Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Essential Cinema: Fourth Tier “Congratulations you are now a know-it-all”

Here we are at the end of our odyssey, picking up the pieces and tackling a few remaining masterpieces with a savage abandon. Together we’ve conquered all the fears of genre, era, and nationality and can measure each film by equal criteria. This is what’s left of your initial tutelage in film history if you will.

Now because this is the all of the above list, I don’t necessarily want to make the point that these films are less than their predecessors, somehow not as important as the films populating the first three tiers. True enough not all films are created equal and even amongst the greatest some just tower over others. That isn’t my way of belittling the films left for the final installment. Nor am I necessarily saving the best for last and assuming that only with the most refined cultural palette can you successfully navigate through this last treacherous path (that was reserved for the third tier). I may even be a bit guilty of being arbitrary at least with this post. Maybe some of these films could have fit into one of the other tiers, but perhaps I was trying too hard to make the above groups easier to digest, so that said there are a lot more films in this list than the others. If you want to do the math, simply add up all the first tier films and subtract that by 100.

Since I have a whole lot of mini-capsule reviews to do I’ll try to make the exposition short and make a few summary points. First off, this is a list of inclusion not seclusion. This list should not be defined by what is left off, but rather by what is on it. I know that there are a few films that might make you scratch your head or throw up your hands in disgust, but try to resist the urge in defaming the whole project because one of your sacred cinematic treasures is absent. Perhaps someday I may revisit the concept and add something of a supplemental or further viewing list. There are a lot more great films where these come from and in many cases one film is standing in for many others. This should be a gateway to those other worlds. All of these films are available in some capacity (might have to search a little harder for some and even dust off your old VCR on one or two occasions) and well since I’ve seen them all you should be able to as well. I didn’t write one of those 1001 Movies to See Before You Die lists that would take a large majority of you decades to finish, this is simply 100, so it can be done.

With all that said, feel free to let me hear it if I dropped the ball in dramatic fashion with this list. There are a lot of films that I’m kicking myself for leaving off and a few that I can’t honestly say I have a 100% confidence in their selection. It’s not an exact science, but I feel I’ve done as good a job as anyone could have, what say you?

Fourth Tier

Annie Hall (1977) - Dir. Woody Allen

Where to put Woody Allen has been a topic I’ve debated for awhile. First tier status seemed a bit high, and well this film isn’t terribly esoteric or even depressing, so well here he is. Woody Allen is a household name, often times for the wrong reason, but when staring at his never ending filmography you may wonder just where the hell to start. So I say start with Annie Hall, it’s hilarious, it’s genius, and it’s well liked by just about everyone whose seen a Woody Allen film. Diane Keaton was never better and this helped set up the second and most successful phase of Allen’s career that took him from comedian to full fledged auteur.

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) - Dir. Andrzej Wajda

I’ll come out and say it, this is the best Polish movie ever made. In fact this might be the best foreign film of the 50s, a decade that saw the emergence of Kurosawa, Ray, and Bergman. Wajda’s film was the final part in a trilogy that shares a common theme but isn’t one in terms of plot and character. It tells of the final 24 hours of WWII where two people find themselves exchanging Nazis for communists and wondering what the point of it all was. Shot with intricate staging and tons of deep focus compositions it has a very distinct look and feel to it and helped establish a major Polish national cinema.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) - Dir. Arthur Penn

Bridging the gap between the French New Wave and America’s re-emergence in the 70s was Bonnie and Clyde. Ignored and largely dismissed when it was first released, in the following months it gained enough steam to get 10 Oscar nominations. The film broke new ground in cinematic violence and it’s style helped usher in a new wave for American filmmakers who were now asserting themselves as distinctive cinematic voices like their much lauded European counterparts. Even though the story of Bonnie and Clyde had been told several times already this version would prove to be the most iconic and enduring of all lovers on the run movies.

Children of Paradise (1945) - Dir. Marcel Carne

Considered by many to be the “Gone with the Wind of French Cinema” this film was one of the wonders of creation. How a picture of this magnitude and scale was filmed under Nazi occupation is still baffling today. It is the final culmination in a very prosperous collaboration between filmmaker Carne and screenwriter Jacques Prevert who helped define the poetic realism movement in the previous decade. It tells of an epic period love triangle that is well so much more about life and art and everything under the sun. Like a good epic this moves at a very brisk pace and finds a way to still leave you full and simultaneously wanting more. One of the greatest triumphs of all French cinema.

Chinatown (1974) - Dir. Roman Polanski

The best known director to emerge from the new and improved Polish film industry wound up not being Wajda but Roman Polanski. His notoriety is the stuff of legend but before all that he found himself directing a string of astonishing films on the other side of the Atlantic. One of the high points of Robert Evans tenure as head or production at Paramount, Chinatown was a period piece that helped define and set the bar for what was to be called neo-noir. It was intense, violent, and sordid in all the best ways, perhaps the best of all detective films and featuring iconic performances from Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and even a very memorable scene with Polanski himself. The film helps explain at least one theory as to how LA got to be where it is today.

Do the Right Thing (1989) - Dir. Spike Lee

In the late 80s Spike Lee led something of a revolution in black cinema. Mixing the personal projects of Charles Burnett with the action of Gordon Parks, Lee crafted a cinema that was truly unique and inspired a wave of contemporaries to follow in his footsteps. Do the Right Thing is in all honesty a little dated when it comes to the fashion and music, but it’s message is as powerful as ever. Taking place over a very hot and tumultuous summer day in Brooklyn it is a parable for all the racial tension facing the nation and looks ahead to some of the riots that would happen in LA in particular a few years later. Malcolm X might be a better film, but hard to say this one wasn’t more important.

Some Like it Hot (1959) - Dir. Billy Wilder

Yeah I wanted to put this in the first tier. Considered by many to be the funniest film of all time this is undoubtedly the greatest film Marilyn Monroe was ever associated with (that means you All About Eve) and the comedic high point of arguably the 20th century’s greatest screen director of comedies, Billy Wilder. Wilder got his start in Germany and when he came to the US became one of the top writers of screwball comedies at Paramount. Once he became a director in his own right he went to great lengths to establish his abilities as a dramatic filmmaker (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard) but when he played a film just for laughs he proved that he was still better at it than anyone.

Duck Soup (1933) - Dir. Leo McCarey

There are still a few people who claim A Night at the Opera is the best Marx Brothers movie. To them I say to hell with that. Duck Soup was the brothers at the end of their stint at Paramount where they had made the successful transition from stage to screen and in the process becoming Hollywood’s top comedians. Duck Soup however was a bit of a departure in that there was no musical interlude featuring Chico on piano and Harpo on harp. Perhaps because of this the film seems to fly by all the quicker and even after a few viewings its hard to catch all the jokes. It’s said that director McCarey simply sat back and let the brothers do their thing, and in that case he knew just what he was doing. Archaic and insane comedy has never been funnier than in the hands of these brothers.

Frankenstein/The Bride of Frankenstein (1931/1935) Dir. James Whale

There are only two absolutes in the world, every horror film will be remade and every horror film will get a sequel. This has been the way of the world since the 1930s when Universal established itself as the leaders in screen horror. At the hands of James Whale (who also directed The Old Dark House and Invisible Man) the genre achieved it’s greatest early success with Frankenstein. Made before synchronized scores were added to films it is a masterpiece of gothic horror. Bride for my money is even better and will easily top all lists as the best horror movie sequel ever. By 1935 Whale decided to up the camp factor a little and there are some scenes that are downright hilarious. Universal would start to scale back the budgets on these monster movies after Bride so it’s also a relic to see one of the last horror films treated as an A-picture for several decades. Indispensable and must-see’s every Halloween.

The General (1927) Dir. Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

Chaplin vs. Keaton is a debate that will never fully be decided one way or the other, and don’t think that Chaplin being in the first tier and Keaton in the fourth means that I’m playing favorites. Buster Keaton’s brand of humor has aged better than perhaps any silent performer, the great stoneface was as devoid of emotion as you can be, a far cry from the usual outrageous pantomime associated with silent cinema. The General was one of his most ambitious and best films before sound and a bad deal with MGM took away his creative freedom. It is also the last of the Civil War films on our list and certainly the funniest of those, as if there was any competition. Keaton plays a train conductor determined to enlist in the confederacy who is turned down for his obvious lack of physical size, but he does more than his share to save the day. Keaton was a master of building an entire feature film around a set as he did with the boat in The Navigator and here with a train. This is largely considered his best film and is a must see and a perfect place for anyone to start with Keaton.

The Graduate (1967) - Dir. Mike Nichols

This film really goes along with Bonnie and Clyde as being a seminal turning point in American cinema. An inexplicable hit (to movie execs anyways) that told the story of a recent college graduate who didn’t really want to do anything who happens to have a fling with an older woman, and inadvertently falls for her daughter. With a soundtrack almost as well known from Simon and Garfunkel it is a film that helped define a generation and was the breakthrough for Dustin Hoffman who went on to a pretty noteworthy career if you do recall. Mike Nichols, and unlikely auteur to be sure, was fresh off his first directorial assignment Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and helped employ all the tricks of the trade he used there and then some to tell his tale. Like Penn he helped established a new cinematic language borrowing heavily from the French but with a unique southern California flair.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) - Dir. John Huston

There is some debate as to where the film noir got it’s start. An infamous style of American cinema based around the detective film but with a dark overtone that was readily embraced by French critics in the postwar era. John Huston, whose father was already Hollywood royalty got his start as a screenwriter before being given his first assignment as a director. Huston joined Orson Welles in 1941 as a director who arguably started at the top. He would certainly make some more great films, but well few films are ever as good as The Maltese Falcon, based on the book of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. It had already been adapted twice before with less than memorable results, but once Humphrey Bogart assumed the role of Sam Spade he became the screen's most iconic private eye. All the trappings of noir were here with the murders, double crosses, the femme fatale, and enough twists and turns to make your head spin. Compulsively re-watchable this has always been one of my absolute favorites.

Nashville (1975) - Dir. Robert Altman

If you’ve ever wondered what is meant by the term “Altman-esque” then see Nashville. The ultimate film from Robert Altman who helped establish his own free flowing improvisational cinematic language, preferably with a massive interweaving cast. This tells the tale of roughly two dozen people converging in Nashville who intermingle and interact without any discernible plot but everything does tie together with a quaint and somewhat radical political candidate whose slogans and messages pop up throughout the city and around all kinds of characters. It is an epic of Americana, like the best novels it lets us into the lives however briefly of a number of seemingly unrelated people. Altman at his best.

Night of the Living Dead/Dawn of the Dead (1968/1978) - Dir. George A. Romero

Zombies have been a cultural mainstay for so many years now that it might seem odd to realize that there was a lot of ambiguity as to what they actually were. The term used to mean sort of brain dead, then the living dead, but it wasn’t until Romero shot his landmark low budget film that the flesh eating zombie earned its proper place in the lexicon of horror. Over the next decade various filmmakers offered their own take on zombies, some rather faithful others varying dramatically, but when Romero returned to the source for his Dawn of the Dead a decade later he forever cemented the modern screen zombie. Even more important however was the generation of filmmakers Romero inspired who emerged from their own do it yourself film school. For years Roger Corman was the apprenticeship for future filmmakers with his low budget often cheesy horror films. Romero circumvented this and in the meantime helped open the door for directors like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and countless others. These are still arguably the most important independent horror films ever made, and you can make the argument that Romero’s original Dead film is the ultimate independent movie period regardless of genre. Undoubtedly a landmark, go ask somebody.

The Bicycle Thief (1948) - Dir. Vittorio De Seca

It can be said that De Seca was a bit of a sentimentalist. Better known as an actor in Italy he turned to directing in 1944 when he made the seminal The Children are Watching Us, then followed it up with the neo-realist landmark Shoehine. The Bicycle Thief continued his theme of child protagonists but focused more on a powerful father/son dynamic as the pair search the city for a stolen bicycle necessary for their very livelihood. Shot on location with non-professional actors for many this would be the crowning achievement in Italy’s most famous film movement and the film for which De Seca would always be known. It’s impossible not to feel something watching this and its one of those great life affirming films that make you glad to have whatever you have, particularly family.

Los Olvidados (1950) - Dir. Luis Bunuel

I put this film right after The Bicycle Thief for a reason. Bunuel rejected the notion of the “noble poor”. He believed that the people dwelling in the lower rungs of society deserved to be their for whatever reason and just when redemption was in sight they’d more often than not spit in it’s face. This was something of an international comeback for Bunuel, who after making the landmark avant-garde films Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or found himself bouncing around in exile and settling eventually in Mexico where he directed a few forgettable films. This firmly re-established him as the cinema’s foremost surrealist but also served as the most potent antidote to the over sentimentalized Italian cinema that was garnering so much critical attention. His kids here are horrible people, and even when they victimize others, the people victimized seem to deserve it. No one is good in this world and they all deserve one another.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941) - Dir. Preston Sturges

When it comes to screen comedy few directors ever had a role quite like Preston Sturges. Like Billy Wilder he got his start as a Paramount scriptwriter before finally getting a chance to direct in 1940. Over the next five years he made 8 films and with the exception of The Great Moment all can be considered comic masterpieces. Sullivan’s Travels is about a filmmaker who makes comedies that wants to tell a serious picture about the common man called O Brother, Where Art Thou? Along the way the film which is a thinly disguised allegory for Sturges’ own career he discovers that the common man really wants to laugh more than anything else. Touching and hilarious this is probably the best all around film Sturges made with a few self deprecating jabs at Hollywood movie execs thrown in for good measure and an iconic Veronica Lake who was very much pregnant while filming.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) - Dir. Nicholas Ray

Few stars ever burned brighter and shorter than James Dean. Featured in only three major feature films, this was released right after his untimely death and would be the picture he would always be most associated with. It’s director Nicholas Ray was nothing short of a god to the French New Wave and he would never come close to having a critical and commercial success like this. The film is iconic as much to cinephiles for Ray’s sake as Dean's. I may lean more towards East of Eden as the best film featuring James Dean, but this is certainly the most essential. It also contains probably everything you’ll ever need to know about troubled 50s teens. Simply put movies weren’t made like this before. Never before had films shown teenagers simply being lost without having any real reason. It was the best of a number of styles and one that would forever cement it’s star’s status as a cinematic legend and icon.

E. T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) - Dir. Steven Spielberg

From the time Jaws redefined the Hollywood blockbuster Steven Spielberg’s reputation as a master entertainer was solid. After monstrous successes with Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark further added to this it was a valid point to wonder where he would go next. He scored his biggest hit with E. T. which became Hollywood’s top grossing film for a good 15 years and was his ultimate triumph. Another of those films that everyone should have seen by now it is his most accessible film and captures all the wide eyed wonder of his love of science fiction and ever eager kids. There are moments where you might think it’s corny (and I say stay away from the 20th anniversary "special" edition), but there’s an honest to goodness sincerity that just wins you over the same way Frank Capra’s films did in the 30s.

Top Hat (1935) - Dir. Mark Sandrich

It’s been awhile since we had a musical on here and I apologize for that. The dynamic duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers have comfortably assumed their roles as the screen musicals most famous pair. Admittedly the plots of their films somewhat blended together, but none of their films were funnier or better remembered than Top Hat (with Swing Time running a close second). This represented a style of musicals in the 30s of pure escapism, even real locations seem slightly surreal with their highly stylized settings. The songs are as iconic as any musical would have, highlighted by “Cheek to Cheek”, and well it’s just damn funny. Definitely the first film I would recommend for someone wanting to know what Fred and Ginger were all about.

Sansho the Bailiff (1954) - Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi

Although Mizoguchi has long been known and respected in his native Japan since the silent era, he didn’t really break out in the US until the 50s when Ugetsu earned a few Oscar nominations. Sansho the Bailiff made a year later is his most devastating film and arguably his best. Mizoguchi didn’t really make cheerful films and forewarning should be told, but compositionally he had no equal in all of cinema history, and you can make the argument that this was his finest hour. The majority of Mizoguchi’s later work were period pictures and this is no exception but those expecting an action packed samurai film will be highly let down. It is perhaps the cinema’s greatest indictment of slavery ever depicted and a must see for any serious movie fanatic.

The Wild Bunch (1969) - Dir. Sam Peckinpah

As American filmmaking was changing at the end of the 60s Sam Peckinpah let out one last extremely violent outburst with a cast of old timers. The Wild Bunch starts and ends with two bravura sequences that establish this west not as a land of charismatic outlaws defending the honor of ladies and fighting Indians but a pack of thieves who don’t think twice about shooting someone in their way. The men do decide to make a rather foolish stand to help save what’s left of their soul, which is probably too late to do any good but what a finish. It is fitting that the film takes place near the start of WWI, which says more about the end of an era both for these characters and the American western in general.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) - Dir. Sergio Leone

Even before The Wild Bunch helped put the nail in the Western coffin, Sergio Leone was deconstructing and reinventing the genre, in his wake inspiring a host of imitators for what is now referred to as the spaghetti western. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was the third of an unrelated trilogy and the crowning achievement for Leone and his star Clint Eastwood who had been drifting around in TV shows before hooking up with Leone. This film was an epic that deals in part with a trio of people who simultaneously inhabit all three of the title characters during the Civil War (ok I lied there was another film on this list). There is no end to how far one person would go to screw over the other or what alliances could be made when gold is involved. It’s score is still the stuff of legend and it’s possible that no director knew how to fill a widescreen frame quite like Leone. Hell this might be the best western film ever made.

The Battle of Algiers (1966) - Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo

Sometimes a decade will reveal a gem that is anything but new. Following a restoration of this monumental film, The Battle of Algiers got a re-release in theaters and a grand deluxe Criterion treatment. Some people who had only seen the film in a horribly worn out VHS tape were amazed at the film they found. The film’s politics are very much relevant as the similarities between France and Algeria not only matched the US’s own involvement in Vietnam, but our current situation in the Middle East. It opened the door for what would later be called guerilla filmmaking. It’s as powerful now as ever and it remains a masterpiece of politically charged cinema.

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) - Dir. Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson has been a unique and singular treasure to French cinema for decades. An austere filmmaker who shares more in common with Carl Theodor Dreyer and even Yasujiro Ozu than his own countrymen cinematically. Balthazar like The Battle of Algiers was largely forgotten about for quite a while. Most of Bresson’s films were released on VHS at some point in time, this however was one of the exceptions. Then by the grace of god it was brought back to theaters and finally put out on DVD.  I’m not lying when I say I was completely spellbound and couldn’t move from my seat in the theater after the first time I saw it, I believe the word for it is transcendental. You can make a case for Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, or Pickpocket, but to me there is no Bresson film better than Balthazar.

The Conformist (1970) - Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci

Bridging the gap between the French new wave and the new school of Italian cinema was Bernardo Bertolucci. After a few flashes of greatness in the 60s he made The Conformist, about a man in Fascist Italy that wants nothing more than to go with the flow and not draw attention to himself. Amazing how decades of war films about the extraordinary and the unique figures of the war seem to pale in comparison to this film about a faceless cog in the machine. It would be Bertolucci’s big breakthrough. He would achieve greater notoriety with Last Tango in Paris, and eventually get an Oscar for The Last Emperor, but The Conformist is to me his best film and without it those other films most likely would have never happened. Shot brilliantly by Vittorio Storaro (who would later shoot Apocalypse Now) and featuring one of cinema’s greatest female on female dance scenes it is as good as it gets.

The Mother and the Whore (1973) - Dir. Jean Eustache

In the wake of the French new wave there emerged a new group of filmmakers. Post-new wavers if you will and none of these director's stars burned brighter and shorter than Jean Eustache. The Mother and the Whore is a powerful epic of a love triangle and the reasons so many relationships fail. A reality check for the “love generation” and a uniquely personal film that opened the door for many to follow. Eustache was in unique company here and if I may be so presumptuous I don’t think there has been another French film made since that’s better.

Double Indemnity (1944) - Dir. Billy Wilder

The Maltese Falcon may have gotten the ball rolling, but like Open City, Breathless, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari no film defined a movement quite like Double Indemnity. It is the ultimate template and blueprint for the film noir. Based on a James M. Cain book of the same name, it tells of an insurance man who gets mixed up with a cool and extremely manipulative woman that finds himself committing murder on her behalf. In the wake of Citizen Kane Hollywood developed a vogue for darker films, and this is one of the darkest, with entire scenes shot in shadow. It has an ongoing narration, a framing device, and everything you’d expect from the seedier side of life, this is noir 101 people.

Goodfellas (1990) - Dir. Martin Scorsese

After directing what was almost unanimously considered the best film of the 80s it was a wonder where Scorsese could go from there. He simply directed what is arguably the best film of the 90s and the best known and respected gangster film since The Godfather. Scorsese’s film never has a dull moment and is as compulsively re-watchable as anything he has made. Joe Pesci’s performance earned him an Oscar, in which he delivered the Academy’s shortest speech ever given. Unfortunately it has influenced a lot of lesser films in it’s wake, but for anyone wanting to know what a great film about the mob is like, look no further than here.

The Thin Blue Line (1988) - Dir. Errol Morris

From his quaint debut about fanatic pet owners and the afterlife Gates of Heaven it was clear Errol Morris was a different kind of documentary filmmaker. His subjects though were typically on the slightly lighter side, dealing with more eccentric types and marginal members of society. When he made The Thin Blue Line in 1988 though he investigated a crime that he felt was overlooked. In the process he got an innocent man released from jail and forever demonstrated the power of film. His use of highly stylized re-enactments would be copied time and time again throughout crime shows and other films but believe it or not it was quite innovative at the time. He has proven himself time and again as the most important documentary filmmaker of his generation (sorry Michael Moore).

Syndromes and a Century (2006) - Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

While looking back on the last decade one filmmaker stands out more than any other and that’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Now don’t worry too much on how to pronounce his name, but do yourself a favor and check out his films. Like a few Asian filmmakers he was trained in the US and when he went back to Thailand he single-handedly put his country on the cinematic map with his first film The Mysterious Object at Noon. With Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady he only cemented his status as a major figure in world cinema. Syndromes was a next step forward and was arguably his best and most perfectly realized film. His cinema is one of patience and don’t be too alarmed if you find yourself comfortably lulled to sleep (particularly at the end of Blissfully Yours which is almost too peaceful for it’s own good). There’s a method to his madness here and he has proven himself as international cinema’s most important director to emerge from the past decade.

Fargo (1996) - Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen

Everyone has a favorite Coen brothers film. For some it’s the Big Lebowski, others Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, etc. In 1996 though you had to be living under a rock to not know about Fargo. An instant classic that was about as acclaimed as any film in it’s day it forever cemented the Coens as masters of the modern serio-comic noir. Capturing all the idiosyncrasies of life in North Dakota, it is at turns bleak and hilarious, a duality that they would perfect throughout their careers. It seems to me a fitting a place as any to start with the brother’s filmography.

The Piano (1993) - Dir. Jane Campion

Alright so I’m sexist. One film out of 100 was directed by a woman. You can also say I’m prejudiced as this is the only film from the Australian continent. For those two reasons The Piano can seem to take on extra significance and importance. Following Sweetie and An Angel at My Table though The Piano was the high water mark for Campion. It was powerful, popular, and acclaimed earning Oscars for both Holly Hunter and a very young Anna Paquin. It is essential for more reasons than “it was directed by a woman”. Still it was something a breakthrough at the time, and only recently with Kathryn Biegelow’s Oscar for The Hurt Locker has that wall started to come down a bit. So before you start mentioning The Lord of the Rings to me, I suggest watching this film that put New Zealand on the cinematic map a decade before.

Toy Story/Toy Story 2 (1995/1999) - Dir. John Lassetter

Ok so maybe I could include the third and complete the trilogy but what of it? Replacing Disney’s regular animation department was Pixar whose Toy Story set a new standard in animation. It was hinted at the time that this would be the new way for animated features to go, but few could have predicted what an impact the film would have and the quite impressive credits it’s studio would put out. Toy Story remains their greatest legacy and the one that got it all started. Amazing to think that Disney wanted to make the sequel straight to video (as was their style with all sequels) but opted instead to go all in and in some people’s minds surpassed the original. You can consider this a collective spot for Pixar but few animated films have ever carried as much weight as the first two Toy Story films.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) - Dir. Various

Speaking of important animated features, hard to argue any were as vital as Snow White. Now truth be told Lotte Reiner’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed was made a decade earlier, but at the time it seemed quite a gamble. After all Disney was well known for producing short films and he already had a memorable cast of characters. A feature length cartoon however seemed like a preposterous concept. Not only was it a success though but helped open the door for other (and ultimately better) films like Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. For better or worse the Disney empire is what it is, but this film is absolutely indispensable, and probably the most iconic in all of American animation.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) - Dir. Lewis Milestone

Alright, objectivity aside I had to include this film. All Quiet on the Western Front is more than just the best film about World War I ever made, it’s the best war film ever, and damn near the best film period. Lewis Milestone freed the camera from early sound restrictions and got it moving again. His tracking shots were intricate, his camera movements ambitious, the editing dynamic everything about this film showed no signs of being hampered by technological restrictions. Perhaps the films best quality though is the fact that in 1930 there was no synchronized music score. Knowing film music of the day it’s quite possible that a score could have ruined a few scenes, but the ending is positively devastating without an extra sound to be heard. Perhaps my reason for saying this is essential is because simply put everyone should see this film, particularly anyone with a mind to invade another country.

The Cremator (1968) - Dir. Juraj Herz

Of all the Eastern European nations to have their own film movements in the 50s and 60s Czechoslovakia was the most interesting one. Lasting really less than 5 years it produced some of the best films of the decade, culminating in back to back best foreign language film Academy Awards. Banned instantly and neglected for decades, The Cremator has since been rediscovered as one of the best films of the era, if not the best. It employs all the trademarks of the movement including that distinct sense of morbid humor. The film is dark yet at times comical it was the most criminally overlooked film of the era and one that is now getting it’s proper respect.

Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932) - Dir. Howard Hawks

Well of the three main gangster films of the early 30s, the most notorious was Howard Hawks’ Scarface. It’s violence trumped Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, it’s lead was anything but sympathetic, and it’s banned status following enforcement of the production code only helped add to it’s legend. I may also point out this is the only Howard Hawks film on this list, one of America’s greatest directors who wasn’t readily associated with gangster pictures. His direction is incredible from opening shot to the last final dark shootout. It would be the most notorious of the early gangster pictures and not surprisingly many people’s favorite.

Floating Clouds (1955) - Dir. Mikio Naruse

Perhaps greatest on the list of rediscoveries made in the past decade was of Mikio Naruse. Largely forgotten and neglected Japan’s golden age was known for it’s big three (Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu). Naruse had a grand total of three films released on VHS and was considered an also ran at best. Then following a massive restoration of his surviving films, a traveling retrospective, and some pristine DVD prints (most of which were admittedly released overseas) the film loving public had to make that trio a foursome. Since Naruse’s rediscovery is still something rather recent it’s still open for debate which of his films is his defining masterpiece, but even after several decades the same debate can rage with the other three. For my money (and other people for that matter) his best film is Floating Clouds, a powerful post war drama that came during the golden age and is easily among Japan’s greatest films.

Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail (1974) - Dir. Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones

British film seems to get neglected a lot in lists like this. Don’t worry there’s more to come, but comedies also seem to get relegated to supporting status at best. Call it a bit of personal preference but I will submit Holy Grail as the funniest film ever made. There are so many jokes in this film that even after 30 viewings I still find myself catching new stuff. Borrowing a lot from the style of their groundbreaking Flying Circus show this is also one of if not the most avant-garde comedy ever made. They made a point of making every moment of the film hilarious from the opening credits to the end rarely is their a break for anything serious. I’ll never be able to say enough great things about this film.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) - Dir. Werner Herzog

For several decades German film didn’t amount to much internationally. A few films earned some local honors but to the outside world no one really paid any attention. Then in the mid-sixties a new movement started to arise, led by Alexander Kluge and quickly following were Volker Schlondorff, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Werner Herzog. Not too surprisingly the films found themselves more popular abroad than at home and the directors themselves became as distinct characters as the people in their films. Perhaps none more so than Werner Herzog whose life in film seems to be a cinematic equivalent of Teddy Roosevelt. Aguirre is not only one of his most notorious films which included frequent temper tantrums from the volatile Klaus Kinski, it is easily his best. Visually it is a key influence on Apocalypse Now, and is probably the most enduring film from the memorable West German film movement.

City of God (2002) - Dir. Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund

For my hardcore Cinema Novo fans, I apologize for picking this film to represent Brazil. For the rest of you you’re welcome. Consider it an effort to include more contemporary (ie the last decade) films on this list, but in terms of acclaim and impact it’s hard to argue if any foreign film made in the last decade was as well received. It recalls thematically a lot of the films of Brazil’s best known film movement, particularly Hector Babenco’s Pixote, with a modern aesthetic which serves as a undeniable contemporary classic. Violent, fast paced, colorful, and powerful this is more like a modern Los Olvidados. Perhaps some people prefer the more overtly political Brazilian films of Glauber Rocha or Nelson Pereira dos Santos but this is as good a place as any to dig into Brazilian cinema.

A Brighter Summer Day (1991) - Dir. Edward Yang

Some people have pointed out that there were too many “new waves” in film. I agree and virtually any country that had a minor film movement can constitute as their new wave. Taiwan was no exception and in the early 80s two directors emerged as the nation’s best, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang. Yang was trained in the US and returned to his native Taiwan where he made a string of great films in the 80s. After Hou’s City of Sadness in 1989, Yang perhaps felt a bit of a challenge to craft his own national epic. Taking place in the early sixties the nearly four hour film is about the displacement of the people of Taiwan who were very much a new nation following the revolution on mainland China and a good dose of classic troubled teens.

The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) - Dir. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino

As far as Latin American political cinema is concerned few films are as legendary or as good as The Hour of the Furnaces. After the resumption of military rule in Argentina in 1976 the film was no longer screened in Argentina or attempted to be smuggled out, leaving a few surviving prints scattered about and only adding to it’s legendary status. The film tackles the contemporary history of Argentina and filmed over three parts helps draw attention to the rampant exploitation of the natives of Argentina. Solanas was the principle organizer of the Cine Liberacion movement and this was their most important work, and on the shortlist of the most important documentaries ever made.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) - Dir. Victor Erice

For decades after the Civil War in Spain cinema was highly censored. Beginning in the late 60s, principally with Carlos Saura’s The Hunt previously off limits subjects could now be the subject of films. Victor Erice, who only made three films over a twenty year span made perhaps Spain’s greatest film in 1973 with Spirit of the Beehive. It evokes a dream world seen through the eyes of two young sisters telling a contemporary parable for post war Spain. It is very clandestinely political and is far more allegorical and slightly surreal, it remains a must see for any fan of Spanish film, and arguably it’s nation’s most important work.

A Taste of Cherry (1997) - Dir. Abbas Kiarostami

Thanks to a bit of a lessening in censorship restraints Iranian cinema began to emerge in the 80s as cinemas newest and arguably best film movement. Two principle filmmakers towered over the rest of their countrymen, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami. Their films occasionally intersected with each other, particularly Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist and Kiarostami’s Close-Up but each director strived to show a unique side of their country. Often times their films were banned domestically, and the subject of Kiarostami’s greatest international hit, A Taste of Cherry was of the taboo subject of assisted suicide. A man offers money to anyone willing to help bury him after he tries to kill himself and no one seems willing to take him up on this offer. It is simple yet beautiful and moving helps shine a light on a very misunderstood culture.

The Red Shoes (1948) - Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

In the 1940s the dynamic duo of Powell and Pressburger dominated British cinema. Their Production of the Archers produced nearly a film a year and for a nice stretch of time appeared to be able to do no wrong. In 1948 they made The Red Shoes their longest lasting contribution to cinema. One of the best looking color films of it’s day it is also the definitive film about ballet, so take that for what it’s worth. It is primarily of the obsession the artist gives to a role and the all consuming nature, with a slight bit of traditional fairy tale mixed in for good measure.

The Third Man (1949) - Dir. Carol Reed

Speaking of British film, this is considered at least by the British Film Institute to be the greatest British film ever made. It was the second of three collaborations between director Carol Reed and writer Grahame Greene and by far the most enduring. Starring Americans Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles with a very unique zither score it is the ultimate in post war black market filmmaking. Welles is as charismatic a villain as the screen had scene and he dominates the film even though he doesn’t appear for the first half of it. Due to the cast and setting it seems more international than distinctly British but this is easily Reed’s best film

La Roue (1923) - Dir. Abel Gance

Before the Soviets experimented with telling a story purely through cutting, Abel Gance made this epic. The high point of what has been named the French Impressionist movement it was Gance’s first real internaitonal success, even though like many other silent films of the day it’s length varied dramatically. The film has been restored recently to it’s best available sources, and there are some sequences where single shots last only one frame (keep in mind that a typical film has 24 frames per second). Gance would continue to push the cinematic language with Napoleon and even into the sound era, but in terms of immediate impact no other French film of the era carried as much weight.

A History of Violence (2005) - Dir. David Cronenberg

Here I am with another of those blasted contemporary films. You can argue whether this is Cronenberg’s best, certainly there are plenty of options from Shivers to Dead Ringers, but don’t think one received more positive reviews. Often times I can only select one film to represent an entire national cinema, and for that Cronenberg is standing in for all of Canadian cinema and despite the film’s American settings it was shot in Ontario same as all of Cronenberg’s films. The film is quiet and almost feels fake in it’s small town sincerity until brief flashes of violence start to erupt. Few people in film have ever been better than Cronenberg at shooting brutal violence and gore. Due to the pacing and rhythm of the film it makes the outbursts all the more startling. After a second or third viewing I would probably have to say this is his best work.

The Terminator/Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1984/1991) - Dir. James Cameron

Following Star Wars and Alien came a host of science fiction/action films in the 80s. No star of the genre was as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger (literally), and his most enduring franchise is still The Terminator. It might be because Arnold refused to make sequels, but well enough money was thrown in his lap for James Cameron’s follow up that he couldn’t refuse. Terminator 2’s effects were groundbreaking and still look a lot better than most of what’s come up since then. Linda Hamilton joined the rank of tough bad ass female action heroes that have populated Cameron’s films throughout his career (even Kate Winslet brandished and axe in Titanic). As a story the Terimantor franchise has seen what happens when Cameron isn’t involved, but these first two set the bar so high for action and science fiction that I wonder if it will ever be reached again. I mean seriously if I saw Arnold circa-1984 coming to kill me, I’d probably just defecate myself and the franchise would have been over, thankfully the people in this film were a little stronger.

A Trip to the Moon (1902) - Dir. Georges Melies

Clocking in at about 14 minutes I admit this falls far shorter than every other film on this list. However this could very well be the most important film ever made. Before Melies, films often didn’t have plots and were pretty much just shots of things. A little editing came about and Melies decided that cinema could be a great place for him to film some of his magic tricks. His most ambitious project at the time was A Trip to the Moon, complete with some narration considering title cards were yet to be used. Since the DVD version featuring narration is mind bogglingly awful to listen to I recommend trying to find a version without it or even watching it silent, the plot explains itself. You have to put on your 1902 glasses to really appreciate this film and it is still a marvel how the film was made.

The Killer (1989) Dir. John Woo

With the possible exception of India and musicals no country is more associated with a genre than Hong Kong and action films. John Woo started same as any director making kung-fu films in the 70s. After teaming up with director/producer Tsui Hark to make A Better Tomorrow in 1986 the rest was as they say history. The Killer was probably his best known or at least his most widely scene Hong Kong film. He helped set a new standard in action and one that was readily adopted by American counterparts, and like the great European filmmakers of the silent era, Hollywood figured if they can’t beat ‘em buy him, and brought Woo over following his 1992 film Hard Boiled.

Xala (1975) - Dir. Ousmane Sembene

Ousmane Sembene is the father of African cinema. Before him well there doesn’t appear to be any African cinema. Sembene was from Senegal which was a French colony so not surprisingly he learned his craft in France. After a breakthrough with Black Girl he made a few more films before eventually directing Xala, the film I consider to be his masterpiece. It is something of a black comedy as a man who is attempting to marry his third wife is afflicted with the Xala, or a curse of impotence and has to go around trying to find a cure. Most of Sembene’s films are politically motivated in some capacity, and Xala is no exception as the film deals with Senegal’s recent independence but has to come to grips that although they are no longer under French rule, they are still very much controlled by white money.

L’atalante (1934) - Dir. Jean Vigo

I’d wager to say there is no cult deity in the history of cinema as revered as Jean Vigo. Vigo who died at the age of 26 left only one full length feature film to his credit, a near feature length film called Zero for Conduct, and a few short films. L’atalante was butchered in it’s day and left to obscurity for decades before being rediscovered and restored. For many this is the greatest romantic film ever made, and others think it’s not only the best French film ever, but arguably the greatest thing to ever happen to the universe in all of history. Now that praise might seem a bit much, and perhaps you should lessen your expectations accordingly but Vigo’s film is still a curiosity to behold. Was he a tad bit overrated, certainly, does that mean this film shouldn’t be watched, certainly not.

The Decalogue (1988) - Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski

A monumental 10 part Polish film based on each of the ten commandments this is Krzysztof Kieslowski’s most enduring contribution to world cinema. Identifying which part is on which commandment might be a little tricky but the entire project is set in one Polish apartment complex, and various characters cross paths with others in individual episodes (similar in part to his Three Colors trilogy several years later). Taken individually they are a bit bleak, but collectively they are positively devastating. It might be a bit much to tell someone to sit through a near 10 hour film, but think of it more as 10 short films and it seems a lot easier to digest, I believe it took me two days. Two of the episodes were later expanded into feature length films, A Short Film About Killing, and A Short Film About Love. It remains one of the high points of Eastern European cinema, and the last film on my list.

Now for the entire list in alphabetical order (tier listed on the right):

100 Essential Films

All Quiet on the Western Front - 4th
Aguirre the Wrath of God - 4th
Andrei Rublev - 3rd
Annie Hall - 4th
Apocalypse Now - 3rd
The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World of Apu - 3rd
Ashes and Diamonds - 4th
L’atalante - 4th
L’Avventura - 3rd
Au Hasard Balthazar - 4th
The Battle of Algiers - 4th
The Battleship Potemkin - 3rd
The Bicycle Thief - 4th
The Birth of a Nation/Intolerance - 2nd
Blue Velvet/Mulholland Drive - 3rd
Bonnie and Clyde - 4th
Breathless - 2nd
A Brighter Summer Day - 4th
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - 3rd
Casablanca - 1st
Children of Paradise - 4th
Chinatown - 4th
Chungking Express - 3rd
Citizen Kane - 2nd
City of God - 4th
The Conformist - 4th
The Cremator - 4th
The Decalogue - 4th
Do the Right Thing - 4th
La Dolce Vita - 2nd
Double Indemnity - 4th
Duck Soup - 4th
8 ½ - 3rd
E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial - 4th
Fargo - 4th
Floating Clouds - 4th
The 400 Blows - 2nd
Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein - 4th
The General - 4th
The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2 - 1st
The Gold Rush - 1st
Gone With the Wind - 1st
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - 4th
Goodfellas - 4th
The Graduate - 4th
A History of Violence - 4th
Hour of the Furnaces - 4th
It’s a Wonderful Life - 2nd
The Killer - 4th
Lawrence of Arabia - 3rd
M - 3rd
The Maltese Falcon - 4th
The Man with a Movie Camera - 3rd
Metropolis - 3rd
Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail - 4th
The Mother and the Whore - 4th
Nanook of the North - 3rd
Nashville - 4th
Night of the Living Dead/Dawn of the Dead - 4th
Los Olvidados - 4th
On the Waterfront - 2nd
Open City - 2nd
The Passion of Joan of Arc - 3rd
Persona - 3rd
The Piano - 4th
Psycho - 1st
Pulp Fiction - 3rd
Raging Bull - 2nd
Rashomon - 3rd
Rebel Without a Cause - 4th
The Red Shoes - 4th
La Roue - 4th
The Rules of the Game - 3rd
Sansho the Bailiff - 4th
Scarface: The Shame of a Nation - 4th
Schindler’s List - 2nd
The Searchers - 2nd
Seven Samurai - 2nd
Singin’ in the Rain - 1st
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - 4th
Some Like it Hot - 4th
The Spirit of the Beehive - 4th
Star Wars - 1st
Sunrise - 3rd
Sullivan’s Travels - 4th
Syndromes and a Century - 4th
Talk to Her - 3rd
A Taste of Cherry - 4th
Terminator/Terminator 2 - 4th
The Thin Blue Line - 4th
The Third Man - 4th
Tokyo Story - 3rd
Top Hat - 4th
Toy Story, Toy Story 2 - 4th
A Trip to the Moon - 4th
2001: A Space Odyssey - 3rd
Vertigo - 3rd
The Wild Bunch - 4th
The Wizard of Oz - 1st
Xala - 4th

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Essential Cinema: Third Tier “This May Get Complicated”

Well another blog, another tier. Welcome to part three of our four part essential cinema countdown. As with other installments this list has been edited up to and including the time of me typing this. Some great films that I thought absolutely had to be on this list have been cut to make way for other films that had to be on this list even more. I know it’s silly but what can you do?

While having dinner with my family this evening they were asking about the list. Everyone threw out countless films that “for sure had to be on there” to which I shook my head no. Sometimes it was a film from a director who was otherwise represented. Maybe a genre film that was represented elsewhere, but more often than not it was just left off because well, there are only so many spots.

Now back to the first post, if there are more than 100 essential films why limit yourself? Well I didn’t exactly limit myself to 100. Like the NSFC list, I grouped a couple of similar films together. I don’t think there are any outright ridiculous pairings, but well they cheated so I will as well. Yet as I mentioned before when you start extending beyond those 100 film parameters everything starts to break down, and well nearly every film can be essential by some criteria.

I realized I could have made a few people happy (mainly myself) if I left out all documentary films, but well they have their place and I already said I’d include a couple. That said I by no means can hope to encapsulate all facets of documentary filmmaking here, and well that’s an entire other list of essentials, so my apologies in advance if documentaries are treated more as a genre than a type of film. At the very least the few representatives are closer to fiction films and help to blur that gap between the two, serving as you will as a gateway towards non-fiction film. In other words start here, and you’re on your own for all your documentary needs.

As originally advertised this tier is a little larger than the previous two. Here are what some people might call the “real” greatest films of all time. Their inclusion on so low a tier doesn’t mean they are lacking in quality in any way, just that some films benefit from context more than others. After I saw Pulp Fiction I watched Apocalypse Now, and although I liked it, the ending went right over my head and it wasn’t until later viewings that it started to come together a bit for me, and now well let’s just say it’s on my short list of favorite films ever. Same can be said for such other epics as Lawrence of Arabia or such critical darlings like Battleship Potemkin, Rules of the Game, and Sunrise among others.

So to put it plainly, I think you’re ready for it. Now if you’ve followed my advice and seen all the films on the first two tiers already then you have all my blessings in the world. This next batch should be easy for you. Some films may still seem difficult, or in some cases even “boring” or at the very least confusing. It’s ok these are all tried and true tested masterpieces. Sure you can see 10,000 movies and still find a few of these overrated, that’s inescapable. No matter how much acclaim a movie has gotten it’s still possible to look like crap to you personally. All of us have these films that we just don’t “get” or can’t figure out how it’s so well respected. Even a few of these overrated films are on my list. I intended from the start to make this list as objective as possible, so yeah if this was my personal list I can tell you a few films wouldn’t be on it, and you’re probably think I was a snotty, esoteric, elitist jack ass who didn’t know anything about great cinema. Point is these films are all worthy entries, but you personally might be more impressed with some than others.

So enough forewarning. I may have coddled you in past blog entries, but you’re going headfirst into the fire this time. Tackle this bunch of films and you’ll be ready for anything, from 15 hour multi-part epics, to some of Andy Warhol’s never ending static shot “movies”, to Stan Brakhage’s intricate light shows. This is the advanced stage. Some of these films are more accessible than others, and I guarantee a few will seem extremely easy to digest. They aren’t all torturous art films designed for the intellectual elite, hell I’d wager to guess even the greenest among you have seen one or two of these already. I’ve pretty much neglected any sort of order to these films, watch them as you find them or go chronologically if that suits you better.

Third Tier

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Fat chance in hell I’d leave lord and master Stanley Kubrick off this list. If it were up to me he’d have a nice handful of films as I find nearly all of his movies personal essentials. However objective me is saying 2001 is the film above all others that must be watched. Reading between the lines I’ll say watch ‘em all, but sometimes even among a host of masterpieces one stands out in a truly profound and significant way. My words of advice, just watch the film. Don’t try to dissect it, don’t attempt to figure out it’s ending as it unfolds just allow it to come over you. Repeat viewings help but well the first time I ever saw this I sat in a daze staring at my TV unable to move or speak for damn near an hour. There aren’t a lot of films that can do that to a person.

Nanook of the North (1922) - Dir. Robert Flaherty

When it comes to documentaries, Robert Flaherty is largely considered the father of them all. Truth be told the earliest films pretty much were all documentaries, so it’s origins are as old as cinema itself. Flaherty was a showman however, and while living and breathing with his subjects he often took to historical flights of fancy which made for better cinema. Many a documentarian after him ascribed to the same brash showmanship (Michael Moore anyone?) but well in 1922 when this film was made the whole concept of a feature length documentary was unheard of. It can be argued that Man of Aran or even The Louisiana Story might be better films, but you’d be hard pressed to find a documentary more important than this.

Talk to Her (2001) - Dir. Pedro Almodovar

I’m sorry it took so damn long to get to this century, my sincere apologies. The world of Almodovar is unique to say the least. Anytime someone new is introduced to his bizarre and sordid cinematic world I love to be around because no two people seem to react the same. Talk to Her was part of his more “mature” phase that followed after the tremendous success of All About My Mother. This film even won him a best original screenplay Oscar. For my money, and many other people Talk to Her is Almodovar’s best film. For decades now he has been Spain’s most famous cinematic export, and all of his films get distributed here in the US and all he needs to sell them is his last name. Talk to Her creatively and artistically is possibly his peak, and perhaps diving headfirst into his zanier early work, check this out, however be prepared for something a little different.

Apocalypse Now (1979) - Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

This film is almost as well known for the utter catastrophe of it’s production than the movie itself (brilliantly documented in Heart of Darkness). Coppola’s Vietnam odyssey started as an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but as shooting dragged on and more and more complications arose the film started to evolve and take on a life of it’s own. Some people who were in the war objected to the film, but it wasn’t so much about Vietnam, but was Vietnam as Coppola himself famously put it. After a brilliant opening the film takes a pretty standard war mission approach until you get to a point where you’re about ready for a final confrontation. Then it deteriorates completely into insanity and if you’re hoping for coherence and closure this is where the film will lose you, if you happily subject yourself to the ride then be prepared for cinema of the most bizarre and brilliant nature.

Blue Velvet (1986)/Mulholland Drive (2001) - Dir. David Lynch

Did someone say bizarre? Welcome to the world of David Lynch our generations foremost cinematic surrealist and damn near the most brilliant and innovative artist to emerge from the last several decades. From his first feature Eraserhead, Lynch has been a cult idol to countless film lovers. Blue Velvet to me is the best example of everything indicative of a “Lynch” film. It incorporates his predominant obsession with the seedy side of suburban living, a dreamlike narrative that still maintains perfect coherence. Disturbing in an exhilarating way for many this was the peak of his cinematic prowess. Mulholland Drive is a perfect place to go afterwards, and I admit a bit of “cheating” grouping these two together. Mulholland Drive was voted the best film of the past decade and it’s dreamlike narrative is far looser than Blue Velvet and much less coherent. It all does make sense with maybe a few viewings and a little bit of research but like several other films on this list, just enjoy the ride. Seeing how Lynch has vowed to go all digital in future films, this also serves as something of a conclusion to Lynch on celluloid, and arguably this is his best looking film.

Chungking Express (1994) - Dir. Wong Kar-Wai

For decades Hong Kong cinema was principally known for action. Even Wong started out in this vein with his first film As Tears Go By, but it was clear even from that first offering that this wasn’t going to be another John Woo or Tsui Hark. While directing the problematic action epic Ashes of Time, Wong and crew took a brief break. It was during this short interval that he made Chungking Express. Shot without any real script in an extremely short time it has the improvisational feel of the earlier French New Wave films with a style all it’s own and has served as perhaps Wong’s most definitive film. A welcome alternative to the usual Hong Kong flair, this isn’t entirely without action, but well calling this an action film would be laughably missing the point.

Vertigo (1958) - Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

In 2002 Sight and Sound released their every-decade poll of the greatest films of all time and many people were a little surprised to see a new number 2. That film second only to Citizen Kane was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. When it was first released the film was largely dismissed as a lesser and forgettable effort from the master, no better than The Wrong Man, The Trouble with Harry, Stage Fright, or I Confess. In the 70s, British critic and historian Robin Wood made the wild claim that it might be Hitchcock’s masterpiece. He was prepared to defend his seemingly ridiculous choice, but since then more and more people started to come around. As a tale of personal obsession and the ultimate personification of a real life Svengali it isn’t the most “entertaining” of Hitch’s oeuvre. Stylistically it may very well be his finest hour, from the opening credits (again courtesy of Saul Bass) to it’s brilliant score, San Francisco location photography, dizzying camera tricks, from opening to close it is visually as exciting as any film you’re likely to see. Personally I have my problems with the film, but I won’t deny that it isn’t very well worth watching.

Persona (1966) - Dir. Ingmar Bergman

When art house cinema was en vogue in the 50s and 60s few directors were more esteemed and respected than Ingmar Bergman. It seems outrageous to think that by the mid-60s most people thought he was washed up and his best days behind him. After another failed marriage, a poorly received comedy, and a self imposed exile it was assumed that he would never again reach the heights of The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, or The Virgin Spring. Then he came out with Persona, his simplest and most profound film of his career. With Bibi Andersen and Liv Ullman he created a profound, slightly surreal, incredibly intimate drama of two women whose bond together grows into something metaphysical. It’s hard to describe this film in terms of plot points but from it’s brilliant de-constructive opening it’s clear Bergman was far from finished. Instead he produced what many (myself included) consider to be the finest film of his career.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) - Dir. F. W. Murnau

When critics of the time were convinced that sound would destroy the art of cinema, this is what they were talking about. By 1927 silent cinema as an art form had reached it’s creative peak. With Murnau’s films the camera was free to roam and every cinematic tool previously established was available to tell a story. Keeping his film as simple as possible with character names like “The Man”, “His Wife”, and “The Woman from the City”. The story is as simple as it is beautiful, and in terms of the poetry and artistry of the silent film this was arguably the highest high point. Murnau who was brought over from Germany was given complete control on this project but when the film after receiving critical acclaim failed to return as much commercially his subsequent films had much more studio oversight before his early death while making Tabu, a collaboration with the aforementioned Robert Flaherty. Considering his German career included such well regarded masterpieces as Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, and Faust saying this was his masterpiece is high praise indeed.

Tokyo Story (1953) - Dir. Yasujiro Ozu

If you love explosions, car chases, hot sex scenes, gore, and rapid dialogue laced with profanity than Yasujiro Ozu might very well be your favorite director ever. Ok, hopefully you didn’t stop reading there and run out to see Tokyo Story, because anyone who knows Ozu would probably be laughing hysterically at my first sentence. Ozu is an acquired taste. That doesn’t mean your first reaction to his work would be to flee and run away in bored terror. It just means that with age, repeat viewings you’ll slowly start to see just how inexplicably brilliant the simplest gestures and dialogue can be in a film. Amongst a long career that included many high points, Tokyo Story is the film for which Ozu will best be remembered. Borrowing its plot from Leo McCarey’s little seen but brilliant Make Way for Tomorrow it tells of an old couple who finds themselves an unwanted burden to their loving but ultimately unhelpful children. Many of Ozu’s family dramas focused on the young and their relation to the old, but in this case the story largely centers around the old, and not having their young children leave them, but more of the struggle of them being put out to pasture largely. Explosions aside, I’ll say this is a damn sight better than any Michael Bay movie you may poison your eyes with.

The Rules of the Game (1939) - Dir. Jean Renoir

Since the very first Sight and Sound Poll in 1952, only two films have ever appeared on every single list and this is one of them. Renoir’s final film before World War II was the culmination of a decade in which he delivered nothing but gold. No director besides possibly Kurosawa in the 50s had such an impressive decade of dominance. Renoir was at his peak and was still fresh off his American breakthrough after The Grand Illusion (an equally essential film) became the first foreign language film nominated for a best picture Academy Award. Rules of the Game on paper tells the story of a bunch of rich antiquated aristocrats who spend the weekend in a large chateau in the country, but with any film this praised it’s a lot more than that. Equally parts hilarious and tragic this remains the culmination of not just Renoir but a brilliant French film industry whose growth was severely stunted by a little asshole named Hitler.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) - Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

It’s a shame to include a French film to help stand in for all the great Scandinavian silent films that are so important yet often very hard to come by. Carl Theodor Dreyer was Denmark’s greatest director who spent the 20s keeping very busy and producing an extremely diverse portfolio. It would blow people’s minds familiar with his four principle sound films to go back and watch this film because you wouldn’t even remotely be able to recognize the director’s style. Known for extremely long takes and a slow pace, the short running time, extremely short ASL (average shot length) and frantic tension of Passion would seem like it came from another world by comparison. Before the “talkies” came Hollywood had a great many reason to fear European cinema. A great many countries banded together to help make this film and the result was considered at the time to be quite possibly the best film yet made. As language differences forced European films to play to smaller and smaller domestic markets this remained but a glimpse of what could have been. It still packs a punch and remains a sacred treasure of the cinema.

The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957), The World of Apu (1959) - Dir. Satyajit Ray

It seems ironic that the best known Indian film in the West would be one of the most atypical films to come out of that nation. Today India is the largest producer of film in the world, and we all know of those lavish operatic epics filled with colorful costumes and endless singing and dancing. In the 50s an alternative emerged, filmed in the Bengali language associated with more rural provinces and centered around Calcutta it represented a remarkable alternative to the Hindi Bollywood product. Satyajit Ray became an internationally acclaimed auteur on par with Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman following the release of this trilogy which for many people outside of India was their first glimpse into Indian cinema, however atypical it might have been. Ray’s films owed more to the Italian neo-realist movement than domestic product, borrowing heavily from it’s literary source. If you need a little extra indication of it’s influence Matt Groening admitted that the Apu character from the Simpsons was named after the title character in this trilogy (although there is nothing about a convenience store cashier in this film so just to let you know).

Pulp Fiction (1994) - Dir. Quentin Tarantino

I know what you’re thinking, finally a damn film I’ve heard of. Well for many a learned cinephile the films mentioned here should be as well known as the collected plays of William Shakespeare to an English major. Ok now there isn’t anything too esoteric about this film, and some of you might think it’s accessible enough to have gone in one of the first two tiers (or insignificant enough to be saved for the fourth, or ignored entirely). Well in 1994 people were a little confused with it’s chronology. It doesn’t take long to figure out the order of events but it certainly caught a few people off guard at first. The influence of this film is still being sorted out and I wonder if any independent American film hasn’t borrowed or stolen from it in some capacity. Its so good that it even makes later Tarantino films feel like they’re plagiarizing a bit from it. Hell if you’re one of the 10 people who haven’t seen this film stop being ignorant and take care of that already, I’m not going to sit here and justify it’s inclusion here.

Rashomon (1950) - Dir. Akira Kurosawa

For an extremely long time Japan was a very foreign and very exotic little island. Most Americans didn’t know anything about Japan until called upon to fight them in WWII. Following the war and an occupation Japanese cinema was still a large mystery outside of the island. When Rashomon was picked as something of a throwaway film for the Venice Film Festival no one expected it to win the top honors. In 1951 it even garnered attention from the Academy Awards and suddenly there was a vogue for all things Japanese cinema. Through Rashomon people started to discover Kenji Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kon Ichikawa, and scores of others. This was the film that really broke down the wall between east and west cinema considering that very little of all Asian film was known in the west. Say what you will about the film or even Kurosawa but who knows what if anything we’d know today about that golden age of 50s Japanese cinema if it weren’t for this.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - Dir. Robert Weine

Many people have heard the term Expressionism brandied about in relations to art and cinema without having a clear cut understanding of what it really is. Rather than offer any dictionary definition, I’d just say watch Caligari. No film, or piece of art for that matter is more representative of the style than this. It is also considered by many to be the first truly great horror film, and any aficionado of the genre will no doubt recognize the importance of this early gem. It goes along with a recurring theme throughout history that often times a defeated nation in a war can produce the best films immediately afterwards. The films hand painted sets might seem like a gimmick but they were done almost more out of necessity than anything else, but they certainly made the most of them.

The Man With a Movie Camera (1929) - Dir. Dziga Vertov

Another silent film? You guessed it. Few nations ever embraced a concept like montage as readily as the Soviet Union did. Dziga Vertov was a politically motivated documentarian that spent the decade filming in remote provinces as part of his landmark Kino-Eye series. This film was a feature that at the time might have recalled the “city symphonies” a odd subgenre exclusive to the silent film, but far outlasted and outshined all similar films. Less geared towards Communist aims this film is his least political and most brilliant. At it’s core it is a feature length demonstration of rapidly advanced editing techniques. A film that would be impossible a few years later and well you still wonder just how the hell it was done at all. For what montage was all about you’ll find no greater representation. This film has no plot to speak of but it certainly doesn’t need it, I dare you to be bored while watching it.

Metropolis (1927) - Dir. Fritz Lang

It seems no matter what science fiction film comes out it owes a debt to Metropolis. Long since public domain the film has been released in so very many awful incarnations (remember the 80s re-release with original music from Loverboy?). Recent years have brought some much needed integrity back to the picture. Back in 2003 a restored version was released, and a few years later even more lost footage was found. Today the film is as good if not better than it was when initially released and it remains the crowning achievement from the once prominent Ufa studios in Germany, before America took away all their best talent. Lang certainly made a few more gems, but in terms of scope an influence this would remain his longest lasting contribution to cinema. Amazing to think how iconic the film has been even in a butchered state, now that it’s back to it’s original glory (or as close as it’ll get anyways) the film just seems that much more extraordinary.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - Dir. David Lean

It’s rare when a big budget Hollywood epic is also an art film. After years of pumping out glorious Technicolor epics designed to dwarf the films shown on television, Columbia pictures decided to make Lawrence of Arabia. Given the helm was David Lean, fresh off his Oscar for Bridge on the River Kwai. Like Apocalypse Now this production would prove extremely problematic and would take infinitely longer than anyone would have anticipated. The wait was worth it because Lean brought back the epic to end all epics and arguably the best film ever photographed in color. An introspective epic that isn’t short on large scale battles it is at it’s core a complicated character piece of a complicated character. It seems even more modern epics turn up the CGI and forget things like character development. There are moments in this film where you simply feel lost in the enormity of it and realize you’re witnessing a one of a kind gem. Not the easiest epic to digest as one friend referred to it as a four hour movie about sand, but well worth the time and as good a Hollywood product as you’ll find, one that will never be duplicated.

Andrei Rublev (1966) - Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

When looking at the original NSFC list I didn’t really complain about what was excluded. After all the list should be more about what’s included rather than what got left out. However the fact that there was no Tarkovsky seemed like a glaring oversight that needed some justification. A filmmaker of enormous importance whose style is uniquely singular yet an inspiration to countless European auteurs. His films are mesmerizing in their scope and execution. From the films opening sequences of flying it’s clear that Tarkovsky is at least figuratively operating on another plane here. A near 4 hour epic about an iconic Russian painter this isn’t the type of film that screams masterpiece, but along with his subsequent films Solaris and The Mirror it is one of the supreme testaments to European cinema. It seemed like a bold statement to declare Tarkovsky the greatest director to come from the Soviet Union, but the more I watch his films the more I stand behind that remark, and this is his first unquestionable masterpiece and arguably his greatest.

M (1931) - Dir. Fritz Lang

It might seem overkill to have two Fritz Lang films on this list, that is at least until you see both films. Lang often referred to M as his greatest film and watching it today you can still see why. It’s nowhere near the scope of some of his silent films, and this was his first venture into sound, treacherous waters for many a great director. However Lang made the most of it and employed arguably the creepiest offscreen whistling of all time. Showing his horror largely through cutaways, editing, shadows, and juxtaposition it’s a film about a serial killer that doesn’t show the killer until long into the film and actually makes him seem sympathetic. One of the last great German films before Hitler came to power this was Lang arguably at his best. It might not have the pop culture influence of Metropolis but myself and others would probably say this is the better film, and absolute must.

8 ½ (1963) - Dir. Federico Fellini

Well here’s another repeat offender on our list. Fellini can be debated as Italy’s greatest director, but his influence and stature in his time far surpassed any of his countrymen. 8 ½ was the second film of his in a row to earn him a best director nomination from the Academy (he won neither time go figure), but this is one of those films that virtually every director would point to as an all time favorite. The film blends reality with dream, fantasy with flashback so seamlessly that it doesn’t even seem to matter which is which by the end, and I’ve never been quite sure about that final sequence. 8 ½ is also bittersweet because after this Fellini would go on in a similar direction for the remainder of his career and for those who fell in love with his films La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, or even La Dolce Vita would never forgive him for it. This is the ultimate in autobiographical surrealistic art house extravaganza and quite possibly the best foreign film ever made.

The Battleship Potemkin (1925) - Dir. Sergei Eisenstein

When I mentioned Rules of the Game being one of two films on every Sight and Sound poll, this was the other. Eisenstein was recognized as master in his day and was the figurehead of the highly innovative and still influential Soviet montage school. Potemkin was his second film, commissioned on the 20th anniversary of the incident depicted and it was one of those rare brilliant marriages of propaganda and art, and one of the few films he produced that the government actually approved of. An incredibly powerful film that easily puts you on the side of the mutineers as well as the civilians supporting their cause it will forever be known for it’s massacre sequence on the steps of Odessa. Film textbooks break this down shot for shot and nearly everyone whose taken a film class has probably had to sit through it. Even if you haven’t you’ll recognize it’s enormous list of cinematic homages from The Untouchables to the Simpsons.

L’Avventura (1960) - Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni

Along with La Dolce Vita this film marked a crucial turning point in Italian cinema in 1960. The film angered people like no other when it first appeared on the international festival circuit. Antonioni turned his focus the over-privileged spoiled upper class, and had the audacity not to offer any sort of closure at the films conclusion. This film may still anger you when it’s all over, but once you get used to Antonioni it’ll seem like the rule rather than the exception. It’s a mystery where the mystery isn’t terribly important at all, and it’s more about the people involved. It is a seminal film that severed the ties from what came before it dramatically and ushered in a whole new world of Italian cinema where filmmakers like Francisco Rosi, Bernardo Bertolucci, Marco Bellocchio, and of course Pier Paolo Passolini could establish a new kind of Italian cinema.

Fourth Tier is coming soon, and just for the record it’s “all of the above” so don’t think it’s necessarily lesser films by any stretch. So if you haven’t seen a particular favorite by the end of that list, then feel free to email me and complain.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Essential Cinema: Second Tier “Let’s get serious”

Ok first things first, what blog entry of mine would be complete without an opening apology? Unlike nearly every other entry where I apologize for my periods of non-activity, here I felt I needed to clear something. The first tier was for what may be construed as mindless Hollywood entertainment. Films that don’t really even need justification to be on such a list. Movies that transcend a genre or really any representational banner. That said there were a few reasons why I specifically excluded foreign films from that first grouping and allow me to try and justify my actions here.

Many years ago I got into cinema. I started with Casablanca, then proceeded to watch every damn film on the American Film Institute’s top 100. It wasn’t until this entire project was done that I began to look towards foreign films. Part of my problem was that I didn’t really know where to start. People will look at you funny if you haven’t seen Star Wars or the Wizard of Oz. “Everyone” knows The Godfather, Singin’ in the Rain, and Psycho are great films but what about foreign films. There aren’t really any consensus greatest foreign films lurking in our cultural lexicon. Perhaps 50 years ago names like Fellini, Bergman, and Godard were hip to the general public, but well that was 50 years ago. For this reason I couldn’t include any foreign films in this top tier even if I wasn’t specifically excluding them for purposes of neophyte accessibility. There is no foreign equivalent to Casablanca, The Godfather, or Gone With the Wind.

Even the foreign films listed in the Sight and Sound poll are suspect. These are some seriously esoteric films. If I told someone to make sure Potemkin, Rules of the Game, and Tokyo Story were among the first 10 or so films you watched if you were just getting into cinema they’d probably run away screaming to the latest Adam Sandler film (ok we all know no one is going to actually see Jack and Jill, so let’s just say they watch Happy Gilmour for the 20th time). I’m not saying I’m ignoring these films, or even neglecting them, I just believe that the order shouldn’t necessarily be “greatest to least important” but one of accessibility. You don’t give someone Animal Farm to read and then tell them to finish War and Peace the next week.

So with that, welcome to the second tier. There are a few more films than the first tier, in fact as of typing this paragraph, 4 more. 5 of these 12 films are foreign films so alas we are saved. Now I debated for quite awhile which films to put in this category. After all I went much longer before watching foreign films, but I feel you’re ready for it. You’ve gotten over your fear of musicals, you’ve been able to watch a couple of films that meet or exceed the three hour mark, you’ve realized that Star Wars isn’t just some dumb movie for nerds, and even managed to sit through a film that may or may not have scared the crap out of you. Perhaps most important of all, and the reason why The Gold Rush was the last film, you got used to the idea of reading while watching a movie. The language of cinema is universal, and you didn’t really miss a beat watching Chaplin in all his glory did you? Who needs sound anyways? Well to me silent cinema and foreign films seem like cousins, not too far removed from one another and if you can handle one, then the other should be no problem.

So the other idea behind this list is that you can brace yourself for films that might not be rosy rays of sunshine. In other words some of the best, most important, and essential films are dramas and sometimes heartbreaking ones. So this list might seem like the “real” first tier to some of you, but well I held off here. Now because of this forewarning you may think “good heavens I’m going to be so depressed watching these films” and remove your fear because that won’t be the case. Not all of these films are depressing and some are downright uplifting at certain points. I’m also starting to assume that with that little bit of work you did with the first tier that certain wonders and marvels of cinematic form can start to be noticeable. In other words the noteworthy aspects of some of these films won’t be entirely lost upon you because now you have a frame of reference.

The second tier is not exactly in alphabetical order so there is a slight progression to this tier. So anyways, I ramble and often wonder who reads these extended preambles anyways, so onto the list already:

Second Tier

Citizen Kane (1941) - Dir. Orson Welles

Well, well, well Mr. Thinks-this-is-the-greatest-film-ever how could you have left this out of the first tier. Clearly there is no more essential film ever made than Kane? 9/10 critics will probably tell you if you could only watch one movie in your lifetime this would be it. Considered by countless sources to be the greatest film ever for decades now, yet you’re putting it in the second tier, what the hell for? Ok slow down, Kane is for all intents and purposes the greatest film ever made, the same way the Beatles were the greatest band of all time. Your personal favorite might be different but it’s hard to argue with the status. The reason I put this is in the second tier is one of context. I give you Sgt. Pepper’s and tell you this is the greatest album ever you might say “ok that was good, but what of it?” Now if you hear a few of the albums around it, such as the Beatles earlier records, and some albums from the Stones, Kinks, Who, Beach Boys, etc all of a sudden it might start to make sense just how much of a revelation the album was. The greatness of Kane could easily be lost upon someone who was starting off their film odyssey with it. The same reason that nearly anyone who was forced to watch this in an introduction to film class and write a 10 page paper on it probably hates the film and thinks it’s overrated. Being force fed greatness will come with a large dose of resistance even fool-heartedly. I didn’t think this was the greatest film ever the first time I saw it, but I knew it was a damn good one. So if you approach this film thinking it will be a damn good movie, you will be very pleased. However if you watch it expecting to hear the voice of God and experience a cosmic enlightenment you may find yourself a bit disappointed. So I held it off for the second tier hoping that after seeing some of the very best films, you may be able to appreciate the top of the list. If I held it off too much longer though the expectation would only mount again leading to eventual let down. So watch it, watch it again, watch a documentary or two about it, and then watch it again, and hell you might just agree with me an a lot of other film snobs.

Raging Bull (1980) - Dir. Martin Scorsese

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call Scorsese America’s greatest filmmaker of the last forty years. Nearly anyone whose had a passing interest in cinema has seen one of his films, or god willing at least knows of his work. However a hundred years from now when film textbooks (assuming such things still exist) look to reference Scorsese, chances are the one film he will be best remembered for is Raging Bull. Considered by nearly everyone to be the best film of the 80s, and featuring one of the most remarkable acting performances ever caught on film it is one of those films you simply have to watch. You might find more accessible films from him, but few American films have ever touched so many raw nerves as this film, it is very powerful stuff.

On the Waterfront (1954) - Dir. Elia Kazan

Forget context for a bit. You may or may not know who Elia Kazan, you may or may not know what he did in the 50s or what this film was alluding to. In fact the less you know on an initial viewing the better. If you don’t know about the filmmaker, keep it that way until after you finish this. On the Waterfront is to the 50s what Raging Bull is to the 80s when it comes to high end Hollywood drama. Marlon Brando won his first Oscar for his role as Terry Malloy and his famous speech is even quoted by DeNiro in Raging Bull. For anyone interested in just what method acting was this film is as good as it gets. Kazan, controversial he may have been at times was still one of the all time greats and this was his best film. Might seem odd today, but this was also a rarity in its day for actually filming on location (which considering how many films are shot on green screens today it may seem unique today as well).

Schindler’s List (1993) - Dir. Steven Spielberg

There seems to be a trend here of black and white dramas. In the case of this and Raging Bull, color was certainly the norm which makes it stand out all the more. Schindler’s List is one of those films that nearly everyone knows about, and people are well honestly sometimes scared to watch. Not the same way people might be scared to watch Paranormal Activity, but well they know this is going to get them on a gut level, and it might be a bit depressing. However anyone whose seen it won’t deny that it was a pretty damn good film. Even more than Scorsese, Spielberg is one of those directors who can sell a film just with his name. After his earlier track record of box office dominance, it seems odd that he was still trying to prove himself, still trying to be taken seriously by the establishment. Schindler’s List ended all doubts about that. No matter how many more films dealing with the Holocaust come out, this film set the bar far too high for any of them to ever reach it.

The 400 Blows (1959) - Dir. Francois Truffaut

Are you ready for some foreign films finally? Well I know some of you might be a little disturbed that this is the first one appearing on the list, but along with the film listed directly below this, it is a damn fine place to start. Francois Truffaut was one of the founders of the French New Wave, the original and ultimate “new wave”. His first feature was The 400 Blows and for many audiences world wide this will forever be the figurative Ft. Sumter of the New Wave. The autobiographical nature of the story is one that Truffaut would carry on throughout his career, eventually bringing the Antoine Doinel character back four more times. The film is harsh but revitalizing in it’s sincerity. Truffaut’s personal attachment to the subject was what the New Wave was all about. To paraphrase him, he wanted to make movies that he would have wanted to see growing up. With a certain nod to Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct the French cinema really never had a character quite like Doinel. It can be argued that the New Wave might have reached it’s peak a few years later, I can’t think of a better place to start.

Breathless (1960) - Dir. Jean-Luc Godard

Ever since their days as critics for Cahiers du Cinema Truffaut and Godard have been linked together. It doesn’t matter how incredibly far apart they drifted in later years, Godard being a very vocal critic of some of Truffaut’s later work, they came up together and internationally speaking The 400 Blows and Breathless will always be the most iconic films of the New Wave. Whereas Truffaut was breathing life into cinema with a personal subject and a few occasional directorial flourishes Godard simply took the entire language of cinema and made it his bitch. He’d get progressively more experimental over the next several decades (often to the point of incomprehension) but in his first feature he playfully bends all notions of what the rules of cinema are. Characters in Godard films break the fourth wall, continuity rules are discarded, camera movements are anything but fluid. It might seem odd with all the hand held camera movies being made today, but it was something quite revolutionary when Godard did it in 1960. It may also be worth pointing out that it’s just a damn fun film to watch still today. His film was the worship of the low budget American gangster film, and while paying homage to those poverty row studios he created a seismic shift in cinema forever. Simply put there is cinema before Godard, and cinema after Godard those are the two eras.

Open City (1945) - Dir. Roberto Rossellini

Chances are if you’ve heard of the French New Wave, then Italian Neorealism is also a movement that should ring a few bells. Now many films follow the wake of a breakthrough that borrow some of the original film’s signatures, but there’s always that first that simply defines what it’s all about. Roberto Rossellini was one of Italy’s “Big Four” of directors that came to prominence in the post war years. Open City was the first real breakthrough Italian cinema had outside of Italy since the days before D. W. Griffith. The influence of Rossellini and other Italians at the time was huge. It can be said that there might not have been a French New Wave without the Italian movement. Many of the films from this period are shot on location, often dealing with poor and exploited people. Many of the actors are non-professionals and the films were shot as naturalistically as possible. Yet none of these films are as powerful, dramatic, exciting, and groundbreaking as Rossellini’s breakthrough. This is cinema at it’s most vibrant and there are plenty of scenes that may still blow you away today with their brutality. This was a call to arms from a shamed nation desperately looking to rebuild itself in the wake of fascism.

The Searchers (1956) - Dir. John Ford

Well at long last we have ourselves a Western. Not just any Western but the greatest of all, starring the greatest screen cowboy we’re ever likely to see, and directed by the most legendary of all Western filmmakers. John Ford and John Wayne made a number of collaborations over the course of their careers. From Stagecoach in 1939 to Donovan’s Reef in 1963 the pair hit some pretty high highs. Rarely however has perfection like this occurred on the screen. I stumble at times to think of fitting enough adjectives to describe how amazing this movie is. This isn’t your cowboys and Indians shoot-’em-up that your grandpa might have had on the TV in the afternoon, this is some powerful stuff. After Stagecoach there was a wave of more serious minded Westerns aimed more for adults than 8-10 year old boys. In the 50s this was amplified even more particularly with the string of Westerns starring Jimmy Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann as well as critically acclaimed films like High Noon and Shane. Like Singin’ in the Rain this film was largely ignored when it first came out. Considered a flop this wound up being a personal favorite of Ford and Wayne but a bit of a failure for their studio. It was only after a rediscovery in the late 60s that people started to realize that this might be Ford’s masterpiece, which is saying something for a man who won 4 best director Oscars.

Seven Samurai (1954) - Dir. Akira Kurosawa

Rashomon might have been the film to open the floodgates to Japanese cinema in the 50s but when all is said and done this is the Kurosawa film that will be considered his best. Like The Searchers this film was also somewhat maligned when it was first released. It nearly bankrupted it’s studio and when it came out in the US two years later over an hour of it was cut. The director’s cut was one of those cinematic tragedies people dreamed about one day seeing (like Welle’s Magnificent Ambersons, or Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed) and in the 90s that dream came true. A complete restoration took place and the full epic was once again available and seen for the first time in the West. The parallels between samurai films and Westerns are numerous and it makes sense that the film was remade as The Magnificent Seven in 1960. Perhaps watching this side by side with The Searchers can help illustrate the point a little better. The amount of care and patience Kurosawa crams into an action packed film is remarkable. Hard to imagine a film so simple be so involved. This is perhaps the best known Japanese film ever made, and well why not start with Kurosawa?

La Dolce Vita (1960) - Dir. Federico Fellini

Fellini was a one of a kind director. Describing his style to someone whose never seen one of his films is a frustrating endeavor. La Dolce Vita signaled a turn in Italian cinema much like Breathless did for the French. Gone were the non-professional actors, films shot in remote provinces about poor people and their struggles. Sure directors like Olmi, Rosi, and De Seta would continue this but with La Dolce Vita, as well as L’Avvenura released the same year the emphasis would shift. Fellini was interested in the rich and their unique brand of decadence. For better or worse Fellini would get more surrealistic in his subsequent films but there is just a slight hint of that here. Instead it’s just a compelling odyssey of life on the A-list. No one is entirely bad or entirely good anymore. Fellini became the first Italian director nominated for a best director Oscar with this film, which goes to show you that no time needed to pass before audiences recognized the greatness of this film. If foreign cinema had any equivalent to say Casablanca as a must see film, La Dolce Vita might be it.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) - Dir. Frank Capra

I’ll be honest this probably could have gone on the first tier. After all who isn’t familiar with this film? For many families this is a holiday tradition, the ultimate Christmas movie. Watching it today I don’t look at so much as a Christmas film. Frank Capra dominated the 30s, winning 3 best director Oscars in 5 years. When WWII started he did his part and went overseas, helping produce and direct the Why We Fight Series. Coming home after the war this was his first film, and also his first collaboration with James Stewart since Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Audiences were a little put off by how downbeat the film seemed to be at the time. Critics still loved it but this wasn’t quite the same foolishly optimistic Capra of the previous decade but the underlying message was still the same. George Bailey was after all a good man deep down inside and well good things eventually happen to good people, occasionally we might not even be aware of it. In many ways this is both the pinnacle of “Capra-corn” and it’s swan-song.

The Birth of a Nation/Intolerance (1915/1916) - Dir. D. W. Griffith

One can make the argument that no filmmaker was ever more important or influential than D. W. Griffith. Perhaps film itself would have faded away as a curious novelty much like the wild west show had it not been for Griffith. Now sometimes due to a tendency of oversimplifying history he is credited with more than he probably deserves, but there are some things you just can’t take away. The Birth of a Nation is, was, and always will be the most controversial film ever made. You may think that today some of it’s scenes are downright appalling, perhaps thinking when the film was made that things were different and audiences didn’t mind. However this film was just as volatile back in 1915, dividing many audiences. Like too many other films that are often impossible to separate from their historical context this film often gets overlooked for what it did for cinema. For the first time cinema was on par with all other art forms if not surpassing it. Even better however was Intolerance, a film made by Griffith to apologies/defend his actions with Birth. It’s multiple lines of action were lost on viewers at the time and like a few other films on this list it was a disaster when released. For Griffith it was the end of his most ambitious projects, but he’d continue to make some great and important films until his involuntary retirement following 1931’s The Struggle. Intolerance is to me the greatest silent film ever made and pretty damn close to the greatest of all films, but everyone living should see The Birth of a Nation at some point in their lifetime. Few people could stage a battle scene like Griffith, and for editing pace well there are generations of disciples that still owe a debt of gratitude to the master.

So that’s it for now. The third tier will be coming soon so go through this list and do you homework.