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?
18) Taste of Cherry (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)
“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.
15) Seven Samurai (Dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)
“Again we are defeated.”
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.
14) Playtime (Dir. Jacques Tati, France, 1967)
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.
11) A Brighter Summer Day (Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1991)
“Is life really that hard?”
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.