In its inaugural year, 2005, I began writing for the Muriel Awards, a year-end voting collective dedicated to summing up the year’s achievements which features accompanying essays by its members, and I’ve written for them every year since. Six years ago, Muriels creator Paul Clark (the award is named after his beloved guinea pig, and why the hell not?!) initiated the Muriels Hall of Fame, a separate division which is, as Clark puts it, “an attempt to honor the finest achievements in classic cinema.” In order to be considered qualified for Muriel HOF induction, a film must be a minimum of 50 years old, based on the date of release recorded by IMDb, as of the end of the previous calendar year.
Well, the distinguished members of the Muriels Hall of Fame Class of 2018 have been announced. In fact, Clark and the Muriels started announcing them a little over a month ago, on August 11. So, I am only 33 days delinquent in passing along the news, which, given that the oldest among this year’s inductees was first seen 116 years ago, may not be the greatest crime against urgency I could have committed. But still, a month is a month, and I don’t wanna linger no longer.
The cutoff year for the 2018 inductees was 1967, and it so happens that three of this year’s collection of 17 came out in that year, enough for Clark to suggest, in introducing the Muriel HOF picks on Facebook, that 1967 might arguably be the greatest year in movie history, a suggestion which would be, of course, a matter for another debate at another time. But suffice it to say that the 2018 Muriels HOF choices range far beyond a mere 50 years ago; movies from 1963, 1957, 1956, 1948, 1946 (again, three of ‘em), 1942, 1939, 1937, 1933, 1932, 1922 and 1902, all worthy selections, well represent this year’s class.
And, as in years past, each selection is accompanied by a short essay by one of the Muriels voters extolling the virtues of each film, and as in years past it is these pieces that really help make the Muriel Awards stand out, whether it’s the Hall of Fame or the regular year-end features you happen to be reading. Once again, I am honored to have been asked to contribute some words on behalf of one of my choices; a link to that piece, and to all the essays in this year’s Hall of Fame collection can be found below, alongside a little taste of what you’ll get by clicking the link to read the whole megillah. (My favorite this year: Christianne Benedict on King Kong.)
A multitude of thanks to Paul Clark for allowing me to be a part of what is a very enjoyable annual tradition, and to all the contributors who have this year, like in all years since the Muriels began, made the Muriels Hall of Fame a worthy institution in the ongoing commemoration of great classic films.
And now, the Muriels Hall of Fame Class of 2018.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946; William Wyler)
“In somewhat of a departure from most war movies of its time, this one spends its time examining not the conflict itself, what comes after, once the blood has cooled and the body politic returns to a state of equanimity and peace. In its masterstroke of genius, it gives us a clear-eyed and often prophetic look at the symptoms and side-effects of what later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder.” (Donald G. Carder)
Bicycle Thieves (1948; Vittorio De Sica)
“The simplicity of the film’s fable-like story may seem like a concession to mainstream sentimentality (which is true), but it’s also the key to the film’s power and universality. A man, in a recognizable, grounded world, tries to succeed for his family, fails, but survives. Out of this emerges social critique on one level, childhood nightmare on another, and ultimately lasting art.” (Jeff McMahon)
The Big Sleep (1946; Howard Hawks)
“The central mystery is messy, for sure (just ask Schrodinger’s chauffeur), with a lot of the original text’s more lurid and exciting details excised. But it’s okay, the film itself says to the viewer, what Will Hays doesn’t know won’t hurt him, and so we make a deal with the film, and it creates its own way of speaking the unspeakable. In a way, The Big Sleep is a great way to teach straight people about queer subtext, as Martha Vickers’ exquisite performance as troubled sister Carmen is steeped in letting us know that there is much more happening with her than the film is allowed to show or tell. And truthfully, is there anything not made better by the presence of Elisha Cook, Jr.?” (Jason Shawhan)
Cat People (1942; Jacques Tourneur)
“The film’s scenes of Irena stalking her romantic rival after changing into a big cat are justly iconic; cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca sculpts a world of fear out of the delicate shadows. It’s a landmark of expressionistic lighting shot cheap on recycled sets. Its darkest magic, however, is Simon’s performance. The French actress plays Irena as both victim and monster, a tangle of tenderness, vulnerability, guilt, and dysphoria. Disquiet lies across her feline countenance and in the folds of her accent.” (Alice Stoehr)
Freaks (1932; Tod Browning)
“The exploitative fascination with the ‘freaks’ and the chance to gawk at them obviously was a driving factor in the film being made at all (and the ensuing controversy), but alongside the exploitation resides a compassion to imagine a fiction of normalcy and community for them, and a regard for the disabled to be seen. This regard and compassion has seldom been seen since except generally through the prism of big celebrities (able-bodied celebrities) who have feigned disabilities in films designed specifically to inspire general audiences and win awards. This is key to why the only film Jonathan Rosenbaum can compare the poetic Iranian leper colony documentary The House Is Black is Freaks. The mere fact of even allowing certain people to be seen can be considered a radical statement in itself.” (Patrick J. Miller)
Grand Illusion (1937; Jean Renoir)
“Through a combination of authenticity of vision, a perfect script, suitably war-torn settings and a host of fine performances, the director conjures up an image of what might be called the last hurrah of the lost generation. Opposing career officers Von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu, aristocratic enough to speak three languages fluently, meet to discuss the dimming of their society by the war. The German carries on, spinal injuries and metal skull plates and all, to ‘give the illusion of serving my country.’ Is this illusion of patriotism the ‘grand illusion’ of the title, or is it rather the illusion of class divide? Men may be from different classes and nationalities, but they remain men, whether they sing ‘Watch on the Rhine’, ‘La Marseillaise’ or ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.’” (Sam Juliano)
King Kong (1933; Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper)
“Unlike many of its inheritors, King Kong is surprisingly complex. Many films intended for the largest of mass audiences offer every viewer the same experience, like an amusement park ride. But not Kong. By contrast, it is a Rorschach test. The audience gets what it brings to it. Is Carl Denham a hero or a villain? Is the film an admiring allegory for colonialism or is it a critique? Is Kong a lover or a rapist or an allegory for an insecure adolescent suitor? It may be all of these things, or even none of them, depending on where one is in life when watching the film. I once compared Kong’s rampage in New York City to Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, and I was only halfway joking.” (Christianne Benedict)
Night and Fog (1956; Alain Resnais)
“To name all of the unbearably moving subtleties of Night and Fog would be too long for the scope of this piece, but the short’s profound power comes from its perfect union of sound and image. Cayrol’s words, as read with impassive urgency by Michel Bouquet, hold within their matter-of-fact veneer such horror and anguish at this degradation and extermination, one that was driven by a systematic, utterly cold complex of systems. Resnais leaves the viewer with many questions, but he unflinchingly conveys the fundamental contradiction in the normalized conceptions of the Holocaust that persist to this day: it was (and is) at once unimaginable and inevitable.” (Ryan Swen)
Nosferatu (1922; F.W. Murnau)
“The makeup is iconic, but it’s in the body language, in the stiff unfamiliar poses and lurching movements. It is no mistake that whenever anyone takes it into their head to make vampires scary again they so often come back to this design, the bald pate, sunken eyes, hands like jagged claws. Vampirism not as an ascent up the evolutionary chain but a long slide down it, nto the feral waiting arms of our worst hungers and impulses.” (Bryce Wilson)
Out of the Past (1946; Jacques Tourneur)
“Although I couldn’t name a favorite film noir, Out of the Past is nevertheless one of those movies that I would never, ever part with if consigned to the proverbial desert island. When I think of what we mean by the phrase “film noir,” chances are THIS is the film I’m thinking about. It’s got everything encompassed by “noir”: deep and telling shadows, an inescapable past leading to a bitter doom, and the most fatal of femmes fatale. Robert Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey is the very model of a morally compromised noir hero, one who is tangled in the web of a criminal past, one whose easy morals lead him into a downward spiral. The film builds him out of shadows and into shadows he is consigned.” (Christianne Benedict)
Playtime (1967; Jacques Tati)
““In the category of ‘super-expensive personal visions that basically ruined a director’s career,’ Playtime is hard to beat, leading Tati into debt for the rest of his life. And yet, what a glorious folly, a quiet, delicate symphony about the absurdity of everyday urban life that rewards patient observance and attention to tiny details, from the smirk of a waiter to the buzz of a neon light.” (Jeff McMahon)
Point Blank (1967; John Boorman)
“Start watching Point Blank at any point in the movie and you’ll immediately be able to tell that it was made in the latter half of the sixties. It’s the hair, the clothes. It’s the interior decor, full of bright ochres and gaudy mirrors. It’s in what qualifies, apparently, as courtship. At the same time, a good fifty years on, the film feels startlingly modern. The past bleeds into the present, just as sound from one scene will bleed into another. Words are repeated, or sometimes omitted altogether; images are refracted. An escape from Alcatraz is told through elision, using stills that aren’t ever quite entirely still.” (Hedwig van Driel)
Scorpio Rising (1963; Kenneth Anger)
“Anger seems to be suggesting that, on their own, these men can be human, but once they get together, mob mentality overtakes humanity. An hypothesis later evidenced by Anger’s befriending of Bobby Beausoleil, who then joined up with the Manson Family and murdered Gary Hinman. Any zen found in motorcycle maintenance has been traded in for ephemeral pleasures of group terror. The heightened danger is clear in the second half’s song titles as well: “Torture,” “Point of No Return,” and finally “Wipeout.” The final race was filmed the day after the Halloween party. Anger didn’t have a solid ending in mind while making the film, but when one of the bikers crashed, snapped his neck and died right in front of the camera, he found it. (Kevin Cecil)
A Trip to the Moon (1902; Georges Méliès)
“Perhaps the most potent magic of A Trip to the Moon, certainly its greatest legacy for modern viewers, may be how effortlessly it transports the receptive audience back to a state where everything about the medium of motion pictures was new, marvelous, frightening, too much to process rationally. It leaves us in a mode of receptivity to the gorgeous, lunatic whims of its creator, to the true imaginative magic of seeing and believing, that should be the envy of anyone who, after having seen it, decides to try and tell a story on film. To be transported so wholly into the mind and spirit of a filmmaker is a true rarity, and Méliès set the bar very high very early. It’s no wonder that the trajectory of movie history, and its relentless pursuit of ever-greater levels of spectacle, of ‘realism,’ has had most filmmakers hightailing it in the opposite direction from Méliès’ stylistic marvel ever since.” (Dennis Cozzalio)
Wavelength (1967; Michael Snow)
“Wavelength is useful not merely as perhaps the purest example of avant-garde cinema as an instrument of measuring time, but also as the negative image of narrative. It is everything ‘popular’ cinema is not. The story is diffuse and handed out in small doses over the 45 agonizing and beautiful minutes of the movie. It has no beginning or end, it’s simply occurring, like any given passage of our lives. It stares past, in fact, the action that its director has organized. It too means something, but the film is not defined by the action. It is defined by its own action, a reflexive creation measured in the minutes it ticks by and the slow inches and feet it travels (the length of a loft).” (Scout Tayofa)
What’s Opera, Doc? (1957; Charles M. Jones)
“What’s Opera, Doc? is Jones plopping a standard issue Bugs and Elmer cartoon into a more ominous structure, making it the greatest cartoon Warner Bros. ever produced. As his Road Runner cartoons prove, Jones loves to exercise creative discipline, and he’s a stickler for the obstructions he gives himself. So, spoofing Wagner means incorporating the tragedy and magic integral to his plots. This makes Elmer an actual threat rather than simply a comic foil; his ‘sample’ of spear and magic helmet power is far more accurate in its destruction than his usual shotgun marksmanship. ‘Bye!’ Bugs says to us just after the tree he’s standing under gets obliterated by Elmer’s ‘Flying Dutchman’-scored lightning bolts.” (Odie Henderson)
The Wizard of Oz (1939; Victor Fleming)
““Even taking into account the ways that the studio system has changed since the 1930s, The Wizard of Oz is remarkably idiosyncratic for a movie with near-universal appeal. Dark Side of the Rainbow isn’t an entirely ironic juxtaposition – the movie’s Technicolor renderings of Baum’s world and its characters are genuinely trippy, its more hallucinatory moments amplified by the way they nestled into our consciousness when most of us were kids. And, for many of us, the fear it inspired was as indelible as its sense of wonder; the first time I attempted to watch the film, the first time Margaret Hamilton appeared, I promptly ejected the tape and would have no more of it that day.” (Andrew Bemis)
And some Muriels Hall of Fame 2018 Class parting thoughts from curator Paul Clark.