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Tag Archives: Roberto Rossellini

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 2013 (#10 – #2)

I’m breaking the list of my favorite home video releases from 2013 into two separate blog posts. Below are numbers 10 through 2 from my top 10 list (each with a capsule review), as well as a list of 20 runners-up favorites. Next week’s post will be devoted entirely to my numero uno favorite home video release of the year — for reasons that will become clear in due time.

10. Dracula (Fisher, UK, Lions Gate UK Blu-ray)

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Hammer Studios’ 1958 production of Terrence Fisher’s Dracula is one of the most influential horror movies of all time — it was the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel to endow the title Count with fangs, as well as the first to slather the now-familiar story with both blood-red paint and a healthy dose of eroticism. These latter aspects come through better than ever on Lions Gate UK’s new Blu-ray, which happily restores about 20 seconds of previously unseen sensuality and gore. (The fascinating story of how this missing footage was recently unearthed in Japan is included in a documentary among the disc’s copious extras.) If you love this movie, you need to own this definitive version. If you’ve never seen it, I would recommend a blind-buy; it features, after all, the best ever screen Dracula (the darkly charismatic Christopher Lee) pitted against the best ever Van Helsing (the morally rigid Peter Cushing). What more do you need? Full review here: https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/05/06/blu-hammer/

9. Underground (Asquith, UK, BFI Blu-ray)

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In recent years, the British Film Institute seems to have spearheaded an effort to raise awareness of silent British cinema in general, which I’ve been delighted to find is of interest beyond the earliest masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock. One of my most pleasant film-related surprises of the past year was discovering the great silent movies of Anthony Asquith, an English director better known for his less-exciting sound-era work. BFI’s home video division released a revelatory Blu-ray of Asquith’s second film, 1928’s Underground, back in June. The plot, a love triangle between a shop girl, a nice-guy subway worker and a douchebag power-plant employee, allows Asquith to indulge in some wondrous cinematic conceits — including astonishingly fluid crane shots during a protracted climactic chase scene — and offers a fascinating, documentary-like glimpse of “ordinary” Londoners from a bygone era besides. The image has been painstakingly restored (as evidenced by a short doc included among the extras) and the new orchestral score by Neil Brand sounds brilliant in a 5.1 surround-sound mix. Can the Blu-ray release of the same director’s even better A Cottage on Dartmoor, a late silent from 1929, be far behind?

8. Black Sabbath (Bava, Italy, Arrow Blu-ray)

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Did the three best vampire movies of all time receive Blu-ray releases in 2013? In addition to Kino’s Nosferatu release (on my runner-up list below) and Lions Gate UK’s Dracula release (number 10 above), UK-based Arrow Video dropped a superb version of Mario Bava’s 1963 horror anthology Black Sabbath, featuring “The Wurdalak,” the only film in which the legendary Boris Karloff played a bloodsucker. The other stories included here are the proto-giallo “The Telephone,” and “A Drop of Water” (the source of the unforgettable and terrifying dummy/corpse/prop pictured above). Arrow’s extras-laden Blu-ray includes two radically different versions of the film (the European and American cuts), audio commentary by Bava expert Tim Lucas, a handsome collector’s booklet, a DVD of the movie, and more. Most importantly, it is the most faithful home video transfer Black Sabbath has ever received, which is so crucial for a director with as precise a sense of color-timing as Bava (Kino’s Blu-ray, also released this year, skews unnaturally green by comparison). A must-own for Bava fans.

7. Foolish Wives (Von Stroheim, USA, Kino Blu-ray)

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Kino/Lorber and the Blu-ray format have proven to be a match made in heaven, and the company’s release of Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece Foolish Wives is one of their finest releases to date. The Stroheim legend in many ways begins with this 1922 super-production, widely credited as the first “million dollar movie.” A delightfully decadent melodrama starring Stroheim himself as a monocled fake-aristocrat out to seduce and swindle the wife of an American diplomat stationed in Monte Carlo, Foolish Wives was brutally cut down by MGM executives from multi-hour epic status to a runtime of less than two hours for its original theatrical release. According to Kino’s press materials, the Blu-ray was “mastered in HD from an archival 35mm print of the 1972 AFI Arthur Lenning restoration” and runs 143 minutes. The quality varies, sometimes from shot to shot, as this restoration was clearly cobbled together from prints of varying quality but, my God, am I glad to have this. With its “innocents abroad” characters, nefarious criminal plots involving devious impostors, and potent, barely-concealed eroticism, this is as close as the American cinema ever came to the serials of Louis Feuillade. Also included as a very welcome bonus is The Man You Love to Hate, an informative, feature-length documentary on Stroheim made by Patrick Montgomery in 1979, which has also been newly remastered in HD. Now where’s Greed?

6. Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Murnau, Germany, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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I had never bothered picking up the Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD of F.W. Murnau’s great final film and was therefore only previously familiar with the serviceable Milestone DVD, which is both missing footage and in the wrong aspect ratio compared to the restoration that has served as the basis for Eureka/MoC’s releases. It was therefore quite eye-opening for me to see the German maestro’s gorgeous tone-poem of a movie as close as possible to the way it was meant to be seen via this new Blu-ray. Murnau had become disillusioned with both the mainstream German and American film industries when he went to Tahiti to independently make this tale of doomed love set among native islanders. He couldn’t have known it would be his last production (he died in a car accident shortly before its premiere) but the movie in general — and its haunting final scene in particular — serve as a fitting epitaph for the career of the man known as the best director to have only worked in the silent era. The images on Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray have a silky, silvery quality that fully does justice to the lyrical intentions of Murnau and his cinematographer Floyd Crosby (who deservedly won an Oscar for his work on this film).

5. Intolerance (Griffith, USA, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)

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In less than a year, Cohen Media Group has established itself as a major new player in the U.S. home video market. Among their welcome 2013 releases were invaluable editions of Luis Bunuel’s Tristana and Raoul Walsh’s Thief of Bagdad but my absolute favorite title in their catalogue is this stellar new Blu-ray of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. One of cinema’s great mad follies, this quartet of stories about “love’s struggle through the ages,” which intercuts boldly and freely between different countries and centuries in order to show the tragic universality and timelessness of the title subject, looks as mind-blowingly fresh today as it must have in 1916. What’s new is Cohen’s admirable adherence to Griffith’s final cut of the film (the great director continued to tweak it well into the 1920s), which runs about 30 minutes shorter than the previous Kino DVD version; in other words, you definitely want to pick this up but don’t get rid of your old DVD either. Among Cohen’s many welcome extras are two of the segments edited by Griffith himself into stand-alone features (both of which feature footage not included in Intolerance). Essential.

4. The Quiet Man (Ford, USA, Olive Films Blu-ray)

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There were actually quite a few John Ford movies that received their Blu-ray and/or DVD debuts in 2013. The best of them, in terms of image quality, is undoubtedly Olive Films’ unimpeachable Blu-ray of Ford’s beloved Ireland-set romantic comedy The Quiet Man. As I wrote in my appreciation of the recent flurry of Ford releases last week: “This movie has never looked good on VHS or DVD, the old video transfers of which were soft and blurry and sported sadly faded color (a particularly offensive crime since Ford insisted on shooting in Technicolor, the premiere color process of the day, over the objections of Republic Pictures boss Herbert Yates, who had patented his own color process — the cheaper, more lurid TruColor). So Olive Films did the world a huge favor by taking Ford’s single most personal film (and the only passionate love story he ever directed) and restoring it to something approximating its original luster.” Ford’s photography of the red-haired, blue-eyed Maureen O’Hara, herding sheep barefoot in an impossibly green, grassy field, is my idea of visual heaven, a claim I don’t think I would have made until I saw this particular transfer, which was made from the original camera negative. More here: https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/12/09/2013-the-year-of-the-ford/

3. The Big Parade (Vidor, USA, Warner Blu-ray)

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MGM’s prestigious production of King Vidor’s 1926 anti-war epic was the most commercially successful film of the entire silent era. For some reason (undoubtedly related to “rights issues”) it has never been released on DVD in the States but finally received its belated digital debut via Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray this past fall. And it was worth the wait: this is the single best-looking release of any silent movie I’ve ever seen on any home video format (besting even the superb Eureka/Masters of Cinema release of F.W. Murnau’s City Girl from a few years ago). I’ve never seen a silent film — and I watch them all the time — look so pristine and so blemish-free. For God’s sake, I own Blu-rays of movies originally made in the 21st century that look worse than this (ahem, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The movie, a unique blend of broad comedy, heartfelt romance and tear-jerking tragedy, follows the experiences of John Gilbert’s American soldier before, during and after World War I, and is absolutely worthy of this impeccable restoration (allegedly taken from the original camera negative). One hopes that this release will be successful enough to encourage Warner Bros. to release the other classic MGM silents they control — including Vidor’s supreme masterpiece, The Crowd.

2. Three Films By Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman (Rossellini, Italy, Criterion Blu-ray)

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Roberto Rossellini had already revolutionized the movies with his pioneering Italian Neorealist efforts in the 1940s before he single-handedly gave birth to the modern European art cinema with the second phase of his career — a cycle of five films starring his new paramour Ingrid Bergman — in the early 1950s. The Criterion Collection’s gorgeous, extras-stacked box set collects the three best Rossellini/Bergmans into one essential package. In Stromboli, Bergman is a Latvian woman who marries an Italian fisherman in order to escape a refugee camp after WWII. She soon finds life intolerable in his small village, which is located at the foot of (and threatened by) a large, metaphor-rich volcano. Europe ’51 explores the possibility of sainthood in the modern world as Bergman plays a mother who, grieving over the death of her young son, tries to live like a contemporary St. Francis of Assissi but winds up in a mental hospital instead. This shattering film features what may be Bergman’s best performance. Journey to Italy is quite simply one of the finest movies ever made: Bergman and George Sanders are an eight-years-married couple, the Joyces, who travel to Italy to settle the estate of a recently deceased “Uncle Homer.” With idle time on their hands for the first time in years, their marriage crumbles. Just as James Joyce posited Ulysses as a modern psychological epic (and perhaps the only way to fittingly redo Homer’s Odyssey in the 20th century), Rossellini finds a filmic equivalent of Joyce’s prose (made explicit by a nod to “The Dead”) in a story where nothing happens on the level of “story” but everything happens inside of his characters. The result paved the way for, among other things, L’avventura, Le Mepris, Certified Copy and Before Midnight. Regardless of who you are, you should own this.

1. To Be Continued . . .

20 Runners-Up (Alphabetical By Title):

11. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA, Sony Blu-ray)
12. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, Warner Blu-ray)
13. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Lang, Germany, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
15. The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino, USA, Kino Blu-ray)
16. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, Fox Blu-ray) Full review here: https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/03/11/how-blu-was-my-valley/
17. John Cassavetes Five Films Box Set (Cassavetes, USA, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Laura (Preminger, USA, Fox Blu-ray)
19. The Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, Japan, Criterion Blu-ray)
20. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, Paramount UK Blu-ray) More here: https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/12/09/2013-the-year-of-the-ford/
21. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, Criterion Blu-ray)
22. Nosferatu (Murnau, Germany, Kino Blu-ray)
23. Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, USA, Warner Blu-ray)
24. Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor, USA, Criterion Blu-ray)
25. The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, USA, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
26. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Tristana (Bunuel, Spain, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
28. Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, Criterion Blu-ray)
29. White Heat (Walsh, USA, Warner Blu-ray)
30. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA, Sony Blu-ray)


He Said/She Said Director Profile: Sofia Coppola

Following our discussion of John Carpenter, Jillian McKeown (author of www.exploringfeminisms.com) and I focus on Sofia Coppola for our second He Said/She Said Director Profile.

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JM: This is being written just a few hours after seeing Sofia Coppola’s movie, The Bling Ring. Thinking back over those few hours and over her entire body of work, I am noticing recurring themes that thread throughout all of her films that draw me to her as a writer and director. These are namely the music, and the humanity and universal appeal of the stories and characters. I’d like to start off by discussing the latter. In all of Sofia’s films (see complete filmography at the end of this piece), she taps into experiences and emotions that are universal to everyone, even if the character may be more grandiose than the typical person. For example, in Marie Antoinette, you can identify with the queen’s feelings of separation, loneliness, and weight of responsibility. In The Bling Ring, she demonstrates how in American culture, there is a lust to be “known” and to do this, it is necessary to shroud yourself in tangible consumerism. Are there any films of hers that you feel any special kinship towards?

MGS: I think I feel more of a kinship to The Bling Ring than any of the others, for reasons I will elaborate on later. But first, I want to point out that I think it’s interesting you say Coppola’s films are “universal” while paradoxically also being about characters who may be “grandiose.” I generally agree with this but the most common complaint that I’ve heard about her work is that she only deals with the problems of people who are privileged. In other words, “Why should we care that a rich movie star staying at a five-star hotel in Tokyo feels ‘alienated’?” My response to this is “Why shouldn’t we be able to relate to characters just because they happen to be rich and famous?” The Virgin Suicides is, I believe, the only film she’s made that isn’t about upper class characters. But, as everyone knows, she grew up the daughter of a famous filmmaker, so I think she is depicting in her movies a world that she knows very well and I think her insider’s P.O.V is both knowing and, more importantly, critical. And you’re right — I think she bends over backwards in Marie Antoinette, for instance, to try and make the heroine seem like a “typical” teenage girl so that young people watching today can relate. That’s the whole point of that particular movie, no? The Bling Ring, on the other hand, is particularly interesting in that it features the least likable characters in any of her films. All of them are frighteningly shallow and vapid and yet I don’t feel as if she’s judging them too harshly: the desire for fame, status, wealth, facebook friends, etc. is everywhere in our society so we all should be able to relate on some level — even if you and I would never do anything as drastic as break into someone’s home. However, I can already hear my students complaining that they couldn’t “care about the characters,” which is my least favorite criticism to hear about any movie.

JM: I’ve never heard that critique, but I understand why people would say that. However, that judgement stems from a lack of understanding of her bigger picture, and only a cursory look at what it aims to express. With her films, you have to look at the entire world that she’s creating, and that world’s relation to our real world. As I previously said, if you look past the characters’ race and class, you see emotions and pressures that extend beyond the superficial and into our reality. In The Bling Ring, it’s easy to judge superficial, privileged white kids living in California, but then again, as you said, we are all living in a world where we can identify with their desire to acquire more privilege, power and material possessions. If we could take advantage of others who possess more than us, would we attempt to appropriate that wealth and power as well? I think a lot of people already do in smaller, more abstract ways that are particular to their own lives.

With concern to Marie Antoinette, I think that saying that the only point of the film is to make Antoinette’s character simply relevant to teenage girls may be oversimplifying a tad bit. I could understand an argument that her character’s experience may be geared towards women, but I could also argue that the character of her husband could be one that men could identify with, such as one about to get married. For both characters, what I take away from their plights is that they are overwhelmed by responsibility, and a desire to skirt that responsibility by essentially being irresponsible, which I think everyone can identify with at one point during their lives. Given that this film is on the surface about a European queen during the 1700s, I think it’s quite a feat to make a contemporary audience identify with her, even if the majority are only teenage girls. And in that same vein, I’d like to talk a little further about the specific conventions and techniques that she uses to do that in that film, and also in Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides, and especially The Bling Ring. Specifically, the way she utilizes music, through the lyrics and instruments, to capture a feeling of a scene. When Marie Antoinette came out, there was some criticism about her use of the song “I Want Candy” by the 1980s band Bow Wow Wow. I thought using that song was ingenious for several reasons. First, it gave the scene a sense of whimsy and fun, almost a “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” vibe. Second, it made the 18th century relatable to contemporary audiences. Finally, she also used it as an aid to the set design and costumes. At that point in the film, it was all about excess, fluff, pink and frosting, and she used the bubblegum-ness of the song to mirror that of the film.

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MGS: Good point about her use of music. I loved that “I Want Candy” montage. For me, Sofia Coppola’s greatest strength as a director is the way that she combines images and music to convey an incredible sense of energy. I think my favorite scene in The Bling Ring, for instance, was when Rebecca and Mark were driving and singing Kanye West’s “All of the Lights.” What really made that sequence for me was the use of jump-cuts, which provided a visual correllary to the fact that the characters were high on cocaine. And you and I both could cite countless examples from her films to illustrate how she conveys a similar energy. How about her use of Heart’s “Barracuda” to accompany a tracking shot of Josh Hartnett’s bad-boy character strolling through a high-school hallway in The Virgin Suicides? Or the twin strippers’ dancing to the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” in Somewhere?

To address your other point, I don’t think it’s necessarily a “bad” thing to make audiences relate to characters in period-piece films. But I do think it might be more courageous to show viewers how different and strange the past was in comparison to the present — to make us understand without necessarily being able to “identify.” There is a very memorable scene in one of my favorite movies, Roberto Rossellini’s The Taking of Power By Louis XIV, where you see the incredibly elaborate process of how food was prepared and served to the king. The scene goes on forever and the longer it goes on the more it feels like something out of science fiction — and it just becomes mesmerizing. The opposite of this approach is what you see in those Elizabeth movies with Cate Blanchett. In the second one, I remember a scene where the queen smokes tobacco (brought to her from the new world by Sir Walter Raleigh) for the first time, and inhaling it makes her break out into fits of laughter. The idea is that it seems like she’s smoking pot, which makes no literal sense; it’s just a cheap, shorthand way to communicate something to contemporary audiences. It’s like the filmmakers are collaborating with the viewers over the heads of the characters, and that strikes me as dishonest. I don’t think this is what Sofia Coppola does in Marie Antoinette at all. She’s much more honest in that she includes deliberate anachronisms — like 1980s New Wave pop music on the soundtrack — in order to call attention to her modern point-of-view.

I’d like to bring up now what I consider Coppola’s biggest flaw: I think she’s a much better director than writer. While I think she’s good with sound and image, and while I think she’s good at directing actors, I feel like her approach to characterization and plotting has occasionally been a bit trite. I think when she tries her hand at satire, especially, her scenes tend to fall flat. The way the Giovanni Ribisi and Anna Faris characters are written in Lost in Translation seems too broad to me in comparison to the other characters in the movie. Same thing with Leslie Mann in The Bling Ring: her clueless New Age-mommy character feels one-dimensional and like an attempt to explain why her daughters were seduced by a life of crime. I know you’re a bigger fan of Coppola than I am so I wonder if this criticism makes any sense to you and if you disagree.

JM: I agree that there is value in showing the past as it was, but let’s face it, a movie about the 1700s in Europe may turn a lot of people off, and Coppola makes history more accessible to those who maybe wouldn’t necessarily have an interest in that topic otherwise. In my last defense of Marie Antoinette, I once took a class in grad school while pursuing my Masters in Library Science that focused on the history of the printed book. During that course, we focused on a chapter on scribes in the Middle Ages and saw pictures of early tomes with doodles along the spines from 500 A.D. from bored scribes. Even in the Middle Ages, people got bored at work and in class, as we do now. Throughout the entire class, the professor kept repeating that there is no us and them, only us; that people from 1,000 years ago, and two weeks ago, face roughly the same issues. My point here is that by Coppola presenting Marie Antoinette as a normal person with palpable needs and problems, she allows us to make an emotional connection to an unlikely historical figure.

Regarding Coppola’s writing abilities, her stories can be described as simple, and a good vehicle for the “less is more” ideology. In comparison to most films now, which are extremely complicated and where there is more, more, more of everything, she takes a basic story or feeling and illuminates the story around that concept. When I watch Coppola’s films, I know they are her films because of how my gut feels. She doesn’t beat you over the head with what she’s expressing, she lets it wash over you.

To briefly address the role of the mother in The Bling Ring, I don’t necessarily see her character as a complete explanation of why her daughter stole from others, though I agree that we can gather that her lack of parental supervision may have made it easier for her daughter to act up. I think the “why” of why this group of people did what they did goes back to what we’ve been discussing all along, and it’s multifaceted. It’s the parents, it’s Facebook, it’s our collective experience as people living in the 2000s, capitalism, and we could go on and on.

To just change the subject slightly, I’ve been asking myself if Sofia Coppola is a feminist director, or if the question is even important. I ask because so few films are directed by women even in today’s film world, and I wonder what the women who are working are doing and saying. She’s a woman, sure, but that doesn’t make her a feminist. Men can be feminists, and women can be huge proponents of patriarchy (insert Serena Williams here, but that’s for another day). Given my own working knowledge and constant exploration of what feminism is, I’d say yes. She also does pass the Bechdel Test. If I were pressed to give my own ruling on you, I’d say that you would fall into the feminist camp, Mike, so I’d like to know your opinion on this.

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MGS: Great story about the scribes.

I should clarify that I like the simplicity of Coppola’s narratives. The “plot” of The Bling Ring is so lightweight that it’s barely there. But, for me, the film registers primarily as a sensual — and wholly cinematic — experience: it’s all about sound, color, light and movement and how these things register specifically to a group of people who are young, carefree and self-absorbed. In this respect, it’s like a pop song (as is Spring Breakers, with which it shares many similarities — more on that in a second). By contrast, I think the scenes with the parents feel a bit contrived and moralistic: Coppola makes it a point to illustrate that the parents are either absent or ignorant about what their kids are doing and Leslie Mann’s dialogue is pretty cartoonish. I agree that Coppola isn’t saying bad parenting is solely to blame but I think the film would’ve been more complex and troubling if we had seen that at least some of the parents were decent, smart, caring people.

The feminism question is a good one but also a thorny one: Coppola’s films aren’t explicitly about, say, gender inequality but if you can say that it is feminist for an artist to thoroughly explore the experiences and feelings of female characters (and I think you can), then I’d say Coppola’s a feminist by that criteria. I also think you could argue that she brings a female point-of-view to her sense of film aesthetics, and I don’t just mean in a simple “female gaze”-kind of way. The critic Kent Jones said something great about Coppola in his review of The Bling Ring. He wrote: “Sofia Coppola is uncommonly gifted at the articulation of something so fleeting and ephemeral that it seems to be on the verge of evaporating on contact with her hovering, deadpan, infinitely patient camera eye.” I know exactly what he means and I think this quality that he’s talking about arises from a specifically female touch (as opposed to say, the more masculine approach that Harmony Korine brings to Spring Breakers, which nonetheless also has a druggy/dreamy/poppy feel and similarly uses the exploits of shallow teenagers to critique capitalism).

Having said all that, my favorite aspect of The Bling Ring was the ending. I really admired the courage it took for Coppola to not only make a film about “unlikable” people but to end it with Nicki Moore (Emma Watson’s character) looking directly at the camera and pimping her website. To me, that said that this young woman had learned nothing and was, if anything, a worse person than before she went to prison. She was basically using her criminal activity to try and extend her 15-minutes of Z-list fame. That, to me, was a daringly truthful and unsettling ending and one that more than compensated for the reservations I had earlier about the depiction of the parents. Anything you’d like to add?

JM: Your description of The Bling Ring plot as “lightweight” is a distinct calling card of Coppola, but in her films, this airiness is expressed through the sound, the colors, the music, and so forth. For me, it’s the combination of all of those elements that I was previously describing that “wash over you,” and that includes the writing. What Kent Jones says is spot on with the “fleeting and ephemeral,” which I really get a sense of in The Virgin Suicides. The feeling that she leaves you with is difficult to describe in concrete terms, it’s almost an aura of the film. You make the point that it is an attribute of a female touch, and I would agree, but I would say that it’s a feminine touch, whereas visceral, blunt themes with heavy violence and explicit sex may lean more towards a masculine sensibility.

A quick note on the parents, I looked up the mother’s website, Andrea Arlington, and her online profile seems pretty matched up with how she was portrayed in the film. This seems like one of those cases where you can’t even “make this stuff up,” that reality in this case is sufficient for the film. To play devil’s advocate just a bit more, I think that one could make a slight argument that in The Bling Ring the mother of Nick did seem concerned and was not portrayed as a space cadet. However, I get that we aren’t given a lot of information on the other parents, so a more well-rounded argument is difficult to make.

Looking over her five films, I can’t wait to see Sofia Coppola’s filmography grow into a lengthy, full-bodied collection. When you and I first met, I remember gushing about The Virgin Suicides and singing Coppola’s praises, and you told me that you didn’t like her. Granted, when we first met I believe your film taste to be a little bourgeois and has definitely come down to earth a little more. That being said, how do you feel about her now?

MGS: At the time we met, I had only seen Lost in Translation, which I think is overrated but which seems to be her most beloved film. I do feel, however, that she has gotten better with each subsequent movie. I consider myself a fan and I look forward to her future work.

Jill’s Ranking of Sofia Coppola’s Films
5. Somewhere
4. Lost in Translation
3. The Bling Ring
2. The Virgin Suicides
1. Marie Antoinette

Mike’s Ranking of Sofia Coppola’s Films
5. The Virgin Suicides
4. Lost in Translation
3. Marie Antoinette
2. Somewhere
1. The Bling Ring

Mike’s Rating for The Bling Ring: 7.6

You can check out the trailer for The Bling Ring via YouTube below:


Richard Linklater and the VHS Generation

“He sort of won the race, didn’t he? Through sheer persistence, consistency and focus. And longevity. He’s a poet who just kept going. When people would say of Before Sunrise that it reminded them of an English-language Rohmer film, I’d go, ‘Well, that’s very flattering, but I don’t think he’d ever make a film that simple.’ My work is so much simpler than his. I give him more credit than that.”

— Richard Linklater, on the death of Eric Rohmer in 2010

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What most intrigues me about the genuinely humble tribute from one master to another I’ve cited above is the notion that Richard Linklater thinks Eric Rohmer “won” a “race” without elaborating on exactly which race that might be. I can only imagine that the director of Before Midnight had the story of the tortoise and the hare in mind when he made that remark and that he saw Rohmer as being analogous to the slow-but-steady turtle and most of his compatriots in the French New Wave as being frenetic rabbits: Rohmer may have in many ways been the “slowest starter” (i.e., the least commercial or intellectually fashionable) of the major nouvelle vague filmmakers during the 1960s but his body of work as a whole arguably ended up being more impressive in the long run. It’s also hard for me to imagine that Linklater isn’t revealing something about his own career in that remark — even if only subconsciously. Critics, after all, often lump Linklater in with Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith as constituting a “VHS Generation” — a group of American filmmakers who never graduated from college (in pointed contrast to the celebrated “Film School Generation” of the 1970s) but who educated themselves about film history via home video in the 1980s before directing their first independently made breakthrough features in the early-to-mid 1990s. While Linklater may indeed have been the least flashy of that particular group during the Nineties (Dazed and Confused developed an almost-instant cult following but it didn’t make its writer/director a “star” in the manner of a Tarantino or a Smith), it seems inarguable to me that he has the most impressive filmography from the vantage point of the year 2013. He and Anderson are the only directors of the bunch who I would cite as actually having significantly improved in the 21st century.

So here’s why I consider Richard Linklater the most important filmmaker of his generation:

1. His work is more profitably rooted in a specific sense of place.

Unlike most contemporary American directors, whose movies either might as well be taking place anywhere or are set in pop culture-infused Neverlands of their own imaginations, Linklater’s work stems, culturally as well as geographically, from deep in the heart of his home state of Texas (he’s a native Houstonian). As Martin Scorsese is to New York, as Alain Guiraudie is to the southwest of France, so too is Richard Linklater to Texas: Slacker, Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia, The Newton Boys, Waking Life, Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly and Bernie are all mostly set in — or were shot in — and are ultimately about communities and subcultures within the Lone Star state. It even seems significant that in the director’s beloved, European-set Before trilogy, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse hails from Austin, and thus his character can be seen as offering a kind of “Texan’s-eye-view” of cosmopolitan Austria, France and Greece, respectively. More importantly, Linklater’s films profoundly reflect the iconoclastic, often-contradictory character of Texas, which is nowhere more apparent than in Bernie, the story of a horrific real life murder that nonetheless manages to be both darkly comic and surprisingly warmhearted. Watch this hilarious clip in which Sonny Carl Davis, a native of rural Carthage (where the film is set), describes how Texas could actually be five different states:

2. He is the most knowledgable about film history while simultaneously the least likely to show off his cinephile cred.

Richard Linklater is a hardcore cinephile, which is evident throughout his life and work — from the clip of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud included in his obscure first feature It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books in 1988 to his recent passionate defense of Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running in the book The Best Films You’ve Never Seen. And yet Linklater’s films are about “real life” (which, of course, includes cinephilia) more than simply being about other movies. In other words, in contrast to Tarantino and Rodriguez — who seem increasingly content to merely mash-up moments from their favorite grindhouse movies of their adolescence — Linklater has fully absorbed the lessons of his masters and applies them to the modern world in a way that results in something entirely fresh and new. Consider the way Julie Delpy’s Celine references Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy in Before Midnight: her lines about watching Italy‘s Pompeii scene allow Linklater to engage in a meaningful critical dialogue with Rossellini’s masterpiece (both are ultimately about the salvation of long-term relationships between couples vacationing in a foreign country); but her lines are written and performed in such an offhanded and naturalistic “I once saw this old movie on television” kind of way that the scene doesn’t alienate anyone who hasn’t seen Italy. More profoundly, when asked if he in any way emulated the visual style of Orson Welles when making his underrated 2008 biopic Me and Orson Welles, Linklater wisely replied that he hadn’t because his film was about Welles’ pre-Citizen Kane theatrical career. He then added that he was more influenced by John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln since the scenario of both movies hinges on a sophisticated manipulation of the viewers’ knowledge of the “future greatness” of their subjects. Contrast this with the way Quentin Tarantino used his Django Unchained World Domination Tour to denigrate the career of John Ford (and showed a startling ignorance of Ford’s work in the process). One should also note that Linklater’s education in film history came mostly on film instead of VHS — his interest in moviemaking was spurred by repeated visits to a Houston repertory theater and he founded the Austin Film Society in 1985 in order to bring more diverse cinema fare to Austin.

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3. He is the most formally innovative director of his generation.

Linklater is a formal innovator who has impressively managed to make his innovations accessible to a wide variety of audiences. Slacker, which borrowed its narrative-relay structure from Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, was shot on a budget of just over $20,000 and almost single-handedly spearheaded an independent filmmaking renaissance in America when it was released in 1991. Tape (2001), a gripping adaptation of Stephen Belber’s single-setting play, was shot on miniDV tape — thus adding another layer of meaning to the title (in addition to its referencing an audio-recording that prominently features in the plot); in an era when everyone else wanted to make video seem like film, Linklater intriguingly chose to emphasize Tape‘s video origins, incorporating the graininess of the digital-to-film transfer into his sleazy motel-room visual design. Both Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006) pioneered “rotoscoping” animation (with its trippy, undulating textures), which can now be seen in television commercials for large corporations. But Linklater’s greatest formal innovations probably result from his experiments in structuring narratives around real-time sequences. Because he has always favored philosophical dialogue over physical action, Linklater typically also favors long takes to fast cutting, and many of his movies consequently take place over the course of a single day: Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, SubUrbia, Tape, Waking Life, Before Sunset and Before Midnight all take place in a span of less than 24 hours. Additionally, Tape and Before Sunset are among the few feature films in the history of cinema that take place entirely in real time. The apotheosis of Linklater’s style can be found in Before Midnight, in which the lack of cutting and the choreography between the camera and the performers seem so organic to the material and achieve such a perfect sense of harmony that the film’s ostensible European-style “art-film” aesthetic has deservedly found success among general audiences — as if it were a more typical American-style rom-com.

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And all of this is to say nothing of Linklater’s skills as a writer (the progress of which can be charted from the way his characters have evolved from charming-but-irresponsible adolescent autodidacts to charming-but-mature and sensitive adults) and as a director of actors (he is particularly good at directing children and non-actors — see again the extraordinary School of Rock — and his seven-films-and-counting collaboration with Ethan Hawke must surely rank as one of the most fruitful director-actor partnerships of modern times).

Below is my subjective countdown, from worst to best, of all of Richard Linklater’s feature films. In case it isn’t obvious from the rankings, I believe Linklater’s art underwent a quantum leap in terms of quality between the 1998 release of The Newton Boys and the 2001 releases of Waking Life and Tape (both of which premiered at that year’s Sundance Film Festival):

17. It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988)
16. SubUrbia (1996)
15. Bad News Bears (2005)
14. The Newton Boys (1998)
13. Fast Food Nation (2006)
12. Tape (2001)
11. Me and Orson Welles (2008)
10. Slacker (1991)
9. Before Sunrise (1995)
8. Waking Life (2001)
7. School of Rock (2003)
6. Dazed and Confused (1993)
5. Bernie (2011)
4. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
3. Before Midnight (2013)
2. Before Sunset (2004)
1. Boyhood (2014)


My Top 200 Films of All Time

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

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

The Top Ten:

10. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)

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

9. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1966)

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

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

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

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

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

6. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953)

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

5. L’argent (Bresson, France, 1983)

Robert Bresson’s swan song, as tight and compressed as a Ramones song, is a masterful update of Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Note. Bresson’s ingenious narrative follows a counterfeit bill, initially passed off in a shop as a schoolboy prank, which sets off a chain of events (an “avalanche of evil” in the director’s own indelible words) that ends with a young man murdering an entire family with an axe. This vital, rigorous movie, made when the director was 81 but seeming like the work of a much younger man, is the ultimate artistic statement about the potentially destructive power of money.

4. Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

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

3. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

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

2. Tih Minh (Feuillade, France, 1918)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Top Fifty Directors of All Time

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

10. Jean Renoir (France)

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

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

9. Orson Welles (USA)

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

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

8. Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan)

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

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

7. Roberto Rossellini (Italy)

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

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

6. Carl Dreyer (Denmark)

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

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

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

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

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

4. Alfred Hitchcock (USA/UK)

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

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

3. Luis Bunuel (France/Mexico)

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

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

2. Robert Bresson (France)

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

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

1. John Ford (USA)

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

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

Runners-Up (listed alphabetically by family name):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Italian Cinema Primer: From Neo – to Psychological Realism, pt. 1

The most well-known period in the history of Italian cinema remains the era of “Italian Neorealism,” the legendarily socially conscious movement comprised of documentary-style films made during the years of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. But I think the best way to understand Italian cinema is to look at how the conventions of Neorealism gradually morphed into something quite different (and arguably even polar opposite) by the end of the 1960s – mostly at the hands of the very same filmmakers (Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, et al) who had been responsible for setting the world on fire by helping to create that earlier revolutionary movement. Antonioni purportedly once claimed that “the bicycle is no longer enough,” referring to the fact that a film character’s psychological problems should no longer be seen as stemming only from external factors. There is no more succinct description of the transition that occurred between the socially-rooted dilemmas of the characters in Neorealism and the more extravagant psychological flights of fancy found in Fellini or in the existential angst of the characters in Antonioni. It is also significant that the characters of Neorealism tended to be working class while the characters of the Psychological Realism of the ’60s tended to be affluent. Between these two seemingly opposite poles of Italian cinema can be found nothing less than the whole wide world.

The list is presented in chronological order and will be split across two posts. The first part below encompasses the years 1943 – 1959:

Ossessione (Visconti, 1943)

Luchino Visocnti’s unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is often cited as the birth of Italian Neorealism due to its working class milieu and use of documentary-style location shooting. However, Visconti’s employment of Cain’s Hollywood-style plot (a woman who runs an inn seduces an unemployed drifter into murdering her much older and less attractive husband) and the use of glamorous stars in the lead roles (Clara Calamai and Massimo Girotti) better positions this as an early forerunner of the movement.

Rome, Open City (Rossellini, 1945)

Roberto Rossellini is, in my opinion, the greatest of all Italian directors and this low-budget but courageous dramatization of the Nazi occupation of Italy in the waning months of WWII, heroically made immediately after the period had ended, was where he first found himself. The climactic scenes depicting the torture of Resistance members by the forces of Fascism remind us of what true courage is, much more so than what has ever been achieved by the feel-goodism of Hollywood-style recreations. Anna Magnani’s performance is one of the miracles of cinema.

Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948)

The definitive Italian Neorealist film remains a deceptively simple, emotionally overwhelming experience that must be seen by anyone who loves movies. Writer Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio de Sica crafted the ultimately politically engaged drama with this tale of Antonio Ricci, an unemployed factory worker (non-actor Lamberto Maggiorani) who finds a job putting up posters around Rome that requires the use of a bicycle. After selling his bedsheets to get his bike out of hock, Antonio finds that his bicycle is tragically stolen, a turn of events that causes him to spend the day looking for the thief with the aid of his young son Bruno (Enzo Staioloa). A humanistic portrait of despair that has never been bettered.

Bitter Rice (De Santis, 1949)

A fascinating melodrama/film noir/Neorealist hybrid set among female rice workers in the Po valley. The voluptuous Silvana Mangano became an international star overnight for her portrayal of Silvana, a working girl tempted by the bounty of a thief on the run. A huge commercial success upon its release due to its unbridled depiction of earthy sexuality, Bitter Rice still packs a memorable erotic punch today.

Stromboli (Rossellini, 1950)

After helping to define Neorealism only a few years earlier, Roberto Rossellini abruptly turned his back on the movement with this astonishing Ingrid Bergman-starring melodrama, the first in a profitable cycle of such films. An Eastern European woman (Bergman) agrees to marry an Italian fisherman in order to escape a prison camp in the aftermath of WWII. But life in the fishing of village of Stromboli isn’t all that she hoped it would be, which leads to a startling existential crisis. A film of both incredible documentary value (the tuna fishing sequence!) and visceral erotic symbolism.

The Gold of Naples (De Sica, 1954)

Following the box office flop of the bleak Neorealist Umberto D in 1952, director Vittorio de Sica returned to directing the light comedy that characterized his early work. He also returned to his native Napoli for this delightful anthology of comic vignettes: a gangster forges an unlikely relationship with a clown, a down-on-his luck aristocrat gambles with a child, a prostitute gets married, an unfaithful woman searches for her missing wedding ring. The incredible use of Neapolitan locations and the high-powered cast of glamorous actors (Sophia Loren, Silvana Mangano, de Sica himeself) make this arguably the most Italian film on this list.

Senso (Visconti, 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.

Journey to Italy (AKA Journey to Italy) (Rossellini, 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.

Il Grido (Antonioni, 1957)

Il Grido is unusual for Michelangelo Antonioni in that it focuses on a working class character (the first and last time he would do so) but is typical of the director in almost every other respect: a near plotless series of events, the theme of the alienating effects of modernity, a generally bleak tone and a fine compositional eye for landscapes and architecture. The American actor Steve Cochran is very good as the mechanic who breaks up with his long-term girlfriend, then takes her daughter on the road where he drifts through a series of casual affairs. Fascinating in its own right but even more so seeing how it prefigures an epic stretch of greatness that would begin with Antonioni’s very next film, 1960’s Lavventura.

Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957)

This is in my opinion the best of Fellini’s pre-Dolce Vita films, a relatively fleet and stylistically subdued valentine to the genius acting talent of his wife Giulietta Masina. Here she plays the title character, an eternally optimistic prostitute who works the streets of Rome while conscientiously saving money and dreaming of a better life. The picaresque narrative takes her through a series of adventures both humorous and heartbreaking, climaxing in an extraordinary final shot, a tribute to an indomitable spirit that will permanently burn itself into your brain.

To be continued . . .


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