Friday 11 March 2011

30-21 The Greatest Films I've Seen

30. Playtime
1967 FRA Jacques Tati 

Jacques Tati's Playtime is whimsy, dozens of amusing observations and occurrences intricately choreographed.

As well as conventional gags quickly set up and delivered (the woman who seems to float by, the window cleaner who tilts the window and those reflected, the neon halo above the priest) Tati orchestrates protracted set pieces through which a dozen funny ideas happily run along. In an airport, a roundabout, an office block and, most notably, a restaurant, Tati lays down a picnic blanket and brings delicacy after delicacy out of his hamper.

Then there is the comedy on a still larger scale - the bewildering bureaucratic utopia/dystopia, the homogenisation of cities, or the breaking up of social orders.

Like no other film, Playtime demands and rewards your attention. There's nothing uproarious or crude about it. Droll and clever, it shows that if we keep our eyes peeled everything can tickle us, or even pleasantly pass the time infuriating us. 
 29. Rebecca
1940 USA Alfred Hitchcock 

The success of Alfred Hitchcock's best film, Rebecca, is that it takes Daphne Du Maurier's wonderful story and avoids messing it up.

There's nothing particularly striking about the way Rebecca is shot. The key is in following the dramatic throughline with style but not with a panache that overwhelms and makes tawdry its, admittedly high-concept, pleasures.

The film does change the nature of Maxim's past actions but the story was never focussed on Maxim's character. It's focus is his new wife (the book's narrator) and her battle with the ghost of Rebecca, his late first wife. The sensations of discomfort and anxiety (tormented by close friend of Rebecca's Mrs Danvers) are very well portrayed by Joan Fontaine. She is only just learning to be a woman and now she must learn to be a wife, a second wife, and a lady of a grand house. Sometimes it's like a dream, other times a nightmare.

The shocking twists that shake her certainty and self-confidence are perhaps the best in all of film.

28. Hail Mary 
1985 FRA Jean-Luc Godard

Understandably causing controversy upon release - changing but one word of a sacred text will lead to dismay and offence - Hail Mary may be at times abiblical but it is never anti-biblical.

Perhaps only by exploring the story afresh and extrapolating upon its psychologies (there is not that much on what Mary and Joseph felt in the New Testament) can we shake ourselves out of our complacency with its mysteries and earth-shattering significances.

It is a film that allies innocent/cheeky mischief (the Angel Gabriel's grumpy dutifulness, Joseph's suspicions of Mary) with a glowing depiction of nature (an coalescence of God, the beginning of time and a new wind of change in the sunsets, the moons and the grasses) and Mary. We see a woman's body, fully nude, as if never before - not sexualised or objectified.

There are exquisite flashes throughout : Mary plays basketball and the squeaking sounds of the court are interpolated with the strains of Bach, God's calling; life breathed into Mary's belly as she lies on her bed; Joseph learning that love is self-sacrifice, not touching Mary's body but holding his hand by her belly.

In the end Godard has done something that seems impossible. Hail Mary is fresh and bold without courting controversy and honorific without ever being obsequious towards the material.

27. Hotel Monterey
1972 BEL Chantal Akerman 

There is a burgeoning movement in art which shows less to create the illusion of more. There is a climate where those who have little craft or ideas hope the credulous viewer, desperate to prove themselves a discerning connoisseur, will fill the void themselves.

In Cinema there are Directors who think the "simple" can only be a veil for the deep, for their depth. Chantal Akerman's Hotel Monterey strips the minimalist altar bare and, through showing what it can really do, rudely exposes those who exploit it.

Of course I am sure plenty would accuse Hotel Monterey of the same pretentiousness. Only there is not one moment where an image is doing more than being itself or asking for more than to be looked at for its concreteness, its lines, its colours. Chantal Akerman has a great eye for a seductive composition. Still shots last for a couple of minutes and instead of losing interest in them we are entranced, our eyes relaxing and focusing and then relaxing again. 

The film is entirely silent and what is around you (birds, the whir of a fan, distant roadworks or nothing at all) is your soundtrack. It is all-enveloping. Bit by bit we work our way up the foyers and corridors of the hotel until we emerge on the roof. Only a very talented artist can treat the simple simply. It is an awfully difficult thing to do.

26. The Trial of Joan of Arc 
1962 FRA Robert Bresson

[Edited down from previous review]
Jeanne and the men who judge her are never in the same composition. There is a rupture. The rhythm of question and response is a harassment. She withstands, parrying their strikes. They ask, and she glances down. She responds, eyes lifted. There is a word that sounds and feels such as the dynamic of this trial : impitoyable, merciless and implacable.

Le Proces de Jeanne D'Arc does not incite pathos or gather tears. So much can come from observing this 'model' (Florence Delay). Performance can be a veneer. It hides the person who acts.

There is no music, save the drums that beat at the beginning and at the end.Le Proces de Jeanne D'Arc does not use adjectives. Only verbs and nouns. It renounces spectacle. There is an immaculate profundity : feet and hands, shackled and unshackled. The sound is heavy. Shouts snipe from offscreen demanding that the "witch"
be burnt. The roar of the fire is unbearable and not only because of what it means. 

Jeanne is tied to the stake. A dog passes between the onlookers. It looks up. It doesn't understand. It is looking. To this dog Jeanne is not a witch and she is not a saint. She is. It cannot know why this murder is happening. The dog takes us out of the human experience. The shot refutes hate, fear and hypocrisy. It makes empty. It makes things be seen again.

It is hard to judge Le Proces de Jeanne D'Arc, if in fact we must judge it. It did not make me feel anything in particular. It made me know.  

25. Flight of the Red Balloon
2007 FRA / TAIWAN Hou Hsiao Hsien

The dilemmas of a single mother (Suzanne) struggling with her son (Simon), her absent daughter and a nuisance tenant reach no resolution and no conclusion.

We float in and out of their story watching while she attempts to anchor her life. The titular balloon is rarely seen but we know that at any time it may be there, a calming and un-judging observer, a counterpoint.
The balloon is like the notes the piano tuner sounds over and over while Suzanne's anger and sadness is 'tuned' into a simple gesture of love between mother and son. 

Little things go out of their control. The balloon appears to have a mind of its own but it is only being carried on the wind. Suzanne and Simon are too lacking in full control. Only they are not peaceful about it. 

Here is the power of film and memory and the way someone's voice or someone's camera can give new life to old. The balloon kissing its own image painted on the wall is the now honouring the past.

The film doesn't play with grand decisions and solid finalities. The story is each moment.

Full review here.

24. Die Hard 
1988 USA John McTiernan 

A smirk, a grimace, a disbelieving chuckle. The fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass.

The big kid. The anti-authority authority. The outlaw with a badge.

Die Hard is hyper-tense, and super-thrilling, two dozen storeys of blue steel, grey concrete, pipes, glass and smoke : a dangerous city built upright. You feel every knock, every inch of punctured skin, every bit of sweat, every cheeky triumph. It is the apogee of all action films, the non pareil, and McClane is the perfect hero to pop Hans' balloon. Then there's Al, Agents Johnson and Ellis, Holly, brilliantly strong characters all.

What better way to prove you're a man to your wife than by killing a load of bad guys?

23. Poltergeist
1982 USA Tobe Hooper 

What makes Poltergeist such a spectacle of wonderment and worry is the giant heart of a tangible family love.

From the children's bedroom (a technicolour shrine to Americana) where a tree smashes through the window, and the kitchen where the chairs arrange themselves, to the garden where poor Tweety is (temporarily) buried, this home and its objects come alive in more ways than one.

We care when the light show turns hysterical. We care when Diane holds a whispered night-time vigil with Dr. Lesh. Everything is vivid. Poltergeist is sweet (the mouthed "I love you" between husband and wife), funny ("Can I have a goldfish?"; the duelling remote controls) and clever (after everything that's happened Steve still finds the idea of a medium ridiculous; Diane turns the channel over to a violent film because Carol Anne is staring at static).

It is exciting (Diane dragged along the ceiling), terrifying (the dog-like beast), sad (Carol Anne saying "no more" as the closet door opens again to take her inside) breathtaking (Carol Anne's spirit is felt by her mother : "It's her. It's my baby. She went through my soul") and truly moving (mother and child are reborn from the other side together in the bathtub).

Poltergeist is a film of many wonders.

22. Gion Bayashi
1953 JAPAN Kenji Mizoguchi

The softness of the black and white, the poses of the geisha, the smartness of frames and faces speak of delicacy, order and despondency.

Gion Bayashi sits and settles. It meditates upon those women whose profession is at the crossroads between a noble craft and a sordid exploitation. As in Street of Shame (Akasen Chitai) it is through the eyes of the newest and youngest geisha (Ayako Wakao) that we see the perils and restraints of this life, the sacrifices made to learn music, dance, deportment and those made too to one's dreams and dignity.

Mizoguchi steers clear of sensationalism. He shows the fine line between something good and something wrong, what should be carried forward and what should be discarded. He shows too that, whichever way society as a whole faces, it is the individual men who decide what becomes of these women.

 21. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
2001 USA Steven Spielberg

A.I. is emotionally draining. It is overflowing with sadness. Yearning and rejection walk hand in hand, and love, always incomplete, always malfunctioning.

Is love ever selfless? Do we love because we are loved? Do we love what people do for us? Is an emotion real if that which inspires it is an illusion?

There are critics who have decried A.I.'s ending as sentimental or in some way upbeat. There is nothing upbeat in A.I. except the splendour of a magnificently realised story. The end is the end of a cycle - Monica created David to love her and now David brings back Monica to love him.

A.I. is not another future where robots may take over or turn against us or keep us apart. A.I.'s future is more believable and more troubling: if we could create things that seemed so much like us but were disposable, how would we begin to see ourselves?

Here's my essay on A.I. entitled Love, Self-Love and Self-Hate.


  1. Another great list, Stephen.

    Love to see Playtime on any list like this, there's nothing else like it. I'd go so far as to say I don't think there's any other film that so fully exploits and uses every inch of the frame at any given moment. It represents a seldom-followed example of a whole alternate method of film-viewing, where there's seldom only one place to look at any given moment.

    Love to see Hail Mary here too, Godard in the 80s was on a pretty phenomenal run, and this and its companion piece First Name: Carmen are especially great.

    Interesting that you single out Rebecca as Hitchcock's best. It's a very good movie, but there are so many other more characteristic Hitch movies I'd rank above it. Still, hard to quibble with any of his upper-tier movies — of which this is unquestionably one — showing up on a list like this.

  2. Thanks again Ed.

    About Playtime , it's like Tati has left dozens of Easter Eggs hidden in the garden and we have to go looking for them. As far as what I've seen, his films are indeed unique.

    I think Godard's best work is from the 80s onwards.

    I think Rebecca's story is what sets it apart. His other films had a style but this one has a real punch that is more than theatrics.

  3. What a delectably diverse collection of films!!! Great stuff, Stephen. Couldn't expect anything less from you, could we? :)

  4. Great to see Hail Mary and Artificial Intelligence on this list (both personal favourites), as well as Die Hard, which is still one of the defining films of 80s American cinema.

    The only film I wouldn't be able to get behind is Poltergeist; I'm not sure why, I just never really responded to it.

  5. Die Hard is a movie I love and may consider my favorite action movie from all time. It has the humour and the touching characters, as well as the personality of Allan Rickman.
    I may get where you come from about Poltergeist, and when maybe I'll say that it's a good movie, is not even, for me, near my favorite horror or favorite movies.
    Same thing goes with A.I.

  6. Shubhajit,

    Thanks very much!

  7. Lights in the Dusk,

    I'm very happy you like Hail Mary . I get the impression that not many have seen it or think it among Godard's best.

    re Poltergeist , it's one of the few 80s classics that I didn't watch as a child on television. I saw it first just a few years ago and it made a big impact. Maybe some people would think that it's a nostalgia pick.

    I'm glad to see you've put up a new post at your blog after "Writer's Block".

  8. Jaime,

    Die Hard has grown on me significantly since I first saw it. I don't think I've heard one word against it(!) Yes, humour is a vital part of it. I should have mentioned it more prominently. I agree on Rickman. I know it's an old cliche but a great hero needs a great villain.

    I can understand you not liking Poltergeist or A,I. . It's tragic, but I understand!

  9. Curiouser and curiouser. Notwithstanding the selection of some canonical entries, which you have hijacked into the realm of the personal anyway, this comes across as another thought provoking post, Stephen. Great work. Off to the next lot.