Wednesday, November 30, 2016

#Top10...with Lisa Malouf

#Top10 is a brand new feature to Movie Critical. Each week we will be chatting to a film lover or a member of the film community about their #Top10 favourite films and discussing what makes these films so special to them. We all have different tastes in film and watch movies differently depending on who we are. The object of #Top10 is to share the love of film and hopefully you the reader can find some new favourites.

This week we talked to Sydney-based film lover Lisa Malouf. Lisa received degrees from the University of Sydney and NIDA before going on to work as a stage manager for plays and then in casting for commercial musicals. She now works as a childrens' TV scriptwriter, and also reviews a few new release films a week for The Limerick Review , as well as writing occasional articles about her favourite classic films for Graffiti with Punctuation's Five Star Films series.

Here's what Lisa had to say ...

I became obsessed with film as a very young child: before I started school, my grandmother introduced me to classic films via the Bill Collins Golden Years of Hollywood double bill, which would screen on TV on Saturday nights. There were also countless Sunday afternoon classic B-films. So over about a decade, up until my early teens, we probably watched about 1000 classic films. I learned so much from these films, and now I'm paying the knowledge forward: teaching my little nieces and nephews about film history/appreciation.

As hard as it's been to narrow down my favourite films to a reasonable-sized list, it's also been such a pleasure revisiting the ones that have meant so much to me. A handful of them are newer releases, but most of them are favourites that I've loved for decades.

#1 It's A Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

It's a Wonderful Life is my all-time favourite film. It's primarily known as a Christmas film, but it's so much more than that. While it's famous for its (....what's the statute of limitations on spoiler alerts? I trust 70 years has been long enough for the word to get out ...) uplifting ending, there's also a darkness to it with its exploration of issues of suicide, worthlessness and the cruelty inflicted by the powerful upon the powerless. And because it has these dark elements, the ultimate happy ending (and the road to it) is that much more joyous. 

A fun memory I have of this film is when I first saw it as a child and noticed that there were friends called Bert and an Ernie in the same scene. Years later, I heard that Jim Henson was quoted saying that these It's a Wonderful Life character names weren't the inspiration for the naming of the famous Sesame Street roomies - but at the time I found the assumed connection very exciting and wondered if someone called Oscar or Snuffaluffagus might also show up in Bedford Falls.

One of my favourite things about the work of Capra is his casting. This film is led by the beloved James Stewart and Donna Reed, who are just terrific. But unlike many other films where all non-principal casting seems to be an afterthought, every single actor is so beautifully cast - and not just the supporting actors (including Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell and 'serial Jimmy Stewart's mum' Beulah Bondi). There are none of those amorphous masses of generic townsfolk for Capra: every extra has a unique look. Scan a group scene in any Capra film and you'll know what I mean. They are faces of character, with character. 

Because of his recurring themes of family, loyalty, and the little guy (yes, it usually was a guy) up against the system, Capra's work is often dismissed by cynics as 'Capra-corn'. But if you can see beyond what's often superficially dubbed as 'aw shucks' cheesiness - at the heart of it there's an inherent celebration of humble decency. 

#2 Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)

Casablanca runs a very close second in my favourite films list. There's a magnificence about this film, on so many levels. Central to the film is a beautiful, complex love triangle for the ages (Humphrey Bogart's Rick, Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa and Paul Henreid's Victor). 

Then there's the gorgeous lighting design. I can't think of another black and white film where there are so many 'colours'. There's also a special luminosity to Ilsa: it's as though she's lit from within.

Central to my (and many other people's) love of Casablanca is the script. There are countless delicious, quotable lines. And these lines are now so familiar that they almost seem to have a life of their own: existing outside the film. Many people who haven't seen the film at least know of its hill of beans, gin joints, usual suspects and always having of Paris.

Over 25 years ago, I read an essay* by Umberto Eco about Casablanca, which examined, among other things, the concept of cult movies, archetypes, and clichés. I'll never forgot a particular observation Eco made in the essay. It's been ingrained in my brain all these years because it's just so perfect. And it's still my favourite observation I've ever read about any film:

 "Casablanca is a cult movie precisely because all the archetypes are there .... Casablanca became a cult movie because it is not one movie. It is 'movies' ... all the archetypes burst out shamelessly ... Two clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés move is because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion". 

*Eco, Umberto (1985) Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage

And here are the rest of my top 10 favourites (alphabetically) ... 

All About Eve (1950, Joseph Mankiewicz)

This Best Picture Oscar winner is truly sublime. Bette Davis is transcendent as the longtime Broadway star Margo Channing, and Anne Baxter shines as the (at first) seemingly innocent young performer Eve Harrington. The film is set in the New York theatre world, and I love its fabulous mix of intriguing backstage machinations, bitchiness and drama. 

Most of the other Broadway-set films that I love from this era are musical comedies (à la
 'let's put on a show' and the like), so it's the high drama that sets All About Eve apart from them. One of my favourite contributors to this drama is George Sanders, who plays the Machiavellian Addison De Witt, a theatre critic and master manipulator. His scenes with a young (pre-mega-fame) Marilyn Monroe are just terrific. 

Being a lover of beautiful costume design, the exquisite wardrobe in All About Eve is another reason this film is so special to me. The gowns in the famous '... It's going to be a bumpy night’ party scene are particularly gorgeous.

Fun facts: Only one film (Titanic, 1997) has matched All About Eve's record 14 Oscar nominations. And Mankiewicz is the only director in history to direct four women to acting Oscar nominations in the same film.

Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)

Oh how I adore this film. Every frame's a winner in this perfect film noir thriller. Barbara Stanwyck shines as complex and manipulative Phyllis, who orchestrates (spoiler ahead ...) the 'removal' of her husband by Fred MacMurray's Walter. The initial chemistry between Walter and Phyllis is quite electric, and amazingly their sexually-charged, innuendo-laden banter passed the censors.

My favourite scenes in this film include: the first time Phyllis and Walter meet, the famous Jerry's Market scene where they surreptitiously exchange information, and just about every time Edward G. Robinson's Barton Keyes shows up. He was a masterful character actor, with such an impressive range.

His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks)

This film is such a delight. Its stars, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, are in absolute top form, shouting out rapid-fire dialogue at a super-human rate. Their characters, Hildy and Walter, were once married, and both work in the newspaper business (he as editor, she as his top reporter). It's a joy watching them spar.

I love the scenes where Walter undermines Hildy's fiancé Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). Poor hapless Bruce doesn't know what he's up against. Walter's behaviour is quite terrible, but he's so charming that the audience is rooting for him. We want Hildy to be in a (re-)relationship with Walter, who is smart and feisty like she is, rather than boring, wet blanket Bruce. It's clear that intellectually (and assumed, sexually), this pair of exes are a better match than the betrothed odd couple.

Howard Hawks' direction is masterful. The pacing is exhausting, in the best possible way. And though the lead actors are the clear focus, the whole ensemble and extras cast work together so beautifully. 

Interestingly, in the source material (a play called The Front Page), Hildy's role was male. I'm so glad that that the change was made. Without it, we wouldn't have the pleasure of experiencing Russell in what I believe is one of her two best roles (the other being her star turn in Auntie Mame 18 years later).

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Joel & Ethan Coen)

I love this film so much that I can hardly write about it without crying. It's just so special to me. I find it profoundly moving. Firstly, we have the magnificent script and direction by the Coen brothers. It's full of symbolism, which is executed so beautifully that it doesn't hit you over the head. Its messages are so meaningful, but also so subtle that they just float along and into your soul.

Oscar Isaac's performance is outstanding, and I believe it hasn't received the recognition it deserves. His Llewyn faces complex issues regarding his art and his life (which are inexorably connected). We see the dogged strength he has with regard to sticking to his art in the face of challenges. Then there's the whole 'own worst enemy' thing. It's a heart-breaking portrayal that's so multi-layered that I get more out of it with each viewing. And Isaac doesn't just shine in the spoken scenes. His delivery of the songs is sublime. There's palpable melancholy. Credit also to the music department, headed by T Bone Burnett.

The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)

The Maltese Falcon is another one of those across-the-board winners, where every element is perfect: script, direction, casting, production design, etc - and amazingly, it was John Huston's directorial debut. Not for one frame does this film feel like it came from a novice director. Huston's work here is outstanding. There's wonderful claustrophobic tension, action, mystery,  crime elements, a dark romance, and one of the most iconic props in film history. 

This film was also the debut of then 62-year-old actor Sydney Greenstreet. He'd been a stage actor in Britain since his early 20s, but had never been on film prior to The Maltese Falcon. It's a fantastic performance. There's a terrific negotiation scene between his Kasper Gutman and Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade. It's a masterclass in quality acting.  

I first came across this film as a teenager on TV, and later on VHS - and watched it countless times. Then a few years ago I got to see it on the big screen for the first time. It was such a pleasure to experience it in a cinema with a full house of classic film lovers. 

Spellbound (1945, Alfred Hitchcock)

There are at least a dozen Hitchcock films that I'd rate amongst the greatest films of all time. I don't believe that Spellbound is the very best of Hitchcock's films, but it's my favourite of his. (Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying it's a bad film at all. To me, it's wonderful: it's just that I recognise that there are other greater Hitchcock films .... and because Hitchcock's body of work is so outstanding, even a second-tier film of his will compare favourably against the work of most other directors)

Spellbound is the first Hitchcock film I remember seeing, so it has special significance for me. It's also the film that introduced me to my first (and lifelong) on-screen crush and favourite actor, Gregory Peck. Beautiful Peck and beautiful Ingrid Bergman glow in this film. They are great together, and are backed by an excellent supporting cast.

The story is compelling, and its themes include the workings of the brain, which I find fascinating. Then there's the bonus of a fantastic dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali.

When Harry Met Sally (1989, Rob Reiner)

I absolutely adore When Harry Met Sally, and never tire of it - no matter many times I see it. There's lots to love here: The cast is excellent, with lead performances by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, supported by Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby. There's pitch-perfect direction from Rob Reiner, and gorgeous cinematography from Barry Sonnenfeld - including stunning exteriors of New York through the seasons (autumn looks particularly delicious). 

... But the real star of When Harry Met Sally is Nora Ephron's script. It's clever and witty, and perceptive and warm and funny. There are so many memorable lines. I've been known to be sitting there doing something completely unrelated to the watching of this film, and suddenly think of  '... Surrey with a Fringe on Top in front of Ira!' and burst out laughing.

The Women (1939, George Cukor)

This is a really special film, and a unique one. The complete cast (of over 100 speaking-role humans, and various animals) is female. This was certainly unique for a 1939 release, when a significant number of films would be let by a pair of actors (one female and one male).

The stellar cast included Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine Paulette Goddard and Margorie Main, along with an extensive supporting cast. Even gossip columnist Hedda Hopper makes an appearance. 

The script is excellent, with a great mix of drama, humour, bitchiness (particularly from Crawford's Crystal Allen), and moments of high camp: including a six-minute Technicolor fashion parade in the middle of this black-and-white film.

The Women is a magnificent film, and it comes from (many will say arguably, but I say definitely) cinema's greatest year.


And because there are some more filmic wonders that I just can't bear to leave out: here are
the titles (alphabetically) of my next ten favourite films, to round out my list of twenty all-time favourites ....

The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)

Cameraperson (2016, Kirsten Johnson)

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986, John Hughes)

Life Is Beautiful (1997, Roberto Benigni)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, Frank Capra)

North By Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock)

The Philadelphia Story (1940, George Cukor)

Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)

Singin' in the Rain (1952, Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen)

The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming)

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