Pop quiz: A science fiction landmark; a beloved classic rescued from obscurity by public television; two screwball comedies directed by the same Hollywood master 15 years apart; an almost ethereally beautiful western; an apocalyptic sociopolitical parable; a disemboweled silent epic; two gorgeous and epically scaled tales both taking place where politics, social upheaval and romance converge; a nearly unparalleled humanist drama; a hugely influential surrealist fantasy/romance; and two of the greatest horror films ever made– What do all of these films share in common?
Answer: They’re all inductees into the 2019 Muriel Awards Hall of Fame.
The Muriel Awards, a group of critics and writers gathered together by Mssrs. Paul Clark and Steve Carlson some 14 years ago (I have proudly been among their number since the beginning), have been voting on the year’s best since 2006, and since 2013 our august number has been compiling inductees for our own hall of fame. This year the 100th film was inducted, making for a very robust list of must-see movies, all with links to the various pieces that have been written about them over the past five years in the name of Muriel, Mr. Clark’s beloved and long-deceased guinea pig. Muriel’s only requirement– each inductee must be at least 50 years old.
And this year’s inductees are a grand bunch indeed. As I do annually, I’ve again gathered up all the films we ushered in for the class of 2019 and provided links to each of the individual pieces, along with a tantalizing tidbit from each writer’s essay, as an inducement for you, Dear Reader, to follow along and get acquainted with what Muriel thinks are some of the greatest movies in the history of the medium. Especially good, I think, are the pieces submitted by Odie Henderson (Bringing Up Baby), George Wu (Weekend), Sam Juliano (Greed) and Paul Clark himself (The Leopard). But this year the standout among all of them is Christianne Benedict’s eloquent and deeply personal response to the horror masterpiece Eyes Without a Face. It’s a must-read.
So let’s get started with Mr. Clark’s introduction to the Muriel Class of 2019, and then if you keep a-scrollin’ you’ll find those links and tidbits I talked about. Enjoy, and if perchance there’s a movie or two on this list, or on the greater list of all the inductees which you have yet to see, do yourself a favor—stop reading, start seeking out those movies, and watch them as soon as you can. A world of great cinema awaits. And now, on with the show, in alphabetical order:
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946; Jean Cocteau) “The Beast wears glittering fineries, shot by Henri Alékan in inky blacks and luminous whites. His castle is a dreamland of surrealist effects work. Disembodied hands grip candles in its hallways; reversed footage and slow motion render bodies uncanny. The decor, like its master, is achingly vulnerable. Little else in film fantasy is as seductive as Cocteau’s sui generis fairy tale.” (Alice Stoehr)
BRINGING UP BABY (1938; Howard Hawks) “The comedic impulse in Bringing Up Baby frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict, and Hepburn and Grant practically drown in conflict. Much of the humor stems from Grant’s exasperated response to whatever fresh Hell Hepburn tosses at him. Susan Vance is one of Hepburn’s most daring performances—she’s as exhausting and demanding as the slapstick in a Tex Avery cartoon. If viewers aren’t on the screwball level Hawks’ direction demands, Vance can be extremely off-putting, which might explain the original box office numbers. Yet several decades later, Bringing Up Baby has deservedly earned vindication: it appears on multiple AFI lists and has been designated a classic of its genre. In addition to ‘going gay all of a sudden’ thanks to Hepburn’s lingerie, Grant also engages his acrobatic talent for pratfalls and double-takes. Hepburn proves equally adept and limber with the verbal humor scripted by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. Both actors alternate as the straight man in their comedic duo, and their flexibility is just one of the numerous, impressive feats performed by this bonkers contraption of a movie.” (Odie Henderson)
CHILDREN OF PARADISE (1945; Marcel Carne) “The epics by their nature become absorbed into the subconscious. They are part of the artistic world around us for long enough that their influence becomes something elemental, and the legacy supersedes the actual work. But here, not so. To fall under its spell is a phenomenon one never becomes immune to.” (Jason Shawhan)
EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960; George Franju) “Certainly, continental directors spent a fair amount of time and energy making rip-offs of the film in the 1960s. The Spanish exploitation director, Jess Franco parlayed his own rip-off of Eyes Without a Face into a series of films about ‘The Awful Dr. Orloff.’ It borrows the plot and echoes the alternate title, but misses the poetry. It’s the poetry of Eyes Without a Face that lingers long after the bruise of its initial impact has faded. Its later imitators are more rarified (most famously, Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky). But even these are grasping after a phantom, an ineffable otherness that haunts the images in Franju’s film that cannot be replicated.” (Christianne Benedict)
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953; Howard Hawks) “Much has been written by ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,’ the transcendent Monroe number with the star in an iconic pink dress surrounded by suitors under her spell. Many stars have paid homage to this glorious sequence, with Madonna’s clever ‘Material Girl’ video perhaps the most memorable. Equally fun and vibrant is Jane Russell’s hilarious ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?’ which has her playfully delivering sports-punny lyrics about needing some affection while the aforementioned stoic jocks, dressed in nothing but their flesh-colored briefs, perform impressive gymnastics routines around her. Oh, what naughtiness do they get away with here!” (Brian Wilson)
GREED (1924; Erich von Stroheim) “No other film in the history of cinema fills us with such a sense of both awe and loss. Loss because of what the characters go through during the film’s duration, but even more for the loss of the director’s original intention. Greed was butchered like no other film was butchered, and unlike many such films of the modern era, there is no chance of a director’s cut ever emerging. Von Stroheim’s masterpiece was edited down from well over a hundred hours of stock footage to an original length of 8½ hours, from which it was cut to exactly seven for its premiere. When Irving Thalberg insisted he cut it down to a commercial length, Von Stroheim sent it to another artist on the MGM roster, his friend Rex Ingram, whose editor Grant Whytock helped him cut it down to 3¼ hours. Refusing to cut any more, Ingram handed it back, but it was then further cut by June Mathis to 2¼, as it survives to this day. It’s amazing it still stands as a masterpiece.” (Sam Juliano)
IKIRU (1952; Akira Kurosawa) “But the way Kurosawa approaches the dead man fills us with hope all the same. Maybe it’s the feeling deep inside all of us that we’ll be forgotten, or that we’re not living the lives we should. It’s nice to think that one last act might redeem us, but is that really the truth? Kurosawa has the perfect answer for that: the kids laughing and playing in the park Watanabe made possible. Their energy escaping into the air, filling the screen – it’s the breath of life itself.” (Jaime Grijalba)
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946; Frank Capra) “In the face of a lost bank deposit and the possibility of financial ruin, it is spiritual forces and what-ifs that reset Bailey to recall a truth he used to hold sacred: it is through human kindness that life is made worth living, not money. Yet, one cannot ignore that ultimately money does play an integral role in reviving Bailey into seeing his future: individuals touched by Bailey’s caring hand raise high their hard-earned dollars to save the fate of his loan office. Constant selfless acts add to Bailey’s list of reasons to live but, in a scene of original crowd funding, he is upheld through the kindness of others waving the power of the almighty dollar.” (Donna Kozloskie)
THE LEOPARD (1963; Luchino Visconti) “One of the most celebrated period dramas in cinematic history, and for good reason – every set, every prop, every stitch of clothing looks and feels impeccable. What distinguishes Visconti’s film, adapted from a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, from so many other films like it is that the settings and costumes don’t seem glamourous or lush. Indeed, everything feels a little worn, as if one might pick up a random candlestick to find a discolored patch underneath, the tablecloth faded from too much sunlight and dust over the years. This is very much in keeping with the tale the film has to tell, that of an aging Prince in the autumn of his days, on the cusp of outliving the society he’s belonged to since before he was born.” (Paul Clark)
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968; George A. Romero) “It’s a destabilized film for and from a destabilized time, a work of narrative art in which the narrative is a series of shock waves meant to wreck the audience’s sense of expectation. And within those shock waves lies its suffocating sense of dread, the mounting panic that stems from its eventual succumbing to the sense that everything is wrong and nothing will be okay. Cutting through the accumulated detritus around the film to find its core, this is the elemental truth to be found there – Night of the Living Dead works at a level most horror cannot hope to touch because, for any number of reasons relating to the time and place it was made, it posits a future where Nothing Will Be Okay.” (Steve Carlson)
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968; Sergio Leone) “The stationmaster points the way toward the main street where she’ll catch a coach to take her to her new home, and as she and the station workers make their way toward the front door, the camera elevates toward the roof, Morricone’s beautiful music swelling in anticipation. That swelling builds to a perfectly choreographed moment, cresting precisely as Delli Colli’s camera lofts over the station roof to a grandiose wide shot of Jill making her way through the bustling main street and into a new world that will entirely justify the vaulting melancholy of Morricone’s theme. I have not been able to watch this passage as an adult without bursting into tears. When I hear cinephiles (especially young cinephiles) proclaim this moment as one of the greatest in all cinema, I quietly roll my eyes—yes, but how much have they really seen? And then I see the sequence and the movie again and think, if they’re not right, then at least they’re damned close.” (Dennis Cozzalio)
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968; Stanley Kubrick) “Everything about it feels enormous, demanding the biggest screen available. A single edit spans millions of years, suggesting a story about the entire history of the human race, or at least a topic as broad as ‘man’s use of tools.’ Yet it ends intimately, with one man alone inside the vastness of space, of time, of his mind. Maybe. I’m not sure. Luckily you don’t have to be able to follow 2001 to feel it deeply. There doesn’t seem to be a shelf date on the potency of pure cinema.” (Vern)
WEEKEND (1968; Jean-Luc Godard) “The movie is essentially a road trip delving into the hearts of darkness 12 years before Apocalypse Now with Weekend‘s forest dwelling revolutionary cannibals and animal slaughter. The latter portions of the film will divide most viewers as Godard foregrounds political polemics while becoming ever more abstract. The New Wave Godard finally disappears and the radical, militant Godard of his next period emerges. Though Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu’s underrated and far more apolitical Happy End has a few similarities, there’s nothing else in cinema quite like Weekend. It’s Godard’s caustic outburst culminating eight of the most fruitful years by any creative force in film history. (George Wu)
And the wrap-up, (for this year anyway).
The Class of 2020 awaits. See you next year!