25. The Cyclist (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1987)
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s incredible film centers on Nasim, an Afghan immigrant living in Tehran who is virtually forced to perform a circus sideshow-like endurance test in order to pay for his wife’s medical bills: he agrees to the scheme of a shady promoter to attempt to ride a bicycle continuously for a week. As Nasim rides in circles in the same town square night and day, a crowd of spectators mounts (including politicians, gamblers and the media), all of whom attempt to manipulate the poor man’s plight for their own benefit. This powerful allegory is not unlike Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar in that a holy fool character serves as a blank slate upon which the sins of mankind are imprinted.
24. The Shining (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1980)
23. Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East? (Bae, S. Korea, 1989)
22. The Asthenic Syndrome (Muratova, Russia, 1989)
21. The Green Ray (Rohmer, France, 1986)
20. Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica, Yugoslavia, 1988)
19. Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, UK, 1988)
18. Sans Soleil (Marker, France, 1983)
17. The Road Warrior (Miller, Austraila, 1981)
George Miller’s 1981 action-movie masterpiece is the best and most influential of the post-apocalyptic Eighties trend. Even more impressive is the fact that he did it all on a relatively meager budget of $2,000,000 — with old-fashioned (i.e., “real”) stunts and exceedingly clever production design in which an assortment of 20th century detritus is reconfigured in surprising ways (e.g., punk rock fashions and S&M gear happily co-exist with pieces of athletic uniforms). The film is set in the future, when gasoline is an even more precious resource than it is today, and concerns a former cop (Mel Gibson, reprising his role from the non-post-apocalyptic Mad Max) helping a gasoline-rich colony fend off attacks by a gang of marauding bandits. The climactic action set-piece, a long chase involving many different types of vehicles barreling through the barren Australian outback, takes up most of the second-half and ranks as one of the most exhilarating such scenes ever captured on celluloid.
16. Blue Velvet (Lynch, USA, 1986)
15. Once Upon a Time in America (Leone, USA, 1984)
14. Blade Runner (Scott, USA, 1982)
13. Hail Mary (Godard, France, 1985)
12. A Nos Amours (Pialat, France, 1983)
11. Mon Oncle d’Amerique (Resnais, France, 1980)
10. A City of Sadness (Hou, Taiwan, 1989)
9. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984)
8. Vagabond (Varda, France, 1985)
7. Brightness (Cisse, Mali, 1987)
Perhaps my favorite African movie ever is Yeelen, a hypnotic, deliberately paced art film that has all of the deceptive simplicity, power and beauty of a primeval myth. Niankoro is a boy living in rural West Africa who must undergo various rites of passage in order to become a man, which culminates in challenging his evil sorcerer father in a duel to the death. Western critics are fond of invoking Oedipus Rex when reviewing writer/director Souleymane Cissé’s masterpiece but all of this film’s potent and elaborate symbolism is apparently based on local folklore and not influenced by outside sources.
6. Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA, 1980)
5. Come and See (Klimov, Russia, 1985)
4. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, Germany, 1980)
3. The Ballad of Narayama (Imamura, Japan, 1983)
2. The Decalogue (Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)
My opinion of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental achievement — 10 one-hour movies that correspond to the 10 commandments, originally broadcast on Polish television — is inextricably bound to the circumstances under which I first saw it. I watched all 10 hours projected in 35mm, exhibited in two-hour installments a piece, while standing in the back of a movie theater that had sold out all of its screenings. As Stanley Kubrick noted, what may be most impressive about The Decalogue is the way Kieslowski and his collaborators were able to successfully dramatize ideas. It’s fun to think about how the individual episodes relate to the commandments: the first episode is a literal adaptation (a man puts his faith in the “false God” of technology — with tragic results) while others are more oblique (the “thou shall not commit adultery” episode is a tale of romantic obsession and voyeurism in which none of the characters are married). Kieslowski went on to even greater fame by subsequently making arthouse blockbusters in France (The Double Life of Veronique, the “Three Colors” trilogy) but The Decalogue easily remains my favorite of his movies.
1. L’argent (Bresson, France, 1983)
Robert Bresson’s swan song, as tight and compressed as a Ramones song, is a masterful update of Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Note. Bresson’s ingenious narrative follows a counterfeit bill, initially passed off in a shop as a schoolboy prank, which sets off a chain of events (an “avalanche of evil” in the director’s own indelible words) that ends with a young man murdering an entire family with an axe. This vital, rigorous movie, made when the director was 82 but seeming like the work of a much younger man, is the ultimate artistic statement about the destructive power of money.