Young and Innocent (1937, Alfred Hitchcock)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Up to this point in Alfred Hitchcock’s Gaumont “thriller sextet” cycle, spanning from 1934 to ’38, the films have grown progressively darker in both story and tone, seemingly synchronized to the deteriorating political situation in Europe. Conventional wisdom is that Young and Innocent, by far the warmest and nearly the wittiest of the six films, coasts on lightness and charm in a way that the rest of Hitchcock’s 1930s thrillers do not; the storyline alone, despite the grim event (a woman is strangled with the belt from a raincoat, her body found on the beach) that sets it into motion, fully illustrates its brisk, freewheeling nature in stark contrast to the dread and misery of Secret Agent and Sabotage. It’s about a freshfaced young man attempting to prove his innocence of a murder with no help from incompetent lawyers and cops but plenty from a constable’s daughter, whose affection for him increases as their adventures across the countryside grow wilder and more purposeful.

Indeed, this is the film that most visibly harnesses Hitchcock’s uncanny ability to capture the occupants of rural England with good humor but without condescension, and it can be seen freely as a comedy, albeit a comedy (like North by Northwest) that’s positively filled with high-stakes thriller setpieces. It does not convey the weight of darkness, nor the corruptibility, of the later, similar Hitchcock exploration of family life Shadow of a Doubt, but it shows the same basic affection for, and painful acceptance of, humankind as that film and his black comic masterpiece The Trouble with Harry. What these and most other Hitchcock films — or, more often, just moments in his films — that touch on everyday family life and the lives of the working classes suggest is the same populism that lit such a fire under Frank Capra and lent such joy to his narratives. In quite many ways, Young and Innocent is a sort of British variant upon Capra’s It Happened One Night, not only because it revolves around a male-female not-yet-couple on the run but also because it so lovingly explores the people and places on their periphery as they travel. So much of the value of these two films comes from the odd little moments on the sidelines, in this case for instance the boy at the petrol station who has to stand on a stoop to do his job; or the pig farmer with a cart full of pigs who’s commandeered to give a ride to a couple of police officers, with no intention of making them comfortable; or a bespectacled young boy very into his Latin lessons; or a china mender with tattered clothes helping to track down a man who “blinks”; or even a cruddy public defender with no clear interest in his client’s case who can’t keep track of names, events, paperwork, spectacles. These are moments that feel snatched from lived experience, but they’re also caricatured and funny without being reflective of stereotypes so much as a general appreciation for the weirdness and endless human intrigue of day-to-day life. It’s all such great fun, and the constantly evolving story is just as effortlessly fun, and enjoyably tense to boot.

All that said, it seems to me that declaring Young and Innocent to be a breezy work of pure escapism does it a disservice, as does the widespread belief that it’s a sort of kiddie variant on The 39 Steps, much as it may share that film’s basic structure of a wrongly accused party giving chase across a wide geographical expanse. Donald Spoto spoke of the foreboding illustrated by the encroachment of tree limbs all around our characters, a bit of poetry suggestive of Vertigo; that energy extends to a couple of shadowy sets Hitchcock built — an abandoned mill, a collapsed mine — and the paranoia and accusation on various adults’ faces when they run across our hero and heroine. But more to the point, and less abstract, is the film’s profound sophistication as a character study and as an exploration of a relationship; though it can’t be considered a masterpiece on the same level as The 39 Steps, in these specific senses it actually betters than film and demonstrates that, by the time of this final collaboration, Hitchcock and screenwriter Charles Bennett had honed their craft completely and were now capable of bringing us characters that felt real, knowable, and fully formed without the mystery and harrowing moral emptiness of Sabotage.

Erica and Robert, the girl and boy wonderfully played by Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney respectively, are not really kids, not quite adults, but as they get swept up in something so much larger than them, our sense of being taken along with them is completely convincing because the performances are understated and nuanced, and because Bennett has — with the help of two other writers adapting a novel by Josephine Tey — so effectively defined them as naive, kind-hearted and relatable. This is clearest when one compares them to Hannay and Pamela in The 39 Steps. Donat’s Hannay was an everyman but he was suave, handsome, extremely gifted at gaining control of a situation; and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) was the typical thriller foil, initially reluctant and wisecracking, eventually fully enraptured with her accidental partner in crime. The development of Erica in particular is vastly more organic; she’s a well-controlled, caring, ambitious late teen who’s serving as a de facto head of household over her brothers in the unexplained absence of their mother. Her compassion gets her caught up in what initially seems an ill-advised mixup with Robert, who was arrested for the murder of the woman in the sea (he had worked with her, a famous actress, previously in his capacity as a writer of stories and scripts) and has since escaped. De Marney, for his part, is a very good-looking actor who nevertheless doesn’t look like a glamorous movie star (the same goes for Pilbeam, really as attractive as Carroll but not at all interested in communicating the same specific kind of artificial Hollywood-like sensuality) and Robert’s wits match his appearance. He’s clever, but slightly bumbling and gracelessly direct in a way Hannay never was. The development of the pair’s relationship — they never become a couple, though they stand on the precipice at the film’s conclusion — is also much less of a cinematic conceit than the blossoming romance in The 39 Steps. For one thing, Robert repeatedly gives Erica an out — telling her she’s already done enough to help him and can call it a day — and his gratefulness and eventual affection for her feel actually believable in a manner that film partnerships, especially of this era, seldom do. As in The 39 Steps, the couple never kiss or have a “moment” — first of all, these films are too breathless for that, but also, the subtlety of the characters’ romance renders it more striking, and earthier.

Erica is driven by a determination to prove her new friend’s innocence — once she spends enough time with him to come to believe in it herself, after an initial Great Expectations-like reluctant offering of food and cash while he’s hiding out — but there’s more to it than that. We know her to be thoroughly steeped, and happily so, in life with her father and brothers, and the coworkers of her father whom — it’s strongly suggested — helped very much to raise her. (The script makes an interesting point of implying that Erica sees these men as her equals, not her superiors, when she refers to one cop who taught her drive not as her dad’s friend but as her friend.) Gradually, though, Robert comes to represent a new world, the same world that the forest, the cottage and Prince Charming represent in a certain notable film released a few months later; in other words, Young and Innocent is less about dramatizing the clearing of a wrongfully accused man’s name than about a girl’s induction into adulthood. Early on we watch her easy rapport with, and command of, her brothers at the dinner table, and one marvelous later sequence mirrors that after she and Robert have been caught together and she’s forced to contend with a staged return to normalcy, with everything suddenly seeming to her very small and awkward, all played impeccably on Pilbeam’s face. (She is brilliant throughout the film, as in her more limited role in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and it’s little wonder that Hitchcock and David O. Selznick both tried to talk her into moving to Hollywood at various times.) We’re made to understand that her move away from her roots toward this independent discovery, of justice or romantic love or just a life outside, is an important evolutionary step in her life, a push outward that had to happen, regardless of whether this eventful week was the specific catalyst. At the finale, nonetheless, Erica is able to introduce Robert to her father without shame and without a sense of betrayal to either of them — she is able to keep both men in her life, and there’s something inordinately touching, not to mention atypically optimistic for Hitchcock, about that.

She’s the protagonist of the film through and through, as Sylvia Sidney’s Mrs. Verloc is the protagonist of Sabotage despite its story hinging upon her husband’s activities; but Robert’s dual redemption narratives, one buried and one obvious, are also sorely important and intriguing. It’s never stated outright that he’d engaged at some point in an affair with the dead actress Christine; he denies it more than once, but we’re certainly made to wonder who her ex-husband is referring to in the first scene when he’s yelling at Christine about having “boys” come around. Speaking of said ex-husband, it’s a fundamental flaw in the narrative that he isn’t the very first suspect investigated by Scotland Yard when Christine’s body is found, especially since he remains in the area and is clearly terrified of being discovered. (And conversely, it’s probably a testament to Hitchcock’s brilliance as a storyteller that most of us won’t think to question this until we’ve seen the movie half a dozen times.) He has a twitch that is unceremoniously put on display in that first scene and becomes a major plot point later; the same, more plausibly, for Erica’s instinct to help people, elements that indicate that Hitchcock and the screenwriters knew that their story would feel right, emotionally, even if it had logical impurities.

Over and above all this, the big story of Young and Innocent — when compared, in a technical sense, to the films Hitchcock was making just three years earlier — is that it shows us a fully matured and absolutely confident director hitting the height of his powers, just two years before he would leave for Hollywood. That so many of this film’s scenes are remarkable in a way impossible to replicate in still photos — made artful specifically through movement — is indicative of his increasing deftness with the camera. The suspense setpieces are expertly mounted, and better melded than ever with the story and with the comedic elements of the film; as in all of the Gaumont Six, there are almost too many wonderfully strange and fascinating sequences to count effectively, set at times against some of the most beautiful location work the director had employed up to this point. In contrast to The 39 Steps, you really are out in the world this time, and you can feel it. In and outdoors, bravura moments pass by almost unceremoniously: a car sinks into a mine, a Blind Man’s Buff game at a child’s nervous birthday party becomes a minefield for our heroes, a messy bar fight is occasion for a perfect sight gag, and eventually, we get the most astounding shot of Hitchcock’s British career, which he would nearly replicate in Hollywood in Notorious — his camera, in one of several magnificent crane shots he and Bernard Knowles execute in the film, travels from a wide shot of a rather drab but well-populated party at a place generically known as Grand Hotel (to which Erica, Robert and their new accomplice Old Will have traced the probable murderer) to a slow zoom into the blackfaced “jazz” band on stage, to the suspicious-looking drummer, to his body, to his face, to his eyes, to finally his twitch.

You tend to wonder at this point what might have happened if Hitchcock had stayed in England, had continued to work with Charles Bennett, Bernard Knowles, et al. Would we have been blessed with another dozen or two dozen movies like this, thrillers that knock you out with their speed, realism, excitement while still remaining as varied in structure and tone as this and Sabotage? As varied in emotional depth as this and The 39 Steps, for all their similarities? The thriller sextet stands apart from the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography, and certainly from the American work that was enabled to exist by it; they are sharp films, full of secrets, made bolder by their ostensible scrappiness and modesty. But moments like that Grand Hotel crane shot, as well as the murder in Sabotage, the farm scene in The 39 Steps, and a great deal of the content of what would be the last and most popular film (and nearly the most extraordinary) in the series, The Lady Vanishes, indicate conclusively that Hitchcock was too great a talent, and still a growing and developing one at that, to remain ensconced in something so modest as the British film industry, no matter how much affection he might have had for it. In 1937, there was so much to the legend that still lay ahead, so many myths to be made, but surveying everything the great man ever directed, you cannot help but occasionally feel your heart being pulled toward that eerie morning on the beach with the seagulls cawing up above, and toward that perpetually discombobulated old car being driven by Nova Pilbeam, heading off into some other abyss of validation and love, so long ago but feeling so impeccably present whenever we choose to have it acted out for us once again.

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Sabotage (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The fourth film in Alfred Hitchcock’s so-called “thriller sextet,” the six fast-moving, reputation-making suspense pictures he made for the Gaumont studio in the middle to late 1930s, is unquestionably the darkest of all, and the most quintessentially British. It depicts a London already teeming with chaos and on the precipice — though Hitchcock couldn’t possibly know how correct this was — of some kind of doom. Taken from Joseph Conrad’s ruthless and difficult 1907 novel The Secret Agent (which, confusingly, shares its title with Hitchcock’s previous film, actually based on some of Somerset Maugham’s personal experiences), it tells the story of a mild-mannered terrorist hiding in plain sight as the proprietor of a small movie house. He is Mr. Verloc, played by the superficially sinister but kindly Austrian actor Oskar Homolka, and there is so much more to him — and to the film — besides what we initially suspect. Despite Hitchcock’s usual tactic of stripping and simplifying his source material, this is one of the most novelistic films he ever made, with nearly every scene rife with remarkable detail to generate sufficient lingering consternation for a full week’s worth of nightmares.

Sabotage is a dark, draining film because of its surrender to chaos. Well before his more studied American era, he presents an unforgiving, shadowy world with few elaborate effects and comparatively little stunt editing to distract us from the sheer horror, a horror generated wholly by people and their misplaced motives. Apart from Vertigo and perhaps Shadow of a Doubt, it’s probably his most unsettling creation — even when compared to the often arresting bleakness glimpsed in other films of the Sextet, particularly Secret Agent, it stands out for its unsentimental realism and its reluctance to temper its despair with humor (in fact, in one sequence, its direct rebuttal to such practices).

Homolka’s Verloc is, like John Gielgud in Hitchcock’s previous film, a reluctant killer, whose secret life in a spy ring bent on the destruction of London has origins never made totally clear to us, which is all the better for the sense of mystery and inevitability it adds to the story. (The great weakness of Conrad’s novel is frankly its tendency to over-explain.) The cinema, called the Bijou and situated on a phony London street you’d swear wasn’t a constructed set (it was built in the middle of an empty field, exposed to the elements, but artificial all the same) for how beautifully it evokes the bustling, unforgiving London later visible in Frenzy, serves as a front and occasionally as the group’s meeting place. Verloc is unaware that one of the employees of the greengrocer next door is a government official with his eyes peeled.

But there’s a personal element: Verloc and his wife Winnie, a sweet and tough Sylvia Sidney, and her younger brother Stevie, both unaware of Mr. Verloc’s secret life, live together above the theater. After a blackout orchestrated by Verloc fails to generate much fear in the city and after many of his associates bow out for fear of their activities being detected, the uneasy situation culminates in Stevie being unknowingly tasked with the delivery of a bomb (hidden next to a couple of film cans in a bit of cruel, self-referential irony) all the way across town in precious little time. Hitchcock establishes the boy’s clumsiness from his first frame on the screen, and his awkward fumbling in crowds leads to his brutal death, still stuck on a bus, an accidental suicide bomber.

When the news finally floods back to Winnie, she is beyond shaken, stumbling into the theater in which the Silly Symphony cartoon Who Killed Cock Robin? is playing, distant from the proceedings as awareness sinks in, laughing hysterically, her mind reeling with grief and revelation. When one bird in the cartoon violently kills another, she is sent over the edge. This is the picture of the impact of war and its disregard for life upon innocence, upon common sense, upon real people. Her trauma becomes ours. At the dinner table — in a truly remarkable series of shots and cuts — Verloc vainly attempts to justify the accident; he has the audacity to try and comfort her by assuring her that they could “have a kid” of their own. Several point-of-view shots find her taking an almost robotic revenge (when someone later asks her what happened, she is nonchalant and broken: “He killed Stevie”). In one psychologically monstrous shot, she is followed by a stationary camera after his death, stumbling back toward a chair to cope with her new madness, with the bottom portion of his corpse still in the foreground. The evidence of her own guilt is destroyed when the building goes down in a fire and she, the one survivor of the three residents, leaves with the “grocer”…. but as in Blackmail, she will always remember where instincts led her, and the complete justification of it will not provide any comfort, perversely because she is alone in her anguish; no one knows, except the very nice cop who seems like something of a cipher. In this context the chilling final frames of both Blackmail and John Boorman’s Deliverance — the surfacing body bringing a nightmare back into daylight — feel almost merciful.

The motivation for this film’s unforgiving nature is obvious given the time and place of its production release — 1936 Britain — but Hitchcock’s impassioned, complex glare into the eyes of the enemy retains its resonance today precisely because it was so vital in its period. Staring into the abyss, what Hitchcock and his audience see is not a simplistic, elementary version of what we call evil; there are no clear-cut morals here, or at least not enough for them for us to thoroughly rebuke Verloc until his absence of shame (as Leonard Leff put it) becomes known to us. Hitchcock himself later doubted the necessity of the picture’s harsh impact, as did many moviegoers, particularly in the scene involving the death of the young Stevie. But without the boy’s death, Sabotage would lose its soul. It is only through such radical loss that the message, and the unspeakably moving experience of being so completely in the shoes and the heart of a woman who must take revenge, can be delivered. (The film’s American title, The Woman Alone, eloquently evokes one of the director’s most consistent themes and conflicts.)

But if the message seems mixed, that’s because of the intricacies of the people and their story. Most curious is the nature of Verloc’s relationship with his wife, much younger than him and hardly affectionate. Whole avenues of speculation and enigma are opened up; why does her brother live with them? Why does he have a different accent? And why does the couple’s relationship seem so cordial, and cold? They never call one another by their names, and there’s an oppressive formality to their interactions. Winnie comments upon how unfailingly kind her husband is almost with a sense of exasperation. So many questions persist. This movie — full of cinematic references, making full use of its setting — brings us a glimpse at the pregnancy of every moment, of the mysteries and secrets in this tiny world in which people make their time (as claustrophobic as Blackmail, despite again all of London at its disposal), and it’s so crucially an urban middle class setting and an impressionistic portrait of what seems like a real and tragic human story. The people and places are so evocative, the story is almost simply an excuse for us to be engrossed within them.

To be fair, nothing works without Hitchcock’s powerful flair with the camera; his photography is more a fly on the wall here than usual, capturing the delicate, at times beautifully ugly intensity of individual moments — an uncomfortable meeting between Verloc and an informer in front of an aquarium, and in particular the infamously terrifying Disney sequence, which Pauline Kael correctly argued as one of the most upsetting and brilliant scenes in Hitchcock. (Sabotage contains many moments that would belong in any list of the director’s signature moments if it were better known.) It seems as though he lives inside this film and has examined every possible connotation for his characters; that’s always true to an extent, but it’s a skill not used in service of so achingly real and tragic a story since Blackmail.

Perhaps Hitchcock’s foremost fascination in Sabotage, as in Secret Agent and destined to recur many times hence, is the inevitable clash between duty and everyday life, a clash which in this case becomes deadly — Verloc’s indecision balancing his impulse against loss of human life and his need for money, to say nothing of his disgust at the seamy London in which he’s engulfed, epitomized by a chilling scene involving a bird shop owner, actually a bomb maker, played by William Dewhurst, whose grown daughter looks on at him with open contempt, another broken home left unexplained to us but with its dynamic nevertheless painfully clear. The theme manifests as well in Winnie’s tormented moments forcing her essentially to choose between her dear brother and her husband, to say nothing of Stevie’s easily-distracted tendencies that lead to the massacre of numerous people (and at least one dog) on a bus.

It’s often stated that the major flaw of Sabotage, assuming one does not adopt the silly fiction that Stevie’s death is superfluous, is the character of Sgt. Spencer, the Scotland Yard investigator posing as a greengrocer (not insignificantly, Hitchcock’s father’s occupation), and consequently the performance of John Loder in that role — initially intended for Robert Donat. Loder is a clean-cut heroic “perfect” type who seems like a compromise and does perform the part more blandly than Donat would’ve, as Hitchcock would argue. Yet the performance’s relative anonymity — compared to Sidney and Homolka, both of whom are outstanding — strikes this viewer as to some extent quite appropriate. Loder can’t fully be blamed in the first place; Homolka, playing a rough draft of Claude Rains’ unforgettable Sebastian in Notorious, is given so much to work with — Verloc is intimidating by his sheer form but is a mouse when confronted by secretive associates, married to a much younger woman with whom he seems to share little if any affection, and he lives with her teenage brother, for whom he seems to hold a certain amount of quiet disdain. In the end, perhaps the point is that a simplistic hero with seemingly little inner life can do nothing to stop a complicated villain.

As a result, Sgt. Spencer — for all his derring-do and his impressive ability to ingratiate himself with Winnie and Stevie if not Mr. Verloc — accomplishes basically nothing in his attempts to put a wringer in the terrorist’s plans. He joins the film’s list of cinematic meta-references. It almost feels like a deliberate invasion of Hollywood stereotype in a story that is all too real. This is supported by the centering of the action around the theater. Two conclusions, then: 1) Because the “hero” is so idealized, he is a cardboard do-gooder who makes attempt after attempt to “save the day,” and even seems to think he has done something at the close of the film by just contributing half-hearted consolation to a widow, when a busload of people including at least one young boy are dead and the movie theater is engulfed in fire. 2) If he were a more realistic or interesting character, the movie would make far less sense; perversely, by enhancing the character, it would be taking the easy way out because it would support the notion that for the “woman alone,” there is always some hunk nearby to take care of everything.

And despite the fact that the director moved his operations to the U.S. just four years after making Sabotage, there is a possibility of some anti-Hollywood commentary in the piece, with what might be construed as (at the height of the Depression, with war in Europe three years away) the Dream Factory’s ignorance of and distance from the real world. Escape from reality can be sweet and welcome, but simple dreams personified — like the next-door nice guy in the movie — are more hollow than we want to imagine, and become just another part of the swirling nightmare. This is more eloquently, subtly stated here than in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, which uses all this as its thesis.

Beyond that, the same idea of Hollywood “romantic heroism” and its lack of contact with reality is repeated more explicitly in the thematically similar Shadow of a Doubt (almost immediately after meeting Teresa Wright, a detective tells her he is in love with her, a notion she finds rather laughable) and, later, in both The Birds and Marnie. It’s probably not a coincidence that these four movies that comment directly on a certain emptiness of fantasy are among the director’s darkest works.

Sabotage is too involving and realistic — so much so that it’s frightening, because it can’t be trusted to comfort us — to wrap things up tidily. Winnie walks away with Sgt. Spencer into the throngs of people in London, but her emotional state is left unresolved. She is reeling as the film fades suddenly, and there is no sense of relief or closure whatsoever, especially with the knowledge that Verloc’s death will not mark the end of the deadly plans he was carrying out; there’s a kind of fatalism in a Scotland Yard official’s early comment that those actually responsible for terrorism in London are permanently out of the reach of law enforcement. We’re also left struggling on a smaller scale with the ambiguity of Sabotage‘s messages, with the relative calm and kindly nature of its villain and the arrogance of its hero, the leading lady’s status as a murderer and the dead child’s deeply ironic sealing of his own fate. The bleakness of it all haunts permanently, because in contrast to the usual Hitchcock tale, it’s all too believable.

The following year, Hitchcock would attempt to integrate the lessons he learned in Sabotage, as well as some traces of its unrelenting blackness and its fixation upon ordinary people, into a more crowd-pleasing narrative without such broad political implications. Like the rest of the Sextet, this juxtaposition speaks to the versatility of both the director himself and to his chief collaborator during this time, Charles Bennett, who scripted all but one of the films in the series. Indeed, across the annals of Hitchcock’s filmography, this is one of the least “fun” of his works, but it’s also among the most fascinating, and the invitation it extends to a brief, nasty bird’s eye view of a decrepit city in an ominous time that could finally be most any terrible city at any terrible time instills a kind of dread and fear that the director would seldom attempt to match.

***

[Expansion and cleanup of a review of the film from 2004 as well as an additional essay about John Loder’s character from 2006.]

Ninotchka (1939, Ernst Lubitsch)

RECOMMENDED

I revisited this in the hopes that, after becoming a huge fan of Lubitsch’s earlier films, I would better understand its reputation; unfortunately, despite some scattered laughs and — near the end — a few genuinely affecting moments of strong characterization, undoubtedly a result of Billy Wilder’s contributions to the script, I continued to find it a thin, bad-faith justification for the director’s (and perhaps the screenwriters’) own internalized misogyny. You get a sense in many of his films (even better ones than this, like The Love Parade) that Lubitsch knows his attitude toward women is wrong and unhealthy, but he typically contorts himself to find a way to make it seem cute; in this case, as well as in the later Heaven Can Wait, he mostly fails, with the added insult here of wasting an excellent, iconic performance and padding out the running time with a weak plot comprised of much oddly dull business about aristocratic jewels. I have little to add to what I wrote in 2007, and I can’t help feeling I was better at passionately articulating my frustration with it when I was younger than I would be now, so I present it below, albeit slightly cleaned up, and I do apologize for some of the rambling that happens, though I can’t see where any of it is inaccurate.

***

Guys, if you don’t remember anything else about life, keep this in mind: If you ever meet a strong woman, a woman with power and individualism, a woman who has the audacity to dress in business wear and act like she knows what she’s talking about, a woman who’s an authority figure, a woman who might actually be in a position of superiority to you, a woman who is who she wants to be, a woman who loves her work and does it well, a woman who might get pleasure on her own terms, a woman who is a complete person, it is your mission to flirt and mock and degrade her until you manage to deconstruct her and turn her into the beautiful, cooing, long-haired, powerless, selfless, wide-eyed babe of your dreams. (Don’t forget that once you’ve seduced her, she’s in this relationship for your sake, not hers; she might give a blowjob daily but if she happens to come, it’s mere coincidence because female pleasure is just… well, immoral.) Make sure if you discover a movie about this situation that you praise it as if it is Great Comedy instead of an ancient artifact of a shitty attitude that is still widespread.

Actually, I liked Ninocthka, the Ernst Lubitsch classic partially scripted by the great Billy Wilder. It’s a very funny movie with a stunningly brilliant lead performance by Greta Garbo. But its unadulterated sexism still made me gag. The movie is commonly criticized for its rather lazy social commentary, but all the jokes about Bolshevism and Karl Marx were much more appealing to me than what ends up happening to the title character. (There’s a “Heil, Hitler!” joke that is just wonderful, proving that dated humor isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) Garbo shows up in the film — in a hilarious entrance — as a tough, smart, scary, possibly bisexual Soviet ambassador to clear the waters after a few Russian lunkheads fuck up a French business arrangement. (Garbo’s character could easily have been equally commanding but less androgynous in form… but that would have made the initial premise far less interesting, and considerably less erotic.)

Up to this point in the film I was with it; it was abrasive, witty, varied, and I was laughing a hell of a lot. But when Ninotchka meets up with “aw, shucks” wisecracker Melvyn Douglas, she instantly begins a long and painful transition to Marilyn Monroe. This subversion of indviduality in favor of a status quo is what I find sexist, and — along with the shrill nagging and screaming of the female characters who populate, for instance, Martin Scorsese’s work — it’s the reductive stereotype Hollywood loves best. This is offensive when directed toward men or women, but it’s almost always targeted toward the latter, in the 1930s and now. I think My Fair Lady is one of the most infuriating major movies in existence; I think it’s more likely to send someone over the edge of sanity than any action or horror film. And it’s not just because the songs are awful, Audrey Hepburn is miscast, and George Cukor’s direction is clunky beyond words, it’s in large part because George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” is tripe that people shouldn’t have to read in high school, and that should not be celebrated with a musical on Broadway or in the movies.

The hatred extends in Ninotchka to sexuality; the true “objectifying” of women occurs less in pornography than in mainstream media, in the suggestion that there is only one way to be attractive, sexy, desirable, fulfilled. Probably this idea has done almost as much damage to people as belief in the supernatural. And here we have Garbo, one of the greatest icons of the screen, giving a phenomenal performance in unconventional guise, attitude, voice; she is mysterious, unusual, uncompromising in avoidance of conventional “femininity”, and frankly — not that it’s any big deal but it is a movie — sexy. But of course that’s the point when, by the script’s terms, she is cold as ice; only when she takes off her hat and mannish suit can she truly be a Woman, when she laughs with her mate and alters her life’s direction to coincide with his, basically laying down all of her traits — body and mind in equal proportion — because the guy with the cockeyed smile and unfunny jokes has made her his. Ain’t love grand.

The best scene in the movie is an example of how it should have worked: Douglas spends ten minutes in a restaurant trying to make Garbo laugh amid her rants about the “working people”; he fails so miserably that finally she laughs, but only at his expense, so that his “triumph” is in fact a complete bitter failure. A movie about a woman whose lack of compromise in her self-respect and individualiy who leaves a bunch of drooling simpleheaded men reeling in her wake sounds like a pretty solid idea to me. And she’d have a job! And her ultimate goal wouldn’t be to live in a kitchen! Maybe she could even be the one with some kind of sexual hunger? Instead, for some unstated reason — I suspect just because he’s a cad who won’t stop following her, which is the Hollywood definition of how men should demonstrate desire — she’s suddenly smitten with the man, forgiving of all of his ideological opposition to her, completely and mysteriously beholden to his “charms.”

[2017 note: Actually, I strongly suspect that one of the buried implications here is that Ninotchka is seduced mostly by the beauty and glamour of venturing for the first time outside of the world she knows; Garbo’s performance captures this feeling of ebullience then deflation beautifully. To really probe at this would require the film to be more serious and sincere about politics than I feel it is; the world it posits is one strictly of extremes, of either drab and invasive communism or a jolly, carefree, colorful free market devoid of consequence. Perhaps some deep reading of the film could uncover a coherent philosophy behind such silliness, but I’m not capable. Interestingly, there is a brief and valuable sequence late in the film about Ninocthka’s life after her return to Russia that captures a complexity in her longing and briefly takes her values seriously while carefully examining how they have been challenged — but the film’s reluctance to actually investigate or resolve this is a microcosm of its larger problems with the character, who’s essentially ridiculed for having convictions and an inner life.]

People might tell you that most or all old movies are just as casually sexist as this one; this sort of wisdom is generally spread by those who have seen about three pre-1970 films, maybe fewer. His Girl Friday is the complete antithesis of Ninotchka in its attitude toward women, and it was made the very next year. Rebecca is not only anti-misogynist in tone, it’s basically about the fight — and victory — over charm-poison sexism, mocking the ideal of the knight in shining armor with shady asshole Maxim De Winter; Suspicion same thing, this time even more directly attacking the standard of the “awkward”, “homely” bespectacled girl (Joan Fontaine) “transformed” to a beauty queen by her con artist darling Cary Grant. For chrissake, Gone with the Wind has some of the most multilayered, strongly written female characters in screen history to this day, and it ends with a woman who declares (so arrogantly!) that she doesn’t need a man to live her life. Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby revolves around individualistic, relentlessly unconventional Katharine Hepburn lusting after a man. I could go on.

And then there’s Billy Wilder, whose The Apartment is a vindictive assault against disrespect toward women, whose Some Like It Hot is the all-time definitive movie about androgyny and the ultimate meaninglessness of gender boundaries. Did Wilder really progress so far in just twenty years? Or did the times just change? Either way, Ninotchka remains a delightfully fun movie, but one thwarted by its ancient ideas and one that in the end can’t really be more than a pleasantry.

***

[As noted at the top, slightly reformatted version of a review from 2007.]

October 2017 movie capsules

22 movies seen in October. Counts:
– 19 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 2,239.
– 3 revisits, one of them (Double Indemnity) already reviewed here in the past.
– 2 new full reviews, for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and the fabulous Dodsworth. I’d written about both many years ago at other venues but chose to keep very little of my previous work for these revisions.
– 16 (really 17, as one is for a two-part film) new capsules, provided a few spaces down.
– The Harvey Weinstein story broke this month, preceded by some comparatively obscure scandals in the film writing world and followed by an opening of the floodgates, with Kevin Spacey the tip of a very large iceberg. Movies are a solace and a comfort for me, not just watching them but also reading and writing about and studying them. I doubt I need to explain that mindset to you if you’re reading this. I maintain this blog for fun, and there is no other motivation for it apart from the relief it provides me from the news, from evils and concerns that, while hardly new, seem increasingly inescapable to me as I age. For that reason I don’t really long to come here and talk about the state of the world, and misogyny, and rape, and sexual assault, and workplace abuse, and the toxic hatefulness and abusiveness of seemingly the vast majority of powerful men, or perhaps men as a whole. (I don’t qualify that with “perhaps” out of defensiveness but out of concern at the pass it gives to shitty people — the notion that their biology dictates their behavior, that they “can’t help it.” And I have absolutely no doubt that economic exploitation of workers, including artists, plays a major role in the size and scope of this specific phenomenon.) But I feel a responsibility, even if only to myself and my own conscience, to acknowledge somewhere — and it may as well be here — that I know I can’t talk about Hollywood or even world cinema, contemporary and otherwise, in a vacuum. Movies themselves are not made in a vacuum, or at least good ones aren’t. Still I’m going to be honest: it’s a pain in the ass that the conversation is now irrevocably in this place where I cannot discuss film with others and also feasibly ignore the ugliness at the core of the system that crafts so much art that means the world to me, however commodified it is. And I just want to say that my frustration with this is not frustration with the victims of these men or the victims of sexual assault in general. My frustration is with the men and the creators themselves; it is their fault that so many movies, books, recordings, etc. are cursed with a permanent asterisk. It is not the fault of those who have spoken out, who are brave and admirable beyond measure.
– I don’t entirely believe in “separating the art from the artist.” I don’t believe it’s possible, and I don’t fully understand why it’s something you’d want to do; for anyone who’s serious about studying past work, an important figure’s biography can be a vital tool, a prism through which we can examine and evaluate the work whether we choose to interpret it as fundamentally an extension of who they are or not. That includes if they were awful people, by either our standards or the standards of their time. I certainly realize it’s more difficult to do that when you’re living in the same time as the artist in question, when there are questions of actual consumer support potentially coming into play. I do believe that celebrating someone’s work is not the same as celebrating them as a human, in much the same way I don’t believe a film is praiseworthy because it was made by a nice or good person; however, in times like now when wounds are newly exposed and emotions are running high with good reason, I can understand being troubled by such an assertion. My advocacy, at any rate, is of the scavenging of art from the artist; it may provide a fascinating window into a troubled soul — though honestly this is less true of even the most auteurist-friendly filmmaker, since cinema is inherently so much more collaborative than any other art form — but its final utility and place in the world is what it can come to mean for those of us who experience it. One reason I subscribe to this is that I think it’s dangerous to imply that only the “Bad Men” — only the untalented or immoral ones, only the ones who blatantly skeeve us out — are capable of sexual crimes; frankly, it should not surprise us that a criminal who hurt people did good things, or was able to convince others he was a good person. Statistically, it can’t possibly only be Bad Men doing this; to me, disowning the art of everyone we know to have committed these and other transgressions — apart from requiring us to dispense with so much that is culturally vital, which I personally just can’t get behind — further sets up the opportunity for men to hide behind a culturally beloved status, for outsiders to continue to console themselves that none of the Good, Decent Men inflict pain on others. Basically I don’t feel comfortable tying my own likes and interests to a vetting of the people involved; if they’ve performed serious misdeeds, I don’t believe they should work again. If they continue to work because the system is fucked and make another movie I like, I’m going to be honest about that, because reviewing movies is what I do here. Perhaps that’s a form of compartmentalization that’s unhealthy, but it’s the way I would prefer to run things here.
– That said, I have nothing but sympathy for anyone who — now, or later, or ever — cannot “see past” an artist’s personal life, behavior, and cruelty or criminal actions against others. I just want to be upfront about the fact that this blog may deal with it in a way you find disagreeable.
– My procedure has always been, and will continue to be, to speak to the personalities of filmmakers and performers strictly when I feel it’s relevant to a film’s content; Roman Polanski’s crimes, for instance, won’t necessarily come up in a review of Chinatown, but they will in a review of Tess; Elia Kazan’s status as a dirty rat is impossible to avoid in an analysis of On the Waterfront — it’s less pressing when you’re dealing with Splendor in the Grass. You may feel that continuing to review films that involve, or are largely the work of, accused or convicted predators or even just known assholes is an act of complicity. I don’t really have an answer for that, the same way I don’t have an answer for anyone who wants to know why I think John Lennon frequently behaved in a way that was vile to both men and women in his life and still find him an endlessly fascinating, complex subject, some of whose words and actions I find quite sympathetic. The same with James Brown and Spencer Tracy and Michael Jackson and Walt Disney (political, not personal issues there) and on and on and on, and I agree that it’s hypocritical and, again, I don’t have an answer except that it’s a fact of how I am — probably a testament to how much these kinds of art matter to me — and I suppose embracing hypocrisy is some part of growing up. Frankly I just don’t want to live in a world without a whole lot — I mean, a whole lot — of art that is in some way problematic in its origin, not because it is problematic, I wish it wasn’t, but because it is so much more.
– The list of what Glenn Kenny has called “bad actors” in Hollywood is endless, and it’s endless in other industries, and I think it’s a testament to capitalism, power, misogyny, culture at large more than a testament to the quality of the art that may happen to grow out of it; let’s not forget that any given television series of film also involves the hard work of any number of people who are not predators, who are in fact hard-working artists and technicians whose contributions are seldom destined to receive the kind of acknowledgement and reward they deserve.
– Lastly, I have to admit that in my teens and early to mid-twenties, when I was gradually turning into the sort of person who would ultimately run this ridiculous fucking blog, I acted shamefully about this specific subject in regard to favorite artists, especially directors, who had accusations made against them. I was aggressively defensive of the character of these men, exclusively because I loved their work; I had no deep reason beyond that — I found sexual violence itself no less reprehensible — except that because they had created things that were beloved to me, I didn’t think they could possibly be capable of anything evil. I made excuses for them and argued with people about it. I was an asshole and I am deeply sorry about it, and this is specifically the fallacy I refer to above that worries me: that which dictates that our faves are the good ones, allowing storied careers to blind us via the illusion that one’s work dictates who they are. It doesn’t, and I hope I’ve made clear that one’s likes and dislikes don’t either; you will continue to read praise of the work of many bad people, or people who’ve done bad things, here… and if this disclaimer is unsatisfactory, I completely understand and I apologize.

***

Project breakdowns:
1930s canon: 8 films (7 new). I wanted to get a lot more done with this, but I’m still going to try to finish up in November; it’ll be interesting to see if I manage it. Knocked out Under the Roofs of Paris, Man of Aran, La Chienne, Lost Horizon, both parts of Riefenstahl’s Olympia, You Only Live Once and the aforementioned revisit Dodsworth. Remaining: 21 films (17 new); my fate is riding with all the holidays I get this month and the fact that most of these are short.
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 9 films (7 new), including two overlap with the ’30s canon (Dodsworth and Lost Horizon). I cleaned out the rest of what was on Netflix and Filmstruck, plus some DVDs that showed up in the mailbox. We saw The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, Secrets and Lies, Babel, Atonement, Captain Blood, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and the revisited I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. This project will be suspended in November and will resume in December. Remaining: 168 films (135 new).
2010s catchup: Managed to find time for the Nick Cave movie One More Time with Feeling, while a Netflix expiration sent me barreling to my favorite recent movie in a long time, the truly delightful We Are the Best!.
New movies: The Lost City of Z and (overlapped) One More Time with Feeling, and speaking of delightful, caught Get Out, and if that bit of horror wasn’t enough…
Other: …we decided to watch The Others on Halloween night. Also in this category was the Treasures from American Film Archives feature The Chechahcos. I am determined to finish that set in the next week.

Capsules follow!

***

Under the Roofs of Paris (1930, René Clair) [r]
Engaging but underwhelming silent-sound hybrid has René Clair experimenting with narrative, slipping periodically into pantomime, but the occasionally lyrical comedy about missing keys, suspicious bags and love triangles suffers from too many characters and too much plot at the expense of the ebullient, slightly melancholy feeling he conjures up in the opening and closing shots. As early talkies go it’s technically impressive and certainly vibrant, but I miss the sheer elegance of Clair’s later work as well as the surrealism of his silent shorts.

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966, Norman Jewison) [NO]
Painfully unfunny farce has fewer jokes that land than Powell & Pressburger’s similarly plotted 49th Parallel, which wasn’t a comedy. A Russian submarine lands in an idyllic oceanside community, causing very stereotyped and hacky small-town humor and much weak loudness and chaos under the Stanley Kramer-Blake Edwards theory that filling the frame with celebrities and weakly drawn characters and artificial zaniness somehow equates to high comedy. Jewison has no clue how to stage this, and it goes on forever.

Man of Aran (1934, Robert J. Flaherty) [r]
This landmark ethnofiction about hunter-gatherer inhabitants of the titular islands off the Irish coast is uncomfortable to watch knowing that so much of it is staged; Flaherty seems to quickly lose interest in a study of his subjects’ lifestyle and instead decides, somewhat incomprehensibly, that the whole movie is now about sharks and shark hunting. That said, it is visually sumptuous — nearly every shot has an almost painterly quality — and its lack of direct “acting,” as well as the unorthodox editing technique, allows it to become entertainingly abstract.

Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele) [hr]
Disarmingly witty horror film stars Daniel Kaluuya as a dude meeting the girlfriend’s parents for the first time, his nervousness compounded because they don’t yet know he’s black. Breezy and fun and tense enough that it wouldn’t necessarily need to be an interrogation of race relations, but the uneasy feeling you get from the outset is unmistakably realistic. The unnervingly minimal, Kubrickian production design renders human fears in full color, but all the while it’s the outwardly nice people too tone-deaf to realize they’re doing anything wrong who are the real threat, which in 2017 was very timely.

Secrets & Lies (1996, Mike Leigh) [r]
In this largely improvised, intimate and emotionally intense drama, a woman in London seeks out her birth family and becomes embroiled in the life of her frenetic, hypersensitive birth mother, whose family’s entire existence is ridden with uncomfortable secrets and old resentments. As usual Leigh’s actors get across some incredible depth in their characters, building to small moments and a low-key finale that are indescribably moving, but there are still limitations to Leigh’s methodology; you can’t always escape the feeling that you are watching a community theater rehearsal.

La Chienne (1931, Jean Renoir) [hr]
Renoir’s second sound film advertises its absence of a moral or point at the outset and proceeds to toss us headfirst into a bleak story of deception and vile behavior within a working-class love triangle in Paris involving an amateur painter (Michel Simon, stunting his usual persona) and a prostitute and pimp who mistake him for rich and see him as their way out. Might be the most honest narrative film ever made; it has the air of real tragedy, real life, happening to real people and demonstrates little life, poetry or irony in the cruel world we occupy. It’ll ruin your day, but it’s terribly engrossing.

Babel (2006, Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Another overlong González Iñárritu festival of everything-is-(tenuously)-connected bleakness, this time with bonus chronological cheating. Vaguely, it’s an indictment of American exceptionalism: a random, stupid act of violence against a tourist inflicts far-reaching and grim consequences as far away as Japan, sort of. Relies heavily on ludicrous worst-case scenarios and much senseless behavior on the part of its thin characters. Three of the four stories are compelling if wholly unfinished, but all of the smash cuts and cross cutting in the world can’t give them the rhythm, purpose or completeness they seek.

The Chechahcos (1924, Lewis H. Moomaw) [r]
A facile melodrama with some of the most spectacular location photography seen up to this point in a feature film, still staggering to look at even now, this is one of the first independent films of its scale to be produced during the studio era, largely created and performed by nonprofessionals in Alaska. All things considered, it’s something of a miracle, as is its survival, and it compensates for its humdrum mother-and-child separation plotline with the sights and sounds and extremity of northwestern North America, the magnificence of which would be impossible to approach on any soundstage.

Lost Horizon (1937, Frank Capra) [hr]
One of the most dreamlike Hollywood films, and among the most incisively political despite its fantastic elements. The plot is lifted from James Hilton’s novel that created the concept of Shangri-La, which in the descriptions passed through Robert Riskin’s screenplay sounds like a supernatural socialist paradise. The film’s strangeness and oddly ecstatic fervor are immediately engaging, largely thanks to the normally staid Ronald Colman’s unmistakable sincerity. Despite the flaws and mangled status, this is a deservedly legendary curiosity that gives a number of clues about the way Capra looked at people.

Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations (1938, Leni Riefenstahl) [hr]
Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty (1938, Leni Riefenstahl) [hr]
Riefenstahl’s eclectic document of the 1936 Olympics is so exciting you can’t help wishing that she (or maybe a director with similar talents and less, uh… concerning political associations) was there to film every sporting event you’ve ever had to sit through. Its shimmering cinematography, remarkably fluid and kinetic editing, and almost drunkenly beautiful awe at the wonders of the human body can’t be diluted by the years; and even though these events are now 81 years in the past, you’re at the edge of your seat through most of both films. Triumph of the Will shouldn’t be in the same sentence.

One More Time with Feeling (2016, Andrew Dominik) [r]
Emotionally fraught documentary about the creation of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ sobering 2016 album Skeleton Tree, the songs on which Cave had mostly written before his 15 year-old son’s tragic, sudden death. Dominik’s film shows how Cave carefully returned to work after this loss; without becoming exploitative or intrusive, it gives insight into how one (specifically an artist) copes with this level of grief. It also provides an intimate look at the making of a fine record, deepening one’s appreciation of the songs and how they changed after what Cave, understandably cryptic, calls “the event.”

Atonement (2007, Joe Wright)
Formally interesting, dramatically inert adaptation of a celebrated Ian McEwan novel that clumsily drums up silly English Patient-style romantic melodrama from a false rape accusation made by a child. It’s all very stuffy and kind of troubling, and the structure, which clearly means to impress in its audacity, has the ring of desperation, and it’s finally just another gooey vehicle for Keira Knightley and James McAvoy to give the exact same performances they always give.

We Are the Best! (2013, Lukas Moodysson) [hr]
Hilarious, palpably autobiographical (on the part of source material author Coco Moodysson) slice-of-life odyssey of two punk rock-addicted adolescent girls recruiting a third, a more conventional “good kid” from a religious household, for an amateur punk band and sing about how much they hate sports, during the early winter of 1982 in Stockholm. If Frank Borzage had lived to capture the experience of being a sullen, alienated teenager finding solace in headphones, it might have felt like this, so vivid and distinctive are its characters and their relationship. It’s the rare film that you wish could go on longer.

The Lost City of Z (2016, James Grey)
The distinctly James Franco-like Charlie Hunnam headlines this bleak adventure story based on the life of explorer Perry Fawcett; Robert Pattinson, looking strangely like John Lennon, is excellent as long-suffering fellow traveler Henry Costin. There are stretches when this is arresting, especially during the second trip to the Amazon that culminates in a battle of wills between Fawcett and James Murray, but the usual slick biopic trappings take over instead. There’s nothing really wrong with this film, but there isn’t much that’s memorable about it either.

Captain Blood (1935, Michael Curtiz) [r]
Well-directed, action-packed Warner Bros. vehicle for Errol Flynn wherein his charm and confidence cover up a bit for his thin capabilities as an actor. He portrays a wronged physician who turns to a life of piracy after being sold into slavery due to a misunderstanding — yeah, it’s that kind of movie, and it doesn’t attain additional credibility from its absurd love story involving pretty rich girl Olivia de Havilland, but it’s all a lot of fun, especially lively compared to the far stiffer adventure movies MGM was making around this time.

You Only Live Once (1937, Fritz Lang) [hr]
Lang’s second American film shares a cynical tone with its predecessor Fury, but finds time as well for a hard-earned romanticism that’s genuinely surprising given the source. Henry Fonda, monumental, stars as a hardened inmate finally set loose whose sole source of optimism is his relationship to his doggedly faithful wife (Sylvia Sidney). As in Fury, the story and its troubled hero back themselves into a seemingly inescapable moral corner, but what sticks most of all is how this gets across like few other films the pure recklessness of love at its headiest, most ill-advised, and most important.

The Others (2001, Alejandro Amenábar)
Politest, prettiest horror movie I have seen.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011, Stephen Daldry)
Easy to harp on the complete absence of flavor or style in this pedestrian awards-bait; equally easy to scoff at the cutesy hyper-sincerity and contrivance of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel. And there’s something faintly exploitative about the heavy use of 9/11 imagery to tell the story of a boy searching NYC for the lock to match a key he finds in his late father’s closet… but Tom Hanks is effortlessly charming as the boy’s dad, Thomas Horn credible enough as the protagonist Oskar, and the whole thing is entertaining even if maudlin and artless, and not nearly as bad as was reported at the time of its release.

***

[Additional thoughts on: Double Indemnity / I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang / Dodsworth]

Post #600: FAQ / the worst films / complete index

It’s already been nearly two and a half years since our last milestone post, which closely coincided with a radical change in the rate of posting here and with the beginnings of the canon project that’s mostly overtaken the narrative at this point. These changes had two interesting impacts: fewer long reviews being posted, and yet conversely, far more films being reviewed, with the result that in going back over this blog’s nearly six-year history, there’s quite a lot to index. The links at the top of this screen, of course, take you to a complete index of short capsules for every film I’m aware that I’ve seen, but that goes back eons and serves a different purpose, really, than our day to day business — more reference than readability. What we have here is a complete listing of every feature film I have reviewed formally here or informally at Letterboxd since December 2011, which also means every film I have seen since that date. The films are gathered in rough chronological order, by year and then by director. (I debated listing them by precise release date but decided this would make the list far more difficult to update in a few years.)

This is a good time for a short FAQ about my general procedures here, how things have changed since the blog’s inception, etc. so here we go. (FAQ is a bit of a misnomer, because traffic’s not exactly booming, but these are the questions I speculate you may have if you happen upon this site.

There used to be a lot more long, essay-length reviews being posted here; in fact, for the first three years it was three per week without fail. Now it’s more like, to paraphrase Annie Hall, two or three times a month. Why is that?
I was still in my twenties when I started Slices of Cake and had very ambitious plans to write an essay on each film with a place in the unofficial “canon,” so to speak, and many without one, using various polls and lists as my starting point. As time went on, the joy I found in analyzing and breaking down perceived classics started to fade, especially when it led to me spending a lot of time writing about movies I didn’t really care about, which is not something I’m keen on doing for free. However, I’m kind of stubborn about my personal projects and I let the original concept go on longer than it should have. This is an example of the conflict between my love of writing and my love of lists and organization — even when I didn’t enjoy writing long pieces about, say, Tootsie, I loved the fact that I could say I’d written about every film in the AFI 100, and it was a bit hard for me to give up that distinction and similar ones. In the end I switched to a system of drafting rough, somewhat informal short pieces for each film I watch at Letterboxd, and posting a full-length review only when I felt I had enough to say to warrant one. (Generally, if I type two full paragraphs at Letterboxd and feel I can keep going, I switch to a full essay here.) I had already been logging everything I watched over there, and this just helped me integrate that site into my day-to-day habits for maintaining SOC.

How do you choose what films receive full reviews?
From 2012 to early 2015, the vast majority of movies I watched were reviewed in full. But starting in February 2015, the pace slackened considerably as described above. For the most part I shy away from writing at great length about movies I’ve just seen for the first time ever; the only exceptions are if I consider something a masterpiece out of the gate (recent examples would be The Scarlet Empress and Sisters of the Gion) or if I find that a film triggered so many thoughts that I need the space to sprawl around and explore it. That doesn’t necessarily mean I liked it. Contemporary examples are Blue Valentine, which I hated; The One I Love, which I liked; and Wiener-Dog, which I absolutely adored. Eventually my intent is for any film I love to be fully reviewed in this space, some more than once. Right now, because I was doing things differently early on, you may find in the index below a strange imbalance whereby films I champion — say, We Are the Best! or Moonlight or The Heiress or Finding Nemo — have not been examined beyond short capsules at LB, but you can click through to reviews of The Quiet Man and the Lord of the Rings movies and other films that don’t seem to merit such deep analysis, at least not from these quarters. Over time this will change. There are many examples of films for which I posted complete reviews at the time but wouldn’t now; some of these are nevertheless pieces of writing I’m happy with, but many are not. Another reason some films that weren’t a great use of my time once received long reviews is because I made some missteps in terms of the viewing projects I was taking on. More on that in a moment.

What is Letterboxd and why/how do you use it?
Letterboxd is a wonderful social network dedicated to movie watching and reviewing that wasn’t available to me when I started this blog; if it had been, there’s a not-insignificant chance I would have made it my primary outlet for film reviewing. What I like about it: its visual appeal, its ease of use, its many helpful tools, its readability, and its social aspect, which is so much more appealing in many ways than the comparatively quarantined culture of this weblog. I began logging and writing up all films I saw there at the beginning of 2013 when I received an invite (registrations became fully open soon after that); this, incidentally, is why the first year’s worth of reviews here are the only ones that do not have LB capsules linked. I also imported the full list of films I had previously seen, although to date I have not added any pre-2013 reviews or capsules to the site and don’t expect I will. Up to the point when I changed the format here at SOC, I used my immediate Letterboxd responses as a “first draft” for the reviews I would later post here, which proved a handy alternative to extensive note-taking. (It also helps me keep a “bigger picture” in mind when I write; if I take detailed notes I tend to get constantly sidetracked by nuances.) Now, Letterboxd is really my main venue for film writing, with certain more polished thoughts making their way here.

The only drawback to using LB is the possibility of internet non-permanence; whereas I have full control of what you see at this blog (apart from the ads, which disappear if you log in), Letterboxd is of course a third party. However, I back up my work there regularly and could always switch to some alternative method of posting that material if necessary. But I would greatly miss the interactions with friends and other film lovers there, and I don’t have much confidence in my ability to engage people in quite the same way here.

Some of the old posts look different from the new posts.
That’s not a question, but anyway, yeah. When I started I was pretty ambitious, as we’ve seen, and was determined to make this blog extremely visually striking. One of my pet peeves with a lot of professional movie reviewers (which I am not, and I want you to know I have no illusions otherwise) is that they may as well be writing about novels much of the time, and I think it’s important to communicate the visual properties of cinema, which are the majority of its appeal. One way I thought I could reinforce that was with multiple illustrations in each post. As time went by and internet trends changed I came to feel that this made the posts look cluttered. Additionally, I did not want to rely on what stills I could dig up on the web and wanted to be able to choose the screenshots myself, which for a good while was the most time-consuming and annoying part of maintaining all this. So I simplified for a time to just putting a one-sheet at the top of the post, then to a representative still. These are also now stored on WordPress’ server, so they show up as icons and thumbnail images when blog posts are linked. I’m in the process of switching all of the old posts to this format; however, it’s rather a long project and there’s not really a timeframe on it, just something I work on when it strikes me. (Don’t tell anyone but I am also making minor edits and alterations to the reviews themselves. I can’t change the fact that me writing an essay about The Lion in Winter is a dumb idea, but maybe I can make that Million Dollar Baby review a little less cringey.) So for the time being, certain posts are better looking than others, and that’s life isn’t it.

You also may notice that the blog entries are supposed to have hyperlinked cross references. In other words, if a review makes reference to another film I’ve reviewed in full, there should be a link to the relevant post. This is true of all of my new posts and I’m adding the feature to the old ones as I move through and revise them.

Is all of the stuff you write here brand new and totally original and fresh and unknown to the world outside?
Alas, no! One of the original goals of this blog was to streamline and organize my messy archive of movie review posts from my old personal blog. Any time a review I post here is a revision of something older, it’s noted at the bottom in a different font. As years pass, this is becoming less and less common, both because I’ve mostly cleaned out my archive and because it’s now rare for me to read something I wrote that long ago that I still think is good enough to share.

Why do you post a dry rundown each month of how many movies you’ve watched and what they were?
Mostly for my own benefit (which is also the reason for everything else here, quite honestly); I enjoy tracking my progress this way. It’s a good way to keep a rundown of how the projects I’m working on are going. And for the hypothetical reader who follows this blog and uses the Movie Guide but doesn’t read my constant Letterboxd updates, it’s a good way to see what’s been newly added. The monthly capsules are generally edited versions of the LB posts, though there are occasionally exceptions. I try to keep the entries in the Movie Guide very short and simple, so they are generally less conversational and detailed.

About that Movie Guide…
It’s the centerpiece of this site, but I haven’t really addressed it here today. Any questions you have about it should be answered here.

Why did the lists projects you were working on change and what can we expect in the future?
Because I’m an idiot.

But the longer answer is, I first took on some sort of “movie canon” project back in 2006 and swiped a list of lists off various places on the internet, vaguely intending to run down the list in order. It started with the AFI 100, then went to the IMDB Top 250, then I forget what next (most nightmarishly, one item was a complete list of domestic top-grossing titles; I don’t know that there’s enough alcohol in the world to make me actually do that). For some bizarre reason, whether a misplaced commitment to my own past ideas for how to spend time or whatever else, in 2011 when I was preparing SOC I elected to use the same list of source canons from which to draw material / movies. The AFI list was relatively easy and handy since I had already written at least a little about most of the films on it. The IMDB list became a slog for lots of reasons and eventually I had to agree with some observers that attempting to tackle it here was misguided and pointless. More and more I realized I wasn’t actually doing what I’d built the blog to do, and decided to scrap everything and start over with what actually interested me; while I will still be exploring certain published and even populist lists, I’ve switched instead to a chronological listing of cinephile-beloved titles I’ve wanted to see for years, using the polls regularly voted on by users at the Criterion Forum, a fine resource.

In my defense, the goal had at one time been for the Movie Guide to cover every kind of popular and famous film, and maybe eventually it will have a lot of that, but since I’m the only one really paying attention to all this, I’m going to stick to the movies I have genuine curiosity to see. Among other things, it stops me from pissing people off quite as much because I just don’t like… let’s just say, a lot of what is beloved of most of my peers, movie-wise. It’s not deliberate contrarianism, but I’m skeptical it does anyone any good for me to talk about that stuff anymore.

(None of this affects my Oscars project. Despite the fact that you could argue this too sends me down avenues that are less than fascinating, I think seeing the winners and nominees does serve a certain interesting purpose, both as a damning of this weird avenue of consolidated, commodified movie culture and as a way of seeing films I love that I never would have expected to, like Tender Mercies.)

As for future projects, I will continue moving through the decade canons, hopefully at a rate of one per year. The interludes I’ve scheduled — the Sight & Sound and They Shoot Pictures lists — will inject a bit of variety without altering my course. I do have one rather large project that may interrupt the pace temporarily, but I’m not ready to talk about that yet, mostly because it may change or be delayed; it’s a slightly counterintuitive choice but one I’ve decided will serve an important purpose here.

Speaking of projects, you’ve never properly explained the “2010s catchup.”
It’s a private list because it’s fluid and my priorities, plus the films’ availability, constantly change. Once again I’ve plundered the Criterion Forum, whose user swo17 regularly catalogs and organizes the other users’ favorite films of each year, and have used that along with Metacritic as a basis for deciding what new films to seek out, since the number of releases is truly overwhelming and — while my heart lies firmly in the past — I don’t want to entirely lose touch with modern cinema. Much as I loathe Hollywood blockbusters, I’m quite out of touch when it comes to arthouse as well, as I don’t seem to care much for the stylistic or story choices being made by a lot of younger directors, but just as an illustration of how much more choice we have now (at home, not, for heaven’s sake, at the theater, at least not if you don’t live in a major city), I’ve still seen more than eighty films in the current decade that I thought at least brushed greatness. My intention is to continue to keep up and then concentrate for a few months on seeing as many of the major works from the current decade as possible in 2019, so that I can throw together a list of my top films from 2010 to now, because that could be fun.

Enough of this shit. What are the worst movies you’ve ever seen in your life, ever?
I’m glad you asked because I have prepared just such a list for the occasion, going temporarily against my resolution not to expound so much on the negative. What’s interesting is I found that the films I hate the most can be placed in one of a few categories: painfully unfunny comedies, shining examples of egomania at work, wrongheaded didactics, maudlin shit designed to make kids covertly accept their own slow biological demise at the hands of capitalism, awful movies (usually painfully unfunny comedies) my dad rented, awful movies I rented because they had dogs in them, sheer boring incompetence, or just personally offensive stuff; based on how I impulsively ranked this, I seem to be especially bothered by remakes of or sequels to films I love. Please note that this list includes six Academy Award winners for Best Picture. Also please give a hand to the MVPs, two-time listees Gus van Sant and Brad Silberling; and shouts out to Amy Heckerling, Carol Reed and Robert Zemeckis for having made some of my most beloved films of all time as well as some of my absolute bottom-of-the-barrel nightmare movies.

1. JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)
2. Scarface (1983, Brian De Palma)
3. Psycho (1998, Gus van Sant)
4. Crash (2004, Paul Haggis)
5. City of Angels (1998, Brad Silberling)
6. 2010 (1984, Peter Hyams)
7. Casper (1995, Brad Silbering)
8. All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989, Don Bluth)
9. Super Size Me (2004, Morgan Spurlock)
10. The Adventures of Ford Fairlaine (1990, Renny Harlin)
11. The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper)
12. Oliver! (1968, Carol Reed)
13. Problem Child 2 (1991, Brian Levant)
14. Captain Ron (1992, Thom Eberhardt)
15. Dennis the Menace (1993, Nick Castle)
16. Bingo (1991, Matthew Robbins)
17. My Fair Lady (1964, George Cukor)
18. Forrest Gump (1994, Robert Zemeckis)
19. Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984, Peter Webb)
20. Gigi (1958, Vincente Minnelli)
21. Look Who’s Talking Too (1990, Amy Heckerling)
22. My Science Project (1985, Jonathan R. Betuel)
23. Armageddon (1998, Michael Bay)
24. Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott)
25. Elephant (2003, Gus van Sant)

If you require justification for any of these, you have my permission to read the corresponding Movie Guide entry and then file a complaint with Central Services.

***

Two notes about the index, which I’ve tried to make as comprehensive, illuminating and easy to browse as possible. You’ll notice that there’s a considerable dropoff in the number of films covered after the 1930s, and then a huge uptick in the 2010s; that’s because the ’20s and ’30s are the canon projects I’ve completed thus far, and because as noted above, I’ve tried to devote myself to monitoring new movies when I can. In 2013 I even managed to see all of the Best Picture nominees theatrically, a fun stunt that I wouldn’t do again.

Secondly, there will be — increasingly, and probably by post #700 — a need for a shorts index. When shorts come up, as many of them did in the silent era canon and as many will again in future projects, I formally review them in my monthly posts even though I don’t log them on LB and don’t include them in the Movie Guide. TV shows, music videos, etc. probably won’t ever be covered here (I review them as well as, once in a while, DVD releases at my personal blog; if something seems especially relevant to our purposes here I’ll mention it in a monthly roundup), but shorts are a true, vital and underreported segment of actual cinema; the founding segment, in fact. For now, almost all of the shorts I’ve reviewed were covered and indexed in the Silent Era Canon writeup; World of Tomorrow, for the 2010s canon, and The Red Balloon, for the Best Screenplay project, are the biggest exceptions. Before long I wager there will be enough to justify a full linked list in this space.

At any rate, here goes. Note that there are six films reviewed in 2011 at my personal blog that I include with the full reviews; I may or may not eventually move those over here.

***

1913
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Ingeborg Holm (Victor Sjöström)

1914
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone)

1915
FULL REVIEWS:
The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Cheat (Cecil B. DeMille)
Regeneration (Raoul Walsh)

1916
FULL REVIEWS:
Intolerance (D.W. Griffith)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Hell’s Hinges (Charles Swickard)

1917
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Bucking Broadway (John Ford)

1919
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith)

(cap)

1920
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Golem (Carl Boese & Paul Wegener)
The Parson’s Widow (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Way Down East (D.W. Griffith)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene)

1921
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Kid (Charles Chaplin)
Destiny (Fritz Lang)
The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström)
The Ace of Hearts (Wallace Worsley)

1922
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Häxan (Benjamin Christensen)
Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty)
The Toll of the Sea (Chester M. Franklin) [revisited]
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Fritz Lang)
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau) [revisited (theatrical)]
Foolish Wives (Erich von Stroheim)

1923
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
A Woman of Paris (Charles Chaplin)
Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton & John G. Blystone)
Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor)

1924
FULL REVIEWS:
The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
The Iron Horse (John Ford)
Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton)
The Navigator (Buster Keaton & Donald Crisp)
Die Nibelungen [both parts] (Fritz Lang)
The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch)
The Chechahcos (Lewis Moomaw)
He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjöström)
Greed (Erich von Stroheim)
The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh)

1925
FULL REVIEWS:
The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin) [+ cap]
Strike (Sergei M. Eisenstein) [+ cap]
The Pleasure Garden (Alfred Hitchcock)
Seven Chances (Buster Keaton) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Lazybones (Frank Borzage)
Battleship Potemkin (Sergei M. Eisenstein)
The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian)
Joyless Street (G.W. Pabst)
The Big Parade (King Vidor)

1926
FULL REVIEWS:
The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap / revisited (Criterion)]
The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman) [+ cap]
Faust (F.W. Murnau) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown)
A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
The Black Pirate (Albert Parker)
Mother (Vsevolod Pudovkin)

1927
FULL REVIEWS:
7th Heaven (Frank Borzage) [+ cap / revisited]
The Unknown (Tod Browning) [+ cap / revisited]
The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland) [+ cap]
Downhill (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
Metropolis (Fritz Lang) [+ cap / revisited (longer cut)]
Two Arabian Knights (Lewis Milestone) [+ cap]
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau) [+ cap / revisited (Czech version) / revisited]
Underworld (Josef von Sternberg) [+ cap]
Wings (William A. Wellman)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
It (Clarence G. Badger)
Napoleon (Abel Gance)
The Love of Jeanne Ney (G.W. Pabst)
The End of St. Petersburg (Vsevolod Pudovkin)
Bed and Sofa (Abram Room)
Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Walter Ruttmann)

1928
FULL REVIEWS:
Street Angel (Frank Borzage) [+ cap / revisited]
The Circus (Charles Chaplin) [+ cap]
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer) [+ cap]
The Wind (Victor Sjöström) [+ cap]
The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg) [+ cap]
The Crowd (King Vidor) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Laugh, Clown, Laugh (Herbert Brenon)
In Old Arizona (Irving Cummings)
October (Sergei M. Eisenstein & Grigori Aleksandrov)
A Girl in Every Port (Howard Hawks)
Steamboat Bill, Jr (Buster Keaton & Charles Reisner)
Spies (Fritz Lang)
The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni)
The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg)
The Wedding March (Erich von Stroheim)
Beggars of Life (William A. Wellman)

1929
FULL REVIEWS:
Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst) [+ cap]
Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Lucky Star (Frank Borzage)
They Had to See Paris (Frank Borzage)
The River (Frank Borzage)
Arsenal (Aleksandr Dovzhenko)
The Old and the New (Sergei M. Eisenstein & Grigori Aleksandrov)
Disraeli (Alfred E. Green)
The Divine Lady (Frank Lloyd)
Eternal Love (Ernst Lubitsch)
The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch)
Queen Kelly (Erich von Stroheim)
Coquette (Sam Taylor)
Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov)

1930
FULL REVIEWS:
L’Age d’Or (Luis Buñuel) [+ cap]
The Dawn Patrol (Howard Hawks) [+ cap]
The Big House (George W. Hill) [+ cap]
Min and Bill (George W. Hill) [+ cap]
Murder! (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap / revisited]
All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone)
City Girl (F.W. Murnau) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Song o’ My Heart (Frank Borzage)
Liliom (Frank Borzage)
Under the Roofs of Paris (René Clair)
Earth (Aleksandr Dovzhenko)
The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard)
The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg)

1931
FULL REVIEWS:
Bad Girl (Frank Borzage) [+ cap / revisited]
Dracula (Tod Browning) [+ cap]
City Lights (Charles Chaplin)
Rich and Strange (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
M (Fritz Lang) [+ cap]
Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles)
Skippy (Norman Taurog) [+ cap]
The Champ (King Vidor) [+ cap]
Frankenstein (James Whale)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
A Free Soul (Clarence Brown)
Le Million (René Clair)
À Nous la Liberté (René Clair)
The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch)
La Chienne (Jean Renoir)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian)
Portrait of a Young Man in Three Movements (Henwar Rodakiewicz)
The Sin of Madelon Claudet (Edgar Selwyn)

1932
FULL REVIEWS:
Freaks (Tod Browning) [+ cap]
One Way Passage (Tay Garnett) [+ cap]
Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding)
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy) [+ cap]
Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
After Tomorrow (Frank Borzage)
Young America (Frank Borzage)
Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Scarface (Howard Hawks)
Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian)
I Was Born, But… (Yasujiro Ozu)
Boudu Saved from Drowning (Jean Renoir)

1933
FULL REVIEWS:
King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack)
Little Women (George Cukor) [+ cap]
The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda) [+ cap]
Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd)
Duck Soup (Leo McCarey)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)
Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy & Busby Berkeley)
Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch)
Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman)
Zero de Conduite (Jean Vigo)
The Invisible Man (James Whale)

1934
FULL REVIEWS:
It Happened One Night (Frank Capra) [+ cap]
Waltzes from Vienna (Alfred Hitchcock)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg) [+ cap]
Manhattan Melodrama (W.S. Van Dyke) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Man of Aran (Robert Flaherty)
A Story of Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu)
The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer)
The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
L’Atalante (Jean Vigo)

1935
FULL REVIEWS:
The Informer (John Ford) [+ cap]
The Scoundrel (Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur) [+ cap]
The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
Mutiny on the Bounty (Frank Lloyd)
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale) [+ cap]
A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood) [+ cap / revisited]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Dangerous (Alfred E. Green)
Happiness (Aleksandr Medvedkin)
Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl)
Top Hat (Mark Sandrich)

1936
FULL REVIEWS:
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra) [+ cap]
Modern Times (Charles Chaplin) [+ cap / revisited]
The Story of Louis Pasteur (William Dieterle) [+ cap]
Secret Agent (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
The Great Ziegfeld (Robert Z. Leonard)
Sisters of the Gion (Kenji Mizoguchi) [+ cap]
Swing Time (George Stevens) [+ cap]
Dodsworth (William Wyler) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Come and Get It (Howard Hawks & William Wyler)
My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava)
Fury (Fritz Lang)
Anthony Adverse (Mervyn LeRoy)
Osaka Elegy (Kenji Mizoguchi)
The Only Son (Yasujiro Ozu)
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Jean Renoir)
A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir)
San Francisco (W.S. Van Dyke)

1937
FULL REVIEWS:
The Life of Emile Zola (William Dieterle)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand) [+ cap]
The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey) [+ cap / revisited]
Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey) [+ cap]
Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir) [+ cap]
A Star Is Born (William A. Wellman) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Lost Horizon (Frank Capra)
Captains Courageous (Victor Fleming)
The Good Earth (Sidney Franklin)
In Old Chicago (Henry King)
Nothing Sacred (William A. Wellman)

1938
FULL REVIEWS:
Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard) [+ cap]
You Can’t Take It with You (Frank Capra)
Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks) [+ cap / revisited]
The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Kentucky (David Butler)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz & William Keighley)
Alexander Nevsky (Sergei M. Eisenstein)
La Bête Humaine (Jean Renoir)
Olympia (Leni Riefenstahl)
Boys Town (Norman Taurog)
Jezebel (William Wyler)

1939
FULL REVIEWS:
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra)
The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming) [+ cap]
Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming) [+ cap]
Stagecoach (John Ford) [+ cap / revisited]
The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir) [+ cap]
Wuthering Heights (William Wyler) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford)
Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Sam Wood)

1940
FULL REVIEWS:
The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin) [+ cap]
The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor)
The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford)
Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
Arise, My Love (Mitchell Leisen) [+ cap]
The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges) [+ cap]
Fantasia (various directors) [+ cap / revisited]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson)
The Long Voyage Home (John Ford)
Kitty Foyle (Sam Wood)
The Westerner (William Wyler)

1941
FULL REVIEWS:
How Green Was My Valley (John Ford)
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Alexander Hall) [+ cap]
Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
The Maltese Falcon (John Huston) [+ cap]
49th Parallel (Michael Powell) [+ cap]
Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges)
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Crook’s Tour (John Baxter)
The Great Lie (Edmund Goulding)
Sergeant York (Howard Hawks)
Johnny Eager (Mervyn LeRoy)

1942
FULL REVIEWS:
Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz) [+ cap]
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
Woman of the Year (George Stevens) [+ cap]
Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Bambi (David Hand)
The Talk of the Town (George Stevens)

1943
FULL REVIEWS:
Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
Princess O’Rourke (Norman Krasna) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Human Comedy (Clarence Brown)
The Song of Bernadette (Henry King)
Watch on the Rhine (Herman Shumlin)
The More the Merrier (George Stevens)
For Whom the Bell Tolls (Sam Wood)

1944
FULL REVIEWS:
Marie-Louise (Leopold Lindtberg) [+ cap]
Going My Way (Leo McCarey)
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
National Velvet (Clarence Brown)
Gaslight (George Cukor)
Wilson (Henry King)
None But the Lonely Heart (Clifford Odets)
Henry V (Laurence Olivier)
The Volunteer (Michael Powell)

1945
FULL REVIEWS:
The Seventh Veil (Compton Bennett) [+ cap]
Dead of Night (Cavalcanti/Charles Crichton/Basil Dearden/Robert Hamer)
The House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway) [+ cap]
Vacation from Marriage (Alexander Korda) [+ cap]
The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan)

1946
FULL REVIEWS:
It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
Great Expectations (David Lean) [+ cap]
The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Razor’s Edge (Edmund Goulding)
To Each His Own (Mitchell Leisen)

1947
FULL REVIEWS:
Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan)
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (Irving Reis) [+ cap]
Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
A Double Life (George Cukor)
The Farmer’s Daughter (H.C. Potter)

1948
FULL REVIEWS:
Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica) [+ cap]
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston) [+ cap]
Hamlet (Laurence Olivier)
The Search (Fred Zinnemann) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Key Largo (John Huston)
the snake pit (Anatole Litvak)
Johnny Belinda (Jean Negulesco)

1949
FULL REVIEWS:
Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer) [+ cap]
A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph L. Mankewicz) [+ cap]
The Third Man (Carol Reed) [+ cap]
All the King’s Men (Robert Rossen)
Battleground (William A. Wellman) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Twelve O’Clock High (Henry King)
The Stratton Story (Sam Wood)
The Heiress (William Wyler) [revisited]

1950
FULL REVIEWS:
Seven Days to Noon (John & Roy Boulting) [+ cap]
Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan) [+ cap / revisited]
Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa) [+ cap]
All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Born Yesterday (George Cukor)
Cyrano de Bergerac (Michael Gordon)
Harvey (Henry Koster)

1951
FULL REVIEWS:
The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton) [+ cap]
Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
The African Queen (John Huston) [+ cap]
A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan) [+ cap]
An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli)
The River (Jean Renoir)
A Place in the Sun (George Stevens) [+ cap]

1952
FULL REVIEWS:
The Greatest Show on Earth (Cecil B. DeMille)
Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
The Quiet Man (John Ford) [+ cap]
Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa) [+ cap]
The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli) [+ cap]
High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Viva Zapata! (Elia Kazan)
Come Back, Little Sheba (Daniel Mann)

1953
FULL REVIEWS:
The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot) [+ cap]
Shane (George Stevens)
Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder) [+ cap]
Roman Holiday (William Wyler) [+ cap]
From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Fear and Desire (Stanley Kubrick)
Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu)
Titanic (Jean Negulesco)

1954
FULL REVIEWS:
Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock)
On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan)
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa) [+ cap]
The Country Girl (George Seaton) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Broken Lance (Edward Dmytryk)
The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

1955
FULL REVIEWS:
Diabolique (Henri-Georges Clouzot) [+ cap]
Marty (Delbert Mann)
Dementia (John Parker) [+ cap / revisited]
Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray) [+ cap]
Love Me or Leave Me (Charles Vidor) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Interrupted Melody (Curtis Bernhardt)
Mister Roberts (John Ford & Mervyn LeRoy)
East of Eden (Elia Kazan)
The Rose Tattoo (Daniel Mann)

1956
FULL REVIEWS:
Around the World in Eighty Days (Michael Anderson)
Patterns (Fielder Cook)
The Searchers (John Ford)
Giant (George Stevens) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The King and I (Walter Lang)
Anastasia (Anatole Litvak)
Lust for Life (Vincente Minnelli)
The Brave One (Irving Rapper)
Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk)

1957
FULL REVIEWS:
Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman) [+ cap]
Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick) [+ cap]
The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)
12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet) [+ cap]
Designing Woman (Vincente Minnelli) [+ cap]
Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman)
The Three Faces of Eve (Nunnally Johnson)
Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa)
Sayonara (Joshua Logan)

1958
FULL REVIEWS:
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer) [+ cap]
Gigi (Vincente Minnelli)
Touch of Evil (Orson Welles) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Separate Tables (Delbert Mann)
I Want to Live! (Robert Wise)
The Big Country (William Wyler)

1959
FULL REVIEWS:
Shadows (John Cassavetes)
Room at the Top (Jack Clayton) [+ cap]
Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon) [+ cap]
North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)
Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger) [+ cap]
The 400 Blows (François Truffaut) [+ cap]
Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder)
Ben-Hur (William Wyler)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Diary of Anne Frank (George Stevens)
The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinnemann)

1960
FULL REVIEWS:
Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks) [+ cap]
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock) [+ cap]
Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick) [+ cap]
Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut) [+ cap / revisited]
The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Two Women (Vittorio De Sica)
BUtterfield 8 (Daniel Mann)

1961
FULL REVIEWS:
Divorce Italian Style (Pietro Germi) [+ cap]
Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan) [+ cap]
Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa) [+ cap]
West Side Story (Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Misfits (John Huston)
Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer)
The Hustler (Robert Rossen)

1962
FULL REVIEWS:
The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer) [+ cap]
How the West Was Won (Henry Hathaway/John Ford/George Marshall) [+ cap]
Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan)
The Trial (Orson Welles)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich)
The Longest Day (Ken Annakin/Andrew Marton/Bernhard Wicki)
Sweet Bird of Youth (Richard Brooks)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)
The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn)
Dr. No (Terence Young)

1963
FULL REVIEWS:
The Sword in the Stone (Wolfgang Reitherman)
Tom Jones (Tony Richardson)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The V.I.P.s (Anthony Asquith)
(Federico Fellini)
Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson)
Hud (Martin Ritt)
The Great Escape (John Sturges)

1964
FULL REVIEWS:
The T.A.M.I. Show (Steve Binder)
My Fair Lady (George Cukor)
Point of Order (Emile de Antonio)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick)
A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester) [+ cap]
Father Goose (Ralph Nelson) [+ cap]
Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Zorba the Greek (Michael Cacoyannis)
Topkapi (Jules Dassin)
Becket (Peter Glenville)
The Night of the Iguana (John Huston)
A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone)

1965
FULL REVIEWS:
Doctor Zhivago (David Lean) [+ cap]
Help! (Richard Lester)
Darling (John Schlesinger) [+ cap / revisited]
The Sound of Music (Robert Wise)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
A Thousand Clowns (Fred Coe)
A Patch of Blue (Guy Green)
For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone)
Cat Ballou (Elliot Silverstein)

1966
FULL REVIEWS:
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone) [+ cap]
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols) [+ cap]
A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (Norman Jewison)
A Man and a Woman (Claude Lelouch)
The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo)
The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder)

1967
FULL REVIEWS:
The Producers (Mel Brooks) [+ cap]
In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison)
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer) [+ cap]
The Graduate (Mike Nichols)
Bonnie and Clude (Arthur Penn)
The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski) [+ cap]
Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert)
Casino Royale (Val Guest/Ken Hughes/John Huston/Joseph McGrath/Robert Parrish)

1968
FULL REVIEWS:
Yellow Submarine (George Dunning) [+ cap]
The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey) [+ cap]
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick) [+ cap]
Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone) [+ cap]
Oliver! (Carol Reed)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Subject Was Roses (Ulu Grosbard)
Charly (Ralph Nelson)
Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski)
Head (Bob Rafelson)
Funny Girl (William Wyler)

1969
FULL REVIEWS:
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill) [+ cap]
Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper) [+ cap]
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah) [+ cap]
Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
True Grit (Henry Hathaway)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame)
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack)
Women in Love (Ken Russell)
Cactus Flower (Gene Saks)

1970
FULL REVIEWS:
MASH (Robert Altman)
Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Ryan’s Daughter (David Lean)
Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson)
Airport (George Seaton)

1971
FULL REVIEWS:
The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich) [+ cap / revisited]
The French Connection (William Friedkin) [+ cap]
The Hospital (Arthur Hiller) [+ cap]
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman)
A Safe Place (Henry Jaglom)
Drive, He Said (Jack Nicholson)
Klute (Alan J. Pakula)

1972
FULL REVIEWS:
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)
Cabaret (Bob Fosse) [+ cap]
The Candidate (Michael Ritchie) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman)
Butterflies Are Free (Milton Katselas)
The King of Marvin Gardens (Bob Rafelson)

1973
FULL REVIEWS:
Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich) [+ cap]
The Exorcist (William Friedkin) [+ cap]
The Sting (George Roy Hill)
American Graffiti (George Lucas)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Save the Tiger (John G. Avildsen)
The Paper Chase (James Bridges)
A Touch of Class (Melvin Frank)
Papillon (Franklin J. Schaffner)

1974
FULL REVIEWS:
The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola) [+ cap]
The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)
Chinatown (Roman Polanski) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet)
Harry and Tonto (Paul Mazursky)
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese)

1975
FULL REVIEWS:
Nashville (Robert Altman)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman)
Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick) [+ cap]
Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet) [+ cap]
Jaws (Steven Spielberg) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Shampoo (Hal Ashby)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones)
The Sunshine Boys (Herbert Ross)

1976
FULL REVIEWS:
Rocky (John G. Avildsen)
Network (Sidney Lumet) [+ cap / revisited]
All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula) [+ cap / revisited]
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)

1977
FULL REVIEWS:
Annie Hall (Woody Allen) [+ cap]
Star Wars (George Lucas)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg) [+ cap]
Julia (Fred Zinnemann) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Message (Moustapha Akkad)
The Goodbye Girl (Herbert Ross)

1978
FULL REVIEWS:
Coming Home (Hal Ashby) [+ cap]
The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino)
Midnight Express (Alan Parker) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Heaven Can Wait (Warren Beatty & Buck Henry)
California Suite (Herbert Ross)

1979
FULL REVIEWS:
Being There (Hal Ashby)
Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton)
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
Tess (Roman Polanski)
Alien (Ridley Scott) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
All That Jazz (Bob Fosse)
Life of Brian (Terry Jones)
The Man You Loved to Hate (Patrick Montgomery)
Norma Rae (Martin Ritt)
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Breaking Away (Peter Yates)

1980
FULL REVIEWS:
Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme) [+ cap / revisited]
The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner) [+ cap]
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick) [+ cap]
The Elephant Man (David Lynch) [+ cap]
Ordinary People (Robert Redford)
Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Coal Miner’s Daughter (Michael Apted)

1981
FULL REVIEWS:
Reds (Warren Beatty) [+ cap]
Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson)
Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen) [+ cap]
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Arthur (Steve Gordon)
On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell)

1982
FULL REVIEWS:
Gandhi (Richard Attenborough)
Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula) [+ cap]
Tootsie (Sydney Pollack) [+ cap]
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott) [+ cap]
E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Fanny & Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)
The Thing (John Carpenter)
Missing (Costa-Gavras)
An Officer and a Gentleman (Taylor Hackford)
The Verdict (Sidney Lumet)
The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir)

1983
FULL REVIEWS:
Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford) [+ cap]
Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Scarface (Brian De Palma)
Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand)

1984
FULL REVIEWS:
Amadeus (Milos Forman) [+ cap]
Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone) [+ cap]
Purple Rain (Albert Magnoli)
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Places in the Heart (Robert Benton)
The Terminator (James Cameron)
The Killing Fields (Roland Joffé)
A Passage to India (David Lean)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki)

1985
FULL REVIEWS:
Witness (Peter Weir) [+ cap]
Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Kiss of the Spider Woman (Hector Babenco)
Cocoon (Ron Howard)
Prizzi’s Honor (John Huston)
A Room with a View (James Ivory)
Ran (Akira Kurosawa)
The Trip to Bountiful (Peter Masterson)

1986
FULL REVIEWS:
Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen) [+ cap]
Aliens (James Cameron) [+ cap]
Platoon (Oliver Stone)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Children of a Lesser God (Randa Haines)
Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki)
Stand by Me (Rob Reiner)
The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese)

1987
FULL REVIEWS:
Bagdad Cafe (Percy Adlon) [+ cap]
Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel) [+ cap]
The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci)
Broadcast News (James L. Brooks) [+ cap]
Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Untouchables (Brian De Palma)
Moonstruck (Norman Jewison)
The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner)
Wall Street (Oliver Stone)

1988
FULL REVIEWS:
Rain Man (Barry Levinson)
Die Hard (John McTiernan) [+ cap]
Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton)
Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears)
The Accused (Jonathan Kaplan)
The Accidental Tourist (Lawrence Kasdan)
My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki)
Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata)

1989
FULL REVIEWS:
Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford) [+ cap]
Meet the Feebles (Peter Jackson) [+ cap]
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee) [+ cap]
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg)
Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan)
Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir)
Back to the Future Part II (Robert Zemeckis)
Glory (Edward Zwick)

1990
FULL REVIEWS:
Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner) [+ cap]
Misery (Rob Reiner) [+ cap]
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Reversal of Fortune (Barbet Schroeder)
Ghost (Jerry Zucker)

1991
FULL REVIEWS:
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron) [+ cap]
The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme) [+ cap / revisited]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Fisher King (Terry Gilliam)
Picture This (George Hickenlooper)
Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott)
Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise)
City Slickers (Ron Underwood)

1992
FULL REVIEWS:
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood) [+ cap]
A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon)
The Crying Game (Neil Jordan) [+ cap]
Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Scent of a Woman (Martin Brest)
Howards End (James Ivory)
My Cousin Vinny (Jonathan Lynn)

1993
FULL REVIEWS:
The Piano (Jane Campion) [+ cap / revisited]
The Snapper (Stephen Frears) [+ cap]
Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg)
The Thief and the Cobbler (Richard Williams) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Fugitive (Andrew Davis)
Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme)
Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis)
In the Name of the Father (Jim Sheridan)
Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg)

1994
FULL REVIEWS:
Bullets Over Broadway (Woody Allen) [+ cap]
The Lion King (Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff) [+ cap]
Léon (1994, Luc Besson) [+ cap]
Ed Wood (Tim Burton) [+ cap]
The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont) [+ cap]
Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson) [+ cap]
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino) [+ cap]
Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Blue Sky (Tony Richardson)

1995
FULL REVIEWS:
Se7en (David Fincher) [+ cap]
Braveheart (Mel Gibson) [+ cap]
Toy Story (John Lasseter) [+ cap]
Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater) [+ cap]
The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Mighty Aphrodite (Woody Allen)
Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis)
Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam)
La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz)
Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee)
Heat (Michael Mann)
Babe (Chris Noonan)
Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins)
Casino (Martin Scorsese)

1996
FULL REVIEWS:
Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson) [+ cap]
Trainspotting (Danny Boyle) [+ cap]
Fargo (Joel Coen) [+ cap]
Mother Night (Keith Gordon)
Beavis and Butt-head Do America (Mike Judge) [+ cap]
The English Patient (Anthony Minghella) [+ cap]
Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe)
The Craft (Andrew Fleming)
Shine (Scott Hicks)
Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh)
Eskiya (Yavuz Turgul)

1997
FULL REVIEWS:
Life Is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni) [+ cap]
Titanic (James Cameron) [+ cap]
L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson) [+ cap]
Wild Man Blues (Barbara Kopple) [+ cap]
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
As Good as It Gets (James L. Brooks)
Children of Heaven (Majid Majidi)
Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki)
Affliction (Paul Schrader)
Good Will Hunting (Gus van Sant)

1998
FULL REVIEWS:
Gods and Monsters (Bill Condon)
American History X (Tony Kaye) [+ cap]
Shakespeare in Love (John Madden) [+ cap]
Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen)
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie)
The Truman Show (Peter Weir)

1999
FULL REVIEWS:
The Green Mile (Frank Darabont) [+ cap]
Fight Club (David Fincher) [+ cap]
Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
American Beauty (Sam Mendes) [+ cap]
The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan) [+ cap]
The Matrix (Lana & Lilly Wachowski) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar)
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola) [+ revisited]
The Cider House Rules (Lasse Hallström)
Girl, Interrupted (James Mangold)
The Insider (Michael Mann)
Election (Alexander Payne)
Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce)

2000
FULL REVIEWS:
Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky) [+ cap]
Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe) [+ cap]
Songcatcher (Maggie Greenwald) [+ cap] {NOTE: Letterboxd has the wrong release year at this writing}
Memento (Christopher Nolan) [+ cap]
Snatch (Guy Ritchie)
Gladiator (Ridley Scott) [+ cap]
Traffic (Steven Soderbergh) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Amores perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Pollock (Ed Harris)
Snatch (Guy Ritchie)
Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai)

2001
FULL REVIEWS:
A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard) [+ cap]
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson)
Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet) [+ cap]
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki) [+ cap]
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Gosford Park (Robert Altman)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel Coen)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Chris Columbus)
Monsters, Inc. (Pete Docter)
Iris (Richard Eyre)
Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster)
Training Day (Antoine Fuqua)
Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker)
Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly)

2002
FULL REVIEWS:
Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar) [+ cap]
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson) [+ cap]
Adaptation (Spike Jonze) [+ cap]
Chicago (Rob Marshall) [+ cap]
City of God (Fernando Meirelles) [+ cap]
The Pianist (Roman Polanski) [+ cap]
Secretary (Steven Shainberg)
Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Chris Columbus)
The Hours (Stephen Daldry)
Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau & Alan Mak)

2003
FULL REVIEWS:
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola) [+ cap]
My Architect (Nathaniel Kahn) [+ cap]
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson) [+ cap]
Oldboy (Park Chan-wook) [+ cap]
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino) [+ cap]
Dogville (Lars von Trier) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho)
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood)
Monster (Patty Jenkins)
The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin)
Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella)
Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton)
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski)

2004
FULL REVIEWS:
Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood) [+ cap]
Hotel Rwanda (Terry George) [+ cap]
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry) [+ cap]
Crash (Paul Haggis) [+ cap]
Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel) [+ cap]
Before Sunset (Richard Linklater) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón)
Ray (Taylor Hackford)
Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki)
Sideways (Alexander Payne)
The Aviator (Martin Scorsese)

2005
FULL REVIEWS:
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee) [+ cap]
The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles) [+ cap]
Capote (Bennett Miller) [+ cap]
Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan) [+ cap]
Sin City (Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Syriana (Stephen Gaghan)
Walk the Line (James Mangold)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell)
V for Vendetta (James McTeigue)

2006
FULL REVIEWS:
Scoop (Woody Allen) [+ cap]
Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris) [+ cap]
The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) [+ cap]
Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady)
Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell)
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Stanley Nelson) [+ cap]
The Prestige (Christopher Nolan) [+ cap]
The Departed (Martin Scorsese) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Casino Royale (Martin Campbell)
Dreamgirls (Bill Condon)
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro)
The Queen (Stephen Frears)
Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald)
Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt)

2007
FULL REVIEWS:
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson) [+ cap]
No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen) [+ cap / revisited]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Control (Anton Corbijn)
La Vie en Rose (Olivier Dahan)
Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass)
Like Stars on Earth (Aamir Khan)
Into the Wild (Sean Penn)
Juno (Jason Reitman)
Atonement (Joe Wright)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates)

2008
FULL REVIEWS:
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen) [+ cap]
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)
Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard)
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan) [+ cap]
WALL-E (Andrew Stanton) [+ cap]
Milk (Gus Van Sant) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Reader (Stephen Daldry)
Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood)
Ip Man (Wilson Yip)

2009
FULL REVIEWS:
Whatever Works (Woody Allen)
A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen)
White Material (Claire Denis)
Up (Pete Docter) [+ cap]
Moon (Duncan Jones)
Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé)
Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)
The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh)
Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino) [+ cap]
Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold)
The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella)
Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper)
Precious (Lee Daniels)
Mary and Max (Adam Elliot)
About Elly (Asghar Farhadi)
Hachi (Lasse Hallström)
The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock)
3 Idiots (Rajkumar Hirani)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates)

2010
FULL REVIEWS:
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen)
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade) [+ cap]
Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy)
Greenberg (Noah Baumbach) [+ cap]
127 Hours (Danny Boyle)
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet)
Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance) [+ cap]
True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
Inside Job (Charles Ferguson)
The Social Network (David Fincher)
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields (Kerthy Fix & Gail O’Hara)
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog) [+ cap]
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper)
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Poetry (Lee Chang-dong)
Another Year (Mike Leigh)
Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg) [+ cap]
Beginners (Mike Mills) [+ cap]
Inception (Christopher Nolan)
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)
Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)
Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich) [+ cap]
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Kaboom (Gregg Araki)
The American (Anton Corbijn)
The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira)
Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán)
Restrepo (Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington)
My Joy (Sergey Loznitsa)
Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell)
Four Lions (Chris Morris)
Tabloid (Errol Morris)
Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)
The Fighter (David O. Russell)
How to Train Your Dragon (Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois)
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica)
Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (David Yates)

2011
FULL REVIEWS:
Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar)
House of Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello) [+ cap]
Another Earth (Mike Cahill) [+ cap]
Footnote (Joseph Cedar)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Attack the Block (Joe Cornish) [+ cap]
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies) [+ cap]
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi) [+ cap]
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
Killer Joe (William Friedkin) [+ cap]
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius) [+ cap]
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki)
Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos) [+ cap]
Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) [+ cap]
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols) [+ cap]
The Descendants (Alexander Payne) [+ cap]
Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn)
Young Adult (Jason Reitman) [+ cap]
Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh) [+ cap]
Dark Horse (Todd Solondz) [+ cap]
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman) [+ cap]
The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr) [+ cap]
Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
Rango (Gore Verbinski)
Hanna (Joe Wright) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo)
I Wish (Hirokazu Koreeda)
Bernie (Richard Linklater)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
Faust (Alexander Sokurov)
The Intouchables (Eric Toledano & Olivier Nakache)
Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier)
Pina (Wim Wenders)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates)

2012
FULL REVIEWS:
Argo (Ben Affleck) [+ cap]
To Rome with Love (Woody Allen)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) [+ cap]
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson) [+ cap]
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) [+ cap / revisited]
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) [+ cap]
Frankenweenie (Tim Burton)
Holy Motors (Leos Carax) [+ cap]
Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel) [+ cap]
The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard) [+ cap]
Tabu (Miguel Gomes) [+ cap]
Amour (Michael Haneke) [+ cap]
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami) [+ cap]
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine) [+ cap]
Life of Pi (Ang Lee) [+ cap]
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick) [+ cap]
Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan) [+ cap]
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer) [+ cap / revisited]
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley) [+ cap]
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell) [+ cap]
Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh) [+ cap]
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland) [+ cap / revisited]
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) [+ cap]
Cloud Atlas (Lana Wachowski/Lilly Wachowski/Tom Tykwer) [+ cap]
Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon) [+ cap]
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin) [+ cap]
Flight (Robert Zemeckis)
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Comedy (Rick Alverson)
Brave (Brenda Chapman & Mark Andrews)
Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)
Museum Hours (Jem Cohen)
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)
It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt)
Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki)
No (Pablo Larraín)
A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm)
In the Fog (Sergey Loznitsa)
Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)
Mud (Jeff Nichols)
Barbara (Christian Petzold)
Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)
The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)
Sightseers (Ben Wheatley)
The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
Compliance (Craig Zobel)

2013
FULL REVIEWS:
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen) [+ cap]
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth) [+ cap]
All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor) [+ cap]
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen) [+ cap]
The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola) [+ cap]
Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite) [+ cap]
Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón) [+ cap]
Philomena (Stephen Frears) [+ cap]
Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass) [+ cap / revisited]
Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener) [+ cap]
Rush (Ron Howard) [+ cap]
Her (Spike Jonze) [+ cap]
Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche) [+ cap]
Gloria (Sebastián Lelio) [+ cap]
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater) [+ cap]
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen) [+ cap]
Nebraska (Alexander Payne) [+ cap / revisited]
The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt) [+ cap]
American Hustle (David O. Russell) [+ cap]
Monsters University (Dan Scanlon) [+ cap]
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese) [+ cap]
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (Lars von Trier) [+ cap]
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II (Lars von Trier) [+ cap]
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée) [+ cap]
The Conjuring (James Wan) [+ cap]
The World’s End (Edgar Wright) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
The Double (Richard Ayoade)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)
The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani)
Bastards (Claire Denis)
Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz)
Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont)
The Past (Asghar Farhadi)
Jealousy (Philippe Garrel)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)
Exhibition (Joanna Hogg)
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)
Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Koreeda)
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson)
Child’s Pose (Călin Peter Netzer)
Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski)
Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn)
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh)
Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)
Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)
Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve)
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)

2014
FULL REVIEWS:
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) [+ cap]
Gone Girl (David Fincher) [+ cap]
Boyhood (Richard Linklater) [+ cap / revisited]
The One I Love (Charlie McDowell) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach)
Lucy (Luc Besson)
A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn)
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Mommy (Xavier Dolan)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel)
Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
Still Alice (Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland)
Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard)
Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
The Theory of Everything (James Marsh)
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad)
Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood)
Life of Riley (Alain Resnais)
Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako)
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)
Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón)
The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)
What We Do in the Shadows (Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement)
The Guest (Adam Wingard)
Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)

2015
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
Irrational Man (Woody Allen)
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton)
Inside Out (Pete Docter)
The Witch (Robert Eggers)
Spy (Paul Feig)
The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
45 Years (Andrew Haigh)
Carol (Todd Haynes)
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper)
Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)
Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)
The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
The Big Short (Adam McKay)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
The Martian (Ridley Scott)
Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

2016
FULL REVIEWS:
Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz) [+ cap]
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)
Lion (Garth Davis)
One More Time with Feeling (Andrew Dominik)
The Lost City of Z (James Gray)
Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years (Ron Howard)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
Deadpool (Tim Miller)
Zootopia (Rich Moore & Byron Howard)
Moana (John Musker & Ron Clements)
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
Finding Dory (Andrew Stanton)
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
Fences (Denzel Washington)

2017
LETTERBOXD CAPSULES:
Get Out (Jordan Peele)

***

COMPLETED PROJECT PAGES
Best Picture Oscar winners
Best Director Oscar winners
AFI 100 Movies
Best Screenplay Oscar winners
Best Actor Oscar winners
IMDB Top 250
Best Actress Oscar winners
Silent era canon 1.0 [were I to pick one entry as my favorite piece of writing I’ve posted here, I think it would be this one]
Best Supporting Actor Oscar winners
Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners

MILESTONES
Post #100: shots list
Post #200: directors list
Post #300: title sequences list
Post #400: endings list
Post #500: scenes list

META-POSTS
Introductions & explanations (now outdated)
format change (explains thought process behind the slowdown of regular full-length reviews)
announcement of canon projects (also a regular monthly post)

REGULAR MONTHLY POSTS
These won’t have much continued utility since most of their content is integrated into the Movie Guide, but I do sometimes editorialize a bit and review some non-feature content, so they’re worth collecting here.
2012-15 capsule dump: part 1 / part 2
2015: February/March/April/May/June/July/August/September/October/November/December
2016: January/February/March/April/May/June/July/August/September/October/November/December
2017: January/February/March/April/May/June/July/August/September

OTHER
For the first two years, I managed to see enough films theatrically to make a crude first-draft top ten. I’ve since dropped this idea, don’t go to the movies much anymore (too frustrating), and have no intention of trying again.
Best of 2012
Best of 2013

600 posts and almost six years in — I’m still here, and I intend to stay here, and we’re gonna have a real good time together.

Dodsworth (1936, William Wyler)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

A woman discusses with her illicit lover the contents of a letter sent by her husband, who’s staying in their home overseas. She complains that the conversation has left her cold, ruined her evening, that the letter brings too many things to light that she’d prefer to forget. Her suave new man strides to her, reaches over and lights a match, setting the letter ablaze in a not-so-subtly erotic gesture. She lets it go and it drifts into the wind past them, unnoticed, gracefully spinning through the air until it settles on the ground in a final balletic plunge. It’s just a quick scene, almost nothing is made of it, except that the very inclusion of such a detail, growing out of a quick maneuver of hands, suggests that small moments like this mean everything in the story being told, and it proves to be so.

Dodsworth is the sort of movie that closes the gap between the past and present. Among even the most universally beloved of classic films, few can be named that retain so much of their vitality and feel as present as though they were shot last year. Part of this agelessness springs from simplicity: it’s a movie about people, specifically a married couple whose relationship is tested during a long planned-for vacation abroad. Yes, these are people of considerable means — he a retired automobile tycoon, she an heiress — but this gap too is one that the film means to shrink or even ignore, since the bare essence of their emotional inner lives is its concern, and therefore ours. Regardless of background or outlook, people and their fickle, worn-down hearts are the one thing whose relevance can most assuredly remain eternal. Dodsworth takes its settings, characters and basic themes from a Sinclair Lewis novel meant to satirize bourgeois values, and this subversive essence does rear its head here and there (if you want to see what a straight adaptation of the idea might have looked like, get thee to Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange), but director William Wyler — seldom mentioned as a Hollywood humanist alongside Capra and Borzage, but maybe he should be — could no more reduce his tragic marrieds to stereotype or scorn than Jean Renoir could do the same with the hopeless idiots populating Rules of the Game.

The unhappy couple’s attempt at a long second honeymoon is approached with affable enough enthusiasm by post-midlife crisis former workaholic Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) but it’s clear that the prime mover of the trip is his often outwardly insecure, shallow wife (Ruth Chatterton), openly terrified of aging and obsessed with the appearance of high society, running against her husband’s vision of the two of them as “hicks.” As soon as they hit the cruise ship, she begins to stray and initiate a test of his faith, determination, love, his need to understand and take care of her. It sounds simplistic, a tale told a thousand times, and even unbalanced and unfair, but the intricacies in the story grow with every minute as triangles develop and disintegrate, emotions ebb and flow, and wounds grow deeper. All the while, we are given a depressing but painfully real glimpse at an extended relationship that has grown inoperable, all the tangled webs of emotions and dread and buried happiness and unspoken secrets.

One-sided though it may sound, all of this — aside from the healthy amount provided by the great Lewis, screenwriter Sidney Howard and director Wyler — is detectable in the face, personality, voice, full expression of Huston, who gives what must count as one of the great movie performances of all time. Like Jimmy Stewart, Huston acts with every bone in his body, every trace of a movement, every expression on his face, every tinge of hope and doubt in his voice. Huston performed the role of Dodsworth on stage for years, and yet the movie reveals things that could never have been visible in a play: His eyes, every physical nuance he adds to every line, it all seems to serve an ideal of acting that becomes so complete, almost eerily real. He comes across so much as a person — and hardly a perfect one; he, too, begins to stray, and we’re given to understand that for all his faithfulness, he was somewhat neglectful of his wife’s needs when she was making a home for him — that his command and identification with the viewer are absolute.

It’s much easier to miss the intelligence and depth of Chatterton in her much more thankless role, but repeat viewings clarify that Mrs. Dodsworth too is a strongly defined character; watch how Wyler — who coaxed a more sympathetic performance out of Chatterton than she initially wanted to give — focuses on her pain and her obvious need to break out of the societal roles that have been set for her. She can be faulted as a one-dimensionally bitchy and shrill character whose attitude stretches credibility; but over time one becomes aware that she too is intelligently observed, particularly if you’ve known someone (of any gender, mind) like her… someone clinging to a phony illusion of permanent youth, or just someone whose attachment to status leaves every kind of true, lasting love behind. In most of the couple’s arguments, while one is naturally drawn to Huston’s clearheaded responsibility and open kindness, we can feel ourselves sympathizing with both of them, even as Sam’s plight will become ever more painfully familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with a partner’s infidelity. Part of the film’s point, in contrast to the novel’s, is the universal truth that even a narcissist deserves love — and we watch as her own penchant for criticism and complaining rub off on and transform her husband into a doddering old fool. We watch as he gives her one second chance after another, watch the nighttime quarrels horrific in their carefully observed honesty, and we understand his love, and his faith, because we understand how he is both attuned to the nuances of her character and blind to the detrimental effect she has on him. And we are particularly heartbroken by the rebuttal she receives when she attempts to marry a younger man with a title (rejected with the devastating words of his mother, played unforgettably by Maria Ouspenskaya); we may even feel slight regret for the way Dodsworth must finally leave her behind, but we also know that — like so many relationships that run their course, or that may not really have had one in the first place — it is time.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect such a relatively moody (if hardly humorless) drama as Dodsworth to find a way to draw cheers, but Mary Astor’s performance as fellow cruise ship passenger Edith Cortright generates every feeling of real human closeness and warmth absent from the central marriage; her easy camaraderie with Sam blossoms out of her being written as a three-dimensional person with a palpable past, future and energy that are not reliant on any man’s placement in her life. She’s a complete person, and Sam’s easiness around her is obvious and telling. There are two remarkable outlying moments in Astor’s performance: once when her compassion for the Dodsworths leads her to try and persuade Fran not to cheat on Sam, to no avail; and later, when her own emotions and her slowly brewing love for Sam lead her to deliver a passionate speech to try and convince him to stay with her, to convince him essentially of something he already knows (his sense of duty and commitment start to get the better of him, here). Her observations of Sam’s character in this moment are so cutting and such a wizened, believable testament of genuine affection that to hear such things expressed, without fear and in a state of true connection and comfort, would be enough to cause a viewer to tear up even if there was not the suggestion of a new love backing it. Rarely has such an undiluted moment of kindness, however desperate, found such direct expression in a Hollywood film.

That realism is one of the great strong points of Dodsworth, certainly in terms of character development and the frequently shattering dialogue, makes Wyler’s highly stylized and frantic direction — heavy but not reliant on impressive long shots covering entire rooms — all the more intriguing; it’s not at all confined to stage origins or to “photographs of people talking.” During one of the arguments, his camera moves back and forth as Mrs. Dodsworth speaks in a bruising confessional scene that foretells the final monologues in Paris, Texas. He and cinematographer Rudolph Maté (Carl Theodor Dreyer’s right-hand man in a past life) also explore interestingly artificial compositions and work to make them seem logical, as in several moments when he very pointedly places three characters in a literal triangle. Wyler would later further the idea of shooting romantic films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Wuthering Heights as if they were suspense thrillers, with a chilling concentration on the odd menace in the inanimate as well as innovative use of deep focus. The juxtaposition simply adds to the poignance and the feeling of emotional outpouring by the time the movie leaves us.

Movies this “adult,” low-key and intelligent are rare in the mainstream today, as nearly every review of Dodsworth ever written has pointed out, but one important fact missing from that statement is that movies this “adult” were just as rare in 1930s Hollywood. Across the studio films of this period, there are few occasions in which we watch a husband make idle chatter with his wife while he takes off his pants, or that really convey the feeling of wandering through months of one’s life completely alone, or that allow us to see entire years’ worth of feelings and resentments change, lift or revise themselves with small, silent movements in actors’ bodies and eyes. The film’s heartfelt exploration of a fraying marriage is not “fun” in any conventional sense, and it makes no concessions to comfort or to any sense of glamour, despite being focused almost exclusively on very rich people, as if to reassure the Depression-era audience that those with the ability to loaf comfortably suffered equally from interpersonal unhappiness. Strangely, however, it is almost cathartic in its sheer pleasure and triumph, and in the sense it communicates that even in the drab world that belongs to both the film and to us, love actually can make its way out into the open somehow, and can save a lonely life for good.

[Expanded from a review originally posted in 2007.]

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932, Mervyn LeRoy)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

If ever a single film encapsulated how much has changed artistically and commercially in Hollywood since the 1930s, it must be Mervyn LeRoy’s startling Warner Bros. drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The film is not only remarkable for how undiminished and hard-hitting it remains in its immediacy and scathing social consciousness — even good, elemental creations like Paramount’s Underworld and MGM’s The Big House feel comparatively staid — but in the devastating and indisputable case it accidentally makes that America’s most popular and visible artform was once capable of politically charged, rousing communication that has since been shut out of the realm of possibility. The studio films of today have never felt more hopelessly neutered than they do when confronted with a brash force of nature like this. Warner Bros., of course, was widely seen as the primary habitat of earnest, gritty Hollywood populism, and while its ability to probe and shock, to present the Depression-era world of its audience with relative honesty, would be cut at the knees by the Hays code within two years, Chain Gang exists along with the likes of Five Star Final and Employees Entrance as living evidence of an anti-authority, anti-institutional stance that struck a chord then and seems unheard-of now. Can you imagine the response of the Fox News chuds to a film in which a prisoner on a chain gang is the hero, the guards and cops and state prison infracture itself the unequivocal enemies?

The film loosely retells the true story of writer and WWI veteran Robert Burns (renamed James Allen for the film), fashioning itself as a kind of Les Miserables narrative with the prison authorities and the scourge of corrupt chain gang bosses and legal officials standing in for an absent Jalvert. James is wrongfully accused of a robbery — he takes money out of a cash register, but only at gunpoint, while he’s waiting for a promised free hamburger! — and sentenced to ten years on a chain gang in the Deep South. When he can take no more, he manages a daring escape and carves out a life for himself as an engineer and community pillar in Chicago; when he’s recaptured it becomes politically and socially expedient for him to serve further limited time in exchange for a pardon, but he is again swindled and must find his way back out. Like the book, the unflinching film was nearly revolutionary in its exposure of the inexcusable conditions and abuse in such prison environments, and helped initiate a sea change in the American attitude toward prisoners and the criminal justice system, and specifically — though the film doesn’t directly address this — the inherently evil for-profit prison infrastructure, referred to here as “the Prison Commission.” (Burns was subject to penal labor, or convict leasing, from which can be drawn a direct line to today’s private prisons.)

Prison narratives today, even when critical, are comparatively glib; without resorting to Gothic overexaggeration, director LeRoy and screenwriters Howard Green and Brown Holmes present a nightmare world that feels honest and lived-in, and the film’s steadfast suspicion of authority and anti-police, pro-prisoner, even pro-sex work message may owe a great deal to the Depression and the attendant sympathy toward those suffering the desperations of poverty, but have a bold righteousness one can’t help but find refreshing in modern context. (On top of everything that takes place behind bars and in chains, the film features a nonjudgmental, realistic, empathetic scene involving its hero being provided time by a prostitute that would be virtually unimaginable now — for all the social progress we’ve obviously made since 1932, it’s alarming in the best way to see a woman in this profession treated nochalantly as a human being without shaming her or her client.)

Paul Muni worked closely with Burns in crafting his performance; he could be a bit of a ham at times but this is the ideal role for him, just the right balance of articulate angst that leads him on a personal journey after the war in the first place (he doesn’t want to be tied to an office job anymore and wants to do things he actually cares about; when explaining this in a single monologue, the script achieves in a couple of pages what it takes the entirety of Edmond Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge to utterly fail to get across) and everyman bafflement at the plight he’s ultimately handed. More than anything else, his grit and honesty lend credibility to the film’s realism and narrative sweep; we identify deeply with him as the story seems repeatedly to escape his grasp. He thinks on his feet, but never in a way that beggars belief; good and bad fortune are things he seems to stumble into, as they are for most of us. The robbery-raid that lands him in jail is harrowing in its sickening, confusing quickness, an early indicator of the movie’s relentless pacing that takes us to hell and back and to hell again across many sad and wasted years in a matter of an hour and a half, and from that moment on if not earlier, his shock and determination, fear and resignation become ours. For that reason the film is almost overwhelmingly exciting and breathlessly suspenseful, which makes its most horrific moments, the finale in particular, that much stronger; it is a thriller that denies us the relief of escapism.

If I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang has a weak point, it’s in its most Hugo-like sequence, the midsection when Allen changes his name, falls backward into a marriage with a blackmailer and gets a well-paying job as a foreman for a construction company. It doesn’t lack credibility — the events in the film are remarkably similar to those that actually befell Burns, although he became a magazine editor rather than an engineer — except for the characterization of his landlord and eventual wife Marie, whose entrapment of him and apparent role in his capture require her to be too much of a cardboard cutout, whose motives for courting, marrying and finally punishing him are difficult to comprehend outside of misguided suspicion of the mythical female “gold digger.” (Glenda Farrell does have a lot of fun with the part; the film in general is full of small but striking roles for women, somewhat impressively for a 1930s prison movie.) The only other serious flaw is one of missed opportunity; LeRoy briefly touches on the camaraderie felt between white and black prisoners on the chain gang; one scene (memorably parodied by Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run) has the men all singing Negro spirituals together, while the key sequence of Allen’s first escape requires the participation — willing but skeptical, quite understandably so — of a black prisoner strikingly portrayed by character actor Everett Brown, unfortunately uncredited. The scene shows them communicating as equals across racial lines, an almost nonexistent sight in Hollywood movies of this period, with their common status as prisoners clearly evening out the sociological, institutional gaps separating them, a dynamic it would have been fascinating to see further investigated. (Again, a lesser filmmaker, Stanley Kramer, would make a clumsier job of expressing this kind of conflict and change in a feature-length film, The Defiant Ones, than LeRoy does in just a few minutes.)

Like all of the best pre-Code features, Chain Gang inadvertently exposes the inefficiencies not just of Hollywood filmmaking today but of the Hays Code period that began depressingly soon after its release, which certainly circumvented many American films’ attempts at undiluted social relevance for the next two decades. The ending illustrates LeRoy and the writers’ refusal to comfort or forgive their audience, and there would probably not be another studio picture with quite so uncompromisingly bleak a closing moment until roundabout Vertigo. With the chilling closing dialogue — “How do you live?” “I steal!” — and the terrifying image of Muni’s dimly lit, wide-eyed face being swallowed by the darkness illustrating the bleak, insurmountable cycle of the criminal life, the film suggests that neither Allen’s period redefining himself in Chicago nor even his status as a fugitive and escapee changes the bare fact of existence for any prisoner, which is that once you are “inside,” you truly are there for life. It would be impossible to completely crawl out from underneath the brutality we witness. It’s doubly impossible for Allen not to remain a prisoner, even in supposed “freedom.” The living nightmare depicted herein of individuality taken away, of servitude to either systematic oppression or just to fear, makes as strong a case as any film could for the cruelty and ineffectiveness of the system that — don’t kid yourself — we still live under today. Moreover, I submit that this emotional essence of the film would be unchanged if the hero were shown to be guilty. Unless you are sporting a “blue lives matter” bumper sticker, it must surely concern you that we as citizens all live permanently under the system of dumb luck, even if some of us are safer than others: dumb luck that they haven’t caught you yet and decided that you’re next. I hope for your sake that they never do.

September 2017 movie capsules

16 movies watched in September. Counts:
– 10 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 2,220.
– 6 revisits, including two (Safety Last!, seen via the Criterion DVD with Amber, and The Toll of the Sea, on the Treasures from American Film Archives disc) already capsuled here, and I elected not to expand those into full reviews for now though I intend to do so someday — the same goes for San Francisco, newly capsuled in this space. However, I did write up two old favorites and reposted an old review from my former setup.
– 3 new-to-this-blog full reviews, two of them new altogether. The semi-rerun is Great Expectations, the David Lean version; I was surprised my 2008 essay required no doctoring or revision. Freaks and Secret Agent are all-new reviews, and in fact my inaugural attempt at writing a full piece on the latter, one of the few Hitchcock features I had only seen one time previously. (Been holding out hope for a better DVD edition all these years; it’s the only one of the Gaumont Six without a decent edition on the market.)
– 11 new or revised capsules, all below!
– The latest distractions from my regular duties are the new Warner Archive Porky Pig 101 five-disc set, the first chronological compilation of Looney Tunes pretty much ever, which I segued into right after completing a journey through the UPA Jolly Frolics and Hubley discs I picked up last year; and a renewed obsession with MST3K, nearly all episodes of which are now available on disc. The Porky set, though, will coincide nicely with the ’30s canon since Porky in Wackyland makes an appearance there.

Project breakdowns:
1930s canon: 6 films (4 new). I’m still discombobulated from August and utterly failed to catch up. I’m tentatively trying to still make November the end date for this project, but there’s probably a 50/50 chance I’ll have to delay till the following month. This won’t be the end of the world; I’m following this with a very short one-month interlude project before moving on to the ’40s. At any rate, we did knock out two biggies in the form of the aforementioned Freaks and Secret Agent, plus Medvedkin’s Happiness, Renoir’s La Bete Humaine, Clair’s Le Million and Ozu’s The Only Son; Filmstruck has been such a boon to this project. Remaining, in addition to three shorts that need addressing: 28 films (23 new).
Best Picture Oscar nominees: 5 films (3 new). Dropped the ball badly on this one, but I’m less broken up about it since it’s so long-term. Revisited Great Expectations and San Francisco (which I got to show to my mom, who’d never seen it), then tackled The Longest Day, The Talk of the Town and my favorite (and most long overdue) new discovery of the month, Bergman’s magnificent Cries and Whispers. Remaining: 176 films (141 new).
2010s catchup: Finally a productive month for this, on the other hand, largely because Netflix pulled two movies I’d been trying to make time to watch for a couple of years, which forced my hand. Those were The Double and The Duke of Burgundy, both good and mildly disappointing, and also The Tale of the Princess Kaguya came in the mail; I liked it as much as I ever like the Ghibli stuff.
– I have vacation time in October, and while I’ll be spending some of it seeing family and traveling and trying to get my music blog scheduling problem under control, there should be a lot of downtime as well, and I look forward to maybe doubling down on the ’30s stuff.

On to the capsules… (I know the San Francisco capsule is kinda bullshit, but it does sum it up! And I always liked it, though it used to be one word shorter.)

Happiness (1935, Aleksandr Medvedkin) [r]
Visually majestic sort-of-comedy about a peasant’s search for contentment shot in the lubok style is very different from most of the Soviet propaganda that survives in the cultural memory; its wit and eye-popping moments of freeform avant garde expression will make it irresistible to anyone enamored of silent and early sound film techniques. With a character named Loser, a “horse-wife” and a walking house, this demonstrates an off-kilter Russian humor that’s not exactly Buster Keaton but isn’t a great distance from Buñuel either.

La Bête Humaine (1938, Jean Renoir) [hr]
Troubling, extremely absorbing proto-noir, based on an Émile Zola novel, about the lives of a vengeful, jealous station manager and a mentally ill and lovesick train conductor colliding with sickening inevitability. As usual, Renoir’s feel for people and location is infallible — you feel the soot and the energy of the trains running all throughout, and deeply understand how their mechanical reliability runs against the wildcard of human emotions — and it’s intriguing to see those inclinations applied to a rather nasty and nihilistic thriller with no real heroes, and many breaches of trust with one another and with the audience.

San Francisco (1936, W.S. Van Dyke) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) Holy shit!

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013, Isao Takahata) [r]
Lovingly presented folktale, overcoming Studio Ghibli’s usual arbitrary plotting with a sense of ancient lore and a touchingly compassionate center, with a wonderfully distinctive, minimalist watercolor design. It explores the life of a girl with supernatural origins who is discovered in the forest by a bamboo cutter, who then seeks out a title for her; easy, unforced humor and class commentary arises from his, his wife’s and eventually an entire world’s difficulty with comprehending that material desire isn’t the essence of her dreams. A much more humane and multifaceted film than Grave of the Fireflies, though there’s still some emotional distance.

The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin/Andrew Marton/Bernhard Wicki) [r]
Star-studded, meticulously detailed account of the D-Day invasion from nearly all possible angles deserves credit for not being a bravura cheerleading of wartime violence, and for building to an anticlimax. Despite several harrowing setpieces, there’s a lot of arrhythmic editing and a decent amount of the dialogue is poorly written and read, a weird clash of old-Hollywood sensibilities with the film’s gritty ambitions. These problems fade somewhat as the excitement of the impending action mounts, and the battles themselves demonstrate outstanding camerawork and gargantuan-scale blocking whose logitisics are difficult to even fathom.

Le Million (1931, René Clair) [hr]
Clair’s delightful musical comedy is more charming than funny, but almost Lubitschian in its sheer buoyancy. René Lefèvre stars as a philanderer who robs from Peter to pay Paul and has a Paris full of creditors and a handful of women coming home to roost all at once, when the news comes that he and his friend have won the lottery. A madly convoluted chase follows as he seeks to recover the missing coat that houses his ticket, and there’s no point trying to explain the rest. The song sequences are lovely, the whole film ceaselessly inventive and alive; Clair communicates the sheer joy of unburdened youth like few other directors.

The Double (2013, Richard Ayoade) [r]
Gorgeous-looking, witty and well-acted nightmare from writer-director Ayoade is reminiscent of Welles’ The Trial in its tirelessly inventive inscrutability, taking a Dostoyevsky novella for inspiration. Jesse Eisenberg gets thrown into a cornucopia of hopelessly thankless, hellish work and Manic Pixie Dream Girls, his bleak existence upended all the more when his uber-Alpha doppelgänger shows up. The level of visual detail here, and the fun Ayoade has dooming his protagonist, forgives some of the half-baked avenues the story takes. Wallace Shawn is hilarious as the boss in the boy’s unfathomably depressing office.

Cries and Whispers (1972, Ingmar Bergman) [hr]
Stunning psychodrama, one of the best of Bergman’s color films, functions as a meditation on death and grief as much as an oppressive fever dream. Sven Nykvist’s camera and Marik Vos-Lundh’s eye-popping set design brilliantly, almost garishly reflect the intensity of feeling among three sisters and a maid (Kari Sylwan) holed up in a mansion as one of them (Harriet Andersson) wastes away from illness, watched over with obligatory compassion while relationships fray. Bergman delves into these disparate personalities and shows himself and his cast unafraid of the rawest and most unfiltered kind of emotion.

The Only Son (1936, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
The outwardly straightforward story of a boy whose mother makes sacrifices to ensure his education, but who grows up in fear of disappointing her, balloons out to become a challenge to the personal philosophies and convictions of anyone watching. The film is free of easy answers, and as ever, Ozu’s beautifully still moments are steeped in their place and time — here contemporary as of the film’s release — but seem to sing out with both universal emotion and the specific tics of their characters and performances. The entire cast proves adept at exploring the unsaid, even as their polite smiles and bows only subside a handful of times.

The Duke of Burgundy (2014, Peter Strickland) [r]
Formally astounding drama set in a mysterious, insular world populated solely by entomologists and sex-bed manufacturers revolves around a lesbian couple in a master-slave relationship and (hilariously) the master’s frustration with the extremely specific, ultimately exhausting requirements of her partner. Strickland allows an emotional center to shine through all the wicked cleverness — with flights of dreamlike fancy and a well-placed Brakhage homage — but while the film’s nonchalant attitude toward both kink and its all-female cast is praiseworthy, it slips out of our lives without a sense of real resolution or satisfaction.

The Talk of the Town (1942, George Stevens)
Wildly uneven, plotty “comedy” about a wrongly jailed anarchist hiding in the attic of an ex who happens to have a potential Supreme Court justice staying as a tenant. Stevens is uncomfortable with his characters’ interactions, filling the frame with off-putting closeups and unintentionally funny emotional flourishes while fumbling his attempts at slapstick. The script’s busy wordiness indicates its authors thought they were really on a roll, and you truly feel sorry for them. Cary Grant and Jean Arthur are wonderful but they’re drowned out entirely by Ronald Colman, hamming it up as the highbrow lawyer whose beard is treated like the Monolith from 2001.

***

Additional Letterboxd notes on: Great Expectations / The Toll of the Sea / Freaks / Secret Agent

Secret Agent (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Blessed with unprecedented authority over his material while working at British Gaumont after providing them with two consecutive massive hits, Alfred Hitchcock took a large professional risk in 1936 by making Secret Agent and Sabotage. However strongly one can make the case that Hollywood made Hitchcock a more sophisticated director, capable of so many slickly presented nightmares, these devious, downbeat entries in his filmography offer the opportunity to see the director do things he would never attempt in America — the moral messiness, the sense of futility, the subtle but bleak political messaging — and their uncompromising pessimism is a far cry indeed from the crowd-pleasing tendencies of the works that enabled them, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps. Sure, those films felt dangerous — Hitchcock’s specialty was always thrillers that scar by making their characters and events seem oppressively real, no matter how grand and far-fetched — but they were not permeated with outright dread, which is what ultimately sets Secret Agent and Sabotage apart, and what makes them so fascinating.

They’re the sort of eccentric, highly personal and commercially disappointing* interlude he would tend later in life to either bitterly defend (like Rich and Strange and The Trouble with Harry) or quietly downplay (like Vertigo), and in these cases he was not inclined to expend energy going to bat for the more provocative of his reputation-defining late 1930s thrillers, but watching the films you can’t ignore how vitalized and passionate he’d become as a filmmaker at this point, and you come to suspect that he was perhaps overly influenced by critical dismissal of these efforts. The reputation of Sabotage is particularly senseless and unfair, but Secret Agent too is a gift, as entertaining and worthy of consideration as any of the “Gaumont Six” (the aforementioned ’30s thrillers that really made his name internationally). This was fueled perhaps more than anything by the incredibly well-matched long-term collaboration with screenwriter Charles Bennett, who in Secret Agent — marginally the more conventional of the two films — works to very faintly but ingeniously adapt a series of semi-autobiographical W. Somerset Maugham stories. (Ever the mild narcissist, Maugham used fiction as a way of boasting about his involvement in the British war effort during the 1910s.)

Thematically and structurally, Secret Agent resembles certain later Hitchcocks about espionage, such as Foreign Correspondent and the dreaded Topaz, but it doesn’t sacrifice the key element that made his previous film an obvious turning point in his career: the audience’s strong identification with its lead character, in this case two lead characters, for Secret Agent really has two protagonists. John Gielgud is the Maugham stand-in, an author and Naval captain named Brodie commissioned by the government — who’ve faked his death — to intercept and assassinate a German spy in the third year of World War I (making this also one of the very few Hitchcock films that is a period piece). This is heavier cloak-and-dagger stuff than usual for Hitchcock, and an author whose works are well-known is a bit less of an “everyman” than we’re used to, but the story as a whole simply wouldn’t work if Brodie, renamed Mr. Ashenden for the assignment, were not some kind of an outsider. That he’s just a bit out of his depth keeps this from turning into some sort of glorified James Bond dress rehearsal. He is, however, somewhat improbably assigned a fake wife in the form of Madeleine Carroll (a 39 Steps holdover), who’s bloodthirsty and anxious for the thrill of killing an enemy agent; unusually for the female foil in a picture like this (Hitchcock typically didn’t go for this kind of romance), she is onscreen nearly as much as Gielgud and many scenes center around her own rude awakening and reactions to the violent events that unfold — indeed, she’s on the verge of ending the story herself when a train accident intervenes. The pair’s attraction to and eventual engagement to one another is ludicrous in the abstract, but it lends itself to an intriguing career-life conflict, one of many in Hitchcock but probably the only one born of bloodshed. They are also joined by a contract killer known as “the General” (Peter Lorre, again a Hitchcock veteran, he of The Man Who Knew Too Much) whose psychosis and womanizing render him both a crucial part of the assignment and the major wildcard ensuring that nothing will play out routinely. As the story develops, our trust in the trio quickly fades, replaced by a fearful recognition of their frailty; thin leads are followed, false conclusions drawn, and the sheer ineptitude of the spies is breathtaking, leading not to comedy but to a tragic reminder of the ghoulishness of murder, whether it’s out of patriotic duty or not.

Something else is going on here as well, though, and it’s all but unique for films of the time, at least in the thriller genre: Brodie is filled with apprehension before he even learns the details of his mission, and once its grim reality — that he is to identify and kill someone based on scant evidence — sets in, he seems to exhibit a kind of emotional shutdown. He verbalizes more than once how his awful duty actually tortures him, and we learn repeatedly that his instincts of what a nasty business this is are correct, most notably when he and the General carry out the task of slaughtering their enemy, only to then quickly discover that he was incorrectly identified, an ordinary man in the wrong place at the wrong time — in effect, normally the person who’d be at the center of one of Hitchcock’s films**. With his systematic view of the way his later films worked, Hitchcock would probably have cited this is an error, taking sympathy too much away from the “heroes,” who have now committed an unprovoked crime for which they won’t be punished, but in truth this ends up making a strong point about the confusion and violence of war itself, presented as a series of impossible choices made over typically imaginary borders and boundaries that harm everyone in their orbit and inevitably result in the needless killing of innocent people. A few years hence, such ideals and such open doubts about war and nationalism could not be baked into a commercial film, and not just because of the coming world war — the conflicted hero, at least in a film that bends on patriotic action and means to attract a wide swath of people, would become virtually extinct soon enough.

The four major cast members are perfect for pieces of such an ambiguous, despairing whole, which still injects plenty of sharp humor, much of it from Lorre, who was seldom funny before this and seldom as funny afterward. Gielgud, while ideal in a Daniel Craig sort of way, is probably the weakest of the three leads simply because his consternation, well-written and well-played though it is, surfaces rarely by design, and he must spend the rest of the the time maintaining a certain intentional duplicity. When the time comes for him to fall in love, the character as written seems ripe for fulfilling his emotional needs, but Gielgud isn’t quite as good at exploring his tender side as he is at feigning stoicism. (Robert Donat in The 39 Steps more believably explored unstated feelings, though in that film there was no outright romance, at least until the final moments.) Still, he’s credible throughout the film and it’s fun to watch him full of such youth and vigor. Carroll, on the other hand, is magnificent, brimming with wit and nuance she couldn’t explore in her far more emotionally limited role in The 39 Steps; Mrs. Ashendon’s flirting, thrill-seeking, sassiness and eventual falling in love all seem to have been defined well and completely by star and director in concert, and it’s quite a pity Hitchcock did not work with her again — she seems the perfect prototype of the Hitchcock Blonde. Meanwhile, she’s given a secondary love interest in Robert Young, who plays the cuckolded cad all too well and permits us the rare pleasure of seeing someone we can’t stand for unrelated reasons turn out to be the villain (kudos for the long-payoff joke that has him faking incompetence at a German lesson early on); it’s surely unintentional but his entire role, and his relationship to Carroll in the narrative, serves as an early warning against the modern-day Nice Guy.

Lastly, Peter Lorre was probably never in a stranger role, which is saying a lot, and he approaches it with incredible gusto; Hitchcock seems to be head over heels for him, judging by the way he films an incredible extended furniture-throwing rant (about not being “provided” a wife, as his partner was), and one of Hitchcock’s few melodramatic, curtain call-like death scenes. Lorre throws himself into this and leaves behind most traces of his later-traditional persona; from his Hollywood films, you’d never imagine he could believably portray a heavily promiscuous but highly skilled hitman, but his General is so vivid, funny and frightening — the coldness in Lorre’s eyes when he’s forced periodically to deal with Mrs. Ashendon’s hesitancy is truly unnerving — it may be, aside from M, the best surviving evidence of Lorre’s actual genius as a film performer. That he does not survive the film is further evidence of its remarkable pessimism, though it’s easy to sort of wish his fate also befell one of the two actual stars, which Truffaut and Hitchcock incorrectly remembered occurring in the former’s interview book. Still, as mindlessly happy endings go, the closing montage of victories in an utterly facile, pointlessly deadly war and a shot of a note from the couple assuring “NEVER AGAIN” does at least provide some late-breaking ambivalence about war and murder; it’s a relief not to see nationalist pride positioned as an excuse for every terrible action for a change.

This being Hitchcock, it seems nearly superfluous to mention that the film looks beautiful, even if the film is easily the talkiest of the Gaumont Six; the sets recreate Switzerland, Hitchcock’s motivation for making the film and setting a chase scene in a chocolate factory, lovingly. The seams that remained visible in The Man Who Knew Too Much are now, as in The 39 Steps, completely absent, even if this movie can’t be quite as absorbingly gorgeous as Steps. Bernard Knowles’ wonderful photography is well-suited, offering a tense contrast between the lovely setting and the acerbic darkness of the script; superficially, these first three of the Gaumont Six are all black & white thrillers with (at least) semi-exotic settings, but examining them more carefully, they couldn’t look more different, with The Man Who Knew Too Much full of horror and shadows enhanced by its scrappiness, The 39 Steps so kinetic and quick it seems to always be in motion, and this film casting a skilled, unblinking eye on atrocities in micro. Technically, each has been better than the last, a trend that would continue all the way through The Lady Vanishes. Secret Agent also marks storytelling inroads that would have far-reaching implications for Hitchcock’s work; it features his most impeccably staged and edited suspense sequences to date. The cathedral scene, wherein Ashendon and the General wonder why their contact isn’t responding to their signal while a one-note organ blares ominously in the background, is kind of a moody reprise of the Tabernacle of the Sun sequence in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but presented even more effectively. In the chocolate factory, he generates remarkable fear and trepidation from nothing more than covert actions of slipping pieces of paper into boxes, the making of vague phone calls, and Lorre’s indescribable face; the mathematical precision of it all is uncanny.

The most memorable moment comes after the agents believe they have found their man, thanks to the very circumstantial discovery of a button at a murder scene; Hitchcock is masterfully deceptive in letting us see each clue, each piece to the puzzle of the forming picture, as they and we come to believe that an unassuming dog owner (Percy Marmont) with a kindly but secretive wife at the hotel is the elusive German spy. On shady pretext that could make anyone cheer in its balletic naturalism, the General and Ashendon manage to convince him to join them on a mountain climb, which is where they eliminate him. During the decisive afternoon Hitchcock memorably cross-cuts between the mountain, an increasingly nervous Ashendon (who eventually walks away and watches through a telescope when the murder is committed), and his “wife,” who’s looking after — distracting — the old lady and their dog during the climb, while unbearable tension, the unmistakable sense that something is wrong, mounts in the room. When the man is killed off-camera — killed, essentially, by film editing — we feel a sense of strange relief, which is unceremoniously destroyed when the Britons are brought a coded message during dinner, warning them belatedly that they are chasing the wrong person. Carroll is devastated, Ashendon weary, and the General smiles and laughs and moves on, like it either doesn’t matter that he just killed an innocent man or like he does it all the time. This moment, so elegantly expressive of the cruel price of war, takes the risk of completely alienating the audience populated by nice British dog-owners, which it probably did, and is all the better for it.

The crux is that Secret Agent‘s bleakness isn’t just situational, it’s ideological — a profound treatise on what an ungodly mess humanity makes of everything, and especially the stupidity of war; all the careful planning, all the ciphers and signals, all the supposed moral righteousness of one’s home country cannot mask over the madness of killing even one’s “enemy,” something that comes to haunt Carroll particularly as she watches a guy that annoyed her to bits but whom she still kind of liked exposed as a cunning German informant with multiple homicides under his belt. Hitchcock set him up as the foolishly overconfident comic relief, so we’re somewhat thrown as well; we’re even slightly disappointed that the outwardly kind older man who was killed by our heroes was not a spy, because we saw all the evidence right along with the cast. This indicates Hitchcock and Bennett’s suspicion of “expertise,” at least when human lives are in the balance, and they take every opportunity to point out the government and military’s basic incompetence and aloofness, starting with the very first scene in which an official can’t seem to figure out how to dismount a coffin after a staged funeral. Somewhat akin to the way the murder scene in Torn Curtain displayed how unrealistic the killings we witness in cinema typically are, Secret Agent deglamorizes state-sanctioned violence and espionage as just a bunch of barely capable fools fumbling in the dark. For not the last time, Hitchcock later shows an officer dictating the actions of his charges like chess pieces from a comfortable distance — getting a steam bath here, chowing down on fried chicken in Notorious — which is just another angle on the armchair warmongers in All Quiet on the Western Front. Once again, all this gets in just under the deadline for British film with an explicit antiwar message or an explicit counter to empty patriotism, really by necessity, but its arguments are all the more potent and chilling in light of the cloud then forming over the continent.

What lingers in your mind after seeing the Gaumont Six? Of course their cautionary paranoia, of course their sense of a vivid Europe despite being largely created on sets, of course their introduction of Hitchcock as the cinema’s greatest teller of human stories regardless of genre. Secret Agent is almost certainly the least celebrated of these films, if not the least viscerally pleasing (that would be Sabotage, which we’ll come to in a few weeks), but its best moments are no less striking or sweeping than the shootout that closes The Man Who Knew Too Much or the chase across the Scottish highlands in The 39 Steps, or even the unexpectedly bloody climax of The Lady Vanishes. These six films are as remarkable for what unites them — a breathless, persistent energy — as what sets each of them apart, and Secret Agent deserves renewed recognition (it’s the only one of the six not to be recently restored and redistributed, still available in America only as a gray market DVD) as a progressive expression of the cost of war as well as a cracking, if dispiriting, thriller. It should be seen by anyone who loves Hitchcock, and certainly anyone who loves The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes.

[* Commercially disappointing only when compared to The 39 Steps, which was an international smash and arguably changed the British film industry.]
[** Basically, I’m saying that the General killed Roger Thornhill.]

Freaks (1932, Tod Browning)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The story goes that Irving Thalberg, MGM’s young mastermind producer, commissioned Tod Browning and a couple of writers to create the “ultimate horror film” in the early 1930s, following the massive success of Frankenstein and Browning’s own Dracula for Universal. Reportedly he was shaken and distressed by the script that Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon then turned in, a vicious, confrontational screed against prejudice centered around a travelling circus sideshow, but to his eternal credit he stood by Freaks throughout its production, despite demanding a somewhat lighter tone and relegating it to B-status (as evidenced by the lack of any major stars, though several were at one time associated with the project). While horrific test screenings forever compromised it, the reward is one of the most distinctive, beloved, beautiful and terrifying of all Hollywood films, a masterpiece that flies completely in the face of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s reputation as the studio built for staid, opulent narratives like Grand Hotel (made in the same year!). It doesn’t seem an accident that the film has now outlasted so many, perhaps most, of the entertainments once commonly associated with the grandest, glitziest studio of all.

We will never get to see Freaks as its creators intended. The original ninety-minute film has been lost for decades, its secrets permanently left to the imagination (though complete screenplays do survive); as disappointing as this is, it may add to the sense that the film is profoundly effective as a horror picture because it shows us just enough, and at just the right moments. A more fortuitous element to its continued relevance and ability to shock comes from its entrance into the world during the brief window between the introduction of sound and that of the Hays Code; it’s impossible to fathom its directness, violence and suggestiveness appearing a couple of years later, and the uncompromised nature of the remaining footage — as well as the air of mystery that comes from the knowledge of nearly a third of it being gone, and the urgent pacing it inherits by becoming a 64-minute film — results in a haunting, tormenting, challenging work like nothing else from the studio era.

Freaks‘ agelessness results not just from the atypical intrigue of its subject matter but from its status as almost a purely classical drama of jealousy and revenge, overrun with raw and unusually intimate emotion. Though the top-billed actors are Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, playing a couple of nice but ordinary circus performers, they’re as incidental to the story as the young lovers are to any given Marx Brothers film. What’s really going on here is the one-sided love affair between a smitten little person, the secretly wealthy Hans (Harry Earles of the Doll Family, later a member of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz) and the mocking beauty Cleopatra, well-wrought by the smirking Olga Baclanova in one of her last film roles, who laughs behind the poor gentleman’s back while reaching for his inheritance along with her actual lover, the strong-man Hercules (Henry Victor). Not surprisingly, the two villains overshadow the two “regular” heroes of the cast, and Baclanova and Victor have a surprisingly robust, easy chemistry that would — in a lesser movie — make them the provocatively engaging primary attraction. But this is not an example of a movie in which we reserve some fascination or affection for the villains; the screenplay is so effective that the pair is made to seem both realistically drawn and convincingly evil, their cheerful bullying all too familiar, carefully justifying bit by bit the ultimate actions taken against them. Hans fails to heed the warnings of his friends and his former fiancée (portrayed by Harry’s sister Daisy, which lends an appropriately detached and somber quality to their scenes together, making it feel as though we’re seeing something we shouldn’t) about Cleopatra but quickly learns of her plans to poison him, and participates as the formerly open-armed band of sideshow “freaks” rally and ruin his new bride in the most horrific, completely appropriate fashion. (They mutilated Hercules in the original print as well, and the act itself survives, but we never see the results; perhaps this is a boon, since it allows us to imagine his current state is too terrible to be shown to us.) The shot of the stunted, destroyed Cleopatra — shown for a crowd of circus attendees to gawk at, a delicious final irony — only lasts a few seconds before the camera and/or editor seems to assume we can’t take anymore. It’s partially true; it truly is a sickening, magnificently disturbing image… but our pleasure in seeing Cleopatra in that state is so rich that we are left somehow wanting more, which in the end may be Freaks‘ greatest gift to us: the discovery of how much of a dark thirst for cathartic revenge lurks inside its viewers.

Despite the concessions he ultimately made to Thalberg and MGM, even before the many infamous cuts were made, there can be no mistaking that Browning is the operative voice behind this film, that he was the correct choice to make it, and that it’s the production he was born to bring to the world — even if his career never truly recovered from the commercial disaster and the blow to his reputation. Browning had come of age in circus environments, working for a time as a clown and a vaudeville performer prior to his coming to work for D.W. Griffith at Biograph. His sublime Lon Chaney vehicle The Unknown illustrated his sympathy for the sideshow outsider and his love of sheer unhinged grotesquerie, both prefiguring Freaks. But whereas The Unknown used the freakshow as a jumping-off point for a blunt foray into nightmare psychosis, hinging on the lust and deception of a phony amputee, Freaks is much more purposeful and focused in its message, however harrowing it remains. Divorced from the studio-bound excess of the usual Thalberg production, Browning demonstrates his knowledge and love of the world he’s depicting in virtually every frame of the movie, apart from a few of the less inspired dialogue sequences — the lonely image of boxcars pulling out of town on a rainy night will call forward chilling memories of Disney’s Pinocchio for many viewers, but that film was still nearly a decade in the future at this point. It’s often mentioned that Browning’s technical expertise was no match for James Whale’s, an inevitable comparison because both made massively popular horror films for Universal in the early 1930s, but none of the tentative messiness of Dracula (with which Browning himself was unsatisfied despite its commercial impact) is in evidence at all in Freaks, and if we were able to see the complete film, presumably even its scattered technical flaws of jump cuts and uneven structure would smooth out. What’s even more clearly in evidence, though, is Browning’s deep affection for the people in his film; he’s not just telling a story, he’s documenting lives and a lifestyle that he probably sensed would never be so brutally and lovingly captured by anyone else.

The argument of whether Freaks was an act of exploitation or humanism has raged for the better part of a century, volleyed back and forth by critics, the public, the studio, and the film’s own performers. (MGM’s publicity department didn’t help by releasing a poster with the dreadfully schlocky, Ed Wood-like tagline “Can a full grown women truly love a midget?”) All of the above initially seemed to come out strongly against the very idea of the picture, let alone the execution. As popular as the sideshows of Barnum & Bailey and their ilk then were, it seems that the cinematic audience and the circus audience failed to overlap significantly, so that it was seen as too distressing and frightening to actually see the disabled and deformed performers on camera. Some critics inevitably charged that the film treated its actors as product to be gazed upon in dehumanizing horror; and the experience of the film’s release, if not its shooting, was so traumatic that some members of Browning’s cast later denounced the film (though others did the opposite and most never spoke of it at all, at least partially because it did not become a particularly celebrated film until many of them had died). A cynical case could probably be made that by climaxing with the deliberate disfiguring of a woman by a horde of “freaks,” Browning and the movie are arguing both that these people are a dangerous, tightly-knit band capable of terrible violence and that any break from the physical norm is itself inherently bad and terrifying. This requires an adamant refusal, however, to take the film’s script on good faith and to trust in Browning’s own compassion.

Some may find it easy to look past the film’s lack of condescension for its characters and their obvious, deeply moving bond, captured so elegantly in an early scene of a group of them playing and celebrating with unguarded enthusiasm by a French lake — when they are confronted by a pair of abusive strangers, their caregiver Madame Tetrallini memorably chides her “children” for letting their fear show — and in the iconic, remarkably unforced wedding banquet scene during which they chant that they are poised to accept Hans’ new wife as one of them, only to have their show of goodwill literally thrown in their faces. This very determination to display the members of the sideshow as real and complicated people is likely what has riled up many viewers and made them uncomfortable, because there is little attempt to sugarcoat their natural behaviors or interactions or to focus strictly on their professional lives. (Perhaps the one sour note is the incomplete depiction of how often the likes of the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and performers like the “stork woman” Elizabeth Green, were opportunistically used for entertainment and denied their own agency; and, of course, the fact that we only see people like this in movies when they are about “freakshows.”) If Browning had not used actual “freaks,” or if he tried to constrain them into more traditional character roles, the film undoubtedly would be more “comfortable” for many, and not nearly as vital, memorable or moving. If he attempted to spell out his moralistic argument against surface judgment and prejudice in self-righteous dialogue, he might have created a wrongheaded artifact of liberal cinema in the Stanley Kramer vein. Instead, by simply presenting reality — or at least a supernatural drama rooted in traces of reality — he relies on the audience’s compassion to tell the rest of the story. Some were unwilling to stretch themselves that far.

The state of unguided discomfort — of being uncertain how one is “supposed” to react to what is onscreen — is rare in classic Hollywood, for all its virtues, and Browning is bold to leave us so often in that holding pattern, for it forces us to locate our own moral responses to the story and to the “freaks” themselves (with the gradual revelation that the supposedly normal and able-bodied Hercules and Cleopatra are the “freaks” of the title, not the variously decent, sophisticated, innocent and open-minded sideshow performers), and feeds our thirst to see their warm, unstated mutual trust vindicated against the cruel insiders attempting to infiltrate and corrupt them. It permits the film to be as unforgiving and angry as necessary — with the added attraction of its uncharted, “forbidden” quality — while encouraging us to rejoice in its gruesome resolution. The new viewer expects Freaks to be troubling and disturbing because of its subject matter, its age and the now-obscure lives of its inhabitants, but in fact it’s the story itself that makes it linger in the imagination thereafter.

An effect of Browning’s unsentimental, unforced approach to his cast is that Freaks turns out to serve as something of a semi-incidental documentary, capturing the voices, physical presences and performance styles of numerous unusual talents who would (by and large) otherwise never be captured on film to be seen and remembered by generations forever to come. Whether one attempts to argue or not that the inherent act of filming the sideshow’s participants is in a sense an exploitation of them, they were still artists and performers with actual careers, and it’s a tribute to them and a benefit to us that we are now able to see, with relatively little contrivance. (For the most part, Browning appears to just plant his camera and doesn’t require excessive flair from the cast as actors; those with a lot of dialogue to deliver tend to be stilted, and it’s not to the film’s detriment because it’s strong evidence that he didn’t wish to meddle excessively.) A perusal through the available biographical data for all of the performers in the film is quite the roller-coaster ride, full of tragically sad chronicles of abuse and loveless neglect (and in fairness, this is largely true of film actors in general, to a lesser extent), but also the occasional note of surprising triumph: Prince Randian, the Guyanese limbless man who can roll and light a cigarette with his mouth, fathered four children in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and lived to age 63. The long-lived microcephalic Schlitzie appears to have truly loved performing and his visage became a beloved icon. The Doll Family enjoyed nearly a century of success and financial security. Perhaps most fascinating of all is the story of the conjoined Hilton twins, who at the time Freaks was made had just divorced themselves from crooked management and a lifetime of what amounted to indentured servitude. The pair kept performing and wrote a book about their lives, later the source of a musical, and eventually made an exploitation B-picture in the early 1950s, after which they started independently touring. On one such tour they were left stranded in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they picked up jobs as produce clerks at a grocery store and ironically at last found there some measure of dignity and community, at least by the accounts of their friends in the area, and worked there until their death in 1969. But the list goes on, from the classically trained “skeleton man” Peter Robinson to the “half-boy” Johnny Eck to armless Frances O’Connor, all remarkable, their images permanently and deservedly burned into cinematic history.

The assumption that Tod Browning would intend Freaks as a malicious use of these eccentric and differently-abled actors to be shown as figures of grotesque, visceral terror is completely incompatible with the actual content of the film, which is — for better or worse — a celebration of both these performers and the secretive, shielding bond they share. Browning made other superb films, and there were other intoxicating horror films in the 1930s, but nowhere else can you smell the sawdust and feel your shoes sinking in the mud so palpably, in such a world apart from the traditional artifice of MGM’s typical output. The horror is not in the so-called “freaks,” at least not the “freaks” we assume are being referred to; and the horror is not in the atmosphere, which evokes realistic sleaze rather than fear. The horror is not even in the revenge taken, which while clearly the stuff of nightmares is ultimately a turn to celebrate. The absolute horror, so beautifully executed and subtly ingrained in both the narrative and in the lives of its cast, is in the all too believable capacity of human beings to torment and abuse those who they assume cannot fight back, and in the sumptuous irony that this very assumption — at least in this throttling moment — is spectacularly incorrect. The butchering, the years of infamy, don’t matter; if any cruel person in the world sleeps uneasily after seeing Freaks, Browning has won the day.