s shameful that it took me so long to watch this early masterpiece. Set among the French troops during World War I and based on actual events, PATHS OF GLORY is more than just an antiwar film. It’s a moving, cutting look at corruption and the abuse of power at the cost of human empathy. Kirk Douglas, who is magnificent in his impotent outrage, portrays a colonel who must defend his men against being sacrificed. The scenes of battle are dramatic, but the trial that results is even more tense and horrific. And Kubrick’s direction is gorgeous—particularly the constant tracking shots through the trenches that make the film so obviously his.

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157. The Royal Tenenbaums

So here it is: my first Wes Anderson post. I’ve always been a fan of his work, but frankly, I’ve been a bit too intimidated to illustrate any of it. After all, so many talented illustrators have already paid tribute, not least of all being Wes’s brother whose drawings adorn the packaging. But the kick in the pants finally came by way of the blog Cinema Train, which is hosting a Wes Anderson month and asked me to participate. I had no choice but to tackle THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, my favorite Wes Anderson film, and one of my all-time favorite films at that. It centers around a Salinger-esque family of geniuses who come together after years of distance and disappointment to confront and heal old wounds. Like much of Wes Anderson’s work, it’s heavily stylized like a piece of theater or a storybook, emphasized by the fact that the story is being read out chapter by chapter. But what amazes me every time I watch it is that stylized doesn’t equate to stilted. There are so many devices in the film that distance the audience, and so many ways that the characters distance themselves from each other. And yet there’s a humanity underneath the quirkiness, so that when it’s forced to shine through, it’s all the more moving. The fantastic ensemble cast deserves a lot of credit for making that work, even the actors I’m not typically fond of. And Wes Anderson deserves the credit for creating a world in which I never get tired of immersing myself.

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541. The Night of the Hunter

In a story that falls somewhere between horror film, family drama, and fable, Robert Mitchum plays a malevolent preacher who preys on a widow and her two children during the depression. This might be hyperbole, but THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in black and white. The lighting is extraordinary, painting everything in deep contrast, with menacing shadows and piercing moonlight. It makes the film feel a bit unreal and story-like—glossy, but still threatening. There is one particular underwater scene that’s simultaneously macabre and breathtaking, impossible to forget, and I think the entire stylized look of the film adds to its emotional weight rather than detracts. It’s a terrible shame that this is the only film actor Charles Laughton ever directed, and that it was so unsuccessful. I think I’m developing a real taste for 1950s bucking-against-the-system cinema.

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630. Rosemary’s Baby

I couldn’t think of a better way to spend Halloween than with Roman Polanski’s occult thriller ROSEMARY’S BABY. Mia Farrow plays Rosemary, sweet and naive, who wants to start a family with her struggling actor husband in their beautiful new apartment. But she has no idea that her nosy elderly neighbors have their own plans for her womb. This is the type of horror film that I love. It relies entirely on suspense and paranoia, with a bit of the surreal. Even though it’s ostensibly about the devil, Rosemary’s fear comes from mundane sources: her stifling apartment, the people she thinks she can trust, and finally, a baby gone wrong. What’s even better is that her satanic neighbors are as funny as they are disturbing (I adore Ruth Gordon). And Rosemary’s emaciated-pregnant-chic makes for some memorable scenes.

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380. The Naked City

I’m going to start this review with a very philistine comparison, but Jules Dassin’s THE NAKED CITY feels like the original 1948 Law & Order. I love Law & Order, so that’s a compliment, I promise. When a model is found murdered in her apartment, it prompts sensational headlines and an investigation that spans Manhattan. Instead of overdramatizing the search, the film focuses on the day-to-day routine of the detectives, including tedious legwork and interrogations that go nowhere, and punctuated by dry humor and bouts of action. It’s also filled with eccentric and mundane snapshots of New York City life: basically, the formula for Law & Order and countless other crime procedurals that followed. It’s notable that the entire film was shot on location (notable enough that it’s mentioned in the film’s opening), and it shows in the beautiful black and white images of the city’s streets, trains, skyscrapers, and people. I have a definite soft spot for New York City history, and so it’s not a surprise that I enjoyed this film, where the protagonist is the city itself.

597. Tiny Furniture

Newcomer at the time Lena Dunham essentially plays herself in her film TINY FURNITURE, a failure-at-coming-of-age story about the nebulous limbo between college and Real Life. The character she plays, Aura, has just returned home and should probably start making something of herself. Instead, she neglects her menial job, chases after douchebag boys, and tries her hardest to crawl back into the womb. The movie is filled with painful and funny vignettes, and it has a dry confessional style that comes off as honest, not contrived. But although I laughed, I tend to have a difficult time with unlikable protagonists. Here I found hardly anything relatable about Aura’s particular brand of entitled self-pity. So this might not be my genre, but I’m still looking forward to watching GIRLS, Dunham’s well-hyped HBO series, to see what else she has to say.

170. Trouble In Paradise

I already have a particular fondness for pre-1950 witty romantic comedies, so this might be a bit biased. But Ernst Lubitsch’s TROUBLE IN PARADISE is a near flawless film, and certainly among the best of that genre. Gaston and Lily are professional thieves in love with their work and in love with each other. Together they plan to con the perfume manufacturer Madame Colet, never expecting the love triangle that complicates their plan. The dialog is clever and sharp, but the filmmaking is just as clever. I love the montage told from the perspective of various clocks ticking off the minutes, or the shot of two shadows suggestively falling across a bed. (Because it was made pre-code, sexual innuendo abounds.) All three characters are wonderful, the entire film is intelligent and fun, and I enjoyed it start to finish.