Tuesday 15 March 2011

20-11 The Greatest Films I've Seen

20. The Exorcist
1973 USA William Friedkin 

The Exorcist is an adult film. No, not adult in its profanity or blasphemy or chilling horror,  but adult through its seriousness and serious-mindedness.

Its characters are mature, intellectually curious and principled enough to be bedevilled by doubts about their roles. These people are dignified and they are noble.

The Devil enters the chasms that have been left in their lives - by an absent and uncaring father, by a lapsed faith. He preys on them. He attempts to consume them. Only, by his very presence, he elicits a strengthening of resolve. His challenge, his baseness, requires an elevation of the heart.

A young girl's life is at stake. They fight, they pray. We stand by her bedside. She disappears and then returns.

The Exorcist builds on the worst nightmares of any parent, the simple things that can disturb an onlooker. It doesn't startle you or make you cower. It frightens you beyond shivers or jumps. It leaves you shaken and concerned.

[The Exorcist and 'the horror before the horror']

19. Korol Lir (King Lear)
1971 USSR Grigori Kozintsev

King Lear has inspired three striking cinematic adaptations. Jean-Luc Godard's King Lear, Akira Kurosawa's Ran and the greatest of all Shakespeares on film - Grigori Kozintsev's Korol Lir.

William Shakespeare's verse. Dmitri Shostakovich's cutting, clashing and tumultuous score. Cold, rocky, windswept landscapes. Kozintsev's sharp, intense monochrome. 

One of Kozintsev's great achievements (as he did to a lesser extent with Hamlet) is that, after so many dreadful versions of his plays, he reminds you of what a great talent Shakespeare could be. 

He makes King Lear earth-shattering. He gives it authority. Crucially he has actors who suck the dramatic pulp from the text and leave aside the tough skin of theatricality. Their performances mock the conventional wisdom that Shakespeare's work is somehow harder to perform than anyone else's (as if he invented emotions) or speaking his language were really like juggling oranges with your tongue. 

Korol Lir is masterful.

18. Film Socialisme
2010 SWI/FRA Jean-Luc Godard
Film Socialisme is funny, profound, farcical, beautiful (especially his close ups), clever, philosophically adroit, pretentious, purposefully silly, detached and tenderly warm.

Film Socialisme is an essay, a documentary, and, at the same time, the most blatant of fictions. It enchants the eye, the heart and the mind.

Godard's single best film may only rank at 18 but, uniquely, all his films have the best of Cinema in them. Taken as a whole, including the outstanding television project Histoire(s) du Cinema, his career's work outstrips any film-maker's. He consistently offers something to inspire, excite and challenge.

Film Socialisme is incomparable and only comparable to Godard's other incomparables.

A full review here.

17. My Neighbour Totoro
1988 JAPAN Hayao Miyazaki 

Japanese directors Mamoru Oshii, Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Hosoda, Hideaki Anno and many others (on TV as well as the big screen) have led animation into its golden age.

The greatest of all of these storytellers is Hayao Miyazaki. 

One could point to self-improvement, to down-to-earth fantasy, to environmental concern, to respect for one's cultural heritage as the foundation of Miyazaki's films. While these are indeed constants of his work, what truly defines them is their meticulous and kindly attention to character, to the minutiae of mannerism and mood, to the volatile relationships between young people and the world around them.

My Neighbour Totoro is cute and upliftng beyond words. It gives you a spring in your step and a song in your heart. 

It doesn't use emotional whitewash on its tale of the girls' ill mother - nor proposes the spirits as crude escapism or mere subconscious projection - and never lets the delights of the forest run treacly. It is sentiment made gloriously unsentimental. 

 16. Jeanne La Pucelle
1994 FRA Jacques Rivette

Jeanne La Pucelle is a work of abundant light and luxurious space. Like all of Jacques Rivette's films it is airy, cool and elegant. The places and the people are so alive, present and unvarnished that the film enthrals from start to finish.

It is rare for so many characters to become so familiar to us and so dear (diaristic entries to camera very cleverly break up the film, bring us closer to the people and elide the more mundane milestones). In Jeanne La Pucelle they are so distinct and interesting that Jeanne's farewells feel like ours too.

As for Jeanne, she has a smile in her eyes that reflects both the tranquility of the divine and the unfettered amusement of a normal girl. She gives herself no airs and demands respect only for God and the Saints who guide her.

Once she has achieved what they wanted from her - the crowning of the Dauphin in Reims (marvellous, rich pageantry) - the voices stop and she finds herself caught and tried for blasphemy. The end is near.

All great tales shock us with the memory of their beginning, appearing so hazily on the horizon behind us that we cannot believe we were ever there. It isn't the length of the film, or the miles we cover on foot and on horseback but the people we travel with that make it into a journey.

Full review here.

15. Rosetta
1999 BEL Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

Keeping the camera unsteady, and invading the characters' space with close ups has become a shorthand for 'gritty' realism (for the 'real' can never be happy of course), for describing an isolated figure in turmoil.

In Rosetta we are tied to her in close up. To her face, to her back, as focused on her and her troubles as she is. She feels that there is no-one to reach out to and that she will never get out of "the rut". She is cut off. Off-screen is the world. Rosetta's world is the trap of her existence. The Dardennes aren't playing at the game of miserabilist martyrdom, of cosmetic instability. It isn't 'true' or 'raw', but a fiction we can believe in (in its situation, its characters, its purpose for existence).

Rosetta wants a steady job. She almost lets a colleague drown so that she can take his place. He, in return, resents her and torments her, pursuing her like a demon on his bike, its roar tearing at her peace. 

She prepares to kill herself, carrying a gas canister back to her trailer. The man circles her on his bike, taunting her. She falls three times and begins to cry. Then, a miracle. An arm comes from off-screen. The world has stepped into her frame and intervened to save her. In the face of her suffering (passion) her tormentor's hate and jealousy has been burnt away to reveal the basis of all humanity - compassion - the same compassion that compelled Rosetta (despite her selfish impulses) to save him from the river. 

Her tears subside and ours swell.

14. Au Hasard Balthazar
1966 FRA Robert Bresson 

We don't know why they do what they do. Evil is committed. It is allowed to hold power and sway. Inevitability presses down on people.

Bresson's film too, with its cast of elegant and complaisant sufferers, flirts with sanctifying suffering.

Bresson strips away everything but the barest gestures of emotion - an outstretched hand, a sole tear, a head turned away. The core, the soul is afforded a gravity and a burden unique to his films.

Taking away the details of motivations and sensations, actions and consequences are clearer. The purely human, hiding behind the layers of expression and signs.

Au Hasard Balthazar, mighty in an austerity that presents objects as though with a neutral fondness, does not sanctify people merely because they accept their cross. Instead it illuminates how the vice of life's suffocating grip strains and buckles against the holy and the irreducible in all of us.

13. The Apu Trilogy
1955-59 INDIA Satyajit Ray 

While revered Indian Directors Ritwik Ghatak and Guru Dutt tipped their style into the quaint, the picturesquely "just so", the films of Satyajit Ray succeed in their balancing act. They are sensitive, optimistic and fair without being over-embroidered, precious or too arranged.

The Apu Trilogy, regardless of its series of tragedies, is relaxed, unbuttoned and fine. The relationships between people are gentle and grown gently in soft light. The reeds sway, the train chugs by, the lovely little crises and mischiefs of family sparkle like trickling water in the sun.

There are always struggles to make ends meet and they are met with hope and good faith. There are deaths that tenderise the heart and open the eyes to look for new love.

The trilogy lives its moments of clumsiness - actions that are not natural but self-regarding symbolic gestures - but these are rare.

12. Fanny and Alexander
1982 SWE Ingmar Bergman 

The faces, the colours, the movement, the light (musty, harsh, painterly), Fanny and Alexander is dressed with the vibrancy and vivacity of a fairytale, the fragrant, ineffable fleshiness of dream, of nightmare, of shadows of childhood, of wild memories thrown onto the wall.

To Fanny and Alexander, like for all children, the world they are growing into is crazy - full of ghosts and monsters, ecstasy and fun, cold fear and blank desolation. Family is riotous, uproarious, an amorous embrace.

It is as an abundant novel, a saga, a story whose tinted pages have the aroma of age and wisdom. The moustaches bristle, the whip cracks, the wax drips. The men are more than men - they are lascivious, they are curmudgeonly, they are magicians and sorcerers. They are pompous, earthy, heroic. The women are more than women. They are angels. They are nymph-like creatures moulded by Rubens, put upon and putting upon. A mother is comfort and peace. A father is strength and certainty.

Fanny and Alexander is a sitcom, a farce, a myth. At its best it is unmatched.

11. Chungking Express
1994  Hong Kong Wong Kar Wai 

Chungking Express is here purely on the strength of its second story of a cop (Tony Leung) and a waitress at a snack bar (Faye Wong).

The first story is fine but doesn't show or evoke anything special. The second, an infectious blossoming love, is Cinema of the very highest order. The chemistry between the two actors/characters, the grinning of the eyes, that catchy excitement, is so wonderful that it is difficult to describe. 

Faye takes to breaking into his apartment and rearranging his furniture, bringing in goldfish, swapping his soft toys, ironing his shirts. As the Cop is wont to anthropomorphise his home and his belongings as an extension and representation of his own feelings, she is effectively signing her name on his heart.

It is very hard to divine what goes into making a great love story. We know what should come out : we need to feel a certainty that the two belong together and a desperate, nervous yearning for it to happen. Chungking Express is that.

[Read my essay on Identities and Labels in Chungking Express]


  1. Wow, there's quite a few in this span that would rank among my favorites as well (Chunking Express and Fanny and Alexander especially). I'm very happy to see that Bergman film here, one of his very best works, a magical and beautiful tribute to the theater and the vibrancy of life. Its blend of darkness and joy is sublime.

    It's great to see Film Socialisme rocket up a list like this, too. It's not my favorite Godard (though you mention my favorite, King Lear, in another entry) but really any number of Godard films would fit nicely on a list like this. I especially like what you say about his career all fitting together as an unmatched cumulative statement. I've often thought that, since 1980 at least, Godard hasn't been so much making individual films as endlessly adding to one big film, with the individual pieces providing different perspectives, different takes on his ideas and aesthetics.

    Interesting Rivette selection, too. It's a film I like a lot, but it says something about Rivette's fantastic career that there are probably at least a half-dozen of his films I'd rank above it.

    Anyway, this list continues to be fascinating. Looking forward to the final 10, and I can't imagine what #1 will be.

  2. The Exorcist is one of my favorite movies and while it doesn't get near to my favorite horror, it does get the top spot in the list of how scary it was. I don't tend to be that scared with horror movies, just a few jumps here and there, but that's all, but this one had me at all times, scared for my life the whole time. It's as effective as profound in its themes.
    Film Socialisme, being the only other movie I've seen in this list (I saw the first part of the Apu trilogy and won't comment on that until I see it all), is truly an amazing picture, but the thing is that I just understood what it was at the end, and I need to see it again to fully comprehend it... and I don't know if I want to.

  3. Thanks very much indeed Ed.

    "I've often thought that, since 1980 at least, Godard hasn't been so much making individual films as endlessly adding to one big film, with the individual pieces providing different perspectives, different takes on his ideas and aesthetics."

    Yes. As discrete packages the films can lose something. There are elaborations on similar ideas and echoes between his films. including the short films like Old Place and Dans le Noir du Temps .

    I'm glad you like Chungking Express too. As for Godard's King Lear two images stick in my mind - hands over a fire and petals being put back onto a flower.

    Fanny and Alexander is the only Ingmar Bergman film. Jacques Rivette, on the other hand, we may see again.

  4. Jaime,

    The Exorcist is indeed very effective. I tend to prefer the parts that caused the least controversy.

    I think it's always useful not to think in terms of genre too much. If you say it is a horror film, then you will judge it on how scary it is. If you see it just as a film, then you will be more open to the wealth of great stuff throughout.

  5. I'm glad to see Kon, Hosada and especially Anno mentioned as the runners-up to Miyazaki-- Anno himself was something of an apprentice to the Studio Ghibli founder, working as an animator on stuff like "Nausicaa" before gravitating to his famed "Evangelion" franchise and "Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water" (which was based on an idea from Miyazaki). A couple of other anime-greats I might've mentioned, though: Katsuhiro Otomo ("Akira", "Memories", "Steamboy"), Shinichiro Watanabe ("Cowboy Bebop", "Samurai Champloo"), and Chiaki J. Kanaka (writer of "Serial Experiments Lain", "Armitage III" and "The Big O"). "Welcome to the Space Show", by the team behind the "Read Or Die" animated series, is also a stand-out recent movie.

  6. Bob,

    I'm with you on Kanaka but I've never been impressed by Otomo's films (apart maybe from his section of Memories . I admire his visions and ideas but they've never transported me.

    I haven't seen Welcome to the Space Show . I read your piece on it - thorough, insightful and heartfelt as always - and I hope I'll find a way to see it soon.

  7. I'll admit that Otomo hasn't shown quite the same commitment to directing anime as the other directors mentioned, and therefore isn't really on their level. His work in manga ("Domu" and the six huge volumes of "Akira") is really stunning (the feature of "Akira" was too reductive-- imagine trying to telescope the "Star Wars" saga into a mere two hours), and the screenplays he's written for animation ("Roujin Z" and Rintaro's "Metropolis") show where some of his best potential lies, I think.

    By the way, I probably like the first short from "Memories" the best-- "Magnetic Rose", based on a short manga story of his, and with a screenplay written by Satoshi Kon. It's so good, I frankly wish that he'd gotten a chance to do it as a feature, instead of the other chapters of that film.

    WttSS has been shown in Europe throughout last year, and the first twenty minutes are up on YouTube, but I'd reccommend waiting till you can see it all for yourself. It's a fun movie, a bit less serious than Miyazaki's stuff, but just as imaginative.

  8. My favorite part of the list yet, Stephen. (I should add that the whole thing has been remarkable; it's just that I've been silently reading along.) Lots of films on here - Jeanne la Pucelle, Film Socialisme, My Neighbor Totoro, Chungking Express, Apu Trilogy - that I've wanted to see but never have. Your impeccable, highly personal writing whets the palette further.

    As for the ones I have seen, Au Hasard Balthasar and Fanny and Alexander shoot right to the top of my list as well. The former is my favorite Bresson, and the latter is in consideration for my favorite Bergman. The problem with evaluating Bergman's oeuvre, for me at least, is that nearly every one of his films is a jewel. I have such a personal affection with each one that it's hard to pinpoint a favorite, or even a group of favorites. But Ed is right to say that Fanny and Alexander's "blend of darkness and joy is sublime". Perhaps more than any other Bergman film, this one conveys the bright side of his artistic personality.

  9. Bob,

    I haven't read Domu but I've heard many great things about it. You make a good point about chopping a manga series down to two hours. In a way it's surprising that he would adapt his own work like that, knowing he might not do full justice to it.

    I like Magnetic Rose too.

    "WttSS has been shown in Europe throughout last year, and the first twenty minutes are up on YouTube, but I'd reccommend waiting till you can see it all for yourself."

    OK. Thanks for the information.

  10. Carson,

    Many thanks. I hope I've pushed you a little closer to watching those films. I'm sure you'll get something from them.

    I'm less a fan of Bergman's films than you but I do like Cries and Whispers quite a bit. As for the "bright side of his artistic personality", have you seen his The Magic Flute ? I enjoyed that too.

    Thanks again.

  11. Stephen, it's even weirder, considering he actually hadn't even finished the manga when he made the film. I think he was somewhere in the fourth or fifth volume when production began, and still had the sixth (and final) to complete after the film came out. If you've read the whole thing, it'd seem more well-suited to a longer OVA, but that obviously wouldn't have afforded him the budget of a feature film. I suppose he thought that the quality of the animation and the atmosphere was more important to him than the full scope of the narrative (pity we couldn't have had both). It's also common for manga and anime from the same series and even the same creator to differ wildly from one version to the next-- the "Evangelion" television series and the "Rebuild" feature films are a perfect example of this, or obviously Miyazaki's own "Nausicaa".

  12. Bob,

    "...it's even weirder, considering he actually hadn't even finished the manga when he made the film."

    Ah. You mention Nausicaa and that too was unfinished at the time he made the film version (based on the first two books of seven).

    I'd prefer a full, deep narrative to a better-looking truncation. It would have been great to see the Nausicaa manga translated to animation in full - it's so much more complex and involving than the two hour version.

    Is Domu easy to get hold of?

  13. I would think so. In America it was published by Dark Horse, which is probably the biggest comics company other than Marvel or DC over here. Aside from their original stuff (Star Wars, Buffy, etc) they publish a LOT of manga, mostly the well known stuff by the likes of Otomo, Shirow and whatnot. But a lot of the titles they used to have the rights to are now being published by other companies, and "Akira" is among them, so "Domu" might be the same. Then again, I don't know if another company prints these same works in the UK. I'd check on Amazon, should be easy enough.

    Have you ever read the "Akira" manga, by the way? I'd argue that it's the same as with "Nausicaa"-- the full version is much more fulfilling.

    It's interesting to look at the difference between anime directors who have a strong background in manga (Otomo, Miyazaki, Tezuka) and those who started out entirely in animation (Anno, Oshii, Kon). What are your thoughts?

  14. Domu is out of print and has been for some time now, which is a shame. It's a really good book. Tons of manga has been issued in the US at this point but it's really spotty and frequently prone to lapsing out of print.

  15. Bob,

    "Have you ever read the "Akira" manga, by the way?"

    Only the very first few pages online a while ago. I'd prefer of course to read a physical copy but these manga tend to be very expensive so it's not something I've taken a risk on yet.

    I would like to buy a translated version of the 'Yokohama Shopping Log' Manga - but it doesn't exist!

    "It's interesting to look at the difference between anime directors who have a strong background in manga (Otomo, Miyazaki, Tezuka) and those who started out entirely in animation (Anno, Oshii, Kon). What are your thoughts?"

    You might think that the former are stronger at story-building or that their still establishing shots are more striking. I think a case can be made for both but mostly the latter.

    Oshii, Otomo and Kon's films are dynamic, more obviously 'cinematic' in terms of making use of 'camera' movement. For Oshii and Kon style is very much part of the story - a particular atmosphere of tension or madness. This is where they differ slightly from Otomo.

    The styles of Miyazaki and Otomo feel more sedate - more about letting the story speak for itself. Their cameras wouldn't necessarily look at happiness and sadness differently.

    Though Anno, I think (off the top of my head), is a mix of both. I'm rambling and this may well all be rubbish.

  16. Ed,

    Thanks for the information. It's a shame. It wouldn't happen to a quality or famous American comic and, once there's a translation, what's the difference?

  17. Korol Lir? Yes!!! A true masterwork. And Lear's breakdown sequences are simply stunning.

    Amazing work as usual, Stephen. Can't wait for the top 10 (Expecting a Star Wars entry somewhere in there)


  18. "Korol Lir? Yes!!! A true masterwork. And Lear's breakdown sequences are simply stunning."

    Ah, I'm happy you like it so much. Those that have seen both this and Kozintsev's Hamlet seem to prefer the latter. What strikes me most about it is how the more 'talky' parts, away from Lear and the dramatic high points, are still gripping.

    I still haven't seen his version of Don Quixote and I'm not sure it's even available subtitled.

    "Amazing work as usual, Stephen. Can't wait for the top 10 (Expecting a Star Wars entry somewhere in there)"

    Thank you very much. Star Wars , eh?

  19. Re: Manga creators who become anime directors, vs. animators who do so...

    Comics are just as much a visual medium as cinema is-- to a certain extent, even more-so, because they don't have the same relationship with time, being based in stills as opposed to motion. Mangas are built out of static imagery, so it makes sense that the mangaka-turned-anime-filmmaker is going to be largely concerned with the visual content, especially where it concerns stand-out moments, postures and whatnot. Otomo and Miyazaki certainly have bold images that stand out from the rest of their narratives, even when the action gets a little hectic or the plots ramble a bit. At times it feels as though they've never quite outgrown the excitement of having animation at their command, which is usually a very good thing. It's no wonder the two of them have more or less defined the public's idea of anime for the past thirty years.

    Something that Anno has in common with those two is the fact that he's spent almost all of his career in serial storytelling-- he hasn't done any manga that I know of (that'd be one hell of a treat) but his television series "Nadia" and "Evangelion" have a lot in common with the way that long-form comics stories are told over weeks, months and years. Therefore he's got a lot of the same sense of scale and scope that most feature-directors have, but a very deliberate sense of pacing that makes his work quite mature and sophisticated even when it's indulging in the most naked form of fanservice (literally, very often). His mis-en-scene is both economic and imaginative, his use of set-pieces impressive and entertaining. But the most important piece of the puzzle might be the quiet moments of his works-- there are entire episodes of his shows where very little happens ("The Hedgehog's Dilemma" is a perfect example), yet it's never mere filler. It's part of what makes the rest of his surreal, psychologically explosive content feel like a valid fit, in terms of rhythm-- he earns the sensationalism with minimalism throughout. He definitely took the lessons he learned under Miyazaki to heart, albeit in his own idiosynchratic direction.

    Oshii is the odd bird standing out there, I think, because he's the only one who didn't have a solid background in writing his own material for so long. Anno and Miyazaki started out working under others, but their most definitive works are their own original creations. Kon got his start as a screenwriter, and slowly worked his way up to directing. Otomo began as a writer/illustrator, then writer/director, and has arguably done some of his best work solely as a writer who hands off his scripts to more level-headed directors. Oshii, however, had Kazunori Ito as a collaborator and all most all his work up until the screenwriter split off to work on the ".hack" franchise, and I don't think that the director's work has ever really been the same since.

  20. "Otomo and Miyazaki certainly have bold images that stand out from the rest of their narratives...At times it feels as though they've never quite outgrown the excitement of having animation at their command"

    Yes, I agree. I especially like the second point.

    "...he earns the sensationalism with minimalism throughout"

    I don't remember the episode you mention but changing rhythms, allowing people to draw breath or to give the world a different wash, is something I've always enjoyed in anime. This is something that Kon does less of, I think.

    I wouldn't say Satoshi Kon's best work is as a writer who doesn't direct his scripts : Paranoia Agent is his best for me.

    Thanks for the information Bob - I know very little about these Directors' backgrounds.

  21. "Au Hasard Balthazar, mighty in an austerity that presents objects as though with a neutral fondness, does not sanctify people merely because they accept their cross. Instead it illuminates how the vice of life's suffocating grip strains and buckles against the holy and the irreducible in all of us."


    I think this batch of ten is my absolute favorite in your series here. My life long veneration of Bresson's film has been well-documented on these boards, and similarly I have always considered FANNY AND ALEXANDER and THE APU TRILOGY (especially PATHER PANCHALI) as among the greatest of films. (FANNY was my own #1 of the 80's) Any Rivette qualifies for such an examination, and I can argue with the beautiful LA PUCELLE, even if I'd favor CELINE ET JULIE for that designation. I expected you'd have the Miyazaki, especially after you named it in the top position for the animation poll, and I applaud the choice of the Kozintsev, even if I give a slight edge to his HAMLET. Both CHUNGKING EXPRESS and ROSETTA are masterful films, and they gloriously adorn any list of quality and substance.

    Like others here I am looking forward for the final entries in this fantastic project!

  22. Thank you Sam!

    I too prefer PATHER PANCHALI, very slightly ahead of THE WORLD OF APU. CELINE ET JULIE didn't really grip me beyond the first twenty minutes which I liked a lot.

    All will be revealed re FANNY AND ALEXANDER and the possibility that it is my #1 of the 80s too.

    Thanks again.