“Phantom Of The Paradise” (1974)
Brian De Palma’s ’70s rock opera is something of an anomaly on the director’s resume. True, it features some hallmarks of his other work such as impressively long tracking shots and split screen sequences (in fact it does both at the same time), but what marks this out is the sheer sense of fun, as well as the invention. It’s a gloriously energetic rock biz satire that pops off the screen with amazing color, verve and incredible futuristic outfits that are now heroically dated. Best of all, Paul Williams’ score is just brilliant, spanning between genres such as doo wop (“Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye“) and glam (“Someone Super Like You“). The end title track “The Hell Of It,” sung by Williams, is magnificent; a mix of Queen pomp and music hall menace. Paul Williams himself plays the villainous Phil Spector clone, Swan, in the film. You will see many traces of this evil producer in the character of Gideon Graves in “Scott Pilgrim Vs The World.” Williams attended the L.A. premiere last week and sent me an e-mail the next day that read ‘Swan loved it’. I can retire happy now.
“The Red Shoes” (1948)
It’s no wonder that this is Martin Scorsese’s favorite movie. It’s pretty much a one stop film school as Michael Powell uses every photographic technique (yes, even the whip pan) to bring this tragic tale to the screen. Watching it today, the directorial skills that Powell employed in this 1948 production are just staggering. The 15-minute centerpiece ballet sequence is a masterclass of in-camera effects, extraordinary matte paintings and more crucially, pure cinematic emotion. You cannot fail to be impressed by this timeless classic. If you are, please move along. I don’t want to speak to you anymore, x.
Any golden period Busby Berkeley film or set-piece could fill a musicals top ten. Berkeley is one of those precious few directors whose name alone conjures specific, indelible images. His work is so groundbreaking and yet so endlessly imitated that he’s often taken for granted. Berkeley broke out of Broadway, but his signature choreography is one that could not be seen on a theater stage; namely his world famous aerial shots of dancers, using troupes of ladies to create geometric shapes. His dazzling creations, shot from almost every angle he could conceive with ’30s cameras actually would seem to have more in common with his wartime role as a drill instructor. This is not merely dance, this is mathematical art with human form. Any of his most famous films could stake the top of this list; “42nd Street” or “Gold Diggers Of 1933” among many others. My pick though would be “Dames.” It begins, like many of the films that he worked on, with screwball backstage farce for two-thirds of the running time, before climaxing in a surreal and beautiful mini opera — as bold a piece of art as Luis Bunuel or Salvador Dali. The “I Only Have Eyes For You” sequence is a staggering tribute to the female form; as it dreams up a kaleidoscopic set of images mythologizing lead actress Ruby Keeler’s face. The set designs, transitions and sheer scope would be hard to stage in 2010, let alone 80 years ago. It’s amazing to think that something from the earliest decades of cinema still has the power to astound. Busby Berkeley may well be the most imitated director of all time, but he still has not been topped.