35. Band of Outsiders
AKA Bande à part
(Jean-Luc Godard, 1964, France)
Proof that intellectualism doesn’t have to be hard work, Godard’s most sustained tribute to, and critique of, the moral universe of the American B-picture is also one of the most ditzy, delightful comedies ever filmed, though “comedy” does not at all feel like the right word to describe it; “anti-drama” comes closer. Still, the director’s notorious love of bending cinema in front of us never played as less shrill and more playful than it does here, as we watch the three young protagonists sharing a moment of silence, recreate moments from pulp movies, out-American American tourists, or, legendarily, dance the Madison in a café. It’s more silly than it is anything else; yet that silliness masks a remarkably successful attempt to seriously grapple with how the omnipresence of pop culture changes our ability to live in reality. Jean-Luc “Cinema” Godard didn’t invent media analysis, but here, he arguably perfected it.
34. A Woman Under the Influence
(John Cassavetes, 1974, USA)
An epochal moment in character-based cinema: though it is a very logical extension of the same experiments Cassavetes and other independent filmmakers had been conducting for some years, the film still feels unpremeditated in every way, even more than three decades after its premiere. Telling a disjointed, irregular story about one woman’s journey in and out of a mental institution, part of what makes the movie so uncommonly powerful is the way it slides its ideas in through the cracks in its deeply unconventional screenplay; better still is Gena Rowland’s revolutionary performance, a manic, richly sympathetic, terrifyingly electric turn that represents the fullest expression of a remarkable kind of film acting that could only come when a director and star completely trusted each other to go all the way to psychological places almost too raw for cinema to contain; even Rowlands was never able to go this far again.
33. Duck Amuck
(Chuck Jones, 1953, USA)
What started as an exercise in character animation – Jones wanted to see how far one could push Daffy Duck before he ceased to register as Daffy Duck – become one of the pinnacles of postmodern art: in a single “take”, against a featureless void, Warner’s most irascible character takes a chainsaw to the fourth wall, calling into question the most basic ideas of “reality” as it is practiced in narrative cinema, and forcing the audience to confront its relationship to the material on display. And, in its jokey last shot, providing a critique of auteur theory like none other. Not half bad for a slapstick cartoon, but then the Looney Tunes were always rather excited with finding new and exciting ways to destroy logic and linearity from within; Duck Amuck is less an outlier in its surrealistic anarchy than it is the most successful member of a tight family.
(Kurosawa Akira, 1950, Japan)
A movie so iconic that its name has transcended the medium to refer to the tendency for different perspectives to yield wildly different takes on “the truth”; that it managed, all by itself, to introduce the rest of the world to Japanese cinema seems almost secondary in comparison. It’s triumphs remain all its own, though: the gorgeous sunlit forest and the stentorian human buildings are an early sign of the particular genius of the director who composed an image better than anyone else ever has, while the lightly stylised acting speaks to a fascination he’d have for the rest of his career in finding truth through the deliberate application of staginess and artifice. When you get right down to it, it’s ultimately nihilistic, claiming that knowledge is always beyond our grasp, but the crackerjack storytelling, down to the sort of cheesy but awfully satisfying finale, is premium-grade humanism right through. (Reviewed here)
(Federico Fellini, 1963, Italy / France)
The nerviest autobiography ever filmed: Fellini does not just air his dirty laundry, but opens up his creative process for all the world to see, in a frank and illuminating peek into how a filmmaker’s consciousness is not like a normal person’s. Points to the director for not sugarcoating things: Marcello Mastroianni’s performance does not ask that we like Fellini-analogue Guido Anselmi or indeed think of him as anything but contemptibly pathetic. Character study of a man without character isn’t the only thing the film has to offer, though: presenting a fictionalised account of its own creation, 8½ is cinema’s most fascinating depiction of the filmmaking process, emphasising at all points its own artifice and stating, over and over again, a question that becomes more important as human culture becomes more dominated by pop media: do I remember that happening, or did I see it in a movie?
AKA Земля (Zemlya)
(Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930, USSR)
The Soviet Montage movement suffers, in this viewer’s opinion, from a superfluity of intellectualism and a lack of affect: the government-mandated inserts of nobly downtrodden workers and the like too often feel like a begrudging addition to the cunningly mechanical march of images. Sometimes, however, these films functioned as coherent, meaningful drama and groundbreaking experiments in creating meaning through editing, and Dovzhenko’s late silent is to me the pinnacle of the movement: the story of how a small community of farmers embraces Communism as the only way to live in true harmony with the land is among the least clumsy pieces of Soviet propaganda; and thanks to the much-refined toolkit that years of experiment had left available to the filmmaker, no other Soviet montage film is so intuitively meaningful and gripping: the mere act of seeing a new tractor here becomes one of the most ecstatic scenes in cinema.
29. 2001: A Space Odyssey
(Stanley Kubrick, 1968, United Kingdom / USA)
Philosophical hokum? Needless, pretentious obscurity? Yes and yes; but that’s nothing stacked against the film’s phenomenally anti-spectacular spectacle, in which top-notch visual effects (still amazing, over 40 years later) are used to emphasise that space travel, even at its most dangerous, is really fucking boring. A wonderfully anti-romantic conceit that matches well with the general feeling of – not misanthropy, but rather moral fatigue that dogs this millennia-spanning narrative that states, “from the beginning to the end of the human species, we did nothing much of value”. Grim words that are never allayed by all stunning visual elegance of this most poetic of movies; and reiterated, if anything, by the incredible alchemy that created a hugely personable character fom shots of a red light and a deliberately flat vocal performance. Despite it all, the cheesiest ending ever that gets me every time hopefully suggests that we’ll always have another chance. (Reviewed here)
28. Some Like It Hot
(Billy Wilder, 1959, USA)
Maybe just maybe, the most perfect screenplay ever written. Big words, fighting words; but there’s not one hair out of place in this impeccably-constructed farce, in which two musicians fleeing the mob by posing in startlingly unconvincing drag. Unexpectedly modern sexual politics in the form of Jack Lemmon’s delighted flapper “Daphne” ping off of a story built on such a robust, classic spine that charges forward with such self-assurance that it’s impossible to notice that this most delicate and sprightly film clocks in at a comedy-slaughtering two hours. And that’s without stopping to mention Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s merciless barrage of zingy dialogue, Marilyn Monroe in the role that best captures her bittersweet sexuality, and Tony Curtis giving a Cary Grant impersonation that’s always a bit more hilarious than it is accurate, but no matter. Nobody’s perfect, like the movie says. But damn me, Billy Wilder comes close. (Reviewed here)
(Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955, Denmark)
Adapted from a stageplay without the least effort made to “open it up”, but in the hands of the legendary director, wielding his camera like a magician’s wand, the film could not possibly be more kinetic and vitally cinematic; which is good, because the story it tells is intensely rough and dark. This is perhaps cinema’s most unyielding treatment of the Big Themes: what happens at death, is there a God, should one be faithful in the face of suffering, and so on and so forth – typical Scandinavian arthouse fare, you might want to think dismissively, but “typical” is the worst possible word to describe anything about this film, which combines brilliant performances, incredibly sophisticated filmmaking, and a narrative which moves from utter bleakness to spiritual transcendence with extraordinary purpose and intelligence. I cannot do better than to call it this atheist’s favorite tribute to the power of religion. (Reviewed here)
26. Andrei Rublev
AKA Андрей Рублёв
(Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966, USSR)
Speaking of religious films – except Tarkovsky’s spiritual vision, though based in orthodox Christianity, rather surpasses anything dogmatic enough to be contained by the word “religion”, never more than in this exhausting, epic-length story of all humanity as seen through the figure of 15th Century Russia’s famous icon painter and monk. Heavily symbolic and incredibly slow-moving, the film is the textbook example of everything awful anybody has ever said about “serious films”, but its great length and glacial grandeur are no mere accidents of Soviet glumness, but the very tools by which the filmmaker thrusts the patient viewer into the reverential, reflective place we need to be in order to fully appreciate the subtlety and grace of an odyssey both spiritual and earthly, progressing implacably from suffocatingly close period observation in chilly black-and-white to a rapturous final reel, bursting in full color. It’s as close as film comes to transfiguration. (Reviewed here)