Tuesday, February 23, 2010

1946: The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)

1946: The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)
This might have to go down as the most stellar year in the history of cinema.  So how offensive of me to put William Wyler, the somewhat unrecognized auteur, at the top of the list.  Please, I promise my intention is not to offend, only to represent my favorite film of the year.  

Wyler made a slew of films in his career, and I've probably seen less than 20% of them, certainly not enough yet to determine whether he's been undervalued by film history.  I feel comfortable saying this though  -- Wyler sat a little more in the backseat of most of his films.  He preferred an invisible style rather than something more evident for the auteurists to latch onto and recognize.  

When I think about The Best Years of Our Lives, what I think I respond to most is the honesty of the storytelling and a certain realism that it strives for, thematically, emotionally, and formally.  There's also a special fluidness to the way that Wyler allows all of it to unfold.  It's fairly epic (at 172 minutes), but everyone is so well-drawn, and the story so well-written, that it all goes down quite easily for me.  

The film is one of these ultra-rare, incredibly well-balanced works where everything is there and seems possible -- heaviness/lightness, exploration/entertainment, universal/personal, and reality/escape.  I watch it and can't help but feel that it doesn't get much better than this.

Other contenders for 1946: What a year this was!  There aren't that many major titles I've yet to see, but there are a few:  Jean Cocteau's La belle et la bete, Kenji Mizoguchi's Five Women Around Utamaro, Michael Powell's A Matter of Life and Death, Raoul Walsh's The Man I Love, David Lean's Great Expectations, Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown, and Lewis Milestone's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  Then, there is a special section this year of films that I have seen that I need to revisit at some point, as none of them had as great an impact as I would have expected.  These are:  Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, Roberto Rossellini's Paisa, Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine, and Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.  This year I also have more runner-ups than in any other year so far.  It's definitely not top-tier for him, but I really like Orson Welles' The Stranger.  Also not among my absolute favorites for each director but ones I really enjoy are Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep and Jean Renoir's The Diary of a Chambermaid.  John Ford's My Darling Clementine, on the other hand, is one of my favorite Ford films.  Charles Vidor's Gilda is among my favorite noir films.  And, Robert Siodmak had a banner year, directing my two closest runners-up: The Spiral Staircase and The Killers.  

10/10/10 I watched David Lean's Great Expectations.  A wonderful adaptation of a celebrated novel, Lean keeps things moving, depthful but entertaining, heartfelt with moments of relief and whimsy. Extraordinary acting with Lean's fantastic eye keeping it all interesting, I really enjoyed this one.  

10/10/10 I watched Jean Cocteau's La belle et la bete.  Cocteau, like James Whale before him, really brings great humanity to the monster and allows us to care deeply for him.  Cocteau also employs slow-motion in an incredibly magical way and shows off his unique sensibility throughout.  

10/13/10 I watched Michael Powell's A Matter of Life and Death.  It's a film I believe everyone needs to see.  It's incredibly ambitious and beautifully achieved, although perhaps not as warm emotionally as Powell/Pressburger might have hoped.   But it's a technical marvel and something to greatly admire.  

10/15/10 I watched Lewis Milestone's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  It's a prototypical noir with many interesting elements, including performances from Stanwyck, Douglas, and Heflin.  Rozsa's score is overbearing at times and not all the plot elements click as strongly as they could, but it's still a film that deserves a bigger reputation.

12/10/11 I watched Jacques Tourneur's Canyon Passage.  I have to thank the great Peter Lenihan for placing this gem on my radar.  And what a tremendous western it is.  The first thing that jumps out is how contemporary it feels.  It has the modern psychological complexity of the Anthony Mann westerns, and already in 1946, feels as though it's tearing the genre apart, with a most incisive analytical eye.  But it's not cold and clinical like the Mann films.  Tourneur's camera's always moving, and there's a tremendous vitality and feel for real-life in every single shot.  It brings to mind another Tourneur favorite of mine, Stars in My Crown, in its acute ability to capture early American group and community, and makes yet another extraordinarily strong argument for Tourneur's deserved place in the highest of all cinematic pantheons.  

1/21/12 I watched Jack Bernhard's Decoy.  A tough, sick and unafraid Monogram noir.  One of, if not, the strongest of all the Monogram pics I've seen.

7/22/12 I watched Joseph Mankiewicz's Somewhere in the Night.  Twisty entry into the amnesiac noir genre from the great director.  Some nice one-liners but fairly pat in terms of style or interest.

10/21/12 I watched Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine.  Has its moments of greatness, although for me not up there with the very best ne0-realist works nor the best of De Sica.  The filmmaking is quite exquisite even when the storytelling a bit fatty and unfocused.  

12/22/13 I watched Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.  I had not seen the film in almost twenty years and had no real memory of it.  What struck me first is just how well made it is - brilliantly plotted, masterfully cast and performed, and of course emotionally affecting of the highest order.  Sure it is manipulative and sure it is very much a Hollywood film.  But it is also very human and universal and as a result very life-affirming.  If only Hollywood still had this much talent behind their films and this much desire to connect rather than escape, for all these years our cinema would have continued as the most powerful and important artform the world over.  

2/6/18 I watched Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown.  Watching the film is yet another reminder of the infusion of great skill and sophistication that Hollywood experienced in the forties and fifties.  The craft, perspective and sensibility brought to the States by the dozens of European craftsmen advanced the form in ways the country never again achieved by way of outside influence.  What is most remarkable is Lubitsch's timing and the way he achieves profound emotional moments without leaning on music whatsoever.  The film in fact is almost entirely devoid of a score.  Somehow I missed this one in my original exploration of Lubitsch's work but I think it ranks up there with the very best of his extraordinary films.  

10/7/21 I watched Douglas Sirk's A Scandal in Paris.  Sirk's special gifts for light, poetry, inventive framing are periodically on display in this period noir.  But for me it does not compare to Written on the Wind or some of his other towering work.


  1. My #1 Film of 1946:

    It's A Wonderful Life (Capra)


    Shoeshine (De Sica; Italy)
    La Belle et la Bete (Cocteau; France)
    Great Expectations (Lean; UK)
    A Matter of Life and Death (Powell/Pressburger;UK)
    Five Women Around Utamaro (Mizoguchi; Japan)
    Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (Eisenstein; Russia)
    My Darling Clementine (Ford)
    Notorious (Hitchcock)
    The Spiral Staircase (Siodmak)
    Panique (Duvuvier)
    The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Milestone)
    No Regrets For Our Youth (Kurosawa)
    The Big Sleep (Hawks)
    Voyage Surprise (Prevert; France)
    The Yearling (Brown)
    The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett)
    The Killers (Siodmak)
    The Stranger (Welles)

    The Italian SHOESHINE and the French LA BELE ET LA BETE make a very strong bid for the top position in this admittedly tremendous year, while both A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and David Lean's GREAT EXPECTATIONS are on the same level of greatness. There are days when I want to put GREAT EXPECTATIONS on top. My absolute favorite P & P though, is BLACK NARCISSUS, but MATTER is a masterpieces as well.

    IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is much more than a holiday film, it challenges THE WIZARD OF OZ as the most beloved of all American films, and it's Capra's greatest film of all. It's immense popularity over the last three decades should not be taken for granted, it is every bit as deserving of its reputation and accolades, and timeless in its implications.

    SHOESHINE is a shattering neo-realist masterwork, LA BELE ET LA BETE is one of the most beautiful and beloved films in all of French cinema, and the Charles Dickens-David Lean collaboration is one of the glories of British cinema.

    My favorite Siodmak of the year is THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, though I do also like THE KILLERS. The Hitchcock, Ford, Mizoguchi, Eisenstein, Hawks and others here are first-rate classics of the cinema.

    I just want to say that I am no fan of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, which I have always found stilted and very dated, but alas Jeffrey there was bound to be one instance of disagreement, though I concede I am in a major minority here. I do love Wyler's work though, by and large. Thanks for another excellent posting in this countdown.

  2. Sam, thanks so much for the wonderful comments!

    It's funny, I didn't expect to like the Wyler film at all when I first saw it, which was only in the last year or two. But alas it grabbed me and impressed me immensely. I understand though how certain films simply don't connect, for one reason or another.

    This is a year where I really need to re-watch some of the giants (WONDERFUL LIFE and SHOESHINE, in particular). I also, as I point out, have a few I've never seen. I'm really looking forward to the Cocteau, Mizoguchi, and Powell, and will post back as soon as I've had a chance to watch them.

    Thanks, Sam, as always for your incredible generosity and VERY impressive handle on each and every year!

  3. Jeffrey - I have to go along with “Shoeshine”, a brilliant work, one of DeSica’s best. “Hitchcock’s “Notorious” also ranks very high for me.
    I do like “The Best Year of Our Lives” quite a bit as I have an interest in films about returning veterans and the adjustments they are faced with. You will see “Coming Home” pop on my list when we get around to the late 1970’s. A lot of films you mention are MIA in my world yet (Great Expectations, Black Narcissus, which I have on DVD on never get around to watching, among them).

    #1 Shoeshine

    Best of the rest

    The Spiral Staircase
    The Killers
    It’s a Wonderful Life
    The Best Years of Our Lives
    The Big Sleep
    The Postman Always Rings Twice
    My Darling Clementine

  4. Unfortunately I'm with Sam on this one, it seems to me to be a pretty dull film, although Toland's cinematography is fantastic and most of the acting is good (Andrews and Wright are definitely reasons to watch anything). My choice is A Matter Of Life And Death, but you're right, this is a spectacular year. My Darling Clementine is one of Ford's best, and Notorious is just incredible, right up there with Vertigo and Shadow Of A Doubt for me. And La Belle et la Bete and The Killers and The Big Sleep. Jeez.

  5. John, thanks for the great comments! SHOESHINE is one I will definitely revisit. I've only seen it at once, and it was from a mediocre print at a mediocre theater. But I know it's always been one of Pauline Kael's favorite films, and it's always bothered me that I haven't liked it more.

    I have BLACK NARCISSUS on another year so we'll get to that one soon.

    It sounds like you and I love most of the same for this year. Thanks, as always, John. Great to hear from you!

  6. Doniphon, great to hear from you!

    THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES definitely seems to be one of these divisive films. That's one reason I took so long to get around to watching it. Most of the critics I followed and admired didn't really care for it. But, it's one of the films that convinced me to put together this list and really pushed me to start seeking things out, whether or not Kael, Godard, Rosenbaum, or Thomson much liked them.

    I know none of us will always agree or disagree. It's one of the reasons I really like seeing a list of people's favorites, as many times they'll alert me to something I might have ignored up to this point.

    It seems like we pretty much agree though with all your other picks. Good stuff. Always great to see you here!

  7. It's a toss-up for me, between NOTORIOUS and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE as my top pick for the year. Both get a top-20 placement in my all-time favorite films, that's for sure.

    NOTORIOUS is my favorite of the pre-REAR WINDOW batch of Hitch's films, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman and Claude Raines all excelling.

    On the other hand, Capra's film is one I simply fall for every time I watch it. It's always been the most surprising of films to me -- one that you assume will be sickly sweet, but one with a dark edge that gives the final moments extra meaning.

    Of the other great choices, I've only seen MY DARLING CLEMENTINE and THE BIG SLEEP and I consider both to be outstanding, though just a slight notch below the aforementioned.

    But as your post points out, there are so many great films from this year.

  8. Troy, great comments! I need to give NOTORIOUS another whirl. I know many who think very, very highly of it. And I've always liked it. It's just never gotten me in the way that some of Hitch's other films have.

    I'll be curious to hear what you think of the Wyler if you haven't seen it already. Obviously, it has some big fans and some big detractors.

    Always great to hear from you! Thanks, Troy.

  9. ***I have a comment moderator on the blog, and this comment from David Hicks, the inspiration for this list, and author of the excellent Goodfella's Movie Blog (http://goodfellamovies.blogspot.com/),
    posted it.

    Sorry, Dave! Apparently, if you accidentally reject a comment, there is no going back. Please accept my apologies on this one.

    Here's the comment in full:

    "This was an outstanding year, as all of these selections show. And even though I don't choose The Best Years of Our Lives as my #1 for the year, let me be one to back up your selection. It's a great movie and a personal favorite. Is it dated? Maybe it is, but it's a wonderful historical artifact of the immediate post-war era.

    My #1 is the great Robert Siodmak noir The Killers. I love it and still maintain that Siodmak is one of the great directors of the time. Other favorites (which I will refrain from ranking due to possibly tipping my had with the noir countdown! LOL):

    The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler)
    The Big Sleep (Hawks)
    The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett)
    Notorious (Hitchcock)
    Gilda (Vidor)

    As a huge fan of westerns and John Ford, My Darling Clementine fell completely flat the first time that I saw it. I own it, so I want to watch it again, but I found it enormously overrated."

  10. Dave, thanks so much for the awesome comments! It's nice to hear that you're also a fan of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. It seems to be one that really turns some people off. But it sounds like you and I share a similar affection for it.

    I'd be curious to hear if you have the same reaction, upon revisiting MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. I like it a great deal.

    Thanks, Dave! Always great to hear from you.

  11. Jeffrey, I've been reluctant to join in because I'd already played along with Dave last year. But as I see the old gang hanging out here and I keep watching more old movies I may have new thoughts to express. Best Years is definitely worthy of note as a historical document of its time and if people approach it with a sort of historical empathy they may come close to approximating how the people of 1946 responded to it. It's a very good ensemble film but as a Michael Powell fan I'm sticking with A Matter of Life and Death. I like that you've posted all your favorites ahead of time; it gives us plenty to anticipate, and I look forward to seeing you make your case from year to year.

  12. Samuel, fantastic to have you here! Thanks so much for the excellent comments. I hate that this Powell film is one I've yet to see. But it's already on the queue, and I'm looking forward to filling in this gap soon. Also, I am retroactively posting (in red) as I go back and watch things that I mention never having seen. You'll find some of these posts already on the years 1926, 1927, 1928, and 1930.

    With THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, now obviously this is a "subjective thing", but I think certain people can really appreciate the film even without keeping it in context. At least, I know that was certainly the case when I watched it. I say this only because I don't want any of these choices to seem like I chose them simply because of their historical import. These really are all films that have affected me emotionally.

    Thanks so much, Samuel!