45. Raging Bull
(Martin Scorsese, 1980, USA)
A character study of uncommon viciousness and poetry, Scorsese’s black-and-white excoriation of the American male and his propensity towards violence is a miserably unpleasant experience to watch, all the more so with Robert De Niro “going there” with more dark joy than any other performance I can think to name; his stunning descent into self-destructive brutality didn’t represent the last word in Method acting, though it surely rendered the Method redundant. A tour de force on the part of everyone involved – Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing in particular reaches some kind of transcendent sublimity here – the film is a peculiar combination of narrative savagery and gorgeous craftsmanship (especially in its justly famed boxing scenes), though part of what gives it such unmentionable power is Scorsese’s marshaling of cruelty and beauty into one whole, letting us understand why the antihero protagonist chooses this way of living even though it breaks him.
44. Once Upon a Time in the West
AKA C’era una volta il West
(Sergio Leone, 1968, Italy / USA)
From one of the great opening sequences in cinema, ten minutes of tense silence and jumpy, exaggerated sound effects and immaculate use of the Techniscope frame to capture faces and landscapes with the same mythic intensity, Leone’s masterpiece does not redefine the Western so much as it burrows into the soul of the Western and cranks the whole thing up to its most grandiose extreme. In its breathtaking cinematography and absurd violence and broad-strokes story of an anonymous man trying to destroy the black-hatted villain who ruined his life, and of course its rattling, unearthly Ennio Morricone score, this whole film makes good on the title’s promise to be a bedtime story of the West, all big gestures (including a hypertrophic running time that never drags) and simple theme of the good guys beating a terrifically wicked villain, played by Henry Fonda in moviedom’s finest piece of against-type casting. (Reviewed here)
43. The Trial
(Orson Welles, 1962, France / Italy / West Germany)
Welles’s alleged favorite among all his films, perhaps because it’s one of the handful of films he was ever able to complete exactly the way he wanted, though more likely because it’s such an awe-inspiring adaptation of an unadaptable book: Kafka’s legendary satire of faceless bureaucracy is transferred to the screen with all its terrifying anonymity intact, with Anthony Perkins – the best possible choice for a sympathetic hero with absolutely no backstory or personality – facing off against a world in which nothing makes any sense, and any attempt to apply logic to things ends by making his situation worse. Disorienting as written, the film becomes even more inscrutable and off-kilter thanks to the characteristic Wellesian imagery, abstractly beautiful and executed according to a visionary sensibility like nobody else had, it looks unreal in a creepily real way. One of the great nightmares of 20th Century existence. (Reviewed here)
42. Late Spring
AKA 晩春 (Banshun)
(Ozu Yasujirō, 1949, Japan)
One of Ozu’s many stories of generational conflict in post-WWII Japan: this is the one with the grown-up woman (Hara Setsuko, wholly amazing) living with her father, and their fight over her reluctance to get married. The subtleties of difference between Ozu pictures notwithstanding, this is among his most devastating, sensitive films, depicting two individuals who disagree completely and are both completely in the right, from the right perspective; it’s a heartbreaking domestic tragedy in which nobody suffers and at the end all the characters are basically happy with how things ended up, and yet it feels that something precious has been lost. Ozu’s remarkable affinity with his actors results in exquisitely bittersweet characterisations, and his famously rigid aesthetic, architectural aesthetic, first perfected in this very film, is here used to show how the characters are trapped by the very traditions that give so much shape to their lives.
(Fritz Lang, 1931, Germany)
The first masterpiece of the sound era, and the most complete film in Lang’s estimable career of stylistically inventive genre pictures, is a snapshot of how a community responds to the presence of a child murderer, from the dogged but confused policemen to the beleaguered criminal class to the murderer himself: a puffy, nervous fellow embodied by Peter Lorre at his most rodential, a pathetic blog who looks and acts more like a cheap accountant than a sadist. In creating such a fleshed-out picture of how one killer can change the lives of an entire town, Lang established most of the the rule which would forever after govern the serial killer genre, and at the same time outdid all of its descendants for cunning, for incisive commentary, and even for cold-blooded chills, thanks to a ludicrously mature soundtrack, centered on the skin-crawling use of “Halls of the Mountain King”.
40. Lawrence of Arabia
(David Lean, 1962, USA / United Kingdom)
Massive war epic, or painfully intimate depiction of a man without a center who tried and failed to find one? Lean, the great character artist who later became a somewhat garish epic-maker (calling his post-Lawrence films “overdone” is being kind) says we can have both, and darned if that’s not just what we get in a film where some of the most jaw-dropping vistas ever captured on 70mm, thanks to cinematographer Freddie Young and a satisfying absence of shame or restraint, are used largely as psychological metaphors to point out how T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole, in one of the great debut performances of all time) wants to lose himself in the unknowable vastness of the desert. Like many epics, it gets a bit tedious as it goes on, though in this case the dragginess also fits the hero, who can’t comprehend the bureaucratic aftermath of his gung-ho wartime heroics.
39. Le million
(René Clair, 1931, France)
The second masterpiece of the sound era, and one of the most stupidly delightful musical farces of any age. A romantically poor painter wins the lottery, and loses the ticket, and has to chase across Paris, from the thieves’ quarter to the very stage of the opera, while winning back his girl in the process. Calling it artificial and stagey and forced is to pay it a compliment in every case; Clair’s most engaging movie is, like all of his work, highly indebted to a tradition of French theatricality that made the director the embodiment of all things that future generations of his country’s filmmakers would consider unforgivably twee about the national cinema; but 80 years later, the tweeness has become ecstatically charming, and the use of music and non-diegetic sound has revealed itself as revolutionary and groundbreaking in ways the truffle of a story doesn’t indicate, and rather cleverly disguises.
38. The Crowd
(King Vidor, 1928, USA)
Perhaps the sign of a newly cosmpolitan country working out its terror of the metropolis, there was a trend in the late ’20s of American films praising the elegant simplicity of the rural life, or freaking out about the pace of city dwelling, or both; a lot of these come off today as conservative harangues, but the very best, made by visual artists of the first order, rank among the most perfect of all silent films. Despite his later descent into hackwork, Vidor was then nothing if not a great artist, and his depiction of a young married couple struggling in a great sterile city of the day is both gushingly humane, and a work of visual poetry like few other movies: the depiction of the Everycity as a thrillingly geometric space that doubles as an implacable cage of lines and windows is unparalleled throughout decades of urban photography. (Reviewed here)
37. Sansho the Bailiff
AKA 山椒大夫 (Sanshō Dayũ)
(Mizoguchi Kenji, 1954, Japan)
A stately tale of innocence and savagery, a morality play about the need for mercy in an inherently unmerciful universe, captured by the immaculate camerawork of one of the greatest visual storytellers of them all, Sansho is elegant and beautiful and emotionally searing: though there is a line of indefatigable spiritual strength underlining the whole that keeps it from descending into sheer miserabilism, no matter how much the plot might sound that way (orphans vs. a slave driver, essentially). It’s a bit of a relief that Mizoguchi’s mesmerising control of imagery tends to draw a box around the action and set it off as a fable or a dream, rather than a strictly realist drama: it’s harsh enough to watch as it is, though that harshness ultimately gives way to hard-earned uplift in the end. An ending that is surely one of the most transcendent in cinema. (Reviewed here)
36. The Passenger
(Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975, Italy / Spain / France)
Perfecting the antiseptic aesthetic he’d been developing for 15 years, Antonioni’s masterpiece is a blindingly bright tale of identity being destroyed by… it’s actually very hard to say what destroys the identity of the reporter played by Jack Nicholson in the best work of his career, although “the ’70s” is probably the closest answer we can get. Aggressive in its formal iciness, aggressive in its awareness that it’s mostly contrived and cryptic, particularly in regards to the unlikely femme fatale played by Maria Schneider, aggressive in its one-of-a-kind use of color – the film is just plain aggressive, an appropriate culmination of the career of a director whose notoriously difficult films did so much to point out the moral emptiness of 20th Century life. And on the subject of amazing endings, the shot that ends this movie is one of the great gestures in all modernist art. (Reviewed here)