Jaime N. Christley
|L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat
|Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumière
|Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone
|Any Old Port!
|James W. Horne
|The Thing from Another World
|Christian I. Nyby
|Anatomy of a Murder
|An Autumn Afternoon
|Johnnie To Kei-fung
|Brian De Palma
L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat
The harder you work to pinpoint the birth of the cinema, the more fog gets in your way; at some point you find yourself in the Chauvet Caves and you realise you're outmatched.
The (perhaps exaggerated, even apocryphal) early accounts of terrified audiences makes for good copy, but behind that, what that legacy points to is the Lumière brothers' discovery that motion pictures – both as documents and spectacles – could give you a good kick in the pants. Also, if you watch this film, and the condition of the picture is at least halfway decent, you do kind of want to get out of the way of that thing.
In choosing which Buster Keaton film to represent the cinema on my ballot, I decided to pick the one that most successfully balances his comedy – I probably don't need to expound on that, books have been written – with his arguably less-regarded mastery of drama. You'll remember the film's best-remembered scene is the miraculous waterfall rescue; nothing funny there. Remember, also, the stakes-establishing opening: brutal, cleanly delineated.
I could easily have chosen The General, for the same reasons.
Any Old Port!
If your auteurism is in any way short of militant, a full survey of Laurel and Hardy pictures, silents and talkies alike, will complicate your devotion to the 'sole author' business – even dissolve it. Don't get me wrong, I'm 99.25 per cent pure auteurist, but that little sliver isn't doubt, isn't a crisis of faith, but the opposite. I learned to stop worrying and love Stan and Ollie. (Plus, if you want to get into auteurism, Leo McCarey and Stan Laurel rate the same esteem as Hawks, Ford, Welles, you name it.) I chose this 1932 short because it tickled me the most, and seemed to me the most inventive, the leanest, the most energetic.
The word count limit here can't really contain the love I have for this masterpiece. It'd probably occupy the top spot, if I made a preferentially ordered ballot. Should I be permitted into the spirit world upon leaving this one, I would want to find Joan McCracken and hold her and tell her everything she did in this film is perfect, and that she deserved better.
The Thing from Another World
Never content with making one picture, Howard Hawks always made two, simultaneously – time and time again he managed that impossible balance, that of treating a play for genre like a lark, and, in the same gesture, establishing a high-water mark in that genre. This notion of two films in one, naturally combative yet forced, by Hawks, to work together to complete a set of tasks, manifests itself as 'a Nyby picture', of which we know precious little, and 'a Hawks picture', about which we celebrate half a dozen or more specimens before we get to this one. To me, this film's seeming determination to keep its head low and pass as 'just a B-picture' conceals the most provocative challenge contained in the Hawks corpus. Probably Hawks didn't 'direct' it. But if one had a meter, like in the film, to detect levels of Hawks-ness, it would redline from the first to the last frames. I've watched it more times than I've called my mother.
Anatomy of a Murder
I've always liked this film. I've always regarded it as great. But, even before I began taking steps to prepare for my ballot, I undertook a pair of viewings that made it clear to me that it might just be one of the greatest – and I mean one of a very tiny handful – films ever made. And one of the strangest, a brazen, topical courtroom drama pinned like a butterfly to 1959, yet still, somehow, more likely to register as a slap across the face than any random episode of a crime procedural on American television. It's the proverbial 'film school in a box' (every shot, every sequence of shots, is a lesson), yet it's also powered by unfathomable mystery. (For the curious, this might also be #1 on a preferential ballot, competing only against Good News.)
An Autumn Afternoon
Sometimes you just need to be devastated by the most serene, and delightfully composed (and brilliantly coloured!), depiction of lives and loves slipping through one's fingers. Sometimes you just need that.
This film – known in English-language markets as The Church – was made well after the heyday of Italian giallo horror pictures (and two autumns following John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness), but, to me, it's somehow larger than that legacy. On paper it's cheap and tawdry: a haunted German cathedral locks its own doors and begins doing away with everybody. The meat is in the way it exceeds its remit through haunting imagery and sounds that overwhelm you, along with logic gaps that only feed a sensation of the uncanny that's not so much chilling as asphyxiating. The train in the Lumière brothers' Arrival of a Train is replaced by a hand coming to collect your soul.
Few things were certain when considering my ballot, but one of those certain things was that I had to include a masterpiece by Johnnie To, and it was either this or Exiled. I chose this because of the girl who says to Johnny Hallyday's character – a man who's got a bullet in his head that impairs his short-term memory – "They were your friends. They were your best friends." There's nothing quite like having a good cry between showers of bullets.
As with the Hawks I chose, and the To, and, maybe, the Ozu, I could have added a more celebrated, a more thoughtfully reclaimed film by Brian De Palma: Hi, Mom!, Dressed to Kill, Carlito's Way, Casualties of War, Femme Fatale, etc. Even Mission to Mars has gathered its disciples. I chose the lean, strange Domino because, despite its modest profile (it was brushed aside by nearly everybody within hours of its release), it is apparent to me that it's De Palma's most assured genre entry in many, many years, a masterpiece that manages to invoke Hitchcock only after it pays homage to Michael Snow (?!), and, wonder of wonders, unites De Palma's bemused regard for 'the internet' and contemporary technology with the first significant modification of the murder camera from Peeping Tom. All that, and an extremely satisfying kick to the nuts at the climax.
When you love movies enough, and you've seen a ton of films, you reach the point where you become aware that a list of 10 pictures is impossible unless you set some arbitrary conditions – or, at least, grab blindly into a hat and try not to take the assignment very seriously. Well, I do take the assignment seriously, I'm one of those despicable list fiends you sometimes come across (I'm reading your ballot right now), and, as I fail to put my dishes away and mow my lawn, you can be sure that I am making sure nothing is out of order on my 'runner-up favourites of 1937'. That said, the arbitrary rule I chose to abide by was this: no director shall appear who also appeared on my 2012 ballot. My thanks to Christian Nyby for providing me with one significant loophole. The last film I made myself exclude was Yevgeni Bauer's A Dying Swan.