115. Gerald McBoing-Boing
(Robert Cannon, 1951, USA)
The first major defection of animators from Disney, in the 1940s, resulted in the formation of United Productions of America, a home for artists who felt that Uncle Walt’s insistence on realism, always realism, was needlessly limiting the development of American animation. Before economic reality kicked in, UPA was responsible for some of the most inventive cartoons in history, of which the best is undoubtedly this Dr. Seuss-penned fable about a little boy who speaks in sound effects. Sweet and funny and pure delight to watch, with a sketchy, arch-minimalist design scheme that remains terrifically bracing all these decades later, Gerald McBoing-Boing is one of the most formally innovative pieces of animation ever, and yet unlike so much of the wonderful experimental animation before and since, it manages to rewrite all the rules while still being a top-notch family-friendly entertainment.
The first part is justly renowned as one of the great tales of American striving, detailing the most admirable and most damnable characteristics of the Corleone family (big F, small f, it’s the same both ways) in a story about the crisis of identity facing the newly minted superpower after the Second World War as much as it is about any individual character. The sequel manages the impossible feat of deepening that foundation, making it richer and more tragic, even Greek in its painfully unsentimental presentation of how a single man can be responsible for the destruction ofall that he holds dear by the very steps he takes to save those things. They’re both great separately, but the cumulative effect of the two pieces viewed in tandem – The Rise and Fall of Michael Corleone – is the stuff of pure myth, America’s uncomfortably dark national epic.
113. Secrets & Lies
(Mike Leigh, 1996, United Kingdom / France)
“Secrets & Lies” could be the title of any number of Leigh films, so concerned are they all with the delicate framework of deceptions and negotiations that go into making up that most hellish of all social units, the family – and yet he saved it for his masterpiece, a mirthless story of the long-buried past coming back to rattle the present that is never once depressing, thanks to the director’s light touch and the outrageously talented cast, playing their liars and victims as well-meaning, messy human beings above all else. Thanks to that humanism, what could have been a grueling tale of people hating and sniping and trying to ruin one another is, instead, one of cinema’s most forgiving, heartbreaking depictions of instantly recognisable family dynamics in all their pain, that still manages to demonstrate over and over the love that makes all that pain worthwhile.
112. Chungking Express
AKA 重慶森林 (Chóngqìng sēnlín)
(Wong Kar-Wai, 1994, Hong Kong)
At times gaudy, at times so idiotically earnest that you can’t help but wonder if you should be rolling your eyes; except that Hong Kong’s master pop fantasist presents his splashy, impossible stories of two frumpy cops and the outlandish fairy-tale women whom they love with such ferocious energy that it completely overwhelms any attempt to outsmart what are, in all honesty, some very squirrelly narrative tricks, and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the form of Faye Wong who outdoes just about every other example of the form. Wong’s genius, always, but here especially, is to make films with the woozy nostalgia and urgent romanticism of a really great pop song transporting you to another place emotionally using all the dirtiest tricks – and yet, does it matter how you’ve been transported when the effect is this visceral, this colorful, this exciting, this completely sincere?
111. La jetée
(Chris Marker, 1962, France)
Equal parts glacial formal exercise and moody, almost Gothic, science-fiction fable about the implacable march of fate, Marker’s peculiar little experiment in storytelling through still images – and one indelible motion shot – is the kind of straightforward trifle that you can “get” without even having seen it, and then spend years slowly puzzling out the different levels buried in its apparently surface-level meaning. Using still frames to represent human memory is an obvious enough trick that plenty of films beat Marker to the punch, yet none of them carry the same unsettling implications that the reason photographs make such good memories is that both the memory and the photo are, in essence, embalmed corpses. At the same time, he uses the still image as a deterministic cage; no motion picture footage is so unforgivingly definitive as the photograph, as the doomed, unnamed protagonist learns to his eternal sorrow.
110. The Damned
AKA La caduta degli dei
(Luchino Visconti, 1969, Italy / West Germany)
Everybody has made movies about how the Nazis were bisexual hedonist rapemongers; you know that, I know that, your grandma knows that. But nobody knew that better than Italy’s most accomplished documentarian of the lifestyles of the shallow and depraved, whose masterpiece is this crazy nightmare epic about the fall of a craven industrialist family whose fear of authoritarianism is ultimately no match for their eager embrace of all the power and luxury and influence that comes to those who sell their souls to the devil Hitler. The most operatic of Visconti’s many hyper-melodramatic family stories (the Italian title is the same as Wagner’s apocalyptic Götterdämmerung, “Twilight of the Gods”) is also the most savage and unforgettable: a depiction of humanity at its most hellish and depraved that could stand up to any horror film ever made.
109. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
AKA Les parapluies des Cherbourg
(Jacques Demy, 1964, France / West Germany)
There were as many faces of the French New Wave as there were New Wave filmmakers, but there was always a focus on youth culture, and a delight in playing with genre. Both of which are omnipresent in this entirely sung-through musical about a mechanic who falls in love with a girl who runs an umbrella shop with her mother. It’s crazily dramatic and over-the-top, but the complete lack of adult sensibility in Demy’s treatment of the material matches well with the protagonists’ own sense of the eternal importance of their love affair – all of which makes the last scene even more tragic than it might otherwise be, as flatly grown-up pragmatism instantly sucks all the swoony romanticism out of the characters. Michel Legrand’s outrageously wonderful score, and Jean Rabier’s candy-colored cinematography make it a treat for the ear and eye as well as an unapologetic weeper. (Reviewed here)
(Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972, USSR)
Angry at Stanley Kubrick’s icy, anti-humanist 2001, which he probably viewed as emblematic of the West’s focus on technology and achievement at the expense of people or some such, Tarkovsky swung back with an adaptation of Stanlisaw Lem’s iconic novel (Lem hated the movie, incidentally) that matched Kubrick’s picture for inscrutable narrative but upped the ante on spiritualist imagery and added a much richer layer of human tragedy. The result is one of the most sedate science-fiction movies ever – for a solid hour, it’s totally earthbound and anti-fantastic – and one that too easily courts the complaints of “boring” and “pretentious”, but its stately pace and focused grounding in familiar, everyday humanity is precisely the reason that it ends up one of the most psychologically astute and artistically meaningful genre exercises in history. Its mysteries are profoundly human mysteries, never space jargon for the sake of it.
(Dario Argento, 1977, Italy)
For as long as there has been Italian horror, there has been Italian horror with incoherent screenplays, inexplicable characters, and a general air of “what the holy hell is going on?”, married to images of impossible otherworldly beauty, nightmarish and gorgeous in equal measure. No Italian filmmaker got more mileage from such surrealist horror as Dario Argento, and no Argento picture is as roundly successful as his first unabashedly supernatural thriller, in which an American ballet student realises that her school is plagued by an ancient witch. None of it makes sense, but the sense of being thrust into a whirlwind of the uncanny gives Suspiria an undeniably thrilling kick, the glorious cinematography and production design add a sense of visionary hallucination, and the shrieking techno score by Argento favorites Goblin makes the whole thing feel like a waking dream, tethered to reality in only the most superficial way. (Reviewed here)
106. The Gold Rush
(Charles Chaplin, 1925, USA)
Chaplin had other films with a more fully-expressed moral sensibility, but they sometimes were trapped under their crushing sincerity; none of his other comedies is so funny as this epic farce of frontier life, a breezy pre-Depression reminder that things have always been tough on the little tramps who make it through on pluck and good fortune. Anchored by some of the finest gags in his career, including the legendary “shoe-eating” and “roll dance” scenes, Chaplin concocted a movie that blends ephemeral storytelling with historical gravitas and tremendous physicality (few studio-bound winter sets in the silent era feel as cold as this one), one that never forgets to be playful even at its gravest moments. By the blissful closing shot (in the original release: avoid at all costs the 1942 revision), the totality of the film’s sunny optimism brushes away any resistance we might have to its sugary contrivances. (Reviewed here)