25. The Searchers
(John Ford, 1956, USA)
Enough energy has been spent describing all the ways that Ford’s act of de-mythologising presents its own mythic archetypes; of how John Wayne’s portrayal of the John Wayne Type as a brutal savage is one of the most uncanny self-critical star turns in history; of Winton C. Hoch’s painterly cinematography; of this and that and the other thing. I don’t need to repeat all of that at you. Instead, I will content myself to suggest that this outside of the most ineffective comic relief in any of Ford’s great films, The Searchers is essentially perfect: its pictorial storytelling is almost certainly the greatest achievement in the career of this most visually dramatic of filmmakers, while the tension between genre and anti-genre provides almost as much narrative thrust as the simple but driving revenge plot. And then there’s that finale, a logical wreck that’s also almost spiritual in its poetic sublimity.
24. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
(Chantal Akerman, 1975, Belgium / France)
Just what it says: a woman and the place where she lives, taking as its subject a three-day snapshot of her habits: day one is perfectly normal, day two marginally less so, and day three… There’s always something unnerving about a movie that’s well over three hours long and has no plot to speak of, but the heart of Akerman’s wildly original film lies in fully observing the sheer ordinariness of Jeanne’s existence, so that the tiniest shifts in her behavior are, in their own way, as grandiose and dramatic as the destruction of a half-dozen moon-sized space stations. With repetitive, almost ritualistic frames, the film is madly unconventional, challenging cinematic norms in every moment: a bold new aesthetic to consider a woman’s life from angles that mainstream films don’t acknowledge. It’s a great achievements of feminist cinema, and a fantastically engaging human story as well. Just bring your patience. (Reviewed here)
AKA 雨月物語 (Ugetsu monogatari)
(Mizoguchi Kenji, 1953, Japan)
Cinema’s finest ghost story; and despite the director’s personality, and the stately historical inquiry that makes it such a rewarding costume drama, Ugetsu is most certainly a horror film. A horror film in which most of the terrors are ethical and metaphysical, but even so it’s more genuinely eerie than all the slasher and zombie and vampire pictures put together. But that’s just scratching the surface of a deeply philosophical film even by the standards of Japan’s most introspective filmmaker: by the time Ugetsu reaches its literally haunting final moments, it has touched on gender inequality, the social cost of greed, the historical impact of war, and a number of other fun topics. It’s an exquisite fable, told through a visual style that links it to classic forms of graphic art, adding a heavily stylised timelessness to a movie that’s already a brilliant treatise on the unflagging flow of time. (Reviewed here)
22. Man with a Movie Camera
AKA Человек с киноаппаратом (Chelovek s kino-apparatom)
(Dziga Vertov, 1929, USSR)
A documentary by name, and maybe even a documentary in effect; the title is actually quite descriptive of a film that is primarily a collage of the different aspects of life one sees here and there and everywhere. One might even say it is the ultimate documentary, since it mostly eschews the artificial placement of a narrative on the footage of universal people living in a universal city: but what isn’t covered by that “mostly” is the strange and unprecedented frame narrative, in which Man with a Movie Camera somehow endeavors to document its own creation and premiere. And thus does an actualité turn into a self-devouring expression of the unreliability of the medium, in which every image is a deliberate construct and every cut – of which there are a staggering number here – is a violation of the mere concept of “realism”. Cinema’s definitive act of self-criticism.
It was the director’s indispensable collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz who came up with the idea of a thematic trilogy exploring the French Republican ideals of liberty, quality, and fraternity; and while those notions are very much present in their respective films, that’s mostly because Three Colors as a whole manages to explore virtually every aspect of human life while also making a bold social statement about the nature of trans-European identity in the same year that the European Union was officially formed. But it’s not all geopolitics, or even mostly geopolitics; as with any Kieślowski film, the focus is largely on the individual human beings portrayed by a never-better Juliette Binoche alongside Kieślowski veterans Zbigniew Zamachowski and Irène Jacob; while the interlocking structure of the trilogy places the whole thing at the apex of the metaphysical odyssey that had increasingly become the central obsession of the director’s work. (Three Colors: Blue reviewed here) (Three Colors: White reviewed here) (Three Colors: Red reviewed here)
AKA Les mépris
(Jean-Luc Godard, 1963, France / Italy)
Exactly the film you’d expect when you hand the reins of an international prestige picture to a filmmaker whose entire persona was built around the ideas of tearing down the norms of commercial filmmaking. Beginning with a sequence designed to objectify sex goddess Brigitte Bardot in the crudest way possible, the film is a laughing indictment of itself, and of the whole damned film industry, from Jack Palance’s lizard-like American producer to Fritz Lang playing himself as a cranky old man tired of the game. The joy with which Godard smashes his way through every movie-making norm he can get his hands on would be enough to secure the film a place among the legends; just to seal the deal, you can find buried beneath all the meta-text one of the all-time great movies about a marriage crumbling in the wake of broken communication and emotional absence.
19. Singin’ in the Rain
(Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952, USA)
The shot of Kelly defiantly, joyously singing “Come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face” is the crowning moment of one of the finest Hollywood productions of all, and the consensus pick for the best movie musical, which is at heart an exercise in sheer delight: is there another film so devoted for so much of its running time to making the audience feel so good about the world and the people in it? That has a lot to do with Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s screenplay with its knowing swipes at the movie industry and some of the best one-liners ever; and quite a bit to do with a cast that could not be improved upon in the slightest degree. Most obviously, the film triumphs thanks to its bouquet of mini-narratives nestled inside musical numbers, crazily inventive filmmaking that blithely describes the buoyancy of human optimism.
(Luis Buñuel, 1961, Spain / Mexico)
There’s political satire and then there’s making a film right in front of Franco that as much as says, “boy, the only thing more fucking absurd than dictators are dictators with the full backing and endorsement of the Catholic Church!” Which is a sign of the film’s bravery, but not necessarily of its energy and brass: even by Buñuelian standards, Viridiana is a bold, weird film, an attack on Nice People written in giant, unmistakable letters: subtlety is assuredly not among the film’s virtues, but broadsides usually aren’t subtle. And a broadside it is, one that still resonates with a world that hasn’t changed enough for Buñuel’s criticism of all the things that stand between the impulse to do good and the act of doing good (religion, money, power, masculine sexuality) to seem remotely dated. Its tactical garishness and aggressive tawdriness still feel somehow excitingly dangerous and electric. (Reviewed here)
17. Cries and Whispers
AKA Viskningar och rop
(Ingmar Bergman, 1972, Sweden)
A woman is about to die; her two sisters, who hate her and each other, come to be with her. Things get worse before they… get worser. If you ever want to prove that Bergman was an arbitrarily miserable S.O.B. you’d be hard-pressed to pick a better example; paradoxically, it’s also the best proof that all of his famously depressing movies are profoundly humanist cries of pain, that Bergman was angry to the point of mania about the cosmic unfairness of a human being’s life. There is nothing cheap or tacky in this most exhaustive study of the dark night of the soul: drenched in a gruesome red that typified the interior self for the filmmaker, it is one of the great shattering experiences in world cinema, melding camera and performance and scenario to explore the question central to Bergman’s late work: how are we to know another person? (Reviewed here)
16. The Third Man
(Carol Reed, 1949, United Kingdom)
Probably not the most cynical film ever made (it’s far too much fun to watch for that to be the case), but it’s hard to think of another great movie that’s this morally curdled. Much of that comes from Orson Welles’s portrayal of a man with not a single redeeming virtue, played with such ebullient Wellesian charisma that we’re powerless to resist falling in love with him, and only realise afterward what horrible thing we’ve just done. Mostly, though, it comes from filming in the actual Vienna that was actually turned into a wasteland by war and politics, and it’s hard to say which one had the more deleterious effect. One of the greatest expressions in any medium of the shell-shocked nihilism found every after WWII, the film expresses both visually and narratively a colossally dysfunctional world of rubble and bent perspective, a world where nothing seems right anymore.