Beggars of Life
Every year I put a list like this together as a means of remembering what I’ve watched and loved. A dozen months distilled into a few dozen titles. These movies might’ve made me weep or shiver—though maybe I just sighed, “This is nice,” and put them from my mind till they flew back like a boomerang weeks later. Between them, they boast the acting of Judy Garland and Eusebio Poncela; ZaSu Pitts and Claude Rains; Shu Qi and Roy Scheider; Sharon Stone and Sol Kyung-gu; Lily Tomlin and Denzel Washington. They’re shorts and features, curios and crowd-pleasers, each with its own share of power and beauty.
Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) · Arrebato (1979) · At Berkeley (2013) · Basic Instinct (1992) · Beggars of Life (1928) · Black Girl (1966) · Blood Tea and Red String (2006) · The Chase (1946) · The Cremator (1969) · Duelle (1976) · Duplicity (2009) · 45 Years (2015) · Greed (1924) · I Am Cuba (1964) · I Could Go on Singing (1963) · In My Skin (2002) · In This Corner of the World (2016) · The Kleptomaniac (1905) · The Late Show (1977) · The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) · Losing Ground (1982) · The Manchurian Candidate (2004) · Madam Satan (1930) · The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) · Master of the House (1925) · Millennium Mambo (2001) · The Moderns (1988) · Moscow Clad in Snow (1909) · The Mouth Agape (1974) · Peppermint Candy (1999) · The Passionate Friends (1949) · Private Lives (1931) · Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) · Running on Empty (1988) · The Sacrifice (1986) · Satan’s Rhapsody (1917) · Senso (1954) · Shoulder Arms (1918) · Sorcerer (1977) · Spanglish (2004) · Stage Door (1937) · Starman (1984) · The Stone Tape (1972) · Stromboli (1950) · Terms of Endearment (1983) · They Were Expendable (1945) · Thief (1981) · Tugging the Worm (1987) · Up the Down Staircase (1967) · Les Vampires (1915)
[The bolded titles form a loose top ten. Everything is pre-2018.]
A third of the way into The Shining, the explicit terror has barely begun. Danny’s been riding his big wheel or watching TV with his mom while Jack marinates elsewhere in the monotony of their new home. Yet an exchange between the two of them when Danny’s fetching a toy fire truck is more insidious than any apparition. It’s just a father holding his son, at first tightly, nuzzling against his head, then with a looser grip as he looks him in the eyes. Their dialogue’s as banal as their domestic surroundings: “Are you having a good time?” asks Jack. “Yes, dad,” says Danny. “Do you feel bad?” asks Danny. “No, just a little bit tired,” says Jack. They go back and forth like this for a while, question and answer, before Danny brings up the hotel’s ambiance and the prospect of physical harm. “I love you more than anything else in the whole world,” assures Jack. “I would never do anything to hurt you. Never.”
Strings and rumbling percussion complicate the scene’s tenderness, as does Danny Lloyd’s robotic inflection. Jack Nicholson gives his lines sinister subtext with those arching eyebrows and curling lips. Their relationship manifests itself in these horror movie techniques. Throughout their talk, Jack keeps both hands on his son, because his affection’s synonymous with control. His is a love that precludes the vocalization of fear. Although this is a vast, bombastic movie, with Nicholson playing a histrionic monster, he’s nonetheless recognizable as a real-life dad with his bathrobe, stubble, and mussed hair. A dad can surround you forever with his body and his love; he can make himself impossible to escape. He can dislocate your shoulder and chase you with an axe and still protest that he’d never do anything to hurt you. Never.
10 years ago I saw Fritz Lang’s M in an intro class on film history. I recall jotting down some notes about Nazism and early sound. Over the intervening decade I took its greatness for granted. Now, upon revisiting it, the film feels startling and fresh. Its structure remains radical, emphasizing forensic methodology for the first half and a tightening manhunt in the second. (Ostensible star Peter Lorre is onscreen for maybe a quarter of the film.) It’s more about the throng than the individual, with a George Grosz-like attention to urban disarray. How, ask both cops and criminals, do you monitor a populace? Despite its lurid narrative, M bears strong resemblance to Walter Ruttmann’s montage doc Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. It depicts the metropolis from top to bottom, indoors and out.
For a story of child murder, M also displays a sick sense of humor. The famed sequence of shots cutting from Elsie Beckmann’s newly bereaved mother to a stairwell, attic, dinner table, ball, and balloon isn’t exactly a joke, but it is droll, and its drollness is nauseating. Later in the film, Lorre’s Hans Beckert stalks a little girl past a row of shops, ducking into a doorway when her mom shows up. The two of them walking past while he faces away is a punchline familiar from dozens of slasher movies: the near-victim oblivious to her brush with death. More overt gags predominate during a police raid on an underground bar. One fugitive tries to sneak up a secret exit; when he sees a patrolman’s boots blocking it, he sneaks back, hanging up his hat with an air of resignation.
Lorre himself looks boyish with his bowtie and his egglike head. He’s cartoony rather than intimidating, a stranger in an overcoat, until the climactic burlesque of a trial renders him hysterical. This outsider (Außenseiter, says the Mabuse-like kingpin) is the right villain for a film of such supreme moral irony. Most of M digresses from the killings to the citywide panic they incite, revealing a spectacle of violence, hypocrisy, and fear. Yet it’s subtle, each segment snapping into the next, all part of the broader investigation. The film was a trailblazing procedural, and it lays its subject bare. What is police procedure? It’s how people with power get things done.
Person to Person, Colossal, Lady Bird, The Ornithologist
I adore this time of year. It’s the time when we write out short lists to memorialize the past twelve months. The selections don’t matter, nor does the order; the point is simply to remember. “#10 was the first new movie I saw this year, at the multiplex, with a coworker who’s since moved out of state. I ran to a screening of #2 right after scarfing down some pita and hummus.” Each entry represents a pocket of time I lingered in. The year’s ten best pockets of time.
I enjoyed the following ten movies almost as much as the ones I’ve listed below: Call Me by Your Name, Colossal, Girls Trip, Good Time, Lady Bird, Logan Lucky, The Ornithologist, Person to Person, Song to Song, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The new Twin Peaks, on the other hand, I enjoyed even more than the titles below. It may have aired in weekly installments on Showtime, but it’s still essential to any conversation about the state of filmmaking in 2017. May as well call it my real #1! It moved and thrilled and shook me unlike anything else in recent memory.
Here’s a supplementary list of ten performances: Betty Buckley, articulate as a psychotherapist, and the protean James McAvoy playing against her in Split; Harris Dickinson, implosive with self-loathing in Beach Rats; two turns by Michael Fassbender, as the smarmy villains of Song to Song and Alien: Covenant; Milla Jovovich’s valedictory sprint through Resident Evil: The Final Chapter; Barry Keoghan as a teenage sprite barely veiling his hostility in The Killing of a Sacred Deer; Keanu Reeves, put through his paces again in John Wick: Chapter 2; Lady Bird’s callous, precocious, and heartbreaking Saoirse Ronan; newcomer Millicent Simmonds and her silent movie acting in Wonderstruck; octagenarian Lois Smith playing her age as Marjorie of Marjorie Prime; and Adrian Titieni, slouching and gloomy as a bad dad in Graduation.
Now onto the list:
Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
A Cincinnati hospital with tall, white walls lends itself to Steadicam shots. A preoccupation with arbitrary rules and numbers recalls Lanthimos’ earlier, funnier work with co-writer Efthymis Filippou. The first half is enigmatic, enticing, with intimations of iniquity. (Who is the doctor to this boy?) The rest of it dispenses with intimation. Debasement’s not intrinsically amusing or profound, even when it strikes a bourgeois family. A dismal hand job, a bite to the arm? These funny games are glib and gross and only mildly clever.
I love making these lists. They’re tokens from the past year of moviegoing. I can skim the titles below and remember all these occasions of realizing, “Oh, this movie’s good.” I can recall the power of performances by Toni Collette and Johnny Depp, Christine Lahti and little Stephen Dorff, Anna Magnani and José Mojica Marins, Sylvia Sidney and Keanu Reeves, Googie Withers and Dean Stockwell. As a fun addition this year, I’ve bolded a loose top ten—the cream of an already creamy crop.
About Elly (2009) · Antonia’s Line (1995) · Ariel (1988) · Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965) · Bellissima (1951) · By the Law (1926) · Canon City (1948) · Compulsion (1959) · Contact (1997) · Cry-Baby (1990) · The Exiles (1961) · Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) · The Gate (1987) · Gates of Heaven (1978) · Giants and Toys (1958) · Girl with Green Eyes (1964) · Heaven’s Gate (1980) · Housekeeping (1987) · John Wick (2014) · The Keep (1983) · Lake Mungo (2008) · Limite (1931) · Lives of Performers (1972) · The Man I Love (1947) · The Marquise of O (1976) · Married to the Mob (1988) · Miami Vice (2006) · Miss Lulu Bett (1921) · Model Shop (1969) · Mr. Thank You (1936) · Muriel’s Wedding (1994) · Paranoid Park (2007) · Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) · A Portrait of Ga (1952) · Reign of Terror (1949) · Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991) · Salem’s Lot (1979) · Saturday Night at the Baths (1975) · Shooting Stars (1928) · Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) · Speed Racer (2008) · Ten (2002) · There It Is (1928) · This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967) · Trouble Every Day (2001) · Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) · The White Reindeer (1952) · The Thief of Bagdad (1924) · Working Girl (1988) · You and Me (1938)
Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.
Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), directed by Vincente Minnelli
Edward G. Robinson plays an expat directing an unpromising movie at Cinecittà. Kirk Douglas is his long-time leading man, summoned from rehab to be his proxy in the dubbing studio. Dysfunctional is too mild a word for their relationship, which resembles that of brothers or lovers or a father and son. Lurid is too mild a word for this showbiz melodrama, sour as a basket of lemons, corrosively misogynistic, grotesque in its plush reds and greens. It’s an acknowledgment that Minnelli’s generation was in decline, a new one ascendant. (Fellini, Antonioni, Godard—the latter an admirer of the film.) It’s an autocritique overgrown with style and perversely ahead of its time.