Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Turan's Turn

Kenneth Turan has been the LA Times solid, no-nonsense film critic since I've been here. (Perhaps his finest hour was a pan of Titanic, after which James Cameron called for his head.) And now he has a book out, Not To Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites From A Lifetime Of Film.  After a short introduction, he has essays on each choice, listed chronologically.

His favorite decades are the 40s and 50s, with 11 and 12 picks, perhaps because those are the films he saw when he was being introduced to the world of cinema.  Meanwhile, the 70s--when Turan was a young man and American cinema was reinventing itself--gets only two picks.  It's odd enough that even Turan notes it, though he claims many films from that era don't continue to give him the pleasure he originally found.

The essays tend to be four or five pages, and are both about the film and the story behind the film.  Perhaps due to his years on a wide-circulation newspaper, his writing may not cut deep, but is always clear and engaging.

Most of the titles aren't too surprising (up to a point--more on that later). They lean heavily toward Hollywood, with plenty of recognized classics--The Lady Eve, Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard, Singin' In The Rain, Seven Samurai, The Godfather and so on.  And plenty of "classics" I consider overrated as well, such as The Third Man, Vertigo and Unforgiven.

Then there are the quirky choices, which you'd expect--they're as much the point of the book as anything. For instance, his first pick is the 1913-1914 French thriller serial Fantomas.  (He only picks three silent films as it is, and this is by far the earliest.)  Or the 1937 Yiddish production of The Dybbuk.  Or the 1952 production of The Importance Of Being Earnest--a fine adaptation of a classic play, but how many top films lists does it make?

The closer in time he gets, in fact, the quirkier his picks--almost as if he recognizes the classics of the past, but in the films he remembers seeing as an adult when first released, he can make his own choices.  For example, in the 60s, there's Ken Loach's Kes.  Or his three picks from the 80s, which are all surprising--The Day After Trinity (1981), First Contact (1983) and Distance Voices, Distant Lives (1988).  And few of his choices from the 21st century--where he all but gives up on Hollywood--are what you'd expect, with film such as The Best Of Youth (2003), The Five Obstructions (2003), Of Gods And Men (2010) and Footnote (2011). Ironically, though I would have liked him to make more adventurous choices earlier in the book, I'm less impressed with his picks when he does.

But hey, it's his book, and the films are his call.  He also includes a bunch of other titles beyond these 54 for further research.  Overall, he does get across his love of these films, and his love of the art form in general, so if this will lead some people to seek out these titles and decide for themselves, it's a good thing.


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