95. Duck Soup
(Leo McCarey, 1933, USA)
Though they’re arguably the most iconic figures in sound comedy, it’s acknowledged that the bulk of the Marx Brothers’ films aren’t terribly “good”: pockmarked by uninspired filmmaking and reedy subplots. This rarely matters, since the sheer industrial-strength potency of their humor outweighs everything; still, it’s no coincidence that their best-loved film is the one that teamed them with a director of real skill who knew just how to present their antics for maximum effect, and a screenplay entirely free of the dross that often framed their work (it is comfortably their shortest feature). And so, instead of a bunch of great jokes with some movie in between, Duck Soup reigns supreme as 68 minutes of comic perfection, a screwball satire musical vital and razor-sharp enough, with enough of an anarchic kick to remain fresher and more modern than just about any new comedy in the last several decades.
94. Day for Night
AKA La nuit américaine
(François Truffaut, 1973, France)
An insider’s pointed attack on the film industry made by a man who couldn’t be more palpably in love with the subject he’s satirising; but in this case, affection does not get in the way of being clear-eyed and intelligent. Truffaut himself plays the director of a crisis-besotted French movie, but he never claims special privilege for his own profession, instead treating the director, as well as a star-packed cast, as just more confused people in the crazy backstage world of moviemaking. It’s a romantic, hectic tribute to all the people from the script girl on up who go into the production of every single film, hilarious, generous, and impeccably well-crafted; it’s easy to get so swept up in the charm of it all that you fail to notice how, unlike the fictional Je vous présente Pamela, Truffaut’s own film is such a cunning and crafty and perfectly-oiled machine.
(Otto Preminger, 1944, USA)
Massively screwed up even by the standards of film noir, this snarly tale of a dead young woman and the two men who loved her – and the third man who only fell in love with her after her murder – is one of the greatest implausible mysteries and psychosexual funhouses from a decade rich with both of those things. Mixing glossy style, of the sort only a great aesthete like Preminger could dream up, with tawdriness out of the cheapest dime novels, the film’s (a)moral center is neither Gene Tierney’s waifish Laura, nor Dana Andrew’s sturdy, bland detective, but rather in Clifton Webb’s amazing Waldo Lydecker, a bitchy, cynical newspaperman who represents both the erudite charm and absolute scuzziness that makes Laura one of the quintessential works of its genre. It’s beautiful, it’s witty, and it’s wholly savage: pulp fiction gone to charm school, a black comedy of manners.(Reviewed here)
92. Winter Light
(Ingmar Bergman, 1963, Sweden)
Straddling the line between “so depressing that it becomes transcendent” and “so depressing it’s unwatachable”, this is the film where cinema’s most famous cold-blooded miserabilist decided that he no longer believed in God. Starring Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand is tremendous as a Lutheran pastor who realises that he can say and do nothing to reassure a parishioner that there’s still reason to have faith and hope in the Nuclear Age, as a local schoolteacher tries to show him that there’s still the chance for meaning even in a material universe. Glacially-paced and unforgiving to all its characters in a harsh manner even for a Bergman picture, set in a sickly winter captured perfectly by Sven Nykvist in his best hour as a cinematographer, Winter Light is the textbook example of those depressing, pretentious European movies parodists like to mock; but it is a devastating work, no two ways about it.
91. Blade Runner
(Ridley Scott, 1982, USA)
By this point, I suspect that watching Scott’s legendary future-shock dystopian neo-noir, for a youngster just discovering cinephilia, must be something of a disappointment: what’s the big deal, every “edgy” sci-fi movie is just like that, with the shiny black surfaces and everything all worn out, and moody electronic music. Yes, true: the secret, of course, is that Blade Runner invented all those things, single-handedly creating just about every trope and cliché of design for just about every futuristic thriller in nearly three decades. Nor can a single one of its countless imitators claim to possess the same overwhelmingly complete design, from the biggest ideas to the smallest; and virtually none of them make more than a rudimentary stab at the film’s creepy but deeply touching concept of what does or doesn’t make us “human”: philosophically immature, but compelling, and given added weight by the nihilistic spectacle of it all. (Reviewed here)
90. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
(Errol Morris, 1997, USA)
Four entirely unconnected people, united only by the director’s conviction that something about their weird & quirky lives (the quirk blissfully unstressed by Morris’s disarming camera) tells us all about the hectic, exciting, terrifying world around us. While appearing to function solely as a depiction of people on the fringe of “normal society”, as Morris had already done several times, FC&OOC is really inviting us to consider ourselves, and the speed of our own life, in relationship to these four odd, but to all appearances entirely happy men. Their obsessions are just like our obsessions, even if ours are normalised by culture and theirs aren’t. It’s a film with a burning humanist message that creeps up through the seams, taking us by surprise when we realise that Morris’s tribute to determined misfits has all along been a lesson in reconsidering how we think about life and our place in it.
89. Le samouraï
(Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967, France)
One of the great privileges of being a fan of international cinema in the last 10 years has been the front row seat we’ve been given to the rediscovery of a towering French filmmaker whose clinical post-modernism and fascination with the mechanics of genre mark him as forebear and accomplice to the Nouvelle Vague, but whose extraordinary aesthetic directness is a world removed from the playfulness of that movie. Melville’s masterpiece, not for want of some truly exquisite competitors, is this imposing piece of hyper-cool minimalism: an excoriation of hip masculinity dressed in the skin of a gangster picture where the precision of a man’s clothes doesn’t speak to character, so much as it is character; where the perfection of surfaces is a desperate compensation for the fact those surfaces cover a psychological and moral void, elegantly and simply expressed by a world of unyielding greys and whites.
88. The Piano
(Jane Campion, 1993, Australia / New Zealand / France)
A character study of incredibly rare ambiguity and complexity: we come to feel that we know a great deal about of the mute Scotswoman Ada (Holly Hunter, giving the sort of sublime performance, a bewildering array of shades of meaning and emotion, that comes along once in a generation), though it’s tricky to say exactly how we know it, or to put it into words. This is because the film is so oddly symbolic and metaphoric despite how consistently it outruns its own metaphors: Campion combines a tyrannically acute control over the visuals while expressing the most delicate handling of tone and character, leading to a film that appears more deterministic than it really is. Though Stuart Dryburgh’s exquisite cinematography captures everything with hypnotic tactility, there’s something haunting and even fantastic about everything we see, as though the whole movie was a dream pinned to celluloid. (Reviewed here)
(Terrence Malick, 1973, USA)
The legend of American cinema’s most mythological figure starts here, with a vaguely factual crime drama that only apparently rips-off Bonnie and Clyde, while actually presenting a cryptic vision of youth, and America’s concept of itself as a land of free spirits and wide spaces. Not a critical vision, necessarily – even once the killing starts, Malick is far more concerned with observing than judging. And it is the precise texture of that relaxed, reflexive feeling that marked Badlands as so different from everything else in the New Hollywood of the ’70s, and continues to set the filmmaker apart, even as his debut remains arguably his most concrete and certainly his most concise project. While I, of course, adore the pastoralism of his later films, the indelible, casual humanness of this film has always made it, for me, the very best of a small but immaculate body of work. (Reviewed here)
86. Pierrot le fou
(Jean-Luc Godard, 1965, France / Italy)
Halfway through his first decade as a director, with the joys of post-modern formalism starting to ossify into convention and the promise of egregiously political films still just on the horizon, Godard made what is quite possibly the most Godardian of all films: a crime story about two young people abandoning society for the pleasures of their own cavorting, willfully breaking narrative rules and behaving as though character rules don’t exist. It’s a story told through color and costuming and music – including the least-expected musical number in all of cinema, except by that point, you’re pretty much expecting everything – rather than characters and action; Godard’s attempt to deconstruct a movie through a pop-art explosion. It’s easy to see how this could be unbearably pretentious, but it’s a goofy cartoon whose manic energy always trumps the more self-absorbed theoretical concerns – unlike much of his later work.