There’s a scene that made me think that Magic in the Moonlight might be a critical self-examination of Allen’s own nihilistic ideology. At some point in Magic in the Moonlight, rather early into the film, there is a scene where George, a psychiatrist, makes an impromptu diagnosis of our protagonist Stanley (Colin Firth), noting him to be neurotic, depressive, nihilistic, etc. It’s the usual ten cents that anyone with eyes and ears can discern from a majority of male protagonists in Woody Allen films, but there was a dryness about the diagnosis this time around, or, at least when I noticed it. Comments of this kind are made about Firth’s character from nearly everyone, but the coarseness of them is sharper than normal.
There’s something eerie about Woody Allen’s versatility. While some would be quick to accuse Allen of making the same film over and over again with the same archetypes repeatedly, his ability to oscillate between genres, tones, and moods is astonishing. He can do straight romantic comedy (Scoop), humane dramedy (Annie Hall/Manhattan), laugh out loud absurdity (Love and Death/Bananas), Keaton and Chaplin inspired slapstick (Sleeper), Bergman-esque ruminations on human contact (Another Woman, Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, and September), German Expressionist comedies (Shadows and Fog), and even put comedy and tragedy up against one another to juxtapose and complement (Crimes and Misdemeanors/Melinda and Melinda). With his newest film, Blue Jasmine, Allen comes the closest he’s been in years to perfection and the closest he’s come in his career to making a horror film.
It’s not exactly a mystery that I’m a huge fan (dare I say “fanboy”?) of the Criterion Collection, that distribution company which releases some of the greatest, strangest, and most important films on DVD and Blu-ray. Someone recently asked me what my wish list of Criterion releases would be, and I thought to myself, “Oh gosh, how can I even think?” So, I narrowed it down to a few and instead oof writing a long essay on my choices, I thought I might write what I would want or hope to imagine would be on the back of the cover. You know, those long winded paragraphs explaining why the film is in the collection, that, despite the number of syllables in each sentence, manage to be surprisingly succinct. (These are not necessarily films that “deserve” to be there, but ones I would like to be there nonetheless, because I think they deserve it.) Well, here it goes, my Criterion Wish List.
Bringing Up Baby (1938) | Directed by Howard Hawks
Though it was scorned upon its initial release, continuing Hepburn’s reputation as “box office poison”, Howard Hawks’ brilliant film set the standard for the screwball comedy. Hepburn and Grant jump through wacky scenarios with great aplomb, and while its humor never ceases in any sense of the word, it is also the clever innuendos and sly commentary on the battle of the sexes that make this 1938 film a classic and on numerous lists as one of the best comedies ever made.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006) | Directed by Marc Forster
Harold Crick hears voices in his head, but it isn’t schizophrenia. It’s someone narrating his life. Yes, Will Ferrell’s nuanced performance as Crick is the protagonist of a novel, and this, shall we say, “novel” approach to the existential drama makes for a memorable, yet underrated film. Filled with raw emotion, contemplations on the nature of tragedy and comedy, and clever visual effects, Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction is a unique, funny, and breathless film. (Art by grannyhall)
Manhattan (1979) | Directed by Woody Allen
While Annie Hall may have marked a change in Woody Allen’s style, his masterpiece Manhattan marked the true transition from the laugh a minute bonkers style of Bananas to the more mature and heartfelt comedy of his later career. Photographed in gorgeous black and white by Gordon Willis, scored to the swelling and bustling music of George Gershwin, and set against the intellectual circles of Upper East Side Manhattan, Allen’s triumph is an exploration of relationships, maturity, intellect vs. morality, ethics, and love. (Art by trespasserswillbebeaten)
Clue (1985) | Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Is Clue the best film adaptation of a board game of all time? Taking place at the height of the Red Scare, while McCarthyism is rampant and J. Edgar Hoover has everyone on his list, Clue takes a group of people who are all connected by Washington DC and… a murder. But who did it, where, and with what? An all star cast presents a number of hilarious suspects. As the bodies stack, so the laughs, and beneath the veneer of hilariousness is a look at the effects of paranoia and Communism in the upper class. (Art by vargtimmen)
Mulholand Dr. (2001) | Directed by David Lynch
He made his mark in the 1970s with the cult classic Eraserhead and later in television with the iconic Twin Peaks. But David Lynch’s most poisonous love letter to Hollywood and cinema would start off as a pilot and transform into one of the most intriguing and enigmatic puzzle box films ever made. Mulholland Dr. puzzled audiences upon its release and continues to do so to this day. Featuring stellar performances from Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, travel down the road into a dream world and a nightmare. (Art by Midnight Marauder.)
Oslo, August 31st (2012) | Directed by Joachim Trier
He started out as a skateboarder, but Joachim Trier triggers more than mere adrenaline in his humane drama and loose remake of Louis Malles’s The Fire Within. In Oslo, August 31st, a young man just out of rehab (played beautifully by Anders Danielsen Lie) comes back to his home town once more to say goodbye. Few films are as raw and meticulously imbued with feeling as this outstanding Norwegian drama from one of the up and coming directors of this generation. (Art by grannyhall)
Rhapsody in Beautiful Black and White: George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Woody Allen’s Manhattan
The swell of strings, the melancholic brass, the two people sitting on the bench, and the gorgeous night cinematography of said two people looking towards the Queensboro Bridge as the sun rises. There is pretty much no more iconic cinematic still than the scene from Woody Allen’s masterpiece Manhattan, as Isaac and Mary sit on a bench, well into the morning talking about life. One of the film’s greatest attributes, besides the splendid photography from Gordon Willis, its sense of humor, its pathos, etc., is its brilliant use of music by George Gershwin to illustrate New York. And, as we know from the beginning of the film, as “Rhapsody in Blue” paints the City That Never Sleeps vividly, Isaac, and Allen to boot, loves New York. He “romanticizes it all out of proportion”. So, thus, it would be fitting not only to use some of the composer’s greatest selections for the film to heighten the stylized romanticism, contrasted against the urbanite intellectualism of the setting, but to use one of Gershwin’s most well known standards, “Someone to Watch Over Me”, over the most memorable scene from the film. Granted, when you think about the song from a lyrical standpoint, you kind of wonder, why this song? Who’s watching over whom? It doesn’t make sense for Isaac to look over Mary, but what if it’s the other way around? Aside from the sheer romanticism of the song, Allen may have slyly used the song to further characterize the slightly insecure, undeniably pretentious, and oddly alluring Mary Wilkie, as portrayed by Diane Keaton, as well as a love letter to the city the film takes place in.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” was originally written by George and Ira Gershwin for the musical Oh, Kay! in 1926, and soon after it became a jazz standard and a staple of the Great American Songbook. The song details what could be unrequited desires for a romantic guardian and, what sounds like, a co-dependent romantic entanglement. The persona is vulnerable, sensitive, and even, perhaps, insecure. My two favorite renditions include a classic recording by the great Ella Fitzgerald and a nicely traditional performance by Cheyenne Jackson (who briefly was on 30 Rock). You would be hard put to find a more romantic song that was able to articulate those kinds of yearnings without sounding overly sappy or, even, needy and desperate. Instead, it sounds more like a contemplation of one’s own weaknesses and the need for some kind of protector. The song is normally performed by a female vocalist, which, maybe unfairly, accentuates the submissive nature of the song. This aspect is important, which I will get to in a bit.
If 1977’s Best Picture winner Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s transition from from absurd laugh a minute jokey comedies to more mature, thoughtful, even philosophical comedy films, Manhattan was the filim that firmly planted Allen’s feet in the ground as a master writer, director, star of comedies with nuance and depth. Though he had backfired with his venture into the Bergman-esque realm with the previous year’s Interiors, Manhattan was another bunce back. Although Allen himself hates the film (he even offered United Artists to completely reshoot the film for no pay), it represents one of the most mature and beautiful comedies ever projected on the silver screen. And, oh, that silver screen! Shot in glorious black and white by the Prince of Darkness himself, cinematographer Gordon Willis (known for his work on The Godfather), the classical look imbues the film with sophistication and romanticism.
As seen in the film Manhattan, the song drops its lyrics, as with the rest of the Gershwin score, giving its orchestral arrangement a certain power and sensitivity that, while native to the track itself, greatly imbues the scene with those same elements. As the song is about to play, Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), an insecure nebbish who recently quit his job as a TV writer and is dating a 17 year old, is discussing his book about his mother with Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), a pompous intellectual type whose favorite phrase is “I live in Philadelphia, where we…” But they pause for a moment as the song begins playing, filling the scene with as much wonder as Gordon Willis’ and Allen’s joint mise-en-scene. They pause their discussion of his book and just look at the city, in all of its beauty. A knockout, Isaac calls it. And this scene truly is.
So, with this in mind, the song’s meaning is twofold (maybe three fold, if you consider the song contextually). Manhattan tells a story of a very specific group of people and their very specific environment. Amidst this environment, Isaac is tries to break out of this environment by dating a nubile, but very intelligent, 17 year old named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). This somewhat awkward relationship involves Isaac somewhat frequently undermining her intelligence because she’s young, but he can, nevertheless, be intimate and fairly honest with her. However, his encounter with Mary Wilkie, a woman who represents the kind of people he supposedly detests, suggests an odd polar reaction in terms of attraction. He claims to dislike the intellectual, high society he belongs to, but, as his attraction to Mary reveals, he does belong to that environment. But, in this relationship, the intimacy, like the academically driven society the film sets itself in, is kind of superficial with claims of being “deep”.
Throughout the discourse that Mary discusses, from the photographs that were “straight out of Diane Arbus, but with none of the wit” to the bashing of Norman Mailer, Mary is, at heart, insecure, unsure about her competency, worried about her failed marriage. But she masks it by saying she realizes that she’s a beautiful woman, by taking a job that is technically beneath her (writing novelizations of screenplays/movies), and being so sure of her relationship with Isaac’s best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy). So, the relationship between Isaac and Mary is thus based on the surface of things, people so sure of their competency to make them look good to other people, that they never get deeper than that surface. Isaac, though, doesn’t need to make himself vulnerable to Mary. For that, he has Tracy.
Tracy, young, intelligent, but outside of that pseudo-intellectual stratosphere that he so uncomfortably lives in, is the antithesis to Mary. She’s modest, and that modesty and genuine sincerity should offer Isaac the perfect opportunity to connect with someone not only intellectually, but emotionally as well. And, at times, when he isn’t trying to discredit her intelligence, they do. She often initiates these conversations, but it’s there, much more evident than anything he has with Mary. After his relationship with Mary is done and over with, he realizes that, although he isn’t willing to initially admit it, he needs Tracy. Tracy is his ticket out of the sort of social environment he doesn’t even like. If anything, you could say that Mary was his transition out.
Anyways, let’s backtrack to the bridge scene. Because Mary is the much more sensitive of the two, masking that sensitivity with her proclivity towards pretension, “Someone to Watch Over Me” works more from her perspective than it does for Isaac’s. Isaac, as aforementioned, doesn’t need to make the kind of confession that the song makes; Mary does. Considering her track record with marriage and relationships with married men, emotional connectivity is what she wants but what she is afraid of.
There’s a somebody I’m longing to see
I hope that she turns out to be
Someone to watch over me.
I’m a little lamb who’s lose in the wood
I know I could always be good
To one who’ll watch over me.
The confessional begins with the concept of continually searching and never finding love, and that lost feeling when you can’t actually find love. But the connection that Mary seems to make with Isaac seems to be the one that she thinks she’s been looking for. Isaac, hardly the virile type, is, for Mary, someone to watch over her.
Outside of that, during this scene the music plays as the two of them, on the bench (a prop which was brought to the set), they gaze at New York, bedazzled. For these two people, sometimes confused and sometimes sure of themselves, New York watches over them as their home. Ironic though it may be that New York would watch over anyone to protect them, the place and the setting is so familiar to them, so homey for them, that the conclusion is perfectly reasonable. It is a love letter to New York, as much as the use of “Rhapsody in Blue” at the beginning of the film, as much as the film itself, and as much as nearly any film Woody Allen has ever made. The lights come up and he loves New York.
The overt romanticization works with the story, the characters, and the setting well, for, as much depth and nuance as they may have, a lot of it seems like a caricature. The intellectuals in the film are stereotypes, the same kind of stereotype that Allen has used numerous times; Allen’s Isaac is his alternate persona with heightened neuroses; and the film’s black and white sheen seems to fit an era more home to the likes of Casablanca and The Lady Eve than Annie Hall or Interiors. The song itself isn’t only romantic in its notion about finding love, but also in its deep felt desire. Its musical structure, major in its key and absolutely designed to make you swoon, again, accentuates this element. SO, the inclusion of the song as a love letter to this city makes sense, and can be, itself, a romantic notion.
The Gershwin filled score of Allen’s Manhattan is one of my favorite aspects of the film. I’ve listened to the album literally hundreds of times. But it serves a greater purpose as Allen uses it for illustrating one of its main characters, thereby fleshing out dynamics, and also by working as a song pining for a place, with people, stories, and quirks from a city he loves.
If you saw my personal top ten list of films, my personal favorites, you may have noticed that, instead of the standard ten, on there were technically thirteen. Some films were grouped together like thematic double features, while others stood on their own ground. Numerous (well, what I consider to be numerous) people asked me about this, specifically why. The reason: I’m indecisive.
Although it is my deepest desire and aspiration to become a professional film critic, I know my least favorite thing will be to compile any sort of end of the year list. That hasn’t really stopped me from making one for 2011 (though I published it in July 2012) or one even for 2012. But to make a list of my favorite films ever? I haven’t seen Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but I assume that’s what they were talking about during the torture debate.
So, I’m indecisive. I know it isn’t comparatively a lot next to people like Alex of And So It Begins, Tyler of Southern Vision, or Matt of the No-Name Movie Blog, but I’ve seen something like 1200 films and to reduce all of my favorites to a simple ten? A nightmare. It was hard enough compiling a list of 101 (where, again, I sort of cheated with some films). I have a running list on my computer of my favorite films and it has nearly 350 films on it.
So, I chose the films that I go back to, or would go back to, on a fairly regular basis. Such films included Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which is his most enjoyable and even most optimistic film; Clue, a delightful murder mystery comedy; Manhattan, Woody Allen’s gorgeous masterpiece; and Stranger Than Fiction, a touching examination of human life and the writing process. Other films I included were ones that left me thinking, that I could literally not stop talking about or thinking about: David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., his surreal poison love letter to Hollywood; Metropolis, arguably the most important film ever made; Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s deadpan eulogy for film; and Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s majestic, adult fairy tale. And some film are just gorgeous and the kind of thing you want to watch over and over again: Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s most whimsical film (even at five hours); Modern Times, Chaplin’s last outing as the Tramp; Vivre sa Vie, Godard’s most humane film; and Nights of Cabiria, Fellini’s own fairy tale.
Bringing Up Baby is sort of a default answer as my favorite film of all time. It was one of the first films I ever saw and one that continues to make me laugh. I suppose I’m fortunate that the first film I fell in love with happens to be a staple of classic cinema, and one of the best screwball comedies ever made.
Now, onto why I grouped films together. I understand that such lists and their limitations (10, 20, 30, 101, etc.) are basically self-imposed, as a way to make the critic more decisive and definite about what he or she may declare their favorite or the best of cinema. I can barely do this because I am a weak person. I have no will power. I have no intention in investigating the philosophy or nature of lists, their arbitrary nature, etc. I also hate ranking things, which is why you can see most of my lists are in alphabetical order instead of something numbered. I am a terrible person.
So, grouping films together was my compromise. Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s Modern Times were together as they represent political idealistic, almost utopian films, sort of social commentaries. The juxtaposition of drama and comedy, of silence and sound (sort of) is, of course, a little intentional. Mulholland Dr. and Holy Motors are the surreal companion pieces, both as much about the medium as they are about the industry, both incredibly intoxicating to watch, and both masterpieces of cinema. And finally, Nights of Cabiria and Vivre sa Vie, one a film out of the magical realism that Fellini had crafted out of the neo-realistic movement in Italy, the other a more humane drama or tableaux that Godard put together during the French New Wave. Both are, to me, companion pieces, both about women whose dreams have come crashing down into a world of almost lewd hedonism, something neither Giulietta Messina nor Anna Karina want. They’re both about prostitutes, and while their execution and detailed stories are different, their paths and the tragedy of both characters are extremely similar.
So, I grouped and doubled films generally by theme. I knocked some films off the list, which sort of hurt, but I’ll get over it. (I will miss you, galaxy far, far away…) It hurts to take off films that mean a lot to you, but I think list making is like some sort of masochistic activity that film buffs really enjoy partaking in. I also knocked off Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain, and Casino Royale. The first two, I suppose, had more merit (to me) in terms of knocking them off because I didn’t go back to watch them as often as I did the Bond film. As a lifelong Bond fanatic, it pains me to knock something sort of unique on my list off in favor of what could be considered fairly canon material. Which, I guess, is the sham of the whole thing. It’s a combination of the canon and of the off the beaten path, but all of which fall under a personal meaning to me.
Though, I think that’s the point. Regardless of the masochism, the self imposed confinements and restraint, it’s about finding what means the most to you, even if that goes past your originally intended limit. It’s about sharing the films and experiences with others and finding both similarities and differences in those experiences. It is, I think, about enjoying what you are passionate about, engaging in your passion with other people, and continuing to explore that with those people. It isn’t a contest. It’s constant exploration, conversation, and broadening of understanding and depth and taste. And, most of all, cinephilia.
Thanks for reading and let me know what you think!
Shout out to Alex Withrow!