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Tag Archives: Kenji Mizoguchi

The 40 Best Films of 1975 (on the Occasion of My 40th Birthday)

100_2797Sipping “Monty Python’s Holy Ale” while watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail

A couple of years ago, my wife and I bought a DVD box set of the first season of Saturday Night Live on a whim when we found it used for a ridiculously low price at Chicago’s Reckless Records. Aside from the greatness of its contents (the classic comedy sketches, the genius of two-time musical guest Leon Redbone, etc.) I became fascinated with the set simply because I knew the whole thing was filmed and broadcast live in 1975, the year of my birth. A wave of something like nostalgia for a time I can’t quite remember came over me: this is what the world had looked and sounded like when I entered it. I was immediately filled with the desire to watch as many films as I could from that year in order to better understand the culture into which I was born. The result of that years-long quest is this blog post, two days in advance of my 40th birthday, in which I have compiled a list of my 40 favorite movies of 1975 (each accompanied by a still and a two-sentence review). As you can see, it was a staggeringly great year for movies, one of the best ever. In fact, it’s almost comical how many excellent directors, spanning all six filmmaking continents, made landmark films in 1975.

Let’s start with Europe: in Germany, Fassbinder alone made four movies, and there were also important works from the filmmaking teams of Jean-Marie Straub/Danielle Huillet and Margharethe Von Trotta/Volker Schlondorff; in France, Jean-Luc Godard directed his best film of the decade, and he was joined by his New Wave compatriots Claude Chabrol, who made two superior genre movies, and Francois Truffaut (whose neo-“Tradition of Quality” epic The Story of Adele H. is not listed below); also from France, Marguerite Duras helmed her most acclaimed feature, an avant-garde feminist masterpiece that was mirrored by Chantal Akerman working in Belgium (is it a coincidence that both movies feature the same lead actress?); Russia is represented on the list by Andrei Tarkovsky and Eldar Ryazanov, whose efforts can be seen as representing the twin poles of Russian cinema (i.e., austere arthouse and commercial entertainment), respectively, and they’re joined by interloper Akira Kurosawa whose sojourn to the USSR earned him a Best Foreign Film Oscar. In Italy, Roberto Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini directed their final films (both amazing) while Antonioni made his last masterpiece as an international co-production; and England is, happily, represented by Monty Python’s supreme comedy creation. Meanwhile, over in Africa, the great Ousmane Sembene directed one of his most lauded works. In Australia, Peter Weir made what many consider to be the best Australian movie of all time. South America is represented by the underrated Argentinian director Leopodo Torre Nilsson, as well as Raul Ruiz, who directed his first post-Chilean effort in France with a group of fellow exiles. Asia is represented by King Hu, Li Han-Hsiang and Kaneto Shindo, all working in different countries (in addition to the aforementioned Kurosawa), as well as a certain “curry western” from India that many would call the pinnacle of Bollywood. And in the U.S., the Maysles brothers made a controversial landmark documentary while the “New Hollywood” saw instant-classics from the likes of Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and Milos Forman. And this is to say nothing of important films from Angelopoulos, Bergman, Cukor, Kubrick, Wajda, etc.

I hope you enjoy my tour through the cinematic landscape of 1975, and I highly recommend conducting a similar cinematic excursion through the year of your own birth.

40. Like a Bird on the Wire (Fassbinder, Germany)

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This T.V. movie is essentially a filmed stage play of Fassinbder-favorite Brigitte Mira performing an autobiographical one-woman show. Fassbinder devotees really need to track this down just to see “Emmy” from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul singing a spirited rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

39. Farewell, My Lovely (Richards, USA)

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Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel adapted with greater faithfulness than Edward Dmytryk had done in 1944. While Dick Richards may not be a great director this movie had to happen even if it was decades late: Robert Mitchum and Philip Marlowe were an actor/character match made in tough-guy movie heaven.

38. The Magic Flute (Bergman, Sweden)

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Ingmar Bergman does Mozart for Swedish T.V. My favorite scene is the opening: a montage where close-ups of audience members’ faces, including those of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, are brilliantly intercut to the rhythm of the overture.

37. The Travelling Players (Angelopoulos, Greece)

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An itinerant theatrical troupe travels through Greece, literally, and through 20th-century history, symbolically, in Theo Angelopoulos’ four-hour magnum opus. While Angelopoulos’ epic long takes are extremely impressive as cinema, this is also, I must confess, a bit “white elephant arty” for my taste.

36. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, USA)

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Milos Forman was one of the guiding lights of the Czech New Wave before finding even greater fame in the New Hollywood of the ’70s with this celebrated adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel about the inhabitants of a mental hospital. I don’t think this deserved the bonanza of Oscars it received (the one-dimensional Nurse Ratched has always been problematic) but it’s hard to deny that Jack Nicholson was born to play the charismatic and rebellious R.P. McMurphy.

35. The Promised Land (Wajda, Poland)

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The most important Polish director to never leave Poland, Andrzej Wajda, created one of his most famous works with this anti-capitalist parable about three friends opening a textile mill in late-19th century Lodz. Although the insights into the corrupting power of money afforded by plot and characterization are familiar, this is brimming with fascinating social and historical detail from beginning to end.

34. Innocents with Dirty Hands (Chabrol, France)

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Yet another Claude Chabrol film about a murderous love triangle — this time with Romy Schneider as a beautiful housewife who enlists her young lover to help murder her abusive, drunken lout of a husband (Rod Steiger). Not Chabrol at his sharpest but still a delicious thriller that’s loaded with even more plot twists than usual.

33. Dialogues of the Exiled (Ruiz, Chile/France)

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Modeled on Brecht’s Conversations in Exile, this wry piece of political cinema was the first film made in exile by the great Chilean director Raul Ruiz following the CIA-backed military coup of Augusto Pinochet. It’s a modest, no-budget comedy consisting almost entirely of interior dialogue scenes of Chilean expatriates attempting to assimilate to their new existence as political refugees but it’s also a crucial document of the Chilean diaspora and essential viewing for Ruiz fans.

32. Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet, USA)

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A crime drama based on a true story about a first-time robber (Al Pacino) attempting to hold up a bank in order to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation, Dog Day Afternoon contains so much of what is great about the American cinema of the 1970s: there’s location shooting in New York City, great performances by Method actors and, thanks to director Sidney Lumet, an emphasis on real human behavior above genre considerations.

31. Diary of the War of Pigs (Nilsson, Argentina)

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Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s penultimate film is a fascinating quasi-sci-fi parable about growing old. The unsettling premise is that Argentina’s youth have formed marauding gangs who exterminate the country’s elderly after having become fed up with senior citizens who seem to be of no use and are merely living off of social security.

30. Fear of Fear (Fassbinder, Germany)

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Fassbinder heads into John Cassavetes territory with this study of a woman (Margit Carstenson) who, while suffering the pressures of being a housewife and mother, starts to come apart at the seams. This made-for-T.V. melodrama is beautifully written, directed and acted and features a handful of Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack to boot.

29. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini, Italy)

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The great Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film is this controversial adaptation of a Marquis de Sade novel about hedonistic aristocrats taking a group of children to a castle and sexually abusing, torturing and killing them over a span of several months. Totally disgusting but necessarily so — as Salo arguably shows how fascism works better than any other single movie.

28. Pleasure Party (Chabrol, France)

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A man (screenwriter Paul Gegauff) in a long-term marriage insists to his wife that they be allowed to see other people but is then hypocritically consumed by jealousy when she follows his suggestion. The most disturbing film that Claude Chabrol ever made is also one of the most brutally honest critiques of the male ego ever committed to celluloid.

27. Cooley High (Schultz, USA)

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This terrific high school comedy — made in Chicago in 1975 but taking place in 1964 — is often referred to as the “black American Graffiti.” It’s so good that I wish American Graffiti were referred to as the “white Cooley High.”

26. Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (Shindo, Japan)

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Kenji Mizoguchi was, in my opinion, the greatest of all Japanese directors and here he gets a fitting tribute from another master, his compatriot Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba). One of the best documentaries about a film director, this is two-and-a-half hours long and chock-full of insightful interviews with many of Mizo’s closest collaborators.

25. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Von Trotta/Schlondorff, Germany)

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Margarethe Von Trotta and Volker Schlondorff (who were married at the time) co-wrote and co-directed this adaptation of Heinrich Boll’s novel, which ambitiously captures the turbulent political climate in Germany in the early-1970s. The titular character is a young woman (the excellent Angela Winkler) whose life becomes a living hell after she unknowingly has a one-night stand with a terrorist.

24. The Romantic Englishwoman (Losey, UK/France)

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Michael Caine is a blocked writer who practically throws his wife (Glenda Jackson) into the arms of another man in order to have something to write about. Director Joseph Losey, who gets my vote for the most underrated major filmmaker, keeps the notion of what is real and what is fiction tantalizingly in flux throughout.

23. Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, USA/UK)

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Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel about an Irish social climber in 18th-century England is full of wonderful cinematic conceits and almost surely looks more interesting today than when it first came out. On the other hand, it’s hard to overlook the miscasting of Ryan O’Neal in the lead role.

22. Dersu Uzala (Kurosawa, Russia/Japan)

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The Russian government sends a surveyor on a mission into the wilds of Siberia where his survival ends up depending on his relationship with the title character, a local hunter of Asian descent. I’m not a strong “Kurosawa man” but it’s hard to deny that this film about humanity, friendship and changing times doesn’t touch on things deep and true.

21. Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (Fassbinder, Germany)

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Incisive social critique from Fassbinder about a working-class woman (the great Brigitte Mira) being exploited by both the Communist party and the media in the wake of her husband’s tragic suicide. Part drama, part satire, 100% offbeat Fassbinderian awesomeness.

20. The Man Who Would Be King (Huston, USA/UK)

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John Huston made one of his very best films with this adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story about two British Army officers who establish themselves as deities in the Middle Eastern country of “Kafiristan” (where caucasians had previously been unknown). Michael Caine and Sean Connery are perfectly cast as the leads in an action-adventure buddy comedy with an unforgettable final scene that mines unexpectedly deep emotions.

19. The Empress Dowager (Li, Hong Kong)

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The Shaw Brothers are most famous in the West for the hundreds of martial arts films they cranked out between the late 1960s and the early 1980s but they made excellent films across all genres as this drama about intrigue in the imperial court at the end of the Qing Dynasty proves. Li Han-Hsiang directs an all-star cast that includes the brilliant Lisa Lu as the scheming title character, Ti Lung as her nephew to whom she has promised the throne, Ivy Ling Po as his wife and David Chiang as a eunuch.

18. Love Among the Ruins (Cukor, USA)

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Laurence Olivier said that working with Katharine Hepburn in this made-for-T.V. movie, the only time they acted together, was his “happiest professional experience.” Small wonder as both actors excel in a touching story about ex-lovers reunited after 40 years, which is beautifully staged by veteran director George Cukor as if nobody told him it was no longer 1940.

17. Sholay (Sippy, India)

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As a Bollywood agnostic, I was overawed by this legendary “curry western” about an ex-cop who hires two notorious but good-hearted thieves to hunt down the vicious bandit who massacred his family. Director Ramesh Shippy liberally borrows from Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Seven Samurai (or is it The Magnificent Seven?) in crafting an outrageous action/revenge epic with a uniquely Indian flavor.

16. Moses and Aaron (Straub/Huillet, Germany)

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Arnold Schoenberg’s notoriously difficult twelve-tone opera finds its ideal cinematic interpreters in Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet. The use of real, sparse desert locations lend a documentary-quality to the proceedings, and the simple but exquisitely calibrated camera pans provide the perfect minimalist visual correlative to Schoenberg’s austere score.

15. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones, UK)

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The celebrated British comedy troupe Monty Python hit a career high with this ridiculous low-budget comedy about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and their pursuit of the Holy Grail. Among the many silly but uproariously funny gags, I am inordinately fond of the killer rabbit.

14. Xala (Sembene, Senegal)

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The father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene, adapts his own novel about a Senegalese businessman who is stricken with impotence on the eve of his marriage to his third wife. Sembene is one of the all-time greats and this satirical portrait of chauvinism in corrupt, post-independent Senegal is one of his finest hours.

13. Grey Gardens (Maysles/Maysles, USA)

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David and Albert Maysles directed this landmark documentary portrait of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, an upper-class but eccentric mother/daughter duo (who also happen to be relatives of Jackie Kennedy) living in squalor in a rundown mansion in East Hampton, New York. Some critics accused the Maysles of “exploitation” due to the “grotesque” nature of their subjects but time has been very kind to this beautiful film, which, in the best verite fashion, allows two incredible characters to tell their story in their own words.

12. India Song (Duras, France)

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Novelist Marguerite Duras proved her directing chops with this avant-garde masterpiece about the wife of a French diplomat in India (Delphine Seyrig) drifting through a series of affairs. Featuring a provocative mixture of dialogue in voice-over with tableaux-like compositions, this has been accurately described as “so boring it’s sublime” (I’m also fond of pointing out that the climax is strangely reminiscent of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — minus the singing and dancing).

11. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, Australia)

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Picnic at Hanging Rock is a haunting, enigmatic film — often erroneously referred to as being based on actual events — about the disappearance of three female college students and a middle-aged teacher during a Valentine’s Day picnic in the year 1900. Like Antonioni in L’avventura, director Peter Weir refuses to provide a concrete explanation for the disappearance while simultaneously hinting at several possible interpretations (including a supernatural one).

10. Nashville (Altman, USA)

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I’m not one of the many who consider Nashville Robert Altman’s best film (it’s not for me at the level of McCabe and Mrs. Miller or The Long Goodbye) but there’s no denying its incredible filmmaking virtuosity as the great director freely crosscuts between dozens of characters and storylines over a few days in the title city. It’s a grand statement about America and Keith Carradine performs his killer self-penned tune “I’m Easy.”

9. Fox and His Friends (Fassbinder, Germany)

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The fourth(!) and final Fassbinder film on this list is a cynical, darkly comical tale of a gay working-class man who finds himself victimized by his new “friends” after winning the lottery. Fassbinder plays the lead role himself in this highly personal film, which deftly demonstrates the director’s profound understanding of human nature.

8. The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ryazanov, Russia)

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This feel-good, sentimental rom-com is paradoxically both Russian-to-the-bone and universal in its broad appeal: the screwball premise is that a shy doctor, soon to be engaged, goes binge-drinking with friends on New Year’s Eve and ends up passing out in an apartment in Leningrad that he mistakenly believes is his own Moscow apartment (it looks the same and even has the same street name and number). What starts off quite farcical (who knew that the uniformity of Brezhnev-era architecture could yield such comic gold?) slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into a moving romantic drama.

7. The Messiah (Rossellini, Italy)

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The greatest of all Italian directors, Roberto Rossellini, fittingly ended his late didactic/”historical” phase (and indeed his entire career) with this Jesus biopic, the best such film after only Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. This is as de-dramatized as anything in Bresson but Rossellini does go buck wild with the zoom lens (as was his wont at the time) in his final masterpiece.

6. Numero Deux (Godard, France)

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This cinematic essay about a contemporary French family, shot on both video and film, is Jean-Luc Godard’s finest work from his least-accessible period. The title can be seen as referring to shit, the status of women as second-class citizens in France, and the fact that Godard received financing for the film by sneakily telling his producer he was making a sequel to Breathless.

5. Night Moves (Penn, USA)

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Arthur Penn’s neo-noir, one of the best American films of the 1970s, stars Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby, an L.A. detective hired to find a runaway teenage girl (Melanie Griffith) in Florida. Nothing is what it seems in this pessimistic, European art-film influenced tale that positively reeks of its era in the best possible sense and which also gets better with every viewing.

4. The Valiant Ones (Hu, Taiwan/Hong Kong)

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During the Ming Dynasty, the emperor of China appoints a group of soldiers (and even a couple bandits) to defend the coast against invading Japanese pirates. King Hu is, for my money, the best Chinese director who ever lived and The Valiant Ones is the wuxia genre at its finest — as impressive for its brilliant cinematography and editing as for its fight choreography.

3. The Mirror (Tarkovsky, Russia)

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This daringly non-linear film shows Andrei Tarkovsky at his most abstract and autobiographical. Scenes based on his childhood memories are freely intercut with fantasy sequences and newsreels then overlaid with narration written by the director’s father to create a visual tone poem of the highest order.

2. The Passenger (Antonioni, Italy/Spain/France)

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Jack Nicholson is a journalist on assignment in war-torn Africa who decides to exchange identities with a dead man. Everything about Michelangelo Antonioni’s globe-hopping movie, the last truly great one he would make, is ambiguous, mysterious and haunting — qualities that reach an apex in the transcendental final tracking shot.

1. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, Belgium)

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Chantal Akerman created the ultimate feminist film with this intimate epic, a formally exact and deliberately repetitive masterwork, about three days in the life of a single Belgian mother and part-time prostitute. I could watch Delphine Seyrig chop potatoes all day long.

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Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2012

In spite of the ever-increasing popularity of downloading and streaming (with their attendant inferior image and sound quality, suckas!), 2012 proved to be yet another year of movie-watching paradise for crazy people like me who want to feel a physical connection to the movies we love (not to mention the bitchin’ artwork, liner notes and “special features” on the discs themselves that tend to go along with the increasingly outdated notion of “physical media”). All of the great home video labels (Criterion, Masters of Cinema, et al) continued doing great work, and a few smaller domestic and foreign labels (Flicker Alley, Kam and Ronson, etc.) even stepped up their rate of Blu-ray production. Olive Films deserves a special thanks for combing through the Republic Pictures catalogue, judiciously selecting all of the titles that cinephiles most want to see and presenting them in high definition (e.g., Letter from an Unknown Woman, Rio Grande, Johnny Guitar, and, most exciting of all, a newly restored version of The Quiet Man set to drop in 2013).

Below are my top ten favorite Blu-ray discs of 2012 as well as 30 additional runners-up. (I purchased no DVDs in the past year at all.) Being fortunate enough to watch all of the below discs, some of which I was even able to screen in classes, single-handedly made 2012 a very good year for me.

10. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, Olive Films Blu-ray)

Olive Films has quickly established a reputation as a home video distributor known for putting out straightforward transfers (unrestored but also never overly manipulated) of classic Hollywood and foreign films on DVD and Blu-ray. They are also known for offering little-to-no extras (think of them as Criterion’s poorer little brother). While the new Blu-ray of Letter from an Unknown Woman fits this description exactly, I’m including it here because the movie is so friggin’ awesome and because it was only previously available in North America on VHS tape. Max Ophuls’ elegant, Viennese waltz of a movie is a devastating melodrama about a schoolgirl crush that turns into an unrequited lifelong obsession. A reviewer on a popular Blu-ray review site, who is apparently unaware of the conventions of the melodrama genre and should’ve known better, foolishly complained about the film’s plot contrivances and gave it 3.5 stars out of 5. I say this is one of the great American movies and if it doesn’t rip your heart out then I don’t want to know you.

9. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, Fox Blu-ray)

20th Century Fox, who have a good track record when it comes to their catalogue titles, released a superb Blu-ray of Howard Hawks’ immortal Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to curiously little fanfare last July. Over time this musical/comedy has become my favorite Hawks movie, in part because I’ve come to realize that comedy is what Hawks, the proverbial “master of all genres,” did best but also because of how he used the Marilyn Monroe persona: together, Hawks and Monroe slyly suggest that her dumb blonde act is just that – an act – which makes her Lorelei Lee character seem awfully smart, after all. What impresses most about this specific release is how much the colors pop (has red ever looked so red?) and how remarkably blemish-free it is; Fox’s restoration of the film involved creating a new negative from the original three-strip Technicolor elements. I cannot recall seeing another movie from Hollywood’s studio system era that looked this pleasingly pristine on my television.

8. Lonesome (Fejos, Criterion Blu-ray)

My vote for the best Criterion release of the year is their incredible Blu-ray disc of the George Eastman House restoration of Paul Fejos’ essential Lonesome. I had previously only seen this lyrical masterpiece, a portrait of urban loneliness and love comparable to Sunrise and The Crowd, on a fuzzy VHS tape as an all-silent film in black-and-white. This new version restores it to its original theatrical glory as a part-talkie (there are three brief dialogue scenes) with a color-stenciled-by-hand Coney Island climax. Even more impressive is how Criterion bundles the main attraction together with two other Fejos features: a reconstructed version of the 1929 musical Broadway (whose generic story of a chorus girl mixed up with gangsters is merely an excuse for Fejos to show off some astonishingly fluid and dramatic crane shots) and the recently rediscovered The Last Performance, a Conrad Veidt vehicle that belongs to one of my favorite subgenres – films about the sinister goings-on within a circus. Oh yeah! Taken together, these three films offer a compelling argument that Fejos may have been the most unjustly neglected major filmmaker to ever work in Hollywood.

7. The Gospel According to Matthew (Pasolini, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s greatest achievement received the home video treatment it has long deserved with this definitive edition from the UK label Masters of Cinema. The tone of this much-beloved biopic of Jesus, based upon the book of Matthew, alternates between the reverent (the Neorealist but respectful treatment of the Christ story in general) and the irreverent (a deliberately anachronistic score, one of the best ever compiled, that mixes Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” with cuts by Mahalia Jackson, Blind Willie Johnson, a Congolese mass and even snatches of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky score). That score comes through loud and clear via the uncompressed 2.0 mono soundtrack, and the film’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography has the thickness and pleasing graininess of an authentic, well-kept 35mm print. Also, the English subtitles are thankfully optional, not “burned in” as on the old Image DVD release. Finally, there are many welcome extras, the most important of which is Sopralluoghi in Palestina, a feature-length documentary about scouting the film’s locations directed by Pasolini himself. Essential.

6. The Mizoguchi Collection (Mizoguchi, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

This terrific box-set from UK distributor Artificial Eye collects the four best-known Kenji Mizoguchi films that pre-date the great director’s most famous period (the late masterworks he created in the 1950s). Unfortunately, it has been damned with faint praise by some critics who complained about the overall “softness” of the images, and the fact that two of the titles (Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion) have already been released by Criterion’s Eclipse DVD label in transfers that were clearly made from the same source material. But this is Blu-ray, folks, and there is an improvement, and no improvement is too small when it comes to the legacy of a giant like Mizoguchi. Granted, these films, like all Japanese films of their era, are not in the best physical shape but they are among the cinema’s finest achievements (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums in particular) and cinephiles therefore owe Artificial Eye a huge debt of gratitude for putting them out. Unsurprisingly, the best-looking film in the set is also the most recent: 1946’s Utamaro and His Five Women, the only postwar title in the bunch, is a delightful, autobiographical and uncharacteristically light movie (at least for Mizo) about an artist’s relationships to his female models.

5. The River (Renoir, Carlotta Blu-ray)

2012 was a great year for admirers of Jean Renoir. Out of all of the Blu-ray releases of classic films that came out this year that were based on new restorations, two of the very best-looking were for his masterpieces Grand Illusion (released by Studio Canal stateside and in Europe) and The River (released by the French label Carlotta). My favorite between them is The River, not only because I think it’s the better movie but also because it boasts the more impressive restoration work. Funded in part by Martin Scorsese’s invaluable Film Foundation, the film’s original vibrant Technicolor palette (marking the first time Renoir ever worked in color), which irresistibly shows off the The River‘s colorful Indian locations, has marvelously been brought back to life. The movie itself, a coming-of-age story about three adolescent girls who fall in love with the same American soldier, is one of Renoir’s best and most humane. There are no English subtitles on this French disc, which shouldn’t really matter to English-speakers because the film was shot entirely in English.

4. Les Vampires (Feuillade, Kino Blu-ray)

Louis Feuillade’s groundbreaking and deathless mystery serial was originally released in 10 parts over a span of several months in 1915 and 1916. Blu-ray, however, is arguably the ideal way to experience this 7-hour silent film extravaganza (spread across two discs in Kino’s set): one can dip into it at any given point at any time to experience its proto-Surrealist delights. And for those who have heard of Feuillade, a kind of French D.W. Griffith, but are not yet familiar with his work, this is also the best place to start: Les Vampires, a supreme entertainment about an intrepid journalist matching wits against a gang of master criminals, exerted a big influence on Fritz Lang’s Mabuse films, the entire espionage genre, and even the nouvelle vague in its pioneering use of self-reflexivity (most obvious in the fourth-wall-busting comic performance of Marcel Levesque). Full review here.

3. A Trip to the Moon (Melies, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)

Flicker Alley’s second ever Blu-ray release was this gem of a set combining both the restored black-and-white and color versions of Georges Melies’ classic A Trip to the Moon with The Extraordinary Voyage, an informative feature length doc about the making of the original film as well as the extensive restoration of the color version (the most expensive ever undertaken). The candy-colored hand-painted visuals from 1902 turned out to be a major revelation and a total delight: they radically change the experience of watching the film by providing greater separation between subjects within Melies’ compositions, providing a much greater illusion of depth, and subtly directing the viewer’s eye to important elements within single frames. Because the color version only comes with one soundtrack option, a space-age pop score by the French art-rock duo Air, some alleged cinephiles groused on internet message boards that they refused to buy this. If you are one of those people, you are an idiot. Full review here.

2. The Lodger (Hitchcock, Network Blu-ray)

The UK label Network released this sensational disc in September, which turned out to be in many ways the year’s most delightful home video surprise. The Lodger, Hitchcock’s first thriller, was originally released in 1927 and this version is based on an impeccable restoration by the British Film Institute that gloriously renders many heretofore unseen details in the luminous, Expressionist-influenced photography. I would go so far as to say I never realized what a truly great movie it is until viewing this Blu-ray. Hitchcock fans who haven’t yet seen it might be shocked at how fully formed the master’s style was so early on in his career: there are a series of murders, a “wrong man” plot, a beautiful “Hitchcockian blonde” and a highly memorable kissing scene. Network’s generous package includes a booklet with extensive liner notes about the film as well as an impressive 2-CD soundtrack of composer Nitin Sawhney’s newly composed, Herrmann-esque score. I normally include only one title per director in my “Best of” lists but it was impossible to leave off either The Lodger or the “Masterpiece Collection” for 2012. More here.

1. Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Hitchcock, Universal Blu-ray)

Universal Studios did the world a huge favor by releasing this “mother” of all movie box sets in late October. The 15-disc set, lovingly packaged with a 58-page booklet and beautiful artwork, contains 15 of Alfred Hitchcock’s best known and best loved Hollywood films, all of which are loaded with copious extras. The audio-visual quality varies from disc to disc but, fortunately, the very best films included here (e.g., Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho) also tend to be the ones that have the most impressive image and sound quality. The colors of Rear Window and Vertigo in particular are more saturated and feature warmer skin tones that feel truer to their original Technicolor roots. The most pleasant surprise though is The Trouble with Harry, whose blazing autumnal color palette truly dazzles in 1080p. Below are my grades for all 15 films in the set. The first grade is for the movie, the second is for a/v quality:

Saboteur: B+/A
Shadow of a Doubt: A+/A-
Rope: B+/B+
Rear Window: A+/A+
The Trouble With Harry: A-/A+
The Man Who Knew Too Much: B-/B-
Vertigo: A+/A+
North By Northwest: A+/A+
Psycho: A+/A
The Birds: A/A-
Marnie: A-/B
Torn Curtain: B-/B+
Topaz: B/B+
Frenzy: B+/A-
Family Plot: A/B-

Runners-Up:

11. The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, Criterion Blu-ray)

12. Bande à part (Godard, Gaumont Blu-ray)

13. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Kino Blu-ray)

14. Center Stage (AKA Actress) (Kwan, Kam and Ronson Blu-ray)

15. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Criterion Blu-ray)

16. Chinatown (Polanski, Paramount Blu-ray)

17. David Lynch Box Set (Lynch, Universal UK Blu-ray) This ambitious set was unfortunately marred by technical problems on its original release (a couple of discs contained audio and/or video glitches, while others were released in 1080i instead of 1080p and with 2.0 stereo soundtracks instead of the promised 5.1 mixes) and was subsequently withdrawn by Universal UK. When replacement discs were eventually reissued, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway were still unfortunately in 1080i though Wild at Heart, Eraserhead, Dune and Blue Velvet all look and sound terrific. Had it not been for the technical errors, this extras-laden set would have easily made my top ten list.

18. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

19. Film Socialisme (Godard, Kino Blu-ray)

20. Floating Weeds (Ozu, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

21. Fort Apache (Ford, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

22. The Gold Rush (Chaplin, Criterion Blu-ray)

23. Grand Illusion (Renoir, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

24. The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, Fox Blu-ray) Full review here.

25. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Criterion Blu-ray)

26. Johnny Guitar (Ray, Olive Films Blu-ray)

27. La Jetee / Sans Soleil (Marker, Criterion Blu-ray) More here.

28. Life Without Principle (To, Mega Star Blu-ray) Full review here.

29. Die Nibelungen (Lang, Kino Blu-ray)

30. Notorious (Hitchcock, MGM Blu-ray) Full review here.

31. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray) Full review here.

32. Rio Grande (Ford, Olive Films Blu-ray)

33. Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, Criterion Blu-ray)

34. Sansho the Bailiff / Gion Bayashi (Mizoguchi, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

35. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, Warner Bros. Blu-ray) More here.

36. Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

37. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

38. That Obscure Object of Desire (Bunuel, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

39. Ugetsu / Oyu-sama (Mizoguchi, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

40. Weekend (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray)


A Post-War Japanese Cinema Primer

As longtime readers of this blog know, I think Japan has had one of the three consistently strongest national cinemas in the world (along with France and the United States) from the silent era through the present day. I already posted a Pre-War Japanese cinema primer last year. For my money, the richest period in Japanese film history is the Post-War era, a period lasting from the mid-1940s through the late 1950s; this was a golden age when the major Japanese studios (Toho, Shochiku, Daiei, etc.) rebuilt themselves during a time of nationwide economic resurgence. This was also when the best directors who had started working before and during the war (Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, etc.), diverse filmmakers whom nonetheless could be said to work in a “classical style” that was informed by the censorship requirements of the occupational Allied powers, directed their very best films. Beginning in the 1960s, there would be a New Wave of Japanese cinema (as their would be in so many countries all over the world), spearheaded by Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura and others, that explicitly turned its back on the work of these old masters, making them seem old-fashioned. Yet the Japanese cinema of the 1950s would influence, and continues to influence, so much of the great world cinema that has followed, especially outside of Japan. My two favorite contemporary directors, for instance (Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami), have both dedicated films to Ozu in the 21st century and the influence of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa has been at least as pervasive.

Here are a baker’s dozen of my favorite Japanese films of the Post-War period. I’m once again limiting myself to no more than two films per director. Otherwise, most of the slots would be taken up by Ozu and Mizoguchi.

Late Spring (Ozu, 1949)

Yasujiro Ozu kickstarted his great late period with this terrific drama about a young woman named Noriko (Setsuko Hara, playing the first of three Norikos for Ozu) who lives with her widower father (Chishu Ryu) and is reluctant to get married for fear of leaving him alone. Not only is this the first of the loose “Noriko trilogy” (even though Hara’s characters are different in each film), it also laid down the template that all of Ozu’s subsequent films would follow until his death in 1963: the themes of intergenerational conflict, familial love, loss and regret, wedded to a precise visual style favoring static, low angle compositions and long shots. The depth of feeling that arises from this marriage of form and content is simply unparalleled in cinema.

Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952)

I’ve never entirely warmed up to Akira Kurosawa. Most fans of Japanese cinema would put his 1951 breakthrough Rashomon on any short list of essential Japanese films from this period but I’ve always found there to be something facile and overly sentimental about its treatment of the “relativity of truth.” Nonetheless, I was fairly blown away by the complexity and power of his 1952 Ikiru after recently re-watching it. A government bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) realizes he’s dying of cancer and spends his final months on earth struggling against the odds to build a public playground. Most of the second half of the film’s unusual two part structure is taken up by a flash-forward sequence to the bureaucrat’s funeral where his co-workers debate, and ultimately misunderstand, the meaning of their colleague’s accomplishment. A genuinely poignant reminder that it’s not what one thinks or says but what one does that matters most in life.

The Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, 1952)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s exquisitely brutal ode to female suffering in 17th century Japan tells the story of the title character, a high-society woman (played by the director’s favorite actress Kinuyo Tanaka) who is exiled from the imperial court at Kyoto after falling in love with a samurai below her station. Eventually, she ends up a pathetic, middle-aged prostitute. Mizoguchi’s clear-eyed view of life as a never-ending series of tragic events is ruthlessly unsentimental but leavened by the occasional humorous touch. I don’t believe any male director understood women as well as Mizoguchi and the character of Oharu is his most sublime creation. Made in the director’s trademark rigorous style, this implicit critique of patriarchal Japan is one of the quintessential Japanese movies.

Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece is this formally minimalist work (the camera moves only twice in the entire film) that chronicles the largely unspoken conflict between an elderly married couple and their adult children. Like a Japanese version of Make Way for Tomorrow, the children (with the crucial exception of a stepdaughter played by Setsuko Hara) are largely neglectful of their parents. Ozu, however, refuses to judge his characters, instead infusing the entire film with the Zen-like concept of “mono no aware,” the notion that sadness cannot be avoided in life. This beautiful and essential film is one of my top ten “desert island” movies.

Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, 1953)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s best-loved film is this unique ghost story/war movie/melodrama hybrid. In feudal wartime Japan, two men (a potter and a farmer) move from their home village to a city, hoping to become war profiteers, but tragically opt to leave their wives behind; as the men become wildly successful, one of the wives is murdered and the other is forced into a life of prostitution. The homecoming finale, which sees the protagonists as “sadder but wiser men,” is shattering. Mizoguchi’s ravishingly photographed fable of greed and ambition uses light, shadow and fog (not to mention those legendary crane shots) to perfectly complement his view of the world as a place of impossible moral choices.

Gojira (Honda, 1954)

I know next to nothing about Japanese monster movies but, knowing of their importance in post-war Japan, I decided to watch the original Gojira (Godzilla in the English speaking world) solely for the purpose of completing this list. To my surprise, I found it to be an uncommonly effective, well-made and thoughtful horror movie where the fire-breathing title monster clearly functions as a dark allegory for the nuclear destruction of Japan from a decade earlier. Not nearly as corny as the endless parodies might lead you to believe (the black and white cinematography is crisp and inventive and the special effects are quite good), this is also interesting from the human angle: a love triangle involving a beautiful woman, a naval officer and an eye-patch wearing mad scientist. Boo-yah!

Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)

Akira Kurosawa’s best film and arguably the greatest action movie ever made. A village of poor farmers learn they are about to be raided by bandits on account of their soon-to-arrive barley crop. They hire seven samurai to help them defend the village from attack, with nothing to offer in return but food and board. The first half of this massively influential three and a half hour chambara extravaganza is devoted to setting up the conflict and introducing the seven samurai as distinct and memorable personalities (with Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune deserving special honors for carving out indelible archetypal characters). Then, when the epic, rain and mud-soaked battle finally does arrive, it is impossible not to care deeply about the human cost of the outcome. Seven Samurai is to the samurai picture what The Searchers is to the western: the best film of its kind.

Twenty-Four Eyes (Kinoshita, 1954)

The great Hideko Takamine stars as Miss Oishi, a rural schoolteacher who, as was apparently customary at the time, teaches the same twelve students (the twenty-four “eyes” of the title) from elementary school through high school and thus forms poignant lifelong bonds with them. Sentimental without being melodramatic, Keisuke Kinoshita’s film begins with the teacher’s first assignment in the late 1920s and ends with her as a war widow about twenty years later. In between, he depicts Miss Oishi as a paragon of virtue, both compassionate and dedicated to her job, which stands in ironic counterpoint to the offscreen, subtextual horrors of the Second World War. The whole enterprise is deeply moving thanks to Takamine’s radiant performance, Kinoshita’s graceful direction and the recurring use of the Scottish folk tune “Annie Laurie” on the soundtrack.

Floating Clouds (Naruse, 1955)

Mikio Naruse has long been considered one of Japan’s greatest directors by Japanese critics. Yet in spite of a prolific body of work (his career began in the silent era and stretched all the way to the late 1960s) he’s never been as well known in the west as his contemporaries. Floating Clouds is my favorite of the Naruse films I’ve seen, a heartbreaking story of a doomed love affair. Yukiko (Hideko Takamine), an employee of Japan’s forest service, meets and falls in love with a co-worker, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), while stationed in French Indochina during WWII. After the war, they meet up again in Japan where an obsessed Yukiko attempts to resume the affair in the face of some very bastard-like behavior from her indifferent former lover. Naruse’s trademark ability to extend sympathy to all of his characters – in a scenario where people can’t resist making terrible decisions – left me with a feeling of sadness I’ve never quite shaken.

The Samurai Trilogy (Inagaki, 1954-1956)

Not a single film but, as with the Lord of the Rings movies, a trilogy released over a three year period (1954’s Musashi Miyamoto, 1955’s Duel at Ichijoji Temple and 1956’s Duel at Ganryu Island) that it is meaningless to see as anything less than a unified whole. Toshiro Mifune, whose very image is synonymous with the samurai warrior the way John Wayne’s is with the cowboy, authoritatively embodies the legendary real life samurai Musashi Miyamoto. Over the course of these three beautiful Technicolor films, he starts out as a young punk in 17th century Japan who runs afoul of the law, which leads him on a journey of self-discovery whereupon he masters the samurai code. Along the way he also romances a couple of babes, helps oppressed villagers and defeats his arch nemesis in a spectacularly photographed duel on a beach at sunset.

Crazed Fruit (Nakahira, 1956)

Crazed Fruit is the single most important precursor to the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s and was not coincidentally produced by Nikkatsu, the studio that would soon produce the most important early films of Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. The plot concerns two brothers, young, wealthy and unemployed, who fall for the same beautiful woman, who in turn is married to an older American man. The emotional powder keg lit by this love triangle leads to an unforgettably explosive finale. This portrait of modern, disaffected youth is light years away from anything else that had been seen in Japanese cinema up to that point and, although rooted in Japan’s very specific post-war climate, feels closer in spirit to a Hollywood film like Rebel Without a Cause.

Giants and Toys (Masamura, 1958)

Yasuzo Masamura’s colorful, delightfully Tashlin-esque pop satire takes aim at the newly cutthroat corporate climate of Japan’s post-war economic boom years. The subject is the rivalry between three caramel corporations; Nishi, the protagonist, is an ad exec at one company who attempts to obtain inside information from his girlfriend and an old college buddy, each of whom works for the other two companies. Masamura’s ‘Scope compositions, pop art colors and space age props are the perfect window dressing for a social satire that feels not only prescient but prophetic.

Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa, 1959)

Kon Ichikawa is responsible for a number of bona fide classics of Japanese cinema yet he remains much less highly regarded than many of his contemporaries. This is perhaps because, like a John Huston or William Wyler, he is more craftsman than artist – with few stylistic or thematic traits to unify his diverse body of work. Most cinephiles would include his sentimental 1956 anti-war drama The Burmese Harp on a list of essential post-war Japanese films but I prefer his more ferocious and unpleasant war film Fires on the Plain from three years later. In the waning days of WWII, a starving, demoralized soldier named Tamura wanders through the jungle, cut off from his command, struggling to survive while still maintaining a shred of humanity. I often say that the only true “anti-war films” are those told from the losing side. Fires on the Plain is one of the best and bleakest movies of this kind. Beware of the monkey meat!


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)


A Pre-War Japanese Cinema Primer

For most of the past year I’ve been on a big Japanese cinema kick, and that includes checking out a healthy dose of movies made there before the Second World War – a period much less well known than what was to come afterwards. Thanks to recent efforts by enterprising home video distributors like The Criterion Collection, it has become much easier to plumb what Dave Kehr has aptly described as the “oceanic depth and diversity” of this rich era in Japanese film history. Western cinephiles can now profitably study previously unknown directors like Hiroshi Shimizu (and directors known primarily for their more famous later movies like Mikio Naruse) alongside the great early work of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Once again, I am by no means an expert when it comes to this period (and of course I’m at the mercy of what distributors have deemed worthy of making available with English subtitles) but here is a list of pre-war Japanese films that have, in one way or another, knocked my proverbial socks off.

A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, 1926)

Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good representation of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story of subjectivity set within an insane asylum. Silent Japanese films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-commercial work of cinematic poetry like this all the more valuable.

I Was Born, But . . . (Ozu, 1932)

The silent era continued in Japan for many years after it ended in the United States. Therefore a lot of the best Japanese films of the 1930s were silents, including this powerful tragicomedy by the great Yasujiro Ozu. The pointed social satire shows how two young brothers lord it over the other neighborhood children but are humiliated when they discover their own father has to kowtow to his boss at work. Like a lot of early Ozu movies, this was loosely remade later in the director’s career – as the equally great Good Morning in 1959.

Apart from You (Naruse, 1933)

Mikio Naruse had perhaps the most dynamic visual style of any Japanese director of the pre-war era. The penchant he showed in his early films for frequent camera movement and rapid cutting is evident in Apart from You, a masterful silent melodrama about a boy being raised by a single mother who works as a geisha to support him. The boy’s anger and shame over his mother’s profession lead him into a life of delinquency until the mother’s friend, a younger geisha played by the lovely Sumiko Mizukubo (“the Sylvia Sydney of Japan”), takes him to visit her own impoverished family to illustrate that “everyone has her reasons.”

Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, 1934)

The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.

A Story of Floating Weeds (Ozu, 1934)

A traveling kabuki troupe on the verge of packing it in passes through a town where the troupe’s leader had a love affair many years before. The reunion between the actor and his former lover – and their illegitimate teenaged son (who believes his father to be an “uncle”) – raises the ire of the actor’s current mistress, who jealously plots her revenge. An early masterpiece by Ozu that foreshadows many of the themes and visual motifs of his more famous later work.

Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, 1936)

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).

The Only Son (Ozu, 1936)

My favorite pre-war Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.

Osaka Elegy (Mizoguchi, 1936)

Kenji Mizoguchi is my favorite Japanese director and Osaka Elegy is a good early example of his genius. It tells the story of a female switchboard operator who is forced into a life of prostitution in order to pay off the debts of her father. Ironically, she is ostracized by her family for becoming a “fallen woman” even though the sole aim of her self-sacrifice was to save them. Mizoguchi combines immaculately choreographed long takes with a characteristic empathy for the plight of his heroine, which is seen as inextricably bound to the strict and hypocritical social codes of the time.

Sisters of the Gion (Mizoguchi, 1936)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s second movie of 1936 also tells what might be termed a prototypical feminist story of oppression although the focus here is on a pair of women, geishas eking out a living in the red light district of Kyoto. The older of the two “sisters” supports a broke boyfriend while the younger hatches a scheme to lift them up into a more comfortable existence, a plan that results in tragedy. Clocking in at a mere 69 minutes, this jewel of a film features excellent performances and an unforgettably despairing ending.

Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, 1939)

The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, 1941)

Hiroshi Shimizu’s film about a disparate group of vacationers staying at a hot springs resort for the summer starts off as a comedy and then wondrously, imperceptibly morphs into a poignant drama. The great Chishu Ryu (best known for his work with Ozu) plays a soldier who badly injures his foot when he steps on a hairpin in the communal bath. He later discovers that it was left behind by a beautiful young woman played by Kinuya Tanaka (best known for her work with Mizoguchi). When she returns to the resort to apologize, all of the guests speculate that love must be in the cards. But Shimizu, a master of subtlety, decides to steer the material in a more interesting direction. Released less than four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, The Ornamental Hairpin contains fleeting references to to the war and the fact that Tanaka’s character is a geisha, lending touches of gravitas to another deceptively light Shimizu masterwork.


The Magic of Mizo

The great Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi was born on this day in 1898. His masterpiece Ugetsu is my favorite movie to show in Intro to Film classes to exemplify Japan’s astonishingly rich post-World War II period. It shares a rotating slot with Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Mizoguchi’s own Sansho the Bailiff.

Akira Kurosawa is the most famous Japanese — nay Asian — director of all time. This is in part because his Rashomon won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival in 1951 (then as now one of the top three most prestigious film festivals in the world), thus opening up the floodgates for international companies to acquire then-exotic Japanese movies and distribute them widely in the West for the very first time. Abetting Kurosawa’s fame was the fact that he made his movies, especially his samurai films, in a style that was arguably already familiar to Western audiences. Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, for instance, would be unthinkable without the classic Hollywood westerns of the ’40s and ’50s. Of course, these chambara classics in turn ended up being massively influential on American and European westerns in the 1960s. And that kind of give-and-take is how the language of cinema evolves.

Ironically (or not depending on how you look at it), Kurosawa was a relative newbie when he made his international breakthrough; he had only started directing during the second World War. The other high-profile Japanese directors of the country’s post-war boom years (Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Keinosuke Tinugasa, etc.) had been around since the silent era. Of these elder statesmen, all of whose films were to a greater or lesser extent “more Japanese” than Kurosawa’s, Mizoguchi enjoyed the greatest international success. From 1952 through 1954, he won an unprecedented three Best Director prizes in three consecutive years at the Venice International Film Festival for his late period masterpieces The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. Of these, my favorite is Ugetsu, a unique war movie/melodrama/ghost story hybrid.

Although many of Mizoguchi’s most celebrated films fall into the same “jidai-geki” (or period drama) genre as those of Kurosawa, the approaches of the two directors could not be more different. Where Kurosawa’s period movies tended to be swiftly paced, action-oriented samurai pictures focusing almost exclusively on male characters, Mizoguchi’s are closer to melodrama, with a particular focus on the suffering of women throughout Japan’s tumultuous political history. The other chief difference between the two is in their approach to visual style. Where Kurosawa favors pan shots with a telephoto lens and brisk cutting (including a unique signature use of “wipe” transitions), Mizoguchi’s films unfold at a slower pace but with no less of a flamboyant approach to the image; the cutting is certainly slower in Mizoguchi but the camera is almost constantly moving. In Ugetsu approximately 70% of the shots are crane shots, the most logistically difficult type of camera movement to execute but one that allows the camera to move seemingly anywhere. “The pictures should roll out like scrolls,” Mizoguchi informed cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa before shooting began.

The title Ugetsu (or Ugetsu Monogatari as it is known in Japan) literally translates as “Tales of Moonlight and Rain,” an appropriately poetic title for this most poetic of movies. The film draws on three short stories, Akinari Ueda’s “The House in the Thicket” and “A Serpent’s Lust” and Guy de Maupassant’s “How He Got the Legion of Honor,” to tell the story of the sentimental education of two peasants who attempt to become war profiteers in late 16th century Japan: Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a potter who plans on selling his wares to soldiers in a civil war-torn domain. His neighbor, Tobei (Eitarô Ozawa), accompanies him to assist in transporting and selling the pottery but has the underlying motive of becoming a great samurai warrior. Both men abandon their wives but with the intention of returning home someday covered in wealth and fame. As is typical of Mizoguchi, the plight of the abandoned women, one of whom is murdered by starving soldiers and one of whom is forced into prostitution, is just as important as that of their male counterparts.

Ugetsu is a film known for its extraordinary “set pieces,” individual sequences that, in their lyricism and beauty, rank with the most evocative and richly detailed passages in all of cinema. One such episode is the famous “phantom boat” sequence, where all four protagonists travel from their hometown of Nakanogo across Lake Biwa by boat to reach the marketplace in Nagahama. (Since Tobei’s wife Ohama is the daughter of a boatman, she is the one who pilots the boat across the lake.) The ghostly atmosphere of this scene, which involved seamlessly blending shooting on location with shooting in a giant water tank inside of Daiei Studios, is achieved through Mizoguchi’s magical mise-en-scene; the low-key lighting, dense fog and elaborate tracking shots combine to create flowing, painterly images that are spellbinding in their intensity. Greatly adding to this hypnotic quality is a spare soundtrack, on which we hear the singing of Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) accompanied by the sound of a simple, non-diegetic metronomic drumbeat. In the middle of the lake, another boat emerges from the fog. It contains a lone passenger, whom our protagonists initially mistake for a ghost. The man reassures them in a whisper that he is not an apparition but a dying man whose boat was overtaken by pirates who inflicted his mortal wounds. He warns them to return home and then promptly dies. Genjuro and Tobei say prayers for the man as they push the boat away and continue on their journey. The steady drumbeat continues. The men will soon abandon their wives. Mizoguchi has foreshadowed the true supernatural occurrences that will be forthcoming in Ugetsu.

In Nagahama, Genjuro and Tobei split up. They both ironically achieve their dreams: Tobei attains the status of a great warrior almost by accident and Genjuro’s pottery business becomes phenomenally successful through the patronage of a single client — the aristocratic but mysterious Lady Wakasa. This latter plot thread leads to my favorite scene: after she convinces him to deliver his wares to her mansion in person, Lady Wakasa seduces Genjuro and persuades him to marry her (in spite of the fact that he is already married). Initially drunk on his good fortune (as well as what one presumes is incredible sex), Genjuro’s elation soon turns to skepticism and eventually fear as he realizes his new bride is actually a ghost. Late one evening, Lady Wakasa asks Genjuro to return with her to her “native land.” He refuses, telling her of his other wife and child and his desire to return to his true home. Lady Wakasa attempts to touch Genjuro but recoils in horror; a Buddhist priest who knew of the Lady’s true identity has painted protective prayers all over Genjuro’s body. She tells him to wash off the offending characters but Genjuro draws his sword, swinging it wildly about as he exits the manor for good.

What is remarkable about this sequence isn’t what happens on a narrative level but rather the spooky mood that Mizoguchi is able to so effectively conjure through his total mastery of film form. The interior of Lady Wakasa’s manor is lit by pronounced chiaroscuro (the conscious interplay of light and shadow), which becomes increasingly dark as Genjuro slices the illuminating candles with his sword. The lighting here resembles nothing so much as the deliberate artifice of the German Expressionist films of the 1920s. And, as in a film by Murnau, the crane-mounted camera constantly follows the movement of the characters throughout the scene, not only laterally but vertically as well. Finally, all of this action unfolds to the accompaniment of a creepy, dissonant musical score (credited to three composers: Fumio Hayasaka, Tamekichi Mochizuki and Ichirô Saitô), featuring eclectic arrangements involving instruments both Japanese and Western (dig that wailing saxophone!).

But none of these individual set pieces would matter if the whole was not greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, Mizoguchi manages to string these scenes together like pearls on a necklace as the underlying themes (greed, the folly of ambition, the suffering of civilians during wartime) coalesce in the film’s sublime resolution; Tobei the newly-anointed samurai meets his wife Ohama as a newly-indoctrinated prostitute in a brothel. Both characters, overwhelmed by a complex combination of relief, shame, happiness and grief, return home and vow to start over. Genjuro likewise returns home to find his wife and child gone. In a legendary shot, Mizoguchi’s camera circumscribes a 360-degree pan around the tiny hut, beginning with an empty room but ending on Genjuro’s wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) where no character had stood before. Delighted to be reunited with his family, Genjuro falls asleep with his infant son in his arms. The next morning however, Genjuro awakes to the realization that, while his son is safe and sound, his wife died some time ago and the Miyagi he saw only hours earlier is now too a ghost. Like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Tobei and Genjuro are now sadder but wiser men.

Ugetsu is available from the Criterion Collection in an excellent standard DVD edition. But a film with cinematography of this magnitude deserves a Blu-ray upgrade.


Top 25 Films of the 1950s

25. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France, 1959)

Alain Resnais’ first feature takes an impeccable, highly literary script by Marguerite Duras and turns it into a radical, intensely cinematic movie: two lovers, an unnamed Japanese architect and a French actress, have a lengthy conversation on the subject of memory. The present day scenes are continually peppered with flashbacks to the woman’s harrowing experiences as the persecuted lover of a German soldier during the Second World War. Resnais’ groundbreaking, nonlinear editing style, used to suggest “flashes of memory,” has had an incalculable effect on subsequent filmmakers.

24. The Music Room (Ray, India, 1958)

23. The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, France, 1953)

Austrian-born director Max Ophuls made what are arguably the most elegant movies of the classic French cinema; his much beloved tracking shots find a perfect compliment in narrative structures that continually circle back on themselves, like a waltz, before resolving in a typically tragic denouement. Letter from an Unknown Woman, from Ophuls’ brief stint in Hollywood, is my favorite of his films but I think Madame de . . . is the masterpiece of his lengthier French career. The unnamed title character is the wife of a general in the French Army who sells her most expensive pair of earrings to pay off a debt, an act that becomes a catalyst for a chain of events bringing about her ruin. Apart from the aforementioned formal grace, the lead performances (from Daniel Darrieux, Charles Boyer and the very suave and refined-looking Italian director Vittorio de Sica) are sublime.

22. Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)

The first masterpiece of Luis Bunuel’s Mexican period is this unforgettable tale of juvenile delinquents living in the slums of Mexico City. The main characters are Jaibo, the leader of a gang, and Pedro, an impressionable boy who wants to do good but becomes enmeshed in gang activity after being repeatedly rejected by his own mother. There are many aspects to this film that are similar to Italian Neorealism, including the documentary-like visuals and incredibly naturalistic child performances, but Bunuel, being true to his roots, continually pushes the material in a more dream-like and surreal direction. An uncompromising film that was way ahead of its time, Los Olivdados feels like it could have been made yesterday.

21. The River (Renoir, France/India, 1951)

river

20. 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 be appreciated as such by an old atheist like me.

19. Senso (Visconti, Italy, 1954)

Alida Valli is a wanton countess in 19th century Italy who betrays her country to pursue a destructive affair with a lieutenant of the occupying Austrian army (Farley Granger). Visconti’s elegant mise-en-scene, featuring impeccable period set and costume design rendered in ravishingly beautiful Technicolor, marked an about face from his early Neorealist phase and the beginning of a mature “operatic” style that would continue for the rest of his career.

18. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958)

17. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953)

16. The Naked Spur (Mann, USA, 1953)

In the 1950s, multi-genre specialist Anthony Mann crafted his own unique brand of “psychological western,” which is typified by a series of fascinating Jimmy Stewart vehicles. Here, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a traumatized Civil War veteran-turned-bounty hunter who reluctantly accepts the help of two strangers in tracking down wanted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan in his prime). During the lengthy trek back to civilization where Vandergroat will stand trial, the captive shrewdly manipulates his trio of captors, driving wedges of resentment between them . . . This was perhaps the first of several great ’50s films to subtly undermine Stewart’s all American, nice guy persona.

15. Park Row (Fuller, USA, 1952)

Sam Fuller’s highly personal, self-financed love letter to “the fourth estate” is also his greatest achievement: an enormously entertaining look back at the newspaper rivalries of late 19th century New York City starring Gene Evans (The Steel Helmet) as Phineas Mitchell, a reporter who dares to start his own paper. Told in the broad, colorful strokes that became Fuller’s trademark, this cinematic yarn consistently delights in everything from its exquisite period detail to its staggering use of crane shots. The unavailability of Park Row on home video is positively scandalous. Are you listening, Criterion?

14. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1956)

Douglas Sirk was to the melodrama what Alfred Hitchcock was to the thriller – its most famous and accomplished practitioner. All That Heaven Allows is his most beautifully realized creation, the story of an upper-class, middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) who provokes scandal when she embarks on a romance with her much younger, working class gardener (Rock Hudson). Celebrated in some quarters as a subversive Marxist critique of middle America, derided in others as camp, I think All That Heaven Allows was rightly appreciated by 1950s audiences for what it is – a masterful tearjerker and damning indictment of hypocrisy rolled up into one entertaining and colorful package.

13. Floating Clouds (Naruse, Japan, 1955)

Mikio Naruse has long been considered one of Japan’s greatest directors by Japanese critics. Yet in spite of a prolific body of work (his career began in the silent era and stretched all the way to the late 1960s) he’s never been as well known in the west as his contemporaries. Floating Clouds is my favorite of the Naruse films I’ve seen, a heartbreaking story of a doomed love affair. Yukiko (Hideko Takamine), an employee of Japan’s forest service, meets and falls in love with a co-worker, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), while stationed in French Indochina during WWII. After the war, they meet up again in Japan where an obsessed Yukiko attempts to resume the affair in the face of some very bastard-like behavior from her indifferent former lover. Naruse’s trademark ability to extend sympathy to all of his characters – in a scenario where people can’t resist making terrible decisions – left me with a feeling of sadness I’ve never quite shaken.

12. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952)

The most beloved Hollywood musical of all-time, in large part because it offers an affectionate and humorous look back at the process of filmmaking during the dramatic period when silent pictures gave way to the talkies. Co-directed and choreographed by star Gene Kelly, who brought a more masculine and aggressively athletic style of dance to the movie musical – in contrast to the Fred Astaire-style gracefulness that had previously dominated the genre.

11. Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, USA, 1959)

An electrifying courtroom drama in which a country lawyer (Jimmy Stewart again) agrees to defend a G.I. (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing the man who raped his wife (Lee Remick). Director Otto Preminger was always one to push the envelope and you can almost feel the old studio system crumbling around him when listening to this film’s daring use of language and looking at its authentic and evocative Michigan locations. Also features a snazzy Duke Ellington score.

10. Bigger Than Life (Ray, USA, 1956)

James Mason is a schoolteacher and family man who begins suffering from a bizarre strain of megalomania after becoming addicted to the prescription “wonder drug” cortisone. Director Nicholas Ray’s unparalleled mastery of ‘Scope framing (check out what he does with the staircase in Mason’s home) and Technicolor (those yellow cabs!), combined with mise-en-scene that reconfigures American post-war prosperity as something nightmarish and oppressive, is perfectly suited to the melodramatic storyline. “God was wrong!”

9. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)

Akira Kurosawa’s best film and arguably the greatest action movie ever made. A village of poor farmers learn they are about to be raided by bandits on account of their soon-to-arrive barley crop. They hire seven samurai to help them defend the village from attack, with nothing to offer in return but food and board. The first half of this massively influential three and a half hour chambara extravaganza is devoted to setting up the conflict and introducing the seven samurai as distinct and memorable personalities (with Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune deserving special honors for carving out indelible archetypal characters). Then, when the epic, rain and mud-soaked battle finally does arrive, it is impossible not to care deeply about the human cost of the outcome. Seven Samurai is to the samurai picture what The Searchers is to the western: the best film of its kind.

8. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, USA, 1953)

My own personal favorite musical is this Vincente Minnelli gem. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is an over the hill hoofer whose latest show, a theatrical musical comedy, is hijacked by Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a pretentious director intent on turning it into a modern day version of Faust. Exacerbating the situation is that Hunter can’t stand Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse – never lovelier), the ballet dancer hired by Cordova to star opposite him. Sparks fly between Astaire and Charisse both off the dance floor and on, especially during such classic production numbers as “Dancing in the Dark,” “That’s Entertainment” and the film noir influenced “Girl Hunt.”

7. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959)

Billy Wilder’s crude, gender-bending comedy about a couple of down on their luck Chicago musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who disguise themselves as women to get a job in an all-female band headed to Florida. En route, they both develop the hots for singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe at her sultriest) but of course can’t reveal their true identities. Like a lot of classic Hollywood comedies, this hilarious romp works as well as it does because you can feel director and co-writer Billy Wilder trying his damndest to smuggle risque material past the censors. It’s no coincidence that his career went south when, just a few years later, there was nothing left to fight against.

6. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956)

Robert Bresson’s minimalist drama, based on the memoir of a real life French resistance fighter’s escape from a Gestapo prison, unforgettably conveys one man’s relentless desire to regain his freedom. Eschewing the easy thrills so common to the Hollywood treatment of this type of subject matter, Bresson instead zeroes in on the specific process of how Lieutenant Fontaine acquires, creates and utilizes the tools that enable his escape plan to work. The stringent use of close-ups of hands at work, accompanied by a use of heightened sound effects and an extensive employment of first person voice-over narration, draws the viewer into Fontaine’s world to an almost unbearable intense degree. This is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

5. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s best-loved film is this unique ghost story/war movie/melodrama hybrid. In feudal wartime Japan, two men (a potter and a farmer) move from their home village to a city, hoping to become war profiteers, but tragically opt to leave their wives behind; as the men become wildly successful, one of the wives is murdered and the other is forced into a life of prostitution. The homecoming finale, which sees the protagonists as “sadder and wiser men,” is shattering. Mizoguchi’s ravishingly photographed fable of greed and ambition uses light, shadow and fog (not to mention those legendary crane shots) to perfectly complement his view of the world as a place of impossible moral choices.

4. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s highly personal and deeply disturbing study of obsession, which unfolds like a dark and troubling dream. Jimmy Stewart is Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop with a fear of heights who agrees to work a job as a private eye at the request of an old friend. This involves tailing the friend’s wife (Kim Novak), with whom Ferguson falls hopelessly and dangerously in love. Hitchcock leads both Ferguson and the viewer into a downward spiral of despair, eventually ripping the lid off a Pandora’s box of sexual perversity containing voyeurism, fetishism and – as Hitchcock was happy to note – necrophilia. A career high point for all involved including Hitchcock, Stewart and composer Bernard Herrmann.

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

My favorite Italian movie ever is this deceptively simple melodrama about a bored married couple (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) who travel to Naples following a death in the family. As they wander the city separately (she visits museums and the ruins of Pompeii, he flirts with the prospect of adultery), they take emotional stock of their lives for the first time in years, leading to one of the most spiritually uplifting finales in cinema. A film in which nothing and everything happens, this is the birth of cinematic modernism without which such diverse films as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Contempt and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy would not be possible.

2. 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 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.

1. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

Quite simply one of the greatest movie ever made, John Ford’s deeply felt western combines adventure, tragedy, comedy and romance in the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his best and most complex performance), a Civil War veteran who embarks on an obsessive, years-long quest to find his niece after she is kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Only what is he really searching for? His humanity? The Moby Dick of the cinema.


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