Saturday, 28 August 2010

28. SCHINDLER'S LIST - 1993

When I was ranking these winners, I had some issue deciding where to place ‘Schindler’s List’. The vast majority of these films have some form of enjoyment factor to take into consideration. ‘Schindler’s List’ is not an enjoyable film to watch. It is not a piece of entertainment in the traditional factor. This film is more important than entertaining and therefore in order to place this film I needed to look at how well made I think it is.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is the tale of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party who owns a factory, and uses this to save the lives of thousands of Jewish people in occupied Poland. The film tackles the individual story of this complex character as well as the legacy of the holocaust.

The film swept many of the categories at the Oscars but did not win any of the acting awards, which I think was a massive mistake. Liam Neeson, as Schindler, lost out to Tom Hanks in ‘Philadelphia’ probably my least favourite best actor win, but should have won. What makes is performance so wonderful is that he manages to create a character that is the hero of the story, but who is far from perfect. He uses his position to save thousands of life, but was vain and greedy and a member of the Nazi party, a party responsible for horrific atrocities. As this film is not about entertainment but realism, he does not overact once. Every look, every movement is believable and creates a wonderfully complex character.

Ralph Fiennes is superb as Amon Goeth, sent to Krakow to set up a concentration camp. He plays the part of the Nazi with such conviction, that you thoroughly believe that he is this evil. Truly villainous, but also truly believable, and that is what makes him such a superb actor.

There are other good things to focus on, but I am going to look at the one thing about this film that prevents me from placing it a bit higher. The direction. I am not a fan of Spielberg’s work. For me, all his films are very obvious: he wants to scare, he wants to entertain, he wants to make you cry… whatever his mission is, he pulls out all the stops to get the desired effect. However, he never seems to want to make the viewer think. For the most part, ‘Schindler’s List’ is carried by other things: the acting, the cinematography, the music, but occasionally, I can see that this is a Spielberg film, and it ruins it a little. The worst example of this is the ending when Jewish survivors place stones on Schindler’s grave. I realise that this film is in many ways a tribute to his legacy, but as a viewer we have just watched three hours of his story and the ending cheapens it a little. I think a different director could have done a better job. A more subtle approach to certain elements would have been more effective.

Back to the positive: I have touched on the cinematography in the previous paragraph. It is a beautifully filmed picture. The wonderful use of black and white was a brilliant idea: it shows the gravity of the subject matter whilst still enabling a beautiful experience in other ways. Then the use of colour with the girl in the red coat, enables the film to focus on the individuals involved as well as the overall theme of the holocaust.

In short, ‘Schindler’s List’ is a massively important film. It is not perfect, but includes some of the best acting seen in the past twenty years and balances a serious subject matter with some beautiful elements, and should be watched by all.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

29. YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU - 1938

Frank Capra. In my mind the number one person associated with comedy is this fantastic director. Four years after ‘It Happened One Night’ swept the Oscars, the almost as good ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ earned Capra another best picture award and a third best director award (he also won for ‘Mr Deeds Goes to Town’).

‘You Can’t Take it with You’ is a wonderfully simple tale. Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) is a stenographer, in love with her boss Tony Kirby (James Stewart) who is the son of the company owner. Alice lives with her eccentric family who clash with Tony’s family, not only due to the cultural differences but also because Tony’s father wants to buy the family home for his latest business venture.

This is what Capra specialises in: comedy with a heart. He takes what could be clich├ęd love story about two families clashing and makes it a winner from every angle. The script is wonderfully peppered with glorious lines, a personal favourite is when the grandfather (Lionel Barrymore) explains why he does not pay income tax, and moves the story along at a wild pace.

The cast is, of course, excellent. What works so well is how Jean Arthur and James Stewart play their parts in such a straight manner, whilst there is chaos all around. It is a perfect example of how you do not need to overact to be funny (some unmentionable modern comic actors take note), the smallest glance and motion from these characters is hysterical and utterly charming. James Stewart truly is a wonderful actor: from comedy (‘The Philadelphia Story’) to westerns (‘The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance’) and thrillers (‘Vertigo’) he is one of the best actors ever on film.

The supporting cast have more obvious fun in their comic roles. The Sycamore family are all a little eccentric in their own way and they make the most out of their screen time. This is where Capra’s excellent direction comes in: they do not, at all, ever, act on top of each other, and the effect is remarkable. It enables the film to move at a furious pace without descending into incomprehensible mayhem. The Kirby family are comically snobbish but without ever becoming ridiculous caricatures.

Like all Capra films, this film just makes the viewer feel delightfully warm inside. Maybe it’s not to the average modern viewers taste: it’s very much of its time, but I defy anyone not to watch this film with an open mind and be taken in by this charming love story.

30. THE APARTMENT - 1960

1960 was a brilliant year for film. ‘Psycho’, ‘A bout de souffle’ and ‘La dolce vita’ were all made in this year (also the latter was not honoured by the Academy until the following year), but it was Billy Wilder’s dark tale of love that ended up winning the most coveted award in film.

Jack Lemmon is CC Baxter, a clerk in a large New York insurance film who lets his seniors in the film use his apartment to entertain their mistresses in order to advance his career. His boss Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) promotes Lemmon in return for letting his use his apartment to entertain elevator girl, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Even though Baxter is in love with Kubelik he goes along with the situation until one night he finds Kubelik in his apartment following a suicide attempt and this makes him rethink his position.

Often dubbed as a comedy, ‘The Apartment’ is so much more. It has some wonderful comic moments, but the main theme is so brutally tragic that for me it ranks amongst the best character studies ever put to film.

This film has so many good qualities. The direction is what you could come to expect from the wonderful Billy Wilder. He handles every scene with humour and tragedy linked in such an expert manner that it is impossible not to be drawn into this unconventional love story.

This is one of Jack Lemmon’s best performances. He moves from the competitive career-minded clerk to the lonely man struggling with an extremely difficult decision, and he handles it expertly, changing with each scene. His wit and sensitivity is honed to perfection.

Shirley MacLaine is also stunning in her role as the confused and equally lonely younger girl trying to realise what she wants out of life. There are some wonderful moments between the two: when they play rummy together and she has an epiphany and when she is walked around the apartment to keep her conscious. The Christmas party scene is equally wonderful.

The characters are not perfect people: they have faults, insecurities and problems. In short they are real people in a real situation, and all the characters are handled perfectly. ‘The Apartment’ should be watched by anyone wanting to see a film that blends humour and sorrow together expertly. It may not have been my personal choice for the best film of 1960, but it is certainly a worthy winner in an extremely strong year.