Long before the onslaught of films chastising us for The Way We Live Now – including themes such as technophobia, interpersonal miscommunication, and the daunting rise of urbanity – that has marked the better part of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, director Jacques Tati developed a rather clever and innovative take on encroaching modernity with his opus Playtime back in 1967. Famous for continuing the exploits of his beloved character M. Hulot and for nearly bankrupting its studio by constructing the entirety of its enormous Parisian sets, Tati’s film stands at the intersection of traditionalism and rapid societal “progress” that the director argues has drastically altered the way we live now.
Instead of getting bogged down with the weight of such paramount implications, Tati cushions his critique with the humor of physical comedy and the sheer ridiculousness of the film’s set-up. The filmmaker eschews any semblance of a plot or character study in favor of simple vignettes that follow a large cast of characters – though none intentionally well defined – as they move about the homogenous constructs of this alien-looking Paris. At the center is Tati himself as the bewildered M. Hulot who acts as our guide on this tour of utter confusion.
Through expertly choreographed sequences, Tati takes his audience from the international airport to a monolithic office building downtown hosting an expo to an apartment complex and finally to an unfinished nightclub. Chaos reigns in the interactions of these clueless characters – M. Hulot chasing the elusive M. Giffard through a labyrinth of cubicles, a disgruntled tour guide herds a group of chatty American tourists around like sheep through the various set pieces, the inept staff at a restaurant scurries around the establishment as its brand new architecture crumbles all around them – and yet it’s only the illusion of chaos. Tati is the master of staging with no step out of place and every tumble coordinated perfectly and intentionally.
Tati uses this supreme control to accentuate his overall theme. In constructing this sleek, yet sterile version of Paris completely from scratch, he ensures the fulfillment of his creative vision. Space is used effectively and carefully throughout; there are no close-ups in the entire film, and the enormous frame (filmed on 70mm) is full of characters and goings-on throughout. There is so much happening in any given frame of Playtime that it most certainly demands repeat viewings to take it all in. Tati perfects the art of misdirection by allowing multiple interactions to transpire onscreen at all times and relying on overlapping and oftentimes barely unintelligible dialogue to explain his characters’ actions. All of this adds to the idea that the modern world often makes no room for subtlety or quiet contemplation.
Throughout Tati posits technological innovation and the hurried pace of urbanity as an obstruction to natural human communication. This he captures hilariously with exaggerated sound effects (the squishy chairs, echoing footsteps, the buzz of neon lights) and a comical skepticism toward the progress of convenience (a broom affixed with headlights receives “oo’s” and “ah’s” from onlookers, constantly malfunctioning intercoms and other devices, the unintentional inconvenience of streamlined transportation). In one effective scene, Tati’s camera remains outside a modern-looking apartment complex positioning his audience as onlookers. We see the interiors of two identical units through the enormous glass windows, and both sets of inhabitants have switched on their TV sets. The camera is angled in such a way that either side appears to be reacting to their neighbors rather than what happens on the screen. It’s a bitingly clever take on how technology has infiltrated and significantly altered the once-sacred space of the home.
In all of this, Tati avoids outright cynicism by suggesting an alternative instead of wallowing in the inevitability of an increasingly manufactured world. If M. Hulot fumbles around never quite making sense of this confounding new age, Tati gives a glimmer of hope in Barbara (Barbara Dennek) the young American tourist. She already stands out amongst her group as the youngest by quite a bit, but she also makes no apologies in following her own impulses even if that requires deviating from the norm – she often wanders from the group, attempts to photograph the mundane, wears an eye-catching emerald dress amidst a sea of contemporary blacks and grays. Nonconformity, Tati argues, may be the only thing that can inject life into this lifeless urban environment. He suggests as much near film’s end when the patrons of the nightclub begin to let go of their societal inhibitions and embrace imperfection as the tenets of modernity crumble – the restaurant’s architecture proves its infrastructure cannot support the façade of its alluring style.
Lest anyone lose hope and accept the world of Playtime as the new norm, Tati slyly reminds us throughout that vestiges of the old world remain within arm’s reach. Despite the presence of these new, technologically advanced buildings standing erect in a perfectly shaped grid, iconic monuments of Paris’ history are reflected in the sleek glass windows in several different shots. The past is not lost, and the more individuals resist conformity like M. Hulot or Barbara, the more colorful and delightfully messy our future will be. Playtime may have been released at the advent of mid-twentieth century advancement, but it’s perhaps more relevant now than ever. In the post-techno age of social media and information saturation, we’re now more connected than ever, but face similar threats of homogeny as we become increasingly dependent on personal devices. Of course, Tati was likely no extreme Luddite, and thus Playtime shouldn’t be read as a complete disavowal of technology or progress. Likewise, if he were still alive today, I don’t think he’d decry the use of mobile phones or Facebook, but the hilarious breakdown at the nightclub and the guests’ accept thereof suggests it doesn’t hurt to let our guard down every once in a while either.
[This evaluation was originally written for film site Reel World Theology.]
This past year felt like a year of loss. From the passing of major music legends Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen to the death of political sanity as the British voted for disunion and my fellow Americans elected a shockingly inept property tycoon-turned-celebrity as our next president, 2016 will likely not be remembered for its bright spots. For the film community, add to that list the devastating loss of filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. The Iranian master died on July 4, but it’s been difficult for this writer to string together words eloquent enough to try to articulate exactly why he was rightfully held in such high regard.
And yet, on this site the man hardly needs an introduction. I’ve written about each of his nine major features spanning the better part of four decades and have cited his influence in evaluations of many other films. This site’s name even borrows the title of one of his finest works. Needless to say, the man had a significant impact not only on the cinematic medium itself, but also on the shaping of my tastes and the lens through which I view filmic art. Kiarostami was without a doubt one of my very favorite filmmakers and, from an (attempted) objective standpoint, one of the greatest, most uniquely challenging artists who ever pointed a camera at the world.
Rather than retread well-trodden territory attempting to qualify the man’s impact on cinema or quantify his decades-spanning achievements as many critics and fans sought to do in the immediate aftermath of his untimely death, I thought it would be more appropriate to simply highlight my personal favorite moments from his extensive repertoire. No heady explanations, no metaphorical interpretations, just brief reflections on the man’s greatness.
Cleverly using a chalkboard to keep score for the two feuding classmates in Two Solutions to One Problem.
The way he spun one boy’s seemingly inconsequential dilemma into a legitimately suspenseful race against time in Where Is the Friend’s Home?.
That rolling aerosol can in Close-Up.
Roaming the street of Tehran in search of atonement. (Close-Up)
The first of many vehicular adventures in Life, and Nothing More.
That final shot in Life, and Nothing More.
An actor playing a director outlines what he plans to do for a fake movie he didn’t really direct in Through the Olive Trees.
Oh, that glorious final shot! Probably the best “will they or won’t they” in cinematic history. (Through the Olive Trees)
Kiarostami makes a cameo as himself at the end of Taste of Cherry.
The village tucked into the hillside in The Wind Will Carry Us.
Trying to catch that phone call! (The Wind Will Carry Us)
Her passenger takes off the headscarf in Ten.
Reflections on the windshield of this heady countryside conversation in Certified Copy.
Juliette Binoche threatens to outshine her director only because she could. (Certified Copy)
Where’s the speaker in this opening shot from Like Someone in Love?
This awkward car conversation that brings Like Someone in Love’s three principle characters together.
What do we think about when we engage art? When we gaze at a painting, do we appreciate it for its beauty – the images we see and perceive – or for the craftsmanship it took to create it? Depending on a person’s tastes and tolerance for any given art form, it’s probably a combination of both. Film as art is no different. For the masses movies are generally appraised based upon the stories they tell, the themes conveyed, and the performances delivered by its actors. For those with a deeper interest in film these aspects are still important, but there is also typically an added layer of evaluation that weighs the achievements of those behind the camera – the how and the why a sequence is captured at a particular angle, for example – and the stories that chronicle the making of – a director or writer’s inspiration for the film, the themes he or she wishes to convey, or the greater context in which the film is conceived. Looking at film through this perspective, then, is why we remember the works of great directors like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Yasujiro Ozu and consider them true artists.
I would add to that list Andrei Tarkovsky who may not be as well known as the four listed above, but has certainly been just as influential (especially on the work of my favorite living filmmaker, Terrence Malick). He was an artist in the vein of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman who openly and honestly wrestled with religion and had a penchant for long takes, sparse storytelling, and contemplative pacing. He’s probably best known today for his two sci-fi masterpieces Solaris and Stalker or his autobiographical filmic poem Mirror, but it’s one of his earliest films that remains his most enduring. Andrei Rublev is a medieval epic that chronicles the life of one of Russia’s most famous religious iconographers and the tumultuous nation in which he lived. And yet, Tarkovsky’s film is less strict biographical account of the real Andrei Rublev than it is a meditation on Russian society filtered through the pain of the past, the influence of Christianity on a nation’s history, and the struggle inherent in artistic pursuits.
This last point is perhaps what elevates Andrei Rublev above simply adhering to the tradition of cinematic epics (though it does succeed in this area as well – its set pieces, costumes, sweeping cinematography, and choreographed battle sequences are some of the grandest and most accomplished in all film history). From its opening, unrelated prologue featuring an ambitious inventor who takes to the sky in a primitive hot air balloon, Tarkovsky establishes his film as one highlighting the fruit of creative minds. And, as the elated inventor first marvels at the desolate countryside below only to plummet disastrously to the ground as his own invention fails him, Tarkovsky also suggests that choosing to create comes at a great cost.
The rest of Andrei Rublev, in its sprawling narrative comprised of semi-related vignettes, follows a handful of other creators who each approach their art and handle their setbacks differently. Andrei (Anatoly Solonitsyn) is one of three wandering monks who serve as iconographers as they traverse the Russian landscape in search of cathedrals to paint. While Andrei is renowned for his superior skills and seeks to portray the good in humankind, his friend Danil (Nikolai Grinko) is more pragmatic in his approach and their companion Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) desires recognition for his work and even abandons the faith consumed with jealousy of Andrei’s talents. Then, there is the old painter Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev) who holds a rather cynical view of humankind and as such sees his work as a burden. Foma (Mikhail Kononov) and Andrei’s other protégés are skilled, yet stubborn, impatient, or indifferent with their brushes. And finally, Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), a young boy who crosses paths with Andrei at a crucial juncture in the monk’s life, serves as the most significant fellow creator he encounters on his travels. Andrei has given up on his own art feeling uninspired and seeking atonement for a sin he committed by taking a vow of silence when he meets the son of a respected bell-maker who died in the plague.
Young Boriska only enters the film in its final third, but the story of how he risks shame, punishment, and even execution for the chance to create is easily the beating heart of Tarkovsky’s work. When messengers from the royal prince come searching for the boy’s father to cast a bell for a new cathedral, he boldly offers to oversee the project himself. Boriska is often overconfident and harsh as he orders the workers around though they are much older and far more experienced than him. But, as the project nears completion, the boy’s head begins to fill with doubt. What if it breaks easily? What if it doesn’t ring? All the while, the silent Andrei watches on skeptically alongside the other villagers. But, when the bell does ring the crowd erupts into cheers of delight as Boriska collapses to the ground in relief. Inspired by the boy’s ambition and commitment to his craft, the monk runs to his side, breaks his silence, and vows to continue painting, his redemption now complete.
Choosing to create can come at a great cost indeed. There is risk – risk of failure, that the creation might be misused or abused, that the creation might betray its creator. Throughout the film, Andrei suffers great loss as he pursues his passion to paint – friendships that cave under the weight of envy, apprentices that storm off after disagreements, and even the loss of some of his works as a cruel invading force sets fire to a cathedral that he and his guild spent months painting. But, in the end Tarkovsky reveals that the struggle and the pain are more than worth it. After nearly three and a half hours of stark black-and-white imagery, the director brilliantly and jarringly cuts to an epilogue of sorts as the camera pans over a number of the iconographer’s real frescos in eye-popping color. It’s a sequence full of emotion as we are given a glimpse into what Andrei’s efforts have yielded. And, what a beautiful glimpse it is!
It’s safe to assume the Andrei of Tarkovsky’s film creates because he too was created by one who took great risk in breathing his creation into being. Somewhat surprisingly, then, the tale of a monk who lived hundreds of years ago in medieval Russia serves as a charge to each and every one of us to dare to create, to push through the pain in pursuing art to add to the beauty. And, that is precisely what Tarkovsky has done with Andrei Rublev, a tremendously gorgeous and affecting film. And, not only does it boast powerful themes and performances from its actors and a host of masterful filmmaking flourishes, it also provides a unique depiction of the very creative process that produces the art we appreciate. For that, it will always be remembered for the classic it is.
[This evaluation was originally written for film site Reel World Theology.]
Terrence Malick’s return to film after a twenty-year hiatus found him furthering the vision he established with Days of Heaven. In many ways, The Thin Red Line is an apt successor to that gorgeous film and a furtherance of his growing majestic aesthetic. There is voiceover narration, but the increased number of voices amplifies the technique. Violence features heavily, but this story centers on an all-out war rather than just the actions of a few. The beauty of the natural world plays a prominent role, but here Malick offers it up as the salvation from human brutality. The Thin Red Line, then, represents the first convergence of the master’s major strengths and concerns. It stands as the greatness that both Badlands and Days of Heaven promised.
So, what then do we make of this violent, broken world? Malick never shies away from depicting destruction and despair – the film’s actual WWII-set backdrop ensures this grounding in the real world. He’s intent on showing that it is in fact humankind that has sown the seeds of its own demise, and this cruelty threatens to bring down the whole earth with it. But, significantly, Malick also reveals that where there is beauty, there is also hope. In the character of Private Witt, Malick offers redemption. The wonder-struck soldier embodies grace, kindness, and sacrificial love – the marks of true humanity, the fulfillment of goodness.
For a Hollywood war film featuring a slew of A-listers, The Thin Red Line is deeply philosophical, inherently spiritual, and breathtakingly beautiful as Malick’s camera captures the wonders of this world to counter those bent on destroying it. Beauty can’t be snuffed out, however, and in the film’s final hopeful shot Malick assures us that life always prevails.
09) La jetée (Dir. Chris Marker, France, 1962)
“There is no escape out of time.”
Made up of not more than a collection of photographs (and one brief, breathtaking clip of footage), Chris Marker’s La jetée somehow manages to be an utterly captivating sci-fi film that offers a fresh perspective on the oft-explored notion of time travel. Moreover, its very construct challenges the traditional ways in which we understand cinema and subsequently offers one of the medium’s most unique works of art. Marker’s film does indeed tell a story relying upon thought provoking voiceover narration and sound effects to accompany the stark black and white stills.
Time travel and post-apocalyptic settings are tired genre clichés today, but in Marker’s eschewal of filmed action or expository dialogue – both major flaws of similarly themed films – he arrives at something much more nuanced and philosophical. Instead of the cataclysmic, widespread implications of traveling through time, La jetée narrows its focus on the effects it might have on one time traveler. In a post-WWIII era, a man is chosen by a clandestine group of progressive scientists to visit both past and future in an attempt to rescue the present. He is haunted by one particular memory from his past that the scientists seek to exploit. When he begins to fall in love with a mysterious woman, his anchor to the past, he wonders what it might take to abandon the present and live with her in the past for good.
A love story and an exploration of the power that memories hold over us, La jetée is a remarkable and unforgettable film that has influenced works as disparate as action flicks, cartoons, and romantic comedies alike. It’s a beautiful meditation on the past and how we remember it, and in its shocking finale, it adds fuel to the flame that is the discussion of how time travel might actually affect us some day.
08) The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, France, 1928)
“Will I be with you tonight in paradise?”
So few films are expertly technically accomplished and achieve depths of powerful emotion, but Carl Theodor Dreyer’s landmark The Passion of Joan of Arc is certainly one of those rare gems. Dreyer broke new ground with this masterpiece by challenging the mainstays of the silent era – he shot performers in extreme close-ups atypically wearing no make-up and incorporated a host of unusual and innovative camera angles to serve the themes and narrative of the film. Furthermore, Dreyer demonstrated an early disavowal of censorship and traditional political correctness in portraying the early Catholic Church as the enemy of his martyred protagonist.
By nature, Joan of Arc is a religious film – as all of Dreyer’s works are in some way – but it is also beautifully human in its portrayal of this divisive religious figure, once despised and now revered. The film reveals very little about the woman’s life or past and is instead entirely concerned with her infamous trial before the French clergymen loyal to the English. The injustice of the trial’s outcome alone is enough to claim Joan of Arc as an unparalleled cinematic tragedy, and yet it’s Maria Falconetti’s iconic performance as the titular heroine that solidifies Dreyer’s film as one of the most emotionally devastating films of all time. Falconetti captures the raw emotion of a figure admirably devoted to her God, yet still terrified as she approaches an imminent, violent end.
If a large number of silent era films haven’t aged as well with the advancement of technology or widespread societal changes in taste, we respect them as the classics all the same. Not so with Dreyer’s Joan of Arc – it’s aged remarkably well and remains one of cinema’s most shattering experiences regardless of its pre-sound, pre-color release date. And, it’s likely it’ll continue to influence new filmmakers as long as the medium remains.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness is a historical epic of the highest order. Its scope is reserved, narrowing in on one particular family affected by the events of the film, but in doing so, Hou manages to touch on the cultural and political crisis of the Taiwanese at a crucial juncture in the nation’s volatile history. The film concerns the 228 Incident and the subsequent White Terror that found native Taiwanese persecuted, imprisoned, and murdered at the hands of the new Chinese mainland government after the handover from Japan in 1945. It’s a complex work that chronicles many actual historical incidents – many of which may be foreign to Western viewers – but Hou’s treatment of the matter as well as his blossoming, engrossing aesthetic elevate City of Sadness to its position as a cinematic masterpiece.
Each of the director’s stylistic flourishes is on full display here – long takes largely comprised of static and medium or wide shots, meditative pacing, and elliptical storytelling. This last point is worth highlighting for though this narrative structure is no invention of Hou’s, Sadness probably features the finest example of it in all of cinema. Much of the action takes place off screen, and crucial events in the life of the Lin family occur within the seconds between scene transitions. Too, his curious use of flashbacks or sometimes-concurrent events sans much context ensures that viewer participation is imperative when engaging Hou’s film.
In this way, Hou has crafted a narrative film like no other. It’s a beautiful portrait of a family that experiences national tragedy on a small scale, but in focusing thus, Hou captures the national climate and identity crisis that has inflicted the small island of Taiwan for generations. The pervasive sentiment looming over City of Sadness is, of course, sorrow, but it’s surely a supreme work of art not to be missed nonetheless.
Challenging the notion of human progress, Stanley Kubrick traverses humankind’s history from our prehistoric ancestors to the imagined future of exploiting the universe’s final frontier in the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick, ever the notorious perfectionist, achieves nothing short of perfection for the first time with this work, one where his pessimistic ideologies meet his characteristically cold, yet striking visual palette. The film is a visually sumptuous feast with images engraved in our collective cultural conscious that could hardly be separated from the classical music pieces that accompany them – a cosmic dance of spacecrafts to Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube,” an ominous monolith appearing to György Ligeti’s terrifying “Requiem,” and, of course, that iconic opening eclipse set to Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”
And, though 2001 is primarily a film of indelible imagery, it’s also one of considerable philosophical depth. Kubrick and screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke intentionally leave much of the film’s most head-scratching sequences wondrously ambiguous – the true meaning of the imposing monolith, an astronaut’s late-film plunge into all-out surrealism, the film’s closing cosmic birth. And yet, each of these images is significant and heavy with implication; nothing ever feels forced or haplessly tossed in for shock value.
What remains even more impressive is that for all its unanswered existential quandaries, 2001 is also probably the most thrilling sci-fi film of all time. There’s no shortage of tension-building, nail-biting moments here: most notably in the film’s longest narrative stretch concerning two deep space explorers and one murderous supercomputer named HAL, but also in the conflicts of the warring apelike beasts in 2001’s first segment, the unexplained threat of the monolith’s secret presence on the moon, or when an astronaut must confront his own identity and time itself as he ventures through a wormhole. It’s intense stuff, but Kubrick captures it all with aplomb.
To get the complete picture of filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s life-affirming tale of a man who stands up to the forces of personal tragedy, poverty, and injustice, it’s imperative to see the entire Apu Trilogy – comprised of Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar – that documents the life of Apu from childhood to adult. But, if there’s one of the three films that stands out and even stands on its own, it’s the story’s first chapter and Ray’s debut feature Pather Panchali.
At its core, the film is a coming-of-age story centered on young Apu as he’s born into an impoverished Bengali family living in early-twentieth century rural India. Ray beautifully and nostalgically captures a world seen through the eyes of a child – the thrill of traveling salesmen and their merchandise from the city, donning a paper-made crown and becoming a ruling prince, turning the natural world around him into his playground, gaping in awe at a train rushing by – and yet Pather Panchali is fleshed out enough to maturely turn its gaze outward as well. Though Apu is the film’s primary concern, Ray also lends ample time to his struggling parents who face both familial and societal pressure to provide a better life for their two children and maintain their crumbling ancestral home.
It’s a powerful and devastating portrait of extreme poverty, more than likely the best depiction of it in all of cinema. Though many films have taken poverty as their central theme, so few do so without sensationalizing turmoil or marginalizing those experiencing it. Ray’s film does neither; it showcases poverty without showboating, and in doing so he deeply humanizes Apu’s family and those the world over who fight to get by from day to day. It wouldn’t be an honest coming-of-age drama without the loss of innocence, and though the reality of death comes to claim those Apu loves, there’s a whiff of hope in the film’s final scene. Ray wondrously suggests there’s always hope when there’s resilience to live.
Abbas Kiarostami has made a career of toying with reality and fiction, blurring the lines to somewhat astounding effects. Many a film later, Close-Up remains his masterpiece. He seamlessly weaves between documentary and narrative as the individuals involved in the true story of a man who dupes a family into believing he’s a famous filmmaker play themselves in a reenactment of the events. That Kiarostami convinced all parties involved – victims, imposter, and peripheral characters – to relive this incident that led to litigation and presumably cajoled the presiding judge to film during the actual proceedings is a feat in and of itself, but it’s what Kiarostami does with this material that elevates the work to a near stroke of genius.
For though the filmmaker impressively plays with cinematic form to tell this story, the finished product is also much, much more than just the sum of its unique parts. It represents a radical shift in documentary filmmaking, and yet it also wily underscores the impossibility of crafting a true documentary – something will always be staged. It’s remarkably sympathetic to all parties involved including the “perpetrator” Sabzian, and yet it never acquits him or others for our human instinct to bend the truth. And, perhaps most cunningly, it’s an (mostly) honest document of actual events, and yet it also plays as a thought-provoking mediation on the farce of cinema itself.
Through these proceedings, Kiarostami seems to suggest that those behind and in front of the camera aren’t that much different than the ambitious Sabzian himself. He may be pretending to be someone he’s not, but aren’t Kiarostami and his crew doing just that any time they set out to craft cinema? In the imposter, it seems, Kiarostami has found the perfect subject for his work and someone through whom he even explores his own identity as a filmmaker.
03) Tokyo Story (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953)
“Isn’t life disappointing?”
Family plays a central role in the entire history of narrative cinema; and it should, because familial relationships – good and bad – are key in making most of us who we are. Fittingly, many of the films on this list deal explicitly with family dynamics, and five in the top ten alone feature a family unit of some sort prominently in their narratives. Of those, Yasujiro Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story ranks as perhaps the greatest family drama in the history of film.
More than any other filmmaker represented on this list, Ozu’s distinct authorial and stylistic traits are on full display in nearly every single one of his films (especially from 1949’s Late Spring onward). They are so easily recognizable that one needn’t be a fan nor film student to guess if he or she is watching an Ozu film. He made a career of mastering domestic dramas concerning postwar middle-class Japanese families with a handful of oft-repeated dilemmas. He shot most of them similarly with meticulously staged static shots filmed at his innovative tatami-level angle. Yet, with this relative homogeneity in his works, each one is distinct enough and crafted expertly enough that it never feels as though he’s simply repeating himself.
And, though a number of his late-period films are worth dissecting and revisiting again and again, none is as deeply profound, heartbreaking, or poignant as Tokyo Story. The many themes he explored throughout his career – Japan’s recovery and developing modernity, shifting societal mores, pressure to marry off daughters, generational miscommunication – all converge here in one succinct story. But, at its heart, it’s the heart-wrenching story of aging parents irresponsibly cast aside by their grown children and the natural consequences that befall them for shirking familial duty. No major conflicts or life events occur onscreen over the course of Tokyo Story; no, Ozu’s work is too subtle for that. Instead, he beautifully crafts the greatest treatise on family and the generations that come before and after with all the familiar touchstones of his mighty career – one that has solidified him as one of cinema’s most revered masters.
At once beautiful and tragic, Wong Kar-wai’s greatest film delicately balances its engaging narrative with the filmmaker’s stunning visual aesthetic better than most films on this list. Wong is a daring artist; one with a bold vision that shaped late-twentieth century cinema, and In the Mood for Love remains one of the most important films of this new century. If the age of film will be remembered for how it evoked memories, courted nostalgia, and altered our perception of time even if just for the two hours when the theatre lights went dim, then Wong’s film is a miniature time capsule of cinema itself.
Concerned with the memories that haunt our pasts and inherently nostalgic for the days of eras gone by, In the Mood for Love tells a timeless tale of love – an accidental romance that creeps up on its two unsuspecting characters. Bolstered by touching performances by his impeccable leads, Wong’s film transports us to the Hong Kong of the early Sixties as he uses this backdrop to explore his usual themes of urban alienation and emotional longing.
In addition to superb performances from Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung and the intricately woven narrative that Wong weaves, In the Mood for Love is also a film of unforgettable images – lonely neighbors separately walking in slow motion to a noodle stand, a polite dinner that turns to confession, Cheung’s parade of gorgeous dresses, two near-lovers standing in the shadows of a dimly lit alley, the pair silently trapped in a room waiting for the end of a marathon mahjong game, billowy crimson drapes concealing a secret rendezvous, a dashing Leung smoking against a brick wall, the haunted corridors of Angkor Wat. The love between Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow may never materialize into a future together, but they – and we – will never forget the fleeting moments they shared.
“Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”
Film has long been excused as little more than just entertainment. Over the years, the other art forms have fared better. Sure, there are bargain bin novels and radio fodder pop, but no one argues the merits of Tolstoy or Mozart. Why then is it so difficult for the masses to accept Welles or Kubrick or Kiarostami or Malick as artists? Perhaps, we resist because film is the newest. Music, literature, dance, painting, sculpting, and theatre have been around for centuries, but the cinema for not more than a hundred and a few years. Movies are often viewed as the diminution of novels or less sophisticated than plays, and admittedly blockbuster studio productions don’t do the medium any favors. But, I along with likeminded cinephiles wager that film – just like the art forms that came before – can be art and should be considered as such.
Enter director Terrence Malick. His films don’t strike a chord with many. They’ve often been labeled inaccessible and pretentious, but I would argue that we’ve approached them incorrectly. Malick, it seems, speaks a cinematic language of his own, and he attempts to craft works of art that are distinctly filmic. Take for example his magnum opus and my favorite film The Tree of Life. The story at the film’s center is intentionally simple, but as a film – and not a play or novel – Malick transforms it into an experience like no other. Exploring themes as heavy as the genesis of life, the existence of God, and the struggle between the way of nature and the way of grace, The Tree of Life boasts some of the most breathtaking visuals and gorgeous music ever committed to film. Thus, more than any other film on this list, The Tree of Life makes the case for cinema as art for it could only exist as a film. It’s as beautiful to look at as a painting and as delightful to listen to as a symphony, but also something more – a wondrous fusion of the visual arts that can effectively and poignantly tell a story through a rush of images, symbolism, pieces of music, philosophy, voiceover narration, and inspired performances. It’s a film that seeks to engage the whole person as he or she sits back to take it all in. And, in doing so, Malick has more than likely created the greatest film ever made.
20) Make Way for Tomorrow (Dir. Leo McCarey, United States, 1937)
“Honor thy father and mother.”
Any film significant enough to influence cinematic master Yasujiro Ozu is undoubtedly worthy of our attention today in spite of its accepted “forgotten classic” status. And, though Ozu’s arguable opus Tokyo Story and Leo McCarey’s early Hollywood masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow share a central concern regarding the treatment of the elderly, the filmmakers take their similarly themed narratives in separate directions. Ozu’s film charts the widespread national changes in a post-war Japan within the context of one family whose grown children find their pace and modern way of life suddenly inconsistent with the slower, more traditional manner in which their aging parents still live.
McCarey’s film likewise anticipates this gap in generational understanding, but he’s far more concerned with the trajectory of the relationship between the father and mother than he is the one between parents and their ungrateful children, though he poignantly captures that too. McCarey’s story is a beautifully tender tale of new romance as its septuagenarian couple rediscovers their love when faced with an unexpected, perhaps definite separation.
The stark contrast between Make Way for Tomorrow and more well-established canonical classics is staggering. Where other Hollywood staples from American cinema’s supposed golden age have all but faded in relevance, McCarey’s remains surprisingly fresh. Its depiction of romantic love between two elderly characters is still unparalleled in film today, and its challenge of the traditional family unit still shocks. And, McCarey’s ability to oscillate between humor and tragedy, sometimes within the course of a few lines of memorable dialogue, elevates his film from trite cliché or pandering sentimentalism, but it achieves considerable depths of pathos to remain of cinema’s most emotionally devastating works of art.
19) M (Dir. Fritz Lang, Germany, 1931)
“I can’t help what I do!”
In Fritz Lang’s M, little Elsie Beckmann is in grave danger when there’s a twisted child killer on the loose. And, Lang stages one of the most unsettling, yet effective sequences in all of cinema as he introduces the murderer by way of his shadow on his own wanted poster all while the girl’s mother, waiting at home, grows increasingly anxious regarding her daughter’s tardiness. Finally, a static shot of the girl’s empty dinner chair gives way to a pair of shots of her ball rolling away and her balloon getting caught in telephone wires. It’s a terrifying and audacious introduction to this chilling cat-and-mouse tale that still stuns audiences today.
The film follows the police as they desperately try to catch this criminal, the murderer – played to eerie perfection by Peter Lorre in a career-high performance – as he evades his captors, and the city’s organized underworld of crime as it too bands together to oust this chief of sinners. The tension builds, and Lang’s shifting camera catches these three sides from every possible angle in the proto-noir style he helped pioneer. It also remains one of the most thrilling early talkies with its densely layered soundtrack as well as intentionally disturbing bouts of silence.
But, what really sets M apart from its contemporaries and the films it influenced is its unexpected finale that finds criminals in the judge’s seat as they get to the killer before the authorities. In front of a host of wrongdoers and even other murderers, this child killer’s sins are laid bare, and when a plea of insanity finds the man on hands and knees, Lang draws our attention to the great hypocrisy unfolding that may even garner our sympathy for this mentally unstable individual in desperate need of help. We’re left to wonder: are our lives free enough of blemishes that we might cast the first stone?
“You want to give it all up? You want to give up the taste of cherries?”
So few filmmakers extol the preciousness of life without sinking to the tropes of melodrama or pandering sentimentalism, but the work of Abbas Kiarostami is a welcome exception. His entire Nineties output found ways to celebrate life – whether amidst the aftermath of a devastating earthquake as in Life, And Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees, or in the juxtaposition of differing traditions in The Wind Will Carry Us, or when a person decides to end his own life as in his masterpiece Taste of Cherry.
Notably more linear than his other Nineties triumph Close-Up, Taste of Cherry is still by no means an easy or readily accessible film. Its story wanders as its subject drives around Tehran looking for someone to bury his body after he commits suicide. Understandably turned down by most people he encounters, Mr. Badii’s story becomes a meditation on life and death as three different men give very different reasons for their disapproval of his actions. It’s not the first two men’s objections – a fear of the law and an appeal to religious morality – that give him reason to pause and reflect, but the third man’s focus on all that Badii would give up if he gave up on life. The sun rising over the horizon, the sound of children playing, the taste of cherries – the small wonders are what make life worth living.
The fate of our protagonist is intentionally vague. Kiarostami’s penchant for viewer participation is never more apparent than here. He invites us to finish the story, and what we as an audience bring to the table will provide Badii’s story with a proper conclusion. And, lest we forget that we’re just watching a movie, Kiarostami brilliantly reminds us in the film’s subversive final moments that still have fans scratching their heads to this day.
17) Stalker (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1979)
“A man writes because he’s tormented, because he doubts.”
The films of Andrei Tarkovsky – pioneer of slow, contemplative cinema – are challenging to say the least. Though the director often worked in established genres – war films (Ivan’s Childhood), historical epics (Andrei Rublev), science fiction (Solaris), apocalyptic tragedy (The Sacrifice) – he merely utilized these well-trodden tropes to explore matters of self, the universe, and beyond. Inspired by the likes of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman who never shied away from honestly engaging Christian faith, Tarkovsky also crafted some of cinema’s most profoundly philosophical and religious films. His greatest film, Stalker, finds the filmmaker dipping into the deepest recesses of that spiritual well.
As with his masterpiece Solaris, Tarkovsky again offers his own take on sci-fi with Stalker as an eccentric guide leads a jaded writer and a solemn professor into the realm of the Zone – a restricted area that conceals the untold mysteries of the alien force that created it. Of course, these fictitious elements matter very little to the cinematic philosophizer who makes brilliant use of his long-take aesthetic and the heady discourse exchanged between his man of faith, man of science, and man of the arts to force his audience into deep contemplation.
Faith – in God, in science, in artistic pursuit – plays an integral role in the journey of these three men. Each of them enters the Zone in desperate need of answers, but each of them also crucially fears what he might find. Stalker, then, is not only a fascinating entry in the expansive canon of cinematic sci-fi, but also one of the most thought-provoking films ever produced. Its narrative wanders, its existential quandaries are bookended by ellipses, and its ending is, to some, frustratingly irresolute, but more than most of the other films on this list it sticks with its viewers for days, if not weeks, after it ends.
16) Ordet (Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)
“Is it crazy to wish to rescue life?”
Heavily influenced by his strict Christian upbringing, Carl Th. Dreyer’s entire oeuvre grapples with matters of faith and tradition in one way or another. But, none can contend with the religious complexity of his masterpiece Ordet. Skewering Christianity is easy and frankly uninspired in film today, but Dreyer opts for something different here. He gives nearly every side – clergy, science, fundamentalism, agnosticism – a voice as each must reckon with a tragedy that hits close to home.
These disparate viewpoints realistically inhabit the very lifelike world Dreyer creates both in the rich complexity of his characterizations and the unparalleled masterful staging he utilizes to populate his frame. If Dreyer revolutionized the use of the close-up in his earlier work The Passion of Joan of Arc, then Ordet finds him conquering the medium wide shot. The film, then, inevitably bears a theatrical quality as Dreyer maximizes his actors’ performances for heavy emotional impact. And yet, Dreyer’s work is unmistakably cinematic. His use of stark lighting and shadows is staggering, effectively haunting. Even when his characters escape the home where the majority of the film’s narrative transpires into the open air, the weight of his material still manages to suffocate.
For though there are enough dramatic cues and genuine pathos to engage his audience, Ordet is also deeply contemplative and metaphorical. Dreyer foregrounds dichotomies that divide humankind: science and faith, rich and poor, progressivism and tradition. And yet, strip away these classist, religious, and academic divisions and everyone must face the reality of life and death. It is in this final polarity that Dreyer discovers what it truly means to be human – we all must meet death one day, but as long as there is life, we should try to live it.
Though others tried their hand at it before and since, there is only one director so closely associated with the samurai film: Akira Kurosawa. And, though his contributions to the Japanese sub-genre were many – Rashômon, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and Ran to name a few of the most celebrated – he’s best known (and rightly so) for one of his earliest: Seven Samurai. An epic in every sense of the word, Kurosawa’s film remains the legendary director’s greatest achievement precisely because it features everything he did best: elaborate sets and costumes, expertly choreographed battle sequences, caricature-like yet rich characterizations, a fine balance of romanticism surrounding samurai and accurately portraying the despair of feudalism, and a tinge of late-film cynicism regarding humanity.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to even imagine the last fifty years or so of cinema without it. Seven Samurai, with its narrative comprised of hero recruitment and a central goal to unify them, has remained wildly influential shaping pockets of cinema as disparate as the American western and Pixar. It’s brilliant mix of thrills and philosophy make it one entertaining ride full of raw human emotion, humor, excitement, and even tragedy. It also stands as one of the few films nearing the four-hour mark that never bores or falters even for a minute.
Kurosawa famously collaborated with two Japanese greats during his career – Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune – and with Seven Samurai he brings them together to deliver career-high performances as the polar opposite leaders of the ragtag band of samurai enlisted to protect a small and ultimately ungrateful village. The film may end on a note of sadness, but everything that comes before ensures that Kurosawa’s greatest film won’t disappoint.
Certainly one of the most ambitious films of all time, Jacques Tati’s Playtime is unquestionably a feat of filmmaking to be admired. Tati famously refused to compromise his vision for his fourth feature film, thus he shot on 70mm and constructed the enormous sets seen in the film – structures so large, the lot garnered the nickname Tativille. So, what could possibly be on the director’s mind for another amusing outing for his character Monsieur Hulot that nearly bankrupted his financiers?
For all intents and purposes, Playtime is a comedy – not perhaps in the way we typically think, but rather in the spirit of silent films that relied upon visual comedy. Furthermore, Tati never resorts to slapstick or vulgar jokes for a laugh, but instead opts for subtle sight gags to satirize our rapidly modernizing world. M. Hulot is on a mission, though during the course of the film we never learn as to why. But, no matter, for his presence is merely an excuse to plop him in the midst of this chaotic and complicated age. Hulot visits an office building, an expo, an apartment complex, and a brand new restaurant, and slowly Tati reveals the utter insanity of his day’s hurried and cluttered way of life.
Modernity, however, is skewered only gently; there’s no resistance to technological advancement here. Instead, it seems Tati hopes we might laugh right along with him at the ensuing confusion as a shoddily constructed upscale restaurant falls to pieces as patrons arrive, or as urban residents gawk at their TV screens where their gaze has been permanently fixed, or, in the film’s final sequence, as a tour bus full of American tourists enters a traffic circle resembling a carousel and spins into a whirl of societal conformity. The film’s called Playtime after all, and Tati seems to make the best of our increasingly bizarre and overly complicated world. In the early years of a social media saturated twenty-first century, Tati’s work seems more pertinent than ever.
13) Vertigo (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, United States, 1958)
“If I let you change me…will you love me?”
Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Vertigo is a stunner if there ever was one. It’s a film that demands to be seen to be believed, for on paper several aspects might raise a few eyebrows. Jimmy Stewart as a demented, obsessive lover? A Hitchcock film without any of the dry humor that propelled Rear Window to success? A murder mystery that gives away its startling reveal half way through the film? Any one of these features may leave viewers wondering how Vertigo has become the master’s most highly regarded work.
And yet, without a doubt, Vertigo remains an unparalleled triumph in Hitchcock’s untouchable career. Utilizing a fairly simple narrative revolving around a rather convoluted murder plot, the director lathers on layers of psychological depth as Stewart’s retired police officer Scottie becomes unhinged after the death of the object of his desire Madeleine. Matters grow complicated when Judy, resembling his former love, walks into his life, and Hitchcock explores the notions of dualities and dangerous obsession.
It’s difficult to articulate what one thing makes Vertigo tick, for it’s ultimately a sum of its extraordinary pieces – a tightly wound thriller with a killer twist, a deeply unsettling and effective performance from Stewart, Bernard Herrmann’s perfectly eerie score, a lush Technicolor palette, and the sustained dread that we as the audience have no idea where Hitchcock is taking us as the film spirals deeper and deeper into its protagonist’s troubled psyche. Ultimately, Vertigo is a rather grim affair, but Hitchcock masterfully turns this material into utterly gripping stuff – easily one of the most thoroughly accomplished films of all time.
12) Citizen Kane (Dir. Orson Welles, United States, 1941)
“If I hadn’t been rich, I might have been a really great man.”
Greatest film of all time? Who can really say with something so subjective? But, there’s a good reason Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane repeatedly appears at the top. Innovative in its technical aspects and its non-linear narrative, Kane set the stage for decades of experiments in cinema to come. Moreover, during his career Welles was a force to be reckoned with. Though his later films such as The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady from Shanghai were plagued by studio interference and unfortunate edits, he was the sole driver behind the wheel of his debut. In addition to directing, writing, and acting in Kane, the studio granted him an unprecedented amount of control over the final cut. Thus, the film may have unintentionally triggered the notion of director as true auteur for Welles’ unmistakable touch is all over this masterpiece.
Revisionist history has tried to downplay the influence of Kane, just as some cranky audiophiles attempt to disrepute The Beatles today, but I don’t believe cinematic history will allow it. Its technical achievements are still hard to miss – low-angle cinematography, impressive use of lighting and shadow, the extensive use of deep focus camerawork. These hallmarks of the classic, along with the bold narrative structure, are in full use in Hollywood to this day. To say Kane is influential is simply an understatement.
And yet, perhaps what remains more often unsaid is what makes Welles’ film such an enduring work of art – the enigma that is Charles Foster Kane himself. Welles wrote one of film’s very best characters in this complex newspaper tycoon who’s barely understood by his closest friends and family, and who’s none the more explained by film’s end. This characterization is Welles’ greatest trick and one that makes Citizen Kane a film worth watching again and again and again.
Set only a few years after the events of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness, Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day plays like a spiritual sequel to that film, documenting another significant time period for the nation of Taiwan. Newcomers from mainland China and native Taiwanese continued to struggle toward a peaceful coexistence after the Japanese handover in 1945 well into the Sixties. Yang’s film, then, lends a voice not primarily to the men and women on either side of the divide, but rather to these people’s children. The youth at the center of the film – born during the time of this monumental political and cultural shift – are growing up without any sense of a unified identity. Thus, many of them turn to gangs to find their worth and appropriate Western pop culture to fill the void where there is none.
Yang’s film is an epic in scale – nearly four hours with hundreds of speaking roles – and yet it never overwhelms or appears overly ambitious. For like City of Sadness, Yang chooses to focus on how these national changes affect a few. At the center is the young Xiao Si’r (played impeccably by newcomer and future star Chang Chen) along with his family and friends as he wrestles with establishing his own identity and leaving a mark as gang leaders die off and become martyrs for their causes.
At once a poignant depiction of youth and a heartbreaking account of Taiwan’s tumultuous history, Yang’s hefty Summer Day shines brightly despite its dreary tone and aesthetic. Some may find Yang’s signature long takes and literary narrative a bit laborious, but the film more than earns every minute of its lengthy runtime featuring some of the finest child performances put to film and one of the most sincere portraits of the loss of innocence with an ending that packs a heavy emotional punch.
When I launched this site, I posted a mostly unranked list of my seventy-five favorite films. It was a good list, one that captured what I was interested in at the time. And, though my tastes haven’t change much since, I’ve decided to update and rank the list narrowing the focus even more to just fifty films. It includes many of those on the first, but a few I’ve either revisited or discovered for the first time this year. Consider those that didn’t quite make the cut this time around my #51-75.
My most revered filmmakers remain the same. Alfred Hitchcock, Abbas Kiarostami, Terrence Malick, and Yasujiro Ozu each have three. (It was painful to whittle down Kiarostami and Malick’s oeuvres unfortunately cutting Life, And Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, Certified Copy, Badlands, and The New World.) Carl Th. Dreyer, Satyajit Ray, Eric Rohmer, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Wong Kar-wai each have two.
To cap off a decade of fantastic cinema, Abbas Kiarostami gave us one of his very finest with The Wind Will Carry Us – a riveting meditation on the urban/rural divide. The film’s protagonist leaves his stressful professional life as a journalist in Tehran to capture a traditional funeral ritual in a far-off village. There his patience is tested as he quickly discovers he must bend his own will to the ways of the villagers, and not the other way around. As usual Kiaromstami plays with cinematic form to trace this narrative; and as always, the story turns to one of celebrating and affirming the art of living.
Treading familiar territory, Ozu’s final film is also fittingly one his finest in a long career of masterpieces. An Autumn Afternoon is a reworking of his earlier Late Spring, but this time around the story’s voice has shifted to that of the father losing his daughter to marriage. A few welcome subplots involving the patriarch’s other children fill out this narrative and result in one of Ozu’s finest portraits of then modern-day Tokyo life – a city grappling with major change while its inhabitants navigate the waters of tradition giving way to modernity.
48) Sherlock, Jr. (Dir. Buster Keaton, United States, 1924)
In his most entertaining and most endearing film, Buster Keaton humorously maximizes the limitations of the silent era and capitalizes on the outlandishness of his comedy by framing a good portion of the story as a dream sequence – to this day unparalleled in its influential approach. Vaudevillian tricks and puzzling editing techniques create the illusions we see on screen, and it still stuns when we see Keaton climb up on stage and walk into the screen at his local movie theatre. The comedic master may be remembered best for The General, but it’s Sherlock, Jr. that boasts the finest distillation of his best qualities.
The appeal of Claire Denis’ Beau travail is in its mystery. Sparse dialogue and a careful pacing tell this story of jealousy, lust, and abandonment set against the backdrop of post-colonial eastern Africa. Sgt. Galoup holds nothing but contempt for the new recruit named Sentain – a younger, more popular, more handsome man than Galoup could ever hope to be. When this destructive jealousy drives him to the edge, he commits a terrible act that has irreversible consequences. Denis’ film is a meditation on many themes, but its visual narrative is one to be deeply admired.
Destined for not more than the fourth wife of a wealthy landowner, Songlian is a tragic figure in Zhang Yimou’s breathtaking Raise the Red Lantern – a film that is at once a biting social critique on China’s devaluation of women, a study in the power of tradition, and a canvas for some of the most gorgeous visuals committed to film. Songlian and the other wives deceive and betray one another seeking preferential treatment and the affection of their distant husband. It’s a powerful film, but also one of great subtlety.
45) Rear Window (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, United States, 1954)
Before Hitchcock took a dive into truly dark territory with Vertigo and Psycho, his light-hearted romance set against a neighborhood whodunit that is Rear Window revealed his unequivocal skills as a filmmaker like none of his other works before. Effectively claustrophobic and meticulously controlled, Hitchcock’s film takes place entirely within an apartment with a view of the courtyard below. That he manages to construct a rather suspenseful murder mystery within these confines (with humor and charm to boot) speaks to this legend’s vast array of talents.
Often lauded as the last decade’s best film, David Lynch’s surrealistic tale of love and loss in Hollywood is complex, sexy, stylish, noirish, and thrilling all at once. Naomi Watts shines as both Betty and Diane, possibly split personalities or one a dream version of the other. The intrigue lies in this intentional ambiguity. Lynch offers no extra-film details to speak of, thus since its release, the Internet has been abuzz with possible solutions to the puzzle – one that will likely never be fully solved and one that is worth revisiting again and again.
Mainland China’s first cinematic masterpiece still resonates today. Its central conflict between bowing to tradition and pursuing personal happiness clashed with the growing Communist ideal that sought to snuff out any semblance of social individualism. But, today Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town is as relevant as ever as its delicate story challenges the conventions of arranged marriages versus marrying for love. But, in refusing to assign simplistic designations of protagonist or antagonist, Fei’s film is remarkably balanced as it seeks to show how one woman’s choice might affect everyone around her.
42) My Neighbor Totoro (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1988)
The halcyon days of mid-century simplicity out in the Japanese countryside are alive in Miyazaki’s delightfully nostalgic My Neighbor Totoro. Devoid of easily defined villains or major plot devices, Miyazaki’s film is truly that rare film for all ages – neither beholden to children’s movie clichés nor overly serious. It’s a simple fable of rich spirituality, tender familial relationships, and the splendor of childhood imagination. It boasts some of the master’s most memorable characters in the cuddly Totoro, the mysterious soot sprites, and the grinning Catbus.
41) The Green Ray (Dir. Eric Rohmer, France, 1986)
Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray is a wondrously subtle film of deep spirituality that beautifully chronicles the struggle of uncovering one’s identity and providing a welcome parable for finding yourself in the Christian faith. Delphine’s worry over where to spend her vacation may at first read like first world problems, but as the story unfolds it becomes more and more apparent that this central issue is merely a façade for an intense personal struggle waging war inside of her.
40) The Battle of Algiers (Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria, 1966)
You’d be forgiven if you thought you were watching a documentary while viewing Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Channeling a rather gripping verisimilitude using mostly non-actors, Pontecorvo chronicles the fight for Algerian independence from France with an intensity that makes for a surprisingly nail-biting experience. Pontecorvo wisely dispenses with preaching and reveals that both sides were equally capable of acts of brutality. The director allows us very little time to care for its many characters, but the strength of their cause is enough to have us all rooting for freedom by film’s end.
39) The Rules of the Game (Dir. Jean Renoir, France, 1939)
Capturing the absurdity of French classicism (and effectively pissing off the French government), director Jean Renoir sheds light on the stark divisions of the lower and upper classes in his comical The Rules of the Game. The film is at once biting satire and also a showcase of brilliant and intriguing characterizations (notably the loveable Octave played by Renoir himself). Renoir’s characters, both seated at the dinner table and scurrying about the servants’ quarters, strive to do whatever they please, but at the end of the day will always bow to the strict societal rules that govern their lives.
Launching his post-war career with Late Spring, Yasujiro Ozu establishes the style and themes that would go on to mark the remainder of his work with this heart-wrenching tale of a father and daughter relationship. The pair lives happily together, but societal pressure forces them to reconsider their positions – tradition tells them the father should remarry and the daughter should marry and start her own family. Ozu creates a beautiful character in Noriko, a kind-hearted woman seemingly not in control of her own life as her family plans her future for her, but an individual of such strong character that she chooses to please her family even if it costs her own happiness.
A mother’s song and her undying love lead her son into her arms in one of cinema’s both heart-wrenching tragedies. Sansho the Bailiff is Kenji Mizoguchi’s opus, at one an enthralling jidai-geki refreshingly not revolved around samurai heroics and a powerful humanist drama that beautifully comments on humankind’s potential for mercy. The film’s subtext may be historically inaccurate, but given its release it’s likely no wonder Mizoguchi infused his feudal era epic with post-war appeals to human decency.
With Charulata, master Satyajit Ray paints a portrait of a lonely housewife who falls for her inattentive husband’s cousin against the backdrop of colonial India. Ray’s film is progressively sympathetic to young Charu’s position, depicting her as both an individual deserving of love and a strong woman with an important voice. And, though the story belongs primarily to Charu (played magnificently by Madhabi Mukherjee), Ray wisely never demonizes the men in her life. All three major characters stand to learn something valuable about themselves and shifting gender roles.
35) The House Is Black (Dir. Forough Farrokhzad, Iran, 1962)
She may have only made one film before her untimely death as a blossoming young artist, but Forough Farrokhzad’s powerful documentary-short The House Is Black about a leper colony on the outskirts of Tehran whose patients are typically ostracized from society is heart-wrenching stuff. Her wildly unique style influenced the greats Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi; thus as a fan of those two, I’ll too forever be indebted to this unforgettable little film. No film before or since has humanized a group of people just as deserving of love and respect as any other.
34) Chungking Express (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994)
Forget Pulp Fiction, Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express is the definition of ‘90s cool. Stylish, colorful, and kinetic, Express manages to be many things all at once: a portrait of modern life in Hong Kong, an impressive feat of dazzling cinematography, and a two-sided tale of love and loss in the big city. The story of a cop faced with the expiry of a relationship who falls for a mysterious woman in a blond wig entertains us through the first half, but the film’s second half steals the show as Faye Wong’s annoyingly charming snack bar attendant jams to “California Dreamin’” and breaks into Tony Leung’s apartment.
Colonialism left the entire continent of Africa marred by the effects of Western infiltration, and though it’s unfair to lump nations as disparate as Senegal, South Africa, and Sudan into one category, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki is probably the best film on post-colonial Africa in the history of cinema. Mambéty captures a nation grappling with its Western influence and an encroaching modernity in its French New Wave-riffing style, yet provides ample screen time to the rural and traditional ways of Senegalese life. In this juxtaposition, Mambéty has created one of the finest films on the rural/urban divide.
Philosophy and religious debate have never been more seamlessly woven into the dialogue of a film than in Rohmer’s masterpiece My Night at Maud’s. Ever known for his talky films featuring the intellectual elite, one might assume his work comes across as lofty and cold. Not so – the conversations in Maud’s are heady, but refreshingly so. The characters are complex, but they’re also all the more real. And, though our four major characters delve into Pascal and modern liberalism, the moral quandary at the film’s center is remarkably simple. It’s as if Rohmer asks us: what would you do?
31) The Third Man (Dir. Carol Reed, United Kingdom, 1949)
Though a little late to the game, Carol Reed’s The Third Man nonetheless remains the finest film noir in cinematic history. Whether it be the zithers or Orson Welles’ turn as the fiendish Harry Lime or its fitting post-war setting or that famous closing shot of complete rejection, Reed’s film stands out amongst its contemporaries. The film’s crowning achievement, however, can be witnessed in the late-film chase sequence underground. A stark glowing light illuminates the jet-black tunnels as Lime scurries about evading the police. It’s quintessential film noir.