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Tag Archives: Carl Dreyer

Filmmaker Interview: Anna Biller

My interview with Anna Biller was published by Time Out Chicago yesterday. I am producing the unedited version, containing minor variations, below. I was especially glad to have the chance to ask Ms. Biller about the influence of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud on The Love Witch. I thought her response to this question was particularly insightful and moving. Too many critics, including me, have been guilty of only discussing Ms. Biller’s formally formidable film within the context of “exploitation cinema.”

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I reviewed Anna Biller’s The Love Witch when it first opened at the Gene Siskel Film Center last year and called it the year’s “most singular independent feature.” Many of the screenings were sold out so the Siskel has thankfully brought it back for another weeklong run beginning today. The timing is perfect: Biller was recently named the winner of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle’s first annual “Trailblazer” award for “pushing the boundaries of the medium in terms of form and content.” (She has also been nominated for two other awards, Best Production Design and Best Costume Design, the winners of which will be revealed on Sunday evening.) I recently spoke to Biller via e-mail about her unique movie, her influences and her penchant for shooting on film.

MGS: Chicago has a passionate cinephile community and many of the first-run 35mm screenings of The Love Witch were sold out. What is it about 35mm that appeals to you and would you be interested in shooting digitally in the future?

AB: The first movie I ever made was on video, but I wasn’t crazy about the images I was capturing. Shortly after that I purchased a Super 8mm sound camera at a garage sale. Once I started using film, it seemed there was a magic in everything I captured. It was like a fairy tale in which I had a magical camera that made everything it filmed beautiful or interesting. And it is magic – the magic of light hitting film stock. Nothing else looks like it. Part of what I love about film is how it looks when you hit it with a lot of light. Films loves whites. Art directors always stay away from white, since they know white looks horrible on video. But I use white satin even — I flaunt my use of white. Black and white films were so gorgeous with their range of whites and blacks. With film you can even shoot into the sun. Video loves darks, but you can’t get blacks on video either. Video is a world where the colors you see are towards the middle of the spectrum, and everything gets greyed down, or else looks too bright and acid with a lot of light. I love color, and not color mixed down with a lot of grey or acid-fake, so I’ll use film as long as it’s available.

MGS: I’ve spoken with people who saw the trailer for The Love Witch and assumed it was an Austin Powers-style parody. I had to convince them that, while there are some satirical elements, the character psychology is such that it works on the level of realistic drama — and even tragedy. Why did you want to blend comedy and drama in this way and is it frustrating to find yourself encountering misconceptions about the tone of the film?

AB: It never ever occurred to me that people would see the film as a parody, not at any time while I was writing or filming it. Satire is another thing; satire is a literary device. I do satirize gender relations in the film, and the comedy comes from those situations. But parody relies on a pact with the audience, in which you share a winking knowledge that what you are looking at is in some way hilarious, old-fashioned, silly, debased. It’s an attitude, above all else. People don’t see that attitude in the film, so they call it a “deadpan” parody. It never occurs to them that the winking tone is missing because what they’re watching isn’t parody. I set out to make a drama, a tragedy, and I did in-depth research into narcissistic personality disorder, witchcraft practices, and gender relations. Above all, I took the story from my own life. The style is just how I like to shoot films. It’s not a reference to anything else, and certainly not a parody of anything else. It’s just a series of techniques that no one uses anymore. But they’re perfectly good techniques, and they’re the best techniques with which to tell my story. Audiences who watch a lot of classic movies don’t have those misconceptions.

MGS: Most reviews discuss The Love Witch as an homage to exploitation movies but your influences seem incredibly diverse. I was happy to see you mention Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, for instance, in an interview; I instantly felt a connection between what you were doing and his overall sense of formal rigor and the notion of a female protagonist obsessed with romantic love. Could you elaborate on how specifically Dreyer has influenced you?

AB: The movie is not an homage to exploitation films. It’s the story of a woman’s struggles told from the inside. My influences are mostly classic Hollywood cinema, and classic foreign cinema. I mentioned Gertrud because it’s a film about a woman looking for true love, and not being able to find it because of the spiritual limitations of the men who love her. It’s exactly the same story as The Love Witch in that regard. I am very moved by Dreyer’s mature polemical stories about love and faith and female martyrdom, and his films are also formally breathtaking. Dreyer’s films were already considered old-fashioned by the time he made Gertrud in the ‘60s, but I find his stark, mythic form of storytelling timeless and urgent. I love his stillness, his pageant-like proscenium framing, the way he has characters speak to one another without facing each other. I tried that in a long scene in The Love Witch, a scene in bed, which I thought worked quite well. I was also floored by the scene in Gertrud where a man reads a long tribute to the poet at a banquet, explaining the excellence of his love poetry. It’s the type of scene that is anathema for most viewers, but I am very excited by movies in which you have to sit through thematic speeches in real time. That scene inspired a similar scene in The Love Witch where the witches are lecturing a couple of young girls in the burlesque club.

MGS: The first Victorian Tea Room scene is particularly complex and provocative because the characters explicitly debate gender roles: Elaine talks about wanting to find her “Prince Charming” and Trish accuses her of being “brainwashed by the patriarchy.” I think a scene like this is tricky because viewers want to feel like they should be “siding” with one character over the other. When you construct a difficult scene like this are you wanting viewers to empathize with both characters simultaneously?

AB: I think that in this scene, most of the audience is going to relate more to Trish. I knew a lot of the audience would be horrified at what Elaine was saying, and I wanted to give them an emotional anchor in Trish. But the point was to set up a polemic. Elaine and Trish are both strongly of the opinion that their worldview is right. But then we come back to the tea room later in the story, and Trish’s worldview, which had seemed like the sane one at the beginning, is not working for her, but Elaine’s is working for her. So I wanted people to think about that. I wanted them to think about how men reward women for conforming to their rules, and punish other women for not conforming.

MGS: Hey Anna, what’s your favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie?

AB: I think it’s probably Vertigo. Either that, or The Birds.

For ticket info and showtimes for The Love Witch‘s return theatrical engagement, visit the Siskel Center’s website.

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Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2015

My top 10 favorite new home video releases of 2015 (and 20 runners up):

10. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, 1953, Warner Blu-ray)

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Warner Brothers has a track record of putting out impeccable high-def transfers of their catalogue titles on Blu-ray — when they can be bothered (their neglect of the considerable number of silent movies to which they own the rights is unfortunate) — and The Band Wagon is no exception. This is for my money Vincente Minnelli’s best film and the greatest of all Hollywood musicals. Fred Astaire, in a role that must’ve been uncomfortably close to his real-life situation, is a legendary but over-the-hill hoofer hoping to make a triumphant return on Broadway but who must first contend with a pretentious director (Jack Buchanan) and a saucy young co-star (Cyd Charisse). The Blu-ray of this love letter to the musical genre and the process of collaborative art-making is perfect. Among the extras, ported over from the DVD, is a nice audio commentary track by Liza Minnelli who vividly remembers visiting the set as a little girl. That’s entertainment indeed.

9. Variete (Dupont, 1925, Edel Germany GmbH Blu-ray)

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The new Blu-ray of the F.W. Murnau Foundation’s impeccable restoration of this classic German silent was mired in controversy due to the inclusion of a single musical-score option: a track by the British musical group The Tiger Lilies that features a prominent vocal throughout. Personally, I kind of like it but, even if I didn’t, this is still a must buy; it’s Variete, uncut and looking better than it probably has since the silent era. For those who’ve never seen it, the chief selling points are the heartbreaking and uncharacteristically subtle lead performance by Emil Jannings and the dazzlingly subjective cinematography, especially during the trapeze sequences, by the great Karl Freund (Metropolis). This reasonably priced German disc thankfully comes with optional English subtitles and is region free. There are no plans for a U.S. release. Full review here.

8. Love Unto Death / Life is a Bed of Roses (Resnais, 1983-1984, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)

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I don’t think that either of these individual movies or their respective HD transfers are quite as impressive as, say, Criterion’s recent release of Hiroshima Mon Amour or Kino/Lorber’s Je t’aime, je t’aime disc. However, there is something to be said for an enterprising distributor like Cohen Media Group taking a chance on putting out the lesser-known work of a master filmmaker. And there is even more to be said for the incredible value of bundling two films together into one package (Cohen did something similar a few years back with their essential Claude Chabrol/Inspector Lavardin set). Not only was it a pleasure to revisit these underrated gems, I also greatly appreciated the casual audio commentary tracks by Francophile-critics Andy Klein and Wade Major. Further thoughts here.

7. Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1966, Mr. Bongo Blu-ray)

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The Criterion Collection is putting this out next year and there’s no doubt in my mind that their release — in terms of transfer quality and, especially, extras — will handily best Mr. Bongo’s disc. But I don’t regret scooping up this bare-bones release for one second. The first time I saw Chimes at Midnight was on a terrible-quality VHS tape that I rented from Facets Multimedia (the only way it could be seen in the U.S. at the time) and I recall putting my face only inches away from the screen so that I could absorb the sounds and images of Orson Welles’s masterpiece as thoroughly as possible. Jonathan Rosenbaum once noted that, in making this film, Welles essentially created a new Shakespeare play by mashing up the Falstaff cycle (the two Henry IV plays, Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor). The result is also, perhaps paradoxically, Welles at his most cinematic: the famous “Battle of Shrewsbury” sequence is an insanely great montage that stands as the most remarkable such battle scene in the history of movies. I still cannot believe that I am finally able to see this in an amazingly restored version (courtesy of Luciano Berriatúa of the Filmoteca in Madrid) in 1080p on my home television.

6. The Apu Trilogy (Ray, 1955-1959, Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

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Deciding which Criterion release will make my year-end best-of list (I limit myself to one title per distributor in the interest of diversity) is always a challenge. This year, the decision was made a lot easier by their amazing Blu-ray box set of Satyajit Ray’s legendary Apu trilogy. Not only are these among the finest films in the history of cinema — they capture the ebb and flow of life as it is simply lived with an uncommon clarity and power — Criterion also did heroic work in “rehydrating” and restoring the brittle, fire-damaged original negatives (for a thorough account of what this elaborate process entailed, read this illuminating interview with Lee Kline). What a joy it is then to revisit these humane masterworks, which follow the experiences of one individual from his early childhood in a poor and rural Bengali village into adulthood and professional literary success, in such exceptional quality.

5. Dragon Inn (Hu, 1967, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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Chinese director King Hu is the most important director of the martial arts genre (his relationship to wuxia is similar to that of Hitchcock to the thriller or Ford to the western) and Dragon Inn is one of his most significant achievements. It was the first film he made after leaving Hong Kong (where he was a contract director for Shaw Brothers Studios) and establishing his own independent production company in Taiwan where he was able to exert more creative control over his work. The plot details the attempts of an evil eunuch to kill off the children of a rival politician in ancient China. Meanwhile, a brother/sister martial-artist duo also conspire to help the children, and all of these characters come together for a memorable showdown at the titular inn located in the desert. The fight choreography is killer but how that choreography is captured via Hu’s rigorous cinematography and editing schemes is what truly impresses. This new transfer looks amazing on Blu-ray, especially the deep-focus exterior shots of desert vistas, some of which seem to stretch into infinity. Thankfully, Eureka/Masters of Cinema has also announced a limited-edition release of A Touch of Zen, Hu’s greatest movie, on Blu-ray in January.

4. Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works (Vertov, 1929, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)

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Man with the Movie Camera, an experimental documentary that served as the apotheosis of the Soviet-montage era, is a film that continues to look better and more modern with each passing year. Director Dziga Vertov, along with his brother and cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman and wife and editor Elizaveta Svilova, created the definitive self-reflexive movie with this hyperkinetic portrait of a day in the life of a cameraman (which was actually filmed over five years in three different cities). Flicker Alley did the world a huge favor by putting out a Blu-ray of this deathless masterpiece based on a definitive new restoration (courtesy of the joint efforts of Lobster Films, Blackhawk Films Collection, EYE Film Institute, Cinémathèque de Toulouse, and the Centre National de la Cinématographie). Not only does Man with the Movie Camera now look better than ever, it also contains shots missing from all previous home video releases and runs at the correct speed for the first time. Best of all, it is married to the best soundtrack of the many that have been composed for it over the years: the Alloy Orchestra’s pounding 1995 score that itself was based on Vertov’s detailed instructions. Flicker Alley’s set is very nicely fleshed out by an additional three features: Kino Eye, Enthusiasm and Three Songs of Lenin.

3. Goodbye to Language 3D Godard, 2014, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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In 2014, Jean-Luc Godard reinvented cinema yet again with Goodbye to Language, his fascinating first feature-length foray into the 3-D format. The use of stereoscopic cinematography was crucial to the overall meaning of the film — from the jokey use of floating intertitles to the innovative way he had a single 3-D image break apart into two overlapping two-dimensional images by panning the right-eye camera while keeping the left-eye camera stationary. More so than any other 3-D movie, there is no point in even attempting to watch this in 2-D. Knowing that to be the case, I purchased a 3-D television and a 3-D Blu-ray player pretty much for the sole purpose of being able to experience this masterpiece again and again at home. Kino/Lorber’s Blu-ray looks almost identical to the film’s theatrical presentation (with the only significant difference being the absence of the variation in color grading between the left and right-eye images that could be observed on the big screen). Among the fine extras are an interview with JLG conducted by the Canon camera company, who were clearly proud of the fact that this God-level director was using their equipment, and a booklet essay by David Bordwell.

2. Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection (Dreyer, 1925-1964, BFI Blu-ray)

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The British Film Institute really upped their Blu-ray game in 2015, releasing, among many worthy titles, two separate Roberto Rossellini box sets — one devoted to his celebrated War Trilogy and another devoted to the cycle of melodramas he made with paramour Ingrid Bergman. But the crown jewel of their release slate this year was the “Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection,” a limited-edition box that bundles together four features by the Danish master-filmmaker: the silent feminist-comedy Master of the House (1925), the medieval witch-hunt expose Day of Wrath (1943), the austere spiritual drama Ordet (1955) and his sublime final film Gertrud (1964), which examines the romantic life of a woman with impossibly high ideals. The BFI did Dreyer justice by putting out these transcendentally uplifting films in wonderful quality and also stacking the set with welcome extras, including seven(!) shorts by Dreyer as well as the informative feature-length doc Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier.

1. The Complete Works of Hayao Miyazaki (Miyazaki, 1972-2013, Disney Blu-ray)

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I’ve often said that animation has long been something of a blind spot for me, citing my preference for watching live-action movies as the result of my fondness for “looking at real people.” My interest in animation, however, has grown exponentially over the past few years due to the fact that it has been of so much interest to so many of my students. Besides, if one accepts that “mise-en-scene” can be defined as the director’s control over all of the elements within the frame, then the truest masters of mise-en-scene are arguably the world’s greatest animators; do they not, after all, have the tightest control over all of the details that appear in every shot of every film? This is certainly true of Japan’s beloved Hayao Miyazaki, who both wrote his own screenplays and painstakingly animated nearly all of his films by hand; and one must give credit to the Walt Disney Company (in spite of their dubious and occasionally evil business practices) for bringing the work of this great auteur to a wide American audience. The eleven feature films included in this box set are all presented complete and uncut and feature the option of the original Japanese language soundtracks (with faithful English subtitles) in addition to the option of the English-dubbed tracks. This is so much better than the raw deal that many foreign-language films — especially those from Asian countries — have gotten in the States over the years. Best of all, the films themselves are consistently terrific. From the relatively conventional but rip-roaring damsel-in-distress rescue yarn Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro to his perfect swan song, the aeronautical-engineer biopic The Wind Rises, Miyazaki obsessively revisited the same stylistic tropes and themes — feminist heroines, prescient anti-war and ecological themes, exhaustively detailed science-fiction landscapes, images of aircrafts in flight, and an admirable, near-total absence of villains. Prior to the release of Disney’s box set, I had only seen three of Miyazaki’s films. Purchasing his collected works gave me just the excuse I needed to finally watching them all and I’m so glad that I did; I may be late to the party but I now regard him as Japan’s finest living director. Here is my “report card” for each of the individual films within the set:

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro – B
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind – B+
Castle in the Sky – A-
My Neighbor Totoro – A+
Kiki’s Delivery Service – A
Porco Rosso – A
Princess Mononoke – A+
Spirited Away – A-
Howl’s Moving Castle – A
Ponyo – A-
The Wind Rises – A+

20 Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

3-D Rarities (Various, 1922-1962, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Boyhood (Linklater, 2014, Paramount Blu-ray)
Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Chaplin, 2015, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Don’t Look Back (Pennebaker, 1967, Criterion Blu-ray)
Every Man for Himself (Godard, 1980, Criterion Blu-ray)
Faust (Murnau, 1926, Kino Blu-ray)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, 1959, Criterion Blu-ray)
The House of Mystery (Volkoff, 1921-1925, Flicker Alley DVD)
Inherent Vice (Anderson, 2014, Warner Blu-ray)
Je t’aime, Je t’aime (Resnais, 1968, Kino Blu-ray)
Kiss Me Kate (Sidney, 1954, Warner Blu-ray)
Life of Riley (Resnais, 2014, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015, Warner Blu-ray)
Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001, Criterion Blu-ray)
Le Pont du Nord (Rivette, 1981, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Roberto Rossellini Ingrid Bergman Collection (Rossellini, 1950-1954, BFI Blu-ray)
Rossellini: The War Trilogy (Rossellini, 1945-1948, BFI Blu-ray)
Sherlock Holmes (Berthelet, 1916, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Speedy (Wilde, 1928, Criterion Blu-ray)
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Murnau, 1931, Kino Blu-ray)
The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1989, Criterion Blu-ray)


Blu “Passion” Flowers

Newly released on Blu-ray from the good folks at Eureka!/Masters of Cinema is a superb edition of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a masterpiece of world cinema that recently made the much-hyped 2012 Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll of the ten best films of all time. It was also the movie I chose to inaugurate a new Global Cinema class I taught at Oakton Community College earlier in the year. Below are thoughts on both the enduring film itself as well as Masters of Cinema’s terrific new hi-def transfer.

If the motion picture, with its primarily visual vocabulary and ability for ubiquitous worldwide exhibition, is the most international of art forms, then the most international decade it has ever known may well have been the 1920s. This was when the movies had reached a state of full artistic maturity but had not yet been segregated by nationality according to the dictates of spoken language. (In the memorable phrase of Roger Ebert, “Talkies were like the Tower of Babel, building walls between nations.”) The late silent era was a time when film stars crossed national borders with regularity. “Foreign” accents and even the inability to speak the language of a given country were not yet a hindrance: Swedish actress Greta Garbo came to Hollywood around the same time that American actress Louis Brooks decided to try her luck in Germany. Directors too traveled far and wide: Alfred Hitchcock made his first two movies in Germany, Sergei Eisenstein directed an experimental short in France, while Ernst Lubitsch brought his famous “touch” to Hollywood and stayed for good. As a result of this cross-pollination of talent, the late silent era saw the release of a number of films that functioned as grand summations of what had come before, movies that integrated the innovations of filmmakers working in different countries over the decades. Chief among these is the 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, a production of the French studio Gaumont that was written and directed by the Danish Carl Theodor Dreyer.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most unusual, modern-looking and best movies of the entire silent era. Unlike most Joan of Arc biopics, including Luc Besson’s The Messenger and virtually all of the ones produced in Hollywood, it eschews battle scenes and externally dramatic heroic deeds in favor of the more interior, spiritual journey undertaken by the revered saint in her final days on earth. Dreyer focuses only on Joan’s imprisonment, trial and execution, which is unusual in itself but his recreation of the period is so authentic, his style of filmmaking so pure and refined and the lead performance of Renee Falconetti so naturalistic that the first time I screened it in class, several students told me they felt like they were watching a “documentary” that had somehow been made in the 15th century. Abetting this sense of realism is the fact that virtually all of the film’s dialogue (represented, of course, by intertitles) is taken verbatim from the actual transcripts of Joan’s trial, as a handy prologue makes clear. Interestingly, Robert Bresson virtually remade Dreyer’s movie as The Trial of Joan of Arc in 1962 by also focusing on Joan’s final days (though Bresson misguidedly attempted to “correct” the earlier film by removing all traces of acting). In the 1990s, Jacques Rivette split the difference by making two companion piece features: one about Joan in battle and another focusing only on her trial.

The Passion of Joan of Arc prominently features techniques associated with the Soviet Montage, French Impressionist and German Expressionist movements but Dreyer has combined them with other techniques and in such unorthodox ways that the end result feels entirely fresh and new. The most prominent visual trope in Joan is its famous and relentless use of extreme close-ups, a technique that looks as radical today as it must have in 1928. In the early stages of the film especially, Dreyer uses extremely tight framing of both Joan and her trial judges to capture every emotional nuance of Falconetti’s performance and every wrinkle on the faces of her interrogators, as well as to convey an overall atmosphere of claustrophobia and oppression. Dreyer notoriously had large and expensive sets built for the movie and then for the most part refused to show them. The almost perverse lack of wide shots leads to a feeling of unbearable intensity; Dreyer repeatedly denies viewers the relief, the sheer breathing room, that a more distanced view of the action would have provided.

The influence of German Expressionism can be felt in the glimpses of the sets that we are occasionally able to see behind the actors. The windows that appear on the wall behind and above the judges are crooked and mismatched, featuring bizarre, diamond-shaped window panes. They look almost like something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which is unsurprising considering that the legendary German art director Herman Warmm designed the sets for both films. This aspect of the set, though rarely glimpsed, combines with the ugly, leering faces of the old judges to convey the impression of a twisted, abusive authority. (Significantly, the only character to show Joan sympathy is a handsome young priest played by the Surrealist writer Antonin Artaud.) The pacing of Joan is relatively slow in these early trial scenes, reflecting Dreyer’s belief that “Rhythm and milieu go together.” Later, the action dramatically breaks into rapidly edited sequences when Joan is faced with the torture-chamber and when French peasants begin rioting outside of the prison compound. The former scene reflects the influence of French Impressionism, where editing is used to show how a character experiences time subjectively (i.e., time seems to accelerate for the terrified Joan); the latter scene uses fast editing in a Soviet-style montage to compress time, space and action. Both scenes have a shocking force precisely because they follow the slow, steady rhythm that Dreyer has carefully built up beforehand.

A year ago, I reviewed the new blu-ray of Citizen Kane and analyzed that film as a kind of self-conscious “synthesis” of all the major historical movements in cinema that had preceded it. I believe The Passion of Joan of Arc fulfills this same function for the silent era; as with Kane, Dreyer’s synthesis is not a dry, academic exercise but rather a means for the director to use all of the cinematic tools available to him to execute his story in the most effective way possible. The end result is, after all, emotionally involving to the point of being occasionally gut-wrenching. Dreyer blends his disparate aesthetic approaches together and ultimately subsumes them into what might be termed the great Dane’s singular “ascetic style” – one that draws us into Joan’s inner world and conveys a sense of her soul. This is a style that Dreyer would continually refine and improve over the course of his next four features (Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud). Yet there is no better place to first acquaint oneself with the filmography of one of the best directors of all time than with this passionate, enrapturing portrait of the beloved Maid of Orleans.

Notes on the Blu-ray: The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of The Passion of Joan of Arc deviates from previous home video releases in several key ways. First, the bad news: Richard Einhorn’s oratorio “Visions of Light,” included on Criterion’s 1999 DVD release, is not included among the soundtrack options. This is cause for regret because “Visions of Light” is a masterpiece in its own right and is as close to “definitive” as a non-original score for a silent film can be (like most silents, Joan had no official original score). Instead, MoC has provided two newly commissioned musical soundtrack options, a traditional piano score by silent film specialist Mie Yanashita and a more modern one by avant-garde composer Loren Connors. Both scores are serviceable but, in the absence of “Voices of Light,” one might consider watching the movie with the sound turned off completely. Dreyer’s film has a very unique rhythm, the integrity of which might come across most powerfully if experienced in total silence. Now the good news: the image quality is astonishing and Eureka/MoC, as with nearly all of their releases, have taken painstaking care to get it right. The film is presented at two different speeds – 20fps and 24fps – in much the same way that the same company’s release of Touch of Evil was presented in two different aspect ratios. (The Criterion DVD runs at 24fps and appears to my eyes to run slightly too fast. Kudos to MoC for giving the viewer multiple options.) Also of great interest is the fact that Joan is presented here for the first time on home video with its original Danish intertitles, written by Dreyer himself, with optional English subtitles. This is an improvement over the Criterion DVD, which only offered Gaumont’s original French intertitles. Finally, the Blu-ray image quality itself trumps that of the Criterion DVD in every possible area, including contrast, clarity, and fine object detail. This is, in short, the version of this movie one needs to own. Hopefully, Criterion, who presumably still hold the rights to the Einhorn score, will release their own Blu-ray at some point in the future and offer the option of multiple musical scores – including not only the Einhorn but also this intriguing-sounding one written by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp).


A Scandinavian Cinema Primer

For most international movie aficionados, including me, the Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman has long been seen as the dominant “commercial face” of Scandinavian cinema, with the more austere Dane Carl Theodore Dreyer lurking in the shadows just behind him. Creating today’s post was a great excuse for me to delve much deeper into Scandinavia’s rich cinematic heritage, especially for the chance to see many more classic films from Norway and Finland. Enjoy.

The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)

My favorite Swedish movie ever is this silent classic by Victor Sjostrom that masterfully combines melodramatic conventions with gothic horror overtones and proved a major influence on both Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick (the latter of whom clearly took his climax for The Shining from here). The irresistible premise is that the last sinner to die on New Year’s Eve must drive the “phantom carriage” that collects the souls of the dead for the next calendar year. A masterpiece of moody atmospherics with special effects that still impress today. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray, featuring an intense experimental score by the band KTL, is a wonder.

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Christensen, Denmark, 1922)

Benjamin Christensen’s fascinating documentary/narrative hybrid begins by alternating static shots of paintings and drawings with intertitles that provide a historical overview of witchcraft and devil worship in medieval Europe. This is followed by a lengthy section dramatizing the practice of witchcraft as well as the witch hunts they inspired. The final section cleverly denounces the witch hunts by comparing the behavior of medieval “witches” with women suffering from “hysteria” and other mental illnesses in the present day of 1922. Essential viewing for anyone interested in horror and the occult.

The Saga of Gosta Berling (Stiller, Sweden, 1924)

Mauritz Stiller’s terrific romantic drama charts the picaresque adventures of the title character, a disgraced former minister who becomes a tutor at the home of a wealthy countess. Gosta ends up romancing both the countess’ stepdaughter and daughter-in-law, sewing tragedy in the lives of the individual family members and spelling disaster for their large estate as a whole. Director Stiller executes many impressive set pieces, the most prominent of which is the climactic inferno, over the film’s epic three-hour running time. Lars Hanson as Gosta Berling and Greta Garbo as the daughter-in-law are both magnetic performers who would unsurprisingly soon wind up in Hollywood.

Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)

The first sound film that Carl Dreyer made in his native Denmark is this great work of art about religious intolerance, hypocrisy and persecution in the 17th century. While “witches” are being burned at the stake, a beautiful young woman marries an elderly pastor and then embarks on an affair with his son, leading to Gosta Berling-style tragedy for everyone. This is no stolid “period drama” however but rather a vital piece of filmmaking with incredibly atmospheric cinematography, restrained but razor sharp performances and a story that brims with obvious parallels to the question-and-torture methods of the Nazis. One of the essential films of its era.

Cross of Love (Tulio, Finland, 1946)

Teuvo Tulio was a master of the Finnish melodrama (he apparently had the same influence on the Kaurismaki brothers that Douglas Sirk had on R.W. Fassbinder) and Cross of Love is considered in Finland to be his finest hour. Here Tulio loosely adapts a Pushkin story in this chronicle of a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who runs away to the big city with a shipwrecked businessman who has ignoble intentions. Seduced and abandoned, she soon finds herself walking the streets as a prostitute but can she find redemption in the love of a naive young artist? Of course not. This is a more extreme and sexually frank variation on the kinds of melodramas coming out of Hollywood at the time. Blonde Bombshell Regina Linnanheimo justifiably won a Jussi (or “Finnish Oscar”) for her lead performance. Has Guy Maddin seen this? If not, he should.

Kon-Tiki (Heyerdahl, Norway/Sweden, 1950)

Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian scientist who believed that the Polynesian Islands had been settled by South American natives (not Asian explorers as had been assumed for hundreds of years previously). To prove his theory, he travelled to Peru with a team of five other men, constructed a primitive raft of Balsa wood (the only kind that pre-Columbian Indians could have used) and sailed across the Pacific Ocean to Polynesia in a trip lasting 101 grueling days. He also brought along a motion picture camera and recorded the extraordinary expedition for posterity. The end result, which the beloved Heyerdahl (he was voted “Norwegian of the century” in a poll of his countrymen) not only directed but wrote, shot, edited and narrated, is simply one of the best and most awe-inspring documentaries I’ve ever seen.

The White Reindeer (Blomberg, Finland, 1952)

Now here’s something different: a Finnish horror film based on a folk tale about a woman who transforms herself into a white reindeer-vampire and feeds on the male members of a tribe in remote Lapland. What’s most interesting about the scenario, aside from the stark photography of the bleak and frozen landscapes, is how the reindeer woman is treated as both monster and object of pity: the transformation occurs after the lonely woman visits a shaman and asks him to cast a spell that will bring her frequently traveling husband back home to her. Credit for this refreshingly sympathetic take on the “other” probably belongs to the stunning actress Mirjami Kuosmanen who also co-wrote the script with her husband, director/cinematographer Erik Blomberg.

Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)

Carl Dreyer’s penultimate film is this transcendentally uplifting drama adapted from a play by Danish pastor Kaj Monk. The slowly, exquisitely paced story takes place in a rural farming community and centers on the Borgen family, which consists of a widower father and his three grown sons. Issues of faith, love in many forms, and repression are profoundly explored when the wife of the eldest son dies and the middle son, a religious fanatic who believes he is Jesus, claims to have the power to bring her back to life. This is not merely a film about religion; it is a spiritually intense experience unto itself, one that can even – or perhaps especially – be appreciated as such by an old atheist like me.

The Unknown Soldier (Laine, Finland, 1955)

This incredible Finnish war movie should prove a real eye-opener to North American viewers. It chronicles the “Continuation War” of 1941-1944, which took place concurrently with WWII and involved Finland attacking the Soviet Union to try and regain territory that the Russians had occupied for the previous several years. In adapting a novel by Väinö Linna, director Edvin Laine has created a realistic war film centered on a machine gun crew that features a terrific ensemble cast, a healthy dose of black comedy and a powerful musical score. In short, The Unknown Soldier trumps most contemporary war movies – even those with much higher budgets and gore quotients.

Nine Lives (Skouen, Norway, 1957)

The amazing true story of Jan Baalsrud, the lone survivor of a Nazi attack while on a sabotage mission with other Finnish soldiers during WWII. Fleeing his Nazi pursuers on foot, Baalsrud traveled for weeks through the snowy mountain terrain of northern Norway to reach neutral Sweden. Along the way, he went snowblind, cut off his own frostbitten toes and relied on the kindness of random strangers for food and lodging. Through it all, as Baalsrud puts it in a memorable line of dialogue, nothing seems capable of killing this old fox. Nine Lives was impressively shot on real locations that make one feel cold just watching it. In 1991, Norwegian television viewers voted this the best Norwegian movie of all time.

The Seventh Seal (Bergman, Sweden, 1957)

Everyone has personal tastes that are idiosyncratic and subjective and that is as it should be. In spite of the fact that Ingmar Bergman is almost unanimously critically acclaimed as one of the greatest directors of all time, I’ve never been able to warm up to his work (in spite of trying repeatedly). His films strike me as too self-consciously serious and their merits more theatrical and literary than cinematic. Nonetheless, I would be remiss if I didn’t include one of his movies on this list. I’m choosing The Seventh Seal not only because it has more humor than most of Bergman’s dramas but also because it has been so massively influential on an international scale: the image of Max Von Sydow as a knight during the crusades literally playing chess with the Grim Reaper conjures up the notion of a foreign language “art film” more succinctly than any other. Everyone with an interest in movies, whether I like it or not, should see The Seventh Seal.

Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

Carl Dreyer’s final film is an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1906 play of the same title and its deceptively theatrical character is also reminiscent of Ibsen (a protoypical feminist heroine) and Strindberg (the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as Gertrud, whose unique combination of stillness, slowness and whiteness is perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. A lot of men seem to love Gertrud but none love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes (one of which clocks in at 10 minutes) and Nina Pens Rode’s luminous lead performance.

Hunger (Carlsen, Norway, 1966)

Henning Carlsen’s adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s famous autobiographical novel of the same title tells the story of a starving writer’s attempts to find love, food and a publisher for his novel. Although it lacks the ferocious intensity of its first person literary source, this is still crucial viewing, especially for Per Oscarsson’s tremendous lead performance as the writer Pontus whose mental state increasingly collapses as he wanders the streets of Christiana (soon to become Oslo), living the credo of an absurdly idealistic artist and vainly refusing all charity. A fresh and compelling take on the stereotype of the tortured artist.


A Silent French Cinema Primer

Following my French cinema primers covering the Nouvelle Vague and the pre-Nouvelle Vague sound era, today’s post covers what I think are the most essential French movies of the silent era. Although I normally only write about feature films in these primers, I’m going to make an exception for this one so that I can cover some of the most influential French films of the era.

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumieres, France, 1896)

Bertrand Tavernier has referred to this Lumiere Brothers masterpiece as the “first horror movie” because, as legend has it, early audiences reacted to the image of a train moving towards the camera by fleeing in terror. This is a simple “actuality” that depicts just what the title states in a single shot lasting approximately 42 seconds. But it’s also a good example of how well made the Lumiere Brothers’ films were: the dramatic contrast of the black and white cinematography, coupled with the diagonal perspective of the composition, makes the film an aesthetically pleasing experience even when viewed today. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube by clicking the image above.

A Trip to the Moon (Melies, France, 1902)

Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray released earlier this year.

The Life of Christ (AKA The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ) (Guy, France, 1906)

Alice Guy, a true movie pioneer, began her directing career in 1896 and is sometimes credited as the first person to make a narrative film (as opposed to Lumiere-style actualities). A DVD compilation of her work released by Kino in 2009 is a revelation: it contains stunt comedies, panoramic views of exotic places, and fascinating early experiments with sound and color. My favorite of her films that I’ve seen is The Life of Christ, which recounts “the greatest story ever told” in 25 single-shot tableaux-like scenes that, at 33 minutes, made it relatively epic in 1906. Especially effective is the climactic resurrection, which is bolstered by a beautiful score on Kino’s DVD. This is my second favorite Jesus movie after Pasolini’s.

A Child of Paris (Perret, France, 1913)

Also included in Kino’s “Gaumont Treasures” DVD set is a an entire platter devoted to Leonce Perret, an important director previously unknown in the States. The major revelation of the set is A Child of Paris, a feature film from 1913 that is shockingly sophisticated in terms of its cinematography (including the kind of camera movements and oblique compositions that wouldn’t become commonplace for years to come). The Dickensian story concerns a little girl who becomes an orphan, is sent to a boarding school, runs away and then is kidnapped by a gang of thieves. The acting is surprisingly naturalistic for the time and the use of real locations – in Paris and Nice – is impressive in the extreme.

Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915-1916)

The brilliant, prolific Louis Feuillade directed over 600 movies, many of them multi-part serials, before his death at 52. Les Vampires, which is not about vampires but rather a gang of nocturnal thieves who call themselves “The Vampires,” is one of the highlights of his career. The leader of the gang is a woman named Irma Vep (played by the ferocious, outrageously sexy actress Musidora) who finds herself matching wits with ace newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande and his comical sidekick Oscar Mazamette. This was much beloved by the Surrealists for its evocation of an elaborate criminal network festering beneath the surface of mainstream bourgeois society as well as, one presumes, a capture-and-escape narrative loop structure that stands in opposition to the typical closure of Hollywood. Nearly a hundred years later, this 10 part mystery serial has lost none of its power to entertain for the entire duration of its nearly 7 hour running time.

Tih Minh (Feuillade, 1918)

Jacques d’Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancee and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and sensitive government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious Latin origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book. Louis Feuillade’s 12 chapter, 7 hour serial is overflowing with action, thrills, humor and romance, and is a strong contender for the title of the most purely entertaining movie that I have ever seen from any era.

Coeur Fidèle (Epstein, 1923)

My favorite French silent feature is Jean Epstein’s Impressionist masterpiece about a young woman, Marie, whose cruel foster parents force her into a marriage with an unemployed, alcoholic thug ironically named “Petit Paul.” Marie nonetheless continues to pine for her true love, Jean, a local dockworker. This romantic triangle is infused with sublime visuals from beginning to end (including a highly poetic use of superimpositions, rapid-fire cutting and close-ups) that make the film a crushing emotional experience when viewed today. The famous merry-go-round sequence, with its striking imagery and musical rhythms, is one of the glories of the silent cinema.

Ménilmontant (Kirsanoff, 1926)

Dmitri Kirsanoff’s astonishing 38 minute short is arguably the most modern-looking film produced anywhere in the silent era. The story, told without intertitles, revolves around two sisters who, as children living in a small town, tragically witness their parents being murdered. Then, Kirsanoff flashes forward to years later as both sisters are living in Paris and become involved with an evil seducer. But no plot description can do justice to the way Kirsanoff uses his camera like a paintbrush to capture images of incredible beauty and emotional depth. The film’s tempo ranges from fast, Soviet-style montage to a deliberately arty languorousness depending on the mood of the characters, and contributes to an atmosphere of almost unbearable intensity. Finally, there is the brilliantly understated lead performance of Nadia Sibirskaïa (Kirsanoff’s wife) who, in the film’s most celebrated scene, contemplates suicide before changing her mind when a complete stranger offers her bread in a public park. Ménilmontant is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

Napoléon (Gance, 1927)

First, I must confess to having only seen this on VHS tape in a controversial restoration overseen by Francis Ford Coppola that was both incomplete and transferred at the wrong speed. The arguably nationalistic and pro-militaristic content of the film also strikes me as somewhat dubious. But . . . as an insanely gargantuan, impossibly ambitious work of pure cinema, this has few equals. Gance’s film begins with Napoleon as a child engaging in a snowball fight at a military academy and proceeds through many visually astonishing episodes before climaxing, unforgettably, with a three-panelled widescreen sequence that shows Napoleon at the height of his powers invading Italy as the head of the French army. One of my fondest cinephiliac desires is that silent historian Kevin Brownlow’s most recent restoration, which has now swelled to five and a half hours, will make its way to blu-ray soon.

The Little Match Girl (Renoir, 1928)

Although it wasn’t until the sound era that Jean Renoir directed the films that made him immortal (e.g., Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game), I think The Little Match Girl, a 40 minute adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story, is one of his best and most affecting films. The title character is a waif forced to sell matches on the streets in the dead of winter in order to earn her livelihood. While literally freezing to death, the match girl looks through a toy store window and fantasizes that she is inside and that the toys have magically come to life all around her. The dream-like visuals and fantasy element are atypical for Renoir, the humanism is not.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)

After a successful run of films in his native Denmark, Carl Dreyer headed to France for his last silent film, a beautiful dramatization of the life of the beloved saint. Instead of showing Joan’s heroism in battle the way you would expect a biopic to do, Dreyer focuses instead only on the last days of her life as she is tried and executed by an English court. The film’s most notable characteristic is its relentless use of extreme close-ups, which capture every wrinkle on the judges’ evil faces and every nuance of Renee Falconetti’s highly emotive performance in the title role, which remains one of the finest ever captured on celluloid.

Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, 1929)

Luis Bunuel’s directorial debut, based on a script he co-wrote with Salvador Dali, is the most famous Surrealist movie ever – and for good reason. It opens with the shocking image of a man slicing a woman’s eyeball with a straight razor (a shot that is graphically matched with a cutaway image of a cloud drifting in front of the moon) before jumping ahead to “Eight Years Later” and focusing on a new set of characters in scenes that are equally bizarre. But, since Bunuel plays the man with the razor, the function of the prologue is obvious: to announce an all-out assault on the viewer, whose sight, after all, is the most important sense in experiencing a film. Bunuel and Dali’s rule when writing the screenplay was that Un Chien Andalou should be nonsensical to the point of not being interpretable; legions of critics and historians, including me, have ignored their intention ever since.

À propos de Nice (Vigo, 1930)

À propos de Nice is the exceptionally promising debut film of Jean Vigo, whose career was tragically curtailed four years later when he died of tuberculosis at age 29. This begins as a conventional “city symphony”-style travelogue of the title locations before expanding its scope to offer surreal stylistic flourishes and a satirical/critical view of Nice’s wealthy citizens. In 25 minutes, Vigo and his ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman offer up more ideas, visual invention and wit than what you see in most features; the slow-motion, low angled shots of women dancing are particularly memorable for their eroticism.


My Top 200 Films of All Time

In the past week, this blog has reached the milestone of having been viewed 100,000 times. To celebrate, I am posting a list of my favorite films of all time, one that I have been working on for what feels like forever. A wise man once said that favorite movies were always the hardest to write about and, after compiling the list, I heartily concur. I worked mighty hard to write the capsule reviews of my ten favorite movies that you’ll find below, attempting to nail down exactly what qualities they possess that has made them so impactful to me from points of view both personal (as an “ordinary” movie lover) and professional (as a film studies instructor and blogger). Below the list of my ten favorites you will also find a list of 200 runners-up that has been divided into eight groups of 25 in descending order of preference.

This highly personal list, which is actually a list of my 210 favorite movies, has literally been a lifetime in the making. I hope you enjoy it.

The Top Ten:

10. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)

In F.W. Murnau’s lyrical, late-silent masterpiece, a farm boy from Minnesota travels to Chicago to sell his family’s wheat crop. He unexpectedly returns home with a new bride, an event that threatens to fracture his relationship with his skeptical parents who regard his big city wife as a shameless gold digger. This begins as an unforgettable portrait of urban loneliness (Mary Duncan’s title character keeps a fake bird in a cage as a pet) before moving to the wheat fields of Minnesota for some of the most gorgeous pastoral imagery ever captured on celluloid. Murnau knew how to put emotion into camera movement, something that is very difficult to do, and that skill is more evident in City Girl than any of his other considerably estimable films.

9. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere, epic biopic of the famed 15th century icon painter is for my money the greatest movie ever made about the life of an artist. Told in vignette fashion, Tarkovsky depicts Rublev’s story against the turbulent backdrop of medieval Russia during the Tatar invasions. The highlight is the climactic sequence where Rublev, who has sworn a vow of silence in protest of the horrors he has seen, witnesses a mere boy overseeing the arduous process of the casting of a giant bell. The boy saves himself from government execution by successfully casting the bell in spite of the fact that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. At the conclusion of this awe-inspiring 30 minute scene, the depiction of a miracle that feels like a miracle of filmmaking, Rublev is inspired not only to speak again but to continue painting and to create his greatest works.

8. Out 1 (Rivette/Schiffman, France, 1971)

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Jacques Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman’s legendary 12-and-a-half-hour serial is Feuillade made modern, where the directors use an expansive running time to tell various mystery stories, most of them unresolved, which also serves as a psychic x-ray of the 1960s French counterculture and the apotheosis of the entire Nouvelle Vague. Rivette and Schiffman intercut between four different plots: two seemingly unrelated theater troupes rehearse different Aeschylus plays while two seemingly unrelated con artists (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) ply their trades in the cafes and streets of Paris. The con artists each receive information about “the 13,” a secret society with its origin in Balzac that may or may not currently exist. Their investigations lead them to interact with various members of the theater troupes as Rivette and Schiffman slowly bring their narrative threads together and reminds us why paranoid conspiracy theories not only exist but are paradoxically comforting: they make us feel that disparate, unconnected events may be related and therefore part of a meaningful design. An intellectually vigorous, terrifying, funny, challenging and life-altering work.

7. Journey to Italy (Rossellini, Italy, 1954)

The Joyces (the incredible duo of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) are a married couple from England who travel to Naples to settle the estate of a recently deceased uncle. With the precision of a surgeon, director Roberto Rossellini shows how the romance has gone out of their marriage due to petty jealousies, mutual misunderstandings and a breakdown in communication. As the characters wander alone through Naples and nearby Pompeii, the viewer comes to realize that they do still love one another but are merely incapable of expressing it. Can a miracle save their relationship? This is the best movie ever made about marriage, a subtle, elegant, deeply spiritual film that uses the Italian landscape, both urban and rural, and the inexorable pull of ancient history to comment on the possibility of love in the modern world.

6. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s supreme masterpiece tells the story of an elderly Japanese couple who travel from their rural hometown to visit their grown children in the title city, only to find that their children don’t have much time to spend with them and even treat them as a nuisance. Rather than condemn any of his characters the way you would expect a Hollywood melodrama to do, Ozu’s patient, observant, non-judgemental eye sees the disintegration of the family as the sad but natural order of the universe. The heart of the film is the performance of Ozu’s favorite actress Setsuko Hara as Noriko, the elderly couple’s daughter-in-law, whose smiling countenance seems to radiate an almost overwhelming warmth and humanity. When one embittered character tells her that life is disappointing, Noriko’s resigned, smiling response is “Yes, I’m afraid it is.” Sublime.

5. 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 81 but seeming like the work of a much younger man, is the ultimate artistic statement about the potentially destructive power of money.

4. Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

Carl Dreyer’s final film is an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1906 play of the same title and its deceptively theatrical character is also reminiscent of Ibsen (a protoypical feminist heroine) and Strindberg (the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as Gertrud, whose unique combination of stillness, slowness and whiteness is perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. A lot of men seem to love Gertrud but none love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes (one of which clocks in at 10 minutes) and Nina Pens Rode’s luminous lead performance.

3. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

The greatest western ever made is also the greatest American movie ever made. Before filming began, John Ford described The Searchers as “a kind of psychological epic” and indeed this complex take on the settling of the West, with its head-on examination of racism, finds an appropriately tragic hero in the character of the mysterious Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his best and most nuanced performance). Spurred on by an unrequited love for his deceased sister-in-law, the maniacal, Indian-hating Edwards will stop at nothing to recapture his nieces who have been kidnapped by Comanche Indians. “We’ll find ’em,” Ethan says in a line of dialogue worthy of Melville, “just as sure as the turning of the earth.” The dialectic between civilization and barbarism posited by Ford, with Ethan standing in a metaphorical doorway between them, would have an incalculable effect on subsequent generations of filmmakers.

2. Tih Minh (Feuillade, France, 1918)

Louis Feuillade’s ridiculously entertaining 7-hour mystery serial features kidnappings, daring escapes, slapstick fistfights, secret messages coded in an ancient Hindu dialect, “forgetfulness potions,” various forms of mind control, a mountaintop cliffhanging climax, and many, many badass disguises. It also uses an international espionage plot to reflect on World War I and allegorize contemporary French fears about the insidious nature of Bolshevism; the hero is a French explorer and his chief rival is an evil German doctor named Marx. The hero’s maid turns out to be a villainess who is secretly in Marx’s employ and one of the key title cards is another character’s incredulous exclamation that “Marx is here!” The entire espionage genre, including Fritz Lang’s Mabuse cycle and the James Bond films, have their origins here but Feuillade’s masterpiece remains the best movie of its kind.

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Edward Yang’s four hour epic about juvenile delinquents in 1950s Taipei marries the ambitious societal portraits of the 19th century Russian novel (one gang leader even references War and Peace, memorably calling its characters “swordsmen”) with the romanticism, iconography and intense identification with outsiders characteristic of a Nicholas Ray picture. In other words, the personal story (involving a troubled fourteen year old kid played by future adult star Chang Chen) can be seen as an allegory for the identity crisis of an entire nation struggling to define itself in the aftermath of World War II. I saw a 35 millimeter print of this over a decade ago and I emerged from the theater unable to speak. No moviegoing experience has shaken me more profoundly to the core than that one.

First 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

1. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960)
2. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956)
3. Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961)
4. A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, USA, 1974)
5. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, Italy, 1948)
6. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, France, 1923)
7. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941)
8. Contempt (Godard, France/Italy, 1963)
9. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
10. Three Times (Hou, Taiwan, 2005)
11. A Touch of Zen (Hu, Taiwan, 1971)
12. Our Hospitality (Keaton, USA, 1923)
13. The Decalogue (Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)
14. M (Lang, Germany, 1931)
15. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966)
16. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)
17. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, USA, 1927)
18. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, USA, 1948)
19. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)
20. Play Time (Tati, France, 1967)
21. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Russia, 1929)
22. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)
23. The Leopard (Visconti, Italy, 1963)
24. Greed (Von Stroheim, USA, 1924)
25. Chimes at Midnight (Welles, Spain/Italy, 1965)

Second 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

26. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel, France, 1972)
27. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931)
28. Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942)
29. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1930)
30. The Mother and the Whore (Eustache, France, 1974)
31. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, Germany, 1980)
32. 8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963)
33. Les Vampires (Feuillade, France, 1915-1916)
34. Goodbye to Language (Godard, Switzerland/France, 2014)
35. The Ballad of Narayama (Imamura, Japan, 1983)
36. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)
37. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, USA, 1953)
38. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)
39. Pandora’s Box (Pabst, Germany, 1929)
40. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, Italy, 1964)
41. Chinatown (Polanski, USA, 1974)
42. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948)
43. Bigger Than Life (N. Ray, USA, 1956)
44. Charulata (S. Ray, India, 1964)
45. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)
46. The Arch (Tang, Hong Kong, 1969)
47. The Crowd (Vidor, USA, 1928)
48. Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941)
49. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959)
50. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Third 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

51. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929)
52. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952)
53. Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)
54. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)
55. Spring in a Small Town (Fei, China, 1948)
56. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962)
57. Park Row (Fuller, USA, 1952)
58. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, France, 1990)
59. Two Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, 1971)
60. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Italy/France, 2010)
61. Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014)
62. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)
63. Army of Shadows (Melville, France, 1969)
64. Floating Clouds (Naruse, Japan, 1955)
65. Boy (Oshima, Japan, 1969)
66. Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, USA, 1959)
67. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, France/Italy, 1961)
68. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Rossellini, France/Italy, 1966)
69. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1955)
70. Stalker (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1979)
71. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)
72. A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, Japan, 1965)
73. The Docks of New York (Von Sternberg, USA, 1928)
74. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939)
75. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, 1946)

Fourth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

76. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, Belgium, 1975)
77. The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973)
78. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, France, 1966)
79. Le Boucher (Chabrol, France, 1970)
80. Brightness (Cisse, Mali, 1987)
81. The Strange Case of Angelica (De Oliveira, Portugal, 2010)
82. Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (Eisenstein, Russia, 1944-1958)
83. Lonesome (Fejos, USA, 1928)
84. Isn’t Life Wonderful? (Griffith, USA/Germany, 1924)
85. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953)
86. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)
87. Come and See (Klimov, Russia, 1985)
88. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968)
89. Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (Lang, Germany, 1922)
90. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)
91. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, USA, 2001)
92. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)
93. The Naked Spur (Mann, USA, 1953)
94. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, France, 1969)
95. Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA 1980)
96. Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, Germany, 1968)
97. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, USA, 1944)
98. Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945)
99. Vagabond (Varda, France, 1985)
100. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Hong Kong, 2000)

Fifth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

101. The Passenger (Antonioni, Italy, 1975)
102. The Unknown (Browning, USA, 1927)
103. Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)
104. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984)
105. Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)
106. Hindle Wakes (Elvey, UK, 1927)
107. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1974)
108. Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007)
109. Pierrot le Fou (Godard, France, 1965)
110. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)
111. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960)
112. A City of Sadness (Hou, Taiwan, 1989)
113. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Japan, 1979)
114. The Housemaid (Kim, S. Korea, 1960)
115. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)
116. The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, France, 1953)
117. Late Spring (Ozu, Japan, 1949)
118. The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949)
119. Mon Oncle d’Amerique (Resnais, France, 1980)
120. L’amour Fou (Rivette, France, 1969)
121. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Germany/Italy, 1948)
122. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, USA, 1976)
123. Black Girl (Sembene, Senegal, 1966)
124. Senso (Visconti, Italy, 1954)
125. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958)

Sixth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

126. Red Desert (Antonioni, Italy, 1964)
127. Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959)
128. L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930)
129. Anxiety (De Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)
130. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France/Denmark, 1928)
131. The Quiet Man (Ford, USA/Ireland, 1952)
132. Weekend (Godard, France, 1967)
133. Rio Bravo (Hawks, USA, 1958)
134. Rear Window (Hitchcock, USA, 1954)
135. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, USA, 1921)
136. Brief Encounter (Lean, UK, 1945)
137. Once Upon a Time in America (Leone, USA, 1984)
138. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, USA, 1943)
139. Touki Bouki (Mambety, Senegal, 1973)
140. Some Came Running (Minnelli, USA, 1958)
141. The Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1952)
142. Floating Weeds (Ozu, Japan, 1959)
143. A Nos Amours (Pialat, France, 1983)
144. The Music Room (S. Ray, India, 1958)
145. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France, 1959)
146. Blade Runner (Scott, USA, 1982)
147. The Ascent (Shepitko, Russia, 1977)
148. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947)
149. The Emigrants/The New Land (Troell, Sweden, 1971)
150. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

Seventh 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

151. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, France, 1967)
152. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)
153. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany/Denmark, 1932)
154. The Sun Shines Bright (Ford, USA, 1953)
155. Hail Mary (Godard, France, 1984)
156. North By Northwest (Hitchcock, USA, 1959)
157. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)
158. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)
159. Blue Velvet (Lynch, USA, 1986)
160. Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954)
161. Early Summer (Ozu, Japan, 1951)
162. Laura (Preminger, USA, 1944)
163. In a Lonely Place (N. Ray, USA, 1950)
164. Stromboli (Rossellini, Italy, 1950)
165. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)
166. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)
167. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati, France, 1953)
168. Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong, 2011)
169. The 400 Blows (Truffaut, France, 1959)
170. Turkish Delight (Verhoeven, Holland, 1973)
171. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)
172. Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, Poland, 1958)
173. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920)
174. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)
175. Yi Yi (Yang, Taiwan, 2000)

Eighth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

176. Killer of Sheep (Burnett, USA, 1977)
177. The Piano (Campion, Australia/New Zealand, 1993)
178. Holy Motors (Carax, France, 2012)
179. Children of Paradise (Carne, France, 1945)
180. Daisies (Chytilova, Czechoslovakia, 1966)
181. The Magic Blade (Chor, Hong Kong, 1976)
182. Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, UK, 1988)
183. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, France, 1964)
184. The Assassin(Hou, Taiwan, 2015)
185. Notorious (Hitchcock, USA, 1946)
186. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013)
187. A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)
188. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)
189. Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica, Yugoslavia, 1988)
190. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)
191. Days of Heaven (Malick, USA, 1978)
192. Sans Soleil (Marker, France, 1983)
193. The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina, 2008)
194. The Road Warrior (Miller, Australia, 1981)
195. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)
196. Johnny Guitar (N. Ray, USA, 1952)
197. Antonio das Mortes (Rocha, Brazil, 1969)
198. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)
199. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer/Zinnemann, Germany, 1930)
200. The House of Mystery (Volkoff, France, 1923)


The Top Fifty Directors of All Time

As a companion piece to my list of the fifty best living film directors, which I published last year around this time, today’s post concerns my highly subjective list of the top fifty directors of all time. Below you will find a countdown of my top ten (with commentary on each and a citation of three essential works) as well as a list of forty runners-up (for whom I cite two essential works). As any reader of this blog knows, I love making lists and generating debates concerning all things cinematic. So who doesn’t deserve to be here and who did I egregiously omit? Feel free to comment below!

10. Jean Renoir (France)

Today Jean Renoir is thought of as the quintessential director of “classical” French cinema even though the films he made in the 1930s, the lofty high point of his career, are far wilder than this reputation would suggest. In the twin peaks of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, Renoir showed, allegorically but with great generosity of spirit, a Europe that was tragically and inexorably heading towards World War II. His use of long shots and long takes, abetted by an elegantly gliding camera, allow viewers to observe his characters from a critical distance even while the folly of their behavior makes them intensely relatable on a human scale. He left France during the German occupation and became a U.S. citizen long enough to make at least one masterpiece in Hollywood (The Southerner) and another in India (the striking one-off The River). When Renoir returned to France in the 1950s, he embarked on a sublime trilogy of films centered on the relationship between life and performance that, fittingly, gave a trio of international movie stars some of their very best roles: The Golden Coach (with Anna Magnani), French Cancan (with Jean Gabin) and Elena and Her Men (with Ingrid Bergman).

Essential work: Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion) (1937), The Rules of the Game (La Regle de Jeu) (1939), French Cancan (1954)

9. Orson Welles (USA)

Orson Welles was the great synthesizer; in Citizen Kane he self-consciously appropriated techniques from most of the major historical film movements that came before him and wedded them to a revolutionary use of deep focus cinematography. More importantly, he pressed these techniques to the service of an epic story about the life of “one of the biggest” Americans that speaks volumes about the changes undergone by American society from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the second World War. This monumental achievement, coupled with the fact that it was the only time Welles had complete creative control over a movie, virtually guaranteed that his subsequent films would be seen as not living up to the “early promise” of Kane. Fortunately, Welles’ critical stock has risen considerably since his death in 1985 and masterpieces like The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight (my personal favorite) and F for Fake, not to mention various unfinished projects, are now more easily seen as part of a highly personal continuum stretching from the early-1940s to the mid-1980s, inside and outside of the Hollywood studio system, and from America to Europe and back again. With each passing year, his body of work looks more estimable for what he did achieve instead of deficient for what he didn’t.

Essential work: Citizen Kane (1941), Touch of Evil (1958), Chimes at Midnight (1965)

8. Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan)

Of all the great Japanese directors, Kenji Mizoguchi is the most expressive visual stylist. His hallmarks – elaborate tracking shots (in some films the camera is moving more often than not), chiaroscuro lighting and the subject of the oppression of Japanese women – were already evident as early as the mid-1930s when he made such gems as Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion. His first major masterpiece, 1939’s heartbreaking The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, about a wealthy young actor’s illicit affair with his family’s wet nurse, was enough to ensure his immortality. But the best was yet to come; after a handful of relatively safe films made during and immediately after the war, Mizoguchi’s career peaked in the 1950s with an extraordinary series of movies, including The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff and the incredibly atmospheric and unusually poetic ghost story Ugetsu. Each of these films is a period drama, in which an earlier era in Japanese history is painstakingly and authentically recreated, that tackles human suffering with a clear-eyed honesty and compassion that is simply unparalleled in cinema.

Essential work: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953)

7. Roberto Rossellini (Italy)

In the 1940s Roberto Rossellini helped to spearhead the revolutionary Italian Neorealist movement with his socially conscious, documentary-style War Trilogy (consisting of Rome, Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero). Then, he shifted gears in the 1950s to make six remarkable melodramas starring his then-wife Ingrid Bergman including Stromboli and Voyage in Italy. These films arguably marked the birth of “cinematic modernism” by eschewing plot in favor of a series of scenes of Bergman wandering a primordial landscape meant to evoke the interior journey of her characters (which would pave the way for both Antonioni’s L’avventura and Godard’s Le Mepris). Finally, in the 1960s and 1970s Rossellini turned to television for a series of de-dramatized, educational films about “great men” throughout history that arguably took the Neorealist aesthetic to its logical extreme. Very few filmmakers have gone through multiple phases as dramatically different as Rossellini. Fewer still have managed to create such groundbreaking work with each distinct chapter in their careers.

Essential work: Stromboli (1950), Voygage in Italy (Viaggio in Italia) (1954), The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV) (1966)

6. Carl Dreyer (Denmark)

Carl Dreyer was nothing if not exacting. The great Dane proclaimed cinema to be his “only” passion and proved it by making only the kind of films that he really wanted to make. His rigorous/perfectionist style is reflected in the fact that his final five features, as astonishing a run of movies as can be found in any filmography, were released in five separate decades: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943) Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964). The evolution of his style over the course of these films is fascinating: from close-ups to long shots, from quick-cutting to long takes, from acting to non-acting, from music to no music. Genre trappings (the melodrama of Joan, the horror of Vampyr) also fade away as Dreyer moves relentlessly inward in pursuit of the capture of various “states of soul.” Equally fascinating is his naturalistic approach to ambiguously supernatural subject matter: a woman who communes with God, vampirism, witchcraft, the resurrection of the flesh and . . . romantic love.

Essential work: Day of Wrath (Vredens dag) (1943), Ordet (1955), Gertrud (1964)

5. F.W. Murnau (Germany/USA)

F.W. Murnau is often referred to as the best director to have only worked in the silent era and for good reason; he was the chief figure of German Expressionism, creating three major masterpieces with Nosferatu (the first and best vampire film), The Last Laugh (a movie with no intertitles but a lot of fluid camerawork) and Faust (a technically virtuosic take on the German folk tale that nearly bankrupted UFA, the studio that produced it), before answering the call of Hollywood where he made three more: Sunrise (a love story about the dichotomy between city and country life featuring highly innovative cinematography), Four Devils (a lost film) and City Girl (an exquisite melodrama that intentionally reverses the iconography of Sunrise). Unhappy with working conditions in both Germany and the U.S., Murnau went to Tahiti for his independently produced final film Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. If Fritz Lang was the Tolstoy of German cinema (going “wide” with his ambitious, third-person societal portraits), then Murnau was its Dostoevsky (going “deep” with his take on the highly subjective psychological impressions of the individual).

Essential work: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), City Girl (1930), Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

4. Alfred Hitchcock (USA/UK)

Alfred Hitchcock is a rare example of a director who was able to combine a high degree of creative control with a long and prolific career. Beginning in the silent era in England, Hitch successfully adapted to sound, the Hollywood studio system, color, widescreen cinematography and even 3-D. He looked at potential projects as logistical problems that he could utilize the latest technology to solve, frequently breaking new ground along the way. Furthermore, his ostensible “genre pieces” were highly personal in nature, more often than not studies of obsession with an emphasis on the duality of man. The fact that he could make such personal films on such a massive scale, using major stars and the resources of Hollywood, is impressive in the extreme. And his craftsmanship has never been bettered (Andrew Sarris has aptly referred to him as the “supreme technician of the American cinema”); the best of Hitchcock’s suspense sequences (the climactic confrontation between photographer and killer in Rear Window, the crop dusting scene in North By Northwest, the shower murder in Psycho, the final attack in The Birds) are so well planned and executed that they retain their power to thrill, entertain and strike fear in the heart even after many viewings.

Essential work: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960)

3. Luis Bunuel (France/Mexico)

Like Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel was one of the most Catholic of all directors. But the theme of guilt that was present in so much of the Englishman’s work was not allowed to so thoroughly infuse the movies of his Spanish counterpart. Instead, Bunuel violently reacted against his upbringing (and against the rising tide of fascism of late 20s/early 30s Europe) with the wildest and most transgressive films of the French Surrealist movement (Un Chien Andalou and L’age d’Or). Following a lengthy stint of not being able to direct, Bunuel resurfaced in the late 1940s as a master of the subversive Mexican melodrama, dropping bombs like Los Olvidados, El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. After a brief sojourn in his native Spain in the early Sixties, where he made the scandalous, blasphemous masterpiece Viridiana, Bunuel returned to France for what is arguably the greatest last chapter of any director’s career; it was there that he married his distinctive Surrealist sensibility to more polished cinematography and glamorous movie stars, resulting in a series of droll comedies, full of hilarious non-sequiturs and bizarre, dreamlike imagery, that constitute his very best work: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire.

Essential work: Los Olvidados (1950), Viridiana (1961), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie) (1972)

2. Robert Bresson (France)

The relationship between spirit and flesh has never been dramatized on screen as effectively as it has in the work of Robert Bresson because no other filmmaker has used sound and image so precisely to focus on material reality (and therefore, perhaps paradoxically, on the spiritual conditions underlying it). The great French director hit his stride early on with a “prison cycle” of films consisting of The Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped (the best prison break movie ever), Pickpocket and The Trial of Joan of Arc (a film so austere it makes Dreyer’s Joan look like a soap opera). Then came Au Hasard, Balthazar, a soul-enchanting masterpiece about the life of a donkey, in which the title character is seen as a barometer for the sins of mankind. In the late 1960s Bresson began working with color, expanding his palette while refining his overall style to an increasingly “essentialist” extreme. Some observers find his late work pessimistic (virtually all of his last movies end in suicide and/or murder). Bresson himself rejected this view, opting for the word “lucid” instead. The redemption is still there if you’re willing to look for it; it’s just buried a little deeper beneath the surface. Robert Bresson more consistently made near-perfect films than any other director with whose work I am familiar.

Essential work: A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut) (1956), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), L’argent (1983)

1. John Ford (USA)

Simply put, John Ford is the American cinema. A few indelible moments: Shirley Temple singing “Auld Lang Syne” to Victor McLaglen as he lies on his deathbed in Wee Willie Winkie (while an exquisite camera movement slowly eliminates him from the frame). Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, awkwardly dancing with and serenading his Ma to the tune of “Red River Valley” in The Grapes of Wrath. Walter Pidgeon in How Green Was My Valley, looking on from a cemetery in long shot while the love of his life, Maureen O’Hara, exits the church after marrying another man. Fonda again as Marshall Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, leaning back in his chair on a hotel veranda, balancing himself on a post with his boots. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, standing in the doorway between civilization and wilderness, unsure of whether to enter, in The Searchers. Anne Bancroft’s resignation while committing the ultimate self-sacrifice at the end of 7 Women: “So long, ya bastard.” And, as Johnny Cash once said, lots of other things.

Essential work: How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Runners-Up (listed alphabetically by family name):

11. Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy)
Essential work: L’avventura (1960), Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) (1964)

12. John Cassavetes (USA)
Essential work: A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Love Streams (1984)

13. Charlie Chaplin (USA)
Essential work: City Lights (1931), A King in New York (1958)

14. Manoel de Oliveira (Portugal)
Essential work: Anxiety (Inquietude) (1998), The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) (2010)

15. Aleksandr Dovzhenko (Ukraine)
Essential work: Arsenal (1929), Earth (1930)

16. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Germany)
Essential work: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) (1974), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

17. Federico Fellini (Italy)
Essential work: La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963)

18. Louis Feuillade (France)
Essential work: Les Vampires (1915), Tih Minh (1919)

19. Sam Fuller (USA)
Essential work: Park Row (1952), Shock Corridor (1963)

20. Jean-Luc Godard (France/Switzerland)
Essential work: Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963), Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989-1998)

21. D.W. Griffith (USA)
Essential work: Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916), Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924)

22. Howard Hawks (USA)
Essential work: Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932), Rio Bravo (1959)

23. Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Taiwan)
Essential work: Goodbye South Goodbye (1996), Three Times (2005)

24. King Hu (Hong Kong/Taiwan)
Essential work: Dragon Inn (1967), A Touch of Zen (1971)

25. Shohei Imamura (Japan)
Essential work: Profound Desires of the Gods (1968), The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

26. Buster Keaton (USA)
Essential work: Our Hospitality (1923), The General (1926)

27. Abbas Kiarostami (Iran)
Essential work: The Taste of Cherry (1997), Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (2010)

28. Stanley Kubrick (USA)
Essential work: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

29. Akira Kurosawa (Japan)
Essential work: Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954)

30. Fritz Lang (Germany/USA)
Essential work: M (1931), The Big Heat (1953)

31. Sergio Leone (Italy/USA)
Essential work: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

32. Ernst Lubitsch (Germany/USA)
Essential work: Trouble in Paradise (1932), Heaven Can Wait (1943)

33. Vincente Minnelli (USA)
Essential work: The Band Wagon (1953), Some Came Running (1958)

34. Mikio Naruse (Japan)
Essential work: Floating Clouds (1955), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

35. Max Ophuls (France/USA)
Essential work: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953)

36. Yasujiro Ozu (Japan)
Essential work: Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953)

37. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger (UK)
Essential work: Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)

38. Nicholas Ray (USA)
Essential work: In a Lonely Place (1950), Bigger Than Life (1956)

39. Satyajit Ray (India)
Essential work: Pather Panchali (1955), Charulata (1964)

40. Alain Resnais (France)
Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

41. Ousmane Sembene (Senegal)
Essential work: Black Girl (La noire de…) (1966), Moolaade (2004)

42. Douglas Sirk (USA)
Essential work: All That Heaven Allows (1956), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)

43. Preston Sturges (USA)
Essential work: The Lady Eve (1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

44. Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia)
Essential work: Andrei Rublev (1966), Stalker (1979)

45. Jacques Tati (France)
Essential work: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Play Time (1967)

46. Dziga Vertov (Russia)
Essential work: Kino-Eye (1924), Man with the Movie Camera (1929)

47. Jean Vigo (France)
Essential work: Zero de Conduite (1933), L’atalante 1934)

48. Luchino Visconti (Italy)
Essential work: Senso (1954), The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) (1963)

49. Josef von Sternberg (USA)
Essential work: The Docks of New York (1928), Shanghai Express (1932)

50. Erich von Stroheim (USA)
Essential work: Foolish Wives (1922), Greed (1924)


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