15. Night and Fog
AKA Nuit et brouillard
(Alain Resnais, 1955, France)
“Never forget” is the rallying cry that follows all great social traumas, and implicit in the moral righteousness of that call is the admission that forgetting comes rather easily to the human animal. This unlovely fact is at the center of Resnais’s unendurable and absolutely definitive 32-minute documentary of the Nazi death camps, combining bone-chilling images of the savagery found there in 1945 with footage shot in the same places only 10 years later, and it’s striking how even then the sites have been taken back by nature, their ghastliness only an echo. This, says Resnais, is the very problem: as long as these memories are not painfully raw, human nature guarantees that it will happen again; the film’s function is to keep those memories as fresh and painful as possible, though the pessimistic closing narrations suggests there’s no fighting human depravity. Sadly, that’s turned out to be exactly right.
14. Brief Encounter
(David Lean, 1945, United Kingdom)
A post-war film of a lighter sort, though still achingly sad in its own way, Lean’s film of a Noël Coward play never mentions “World War II”, but the emptiness of post-war ennui is lathered over every moment of this exceptionally British tragic love story about two soulmates who meet by complete accident and never share so much as a stolen kiss in their fleeting time together. Anchored by a luminous Celia Johnson and a less-luminous but never-better Trevor Howard, and filmed in absolutely gorgeous black-and-white to make the simplest trappings of ’40s England seem like a suffocating cage, Lean’s film is a magnificently melodramatic character study with psychological profundity as epic and legendary as all the swirling vistas of his later pictures; one of the 20th Century’s most perfect depictions of bittersweet romance, and one of the all-time best movies to pop in anytime you need a good cry.
13. City Lights
(Charles Chaplin, 1931, USA)
The film that closed out the silent era in Hollywood (the later Modern Times is a sound picture that happens to have intertitles) doesn’t go in for all the formal sublimity of most other prominent late silents: the game here is straight-up heartrending sentiment, in a film that is certainly not Chaplin’s funniest, but undeniably his sweetest, and perhaps Hollywood’s as well. The gooey story of a blind flower girl mistaking the little tramp for a rich man is unbelievable and unbelievably hokey, but Chaplin and a fantastic cast fling themselves into it without a moment’s shame, and the combination of warm physical humor and tender humanism is as ageless as it is dated. When all is said and done, though, the film’s reputation lies not on its excellence throughout, but on its final scene, an expression of pure happiness that is one of cinema’s great transcendent moments.
(Michael Curtiz, 1942, USA)
Hollywood was a machine all right, but at its best, that machine cranked out products of almost ludicrous perfection: and if Casablanca doesn’t represent the Hollywood system at its very best, then I’ll eat my hat. Two of the great star turns in the history of the studio system transformed second-string gangster star Humphrey Bogart and exotic sex object Ingrid Bergman into two of the most banakable leads in the business, and that’s just the tip of it: there’s not a single flat performance, not an idle cut, not one wasted line in a movie that is at ever moment a breathtaking adventure, a beautiful romance, and a gung-ho propaganda piece, and a nuanced character study, great at everything it does without dropping a single stitch. Not half-bad for a movie that was still being written just days before its iconic, perfect finale was to be filmed.
(Kurosawa Akira, 1985, Japan / France)
The director, mostly blind by the time production began, had to use hand-painted storyboards to set-up the film’s shots, which maybe goes towards explaining why this unconventional and amazingly successful fusion of Noh theater and Shakespeare (similar to Kurosawa’s earlier Throne of Blood) is one of the most pictorially elegant motion pictures ever made, a painterly adventure in color and shape that would deserve a spot on any best-of list just for its abstract beauty even if it didn’t boast a complex, involving epic narrative of such hellish potency. A story about the end of meaning as much as the tragic fall of a cruel warrior king, Ran combines moments of profound beauty and apocalyptic violence like no other film; it is perhaps the most sweeping and grand of all epic films, that never for a moment loses track of the human beings at the heart of its dramatic whirlwind.
10. The General
(Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, 1926, USA)
A Civil War picture of inordinately thoughtfulness and visual delicacy, as well as the crown jewel of silent comedy: it’s what happens when a proven genius like Keaton decides to push his art as far as it will go. There’s a lot of slapstick, and a lot of situational humor that are made all the better by the actor’s incomparable discipline, refusing to mug for added yuks when simply inhabiting the role and playing it honestly and as straight is both funnier and more human. And there’s also acrobatic stunts that a crazily dangerous and ambitious even by Keaton’s standards, enough that you could almost watch the film solely for its physical spectacle, a forerunner to Cirque du Soleil. Except that even at their biggest, the tricks are never about bravura showmanship, but about telling the story in the best way possible. And it’s pretty damn best, all right.
(Ingmar Bergman, 1966, Sweden)
The most frigid film of a famously icy director, Persona is the great deconstructive act in movies: firstly, it carefully and precisely tracks the collapse of personality as Liv Ullmann’s mute actress Elisabeth, and Bibi Andersson’s nurse Alma engage in a tremendously frightening battle of wills, in which identity itself is broken down and only partially reconstructed; secondly, it attempts to break down its own meaning as an object, calling attention to the celluloid “around” the movie, opening with a projector bulb and providing a crucial, contextually devastating shot of Bergman and his crew filming the exact image we’re watching. An unclassifiable masterpiece of paranoia in the modern world, the fear that everything we do or think is meaningless, the film can arguably never be “solved” but only misunderstood in bold new ways, but at least there’s always the brilliant performances and Sven Nykvist’s outstanding cinematography to fall back on. (Reviewed here)
8. Citizen Kane
(Orson Welles, 1941, USA)
In the first half of the 20th Century, it seems that every decade or so a film came along that stuck a pin in the development of the medium, stating in a clear, bold voice, “this is the culmination of what we are capable of doing”. The Great Train Robbery in 1903; Intolerance in 1916, Sunrise in 1927; and 1941, Citizen Kane. Since then, there’s been nothing of the sort, and for good reason: why bother? Seventy years on, even the most innovative and brilliant contemporary filmmakers are still playing out of Welles’s toybox, with its rule-breaking soundtrack and innovative use of focus, courtesy of the magnificent Gregg Toland; though the brash 25-year-old thumbing his nose at the most powerful private citizen in America couldn’t have known it, his convention-busting biopic would prove to be the definitive word in how motion pictures communicate meaning, from writing to acting to editing.
7. The Rules of the Game
AKA La règle du jeu
(Jean Renoir, 1939, France)
It’s hard to imagine now, but at one time this pleasant comedy of manners was seen as such a brutal satire of the social mores that were about to send Europe screaming into war that it was nearly destroyed; at it was, it was successfully repressed for almost twenty years. Such a horrid fate for a movie essentially without flaw: no camera ever moved with the purpose and balletic smoothness of Renoir’s camera here; no production design ever revealed so much of the world where the film takes place; no script ever managed to nail every one of the characters dead to rights while treating even the scurviest of them with such beatific generosity. It is the whole world in a country manor, every kind of human behavior celebrated and condemned in turn, and to top it off, it’s hugely entertaining. It’s cliché to adore it, but an earned cliché. (Reviewed here)
6. Play Time
(Jacques Tati, 1967, France / Italy)
No title is so scrupulously honest and matter-of-fact about what you’re getting: just over two hours of pure play, the manipulation of humans and the environment for the sheer joy of watching a normal urban environment so radically recontextualised. Even in Tati’s highly idiosyncratic oeuvre, this one stands out as profoundly odd: with no main character, virtually no plot, and certainly no conflict, Play Time seems more like an abstract experiment than a narrative film, and yet from within its obsessively, meticulously constructed frames and impeccable post-dubbed soundtrack comes an unmixed pleasure about life that can hardly be called “abstract”. More than any other film, Play Time is a different experience every time, for when there is this much creativity in every frame, you’ll never notice exactly the same details twice. The one constant: it will always leave you feeling happier when you walk out than when you walked in.