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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot R. Kurt Osenlund’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: R. Kurt Osenlund’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: R. Kurt Osenlund’s Top 10 Films of All Time

The highly subjective task of compiling a list of the 10 best films of all time is nearly as daunting as the thought that plagues every film completist: How on earth will I ever catch up with more than a century’s worth of cinema? The answer, of course, is that nobody really can, and in a sense, surrendering to that truth offers a kind of liberation. We all want to devour as many great movies as possible, but there comes a time when we have to accept a certain morsel of defeat. Which is basically my disclaiming way of saying that I came at this project with a highly personal and minimally authoritative approach, selecting a group of favorites instead of stamping my feet and declaring history’s 10 best films. Contributors were encouraged to tackle their lists however they saw fit, and some have certainly delivered what they regard as the definitive cream of the crop. More power to those folks, and to those whose picks are far less populist and more Sight & Sound-friendly than mine. Ultimately, while I gave much consideration to artistic influence and chronological diversity (and winced at the snubbing of films like The Red Shoes, Pulp Fiction, My Own Private Idaho, and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), there were really only 10 titles I ever could have chosen. Quite simply, these movies changed my life.

Faking Arizona at Old Tucson Studios

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Faking Arizona at Old Tucson Studios
Faking Arizona at Old Tucson Studios

It was good to get out of my element and visit a world I never even knew existed. And actually, it no longer exists and never did except in magical frames that flash across a big screen. Old Tucson Studios is to the American western what Cinecittà is to Italian cinema. Built in 1939 for the William Holden and Jean Arthur vehicle Arizona, the studio is now more a tourist attraction than a buzzing hive of filmmaking (though it still hosts productions, mainly for TV and cable). But in its heyday, under the guidance of the still energetic octogenarian Bob Shelton, who married into the business via his wife Jane Lowe (of the theater chain), Old Tucson Studios was home to around 400 productions, setting the stage for every last giant of the boots-and-saddle genre.

Lean on the Big Screen: The Bridge on the River Kwai

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Lean on the Big Screen: <em>The Bridge on the River Kwai</em>
Lean on the Big Screen: <em>The Bridge on the River Kwai</em>

These days anyone can watch a masterpiece of world cinema on their cellphone. A familiar contemporary debate frames this as either a welcome innovation or a detestable crisis. You want to see a film. Questions arise. Will it be the iPhone or the multiplex? The Criterion DVD on your laptop or the print at Film Forum? Those who unequivocally elevate the static theater screen over the wide array of portable devices have no better evidence to bolster their argument than David Lean’s magnificent epics. “Imagine watching Lawrence of Arabia on your iPod!” they tell us. “Such a reduction in size would greatly diminish the film’s superlative visual power and therefore result in a less fulfilling experience.” I personally feel ambivalent about the general issue—hell, faced with the proliferation of options, I’m just plain confused—but in Lean’s case the nature of his work automatically dictates the necessity of the theater experience. I first encountered Lawrence on the enormous screen at the Ziegfeld. I recall that when the film ended I stumbled through the sumptuous lobby in a desperate search for the water fountain, feeling as if I too had just crawled across the desert.

The Conversations: Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve

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The Conversations: Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve
The Conversations: Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve

Jason Bellamy: On the same weekend that Robin Hood opened, Cate Blanchett turned 41. At least, most of her did. Watching her play Marion to Russell Crowe’s Robin, I found it difficult to ignore the glaring (apparent) reality that some of the actress is considerably younger. Blanchett’s cheekbones, for example, have such a suspiciously hard, dramatic contour that they look less like features of a human face than like accents of a sporty Mercedes-Benz, probably because they are equally unnatural. Blanchett, I think it’s safe to say, has undergone some cosmetic surgery throughout her movie career. And while I want to make it clear that it’s none of my business what Blanchett does to or with her body, I do feel I have every right to make the following observation: In Robin Hood, Blanchett’s too-perfect cheekbones look neither middle-aged nor Middle Age.

Wild Reed: The Key

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Wild Reed: The Key
Wild Reed: The Key

When Film Forum recently announced an upcoming David Lean retrospective, I had two reactions: excitement, but also puzzlement that I’ve seen more Carol Reed films in rep since I arrived in New York four years ago than any Lean films. Both Reed and Lean are terminally unfashionable figures, stodgy British masters (or hacks, depending on where you stand). And yet most people (besides Ray Carney) can admit an admiration for Lawrence Of Arabia; in fact The Criterion Collection has put out four Lean titles. So why is it that Reed is the one who gets shown the most in New York? Print availability issues, I suppose, but since 2004, in addition to Rialto’s deservedly successful The Fallen Idol re-issue, Film Forum’s also shown the mostly mediocre Our Man In Havana, and I think I missed a Night Train To Munich screening at some point as well. At this point, for whatever reason, I’m getting closer to a fuller understanding of Reed’s work than Lean’s. (Hurry September.)

His Greatest Humiliation: William Holden

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His Greatest Humiliation: William Holden
His Greatest Humiliation: William Holden

The Film Society of Lincoln Center is in the midst of a brilliantly programmed William Holden retrospective. By presenting a series of thematic double features, it seeks to excavate the various and conflicting characteristics that made Holden a remarkable performer. His voice was like ashes and nails, rough with a staccato delivery. His physique was effortlessly perfect (apparently his only regular physical activity was standing on his hands out of the open windows of tall buildings after too many martinis). Over the course of his career, his face aged from golden toned to burnished copper but—even when deeply lined from age and hard living—he never stopped being empirically handsome. Holden was the ultimate movie star; yet this was his greatest humiliation.

William Holden: To Live Like a Human Being

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William Holden: To Live Like a Human Being
William Holden: To Live Like a Human Being

“I feel lousy about the pain that I’ve caused my wife and kids. I feel guilty and conscience-stricken, and all of those things you think sentimental, but which my generation calls simple human decency. And I miss my home, because I’m beginning to get scared shitless, because all of a sudden it’s closer to the end than the beginning, and death is suddenly a perceptible thing to me, with definable features.”—William Holden as Max Schumacher in Network

William Holden’s face, with its deep crags, blazing blue eyes, and the seriousness behind the straight-up all-American handsomeness, tells the story of the man’s life better than any biography could.

B Noir: The Dark Past and My Name Is Julia Ross

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B Noir: <em>The Dark Past</em> and <em>My Name Is Julia Ross</em>
B Noir: <em>The Dark Past</em> and <em>My Name Is Julia Ross</em>

The Dark Past (Rudolph Maté, 1948) and My Name Is Julia Ross (Joseph H. Lewis, 1945). It’s not the obsession with Freud that’s the problem with Rudolph Maté’s The Dark Past but its lecture-hall hauteur. There’s a hilarious scene in the movie in which a psychologist-teacher played by Lee J. Cobb explains to an escaped con (William Holden) the difference between the conscious and unconscious mind before striking a comparison between these two parts of the mind and the upper and lower parts of an iceberg. A feeling of déjà vu during this scene led me (consciously) to Manny Farber’s Negative Space and—voila!—this excerpt from “The Gimp”: “Well, icebergs of a sort, one-tenth image, action, plot, nine-tenths submerged ’insights’ à la Freud or Jung, Marx or Lerner, Sartre or Saroyan, Frost, Dewey, Auden, Mann, or whomever else the producer’s been reading.” I quote Farber here because it’s comforting to know that there were people like him who felt equally condescend to by these gloppy Freud-obsessed productions when they first premiered. In short, a film that doesn’t arouse the senses—less a movie than a trip to the psychologist’s couch. I experienced more déjà vu during Joseph H. Lewis’s My Name Is Julia Ross, which stars Dark Past’s Nina Foch as a woman who is hired as a secretary by a rich biddy (Dame May Whitty) and her son as part of a murder-covering suicide scheme. Lewis gets you rooting quickly and fiercely for Foch, who is just amazing here. The film is loads of fun but isn’t as viscerally exciting as other films in the Jane Eyre School of Gothic Melo-Noir like Fritz Lang’s little-seen, Suspiria-inspiring The Secret Beyond the Door.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.