06 January 2011

THE BEST FILMS OF ALL TIME: #56-65

The complete list
Introduction
#1-5 #6-15 #16-25 #26-35 #36-45 #46-55
#56-65 #66-75 #76-85 #86-95 #96-105 #106-115

65. North by Northwest
(Alfred Hitchcock, 1959, USA)

A succulent, gooey confection by a master chef at the top of his game, someone who doesn't have to make something this glib and insubstantial except that it delights him to do so; how is it possible that this film is nestled in Hitchcock's career between the psychiatric efflux of Vertigo and the barbarity of Psycho (and did any filmmaker ever have such a run of three films in three consecutive years, before or since)? The most technically perfect director in history never topped this film for sheer craftsmanship: every detail from casting to design to music is exactly right, and the result is American cinema's finest pure thrill ride, an elegant clockwork piece that runs the audience through 134 of the most deliriously fun adventures ever put to film. The precise command of the medium that made Hitch the Master of Suspense was never put to more ecstatic use.


64. Sans soleil
(Chris Marker, 1983, France)

Speaking of Hitchcock: Marker has always been obsessed with the ways that cinematic forms create meaning, and one of the key ingredients in his intoxicating stew of ideas is Vertigo, which he describes as a study of how memory is represented. An excellent touchstone, therefore, for Marker's own film, a confounding essay on perception and the memory of perception, though who precisely is writing that essay is a question that isn't answered too very easily - see, he's questioning who or what is perceiving this perceptual odyssey! I see what you did there. Given its subject matter, it's hardly surprising that the film can't be "solved" in any conventional sense; it's about experiencing and reacting, and the mental state that the viewer arrives at as a result of viewing the film, which in this as in other ways is more formally akin to a musical composition than a motion picture. (Reviewed here)


63. Sunset Blvd.
(Billy Wilder, 1950, USA)

Classical Hollywood's most cynical filmmaker, Billy Wilder, and classical Hollywood's most cynical genre, film noir, met several times over the years - it was sort of an ideal pairing, you might say - but the ne plus ultra of their pessimistic liaisons was this nasty, brittle, hilarious thriller about a former screen legend and the acidic screenwriter she keeps as a gigolo. It is, almost beyond question, the most barbed assault on the studio system and Hollywood culture made from within; in showing with such melodramatic ghastliness the way that the movie business devours its own, Wilder was playing the provocateur while also getting to tell a singularly entertaining and at times genuinely touching story of human weakness, a quintessentially American satire of fame and the obsessive desire for second chances that could only take place in California, home of gilt and excess, the world capital of broken dreams.


62. Grand Illusion
AKA La grande illusion
(Jean Renoir, 1937, France)

Not his most beautiful work, but the one that reveals the most about what makes Renoir Renoir: the justly-famed use of a roving, peering camera to flesh out the characters by focusing on the world they inhabit; the focus on class issues, suggesting that even in time of war, social status will unite men more than nationality will; but mostly the lyrical humanism, the overflowing affect he so clearly feels for everyone of his characters, even the most self-evidently rotten among them, even when it's clear that for some of them to be happy, others must suffer. Doubtlessly, t it's the wartime setting that does it: nothing brings out the urgency of the humanist artist like a war story, and if Renoir was anything, he was the most elegantly humane of all filmmakers, and in this film he created one of the most moving anti-war statements produced in any medium.


61. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
AKA Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes
(Werner Herzog, 1972, West Germany)

A visionary madman takes his followers into the South American jungle based solely on the strength of his own convictions, and as conditions deteriorate and morale collapses, it is only this charismatic, possibly psychotic leader who keeps things moving forward in the face of all sanity and morality. I am of course describing the making of the film as well as its plot; as the source of some of the most notorious backstage anecdotes in cinema history, the story of how Aguirre is its own making-of-documentary is well-known to all. Which is part of what makes the most dangerously Herzogian of all Herzog movies a masterpiece for all time; the other part is that, simply put, nobody but nobody could portray the human mind fracturing like Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, and they never did so with such terrifying intimacy as here. Apocalyptic nihilism at its most poetic.


60. The Earrings of Madame de...
AKA Madame de...
(Max Ophuls, 1953, France / Italy)

Otherwise sensible cinephiles have a tendency to get quite silly about Ophuls, a director who adored opulence to distraction, and as a result made the most sumptuous period pieces known to history (compared to Ophuls at his most unrestrained, Von Sternberg was an ascetic). This wouldn't necessarily speak well of him, but at his best, as in this torrid anti-romance, the overstuffed mise en scène, and the pornish enthusiasm with which it is photographed, serves as counterpoint to the materialist characters, whose attachment to places and objects - to "stuff" - is a symbol of their frightfully constrained inner lives. This is kept from being as obvious and message-ey as it sounds largely because of how sympathetic those characters are nonetheless: it is no fault of theirs that they live in a world which punishes genuine emotion, and their desire to feel something real is the heart of the drama.


59. L'avventura
(Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960, Italy / France)

Hailed as the film to reinvent film, L'avventura hasn't quite had that legacy, if only because later generations have been too scared to Go Therewith such conviction; the hyper-modern treatment of characters as objects stripped of their personalities by the speed of contemporary life, framed in that idiosyncratic and highly characterstic aesthetic that the director essentially invented and perfected in one try, is just about the iciest thing in a decade where major European filmmakers seemed to have an unofficial contest going on to see who could be the most depressing. But though L'avventura may be harsh, and its chilly framing in which humans are suffocated by the emptiness of their environment may be intense just in stills, there's not another film out there that documents so precisely how humanity is mangled by the race to be fashionable and beautiful, a nightmarish companion piece to that year's La dolce vita.


58. Nashville
(Robert Altman, 1975, USA)

If you know but one thing about Altman, it's that he was fond of ensemble-heavy studios of communities; in his most towering achievement, that community was the United States of America on the cusp of its 200th birthday. Given the filmmaker's noted lack of sentiment, it's hardly a surprise that he's not terribly excited by what he sees as the state of a country falling far short of its potential, and its inflated vision of itself; but even in this caustic piss-take of celebrity and politics and pop culture, there's room for genuinely decent people, just trying to get through another day, whether they're rich or poor, famous or anonymous. With its groundbreaking editing and sound mixing, it's ultimately about the way strangers interact with one another, culminating in the blended cynicism and sincerity of the final scene, a beautiful snapshot of people looking for safety in unity.


57. Cléo from 5 to 7
AKA Cléo de 5 à 7
(Agnès Varda, 1962, France / Italy)

The boys of the French New Wave were, after all, boys first and foremost, which is why (with the possible exception of Godard's Vivre sa vie), their female characters are mostly unconvincing; it's probably not surprising that it took the movement's token woman to correct all of her colleagues, though Cléo, despite an indelibly sketched woman at its heart, can't rightly be called a "feminist" picture. There's nothing politically or culturally motivated in this harsh, illuminating character study, which is first and always about the mind of one flaky, nerve-wracked pop star (played with no exceptional sensitivity by Corinne Marchand) trying desperately to fill two hours while waiting for a potential medical death sentence. Varda keeps the tone light with formal experimentation as challenging as fun as anything her colleagues did, but always in service of something more serious than sex, violence, and genre goofs.


56. Paris, Texas
(Wim Wenders, 1984, West Germany / France / United Kingdom)

The iconography of the American West, laid open as only a foreigner working from a script by a homegrown playwright could do it. Setting the return of an amnesiac man (Harry Dean Stanton, in one of the great performances of the 1980s) to his family against the unfathomable vastness of the Texan desert, the film looks like a document of an alien culture and planet: never did the southwest seem so remote and desolate as it does here, especially with a placid, questing Ry Cooder score. Yet despite how much the film works to seem absolutely inscrutable, as the viewer settles into its glacial pace and imperturbable fascination with landscapes, it becomes more and more comfortable and familiar, until we, like Stanton's Travis, are fully prepared to confront the end of his journey, an ethereal third act that reaches a transcendence found in so very few movies.

2 comments:

JPK said...

Wow, you've got so many homeruns in this stretch -- North by Northwest, Sunset Blvd., Grand Illusion, Aguirre, Nashville -- that I'm just going to go ahead and give the benefit of the doubt to the Marker, Varda, and Wenders. "Give Paris one more chance," as that wise man Jonathan Richman tells us to do. This is a great list, and getting better.

javi75 said...

I think "North by Northwest" is so overrated. Although the comedy in it is brilliant (the elevator scene is one of my favorites ever). But overall I don't like it. You mention "fun" as an important value in the appreciation of the movie, but that's such a subjective and matter of taste thing. I think "The 39 steps" is more fun, because it feels fresh, naive and charming, whereas "NbN" feels maybe too self-conscius.