Panahi’s Tehran

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On the Five Films of Jafar Panahi Before the Ban

Since my first viewing of the radically paradigm-shifting This Is Not a Film in 2012 (my first encounter with the artist), I have become a devout Jafar Panahi evangelist. Between then and now I’ve made it my mission to get my hands on everything he’s directed, and unsurprisingly the films that comprise his small oeuvre prior to the events detailed in his above-mentioned modern masterpiece and most easily recognized film are nothing short of astonishing. And, though I too would consider This Is Not a Film his greatest work yet (its follow-up Closed Curtain a close second; still waiting to see this past year’s similarly lauded Taxi), it’s a shame that the five films leading up to Panahi’s infamous, yet unexpectedly fruitful ban from filmmaking don’t get the attention they deserve. There are those who dismiss This Is Not a Film entirely, citing its unlikely release (smuggled out of the country on a USB drive baked into a cake) as the sole reason for its welcome critical reception and elevated status over his previous efforts. And, though I strongly disagree with this borderline pretentious dismissal, I do believe This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain are better understood and more fully appreciated in light of what came before.

From his Cannes-approved debut The White Balloon in 1995 to the boundary-pushing Offside in 2006 that ultimately pushed the Iranian government too far, Panahi’s first five films are each impressive works in their own right and together paint a compelling portrait of modern-day Tehran – at once a bustling metropolis full of life and a major urban center plagued by corruption and injustice and in need of widespread change. Whether he’s mining unexpected comedy from his subjects’ frank dialogue or depicting harsh societal realities with his neorealist-influenced style or toying with cinematic form à la Abbas Kiarostami (an inevitable comparison in any discussion of Panahi’s output), it’s clear the filmmaker is a firm believer in the power of his craft. Why else would he risk further consequences by defying his ban not once, but thrice so far? Certainly, the circumstances surrounding the director’s tragically stunted career don’t automatically create meaningful cinema, but when the art is this intelligent, challenging, and utterly captivating it’s nearly impossible to overlook Panahi’s multi-film treatise on the great city of Tehran.


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The White Balloon (1995)

After directing a few short films and serving as assistant director on Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, Jafar Panahi was ready to shoot his first feature length film. The White Balloon was destined to entertain comparisons to Kiarostami’s work, especially since the Iranian master helped his protégé secure funding and penned the script for Panahi’s debut. It also likely conjured memories of Kiarostami’s own recent Where Is the Friend’s Home? that put him on the map in the previous decade due to both works featuring a young child at the center with a seemingly minor conflict that sets both narratives in motion. (It’s well-known now that producing films about children helped Iranian filmmakers dodge censorship given the sheer number of restrictions on filming the interactions of adult men and women, especially in domestic settings.) And yet, from the film’s opening shot Panahi was poised to establish his own authorial voice distinct from that of his mentor.

For one, as the film opens the camera moves, fluidly, almost rapidly – something Kiarostami almost never allowed – as a concerned-looking woman (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy) weaves in and out of a crowd of shoppers and revelers on the eve of Nowruz (the Iranian New Year) searching for her wandering daughter. Though one may not notice upon first viewing, Panahi also introduces us to most of the supporting characters young Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) will cross paths with over the course of the film as they populate this scene-setting prelude. From the first moments of his first film, Panahi sets the stage for a body of work concerned with these chance encounters significant enough to alter our own individual paths no matter how briefly, thus painting a wholly realistic portrait of a world where every passerby has a story, and no one person’s story is more important than another’s. This is crucial in understanding how Panahi handles his characters. The shifting perspectives at the end of The White Balloon, early on in Offside, and most noticeably throughout The Circle may be jarring at first, but in the context of his greater canon, it reveals a remarkably generous attitude toward his fellow human being. Everyone has a story; and choosing to tell stories of those most often ignored – children, women, ethnic minorities – has defined Panahi’s pleasingly inclusive work ever since.

This is no more evident in his debut than in The White Balloon’s much-discussed finale that pushes his loose narrative into near-tragic territory to cap off an otherwise adorable tale of a relatively minor problem for two children. After Razieh and her brother Ali (Mohsen Kafili) finally convince someone to help them retrieve their money that’s fallen into a roadside gutter, the pair hurriedly vacates the frame abandoning their savior on the side of the road to purchase that coveted goldfish. Panahi’s camera, however, doesn’t leave with them. It rests on the unnamed Afghan boy (Aliasghar Smadi) who lent the siblings his rod bearing balloons for sale and purchased them chewing gum to pull the banknote from the gutter. Razieh and Ali walk back through the frame with the plump goldfish in hand and right past the balloon seller once more without an offer for repayment or even a “thank you.” Panahi’s film ends here on a final sustained freeze-frame of the boy as he picks himself up to leave with one last white balloon over his shoulder.

It’s a surprisingly ambiguous finale for a mostly straightforward film, and yet there’s unmistakably a reason behind Panahi’s audacious choice to title his film after a narratively unrelated object that stays with us through the end credits. Throughout The White Balloon, we’re captivated by this silly story of a little girl who loses a rather insignificant amount of money – a feat of bravura filmmaking to be sure. Panahi frames Razieh’s problem as a major conflict worthy of our time in his well-chosen camera angles from the eye-level of small children (positing the world as quite literally larger than life), capturing two tremendous performances from Mohammadkhani and Kafili, and infusing his narrative with a sense of urgency set in real time against a countdown to the New Year. And yet, what’s perhaps more impressive than convincing his audience to care this much is dramatically subverting our expectations when Razieh and Ali no longer deserve our sympathy.

In the film’s final shot, our allegiances shift to that of the balloon seller. When Razieh and Ali get what they want, they leave and head home for the New Year celebrations. As the flummoxed young vendor pauses before standing to leave, we’re left to ponder his circumstances. As a minority, more than likely a refugee, the boy may not have the luxury of taking a break from his work or even celebrating with family that may or may not be with him in Tehran. Is Panahi’s choice to linger on this boy’s situation a subtle form of politicizing? Raising awareness for the plight of a group of individuals most often cast aside in society? Given the number of openly political films that followed The White Balloon, it doesn’t seem that farfetched to imagine these as the director’s veiled intentions. It’s a powerful and bold statement in a political climate that rarely favors artistic freedom of expression, and one that sheds light on the wildly diverse city of Tehran.


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The Mirror (1997)

For his sophomore feature The Mirror, Panahi furthers both his concern for the affairs of small children and his exploration of Iranian society through the microcosm of a few bustling streets in Tehran. The setup is remarkably simple: a young girl (Mina Mohammadkhani, notably the younger sister of the protagonist in The White Balloon) grows increasingly worried when her mother fails to pick her up after school and decides to try to find her way home on her own. In the film’s first half, Panahi once again thrills with his roving camera, unearths a profoundly sympathetic performance in his convincing lead, and widens the scope established in The White Balloon to capture fleeting, minor moments between peripheral characters that populate Panahi’s Tehran. There are compelling fragments of untold stories here – a man who offers the girl a ride who may or may not get in a motorcycle accident, a love-struck couple swapping glances separated by the gender divide on public transportation, a bitter elderly woman bemoaning the way her children treat her – as Mina bumps into various individuals on her way home.

At first, The Mirror may appear to be nothing more than a variant on Panahi’s winsome debut, but a sudden mid-film outburst from the film’s subject is sure to keep viewers on their toes. After Mina finds her way onto yet another bus that might take her in the right direction, she stares seemingly innocuously at the camera only for a voice off-screen to bluntly exclaim, “Mina don’t look at the camera!” No sooner, little Mina throws her bag down, tears off her fake cast, and declares that she no longer wishes to be in the movie. The bus stops to let her off, the film stock changes, the crew comes into view, and the audience is left completely stunned. The illusion of cinema has been gloriously shattered as Panahi and his crew hurriedly decide what to do next. When Mina stubbornly demands to leave the set and walk home herself, Panahi convinces a few members of the crew to pile into a car and follow her since she accidentally left her mike on. The film, then, takes on a dramatically different visual tone as the girl is mostly shot from a distance as cars and passersby at times obscure the camera’s view of her.

And yet, as Mina soon confesses to a passing taxi driver, she does actually need some directions getting home. Gone is the façade that her mother picks her up at school and that she’s worried about finding her way home, but essentially the film’s second half picks up right where the first half ended as Mina attempts to make her way home. Thus, Panahi posits that fiction simply mirrors reality. Panahi’s film, then, is heir to Kiarostami’s groundbreaking Close-Up, the most obvious frame of reference for The Mirror. And, as with that landmark work of blurring the ever-fine line between fiction and reality, we may never know just how much of The Mirror’s cleverly cleaved halves is real and how much is staged.

So, what then does The Mirror achieve? Is it merely Kiarostami-lite, a spellbinding deconstruction of cinematic form that pales in comparison to similarly themed works that came before? Not so fast. If Kiarostami is a filmic philosopher, one whose extreme wide shots, provocative film titles, and documentary-narrative hybrids force contemplation on grand scale questions of humanity and life, then Panahi operates in smaller spheres detailing the effects of society and life on a few. Where Close-Up’s straddling the line between reality and the illusion of reality says more about cinema than people, The Mirror walks the same line to comment on the very people who fill the screen. In one such telling sequence, Mina the performer runs into the elderly lady from the bus after she’s given up acting in the film. She sits down with her on the bench and complains about the crew’s insistence on her pouting and crying too frequently, the implication being that Mina herself would not have gotten that upset about not knowing the way home. When she asks the woman how she could put up with the filmmakers’ demands, the woman startlingly admits that she wasn’t acting. The “lines” she recited during her scenes were actual scenarios from her own life. It’s an unexpectedly poignant moment that highlights the very real circumstances of Panahi’s subjects – individuals with concerns, conflicts, and hopes of their own.


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The Circle (2000)

Following the success of The White Balloon and The Mirror, Panahi treaded into deeper political waters for his third feature The Circle – arguably the greatest work of his pre-ban era. There were hints of the female perspective in his first two films – the casting of two young girls as his leads, the rather amusing yet frank discussion on the role of women in the home that takes place in the back of a cab in The Mirror, or even the character of Mina herself in The Mirror who, in the film’s second half, is fiercely independent and unafraid unlike the character she plays – but with The Circle Panahi devotes an entire film to the plight of Iranian women living in modern-day Tehran. It also marks the most substantial break from the tutelage of Kiarostami. His influence is deeply felt in both The White Balloon and The Mirror, but The Circle is the first of Panahi’s films to establish an aesthetic, tone, and subject matter firmly his own.

In fact, his bold decision to risk censorship in telling stories of the limitations that women face in Iran preempted his mentor’s similar, yet far less controversial Ten by two years. In this way, then, The Circle instead recalls the important works of Satyajit Ray and Kenji Mizoguchi who dared to tell stories of women’s hardships in India and Japan, respectively, when it was popular for neither to do so. Of course, Panahi stood to lose a lot more and did – after success on the European festival circuit, the Iranian government banned The Circle in Iran thus beginning the many issues the director would go on to face in his home country and have since defined his cinema in recent years.

The Circle, like its immediate predecessor, is aptly named after the structure of its narrative. It begins somewhat abruptly with a middle-aged woman in a hospital waiting room as her daughter gives birth inside. When a nurse appears at the window and reveals that her daughter has had a baby girl, it throws this older woman into a panic who relays to the nurse that her son-in-law’s family thought it would be a boy. What may seem like the beginning of a joke to Western viewers immediately registers as anything but when the woman verbally fears that her son-in-law may even divorce her daughter. She urges her relative to inform the rest of the family at once. As this new unnamed woman leaves the hospital and is turned down when she asks a small group of woman for change to make a phone call, she promptly exits the frame and isn’t seen again. Rather than continue the story of this “unfortunate” birth, Panahi picks up another story of the three women gathered nervously around a phone booth who we eventually learn have just escaped from prison for some unknown reason.

The rest of Panahi’s film unfolds in this way; half-told narratives of various women over the course of one evening in Tehran and the problems each of them faces. Refreshingly, there’s no contrived structure surrounding this passing off of the narrative. Panahi follows a young woman (Nargess Mamizadeh) attempting to flee the city by bus and a woman (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy, one of only two professional actors in the film) seeking an urgent, secretive abortion for the longest duration of the film’s runtime. But, he also lends screen time to a troubled mother (Fatemah Naghavi) who abandons her young daughter when she can no longer care for her and a prostitute (Mojgan Faramarzi) who gets picked up by the authorities while her prospective client is released with no consequences. (In the film’s best sequence, Panahi cuts back and forth between close-ups of the prostitute and a newlywed bride in the backseat of a passing car. The woman stares at the bride, but is it a look of longing or one of understanding? It’s likely no surprise that Panahi draws parallels between these two women whose circumstances may not be that different.)

Throughout, Panahi realistically sheds light on the different forms of oppression women face on a daily basis under fundamentalist Islamic rule. Women can’t smoke in public, purchase bus tickets without a male escort, rent hotel rooms alone, or receive abortions without their husband’s or husband’s father’s consent. The characters in Panahi’s film are imprisoned easily and are often ostracized from society and their families if they break any of the many, many rules set before them. One gets the impression it’s nearly impossible to breathe for women in Panahi’s Tehran. But, is it a fair portrayal? Reportedly, the Iranian government ultimately banned Panahi’s film for its unfair and resoundingly negative treatment of the nation’s women. It’s certainly a very one-sided argument; there is no other way to interpret Panahi’s film. Yet, in light of the rest of his balanced work, it’s clear that Panahi is a champion for the underdog, telling stories for those whose voices aren’t often heard. He absolutely has an agenda here, but The Circle is no mere message movie. In its clever narrative structure that brings this jaunt through an unfavorable Tehran full circle – the prostitute is locked up, and as Panahi’s camera pans around the cell the rest of the women featured so far come into view, imprisoned again as well – Panahi’s film is also an exercise in stretching cinematic form and pushing his own aesthetic forward. In retrospect, it seems to have anticipated the onslaught of unwelcome “we’re all connected” films that polluted American cinema in the decade to come. But, the narrative contrivance that brings his characters together in the end serves no other purpose than tragic metaphor (as opposed to a forced plot device) and affirms an established penchant for telling personal stories no matter how seemingly insignificant or incomplete.


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Crimson Gold (2003)

For his second collaboration with Kiarostami as screenwriter, Panahi’s Crimson Gold continues the bleaker tone set by The Circle and recounts a few days in the life of an impoverished pizza delivery man whose socioeconomic status and circumstances drive him to commit a heinous crime. This crime – the murder of a jewelry storeowner following a failed robbery attempt – opens the film; thus Crimson Gold marks the first time Panahi utilizes a flashback narrative structure in his work. In what is clearly not an act of premeditated murder, Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin) rashly pulls the trigger on himself in front of a throng of passersby who witness the killing and hurriedly call the police. Though the filmmakers’ decision to reveal the film’s outcome at the onset threatens to lessen the impact of the story that follows, the troubled life of Hussein is riveting, if not wholly convincing enough to warrant its climactic tragedy.

More than a progressive narrative, then, Panahi’s film features a series of vignettes that highlight gross income inequality in Tehran and the resultant injustice that befalls those living in poverty. The midsection of Crimson Gold, bookended by the sequence of Hussein’s murder and suicide, is made up of four major sequences, each of them realistically documenting some form of corruption or injustice within the confines of one character’s story. Over the course of the film this widespread inequality is seen as both a personal offense – when Hussein, his future brother-in-law Ali (Kamyar Sheisi), and fiancée (Azita Rayeji) are repeatedly humiliated and turned away at a high-end jewelry store or when an old acquaintance of Hussein’s awkwardly gives him a large tip when confronted with Hussein’s current, unglamorous profession – and a societal danger – when the police use a profiling tactic to arrest young passersby who may or may not be attending a raucous party in an affluent district or when the police use extreme force when arresting a man in Hussein’s poorer neighborhood.

In the film’s final episode, Panahi also manages to comment upon the blind privilege of the wealthy elite as Hussein delivers pizza to a young rich man (Pourang Nakhael) whose greatest problem appears to be as trivial as a date gone sour. Preoccupied by his own self-absorption, the man invites Hussein in to dine with him and to provide a listening ear. But, when the offending woman calls, the man leaves Hussein to himself who explores the high-rise apartment, takes advantage of its amenities, and eventually winds up on the balcony with a staggering view of the cityscape below. Up here all of Tehran is beneath this rich man who only need give the rest of the world a thought when he desires. “A city of lunatics,” he calls Tehran at one point. He refers to a culture and society that he left behind when he emigrated to the U.S. for a time, but he might as well be describing the crippling inequality that forces someone like himself and Hussein into entirely separate corners of the city.

If Crimson Gold lacks the narrative heft of Panahi’s previous work, it makes up for it with its exhilarating camerawork courtesy of DP Hossein Jafarian working with Panahi for the first time, yet propelling the director’s aesthetic forward. The camera beautifully and fluidly weaves in and out of traffic capturing stunning shots of his characters on motorbikes or subtly zooms on the entrance to the jewelry store, the shot’s only source of light, after Hussein’s murder, then graciously pans up to shield us from his gruesome suicide. Too, Panahi’s dedication to revealing unflattering sides of Tehran despite inevitable censorship is certainly commendable. He not only serves as a beacon of hopeful resistance to other filmmakers in Iran, but also to the repressed voices worldwide who are forced to create art in secret or under oppression.


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Offside (2006)

For his unknowingly final film before the ban, Panahi returned to the more light-hearted comedic feel and focus on Tehran’s youth of The White Balloon and The Mirror. And yet, Offside is no less significant because of it. It’s as politically subversive as anything in The Circle or Crimson Gold, and it pushed the Iranian government far enough to incite the charges brought against Panahi and his supposedly defamatory art that altered the future of his career a few years later. The film follows six unnamed young women who attempt to sneak into the 2005 soccer match between Iran and Bahrain that determined which team would qualify for the 2006 World Cup. To Western viewers the setup might immediately register as something farfetched until we’re clued into the fact that women are prohibited from attending public sporting events in Iran. It’s likely that even in America we still might associate football, basketball, or baseball with primarily male spectators and fans, yet no one would think twice about admitting a woman to a game. They’re just as entitled to fandom as men.

Panahi uses this most basic, widespread trait indicative of much of the world – the love of soccer (particularly outside the U.S., though our national love for American football is probably comparable) – to instill universality in his characters’ struggle. Shot as if in real time during the actual match, Panahi returns to the thrilling urgency he established in The White Balloon – that film’s countdown to New Year replaced with a ticking game clock as Iran’s shot at qualifying for the world’s biggest sporting event hangs in the balance. Though the match sets the film’s narrative in motion, it ultimately plays a supporting role in what Panahi brilliantly achieves. We never catch more than a few glimpses of the actual game as the film’s characters are held in a humiliating sectioned pen just outside the stadium guarded by three young soldiers, but Panahi is, of course, more concerned with the conversations and interactions between his characters than regaling the outcome of a soccer match.

Perhaps more than any other film in his oeuvre, Panahi impressively provides a snapshot of a larger Tehran in this huddle of characters who’d like to be anywhere but with each other. The women, of various ages and backgrounds, swiftly bond over their unbridled love of the game, a zealous dedication that both confuses and complicates their captors’ situation. Two of the three soldiers are Tehrani imports, boys from rural areas who carry their own assumptions about the city and women in general. But, ultimately, they’re won over by the girls’ unwavering enthusiasm, and in its final moments Offside erupts into joyous pandemonium as the lines that divide women and men, urbanites and ruralists, soldiers and civilians, and law keepers and law breakers fade away as they unite as fans. The girls and soldiers alike emerge from the halted van en route to the police station with sparklers in hand to join the street’s revelers in what is easily Panahi’s most satisfying finale in his entire body of work. The injustices of the society he portrays haven’t been stripped away, but he offers an unexpected ray of hope in something as seemingly insignificant, yet universally loved as soccer.

With Offside, Panahi paints his most balanced portrait of Tehran yet. If The Circle and Crimson Gold threatened to villainize anyone belonging to a privileged class – men, those in authority, the wealthy – in their appropriately despairing tones, then Offside fittingly offers a slight corrective. Panahi presents a society more or less in collective opposition to an oppressive regime. More than once do we see men trying to help smuggle disguised women into the stadium, a group of guys assists one of the girls in escaping her captors in the stadium’s bathroom yet she willingly returns after a time so as to not get the soldiers in trouble with their superiors, and in the end fans make no distinction between sex, age, race, or profession as the city rejoices in their nation’s victory. As a chronicler of the everyday lives of his fellow city dwellers, Jafar Panahi has established himself as one of the most exciting, innovative, and politically important filmmakers working today. For better or for worse Tehran is his home, and his first five films offer a captivating (albeit admittedly incomplete) picture of one of the world’s greatest cities.

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Favorite Films (Part IV: #10-1)

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And now the top ten!


Thin Red Line

10. The Thin Red Line (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1998)

“I’ve seen another world.”

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.


Le jetee

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.


Passion of Joan

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.


City of Sadness

07. City of Sadness (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1989)

“I think I’ll be happy.”

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.


2001

06. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, United States, 1968)

“It can only be attributable to human error.”

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.


Pather Panchali

05. Pather Panchali (Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1955)

“Whatever God does is for the best.”

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.


Close Up

04. Close-Up (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1990)

“Some things are more complex than they seem…”

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.


Tokyo Story

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.


In the Mood

02. In the Mood for Love (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000)

“He remembers those vanished years.”

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.


Tree of Life

01. The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2011)

“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.

Favorite Films (Part III: #20-11)

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And now on to the top twenty!


Make Way for Tomorrow

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.


M

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?


400 Blows

18. The 400 Blows (Dir. François Truffaut, France, 1959)

“Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I prefer to lie.”

Has another film better captured the oftentimes-ignored challenges of adolescence quite like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows? The relatively minor problems facing today’s youth are mercilessly mocked in our culture, but Truffaut’s best film offers an unbelievably rare, sympathetic snapshot of a troubled teenager as he’s neglected and misunderstood at home and at school. Antoine Doinel – immortalized by Jean-Pierre Léaud in one of cinema’s greatest child performances – acts out, concocts elaborate falsities, skips class, cheats on assignments, and regularly steals from his parents and others, and he hardly ever shows remorse.

If it sounds like young Antoine is a good-for-nothing troublemaker who deserves his comeuppance that finds him locked up in a local jail cell and then shipped off to a juvenile delinquent center, then Truffaut brilliantly subverts our expectations in a heartbreaking late-film scene as more is revealed about the boy’s messy home life. In this way, The 400 Blows is a quintessential example of the legendary French New Wave it helped pioneer – it’s honest, realistic, never sentimental, and yet still incredibly moving.

As far as the film’s style, it might not bear as many hallmarks of the movement as Godard’s epochal Breathless, yet it boasts a host of memorable set pieces – an aerial view of schoolboys mischievously breaking from formation as they march down Parisian streets, several shots of expressive children captivated by a puppet show, tears streaming down Antoine’s face as he clings to the bars of the police truck ending his life as he knows it, and, of course, that iconic freeze frame that ends Truffaut’s equally unforgettable masterpiece.


Taste of Cherry

17. 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.

Read the full evaluation here.


Ordet

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.

Read the full evaluation here.


Seven Samurai

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.


Playtime

14. Playtime (Dir. Jacques Tati, France, 1967)

“Keep up!”

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.


Vertigo

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.


Citizen Kane

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.


Brighter Summer Day

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.


Continue to Part IV (#10-1)

Favorite Films (Part II)

1924: American comedian Buster Keaton (1895-1966) armed with only a magnifying glass and a copy of 'How To Be A Detective' hopes to become a great detective in the film 'Sherlock Junior'.


Life and Nothing More

Life, and Nothing More (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1992)

Piggybacking on the success of Close-Up’s fusion of documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kiarostami’s Life, and Nothing More marks his second attempt to redefine the rules of cinematic storytelling. In its construct alone, Life is a challenging, yet rewarding watch as it tells the fictitious story of the filmmaker who shot Kiarostami’s actual film Where Is the Friend’s Home? But, Kiarostami’s typical affirmation of life elevates this film from clever set-up to profoundly humanist as he documents a people’s resilience to keep on living in the aftermath of a devastating and life-altering earthquake.

Read the full evaluation here.


Mother

Mother (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2009)

No film has ever charted the surprisingly thin line between parental love and destructive overprotection quite like Bong Joon-ho’s thriller Mother. In the vein of Hitchcockian suspense, Bong’s film tells a gripping story with constant twists and turns with an explosive ending guaranteed to leave viewers’ jaws on the floor. No one is making genre films like Bong today; he effortlessly fuses horror, thrills, character study, and humor better than any of his contemporaries. With Mother he has crafted his greatest feature yet.


Mulholland Dr

Mulholland Drive (Dir. David Lynch, United States, 2001)

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.


My Neighbor Totoro

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.


My Night at Mauds

My Night at Maud’s (Dir. Eric Rohmer, France, 1969)

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?

Read the full evaluation here.


New World

The New World (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2005)

Director Terrence Malick seems to have found the perfect subject for his particular brand of wonder in the historical figure of Pocahontas. The New World tells the sort-of story of the beginning of Jamestown in early American history and the clash of cultures between the English and the natives. Malick most often sides with his daring heroine (portrayed beautifully by newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher), but he’s careful to showcase beauty whether in the unspoiled lands of what would be America or in the elaborate courtyards of a developing England.


Psycho

Psycho (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, United States, 1960)

Still terrifying to this day, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a perfect exercise in genuine horror – something so few films actually get. Save one legendary murder sequence and a few others smattered throughout, Hitchcock’s classic is short on gore, but heavy on bone-chilling terror. Dread lurks around every corner, and Hitchcock’s unprecedented decision to kill off his leading lady mid-film effectively subverts his audience’s expectations and leads to an uncomfortable fear that anything could happen.


Raise the Red Lantern

Raise the Red Lantern (Dir. Zhang Yimou, China, 1991)

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.

Read the full evaluation here.


Rashomon

Rashômon (Dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1950)

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon was groundbreaking in its unreliable narrative. The concept was by no means new to cinema by 1950, but Kurosawa dedicated an entire film to exploring distorted narration and perception versus reality. Four characters recount the same story with diverging and contradictory anecdotes, and the audience is left to decide for him or herself who (if any) are telling the truth. Never a fan of neatly packaged endings, Rashômon may anger viewers who like their stories spelled out for them, but its strength and intrigue lies in its complex puzzle with a potentially satisfying ray of hope at film’s end.


Rear Window

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.


Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tenenbaums (Dir. Wes Anderson, United States, 2001)

Forget that it spawned countless insufferable imitators; trendsetter Wes Anderson’s magnum opus The Royal Tenenbaums remains the essential “indie” film in every sense of what that word has become. Fortunately, Anderson’s film avoids archetypes and clichés to become a genuinely heartfelt story of familial dysfunction that brilliantly tows the line between deadpan humor and considerable depth. Nothing is too serious to be laughed at in Anderson films (divorce, infidelity, death, suicide, addiction), but the way his characters deal with it all sure feels real.


Rules of the Game

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.


Safe

Safe (Dir. Todd Haynes, United States, 1995)

Todd Haynes’ Safe is a refreshingly confounding work. It’s a film that can be understood on a whole host of different levels. There is a superficial tale of suburban malaise, but as the story unfolds – around Julianne Moore’s career-best performance – it adopts metaphors for a patriarchal society, environmentalism, the AIDS crisis, classicism, racism, and fringe religious movements. Essentially, it’s a startling microcosm of late-twentieth century angst in one impeccable film.


Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1957)

Containing some of the most memorable images of the imminence of death (ah, that classic game of chess), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is dripping with the filmmaker’s dreary fatalism, but its cynicism surrounding both the thought of death and the perceived empty promises of religion give it a humorous edge that sustains his audience. Set against the devastation of the plague that ravished Europe in the Middle Ages, The Seventh Seal features a fair amount of thought-provoking existentialism and several memorable characters – most notably, Death himself.


Sherlock Jr

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.


Singin in the Rain

Singin’ in the Rain (Dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, United States, 1952)

Has there been a more perfect musical in all of cinema’s rich history? Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain may be the most fun you’ll have at the movies this side of Pixar. Remarkably choreographed with an eye-popping Technicolor palette and a number of truly unforgettable songs, Singin’ in the Rain has stood the test of time in ways many Hollywood musicals have not. This is in part due to the Hollywood-centric story it follows. Movies about movies are a dime a dozen, but Singin’ in the Rain’s chronicle of the historic transition from silence to sound has lost none of its pizzazz or its outright humor.


Spirited Away

Spirited Away (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2001)

Somewhat of an alternate take on The Wizard of Oz, Hayao Miyazaki’s delightfully imaginative film Spirited Away is a feast of beautiful visuals as young Chihiro discovers courage on her own unique path to self-discovery. Miyazaki brilliantly allows his narrative to wander introducing us to spectacular and unforgettable characters who are all surprisingly multi-dimensional. The characters in Miyazaki’s world are wholly real in their internal struggle to choose between good and evil. It’s a wondrous journey for all who revel in the magic within.

Read the full evaluation here.


Spring in a Small Town

Spring in a Small Town (Dir. Fei Mu, China, 1948)

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.


Stalker

Stalker (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1979)

The films of Andrei Tarkovsky are particularly challenging for this cinephile. They’re slow, sparse, and heavily contemplative. They require a good deal of patience – for which I’ve found I don’t have much with some of his works – but I’ve always been struck by Stalker. Its philosophical implications are frustratingly ambiguous, but there’s something remarkably satisfying about that too. It’s a film that’s never left me since I first saw it years ago.


Sunrise

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Dir. F.W. Murnau, United States, 1927)

The pinnacle of the effect German expressionism had on cinema occurred after Murnau’s move to the U.S. He set out to create a fable-like tale of right and wrong and the power of marital bliss. Sunrise is that film – an enchanting masterwork that is both storybook-like in its beautiful cinematography and impressive set design and incredibly humane in its portrayal of the triumph of love. Both leads give impeccable performances, but it’s Janet Gaynor who truly shines as the endearing and loyal wife to George O’Brien’s conflicted countryman.


Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver (Dir. Martin Scorsese, United States, 1976)

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver may be the closest thing to a perfect character study there is in cinema. With the help of Robert De Niro’s iconic performance, we crawl inside the skin of this troubled war veteran as he encounters the sleazy underbelly of New York nightlife. Travis Bickle, undoubtedly one of cinema’s greatest characters, is anti-social, emotionally unstable, and incapable of maintaining a normal romantic relationship. But, as the film’s finale suggests, he still may be capable of heroism if not for purely altruistic motives.


There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, United States, 2007)

A flaming oil derrick, an eerily pristine bowling alley, a claustrophobic one-room church, the vast and arid Texan plains – P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a film of jaw-dropping images. The director has been refining his aesthetic over the years, ingesting the styles of other American greats, but Blood finds him coming into his own with a startling command of mise-en-scène and cinematography. The film is significant for its political, cultural, and religious implications, but it’s also a fascinating character study. Daniel Day-Lewis turns a gargantuan performance as oilman Plainview giving cinema a character for the history books.


Third Man

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.


This Is Not a Film

This Is Not a Film (Dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2011)

How to describe a film like Panahi’s unexpected masterstroke This Is Not a Film? For in one sense, it’s not a film. Is it an essay? A video diary entry? An elaborate hoax? No matter what it is, it’s a heart-wrenching portrait of an artist stripped of his tools to create as its maker remains under house arrest and banned from filmmaking for twenty years. The injustice suffered by Panahi looms over the entire project, but the film’s daringly unique construct enthralls from beginning to end. Dare I say it’s one of contemporary cinema’s most unexpected thrillers?

Read the full evaluation here.


Through the Olive Trees

Through the Olive Trees (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1994)

Perhaps the greatest instance of meta-narrative in all of cinema, Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees adds a few more layers of complexity to the thread that ties Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Life, and Nothing More together. If Life is a faux documentary on the events of Friend’s Home, then Olive Trees is another fictitious behind-the-scenes story, this time of Life, and Nothing More. It’s a wonder that Kiarostami’s densely layered works never fall prey to formalist gimmicks, but it speaks to his unparalleled skills as a contemplative filmmaker that his films always engage the intellect as well as the heart.

Read the full evaluation here.


Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki (Dir. Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal, 1973)

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.

Read the full evaluation here.


Tropical Malady

Tropical Malady (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2004)

With Tropical Malady, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul masters the bifurcated narrative structure that has become a fixture of the filmmaker’s work. He’s gone on to direct great works since, but Tropical Malady remains his best. A tender, unhurried romance in the film’s first half gives way to an allegorical reverie of sorts in the second as the romantic pursuit between the two characters takes on the form of a hunt. The line between hunter and hunted becomes blurred as Weerasethakul forces us to meditate on the nature of love and longing.

Read the full evaluation here.


Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise (Dir. Ernst Lubitsch, United States, 1932)

Ernst Lubitsch’s sometimes forgotten classic is remarkably as fresh today as it was back in 1932 when it first shocked audiences with its devilish humor and witty double entendres. It still holds up for its comedy that incites laughter to this day (bolstered by three winsome lead performances), but it’s most notable now for its progressive portrayal of women – individuals in control of their own sexuality, enjoying it and never apologizing for it. For that, the influence of Trouble in Paradise is no laughing matter.


Uncle Boonmee

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)

As a career summary up to this point, Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee represents the culmination of the themes, contemplative inquiries, and visuals that have populated his previous work. He meditates on reincarnation as a traditional religious belief and how it fits in with an increasingly secular society. He reveals a fading rural landscape as modernity bleeds into the jungle and the subsequent changes in tradition and spirituality. And yet, as always, there’s playfulness in Weerasethakul’s craft as he highlights the absurd and knowingly teases his own spectacular imagination.

Read the full evaluation here.


Wind Will Carry Us

The Wind Will Carry Us (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1999)

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.

Read the full evaluation here.


Continue to Part III (#20-11) 

Favorite Films (Part I)

chungking

For this site’s inaugural feature, I’ve decided to compile a list of my favorite films. I suppose every cinephile has their own personal canon of sorts, and while most settle on that magic number of list-making one hundred, I hoped to limit that number to highlight the very special films included. Thus, I’ve settled on seventy-five (to be more accurate, seventy-seven as I am counting a certain trilogy as one entry for the purposes of this list). And, though I found it fairly easy to round up a solid twenty as the best of the best, I couldn’t bring myself to rank the entire seventy-five. Tastes come and go, but I am convinced that each of these will always hold a special place in my heart as films that moved me, shaped my perception of cinematic art, and have had a lasting impact.

At first, I tried to limit most directors to one film. But, as I began compiling favorites, I found that like other art forms, I am most attracted to works by the same artists. As you will see, directors Abbas Kiarostami and Terrence Malick have the most films here with six and five, respectively. Though they are two extremely different artists, in their own way both tell stories and craft cinema that celebrates the art of living. Aside from those two titans of cinema, I also included more than one film from my other beloved and revered filmmakers Carl Theodor Dreyer, Alfred Hitchcock, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Eric Rohmer, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Wong Kar-wai. And, though Martin Scorsese doesn’t fall into that category, he has two films to his credit because I simply couldn’t decide between his twin masterpieces.

You might also notice that there are a disproportionate number of titles from the 1990s onward. The reason is twofold, but both relate to my age and the era in which my cinephilia began. For one, the sheer number of films I’ve seen from the last two and a half decades grossly exceeds those from earlier in the twentieth century. As a lover of film, I’m actively working on rectifying that. But, secondly, I believe now perhaps more than ever, it’s an exciting time to be a cinephile. Sure, Hollywood blockbusters explode across screens every week, seemingly getting less intelligent by the year, but with increased channels of distribution thanks to digital streaming and advances in technology worldwide, international cinema is more readily available than ever. And, artists from previously unrecognized pockets of world cinema are getting due recognition on the festival circuit as new voices rise to the challenge of creating meaningful art. Perhaps the two most encouraging notions reflecting this trend are the growth of cinemas from lesser-developed countries and the rise of women behind the camera. I do hope that my list – though certainly from no politically correct contrivance – reflects both these major changes in cinema. Film as an art form is alive and well, and these seventy-five works provide undeniable proof.

(Side Note: As any good cinephile, I have a list a mile long with films I’d like to see, so here are a few of my most egregious blindspots, filmmakers whose works I haven’t gotten around to exploring: Chantal Akerman, Howard Hawkes, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, Manoel de Oliveira, Max Ophüls, Béla Tarr, and Tsai Ming-liang to name a few.)

So, without further ado, my favorite films of all time…


Eight and a Half

8 1/2 (Dir. Federico Fellini, Italy, 1963)

Federico Fellini’s plunge into all-out surrealism for his self-proclaimed eighth and a half feature follows Guido Anselmi – a director and alter ego for Fellini himself – as he ruminates on the demands placed upon him as a filmmaker, his love of women, and memories from the past. 8 ½ is often amusing in its characterizations and bizarre scenarios and also a feat of supreme filmmaking talent in its technical achievements. Brilliantly told out of sequence with daydreams, memories, and non-linear thoughts spliced into its narrative, 8 ½ is both daringly unique and startlingly personal for one of cinema’s greatest auteurs.


Annie Hall

Annie Hall (Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 1977)

One could easily make a case for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall as the greatest romantic comedy of all time. Certainly it’s one of the funniest in the oft-explored genre, and it’s perhaps the most unique in its non-linear structure and avoidance of rom-com clichés. Allen’s Alvy Singer tells us at the film’s beginning that things don’t work out for the unlikely pair, but their story captivates nonetheless. In the end, we learn Annie Hall is more a cheerleader for all relationships, not just the ones that succeed. After all, most of us really do need the eggs.


Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, United States, 1979)

More than any of the other plethora of films centered on the Vietnam War before or since, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now captures the horror and complete insanity of that conflict with ferocious aplomb. Notoriously, the film nearly cost Coppola his career with the sheer number of personal and professional setbacks, but the finished product is one of beautiful and haunting cinema, one that creeps under the skin, and one that leaves its audience in awe of its stunning imagery.


Apur Sansar

Apur Sansar (Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1959)

Satyajit Ray’s final chapter in the story of Apu is one of devastating tragedy as its central character enters adulthood with only the memories of his family members who passed away too soon. And yet, his greatest loss is still ahead of him. Ray completes this story of Bengali poverty and one man’s determination to overcome it that began with Pather Panchali and continued with Aparajito, but it is Apur Sansar that is ultimately the trilogy’s most hopeful installment. For in the end, though Apu endures seemingly endless hardship, his story is ultimately one of hope and redemption.

Read the full evaluation here.


Autumn Afternoon

An Autumn Afternoon (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1962)

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.


Badlands

Badlands (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1973)

One of film’s greatest masters began his career by answering the call to a new American cinema by building on the style of his contemporaries to achieve deeper philosophical meaning. His debut Badlands bears the hallmarks of the supposed American New Wave, but it exists decidedly apart. It is far more concerned with humankind’s place in the greater world – captured beautifully in Malick’s pupating eventual career-defining visual aesthetic – than the tragedy of troubled individuals. It is a picture of innocence lost, but it also documents the consequences of this on the world entire.

Read the full evaluation here.


Battle of Algiers

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.


Beau travail

Beau travail (Dir. Claire Denis, France, 1999)

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.


Before Sunrise

Before trilogy (Dir. Richard Linklater, United States, 1995, 2004, 2013)

There might be no better exploration of time in cinema than Linklater’s Before trilogy. What began as a generation-defining story of love and youth with Before Sunrise became a poignant and effective three-part masterpiece when the director and his pair of stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy agreed to continue the story of Jesse and Celine nine years later with Before Sunset and then another nine years later with Before Midnight. Together, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy chart the real-life changes of people as they grow from idealistic youth into jaded middle-agers. But, there’s a glimmer of hope in the final moments of Midnight too, suggesting that the power of love isn’t so far-fetched after all.


Casablanca

Casablanca (Dir. Michael Curtiz, United States, 1942)

Easily the most quotable film on this list, Casablanca still charms and amuses over seventy years later. Michael Curtiz’s film is an exquisite blend of a sharp-witted screenplay and a cast of tremendous actors. Bogart and Bergman give the most iconic performances, but it’s Claude Rains and a band of perfect supporting roles that steal the show. Similarly, Rick and Ilsa’s love story gets the most attention, but Casablanca also plays as a comedy of the waiting game that was WWII. Curtiz definitely takes a side, but Casablanca is not mere dated propaganda; its appeal is utterly timeless.


Certified Copy

Certified Copy (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/Italy, 2010)

Leaving his native Iran for the first time, Certified Copy finds cinematic master Abbas Kiarostami in northern Italy working with a world-renowned actress in another exploration of the overlapping of fiction and reality. This time, Kiarostami doesn’t appear onscreen, but when two strangers are mistaken for a married couple, they quickly begin to play the part complete with a full history of memories and years-old conflicts. Have these two loquacious thinkers met before? Are they more than mere acquaintances? Are they long-time lovers? And most importantly, does Kiarostami ever want us to find out? I think not. And, herein lies the endless intrigue.


Charulata

Charulata (Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1964)

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.


Chungking Express

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.


Close Encounters

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Dir. Steven Spielberg, United States, 1977)

Close Encounters represents my nostalgic entry for this list. As an aspiring filmmaker in my youth, Spielberg was the most significant figure in spurring me on to that goal. My tastes have changed over the years, and his importance has waned some, but he’s always been there and always will be. Close Encounters finds him at his best – capturing wonder and invoking a tremendous sense of awe at the power of cinematic spectacle.


Days of Being Wild

Days of Being Wild (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1990)

Wong Kar-wai’s obsession with urban isolation and subsequent emotional longing began with his early masterpiece Days of Being Wild. The melancholy youngsters at the center of Wong’s film are lost in the sprawl of Hong Kong in the 1960s as they pine for missed opportunities and eras past. Appropriately, then, Wong’s film itself in its mid-century setting is perhaps its filmmaker’s own yearning for the mythologized days of his parents. Wong would go on to revisit the themes he began exploring here – especially in its supposed trilogy completed by In the Mood for Love and 2046 – but he never bested himself in portraying what it looks like to be young and lost.

Read the full evaluation here.


Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1978)

Days of Heaven was the beginning and (temporary) end of Terrence Malick’s fantastic, decades-spanning career as one of cinema’s finest visual contemplatives. Yes, Badlands showed signs of things to come, but it was this tale of love and deception set against the turn-of-the-century American southwest that solidified the director’s signatures: voiceover narration, wandering paper-thin narratives, and thoroughly exquisite and breathtaking imagery. People may not have been ready for Malick’s brand of filmmaking, which pushed him into twenty years of solitude, but in retrospect, Days of Heaven remains one of his best.

Read the full evaluation here.


Eternal Sunshine

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Dir. Michel Gondry, United States, 2004)

Perhaps unintentionally, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind became a generation-defining film, one that has aged remarkably well while its “quirky” anti-rom-com contemporaries have since withered away. Eternal Sunshine’s success is due in equal parts to director Gondry’s fresh visual aesthetic and writer Charlie Kaufman’s brilliantly inventive screenplay – not to mention two impeccable performances by leads Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Channeling Woody Allen’s sentiments on relationships à la Annie Hall, Eternal Sunshine seeks to prove we still need love even when it’s messy.

Read the full evaluation here.


Flowers of Shanghai

Flowers of Shanghai (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1998)

Of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s mid-career experiments in form, Flowers of Shanghai is easily his most audacious and subsequently accomplished. Hou’s always-evolving aesthetic finds him still favoring the long take, but his commitment to a formalist style with hazy scene transitions supports his desire to intoxicate his audience in an opium-filled, lamp-glowing atmosphere that perfectly captures the setting and era of his narrative. More so than Hou’s earlier work, here he is more concerned with style than narrative, but Flowers of Shanghai still resonates.

Read the full evaluation here.


Goodfellas

Goodfellas (Dir. Martin Scorsese, United States, 1990)

Dispensing with the romanticism of The Godfather films, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas casts the American mafia in an entirely new light. Gritty, ruthless, and frequently unexpected, Goodfellas chronicles several decades of life in organized crime, and proves to be a film that stands nearly as tall as those other two essential crime sagas. Scorsese’s sleek stylistic flourishes are on full display here making Goodfellas an experience hard to forget: the Copacabana shot, the aftermath of the bloodbath set to “Layla,” the late-film classic rock montage. Goodfellas solidified Scorsese’s unshakable reputation.


The Green Ray

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.


Headless Woman

The Headless Woman (Dir. Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2008)

Lucrecia Martel’s cinema is profoundly metaphorical. And, though she has staged societal critiques in her two films prior to The Headless Woman, neither is as challengingly oblique or visually arresting as her modern masterpiece. Here Martel cloaks her critique of bourgeois privilege in the story of one woman’s mental breakdown as she deals with the guilt of possibly having accidentally killed a young boy with her car. Requiring nearly as much viewer participation as a Kiarostami film, The Headless Woman rewards multiple viewings as it reveals layers upon layers of hidden depth.

Read the full evaluation here.


House is Black

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.


Killer of Sheep

Killer of Sheep (Dir. Charles Burnett, United States, 1978)

More a series of simple vignettes than a plot-driven film, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is a wondrous collection of the everyday moments of life. Shot with an extremely low budget and mostly non-professional actors, the film is a champion of neorealism as it depicts the very real lives of African-Americans living in the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. The stories are moving, the cinematography is striking, the use of pop music is impeccable, and the understated performances are spot-on. It’s a quintessential American film.


Late Spring

Late Spring (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1949)

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.


Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia (Dir. David Lean, United Kingdom, 1962)

A megalomaniac to the core, T.E. Lawrence (brought to life by Peter O’Toole in one of the greatest filmic performances of all time) makes a near king of himself in a foreign land after mastering the Arabian deserts during WWI. To match Lawrence’s enormous ego, David Lean dedicates a film of sheer grandiosity (rivaled only by Seven Samurai as cinema’s grandest epic) with Lawrence of Arabia – a visually arresting film with spot-on performances and a towering score by Maurice Jarre to boot.


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