Advertisements

Tag Archives: Nagisa Oshima

A Japanese New Wave Primer

Out of all the “new waves” that sprung up around the world in the wake of France’s revolutionary Nouvelle Vague in the 1960s, perhaps none was as explosive — politically, morally and aesthetically — and offered such a thorough repudiation of what had come before, as Japan’s Nuberu Bagu. While Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura remain far and away the best-known directors associated with this movement, many other filmmakers have been unfairly lurking in their shadows for too long. I therefore limited myself to one title per director in this list of what I consider a dozen essential Japanese New Wave movies.

The Warped Ones (Kurahara, 1960)

warpedones

There are a couple of Nagisa Oshima features from 1960 (Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial) that might be considered superior to this film but Koreyoshi Kurahara’s tale of rebellious youth offers a better correlative to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in terms of form and content, and is therefore arguably the more logical starting point for a Japanese New Wave primer. The aptly-titled The Warped Ones is a fucked up movie that details the misadventures of two young thugs and their prostitute-girlfriend as they run wild through the streets of Tokyo, thieving, raping and listening to American jazz. The luscious black-and-white cinematography is amazing, at once stylized and conveying a tangible documentary-like sense of place, but the nihilistic characters (who are far more unlikable than any of their French New Wave counterparts and anticipate anti-heroes more associated with 1970s cinema) might make this a tough sell for some viewers.

Onibaba (Shindo, 1964)

onibaba

This amazing tone poem of a horror flick tells the story of two women in 14th-century Japan — the wife and mother of a soldier deployed to fight in a civil war — who trap and kill wandering samurai and sell their clothes and weaponry to a black marketeer in order to survive. A deserter-friend of the soldier soon arrives bearing bad news but it’s not long before both wife and mother-in-law become romantically obsessed with him. In order to prevent the wife from meeting the young man in the middle of the night, the mother-in-law attempts to frighten her by pretending to be a demon. Written and directed by the great, underrated Kaneto Shindo, the mesmerizing Onibaba manages to be both genuinely frightening and genuinely erotic.

Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara, 1964)

woman

An entomologist from the big city travels to a rural seaside town looking to collect insects. A mysterious woman entraps him in a giant sandpit in her yard and forces him to perform the endless task of digging sand out of the pit, which solves a water supply problem for the local villagers. The captor and captive soon form a weird, erotic bond that eventually drags on for years. I’ve always felt there was something a bit too thesis-ridden about this premise (the bug expert who becomes like a trapped insect!) but there’s no denying the tactile, sensual pleasures of the lush images, which impressively manage to be sexy without the liberal use of nudity (unlike, say, Onibaba). For his effort, director Hiroshi Teshigahara was a deserving — and surprising — Best Director nominee at the 1966 Academy Awards.

A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, 1965)

fugitive

I am a sucker for the “police procedural” (from Fritz Lang’s M in 1931 to David Fincher’s Zodiac over 75 years later) and Tomu Uchida’s 1965 masterpiece A Fugitive from the Past is one of my very favorite examples of this subgenre. Uchida isn’t technically a New Waver — he was born in the late 19th century and began directing in the silent era — yet I’ve never seen a film from the 1960s made by anyone of his generation that feels as modern as this. Uchida uses a massive, chronologically-scrambled timeline to tell two gripping, interlocking stories of a prostitute and a police detective, both of whom spend many years looking for the title fugitive for different reasons: the former because he left her an obscenely large tip, the latter because he committed a triple homicide. This was shot in black-and-white CinemaScope with a lightweight 16mm camera — resulting in incredibly-staged set pieces, one of which involves hundreds of characters, that feel simultaneously epic and intimate. What arguably impresses the most, however, is the way the suspenseful narrative holds viewers in thrall for over three hours while also subtly explicating the Buddhist precept of karma. Routinely cited by Japanese critics as one of the best Japanese movies ever, A Fugitive from the Past is tragically unknown in the West.

Red Angel (Masumura, 1966)

redangel

One of the great things about the Japanese cinema of the 1960s is how its directors exercised “new freedoms” in tackling subject matter that would have been off-limits to previous generations. A prime example is Red Angel, a highly disturbing account of the Sino-Japanese war by the diverse and underrated director Yasuzo Masumura (whose comedy Giants and Toys is one of my favorite Japanese films of he 1950s). The story follows Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao), an attractive nurse who is sent to the front, where she is first raped by wounded soldiers before embarking on doomed affairs with an amputee patient and a morphine-addicted, impotent doctor. There is much pain and sorrow in this movie, which nonetheless provides a cathartic reckoning with one of the most harrowing chapters in Japan’s recent turbulent past.

Branded to Kill (Suzuki, 1967)

branded

Seijun Suzuki is one of the boldest visual stylists the Japanese film industry has ever known. And, while this 1967 experimental/crime movie mind-fuck is regarded by many as his masterpiece, it’s better known today for the legend of how it was received upon its initial release (Suzuki was fired by longtime employer Nikkatsu on the grounds the movie was incomprehensible) than it is actually watched and appreciated. The plot has something to do with Goro Hanada, Japan’s No. 3 hitman (that’s right, this movie takes place in a world where hitmen are ranked like professional athletes), bungling his latest job, which makes him the next target of his employer. But you don’t watch Suzuki for the plot, you watch for the surrealism, the psychosexual undercurrents (Hanada, played by chipmunk-cheeked Jo Shishido, has a fetish for sniffing boiled rice) and the super-cool set-pieces (the film’s most famous scene sees a butterfly alighting on the barrel of Hanada’s gun). Suzuki was a master of using color symbolically and purposefully (check out Tokyo Drifter, which features an assassin-protagonist in a powder-blue suit) but Branded to Kill is equally remarkable for its expressive use of black-and-white.

Nanami: The Inferno of First Love (Hani, 1968)

nanami

Imagine that Jean-Luc Godard went to Japan and made a soft-core porn movie in the late 1960s and you’ll have some idea of what maverick independent director Susumu Hani’s best-known movie is like. Shun (Akio Takahashi), a man who was sexually abused as a child, meets and falls in love with a nude model and prostitute, the title character (Kuniko Ishii), in a series of loosely linked vignettes. Their story is told through freewheeling handheld camerawork and an aggressively non-linear editing scheme that recall the “distancing devices” of Bertolt Brecht while evoking some of the early classics of the French New Wave. But Susumi’s avant-garde sensibility is ultimately put to the service of a uniquely Japanese portrait of postwar despair, one that brims with psychological and sociological insights.

Profound Desires of the Gods (Imamura, 1968)

profound

Shohei Imamura is my personal favorite filmmaker to emerge from Japan’s New Wave era. He started off as an assistant to Yasujiro Ozu before carving out his own path as a writer/director in the early 60s with a series of distinctive films, alternately funny and tragic, that chronicle the frustrated lives of Japan’s contemporary working class. Profound Desires of the Gods was an epic super-production (the shooting alone lasted 18 months) that ambitiously attempted to allegorize the clash between Japan’s most ancient traditions and the influence of the modern (i.e., “western”) world. Kariya (Kazuo Kitamura) is an engineer from Tokyo tasked with digging a well for a sugar mill on a remote island whose inhabitants have had little exposure to outside influences. Upon arrival, Kariya is ensnared in the lives of the backwards and inbred Futori family, an experience that will change his life forever. Neglected upon its initial release, this indescribably beautiful 3-hour extravaganza, which juxtaposes humans and animals in a way that would make Terrence Malick envious, has been deservedly reappraised since the UK label Eureka/Masters of Cinema released a perfect Blu-ray edition in 2011.

Boy (Oshima, 1969)

boy

Nagisa Oshima is primarily known in the west today for having directed the features In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), the former a scandalous arthouse hit featuring unsimulated sex and the latter a World War II P.O.W. camp drama starring David Bowie. But these international co-productions followed many groundbreaking films in the 1960s that captured Japan’s postwar malaise with a sometimes shocking ferocity. My favorite Oshima film is 1969’s Boy, based on the true story of a Japanese family who intentionally got into roadside accidents in order to shake down money from their “culprits.” Oshima’s style here is fascinatingly matter-of-fact while also sticking closest to the experiences of the older of the family’s two young sons. The end result is a film that achieves a tone of unparalleled compassion precisely because it doesn’t seem to be trying very hard.

Double Suicide (Shinoda, 1969)

double

Director Masahiro Shinoda’s great achievement in his justly celebrated Double Suicide was to take ideas familiar from other recent New Wave films focused on contemporary subjects and apply them to an 18th century period piece. The story concerns a married paper merchant and his ill-fated love affair with a courtesan, the kind of subject that Mizoguchi would have tackled, but it’s the modernist and self-reflexive execution that puts this into a class of its own. Double Suicide transitions between the “invisible style” associated with Hollywood storytelling and daring reminders that we are watching a movie (most obvious through the use of “stage hands” who manipulate sets and props but also through the dual performance of Shima Iwashita as both the courtesan and the wife). The end result is a bunraku puppet play in which the puppets have been replaced by live actors and the end result is as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually stimulating.

Eros Plus Massacre (Yoshida, 1969)

eros

Although the English-language title might sound like the trashiest kind of exploitation movie, this seminal work of 1960s countercultural filmmaking is anything but. Yoshishige Yoshida’s masterwork deftly intertwines two timelines: in the 1920s, radical anarchist Sakae Osugi (Toshiyuki Hosokawa) preaches “free love” (i.e., polygamy and the importance of financial independence for both men and women), while ironically being married to a journalist, Itsuko Masaoka (Yûko Kusunoki), who supports him financially. Meanwhile, in the 1960s, a promiscuous female college student drifts through a series of casual affairs and occasionally reads and talks about Osugi and Masaoka (who were, in fact, real people). Over the course of its three-hour-plus running time, the intercutting of these stories — based on fascinating thematic parallels — achieves an awesome Griffithian velocity, although Alain Resnais might be the best point of reference: Yoshida’s complex editing patterns fragment time and space in an almost-Cubist manner and the black-and-white cinematography is frequently dazzling in its Marienbad-like brightness.

Funeral Parade of Roses (Matsumoto, 1969)

funeral

This is one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen, maybe the weirdest, and therefore a fitting note on which to end this list of essential Japanese New Wave films. Toshio Matsumoto’s astonishing surrealist masterpiece offers a portrait of several Tokyo subcultures (primarily the drag queen scene but also that of dopers and avant-garde filmmakers). One story thread involves Eddie, a young queen who, in a bizarre inversion of the Oedipus myth, kills his mother with a butcher knife in order to “be” with his father. Later, this same character puts out his own eyes with the same knife. As brutal and disturbing as all of this is, Matsumoto’s form is just as violent as his content: from this film, Kubrick stole several visual and aural ideas for A Clockwork Orange, including long takes seen in fast-motion accompanied by pop versions of classical music, and montages that are so rapid-fire they can only have a subliminal effect on the viewer. But while Kubrick took Matsumoto’s innovations and wedded them to commercial storytelling, they deserve to be seen here in their undiluted, experimental form. As one character says in the middle of the film: “All definitions of cinema have been erased. All doors are now open.” He’s not kidding.

Advertisements

Nagisa Oshima R.I.P. (1932 – 2013)

oshima

And the list of the world’s great living directors just got a little shorter. Japan’s Nagisa Oshima passed away of pneumonia today after a reportedly long bout of ill health. He was, along with Shohei Imamura, the most important figure of the Japanese Nuberu Bagu (“New Wave”) of the 1960s. I haven’t yet seen his short first feature, 1959’s A Town of Love and Hope, but his next two films, Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial (both 1960), were groundbreaking portraits of post-war Japanese malaise whose sheer ferocity still has the power to shock and awe. Oshima was always the most transgressive of the Japanese New Wavers – he embraced radical leftist politics while simultaneously reacting against the “humanism” associated with the Japanese cinema of the 1950s. As the 1960s progressed, he increasingly experimented with form, introducing Brechtian distancing devices, a la Godard, in movies like Violence at Noon (on the short list of great films about serial murderers) and Death By Hanging (a powerful indictment of bigotry against Koreans in Japan). He is best known in the west for In the Realm of the Senses, a 1976 art movie featuring hardcore sex scenes that is still banned in its native country, and its less explicit follow-up, the 1978 ghost story Empire of Passion (an important influence on The Ring). In the 1980s he upped his international profile by making the WWII prison-camp drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (partially shot in English and co-starring David Bowie) as well as the French-set Max Mon Amour (a comedy about Charlotte Rampling having an affair with a chimpanzee, to which Leos Carax paid explicit homage in last year’s Holy Motors). Oshima had a debilitating stroke in 1996 but managed to direct one final masterpiece with 1999’s controversial gay-themed samurai film Taboo.

Nagisa Oshima was previously on my list of the 10 Best Living Directors (his place has since been taken by Clint Eastwood). Here is what I originally wrote about him there:

taboo

“With his wild, provocative, darkly humorous, misanthropic but highly personal brand of political cinema, Nagisa Oshima single-handedly dragged Japanese movies kicking and screaming into the modern age. No other director was willing or able to depict the pessimism of post-war Japanese society with the savage incisiveness of early Oshima classics like The Sun’s Burial and Cruel Story of Youth. As with most provocateurs, Oshima’s movies became increasingly extreme over time and while he’s occasionally run off the rails (I think it’s particularly regrettable that In the Realm of the Senses remains his best known work), he’s also made more than his share of trailblazing masterpieces; my personal favorites are Death By Hanging, an infernally funny examination of Japanese racism against Koreans, and his likely swan song, the mysterious and haunting ‘gay samurai’ film Taboo. Reportedly in ill-health, it is doubtful Oshima will direct again.

Essential work: Death By Hanging (1968), Boy (1969), Taboo (1999)”

I didn’t always “get” Oshima and he occasionally drove me up the wall but he also provided me with more magic moments than most other directors. I’ll never forget seeing a 35mm revival of Death By Hanging at Facets Multimedia in the 1990s and being blow away by the strangeness and audacity of it. I also caught Taboo on its initial theatrical run at the Music Box and was haunted for weeks by the mysterious finale where “Beat” Takeshi Kitano chops a cherry blossom tree in half with his samurai sword.

I would now say my favorite Oshima film is 1969’s Boy. It is based on the true story of a Japanese family who intentionally got into roadside accidents in order to shake down the “culprits.” It is number 18 on my list of the best films of the 1960s: https://whitecitycinema.com/category/all-best-of-lists/best-films-of-the-1960s/

Taboo is number 18 on my list of the best films of the 1990s: https://whitecitycinema.com/category/all-best-of-lists/best-films-of-the-1990s/

Needless to say, Nagisa Oshima will figure prominently on my Japanese New Wave cinema primer when I eventually get around to compiling it. In the meantime, I raise a metaphorical sake cup in his honor.

Listen to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s very beautiful and justifiably famous theme song to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence below:


The 50 Best Living Film Directors

Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Abbas Kiarostami and Juliette Binoche

I recently put together a highly subjective list of what I consider to be the 50 best living film directors. Below you will find 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 a longtime cinephile and compulsive list-maker, I’m a sucker for this kind of parlor game. So who doesn’t deserve to be here and who did I egregiously omit? Feel free to comment below!

The Top 10 (preferential order):

10. Johnnie To, Hong Kong, born April 22, 1955

life2

Johnnie To has directed over 50 feature films, many of them of astonishingly high quality. He’s often referred to as a “crime-film specialist” but he’s so much more than that — the best director of genre films in the world, someone equally adept with comedy, romance and fantasy as he is with the “bullet ballets” for which he’s best known. It is amazing how often To has been able to wring both genuine originality and surprising variation from familiar narrative elements, proving that filmic classicism is far from dead. As a visual stylist, his organization of space is unparalleled. And while most of his contemporaries from Hong Kong cinema’s heyday of the late 1980s and early 1990s sought work opportunities abroad as soon as the industry went into seemingly irreversible decline, To admirably stayed behind; he started doing his best work after founding the production company Milky Way Image, Ltd, around the time of the 1997 Handover, and has almost single-handedly kept the local film industry alive. If anyone deserves to be referred to as the true heir of John Ford and Howard Hawks, it is Johnnie To.

Essential work: The Mission (1999), PTU (2003), Life Without Principle (2011)

9. Clint Eastwood, USA, born May 31, 1930

up-sudden_impact_10

Clint Eastwood’s slow, quiet transformation from stoic action movie icon to morally conscientious filmmaker who has thoughtfully deconstructed his own macho screen persona and examined the consequences of violence (in both movies and life) is one of the most gratifying success stories in the history of American film. In spite of the fascinating, occasionally brilliant work that Eastwood-the-director turned in from the early 1970s through the early 2000s (especially the one-two punch of Unforgiven and A Perfect World), it wasn’t until after 2002’s Blood Work, when he retired the Dirty Harry persona for good, that Eastwood began making his best films – dark, artful melodramas like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and that most elegiac of elegies, Gran Torino. In recent interviews he has vowed to keep working as long as Manoel de Oliveira. Here’s hoping.

Essential work: Unforgiven (1992), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), J. Edgar (2011)

8. Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, born 07/17/1956

Seeing Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time at Chicago’s old Film Center (in the back of the Art Institute) in February of 1995 remains one of the great film-going experiences of my life. I emerged from the theater as if from a strange and wonderful dream; who the devil, I wondered, had made this beguiling historical epic with its blurry, impressionistic fight scenes, mournful meditations on unrequited love and Ennio Morricone-style synthesizer score? Witnessing Wong’s signature style continue to unfold over poppy, contemporary, urban stories like Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and Happy Together was like awaiting new album releases from a favorite rock band, one that had managed to miraculously recapture the zeitgeist over and over again. Then with In the Mood for Love and 2046, Wong shifted gears, applying a more formal, stately and restrained visual style to his pet themes of romantic longing and the passage of time. After the minor, American-made My Blueberry Nights, Wong returned to Hong Kong — and returned to form — with the mature and profound kung fu epic The Grand Master.

Essential work: Chungking Express (1994), The Ashes of Time (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000)

7. Martin Scorsese, USA, born 11/17/1942

Martin Scorsese is the archetypal American cinephile-filmmaker, a passionate artist whose movies are informed as much by his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of cinema as they are by his Catholic upbringing in New York’s Little Italy. He may always be best remembered for his work during the “movie brat” era (especially the modern classics Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), when he brought a European art-film sensibility to classic Hollywood genre fare and helped redefine American screen acting besides. But apart from a few missteps here and there (New York, New York, Bringing Out the Dead), the man’s entire career has been a model of intelligent, dependable craftsmanship, shot through with an obvious love for the act of making movies. I’m especially grateful for recent works like No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and Shutter Island (by far the best of his collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio). Whatever Scorsese does in the future, I’ll be there opening weekend.

Essential work: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990)

6. Agnes Varda, France, born May 30, 1928

image

At 87 years old, Agnes Varda is one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers as well as one of the last living links to the heroic era known as the French New Wave. Although less well known than Nouvelle Vague counterparts like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Varda virtually kick-started the movement single-handedly in 1955 with La Pointe Courte, a film about a crumbling marriage told against the backdrop of life in a rural fishing village. In the 60 years since, Varda has alternated between (and occasionally blended) documentary and fiction techniques in a series of provocative films that have often showcased marginalized figures, and the films always remain grounded in a vital feminist perspective.

Essential work: Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cleo de 5 a 7) (1962), Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) (1985) and The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse) (2000).

5. Richard Linklater, USA, born July 30, 1960

meandorson

Richard Linklater auspiciously burst onto the American movie scene with his 1991 feature Slacker, a plotless examination of the lives of dozens of Austinites that takes place over the course of a single day, and almost-singlehandedly spearheaded an indie filmmaking revolution in the process. Since then he has continued to admirably create films, inside and outside of Hollywood, that are both formally innovative and accessible to general audiences — including experiments in rotoscoping animation (Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) and narratives that experiment with extended real-time sequences, many of which take place in a span of 24 hours or less (Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia, Tape, the Before trilogy, etc). Linklater’s films also tend to be good-natured comedies that are notably absent of villains while also never shying away from some of the harsher truths about contemporary American life (even Greg Kinnear’s fast-food advertising exec in the shockingly anti-capitalist Fast Food Nation comes across as likable and sympathetic). Perhaps most impressively, Linklater is the one director of his generation who has inarguably gotten better over time; his 12-years-in-the-making 2014 feature Boyhood stands as his masterpiece to date — with his beloved Before trilogy (1995-2013), perhaps the greatest motion-picture trilogy of all time, not far behind.

Essential work: Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013), Boyhood (2014)

4. Claire Denis (France), born April 21, 1946

beau

France’s Claire Denis was a late bloomer: after working as an assistant director for years (to Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders and others), she didn’t make her own first feature until 1988 when she was 42 years old. She has certainly made up for lost time, going from strength to strength in a series of innovative films that function as psychological x-rays of contemporary France — including its relationship to post-colonial Africa (Chocolat, Beau Travail, White Material) where she grew up. Denis has also often reworked motifs (the term “adapt” is not apt) by artists she admires — including Herman Melville (Beau Travail), Jean-Luc Nancy (The Intruder), Yasujiro Ozu (35 Shots of Rum) and William Faulkner (Bastards) in a highly personal vein that always emphasizes, to the consternation of her detractors, feeling over “story.” But Denis’ combination of tactile cinematography (by her longtime D.P. Agnes Godard) with non-linear editing and indelible music cues (usually courtesy of the soulful British chamber-pop group the Tindersticks) adds up to something singular, vital and very female-centric. There’s nobody else like her and it’s impossible to imagine contemporary cinema without her.

Essential work: Beau Travail (1999), The Intruder (L’intrus) (2004), Bastards (Les salauds) (2013)

3. David Lynch, USA, born 01/20/1946

David Lynch is the only true surrealist currently working in the American cinema and thus his contribution to the medium has been invaluable. The only thing more impressive than Lynch’s impeccable painterly eye and meticulous attention to sound design is his ironclad integrity; after selling out with Dune in 1984, Lynch has always ploughed his own furrow, seemingly regardless of critical or audience expectations. This has led to periods where the “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” has found himself commercially unpopular and/or critically unfashionable (in particular during the seven years encompassing the American release of Wild at Heart through the tepid responses to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Lost Highway). But, my God, just look at the career highlights that can result when a boundary-pushing director works without a net: Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, The Straight Story and the mind-blowing, experimental “twin peaks” of Mulholland Drive and INLAND EMPIRE.

Essential work: Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Mulholland Drive (2002)

2. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, born 04/08/1947

Barring John Ford, I doubt that any other film director has ever created a body of work that functions as such a thorough and highly personal exploration of his country’s history. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s unmistakable visual style, predicated on long takes, long shots and low-key performances, chronicles Taiwan from the beginning of the 20th century (the second segment of Three Times), through World War II (Good Men, Good Women), to Taiwan’s handover from Japan to China in the tumultuous postwar years (City of Sadness), to the migration of rural Taiwanese people to city centers in the 1960s (Dust in the Wind), to the depiction of aimless, disaffected Taipei youth at the turn of the millenium (Goodbye, South, Goodbye), to 21st century global snapshots of expatriate Taiwanese in Japan (Cafe Lumiere) and France (Flight of the Red Balloon). But like his hero Yasujiro Ozu, who was once considered “too Japanese” by western film distributors, Hou’s movies are timeless and universal enough to have shaken this American viewer to the core.

Essential work: Goodbye South Goodbye (1996), The Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Three Times (2005)

1. Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, born 12/03/1930

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! Would you please welcome the poet laureate of the cinema, the voice of the promise of the ’60’s counterculture, the guy who forced film criticism into bed with filmmaking and revolutionized the language of movies, who found Marxism and disappeared into a haze of armchair theorizing, who emerged to find video, who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’70s and suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest work of his career beginning in the late ’80s…Ladies and gentlemen, Monsieur Jean-Luc ‘Cinema’ Godard!”

Essential work: Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989 – 1998)

Runners-Up (alphabetical by family name)

11. Maren Ade (Germany)
Essential work: Toni Erdmann (2016), Everyone Else (2009)

12. Pedro Almodovar (Spain)
Essential work: Talk to Her (Hable con ella) (2002), The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) (2011)

13. Paul Thomas Anderson (USA)
Essential work: There Will Be Blood (2007), Inherent Vice (2014)

14. Thomas Arslan (Germany)
Essential work: A Fine Day (Der Schone Tag) (2001), In the Shadows (Im Schatten) (2010)

15. Olivier Assayas (France)
Essential work: Summer Hours (L’heure d’été) (2008), Something in the Air (Apre mai) (2012)

16. Marco Bellocchio (Italy)
Essential work: Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca) (1965), Vincere (2009)

17. James Benning (USA)
Essential work: One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), Deseret (1995)

18. Kathryn Bigelow (USA)
Essential work: The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

19. Bong Joon-ho (S. Korea)
Essential work: Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006)

20. Charles Burnett (USA)
Essential work: Killer of Sheep (1977), To Sleep with Anger (1990)

21. Jane Campion (Australia)
Essential work: The Piano (1993), Top of the Lake (2013)

22. John Carpenter (USA)
Essential work: Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982)

23. Pedro Costa (Portugal)
Essential work: In Vanda’s Room (No Quarto da Vanda) (2000), Colossal Youth (Juventude Em Marcha) (2006)

24. David Cronenberg (Canada)
Essential work: A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007)

25. Arnaud Desplechin (France)
Essential work: Kings and Queen (Rois et reine) (2004), A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noel) (2008)

26. Stanley Donen (USA)
Essential work: On the Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

27. Victor Erice (Spain)
Essential work: The Spirt of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena) (1973), Dream of Light (El sol del membrillo) (1992)

28. Abel Ferrara (USA)
Essential work: Bad Lieutenant (1992), Mary (2005)

29. David Fincher (USA)
Essential work: Zodiac (2007), The Social Network (2010)

30. Philippe Garrel (France)
Essential work: The Birth of Love (1993), In the Shadow of Women (2015)

31. Jonathan Glazer (UK)
Essential work: Birth (2004), Under the Skin (2013)

32. Philippe Grandrieux (France)
Essential work: La Vie Nouvelle (2002), Malgre la Nuit (2015)

33. James Gray (USA)
Essential work: Two Lovers (2008), The Immigrant (2013)

34. Alain Guiraudie (France)
Essential work: That Old Dream That Moves (Ce vieux rêve qui bouge) (2001), Stranger By the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) (2013)

35. Monte Hellman (USA)
Essential work: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Cockfighter (1974)

36. Werner Herzog (Germany)
Essential work: Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Don Lope de Aguirre) (1972), Grizzly Man (2005)

37. Hong Sang-soo (S. Korea)
Essential work: Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000), Woman on the Beach (2006)

38. Jia Zhangke (China)
Essential work: The World (2004), A Touch of Sin (2013)

39. Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Japan)
Essential work: Cure (1997), Tokyo Sonata (2008)

40. Mike Leigh (UK)
Essential work: Naked (1993), Secrets and Lies (1996)

41. Lee Chang-dong (S. Korea)
Essential work: Peppermint Candy (1999), Secret Sunshine (2007)

42. Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Iran)
Essential work: The Cyclist (1987), A Moment of Innocence (1996)

43. Terrence Malick (USA)
Essential work: Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998)

44. Lucrecia Martel (Argentina)
Essential work: The Holy Girl (La nina santa) (2004), The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) (2008)

45. Elaine May (USA)
Essential work: A New Leaf (1971), Mikey and Nicky (1976)

46. Takashi Miike (Japan)
Essential work: Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001)

47. Hayao Miyazaki (Japan)
Essential work: My Neighbor Totoro (1988), The Wind Rises (2013)

48. Jafar Panahi (Iran)
Essential work: The Circle (2000), Offside (2006)

49. Park Chan-wook (S. Korea)
Essential work: JSA: Joint Security Area (2000), Oldboy (2003)

50. Christian Petzold (Germany)
Essential work: Barbara (2012), Phoenix (2014)

51. Roman Polanski (Poland/USA)
Essential work: Chinatown (1974), Bitter Moon (1992)

52. Jean-Marie Straub (France/Germany)
Essential work: The Chrnoicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach) (1968), Class Relations (Klassenverhältnisse) (1984)

53. Bela Tarr (Hungary)
Essential work: Satantango (1994), The Turin Horse (2011)

54. Tsai Ming-Liang (Taiwan)
Essential work: The River (1997), Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

55. Paul Verhoeven (Holland)
Essential work: Turkish Delight (Turks fruit) (1973), Black Book (Zwartboek) (2006)

56. Apichatpong Weerashathekul (Thailand)
Essential work: Syndromes and a Century (2007), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

57. Frederick Wiseman (USA)
Essential work: High School (1968), Near Death (1989)

Filmmakers once on this list who have since passed away:

Chantal Akerman (Belgium/France), born 06/06/50 – died 10/06/15
Essential work: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), La Captive (2000)

Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, born 12/11/1908 – died 04/02/2015

At 102 years of age, Manoel de Oliveira is by far the oldest director on this list. Incredibly, unlike a lot of the other filmmakers cited here (many of whom have either officially or unofficially retired), Oliveira is not only still active but prolific, having made at least one feature a year since 1990. This recent spate of films constitutes more than half of his body of work, which is extremely impressive considering he started directing in the silent era. Oliveira’s style is not for everyone: his movies, made in conscious opposition to Hollywood conventions, tend to be slow, deliberately paced literary adaptations centered on the theme of doomed love. But if you can find yourself in tune with the rhythm of his unique brand of filmmaking, Oliveira’s best work – including Abraham’s Valley (by far the best film adaptation of Madame Bovary I know of) and the brilliant triptych Anxiety (Inquietude) — can be both intensely cinematic and soul-stirring.

Essential work: Abraham’s Valley (Vale Abraao) (1993), Anxiety (Inquietude) (1998), The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) (2010)

Danièle Huillet (France/Germany), born 05/01/1936 – died 10/09/2006
Essential work: The Chrnoicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach) (1968), Class Relations (Klassenverhältnisse) (1984)

Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, born 07/22/1940 – died 07/04/2016

When Iranian cinema began making inroads at international film festivals in the 1990s, Abbas Kiarostami was its chief ambassador. His “Koker Trilogy,” comprised of Where is the Friend’s Home, Life and Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees, was for many viewers, including me, an exhilarating introduction to an heretofore unknown world of neo-neorealist cinema: one that astonished with its unique mixture of humanism and self-reflexivity, naturalistic performances and social criticism, formal elegance and documentary-style filmmaking techniques. Little did we realize this trilogy was merely the tip of the iceberg; from Close-Up to The Taste of Cherry to The Wind Will Carry Us to more experimental works like Ten and Shirin, to 2010’s transcendent Certified Copy, no other filmmaker of the past two decades, not even Jean-Luc Godard, has so intelligently and slyly provoked audiences to interrogate their own responses to the images and sounds of his filmography.

Essential work: Close-Up (1991), The Taste of Cherry (1997), Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (2010)

Jerry Lewis (USA)
Essential work: The Ladies Man (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963)

Chris Marker (France), born 02/29/1921 – died 07/29/2012
Essential work: Le joli mai (1963), Sans Soleil (1983)

Nagisa Oshima (Japan), born 03/31/1932 – died 01/15/2013

With his wild, provocative, darkly humorous, misanthropic but highly personal brand of political cinema, Nagisa Oshima single-handedly dragged Japanese movies kicking and screaming into the modern age. No other director was willing or able to depict the pessimism of post-war Japanese society with the savage incisiveness of early Oshima classics like The Sun’s Burial and Cruel Story of Youth. As with most provocateurs, Oshima’s movies became increasingly extreme over time and while he’s occasionally run off the rails (I think it’s particularly regrettable that In the Realm of the Senses remains his best known work), he’s also made more than his share of trailblazing masterpieces; my personal favorites are Death By Hanging, an infernally funny examination of Japanese racism against Koreans, and his likely swan song, the mysterious and haunting “gay samurai” film Taboo. Reportedly in ill-health, it is doubtful Oshima will direct again.

Essential work: The Sun’s Burial (1960), Boy (1969), Taboo (1999)

Alain Resnais, France, born 06/03/1922 – died March 1, 2014

Although often lumped in with the Nouvelle Vague, Alain Resnais was a successful documentary filmmaker years before his brethren at Cahiers du Cinema took up cameras and started doing it for themselves. Among these early works, Night and Fog remains, for my money, the best movie ever made about the holocaust. That film’s elegant use of tracking shots and cross-cutting foreshadowed the intellectually provocative and formally dazzling qualities of Resnais’ classic early narrative features: Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. Resnais’ brilliant editing schemes, in which chronologically scrambled stories dovetail with his cherished theme of subjective memory, have been massively influential on the last half-century of world cinema. After the underrated La Guerre est finie in 1968, Resnais’ output became more hit or miss (I personally have no use for Stavisky or Smoking/No Smoking); but later masterworks like Mon Oncle d’Amerique and Wild Reeds are disturbing, hilarious, deeply satisfying examinations of human behavior that reconfirm Resnais’ status as a giant of the medium.

Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Muriel (1963), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

Jacques Rivette, France, born 03/01/1928 – died 01/29/2016

Of the five core directors of the Nouvelle Vague, Jacques Rivette got off to the slowest start. Paris Belongs to Us and The Nun are good small movies but neither hinted at the greatness, the innovation or the mammoth, elaborately conceived structures of what was to come. In the four hour plus L’amour Four (1969), the twelve and a half hour Out 1 (1971) and the relatively lean three hour and thirteen minute Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Rivette pushed the cinematic medium as far as it could go. Each of these films exhaustively explored different facets of Rivette’s obsessions: the nature of acting, the relationship between performance and life, the paranoid conspiracy theory plot, the concept of secret societies, and the decline of the revolutionary ideals of May 1968. Out 1 alone confirms Rivette’s status as one of the greatest living directors; the extensive running time allows four seemingly separate narrative strands to very slowly become entwined in a manner that is reminiscent of literature more than cinema (Balzac’s La Comédie humaine is repeatedly referenced throughout) while simultaneously serving up pleasures that are uniquely, sublimely cinematic. The movies Rivette made between 1969 and 1974 are the apotheosis of the French New Wave. If his more recent work feels like a conventional retread of the same material, it is pointless to feel disappointed. Rivette set the bar impossibly high for everyone, including himself.

Essential work: L’amour Fou (1969), Out 1 (1971), Celine and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau – Phantom Ladies Over Paris) (1974)


Top 25 Films of the 1990s

25. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991)

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

23. An Autumn Tale (Rohmer, France, 1998)

autumn

22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, USA, 1992)

lynch

21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

20. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)

ToSleepwithAnger

19. The Mission (To, Hong Kong, 1999)

I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.

18. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

la ceremonie 2

17. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)

Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

16. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)

15. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

14. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)

piano

Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and an oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

13. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)

Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

12. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

11. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)

One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.

10. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

8. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)

beau

7. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this great film about a middle-class, middle-aged man who traverses the Iranian countryside in a Range Rover trying to find someone who will assist him in committing suicide. Each of the three prospects he “interviews” for the job are far apart in age and profession (a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian and an elderly taxidermist), a set-up that allows Kiarostami to offer a wide-ranging philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and death in the modern world. The film’s unexpected and controversial coda, shot on video and scored to Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” is hauntingly, ineffably right.

6. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)

5. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

4. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1990)

nouvelle

Jean-Luc Godard’s late masterpiece features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight and sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image, and upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless cinematographer William Lubtchansky.

3. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.

2. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)

unforgiven

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

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

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


Top 25 Films of the 1960s

25. L’amour Fou (Rivette, France, 1969)

A highpoint of both the French New Wave and the history of improvisational filmmaking, Jacques Rivette’s four hour plus opus charts the construction of a play (Racine’s Andromaque) as well as the disintegration of a marriage (that of the play’s director), alternating between 35mm and 16mm film stocks. As the film progresses and the cross-cutting slowly, inexorably achieves a terrifying velocity, L’amour Fou fully justifies Pauline Kael’s description as an “intellectual horror film.” The climactic orgy of sex and destruction has to be seen to be believed.

24. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960)

23. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, France, 1966)

22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968)

21. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, France, 1968)

mauds

20. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, Germany, 1968)

19. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962)

18. Boy (Oshima, Japan, 1969)

17. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Rossellini, France/Italy, 1966)

16. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, France/Italy, 1961)

Alain Resnais followed up Hiroshima, Mon Amour by expanding on its innovative formal structure to create this audacious, intellectual “puzzle film.” A man and a woman (again unnamed) meet at the title resort where he attempts to convince her, against her protests, they had met and had an affair the previous year. As Marienbad progresses, we can never be sure if we are watching flashbacks, false memories or fantasies – or even which character might own them. Don’t let its reputation as a “cold,” “impenetrable” film deter you; there are many points of entry into this masterpiece, including the extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the sly humor of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script and a great lead performance by the regal Delphine Seyrig.

15. A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, Japan, 1965)

14. Army of Shadows (Melville, France, 1969)

13. The Arch (Tang, Hong Kong, 1969)

Cecille Tang’s masterpiece is often cited as Hong Kong’s first “art film” and indeed in terms of style this ascetic Ming dynasty period piece often feels like the Chinese equivalent of Andrei Rublev. Madame Tung (Lisa Lu) is a schoolteacher and widow asked by the government to provide room and board to cavalry Captain Yang (Roy Chiao) who arrives in her small farming village to protect the harvest from bandits. Both Madame Tung and her adolescent daughter develop feelings for the Captain during his stay in a quietly devastating romantic tragedy marked by minimalistic dialogue and haunting, austere black and white cinematography courtesy of Satyajit Ray’s regular director of photography Subrata Mitra.

12. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, Italy, 1964)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s best-loved film is this unorthodox but reverential version of the Christ story in which the life of Jesus (hauntingly portrayed by non-actor Enrique Irazoqui) is told in straightforward, realistic fashion – from his birth in Bethlehem to his revolutionary political teachings to his crucifixion, death and resurrection at Golgotha. Some critics have detected a Marxist slant to Pasolini’s take yet this is a movie virtually anyone, even the Pope, could love. The impressively eclectic soundtrack features Bach, Mahalia Jackson and Blind Willie Johnson.

11. 8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963)

Life imitates art and art imitates life in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, a thinly-disguised autobiographical study of a movie director (Mastroianni again) fighting “director’s block.” Guido Anselmi struggles to complete his latest film, a science fiction epic, as fantasies, dreams and childhood memories collide (most of which pertain to Guido’s struggles with religion and/or women). Fellini never again recaptured the greatness on display here (even though he repeatedly mined similar subject matter) but as far as career peaks go, 8 1/2, quite simply one of the most influential movies ever, remains a dizzying high.

10. Charulata (Ray, India, 1964)

My favorite Satyajit Ray film is this 1964 masterpiece, the title of which is sometimes translated as The Lonely Wife. It tells the story of Charu, a housewife with an interest in literature, whose wealthy husband is preoccupied with his business of running an English language newspaper. The husband’s younger brother comes to visit and forms an instant intellectual bond with Charu that threatens to turn into something more serious. The psychology and emotions of the characters are vividly captured by both a flawless cast of performers as well as Ray’s atypically daring use of film form (i.e., camerawork, editing and even optical effects) that suggests the influence of the French New Wave; highlights include the impressionistic swing set scene and the unforgettable final freeze frame.

9. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the definitive “spaghetti western,” a popular subgenre of American-set westerns made in Europe, usually Spain, by a typically Italian cast and crew. This is the third installment of a trilogy (preceded by A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, both of which also starred Clint Eastwood) but this Hollywood co-production works perfectly as a stand-alone film. The plot concerns the misadventures of the title trio, all of whom are in search of $200,000 in buried gold, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Director Sergio Leone’s “operatic” visual style combines with Ennio Morricone’s legendarily innovative score to lend The Good, the Bad and the Ugly a singular tone that is at once comical, cartoonish and, in Dave Kehr’s astute phrase, “inexplicably moving.”

8. The Leopard (Visconti, Italy, 1963)

Few directors have been as adept at capturing physical beauty as Luchino Visconti and The Leopard is his most beautiful and perfectly realized film. Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s equally great novel, Visconti’s movie tells the story of Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (a fittingly regal and masculine Burt Lancaster) who maneuvers through the political tumult of 1860s Sicily, which includes marrying his revolutionary-minded nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the beautiful, newly upper-class Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). The Leopard‘s climactic ball scene, a virtually non-narrative 40 minute visual feast, is one of the glories of the film medium. The Criterion Collection’s blu-ray release of this title single-handedly justifies the purchase of a blu-ray player.

7. Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961)

6. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960)

A woman, Anna, mysteriously disappears while on a yachting trip with friends. The missing woman’s lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), spend the remainder of the movie looking for her but their search merely becomes the pretext for a love affair as they promptly proceed to forget about her. L’avventura‘s slow pace and lack of narrative resolution have driven many viewers up the wall (including me the first time I saw it) but Michelangelo Antonioni’s stately compositions and underlying philosophical themes have a power as awesome and mysterious as the ocean he so lovingly photographs in the film’s majestic first third. L’avventura‘s 1960 Cannes premiere was one of cinema’s game-changing moments.

5. Le Mepris (Godard, France/Italy, 1963)

The best movie ever made about making a movie (and no, I’m not forgetting 8 1/2), Jean-Luc Godard’s colorful, Italian-shot fantasia stars Michel Piccoli as a beleaguered screenwriter, Brigitte Bardot as his trophy wife, Jack Palance as a blowhard American producer and the great director Fritz Lang as himself, all of whom collide on an unlikely film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Add in a magisterial score by George Delerue, one of the greatest ever written, and the end result is Godard’s finest early work.

4. Chimes at Midnight (Welles, Spain/Italy, 1965)

3. Playtime (Tati, France, 1967)

Jacques Tati achieved perfection with this 1967 masterpiece, the pinnacle of his career. The great director put the largest budget he ever had to work with to good use, constructing enormous steel-and-glass skyscraper sets in order to suggest a futuristic Paris. Inside of this city of encroaching globalization (before the term “globalization” even existed), Tati’s characters — including Monsieur Hulot in a diminished role — bounce around like human pinballs. Shot in deep focus 70mm, the intricate jokes on display take place in the foreground, middleground and background of the frame, and often occur simultaneously, resulting in a film that demands to be seen many times in order to be fully appreciated — even though watching it for the first time is as easy as breathing. To see Playtime projected in 70mm is one of the glories of moviegoing. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film’s most eloquent defender has perceptively asked, “What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?”

2. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1966)

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

1. Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

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


%d bloggers like this: