Blindspotting: In The Heat Of The Night and Absence Of Malice

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As “issues” movies go, In The Heat Of The Night ranks as one of the big ones. It may not have been the first of its kind, but it solidifies its place in film history by crafting moments of subtlety and nuance while also wearing its central issue proudly on its sleeve and never resorting to being maudlin. Every movie since its release that waves a flag for a cause or makes a political point has a direct line to it as an influence – even if many of them fall victim to excessive beating of their drums. So why had I not yet seen this classic? Aside from the fact that I can’t see everything (dammit), it fell into that category of “well, I pretty much know the story…”. Of course, that’s rarely the case isn’t it? Even if the plot points match up to what you expected, there’s always all the bits in between to savour. A fine reason to keep doing these blind spots…

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To narrow the field of potential pairings with In The Heat Of The Night, I looked for another issue film that could be considered as revolving around a central powerhouse performance. It’s hard to compete with Heat’s tandem headliners – Sidney Poitier as the Philadelphia detective stuck in a racist Southern town and Rod Steiger giving an Oscar-winning turn as the town’s sheriff – but you could do far worse than calling on Mr. Paul Newman…His Oscar-nominated role in Absence Of Malice was one I had wanted to see for awhile, so it seemed a good double bill once you combine that with the film’s focus on the power and responsibility of the press and legal system. Another trait both movies share is the way they jump quickly out of the gate. We’re not even 15 minutes into Absence Of Malice and we know: that a union boss has gone missing and is presumed dead (the film was made only 5-6 years after Jimmy Hoffa disappeared – he wasn’t even legally declared dead yet); the justice department has some suspects but is getting nowhere; they decide to focus their investigation on Michael Gallagher (Newman) since he is the son of a former criminal with ties to the suspects (and they hope to lean on him for information); a snoopy reporter named Megan (Sally Field) has discovered the investigation; the justice department lead on the case purposely leaked the investigation so that Gallagher would see it in the press; Michael is likely totally innocent and the story run in the newspaper will have assumptions and accusations leading to unjust consequences; etc. It’s a pretty packed opening and the film expects you to keep up as it drops names right and left. It does essentially follow through with where you assume the plot will go – Gallagher does indeed suffer due to the leaked story as his union shuts him down, he loses customers and his closest friend Teresa (the also nominated Melinda Dillon) is pulled into the story – but manages to keep you guessing a bit regarding Gallagher’s actual connections and Teresa’s guilt over a secret they share. Field also keeps you guessing by oddly playing the reporter at different times as confident, flighty, defiant, meek, mouthy and sexy. It’s not completely the actress’ fault (though her performance just doesn’t seem to fit at times) as the character’s behaviour is a grab bag of possibilities. It certainly keeps you a bit off balance (particularly during the scenes between the two leads), but there’s little likelihood that it was intentional. Newman for his part is remarkably consistent throughout as he plays Gallagher as stoic and very focused. Though he is initially upset at the paper and Megan for the fact-free reporting about him, he tries to settle into a moral compass for her. “You say someone is guilty, everyone believes you. You say they’re innocent and no one cares.” Her response shows he has some work ahead of him: “That’s not the paper’s fault, that’s people.”

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Blindspotting: La Dolce Vita and Farewell, My Concubine

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After watching La Dolce Vita and Farewell, My Concubine back to back, several parallels became apparent. The stunning cinematography and gorgeous frames of both are obvious (one in high contrast black and white, the other using a rather generous and wide palette of colours), but there’s also a strong commonality between two of the main characters since both Marcello and Shitou simply are unwillingly to ever really commit to anything – neither ideas nor people. My favourite similarity between the films, though, is each one’s ability to make 3 hours glide right on by…

Like most films in my blindspot list, these two had been lingering for a long time on the backburner and, to be honest, were there mostly because of their pretty epic lengths. Each is a shade over 170 minutes and appeared to be short on narrative and long on indirect references to central themes. Those, of course, aren’t bad elements in a film, but can certainly press you to “find the right time” to view them. What I hadn’t realized is that each is broken up into episodic pieces that felt like whole entities unto themselves and totaled up to something far greater. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, for example, travels from an iconic opening of Jesus flying through the air (carried by a helicopter), through terribly desperate parties and finishes with a fourth wall breaking stare into the lens showing you that there was at least one person who understands what “the sweet life” is all about. That someone, though, is certainly not the central character Marcello (played by the great and incomparable Marcello Mastroianni). The film follows him through several evenings of existence (by the end of the movie, you feel that calling it a “life” would be somewhat charitable) in his gossip columnist job that drifts him – usually as a hanger-on – through a multitude of parties and gatherings. He never seems to work, though, since he’s only looking for that special something to startle and excite him, that something to draw out his passion, that something to finally get him to exclaim “Yes! This is it!”. He’s not actually looking that hard, so his approach is that he wants it to find him and until it does, he simply won’t commit to anything that might prevent him from scooping it up. He hangs on to his girlfriend Emma and saves her from a suicide attempt, but won’t even promise her that he’ll be home for dinner. He hates his job and talks about having been a serious journalist, but he won’t act on offers to set him up with editors at newspapers. He doesn’t seem to own anything but his car, black suit and sunglasses – tools that allow him to worm his way into any event that may attract somebody or something interesting. But aside from a gorgeous American starlet that he tries to woo (who turns out to be less than the perfect image he had in mind), nothing really interests him. Religion, art, poetry, music, booze, sex – nothing quite galvanizes him. It’s all rather tragic…

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Blindspotting: Shane and Gunfight At The O.K. Corral

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I called an audible this month and decided to do a couple of classics I hadn’t listed in my initial Blindspot post back in January. It was simply a matter of circumstances – poor planning and being away from my normal supply of movies at the end of the month had left me scrambling. Fortunately, I was able to grab hold of a couple of Westerns I’ve had on the list for quite some time now (Shane and Gunfight At The O.K. Corral). Unfortunately, time started to slip away from me and I ended up being 2 weeks late with this post anyway…And though I’m just now sitting down to write and it’s been awhile since I’ve watched them, I don’t think it’ll be an issue since both movies easily left impressions. One about a man trying to avoid the violence of his past and the other all about the lead up to a violent showdown.

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Both make lovely use of technicolor to bring out the big blue skies of the Old West, but the earlier Shane (from ’53) loses some of the grandness of the vistas around its characters by having been shot in straight academy ratio (as widescreen wasn’t quite the default at this stage). However, I could see it as having been an intentional choice by director George Stevens even if it had been a decade later. The film is very much a “small” Western and focuses specifically on this localized area and its people. From the moment Shane rides up to the homestead of Joe Starrett at the outset of the film, you know that he has a history – possibly even a legendary one – but it never supersedes the immediate story of the small community of farmers (which includes Joe, his wife and son). They are all fighting to keep their little plots of land from the clutches of a cattle rancher named Ryker and his greasy sidekicks, but tensions have been escalating even more of late since he has upped his bullying tactics. He sees all these farmers as simply squatters on tiny parcels of land that prevent him from laying claim to the entire area. His plan of driving them out one by one seems like it might just work, but just Shane happens to stumble into this simmering boil while riding through. After stopping briefly to get some water from Joe, he sees Ryker and his men make their regular muscle-flexing round to Starrett’s place and provides some needed backup as Joe stands up to them. After a meal in return, Joe asks Shane if he’d like to stay on with his family and get paid for working on the farm. Not really knowing what he’s looking for (only what he’s trying to avoid), Shane accepts. He’s quickly become fond of little Joey (who sees him as a courageous gunslinger) and is a bit smitten by Joe’s lovely wife Marian (played by the great Jean Arthur). As much as Shane wants to avoid his past fighting ways, though, it’s obvious that further confrontations are imminent. However, the story is less about Shane’s past catching up with him and more about the personal issues of trying to change your own nature.

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Blindspotting: Sans Soleil and Dog Star Man

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This could be my shortest Blind Spot post ever…Though I enjoy short form experimental films, appreciate the different aspects of filmmaking that get teased out and respect the filmmakers a great deal, it is not an area in which I’m overly well-versed. I’ve seen a few other films from the two directors responsible for this post’s films (Chris Marker and Stan Brakhage) along with a few things from Maya Deren, James Benning, Cocteau, Bunuel, etc., but my knowledge of their techniques, goals and intentions is somewhat limited. Having said that, especially after viewing both Marker’s Sans Soleil and Brakhage’s Dog Star Man, you don’t necessarily have to have any background at all since these films are the perfect art form onto which you can map your own feelings and perspectives. Neither of these films has a clearly laid out narrative or real characters, so it enables you to soak in its variety of images (many of which almost seem random at times) and attempt to put your own personal spin on them.

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Marker’s Sans Soleil, for example, feels like a freeform wander through the world’s different cultures (pausing longer with some, glancing off others) with a fascination in the activities and ways of life of its people. All the while, Marker (and his sometimes overly serious and pretentious female narrator) riffs on the meaning of memory and how it forgets, changes and shapes history (“We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten” and “History only tastes bitter to those who expected it to be sugar coated”). The film also plays extensively with Japanese culture by tying into the memory aspects of the film and replaying Japan’s war history (“Small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life”). It also covers cats, an extraordinary ceremony to lay the souls of dolls to rest, more cats, sexual fetishes and a couple of additional cats (not to mention cat dolls placed into sex positions). The horrors of war are explored in a variety of different fashions as well, but focusing more on the concept of horror itself (the graphic death of a giraffe is a tough watch – you can see the life drain right out of it). If this seems somewhat random, well, it did for me too.

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Blindspotting: Moonstruck and Fatal Attraction

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The year was 1987. It was a tumultuous time…A breathless population tried to come to terms with the loss of Shelly Long from Cheers while simultaneously trying to choose sides in the great “Debbie Gibson or Tiffany?” debate. Fortunately Spuds Mackenzie and the announcement of Euro Disney were there to quell the public’s fears (not to mention the arrival of Prozac).

Side note: there was also the premiere of a little upstart cartoon series called The Simpsons which created an industry of people quoting and borrowing humourous ideas from it – something which continues today unabated.

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In the movie houses, adultery was on the minds of the American film-goer as two of the year’s biggest releases used it as a central theme. Both Fatal Attraction and Moonstruck had characters cheating on their spouses (and almost-spouses) with varying degrees of consequences – none of which appeared to be lasting. Through different approaches and styles (one a sharply written comedy/drama, the other a consistently paced thriller), they each seem to end up at the same conclusion: infidelities certainly can’t be swept away, but don’t worry since you’ll be forgiven. Since Moonstruck’s main arc really deals with two suffocating people who stumble into each other (and subsequently allow each other to blossom), that’s likely not the fairest assessment of the film. But I’ll get to that later.

The story opens on Loretta (played by Cher), a tax accountant who seems to have the market cornered on frumpy. She’s unsure about the marriage proposal she’s just received from Johnny (Danny Aiello) because she’s had bad luck before – in fact, very bad luck since her previous husband was killed by a bus. Now she insists that everything be done just right including the actual proposal (she even makes Johnny do it all over again by getting down formally on one knee in the restaurant). When he tells her he has to fly to Italy for his dying mother, her biggest concern seems to be that they set an official date for the wedding. She doesn’t actually want or need him to help, but just agree to the date since all he’ll have to do is show up. It’s quickly established that Loretta isn’t exactly passionately in love with Johnny and even tells her mother (played in Oscar-winning form by Olympia Dukakis) that she doesn’t love him. Her Mom’s response of “Good, when you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can” sets up the issues she has with her own husband (Vincent Gardenia in a possibly too spot-on casting choice). But back to Loretta for the moment…

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Blindspotting: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an overstuffed, slightly underdeveloped yet deceptively complex beast of a film.  If todays long-form television existed in the early 1940s, wouldn’t it make one hell of an HBO miniseries?  It certainly would, but as it stands the film is pretty damn magnificent. The decades long military career of Calvin Wynne-Candy reveals itself in an extended flashback the a fair number of insights into the British character and soul at the time. While it does not quite have the same towering reputation, it very much is the Citizen Kane of Britain cinema that is slow to reveal its intentions even as it hides its ‘Rosebud’ in plain sight. The first hour is more than a bit slog which I have no doubt will be positively riveting the second time around. This is a movie that takes the viewer a while to get their bearings of what the film is about, but by the time the nearly three hours elapse, it has evolved into an immersive and quite compelling examination attitudes shifts across generations and the myriad costs of war that tends to escalate with every iteration. A second viewing will likely leave me hooked after the first minute. That this was made right in the middle of World War II, featured a significant (and highly sympathetic) role for a German officer, and is critical of the philosophy of “Total War” is nothing shy of incredible.  The very creation of a film such as this remains an act of artistic bravery, for which the film was called to be banned by Winston Churchill (just as Cane was blackballed by William Randolf Hearst.) While the film evaded this fate it was still hacked up and truncated for distribution in the rest of the world leaving it pretty much forgotten outside of cinephile circles, Powell & Pressburger enthusiasts and the eventual tenacity of film-archivist Martin Scorsese.  Having watched the restored version, I can completely see why there is a bit of a cult for this one.

Calvin Wynne-Candy (a chameleon-like Roger Livesey) is introduced as an old man, completely one-upped by a younger officer that takes a new tactic on a standard training exercise and catches him with his pants down, literally, in a Turkish Bath.  The cocky twenty-something lieutenant has no problem letting his spluttering superior feel like a relic of a bygone age and that the rules of the game have changed. 
Flashback to the young officer Sugar Candy, a handsome slim, and yes, cocky, young officer in the same Turkish Bathhouse making his own racket while on leave from the Boer War in South Africa.  After receiving a letter from a friend of a friend about rumblings and rumours of discontent brewing in Germany, Candy rushes down to play politics and gets mired in a gentleman’s dual with officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff. Anton Walbrook threatens to (“Very Much!”) steal the picture entirely out from under Livesey, just as his character manages to steal the heart of Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr, in a pre-Dr. Strangelove move, in one of three roles) right out from under Candy.  After their duel, the two officers spend a fair bit of time convalescing in a German hospital in the company of Ms. Hunter and become fast friends. Jumping forward in time the film charts their friendship across the geopolitical adversity both World Wars.

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Blindspotting: Saturday Night Fever and Grease

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I‘m not sure you could you think of a more obvious pairing than this month’s Blind Spot picks…Released inside a year of each other, Saturday Night Fever and Grease starred then teen-heartthrob John Travolta, had wide mainstream appeal, a direct influence on a wide variety of styles and arrived chock full of danceable and, as it turned out, massively popular songs that have ingrained themselves into our skulls (and even rejuvenated certain genres of music). These weren’t simply movies from the late 70s, these were broad based touchstones of the era. And yet…I would’ve been hard pressed to find two more disparate films in terms of tone, topic and approach.

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First and foremost: Saturday Night Fever isn’t a musical. Now even if you haven’t seen it, I suppose that’s an obvious statement since the barest of knowledge of the film tells you that Travolta and the cast don’t spontaneously burst into songs with throbbing disco beats behind them. But, even knowing that the film had some dark and cynical edges to it, I expected that much of it would have some of the bounce of a typical musical – a dance number here, a montage there and then a whole bunch of other dance numbers. Those elements are present (particularly in a couple of extended scenes in the disco club named 2001 Odyssey), but the reality of the lives of these characters weighs everything down. That’s not a criticism of the film by any means – as a matter of fact, it’s what makes the movie highly engaging and able to withstand any of its elements that would typically feel dated 35 years on. The flip side is Grease: a candy-coated confection of a musical with fantasy elements, slight characters and a shine to its story that doesn’t allow any reality to enter in. Some of the musical numbers are enjoyable, Olivia Newton-John is surprisingly charming and it’s all quite easily consumed, but it’s still just a dated 50s fluff story wrapped in a dated 80s shell. And that is a criticism…

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Blindspotting – The Reckless Moment and This Gun For Hire

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I haven’t been on a Film Noir bender in awhile and it’s damn well due. So for my opening salvo in the 2013 Blind Spots, I grabbed a pair of Noirs that I not only felt I should have seen by now, but that I just simply wanted to see right now. I expect from a more mainstream perspective, these two films weren’t exactly gaping holes in my cinematic knowledge, but I’ve been yearning (yes, I said yearning) to see them both. The additional push is that The Reckless Moment is directed by Max Ophuls and he’s a director that I’d like to dig into this year. My only experience with him is the lovely Letter From An Unknown Woman and I’ve cobbled together 3 or 4 of his films on the PVR (oh TCM…you give and you give…), so I’m keen to see more of that constantly moving camera of his. By the way, both of these movies were watched via the PVR, but my capture card is providing horrible resolution on Windows 7 so I’ve borrowed these screenshots from other sites…

Once Noir gets a hold of you, it’s hard to shake. Like an addictive drug, Noir just leads to more Noir. I’m overstating of course, but Noir’s ever-present feeling of doom, its creeping hand of fate and its shafts of light painted with purpose across every inch of the frame lures me in every single time. Even the “lesser” Noirs manage to ensnare me. Not that every Noir is the same, but they share certain characteristics of style tone and theme. Indeed, both The Reckless Moment from 1949 and the earlier by 7 years This Gun For Hire share stylistic touches as well as central male characters who float through their dark lives. Both of these men end up glimpsing some possible redemption through the eyes of a woman (these ladies are not your typical femme fatales even though they may be the “cause” of the male’s downfall) as they accept the fate they always knew was approaching.

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My Blind Spot list for 2013

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Though I missed a month in my quest to do a year’s worth of Blind Spot posts last year, I still managed to squeeze out 11 posts on the subject. Those scribblings covered 22 movies that I felt I really should have seen by this point in my film-watching career. The operative words there, of course, are “should have”…The whole idea behind the Blind Spot series (kicked off last year by top notch Toronto blogger/writer dudes James McNally and Ryan McNeil) was to poke and prod us to finally get around to those films we feel are not only classics we should see, but ones we really want to see. So it was the perfect vehicle to push us to get to those titles that, for whatever reason, we just hadn’t got to yet.

Instead of me going on and on blathering too much in depth on movies that have been written about by far better writers, in each post I tried comparing and contrasting two films I was seeing for the first time. It not only made for more interesting things for me to write (and I’d like to think to read as well), but also helped take a bigger chunk out of that loooooong list of need-to-sees. It was also kinda fun to try to tease out similarities in a couple of parings that were somewhat random.

Considering the “voluminous” amount of posting I’ve been doing of late (sigh), I figured that I should try to tackle the task yet again. Anything to kick my heinie into gear every once in awhile is not a bad thing, so below is the list of parings I’m looking at initially for 2013 – I feel I need more foreign movies in there (Wajda, Ozu and Dreyer made the short list), but these choices felt right and the pairings seemed to be a good mix of obvious, tangential and random.

 

Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Grease (1978)

Aside from the obvious, this pairing is appropriate because they both feel like movies I’ve seen – I know the songs, I know the big scenes and I know the stories – but I’ve never actually sat through them from start to finish.

 

Breaking The Waves (1996)
Shanghai Express (1932)

Almost 65 years separate these two stories of women and their sacrifices – though it takes one film exactly twice as long as the other to tell its version.

 
 

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Blindspotting #11 – Barry Lyndon and Doctor Zhivago

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Though I came up short by one post for the year – except for November, I’ve posted all my Blindspotting posts monthly at my own blog before pulling them to RowThree in batches – I’m happy with the 22 first time watches of classics I managed to squeeze in this year. I plan to keep up the two per monthly post strategy in 2013, if only because it enables some interesting comparisons between films. I hope to publish my proposed set (complete with pairings for each month) early in the new year.

 

If there’s one thing we likely all have in common when comparing lists of “major” films we haven’t seen, it’s that we have a couple of those Epics missing. You know the ones I mean: the 3+ hour epic love stories, epic period pieces and epic historical dramas that tend to be a bit foreboding. You’ll usually find one of them among our top movies of all time, but there’s a stack of others whose weighty nature and lengthy run times make viewing them seem like, well, “homework”. In many cases they turn out to be a joy to behold – quickly engaging, filled with characters of depth, chock full of interesting turns – and even feel much shorter than they really are. But when you hit one that doesn’t connect with you…Well, let’s just say that time crawls at around the same pace as it does when you’re in the dentist chair. And even though two great filmmakers were at the helm for this month’s choices, that was my concern with both films – two that have been sitting on my shelf for much, much longer than I’m comfortable admitting.

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I will admit it’s an odd reaction for me to have to a Kubrick film since I’ve loved everything else he’s done (short of his first features before the great The Killing). But Barry Lyndon struck me as a different beast and one whose apparently slow meandering nature might wear thin over its 184 minutes. Aside from knowing it was the tale of a farm-raised young Irish man who finds his way into the aristocracy of 18th century Britain, I knew nothing of the story. So the changing fortunes of Barry (Part 1 of the film is entitled: By what means Redmond Barry acquired the style and title of Barry Lyndon) throughout were unexpected and kept me engaged. Even more surprising was that the film is really somewhat of a comedy. Not laugh out loud by any stretch, but the ups and downs of Barry’s life after he leaves his village (along with many of the narrator’s comments) brings an almost farcical tone to much of the film. Though Barry has a promising life ahead of him (born to a genteel family and bred to be a lawyer), his father is killed in a duel. While his mother stays a widow, Barry struggles to deal with his first love Nora – she tries to get him to be more assertive by hiding a ribbon on her person, but he seems too meek to search her for it. After she shows interest in a British army captain (who would relieve her family of its debt), Barry challenges him to a duel and is forced to leave town afterwards. He’s actually a bit of a selfish dim-witted putz when you get right down to it and as he begins his travels, there’s a moment where I wondered how long I could stay invested with that kind of character. Fortunately, as mentioned above, fate seems to have a push/pull battle with Barry as it keeps changing things up on him – he swears he’ll remain a gentleman, gets pulled down again, new opportunities are once again presented and the cycle repeats. He gets robbed, joins the army, deserts the army, is forced to rejoin when found, learns “bad behaviour” from other low-lifes in the army, saves the captain who forced him back into service, is sent to spy on an Irish nobleman, etc. He’s like a cipher at times, so it’s not surprising when he can suddenly be heroic, fight well or handle weapons masterfully. Ryan O’Neal doesn’t bring a whole lot to the character, but his blank slate performance actually fits Barry Lyndon perfectly.

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Filling the Holes in 2013 [Blindspotting]

Thanks so much to everyone who voted on the titles which will help me out in covering some serious cinephile blind spots in my viewing repertoire. Seriously, thank you!

As promised, I’m choosing the top ten vote-getters (plus two of my own choosing) and starting in January I’ll be watching and writing about them (in no particular order).

So here are the top ten films you guys voted on from the primary ballot in order of most votes to fewest. I’ll choose the two runner-ups at a later date:

# of votes     Title
22      The 400 Blows
21      Sunset Boulevard
20      Manhattan
17      His Girl Friday
16      Some Like it Hot
16      Bicycle Thieves
15      On the Waterfront
14      Mean Streets
13      The Last Picture Show
13      Rope

 

If you’re curious, out of the original 60 titles on the ballot, only four got no votes:
All the Right Moves
Pink Flamingos
Sounder
The Towering Inferno