Top 10 of 1935
I have a tendency to fall hard and be thrilled by films where I have no real idea what is happening but everything sure looks pretty, and Happiness does it on an extreme level. Sergei Eisenstein loved the picture, but the censors hated it and banned it for being supposedly against the Soviet Union (and it must be said that it feels very subversive no matter what the authorial intent was). After an opening scene of someone eating what appears to be bread without moving at all (don’t ask), he is charged by his wife by going out into the world and finding the titular happiness. This results in him getting beaten up against stark skies and landscapes (the peasants in this picture are constantly fighting violently among themselves), taunted while someone holds a gigantic key to a warehouse filled with luxuries, surrounded by soldiers wearing countless identical masks that rob them of any individuality and make them look like something out of a horror movie to boot, a horse covered in polka dots having hay danged in front of it in order to make it run before it decides to go on strike and assaults its rider and his wife before trying to drag its stable to the hay (it ends up eating the roof instead), a man on an accordion sings a song about how he wants to eat lard covered in lard to a woman dressed in flowers while two people in crowns eat some very delicious looking food, a funeral is stopped by the priest to demand donations from the mourners (no wonder this got censored), and eventually, our frustrated and unhappy hero decides to die, and cannot even get what he desires out of that, being forced to ride his coffin like the angry equestrian in the earlier scenes, resulting in him getting branded a rebel, tortured, and sent to prison for so long that he misses the Russian Revolution. This is a live action political cartoon of a film, one that contains all the physical nonsense of Charlie Chaplin twisted into something much more dark and dissecting of how people behave. Most Russian pictures of this era could be rather stodgy, even with the occasionally thrilling work of a great talent in the editing room (Eisenstein), but this is the only comedy from the days of the early Soviet Union cinema that actually seems funny, precisely in its randomness.
Favorite Moment: Horse strike.
9. An Inn in Tokyo
An Inn in Tokyo was Yasujiro Ozu’s final silent film, and as if he knew that he was going to be leaving this very different form of art for one revolving around an entirely different aesthetic, he goes out slowly, opening on a very long and grinding shot of a father and his two sons walking down the loneliest road one can think of, asking a watchman for a job only to get rather rudely rejected. (This has to be Tsai Ming-liang’s favorite of the Ozus, right? I just checked and apparently not but it fits so neatly into his aesthetic.) While the techniques of the director did not work so well with the tedious little aggressive behaviors that adult life is built upon, he was great with children during this period, and this ranks right alongside I Was Born But… in capturing the particular strands of melancholy related to the lack of authenticity adults adapt in order to survive. The whole picture’s first half is just a series of the man and boys trying to get by with a job at the titular hotel, turning in stray dogs for a reward, loudly fantasizing about foods that they will have when they scrape up some money and making phony toasts with imaginary drinks, sitting around doing nothing. It is a credit to everyone involved, but particularly Takeshi Sakamoto, that this is as cinematic as it is, even when a single mother and her daughter staying at the same inn as the main party enter the picture. The formula is only changed in the most gradual, slow unfolding, with a bit more focus going towards the boys and the slightly happier nature of their lives now that their dad has something to support them with and keep them fed. Getting along is still hard, and the small ambiguities of what happened to the wife is a quiet gut punch of depression, but the final unfurling, as per usual, is a joy, with the lingering transitions that quietly focus on everyday objects adding tightness rather than dead air, the consistent camera angles adding to the everyday nature of the whole affair, and so on. If you have seen anything by Ozu, you know exactly what you are getting into, but this is a film that seems to be a bit neglected by his fans despite being among his best early works before his next took him into sound.
Favorite Moment: Opening.
8. Alice Adams
Alice Adams begins with the titular character going to buy some flowers to make a corsage for an upcoming party in her quaint little New England town, only to hear that the store has run out and going to pick some in the park instead, ignoring a sign asking politely to not do just that. A fitting beginning for a quiet, insecure character that blossoms a bit near the end, and appropriate for Katherine Hepburn, who was making her transition from the girlish yet strange roles that she played in Little Women/Morning Glory to her future role as a star that was most decidedly for adults. She is a reflection of her environment, with her father Fred Stone trying to cope with his self-perception as a failure and his marriage with Ann Shoemaker on the rocks thanks to the years taking their strain (both give excellent supporting performances here), and she desires nothing more than to join the more fashionable and extroverted people of the upper class area, while her brother is running as far away as he can in the opposite direction. While the ensemble gets plenty to do, the story is ultimately taking place from the lead’s point of view even when she’s out of the way and her parents are arguing over their financial straits, with George Stevens giving her lengthy reaction shots at all times. She is perpetually rehearsing and putting on airs, only for them to wear off when she comes back to reality and she gives plenty a depressed glance over things like getting taken to the dance in an ugly car, or no one really wanting to dance with her. Fred MacMurray eventually enters the picture as her suitor, but rather than a lovely date together, we get a dinner from hell, complete with unceasing heat wreaking havoc with Hattie McDaniel’s services as the maid. The conclusion is not the story’s finest hour, with the final line being the poorly calculated “Gee whiz!” and the two getting back together via the logic of “it’s Hollywood, give her a happy ending anyway,” but the clever modesty utilized in quietly bringing an ensemble to life in a way that still feels rather cinematic is something to behold, with subtle framing making poor Alice a standout among the rich even though she most certainly does not want that. An underrated gem despite its Best Picture/”should’ve won Actress” nominee status.
Favorite Moment: Dinner.
7. Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo
Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo is an incredibly odd piece of cinema that blurs a lot of lines, starting with a loaded scenario that quickly transforms into something resembling a hang out comedy, with tranquil and relaxing music played over scenes that could just as easily play as a brutal negotiation for an object of great value. The titular object is the greatest of all MacGuffins, a monkey covered ornament that contains a treasure map on its surface that leads to an enormous treasure. It becomes a family heirloom, and the older son, who already has all the land and power, tries to get it back from the younger son, Genzaburo, who it was passed down to. Angry about his life, he sells it to junk dealers for a fraction of its real worth. The main character enters the scene as a result of hanging around the same gambling den as Genzaburo, a one armed and one eyed swordsman who is played to the hilt by Denjiro Okochi, albeit not for reasons that would appeal to most today. (Much better is his…lady friend, I guess?…Ofuji, who he bickers with at the inn he spends much of his time. She is portrayed by the single-named Kiyozo in her only screen credit despite having the best performance by a long shot.) He has another friend who enjoys playing around with Sazen at an archery parlor, and said friend’s child uses the pot as a bowl for his goldfish. Rather than turning into a ridiculous hunt for this item, we get a comedy of errors, with Genzaburo’s laziness resulting in him frequently seeing the bowl right under his nose as he gambles away his money, and stealing the poor child’s pet eventually, resulting in the lead’s decision to finally accomplish something. The execution of this entire plot is so weirdly modern in its use of ellipses, and the career of Sadao Yamanaka is a tragic story, dying of dysentery after being drafted into the army at a very young age but still managing to make 26 movies. Tragedy was not quite done with him yet, however, with only three of those movies still existing today. I eagerly await seeing the other two, and mourn the loss of the 23 that have been ravaged by time. At least poor Jean Vigo had his entire career kept intact and now it exists in a restored condition.
Favorite Moment: Dojo fight.
6. The Devil is a Woman
Another year, another collaboration between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich that makes everything look amazing in its effortlessness. Ho hum. It becomes so easy to take for granted things like that shot of the carnival goers celebrating and wrapping two men in a circle made of confetti (hard to really describe accurately, but it occurs very early and you will know it when you see it), before being chased and taunted by a chicken costume (much easier to comprehend despite this suit being like nothing you have ever seen, I am sure). Dietrich’s first appearance is one of her best, with a headdress that feels as if it were a superhero outfit from a time when they were not cookie cutter and boring (she reportedly claimed that this was her favorite because she was the most beautiful in her role as Concha Perez, I can only respond with “seven way ties are a perfectly acceptable option in this case”). The movie then goes into male gaze territory by placing us in the viewpoint of the man who eventually comes around to the way of thinking in the title, with Don Pasqual Costelar, government official, falling for the singer who seduced all of Spain in all her crazy glory. She is the most overtly nasty character that she ever played, with the other six roles going the opportunistic route for their own safety at their very worst, while Perez’s main motivation seems to be to mentally fuck with men at any chance she is given just for some minor advance in her finances or personal life. She ends up forcing a duel between her two greatest admirers, with Costelar’s loss initially resulting in him laying in the ground, defeated and without his woman…before she pulls the ultimate double cross and leaves the victor after he takes her to Paris. She claims to be in love, but it is more of a predecessor to Phyllis Dietrichson declaring at the end of Double Indemnity that she learned to love Walter-truth and lies are equally likely. Despite the cheerfully quick running time, this actually has a bit more dead air than arguably the other six collaborations combined depending on how you feel about Blonde Venus’ general weirdness (what can I say? It was an astounding hot streak), but it still rivals the majority of anything else that was made in that period of cinema.
Favorite Moment: 3 Sweethearts song.
5. Captain Blood
Michael Curtiz’s incredibly long career of over 100 films resulted in inconsistency, ranging from the sublime and universally beloved Casablanca to the forgotten. Captain Blood happily clocks in on the higher end of the scale, with the romance being between the alternative and more jagged version of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the form of Errol Flynn as a pirate and Olivia de Havilland as the woman who he falls for. Studio bound equipment had finally gained enough mobility for the crew members to make their way around the high seas with ease, but the picture was still a surprise hit among the B-movies of the age, and was parlayed into a thank you nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year, with Curtiz’s direction earning him write-in support. Not discussed in most articles around the movie is how long it takes for the swashbuckling to start up, with about an hour of running time devoted to setting things up in a two hour work. It starts off as a romance of sorts, with the titular character actually starting things off as the hilariously named Doctor Blood (this was also the name of the gory magician who hosted one of my birthday parties as an elementary school student in the suburbs. It was a big hit), who despite all this is the most heroic character of the year to the point of parody, devoted to making the world a better place both by healing and ransacking, particularly when he is enslaved for helping an opponent of the crown and everything becomes justified. He winds up a possession of De Havilland’s countess, who may be one of the nicest slavers possible (she clearly was among the White House’s supervisors when being built if you asked Bill O’Reilly). From there, everything is the result of compressing an enormous book into a single work, but it is hard to care. The cast is obscenely charismatic, and the director’s knack for emphasizing what really matters while running through the stuff that does not results in a delightfully breezy strain of cinema. I would also argue for this containing some of the best Foley production in cinema history, with the dialogue lacking sequences of the sword fights and little supporting noises like the clanging and banging of the place where the slaves labor, slowly revealed to be a whip cracking, quietly horrify.
Favorite Moment: Slave purchase.
4. The Informer
I am not as familiar with the career of John Ford, one of the most celebrated American directors if not the most celebrated (let’s ignore the Internet acclaim for anyone who is currently alive and made a few great movies during the 70s in this estimation) as I should be, but even I know that The Informer is not like anything else in his filmography, simply because it is not like the bulk of other movies, on multiple levels, almost all of which are related to the unprecedented technical aspects. Right away, we see a shadow of a man walking past a wanted poster advertising someone named Frankie who has committed a murder with a reward of 20 pounds for the trouble, a flashback to Frankie and a friend cheerfully drinking and singing some Irish song, and we cut to the other man. His name is Gypo Nolan, and he is a former IRA member. We stay firmly in silent movie territory even with all the singing going on when Gypo’s decision to assault a pervert who is trying to pick up his prostitute girlfriend Katie occurs, but she launches into a hammy but scorched earth monologue about how she just wants 20 pounds for him and her to gain passage to America. One ratting out and an execution later, we enter the bulk of the story, a long dark night of the soul with so much shadows and fog as to resemble something out of a horror movie. And this is, in its own way, just that. There are no shades of gray here, merely light that represents getting caught and darkness that stands for his immersion in the muck that is the world. Almost everything looks claustrophobic, with Victor McLagen’s amazing if overdone performance and the “so low they feel out of a parody” camera angles contributing to this unpleasant effect. Everything in this owes a great deal to German Expressionism, but outside of the dialogue being in English, it is as pitch perfect a copy as anything. Shame that Ford never dipped his fingers back into this particular well, for it was deep enough so that it could provide its own rewards. Narrative realism combined with formal expressionism was not something that had been explored much, however, and it could not have started off on a better foot than this nasty little confinement study, despite the Judas themes being reinforced with blunt, brutal force.
Favorite Moment: The raid on the house.
3. Top Hat
Top Hat’s opening credits make a point of quickly establishing that yes, this is the best of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers collaborations, with a visually pleasing setup involving a whole bunch of canes, shoes twirling into and out of the frame, a certain item taking up the frame as the title is revealed, and ending with a title card that practically hisses at us in telling the members of the club to be SILENT! From there, we delve into the deepest well conjured up for the two dancers’ brand of nonsense and romance, thanks to the best combination of musical numbers and choreography they got to work with. The sets are absurdly pretty and clean looking, scrubbed within an inch of their lives so they look gleaming white. The worst thing Astaire’s character ever does is to annoy the people in the quiet room by launching into a loud and beautiful tap dance for our amusement. The plot is one of the stupidest things ever conjured up in the mind of a writer, with Ginger’s character thinking that she has fallen in love with the husband of her closest friend even with said friend encouraging the two to dance. Everything else is an excuse for well meaning gay jokes at the expense of Edward Everett Horton’s fashion designer, butlers who live nicer lifestyles than about ninety percent of the population nowadays, and of course the dancing. No Strings is more or less my life anthem when it comes to people asking me about my dating life, complete with twirling around in one long take while tapping on the furniture and waking someone up from their heavenly looking bed, immediately falling for them and trying to flirt unsuccessfully. Cheek to Cheek is as romantic as it gets and gives full weight to that line focused on Rogers doing everything backwards and in high heels, with the effortlessness of such absurd stunts reaching its pinnacle in that spine cracking backbend, held up by that skinniest and most angular of arms. Fred’s cane attack in the Tuxedo number is as visually splendid as it gets for approximately a decade. But the real moment that stands out is those ostrich feathers quietly drifting around everywhere, quietly driving the poor stars insane even as they smile until their faces crack. Good for them on remaining so professional despite the clouds of asthma inducing particles.
Favorite Moment: Cane shooting.
2. The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps kicks off the action after what can best be described as a prologue by killing off the female European spy with the delightfully hammy name of Annabella who informs Robert Donat’s leading man of perpetual wit and unflappability, Richard, that she has uncovered a plan to steal highly critical British military information that is led by the organization of the title, and she must try to pass on the information to an associate. (“But you can’t count steps!?” is my favorite line regarding the spy group’s name, and it is thankfully a remark in the movie itself.) Yet despite all this, the assassins simply lurk around outside of his apartment, not doing anything to him but waiting for him to come outside so they can finish things off. Why do they not just throw a gigantic knife into his back, too? This plot hole is almost enough to devour the picture whole, but it takes nothing more than a neat dodge to the side and we are off on one of the most stupidly delightful “wrong man” tales of any era, with Donat’s unflappability despite how real the peril he is in is combined with the reasonable iciness of the woman who he winds up handcuffed to, Madeleine Carroll, coming across as the most bizarre form of chemistry one could imagine. The final shot, where they sort of get together, but a certain item makes it a little more questionable, is as organized and tidy an ending as you could go for, with marriage once again coming across as a doomed ideal. Everything about this picture has a frisson of sorts, ranging from the speech made at the pulpit that takes a neat, bulls-eye shot at the nature of politics, to that gloomy interlude with the husband and wife in the middle of nowhere, and the mad paranoia of how there are secret forces at work in every major institution, right down to the stupidest form of entertainment that the people have. As compulsively watchable as anything, but always with certain nasty little layers underneath thanks to the director excavating the confines of his warped mind. It may not have as much room for recitation of facts, but in terms of the craft of something timeless, it is practically unfair, with everyone looking glamorous even when on the run in wet clothes and getting their stockings stripped off with a single hand.
Favorite Moment: Stocking strip.
1. Bride of Frankenstein
The Bride of Frankenstein is like nothing else out there, as it is a rarity in several categories. One of those is the rare picture that has one of the most deceptive titles ever, on multiple levels. First, there is the matter of the commonly ignored fact that the doctor is Frankenstein, not the monster, and his wife is a fairly irrelevant character in the scheme of things (although better than last time when the entirety of the part consisted of “doormat”). Much more importantly, the woman herself only shows up for a few minutes overall, although they are all iconic, with Elsa Lanchester’s darting eyes and vague recollections of her old self as Mary Shelley (cleverly credited to ? in a final moment of parody before Mel Brooks ever came along) serving to make her screams all the scarier. The intense postmodernism is another category where James Whale successfully sketches out something new entirely, with Una O’Connor getting mocked for shrieking “It’s alive!”…and on a far more grim note, the little girl’s parents get killed off right away. It is hard to think of a topic that this does not cover, ranging from Dr. Pretorious grimly carrying out the message that it is impossible to escape your past by prodding the titular man (that fucking title) into doing his old gigs just like that. Hard not to read Whale’s sexual orientation into that kind of thing, particularly when Karloff is giving a performance of someone who is very slowly adapting to humanity via the power of a blind man. (You have to wonder just how much truth there is in that trope regarding the disabled teaching us how to be better humans on the occasions where it is so damn effective. Looking at Under the Skin here.) Healing is impossible, and evil is too baked into the fundamentals of the being, with the final sacrifice being the cherry on top. Still, there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way even in the realm of such nastiness, with everyone grabbing onto the weird sense of humor that pervaded everything from Whale’s horrors to his dramas in the vein of the underrated Waterloo Bridge. Living proof that heterosexual white men do not have as many interesting stories as you would think, really, for is this not the sort of picture that could only come from the mind of someone with a deep love of camp?
Favorite Moment: The Bride finally appears.