1. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927) (re-watch)
Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production; Best Actress; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction
TCM, third or fourth viewing, probably first on video or tv. Is this where the Oscars - and maybe Hollywood - started to go wrong? By assigning a special award, suggesting that "artistic" was something different from the "normal" Best Picture, was this the beginning of the ghettoization of the arthouse and of anything personal and made by an "auteur"? Probably not... probably the seeds were already there from the first days of film or, hell, from the whole general appeals to the common man - which always meant dumb and simple, as if one has to have a PhD to be smart, as if one can't appreciate art without thousands of house of exposure to high culture... but it FEELS like it. It's a statement - here's one for the masses, here's one for the highbrows, but oh, fuck it, fuck the highbrows, we'll just keep the award for the masses thank you very much. To be blunt if Black Panther wins Best Picture this year, it will be closer to a representation of how Hollywood has always seen itself - and these awards - than any other winner could be.
But I digress just because I always wanted to write something like that, not that it has so much to do with the film at hand, which is certainly "artsy" in style, and perhaps slightly in it's narrative, but not at all in terms of it's basic theme, which couldn't be simpler - the eternal war between the rural and bucolic and the urban and frantic, the virginal and homey and the lustful and wild, between the clearness of day and the mystery of night. I hadn't seen it for probably 20 years so it was only fragmentary in memory - how I envy those of you who can recall in detail films seen decades ago - which made it all the more enjoyable in many respects. It really is quite a remarkable achievement, especially in Murnau's penchant here for big sets full of dozens of extras and loads of detail in both those sets and the mattes and backgrounds, though I have to say that in some ways it feels a little less novel to me now than decades ago, having seen so many more films in the interim from the period, though in terms of really similar works I'm not sure that anything but Lonesome is in the same ballpark. It's not that it's any less great then, it's just that it has more competition in my larger mental framework, and it's possible that it would no longer be my easy pick for a favorite silent feature. In any case a great way to start off the month and challenge.
2. 1930s cartoons, all nominated for Best Short Subject, Cartoons with the first two being winners 9+9+7+7+7+8+8+9 = 64 minutes
a) Three Orphan Kittens (David Hand, 1935)
b) The Country Cousin (Wilfred Jackson, 1936)
c) Mickey's Orphans (Burt Gillett, 1931)
d) It's Got Me Again (Rudoph Ising, 1932)
e) Building a Building (David Hand, 1933)
f) The Merry Old Soul (Walter Lantz/William Nolan, 1933)
g) Holiday Land (uncredited, 1934)
h) Jolly Little Elves (Manuel Moreno, 1934)
For those who decry PIXAR"S stranglehold on the Oscars in the feature animation category in recent years, I'd suggest taking a look at the early years in this category - which were just as dominated by Disney in the winners column. It's not like there weren't other very healthy animation producers - obviously the staple at Warner Brothers under Leon Schlesinger, and the Fleischer brothers at Paramount, but also plenty of stuff at Universal, MGM and other, smaller studios. Not to mention plenty of independent work that naturally wasn't going to get noticed come awards time. But Disney won EVERY award in this category in the 1930s and in the first two years had another nominee as well. Not that I'd complain as much myself as I would over many later Oscar "issues", because most of these cartoons are pretty good and let's face it, the Academy just wasn't hip enough to nominate Bimbo's Initiation or the Fleischers' Snow-White. The first two and Building a Building are my favorites, the latter because I just love cartoons (and comedy shorts in general) set in construction sites, a very fertile area for mishaps and zaniness; the two winners from 1935 and 1936 are just exquisitely animated and show the beauty of Disney's work at a near-peak in this era. None of these were bad but The Merry Old Soul reminds me why I've never really cared for Oswald the Rabbit.
3. Storm Over Bengal (Sidney Salkow, 1938)
Best Music, Scoring
Pretty obscure example of the Imperialist adventure genre, of which the following year's Gunga Din and The Four Feathers are probably the best-known concurrent examples. This one is very low-budget, very much a b picture, with start Patric Knowles and Richard Cromwell as brothers fighting for "the Indian people" but really for continued English rule against a dastardly revolutionary who wants to incite revolt when the Maharajah of an important territory dies, and Rochelle Hudson as the woman they both love. Mostly predictable adventure that whips by in a brief 65 minutes. I didn't get anything interesting out of the music here, seems typical of this genre and certainly second-class to stuff that people like Korngold were doing, maybe it was a bad year or maybe the Oscars for music in those days were just as dull as Oscars for many categories in many eras have been.
4. Doctor Doolitte (Richard Fleischer, 1967)
Effects, Special Effects; Music, Original Song; Picture; Cinematography; Art Direction - Set Decoration; Sound; Film Editing; Music, Original Music Score; Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment
TCM. Thank you TCM; I took this out from the library once and the copy was bad - I could request it from another library, quite possibly with the same results, or download it, or something, but why would I bother? The only reason I even had a faint interest in this was because I've come to love Richard Fleischer, IMO just about the most neglected director in Hollywood in his era, but as it turned out, not surprisingly, this is quite easily his worst work. All of his typical virtues of economy and precision, of understanding the requirements and tropes necessary in just about any genre, and getting good performances out of just about any kind of actor, fail him here, though how much is really his fault is certainly open to debate. This is after all a bloated, elephantine musical from the era in which Hollywood still believed that such things could still be the ticket to huge profits - it was just two years after The Sound of Music after all. So a lot of people were trying very hard to make something that was probably always unworkable work, by the usual method - thrown enormous amounts of money at it. Ultimately it's just a turgid, way overlong and at times rather nasty - in it's attitude towards women particularly, shades of an earlier Rex Harrison musical - film with one good performance, from the irrepressible Richard Attenborough, alas only onscreen for about 10 minutes, and two songs that were OK, one sung by Attenborough and both in the first half. Oh and Bruce Surtees' cinematography is fine. Zzzzzz
5. The Mission (Roland Joffe, 1986)
Cinematography; Picture; Director; Art Direction - Set Decoration; Costume Design; Film Editing; Music, Original Score
I was in college when this came out, and it didn't have a huge release, or rather didn't stay in theaters long and ended up a flop, so I missed it - I was seeing a fair number of movies then, but wasn't necessarily hip to all of the different theaters around the city. Had it come out 3 years later I would have seen it in the cinema and probably loved it at the time, as big, blunt, beautiful epics were certainly something I craved at that time, more than now. As it is the only real reason I wanted to see it was for Morricone's music, which I already knew, and not surprisingly that's the best part, though even if it were a much greater film it would probably still be the best part; it might be one of my three favorite scores from him, and the other two are pretty firmly in my top 10 all-time. The main, flute solo dominated theme is as beautiful as anything he's done, and the way he integrates multiple themes over the end credits is quite amazing. Alas the rest of the film isn't nearly as good, though Chris Menges' photography is quite beautiful and probably looks ravishing in 35mm, and the main performances by Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro are solid, if not nearly the best that these actors have delivered. The problems are in Joffe's unimaginative direction - beautiful photography, but few if any exciting shots - and a screenplay that skims over the background and the politics of the situations - the Portuguese slave trade still going on in South America in 1750, Spanish complicity, the Catholic Church's complicity, and the role of the Jesuits, presented here as wholly virtuous intercessors on behalf of the negatives. It's an enjoyable enough watch, and there are some strong moments, like a repeated shot of a girl's teary face at two points in the film, with dialogue in the first scene suggesting that the natives would be happier had the Europeans never been "blown' their way. On the whole though, a very mixed bag that could have benefited from a lot more depth and care in detailing the actual history - and a depiction of the monks that was a little more nuanced.