85. Short Cuts
(Robert Altman, 1993, USA)
The proximate inspiration for all of the hyperlink films that flourished in the last decade, beginning with its crypto-remake Magnolia, except that none of its copycats have the courage of the original’s convictions. Rather than telling a cunningly interwoven story about how we’re all connected, the masterpiece of Altman’s career renaissance is about how we’re not: it’s a collection of stories showing how a number of Angelenos, all living in more or less the same place and the same culture, can be totally alienated from their neighbors, their families and friends, and themselves. Adapted from nine short stories by Raymond Carver – an undeniable master of alienation – and structured according to the logic of jazz improvisation, the film manages at one and the same time to see its characters as fully-rendered humans (thanks largely to an awe-inspiring cast) and as anonymous victims of an impersonal world.
84. The Ascent
AKA Восхождение (Voskhozhdeniye)
(Larisa Shepitko, 1977, USSR)
A Christ allegory of the richest potency, suppressed by the Soviet government for its lush spirituality (which is not, necessarily, the same thing as religiosity, not here), and the swan song of a filmmaker who completed only four films before dying in a car accident at 41 years old; for many years, the legend of The Ascent was easier to find than actual copies of the film, but this was one of those special cases where the actual work of art managed to fully live up to that legend. A symbolic moral argument set against a WWII winter that looks as brutally cold as any winter in any motion picture ever has, Shepitko’s last masterpiece plumbs the depths of human selfishness and transcendent sacrifice lifting us up just as much as it exposes us to images of nihilistic shock right out of Bergman or Bresson. Totally overwhelming, totally immersive. (Reviewed here)
83. The Mother and the Whore
AKA La maman et la putain
Jean Eustache, 1973, France)
The end of the New Wave and the beginning of the post-New Wave are combined in one megalithic slab of lurid pretension and feather-light romanticism, a stentorian moral spelled out in the film’s title and then expressed in the 217-minute feature so obliquely and invisibly that you can hardly notice it. Eustache’s story of a callow young man and the women he loves, and who love each other, treats upon many things that French cinema had turned into clichés by 1973 (youth, sex, intellectualism), with pessimistic amusement, calling out the chauvinism of cinema then and now by presenting a sort of off-kilter parody of the same. Yet no matter how clearly it points out that Jean-Pierre Léaud, icon of the New Wave, is playing a self-centered rotter, we can never quite dislike him, for this most incisive character study makes not judgments, only exquisitely uncomfortable observations. (Reviewed here)
82. Steamboat Willie
(Ub Iwerks, 1928, USA)
Not the first Mickey Mouse short, though it has that reputation on account of being Mickey’s first smash hit; and that has less to do with the fairly typical if well-executed and entirely amusing cartoon slapstick on display than with the groundbreaking use of sound in what was at the time of its release undoubtedly the most ambitious and far-reaching of all talking pictures (though not, as is sometimes claimed, the first sound cartoon). Even from a gulf of eight decades of innovation and refinement later, you can still sense the raw energy with which Iwerks and his boss, a certain Walt Disney, threw themselves into finding ways of creating gags to exploit the new technology to its fullest, creating a brand new vocabulary of marrying sound and image that animation still relies on even today, from squeaky voices to musical body parts. “It all started with a mouse”, indeed.
81. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
(John Ford, 1949, USA)
By ’49, the legendary director had largely moved beyond such overt sentimentalism as this stately and relatively untroubled story of the US Cavalry in its Indian-fighting days (it’s the quasi-sequel to Fort Apache, a far more nuanced and morally uncertain treatment of the same milieu), but the relatively concrete you-are-there treatment of military life, and a relentlessly underappreciated performance by an uncharacteristically reflective John Wayne, as a captain approaching retirement, serve to give the film a satisfying heft and bite that marks it as Fordian just as strongly as the questionable humor. What marks it as a particular standout among the director’s many excellent films, though, is Winton C. Hoch’s Technicolor cinematography: based on the paintings of Frederic Remington, the film captures the intense blues and yellows of Monument Valley like nothing else, and rare indeed is the American film to use color with such storytelling verve. (Reviewed here)
80. La strada
(Federico Fellini, 1954, Italy)
So basic and direct as to seem like its own parody, this boisterous, gentle story of circus folk and their traveling life, especially the delicate waif Gelsomina and the melodramatically brutish strongman to whom she’s married is never, ever subtle: not in its storytelling beats, not in the beautiful obviousness of the worn-down mise en scène, not in Nino Rota’s soaring, moaning score, and especially not in the performances: Giulietta Masina in particular pulls no punches in acting as charming and breakable and fey as is in her power, and for everyone who finds it luminous, another could just as easily call it cloying. Still, everything is held together by its own outsized conviction, and particularly the showy presence of its director, a master of joyful, thoroughly entertaining indulgence, here making the key film in Italian cinema’s transition from Neo-realism to the more atmospheric fantasies that would follow.
79. Black Narcissus
(Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947, United Kingdom)
Speaking of melodrama: here’s what happens when a bunch of British nuns are driven mad by the torrid life energy of the landscape and people of Exotic Colonial India; but judge Powell & Pressburger’s immaculate Technicolor fantasia based on its at times horrifying representational problems, and you’d miss out on one of cinema’s greatest depictions of raw human emotion refusing to be contained by convention and shame and social rules. You’d also miss out on what might be the most beautiful color cinematography in history, courtesy of the great Jack Cardiff: no small part of the film’s success, for despite looking every inch of being stage-bound, Black Narcissus wins most of its effect from giving the view a sense of otherworldly sensuality in all of those lavish sets and costumes, a gorgeous and haunting collection of images in which the unexpected appearance of the color red hits like a cannonball.
78. Park Row
(Samuel Fuller, 1952, USA)
The manliest man who ever directed a picture – and by God, if Sam Fuller made it, it wasn’t a film, it was a goddamn picture – had already put in careers as a teenage reporter and WWII soldier before becoming a director, and he famously never quite got over either of those jobs: his time as a newspaperman was especially key to his legendary ability to present a place and the people in it with just a few fast strokes. So it’s fitting that his best film is a sucker-punch B-picture about the 19th Century’s newspaper wars, told with fiery conviction (it is dedicated to the mere notion of American Journalism) and an aesthetic hand of relentless precision and crazy low-budget ambition. Above all, it’s a tribute to the oft-betrayed ideal of what America should be (Ben Franklin is both saint and avenging angel here), served straight-up. (Reviewed here)
77. The Lady Eve
(Preston Sturges, 1941, USA)
At all times, the screwball comedy was a dangerous genre: high-speed, unforgiving to the audience and the characters. Nobody was more relentless than Preston Sturges, one of the first major writer-directors of the sound era, and he was never more relentless than in this early masterwork, a 94-minute endurance test in which virtually non-stop comic escapades bordering on the psychotic are flung at the poor audience, embodied by Henry Fonda’s easily-ruffled herpetologist rich kid; though it’s a privilege to be run over by as confident and gorgeous a steamroller as Barbara Stanwyck, in what might be the best performance of a storied career. Merciless and calculating where most of its stablemates are gleefully chaotic, the film never stops, though it occasionally slows down for a breather, which is necessary in purely physical sense: this might be the only comedy so relentlessly funny that it’s actually tiring to watch it. (Reviewed here)
(Terry Gilliam, 1985, United Kingdom)
Made up from a laundry-list of influences – some 1984, some Blade Runner, and of course some Monty Python’s Flying Circus – but part of what makes it an ingenious satire, not just of way that culture functions in an Information Age bureaucracy, but of that culture’s very design, all mindless surface and functionality disguised as cod-minimalism, is that it unifies so many different ideas plucked from other sources into a fluid whole. The film’s moral perspective, not to mention it’s “a-ha!” shocker of an ending, might be a touch adolescent; but then, Gilliam’s point is very much that it’s an adolescent world, with everybody more concerned about being liked than being right (or being smart at all). Altogether black-hearted without being remotely hard to watch, thanks to its creativity and glee; but it’s still a social commentary first and foremost, and a darned pointed one.