A friend of mine recently tweeted that a girl he worked with said she didn't watch any movies that came out before 2001 because before then they were all boring. It got my blood up, to say the least. So, while everyone has their attention fixed on cinema because of the Academy Awards, there are some classic Blu-ray releases I'd love to kindle (or rekindle) interest in. My hope is that I can turn some people like that onto some movies that they can enjoy that are in that "vast wasteland" of "boring" pre-2000 cinema.
With Midnight in Paris nominated for the Best Picture award this year, it's as good an excuse as any to revisit two of Woody Allen's best films: Annie Hall and Manhattan. Annie Hall (which narrowly beat Star Wars for the Best Picture trophy in 1977) is hailed as a classic and rightfully so. It was really the first film to define what Woody Allen would become and redefine filmmaking for a generation.
The acting from Woody Allen and Diane Keaton is charming, though Tony Roberts steals every scene he's in. As high of regard as Annie Hall is held in, though, I think it was really just a stepping stone to his true masterpiece, Manhattan.
Manhattan tells the story of Issac, a guy dating a girl in high school, who's set up with the mistress of his best friend. Shot in black and white (which looks stunning in Blu-ray) by Gordon Willis, it was, to me, the peak of Allen's ability in the 70s. It's much more mature and, dare I say, hilarious than Annie Hall and might just be my favorite of any of his films. There's an elegance to it that is easy to go unnoticed because of the sharpness of the comedy and the writing.
I really do feel like Woody Allen is an underrated filmmaker across the board. Even the least among his films has something to latch on to and like and learn from. He's an erudite student of people and does his best to bring out the silent moments of vulnerability we have in our heads and play them out on screen.
In some ways, I feel like he's a philosopher of the highest order and his movies are as relevant to our scholarly discourse as Plato's "Republic."
Another filmmaker who seems as though he doesn't get enough attention or love is Alfred Hitchcock. Every time I've been to the theatre in the last year or two to catch limited releases of Hitchcock classics the audience was pretty much just me. Talking to people about his films, they rarely know anything outside Psycho and The Birds. Why those two? Your guess is as good as mine.
But two of his best films from the 40s got released on Blu-ray and they're two of my favorites.
First is Notorious (which was remade beautifully into a Star Wars adventure on The Clone Wars), starring Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and Claude Rains. Like any Hitchcock film it's tense and thrilling, but I wonder how many people remember just how nerve-wracking this particular film is. Bergman is playing the daughter of a well-known but deceased Nazi and she is recruited by the Cary Grant, an American intelligence agent, to spy on some of her father's old friends. The problem is, she and Grant fall in love, but the assignment calls for her to marry a Nazi to get information that could save the world. It's thrilling AND full of jealousy in a way that only Bergman and Grant could deliver.
People usually think of Cary Grant as a pretty face, but I truly think Notorious is proof that he was so much more than that. In this film he's such a striking presence, uneasy, holding all of the jealousy down below the surface, letting you watch it turn his insides into knots.
This wasn't the only film Ingrid Bergman knocked her performance out of the park for Hitchcock either. The other film out on Blu-ray is Spellbound.
In it, she stars as a psychiatrist who gets entangled with Gregory Peck who isn't exactly who he says he is. It was one of four movies Alfred Hitchcock made for David O. Selznick and it too seems to have been forgotten under the weight of his later films. It has some fascinating photography and features one of the most bizarre sequences ever committed to film, designed by Salvador Dali himself.
The last movie I want to chide you to check out is Billy Wilder's The Apartment. It won Best Picture in 1960 and was the last black and white film until Schindler's List to pick up that award. I consider it the second best romantic comedy of all time, right after Chaplin's City Lights.
Some might (and have) argue that it might be a tad too depressing to be a romantic comedy, but what else can you call it? It's a romance and it's funny. The drama is compelling, but almost incidental.
If you've seen The Apartment already, it's worth revisiting. The script is so carefully constructed that it gets better upon repeated viewings. And, somehow, Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine actually get more charming the more often it's viewed. Again, like all the other films, as revered as they are, they don't get half the respect they deserve.
I hope some of the anti-classics crowd take it upon themselves to check out some of these movies. I guarantee their lives would be better for it. And we'll have won a major victory against ignorance of classic cinema and amazing art.