Project: They Shoot Pictures top 100

“THEY SHOOT PICTURES, DON’T THEY?” TOP 100 [link to the TSPDT website]
1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
2. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
4. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
5. Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
6. 8 1/2 (1963, Federico Fellini) [cap]
7. The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
8. Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)
9. The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
10. Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)
11. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
12. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
13. Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
14. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
15. Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)
16. Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)
17. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
18. L’atalante (1934, Jean Vigo)
19. Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) [cap]
20. Rashomon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)
21. The Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov) [cap]
22. The Godfather, Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
23. The 400 Blows (1959, Francois Truffaut)
24. Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)
25. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
26. City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin)
27. Andrei Rublev (1966, Andrei Tarkovsky) [cap]
28. Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder)
29. La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini)
30. Mirror (1976, Andrei Tarkovsky) [cap]
31. Touch of Evil (1958, Orson Welles)
32. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson) [cap]
33. Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [cap]
34. Sunset Blvd. (1950, Billy Wilder)
35. Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
36. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
37. L’Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [cap]
38. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
39. Contempt (1963, Jean-Luc Godard) [cap]
40. The General (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman)
41. Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
42. Grand Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir)
43. Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
44. In the Mood for Love (2000, Wong Kar-Wai) [cap]
45. Modern Times (1936, Charles Chaplin)
46. Playtime (1967, Jacques Tati) [cap]
47. Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
48. Dr. Strangelove (1964, Stanley Kubrick)
49. The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)
50. Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski)
51. Fanny and Alexander (1982, Ingmar Bergman) [cap]
52. Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky) [cap]
53. Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)
54. The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)
55. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray) [cap]
56. M (1931, Fritz Lang)
57. Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks) [cap]
58. Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman)
59. Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)
60. Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)
61. North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock)
62. Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carne) [cap]
63. Pierrot le Fou (1965, Jean-Luc Godard) [cap]
64. Viridiana (1961, Luis Bunuel) [cap]
65. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)
66. The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah)
67. La Strada (1954, Federico Fellini) [cap]
68. The Battle of Algiers (1965, Gillo Pontecorvo) [cap]
69. Shoah (1985, Claude Lanzmann) [cap]
70. Amarcord (1973, Federico Fellini) [cap]
71. The Gold Rush (1925, Charles Chaplin)
72. The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman) [cap]
73. Journey to Italy (1953, Roberto Rossellini) [cap]
74. The Leopard (1963, Luchino Visconti) [cap]
75. Late Spring (1949, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
76. Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)
77. Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)
78. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) [cap]
79. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)
80. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
81. Pickpocket (1959, Robert Bresson) [cap]
82. Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch) [cap]
83. The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci) [cap]
84. Jules and Jim (1962, Francois Truffaut) [cap]
85. Nashville (1973, Robert Altman)
86. Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami) [cap]
87. Gertrud (1964, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [cap]
88. A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson) [cap]
89. Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen)
90. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, John Ford) [cap]
91. Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)
92. Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
93. Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) [cap]
94. Last Year at Marienbad (1961, Alain Resnais) [cap]
95. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman) [cap]
96. The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
97. A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes) [cap]
98. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog) [cap]
99. Blow-Up (1966, Michelangelo Antonioni) [cap]
100. Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker) [cap]

***

Although I toyed with the idea back when I was lightly using Tumblr during my early Oscars projects, for the first time in one of these initiatives I kept a journal with running thoughts in addition to my regular Letterboxd reviews, the reason being that I thought it would be interesting to try and critique the elements that lead to a film gaining sufficient status as among the absolute Greats to show up on the upper reaches of this list. Please note that my criticisms aren’t of the list itself. They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? is a wonderful site and I appreciate all the work that goes into it. I started journaling a few weeks into the project and I’ve reproduced all of my entries below.

The project began January 6, 2019 with Blue Velvet and ended September 9th of the same year with Andrei Rublev. I watched and reviewed 24 films I had not previously seen and revisited eight that I had not seen in many years. I also happened to rewatch The 400 Blows and The General, both already reviewed here, during the course of these months.

NOTES ON AVAILABILITY
All 100 films are available to rent from the usual outlets with the exceptions of:
Ordet, In the Mood for Love, La Strada, Gertrud and Sans Soleil, which stream on the Criterion Channel
Shoah, in print physically from the Criterion Collection
Nashville is available online for purchase only, but is also in print physically from the Criterion Collection

*** #1: prelude ***

They Shoot Pictures recently posted their latest revision of their aggregate 1000 Greatest Films list, which gathers data points from every imaginable critical survey, current and archival, and while I’m not yet ready to commit to the whole expanse of the list, I decided to fill in the gaps in the top 100 that I haven’t seen, or haven’t seen in 10+ years. My main reason for this is that I’m in the middle of a chronological jaunt through the major world classics of each decade and just finished the ’40s; that’s taking me about a year for each decade, and I’m enjoying it a lot, but I didn’t really want to wait that long to have an opinion on, like, The Conformist or Blue Velvet.

One fifth of the titles on this list are films I first saw very early on, before I finished high school, in a time before I’d really feel comfortable remembering myself as a cinephile, even though they also represent some of the building blocks to my becoming one; and in fact The Apartment is a borderline case, since I believe it’s the first time I watched a movie because a director I then deeply admired (Cameron Crowe) highly praised it. It’s a Wonderful Life and Casablanca both came to me in my childhood, early enough that I only hazily remember my original impressions of them, but they have hung over me as a near-constant presence ever since, as they do over American culture at large; Casablanca is as good an introduction to studio-picture and WWII iconography as any, and it continues to cause much swooning thanks to the sophisticatedly hopeless romanticism of its script and the divine lead performances by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It’s a Wonderful Life, on the other hand, still stands as a bizarre selection to become an annual tradition for much of the country because it is an extremely dark, often even bitter film, as much a singular treatise on the aftermath of the war experience as it is the cuddly Christmas story that I thought I saw when I was younger; it’s really a film one must be an adult to understand, but it’s still quite a gift to all of us.

My two favorite films of all time, 2001 and Vertigo, were both introduced to me through cable television as a child, both around fourth grade, though I cannot tell you that I processed 2001 at all as a sensory experience. I watched it with my mom explaining the story (or rather, the plot of the novelization) to me and recounting her somewhat unpleasant experience seeing it theatrically on original release. (She recalls that the audience in Sanford, NC laughed when the ape discovered tools.) I don’t remember having much of an opinion of it apart from being slightly afraid of HAL, but it stuck in my mind as a fascinating enough artifact that I had no trouble understanding the numerous references to it in various media, and then found my memories of it being strikingly beautiful and vague validated when I finally saw it again, on a cropped VHS tape, in high school — at a time when that very poetic vagueness became a nearly automatic source of fascination. (Simultaneously, I found and devoured Jerome Agel’s remarkable book about the film and the popular response to it.) At the time, I was touched by the open-endedness of it; now I don’t find it particularly open-ended at all except in its extremely minimalist approach to narrative, which for me was completely right and proper and, in execution, achingly beautiful. The IMAX screening of it I saw in 2018 may well remain the apex of my moviegoing life.

Vertigo was a different matter; I was thoroughly involved in the story during an afternoon showing of the film, also sitting next to my mom, but I was prepared a bit for the twists and turns in the story because I had at one point been a fairly regular viewer of reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on Nick at Nite; what shocked me when I saw the film again about five years later was how much more tortured and serious it was than it seemed to me as a kid, programmed to take the story strictly at face value. Over the years, Vertigo has never wavered from a status as my favorite film by my favorite director; I don’t find it violated by its status as a totem for Hitchcock. Instead, I find its fucked-up, unapologetic core of emotional torment absolutely phantasmagoric in its intensity, and believe it touches dark corners of the human psyche that few other works of art would dare approach — far from an apology for its lead character’s manipulations and excesses, it stands as an indictment of humanity itself, love itself, and it seems at times to nearly burst with longing. Its power, in my view, is nearly frightening. For me, it also only bears faint resemblances to the rest of Hithcock’s output, which nearly without exception I appreciate for totally different reasons than I love Vertigo; the sole exceptions, I suppose, are Rebecca and perhaps Marnie.

One of the decisive influences in my early life of film watching was my sister’s vast collection of videotapes, mostly recorded from TV broadcasts of various films; her tastes ran mostly toward sci-fi and action films, but there were scattered exceptions like Once Upon a Time in the West, which was the first western I deeply appreciated for its mordant humor and quiet-loud dynamics, though she helped me a lot with getting through the slow parts; and North by Northwest. I actually had become extremely (or rather, even more) interested in Alfred Hitchcock after attending the exhibition devoted to his work at Universal Studios in Florida, and came away intrigued by his large filmography and the stories of his methodology, one of the first times I took an extremely close interest in the technical and psychological aspects of film-watching (the only previous evidence that I would be obsessive about movies when I grew up was that I went through all of my parents’ VHS tapes watching the opening credits of each one to see how their title sequences were structured; this, incidentally, was another reason the Sergio Leone film resonated with me). With commercial interruptions and a cropped print, I don’t think I was as seduced by Northwest as I’d later become, but I was thrilled to actually see it and was richly entertained, as how could you not be? Later, however, North by Northwest would come to represent in my view the most delirious and infallible variety of entertainment — a mindless rollercoaster of excess and fun that isn’t genuinely mindless or excessive at all. During my plunderings, I also ran across Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and, to my surprise, quite detested it, finding its story boring and its characters empty and meaningless, despite my youth. I spent much of my early adulthood assuming I’d just been too young for it, only to find when I finally watched it again (in “final cut” form) in 2013 that I still hated it, and nearly for the same reasons — its totally superficial interpretation of “film noir” has only aesthetic appeal and is appallingly inert as a narrative. If it’s not the worst film out of these hundred, it’s very close.

The late ’90s and the Master’s 100th birthday brought a flood of Hitchcock retrospectives on various networks, which meant I finally got to see the two (at the time) most hotly discussed titles in his oeuvre. (Vertigo was still, at this stage less than two decades after it was completely out of circulation for years, more a cinephile’s treasure than a universally beloved classic; its ascendancy to infallibility since then has been as remarkable as that of Apocalypse Now.) I was still young enough that my dad really didn’t want me to watch Psycho, and also young enough to care what he thought and feel I had to hide it when I did anyway. But I was absolutely floored by it immediately, and by Rear Window; it might have been at this stage that Hitchcock’s films became not so much a subject of intrigue as of actual passion. Shortly thereafter I got Truffaut and Spoto’s books and was pretty well entrenched. Both films play extremely well across all manner of generational lines to this day; it is little wonder that they take permanent residence on lists like this.

And I think it’s around this point, 1998-99, that I become an avid and dedicated viewer of movies discovering my own taste instead of piggybacking on that of my parents and siblings. In the fall of ’99, my dad decided that he wasn’t paying enough money to watch television and installed “digital cable,” a then-novel new invention that gave us access to an unholy number of pay channels running uncut movies. Once I realized the scope of what was now available to me, I attempted to initiate a routine of watching a film every evening — I rarely stuck to it very strictly, with calls to my girlfriend and various other distractions still out there, but found it pleasantly easy to fall fully into the morass, and it was during this period and the time just before and afterward that I first saw an enormous number of eventual favorites, and approximately ten films on the TSPDT list.

Touch of Evil was probably my first film noir; initially seen in its restructured “director’s cut” version assembled with the help of Jonathan Rosenbaum, it confused me in its sheer delirium and I don’t think I fully grasped the plot for years, not until I’d seen it maybe half a dozen times, but from the first I was captivated by its beginning and end, and I remember thinking about it a lot after I saw it, and remembering it with more intense fondness than I felt for it just after it ended. (Curiously, it wasn’t my first time with a Welles picture; that was Macbeth, seen in class earlier the same school year.) Next and perhaps even formative for me was Dr. Strangelove, which I’d wanted to see since I was a little kid and which did the biggest number on my sense of humor since I first discovered Help! in the early ’90s. Seeing that and A Clockwork Orange, also long a subject of curiosity, and revisiting 2001 in close chronological proximity really made me something of an auteurist for the first time, an experience I think an overwhelming number of cinephiles have early on with Kubrick. Like Hitchcock, though, Kubrick would grow up along with me in a way that other early points of interest whose entire filmographies I sought out like Cameron Crowe and (cringe) Kevin Smith would not. Though I’m aware that Kubrick attracts a heavy bro contingent that doesn’t really care that much about movies, only about a very received kind of pseudo-badassery (and I hasten to note that I do not look nearly as fondly on Clockwork today as I do the rest of his major works, except as a piece of graphic art), I find that to this day I am still discovering new elements, new nooks and crannies, in his relatively tiny body of work.

Another filmmaker who probably belongs in the category of “auteurs I once deeply treasured that have not grown along with me,” painfully, is Woody Allen, although I continue to admire and sometimes adore his films in an aethstic sense and occasionally in a narrative one — and I am fascinated enough with his career, and influenced and possessed enough by his films, that I am unlikely ever not to be some variety of a fan — but these days, it seems clearer and clearer to me that he isn’t a particularly mature artist, and that what I once took as Austen-like satire of the wealthy classes (in New York especially) was more straightfaced and tone-deaf than I wanted to believe in my teens and twenties, when I all but unreservedly worshiped the man. I think it’s also relevant that Allen’s writing, as would later be the case with the Coen brothers, tends to really congratulate his audience for “getting it,” and not being like those Other People; I always knew this, but once upon a time I felt flattered and honored to be one of the elite smart ones who really understood, failing to realize the emptiness of this one-sided relationship. It’s easy to get taken in by all of the pseudo-intellectualism, and also easy to miss the virtues of his work — including his onetime deftness with comedy — if you get seduced by the big charade, as was once a rite of passage for first-year college students, or genuine wannabes like myself.

Completely discarding the extremely thorny matter of his private life, I remain deeply conflicted about Allen, thanks largely to the fact that nearly every time I do revisit one of his better films, I find myself blown away once again by how a guy who seems like such an utter dunce can be blessed, at least occasionally, with such infallible artistic instincts. Annie Hall is a masterpiece, a romantic comedy for cynics that isn’t really cynical, a love story that’s really about longing for impossible things, a powerful and direct act of communication and common ground from a ridiculously privileged soul with whom we have virtually nothing in common, and a genuinely innovative, creatively restless and even exciting film, the sort of movie that genuinely feels like a reinvention of the form. (Manhattan, not on the list, is an even more extraordinary piece of work — and a far more socially problematic one.) It also reminds you of a key point about Allen’s recent history: that is, the reason people have a harder time reconciling themselves with his films today than they do with Roman Polanski’s, or for that matter with something like Michael Jackson’s music, is that Allen was so dedicated to making us feel as if he was talking straightforwardly to us from the heart in films like Annie Hall. It was so much of the appeal of a film like this that he seemed to break the fourth wall and strip away every bit of narrative distance in order to relate to us on a personal level. I think that was a facade, a kind of act of manipulation, and that the real Allen is represented by the much more sheltered and inert characterizations seen in work like Interiors or Husbands and Wives, or by the outright criminal sociopaths of Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors; there’s a telling lack of detail in the interpretations of working class characters, for instance, in The Purple Rose of Cairo. As Molly Haskell has argued, this does not render the films invalid as works to be appreciated and examined, it only changes their context. But I think it’s worth noting that hardly any other film on this list I consider great would require the kind of mental gymnastics I find myself almost involuntarily doing to defend my love of Annie Hall, including several by directors who as people probably aren’t much more upstanding than Allen. This is the price he pays for associating himself and his own persona so completely with his work, while also remaining almost psychotically guarded; I’m sure he would readily agree with me that you learn far more about Bergman from a Bergman film, or Dreyer from a Dreyer film, than you do about Allen from a film in which he literally stars as a version of himself.

A rite of passage in which I did not participate was “the Tarantino phase.” I despised Pulp Fiction, which I was quite eager to see given the fanfare around it, from the very first time I sat through it. I’m a little softer on the man now and I even like a couple of his films (Jackie Brown and Inglourious Basterds) but his sensibility is pretty far from mine overall, and Pulp Fiction to me as a kid constituted every tryhard guidance counselor trying to “relate” to me with buzzwords and appropriation of empty style, and as an adult still carries that same sense of desperation, and is painfully over-written and unfunny to boot. It’s a bunch of kids play-acting, basically, and I’m quite befuddled by its cultural cachet; and to be honest, I probably dislike it even more than Blade Runner… although as with that film I do get one bit of aesthetic pleasure: in this case, it is ingeniously structured and edited.

It was also around this time that I finally saw Jaws, a legendary title whose sequels I’d oddly been exposed to before seeing the film itself; I remember attempting it at some point as a child and either being circumvented by my mom for fear it would scare me or by myself out of boredom by all the time spent with characters standing around talking. It remains bizarre that Jaws is the film credited with inaugurating “blockbuster” Hollywood; for one thing, Airport and The Towering Inferno both predate it and the gulf between their quality and success is much wider. Plus Jaws is clearly so much more intelligent and engrossing than any of its progeny, as I found when I did finally see it and was thoroughly riveted. To this day, it’s a film that I almost involuntarily must see through to the end if I encounter it while flipping through channels in a hotel or something. Too artful and subtle to be worth blaming for the sorry state of mainstream cinema in the last few decades, it is ridiculously compelling through and through, and a genuinely great piece of popular entertainment… whose popularity and cultural largeness is almost wholly irrelevant to the actual experience of watching it.

I’m not sure when I realized I wasn’t a fan of “genre” films, something that leaves me alienated with a lot of the sort of people I enjoy hanging out with. I think probably in the summer of 1997, hanging out with my sister’s tapes, I started to get the uncomfortable feeling that my received wisdom about science fiction (of which everyone else in my family was/is extremely fond) wasn’t holding together, though it was years before I said it out loud, and gleaned quickly from trying to read Tolkien that I had no interest in even the best, most thoroughly well-conceived fantasy. Horror, I believe, may have taken a bit longer because it wasn’t something that was present at all in my household growing up. “Scary movies” were basically taboo as far as Dad was concerned because he was too nervous often even for just straight thrillers. Maybe this lack of identification is why, when I did begin to watch occasional horror films, I found the bulk of them almost painfully stupid and ineffective. The key exceptions, like George Romero’s earlier films, aren’t on this list, but one important one is — however, The Shining always struck me less as scary than, as Pauline Kael said, a florescent-lit, mystery-free curiosity that felt like an extremely strange dream more than it felt like an outright bad one. I didn’t pick up on its covert commentary about abuse for a number of years, probably because I was rather sheltered. But the first time I watched The Shining with my mother, who was totally inexperienced with this kind of movie, for whatever reason it suddenly seemed terrifying. I think the best thing you can say about it, besides that it’s a heap of melodramatic and visually audacious fun, is that no other film in the history of cinema, at least none that I’m aware of, looks anything like it. (Last Year at Marienbad is in the neighborhood, I reckon.)

Up to this point, nearly every movie I’d ever seen was American or British. I had no prejudice against subtitles or foreign cinema at all; on the contrary, once I had Leonard Maltin’s book and was reading about movies on a semi-regular basis, I had immense curiosity about world cinema, but there was no convenient access to it in my suburban universe (no driver’s license yet, either) back then the way there is now. Perhaps because of their influence on Hitchcock, I was most intrigued by the UFA-era German pictures, and the two I managed to see on cable, both of which are here, didn’t disappoint. Metropolis is an ideal first experience with silent cinema (though it technically wasn’t mine; I had seen some of the comedy shorts and with things like The Mark of Zorro from years earlier) for its bold iconography and vivid, simple storytelling (some would say sophomoric, but I disagree, simply because the film’s execution is too perverse for that). I was riveted by its otherworldly sets and special effects, unlike anything I’d seen, and by the strange beauty of its mystical perception of the future, which felt huge even on a tiny screen. Even before Metropolis I saw M, which had always intrigued me; not a horror movie at all, but this was something that did terrify me — the way that its dramatic story of a child murderer wandering the streets of Weimar Berlin was a transmission from such a different world but still, in so many ways, felt new and untouched. I was also deeply moved by Lang’s treatment of the killer, played by Peter Lorre, for the way in which he fully condemned his crimes without treating him as an inhuman monster — that felt bold, and progressive, to me; and as uncomfortable as it inevitably will make many viewers, it still is, along with its emphatic messaging against capital punishment.

One of the major cinematic influences on my life during this period was my high school French teacher, who as part of our education showed us a number of films that positively enchanted me. She introduced us to Claude Berri, Jean Cocteau, and most significantly for our purposes, to Francois Truffaut. I knew who Truffaut was through Close Encounters, Fahrenheit 451 and his obvious connection to Alfred Hitchcock, which intrigued me since my impression was that he was so different a director to my all-time hero. She showed us The 400 Blows, Truffaut’s debut and an autobiographical narrative of his years as an abused young delinquent, a perfect film for adolescence, a perfect film for a dark classroom that feels absolutely end-of-the-world hopeless at that age, and I felt that Truffaut was talking directly to me about the pain of being a teenager (Jean-Pierre Leaud also closely resembled my by-then-estranged onetime best friend, and I was also more affected by his scenes of cavorting around with his pal Patrick Auffay than I liked to admit) — and in my twenties I would end up laughing at this viewpoint despite my gratitude for the experience, because what I had gone through then seemed so trivial compared to Antoine Doinel’s plight. Now that I have cycled back around to believing that I really was dangerously depressed and had no outlet to deal with it during those years, I believe stuff like seeing The 400 Blows at 15 or 16 made a huge difference in my life. (I also thought Paris looked like heaven, even in its seamier elements, and wished I could hope to see it. It never ever occurred to me that getting on a plane and going somewhere was something I might actually do someday.) And as far as films that grow up with you — well, there’s no moment in life on this planet when a film like this doesn’t fit.

I remember no learning curve with title cards or subtitles (or, for that matter, with black and white, which was still all over the place on TV reruns and such when I was young and had never disturbed me) and I think I am sometimes unfairly critical of others who do struggle with it because I didn’t find it a handicap, nor did my classmates at school who were in foreign language courses or other classes in which we watched movies. I confess I still do not understand why every discussion of older films must travel through this route, as it is the most boring subject matter imaginable, and should be the same for anyone with a more than casual interest in film. I suppose it can be an adjustment to fall in with an unfamiliar vernacular, but that should be an encouragement to persist, not to close oneself off from the immense pleasures of these often still luminous artifacts. Plus silent films are their own art form, at times superior to sound cinema, and come on — if you don’t think black & white movies generally look better than the typically ugly, pallid representation of color in most mainstream films, you’re probably a cop.

Moving forward… I became a major fan of Cameron Crowe for a while after Almost Famous (seeing his two incredibly lame Tom Cruise movies essentially talked me out of viewing him as an auteur, and I never caught up with anything he made after Vanilla Sky) and, somewhat ashamedly, first heard of Billy Wilder as a result of Crowe’s book of interviews with him, although the titles of many of his movies were familiar. The Apartment was Crowe’s all-time favorite film — he had the nerve to blame it for Jerry Maguire — and being faithful to his interests and addicted to the way that his movies and those of his mentor James L. Brooks and semi-protege Wes Anderson made me feel, I acquired a pan & scan VHS copy of The Apartment and fell hard and fast in love, and I think that was one of the turning points for me. At the time, I still had ambitions of going to film school; simply writing about films hadn’t occurred to me, but for now, Wilder’s film was a huge stepping stone in my exploration further and further into the past, and further and further into the idea of movies not just as vessels of fascination but as something that could have as emotional an effect on me as a piece of music.

All of the above, with the exception of Blade Runner and Pulp Fiction, basically formed my original tastes and have, save perhaps A Clockwork Orange, remained deeply important to me with the passing of years. Once I was an actual adult with the attendant freedoms thereby implied, I had my own cable subscription, and it all neatly coincided with the peak of the DVD era when virtually every major film gradually became available in what was then unbeatable quality, invariably in its correct aspect ratio and well-presented, often with high-quality supplemental material. I’m appreciative of the way streaming has made all this physically simpler yet, but I think the years when studios fell over themselves to issue most of their back catalogs on DVD will remain the most exciting time ever to be a budding cinephile, and it’s nice that libraries are now able to keep that moment alive.

The other great turning point in my cinematic life related to Hitchcock again, and to a specific film, The 39 Steps, but I’ve told that story before and that particular film isn’t here, so moving forward…

My teenage years descended into chaos and I didn’t make it to college, but after settling in to something like an adult life in Wilmington, my independence itself fulfilling a modest dream, my then-girlfriend and I eventually sprang for cable, and Turner Classic Movies was my habitat for the next couple of years. I attempted to move back toward the old regime of seeing a film every night, and once again the attempt at this kind of a structure — which was totally beholden to the whims of programmers, and I quickly recognized that only TCM was regularly showing much that I cared about — led me to a lot of films that would become favorites, and to my filling in a lot of gaps among the world cinema classics. I could bore you for hours with specific memories I have from this period related to the movies on this list: discovering Chaplin’s City Lights after a dreadful, demoralizing day at work and being blindsided by how ageless his comedy was, then by how unforced and heartfelt the pathos in the same film felt. (I’d seen clips and knew the Tramp’s iconography well but that was it.) That picture and Dreyer’s stunning, almost frighteningly vivid and alien The Passion of Joan of Arc were the transcendent titles that made me a lifelong aficionado of silent cinema, even though most silent classics can’t quite stand up to those two, which is why they are masterpieces. The sheer forcefulness of emotion in Dreyer’s work was something that struck me almost to the point of speechlessness; I knew it was remarkable, but hardly knew what to do with it, and today I think Dreyer is the filmmaker whose work most consistently disrupts and confronts me on an guttural level. Even going back to a relatively innocuous title like the silent comedy The Parson’s Widow and all the way up to another passionately spiritual film, Day of Wrath, the beauty and generosity of his work throttles me.

In December 2004 I finally saw the movie of all movies, Citizen Kane, and have spent my life since then quietly stewing at everyone who claims it’s overrated; looking at the film, it’s difficult to imagine what a person who dislikes it wants from entertainment or art. Even though I knew many of the iconic scenes via parodies from The Simpsons, everything in this then-63 year old film felt impeccably fresh and new and full of imagination to me — a savvy, sharp examination of society, media and complex humanity. Plus it’s just so much fun; I was over the moon about it, and felt that every bit of the exorbitant praise it had been given since before I’d been born was fully deserved. I was retroactively annoyed with a family discussion I remembered from when it topped the 1997 AFI list, when it had been alleged by a sibling and parent, who’d dutifully rented it during that news cycle, that its innovations were no longer impressive in light of, like, Star Wars… which, well, whatever, I guess that was just a preview of how impossible it would eventually become for me to discuss pop culture in mixed company! As for the notion that the film is all aesthetics, propagated so frequently by the likes of Roger Ebert, I can’t disagree more; if you can level that accusation at Kane, a film I think of immense emotional power, you can just as easily lay it at The Third Man, whose mise en scene courtesy of Carol Reed (despite rumors, Welles had nothing to do with except in front of the camera) is equally electrifying. But I find both films to be cathartic, moving experiences.

I dove further into auteurism: Billy Wilder, represented here by the ghostly and slyly cynical Sunset Blvd., a film I adored and still adore despite its nastiness, which also was something of a revelation in light of the way that we think of classic Hollywood’s attitude toward itself; Roman Polanski, whose Chinatown was one of the few New Hollywood touchstones whose power was immediately apparent to me and still stands as an uncommonly well-judged creation, updating the film noir aesthetic with a seamier, more direct narrative that is actually devastating; Ingmar Bergman, who I instantly connected with on discovery of his heart-on-sleeve romanticism and sense of beauty and wonder despite his often bleak worldview. Even the legendarily drab The Seventh Seal played less to me as a meditation on misery and death than as a celebration of life. Confronted with all of my favorite Bergman films, I always found myself looking out my window afterward with longing and utter appreciation.

And lastly, I finally filled in my most glaring Kubrick gap (only Killer’s Kiss and Fear and Desire among his features, neither of them significant, would remain unseen for a while longer) with Barry Lyndon, which I saw on the same day I had an important job interview after trying to catch it on TV for months. I made a huge deal of it, setting my VCR timer (was it really so long ago?) and sitting down with it in the middle of the night, lights down and everything, and making sure to dedicate myself wholly to the experience. I was hypnotized for the duration. It’s another film that attracts criticism I don’t understand — too long and boring, too stuffy and formal, too flat and unemotional, all beautiful pictures and no substance — as indicated by how many times I find myself overcome with each viewing, and by how sharp its dry wit is; I consider it the paramount example of sweeping, powerful, intelligent storytelling on film — and of course, yes, it looks absolutely heavenly. It was the first time in years that I wanted to immediately watch a film again after it was over. For a while afterward I named it as my favorite Kubrick or even, if memory serves, my favorite film. It’s certainly never far from either distinction, and frankly I don’t think I’ve discovered anything since then that shook me quite as much, though a number of pictures have come close.

Something I notice is that, among the films out of these hundred that I saw before 2004, only a couple stand out as movies I actively disliked, then or now; that starts to change drastically once I’m in my twenties, and I guess once I feel like I have a right to some sort of prejudice. I wonder if it’s a character flaw within me that I stopped being able to embrace almost everything, and I certainly can say that I watched the movies that didn’t work for me with a completely open mind — not only that but with an active desire to enjoy and appreciate them. With all that in mind, I finally got around to several movies that were a “no” for me and, as of my last revisit, remain a “no” if sometimes a softer one. So no, as much as it damns me to some sort of cinephile prison to say it, I don’t like Martin Scorsese. I was shocked, stunned even, to find myself curiously unmoved by both Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, which I saw in rapid succession in the mid-2000s; I thought the former was coated with silly half-assed ironies and desperate, empty machismo; even though, yeah, it’s critical of Travis Bickle as a character and the seamy world he inhabits, I wasn’t taken at all with the notion of spending a couple of hours steeped in that world to be instructed about how awful it was. And at least that film had Bernard Herrmann’s ingeniously eerie score; all Raging Bull has going for it for me is that it’s technically impressive, studying a specific character whose arc of abuse and despair I simply don’t find the least bit interesting — and I find both films totally hate-filled and deeply unpleasant, and dealing with their shouting showboatiness is the opposite of a good time to me. I disliked both all the more when I rewatched them as a slightly more seasoned moviegoer; I completely understand what Scorsese is doing, I just find it obvious and dull in theory, protracted and excruciating in practice, and that unfortunately has held for all of his culturally important films I’ve seen (none more than Casino, which is outright contemptible) save Goodfellas to an extent.

I was actually quite tortured by how I responded to my first two Scorsese pictures. (First three, really; I think I’ve seen all of The Last Waltz in bits and pieces over the years, mostly around this time, but consistently became so exasperated with it that I shut it off.) For that matter, I had a similar experience with Fellini: I loved the first film of his I watched, I Vitelloni, and experienced diminishing returns with each one thereafter, including this list’s La Strada. I just thought I was missing something and worried quite a bit about it rather than concluding that I just didn’t like them and had reasonably good reasons for same. But the film that broke this tendency, the one that finally caused me to question the idea that the wisdom of film historians I still maintain are smarter than me was going to hold fast and true, to the letter, all across the annals of cinematic history, was Blow-Up.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s arthouse classic, one of the defining films of the European cinema of the 1960s, so infuriated me that I pretty much changed my outlook on “received wisdom”; today I think received wisdom — at least from those who are passionate and knowledgeable — has its place, but I think this was a crucial life lesson for me. At any rate, apart from the fascinating and exuberant scenes of the Yardbirds playing, I think Blow-Up confirmed every fear I’d ever had about the potential emptiness of the once-edgy art film as a form; what made it more forcefully irksome for me was that it briefly masqueraded as a thriller, during the intriguing scenes wherein David Hemmings, as the well-to-do promiscuous Mod photographer, stumbles upon a murder mystery and a conspiracy in the background of his unrelated photo session. Antonioni’s entire point is that the listless ennui of Hemmings’ character’s lifestyle leads naturally into a scenario in which this brief snap out of his boredom is abruptly met with distraction and apathy and ends up being dropped altogether by character and film both, which leads us into a finale of tennis-playing mimes and an awkward fade into nothingness that at the time left me grouchy for days. It seemed like the sort of stuff my friends taking creative writing courses in college would come up with; at this writing, I have not yet revisited the film but I will be interested to see if an increased knowledge of the period and its concerns, as well as knowledge of much more irritating (and iconic!) youth culture films of the ’60s like Easy Rider, will affect my perception.

After Blow-Up, I started leaning a bit too far in the other direction, making much of how cool and individual I was for seeking out these important cinematic classics and not liking them, though still being equally open about those I did love. So I made no bones about my disdain for Jules and Jim, despite being a massive fan of its director, or of The Godfather, which I did try very hard to appreciate — but pretending its lazily macho, crime-fetishizing narrative was transcendent wasn’t something I could pull off without gritting my teeth, and when I saw it again some years later I still found it soapy and meaninglessly violent, its key virtue being Gordon Willis’ breathtaking cinematography. (Marlon Brando’s marble-mouthed performance does less than nothing for me.) Obviously it has merit, and it should be seen for continued cultural relevance alone, but furthering or validating its place in the canon is beyond me.

One of the great white hopes of revisiting the most widely beloved and praised of canon films is that eventually, it will all make sense to you. That very notion was one of the original centerpieces of this blog; in my experience, the difference between my early adult self and myself now is that I’m slightly better at expressing why I don’t care for some of these movies, not so much that my views of said movies has changed greatly. There are exceptions, however, among these hundred films; of those that predate this project, my greatest turnaround is probably on the two signature 1930s films of cinema’s great humanist Jean Renoir. With the exception of The River, which I always loved, it seems that I wasn’t quite ready for Renoir’s sensibility as a younger man — both The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion, the latter especially, sang out to me much more when I saw them in my thirties than they did on my obligatory (but excited) first encounters with them. Perhaps controversially, I do not consider either one a masterpiece, but like many of Renoir’s other beautiful films of the period, tough as often as warm, they seem to come from a purer, more principled cinematic world, one more curious and empathetic toward people, good bad and ugly, than the moralist tide of classic Hollywood and all that persisted in its wake. (In the case of Rules, I used to have a problem whereby I seized upon certain elements of a film I liked — in this case, the very first moments — and was dejected when the rest of the picture didn’t have the same flavor. Kane spoiled me, probably. I had this same issue with Night of the Hunter and its clash of unnerving terror with schlock.)

The happiest instances I can name are probably Seven Samurai — a film I admired but thought was much too long and repetitive until I saw it projected on a modest private setup in my future wife’s apartment, then was totally wrapped up and enraptured in it; it’s an extraordinarily universal piece of communication, so little wonder it enjoys cachet with the heaviest of scholars as well as the most lightweight of film bros — and The Magnificent Ambersons, which I went out of my way to tape (inconveniencing and pissing off an ex in the process!) off TCM when it aired a couple of months after I first saw Citizen Kane and was in the heat of Welles-mania. At the time, it seemed too compromised to me, its early moments of wild, ambitious epic storytelling falling apart as things wore on, but when I revisited in the last few years I discovered that I probably just wasn’t mature enough to pick up on the film’s soulful despair. Finally, maybe this doesn’t count, but in the midst of my binging every Billy Wilder movie I could manage to sync up with on cable, I of course at last saw Some Like It Hot, and I actually really loved it, but my friends, you have not seen the movie until you see it while ridiculously high on edibles, at which point the entire thing becomes debilitatingly funny.

It was probably inevitable that I’d eventually get sick of waiting around for TCM’s schedule to align with my own; I waited about a year and a half to try and catch my #1 most wanted-on-the-watchlist title, this list’s own Bicycle Thieves, to no avail, so in early 2006 I bit the bullet and signed up for Netflix, which by then had been offering their DVD by mail service for about seven years. And Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves — a few months ahead of its canonical rebranding under that title after a half-century of The Bicycle Thief — was indeed the first film I received in the mail from them. I had a friend at the time, a film major with a real sense of scope and history whose tastes diverged sharply with mine, who had told me that this was a perfect film, a monument of unfiltered heartbreak. Of course I also knew its reputation. But I felt let down when I actually saw it, finding it actually so broad and direct in its tragic messaging that it came across as obvious and maudlin. My friend was bitterly disappointed with this response, and implied that my reception of it (as well as, incidentally, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) painted me as a heartless intellectual who only craved Hitchcockian thrillers and visual pyrotechnics and couldn’t appreciate simple human connections. In fact it spelled the beginning of the end of our relationship; perhaps I should not have offered my unfiltered response. (I’d previously made this error with someone else with Harold and Maude, and I know how miffed I get with people over 2001 and such, so maybe the message is: don’t fuck with your friend’s favorite movie. At least not in front of them.)

But I was also kind of hurt by the implication, and assumed that I was missing something. (My second viewing of the picture a decade later didn’t help, though I’d learned by then of a more generalized distaste for Italian neorealism, with some exceptions; it’s more of a resistance to the fusion of style with social messaging than it is with any particular deficiency of the films themselves.) I couldn’t possibly be a smug disregarder of regular people’s nuanced problems, right? I felt I could point to a million contradictions, but then remembered how many of my favorites (like Kane, for instance) were routinely accused of being inhumane exercises in pure technique. It didn’t help when one of my half-dozen subsequent Netflix titles was Jean-Luc Godard’s pioneering Nouvelle Vague world-alterer and scrappy crime narrative burlesque Breathless, a movie my friend and I did agree on but one that could scarcely help my case in this regard when I fell absolutely in love with it since it’s so commonly viewed as an act of criticism rather than a piece of storytelling craft. And finally sitting down with Chaplin’s Modern Times, I loved a lot of it but found parts of it unbearable in what I then felt to be easy sentimentality. (I no longer feel as strongly about this.) Then there was Lawrence of Arabia, one of those films it seems everyone loves — but that I could find no feasible way into except as scenery porn. I still can’t, though I wonder if seeing it theatrically someday might change my opinion at least a little. Was I really just a hardline unreachable cynic, already set in my ways? Was my ambition of delving into the canon going to prove totally pointless?

While Fanny and Alexander would prove another point of contention (and one that I have somewhat warmed to since my first encounter), Bergman provided a less discouraging answer with Wild Strawberries, a film about a professor gaining a new lease on life on the eve of its end that I happened to see at the nadir of a yearslong depression, coinciding nearly exactly with a career change that wasn’t making me as happy as it should have, and that managed to lift me out of my despair at least momentarily. Bergman always does, which is interesting since his films are so overcome with death and sadness; there is comfort, though, in their thirst for life, and in the feeling that a great artist like Bergman hurt and bled just like you, the viewer. My reaction to Singin’ in the Rain was similar, and in the most unlikely manner, on top of the fact that it was unexpectedly so modern and uproarious in its comedy. (Its sense of humor boasts Simpsons-level degrees of irony and pop satire.) It was long one of the missing pieces in my knowledge of the classics that I dreaded most, thinking then that it wasn’t possible a Hollywood musical could ever work magic on me (something else I’ve completely turned around on), but as a result of my almost comically extreme loneliness at the time I saw it, the warmth of the three-way friendship at the center of the film throttled me in its sincerity — I wanted so badly to have that kind of connection, and was so grateful to at least witness it even in so artificial a setting as a Hollywood movie. So it wasn’t that I was unreachable, I was just only reachable by films that deigned to try and speak to me from the heart, sometimes almost incidentally, rather than out of concern.

Once I had access to basically every significant DVD release via Netflix, I set about seeing everything on the American Film Institute’s then-canonized top 100 that I hadn’t already; there are a lot of films on that list that I admire but that don’t mean a whole lot to me personally — Goodfellas, The Wild Bunch and the second Godfather are all impressive but I just don’t like those kinds of stories or characters much — plus one that I had to see twice to truly comprehend (The Searchers, an introspective and beautiful but disturbing summation of midcentury American culture) and a couple that I have seen twice and still don’t feel totally confident about: Apocalypse Now and Nashville always seem deeply flawed to me when they’re playing in front of me, but in retrospect I can’t seem to get them off my mind. Both are on a lengthy list of necessary future revisits. Maybe not surprisingly, it was Chaplin’s The Gold Rush that I had the easiest time with, both because I’m simple-minded and because Chaplin’s methodology of communication with the largest possible audience is so ageless and universal.

It was also thanks to Netflix that I started to earn some sort of rudimentary knowledge of varying national cinemas. I responded quickly to Soviet propaganda via Battleship Potemkin thanks to its sheer visual fieriness; it has not been diluted in its effectiveness by its generations of presence as a film school staple. Tarkovsky’s Stalker was a less visceral experience, one I still don’t rate highly because of what I view as its endlessly meandering philosophical mumbo jumbo (not a popular opinion, to say the least!) but a film that was so incredibly striking and memorable in aesthetic terms that it didn’t entirely leave my mind for years despite my not liking it much. I associate that film, Herzog’s eerie German touchstone Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Klimov’s Come and See (not on this list) with a certain exceptionally unmoored and uncertain time in my life. I wish I liked them more as films, but their more general mood certainly haunted me and continues to do so. It certainly put the relatively lackluster Hollywood pictures I was slogging through at the same time into perspective. (One of the few highlights of that excursion, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is here — but I like it less than most people, and indeed less than most John Ford films!)

I took somewhat longer to comprehend Japan’s cinematic legacy, not least because I began the journey with Kurosawa, who ended up being a director I loved but one whose work I am less keen on than I am on that of the other masters Mizoguchi and Ozu, whose smaller-scale and more emotionally raw stories would be more to my taste. That said, formally I couldn’t find fault with the immortal, culture-changing Rashomon and found it gorgeous and exciting — though the Kurosawa films I’d later count among my favorites would be those that were not period pieces. Another country with a sizable presence both on this list and on my investigations of that time was Italy, and I’m afraid that — aside from the works of Roberto Rossellini — I have still not found a director from that country to whom I’ve fully warmed. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita left me totally cold (but will be reevaluated here), I had issues with La Strada as mentioned, and 8 1/2 seemed both engagingly otherworldly and impenetrable in its self-indulgence. One last world cinema classic I like less than I should, but I have hopes it will change: The Battle of Algiers — which is extremely impressive in a technical and ideological sense but which I find too far afield of a comprehensible approach to humanity, though why the same exact thing doesn’t bug me in Eisenstein’s pictures is a matter I’ve yet to unpack.

Over the next several years, the films of the 1920s and ’30s would become my most consistent area of interest and passion. I suspect one of the events that spurred this was my first viewing of Sunrise, which gradually became my favorite of all silent movies — its heartfelt and imaginatively presented portrayal of a marriage that was fractured then rebuilt caught me at precisely the right time in the same way that Singin’ in the Rain had, and I’ve been grateful ever since for the way it stirred me and validated my own feelings about love. The General was a delight of a different kind, my formal introduction to Buster Keaton, who as a performer I’d probably rate even above Chaplin even if his features aren’t quite as consistent, and even just given the scattered silents among these hundred films, it becomes difficult to argue with the concept that the era before sound was the most exciting for film as a singular, fully developed art form that has no analogue anywhere else — not in literature, in theater, in music.

At this point, there’s a lapse of several years before my encountering of the last third of these 100 films. For the first few years I had this blog my focus was writing out my impressions of movies I already knew fairly well, something I sort of regret now, and I self-corrected by switching over to a different format — shorter reviews, stronger focus on exploration — a few years in. And for whatever reason, once I picked back up with the decade-by-decade canon project, with the Sight & Sound top ten lists — I found myself making discoveries that I responded to immediately, nearly without fail. Probably this has something to do with my being much more experienced and mature by the time I turned 30, and therefore more equipped to handle what these hoary old art films were bound to throw at me. Plus, with the Sight & Sound list in particular but also the silent, ’30s and ’40s canons, these are heavy hitters, movies that haven’t so much stood the test of time as defined, stretched and commanded the progression of film history. It was scarcely surprising that I would love the haunting chamber piece Persona given how I already felt about Bergman, or The Man with a Movie Camera considering my affection for untethered avant garde shorts of the same period. But it’s intriguing to me that this block of films was, in sum total, not at all hit-and-miss for me; the only ones I didn’t fall pretty hard for were L’Avventura and Children of Paradise, and I still admired both. Greed, Tokyo Story, In the Mood for Love, Ugetsu, Pather Panchali, Late Spring, and the enchanting L’Atalante, which nearly instantly became an all-time favorite — these could just as easily have been building blocks of my love for cinema as any of the major pictures noted above, and they come from a much more diverse and challenging range of nations, periods and filmmakers.

And when discovering movies like this, my prevailing emotion is always almost sheer joy at how fucking much movies can show us, lives they can lead us to, images they can bring us, what they can teach us about everything: art, the world, everyday life, storytelling. Whatever you think of lists or “critical consensus,” how could I not want to ensure that I wasn’t missing any great experience heretofore unknown to me? It was in this spirit that I began finally seeing the last 24 movies on this list that I still had yet to run across, and revisiting those about which my opinions had been formed in my early to mid-twenties and never revised.

*** #2 ***

In contrast to my optimism at the end of the introduction, what I’m finding so far is that the movies that drifted to the top of this list that aren’t already well-loved favorites often tend to have a particular sensibility that I don’t particularly gel with — that goes for those I saw long ago and am revisiting, and for those I’m seeing for the first time. I’m almost wondering now if I am experiencing some sort of an unconscious bias against arthouse or world cinema. Conversely, though, is it possible that nearly two decades of being aware of these movies without seeing them has managed to catch up with me — to give me expectations that would be impossible to meet?

So far I have seen the following as part of this project:
– Blue Velvet
– Sans Soleil
– Viridiana
– Rio Bravo

I feel like a philistine when I tell you that Rio Bravo is the only one I felt strongly positive about, and even with that in mind I doubt I would ever think of it as one of the hundred best films ever made. In the other three cases, I don’t think I lack understanding of what the movies are doing or driving at, but none of the three totally work for me; I enjoyed Blue Velvet and admired Viridiana but had huge reservations about both of them, and in both situations I’m sure they are things that were 100% intended by their directors, with whom I’m quite broadly familiar, which is where I hit a wall: basically it’s where I come to the end of what I can really say as a lover of film or as a critic (if I am one), because finally it comes down to highly personal and often inexplicable reasons for liking or not liking what a director is doing. Sans Soleil — a “filmed essay” about… stuff… by Chris Marker — is just a style of cinematic communication that I find boring and pretentious; I know people who find life-changing value in it, but I feel much more clueless about that response than I do about anyone loving the Lynch or Bunuel films.

… and I’ve revisited these that I had seen once, long ago:
– Aguirre, the Wrath of God
– La Strada
– Blow-Up

These are very “film 101” titles; they tend to be movies that a dedicated student of film sees relatively early in their exploration, and in my case that was true of two of them, but I had polar-opposite responses to them at the time. I was all too ready to accept the things I didn’t like about La Strada — a mournful, morbid document of a pure-hearted woman having endless violence visited upon her by the burly dipshit in her life — as being evidence that I was the problem; I was honest about my lack of enthusiasm, but was quite ready to blame myself rather than the film. Toward Blowup I was outwardly hostile, and refused to consider any possible depth within the symbolism and messaging; I strongly suspect this is because I find the story itself rather clumsy now as then, and moreover because Antonioni is toying with a series of tropes — those of the classical thriller film — that are near and dear to my heart and in fact prompted my deeper interest in film in the first place.

In 2019, my positions have reversed. I’m much more accepting now of what Blowup is attempting to say, though I maintain it lacks a coherent point of view and that its basic examination of nihilism in the guise of existentialism (there’s no point to caring about anything because there is no real value to be placed on actions so you may as well not exist) is trite, which isn’t changed by the fact that Antonioni looks at it with some skepticism. My overall perception now is more that Blowup‘s iconic status and its handful of sublime moments somewhat compensate for its shortcomings, though nevertheless it bears no relationship in my opinion to a much stronger film that might have been made for the same material, because it lacks the emotional follow-through to make it; it’s a pet peeve of mine when someone convinces themselves that deliberately saying nothing, or giving up on all conviction, is itself a statement. So when this film gets totally wrapped up in belaboring the point that none of what it has shown us really matters, it just ends up feeling very simplistic and trite to me; and somehow, that’s even more the case if the actual point is that Antonioni is questioning the society that would lead to such a psychological construct, because what a boring way to go about that. So I don’t like the film. But in 2005, it made me so furious that I never even got as far as attempting to decipher it.

Meanwhile, while I would easily consider La Strada a better film, it invites a lot more hostility now, partially because having seen a lot more Italian cinema since I first encountered it, I’ve found myself unable to take Federico Fellini very seriously as a filmmaker. Like a lot of the neorealist classics that heavily influenced him (some even consider his I Vitelloni, which I do quite like, a neorealist piece), his breakthrough work is an admirably mounted production whose emotions are almost unbearably simple-minded and obvious. The “misery porn” accusation carries some weight in the context of a film whose entire premise is left on the shoulders of its impoverished heroine who’s forced into total dependence on an irredeemable rapist. When tragedy inevitably strikes, we’re left with the image of said rapist and abuser crying to the heavens, but I simply can’t see any motivation for us to feel anything but pleasure at his misery because so little work has been done to render him a complex character. It’s an example of how the arthouse classic sometimes suffers the same moral and emotional incoherence as the Hollywood blockbuster: what has Anthony Quinn’s character done to earn our sympathy? Nothing, except that the cinematography, the carefully maintained mood and mournful atmosphere has determined that we should feel a certain specific way in this specific moment. It’s a dramatic shortcut, and it’s insulting.

I originally saw Aguirre quite a few years after these others, by which time I was relatively seasoned, though I wasn’t really emotionally prepared for the unnerving, sunlit clarity of its visual style nor for its haphazard, deliberately interminable structure — which means to force an audience to withstand the heat, misery and mounting insanity of its scenario. Its audacity just tried my patience at the time, but it’s one of a few scattered films that stayed in the back of my mind and my dreams for years after I saw it; when I did revisit it a bit ago, I found that even keeping in mind I had originally disliked it, it couldn’t live up to the distorted view I’d had of it in my memory. The symbolism is rich, the audacity is arresting, but the screenplay and performances are not nearly as compelling as the intoxicating nightmare world Herzog places around them. Still, there is no question it is a deeply interesting and unique film, and a more fascinating one than either of the aforementioned. (By way of illustration, so much of Blowup has forced its way into the visual lexicon of the ’60s, and of art film in general, that it now almost seems like the embodiment of various clichés. But Aguirre remains so indelible — it neither looks nor feels like any other movie.)

So all this unconscious correction leaves us with the question of whether my reactions to Blue Velvet and Viridiana will become more nuanced with time; but I suspect that I have now reached a point at which I am more familiar and comfortable with myself and my opinions, and that my impulse to doubt my criticisms mostly comes from a place of awareness at the extremely celebrated status these movies enjoy with my fellow cinephiles. It’s always risky to venture any sort of a dissent in the face of a classic, as one doesn’t want to be the oaf contributing an Amazon review of, say, Citizen Kane with the utterly useless dismissal “I didn’t see what all the fuss was about” or similar.

… Lastly, these were revisits of films I’ve seen multiple times and liked/loved, but was now viewing for the first time in many years:
– Breathless

Thus far in the project, Breathless is the only long-awaited revisit to a beloved film I’ve had time for, though Night of the Hunter and, ironically, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive are forthcoming. Breathless connects with me completely, in all the ways that Blowup explicitly doesn’t: while it deeply enjoys the air of hipster glory it’s able to glean from Belmondo, it also feels intense pleasure at breaking him down and humiliating him, and there’s never any sense that Godard is favoring his version of reality over those of Jean Seberg as his long-suffering American girlfriend, who’s independent enough that she’s never really stuck playing his victim. Breathless doesn’t generally have the reptutation of being a richly emotive film experience, but for me it is (just like Citizen Kane). While Godard again makes his own presence known through his unorthodox, manic editing techniques and his camera’s general unstoppable vitality, the film never has the quality of detachment that the other movies described above seem to intentionally employ, and I wonder if this isn’t the key reason it so excites me. Godard’s films are often treated as acts of criticism, and in the sense that Breathless more or less helps me define the shortcomings of these other films typically cited as masterworks, perhaps it still makes the most sense in that light.

As this project continues, I will be intrigued to find out whether the pattern of my emotional distance from arthouse classics grows, or if there are throttling pleasures to await me. I would obviously be disappointed if Rio Bravo remains my only treasured discovery from this project — but hey, a treasured discovery is a treasured discovery.

*** #3 ***

Several months into this project, it has at least brought me to a film that I found not merely successful and satisfying but enrapturing. On inevitable revisits down the road, I feel I may come to consider Sansho the Bailiff a masterpiece. It was less than surprising in the sense that it’s the work of a favorite director, Kenji Mizoguchi, whereas so far the list has mostly left me stuck with dubious entities like Cassavetes, Visconti and Fellini. Visconti’s The Leopard outpaced any other film on the list (apart from Lawrence of Arabia) for sheer boredom.

A revisit to David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. confirmed that it is the most refined, assured version of the surreal vision of the world he exercised on the enjoyable but flawed Blue Velvet and the TV series Twin Peaks, sharing with both an adherence to an subversion of the tropes of various pulp genres, from film noir to the daytime soap opera. For me, Mulholland is wonderful both because of its complete instability as a piece of narrative and because, like the pilot of Twin Peaks, it captures moments of human grief without apologizing for them, which I believe is Lynch’s most significant accomplishment as a storyteller. The movie is also wonderfully seamy and fun, though, and after being neutral about Lynch for a while I was overjoyed to find it fully held up for me.

My experience with the unwatched items on this list overall has continued to be disappointing; and as usual, I find myself questioning what “kind” of viewer and lover of cinema I really am. I obviously don’t fit with the film-bro culture of blockbusters and Scorsese movies (the Empire reader, in shorthand); but it also seems as if I have little patience for many arthouse staples. The latest round of titles — my exposure aided immeasurably by the new Criterion Channel streaming service — were, on average, just “fine” to me. I don’t have any serious objects to Amarcord, Jeanne Dielman or A Man Escaped; I admire what all of them are up to and I don’t have any problems understanding their essences or following how people might come to celebrate them deeply. But they don’t ring out to me in an explosive enough way for me to even begin to think of them as among the best films of all time.

Am I simply too picky a viewer? I don’t believe so; I’d say it’s more likely that I’m too American a viewer — films from my own country, “masterpieces” included, don’t have this much difficulty reaching me. I also don’t think I’m letting myself be disappointed by the pedestal these movies are on. One commonality with Robert Bresson’s Escaped and Chantal Akerman’s Dielman is that they are fascinating to think about, but less revelatory to actually watch. There are elements to admire in real-time in both of them: Bresson amps up suspense from confinement with few dramatic tools at his disposal, working as he does from a dry firsthand account of a prison escape in wartime; and the thesis of Akerman’s film is delivered by an extraordinarily nuanced performance from Delphine Seyrig, who tracks a painful change in gestures and expressions by a matter of degrees. But I don’t connect to these films even as I can’t fault them; there is soul to them, but it does not communicate with me.

The sob-inducing, heartfelt Sansho is my cinema, on the other hand; I guess I like directors like Mizoguchi and Bergman who have no qualms about living inside rich, hypersensitive emotions. Films that deliberately withhold that, much like people who withhold that, aren’t my speed. Fellini’s Amarcord is somewhere in between; I like his nostalgic but tempered glimpse at the past, but I also find his memorializing of it to be somewhat indulgent and cliched. Certainly Fellini is someone who withholds nothing, but I think some degree of ironic distance is handy — Hitchcock and Kubrick being my favorite directors, both men who were interested in people but also in irony, which causes many to resent them, but which I think sets them apart without making their works less emotional. (I’m well aware some audiences consider the idea of Hitchcock and Kubrick being more emotive directors than Akerman and Bresson to be blasphemous and incomprehensible; but yes, I find their characters to resemble real people more than those in most narrative films on this list.)

I could be persuaded out of my views on Visconti’s The Leopard, but it will never be the sort of movie I’m going to have much to say about; it’s a very long, pretty historical epic documenting societal and personal transitions that are very heavily talked out but still mostly theoretical. It’s gloriously empty and did absolutely nothing for me, but its rapturous reception in many quarters speaks for itself. (I have a history of being left a bit at sea by even the Visconti films I liked a lot more, La Terra Trema and Osessione; I used to joke I had a bias against Italian cinema but it may not be a joke.)

I have no room for such kindness in the case of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, a nightmarishly bad film that gains all of its decades of credence from wrongheaded theories about acting and cinema that so badly limit the possibilites of either art form that I believe to promote or encourage them is to actively seek out the death of art. Woman centers around an intolerably hammy performance by Gena Rowlands as a person badly in need of a grip that’s been inexplicably praised as “realistic,” because the same people who think Marlon Brando is a Great Actor think that “realism” equates to wild gesticulations and unpredictable freakouts. The film is just three straight hours of this, meant to be harrowing but just as often as unwittingly funny as a Lifetime movie; in practice, it’s infinitely more infuriating because of how much Cassavetes believes he is “revealing” in the act of refusing to make a single significant creative decision about a story that isn’t interesting enough to be told in the first place. I’m still mad. Cassavetes was a clown, and by and large, his cult hates real cinema.

*** #4 ***

For a while it seemed like this project was going to prove something of a bust for me, aligning too much with the exact breed of arthouse film that doesn’t do a lot for me. Jules and Jim, while not as awful as I thought when I was younger, still seemed shallow, aggressively adolescent and not worthy of Truffaut, despite a smattering of cinematic imagination. Among new-to-me films there was a run of pictures that, in the most boring position possible, I found compelling but liked only mildly or partially: Kiarostami’s Close-Up is a fascinating and witty narrative experiment but also feels surprisingly insubstantial next to its reputation; Bertolucci’s The Conformist is bold, inventive and distinctive in many ways but I felt unable to find much connection between its premise and its aesthetic pyrotechnics, with a story that seemed less ambiguous than just aimlessly vague; and Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, while clearly a film whose imagination and restlessness would have sung out louder than the heavens to me if I’d seen it a decade and a half earlier, gave me too much of a cotton-candy sick feeling at its excessive length, with its playfulness after a time registering as indulgence. And to my rather extreme shock, I found a Dreyer movie (well, a second one; I also cared little for Vampyr) that largely disagreed with me. There’s much to appreciate in Gertrud but its stilted acting and plodding pace work against its clearly intended emotional crescendos. I was less surprised to be unmoved once again by Robert Bresson, whose Pickpocket elicited nearly the same response in me as A Man Escaped, except this time with the real-time intrigue replaced by a complete dissonance erupting between myself and the cold-eyed protagonist. I just wasn’t capable of caring about him.

But then, toward the end of this run, I was confronted with a series of experiences that were transcendent in one way or another. I had long been curious to see Claude Lanzmann’s eight-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah but was put off many times by the sheer investment of time and emotional energy I knew it would require. And truth be told, I spread my encounter with it out over four nights, but every moment of it was riveting, somehow especially in the moments when Lanzmann’s interviews with victims, witnesses and participants seem to stumble over matters of practicality: when he has to use a hidden camera with a closed-circuit TV outside to film his chats with various Nazis, or when language barriers and his various translators cause delays and confusion in communication. It’s a film whose entire weight gives a different message than any of its individual parts, an accumulation of despair and memory that can paralyze you in its awfulness but feels completely valuable and necessary to capture. The results are strangely poetic, and thanks to the immediacy of the color cinematography and the almost mundane formatting of many of the discussions there is perhaps no greater examination of the banality of the evil, and our startling closeness to this moment in history.

Much more fun, though no less accurate a vision of evil in its fashion, was Night of the Hunter — a film I actually saw way back when I was first starting to acquaint myself with classic movies, around 2005, at which point I found it often striking but also so campy I couldn’t quite suss out its mood. Frankly I don’t know what film I was seeing back then, though I’ve had a few conversations with film buffs who still have a similar reaction to the movie, finding it a little too weird. For me, however, the tone, palpable menace and fable-like beauty of Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort is now stirring. Not only is it filled with more indelibly dreamlike images than almost any Hollywood film not directed by Orson Welles — in fact its existence in the time, if the waning days, of the studio system is quite miraculous — it weaves an elemental story of good and evil so convincingly it makes a child of you again, something achieved by only the rarest of storytellers. By approaching his thriller from the eyes and souls of children, Laughton ensures its elegiac permanence, like a rich, full-bodied memory that never leaves you. I expected for the film to improve greatly in my estimation on revisit, but was delighted when it immediately joined an informal list of my all-time favorite films.

Getting the feeling of being transported and inspired by a film, having my perceptions and notions of the medium challenged, is the impetus behind projects like that. And despite the fact that I’ve been aware on some level of what Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad was for years, upon actually seeing it I found myself returning to that giddy feeling of being floored by something larger, smarter, more thought-provoking than can easily be summarized. Once again I return to the essence of film as embodying a waking dream: here, the memory of a memory, or perhaps the memory of a lie, with a man pursuing a woman within a gorgeous, cavernous estate that seems to exist outside of any normal sense of time and finding their history, their current being, their future in question — there is no clarity or narrative simplicity, no tying of the bow to make the film’s mysteries explicit, only a sense of lyricism and vague terror washing over you. It is the sort of powerful experience that no other medium can replicate; and the idea of trying to understand it, to transfer its immutable truths to our own rational world, is beyond obscene. To see Marienbad is to be lifted into a singular, irreducible vision; it’s one of the most unique pieces of art of the last century, and while I’m stating nothing about it that isn’t obvious, it’s the sort of film that seems to render other films facile and irrelevant, and I would wish I had not waited so long to see it except that in a strange way, I wonder if the earlier versions of myself already described above in this piece would have been quite so captivated. Perhaps I found Marienbad at just the right time. Perhaps the right time for movies like Close-Up is still forthcoming.

After Marienbad, I found myself focusing a lot on the feeling of being immersed. There is some chance it is a change in my own attitude that prompted this; whatever the case, in my wanderings through this list I struck upon three consecutive movies that felt, even in the context of the smallish TV in my living room, like they demanded and overtook the space I was occupying. Jacques Tati’s Playtime is, like Marienbad, going to require many further viewings for me to fully wrap my head around it, but its intricacy and the tangible spaciousness and detail of its elevated, futuristic reality are another example of the sort of filmed expression that makes so many commercialized ideas about what the medium is generally “for” feel terribly limited. After watching the film, it felt to me as if I had actually been to another place and spent time there, and even weeks later, I still remember nearly every moment vividly, even though it hurled images and ideas and gags at me more quickly than I could feasibly handle. Having seen Jour de Fete last year, I was surprised to find Playtime somewhat less humorous, yet no less of a balletic pleasure — and its aesthetics almost couldn’t be more up my particular alley, even though the film is really a reaction against the kind of heavily industrialized environments it documents and parodies.

As noted before, Godard’s Breathless was a formative experience for me and as an older viewer I see even more in it; Pierrot le Fou was a disappointment I felt I would have gotten more out of when I was younger. It seems that Contempt, another major work I’ve been meaning to get around to for decades, hit me at just the correct moment. It bears some similarities to Pierrot in that it documents a fraying relationship in harrowing detail and employs a meta-narrative on the nature of the artform while promoting the brash communication style of Hollywood genre films, here with the help of Fritz Lang who’s present as an actor portraying a version of himself. Where Contempt succeeded most for me was in its exceptionally vivid sense of place: the temptations and languid atmospheres in which it occurs offer such a riveting contrast to the interpersonal pain being explored in the script, and as such it feels like a complete and real-world experience that transcends cinema while simultaneously upholding its pleasures and malleability. And Godard is more perceptive about this relationship than it initially appears, with its dramatic dropoff perfectly laid out in a manner that we can clearly see even as his hotheaded protagonist cannot.

Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which I first saw long ago and disliked quite a bit, has a similar utility. I surprised myself by rather enjoying it this time, even if I’m somewhat more suspicious of it than I am of Godard’s film, largely because Godard seems a bit more intelligently compartmentalized — he knows exactly what he’s saying (not in a didactic sense), and I’m not sure Fellini does, although that said, the more I think about this crown jewel in the man’s filmography the more I think I may slide on into full-on loving it the next time I see it. That’s not least because of the immersion factor: its world felt so staggeringly real and huge to me that I’ve found myself thinking of various scenes almost constantly since this second viewing. It’s about a philandering journalist who wanders from party to party in Rome among people he knows peripherally, cavorting around with the idle rich and such, while his very long-suffering fiancee sits at home waiting for him. It’s all pretty grim and the point is kind of that the constant availability of indistinct “good times” only leaves a person numb, but I always find that sort of messaging a bit insincere coming from super privileged types, even artists. It’s very easy to wag your finger at excess and excitement when it’s extremely familiar to you, just like it’s easy for a billionaire to say that money isn’t everything. A big issue I have is that I think I take the opposite message to the one intended by the film. Namely, I can’t escape how fun these parties seem and how vibrant and interesting life in the city looks, the very things Fellini is implicitly scolding; I’m not even a party person, but there’s something seductive about the idea of being in the eye of a hurricane. It’s possible that I’m just coming around to the actual point of the picture in a roundabout manner; there’s no doubt its conflicts are intentional, but there is such a strange brew of moralizing and excess in it, and it’s hard to spend so many hours with such a prick. I will be fascinated, though, to see it again; and I must say my being unable to shake it has caused me to turn around on Fellini a bit.

** #5 **

For this last entry, we’ve almost fully shed my contrarian impulses. Among the five hallowed film masterpieces I needed to see to put this project in the can, I loved all but one. Admittedly, that was a big one — Robert Bresson’s legendary donkey movie Au Hasard Balthazar, which I think was quite hurt in my estimation by not truly being a donkey movie, with the interference of too many human dramas and all of them rather banal — but it wasn’t altogether surprising, since I’ve yet to see a Bresson movie I particularly liked and don’t seem to gel (so far) with his specific manner or his philosophy on storytelling, use of actors, spirituality, etc. It does end with a nicely cathartic and beautiful moment (though it didn’t completely resonate with me because of everything prior), and that turned out to be the theme of these last several films.

Something that was surprising was that, evidently, I like Tarkovsky. One of the most cinephile-beloved of all filmmakers, the Russian master was of course responsible for Stalker, another picture I disliked that nevertheless I never was quite able to “get over” in some sense, just because it was so visually striking and its mood so singular. But my feelings about Mirror and Andrei Rublev were not nearly so complicated or nebulous, even though both films are arguably have even more sophisticated and unusual narrative structures. Rublev was how I closed the project so we’ll come to it in a moment; convinced I wouldn’t understand Tarkovsky (spoiler: some of his more ardent fans had kind of pointed me to this conclusion, I have to admit), I had carefully spaced out these two movies of his in the hopes of staving off any potentially negative experiences, which is funny because I absolutely adored both. Mirror is a similar experience to Marienbad, at least for me, though unlike that film it’s in color and must be one of the most beautiful color films ever shot. It is a treatise on memory whose entire emotional current is built on images, which comment on one another across time periods. Once again, perhaps because of the sort of acolyte Tarkovsky can tend to attract, there are a million people online trying to “crack the code” of the film, which strikes me as such a banal exercise when just watching it and allowing its strange, subdued world to wash over you is such a valuable experience, one that seems to encompass so much about the way we view ourselves, our lives, other people. And it captures the sensation of stream of consciousness as well as any films I’ve seen from the golden era of avant garde cinema, even as its ambitions seem to far outpace those shorter pieces.

I was forced to step away from this project for nearly a month, during which time I only had time for one new title, which was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, the last major gap I had remaining in his sound-era filmography, and a fascinating slow burn of a film that already struck me as stunningly rich in its characterizations and dimensions of feeling, among a rural family whose lives are shot through with a touch of inexplicable eccentricity, well before it became an astonishingly powerful story of death and faith that is so persuasive and overwhelmingly graceful in its final moments that one’s conflict with its central and core belief in a sacred world beyond our own is made completely beside the point. There was never an expression of faith so harrowing, or so magical. I was beside myself after watching.

Somewhat less successful to me was the similar emotional climax of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, but luckily everything else about it was so shattering that it hardly mattered. The picture stars his then-wife Ingrid Bergman and the great George Sanders, two of my favorite Hollywood-era actors who are here permitted the opportunity to display their naturalistic chops in a setting very different from the typical studio film in which they starred. One interesting thing about being aware of these films without seeing them is that it’s actually not difficult, usually, to find oneself quite surprised by the actual nature of what one finds when finally sitting down with them, even in a superficial sense. In this instance, I knew Bergman was part of the cast but had no idea Sanders was, and was riveted by the opportunity to see them as an embittered married couple with achingly depicted resentments on both sides. The film mostly sticks with Bergman, who distractedly witnesses the mystical undercurrent of her surroundings but is unable to see past her well-earned consternation over her marriage. My only argument with the film is that I think its sense of the miraculous at the finale is unearned. Nevertheless, as a portrait of alienation within a frayed, long-dead romance, it is beyond profound.

And last of all came Andrei Rublev, a film that at the outset of this project I felt I had every reason to dread: 185 minutes (in the director’s preferred version; longer variants exist), a historical epic and a biopic (of a medieval Russian painter of Orthodox icons), and from a filmmaker about whom I felt skeptical. While I needn’t have delayed the film after all — every minute is riveting, and while its ending crescendo is subtler than those of the two aforementioned, it is earned impeccably and left me on the verge of tears for the entirety of the closing montage — I’m somewhat glad I did, as it was an experience sufficiently overwhelming that it seemed a perfect place to cap off my exploration of the first hundred movies in this aggregate. What struck me about Andrei Rublev beyond the shocking realism of its settings, the audacity of its unfurling mise en scene, and the seamless blend of subtle and grand exercises in drama, was how it seemed to contain everything about life itself by virtue of using the title character, about whom little is really known, as an observer of that which we do have documentation, therefore becoming one with us, and therefore becoming almost the platonic ideal of a portrait of an artist and of art itself: the way in which we process that which is too large for us to hold. Like the work of Rublev’s shown in the closing montage, the film like all art becomes both the essence of life and a superior, more considered and communicative version of it, just aching to be seen, and aching for the kind of love that makes it the best part of our lives. Like Ordet, its final release comes with a religious subtext, but one whose power is undiminished for the non-believing viewer, which when you think about it is an extraordinary achievement.

Watching the movie I was reminded of the feeling I got when finally seeing my favorite film, Kubrick’s 2001, in 70mm (really, IMAX) last year — in my day to day life I can sympathize with my friends who don’t care for strange old subtitled films or intentionally obtuse narratives about creation and the sum total of human history. But in the moment it was unfolding, the film felt like the most important thing in the world to me, felt like the whole summary of who I am and what the world as I understand it means, and what life itself is worth, and in that moment, even if just for a second, I could not possibly sympathize with seeing it in front of you and not having it mean everything in the world to you. What was really happening was not a rupture with the rest of the human race, or whatever proportion of it doesn’t like or would never watch Andrei Rublev (or 2001); what was happening was that I was connecting, on the deepest possible level, with something larger than myself or with any conception of a limited world, and all I wanted in the entire universe was for everyone else to be able to feel the same thing I was feeling. The power of that identification is why projects like this matter to me, and why I am so glad to have this outlet. Perhaps ten years from now I will look back on this and wonder why I had some of the negative responses I explained earlier on, in the same way that my original reviews of La Dolce Vita and Night of the Hunter now seem so silly to me. In fact I hope they do. I hope that someday I find my lifeline to every one of these 100 pictures, because experiences like that I had watching Rublev are rare and wonderful, and as long as I’m breathing I want as many of those as possible, and the hell with any implication that the seeking out and enjoying of those isn’t important. Thanks for reading.

******

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The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

MGM’s beloved Dashiel Hammett adaptation The Thin Man, which kicked off a whole spate of more sanitized sequels, is a persuasive and sympathetic portrait of a good marriage because it’s so unsentimental, with no goopy assurance needed of the pair’s mutual devotion, no evidence floated that we’re “safe” in status quo normalcy because husband is the provider and wife knows her place. Nick and Nora, retired dick and heiress respectively, direct none of the jealousy, resentment or insecurity at one another that a lesser story would lazily harness for artificial conflict — in fact, the film (with Hammett’s novel adapted skillfully by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, a husband and wife team) deliberately takes time out to mock such conventions. It’s something that gets harped on a lot here, but it’s such a relief compared with Hollywood’s perception of long-term relationships as some laborious process of people grudgingly accepting abuse from their spouse as the eternities pass.

And with only vague (though unmistakable, seeing how this just missed Hays) markers of their sexuality available, we get the studio-picture stand-in for same: banter — constant, adroit, still snappy and uproarious after 80+ years. The banter has its origin in Hammett, who based it on his much more fractious relationship with Lillian Hellman, but it’s mutated marvelously first by the screenwriters and then by William Powell and Myrna Loy, a couple of geniuses walking a tightrope in such a way that you know they’re showing off but somehow you can’t get annoyed at them for it, permitted by director W.S. Van Dyke (“one-take Woody”) to improvise individually and jointly, and boasting some of the best chemistry of any pair of actors ever thrown together, especially incredible in the context of peak-stable MGM. It just looks so fun (and, frankly, hot) to be them, or even just to be around them.

Though it sits differently in one’s memory because their scenes are such a joy, there’s relatively little of the iconic duo in this movie; they get a handful of scenes together (and Powell gets a decent number on his own) but those are by a longshot the best parts of the film, so much so that they overshadow a great deal of the actual plot. And the barbs fly fast and furious: it’s not just that when Nora frets over Nick’s pending, potentially dangerous departure to surreptiously work on the case of the missing inventor, one mark of the times being that chivalry of a sort prevents her from joining up when things get really hairy, and she chides him for the possibility of her being made a bereaved wife, Nick dryly responds “You wouldn’t be a widow for long,” it’s that she comes back with “You bet I wouldn’t,” a perfectly cynical expression of her deep affection and a play on his own love for her that still doesn’t faze him. They both know what they really mean to each other, so much so that it’s a matter of security and intense trust that they are able to exchange in this verbal and physical ballet together (as with Edna Best and Leslie Banks in Hitchcock’s original British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, released the same year) — to the extent that when Nora walks in on Nick platonically comforting a much younger woman, the daughter of the disappeared man at the center of the mystery, she only playfully chides him and there is never once the suspicion that she has seen something she shouldn’t, or on his part that he has to defend himself against the awkwardness of the moment.

Van Dyke’s rapid shooting style overcomes its relative artlessness through its feeling of lively spontaneity; you even envy the guests at that terminally awkward suspect dinner party (and certainly at the much drunker and sexier Christmas fete earlier on). The film is an active assault upon all of the pleasure centers, replete with frothy mystery and an adorable dog, but with everything centering around the extraordinary characters, layabout alcoholic cum semi-competent detective and his self-assured, witty spouse, who sit on the very precipice of the Code, just enough so that ample sensuality comes through here that would be relatively sparse in the rest of the series (all of which reprise the Thin Man title even though only this entry has anything to do with a thin man), despite Powell and Loy’s consistent effectiveness as a couple.

But let’s not forget, this is actually a whodunit — and while it’s interesting and full of intriguing characterizations and performances, the mystery elements certainly take a back seat to the real story, of ex-detective Nick letting Nora talk him into trying his hand at a case post-retirement. It’s set up engrossingly with an opening ten minutes that seem like the start of an entirely different film and remains diverting at the rare points when it’s our focus, but it grows increasingly confusing and muddled in typical Hammett fashion while the big revelation is wholly anticlimactic and makes little logical sense — and this reminds us, inevitably, that said resolution isn’t truthfully why we’re here. Apart from the moments when the marriage collides with harsh reality, as when a gunman comically intrudes upon their bedroom, the intrigue could be more seamlessly integrated, apart from demonstrating how Nick knows what he’s doing only marginally more than the police. Each time we’re torn away from scenes at home with Nick and Nora, aimless or not, and have to return to matters of story business that take us away from Powell and Loy’s effortless repartee, it has a bit of the feel of a frustrated orgasm.

On the series Moonlighting, directly inspired by Hollywood films like this one, the cases the detectives solved were always used as ironic comments on the state of their relationship; perhaps the morbid back-alley muck, corpses and gangsters and all, that plays out behind the main attraction in The Thin Man is a sort of commentary as well, letting us remember how irrelevant the larger world can appear when your company is this good. Whether it’s intended this way or not — by Hammett, by Van Dyke, by the actors and screenwriters — there’s something touching about the way that the whole setup just feels like an excuse to introduce us to Mr. and Mrs. Charles, divine characterizations stuck inside a relatively ordinary paperback narrative. That doesn’t mean that we don’t just want to watch a whole movie of the two of them hanging out and pretending to get on each other’s nerves, but we acknowledge that such a thing wouldn’t have been possible in mainstream entertainment; like a lot of really bold, adventurous studio films from the first half of the ’30s, though, it all really makes you wonder what-if and why-not.

[Expanded from my Letterboxd capsule of 2017.]

La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini)

RECOMMENDED

There’s little doubt by now that Fellini isn’t to my taste, but I was deeply unfair to his watershed arthouse touchstone La Dolce Vita as a young cinephile who wanted everything to be Double Indemnity, and was wrong to characterize it back then as a fatalistic montage of parties, even though critics like Dave Kehr have similarly argued that the film is a bit empty. But like Amarcord and like the Altman films it seems to have directly inspired, this is a series of episodes, all of which are beautifully photographed and performed, and several of which are riveting, not least because (in a sense that suggests L’Avventura, made the same year) the settings of Fellini’s micro-narratives, all centering Marcello Mastroianni as a horny but bored journalist in Rome, are so rapturously vivid that all of the human dramas positioned within them attain considerably more grace than they might otherwise have, like for instance a tryst with an heiress in a prostitute’s dilapidated apartment, or an unrequited sojourn with an actress that ends with an ecstatic dance in the Trevi Fountain.

Still, the most riveting scenes are models of good characterization that doesn’t necessarily infect the whole picture, which has been criticized since its release in some circles for relying on archetypes. Apart from Marcello himself, who we can believe is weary and confused and weighted down with a sense of loss thanks more to the performance than to the way the character is written, we meet the stoic, warm and seemingly wizened writer Steiner (Alain Cuny), who quietly betrays a certain malaise that turns out to have ominous consequences; Marcello’s long-suffering girlfriend (fiancee?) Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), who opens the picture in the midst of a suicide attempt that appears to be the latest of many; and most tellingly of all, Marcello’s troubled absentee father (Annibale Ninchi), whose dirty-old-man boasting and misguided hedonism appear more to us than to Marcello, whose pain about their distance renders him nothing more than a child again, as the sad eventual consequence of the empty world he inhabits.

And there are others, other grand gestures and iconic moments that justify their reputation; where I get lost a bit is in the film’s actual arc and thesis. My issue comes down to this: is there any profundity in Fellini simply straightforwardly expressing the contradictory aspects of his point of view as if just laying its shortcomings out will excuse them? I have a similar struggle, in a sense, with Lubitsch, whose Heaven Can Wait seems to acknowledge the full breadth of pain caused by his own infidelity but operates on the odd premise that simply being aware of one’s asshole tendencies makes them acceptable. Fellini also wants to have it both ways with all of his characters here — his presumptive autobiographical vessel Marcello, in advance of the same basic role in , wanders through a decadent life of longing, fucking and betraying but his misgivings about it are treated sentimentally, as if his being upset about his impulsive behavior makes him three-dimensional and sophisticated. Steiner, the friendly domesticated sophisticate he knows, talks of the beauty of fatherhood but is secretly bored and unfulfilled by his complacent lifestyle — yet the sight of his seemingly happy home obviously reverberates within Marcello when he takes Emma back after a huge blow-up in his car wherein he accuses her of smothering him. Alas, this moment of decisiveness is negated in turn by the tragic and quite monstrous end Fellini assigns to Steiner, which results in a total orgy of apathy on Marcello’s part in the final portion of the film. In place of Antonioni’s eventual tennis-playing mimes, we get an adolescent waitress Marcello saw earlier waving to him from a distance on the beach as the sun rises, suggesting innocence in a way that admittedly looks and feels intoxicating — even though this very nostalgia for a free, blissful naivete that also drives several other Fellini pictures just plays as mythical and hackneyed thematically. The simple world Marcello and Fellini seek is an impossible object to touch because it is, frankly, nonexistent; and the irony is that those frantic, desperate graspings for it are the mark of an eternal child.

Yet you can’t quite help but go with it — that innocence, that moment of unguarded kindness by the sea, has the same sharp purity of feeling as the redemptive end of Nights of Cabiria, and here too is a sign of the basic duplicity of La Dolce Vita, because not only does this ethereal, childlike ideal look stunning in Fellini’s hands, like everything you’d want out of the world, but for the most part so does the exact behavior and stultifying chaos it seems to rebuke. Of course there are moments of tedium when Marcello is carousing around with friends and attempting to climb into bed with virtually every woman he meets, regardless of outside promises and obligations; but there are also moments when you want to be right there in the midst of it all. Needless to say, the film’s and lead character’s statements about moral decay and debauchery wouldn’t be convincing if it looked like a dreadful funeral march — though I think Sofia Coppola managed to use that technique quite convincingly in Somewhere — and it’s fortunate Fellini doesn’t scold us for our voyeuristic glimpses at what is often a sexy good time, which is the tactic employed by all too many finger-wagging movies about excess and excitement to this day: they wallow in the muck and then punish the viewer for getting a thrill out of the wallowing.

But verbalizing doubts about one’s move away from old-world familial comfort, which certainly carried its own hefty collection of problems and the potential for the same variety of emotional stunting, while also glamorizing and forgiving the hard-living, promiscuous fast-lane culture — and at extravagant length, to boot — seems less insightful than simplistic, an avoidance of real insight. Though they are equally flawed films, Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and Buñuel’s Viridiana deconstructed the empty ideology of abundance in a sharper, wittier manner, which betrays the great truth of Fellini’s work in this vein: he doesn’t really want to give all this beauty up, he just wants you to know he has very mixed feelings about all of it. In the end, while I don’t question anyone’s right to feel depressed or apathetic, it seems to me that Marcello, surrounded by interesting and vibrant friends in a gorgeous city full of life, will have very little to complain about once he finally and completely breaks up with a woman he treats terribly and clearly doesn’t love. Moreover, I get the feeling that someday Marcello, whatever his future holds, will look back on this time with the same wistful yearning that’s screwing up his evenings now; he strikes me as someone who never will be satisfied with the present. Perhaps that’s the feeling the film actually means to convey: a perpetual and neverending dissatisfaction with society and self that precludes nothing much apart from quiet, endless sulking that occasionally interrupts all the indulgence. But if so, it limits us to the role of dispassionate observers, no matter how wonderful some of the things we get to look at are.

The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

It is an eerily off-kilter world unto itself: a fable of secrets, of carefully concealed memories, illustrated through both rational and otherworldly images — a redemptive, cleansing nightmare. It’s an occupation of that nightmare, with its energies startlingly centered on immersing its audience in that world of its own, one that in very real sense once belonged to and was understood by us, when we were “little things.” (We turn away at its harshest moments of violence because the film editing forces us to, which is only right.) The determination of Charles Laughton in his sole directorial effort is to shake us back to that state of being, to make frightened children of us and to suggest — with appalling starkness for the time, or for any — that every permanent wound we carry is still traceable back to the juvenile fears, founded or not, of the singing traveler following and taunting us to the ends of the earth.

Night of the Hunter is sometimes tarred with the film noir brush, and in various aesthetic and thematic interpretations of the terms, it is a fair reduction: with resourcefully angular, shadowy visuals informed by Lang, Wiene and Murnau’s films at Ufa and a story about an unthinkable evil dwelling upon a decidedly innocent family unit, not to mention its mundane focal point of a wad of money hidden in plain sight, it calls back to some of the more domestic noir titles of the 1940s, most explicitly Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, its direct descendant The Stranger directed by Orson Welles, and Max Ophuls’ tough, brutal document of motherly love and the killing machine it rises up against, The Reckless Moment. However, all of the aforementioned — and the bulk of major studio noirs in general — took place in something resembling our own world, not the upside-down funhouse mirror of Hunter. In the case of Shadow of a Doubt particularly, the intrusion of remarkable rage and dread onto the very image of picturesque, calm Americana was the entire point; the force of evil in Laughton’s film has an even more distressing target, namely childhood itself, and by extension, love. Noir seems too small a frame for this portrait of relentless emotional violence and the magic that curtails it; it seems much more like a storybook — suffused with the traditions of Southern Gothic literature — of the kind that might have once been loved and feared in equal measure, the hard lessons of paralyzing fright falling upon the smallest eyes, prepared or not.

Laughton and James Agee, who’s somewhat controversially credited with a script that certainly does reflect his social preoccupations in part through its Depression-era setting, takes its inspiration from Davis Grubb’s even darker novel of the same name which in turn was a fictionalization of the story of serial killer Harry Powers, the “Lonely Hearts” killer. Grubb transforms him into the Reverend Powell (the never-more-oppressive Robert Mitchum), a terrifyingly determined phony Man of the Cloth, whose scheme of choice is to collect and ruin widows. It is not enough for him to be a ruthless movie villain with no moral scruples and seemingly no fear or weakness, which he is; he must also be a devastatingly accurate presentation of narcissistic violence, emotional as well as physical, a figure all too many of us will be able to recognize outside the confines of a fairy tale-like narrative. His latest victim, and a genuinely tragic figure at that, is Willa Harper (Shelley Winters, meeting her end in water as so often), beleaguered wife of an executed criminal (Peter Graves) who hid the wares of a violent bank robbery somewhere on his property before being captured. Willa is hoodwinked for this reason, not helped at all by the busybody she works for who is swooning over Powell as soon as he sets foot in town, and who happens to share with Powell a low opinion of the deep needs fulfilled and happiness alloted by physical pleasures; on their wedding night, he announces that theirs will be a union before God, not one of the flesh. She is not to be taken in forever, and while she rolls over for these abusive chidings in a way that suggests she never knew anything but a life lived for other people, she soon discovers the truth of Powell’s motivations and is accordingly murdered for it.

As a result, for what remains of the picture we view everything through the eyes of her two children, who are aware of the whereabouts of the money but have taken their father’s word that it is a secret never to be revealed to anyone, and they guard it with all their might — even as six year-old Pearl threatens to break thanks to her immediate affinity for Powell, the older John steadies her and sweeps her up on a haunting journey through swamps and rivers to escape Powell after he tries to kill them for the money. It is only by landing in the arms of Mrs. Cooper (the great Lillian Gish in her finest latter-day role, which at one point pays wondrous homage to her signature moment in The Wind), a shotgun-wielding mother figure for lost children who lives along the water, that they are able to breathe even slightly; he has followed them across every sort of terrain, unstoppable and (as John points out) never sleeping — and so the climax of the film becomes the illustration of the narrative he’s always repeating in his phony Christian guise: the forces of love and hate (each word tattooed on one of his fists), both insurmountable, colliding.

As a director, Laughton exhibits the same oversized personality he always did when acting; he directs every scene and shot with the conviction and imagination of Orson Welles, and his expertise and willingness to experiment with tone and hints of dreamlike unreality place him vastly ahead of his time, and almost doomed the picture — like most of Welles’ — to be misunderstood. Night of the Hunter looks as wild and distinctive and gorgeous as any Hollywood film ever made, with many shots that absolutely throttle in their ingenious beauty — take, for instance, the horrifying final exit of Willa, a woman who surrendered herself to pain and destiny but would never have surrendered her children, in which we see her immaculately preserved in the Ohio River, her hair waving with the current. It is by equal measures fearsome and artfully delicate, neither feature disrupting the other. Later, as the boy and girl hide in a barn, they are tormented by the sound of Powell’s singing of hymns (the “beautiful” singing voice Willa’s boss kept harping on about, now bent toward menace), echoing out into oblivion through the spellbinding aural design of Stanford Houghton, and John — watchful and alert as always, even within the illusion of safety — gazes out and sees the lonely, distressing image of Powell on his horse in silhouette, laid against the horizon, plodding across our field of vision. It’s such an inspired shot it nearly hurts, like something from Powell & Pressburger, and could be neither scarier nor more ethereal, the collision of emotional distress and joy that is the great fact of cinematic thrillers and the reason that, at their best, they dive into emotional ambiguity unseen almost anywhere else in art.

Yet still, Laughton’s work stands alone, certainly with the help of the big-eyed, childlike reduction and/or magnification of the world to simple blacks and whites — the acting is all tastefully heightened, and there are flights of fancy such as a procession of animals “blessing” the children as they pass along the river — and with the morally righteous lyricism of Agee’s dialogue, which lays out its themes and its notions of good and evil (which, it should be stated here, are more furiously expressed and frank than in any sci-fi or superhero exploration of the same ideas I am aware of) with bluntness without insulting our intelligence. Even the most flowery dialogue in the film is never pretentious, only a heartfelt expression of sheer emotional intensity and depth of feeling, the same as what you might find in a Bergman film, albeit tied to less nebulous or specifically “adult” events. Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to classify this as a great children’s film despite its terror and violence, because of its rich understanding of how fear alters us and is filed away — and certainly because it does not condescend to its audience — but there’s also the danger of reducing Hunter to such a status simply because the tale it tells is so elemental, and so elegant in its directness; it is a communication, then, to the still-frightened kid in all of us, and your reviewer can testify that it still has the power to provide us with actual nightmares.

For a certain breed of audiences, Night of the Hunter changes when Lillian Gish appears; speaking for myself, as a younger man I didn’t quite know what to make of her character when I first saw the film, apart from being thrilled to revisit an actress I already loved for her much older works. Raised on cynicism, I felt it too simplistic for Mrs. Cooper to be a mere force of love and kindness through her purity of faith and unconditional attention toward the children who hovered around her. I was both too young and too old to appreciate her importance; I was like John, too skeptical to be reassured. Now it seems that her selflessness, while Laughton gently mocks it at times and never makes any implicit claim that she is a “good” woman whereas Willa was a “bad” one who exposed her kids to this disaster, is something genuine and wise far beyond the morality play clichés such a characterization may express. The essence is in her moments alone with John, when she indicates her perspicacity about the emotions of children, and for all the disciplining and prattling on about the Bible that may associate her in some sense with the organized depravity of her antithesis, Powell, it is more than evident that she observes her young charges as people, with complexity and infinite capacity to love and be loved, and she is able to connect with John merely by forging a bond with him both as moral equals and as a nurturer. She lends him a validation and self-assurance that he has never known in his life, and like a great teacher or therapist, she causes him to discover his own strength — a feature laid out in the gentle finale, wherein he returns the favor symbolically with an apple like the one they shared before and she immediately grasps what he is saying to her.

Gish’s Cooper is also utilized by Laughton as a specific rebuking of any notion that he is casting the story as a rejection of faith itself; at the point when she and Powell finally meet for their climactic clashing, he is preceded as usual by the sound of those terrifying hymns, and she finds herself moved enough to join in, as we watch her — in another of the film’s many unforgettable visuals — seated in silhouette against the night, clutching her gun, waiting. But her faith is unlike his. For one thing, she genuinely believes and not merely to serve her own ends, and it manifests in the moral grounding she places within the children for whom she serves as guardian. It is no accident that the teenage girl who inadvertently lures Powell to the de facto orphanage is never shamed or punished for it, is only empathized with and understood and held; nor is it an accident that, in contrast to a community now abruptly out for Powell’s blood when he is caught (the same people, of course, who helped install him in the Harpers’ lives in the first place), all John wants to do by then is stop living out this spectacle, to save his mortal enemy from the lynch mob. It seems that a number of audiences took this conclusion as unsatisfying; after all, there is no grand moment of revenge or righteous victory, only a breakdown on John’s part when he simply doesn’t want to see another man sent away to rot or die, to witness more grief and loss in a life that’s rapidly accumulated so much of them. By denying us any other sort of catharsis, Laughton and the authors resolve the frightened stirring of our souls only with the recognition of a light that beams afterward, the same one suggested in the film’s abstract first moments of guardian angel Gish telling stories. That light needn’t be God or religion, even if those can benefit — or distort — it; rather, it is the light of being loved, cared for and understood, and the expansive beauty of this film’s emphasis upon this is what makes it more than noir, more than a thriller, and something like an act of brutally hard-won love itself.

The Best Films of the 2010s: first draft

This excludes films from 2019, partially because I haven’t seen any yet but also on principle.

I am still in the process of rewatching everything I rated highly from this decade; but I wanted to preserve this rough draft of my list, which is based largely on memory and emotion — although I have seen roughly half of these at least twice. The ranking does not fit precisely with my current individual ratings of the films, but this too will be corrected as I continue to move through and revise the list. For all those caveats, I’m quite confident that all fifty (actually, fifty-one) of these movies are exceptional; and the top two, in particular, are quite unlikely to move from their spots. Neither is currently distinquished as an “A+” in my Movie Guide, but since my last complete experiences of them, they have grown a lot in my estimation. I think of Margaret almost every day, which I believe is the undeniable mark of some sort of a masterpiece (which means that American Honey, which is also on my mind almost constantly since I saw it, will very likely move up); and moreover, my experience of absolute cathartic unleashing of tears at its conclusion is one of my fondest recollections of the last ten years of film-watching. Ditto the “Big Country” sequence in 20th Century Women, the last seconds of Melancholia (which I did get to see theatrically, unlike many of these), the entirety of We Are the Best!. And although it’s currently not on the list — it faded a lot for me by the time I returned to it, but it’s overdue for another chance — I’ll never forget the smile I was completely unable to wipe off my face for the duration of Midnight in Paris back in 2011.

I don’t have as much specific commentary as I’d like for this, because one of the great facts of our fragmented time is that “movements” have less meaning than individual works. Artistically speaking, I think cinema is in wonderful shape despite the insurmountable obstacles constantly being laid against it, something I think I’m in an unusually solid vantage point to witness since I live in what amounts to a movie desert; there are only four screens within a twenty-mile radius of my home, and even moving further out, the multiplexes are frequently totally overtaken by commercial big studio pictures. Those have their place, a few are even praised below, but what gripes me is the absence of choice — and it’s here that streaming video has been a major blessing, not only thanks to big companies like Netflix and Amazon (who, for all their evils as corporate entities, do seem to make a major effort to provide access to more esoteric and arthouse titles, though for all I know it’s for financial reasons — low cost, low commitment), but through major blessings like the brand new Criterion Channel, which is making it so easy to access a wealth of cinematic history for next to no money and effort. And please don’t forget your local library, which is still happy to fill the gaps or to serve you freely if you have no access to these services.

For the record, I’m not much more of a blanket fan of “arthouse” film than I am of Hollywood bullshit; at this point in my life I’ve learned that there’s really no rhyme or reason to where, how and for whom inspiration hits. What I do know is that there is a major risk involved in selling our souls to consensus, to business, to homogeneity, and if I have a message I want to impart in any small way, it’s that: encourage the continued fragmentation of the culture in whatever way you can, and collect friends around the fragments of your choice. Someone told me a few months ago, when I was temporarily upset about the shutdown of Filmstruck, that movie culture wasn’t worth worrying about because we have “bigger fish to fry.” Well, undoubtedly, but it’s an important human skill to care about more than one thing at once, and frankly, a world in which that movie culture ceases to exist — even, yeah, the parts of it that breed idiocy and bile — is not one I have much interest in living in.

This list won’t necessarily resemble all that closely the more carefully considered one I intend to post in about a year, so don’t be surprised if that one has material in the upper reaches that isn’t even considered here. What I can promise is that this is a list of fifty films that I’m most confident I will continue to love far down the line, and any case in which my memories have wavered a bit — no matter how high my original estimation was — has been omitted.

Two films in the top five, including #1, were actually produced in prior decades. I believe this is a coincidence. Some readers may disagree.

1. Margaret (2011, Kenneth Lonergan)
2. The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson)
3. The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer)
4. 20th Century Women (2016, Mike Mills)
5. The Other Side of the Wind (2018, Orson Welles)
6. Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier)
7. We Are the Best! (2013, Lukas Moodysson)
8. A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi)
9. Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)
10. Computer Chess (2013, Andrew Bujalski)
11. Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach)
12. Roma (2018, Alfonso Cuarón)
13. Somewhere (2010, Sofia Coppola)
14. Greenberg (2010, Noah Baumbach)
15. The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)
16. Nebraska (2013, Alexander Payne)
17. The Turin Horse (2011, Bela Tarr)
18. Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)
19. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)
20. Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
21. The Favourite (2018, Yorgos Lanthimos)
22. American Honey (2016, Andrea Arnold)
23. The Look of Silence (2014, Joshua Oppenheimer)
24. Marwencol (2010, Jeff Malmberg)
25. Dark Horse (2012, Todd Solondz)
26. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010, Banksy)
27. Carol (2015, Todd Haynes)
28. 45 Years (2015, Andrew Haigh)
29. The Lobster (2015, Yorgos Lanthimos)
30. Wiener-Dog (2016, Todd Solondz)
31. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)
32. Another Earth (2011, Mike Cahill)
33. Calvary (2014, John Michael McDonagh)
34. Inherent Vice (2014, Paul Thomas Anderson)
35. Anomalisa (2015, Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)
36. Winter’s Bone (2010, Debra Granik)
37. Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche)
38. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015, Marielle Heller)
39. This Is Not a Film (2011, Jafar Panahi)
40. The Meyerowitz Stories (2017, Noah Baumbach)
41. Faces Places (2017, Agnes Varda)
42. Nightcrawler (2014, Dan Gilroy)
43. BlacKkKlansman (2018, Spike Lee)
44. Certain Women (2016, Kelly Reichardt)
45. Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)
46. Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh)
47. Coco (2017, Lee Unkrich)
48. Hanna (2011, Joe Wright)
49. I, Tonya (2017, Craig Gillespie)
50. The Bling Ring (2013, Sofia Coppola)
BONUS #51 FOR NO REASON: A Most Wanted Man (2014, Anton Corbijn)

And now, a complete list of every new film I saw this decade in case you wonder if I missed something.

Extremely good films I had time to revisit and still love but didn’t make the list (alphabetical):
Arbitrage (2012, Nicholas Jarecki)
Argo (2012, Ben Affleck)
The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent)
Behind the Candelabra (2014, Steven Soderbergh)
Berberian Sound Studio (2012, Peter Strickland)
Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen)
Brooklyn (2015, John Crowley)
The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne)
The Edge of Seventeen (2016, Kelly Fremon Craig)
Ex Machina (2015, Alex Garland)
Footnote (2011, Joseph Cedar)
Frankenweenie (2012, Tim Burton)
Hail, Caesar! (2016, Joel & Ethan Coen)
House of Pleasures (2011, Bertrand Bonello)
Mistress America (2015, Noah Baumbach)
Monsters University (2013, Dan Scanlon)
Nymphomaniac: Volume I (2013, Lars von Trier)
Nymphomaniac: Volume II (2013, Lars von Trier)
The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg)
Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015, Mark Burton & Richard Starzack)
The Spectacular Now (2013, James Ponsoldt)
Virunga (2014, Orlando von Einsiedel)
While We’re Young (2014, Noah Baumbach)
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010, Woody Allen)

Films I loved but haven’t gone back and revisited yet (alphabetical):
All Is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor)
American Hustle (2013, David O. Russell)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, Benh Zeitlin)
The Beguiled (2017, Sofia Coppola)
The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay)
The Big Sick (2017, Michael Showalter)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018, Marielle Heller)
Captain Phillips (2013, Paul Greengrass)
Christine (2016, Antonio Campas)
Citizenfour (2014, Laura Poitras)
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014, Olivier Assayas)
Finding Dory (2016, Andrew Stanton)
Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele)
Gone Girl (2014, David Fincher)
Good Time (2017, Ben & Josh Safdie)
Gravity (2013, Alfonso Cuarón)
Green Room (2015, Jeremy Saulnier)
The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-wook)
I Am Not Your Negro (2016, Raoul Peck)
Isle of Dogs (2018, Wes Anderson)
Lady Bird (2017, Greta Gerwig)
Manchester by the Sea (2016, Kenneth Lonergan)
Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen)
mother! (2017, Darren Aronofsky)
Much Ado About Nothing (2012, Joss Whedon)
Nocturama (2016, Bertrand Bonello)
127 Hours (2010, Danny Boyle)
Rabbit Hole (2010, John Cameron Mitchell)
Sightseers (2012, Ben Wheatley)
Spotlight (2015, Tom McCarthy)
Take This Waltz (2011, Sarah Polley)
Taxi (2015, Jafar Panahi)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson)
Zootopia (2016, Byron Howard & Rich Moore)

Noble efforts and decent nights out (alphabetical):
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013, David Lowery)
Alps (2011, Yorgos Lanthimos)
The American (2010, Anton Corbijn)
Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland)
Another Year (2010, Mike Leigh)
Attack the Block (2011, Joe Cornish)
Baby Driver (2017, Edgar Wright)
Barbara (2012, Christian Petzold)
Beatriz at Dinner (2017, Miguel Arteta)
Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)
Beginners (2010, Mike Mills) {I badly need to rewatch this one.}
Beyond the Hills (2012, Cristian Mungiu)
Beyond the Lights (2014, Gina Prince-Bythewood)
Birdman (2014, Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Blackfish (2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
Blancanieves (2012, Pablo Berger)
Brave (2012, Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman)
Bridesmaids (2011, Paul Feig)
Bridge of Spies (2015, Steven Spielberg)
Call Me by Your Name (2017, Luca Guadagnino)
Carlos (2010, Olivier Assayas)
Child’s Pose (2013, Calin Peter Netzer)
Cloud Atlas (2012, Lana Wachowski / Lilly Wachowski / Tom Tykwer)
Colossal (2016, Nacho Vigalondo)
Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh)
Dallas Buyers Club (2013, Jean-Marc Vallée)
Damsels in Distress (2011, Whit Stillman)
The Deep Blue Sea (2011, Terence Davies)
The Double (2013, Richard Ayoade)
The Duke of Burgundy (2014, Peter Strickland)
Dunkirk (2017, Christopher Nolan)
Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years (2016, Ron Howard)
Eighth Grade (2018, Bo Burnham)
Enough Said (2013, Nicole Holofcener)
Ex Libris (2017, Frederick Wiseman)
Fences (2016, Denzel Washington)
The Fits (2015, Anna Rose Holmer)
Flight (2012, Robert Zemeckis)
The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker)
Four Lions (2010, Chris Morris)
Foxcatcher (2014, Bennett Miller)
The Ghost Writer (2010, Roman Polanski)
Girlhood (2014, Celine Sciamma)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014, Ana Lily Amirpour)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011, David Fincher)
Gloria (2013, Sebastián Lelio)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, James Gunn)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010, David Yates)
A Hijacking (2014, Tobias Lindholm)
Hugo (2011, Martin Scorsese)
The Hunger Games (2012, Gary Ross)
Ida (2013, Pawel Pawlikowski)
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018, Barry Jenkins)
The Illusionist (2010, Sylvain Chomet)
Incredibles 2 (2018, Brad Bird)
Inside Job (2010, Charles Ferguson)
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Joel & Ethan Coen)
Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter)
Into the Abyss (2011, Werner Herzog)
I Wish (2011, Hirokazu Koreeda)
The Kid with a Bike (2011, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017, Yorgos Lanthimos)
Killing Them Softly (2012, Andrew Dominik)
The King (2017, Eugene Jarecki)
The King’s Speech (2010, Tom Hooper)
La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle)
Leave No Trace (2018, Debra Granik)
Leviathan (2012, Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)
Like Someone in Love (2012, Abbas Kiarostami)
Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)
Logan Lucky (2017, Steven Soderbergh)
Love & Friendship (2016, Whit Stillman)
Love & Mercy (2014, Bill Pohland)
Magic in the Moonlight (2014, Woody Allen)
Magic Mike XXL (2015, Gregory Jacobs)
Margin Call (2011, J.C. Chandor)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, Sean Durkin)
Meek’s Cutoff (2010, Kelly Reichardt)
Museum Hours (2012, Jem Cohen)
Mysteries of Lisbon (2010, Raúl Ruiz)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The One I Love (2014, Charlie McDowell)
One More Time with Feeling (2016, Andrew Dominik)
Oslo, August 31st (2011, Joachim Trier)
The Past (2013, Asghar Farhadi)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, Stephen Chbosky)
Philomena (2013, Stephen Frears)
Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)
Pina (2011, Wim Wenders)
Prisoners (2013, Denis Villeneuve)
A Quiet Place (2018, John Krasinski)
Restrepo (2010, Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington)
Rush (2013, Ron Howard)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010, Edgar Wright)
Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay)
Silver Linings Playbook (2012, David O. Russell)
The Skin I Live In (2011, Pedro Almodóvar)
Skyfall (2012, Sam Mendes)
Spring Breakers (2012, Harmony Korine)
Spy (2015, Paul Feig)
Stations of the Cross (2014, Dietrich Brüggemann)
Stories We Tell (2012, Sarah Polley)
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields (2010, Kerthy Fix & Gail O’Hara)
Stranger by the Lake (2013, Alain Guiraudie)
Submarine (2010, Richard Ayoade)
Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams)
Tabloid (2011, Errol Morris)
Tabu (2012, Miguel Gomes)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013, Isao Takahata)
The Theory of Everything (2014, James Marsh)
Timbuktu (2014, Abderrahmane Sissako)
To Rome with Love (2012, Woody Allen)
A Touch of Sin (2013, Zhangke Jia)
True Grit (2010, Joel & Ethan Coen)
12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)
Two Days, One Night (2014, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay)
What We Do in the Shadows (2014, Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi)
Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle)
Wild Tales (2014, Damián Szifrón)
The World’s End (2013, Edgar Wright)

Whatevers, nonentities, and things I’m too young/old to understand (alphabetical):
Amour (2012, Michael Haneke)
Anna Karenina (2012, Joe Wright)
Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve)
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010, Andrei Ujica)
The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon)
Bastards (2013, Claire Denis)
Big Eyes (2015, Tim Burton)
Blue Ruin (2013, Jeremy Saulnier)
The Cabin in the Woods (2012, Drew Goddard)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010, Werner Herzog)
Certified Copy (2010, Abbas Kiarostami)
Chi-Raq (2015, Spike Lee)
A Dangerous Method (2011, David Cronenberg)
Darkest Hour (2017, Joe Wright)
The Day He Arrives (2011, Hong Sang-soo)
Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)
The End of the Tour (2015, James Ponsoldt)
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011, Stephen Daldry)
Faust (2011, Alexander Sokurov)
The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)
The Force Awakens (2015, J.J. Abrams)
Goodbye to Language (2014, Jean-Luc Godard)
Green Book (2018, Peter Farrelly)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011, David Yates)
Hell or High Water (2016, David Mackenzie)
The Help (2011, Tate Taylor)
Holy Motors (2012, Leos Carax)
In a World… (2013, Lake Bell)
Incendies (2010, Denis Villeneuve)
The Interrupters (2011, Steve James)
Interstellar (2014, Christopher Nolan)
In the Fog (2012, Sergey Loznitsa)
The Intouchables (2011, Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano)
It Follows (2014, David Robert Mitchell)
It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012, Don Hertzfeldt)
Jealousy (2013, Philippe Garrel)
The Kids Are All Right (2010, Lisa Cholodenko)
Leviathan (2014, Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Life of Pi (2012, Ang Lee)
Like Father, Like Son (2013, Hirokazu Koreeda)
Lion (2016, Garth Davis)
Lore (2012, Cate Shortland)
The Lost City of Z (2016, James Grey)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller)
Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh)
The Martian (2015, Ridley Scott)
Moana (2016, John Musker & Ron Clements)
Mommy (2014, Xavier Dolan)
A Most Violent Year (2014, J.C. Chandor)
Mr. Turner (2014, Mike Leigh)
Murder on the Orient Express (2017, Kenneth Branagh)
My Joy (2010, Sergei Loznitsa)
Neighboring Sounds (2012, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Never Let Me Go (2010, Mark Romanek)
The Nice Guys (2016, Shane Black)
Norte, the End of History (2013, Lav Diaz)
Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Patricio Guzmán)
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013, Jim Jarmusch)
Paterson (2016, Jim Jarmusch)
Poetry (2010, Lee Chang-dong)
Rango (2011, Gore Verbinski)
R.E.M. by MTV (2014, Alex Young)
Snowpiercer (2013, Joon-ho Bong)
The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013, Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani)
The Strange Little Cat (2013, Ramon Zurcher)
Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018, Morgan Neville)
Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth)
Warrior (2011, Gavin O’Connor)
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Martin Scorsese)
Wuthering Heights (2011, Andrea Arnold)
Young Adult (2011, Jason Reitman)
Zama (2017, Lucrecia Martel)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012, Kathryn Bigelow)

Hot garbage (alphabetical):
The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius)
Bernie (2011, Richard Linklater)
Biutiful (2010, Alejandro Gonzрlez Iñárritu)
Blue Valentine (2010, Derek Cianfrance)
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018, Bryan Singer)
Camille Claudel 1915 (2013, Bruno Dumont)
Carnage (2011, Roman Polanski)
Cold War (2018, Pawel Pawlikowski)
The Comedy (2012, Rick Alverson)
Compliance (2012, Craig Zobel)
The Conjuring (2013, James Wan)
Cosmopolis (2012, David Cronenberg)
The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)
Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller)
Drive (2011, Nicholas Winding Refn)
Exhibition (2013, Joanna Hogg)
A Ghost Story (2017, David Lowery)
The Grandmaster (2013, Wong Kar Wai)
The Guest (2014, Adam Wingard)
Her (2013, Spike Jonze)
How to Train Your Dragon (2010, Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois)
The Hunt (2012, Thomas Vinterberg)
The Imitation Game (2014, Morten Tyldum)
Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)
The Iron Lady (2011, Phyllida Lloyd)
Irrational Man (2015, Woody Allen)
Kaboom (2010, Gregg Araki)
Killer Joe (2011, William Friedkin)
Le Havre (2011, Aki Kaurismäki)
Le Quattro Volte (2010, Michelangelo Frammartino)
Les Misérables (2012, Tom Hooper)
Life of Riley (2014, Alain Resnais)
Looper (2012, Rian Johnson)
Lucy (2014, Luc Besson)
Mud (2012, Jeff Nichols)
Only God Forgives (2013, Nicholas Winding Refn)
Paradise: Love (2012, Ulrich Seidl)
Personal Shopper (2016, Olivier Assayas)
Post Tenebras Lux (2012, Carlos Reygadas)
The Revenant (2015, Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)
The Shape of Water (2017, Guillermo del Toro)
Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese)
Sicario (2015, Denis Villeneuve)
Side Effects (2013, Steven Soderbergh)
Still Alice (2014, Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland)
The Strange Case of Angelica (2010, Manoel de Oliveira)
Stray Dogs (2013, Tsai Ming-liang)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, Martin McDonagh)
To the Wonder (2012, Terrence Malick)
The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers)
You Were Never Really Here (2017, Lynne Ramsay)

…and finally, major titles I want to see and haven’t yet:
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016, Steve James)
Animal Kingdom (2010, David Michod)
The Arbor (2010, Clio Barnard)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015, Oz Perkins)
The Breadwinner (2017, Nora Twomey)
Burning (2018, Lee Chang-dong)
Cafe Society (2016, Woody Allen)
Cameraperson (2016, Kirsten Johnson)
The Disaster Artist (2017, James Franco)
Elena (2011, Andrey Zvyagintsev)
A Field in England (2013, Ben Wheatley)
Fire at Sea (2016, Gianfranco Rosi)
First Man (2018, Damien Chazelle)
First Reformed (2017, Paul Schrader)
Force Majeure (2014, Ruben Ostlund)
Game Night (2018, John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein)
Goodbye First Love (2011, Mia Hansen-Love)
Graduation (2016, Cristian Mungiu)
The Great Beauty (2013, Paolo Sorrentino)
Happy as Lazzaro (2018, Alice Rohrwacher)
Heart of a Dog (2015, Laurie Anderson)
Hereditary (2018, Ari Aster)
High-Rise (2015, Ben Wheatley)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, Taika Waititi)
The Immigrant (2013, James Gray)
In Jackson Heights (2015, Frederick Wiseman)
Ingrid Goes West (2017, Matt Spicer)
It Comes at Night (2017, Trey Edward Shults)
Jackie (2016, Pablo Larrain)
Jauja (2014, Lisandro Alonso)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011, David Gelb)
The Lego Movie (2014, Phil Lord & Chris Miller)
Knight of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick)
Krisha (2015, Trey Edward Shultz)
Locke (2013, Steven Knight)
Madeline’s Madeline (2018, Josephine Decker)
Michael (2011, Markus Schleinzer)
Mildred Pierce (2011, Todd Haynes)
Mudbound (2017, Dee Rees)
The Muppets (2011, James Bobin)
Mustang (2015, Deniz Gamze Eguven)
My Golden Days (2015, Arnaud Desplechin)
Night Moves (2013, Kelly Reichardt)
99 Homes (2014, Ramin Bahrani)
Nocturnal Animals (2016, Tom Ford)
O.J.: Made in America (2016, Ezra Edelman)
Paddington (2014, Paul King)
Paddington 2 (2017, Paul King)
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014, Roy Anderson)
Private Life (2018, Tamara Jenkins)
Raw (2016, Julia Ducournau)
The Rider (2017, Chloe Zhao)
The Salesman (2016, Asghar Farhadi)
Shoplifters (2018, Hirokazu Koreeda)
Short Term 12 (2013, Destin Cretton)
Song of the Sea (2014, Tomm Moore)
Son of Saul (2015, Laszlo Nemes)
Sorry to Bother You (2018, Boots Riley)
Split (2016, M. Night Shyamalan)
Starlet (2012, Sean Baker)
Stoker (2013, Park Chan-wook)
Support the Girls (2018, Andrew Bujalski)
Tangerine (2015, Sean Baker)
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, Dan Trachtenberg)
Things to Come (2016, Mia Hansen-Love)
Thoroughbreds (2017, Cory Finley)
Toni Erdmann (2016, Maren Ade)
The Town (2010, Ben Affleck)
The Unknown Girl (2016, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Unsane (2018, Steven Soderbergh)
Wadjda (2012, Haifaa Al-Mansour)
The Walk (2015, Robert Zemeckis)
Western (2017, Valeska Grisebach)
When Marnie Was There (2014, Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
Winter Sleep (2014, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The Wonders (2014, Alice Rohrwacher)
Wonderstruck (2017, Todd Haynes)
Wormwood (2017, Errol Morris)
Young & Beautiful [Jeune et jolie] (2013, Francois Ozon)

Gaslight (1940, Thorold Dickinson / 1944, George Cukor)

RECOMMENDED [1940 version] / HIGHLY RECOMMENDED [1944 version]

By virtue of its entrance into the popular psychological lexicon alone, George Cukor’s superb Gaslight is now one of the most famous films of the 1940s; thanks to its genesis — from stage play to British film to Hollywood remake — it can also be viewed, like The Maltese Falcon, as a crash course on how a text travels from its origins to a definitive, in this case quite freewheeling, interpretation. Of course, some may disagree with the premise that the MGM picture Gaslight is intrinsically an improvement upon Thorold Dickinson’s scrappier 1940 thriller and in turn on Patrick Hamilton’s play, just as some will understandably claim that John Huston’s Falcon is a sanitized dilution of rougher-edged material, but I don’t believe it can be feasibly argued that the changes Cukor and his three credited screenwriters make to Hamilton’s work do not reflect considerable ingenuity and thoughtfulness, and in the paragraphs to follow I’ll do my best to make my case.

Hamilton was a celebrated novelist most famous for his 1941 book Hangover Square, which became a film noir at Fox four years later, but his largest cinematic legacy comes from two plays he wrote, 1929’s Rope, based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case and eventually destined to become one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most provocative thrillers, and Gas Light, first produced in 1938. The broad conceit in every version of the story, and the source of the popularity of the term “gaslight” as a shorthand for a certain variety of abuse (especially spousal abuse), is that of a husband attempting to drive his wife insane, or at least to convince her that she is, essentially by confusing her, causing events and then denying them, and unleashing a barrage of verbal accusations and belittling remarks. The specific methodology and motivation varies in each version, though a commonality in all of them is the act of making objects disappear and accusing her of having been responsible; and the main criminal act being covered up, rummaging through the floor above the couple’s home for coveted jewelry, which causes mysterious sounds and leads to the lights visibly dimming, which is taken by the wife as the key symbol of her impending madness.

Conveniently for our purposes, the key characters’ names in these three versions vary, with one exception: the character of the wife is named Bella in both the play and the 1940 film. Otherwise, she becomes Paula in 1944; and the three husbands all have different identities, which is only appropriate given how duplicitous they all turn out to be, hiding their histories and secret families — he is Jack in the play, Paul in 1940, Gregory in 1944. On the whole, it’s in the characterizations of these three cruel men that the three versions most significantly differ. Paul is perhaps the nastiest of the lot in his manner, if not in his sinister motives, the most vicious sociopath and coldest abuser; but Gregory is the most fearsome villain, and the most frighteningly easy to view as person who could exist, quite outside the confines of chilly movie-London and these ornate haunted-house sets.

That said, Dickinson’s film is more conventionally “scary” than the American variant, enhanced perhaps by the relative confinement and no-nonsense brevity foisted upon it by the limitations and modesty of the British film industry. It makes resourceful use of cinematographer Bernard Knowles, who shot most of the later thrillers Alfred Hitchcock made in the UK, and does relatively little to “open up” the play, relying on the sense of claustrophobia as one of its main sources of emotional terror. And Dickinson, not much of a “name” apart from this film, is a much wilder and less restrained visual stylist than Cukor, which extends even to the graphically impressive opening titles, and certainly to a wavering, unmoored camera obsessed more with defining the limits of physical space than the relationships of people.

From the first moment, Dickinson pulls no punches, to an extent that probably wouldn’t even be possible four years later at MGM: we open by seeing the strangulation of the elderly Alice Barlow and gazing over the horrific aftermath, strewn with mangled furniture, during a desperate search for the all-important jewelry. Yet the most violent moment of this first film is in one of the arguments between the stoic psychopath and the fallen, suppressed Bella, when during a completely banal exchange about a dog, he yells to the woman he’s deliberately driving out of her mind: “Sometimes I wonder if you even want to be like other people.” In this narrative, his sadism — delivered chillingly well by Anton Walbrook, a dead ringer for an emotionless robot not just appropriating its interpretation of human behavior but mocking it mercilessly — has a tangible root, that long-ago murder he’s trying to hide, and this rationalization (along with the all-knowing detective who uncovers it all) is somewhat disappointing since putting it aside, this is an extremely persuasive portrait of a master manipulator and the abusive home he creates by manipulating everything in his power to persuade Bella that she is losing herself.

The film has a terse and harsh quality about it, not unusual for UK titles of this era (think Ealing Studios), delivering a feeling of creeping terror and tension more than once, but it’s hard not to look at its traditional mystery element as being a bit of a copout, when in moments (also taken from the play) like the night out at a charity concert that ends in tears after Paul makes a scene over a missing watch or the thinly veiled contempt when he says things like “what a very lovely person!”, it’s indicated that it could be a harrowing thriller about a very different kind of violence. You could argue that the use of a somewhat conventional dime-novel plot as impetus for exploring the nature of marital violence is common to every version of the story, and of course that it has a rich history; what else, after all, is du Maurier’s (and Hitchcock’s) Rebecca? But this is specifically what makes Gregory more dangerous than Paul. Both Paul and Jack toy with their wives’ senses of groundedness and sanity as a matter of practicality to cover up their own crimes; they bring their new(est) brides into this creepy old house in the town square in order to see to unfinished business, a botched robbery they never completed — their spouses’ states of mind are purely incidental, and their future purpose to them is still essentially unclear. So the “gaslighting,” so to speak, serves as a relatively simple masking device for these men’s greed. Its purpose in Cukor’s film is more sinister, which makes it a more successful film.

This, perversely, is thanks to what some may consider the MGM Gaslight‘s most significant narrative flaw — that is, its relatively lengthy buildup. The influence of Rebecca is particularly obvious here, with a long and florid and even mildly romantic introduction used as pretense to what’s set to become an eerie, oppressively dark psychological thriller. In his plays, Hamilton favored cutting, streamlined narratives, which MGM — to say the least — did not. The relatively long establishing of mood in the lengthier film’s first half hour is extremely important in how we end up viewing the story that follows. It’s also significant that we only have a vague sense, at the outset, of what has happened at the old house in the first place: we see no murder, no rooting around for valuables, we only see Ingrid Bergman as Paula being tearfully led away, and herein lies one of two major strokes of inspiration on the part of writers John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston: Paula, unlike Bella, is directly connected with the scene-setting murder that her husband turns out to have committed, which in this case was the killing of her opera-singing aunt, who raised her.

This puts everything in the air, and compensates for any sense in which the jewel-thievery story may distract from the emotional essence: the marriage at the center of the story was always a front for a master manipulator, right down to the coy manner in which Gregory, in the throes of a whirlwind romance, convinces Paula to move back to the old house in London that she inherited after the murder. We will not deny here the Hollywood tendency to bulldoze over stories and source material, and the legendary story of MGM trying to buy up and destroy the negative and all prints of the 1940 film is certainly a solid and infuriating example of same, but what Cukor’s film does is flesh out Hamilton’s idea and make it truly sing; whatever the lavishness of the production and Cukor’s much less showy and wild visual decisionmaking — and his penchant for overstuffed, fussy production design — does to the mood of the film, its performances and script are unquestionably a more sophisticated and complete approach to a brilliant narrative construction.

The other key decision made here by the screenwriters is that we are always in Paula’s place, our identification with her fully secure and powerful. Dickinson’s film left no doubt of what was being done to wife Bella from the beginning; almost without exception, we actually saw things like Paul intentionally misplacing the controversial brooch that was supposed to be in his wife’s purse, or removing and altering things and then denying it, which left no doubt as to his villainy but also distanced us in some ways from the heroine. By being much more intensely in Paula’s seat, by seeing her invariably as the protagonist and allowing some ambiguity about her husband’s moral character, despite this denying us a bit of Hitchcockian suspense (he would call this “confirming a suspicion” in the manner of a whodunit rather than amping up suspense as in a straight thriller, because we’re being given less information), we are made to completely understand Paula’s own fears and self-torture. In a wonderful bit of irony, that violation of Hitchcock’s “rules” gives us something much more like a Hitchcock picture, centering as it does on his oft-favored theme of “the woman alone.” The film is more thoroughly subjective (less stagebound, in other words); less information is explicitly imparted through dialogue, and we often question ourselves as much as Paula — thanks in part to the elaborate, foggy, shadowy sets that make the night scenes genuinely spooky and unnerving. The more languid pace additionally provides more time for the film’s hidden subject matter of a husband’s manipulation and violence to all but take over in some scenes; one wonders how much disturbing familiarity and discomfort these exchanges of dialogue have caused in audience members, many of whom would undoubtedly have found them all too recognizable, over the years.

It is helpful as well that these more complex characterizations receive what are clearly better performances, even though Walbrook was excellent as Paul in Dickinson’s film. Charles Boyer isn’t much slimier than Walbrook — whose abuse, if anything, was more direct and spiteful — but because he’s more handsome and has a good bit of charm, the central relationship is more believable despite the stark age difference baked into the setup. We so fondly remember the French-accented Boyer as the chronic charmer of Love Affair and Cluny Brown and such, and this persona seamlessly takes a turn toward disquieting menace when it is recast as a killer’s methodology for placing others under his control; neatly, this gets much more at the crux of the abuse issue than does Walbrook’s unabashedly snarling and mean-spirited Paul.

As for Ingrid Bergman, she might initially seem to just be doing a fairly pedestrian if highly emotive imitation of Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, but at the climax, when Gregory is tied to a chair and still trying to top from the bottom, she earns her Oscar and delivers a searing moment of revenge that provides catharsis denied Diana Wynard and the audience watching her. This brings the film back into the realm of Hamilton’s play, wherein Bella similarly turns the “insanity” dictum back against her husband. The retired detective of the first film is replaced by Joseph Cotten as an inquisitive Scotland Yard assistant, his character fleshed out considerably (and made to be far less annoying, frankly) even if still strictly utilitarian. Among the unusually distinctive supporting cast, teenage Angela Lansbury is delightful as fun-loving, bratty housemaid Nancy, who provides the perfect bit of comic flavoring while serving as just as much of an alienating force in her own way as Mrs. Danvers. (Watch the way Cukor’s camera focuses squarely on the pain Paula feels as her husband flirts with Nancy in front of her.) May Whitty is initially strong as a nosy neighbor, who Paula initially runs into in a train car, though she ends up being wasted in service of a weak punchline in the final shot, probably the biggest annoyance in the entire film.

Yes, on the whole, weak closing moments and all, the 1940 film is nastier, brasher, more direct. But the subtler, beautified feeling of slowly permeating madness in the remake of Gaslight still works better as a narrative construction and certainly as an emotional experience. The play and 1940 film are prescient and forceful with fascinating elements, but there’s little doubt in my mind that MGM in 1944 is the reason that “gaslighting” is now a popular phrase we all understand, and not in any small way because the film’s leading man employs the technique in so much more destructive and personal a fashion, and all while outwardly appearing to be the most patient and sensitive and well-controlled sort of decent good-hearted soul, so kind to scoop up a troubled young woman and trying so hard to be patient as she works through long-ago traumas. Still, I suggest you see both versions — made nice and easy by Warner’s release of the two together — and find out what specific kind of emotional warfare and mistreatment gives you a more satisfying night at the movies!

Capsule digest #4

This post spans films seen and reviews written from February 26 to June 9, 2019. The TSPDT 100 is taking a bit longer than I’d planned; I’m kind of torn between concentrating on it and seeing as many films from the waning decade as possible in time to post a tentative list of my favorite films of the 2010s at the end of the month (with a more extensive, carefully considered one to follow next summer and a for-the-time-being “final” draft in 2021). I also interrupted everything for the last vacation of any kind I’ll be able to take for probably a year or so. (Long story.) But things are pressing along, I swear, and I still have high hopes of beginning the ’50s canon in earnest sometime in the autumn.

Full reviews this cycle: The wicked financial melodrama Arbitrage (Letterboxd capsule) and William Wyler’s diabolical The Heiress (Letterboxd capsule; slight upgrade), a classic that’s aged like fine wine, new to the Criterion Collection (it was my third viewing of both, so it would’ve been lazy not to spin them into essays!); and finally David Lynch’s confoundingly beautiful Mulholland Dr. (Letterboxd capsule); I’m not quite in the best-film-of-the-century cult but I certainly sympathize with it, and I find it by far the best of Lynch’s surreal stylistic exercises, though I do remember liking the first season of Twin Peaks and should really revisit that series.

Other films seen: Despite noble efforts I barely made a dent in revisiting all of the 2010s titles I’ve enjoyed to help smooth out the list-making task, but I do intend to continue the project without interruption after I post the first version of my list in a few weeks. Moving backwards through my tentative ranking, I’m pleased to say I was wrong about absolutely none of these, and in some cases I was gobsmacked by how much better they were than I let myself remember! In addition to Arbitrage, which finally got a complete review, and Berberian Sound Studio which I didn’t have any new comments about, you can track my progress at Lboxd as follows:
Behind the Candelabra
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I
The Descendants
Hail, Caesar!
Brooklyn
Frankenweenie
The Bling Ring
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
A Most Wanted Man
Blue Jasmine
Mistress America
Virunga

I also rewatched Strangers on a Train to continue my vaguely chronological jaunt through Hitchcock’s heavy hitters even though I’ve already written about it — my Letterboxd capsule does have some new insights thanks to my having read Patricia Highsmith’s fine novel last year. And I indulged myself — if that’s the word for an immersion in a film about child abuse, neglect and small-time crime — by picking up The 400 Blows on Blu-ray, ogling its exquisite image quality and crying profusely.

Non-feature or non-cinema screened: What the elegant Netflix series Russian Doll, featuring Natasha Lyonne, lacks in originality it makes up for in wit and stylistic ingenuity — not to mention music supervision, with years of private brooding to Ray Davies’ “I Go to Sleep” suddenly shared with millions. The obscure Jack Gold short film The Visit, issued by the BFI on their Room at the Top disc, is devastating and calls to mind some of the darker Playhouse 90 episodes I watched last year as part of Criterion’s Golden Age of Television package.

Youtube playlist highlights: I am obsessed with this clip of the closing moments of the late 1980s Jim Belushi vehicle and longtime basic cable staple The Principal. And for a terrifying glimpse into my childhood, have a look at the truly bizarre animated short Teeny Tiny and the Witch Woman.

And lastly, massive congrats to Yvie Oddly, the right choice at the right time… but Vanjie is my Miss Congeniality.

Recent Blu-ray releases recommended: Several fine films reviewed in this space, as well as some old favorites, have recently been given beautiful physical releases thanks to various boutique labels here and overseas. In the UK, Indicator brought the tough-minded, female-driven noir The Reckless Moment to its world Blu-ray premiere; the set is packed with extras delving into the careers of James Mason and director Max Ophuls plus an eerie music and effects track; BFI at last afforded the extraordinary, trend-setting British classic Room at the Top the respect it has long deserved, and among other things the release includes a fantastic commentary by film scholar Josephine Botting.

Back on these shores, Twilight Time’s overpriced line of limited-edition releases nevertheless deserves attention for bringing one of my most beloved films of the 1980s, Melvin and Howard, to hi-def, with a long-lost and affable Jonathan Demme-Toby Rafelson commentary to boot. Flicker Alley broke their trend of relegating silent classics to their burn-on-demand line via their shepherding of Universal’s restoration of the Gothic melodrama The Man Who Laughs, which I enjoyed revisiting (see here). Cohen Media began their Buster Keaton reissue program with a relatively low-priced twofer of Steamboat Bill Jr. and The General; Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator will follow in July. The image quality is unspeakably superb. As usual, the biggest news came from Criterion, whose new edition of The Heiress marks their first tackling of a William Wyler picture, even going back to the laserdisc era! It looks glorious. Props to them also for resurrecting Robert Zemeckis’ first, and nearly best, film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which I will be revisiting in full soon as part of my Beatles project at the other blog.

Capsules follow!

***

The Big Sick (2017, Michael Showalter) [hr]
A courtship comedy in which half of the central couple is in a coma. Self-mythologizing stand-up comedians tend to be a bore, but this is a delight whose indulgences are forgiven by the knowledge that it’s a harrowing true story. Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself; he wrote the film with his wife Emily Gordon) make a charming couple, and Nanjiani captures the grief and guilt of learning to stand up for oneself with accuracy and decency, but the film owes a surprising proportion of its appeal to the performances of Ray Romano, of all people, and Holly Hunter as the cranky worried potential in-laws.

American Honey (2016, Andrea Arnold) [hr]
The magazine scammers in indentured servitude who knocked on your door and posed as friendly college students looking to fund this or that are brought to aching real life by an ensemble of disparate young adults in this lengthy, meandering but wondrously vivid slice of impoverished life, a movie that’s so cinematically expressive it can’t be reduced to words. The feeling of being an outsider among a tight-knit group, the way life lived on the edge of legitimacy can turn on a dime from recklessness to hilarity, the unexpected moments of splendor within a total lack of freedom: it’s all here, and it couldn’t be more passionately presented.

Blow-Up (1966, Michelangelo Antonioni)
(Revisit; upgrade.) Influential chronicle of a fashion photographer who discovers that he has accidentally shot pictures of a murder in progress suffers (like L’Avventura) from a director disdainful of his own strengths, and from commentary on perception and apathy that seems easy, even lazy. And of course, the very thing that makes it alluring — its tempest of hyper-sexualized Swinging London decadence — consigns it wholly to its age. But it undeniably looks terrific and contains a couple of knockout scenes, including a blistering Yardbirds performance that makes most 1960s-vintage integrations of rock music into cinema seem goofy and facile.

The Leopard (1963, Luchino Visconti) [c]
As gorgeous as Lawrence of Arabia, and nearly as dull.

20th Century Women (2016, Mike Mills) [hr]
“Just be there,” it says, and it’s talking to us as much as it’s talking to Jamie, the gentle and confused teenager at the center of this deeply sensitive, beautiful film about the people swirling around him in 1979 Santa Barbara, their pasts and futures. It wants us to bear witness to everyday life much as William Wyler once did, and what we see is complicated, messed up, lovely, but never in an obvious fashion. Its peculiarities are unforced, and you well up from the secrets it unveils, the mysteries it keeps, its hauntingly vivid compassion. I would wish we could get a hundred movies like this a year if I thought my heart could take it.

The End of the Tour (2015, James Ponsoldt)
A narrative strung together from a long exchange of conversations between onetime renegade David Foster Wallace and a less famous writer, David Lipsky, in the last days of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest. If you’re not an acolyte of Wallace’s writing, this is just a long two-hander and a somewhat atmospheric road movie, skillfully directed by a filmmaker whose work continues to suggest (see The Spectacular Now) that he has smart, occasionally insightful ideas and a youthful pretension that hasn’t quite left him yet. Jason Segel is sweet and unassuming as Wallace, and Jesse Eisenberg is his usual oddly menacing self.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes) [NO]
Uncinematic, pointless catalog of misery in which a housewife loses her grip in protracted trainwreck manner, unfortunately as portrayed by the terribly inauthentic, scenery-chewing showboat Gena Rowlands, nearly all of whose scenes are either unintentionally hilarious or pure aesthetic torture. Cassavetes lives up to his reputation in the sense that his camera and editing seem extremely unmoored and don’t shy away from technical ineptitude, but this commitment to documentary realism hits a wall when it comes to the supposedly pure drama he captures, which is both badly, self-consciously performed and just generally broad and silly.

Amarcord (1973, Federico Fellini) [r]
Fellini’s episodic semi-memoir of life in fascist Italy is saccharine but irresistibly charming, maybe more so than a film about Il Duce’s regime ought to be. Its strikingly weird yet mostly grounded imagery along with the fourth-wall breaking give it levity and exuberance despite being overstuffed and often superficial; it revels in sexual juvenilia even at the same time as it mocks it, and maybe that’s healthy.

Girlhood (2014, Celine Sciamma) [r]
Karidja Touré is brilliant as a black 16 year-old in a French housing project trying to bust out of an abusive home life and hopeless future; she tries crime, bullying and innocent hookups on for size, but the best scenes in this occasionally transcendent film occur when she forges an identity with three other girls and they terrorize Paris with wondrous abandon, peaking with what looks to be a magic night dancing to Rihanna in a hotel room while swigging from a rum-spiked Coke bottle. The rest is beautifully acted and shot but the criminal-underworld scenes that come later on are less persuasive and revealing about who this character really is.

The Interrupters (2011, Steve James)
The intimacy achieved by James with his subjects is still remarkable, but this deep dive into an attempt by the University of Illinois to circumvent an epidemic of violence in Chicago in 2009-10 struggles with the enormity of its social obligations. The best moments are those that zoom squarely in on specific individuals — organizer and mediator Ameena Matthews above all — who manage to back up the film’s thesis without simplifying the breathing humans involved. Sadly the film’s already a bit dated, through no fault of its creators; organizational disarray and police violence have rendered some of its points moot and/or quaint. More Flamo, please.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018, Bryan Singer) [c]
Shockingly amateurish biopic of Queen is a generic, paint-by-numbers portrait of a classic rock career awash in clichés, a film that only gains and charms its audience because of their preexisting attachment to the music it evokes. It feels like bad sketch comedy, and the only thing more depressing than its litany of Oscar nominations is the fact that people went to see it in droves.

Green Book (2018, Peter Farrelly)
Buddy-redemption crowd pleaser is socially regressive and tone-deaf, but not altogether awful, especially when compared to obvious Oscar touchstones Driving Miss Daisy and Crash. The pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black artist touring the South at the height of Jim Crow, endures a rocky relationship with his driver, a Bronx wannabe gangster who goes by Tony Lip and is brought to us broadly and cartoonishly by Viggo Mortensen, who spends much of the film stuffing his face. No wonder Boomers like this so much; it pushes all the right feel-good buttons and, when the worst trouble arrives, brings in a fucking Kennedy to save the day.

Into the Abyss (2011, Werner Herzog) [r]
A no-frills account of a seemingly open-and-shut triple murder case and how the execution of one of the perpetrators (and capital punishment in general) impacts the others involved, rippling outward to encompass both sides of the law and every possible perspective on the death penalty. The interviews Herzog chooses to include often ache with loss and despair, perhaps most hauntingly one with a former Texas executioner, who quit because of PTSD, but frankly nearly all of them are troubling and fascinating. It just isn’t much of a movie, in some ways just a Forensic Files episode with a moral compass and the occasional jolt of Herzog weirdness.

BlacKkKlansman (2018, Spike Lee) [hr]
Given its subject matter — a real-life police infiltration into the human dregs of the KKK in the 1970s — this is surprisingly fun, with a lot of messiness and unexpected abstraction to remind you a real artist is behind the camera even as you enjoy the fusion of true crime with abrasive comedy. Lee’s aware of the irony of getting intrigue and pleasure out of such dark material, so at three points he undercuts the narrative with out-of-time reminders of where all this idle hatred from easily manipulated losers and assholes inevitably leads. That’s not only moving and relevant, it’s responsible.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman) [r]
A scathing portrait of the infinite load-bearing that is automatically inflicted upon women, this slow cinema landmark details the routine of a widow who entertains johns in her apartment while maintaining domestic tranquility, which begins to slip after a few trivial but cumulatively distressing breaks from normalcy. A brilliant movie despite a finale that’s much too cut-and-dried, but while Akerman’s goal is a bodily, involuntary reaction to all of the painstaking repetition and minutiae, the full expanse of the thing doesn’t reveal much that you wouldn’t get from a more condensed version of the narrative.

Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
This eerie and emotionally wrenching melodrama, lifted from feudal Japanese folklore, restrains nothing in depicting the miseries of a wrongly disgraced family, and accumulates so many tragedies and acts of brutality it could easily be accused of being too much if its compositions weren’t so calmly beautiful or if the performances weren’t so genuinely stirring, right up to a finale in which the lid completely comes off and we’re permitted to see what feels like pure, undiluted grief and catharsis personified. The story has the sweep and weight of grand mythology, but the humane realism makes it deeply affecting on a personal level.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018, Barry Jenkins) [r]
Give Jenkins ample credit for not resting on his laurels with his follow-up to Moonlight; this James Baldwin adaptation is risky, strange and aesthetically jaw-dropping, with a sumptuous color scheme, haunting Demme-like close-ups and wildly unpredictable camerawork. However, the text suffers a bit in the transition to screen, especially in an early dialogue-heavy scene that goes on too long and feels too theatrical, and a finale that doesn’t seem to functionally justify or earn its own sense of resignation — but these are only problems against the restless, emotionally rich, brilliantly performed cinematic grace of the rest of the picture.

Zama (2017, Lucrecia Martel)
Uniformed colonialist has a case of the Mondays. #relatable

A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson) [r]
Exquisitely single-minded, intricately detailed filmmaking accounting the unadorned and virtually context-free scheming and execution of an escape attempt by a French Resistance officer in a Nazi prison. François Leterrier is the perfect actor for this, with his face hiding mysteries but still easy to read emotionally. It’s all thoroughly engrossing, but also purely functional: the voiceover removes virtually every possibility of misinterpretation, and the character strictly moves from point to point fulfilling the title’s promise. Perhaps that’s admirably straightforward, but it also avoids the very kind of risk-taking it appears designed to celebrate.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018, Marielle Heller) [hr]
The story of a modest blitz of fraudulence on the part of disgraced New York author Lee Israel is brought to screen with tough-minded, melancholic wit. Melissa McCarthy deeply embodies Israel’s uncompromising cynicism and impatience, and the film is adept at locating not just the soul of an extremely difficult character but the dismal loneliness in the pallid tones of hard-won-and-not-worth-it urban life. The brightest spot in this dead end is the periodic appearance of Richard E. Grant’s cheerfully alcoholic layabout; that we see this when Lee cannot is as adept a way as any to define the frustrations of this kind of hopeless fringe existence.

Cold War (2018, Pawel Pawlikowski) [c]
Pawlikowski’s account of his parents’ troubled, frantically rocky relationship is cursed with a script that’s so fixated on its elliptical structure it never allows us to come to know its characters in any depth. The film looks and sounds great, but it’s crippled by the lack of believable relationships or any kind of chemistry in its central couple; by the halfway point, the impossibility of any sort of lasting peace between Zula and Wiktor is exhausting, like a long anecdote from someone who should’ve left a bad situation years ago but refuses to do so.

Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami) [r]
The cleverly approached, oddly trivial and amusing true tale of a wide-eyed con artist posing as Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf; forgoing the use of actors, Kiarostami blurs the lines between reality and performance with the same manic fervor as his subject, resulting in a film whose idea of “truth” is extremely elastic, and maybe in the end irrelevant. This is a creation deeply conscious of the limits of film itself as a medium, but for all its brevity it does run up against good old fashioned process-nerd boredom when so much of its running time is sucked up by 16mm footage of Hossain Sabzian’s trial.

Jules and Jim (1962, François Truffaut)
(Revisit; upgrade.) Bohemian morons who talk endlessly about their own misery get their lives fucked up by Jeanne “She’s So Amoral” Moreau. There are lyrical moments and some enjoyably frenetic editing; as a piece of aesthetic technique, it’s perfectly acceptable. And the disembodied voiceover tends to inject a deadpan humor these pretentious characters badly need. The problem is that said characters are neither enjoyable to spend time with nor particularly believable, and the flippant attitude toward women, while not altogether surprising or even totally lacking critical self-awareness, is egregiously adolescent pretty much from start to end. Probably Truffaut’s worst.

The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-wook) [hr]
Audacious adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Gothic novel Fingersmith transforms it into an over-the-top fusion of Foolish Wives, Diabolique and, er, Wild Things, with Ha Jung-woo’s absurd “Count” out to deceive an aged, pervy Japanese book collector by seducing his heiress with the help of a pickpocket. Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri’s work in the latter two roles is engaging and fearless. Park takes advantage of not just Korea’s natural beauty but the visual lexicon of Merchant-Ivory films, which he gleefully subverts in favor of a narrative deeply reliant on both genuine, hard-won eroticism and lurid dirty-old-man sexuality.

Love & Friendship (2016, Whit Stillman) [r]
Loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is perfectly suited to Stillman’s odd cadences and keen sense of irony; his bemused but empathetic approach to the characters, from Kate Beckinsale’s baldly manipulative Susan to the perpetually despondent wronged woman Lady Manwaring, is well matched by an extremely game cast. However, the entire film is taken a bit off balance with the appearance of the splendidly idiotic James Martin; Tom Bennett’s performance is so convincingly clueless, and so exquisitely rendered in its awkward innocence, that he completely steals the thunder of the rest of the cast, and you only wish thereafter for more of him.

The King (2017, Eugene Jarecki) [r]
A touching, unfocused by its own admission, and ultimately very fair-minded look at Elvis Presley’s long-term effects on American culture. Lots of interviews, some OK, a few exceptional (Chuck D above all), and a sweeping look at a deeply troubled nation.

R.E.M. by MTV (2014, Alex Young)
The history of Athens, Georgia’s great salt-of-the-earth alternative rock band and their brief scrape with mass arena-rock success as told through the archives of MTV News. Too much talk, not enough music — and the music, at least from the group’s first decade and a half, remains extraordinary — and it’s a bit haphazardly put together, which is probably why it played a couple of festivals then got buried on DVD, but fans will enjoy it. For a more interesting (and depressing) verité documentary about the band, check Youtube for 1998’s This Way Up. To see and hear them at their best, pick up the DVD Tourfilm.

Nocturama (2016, Bertrand Bonello) [hr]
A French Dawn of the Dead only with millennial terrorists as the heroes, mostly devoid of political content and delighting in the perversity of its audience’s all but automatic identification with a group of misguided and fearful characters, whose actions turn on a dime from benignly symbolic to unforgivably violent. Taken as a thriller, the whole thing is tantalizingly uneasy and stressful, even as its climax peaks with dread and inevitability; as procedural or ensemble character study, it’s fascinating and wrenching. And it looks absolutely terrific.

The Nice Guys (2016, Shane Black)
Diverting neo-noir comedy that puts a private detective and a civilian enforcer on the trail of murder and intrigue within an L.A. porn ring in the late ’70s. Probably plays better if you like either of the lead actors (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, neither of whom has much of a gift for this stuff); though often clever and funny, it suffers from flimsy action setpieces and is too much a retread of Black’s much better Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Although Angourie Rice steals the film as Gosling’s savvier-than-thou teen daughter Holly, there’s something severely displeasing about her constant presence around adult sexuality and physical danger.

The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci) [r]
Often billed as a political thriller, this is really more of a harsh, grim character piece in which a Italian Secret Policeman, riddled with trauma, has turned toward fascism to cover up his lack of an identity. Quick and intelligent, the film’s story isn’t honestly deep or revelatory, chiefly because the antihero Marcello’s cool detachment registers mostly as fantasy. Thanks to Berolucci and Vittorio Storaro, though, this is one of the most distinctive-looking films of its era, with arresting color and endlessly surprising imagery that calls Rene Magritte and Leni Riefenstahl to mind in its evocation of the angular majesty of fascist architecture.

Pierrot le Fou (1965, Jean-Luc Godard) [r]
The first hour of Godard’s farewell to the manic, Hollywood noir-infected first phase of his career is breathtakingly romantic and playful, putting his disaffected stand-in Belmondo on the road with erstwhile beloved Anna Karina after a lousy party — in which everyone spouts ad slogans — and an inevitable killing. The subversive and smarmy overload of ideas, colors and charming pastiche eventually comes to feel excessive, even repetitive… but in small doses it’s magnetic!

***

The next thing you’ll hear from me is probably a decade retrospective, though I imagine something left on the They Shoot Pictures top 100 will prompt a complete writeup. Until then…

The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

It’s not Noir and it’s not neo-realism; in fact, in sheer aesthetic affect William Wyler’s Paramount drama The Heiress is very much a Hollywood period drama — yet few other films made within the studio system seem so determined to puncture and annihilate the mythmaking narrative conventions of American movies. The climax of its biting, acidic rejection of genteel social mores and cruel chauvinism is in its very last scene, when an entitled brat bangs on a door that will never open yelling a woman’s name with increasing desperation, two decades before The Graduate; but this tragic yet oddly cheer-worthy finale requires two hours of careful characterization and the gradual crumbling of morale to reach its haunting, ice-cold crescendo. What takes us there is not so much the great director William Wyler — whose greater skill set of conveying warmth between very vivid people to audiences (Dodsworth, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives) is not put into service here — as the film’s star, Olivia de Havilland, who ties together an intricate, chamber-piece narrative with the nuances of her eyes, voice and body language.

Playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted Henry James’ Washington Square for the stage under this title; after their play attracted the attention of de Havilland and Wyler, they in turn formed it into a screenplay while streamlining it to fit Wyler’s cinematic purposes. Much of James’ dialogue is retained, and the period setting (the 1840s in New York) is treated with great reverence and authenticity — with all of the new scenes, like an extraordinary series of encounters set at a wedding reception ball, impressively organic to their context — but the more intriguing context in which The Heiress fits is with the increasingly street-smart cynicism the better Hollywood films attained a few years after the war. It isn’t a long leap from the darkness and downbeat, realistic conclusion of this film to those of All the King’s Men (which competed against it at the Oscars), Ace in the Hole, Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve. This last example is particularly relevant because it hinges similarly upon the transformation of a single character (there, Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington) from wide-eyed and naive to cold and calculating. The chief difference, however, is that in that film the evolution of the character is simply the unveiling of a conniving snake who’s covertly stood before us the entire time; the transition of de Havilland’s Catherine Sloper is more soulful and heartbreaking because her eventual viciousness is entirely justified by the cruelty we see visited upon her.

If you’re the sort who scans classic films for signs of subtext about the abusive patriarchal system under which the trains ran in the 1940s, The Heiress is a goldmine, only it’s barely subtext at all here, which is a trait it shares with a number of other major late 1940s-early 1950s titles in both England and America. Presumably one reason the film’s enjoyed such a recent revival in popularity is that it’s so uncompromising in its inspiration of righteous indignation on behalf of a clearly neglected and badly treated woman. It’s a razor-sharp indictment of the brutal, harsh parenting of Dr. Sloper, a well-off and snide brute who takes his grief over his long-deceased wife out on a daughter who’s always disappointed him simply by not sufficiently resembling her mother in physical characteristic or personal nature. Catherine later defines the experience of lovelessness in her household as being marked by the feeling “when a person speaks to you as if they despise you”; it is little wonder she yearns to be taken away, and begs the man she wishes to do so, whom she says will love her for all those who didn’t: “you must never despise me.” For Catherine, the idea of love is tied almost strictly to personal security. She has become a perpetually intimidated, subservient mouse less out of genuine insecurity than because she’s been given the feeling that this obvious terror and obedient quiet is what others want from her.

From the outset, Catherine is resistant to making any sort of mark or claim for herself, reluctant to create any disturbance or ripple in the world around her; while this is undoubtedly the result of her impatient, chilly treatment at the hands of her father — the sort of man who thinks he is home free as a parent simply because he has provided material comfort — this personality itself has now seemingly become tiresome to those around her, namely her father (Ralph Richardson), her kind aunt (Miriam Hopkins) and the various denizens of the doctor’s social life. For Dr. Sloper, Catherine’s inadequacy as a potential bride to some “worthy” suitor is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy; while he complains about it outwardly, he seems to delight in an almost sinister fashion at the notion that he’s raised a spinster who will die alone. Some critics of the time complained that de Havilland, who sought the role herself, was miscast because she is simply too “beautiful” to be so unwanted a woman; even Wyler himself later conceded that this may have hurt the film at the box office (it failed to make back its budget, but was universally acclaimed and won de Havilland her second Academy Award). But this in fact is ingenious casting if we take the film straightforwardly as a portrait of a toxic home: Catherine has become a shattered, damaged, “unlovable” person because that’s what she constantly was made to believe she was.

The film makes much of social quirks in Catherine that would just be bits of comic business and quirk in, say, a Lubitsch movie (thinking specifically of the plucky heroine of Cluny Brown): she’s less excited about a new evening gown that arrives specially for her than about returning to the respite of her embroidery, she flinches when watching a street monger cut a fish for her and is then so unladylike as to carry the fish into the house herself, and her awkward, terrified movements on the dance floor at the ball are heartbreakingly believable (no mean feat for so accomplished and long-established an actress as de Havilland). Wyler and the Goetzes brilliantly set Catherine up not as an alien figure but as an embodiment of the deep insecurities and long-buried embarrassments of every audience member; we are consistently and completely in her corner, right down to the heartbreak of her facial expressions when the second man leaves her to find “claret cups” and she visibly believes he won’t be returning. When alone with an attractive man, once she gets over the disbelief that he’s interested in her (again, the result obviously of parental neglect and spitefulness), she wonders aloud desperately what she should talk about. When challenged on her social abilities, she defends herself by stating that she “made notes of the things I should say and how I should say them” (without making this too personal, that one gets me right in the gut!). And when even a gorgeous Montgomery Clift is the one approaching her, she constantly leans away as if in fear of being attacked; her response to some drooling flirtation on his part is, unforgettably, “I am not very good at this kind of conversation.”

We’re only directly privy to the very recent history of Catherine and her father. Whereas James notes that her mother, so beloved (or at least performatively beloved) by the doctor, died in childbirth, the film omits this detail and never lays out the specifics of the late Mrs. Sloper’s death, only that she lingers as a shadow looming above Catherine like the first Mrs. de Winter. Richardson’s salty and cutting portrayal of Dr. Sloper is painfully believable, with none of the one-dimensional villainy that, say, a Rex Harrison or Charles Boyer would have brought to the part; taking pride in his own stoic and unfeeling nature (diagnosing himself with illness near the end of the film and matter-of-factly announcing “I shall not recover”), he turns on a patronizing tone each time Catherine enters the room. While we’re predisposed almost from the start to being disdainful of him, he is a good enough judge of character to immediately see through the charades of Catherine’s young suitor, the faux-classy layabout Morris Townsend, but seemingly little realizes that it’s his own behavior that has set his daughter up as a victim to such a creature. His every remark to her is marked by disdain or backhanded condescension; when she appears in a beautiful dress, Henry James gives him the unforgettable review “You look as if you had $80,000 a year.” He openly and repeatedly compares her unfavorably to her mother, both to her face and in front of others. And it’s not merely Catherine to whom he is a dry, unpleasant figure — in the space of just a few minutes he informs two different people that they are “without dignity” and “beneath contempt” — but only she is actually in a position to be damaged by it.

When he first meets Townsend and notes that he seems intelligent, Catherine’s overenthusiastic “oh, yes!” is met with a murderous glare. It may be that he recognizes Townsend’s pending abuse of his daughter because it is the only motive related to her that he understands; that the boy may genuinely love her never even crosses his mind, and while this may allow a certain protectiveness to set in — making a show of announcing her vulnerability to Townsend’s sister, then taking his daughter away to Europe for a spell to delay their marriage — it’s only ever under the terms of “love” in which the young woman is his own property that he is unwilling to share. He is far more troubled by the notion that Townsend will spend all of his money than he is by the idea that he may be a bad husband to his daughter, for he sees her as so subhuman that he cannot fathom her having any sophisticated relationship in the first place. It is, of course, entirely because of the inadequacy he’s baked into her personality that she is so easily swayed by a powerful, sexy con artist like Townsend; but as she later points out, would a life with Townsend, who is affectionate toward her, not potentially be at least a little better than one in which she already is unloved with no possibility of redemption?

Making all this worse is that of course, for at least the first half of the film, Catherine adores her father, and this despite already enduring decades alone with him: you can see it in the loving way she looks at him, never returned in kind. That’s not to say she is unaware of how ashamed he is of her, only that she truly seems to believe she is at fault. At one point, she breaks her cultivated exterior just enough to ask him to be kind to her, to promote her to her potential husband: “Praise me a little,” she pleads. And in that unmistakable manner in which victims of unloving households seem so conscious of their miseries yet so unaware of how unnecessary and inexcusable they are, she once nonchalantly, and not a little hilariously, tells Townsend: “My father won’t abuse you. He doesn’t know you well enough.”

The collateral damage in all this is Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia, the film’s most easily likable character, who’s a tireless supporter of Catherine — the “cool aunt” character familiar from numerous other films, but so much more painfully realistic here because the shortcomings of such a confidante are made very obvious in the course of the narrative. Her hopeless romanticism bonds her to her niece but also blinds her to the self-serving motives of both Dr. Sloper and the young Morris Townsend. Neither the film nor Catherine judge her for her naivete, which is treated as the great flaw of a life of relative peace and kindness unknown to the Slopers. Lavinia is the widow of what seems to have been a good, loving marriage, an experience that has left her eager to impart its joys to others and in eternal disbelief that a less pleasant experience with matters of the heart is even possible. She chides the doctor for his treatment of Catherine but never rebukes him for it; and she seems more upset by Catherine’s eventual rejection of Morris than she is by Morris’ own cruelty to her. She is a lovely human being who is also an enabler — and, thanks to all involved but especially the great Hopkins, such an insightful and witty actress for decades running (it’s fun to think of her happy simultaneous carousing with two different men in Design for Living while watching this), she serves as the true beating heart of this picture, the audience vessel who badly wants everything to work out and will come away frightfully disappointed by the fickle terrors of everyday life.

As for Montgomery Clift, this was only his third movie after distinctive, searing appearances in the trifling The Search and the extraordinary Red River, and as usual his brooding and passionate personage burns into the rest of the film harshly. Left unchecked, he could be a distracting Method showboat, but Wyler handles him correctly by helping to render his Morris as both a clearly desirable object of adoration and potential escape for Catherine and a believable master grifter whose eager, fiery poetics come across as just overwhelmingly heartthrob-ish enough to read as appropriately ridiculous and even slightly comic. (The moment when he speak-sings his way through the English translation of “Plaisir d’amour” is straight out of some misguded Keanu Reeves-led romcom from sixty years later.) That said, Clift’s portrayal is just ambiguous enough that there is every reason to believe he is actually attracted to Catherine and, when he abandons her upon learning she won’t receive her inheritance, it’s a matter of survival from a classless sort whose lifestyle is totally alien to the Slopers. This doesn’t excuse his actions by any means, but it adds a helpful lingering doubt that makes the film’s conclusion that much more potent in its uncompromising anger; The Heiress would seem all too one-dimensional if Morris was not, at times, as relatable as Catherine — for instance, when he too seems to be jilted on the dance floor by Catherine much as she was minutes earlier by a clearly disgusted young man, or in the tentative private kissing he shares with her in which he seems as scared as she does, or most of all in the awkward dinner scenes that will be familiar to anyone who’s tried to impress a new boyfriend or girlfriend’s skeptical parents. You can even be kind enough to sort of admire his live-for-the-moment philosophy that led him to use an inheritance to parade around Europe buying gloves rather than plan for the future, but we do finally get a glimpse of his true colors when, with Dr. Sloper deceased and Catherine rich, he reappears on her doorstep with new mustache and smugly surveys the premises in her brief absence, totally convinced it’s all soon to be “his.”

But it won’t be, because in one of those wonderful moments in classic cinema when we don’t think an old film is quite “with” us because of cultural changes but in fact is ahead of us, Catherine has already seen through the man’s lies and is intentionally putting him through the same wringer she knew not so long ago. As soon as Morris, in the joyous fits of a new courtship, has left the house to go get a coach (again), we quickly discern that Catherine — who’s made her parting gift of ruby buttons from Paris already — has no intention of going anywhere with him, or of ever speaking to him again. The Catherine that Morris has encountered now is a changed woman. We have watched her cycle in real time out of her naive hopefulness, through the pain of realizing her father never loved her then that no man has ever truly loved her, and into an peaceful independence and finally a deliciously vengeful defiance, an assertion of self at last. The second and third acts conclude with de Havilland’s ascensions of the house at Washington Square’s formidable staircase: lugging the suitcases she intended to take on her honeymoon with Morris, she appears defeated and inconsolable. Clutching a lamp and heading upstairs to bed in the final scene, something very different — but far subtler — is taking place.

The transformation begins with the quarrels between Catherine and her father just after their failed European trip; all of a sudden, Catherine wakes up, and not merely because Dr. Sloper suddenly lays out his opinions of her explicitly at last, then has the audacity — when she very straightforwardly responds with “what a terrible thing to say to me” — to accuse her of being cruel to him. The relationship does not recover; after this initial attempt at communicating her humanity to him, which receives no apology in turn, she understandably becomes curt and avoids seeing him whenever possible, brilliantly calls his bluff on writing her out of his will, and indeed refuses to visit him on his deathbed. There is a case to be made that this fissure is a flaw in the film; while it’s integral to the story, the two distinct versions of Catherine witnessed by us are so violently opposed as to seem nearly incompatible. Moreover, while de Havilland’s performance in both guises is absolutely perfect — humane, nuanced, utterly real — the “dual” personalities notion was a known and well-worked gimmick within her work, which had also been central to her other Oscar-winning role in Mitchell Leisen’s brilliant tearjerker To Each His Own (which also lays out just as strongly her ability to almost transcend age in her performances); and she’d gone so far as to play twins in The Dark Mirror that same year.

In fact, however, repeated viewings of The Heiress seem to validate this as a function of its realism in matters of familial abuse and neglect. It’s Catherine’s desperation to be pleasing to her father that causes her to attain the nervous shyness that he so passionately decries to others; it’s hardly a real expression of her personality, which we can assume was no more satisfying to so exacting a man, whose warmth — if it even existed — was probably reserved exclusively for his medical patients. The Catherine we see when we leave the film has also constructed a personality of bitter detachment as a defense mechanism, even as we see she can return to the old zeal and people-pleasing long enough to hoodwink her former lover. But there is some reason to believe that this last adventure has given her sufficient closure to free her from all of these psychological prisons.

Without question, the finale of The Heiress is one of the greatest and most wounding in Hollywood cinema; its unabashed vindictiveness is most closely matched by the nearly forgotten and otherwise innocuous western In Old Arizona, which too ends with a masterfully understated, though much more violent, fuck-you — but outside of America, it has a more contemporary analogy in the stunning final shot of The Third Man, whose acerbic and oddly thrilling withholding of satisfaction has an equal beauty and elegance. When it becomes clear that Catherine has doomed Morris to heartbreak (and, potentially, poverty, though he would have found that for himself anyway) and her aunt expresses shock, her rebuke is priceless, and the thesis of the film: “Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.” There is then great tension as the maid Maria struggles with Catherine’s command to bolt the door, which Morris is pounding on, rather than open it — and, wrapping up her embroidery alphabet, we watch as Wyler’s masterfully blocked and composed series of closing shots lets Morris see the shadow of his future passing ominously by through the glass above the door, whereupon he tries the knob and then returns to vainly knocking and shouting, and Catherine Sloper starts to ascend the stairs again. A faint expression of security crosses her face — the freedom of no longer being under the thumb of any man — and then we return to Morris Townsend outside, his desperation increasing, as Wyler sardonically announces via two-word title card that his story will never be resolved.

It is a moment of divine, delectable fury — and renders the entire film ageless and impossibly elegant, a perfectly structured treatise on cycles of cruelty and the occasional righteousness of revenge. The visual and superficial pleasures are innumerable, as always in Wyler’s period pieces — the shimmering fable-like quality of Leo Tover’s photography, the sumptuous streets and the rain that falls on them, and Aaron Copland’s improbably lush score — but The Heiress subverts them, refuses them as consolation for the interpersonal distress documented within their borders. Wyler had tackled abusive relationships with great perspicacity before, in The Little Foxes and Dodsworth; but here is a film that synthesizes this kind of knowing humanism with the gripping coldness, calculation and technical expertise of noir to demonstrate an environment in which resentment, for once, is an escape from doom, apathy and dread. He and the writers and cast make us root for someone to whom the entire world has become dead and pointless, and convinces us — with the most wondrous kind of perversity — that we are deeply correct to do so.

Arbitrage (2012, Nicholas Jarecki)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The financial mogul as unstoppable supervillain was the great fact of the 2010s even years before one of them became the President of the United States. There was a time when collective bitterness over those who’d gotten away with murder via insider trading, subprime markets and banking felonies and passed the shame (and foreclosures) on to you, the average consumer, infected seemingly everybody — a common enemy we could agree on for once. For a straightforward cinematic reading of the disaster that loomed over the country beginning in 2007, you can turn to the documentary Inside Job, to J.C. Chandor’s respectable suspense mood piece Margin Call or to the righteous indignation of Adam McKay’s oddly gripping The Big Short. But for the micro treatment, for the Hitchcockian survey, we turn to a film that dares to turn the faceless evil into a breathing, disturbingly vivid flesh-and-blood characterization.

Arbitrage is the debut feature of writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, brother of documentarians Andrew and Eugene and son of Henry Jarecki, a patriarch of his own financial and philanthropic empire, which gives this film about a ruthless tycoon and phony family man the ring of almost uncomfortable truth. That said, the director mostly uses his experience in this largely unknown and inaccessible world — his knowledge of “how the other half lives,” so to speak — simply as a way to inject lived-in detail into a grander, timelier story than one built from his own experience. The unmistakable reference point, still just a two year-old story at the time the film was being written, is the Bernie Madoff scandal. The connections range from the timeline of intensifying dread and inevitability to the intricate involvement of immediate family to the sheer combination of suaveness and ineptitude driving the entire crazed affair.

It’s surprising that a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese hasn’t already made some insufferable power-infatuated picture about Madoff or a coded version of same, wherein his dual obligations to his own precarious yet meticulously cultivated scamming of an entire subset of the financial circuit (Madoff was once chairman of NASDAQ!) via glorified pyramid scheme and to his traditional, adoring family would be clearly intended as self-evidently interesting, as though the mere presence of contradiction were a version of insight, betting on the automatic fascination we collectively feel with anyone who got away with something so big for so long. We would come away knowing nothing more about Madoff than that he was an enigma, and a scapegoat (which is nearly inarguable, really; his primarily wealthy victims were among the very few figures in the ’07-’08 crisis who experienced some form of justice).

Jarecki’s tactic is far more interesting. Rather than positing his own very different but inescapably comparable version of Madoff as some Tod Browning horror figure, he presents the unfettered and ugly vision of base humanity with infinite resources. That is, a classic grifter with a touch of unnatural invincibility, but also a horrified smooth-talker, a nervous wreck, and a deeply determined champion of his own self-interest whose singular moral universe leaves no room for contemplation of a world or a logic outside of his bubble. The object of every day and every sleepless night is to further the illusions that keep him afloat, with no consequence worse than the loss of comfort and prestige. What’s intriguing is how well Jarecki establishes the sad baldness of the character’s system of deceit and his obvious status as an unmovable asshole while also identifying the frail humanness of his nature: the awful thing is how Arbitrage turns big lies into an accumulation of small ones, until we can almost imagine the hideous and fearsome decisions we ourselves would make, and even come dangerously close to rooting for an uncaring, belligerent man who is our natural enemy.

Jarecki casts Richard Gere as his Madoff burlesque, an outrageously successful and hotheaded hedge fund manager given the suspiciously generic name “Robert Miller.” Gere is more than ideal casting, for reasons that go beyond just his performance, which is effectively complicated and indeed is as good as he’s ever been in a movie. Never a prolific actor and hardly one to stretch himself, Gere’s made a career of embodying a squinting, gruff yuppie stereotype in the movies (Pretty Woman, Chicago, presumably Runaway Bride and Unfaithful) and in the press — his early career was defined by the iconic Herb Ritts photo in which he’s extended halfway out of a large swimming pool dealing with someone on the telephone while a mostly nude woman leaps into the water nearby. He’s more handsome and smug-looking in his sixties than he was as a heartthrob in Days of Heaven and An Officer and a Gentleman; somehow this and his procession of affairs, marriages and hotly contested divorces makes him the perfect embodiment of this charming snake in a wonderfully Brechtian sense. If you’re going to sell this sort of a character, the only comparable actor would be Tom Cruise, and he would still seem a bit too young to be so powerful, and too much of a sociopath for us to get wrapped up in his plight. Gere’s Miller, in the end, is vastly more dimensional and multifaceted an embodiment of this sort of character than the iconic interpretations of Michael Douglas or Leonardo DiCaprio.

In a fashion that recalls the much nicer heroes of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest, Miller gets sent through the wringer via a whole series of practically insurmountable thriller scenarios; at the outset, his ridiculously perfect perfume-commercial life with a devoted wife (Susan Sarandon), a gifted daughter who serves as his chief accountant (the perpetually under-used Brit Marling, who clearly pushes Gere to a new level in their later scenes together) and a dumb son who gets paid buckets anyway (Austin Lysy, talked about more than seen) is disrupted first by a mistress (Laetitia Casta) who keeps bugging him with her tiresome “needs” and then by the hemming and hawing over the sale of his company to a fellow Wall Street asshole (Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, ingeniously cast as the type of guy who has a regular brunch table at a high-rise restaurant from which he conducts his daily wheeling and dealing), which is further complicated by the fact that a government audit is only passing muster because of a loan Miller’s secured to cover up a shortfall due to his own bad investments. Right in the middle of all this, he decides to take mistress Julie out to the country for a weekend fuck-and-run and gets her killed after falling asleep at the wheel, which then gets sloppy, lopsided tie-wearing detective Tim Roth on his trail through his unwitting getaway driver Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of a deceased employee. Miller spends the rest of the film juggling all this along with what seems to be cracked rib, a nasty limp and a bleeding forehead from the car accident, and then his daughter discovers the holes in the financial records and confronts him.

It feels a bit like an inordinately difficult text adventure game in which the programmers constantly lob new problems and threats in your direction; but somehow, the film never feels busy or overstuffed and successfully presents and resolves its many story threads in under 110 minutes. It helps that all of the complexities and conundrums we encounter travel through Miller and confirm the movie’s basic thesis about him as a long-time monster for whom the chickens have finally come home to roost; but what helps even more is that nothing about Jarecki’s script is simple, despite its impressive elegance and clarity. Miller is a despicable character — Gere’s reading of the insane line “everyone works for me” teeters perfectly on the edge of hilarious and horrifying; and there’s no better defining of the brain worms of wealth than when he tries to pay off his worried accomplice Jimmy, who wonders why he thinks money will solve this problem, and he replies “what else is there?” — but he’s also complex and extremely believable (far more so than, for instance, the modern touchstone of the anti-hero, Walter White; more like his lawyer, Jimmy McGill, albeit far less amusing and lovable), and it’s presumably here that Jarecki’s personal experience with the High Street comes into play — there’s no falling back on stereotypes here. It would be very easy to write a protagonist who was simply a ruthless trash heap of a human, and objectively this one is, but what we have here is an almost Renoir-like treatment of the Madoff villain: he has his reasons, and in all honesty they’re not entirely alien to most of us. It’s perhaps a good thing that we are not being shown this fantasy of amoral capitalism without limitations or scruples in the years when all was going swimmingly for Miller, as with Jarecki’s skill level we could probably convince ourselves to find some comfort in that fantasy — apart from the fact, of course, that he was most likely as miserable then as he seems now.

Conversely, the engagingly skeezy cop played by Roth in his usual loud disarray has his heart completely in the right place, legally and ethically, and he’s a pretty good detective too — picking up instantly on the truth of the wrecked, burned-out car and the reality of Jimmy’s oddball pay-phone connection to the hedge fund world. But he’s also a distasteful boor who tosses around racial slurs and tries to throw an innocent kid under the bus strictly to “get at” the figure he rightfully sees as the enemy of the common good. It’s a provocatively thorny situation that requires dual parts of our moral selves to go to war: do the ends justify the means if the ends could genuinely help make a better world? (This is one sense in which a Third Man-like treatise on the ravages Big Banking inflicts upon the world might well have been handy; instead we get a strong scene of high-stakes betrayal in which daughter Brooke has it out with Miller in Central Park and the void at his center is exposed. He is proven incapable of admitting weakness or humility even to the ostensible reason he committed his crimes.)

Jarecki doesn’t really make an argument in either direction, and he does ensure that Miller gets his, at least on a personal level, when his wife pulls the rug out from under him in the film’s final minutes. But what the filmmaker does with his audience here is quite fascinating, and unusual — the entire film ends up serving as a depiction of our own ideological limits and imperfections. We take a strange kind of pleasure in Miller’s antics, which have actively caused every sort of misery up to and including death, and frequently put ourselves in his seat — and even get a bit of vicarious thrill from the comfort and respect he enjoys — the way that we sometimes root for Norman Bates or, hell, Marie Antoinette; but we also, from the comfort of our seats, get a charge out of his family turning his back on him in a manner that seems emotionally well-earned and deeply righteous, even though it seems that wife Ellen is simply planning on becoming Robert Miller II in his absence. Meanwhile, we are relieved when the deeply conflicted Jimmy is forced neither to turn on his “benefactor” (who is indeed using him, a cold fact he never does want to believe) nor to go to prison, and this redemption for one of the film’s few pure characters is a relief to us, even though it’s objectively the wrong way for things to go. Given the bare truth of the entire story without coming to know the involved parties and their conflicts of interest, it’s unlikely we would ever give these individual people so much of our thought and sympathy, including Jimmy, whose resistance to turning Miller in might then seem indefensible to us. In this sense, and in the strange context of a financial thriller informed very specifically by the 2008 crash, Jarecki has managed to illuminate extremely unlikely corners of human nature with empathy, and to shine that light from every conceivable direction. The result fully justifies the weighty ambiguity of the film’s conclusion.

This is being written on a week when the New York Times has reported extensively on Donald Trump’s tax returns from the period in which he was most famous as a yuppie master of “the Deal” and for all the extravagant weddings and magazine shoots that came as ancillary benefits. Like Miller in the film, his reputation preceded him but didn’t protect him from the brink of ruin; Trump was writing nonsense about wanting you to be rich while he could barely maintain his own flimsy house of cards. The distance from regular life wrought by his obscene wealth and, later, the illusion of extreme wealth was a ridiculous mind-over-matter concoction that would leave any sane person living in constant fear. Unfortunately the real-life villains are far less complex, interesting and human than the ones we get in the movies; and we also are not given the pleasures of watching them receive comeuppance or of enjoying our own collective redemption. This may be why, for Arbitrage, Jarecki chose as his subject not an arbiter of the default swap market or the housing bubble or the bank executives that let it all happen and got away unscathed but a sort of elevated Mr. Moneybags who primarily runs afoul of government investigations, angry lenders, disappointed family members and bad investments. There’s some of us in this guy even if it’s just because we didn’t do our homework a few times in middle school. But the real enemy is much more threatening, much more unstoppable, and far far duller — a gaping maw of black misery with no moral compass and no sense of purpose beyond the primordial urge to cultivate and hold power and invincibility at any cost. Trump isn’t afraid just like Alan Greenspan and Richard Fuld and their ilk weren’t, because he knows he’s got us hooked. Thank god for the fucking movies, right?

Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

In many cases, David Lynch’s particular brand of surrealism leaves me at sea, not because I mind being confused but because the kinds of images that seem to haunt and intrigue him don’t play for me as especially engaging. Blue Velvet is a good movie, but the relationship it draws between pure camp and poetic disorientation averages out, for me, to mildly endearing silliness. The two Lynch films that completely work for me (on top of portions of his TV series Twin Peaks) are The Straight Story, in which he completely shirks his usual fixations and the roots of his career for the sake of a sweet-natured studio project, and Mulholland Dr., which leans in harder than ever on his unique fascinations but forms them into something playful, charming and even quite funny, and above all something whose sole purpose isn’t simply to confound. Even if its open-ended storytelling may still dissatisfy many viewers, the journey itself in this case is savory. Whereas the idyllic setting of Blue Velvet is too phony to be anything but off-kilter and vaguely distressing, the sequestered Hollywood of Mulholland Dr. tosses into a world that has enough allure, mystery, and yes, the usual sleaze to feel like a complete world, rather than an ironic one constructed from tropes; and moreover, the film’s dream logic doesn’t suffer from the arbitrariness of some of Lynch’s more pedestrian work. Everything in the film seems to have a purpose, whether it’s easily or quickly evident to the mere outsiders in the audience or not.

That absence of self-satisfied irony shouldn’t suggest that Lynch is selling us something we could find more unconditionally elsewhere: its oblique and over-the-top evocations of Eyes Wide Shut, Nancy Drew novels and Cinemax porn are presented quite clearly with tongue in cheek, but in this case there is a narrative utility to the stilted performances and the endless, empty sheen of beautiful artificiality; and even before you realize that, Lynch is so clearly in on the joke and in tow with the viewer here that the offbeat humor and pure weirdness of it all can be enjoyed on its own terms before things fall into place (likely after a second viewing). At any rate, the crucial difference between this and Blue Velvet in particular is that it sends up a world Lynch knows and occupies it with broad, off-putting characterizations without actually violating or criticizing either the agency of those characters or our investment in them. On the one hand it’s almost a Lynch parody of a Lynch movie; but on the other it comes from a core of what feels like real love and pain, and not the deliberately simplistic cartoons of innocence and depravity in many of the director’s works.

Shot with no budget with a TV crew (like Psycho!) for ABC before they rejected it as a pilot and Lynch expanded it to feature status, Mulholland Dr. is a very SoCal movie, set quite pointedly in an O.J. Simpson-era L.A. wherein Hollywood dreams of the glamorous past are contrasted with the mundane trivialities of coffee at a hole-in-the-wall diner called Winkie’s, strong-arm talent agencies with apparent mob ties, egotistical hotshot directors with unfaithful wifes, auditions with sexist, grabby screen veterans, and barely competent hitmen who call their victims “bro.” The source of this near-delirious caricature, in the narrative, may or may not be a wide-eyed actress named Betty (or perhaps Diane) portrayed with absolute perfection by Naomi Watts (ironically, this turned out to be a star-making effort for her), who we meet and engage with in a fit of new-to-town naivete that, in the last thirty minutes of the film, is revealed to be either a facade, a glimpse at a now-distant hazy past or — according to most interpretations — a fantasy of what might have been.

That fantasy, if we accept for the moment that it is one, amounts to a uniquely Lynchian approach to a neo-noir in which the eager Betty gets a chance to solve herself a mystery after she walks into what she thinks is an empty house to discover a nude woman in her shower (Laura Harring), extemporaneously adopting the name Gilda from a film poster, who’s suffered a concussion after a bad car accident and doesn’t remember who she is. For Betty, this amnesiac Raymond Chandler nightmare is the perfect introduction to the deceptively glossy streets of the city as the two of them come to function as an almost too-perfect team, the wizened out-of-towner easing into her element quickly with the added motivation of a damsel in distress who must be rescued. As they gather clues and investigate, the two appear to fall in love and engage in a tentative, tender love scene that marks some sort of turning point when the seemingly rational story we’re watching becomes dislocated. Up to this point in the picture, not everything in this gaudy, bright rendition of the city is banal — there’s also a key and a box and a monster behind Winkie’s, and a gorgeous Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” — but a lot of it is. It all just seems so simple, Watts so endlessly enthused and Herring disturbed and helpless beyond belief; to borrow the cliché, everyone just seems so fake.

As it turns out, that’s because they probably are. Fake, but also beautiful. Via quick shots of tearful masturbation and suicide, it’s suggested that the entire first two acts of the film have been a momentary fantasy of sexual control and abandon, a distorted memory of the early moments in a union that’s gone sour, or even just a dream that borrows elements and logic from disparate portions of an awful night leaving Watts’ heroine — once Betty, really Diane — on the verge of insanity. In the fantasy, she molds herself into a desirable go-getter who’s infinitely gifted and seems younger than she is, and her lover has forgotten the events that took her away, or they never happened. This explains why it is, perhaps, that when Betty and Gilda have sex, they seem simultaneously like shy kids and like mutually comfortable lovers who’ve known one another’s quirks for years. But the longing persists and the conclusion to the fantasy seems to get further and further away.

Back in reality, interrupted before her orgasm, Diane watches as the surly filmmaker Adam Kesher whose parallel story of a compromised project and destroyed marriage we’ve been following (maybe because our unreliable, wordless narrator wished to see him humiliated?) makes out with her friend and lover, and indulges in unrelenting PDA with her at an upscale event. There are signs everywhere of a breakup, or of the endings of an illicit affair, that have left Diane, her Hollywood dream not remotely what she expected (is it ever?), a depressed and desperate shambles. In this closing half-hour, the performance styles of all of the actors change completely: Watts is now embittered and naturalistic, Harring the very portrait of uncomprising ambition and all the aloof enigma of an unrequited crush or a still-beloved ex. But there is still little time for us to determine what is real and what isn’t, and logic and reality seem to slip out of our grasp — but we certainly are given enough to understand that the world in which we finally leave Diane is not the happy and hopeful one that we saw Betty enter two hours earlier.

Anyone’s stab at interpreting all this, placing it in perfect order, is going to be different from anyone else’s — and of course the film resists explaining away all of its tangents, some of which may owe their existence to its confused genesis as first a TV pilot and then a motion picture — but the general drift of the story, its swaying moods, its persuasive air of lovelorn melancholy, unforced eroticism and its intoxicating contrast of “the dream place,” the kinds of imagination we routinely employ (again: dreams, fantasies, memories), with cold mundane reality all present an unexpectedly coherent portrait of a life and a city that feels complete and deeply felt.

Mulholland Dr. opened to great acclaim and it has steadily gained recognition from many as one of the greatest films of this young century, setting it far above most of the other, now long-forgotten critical darlings of 2001. (Incredibly, it did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.) Part of the reason for this is that it appeals to a cross section of scholarly critics and cinephiles, to whom the story’s emotionally mature ambiguity and fixation on The Business naturally appeal, and “film bros,” who like it because they can view it as a Christopher Nolan-like “puzzle” and because there’s a lesbian sex scene in it. It says a lot about Lynch as a director and persona that he’s perfectly likely to embrace both varieties of reception — he’s quite encouraging to the puzzle geeks, including a list of “clues” in the form of study questions with early DVD releases — but for many individual viewers, paring things down to the specifics of the symbols and cryptic clues and suchlike is a tiresome exercise, and while Betty and Gilda’s sex scene is certainly one of the more memorably gentle in a Hollywood film, its impact comes explicitly because the common quest, the odd personalities and the excited mutual kindness of their relationship has been so well established. To my mind, both schools overstate the importance of the film’s plot — its perfectly colored progression of moods is far more interesting and singular even among Lynch’s works — and underrate its rich, surprisingly acerbic humor; comedy in Lynch’s films was never before quite so explicit, used here to comment on the very absurdity that resists such deconstruction in his previous pictures: “Jason thought it would be a good idea for me to see the cowboy.” (I could name other examples: Jeanne Bates slapping her husband’s knee and the two later chasing a far-gone Diane around her apartment, or the long buildup in the Winkie’s scene, or the sudden presence of Bride of Frankenstein-style “mini-humans.”)

Perhaps this is because the world of Mulholland Dr. is so robust and well-established it can withstand that sort of self-mockery, which is a good illustration of the fine line Lynch walks here. At bottom, this is a soulful film about grief; but it’s also a wild and wacky story in which someone faints from lip-syncing and a hitman shoots a vacuum cleaner to turn it off. Neither element cancels out the other; in other words, our knowledge of how this cornucopia of images, music and sounds revolves around the bitter blow of unrequited love does not stop it from being one of the most fun, witty movies about Hollywood itself imaginable.