Mat Viola

Cinema is my religion, the movie theater my place of worship.

Notes of a Film Fanatic

In the spirit of Mr. Stott’s blog, I have limited my commentary to one sentence per film. Several films include links to longer reviews on my own blog.

  • Sherlock, Jr. (1924) .. Buster Keaton
    Forty-five minutes of pure, unadulterated cinematic joy,Sherlock Jr. has been widely celebrated for its surrealistic exploration of cinematic illusion, notably in the justifiably famous sequence in which Buster enters a movie screen and becomes bewildered by the editing process, but the rest of the picture is equally as impressive, boasting a series of masterly, impeccably timed gags, each one rounded and complete with hugely satisfying payoffs, which will have you smiling appreciatively, laughing hysterically, or staring at the screen in utter amazement wondering how the hell he just did that.

  • The General (1927) .. Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
    Featuring an endlessly inventive string of impeccably executed gags centering around Confederate engine-driver Buster’s indefatigable efforts to retrieve his stolen train (and his girl) from Northern spies, The General employs expressive camerawork, imaginative editing and painterly compositions to expand and enrich Buster’s comic purpose, proving once and for all that Keaton possessed a far greater command of the visual possibilities of the medium than Chaplin.

  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) .. Carl Theodor Dreyer
    Employing a host of cinematic effects intended to create a highly subjective perception of events, notably the uncomfortably tight close-ups and low angle shots of Joan’s looming persecutors, Dreyer’s vivid depiction of the torment to which Joan was subjected during her final hours achieves a staggering sense of immediacy, while Falconetti’s legendary, deeply moving portrayal, which expresses the full range of human emotion, has deservedly placed her in the pantheon of film actresses, despite it being her one and only performance.Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • Man with a Movie Camera (1929) .. Dziga Vertov
    Chronicling a dawn to dusk day-in-the-life of the people of Moscow circa 1929, The Man with a Movie Camera is not only an imaginatively self-reflexive work, which ironically comments on its own making by showing the cameraman shooting it, the editor cutting it and an audience watching it, it also represents the apotheosis of the art of montage whose symphony of images culminates in a rhapsodic crescendo that makes the quick cutting of MTV videos look like models of the long take.

  • The Skeleton Dance (1929) .. Walt Disney
    Featuring imaginative animation by Ub Iwerks and playful music and sound effects by Carl W. Stalling, The Skeleton Dance, whose gleefully morbid sense of humor seems so far removed from the cutesy anthropomorphism typical of later Disney productions that you’d swear a relative of Tim Burton must have been employed in the animation department at the time, is five minutes of lively animated hilarity.

  • M (1931) .. Fritz Lang
    One of the best of the early talkies, M not only benefits from Peter Lorre’s legendary performance as the pudgy, sweaty child killer, whose guilt-ridden speech before an underworld kangaroo court is at once deeply chilling and surprisingly sympathetic, but also from Lang’s creative use of sound and image, such as Lorre’s eerie off-screen whistle while stalking a victim or a mother’s desperate calls to her missing daughter echoing on the soundtrack intercut with poignant shots of the child’s empty spot at the dinner table, leaving us to imagine the gruesome details of her murder.

  • Duck Soup (1933) .. Leo McCarey
    12 billion years ago the universe was born in a cataclysmic explosion, and for eons no life existed in the cosmos until single cell organisms eventually emerged from the primordial soup on one tiny planet in one of the billions of galaxies in the universe, setting in motion millions of years of evolution which ultimately lead to intelligent life on earth, all of which was made a complete mockery with the appearance of the Marx brothers, whose anarchic irreverence toward anything remotely sacrosanct reached its zenith in Duck Soup, a masterful satire of, among other things, war movie heroics in which Harpo’s brilliant pantomiming is perfectly complemented by Chico and Groucho’s sharp verbal wit.

  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935) .. James Whale
    Featuring gothic sets, expressionistic lighting, stylish direction and Franz Waxman’s glorious score, Bride of Frankenstein mixes humor, scares and pathos to astonishing effect, leading to a deliriously staged Grand Guignol climax in which the Bride, that funky corpse with the lightning-streaked hair, breaks the Monster’s decomposed heart with her repulsed “Eeeek!”

  • Swing Time (1936) .. George Stevens
    By the time Fred and Ginger made Swing Time, their sixth romantic musical comedy together in three years, the couple’s natural rapport was honed to perfection, not only in their dancing but also in their unusually affecting romantic interplay, resulting in a hoofing tour de force highlighted by “Waltz in Swing Time,” a joyous ode to budding romance in which the partners ecstatically leap, whirl and spin in celebration of their love, and the equally impressive but altogether more downbeat“ Never Gonna Dance”, a somber requiem for their lost romance in which the anguished former lovers desperately try to recapture the magic of their waltzing.Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • The Wizard of Oz (1939) .. Victor Fleming
    The Wizard of Oz owes its enduring appeal not only to the captivating fantasy world created by its eye-popping Technicolor photography, imaginative set designs, memorable special effects, colorful costumes, catchy songs, and wondrous characters, but also to the film’s reassuring message which teaches us that, like Dorothy, we too can take control of our own destiny and successfully navigate down the yellow brick roads and through the haunted forests and poppy fields of life. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • His Girl Friday (1940) .. Howard Hawks
    This classic screwball comedy, surely the fastest talkie ever made, is less a battle-of-the-sexes between Rosalind Russell’s star newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson and Cary Grant’s conniving newspaper editor Walter Burns - whose deliciously malicious manipulations and put-downs of Hildy’s staid fiancée are among the film’s highlights - than it is a battle-of-the-sexes between Hildy and herself, for Hildy is half woman, half man, or, rather, half “newspaperman”, who talks, types, writes and wisecracks circles around her all-male competition, all while retaining her femininity and sexiness even in her “manly” pin-striped suit.

  • Citizen Kane (1941) .. Orson Welles
    In a film class years ago my professor, after demonstrating some visual parallels in Citizen Kane through an analysis of similar deep focus shots used during crucial events in Kane’s life, simply turned to us students and said, “and that is art”, and I’ve never looked at a film in the same way again.

  • Double Indemnity (1944) .. Billy Wilder
    Powerfully acted, moodily scored and featuring a brilliantly written, endlessly quotable script by Wilder and Raymond Chandler no less, Double Indemnity is the quintessential film noir, depicting a despairing, doom-laden world of greed, lust and betrayal in which a seductive, duplicitous femme fatale, unforgettably played by the sizzlingly sexy Barbara Stanwyck, ensnares and manipulates Fred McMurray’s Walter Neff, a sap whose overpowering sexual obsession for Stanwyck leads him inexorably down a path to murder, betrayal and death.

  • Oliver Twist (1948) .. David Lean
    Lean’s admirably economic direction always places the visuals in the service of the story, ensuring that his remarkable eye is given full expression without ever sacrificing pace, clarity and characterization, while Alec Guinness’s compelling Fagin, who looks as if he sprung directly out of Cruikshank’s original engravings, and Robert Newton’s terrifying Bill Sykes rank among the screen’s most memorable villains, making this is one of the great cinematic adaptations of a literary classic. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) .. Robert Hamer
    Hamer once said about Kind Hearts and Coronets, a witty, literate satire of British manners and murders about a disgruntled castoff of an aristocratic family who murders his way to the dukedom, that he was trying to make a film that was 1) “not noticeably similar to any previously made in the English language” and that 2) “paid no regard whatever to established moral conventions”, and given the utter originality and dark, irreverent wit of the resulting film one would have to conclude he succeeded brilliantly on both counts. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • The Third Man (1949) .. Carol Reed
    Featuring stylish direction, an intelligent script, stunning photography/location shooting, superb performances, notably Orson Welles’ unforgettable turn as despicable villain Harry Lime, and topped off by Anton Karas’ famous zither score,The Third Man is one of those rare productions in which all the elements fortuitously cohered into a seamless masterpiece. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • Gun Crazy (1950) .. Joseph H. Lewis
    It’s love at first shot between the gun crazy lovers Bart and Annie, who meet carnal (not cute) at a trick shot contest in B-movie maestro Lewis’ fast-paced, imaginatively directed, sexually charged lovers-on-the-lam masterpiece, cinema’s greatest expression of amour fou in which the gun-as-phallic-symbol enjoys astonishingly explicit presentation, as Bart is clearly turned on by Annie’s skillful handling of guns as much as she’s turned on by his prodigious gunmanship.

  • Singin' in the Rain (1952) .. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
    Thanks to Comden-Green’s knowing screenplay, which sharply satirizes Hollywood types and hilariously parodies the industry’s awkward transition to sound pictures, Singin’ in the Rain is one of the best movies about movies ever made, whether in the musical genre or not, and when you mix in the musical numbers, most of which are among the genre’s most memorable moments, including, of course, the ebullient title number, the film becomes not only the greatest musical ever made but simply one of the greatest films ever made period.Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • El (1953) .. Luis Buñuel
    Bunuel’s most scathing, wickedly funny attack on the Church,El explores the irrational jealousy of a respectable churchgoer, whose deeply ingrained sexual neuroses, firmly rooted in the repressive practices of the Church, come to the fore soon after his marriage, sparking within him paranoid suspicions of his wife’s unfaithfulness and ultimately compelling him to attempt a ghastly act against her person using a needle and thread, pathological behavior which ironically drives her into the very relationship it was intended to prevent. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) .. Ingmar Bergman
    Decidedly not the sort of film with which Bergman is normally associated, Smiles of a Summer Night is a sophisticated bedroom farce/comedy of manners/satirical romp whose sparkling epigrammatic dialogue bears comparison to Oscar Wilde himself.

  • Sweet Smell of Success (1957) .. Alexander Mackendrick
    Operating within a noir inflected milieu of atmospheric B&W photography and jazzy music, Burt Lancaster’s power-mad Winchellesque gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker reigns supreme in the dog-eat-dog NYC newspaper world, sadistically destroying people with the business end of his pen and delivering devastating verbal daggers at the psyche with the pinpoint accuracy of an master archer shooting a poison arrow through the heart, but his absolute corruption is not fully revealed until he enlists the services of his fawning press agent, Sidney Falco, who’ll do anything to get into his good graces, to frame the boyfriend of J.J.’s sister – the sister for whom J.J. harbors incestuous feelings.

  • Touch of Evil (1958) .. Orson Welles
    Finally given the opportunity to direct with a free reign after being stymied for years by short-sighted studios, Welles delivered a stylistic masterpiece of unparalleled virtuosity whose bizarre camera angles, distorted visual effects, expressionistic lighting and offbeat editing seem to place the film less on the Mexican border than in some nightmarish netherworld populated by sleazy criminals, degenerate weirdoes and corrupt cops wallowing in all manner of perversity in and around dark alleyways, seedy bars and squalid hotels.

  • North by Northwest (1959) .. Alfred Hitchcock
    After the box office failure of Vertigo, Hitchcock regained his commercial eminence with this classic espionage comedy-thriller, a hugely entertaining mix of humor, suspense and romance, featuring a dynamic Bernard Herrmann score, several memorable set-pieces, including the famous crop-dusting scene, Cary Grant’s quintessential innocent-man-in-peril performance and, perhaps above all, Ernest Lehman’s superb, wonderfully complicated screenplay, surely the finest ever written for a Hitchcock film, which is not only loaded with great dialogue but also includes sophisticated themes about the nature of role-playing and the disparity between appearance and reality.

  • Psycho (1960) .. Alfred Hitchcock
    Hitchcock might have been playing the audience like a piano with Psycho, but he was ably supported by Bernard Herrmann, whose ominous, strings-only score, featuring those famous screeching violins, adds immeasurably to the film’s potency, and Anthony Perkins, who stutters and stabs his way to a legendary performance. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • Shoot the Pianist (1960) .. Francois Truffaut
    Balancing playful comedy, moving romance, winking reflexivity and dark existential tragedy within a narrative involving a honky-tonk pianist’s failed efforts to remain emotionally detached from the world, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player deliriously blends genres, styles and tones with the kind of cinematic razzmatazz associated with talented young filmmakers giddily exploring the medium’s rich visual possibilities. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • The Innocents (1961) .. Jack Clayton
    The great Deborah Kerr stars as a sexually repressed governess who comes to believe her young charges are possessed by the spirits of her kinky predecessor and that woman’s S&M lover in this superbly mounted psychological/supernatural thriller, whose teasing ambiguity leaves you wondering to the end whether the chilling specters she sees and the eerie whispers she hears are real or merely the product of her disturbed mind.

  • The Manchurian Candidate (1962) .. John Frankenheimer
    Drawing on then-current fears of McCarthyism, communist infiltration and psychological brainwashing/conditioning, The Manchurian Candidate is both a ripping good yarn and a savvy political thriller which doesn’t really endorse one ideology over another as much as it condemns fanaticism, both Right and Left, while reserving its sympathies for the victims of such extremism, specifically Raymond Shaw, a poor sap pulled back and forth between the left and the right until he’s stretched to the snapping point and finally reduced to a mass of twitches with a rifle in his shaky hands and a McCathyesque demagogue and a Communism mole in his sights.

  • Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) .. Stanley Kubrick
    Like Kubrick’s great Paths of Glory, Strangelove is an equally stinging indictment of the military mind, though here straight drama is replaced by a black comedy in which gung-ho warmongers, paranoid madmen obsessed with “precious bodily fluids”, venal Russkies, humanoid Nazi Doomsday Machine bomb makers, and rodeo cowboy bomber pilots engage in an absurd conflict that can only result in their mutual destruction, concluding appropriately with that yahooing cowboy riding a huge phallic missile to oblivion, a fitting final image of life as we know it and proof that the world will end not with a whimper but with a bang.

  • Repulsion (1965) .. Roman Polanski
    One of the creepiest visions of madness ever put on film,Repulsion stars Catherine Denueve as a deeply disturbed young woman with a serious loathing of men whose distorted perception and disintegrating mental state is reflected in a frightening array of unnerving sound effects and hallucinatory imagery. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) .. Sergio Leone
    Leone’s nihilistic, survival of the richest view of the Wild West reached its peak in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a hugely entertaining picaresque adventure tale whose trio of cunning protagonists move inexorably toward their now-classic survival of the quickest three-way showdown.

  • Persona (1966) .. Ingmar Bergman
    In what may or may not be a series of dreams, hallucinations, fantasies and nightmares, reality and illusion blur spectacularly in Persona, a chilling examination of the mental breakdowns of two women whose separate identities splinter and crack apart only to reassemble themselves into a merged whole, while its theme of spliced personalities/identity crises is brilliantly visualized in haunting close-ups of the women, whose physical resemblance to each other is underscored by their symmetrical positioning within the frame, and whose disorienting states of role confusion find creepy expression in the superimposed melding of their faces.

  • Night of the Living Dead (1968) .. George A. Romero
    Romero’s Night of the Living Dead remains one of the greatest of all horror films, an apocalyptic vision of uncompromising bleakness depicting a nightmarish world in which the human species is literally consuming itself, providing no safe place to run or hide, not even within the bosom of the family, for in this hellish world mere Darwinian dog-eat-dog has horrifyingly transformed into brother-eat-sister, daughter-eat-mommy-and-daddy. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) .. Sergio Leone
    No director took better advantage of the expressive possibilities of cinema than did Sergio Leone, and there’s no better example of his cinematic genius than Once Upon a Time in the West, a beautifully wrought masterpiece on all levels, with an intricately structured screenplay, quotable dialogue, great costuming, superb casting, painterly widescreen compositions, stunning art direction, brilliant editing, an imaginative sound design and, at last and forever, Morricone’s immortal score, which adds immeasurably to the film’s power and helps Leone pull off one breathtaking moment after another, including the operatic final moment of reckoning between Harmonica and Frank, when their mysterious connection to each other is finally revealed through a hypnotic flashback, cued by Harmonica’s “death rattle” and climaxing with an overpowering musical crescendo. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) .. Stanley Kubrick
    Kubrick’s quasi-mystical tale of humankind’s evolution from primitive ape-man to angelic Star-Child inexorably leads to a mind-blowing climax in which the infinitude of space and the consciousness of Man seemingly become indistinguishable.

  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) .. Robert Altman
    Altman’s stated intention in making McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a harsh portrait of pioneering life in the Northwest, was to “destroy all the myths of heroism”, and the result is so thorough a revision of Western movie mythology that the abiding impression one is left with might best be described by an ironic inversion of that famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the facts become legend, print the facts.”

  • The Long Goodbye (1973) .. Robert Altman
    Altman’s revisionist masterpiece places a ‘50s style version of Philip Marlowe within the narcissistic, morally indifferent milieu of ‘70s L.A., an inspired conceit which allows Altman to critique the selfish Me-generation and parody the conventions of the private eye genre while also telling an engrossing mystery story, aided by Elliot Gould’s poignant re-imagining of Marlowe, Leigh Brackett’s clever screenplay, Zsigmond’s constantly tracking, panning, zooming camerawork, and John Williams’ intentionally corny yet oddly haunting title tune, whose theme wittily pops up in the damndest places, including a doorbell!. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • Chinatown (1974) .. Roman Polanski
    Brilliantly realizing Robert Towne’s fascinating screenplay about corruption in the L.A. water department, Polanski fashions a knowing homage to film noir, a thoroughly engrossing mystery tale, and a penetrating examination of personal and political corruption, using color photography every bit as expressively as the light and shadows employed in older B&W noirs, and benefiting from John Huston’s delicious turn as the sinister Noah Cross, whose greedy abuse of the land mirrors his sexual violation of his daughter, and one of Jack Nicholson’s finest portrayals as P.I. Jake Gittes, a man whose attempts to exorcise the ghosts of his past only succeed in creating more for himself.

  • The Godfather: Part II (1974) .. Francis Ford Coppola
    As the film flashes back and forth between Vito’s rise to power at the beginning of the century and Michael’s moral/spiritual downfall in the ‘50s, Coppola crafts a thematically sophisticated, visually stunning and emotionally powerful epic chronicling, among other things, the ruination of the traditions and values of Family, a theme which enables Coppola to transcend the particulars of the gangster genre and give his film universal significance. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • Jaws (1975) .. Steven Spielberg
    Hitchcock once referred to Jaws as “that fish movie”, a comment that might reflect a bit of professional jealousy, for Spielberg struck a collective nerve and preyed on elemental fears, of monsters from the deep rather than the sky, in a way that nobody other than Hitchcock could, a feat accomplished with sharply cut suspense sequences worthy of The Master and a chilling score that featured the most memorable ostinato since those screeching violins from Psycho made us scared to take a shower.

  • Taxi Driver (1976) .. Martin Scorsese
    The definitive study of loneliness, alienation and insanity, Taxi Driver achieves a rare authenticity through disturbing voice over narration that sounds as if were lifted directly out of an actual diary of a crazed loner, grainy location shooting that looks as if the grime of the streets was captured on the very film stock and, above all, De Niro’s frightening portrayal, which digs so deeply to the core of his unbalanced character that he doesn’t seem to be acting the part of Travis Bickle so much as manifesting a deeply disturbed side of himself.

  • Manhattan (1979) .. Woody Allen
    Using beautiful black-and-white widescreen compositions and Gershwin’s gloriously evocative music to capture the essence of his romanticized vision of NYC, Woody crafted a sublime romantic comedy which makes you want to celebrate the things that make life worth living, like Brando, Groucho, the second movement of the Jupiter symphony, Tracy’s face and, yes, Woody Allen movies.

  • Blade Runner (1982) .. Ridley Scott
    Combining striking futuristic “retro-deco” sets, hypnotic electronic music and noirish atmospherics with heady philosophical concerns exploring no less than what it means to be human, Blade Runner is one of the few sci-fi films that rivals 2001: A Space Odyssey in both visual power and intellectual sophistication.

  • Once Upon a Time in America (1984) .. Sergio Leone
    Although the film offers plenty of gangsterish exploits - with shootouts, murders and Prohibition speakeasy parties aplenty - Leone ultimately transcends the gangster genre with an exploration of the unreliability of memory and the ephemeral nature of time through the hazy eyes of his elderly ex-gangster protagonist, Noodles, a man worn and withered by time and suffering crushing guilt, deep regret and a profound sense of disappointment in himself, who looks back on his botched life via a series of inspired time transitions/flashbacks, whose associative links between the past and the present achieve an emotional profundity of Proustian proportions. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • This Is Spinal Tap (1984) .. Rob Reiner
    A spot-on send-up of the sexist lyrics, thundering music, ostentatious stage shows, pseudo-profound philosophizing and internal feuds and breakups of the typical heavy metal band, This is Spinal Tap is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen, featuring inspired improvisational performances by Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher “these go to 11” Guest, who not only created hilarious but credible characterizations but also wrote all the Spinal Tap rocks songs, including such classics as “Big Bottom” and “Sex Farm”.

  • Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) .. Woody Allen
    God and morality are clearly not part of the fabric of reality in Woody Allen’s bold, insightful, thought-provoking masterpiece, the story of which involves an innocent life being snuffed out and sucked into the vacuum of eternity without consequence, leaving the bleak but inescapable conclusion that humankind is blindly flailing away in an amoral and godless universe bereft of cosmic justice, spiritual love or ultimate purpose

  • Miller's Crossing (1990) .. The Coen Brothers
    With its impressively labyrinth plot, memorably stylized dialogue and stunningly violent set-pieces, notably a bloody Tommy gun shootout to the sorrowful strains of “Johnny Boy”,Miller’s Crossing always rivets the attention, but its Gabriel Byrne’s splendid performance as Tom Reagan, a gangster boss’s brainy right-hand man who’s so hell-bent on outsmarting everyone around him that he ultimately outsmarts even himself, which lends the film genuine emotional heft and elevates it to the very top of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre.

  • Happiness (1998) .. Todd Solondz
    Solondz’s powerfully written and acted Happiness, whose unrelenting exploration of the perverse underbelly of suburban life makes American Beauty look like The Brady Bunch, treats as near-farce subjects that most filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch, notably the relationship between a pederast father and his young son, whose heart-to-heart talks, which play like Leave it to Beaver as written by a pedophile, will have you laughing and squirming in your seat at the same time.

  • Election (1999) .. Alexander Payne
    Never mind that the story is set in high school, Election is one the most politically astute films ever made, a sharply written, hilariously irreverent satire of the election process featuring a truly great cast of characters, notably Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, an all-American go-getter whose cute-as-a-button looks, chipper demeanor, and school girlish attire disguise the vindictive, conniving, power-hungry little egomaniac within, traits that help her win the election and pave the way for even higher political office in the future. Notes of a Film Fanatic

  • Mulholland Dr. (2001) .. David Lynch
    Lynch’s mesmerizing film occurs almost entirely in the mind of his dying protagonist, “Betty”, a would-be Hollywood starlet whose final fantasy (re)casts herself as the heroine of a mystery story, the solution to which sadly leads her back to a grim reality of the shattered dreams, broken hearts and lost identities existing beneath the glittery surface of Tinseltown.

  • Spirited Away (2001) .. Hayao Miyazaki
    Brimming with imagination, populated by amazing creatures and as richly animated as anything by Disney, Miyazaki’s enchanting animated tale, one of the few sheer delights of recent cinema, ties an Alice in Wonderland type fantasy to an exciting adventure story, while touchingly celebrating courage, friendship and personal identity.

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