Saturday, November 14, 2020

Favorites of 2020: Movies

Mia Goth as Harriet Smith and Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse in Emma. (2020)

As I wrote in the first post of this series, Favorites of 2020: Books, I haven't been able to turn the collective crisis of our past year to productive use. I spent far less time than I anticipated watching screens for enjoyment, and far more staring at screens for work. So my list of favorite films will be shorter than usual. And as always, the favorites are chosen from movies first seen in the past twelve months, no matter when they were created. In reverse chronological order by year of release:

Emma. (2020), screenplay by Eleanor Catton based on the novel by Jane Austen; directed by Autumn de Wilde.

Invited by a good friend, I saw Emma in a movie theater (remember those?) this spring just before the pandemic shutdown. It is in the deliberately anachronistic style of Jane Austen adaptations that I usually avoid. But director Autumn de Wilde's eye-popping visuals and wide-eyed leading lady Anya Taylor-Joy were perfect for rendering Austen's most irony-filled work. De Wilde's visual style and Taylor-Joy's incredulous stare place invisible quotation marks around every scene, and if period deportment is largely absent, the period costumes and production design are sumptuous (especially as photographed by Christopher Blauvelt). This version won't replace in our affections the 4-hour 2008 BBC adaptation written by Sandy Welch and starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller (see Six months with Jane Austen: Favorite adaptations and final thoughts), but it easily surpasses the mid-90s versions with Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale.

Wild Nights with Emily (2018), written and directed by Madeleine Olnek.

Emily Dickinson wrote twice as many letters to her sister-in-law and next-door neighbor Susan as to any other correspondent, and many were filled with impassioned language ("I shall think of you at sunset, and at sunrise, again; and at noon, and forenoon, and afternoon, and always, and evermore, till this little heart stops beating and is still"). But when her poems and letters were edited for publication, references to Susan were literally erased, cut out or scribbled over.

As I wrote in my full-length post on Emily's letters and poems to Susan Dickinson,

Olnek's film Wild Nights with Emily vividly and at times humorously portrays the intensity of the relationship between Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler). And, quite rightly, Olnek feels free to imagine aspects of the love between her characters that the letters only imply. Her film offers a much-needed corrective to the image of the irascible, ill-mannered, and unrequitedly heterosexual Emily of Terence Davies' recent film A Quiet Passion. In that film Susan (played by Jodhi May) hardly appears, and the deep emotional connection between her and Emily (Cynthia Nixon) is not even hinted at—another "reenactment and recycling" of Susan's historical erasure. Wild Nights is a very welcome, funny, and moving restoration of Susan to the emotional center of Emily's life and work.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), screenplay by Viña Delmar, based on the play by Helen and Nolan Leary; directed by Leo McCarey.

An elderly couple (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) is forced to separate for the first time in their marriage of 50 years when he loses his job and they lose their home. None of their adult children living nearby will take them both in, and it soon becomes apparent that the children and their families are irritated by the parents' presence. It's decided that the mother will be sent to a nursing home, while the father will be packed off across the country to live with another of the children. On the day the father is set to leave, the couple reunites to visit the places where they courted years ago and reminisce about their life together; unspoken between them is the knowledge that it is likely the last time they will ever see one another.

Amazingly, Make Way for Tomorrow was released just six months before the delightful McCarey-directed and Delmar-penned matrimonial comedy The Awful Truth, for which McCarey was given the Academy Award for Best Director. In his acceptance speech he said, "Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture." I'm glad it's a choice we don't have to make. Make Way for Tomorrow became the inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu's great Tokyo Story (1953), but the original is every bit as poignant.

Jewel Robbery (1932), screenplay by Erwin Gelsey, based on the play by Ladislas Fodor; directed by William Dieterle. 

Halfway through Jewel Robbery I had to double-check the credits to make sure that it wasn't directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Like many of Lubitsch's films of the time, Jewel Robbery has a Central European setting (Vienna), a Hungarian source and an operetta-like plot. William Powell plays an Arsène-Lupin-like gentleman thief; when the married-but-bored Baroness Teri (Kay Francis, with her charming lisp and gorgeous gowns) is trapped in a jewelry store during a heist, the sparks (and the risqué dialogue) fly:

Many twists and turns and several hairbreadth escapes ensue before the eyebrow-raising ending. This is the kind of sparkling comedy that Hollywood can't be bothered to make any more, alas: witty, entertaining and breezily executed (the runtime is a mere 68 minutes).

Honorable mention:

Stand-In (1937), written by Gene Towne and Graham Baker based on a story by Clarence Budington Kelland; directed by Tay Garnett.

A comedic take on classic Hollywood, made near the peak of classic Hollywood. Accountant Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard) is sent from New York to find out why Colossal Pictures isn't turning a profit. Guided by a former child star now working as a stand-in (Joan Blondell), he discovers a few reasons: a drunken producer (Humphrey Bogart), an arty and spendthrift director (Alan Mowbray), a pampered and past-her-prime star (Marla Shelton), and a corrupt press agent (Jack Carson). Can Blondell help Howard to salvage the movie (called Sex and Satan), save the studio, redeem Bogart, and recognize her charms? Of course, there can only be a Hollywood ending, but along the way we're treated to gleeful parodies of ruthless studio owners, self-regarding stars, jungle movies, and general Hollywood excess. 

This film was among several enjoyable Joan Blondell features we watched this summer; the others included Blonde Crazy (1931, with James Cagney), Lawyer Man (1932, with William Powell), and Topper Returns (1941, with Roland Young). All are recommendable if you're a Blondell fan; if you're looking for a place to start with her extensive catalog my recommendation would be Gold Diggers of 1933.

Bollywood and beyond: Indian films

This was a year of loss for the Indian film industry; the sad news included the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput (who appeared in PK—an honorable mention in my Favorite films of 2015Shuddh Desi Romance and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!), as well as the deaths of Irrfan Khan (familiar to U.S. viewers from The Lunchbox, and whom I wrote about in Slumdog Millionaire, Dil Kabbadi, and The Puzzle), Rishi Kapoor (star of innumerable films including Bobby, Amar Akbar Anthony, Chandni, Love Aaj Kal, Shuddh Desi Romance, and Kapoor and Sons), and dancer and choreographer Saroj Khan (for whom the Filmfare Award for Best Choreography was instituted, and who won it a record eight times). 

Update 15 November 2020: I have just learned of the death from COVID-19 complications of Soumitra Chatterjee, leading actor in Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), Charulata and Kapurush (The Coward), among many other films; another tragic loss in this terrible year.

Honorable mentions:

This year we rewatched some old favorites (including Vivah, which seems to get more affecting with every viewing) and saw three classic comedies for the first time. While none became a favorite, all deserve honorable mentions:

Andaz Apna Apna (Everyone has their own style, 1994), written and directed by Rajkumar Santoshi.

Two small-time scammers, Amar (Aamir Khan) and Prem (Salman Khan), who'll do anything for money except work, learn that Raveena (Raveena Tandon), the daughter of a rich industrialist, is returning to India with her secretary Karishma (Karisma Kapoor) in order to find a husband. Both Amar and Prem decide that they will woo and win Raveena, and sometimes work with and sometimes against one another to realize their common but mutually exclusive goal.

What made this comedy work for us was its sheer goofiness, which the actors clearly embraced and which just kept building until the farcical climax. There are dream sequences, disguises, false identities, evil twins, fake kidnappings, real kidnappings, a cache of diamonds, and startling appearances by the caped Crime Master Gogo (Shakti Kapoor), in whose lair the final showdown takes place. Silliness reigns supreme, but silliness was exactly what we needed during a long summer of unrelenting stress and sorrow.

Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (We are travelers on the path of love, 1993), story, screenplay and dialogues by Robin Bhatt; directed by Mahesh Bhatt.

The plot is shirt-cardboard flimsy: will Rahul (Aamir Khan) marry runaway bride Vyjayanti (Juhi Chawla; vyjayanti is a flower that garlands Lord Krishna) over the objections of her father? Or will he make a prudent marriage to the wealthy, Westernized Maya (Navneet Nishan; maya means "illusion")? Sealing the deal are the three mischievous but adorable kids Rahul is raising (his sister's), who bring Vyjayanti home, conceal her for as long as they can, and love her as a surrogate mom/big sister; the kids hate Maya, and the feeling is mutual. There are, of course, some complicating subplots, including the manufacture and delivery of a truckload of shirts owed to Maya's father by Rahul's garment factory. With three cute kids added to the jodi of Aamir and Juhi, Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke succeeds mainly on the appeal of its charming cast.

Chupke Chupke (Hush-hush, 1975), screenplay and dialogues by Shakeel Chandra, Gulzar, D.N. Mukherjee, and Biren Tripathy, based on a story by Upendranath Ganguly; directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Comedy can be difficult to translate—literally so in the case of Chupke Chupke, which relies on jokes related to language for much of its humor. Prank-loving botany professor Parimal (Dharmendra), newly married to Sulekha (Sharmila Tagore), learns that his wife's revered brother-in-law Raghavendra (Om Prakash) is unhappy with his driver because he uses slang. So in disguise as "Pyaremohan," Parimal volunteers himself as a driver who speaks only the purest Hindi. Of course, Sulekha's husband has to meet Raghavendra in person at some point, and so Parimal recruits his English-professor friend Sukumar (Amitabh Bachchan) to pretend to be him. Comic misunderstandings abound, especially when Sulekha seems to her family to be overly intimate with their driver, and "Parimal"/Sukumar starts showing a romantic interest in the beautiful Vasudha (Jaya Bachchan). Parimal comes in for some teasing, too: when he sneaks up to Sulekha's room at night, she asks him to continue pretending to be Pyaremohan—that is, she wants him to think that she finds the idea of sleeping with the driver to be more exciting than sleeping with her husband.

There were some language jokes that even I could grasp: one relates to the confusing pronunciation of English with its silent p's and k's; another is a play on the name of one of Parimal's friends, P.K. Shrivastav (both jokes turn on "peekay," Hindi slang for "drunk"). But I couldn't help but feel that as a non-Indian I was missing out on a lot of nuances, and Parimal clearly doesn't know when a joke has been carried too far. A great cast and director and the ever-growing complications of the situation, though, kept me smiling (or groaning) throughout. For another (and more enthusiastic) review of this classic, please see Beth Loves Bollywood.

Next time: Favorites of 2020: Recordings
Last time: Favorites of 2020: Books

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