Nov 262018

william-holdenWilliam Holden’s big break came playing a dim young boxer/violinist in Golden Boy, and outside of Barbara Stanwyck, the film is best forgotten. He was as unimpressed by his following string of pretty-boy roles as I am. Everything changed after his return from WWII and Billy Wilder picked him for Sunset Blvd. Time had given his face character and experience had honed his craft. Hard, cynical, broken men became his stock-in-trade and few have done it better. A wild life and excessive alcohol consumption drew those character lines deeper into his face and eventually killed him, but along the way, he became one of the biggest stars of the ‘50s and starred in multiple masterpieces.

An honorable mention for The Towering Inferno, which isn’t a great film, but is fun, and is exactly what it should be.

His best films, starting at #8:

8 – The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) — A well-shot, well-acted action film threaded with an examination of obsession and order—both parts works well, though the whole isn’t the grand statement it would like to be. (It’s also thought of as insulting—for multiple reasons—by the real prisoners who were forced into slave-labor.) Holden plays a POW-escapee who returns to blow up the bridge whose construction is being overseen by a British prisoner played by Alec Guinness, and delivers a great performance (if judged purely on Holden’s performance, this would sit several notches higher). The ending rips apart Guinness’s character for no good reason (in the book, he does not suddenly throw off his insanity and realize his mistake) and that drags the film down substantially, but there’s lot of good here.

7 – The Country Girl (1954) — One of the string of behind-the-scenes-in-theater/movies dramas that popped up in the 1950s (and too often starred Holden—Forever Female being a lesser one while a greater one sits higher on this list). It’s the acting that rules here, mainly that of Grace Kelly who pick up a much deserved best actress Oscar. Bing Crosby is good as a drunken washed-up singer, and Holden is at home as the misogynist director who means well, but this is Kelly’s film as the abused wife. The story doesn’t live up to the performances.

6 – The Wild Bunch (1969) — A pivotal film in the evolution of its genre; it was the beginning of the bloody, nihilistic western. Holden’s real-life hard drinking ways had caught up with him, and he looked his age plus a decade, making him the right star to symbolize the end of an era.

5 – The Moon Is Blue (1953) — A romantic comedy of words. Holden is fine, but his work isn’t what got this on this list. The production code-breaking script has a good deal to do with it (it was thought very edgy for the time), but a bigger factor is co-star David Niven. He has the juicier part as the father of Holden’s ex who takes an interest in his new flame, and he runs with it. It is often said to be Niven’s best performance. As a whole this is a smart, fun film that gets too conventional in the end.

4 – Stalag 17 (1953) — I really don’t know how Wilder pulled this off. No one else could have. It’s a dark prisoner-of-war film where the Nazis are taken quite seriously and yet it bounces into pure comedy, before bouncing back into drama. William Holden, in one of three great films he made with Wilder, plays a selfish, cynical hustler who deals with the Germans… And he’s the hero. He won the Oscar for his performance, and he deserved to. [Also on the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]

3 – Sabrina (1954) — Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn), the chauffeur’s daughter, has a crush on David (William Holden), the playboy of the house. When time abroad turns her into a suitable target for his shallow affections, older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) sees trouble and tries to break things up. Hepburn is an obvious choice for a romantic comedy, but Bogart? But it works. [Also on the Great Actors Lists for Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn and on the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]

2 – Network (1976) — Has any film said more about our times? Dark as a Noir, yet funny, Network is a satire, though author Paddy Chayefsky claims it isn’t because it is reality. Holden puts in a great performance as the last of a dying breed of media men, but was beaten to the Oscar by co-star Peter Finch who yelled, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” The astonishing thing about Holden’s career is that this magnificent film doesn’t end up at #1

1 – Sunset Blvd. (1950)Sunset Blvd. takes on the film world, which it loves and loathes simultaneously, showing how it uses up people. It’s a dark twisted comedy that sees life through a funhouse mirror. It has amazing performances and Wilder’s most interesting cinematography; it is one of the great Noirs. [Also on the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]


Back to all Best Films By The Great Actors Lists

Nov 162018

Mark-SandrichSandrich didn’t have the time to create a great number of master works as he died at 44 from a heart attack generally attributed to overwork. And he was stuck with the likes of the unfunny vaudeville-like team of Wheeler and Woolsey for several films. But in his brief career, Sandrich made his mark. His best films came in collaboration with Fred Astaire. Sandrich knew how to film a dance, and when to stay out of a dancer’s way. That may have been his great skill: to not get in the way of the story. No other director made as many great musicals. Who knows what he might have done with another twenty years.

An honorable mention to Follow the Fleet (1936). The film as a whole doesn’t work, but the dance for Let’s Face the Music and Dance is one of the greatest in cinema history. And another for Carefree (1938), a screwball comedy that includes the classic dance number Change Partners.

#8 – So Proudly We Hail! (1943) — A propaganda piece on wartime nurses that’s low on glory and high on “we’re all in this together.” It’s two hours of death, suffering, explosions, and endurance. It’s too long and has some tonal problems (I’m not sure Paulette Goddard belonged in a serious picture), but Claudette Colbert is solid, Veronica Lake is spectacular, and the emotions are real.

#7 – Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men (1933) — A pre-code romantic comedy where a lower-class beauty who falls for brutes ends up with a wimpy rich guy and sets out to change him. Things do not go where you’d expect.

#6 – Love Thy Neighbor (1940) — An expansion of the Jack Benny radio show onto the screen, complete with the bit where he is having a feud with fellow radio comedian Fred Allen. While only for fans of the radio shows (there were a lot of those in 1940), if you are one, this is a good time, with decent music (sung by Mary Martin) and great bits by the two stars and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.

#5 – Melody Cruise (1933) — While I applauded Sandrich’s ability to stay out of the way, half the fun of this film is his directing flourishes. The film is stuffed with innovated shots, unexpected angles, playful transitions, and unusual use of music. As a pre-code sex farce, almost nothing could have been filmed a year later (particularly the two lingerie-clad girls, known for taking their clothing off when drunk, stuck in a man’s stateroom).

#4 – Shall We Dance (1937) — An Astaire/Rogers musical, the 4th directed by Sandrich. I find this to be the funniest of the pair’s films, with Astaire playing a jazz dancer whose made it in ballet so must put on a persona of an arrogant Russian. The songs are solid, with “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” the standout. [Also on the Best Actors lists for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers]

#3 – Holiday Inn (1942) — Sandrich’s 6th collaboration with Astaire. This is a perfect holiday movie for pretty much every holiday as it has songs for New Years, Valentine’s Day, Easter, the 4th of July, and Washington’s Birthday. It also includes the song “White Christmas” and it was from this film’s re-recorded sound track that it became a hit. (Full Review) [Also on the Best Actors lists for Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby]

#2 – The Gay Divorcee (1934) — The 2nd Astaire/Rogers film, and the first with them as leads, this one has Rogers attempting to get a divorce from her absent husband and mistaking Astaire as the gigolo she planned to use for cause. Horton and Blore appear again. [Also on the Best Actors lists for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers]

#1 – Top Hat (1935) — The 4th Astaire/Rogers picture and they’d perfected the routine, with Sandrich showing his mastery of the look of the film while leaving the dance routine’s in the hands of Astaire and Hermes Pan. The jokes are solid and the fantasy world of shining marble is wondrous. Rogers falls for a very forward Astaire until she incorrectly deduces that he’s the husband of her good friend. Horton, Blore, and Helen Broderick add to the comedy. [Also on the Best Actors lists for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers]

Nov 092018

Nothing is creepier than Asian horror. Well, sometimes.

Asian Horror isn’t a genre nor sub-genre, so it has no defining qualities, besides being made in Asia. It is made up of multiple genres and movements. I’m not just including the J-Horror films with their long haired ghosts, contortionists, and cursed electronics, nor just adding K-Horror (and #-Horror), but also the stylized Japanese horror flicks of the ’50s and before, the Kaidan movies of the 1960s, and Hong Kong action-horror. Most anything that can be called horror and was made in Asia. The exception is that I’m not counting daikaiju (that’s giant monsters for those not into fan terminology; those get their own list). For my reviews of films that fit under the umbrella of Asian Horror, look here.

My ten films span 5 countries and at least 4 cinematic movements. Starting with #10:


#10: The Ghost {aka Ryeong} (2004)

From Korea, The Ghost, also known as Dead Friend, is the perfect 10th place film as it isn’t original, but encapsulates the J/K-Horror movement. There’s a long haired ghost connected to water, old school friends getting murdered, and an amnesic girl who needs to find out why. It has enough twists and tension to satisfy horror buffs and enough clues and complications for mystery enthusiasts, but really wins on character. J/K-Horror is often weak on character development, but here we really get to know the heroine. If someone asked me what J-Horror was, I’d say watch this. (My review)



#9: Bloody Parrot (1981)

We move to Hong Kong and a wildly different type of movie. A master swordsman under suspicion of robbing the Emperor tries to uncover the real thieves, and the path leads him to a weird town filled with secrets. This is a Shaw Brothers martial arts film, that also happens to have demons, gore, spells, a vampire, and nudity. It’s definitely horror, but it is aiming for fun. The colors are psychedelic and the fights are energetic and well choreographed. It has a few more flaws than the other entries on this list, but I give it an extra point or two for being unlike those film. When you’ve had enough long-haired ghosts, or are a wuxia fan, this is your film.



#8: Pulse {aka Kairo} (2001)

Pulse appears to be a Ringu clone, with a computer disk standing in for the tape, until it isn’t and everything we thought turns out to be either wrong or inconsequential. Pulse is an art-house discourse on existentialism, with J-horror trappings. If that’s what you are looking for, you are going to be in heaven. If you wanted a sensible horror film, you will be less pleased. It’s an easy film to rip apart, and yet still be in awe of. It sticks with me, and is arguably the most meaningful work on this list. There’s an American remake, that tried to make sense of it, correcting the “flaws” by supplying answers, except the original wasn’t going for answers. (My Review)



#7: Shutter (2004)

Thailand’s swing at joining the J/K-Horror movement, and they hit it out of the park. A photographer and his girlfriend hit a young woman on the road one night, and after appear to be haunted by a ghost. Our heroine assumes it is the ghost of the girl they hit, but the story is thicker than that, and the answer is in the photographs. This one rips at you in the final act. A huge hit in Thailand and a string of smaller countries, Shutter has been remade 3 times; the American remake oddly is set in Japan and has a prominent J-Horror director at the helm.



#6: The Maid (2005)

An innocent Filipino takes a job as a maid in Singapore, and not knowing the rules, apparently offends the ghosts that all the locals believe walk the streets in the 7th month.  Soon, she is seeing ghosts everywhere and needs to figure out what they want. The Maid was Singapore’s first horror film and they got it right the first time. The acting is flawless, the characters are involving, the culture is fascinating, and the story is one of the strongest among “recent” ghost movies, It’s also the most accessible Asian horror film for Americas as the main character is no more familiar with Singapore than the average Westerner, so we can learn as she does. (My review)



#5: Ju-On 1&2 (2000)

Ju-On is one of the two foundational films of the J-Horror movement. Which Ju-On? Things get complicated. In 1998, director Takashi Shimizu created two very short segments for the anthology film School Ghost Stories Great. In 2000 he expanded these into Ju-On, and its sequel Ju-On 2, which were made for TV/home video, and are sometimes known as Ju-On: The Curse 1 & 2, but generally not.  Ju-On 2 repeats close to 30 minutes of the first film (taken from the beginning and the end) and is not a sequel but a seamless continuation making one film. The films were such a success that theatrical versions were made—not exactly remakes, but not exactly sequels either.  These films were called Ju-On and Ju-On 2 as well.  In the West they sometimes are called Ju-On: The Grudge and other times a suffix is added that’s a Japanese word meaning “theatrical.”  Then a semi-American version was made, just titled The Grudge, and still set in Japan and still with Shimizu directing, but with White Actors taking the lead roles. This is a semi-remake, semi-sequel, incorporating pieces in the previous versions. It is the original home video version I’m ranking here. It is as creepy as horror gets, with a sense of utter hopelessness. (My review)



#4: Onibaba (1964)

Coming out of the kaidan horror movement, but dropping the Kabuki theater remnants in favor of a hyped-up realism, Onibaba feels like a poem put on film. Based on a fable, but then twisted out of its religious basis to make a very different statement, Onibaba spends most of its time with a woman and her daughter-in-law who murder weakened samurai on their way home from war in order to sell their weapons and armor for food. If that sounds dark, you’re on the right track. Japan is depicted as a hellhole where survival is difficult in the moment and unlikely longer term. The duo’s murders are depicted less as evil and more as basic reality. The greater evil seems to be the older woman’s desire to deprive the younger of a bit of pleasure (as life only has bits). The supernatural aspect comes toward the end, but it is up to the viewer to decide if that is where the horror lies, or in the basic savage existence of the characters.



#3: Ringu (1998)

And this is the other foundational film of J-Horror, giving us a cursed piece of technology (a video tape) and a long-haired ghost performed by a contortionist, and the result is unsettling. Ringu is exciting, frightening, and very clever. It works so well because it is, for most of its runtime, the standard ghost story: Several heroes who have nothing to do with the cause of the haunting find themselves in a haunted situation and investigate the tragic event behind the haunting; when they find the answer, they confront the ghost, at which point it vanishes or it becomes clear the ghost will always be there and attempt to leave themselves. Almost every ghost story follows this pattern, with the best ones simply doing a better job of it. Ringu does an excellent job, until near the end, when it turns the tables and reveals it is something different. The American remake, starring Naomi Watts, is even smarter, replacing psychic readings with detective work. (My review)



#2: A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

A naïve tax collected ends up in a haunted temple in a haunted woods, where he is seduced by a ravishing and adorable ghost (played by the ravishing and adorable Joey Wang) who is under the command of a evil demon. This Hong Kong thriller is like The Evil Dead merged with a martial arts film and then merged with a romance, and it’s a joy from beginning to end. It generated two sequels, a remake, an animated version, and a whole series of fantasy films, but nothing could touch the original.



#1: Kwaidan (1962)

A three hour, four part anthology film, it is unsurprisingly part of the Kaidan tradition (the translated film title usually gets the “w” while the movement does not). Each story is a period ghost drama, mostly fables where the evil or foolish are punished for their lies or jealousy or cruelty. It could easy be performed on stage instead of on film, providing that the stage was ridiculously gorgeous. Reality is not the goal, but beauty is at least one of several. It’s mesmerizing, which at three hours, it needs to be.