Shelf of Shame XTREME – Ben Stark
Last year, I was able to move 4 films and one massive anthology television series from the Shelf of Shame to my Vault of Victory. It was a good initiative, but I think I can improve on the model for myself.
12 supposedly great films. One year. One film a month. It’s called SHELF OF SHAME XTREME, people.
EDIT (04/15): I swapped Wild Strawberries and Bicycle Thieves due to Criterion’s announcement that the former will see a blu-ray release in June.
Post-Viewing Update (January 28): I managed to squeeze in my first SoS title right at the end of the month. I watched David Lean’s snow-bound answer to 1962’s sandy LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on a fantastic blu-ray, with the sound turned all the way up. As expected, the film is a visual and aural marvel, although the romance between Yuri (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie) didn’t quite hit for me. It’s hard not to compare the sweeping romance of ZHIVAGO to the big scale action of LAWRENCE, but they are wholly different movies. ZHIVAGO deserves its place as a classic, and it’s final moment is a masterwork in narrative pay-off. Interestingly enough, this film’s cultural impact was made clear in a conversation I had with my parents when I mentioned that I was watching it. As soon as I said the title, my dad started whistling Maurice Jarre’s iconic theme, and my mom revealed that it was the first movie she ever got to see in a movie theater. It’s wonderful to discover, for the first time, a cinematic gem that crosses generations.
Post-Viewing Update (February 28): That’s right, I squeezed another cinematic classic in at the very last minute out of obligation. You can ridicule me or you can admit to yourself that you’ve done the same thing before. My biggest embarrassment is that I put it off in favor of watching episodes of BREAKING BAD, which is a great TV show… and yet, the greatest TV show going still pales in comparison to great cinema. Yes, PATHS OF GLORY is unmistakably great cinema. Stanley Kubrick’s camera movement is suitably Wellesian, Kirk Douglas’ performance is perfectly heroic and iconic, and the screenplay stages things in such a grand and universal way that we often forget about the specificity of the situation at the core of the story. Aside from some of the most influential tracking shots of all time, the film shows off an incredibly efficient battle scene, using dolly and zoom lenses to connect wide group shots to character-focused close-ups in a way that must have influenced Zack Snyder’s speed ramped zooms in (the far inferior) 300. Of course, it takes more than fancy camera work to make a great film, and what soars here is the characterization. Two quick examples: PATHS OF GLORY features bookend scenes showcasing a pair of wonderfully written villain characters whose motivations are clear, understandable, and monstrous. Finally, the unexpected performance of Timothy Carey, who really functions as the heart of the film, was absolutely stirring and emotional without losing its context or leading the film into sentimentality. His desperation and hopelessness must have been a clear influence on the Coen Brothers and John Turturro for Bernie’s famous death march in MILLER’S CROSSING.
Post-Viewing Update (March 23): Wow. I’ll freely admit that it took me a good while to get into the groove of this, the most famous and well-regarded film of Yasujiro Ozu’s prolific career. For a Westerner like myself, the film grammar of non-Kurosawa Japanese cinema from this era is unnerving. Ozu moves his camera maybe once in TOKYO STORY, and his characters are often framed in similar planes, giving up depth to describe setting rather than character. He connects people to places, and then cuts freely within those places to denote movement or relationship dynamics. Of course, the timidity of his grammar is perfectly matched by the stone cold facades put upon by his protagonists; this is a post-WWII Japan in which desperate grasps at normalcy bury the emotions we so easily and sloppily express in our own modern culture. Ozu’s long-suffering parents, not wanting to disturb the lives of their busy and distracted adult children, take lethal pangs of loneliness and regret on their ever-smiling chins. This is truly a masterpiece of empathy and tragic warmth. Watch it and let it simmer.
Post-Viewing Update (April 29): Well, they can’t all be home runs, I suppose. BEN-HUR has been the biggest surprise of this year’s Shelf of Shame so far. I was really expecting to be enthralled by this highly regarded legend of epic Hollywood filmmaking, but in the end, I was merely impressed. When it comes to pacing, dialogue, plotting, and performance, there’s really nothing here that rises above “high” Biblical tales like THE ROBE or even “low” pepla like ROMULUS AND REMUS. Where BEN-HUR really soars, however, is in its staggering spectacle and incredible stunt-work, essentially isolated to the truly magnificent Chariot Race sequence. It doesn’t take much more than a brief glance at Wikipedia to see that the true star of the film is stuntman Yakima Canutt. Overall, I’m glad I finally caught up with BEN-HUR, but more than anything I’m shocked at how much THE SIMPSONS has shaped my perception of this film. Constantly waiting for the line uttered in this scene from “A Star is Burns”, I was eventually disappointed to never hear Charlton Heston utter to Jesus, as if to C. Montgomery Burns, “Truly… you are the King of Kings.”
Post-Viewing Update (May 18): I’m no stranger to Billy Wilder’s work. I spent a few months in college watching as much of the Austro-American’s films as possible, and it’s hard to be a film nerd long without stumbling across his legendary collaboration with screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond. I’m very happy to say that SOME LIKE IT HOT easily joins the ranks of the great Wilders, right up there with SUNSET BOULEVARD, ACE IN THE HOLE, and the masterful and overlooked ONE, TWO, THREE. I wasn’t expecting the film to be such an effective gangster movie, which was a pleasant surprise, but that isn’t to say the comedy somehow pales in comparison. Tony Curtis is a revelation here, and Jack Lemmon does not disappoint. In reading more about the film, I was surprised to find out about the problems caused by Marilyn Monroe, considering the great work of hers that ends up on screen. I’ve always been suspicious of AFI’s number one ranking of this film on its 100 Years… 100 Laughs list, but as fellow Nerds Graham Flanagan and Matt Scalici assured me, SOME LIKE IT HOT is a legitimate all-timer.
WILD STRAWBERRIES (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
BICYCLE THIEVES (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
Post-Viewing Update (June 19): After studying Italian Neo-Realism via ROME, OPEN CITY in college, I never felt much of a desire to return to the genre. Yes, I find the sociopolitical context of the movement fascinating, but the stories themselves have never really appealed to me much. I’m a fan of the more expressionistic Fellini years, and in terms of counter-culture cinema, the French and American New Waves are certainly more my cup of tea. That said, the textbook example of Italian Neo-Realism is undeniably a great film, with or without its cultural and temporal placement. The deft way Vittorio De Sica uses film grammar is something I wasn’t expecting, as he employs camera movement and mise-en-scene quite gracefully to underline emotion: Whether it’s a tracking shot late in the film following young Bruno eye-line as he discovers a hard truth about his father, or the proliferation of bicycles in the fore- and backgrounds of scenes in which our desperate lead character, Antonio, is overwhelmed by what he cannot possess, the film is a masterclass in tying film craft to character empathy.
Post-Viewing Update (July 25): Wow. One of the great tragedies of the millennial culture wars is that it’s rare that we get a piece of art that’s both angry and understanding. Here is a film that is ultra-specific in its region and culture, but universal in its voice. The heart beat of DO THE RIGHT THING thumps to the same rhythm as today’s American cultural frustrations: The anger, the tension, the defensiveness, the victimization, and the alienation. It’s all there in a film that’s over 20 years old. What’s even more phenomenal is that in the midst of all this complex thematic work, we get a fantastic ensemble character drama. No two characters exist in Spike Lee’s film without bumping into one another at one point or another, and by the time that happens, the audience is completely prepared to understand each character’s perspective. It really is a marvel of a screenplay in construction, a tour de force of both comic and tragic performances, and a visually arresting and vibrant work of directorial flare.
WILD STRAWBERRIES (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
Post-Viewing Update (August 22): It’s getting really hard to think of new things to say about all these obviously great movies. A few of the dream sequences had the existential horror of HOUR OF THE WOLF or THE SEVENTH SEAL, and yet the scenes of young people living and loving were as breezy as a Truffaut film. I think that’s what keeps me coming back to Bergman. Despite his reputation as a morose brooder, his films always show off a wit that I forget, and every scene is built like a well-constructed short film. There are very few wasted moments in Ingmar Bergman films. Like I said, there’s not much to say other than “Yes, I agree with everyone that’s ever seen WILD STRAWBERRIES in that this film is an absolute masterstroke.”
Post-Viewing Update (September 29): This is one of the few titles from this year’s SoS that I watched with my wife, and boy was that a great choice. I didn’t expect this to be such an effective romantic comedy, but that’s exactly what it is at its height. The film does feel especially constructed to be the height of 90’s indie film glory, what with the participation of the Weinsteins, Lawrence Bender, Kevin Smith, and Gus Van Sant, but it succeeds despite a level of calculated 90’s smugness. Robin Williams is absolutely fantastic, and while the part of Will Hunting isn’t all that compelling, you can see a dynamite actor in the making when Matt Damon is onscreen.
Post-Viewing Update (October 19): This was the year’s obligatory horror pick, which I also decided to make a David Cronenberg film. I’ve not seen a ton of Cronenberg – and I’m honestly afraid of tackling much of his filmography. This was a great title for a wuss like me, as the film is clearly influenced by comic books (and has just as clearly influenced comic book movies, especially Bryan Singer’s X-MEN), and is very pulpy and plot-heavy. That said, SCANNERS doesn’t seem to me to be an essential classic of the sci-fi horror genre, but it’s a very fun, slick piece with a dynamite ending.
Post-Viewing Update (November 29): Probably the most high-profile film by Alfred Hitchcock that I had yet to see, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is a pretty embarrassing blind spot for any average movie buff. However, this is one of those rare cases where coming to a well-regarded classic with fresh eyes might help me digest the film with a bit of measured consideration. If you combine a stellar Dimitri Tiomkin score, a fantastic Robert Walker performance, and some exquisitely staged Hitchock-ian sequences of suspense, you have the makings of a wonderful ride. However, it’s hard to hold up this film’s stop-and-start momentum and straightforward story against the lean mechanics of REAR WINDOW and THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS or the shocking subversion of VERTIGO and PSYCHO. This is Hitchock in his prime, for sure, and an absolute must-see, but it’s a more humble and lyrical entry than I was expecting.
Post-Viewing Update (December 29): I am a Miyazaki neophyte. Before SPIRITED AWAY, I had only seen PRINCESS MONONOKE, and I’m starting to see the appeal of this masterful animation director. The fluidity of Miyazaki’s films is staggering, and it seems that the story of SPIRITED AWAY provides the perfect platform for this fluidity, both in terms of physical subjects and narrative structure. The film uses the logic of dreams and nightmares as effectively as David Lynch or Werner Herzog, often to similarly horrifying effect. I look forward to seeing more and more of Miyazaki’s masterpieces, now that he’s announced his retirement with THE WIND RISES.
So that’s it! My 2013 Shelf of Shame is complete. I stayed on schedule and had an amazing year watching some truly great films for the first time. There wasn’t a bad film in the lot, but of course I had to rank them in order of personal preference. Click on the list to see it posted at Letterboxd.
So what now? Well, it’s about to be a New Year, and there are more films to be seen, so keep your eyes peeled for 2014’s Shelf of Shame post!