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Tag Archives: Yasujiro Ozu

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)

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A Post-War Japanese Cinema Primer

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

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

Late Spring (Ozu, 1949)

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

Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952)

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

The Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, 1952)

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

Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)

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

Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, 1953)

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

Gojira (Honda, 1954)

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

Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)

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

Twenty-Four Eyes (Kinoshita, 1954)

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

Floating Clouds (Naruse, 1955)

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

The Samurai Trilogy (Inagaki, 1954-1956)

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

Crazed Fruit (Nakahira, 1956)

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

Giants and Toys (Masamura, 1958)

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

Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa, 1959)

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


A Pre-War Japanese Cinema Primer

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

A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, 1926)

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

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

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

Apart from You (Naruse, 1933)

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

Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, 1934)

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

A Story of Floating Weeds (Ozu, 1934)

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

Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, 1936)

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

The Only Son (Ozu, 1936)

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

Osaka Elegy (Mizoguchi, 1936)

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

Sisters of the Gion (Mizoguchi, 1936)

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

Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, 1937)

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

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, 1939)

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

The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, 1941)

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


Top Ten Home Video Releases of 2010

Below is a list of my fifty favorite home video releases of 2010 – the top ten in preferential order and a 40-way tie(!) for number eleven. The only titles below that I didn’t actually purchase were the Von Sternberg, Costa and Gaumont box sets, which I rented instead, and that was mainly due to my fear that they will become available in better quality Blu-ray editions in the near future. In making the list, I arrived at my rankings by averaging my estimation of the quality of the movie as a whole, the image/sound transfer and the supplemental material. I also decided to spread the love around a little by including only one film per distributor in my top ten. Criterion and Masters of Cinema would have otherwise locked up most of those slots and I believe that a lot of other distribution companies deserve recognition for the brilliant work they’ve done. As this list should make clear, we are living in a true golden age of home video where the history of world cinema is readily available in breathtaking quality as it never has been before (at least for anyone with a multi-region Blu-ray player).

The Top Ten (preferential order):

10. Dust in the Wind (Hou, Taiwan, 1987) – Central Pictures / Sony Music Blu-ray

This disc isn’t perfect. For one thing, the image is interlaced instead of progressive scan. But this is such a quantum leap over the old non-anamorphic DVDs in every other area (clarity, color, depth and contrast), that I was still ecstatic to see it. The film itself, a delicate love story about teenage country bumpkins who move to Taipei in search of greater opportunity in the 1960s, remains one of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s best early works, paving the way for the opening segment of his masterpiece Three Times. I had previously thought of the cinematography in this movie as merely functional. Sony’s Blu-ray proves that it’s actually very beautiful. I can’t wait for more HHH in HD!

9. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – Universal Blu-ray

Universal haven’t gotten things 100% right when it comes to Blu-ray. They haven’t been as meticulous about image quality as, say, Warner Brothers (see last year’s perfect North By Northwest disc for comparison), and I find their generic menus especially annoying. But I did enjoy Psycho‘s subtle but effective new 5.1 surround sound mix, which did not require the recording of new music/effects tracks like the blasphemous 1990s “restoration” of Vertigo. Bottom line: this version is the best that Alfred Hitchcock’s most disturbing film has ever looked and sounded on home video and is an essential addition to any serious movie library. More here.

8. Le Cercle Rouge (Melville, France, 1970) – Studio Canal Blu-ray

Jolly am I made by what I consider the greatest of all heist pictures, a crime subgenre of which I am quite fond! Studio Canal deserves kudos for being the first to marry Jean-Pierre Melville, the undisputed king of French film noir, with the Blu-ray format. The end result is a thing of beauty, more than making up for their botched job of Godard’s Le Mepris from last year. Now bring on the Criterion Army of Shadows. Full review here.

7. A Star Is Born (Cukor, USA, 1954) – Warner Brothers Blu-ray

Warner Brothers has consistently bested the other Hollywood studios when it comes to putting out lovingly restored, high-quality Blu-ray discs of their “catalogue titles.” For me, their best 2010 offering was this new high-def transfer of Ron Haver’s 1983 labor-of-love restoration of George Cukor’s epic musical/melodrama. Judy Garland’s force of nature performance as rising star Vicki Lester has caused many to regard this as the greatest “one woman show” in film history but I think it’s James Mason’s quietly devastating performance as fading movie star Norman Maine that gives A Star is Born its soul. The Blu-ray format is particularly well-suited to Cukor’s mise-en-scene, which alternates between brilliantly vibrant Technicolor sequences and unusually dark images with diffused shadows dominating.

6. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956) – Gaumont Blu-ray

French distributor Gaumont made my dreams come true by releasing one of my favorite movies ever in a region-free edition with English subtitles. The image quality may not provide as eye-poppingly drastic of an upgrade over previous editions as did their immaculate restoration of Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (also available region-free with English subs). But A Man Escaped, an exciting prison escape drama made in Robert Bresson’s inimitable “essentialist” style, is simply the better movie and, indeed, one of the towering achievements of the film medium. Hopefully, the rest of his catalogue will soon follow. Full review here.

5. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929) – Carlotta Blu-ray

The still-underrated Frank Borzage is the most romantic filmmaker of all time and Lucky Star from 1929 may be his finest hour: a luminous melodrama concerning the love that blossoms between a farm girl (the always superb Janet Gaynor) and a disabled WWI vet (a never better Charles Farrell). Incredibly, this was a “lost” film until a print turned up in the Netherlands in 1990. That print serves as the source for this transfer and appears to be in remarkably good shape — better than any prints Fox had in their vaults of Borzage’s other silents. Strange that a Hollywood masterpiece like this would only be available on Blu-ray from a distributor in France, but this is an essential purchase for lovers of silent film.

4. Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927) – Kino Blu-ray

Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece looks more prescient than ever in this “complete” cut, in which 25 minutes have been restored for the first time since the film’s 1927 premiere. The missing footage was long considered one of cinema’s holy grails (alongside the missing footage from Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons), so this release is cause for celebration. Kino’s Blu-ray is perfect. More here.

3. Late Spring / The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1949) – BFI Blu-ray

Last summer, the British Film Institute did the world of cinephilia a massive favor by releasing four of Yasujiro Ozu’s best films on Blu-ray (with more on the way in 2011). Two of his most sublime domestic dramas about intergenerational family conflict, The Only Son from 1936 and Late Spring from 1949, appeared on a single disc, automatically vaulting it to the top of my list of the year’s best releases. This is how all high-definition transfers should look — as faithful as possible to the experience of seeing the films as they would look projected in a theater, including whatever damage is inherent to the original film elements. Very film-like and very beautiful. Full review here.

2. Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1945-1948) – The Criterion Collection DVD

If this had been a Blu-ray release, it would have unquestionably been number one on my list. But since good transfers of Roberto Rossellini’s monumental World War II trilogy have never truly existed on home video in any format, I can only be grateful to Criterion for the hard work that must have gone into restoring these films and presenting them on standard DVD in the impressive shape in which they appear here. (Paisan in particular seems to have been rescued from oblivion.) The movies themselves are definitive neo-realism, using a mix of professional and non-professional actors, location shooting with studio sets, and relaying ambiguous, loosely constructed narratives concerning the Italian resistance to the German occupation (Rome Open City) and the aftermath of the war in both Italy (Paisan) and Germany (Germany Year Zero). But it’s the copious supplemental material, including feature-length documentaries, interviews with Rossellini and an enlightening “visual essay” by Tag Gallagher, that pushes this to the front ranks of Criterion’s most important releases ever.

1. City Girl (F.W. Murnau, USA, 1930) – Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray

F.W. Murnau’s romantic masterpiece, without which Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven would be unthinkable, finally gets the treatment it deserves from the good folks at Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. The story is the flip-side of Sunrise, where the good-hearted title character from Chicago moves with her new husband to a Minnesota farm only to find her existence made a living hell by her live-in father-in-law. This contains some of the most visually ecstatic and transcendental moments in all of cinema, such as the swooping, swooning camera movement that follows Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan as they run through a wheat field before collapsing to the ground in newlywed bliss. The image quality of this Blu-ray is so clean and so pristine that it sets the bar impossibly high for all future HD transfers of silent-era films.

Runners Up (alphabetical order):

11. 3 Silent Classics by Joseph Von Sternberg (Von Sternberg, Criterion DVD)
12. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Kino Blu-ray)
13. Bigger Than Life (Ray, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
15. Breathless (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
16. Close-Up (Kiarostami Criterion Blur-ray)
17. Cronos (Del Toro, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Days of Heaven (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
19. Early Summer / What Did the Lady Forget? (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
20. The Exorcist (Friedkin, Warner Brothers Blu-ray)
21. Fallen Angels (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
22. Fantomas (Feuillade, Kino DVD)
23. French Can Can (Renoir, Gaumont Blu-ray)
24. Gaumont Treasures 1897 – 1913 (Feuillade/Guy/Perret, Kino DVD)
25. Happy Together (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
26. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, Summit Blu-ray)
27. The Leopard (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
28. Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films By Pedro Costa (Costa, Criterion DVD)
29. Lola Montes (Ophuls, Criterion Blu-ray)
30. M (Lang, Criterion Blu-ray)
31. Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
32. Modern Times (Chaplin, Criterion Blu-ray)
33. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, Studio Canal Blu-ray)
34. Night of the Hunter (Laughton, Criterion Blu-ray)
35. Peeping Tom (Powell, Optimum Blu-ray)
36. Profound Desires of the Gods (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
37. Red Desert (Antonioni, Criterion Blu-ray)
38. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
39. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Criterion Blu-ray)
40. Sherlock Jr. / The Three Ages (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
41. Shutter Island (Scorsese, Paramount Blu-ray)
42. Stagecoach (Ford, Criterion Blu-ray)
43. Steamboat Bill Jr. (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
44. The Thin Red Line (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
45. Tokyo Story / Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Ozu BFI Blu-ray)
46. Une Femme Mariee (Godard, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
47. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
48. Vengeance Trilogy (Park, Palisades Tartan Blu-ray)
49. Vivre sa Vie (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray)
50. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, Arte Video Blu-ray)


Ozu on Blu

I will probably always remember 2010 as the year I finally went crazy, going from the kind of person who has a mere “DVD collection” to the owner of a massive “home video library.” With a tinge of self-justification, I offer two reasons for this: 1) This was the year I went from teaching film studies part-time to teaching film studies full-time. I figure I might as well purchase (as opposed to rent) any movie I show in class since I will undoubtedly be showing it again in many more future classes. And 2) Last Christmas my wife generously bestowed upon me a multi-region Blu-ray player capable of playing any Blu-ray disc or DVD manufactured anywhere in the world. Now what’s the point of having such a fancy-schmancy piece of equipment if I don’t take advantage of it by purchasing a bunch of Blu-ray discs and DVD from Europe, Asia and Australia, hmmm? The subject of this blog post concerns recent Blu-ray releases from the British Film Institute that to my mind completely justify owning said multi-region player.

Oftentimes when I remark to friends, family or students that I recently watched an older movie (for instance, The Searchers) on Blu-ray, the response is something along the lines of an incredulous, “But why do you need to see that in HD when it wasn’t even shot on HD?” This invariably leads to me giving a brief lecture on the fact that the image resolution of 35mm film is superior to high definition digital (it contains twice as much visual information) and that the image resolution of HD is likewise superior to “standard definition” video. Therefore watching a Blu-ray disc of a movie shot in 35mm from any year is going to bring the home viewer much closer to the experience of seeing the “real thing” (i.e. what you see in the theater) than watching a standard def DVD of the same movie; you are literally seeing more of the original image.

Consumer confusion over what one is ultimately getting out of these various formats is understandable though, especially when most distributors appear reticent to remaster their older catalog titles in HD and release them on the brave new Blu-ray format. Even the Criterion Collection, a national treasure if ever that could be said about a home video distributor and a company that has already given the world quite a few exemplary Blu-ray releases, has helped to perpetuate the myth that only movies that can be said to be visually spectacular benefit from the Blu-ray treatment; some of the most significant Criterion releases of the year are older titles that have unfortunately been given standard DVD releases only, including Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy, Make Way for Tomorrow and a new trio of Josef Von Sternberg silents.

Therefore I am especially grateful to the BFI for throwing down the gauntlet with Blu-ray releases of four films by Yasujiro Ozu. Although Ozu is arguably the greatest of all Japanese directors and there is a near-critical consensus that his films are transcendentally uplifting in a way that is purely cinematic, his filmmaking art also has the reputation of being, how shall I say, visually modest. The four BFI releases, The Only Son, Late Spring, Early Summer and Tokyo Story, were all made between 1936 and 1953, shot on black and white film stock in the square “Academy ratio” and use lighting set-ups and camera lenses that were standard for the time. What’s more, Ozu’s movies are notorious for a pronounced lack of moving camera (nearly all of his shots are taken from a static low angle) and a unique use of cutaway shots to seemingly random exteriors in place of the dissolves, fades and other optical effects that traditionally mark a transition between scenes. So for those wondering how much these titles can possibly benefit from an HD upgrade, the answer is, well, a hell of a lot.

These BFI releases come as three separate packages, each spanning two discs, in which one of the director’s postwar masterpieces (Late Spring, Early Summer and Tokyo Story) is presented on Blu-ray and bundled together with a standard DVD version of an earlier, thematically similar prewar work (The Only Son, What Did the Lady Forget? and The Brothers and Sisters of The Toda Family). (As Ozu obsessively revisited the same themes, this was quite easy to do.) The Late Spring release has the added bonus of containing The Only Son, not coincidentally the best of the earlier films, on Blu-ray as well standard DVD. Come December, this Late Spring / The Only Son Blu-ray disc will almost surely be at the top of my list of the best home video releases of the year.

For me, the most revelatory aspect of these new transfers is how much they changed my perception of Ozu’s masterful tonal use of black and white. Having seen all of the later films previously on standard DVD, I was always under the mistaken impression that Ozu’s movies were exceptionally gray in tone. Now, with the increased tonal range of Blu-ray, we are able to see greater contrast between tones than ever before. Blacks especially appear inkier, deeper and richer. Across all of the films, the dark scenes appear much darker, in a way that is more pleasing to the eye and truer to the original source material, than what we’ve seen in previous home video incarnations. The increased clarity of the Blu-ray format leads to increased detail in the image as well; I was amazed by the highlights in Setsuko Hara’s hair, for instance, in certain close-ups from Late Spring where she appears dramatically backlit.

Of course, increased clarity also means an increase in the amount of visible damage to the original film elements from which these transfers were made. There are vertical hairline scratches running through all of the films that the BFI has chosen wisely not to try and eliminate. As one might expect, the oldest film of the bunch, The Only Son, has the most damage (but nothing more than what you would see watching an old 35mm print). An example of too much digital clean-up can be found in fellow English label ITV’s Blu-ray disc of Brief Encounter from a couple years ago; that problematic release suffered from an excessive use of “digital noise reduction,” leading to an image that appears superficially smooth and polished but also has less clarity overall and is not an accurate representation of the film’s true look. (This is the same problem record labels face when restoring audio recordings from the early 20th century; it is not possible to reduce “tape hiss” without also removing room tone and thus part of the music as well.)

But finally, none of the remarkable clarity, detail and contrast of these images would matter if not for the remarkable beauty of the films themselves. For many, the highlight of these releases will be 1953’s Tokyo Story, a film that has somewhat ironically become regarded as the greatest Japanese movie ever made. Unlike the post-war masterpieces of Ozu’s compatriots Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, Tokyo Story did not receive distribution in the west until the 1970s. Most film distributors thought Ozu’s movie was “too Japanese” and would not be easily understood outside of its native country. Today, this is almost difficult to comprehend as Tokyo Story seems as timeless and universal as the plays of William Shakespeare. In contrast to Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, who specialized in period films, Ozu made contemporary movies almost exclusively. He also examined the same central theme repeatedly, the conflict between generations within the contemporary Japanese family. Tokyo Story, for instance, is about an elderly Japanese couple who leave their small hometown of Onomichi to visit their grown-up children in Tokyo. Upon arrival, they find that their children don’t have much time to spend with them and even treat their parents as if they are a nuisance.

What’s perhaps most amazing about the film is the way Ozu takes pains to extend sympathy toward all of the characters in the film, even the most ungrateful of the couple’s children, so that their attitudes seem understandable and indeed inevitable. This lends Tokyo Story a bittersweet tone that is crystallized in the film’s famous climactic moment: one heartbroken character looks at another and asks, “Isn’t life disappointing?” The response comes from the aforementioned Setsuko Hara, a terrific actress whose often-smiling countenance seems to radiate goodness. “Yes,” Ms. Hara, says with resignation. “I’m afraid it is.”

In this moment Ozu seems to acknowledge the inherent sadness of life — that families are destined to disintegrate and that all things must pass. And yet there is nothing maudlin about the scene, which is directed, like many of Ozu’s finest, with exquisite understatement; instead, it represents a clear-eyed understanding of the ebb and flow of life. This is what Ozu’s powerful, transformative art is all about. These are films that have changed my life and how I relate to my own parents. These films deserve the Blu-ray treatment because they are priceless treasures from the golden age of Japanese cinema and the best movies deserve to be seen on home video in the best possible quality. For those unfamiliar with Ozu’s work, these BFI Blu-rays offer an ideal introduction and I would heartily recommend a blind buy.


Top 25 Films of the 1950s

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

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

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

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

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

22. Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)

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

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

river

20. Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)

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

19. Senso (Visconti, Italy, 1954)

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

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

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

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

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

15. Park Row (Fuller, USA, 1952)

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

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

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

13. Floating Clouds (Naruse, Japan, 1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)

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

4. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)

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

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

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

2. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953)

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

1. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

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


Top 25 Films of the 1940s

25. The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, Japan, 1941)

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

24. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, USA, 1944)

23. Going My Way (McCarey, USA, 1944)

bing crosby, gene lockhart & barry fitzgerald - going my way 1944

22. Colorado Territory (Walsh, USA, 1949)

21. Laura (Preminger, USA, 1944)

20. Notorious (Hitchcock, USA, 1946)

19. Children of Paradise (Carne, France, 1945)

The best collaboration of director Marcel Carne and writer Jacques Prevert is this epic tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century theater. Baptiste is a mime who falls in love with aspiring actress Garance. His shyness prevents their affair from being consummated and they go their separate ways until, years later, fate brings them back together for one last shot at romance. Both the behind the scenes look at theater and the depiction of 19th century France are lovingly detailed and passionately executed. This is sometimes referred to as a French Gone with the Wind but it’s actually much better than even that would suggest. One of the all-time great French movies.

18. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

17. Brief Encounter (Lean, UK, 1945)

David Lean will probably always be best remembered for lavish, 70mm-photographed Oscar-friendly pictures like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but I think his relatively early Brief Encounter remains the high point of his career. It’s a minimalist story of adulterous love as “brief” and compressed as the later films are expansive and epic, and arguably all the more effective for it. The performances of Trevor Howard and doe-eyed Celia Johnson as the star-crossed lovers and the script by Noel Coward are all world class. In a memorable line of dialogue Celia’s Laura says “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” If “violence” can be considered purely emotional then this is one of the most violent movies ever made.

16. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, USA, 1943)

15. The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949)

In Carol Reed’s classic British noir Joseph Cotton stars Holly Martins, a dime store novelist who travels to Vienna to visit childhood pal Harry Lime only to find that his friend has died in a mysterious accident. Martins’ belief that Lime was murdered inspires a personal investigation that leads him deep into the morally dubious heart of the postwar European black market as well as into a love affair with Lime’s beautiful girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Among the film’s unforgettable ingredients are the catchy zither score by Anton Karas, the legendary extended cameo by Orson Welles and the cinematography of Robert Krasker, whose use of dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting make the rubble-strewn Viennese streets look positively lunar.

14. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1948)

13. Late Spring (Ozu, Japan, 1949)

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

12. Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II (Eisenstein, Russian, 1944-1958)

ivan

11. Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945)

10. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, USA, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

9. Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)

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

8. Spring in a Small Town (Fei, China, 1948)

7. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, 1946)

William Wyler’s hard-hitting film about returning war veterans readjusting to civilian life holds up extremely well today as an absorbing drama as well as a fascinating window into the myriad social issues facing ordinary, small town Americans in the mid-1940s. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography and the large ensemble cast, including Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and non-actor Harold Russell, are world-class.

6. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948)

As “The Archers,” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collectively wrote and directed the most extraordinary movies of the golden age of British cinema and The Red Shoes is their masterpiece. Taking its inspiration from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, this beautiful, visually baroque Technicolor extravaganza tells the story of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) who is torn between the desires of her heart and the quest for perfection in her craft. The highlight is the title ballet sequence, a fifteen minute scene employing dozens of dancers and over a hundred painted backdrops, shot and cut together as a thrilling spectacle of pure cinema. One of the great films about obsession. One of the great films about the artistic process. One of the great films period.

5. Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942)

A strong candidate for the most entertaining movie ever made, Casablanca irresistibly weds the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good to a love story set against a backdrop of wartime intrigue. Mix in Bogie and Bergman at their most iconic, deliciously witty dialogue, a cast of colorful supporting characters played by unforgettable character actors and the able craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz and you have Exhibit A for anyone looking to understand the genius of Hollywood’s old studio system.

4. Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

3. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, Italy, 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.

2. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941)

The failure of the Academy to award Best Picture of 1941 to Citizen Kane is often cited as definitive “proof” that the Oscars have always been out of touch – the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. However, as innovative and influential and great as Kane is, John Ford’s deeply moving portrait of life in a 19th century Welsh mining community is nearly as cinematically expressive and, for my money, the more emotionally affecting work. Ironically, How Green Was My Valley is very similar to Kane in its treatment of the theme of subjectivity; what we see is not after all objective reality but the romanticized memories of Irving Pichel’s offscreen narrator.

1. Letter From an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, USA, 1948)

Set in Vienna in the early twentieth century, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece tells the incredible story of the title letter-writer (Joan Fontaine) and her three brief but fateful encounters with a ne’er-do-well pianist (Louis Jourdan) over the course of several decades. His inability to recognize her on the latter two occasions elevates the simple plot, which is recounted via flashback, to the level of high tragedy. Fontaine is heart-breaking in the lead role but the real star is German-born, French-bred director Max Ophuls, whose relentless use of tracking shots has made him virtually synonymous with that type of camera movement and has been a major influence on subsequent directors from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson.


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