Tuesday, April 6, 2010

1985: Year of the Dragon (Michael Cimino)

1985: Year of the Dragon (Michael Cimino)
If being a great director means making people feel good about themselves or providing a sort of fantasy American dream then Cimino is not very good at all.  But if being a great director means using a camera to tell a story and using a frame in as dynamic a way as possible then Cimino is a master.

It's been years since I've seen this film.  But off the top of my head I can already recall at least three scenes that are masterfully directed:  a nightclub shootout, the moment following a home invasion, and the final set piece.  When I say masterful direction, I mean perfect shot selection, purposeful and expressive camera movement, specific editing, and all done in a way where as a viewer we always understand the geography of the scene.  

I don't mean to sell Cimino short by suggesting that this film is all a cold, technical enterprise.  In fact, I feel quite strongly about Rourke's character, and the second moment I reference above is particularly devastating.

A flawed film, certainly.  But when it's clicking, it's crime elevated to the same operatic and cinematic heights as Coppola's work in The Godfather films.  A movie that seems to have exercised a major influence on the cinema of Michael Mann and an important  link to King of New YorkCarlito's Way, and other modern crime films.  Also, a film and an auteur, as much as anyone in this countdown, quite desperately in need of re-evaluation.

Other contenders for 1985: I still have some things to see from this year.  These include: George Romero's Day of the Dead, Agnes Varda's Vagabond, Atom Egoyan's Next of Kin, Jane Campion's Passionless Moments, Hou Hsiao-hsien's A Time to Live and a Time to Die, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, Edward Yang's Taipei Story, Paul Schrader's Mishima, Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Horse Thief, Elem Klimov's Come and See, Jean-Luc Godard's Detective, and Lasse Hallstrom's My Life as a Dog.  I need to revisit Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future as it's been too long since I've seen it to know where it'd place on this list.  But from this year I really like Akira Kurosawa's Ran, Martin Scorsese's After Hours, and Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette.  And my closest runner-up is Maurice Pialat's Police.

10/19/10 I watched Lasse Hallstrom's My Life as a Dog.  Sentimental and almost always looking to be likable.  But also with some nice heartfelt and a few inventive moments.  Overall not really my thing.  

3/28/11 I watched Wim Wenders' Tokyo-Ga.  This exploration almost feels like a Godard or Marker essay.  An unorthodox, somewhat meandering doc that seems like essential viewing for any strong fan of Ozu's work.  Wenders mourns cinema's loss of one of its most special practitioners.  Using Ozu's favorite city, Tokyo, as his lens to look at how the world has changed since Ozu's disapperance, Wenders also spends significant time with some of Ozu's closest collaborators.  

4/19/11 I watched Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. This abstract, highly stylized oddity actually is one of the more interesting films I've seen from Schrader.   At times, it is almost too obtuse, but there is also something here that feels quite personal.  And it's the most cinematic of the Schrader-directed films that I've seen.  The actor playing the adult Mishima is quite powerful, and Philip Glass's score, though in typical Glass fashion repetitive, also binds it all together into a successfully surreal, cerebral, and intermittently visceral work.  

8/30/11 I watched Elem Klimov's Come and See.   A harrowing, unflinching, and frenetic film about the horrors of war.  Klimov's camera is impressively mobile.  The film just felt so full of rage though that it is hard to take in.  

8/24/16 I watched Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary.  One of the more difficult slogs I have experienced with JLG.  I never fully connected, emotionally or intellectually, which is very rare for me with his cinema.  

4/8/18 I watched Edward Yang's Taipei Story.  Stillness and quiet reign in this early Yang film and a memorable, brooding performance by the masterful Hou Hsiao-hsien.  Makes me want to run down all of Yang's work as he seemed to excel in the same vein as Hou when he chose to stay contemporary rather than period.

4/28/18 I watched Albert Brooks' Lost in America.  Brooks is funny and a good writer but there is something very bland and unexciting about him as a director to me.  

11/25/18 I watched Frederick Wiseman's Racetrack.  Typical Wiseman quality.  What it reminded me of, more than anything, is how unflinching Wiseman can be, no matter how disturbing the scene.  But overall slightly less affecting than his greatest work.

9/29/19 I watched Agnes Varda's Vagabond.  Varda is one of my almost completely blind spots within the Nouvelle Vague.  Of course I have seen Cleo and only recently The Beaches of Agnes.  I had heard for a long time about Vagabond but knew it was heavy and wanted to see it when I could take it on (in).  Its structure is incredibly surprising.  I did not really catch on to how it was put together until probably 30-45 minutes in.  In the way it begins and continuously looks back it seemed to have influenced both Twin Peaks and perhaps even some of Dumont (Li'l Quinquin, L'Humanite).  Bonnaire's performance is full of power and the whole things gets under your skin.  But Varda has this strong yet feathery touch that keeps it exactly where it needs to be rather than turning it something cloying or overwrought.  

4/8/20 I watched Jacques Rozier's Maine-Ocean.  Although I have only seen three of Rozier's films to date, it is clear that he has a unique voice and consistent thematic interests that include the constraining nature of society and the opportunities of freedom offered by water, travel and the sea.  Rozier's style is a unique balance of rigor and looseness and his humanistic spirit comes through in his joyful tone and emphasis on community.

12/29/21 I watched Andre Techine's Rendez-vous.  The film that made Juliette Binoche a movie star feels like a combination of numerous genres - romance, thriller, ghost story, art film.  It is difficult to understand all that Techine is after in this work.  But the idea of a new generation struggling to find and make sense of love seems to be at the fore.  

1/2/22 I watched Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Time to Live and the Time to Die.  The beautiful naturalism of Hou's cinema is the element that stands out most.  His ability with light and color are nearly unrivaled.  His formal approach changes fairly dramatically as his career evolves, at times becoming far more rigid and purely contemplative than it is here.  At this stage in his career, Hou is artful while still being gentle and warm.  His cinema is disciplined enough to avoid any claims of being emotionally manipulative or simply pittoresque.   

1/9/22 I watched Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider.  A top shelf Eastwood western that impresses on numerous fronts.  It is mindful with its location work, its pacing, its framing.  It contains one of the most memorable performances in Eastwood's filmography with Michael Moriarty's work.  And it reminds one how effective Eastwood can be when he's offering the public certain mythologies like a God-like hero that will save us all from our fears and challenges.  


  1. Wow, this is a ballsy choice! I remember the controversy that surrounded this film when it came out and how critics felt it was misogynistic, too violent and racist! I guess it burned Cimino's final bridges with Hollywood.

  2. "There's a new Marshall in Town."

    It's a spectacular film with a shattering performance by Mickey. Flawed yes but I will take this powerful work over most 'great' films from the period. Cimino is an absolute master to my eyes and it is such a shame he was forced on the sidelines due to this and HEAVEN'S GATE (another brave and misunderstood masterful work).
    Great choice Jeffrey!

  3. JD, great to hear from you! This one definitely has a negative reputation among many, I agree. But I don't think it's deserved at all.

    Thanks, JD. Always a treat to have you here!

  4. Jeremy, great to hear that you love this one, too! I also feel that "Cimino is an absolute master".

    Thanks for the kind words. Always wonderful having you here!

  5. I agree with J.D., Jeffrey, that this is really a bold and unexpected choice. OK, I'm not the fan, but so what? We've been over that aspect a number of times, though I do notice we agree far more than we don't. Another point I never broached is that as a professional filmmaker you look at things with an added perspective, which of course is brough out here in your commentary. I don't myself possess that perspective. I do like Cimino's THE DEER HUNTER, though I've never bought into the revised "greatness" of HEAVEN'S GATE.

    My Own #1 Film of 1985:

    The Time to Live and the Time to Die (Hsiao-Hsien; Taiwan)


    Ran (Kurosawa; Japan)
    Back to the Future (Zemekis; USA)
    My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears; UK)
    Come and See (Klimov; Russia)
    Alpine Fire (Murer; Switzerland)
    Mishima (Schraeder; USA)
    My Life As A Dog (Hallstrom; Sweden)
    Witness (Weir; USA)
    Shoah (Lanzman; France)
    Brazil (Gilliam; USA)

  6. Sam, this is an incredible statement and an amazing testament to your kindness:

    "OK, I'm not the fan, but so what?"

    I aspire to this sort of approach every day, and it's this openness about you that's so amazing.

    Thanks, Sam. I appreciate all of your incredible support and completely respect your position. And of course I look forward to seeing your choice from my favorite Taiwanese director!

  7. Well, Jeffrey, I saw this film way back when it was first released, remember liking it, but like you say it been a long time and a film I need to revisit. This year I picked a blockbuster but one that I thought was intelligent and fun.

    #1 Back to the Future

    Runner ups

    My Beautiful Launderette
    Prizzi’s Honor
    The Purple Rose of Cairo
    After Hours
    The Falcon and the Snowman
    Lost in America
    Heaven Help Us

  8. I'm with John on this one as I have to stick with the same pick I made the first time around - Robert Zemeckis' BACK TO THE FUTURE. It is a witty, intelligent, funny and zany script that epitomizes the best of the "summer blockbuster." I love the movie and what it might lack in deep, philosophical statements or themes it makes up for in sheer enjoyment. In fact, at the Wonders in the Dark 80s decade poll, I placed Back to the Future at #2 behind only Raging Bull. And I nearly put it at #1.

    My first runner-up would be Akira Kurosawa's RAN, which is about as gorgeous as color photography in film can get outside of a Terrence Malick picture.

  9. Jeffrey, I'm sticking with Ran. I've only seen Year of the Dragon on television, and even then I could tell it wasn't as awful as most people said, though I could see why some people hated it. Beyond that, it's been too long for me to say anything fresh about it except that it's definitely a brave choice. As for your to-dos, my top recommendation for you is Vagabond.

  10. Jeffrey,

    I love the first ten minutes or so. It is grand and brilliant in a way only the beginning of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is.

    The feeling of a vibrant city teeming with danger is wonderful.

    I feel the film goes a little flat in that Rourke's character is perhaps too much the infallible unflappable hero and he spends too many scenes battling with superiors and his wife.

    Arianne is a pretty poor actress (as in quite poor and pretty). Rourke is, in my mind, Bruce Willis-lite in this film.

    Still, a good film with moments of magic.

  11. John, great to hear from you!

    I like PRIZZI'S HONOR, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, and WITNESS although all a little less than the ones I mention. I still need to see THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN and HEAVEN HELP US and did struggle a little the one time I saw LOST IN AMERICA.

    Always a treat to have you here. Thanks, John!

  12. Dave, I look forward to revisiting the Zemeckis film. It's probably been fifteen years or so since I've seen it.

    Thanks, Dave. Always great having you here!

  13. Samuel, great to hear from you! I'm a fan of RAN, too, so that choice completely connects with me.

    Always awesome having you here. Thanks, Samuel!

  14. Stephen, thanks so much for the kind words on YEAR OF THE DRAGON! Although it doesn't go flat for me, I completely understand that someone can have that response with any film.

    Always great having you here. Thanks, Stephen!

  15. Lost In America is very funny, hits the spot for me. Great script with perfect energetic performances.

    After Hours is amazing quite possibly my fav effort from Scorsese along with King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. After Hours is such fun in a twisted way.Wonderful ensemble cast.

    Year of the dragon sounds intriguing, Have to check it out.

  16. You know, I'm not sure I have seen Lost in America. I need to do something about that!

    Totally with you though on After Hours. Definitely one of my fave Scorsese films.

    Do check out Year of the Dragon. Would be curious to hear how it treats you!