Better than BFI’s Top 100: 80-76

For a brief introduction and a running list of movies covered in this project, click here

 

80) The Last Emperor (1987), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Nothing says communism like a dull color palette: one hundred and fifty shades of gray, dead blues, dried puke greens, dried snot yellows, orange that’s been out in the sun too long, etc. And The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and photographed by Vittorio Storaro, isn’t immune to that look. There are plenty of scenes where an early middle-aged Puyi wearing round spectacles wanders about in the cold, wearing his gray uniform signifying his imprisonment in a reeducation camp. The coldness certainly comes through in those moments; you can feel it in your living room as surely as Puyi can feel it. But there’s a reason those scenes work so well visually in The Last Emperor, and it’s simple contrast. So much of this movie is shot in colors and light other than the Communist Special that we don’t get the sense that we’re being force fed this dreariness as a replacement for substance. The world that surrounds the very young Puyi is unfathomably lush, shot in the kind of hazy Elysian gold that inflects the dreamiest reality. Could the light ever have shone through the windows like that? Could the clothes have been so magnificent, the citizens arrayed in such neat lines, the courtiers so attentive? They must have been; after all, they were in the movies. And while those scenes are the great takeaways of the movie, it means that we aren’t paying enough attention to (what is probably the least interesting part of the movie) Puyi’s playboy puppet status. The pictures Bertolucci and Storaro paint of late ’20s partygoers wearing clothes and makeup more familiar than the traditional Chinese costumes but just as beautiful in their own way are lovely; they replace gold with inky blues and deep shadows, and it’s entirely right.

Although The Last Emperor probably owes its place on the list more to its look than any of the ninety-nine movies, its other elements are hardly empty. John Lone was shut out of the Best Actor field, which was hardly impenetrable at the 60th Academy Awards, just as Peter O’Toole was shut out of a likewise just okay Supporting Actor field; unfair as it is, I’m sure that the general dearth of big names, the perceived exoticism of its story, and its Italian director has made casual movie fans think of The Last Emperor as dry arthouse rather than an emotional epic. Puyi may not be T.E. Lawrence, but he is a touchstone at least as effective as Yuri Zhivago or Colonel Nicholson or Harry Faversham. The young versions of him, going up to and through the Japanese-installed monarch he was in the 1930s, believes in his own divinity because he was brought up that way. He roars from his royal dais on some Manchurian heath like a fresh-faced Lear; he mocks others freely from a position of safety without realizing that he has been an object of fun for everyone else living in a much realer world than the fantasy that his advisers, friends, and frenemies keep him trapped in. The stupendous idiocy of his youth is the contrast the story needs for the history of an old Puyi who has found peace in the limits of his life as an anonymous gardener, who can walk around the Forbidden City with a half-smile and no trace of longing.

79) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), directed by Karel Reisz

Though this list contains no small number of angry young men—those who belong to that noisy, influential fad, as well as their predecessors and descendants—the one who is most essential to this British canon is Arthur Seaton, and of the actors who play such a type, Albert Finney seems the best suited. Not a particularly tall man, nor one whose body speaks any exceptional strength, he is the everyman factory worker whose first scene watches him complain at that job. (Could he work harder? Sure. Would they pay him better? Hell no. Thus he works at his own pace.) He transitions seamlessly to the local pub and then into the arms of another man’s wife at her place; he still lives at home in a crowded little place, surrounded with a disappointing family, so he would hardly be able to bring her home with him even if he were that kind of fellow. What stands out from the first about Arthur is that he is a man of one truth, one immortalized almost forty years later by Blink-182: “Work sucks! I know!” It’s a truth that everyone else agrees with, but Arthur’s great failing is that he’s fresh out of other truths short of this one. Even if he is immensely quotable, it hardly represents a way out of his position, although maybe he is in possession of a second, even more depressing truth: he’s never going to be able to walk away from his lathe. In the meantime, he’ll have to settle for some corking witticisms and epigrams, courtesy of screenwriter Alan Sillitoe. When he gets called pinko: “Not that I wouldn’t vote Communist if I thought it would get rid of blokes like him.” On refusing to settle down: “I work for the factory, the income tax, and the insurance already, that’s enough for a bit.” And his motto: “What I’m out for is a good time: all the rest is propaganda.” In a voice that feels rude down in the marrow and stirs up a little admiration in the blood, Finney drops these alongside his many complaints and his even more numerous excuses.

There is a way to brush off everything in the world according to Arthur Seaton, to deflect it away from ever really piercing him through, and the movie finds its energy giving him such bothers to punch away. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, Arthur is serenely drunk at the pub, has just gathered another pint, and accidentally splashes it on an unfortunate guy. The man’s wife stands up to scold Arthur; he pours some on her and strides away. He is immune to social embarrassment; so too is he basically immune to such niceties as “don’t cuckold a coworker,” “don’t get your mistress pregnant,” etc. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning never treats his sexual escapades with Brenda as if they’re unusual, and his quest to find her an abortion is no more exceptional than someone searching for whatever aisle they’ve hidden the matches in at Publix. Like A Taste of Honey, which was released the year after, Saturday Night makes a lot of hay by letting the viewer decide that what’s happening is simultaneously noteworthy and completely relatable. Arthur is not the first man in Nottingham to get someone pregnant accidentally, and he won’t be the last to send her to Aunt Ada to drink gin in a hot bath. When he looks at a new development from a hillside with the nice girl he’ll coerce into marrying him and hating him, probably not in that order, he pushes this last away from him. He throws a rock at the houses; Doreen cautions him that they might end up in one of those same houses; we appreciate why angry young men turn into bitter old men who vote Tory.

78) Pride and Prejudice (2005), directed by Joe Wright

For the sons and daughters of the 21st Century bourgeoisie, there may not be a safer, more wholesome story than Pride and Prejudice. (For everyone else in the crowd with a B.A. in English who wants to deconstruct that statement, I’d like to point to the stunning correlation of “teen girls whose favorite book is Pride and Prejudice” and “girls whose dads bought them a purity ring but who were already ‘saving themselves for marriage.'”) Joe Wright’s first movie doesn’t do a whole lot to reject that interpretation. This movie is rated PG, but a kids’ movie like Big Hero 6 is more deserving of the label. Modesty in language and dress and comportment is the rule of the day, and the story of how one Elizabeth Bennet comes to realize that sometimes introverts fall in love too is one which is happily chaste. But the movie isn’t prudish, and even if there isn’t heaving sexual tension between Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen it doesn’t mean the movie is dull, either. Pride and Prejudice works because it is endlessly likable; the fact that it eschews edginess means that it’s hard for it to polarize its audience, and its cast gives us multiple avenues to enjoy it. In Knightley’s hands, Elizabeth is as much charm as brain. Maybe it doesn’t work for Janeites (then again, what does?), but it’s a smooth bit of characterization. The two amplify one another; if Elizabeth’s wit is sharp enough to cut someone like Mr. Collins or Mr. Darcy, then it’s delivered in such a way that makes us like her more. Rosamund Pike is terribly endearing as Jane, a woman whose sneezes are hilarious and whose round eyes can emote 360 degrees of pain; Donald Sutherland sets up his candidacy to play Canada’s Grandfather as Mr. Bennet, which is really saying something. Even the annoying (Brenda Blethyn) and fractious (Kelly Reilly) and supercilious (Judi Dench) are amusing in their own ways, and they make up the backbone of a cast which is well assembled. Even Macfadyen is right in his role, which works as someone whose superiority is a function primarily of stoicism rather than haughtiness. Only someone like that can stammer through “I love, I love, I love you” without making it sound totally false.

Wright’s affection for noisy tracking shots and grandiose setpieces may already be his undoing, but in Pride and Prejudice it works for him. I think about the party where Lizzy dances with Darcy, implies that he’s mistreated Wickham, and simultaneously tries to hide from Collins. Her mother and two of her younger sisters take advantage of the booze; Mary finds a piano and her father has to help her unfind it; Mr. Collins, a pint-sized Sherlock, scours the house looking for Lizzy, who he hopes to marry. The majority of these events take place in a series of dizzying dolly shots. In one of them we lose Tom Hollander for a minute only to find him coming out from behind a wall, going in the opposite direction. Pride and Prejudice isn’t just showing off in using them, although they’re certainly impressive. They’re in the movie because they help us to feel like we’re part of the action as well without ever making us active members of the drama the way that a handheld camera might. The story and place and time of Pride and Prejudice is not one we’re likely to be immersed in, and most of the fun we have is to be close, but not too close, to the drama, to be able to yell at Elizabeth that Darcy has good reason to be chilly with Wickham but not to fear that she’ll hear us. It’s a better choice than simple cuts in much the same way that Elizabeth spinning on her swing to witness the seasons go by is better than a little “One year later” insert would have been. Roman Osin’s cinematography is also effective, more interested in earth tones and sunlight than some of the (pleasing!) bombastic work that Wright has done with Seamus McGarvey. The sun comes up over the meadow and it lights the entire screen with Elizabeth and Darcy’s happiness, and ours too. One of the most impressive things about Pride and Prejudice is that even though everyone knows how it’ll end, the payoff is still so satisfying.

77) Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), directed by Robert Hamer

While the seeds of some of the great proletarian comedies were already fertilizing in Ealing’s green and pleasant land, Kind Hearts and Coronets approaches one of the great ironies of class anxiety in Britain. Suppose that the nobility are (insert whichever particularly British epithet you like here), and no one will disagree. The trouble is that if a magician appeared and offered to swap you out—to make you, the proletarian, into nobility—you would have to be a fool not to become said epithet. Kind Hearts and Coronets has this delicious premise: Louis Mazzini, the legitimate but improverished and disfavored grandson of an English duke, decides to murder his way up the ladder until he becomes the duke. Surprisingly enough, this turns out to be surprisingly simple, and Louis, despite a perfectly game performance by Dennis Price, is not terribly interesting. He is surrounded by people who supply more than enough intrigue. Joan Greenwood plays a childhood friend, Sibella, who is dangerously sexy and much too smart to marry Louis, who is, after all, quite penniless at the beginning of the film. And of course, presumably to the delight of the makeup people at Ealing, Alec Guinness plays nine different D’Ascoynes, seven of whom are felled at Louis’ hand in some way or another. Guinness doesn’t have all that much to do, despite the fact that he plays enough people to put together a starting lineup for a baseball team. Most of his characters simply look grandiose and elite. I’m fond of the D’Ascoynes who come to bad ends because of their chosen method of transport. Agatha goes down with a hot-air balloon, while Horatio goes down with a ship. Yet as much as most of the D’Ascoynes are just snooty looking, Guinness imbues a few others with some personality. Lord Ascoyne, who by chance is Louis’ boss, is serious but kindly, and he treats Louis well: the greatest gift he gives him is a premature death upon learning that he has become the ninth Duke of Chalfont.

It’s Greenwood, though, who is the real showstopper in Kind Hearts and Coronets. If this were not the late ’40s she would probably appear half-naked in her scenes, and of course this would spoil the effect. Where Louis is ironically isolated from his crimes most of the time, Sibella is significantly more willing to talk about hers. With Louis she is frank about why she marries Lionel, and even more open about how disappointing a marriage to him is: at one point she refers to him as the most boring man in Europe, a title which he appears to deserve as much as Louis deserves to be Duke of Chalfont. The two of them cannot ever keep their figurative hands off each other, and when it looks like they are going to do rather more than that, he tells her that she is “playing with fire.” In that singular voice of hers, throaty and remorseless and exciting, she replies: “At least it warms me.” Louis Mazzini is the great threat to the D’Ascoynes, but Joan Greenwood seems to have been a much greater threat to English manhood.

76) Rembrandt (1936), directed by Alexander Korda

More so than some of Korda’s other biopics—I am thinking primarily about his movie on Henry VIII, which will not show up later—Rembrandt doesn’t limit itself to costumes to let us know where and when we are. The sets for Rembrandt are surprisingly elaborate, and Korda’s willingness to shoot on that lot to put Rembrandt in his real element is welcome. There’s very little painting in this movie, which is more than fine, and what replaces Rembrandt being a genius is mostly Rembrandt being an iconoclast out in his beloved Amsterdam. It’s out there in the comparative wilderness of the docks that he discovers Saul, a beggar with a good mind and a willingness to model for Rembrandt after a couple of meetings; at the time, Rembrandt’s financial failure has basically put him a step above Saul and no more, which helps ease the comradeship they find in one another. His wife, Saskia, is never seen in the film, but we know how much Rembrandt loves her because of the way he rhapsodizes about her while he’s buying paints in a local shop. (His obsession, which will always be the trendiest element in the public’s adoration of artists, is evinced when he refuses to let her be buried in a timely fashion because he cannot stop the portrait of her before her face is interred and his memory of her dims.) Amsterdam and its winding streets and tall towers and briny harbors do not always love him back, which necessitates a move out to the country, but even so it remains a key character in the piece, played as lovingly and zealously as Roger Livesey plays Saul, or Elsa Lancaster plays Hendrickje (who starts out as Rembrandt’s maid and eventually graduates to lover and, amusingly, art dealer), or Charles Laughton plays Rembrandt. This may even be my favorite role of Laughton’s, which is saying something. In the 1930s there may not have been a more consistently brilliant actor, and Rembrandt’s art-for-art’s sake sensibilities shine in Laughton’s nuanced performance. Rembrandt can be flowery, or he can be down, or he can be awfully self-deprecating (as he compares the act of painting to the work of a cobbler), but he certainly gets to yell and brawl as much as any of Laughton’s other creations, and by the end of the movie Laughton has made a man out of a legend.

For a movie that highlights such an aesthete, a great deal of time is spent on money. From the opening scroll, which exhorts the priceless paintings, to the clever way that Rembrandt manages to get around his debts by making Hendrickje, not himself, the person who profits off his new paintings, money is very much at the heart of the picture. Blame part of this on the capitalist habit of valuing art by its price tag instead of its worth—which Rembrandt, living in a thriving metropolis, decries again and again—and blame a little more on Rembrandt’s fiery individualism. One of the great scenes in the movie is the debut of The Night Watch, which occurs in front of an enormous crowd that Rembrandt stands just slightly above. The camera puts us only a farther back than the crowd, one of twenty great choices that the movie’s creative team makes which gives Rembrandt the look of a much more modern movie. We are part of the scene, and while we are wise enough to know that we are seeing a masterpiece, the members of said guard are vexed. The scene ends with Rembrandt coming forward on the little dais, higher than his detractors, robed in the costume of the 17th Century and looking like an emperor. He takes umbrage with the suggestion that he was meant to paint “gentlemen of rank and distinction,” and to punctuate his diatribe against their hubris he plucks a hat off of one man’s head and flings it into the crowd. Many movies tell the stories of idiosyncratic and difficult men we excuse for their genius; few make us like said man more than Rembrandt.

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