Ken Jennings is the all-time winningest champion in the history of the quiz show Jeopardy!, having won $2.5 million during his seventy-five-game streak in 2004. He is the author of eleven books, including the best-selling Brainiac, Maphead, and Because I Said So!
If you’re only going to make one movie in your lifetime, like actor Charles Laughton did with this creepy Southern Gothic fable in 1955, why not make the best movie ever? And it’s also a Christmas movie! Someday I’m going to put this on instead of Elf and blow my kids’ minds.
Really, this is a stand-in for all the gonzo Technicolor masterpieces made in the forties and fifties by the Archers, the British filmmaking partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus are better known, but this elegiac look back at forty years of British indomitability and decorum, embodied by the stuffy title character, may be their best film. It also somehow has better age makeup than any movie made in the next fifty years.
Most movies that look like they were “fun to make” turn out to be terrible. I imagine it was a blast backstage to be on the set of those Sinatra Rat Pack movies, but the audience sure doesn’t get to enjoy that. The sheer infectious glee of A Hard Day’s Night, on the other hand, actually gets across what it must have been like to be the Beatles in 1964. Since I was ten years old, I’ve probably watched this movie once a year. (And I never liked Help! better, not even at ten, which is how I know I’m a good person.)
This sprawling family drama is so specific to its time and place (middle-class Taipei at the turn of the millennium) that it’s a wonder how timeless and universal it feels even to someone who knows literally nothing about middle-class Taipei at the turn of the millennium (me). Edward Yang died of cancer in 2007, so this is all we get, which doesn’t seem fair at all.
Or any Preston Sturges movie, really. Several of them feature Joel McCrea being cranky, and there’s even another one that also has Rudy Vallee with a pince-nez (Unfaithfully Yours) . . . but only The Palm Beach Story has Claudette Colbert raising the blood pressure of the Wienie King. Other Sturges movies only aspire to the off-the-rails insanity that this movie achieves in its first and last thirty seconds.
Before I watched this snow-drifted medieval fever dream, I’d never even heard of it or its director. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. When it was finished, I immediately got my wife into the room (“You’ve got to see this”) and watched the whole thing over. That’s one of the few times in my life I’ve ever done the same-movie-back-to-back thing.
John Ford redeems himself from having created John Wayne by giving us the real ideal of American masculine cool, and it’s a freshly barbered Henry Fonda leaning back in his chair in front of the Tombstone sheriff’s office on a Sunday morning, watching townsfolk walk to church, wondering what he’ll do with the day. He idly pushes off against the wooden porch pillar with his left boot, then his right. He smells like desert flowers.
For many years, I didn’t even like Jacques Tati’s comedy-without-laughs about absurd modern urbanity, because this is a great movie that becomes a bad movie on the small screen. Get the Criterion Blu-Ray and watch it on the biggest screen you can find. The entire frame is the city; something is happening in every corner of it. Or will. Wait for it.
“It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.”
“No. It’s awful.”
Little-known fact: Ingmar Bergman edited this together from several episodes of his Swedish reality-show hit The Real Housewives of Södermanland. Four women in monochromatic clothes are forced to live together in a country mansion. They hate each other. One has cancer; no one can leave. The walls are bilious scarlet. It’s clear that the mansion is nothing less than the menstrual-blood-stained interior of the human soul. No one speaks. We are all dying. We are all each other’s cancer. Amazing that this ran for seventeen years on Sveriges Television.