April 28, 2011

MRQE Rewind: The Best Films of Werner Herzog

This Friday sees the limited release of Werner Herzog's newest documentary: Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In the film, Herzog investigates the caves of Southern France where some of the oldest drawings of man are known to exist. Werner has made headlines across the movie blogging circuit in recent weeks for his highly opinionated remarks leading up to Forgotten Dream's release. I'm sure he knows that every word of press is good press! In a career spanning 50 years and 60 films, there is no denying Herzog's legend as one of the great figures of cinema. However despite a lengthy resume, filled with both socially conscious documentaries and challenging fictional narratives, many are unaware of Herzog's prolific output. This week, we're ranking 10 of Herzog's best, including the recent fare that has enhanced his popularity state side.

10. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009) - MRQE Metric: 58

Herzog's last movie saw a rare collaboration with David Lynch. You're probably wondering how you missed it. Well, this crime thriller, based on the true story of a man who murdered his mother with a sword, never saw a US theatrical release! The movie stars an excellent cast including Michael Shannon (who plays the deranged killer-a role he's similarly played in Bug and Boardwalk Empire), Willem Dafoe and Chloe Sevigny co-star in a movie that shows Herzog has not lost his edge and still continues to push the boundaries with controversial work.

9. My Best Fiend (1999) - MRQE Metric: 73

My Best Fiend comes in at number 9. The autobiographical documentary is about the intense relationship between Werner and his star collaborator Klaus Kinski. The crazed actor Kinski was known for his tantrums on set and his wild outbursts towards Herzog, who directed him in five films. Although My Best Fiend leaves something to be desired, it's an incredibly fascinating study of two stubbornly creative characters. And kudos to Werner for giving his audience a behind-the-scenes perspective on one of cinema's great tandems. Imagine a Di Nero-Scorcese documentary? Just saying.

8. Nosferatu: The Vampyre (1979) - MRQE Metric: n/a

Vampires, vampires, vampires. The world can't get enough! And Werner was ahead of the curve with this 1979 release. For his take on the notorious fanged creature of the night, he went to the source: Herzog adapted Nosferatu from the original Bram Stoker novel. And, none other than Klaus Kinski played the Count in one of the creepiest performances of his very creepy career. For any fan of Gothic European horror, both Werner's Nosferatu and F.W. Murnau's 1922 original are essential classics.

7. Grizzly Man (2005) - MRQE Metric: 79

Using the collected video footage of activist Timothy Treadwell's interactions with Alaskan bears over a number of summers, Grizzly Man is a strange character study of a man who claims to have tamed the beasts of the wild. As you watch the footage however, you can't help but think that Treadwell is out of his mind. With every pace closer to the bears, you sense that some natural boundary is being crossed. Both Treadwell and his girlfriend Ami Huguenard were mauled and killed by the bears. And in one powerful scene, Werner listens to the final recording of Treadwell being eaten by one; he decides that the tape is too gruesome to be played for the viewer. Grizzly Man rightfully collected a number of awards when it was released. There really isn't anything like it.

6. Encounters at the End of the World (2007) - MRQE Metric: 80

What drives a person to venture to the South Pole, as far away from human civilization as possible? What drives a lone penguin to venture away from his flock and migrate towards the mountains, towards imminent death? Both questions are raised in mysterious fashion here as Herzog ventures into the cold, icy wilderness of Antartica for my entry at number 6. Encounters is another mystifying documentary from Herzog. Here, we meet a number of scientists, truck drivers and divers that have all made their journeys to Antarctica for their own compelling reasons. Combined with a beautiful array of underwater shots cut to the wonderful sounds of diving seals and choral arrangements, Encounters is easily one of Herzog's best.

5. Rescue Dawn (2006) - MRQE Metric: 77

Based on Herzog's documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn is a feature length war drama based on the true story of German-American pilot Dieter Dengler who is captured, imprisoned and tortured by villagers during the Vietnam War before surviving a harrowing escape. Christian Bale plays Dengler in one of his great, intensely portrayed roles. Watch for comic actor Steve Zahn, who turns in a surprising dramatic role. Rescue Dawn is a can't-miss for anyone looking to experience a gritty Herzog drama. Plus it is one of many bold Herzog films captured without restraint in the jungles of Thailand.

4. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009) - MRQE Metric: 75

Nicolas Cage plays a corrupt New Orleans cop in this film adapted from the 1992 version starring Harvey Keitel. Herzog never saw the original and looked to have the name changed for his treatment. But that was impossible due to similarities in the story. Abel Ferrara, director of the original, was supposedly infuriated with the remake. I would hope he had a change of heart once he saw the picture. Nicolas Cage owns this part. He plays the drugged out cop with equal parts casualness and mania. There's a charm nestled deep in the cynicism of Cage's character that is thrilling to watch from beginning to end. Plus, a great supporting cast including Eva Mendes, Jennifer Coolidge, Val Kilmer and Brad Dourif make Port of Call a strangely alluring, drug-induced noir.

3. Stroszek (1977) - MRQE Metric: n/a

At Number 3, we're going back to 1977 for the fictional feature Stroszek, one of Werner's earlier feature films. After being released from prison in Berlin, Bruno Stroszek, an alcoholic, decides to travel to America for a better life, specifically Wisconsin, accompanied by an old man and a prostitute. Herzog supposedly wrote this film in four days, and he shot on location in Plainfield, Wisconsin, the hometown of notorious murderer/grave robber Ed Gein. This film is odd, and Bruno is an odd actor. One may find it strangely humorous, but Stroszek is fascinating because of Herzog's choice of actors and his adherence to something like spontaneity. "Who are these people and what are they doing?" you ask yourself. If you want a surprise or two, check out Stroszek, a fine example of Herzog's technique.

2. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) - MRQE Metric: 82

At number two, it's Klaus Kinski in one of his greatest performances as Lope de Aguirre, the Spanish soldier who led a group of conquistadors through the Amazon jungle in search of the lost city of El Dorado. Although loosely based on history, Herzog used a lot of spontaneity and improvisation during the shoot. Kinski is relentless in his portrayal and makes Aguirre out to be a madman. And Herzog is similarly relentless behind the scenes, capturing Kinski in all his fury. I can't imagine the sort of hell encountered shooting in the deep jungles of the Amazon. The sweat and energy certainly comes through on screen. "The Wrath of God," is a strange, yet fitting title for this exhausting tale of power and the savage descent of man in the throes of the wild.

1. Fitzcarraldo (1982) - MRQE Metric: n/a

My number one is the stuff of legend. Sometimes the great films are remembered just as much for their stories as for their feats in production. Fitzcarraldo tells the story of Irish rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald who willed a crew to pull a large steamship over a mountain in the Amazon in order to access a large rubber reserve. Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams presents the actual pulling of the ship, done with mere ropes, during Herzog's production. Despite being told by his production staff that the task was impossible, Werner willed his crew members to push on, risking death in the process. Jack Nicholson and Jason Robards were initially considered for the title role, before Kinski stepped in. Herzog won Best Director at Cannes for this mesmerizing work of man overcoming nature.

Watch the trailer for Cave of Forgotten Dreams!

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