Favorite Films (10-1)

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Close-Up

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 PanchaliAparajito, 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.

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Favorite Films (20-11)

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Playtime

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?


Taste of Cherry

18) Taste of Cherry (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

“You want to give it all up? You want to give up the taste of cherries?”

So few filmmakers extol the preciousness of life without sinking to the tropes of melodrama or pandering sentimentalism, but the work of Abbas Kiarostami is a welcome exception. His entire Nineties output found ways to celebrate life – whether amidst the aftermath of a devastating earthquake as in Life, And Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees, or in the juxtaposition of differing traditions in The Wind Will Carry Us, or when a person decides to end his own life as in his masterpiece Taste of Cherry.

Notably more linear than his other Nineties triumph Close-Up, Taste of Cherry is still by no means an easy or readily accessible film. Its story wanders as its subject drives around Tehran looking for someone to bury his body after he commits suicide. Understandably turned down by most people he encounters, Mr. Badii’s story becomes a meditation on life and death as three different men give very different reasons for their disapproval of his actions. It’s not the first two men’s objections – a fear of the law and an appeal to religious morality – that give him reason to pause and reflect, but the third man’s focus on all that Badii would give up if he gave up on life. The sun rising over the horizon, the sound of children playing, the taste of cherries – the small wonders are what make life worth living.

The fate of our protagonist is intentionally vague. Kiarostami’s penchant for viewer participation is never more apparent than here. He invites us to finish the story, and what we as an audience bring to the table will provide Badii’s story with a proper conclusion. And, lest we forget that we’re just watching a movie, Kiarostami brilliantly reminds us in the film’s subversive final moments that still have fans scratching their heads to this day.


stalker

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

“A man writes because he’s tormented, because he doubts.”

The films of Andrei Tarkovsky – pioneer of slow, contemplative cinema – are challenging to say the least. Though the director often worked in established genres – war films (Ivan’s Childhood), historical epics (Andrei Rublev), science fiction (Solaris), apocalyptic tragedy (The Sacrifice) – he merely utilized these well-trodden tropes to explore matters of self, the universe, and beyond. Inspired by the likes of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman who never shied away from honestly engaging Christian faith, Tarkovsky also crafted some of cinema’s most profoundly philosophical and religious films. His greatest film, Stalker, finds the filmmaker dipping into the deepest recesses of that spiritual well.

As with his masterpiece Solaris, Tarkovsky again offers his own take on sci-fi with Stalker as an eccentric guide leads a jaded writer and a solemn professor into the realm of the Zone – a restricted area that conceals the untold mysteries of the alien force that created it. Of course, these fictitious elements matter very little to the cinematic philosophizer who makes brilliant use of his long-take aesthetic and the heady discourse exchanged between his man of faith, man of science, and man of the arts to force his audience into deep contemplation.

Faith – in God, in science, in artistic pursuit – plays an integral role in the journey of these three men. Each of them enters the Zone in desperate need of answers, but each of them also crucially fears what he might find. Stalker, then, is not only a fascinating entry in the expansive canon of cinematic sci-fi, but also one of the most thought-provoking films ever produced. Its narrative wanders, its existential quandaries are bookended by ellipses, and its ending is, to some, frustratingly irresolute, but more than most of the other films on this list it sticks with its viewers for days, if not weeks, after it ends.


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.


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 – RashômonThrone of BloodYojimboSanjuro, 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.

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Favorite Films (50-41)

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Mulholland Drive

When I launched this site, I posted a mostly unranked list of my seventy-five favorite films. It was a good list, one that captured what I was interested in at the time. And, though my tastes haven’t change much since, I’ve decided to update and rank the list narrowing the focus even more to just fifty films. It includes many of those on the first, but a few I’ve either revisited or discovered for the first time this year. Consider those that didn’t quite make the cut this time around my #51-75.

My most revered filmmakers remain the same. Alfred Hitchcock, Abbas Kiarostami, Terrence Malick, and Yasujiro Ozu each have three. (It was painful to whittle down Kiarostami and Malick’s oeuvres unfortunately cutting Life, And Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, Certified Copy, Badlands, and The New World.) Carl Th. Dreyer, Kenji Mizoguchi, Satyajit Ray, Eric Rohmer, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Wong Kar-wai each have two.


Wind Will Carry Us

50) 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.


Autumn Afternoon

49) 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.


Sherlock Jr

48) Sherlock, Jr. (Dir. Buster Keaton, United States, 1924)

In his most entertaining and most endearing film, Buster Keaton humorously maximizes the limitations of the silent era and capitalizes on the outlandishness of his comedy by framing a good portion of the story as a dream sequence – to this day unparalleled in its influential approach. Vaudevillian tricks and puzzling editing techniques create the illusions we see on screen, and it still stuns when we see Keaton climb up on stage and walk into the screen at his local movie theatre. The comedic master may be remembered best for The General, but it’s Sherlock, Jr. that boasts the finest distillation of his best qualities.


last chrys

47) The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s early masterpiece is a technical wonder to behold – its endurance-testing long takes and meticulously choreographed mise-en-scène are enough to leave viewers wide-eyed. But, it’s in its remarkably mature handling of its themes of honor, familial duty, and the sacrifice of women in a fiercely patriarchal society that give The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum its lasting appeal.


Raise the Red Lantern

46) 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.


Rear Window

45) Rear Window (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, United States, 1954)

Before Hitchcock took a dive into truly dark territory with Vertigo and Psycho, his light-hearted romance set against a neighborhood whodunit that is Rear Window revealed his unequivocal skills as a filmmaker like none of his other works before. Effectively claustrophobic and meticulously controlled, Hitchcock’s film takes place entirely within an apartment with a view of the courtyard below. That he manages to construct a rather suspenseful murder mystery within these confines (with humor and charm to boot) speaks to this legend’s vast array of talents.


Mulholland Dr

44) 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.


Spring in a Small Town

43) 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.


My Neighbor Totoro

42) My Neighbor Totoro (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1988)

The halcyon days of mid-century simplicity out in the Japanese countryside are alive in Miyazaki’s delightfully nostalgic My Neighbor Totoro. Devoid of easily defined villains or major plot devices, Miyazaki’s film is truly that rare film for all ages – neither beholden to children’s movie clichés nor overly serious. It’s a simple fable of rich spirituality, tender familial relationships, and the splendor of childhood imagination. It boasts some of the master’s most memorable characters in the cuddly Totoro, the mysterious soot sprites, and the grinning Catbus.


The Green Ray

41) The Green Ray (Dir. Eric Rohmer, France, 1986)

Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray is a wondrously subtle film of deep spirituality that beautifully chronicles the struggle of uncovering one’s identity and providing a welcome parable for finding yourself in the Christian faith. Delphine’s worry over where to spend her vacation may at first read like first world problems, but as the story unfolds it becomes more and more apparent that this central issue is merely a façade for an intense personal struggle waging war inside of her.

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Favorite Films (40-31)

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Touki Bouki

Battle of Algiers

40) The Battle of Algiers (Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria, 1966)

You’d be forgiven if you thought you were watching a documentary while viewing Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Channeling a rather gripping verisimilitude using mostly non-actors, Pontecorvo chronicles the fight for Algerian independence from France with an intensity that makes for a surprisingly nail-biting experience. Pontecorvo wisely dispenses with preaching and reveals that both sides were equally capable of acts of brutality. The director allows us very little time to care for its many characters, but the strength of their cause is enough to have us all rooting for freedom by film’s end.


Rules of the Game

39) The Rules of the Game (Dir. Jean Renoir, France, 1939)

Capturing the absurdity of French classicism (and effectively pissing off the French government), director Jean Renoir sheds light on the stark divisions of the lower and upper classes in his comical The Rules of the Game. The film is at once biting satire and also a showcase of brilliant and intriguing characterizations (notably the loveable Octave played by Renoir himself). Renoir’s characters, both seated at the dinner table and scurrying about the servants’ quarters, strive to do whatever they please, but at the end of the day will always bow to the strict societal rules that govern their lives.


Late Spring

38) 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.


sansho

37) Sansho the Bailiff (Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954)

A mother’s song and her undying love lead her son into her arms in one of cinema’s both heart-wrenching tragedies. Sansho the Bailiff is Kenji Mizoguchi’s opus, at one an enthralling jidai-geki refreshingly not revolved around samurai heroics and a powerful humanist drama that beautifully comments on humankind’s potential for mercy. The film’s subtext may be historically inaccurate, but given its release it’s likely no wonder Mizoguchi infused his feudal era epic with post-war appeals to human decency.


Charulata

36) 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.


House is Black

35) The House Is Black (Dir. Forough Farrokhzad, Iran, 1962)

She may have only made one film before her untimely death as a blossoming young artist, but Forough Farrokhzad’s powerful documentary-short The House Is Black about a leper colony on the outskirts of Tehran whose patients are typically ostracized from society is heart-wrenching stuff. Her wildly unique style influenced the greats Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi; thus as a fan of those two, I’ll too forever be indebted to this unforgettable little film. No film before or since has humanized a group of people just as deserving of love and respect as any other.


Chungking Express

34) Chungking Express (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994)

Forget Pulp Fiction, Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express is the definition of ‘90s cool. Stylish, colorful, and kinetic, Express manages to be many things all at once: a portrait of modern life in Hong Kong, an impressive feat of dazzling cinematography, and a two-sided tale of love and loss in the big city. The story of a cop faced with the expiry of a relationship who falls for a mysterious woman in a blond wig entertains us through the first half, but the film’s second half steals the show as Faye Wong’s annoyingly charming snack bar attendant jams to “California Dreamin’” and breaks into Tony Leung’s apartment.


Touki Bouki

33) 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.


My Night at Mauds

32) 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?


Third Man

31) The Third Man (Dir. Carol Reed, United Kingdom, 1949)

Though a little late to the game, Carol Reed’s The Third Man nonetheless remains the finest film noir in cinematic history. Whether it be the zithers or Orson Welles’ turn as the fiendish Harry Lime or its fitting post-war setting or that famous closing shot of complete rejection, Reed’s film stands out amongst its contemporaries. The film’s crowning achievement, however, can be witnessed in the late-film chase sequence underground. A stark glowing light illuminates the jet-black tunnels as Lime scurries about evading the police. It’s quintessential film noir.

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Favorite Films (30-21)

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Days of Heaven

Annie Hall

30) 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.


Killer of Sheep

29) 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.


Headless Woman

28) 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.


400 Blows

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

Has another film better captured the oftentimes-ignored challenges of adolescence quite like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows? It’s quintessential French New Wave; it’s honest, realistic, never sentimental, and yet still incredibly moving. Too, it boasts a host of memorable set pieces – an aerial view of schoolboys mischievously breaking from formation as they march down Parisian streets, 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.


Psycho

26) 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.


jeanne

25) Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Dir. Chantal Akerman, Belgium, 1975)

Chantal Akerman’s seminal film carries a title nearly as long as its runtime. But, not a second of Jeanne Dielman’s carefully framed sequences is wasted in its three and a half hours. Akerman explores both the possibilities of cinematic time and space as its titular character moves about her apartment or around town, but in addition to its visual pleasures she also crafts an important feminist document that reveals what happens when a woman, trapped in tradition and routine, is brought to her boiling point.


andrei-rub

24) Andrei Rublev (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1966)

More than it is a historical epic to rival the cinema’s finest (though it is that too), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is concerned with the burden of creating. Throughout, the strength, faith, and endurance of several creators are tested time and again as each one is challenged to carry on creating despite external and internal obstacles. From its narratively opaque prologue to its stunning, brightly colored epilogue, Tarkovsky’s early masterwork is staggering in its sheer ambition and triumphant in cinematic achievements.


Trouble in Paradise

23) 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.


Days of Heaven

22) 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.


syndromes

21) Syndromes and a Century (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema is post-modernism at its finest – self-reflexive, structurally audacious, narratively non-linear, and never too serious to risk delighting in its own peculiarity. The apex of his fruitful career so far is Syndromes and a Century, a film that brings his penchant for exploring dualities to its logical conclusion: a story twice told. The two halves aren’t simply mirrors of one another, but rather two different versions of one story, each with unforeseen possibilities of its own. Weerasethakul’s greatest film is light on its feet, visually challenging, and open to innumerable metaphorical interpretations.

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Top Ten Films

cityofsadness

An utterly subjective, entirely unnecessary series of lists that remains nonetheless fun to read and write. I hope to update these regularly as tastes change and as I discover new and existing artists. 


1960s

2001

1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, United States/United Kingdom, 1968)

Kubrick’s sci-fi epic is both philosophically dense in its existential quandaries and exquisitely technically accomplished in its obsessively controlled set pieces, stunning visual effects, and symphony of perfectly employed classical compositions.

jetee

2) La jetée (Dir. Chris Marker, France, 1962)

A stunning collage of still photographs – with the notable exception of one breathtaking clip of footage – that explores the very nature of time itself in its alternate take on that well-trodden sci-fi trope of time travel.

playtime

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

Tati’s grand-scale treatise on twentieth-century modernity is rewardingly ambitious, quietly hilarious, remarkably prescient, and a technical wonder to behold with its impressive sets and re-creations of the concrete playground that is today’s urban sprawl.

andrei rublev

4) Andrei Rublev (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1966)

Tarkovsky uses the decades-spanning story of one of history’s renowned iconographers to dissect Christian spirituality, explore the depravity and potential good of humankind, and comment on his own nation’s recent past in spectacularly cinematic fashion.

psycho

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

Hitchcock solidified his unshakable reputation with this master class of suspense and genuine terror that famously features bold narrative decisions that consistently upend viewer expectations.

my night at mauds

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

Unlike any other filmmaker Rohmer spins compelling dramas from basic moral dilemmas, and his finest film is no exception; heady dialogue, serious philosophizing, and believable character development combine for one captivating watch.

house is black

7) The House Is Black (Dir. Forough Farrokhzad, Iran, 1962)

A brief, yet deeply profound and hugely influential documentary that contemplates the value of humanity as its camera sheds light on society’s leprosy-stricken outcasts.

charulata

8) Charulata (Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1964)

Ray’s heartfelt chamber drama succeeds on multiple levels: as a tender love story, a forward-thinking platform for the typically unheard voices of women, and an unexpectedly rich chronicle of a nation’s critical late-colonial days.

battle of algiers

9) The Battle of Algiers (Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria, 1966)

A visceral depiction of urban guerilla warfare and the high stakes of creating a post-colonial Africa that is riveting to watch in its brushes with action tropes and gut-wrenching in its suggestion of the great cost of freedom.

autumn afternoon

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

The final work of one of cinema’s most enduring artists is fittingly one of the most poignant takes on his typical concerns of generational conflict, changing gender norms, and strained family relations set against the backdrop of postwar Japan.

Honorable Mention: 8 1/2 (Dir. Federico Fellini, Italy, 1963), L’Avventura (Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1960), Cléo from 5 to 7 (Dir. Agnès Varda, France, 1962), Contempt (Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1963), The Exterminating Angel (Dir. Luis Buñuel, Mexico, 1962), Lawrence of Arabia (Dir. David Lean, United Kingdom, 1962), Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (Dir. William Greaves, United States, 1968)


1970s

stalker

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

Tarkovsky’s greatest film is a grand-scale, multilayered meditation on art, faith, science, and humankind’s very existence dressed up in unconventional sci-fi tropes that delights in its own ambiguity.

days of heaven

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

A glorious realization of an as-yet-untamed America that offers breathtaking visuals and a deceptively simple allegory of humankind’s potential for both good and evil.

jeanne dielman

3) Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Dir. Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 1975)

Akerman crafts one of the most captivating explorations of cinematic time and space in this unsettling tale of a woman’s rigid routine unspooling and careening toward disaster.

killer of sheep

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

A series of self-contained episodes of American city life strung together forms a compelling portrait of a nation as a whole refreshingly filtered through a distinctly African-American perspective.

annie hall

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

Woody Allen’s most popular film is also his best; at once a cleverly non-linear tale of one failed relationship and a persuasive endorsement for the necessity of all relationships.

touki bouki

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

Influenced by its European predecessors, Mambéty’s singular work is still boldly stylistic and defiantly African in its point of view granting the world a glimpse of a rapidly changing, post-colonial nation in the story of one man’s journey.

apocalypse now

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

The horrors of bloodshed and war are on full display in Coppola’s American classic that boasts a host of unforgettable set pieces that underscore some of humankind’s worst tendencies.

taxi driver

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

Scorsese’s searing depiction of New York City’s seedy underbelly seen through the eyes of one unstable man with delusions of grandeur gave cinema one of its greatest characters.

badlands

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

The debut feature of one of the medium’s future masters is both an exemplar of the so-called New Hollywood movement and an announcement of an artist’s singular style that favors imagery over plot to tell stories.

spirit of beehive

10) The Spirit of the Beehive (Dir. Victor Erice, Spain, 1973)

Favoring gorgeous visuals rife with symbolic meaning over any traditional narrative thread, Erice’s first feature is a honey-glowing ode to childhood and a haunting portrait of a nation’s recent war-torn past.

Honorable Mention: Barry Lyndon (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, United States/United Kingdom, 1975), The Godfather (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, United States, 1972), Nashville (Dir. Robert Altman, United States, 1975), Solaris (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1972), A Touch of Zen (Dir. King Hu, Taiwan, 1971)


1980s

city of sadness

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

Hou’s greatest film offers one of cinema’s most challengingly elliptical narratives in a devastating family saga that provides a microcosm of an entire nation’s recent history.

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2) The Green Ray (Dir. Eric Rohmer, France, 1986)

An earnest spirituality bubbles underneath the everyday lives of middle class Parisians as one individual seeks purpose and truth amidst debilitating societal pressures and norms.

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3) The Sacrifice (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sweden, 1986)

The final film of one of cinema’s finest contemplatives is a fitting swansong with its complex meditation on humankind, profound spiritual allegory, and astounding visual grandeur.

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4) My Neighbor Totoro (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1988)

Simplicity marks both the narrative style and the very crux of this winsome tale enthralled by the beauty of uncomplicated rural life filtered through the unclouded eyes of children.

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5) Distant Voices, Still Lives (Dir. Terence Davies, United Kingdom, 1988)

Davies’ impressionistic chronicle of a mid-century Liverpoolian family is gorgeously and tenderly realized and boasts a unique theatricality unseen in most films.

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6) The Terrorizers (Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1986)

Intertwining webs of strangers who collide in unexpected ways, Yang’s fractured and challenging film predicted the onslaught of network narrative films for years to come and provides an apt metaphor for urban disconnection.

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7) The Shining (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, United States, 1980)

Littered with fascinating continuity errors, Kubrick’s mighty film delivers bone-chilling terror, visually arresting set pieces, and serves as the basis for endless conspiracy theories to this day.

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8) Where Is the Friend’s Home? (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1987)

Kiarostami’s breakthrough finds the filmmaker turning a simple moral quandary into an unlikely race against time that launched one of the most exciting careers in the history of cinema.

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9) Nostalghia (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Italy, 1983)

The poetic and metaphorical flourishes of Tarkovsky’s challenging work are stretched to their limits in this satisfyingly oblique portrait of longing for one’s home.

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10) Do the Right Thing (Dir. Spike Lee, United States, 1989)

A scathing indictment of the festering open wound of American racism that demanded attention in its day with a refreshingly confrontational aesthetic but remains powerfully relevant today.

Honorable Mention: Crimes and Misdemeanors (Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 1989), Fanny and Alexander (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1982), Ran (Dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1985), Sans Soleil (Dir. Chris Marker, France, 1983), Taipei Story (Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1985) The Thin Blue Line (Dir. Errol Morris, United States, 1988)


1990s

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

Kiarostami crafts one of cinema’s most captivating exercises in self-reflexivity as he perfects the risky hybrid of narrative fiction and documentary while brilliantly commenting on the essential nature of truth and the inherent falsity in recreation.

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

Humankind’s propensity for violence is wondrously juxtaposed with the glorious beauty of the natural world and life itself in Malick’s welcome return to film after a twenty-year hiatus.

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3) A Brighter Summer Day (Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Yang’s magnum opus bears a remarkable literary quality in its sheer scope and in its densely layered, character-driven narrative threads that form one of the most heartbreaking tragedies on innocence lost.

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4) Taste of Cherry (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

In one of Kiarostami’s best films a man weighs the value of human life against his desire to end his own, and the filmmaker uses this premise to subtly affirm all life and further his career-spanning exploration of the line between fiction and reality.

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5) Chungking Express (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994)

Everything is in motion in Wong’s early-career highlight – his camera, his characters, the bustling city around them – and here the visionary filmmaker hones his dazzling aesthetic that lends the film its effortless nineties cool and emotionally resonant core.

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

Zhang’s eye for gorgeous set pieces and vibrant colors finally matches a solid narrative thrust with socio-political insight unseen in the rest of his stylish oeuvre.

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

Kiarostami caps off the most fruitful decade of his career with yet another meditation on life and death that also fosters an engaging dialogue on the urban/rural divide.

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

For his best film of the decade, Hou commits to an intentionally restrictive, aesthetic formalism that serves to augment the hazy, dimly lit corridors of the intoxicating spaces his camera captures.

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

Haynes visualizes the comfort in homogeny and segregation in the life of one suburban homemaker, yet utilizes her bizarre downfall to comment on the vapidity of this sanitized existence.

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10) A Moment of Innocence (Dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

Makhmalbaf injects a warm personal touch to cinema’s ultimate exercise in meta-filmmaking, capping it all off with an unexpectedly poignant denouement to always choose life.

Honorable Mention: Beau travail (Dir. Claire Denis, France, 1999), Days of Being Wild (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1991), Goodfellas (Dir. Martin Scorsese, United States, 1990), The Long Day Closes (Dir. Terence Davies, United Kingdom, 1992), Through the Olive Trees (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1994)


2000s

In the Mood

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

If film is defined as art in motion – a holy union of story, image, and sound – then Wong’s best film stands as one of cinema’s greatest achievements.

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2) Syndromes and a Century (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006)

Eschewing traditional storytelling, Weerasethakul utilizes the same actors and the same scene-setting premise to launch both halves – one set in a rural hospital, the other in a bustling urban medical center – to deliver a quiet, yet affecting meditation on the rural/urban divide.

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

Martel affixes her camera to the film’s subject, intensely studies her behavior and gestures, and draws metaphorical parallels to the fallout of her accident and her bourgeois privilege.

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

The blurring of images as they flash across the screen, sometimes for no more than a second or two, functions as a fitting visualization of Malick’s usual exploration of the intersection where humankind and its environment meet.

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5) Yi Yi (Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 2000)

Yang’s last film is a family saga in the vein of his and his contemporary Hou Hsiao-hsien’s early work that takes its time in weeding out the details of multiple characters’ lives that, taken together, paints a holistic portrait of a modern-day Taiwanese family.

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

Thrillingly operating in a mode of absurdist dream logic, Lynch’s nightmarish depiction of the dream factory that is Hollywood as a horror show brilliantly subverts our expectations of what fame and fortune promise.

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

Every frame is filled with metaphorical depth, and the ferocity with which Anderson builds his jaw-dropping set pieces serves to overturn the long-standing notion of American exceptionalism for an increasingly disillusioned age.

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8) Flight of the Red Balloon (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, France/Taiwan, 2007)

A delightful celebration of contemporary Parisian life filtered through the perspective of those whose stories are not often told, Hou’s film features urban portraits captured with tenderness as his camera bounces along like the film’s titular candy-colored orb.

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9) The Intruder (Dir. Claire Denis, France, 2004)

Denis continues her intimate exploration of the human mind via a visual fixation on the human body accompanied by a rush of non-linear images that blur narrative reality and imagination.

Eternal Sunshine

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

Gondry takes us on a whirlwind trip through the mind and through memory, and in the end makes a convincing case that relationships are essential to life despite their inevitable difficulties.

Honorable Mention: See full list here.


2010s (so far)

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

Malick recreates the spectacle of the beginning of life itself, tenderly portrays one insignificant family as they grapple with life’s curveballs, questions the existence of God, and makes a convincing case for espousing grace and love in the face of hardship with the promise of beauty.

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

Kiarostami wonders if a replica, a copy, a piece of art has any intrinsic value in itself when compared to its original as he masterfully applies this notion to even human relationships.

assassin

3) The Assassin (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 2015)

A testament to the mastery of the cinematic medium, Hou’s late-career masterpiece delivers another astounding example of his signature elliptical storytelling while relishing in the visual pleasures he creates.

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

A filmic diary entry in protest of his twenty-year ban on filmmaking, Panahi’s greatest work is challenging essay film that serves as both an intimate personal statement and an inquiry into the creative process.

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

Weerasethakul builds on his fascination with dualities to present a beguiling reverie on the fragile line between life and death while incorporating elements of countryside fables and his typical head-scratching sequences.

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6) Cameraperson (Dir. Kirsten Johnson, United States, 2016)

Culled from leftover footage from films Johnson worked on as cinematographer, her film is a work of indelible images and an unusually personal memoir with the camera pointed at everyone but her.

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7) Closed Curtain (Dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2013)

Blurring the line between narrative fiction and factual anecdote, Panahi risks self-indulgence as he blows apart traditional narration to explore his own troubled psyche.

boyhood

8) Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater, United States, 2014)

With an unprecedented twelve-year shoot, Linklater has created a touching coming-of-age tale, a beautiful celebration of the everyday, and an astounding cinematic experiment of time with his likely magnum opus.

mother

9) Mother (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2010)

With a taut Hitchcockian narrative, Bong has crafted a modern-day thriller in the classic Hollywood mold that features a jaw-dropping central performance and enough twists and turns to keep viewers firmly in their seats.

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10) The Look of Silence (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, United States/Indonesia, 2014)

A companion piece to the more attention-grabbing The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s real triumph is a gut-wrenching documentary that calls into question its chosen genre’s limitations in its decidedly biased approach.

Favorite Music Moments in Film

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Music meets film. Two of my very favorite things and the intersection where they meet. For this cinephile, the importance of music in film cannot be overstated. Often, the perfect pop song or breathtaking original score can elicit the appropriate emotional response from the audience – sometimes more than what’s being said or how the camera moves. Below are my favorite moments in film highlighted by the music utilized. The list is in no particular order.

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Psycho

The Fatal Shower: Bernard Herrmann’s original score 

I thought it best to start this list with perhaps one of the most obvious choices. It’s difficult to divorce this famous scene (and the entire film for that matter) from the horrifying music that accompanies it. Everyone from your children who have seen Finding Nemo to your grandparents who watched in horror as Janet Leigh’s character died mid-film is familiar with the anxiety-producing repetition of echoing, but brief strings screeching in terror. Though Hitchcock is rightly considered the master of suspense, much of that credit is owed to film composer Bernard Herrmann. He brilliantly (though also somewhat pragmatically) employed only a string section to achieve that urgent icy sound that soundtracked one of the most infamous deaths in film history. Cinematic history wouldn’t be the same without Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Psycho wouldn’t be the same without that shower scene, and that shower scene wouldn’t be the same without Herrmann’s most spectacular contribution.


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In the Mood for Love

Dinner for Two, Alone: “Yumeji’s Theme” by Shigeru Umebayashi /
The Secret: “Angkor Wat Theme” by Michael Galasso

As always, I tend to break my own rules. This spot actually consists of two moments from the same film. The juxtaposition of the scenes is breathtakingly beautiful. For the better part of In the Mood for Love we repeatedly hear Shigeru Umebayashi’s piece entitled “Yumeji’s Theme” (originally composed for the Japanese film Yumeji). It beautifully soundtracks the mundane actions of the two forlorn protagonists. In the beginning, it represents their distance as strangers. Toward the end, it becomes the mournful theme of forbidden love. Brief bursts of strings are interwoven with a more complex solo string part. The effect of this piece is most poignant in an early scene where Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan separately go out for noodles at a nearby stand. They come alone and leave to dine alone, but that heartbreaking theme (and that brilliant slow motion camera) tie them together in an unmistakable way.

At the very end of the film, then, there is a significant shift in story and in music. Alas, the lovers have given up any hope of ever being together, and Mr. Chow unexpectedly travels to Cambodia to whisper the secret of his undying love for Mrs. Chan into a hole in a temple wall where it will stay hidden forever. The brief bursts of strings from “Yumeji’s Theme” have been replaced by a repeated deep one-string pick interwoven now with several string instruments mourning the unforgotten lost love. The pace of Michael Galasso’s “Angkor Wat Theme” is much slower than Umebayashi’s, subverting the sensuality of that abandoned love. There was always a bit of hope for Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan while “Yumeji’s Theme” soundtracked their love; Galasso’s piece signifies that that era has passed, there is no hope left for that story. Paired together, these two pieces effectively tell the magnificent story of In the Mood for Love. Wong Kar-wai always brilliantly employs music in his films, and his magnum opus is no exception.


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There Will Be Blood

An Ocean of Oil: “Convergence” by Jonny Greenwood

For a film that dazzles with its jaw-dropping mise-en-scène, director Paul Thomas Anderson did have one impeccable scene that stood out amongst the rest. Determined Daniel Plainview has already ravaged the small town of Little Boston on his quest for capital domination, but his hard work finally pays off (and completes his transformation into deranged madman) when his primary oil derrick bursts into flames after releasing a glimpse of the potential held underground. The scene is expertly executed on its visual merits alone, but the addition of Jonny Greenwood’s composition “Convergence” quadruples the intensity. Made up of not much more than a rhythmic progression of percussion, “Convergence” (originally composed for the film Bodysong) terrorizes our anxiety as it builds. It’s unrelenting even after H.W. has been rescued from the wreckage and after the sun rises. Greenwood’s score for the film as a whole is impressive, but nothing touches the emotional wallop of wisely using his existing piece from Bodysong.


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The New World

Two Worlds Collide: “Das Rheingold: Vorspiel” by Richard Wagner

Instead of choosing to introduce his characters separately, director Terrence Malick brilliantly throws us into the midst of one of American history’s most significant meetings. To soundtrack this momentous collision of cultures, Malick employs Richard Wagner’s famous “Vorspiel” from his opera “Das Rheingold.” The quiet buildup of that gentle hum of muffled horns serves to build our anxious expectation as it’s eventually punctured by a beautiful, sweeping string arrangement. Both sides hardly know what to expect as those great ships sail into harbor. The natives could never have anticipated that the docking of those ships would lead to the end of their way of life as they knew it. And, the foreigners could never have expected the hardships to follow as they attempted to conquer an unfamiliar land. Malick is concerned with none of this during his exquisitely shot opening. Instead, he aims (as per usual) for a deep sense of wonder. That wonder and awe (magnificently achieved) is only enhanced by the prelude to one of Wagner’s most famous operas. The piece is utilized twice more over the course of the film: once while John Smith begins to see the world through the eyes of Pocahontas, and finally as Pocahontas (now Rebecca) begins to the see the world through the eyes of her English husband (again, utilized to signify wonder). This final moment is possibly the most poignant/beautiful use of Wagner’s “Vorspiel,” but the placement of the composition at the film’s introduction is the most powerful.


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2001: A Space Odyssey

The Cosmic Waltz: “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss

Though the various uses of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” throughout Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece (particularly that opening shot of the earth eclipsing the sun) are more easily recognizable today, a different Strauss’ famous composition is employed perfectly in another memorable scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. After the film makes the jump from prehistoric earth to the future of an inhabited outer space, one of the first images we see is of a spinning space station orbiting the planet. It is a grandiose image, but Kubrick isn’t interested in the audience’s awe. Instead of employing bombastic horns to highlight the epic nature of the universe (as countless filmmakers since have chosen to do), Kubrick utilizes Johann Strauss’ classic waltz “The Blue Danube” to complement his image. As the space station elegantly twirls away from the camera, a small spaceship slowly floats into the shot presumably headed toward the station. Shortly thereafter, it’s apparent that these two vessels are engaged in a graceful, cosmic dance. As the ship prepares to dock, the waltz reaches its climax, but nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Humankind has mastered navigating that final frontier (or so we think until the film’s second half), and docking spaceships on moving stations has become commonplace for space travel just as Strauss’ piece has become standard for the waltz. It’s a remarkable scene and one that boasts of Kubrick’s supremely unique vision. The director’s lengthy film is short on words, heavy on visual appeal, and its most visually striking scenes are inextricably tied to the music he chose to accompany them.


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The Royal Tenenbaums

Margot Meets Richie: “These Days” by Nico

Director Wes Anderson has been known for masterfully utilizing music in his films. Nowhere is this best represented than in his magnum opus The Royal Tenenbaums. That film is full of spectacular music moments from the instrumental “Hey Jude” intro to the grandfather/grandsons antics set to Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” to the poignant use of Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” as one character attempts suicide. But, nowhere is his knack for musical genius more evident than when he uses Nico’s cover of “These Days” as Margot gets off the bus to meet her brother Richie who’s been away for over a year. The effect is magnificent. Margot walks in slow motion to the lovely strum of the song’s intro. An elated smile (something we’ve yet to see from her character) appears as Nico’s distinctly deep voice begins to sing. The camera stays on Margot as her hair blows wistfully in the wind. It cuts to Richie waiting expressionless hidden behind a bushy beard and large sunglasses. The song speaks for the unspoken feelings the “siblings” share. It’s emotional, cleverly shot, and Anderson’s most effective use of music in film.


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Lost in Translation

The Whisper: “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain

Not only is “Just Like Honey” one of my absolute favorite songs, it also soundtracks one of the most unforgettable scenes from an equally memorable film. Sophia Coppola’s poignant film chronicles the pangs of physical and emotional isolation of two individuals stationed in the great city of Tokyo for differing reasons. Over the course of the film, Bob and Charlotte become unlikely companions bonding over their shared perpetual state of being (insert any adverb) lost. At film’s end, Bob knows that he must return home to his family. He has already tested the limits of their unexpected bond by sleeping with the hotel’s lounge singer, and now it seems he’s set to break Charlotte’s heart again by leaving. They share an awkward goodbye at the hotel, and Bob dutifully gets into the taxi that will take him to the airport. En route, he somewhat serendipitously (given the size of Tokyo) sees her again amidst the throng of passers-by. He stops the cab and runs to her. They embrace once more, and he comforts her first with a paternal pat on the head and then whispers something into her ear. We’re never privy to what he whispers. Is it a promise? An apology? An encouragement? Tears fill Charlotte’s eyes, but she pulls away just the same. After they kiss, Bob walks away toward his taxi as the famous drum roll of “Just Like Honey” begins. He turns to face her while walking backwards maintaining a smile the whole time. She smiles back. Bob reenters the cab with a much more confident expression – there’s closure. The taxi pulls away, and we are treated to several tracking shots of Tokyo’s urban sprawl that came to represent the pair’s loneliness all backed by the lovely, echoey reverb of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s most famous song. The track boasts of a beautiful wall of sound that perfectly soundtracks the unique affection the protagonists share as well as the distance that will keep them apart. Bob and Charlotte were never lovers, but they discovered that once-in-a-lifetime soul connection with each other on their paths toward finding themselves.


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La haine

La vie de banlieue: “Nique la Police” by DJ Cut Killer

Mathieu Kassovitz’s masterful film La haine is full of stark, yet powerful imagery. In one particular scene, an impeccable shot is paired with some fairly unexpected, but perfectly complementary music. After Hubert gets high by himself in his room, he hears the familiar shouts of his friends below. He peers out his window and witnesses a noisy crowd as Paris’ streetwise youth congregate in a deteriorating neighborhood. The camera tilts upward to reveal a DJ (an appearance by actual DJ Cut Killer) fidgeting with a large speaker through an apartment window. We are then taken inside the DJ’s room as he begins to spin a couple turntables presumably as a warm-up. He cracks his fingers and wipes his face with his hands in preparation. Controlled by his swift finger strokes, the speakers blast an expertly realized mash-up of discordant hip hop songs including KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police,” Biggie’s “Machine Gun Funk,” and N.W.A’s “F*** tha Police.” It’s the perfect blend of rebellious songs for a film that paints the police in an unfavorable light. The camera soon leaves the DJ’s apartment, and we witness an aerial view of the neighborhood square below. After a few seconds, something unexpected hits our ears. The DJ has mixed Édith Piaf’s “Non je ne regrette rien” into his mash-up. The classic French singer’s raspy lament punctures the forceful ruckus of the DJ’s mix. The camera continues to pan the area until the expanse of the entire banlieue is in view. It’s a brilliant collision of sounds: the authority-bashing beats indicative of the forgotten streets of Paris versus the refined quality of Piaf’s staple, symbolic of a romanticized (yet standard) version of that famous city. It encapsulates the film’s overall theme in one brief, impressive scene.


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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Standoff: “The Ecstasy of Gold” by Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone is Europe’s John Williams. He’s contributed original compositions to seemingly countless films, and while each one is distinct, each also has a unique Morricone sound to it. His most famous contribution to the world of cinema remains that unconventional yodeling theme he wrote for Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. After several collaborations with Leone, it seems Morricone was tailor-made to soundtrack westerns. In his most accomplished piece written for that film (not the famous theme), “The Ecstasy of Gold,” he manages to capture the essence of the romanticized American West. Accompanying the visual of Tuco greedily searching the cemetery for buried treasure leading up to the much-anticipated standoff between the good, the bad, and the ugly, his piece is the sound of notorious evildoers, vigilante justice, and the adventurous untamed west. A chorus of frantic singers wails as a percussive march and triumphant strings lead toward the film’s climactic showdown. The camera races around in circles blurring the image of the desolate cemetery until Tuco (and the camera) land on that sought after grave. Morricone’s composition brought our favorite trio together and helped ratchet up anticipation for the film’s most memorable scene.


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Pather Panchali

Opening Credits: “Pather Panchali Theme” by Ravi Shankar

Though there is nothing truly significant about the opening title cards to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, it boasts of exquisite music from one of the world’s greatest musicians. Ravi Shankar had been recording traditional ragas for some time before the release of Ray’s film in 1955, but his original score for Pather Panchali was one of his first ventures into film and to this day his finest. Nothing could have set the stage for that perfect coming-of-age tale better than Shankar’s buoyant sitar playing. Wisely, Shankar moved away from the sprawling complexities of traditional ragas and opted for lighter fare, no less accomplished and several times more emotionally effective. The impact of his score can be felt throughout the entire film, but during the opening credits, his music is center stage and the perfect introduction to the beautiful, heartbreaking film that follows.


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WALL*E

Welcome to Earth: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” by Michael Crawford

Several of Pixar’s films feature fantastic original scores (most notably those composed by either Thomas Newman or Michael Giacchino). Andrew Stanton’s WALL*E is no exception. Newman’s score is beautiful and fittingly atmospheric. However, the repeated use of two mid-century pop songs (Louis Armstrong’s version of Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en rose” and “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from the musical Hello Dolly! sung by Michael Crawford) represent the best uses of music in that delightful film. In fact, Stanton wisely chooses to begin WALL*E with the latter song. The audience is thrust into outer space as Crawford begins singing, “Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers…” as we are treated to several still shots of the infinite expanse. It’s a welcome, yet unusual choice for a film set far into the future. But, the irony sets in as the camera lingers on a brown-tinted earth before rapidly zooming in to reveal an atmosphere polluted with useless satellites. Once the atmosphere’s been breached, we see silhouettes of enormous towers in precise rows through the smog. Upon closer inspection, we find that they are made of cubes of trash. A few more shots of these towering trash heaps, as well as yet-to-be-organized mounds, reveal the ugly state of our planet and no trace of human or plant life in sight before “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” fades into Newman’s score. The scene is nothing short of brilliant. And, the effect is crucial: as citizens of this planet, we pine for the glorious nightlife bathed in romantic starlight that Crawford sings about. In this wasteland, the beauty we’re used to is nowhere to be found. It’s a hefty, but narratively important, introduction to a film that gently rebukes mankind’s irresponsibility with regards to care-taking this world.


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Star Wars

In a Galaxy Far, Far Away: “Star Wars (Main Theme)” by John Williams

I thought it only fitting to end this list with another obvious, yet no less important choice. John Williams remains the undisputed master of film scores. The man has built a career on memorable musical motifs that often transcend the films that they accompany – every adventure conjures the theme to Raiders of the Lost Ark, reading the Harry Potter series makes anyone whistle the tune of “Hedwig’s Theme,” and every ocean swim is tainted by the official sound of a menacing shark. But, Williams’ grandest and most accomplished moment didn’t soundtrack a startling climax – instead, it marked the most famous prologue in film history. Before Vader infamously hijacked Princess Leia’s spaceship, the world was introduced to George Lucas’ Star Wars via unconventional crawling text that brought viewers up to speed on the galaxy’s current events. The decision may have been rather uninspired if Lucas had not chosen to soundtrack that now-legendary crawl with Williams’ magnificent theme. From that first burst of horns from a full orchestra as the title “Star Wars” filled the entire screen to the open-ended ellipsis, that expertly soundtracked title sequence had one purpose: to heighten adrenaline as one of cinema’s most famous fantasies began. It set the pace for the intergalactic epic that followed and went on to define the fruitful career of one of Hollywood’s premier composers. It stands as one of the finest moments of that beautiful intersection of music and film.