Sunday, January 21, 2007

Vertigo (1958)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring James Stewart and Kim Novak.

Possibly Hitchcock's most acclaimed and analyzed film, this is easily one of the most dreamlike of the masterpieces of classical Hollywood. Stewart stars as Scottie, a former police detective with a paralyzing fear of heights, who is hired by an old school friend to tail his wife. Gradually, he becomes obsessed with her, and after she dies under mysterious circumstances, Scottie's affections shift to a shop girl who bears an striking resemblance to the dead woman. All Hitchcock's obsessions are on display here- phobias, chilly blonde women, voyeurism, manipulation- but the difference between this film and many of his other works is that he uses the structure of the story to illuminate these obsessions, particularly in the scene where Scottie transforms the shop girl into the image of his beloved. The film unspools beautifully, capturing you in its spell, and Bernard Herrmann's immortal score is eerily romantic.

Rules of the Game (1939)

Directed by Jean Renoir. Starring Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, and Jean Renoir.

This comedy of manners from French humanist Jean Renoir is one of the first truly great examples of an ensemble piece in cinema. There are no central protagonists in this story, and certainly no heroes or villains. Instead, Renoir uses his large cast to examine class issues and social mores in European society at the time, assembling the gentry and their servants at a country home over a weekend and observing their interactions and individual stories. Renoir doesn't portray the monied characters as being fundamentally different than their servants, as members of both classes engage in domestic squabbles, rivalries, and flirtations, and he punctuates this idea by casting himself in the role of Octave, a kind of free-agent who associates with members of both sectors, maintaining a distance on both that allows him to marvel at their similarities. It seems like his biggest theme here is, for better or worse, we're all more similar than we pretend to be. Robert Altman re-worked Renoir's structure into his film GOSFORD PARK, but while his allegiance to the lower classes provided an interesting perspective on the film, his work doesnt hold a candle to Renoir's masterpiece.

8 1/2 (1963)

Directed by Federico Fellini. Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee, Claudia Cardinale, and Sandra Milo.

In Fellini's quintessential film about filmmaking, his frequent collaborator Mastroianni stars as Guido, a celebrated director who has made a successful film and now struggles with the problem of doing a follow-up. Fellini's circumstances while making the film were similar, having just made the international hit LA DOLCE VITA, and Fellini to his credit didn't do anything to disguise this fact. Instead, he channeled his real-life difficulties into the story for this film, in which producers can't seem to understand why Guido cant get going on his film (particularly after they've erected an enormous launchpad set for use in the movie). Meanwhile, Guido finds his mind wandering back into the past, and he has to juggle the various women in his life, which comes to a head in an immortal scene where he unsuccessfully plays lion-tamer as all his women are gathered in one room. Much of the pleasure in watching this film comes from his direction, as the camera dances past actors moving as if to some distant tune.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Directed by Billy Wilder. Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson.

This is perhaps one of the most cynical films ever bankrolled by a Hollywood studio, and little wonder- no fewer than three world-class cynics were involved in the film (director/cowriter Wilder, cowriter Raymond Chandler, and source author James M. Cain). MacMurray stars as an insurance man who joins with femme fatale Stanwyck to kill her husband and collect his life-insurance payment, but what really gives the film its zing is that neither of the characters seem to be in it for obvious reasons- Stanwyck doesn't seem to care that much about the money, and the two of them don't seem to be in love or even to like each other very much. Some of the film's best scenes involve MacMurray's relationship with Robinson, a claims investigator who knows more than he lets on. This film is dark and amoral even by present-day standards, and all the more potent as a result.

M. Hulot's Holiday (1953)

Directed by and starring Jacques Tati.

With the expression "summer movie" synonymous today with loud, rapidly-edited action and lame excuses for comedy, its refreshing to watch a film like Tati's classic, a movie thats really about summertime. As is the case with much of his work, there isn't much of a story going on, merely a series of scenes connected by a central idea- in this case, people vacationing at a beach resort. The rhythms of the film are leisurely, like a lazy summer afternoon watching the sea, and characters drift in and out of the scenes so that we accept them as people rather than overdetermined characters. Tati was a master of visual gags as well, but they're not of the laugh-till-you-puke variety, but instead are carefully constructed in order to feel completely spontaneous, flowing out of the actions of a scene. Although my own summer vacations seem to have become a thing of the past, Tati's vision lets me remember the fun I once had.

Satantango (1994)

Directed by Béla Tarr. Starring Mihaly Vig, Putyi Horvath, Laszlo Lugossy, and Eva Almassy Albert.

At roughly 7 ½ hours in duration, this film has for years been a kind of Holy Grail for card-carrying film buffs. But while the length is daunting, SATANTANGO is time wonderfully spent, rewarding an attentive audience’s patience in spades. Tarr employs extremely long takes, bravura tracking shots, and an understated use of overlapping time frames to tell the story of a few days in the life of a run-down Hungarian farming commune in waning years of Communist rule. The story is divided into twelve sections, the first six of which establish the commune and its people, and the final six employing these characters to craft a scathing yet sad postmortem for Communism in Eastern Europe. But to summarize the film’s plot does little credit to the greatness of SATANTANGO as a work of cinematic art. Without employing tricks most filmmakers use when striving for immediacy, Tarr places the audience firmly in the film’s reality, full of mud, rain and loneliness, but in a way that never wallows in despair. In fact, two of the film’s extended sequences are among the funniest pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen in a long while. SATANTANGO, for a film that is hyped almost like a cinematic dare for adventurous moviegoers, is surprisingly accessible and emotionally engaging, although the film’s effectiveness has almost nothing to do with conventional melodramatic devices and everything to do with the attention to detail that’s central to Tarr’s filmmaking style. When SATANTANGO was introduced to the audience I saw it with, it was described as “not so much a movie as a place you visit.” For me, that pretty well sums up what I love so much about it- it creates a world as distinctive as any in movie history, discovers the seemingly insignificant people who dwell within, and simply observes them over the course of a few pivotal days in their lives. SATANTANGO is a peerless cinematic experience, one every true lover of film should treat himself to at least once in his lifetime.

See also: Blog entry from Silly Hats Only

The Red Shoes (1948)

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, and Marius Goring.

First things first- I don't much care for ballet (Sorry mom). But for some reason this film works for me magnificently. One of the major reasons for this may be because Powell and Pressburger understand artists so deeply that they realize that the desire and need to express oneself through one's chosen art can be an all-consuming and sometimes self-destructive impulse. Jack Cardiff's luminous cinematography, in "glorious Technicolor" as they used to say, enhances the fairy-tale quality of the story, as young ballerina Shearer (has red hair ever been brighter on film?) rises in the ranks of a famed ballet troupe run by Walbrook (whose character name, Boris Lermontov, is one of the coolest character names I've ever heard in a movie). The centerpiece of the film is an original ballet composed and choreographed for the film, based on the titular tale, and while I'm not a ballet fan I absolutely adore this sequence, with beautiful music by Brian Easdale, energetic and elegant dancing, and positively inspired images, especially the newspaper that turns into a dancer and then back again.

M (1931)

Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Peter Lorre.

I kind of regret only having one Lang film on this list, given that he's one of the pioneers of cinema as an artistically-viable medium, but I guess if I had to choose only one, this would be it. Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a seemingly harmless man who is also a child-killer. As Hans' reign of terror grips the city, the police try to solve the mystery of the killer's identity while the criminal underground decides to hunt down the man whose crimes have led to an increase in police on the streets. In addition to seemingly inventing both the cinematic incarnations of police procedural and the serial-killer mystery, Lang was also ahead of his time in his use of sound- compared to most films of the time which were wall-to-wall dialogue, Lang uses dialogue sparingly, relying instead on silence, sound effects, and Lorre's shrill "Peer Gynt" whistling. In the midst of everything else, Lorre is magnificent as a man who feels an overwhelming compulsion to commit his heinous crimes, helpless to control himself ("I must!" he confesses to an inquisition), and he somehow becomes a pathetic figure as everyone else in the film is bearing down on him.

The Mother and the Whore (1973)

Directed by Jean Eustache. Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Françoise Lebrun, and Bernadette Lafont.

Many of the films on this list are directed by acknowledged master filmmakers with a number of great films to their credit, but Eustache's fame derives almost exclusively from this film. Thankfully, it's so great that it's capable of buoying a filmmaker's reputation without any help. Léaud stars as a twentysomething layabout who spends his days in cafés and his nights with various women. The film doesn't have a conventional story, but instead observes his life and especially his interaction between the main women in his life- the sexually frank Lebrun and the more nurturing Lafont. While the film has modest production values (no musical score, no visual effects), Eustache uses this to his advantage, knowing that fancy frills would only distract from his observation of these characters. One of the film's biggest assets is its naturalistic black-and-white cinematography, which makes every detail in the frame perfectly clear while appearing completely realistic. Mostly though, the film's triumph is in how immersed we become in these characters, as they talk, read, listen to music, drink, screw, and somehow manage to connect to each other.

See also: Review at

Notorious (1946)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and Claude Rains.

Hitchcock made so many great films that it's nearly impossible to choose favorites, but while the already-mentioned VERTIGO has a place in my heart I find that I'm partial to his 1946 classic. Why? The casting certainly helps- Bergman is at her most vulnerable and beautiful here, Grant is at his most suave, and Rains is just about perfect. The plot (later cribbed by MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2) has Bergman recruited by Grant to spy on her former lover Rains, a Nazi sympathizer who is still in love with her, and much of the film's suspense comes from the uncomfortable situation Bergman is in- she has feelings for Grant, and it's because of this that she puts herself in danger. Many of Hitchcock's films have tense set-pieces, but this is probably his best-sustained suspense story, as Bergman has to be loyal to the man she's pretending to love on one level while sticking by the man she really does love. The film's final scenes, in which Grant finally decides that Bergman has done enough and comes to her aid while Rains is powerless to stop him, are as perfectly-realized as anything Hitchcock has ever done.

Week End (1967)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Starring Jean Yanne, Mireille Darc, and Jean-Pierre Leaud.

Back in the 1960s, Godard was about as unstoppable as any director could be, churning out one great film after another. This film is seen by many as the turning point in his work, in which his revolutionary leanings overwhelmed just about everything else he put on the screen. The film follows a quarrelling bourgeois couple (Yanne and Darc) as they drive through the French countryside, encountering provincial artists and philosophers, wandering revolutionaries, and all manner of vehicular destruction and mayhem (the ten-minute traffic jam is one of the great sequences in cinema). It's clear here that Godard has contempt for these petty, disaffected bourgeois, as they care more for material items than for ideals, and that the only way he feels they can break out of their apathy is to separate themselves from their lives completely. However, the idea of revolution Godard proposes here isn't very appealing either (they're cannibals, after all), and while it's difficult to say whether Godard finds this a marked improvement on the bourgeois lifestyle it's certainly vividly realized and completely original. This has to be one of the strangest films ever made, but it also contains no small amount of dark comedy, and is endlessly thought-provoking.

The Seven Samurai (1954)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.

While it was sometimes difficult to select my favorite film from a great director, I had no problem choosing a favorite Kurosawa film. This classic is four hours long (with an intermission) but once it gets going, the time flies. Shimura plays the leader of a ragtag band of samurai (there are seven of them, hence the title) who are hired by a village to protect the people from the bandits. The first half of the film consists of the band of samurai being assembled and preparing for battle, while the second half is almost entirely made up of battle scenes between the samurai and villagers and the bandits. Despite its great length, Kurosawa never wastes a minute, establishing not only his characters (Shimura's quiet authority and Mifune's strutting comic machismo stick out in the memory) but also the strategies of battle, so that when the fighting begins everything is completely comprehensible. Finally, Kurosawa casts a critical eye on the Japanese tradition of sacrifice, as the samurai (who were hired for a small amount of grain) sustain heavy losses in battle because, well, that's their lot in life. Even after seeing some of the many films influenced by this one, the original still holds up.

Annie Hall (1977)

Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.

This has been a sentimental favorite of mine since I was a teenager- while sorting out my own insecurities about the opposite sex, it was comforting to see that even famous actor-directors harbored the same anxieties. I'd watch the film over and over (I've lost count how many times), recommend it to my similarly insecure friends, and quote it randomly in conversations. But as close as I got to the film then, I somehow didn't pay much attention to how well-made it was- the use of long takes; the shadowy but somehow still naturalistic cinematography of Gordon Willis; the weaving of confessional monologues, flashbacks, asides, and even animation into the story; the masterfully-structured nonlinear storyline. As I grew as a filmgoer and began to know what to look for, ANNIE HALL grew with me, and sort of became a textbook definition of what a great movie could be: a film that engages you so thoroughly in every moment that it's only upon reflection that you can truly appreciate the thought and craft that went into making it. As much respect as I have for difficult, forbidding, and "indulgent!" works (some of them anyway), I believe a film like ANNIE HALL, which can be appreciated on both a direct emotional level and a more intellectual one, is in the end more valuable, since it allows audiences to choose whether or not they wish to do intellectual heavy-lifting rather than making deep reflection its major raison d'être. Whether I want to puzzle out the precise chronology of the film's events (I'm still a bit fuzzy in one or two spots), to formulate theories about Allen's wavering between anti-intellectualism and (anti-anti-)intellectualism, or just to laugh after coming home from a hard day at work, ANNIE HALL is there for me. It's funny as all get-out, and just because I know exactly how big that spider is or that Woody's going to sneeze in the cocaine doesn't make me laugh any less.

L'Atalante (1934)

Directed by Jean Vigo. Starring Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, and Michel Simon.

Director Vigo died shortly after finishing this, his first feature, and while dying young is tragic in and of itself (he was 29), it's an especially monumental loss in light of this film's greatness. The film follows Jean and Juliette (Dasté and Parlo), a newly-married couple, as they embark on their new life on a barge on the Seine. The film quickly establishes that the new husband and wife hardly seem to know each other at all- their faces are solemn following the wedding, and the provincial girl seems ill-prepared for life at sea. As the barge approaches Paris, Juliette, who has never before left her small town, decides to see the world on her own, leaving Jean behind and pining for her. If the film was simply about its main story, however, it would still be lovely but certainly wouldn't warrant a spot this high on this list. The key to the film's greatness isn't the couple but rather Jean's well-traveled first mate, Jules. As played by the great Michel Simon, Jules is one of the great characters in cinema- simultaneously comic, menacing, sexually ambiguous, macabre, and finally heroic. The elements he adds to the film make it truly unforgettable, enhancing its romanticism and also turning into a peerless cinematic magic-realist fairy tale.

The New World (2005)

Directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Q'Orianka Kilcher, Colin Farrell, Christian Bale and Christopher Plummer.

Snob that I am, I once declared that none of the greatest American films were made during my lifetime. The reasoning behind this was because the true masterpieces were the films that stood the test of time, that had survived years of scrutiny to emerge as classics of the medium. But the first time I saw Malick's fourth film, I was seized by a feeling that I'd almost never experienced before, something I'd read about older critics experiencing in the past. In short, I was witnessing a new film that from the very first frame felt destined to be a classic. What made me feel this way? Could it have been the visual poetry summoned up by Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki? Could it have been the incandescent performances (or should I say embodiments) by newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher and Colin Farrell, finally making good on the hype? Or was it the way Malick made that rarest of concoctions, a film that transports the audience into a completely new world? Years from now, I expect to fondly reflect on a Friday afternoon in January 2006 and tell some younger film lovers, "yeah, I saw THE NEW WORLD when it came out."

See also: Review at

Nashville (1975)

Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Ronee Blakley, Henry Gibson, Keith Carradine, and Lily Tomlin.

Altman is best known for making films with expansive canvases (large ensemble casts, interlocking plotlines, etc.) and this may be his most ambitious effort. Set against the backdrop of the title town, the film deals with various people involved in politics, music, or some combination thereof. Altman presents the still-timely notion (in light of the election of Governor Schwarzenegger) that politics and entertainment go hand in hand in American culture. The film also makes Nashville a major character, positing it as a country-music version of Los Angeles, where stars are a fact of life and where nobodies are but an opportunity or a chance meeting removed from celebrity. This is also a great musical, in which the stars do their own singing (and in some cases, wrote the songs as well), with standouts being Carradine's philandering singer-songwriter and Blakley's prodigiously talented and deeply troubled country star. Above all, it's a great entertainment for any audience member willing to keep his brain switched on. Altman's films are so packed to the brim with detail and activity that they tend to reward multiple viewings, and this one is so much fun that watching it over and over is a welcome proposition.

See also: The Movie Moment: Nashville (Screengrab)

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Directed by Hiroishi Teshigahara. Starring Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida.

There are many films that are beautiful to look at, but most of them hold you at a distance with their images, much like a painting one stands back and regards but doesn't approach, for fear of losing the intent of the image. Teshigahara's film is a masterpiece in many regards, but perhaps most importantly because its images are so perfectly tactile. In scene after scene we see the man and woman with their bodies covered in sand and sweat after a long day's work, and all we can think of is what it must be like to touch the sand-covered skin. The film's story deals with a man from the city (Okada) who visits a small town, spending the night in the home of a woman (Kishida) who lives at the bottom of a sand pit. After he wakes up the next morning, he makes the shocking discovery that he can't climb out. On the one hand, the film feels like a nightmare, in which a man is held captive against his will and is powerless to escape; on the other, it's an erotic fantasy, in which a man and a woman are trapped together, apart from anyone else. Mostly, it's about the characters' isolation, as they gradually form a kind of makeshift arrangement with each other, and work together simply to avoid being swallowed by the sand (and really, doesn't everyday life feel like that sometimes?). Ultimately, the man finds himself re-evaluating his priorities based on his predicament, and likewise we in the audience can't help but marvel at how strange and sudden occurrences have a way of putting our efforts into perspective.

The Third Man (1949)

Directed by Carol Reed. Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles.

So many films today are made for kids- their styles are flashy and the ideas they present don't challenge us much. Little wonder then, that when I first saw this film in high school, it didn't exactly bowl me over. Reed's masterpiece, based on a book by Graham Greene, is manifestly a film for (and about) adults, people who have experienced setbacks and loss, who remember their youthful idealism and mourn its passing. It wasn't until a few years later, when I was in college and less certain of myself and my future, that I had grown into the film. I was in Vienna with a group from school, and I noticed a theatre near the Prater showing THE THIRD MAN, so I decided to see it again. Afterwards, shaken by how much more it had affected me, I walked over to the Prater and rode the famous Ferris wheel from the film, and thought not just about the film I had just seen, but my life as well. Of course the film was the same as when I had last seen it, but I had changed in the intervening years. Just about everything that can be said about this film's greatness (the immortal zither score, the black and white cinematography, the way it evokes the atmosphere of postwar Vienna, Harry Lime) has been said before, and by writers more eloquent than myself. What THE THIRD MAN represents to me above all else is my experience of seeing it in Vienna, the best moviegoing experience of my life to date.

The 400 Blows (1959)

Directed by François Truffaut. Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud.

Truffaut's first feature was one of the first key films of the French New Wave movement, a group of former film critics-turned-directors committed to expanding the language of cinema. This, perhaps the greatest film ever made about childhood, tells the story of young, troubled Antoine Doinel, played by Léaud in one of the legendary performances by a youngster. Antoine isn't a bad kid, simply one who is having a difficult time fitting in anywhere- at home, where his parents are too occupied with other aspects of their lives to pay him much attention, and at school, where his boorish disciplinarian of a teacher seems constitutionally incapable of giving Antoine the benefit of the doubt. Before Truffaut became a critic, he was a troubled kid much like Antoine, and the reason the film works as well as it does is because he knows this character so well, refusing to turn him into either a incorrigible brat or a misunderstood saint. Antoine, much like many children of his age, mostly just lives in the moment, doing what he feels he should do at the time, not exactly heedless of the consequences but simply too caught up in the present tense to bother with the future. Though there are both happy and sad moments in the film, this isn't a comedy or a melodrama, but simply a portrait of this boy's life told from his perspective. The film's final scenes, which take place after Antoine has been sent to a detention home after his parents give up on him, have a rare power because they confirm so definitively that the most important people in his life have written him off. All of this leads up to the immortal final shot, where he finds himself all alone on the beach, and when the image suddenly freezes it's like Truffaut is underlining the importance of this moment in his life. That this famous final image was supposedly accidental does nothing to diminish its power.

Gates of Heaven (1978)

Directed by Errol Morris.

Many of the most acclaimed documentaries deal with "important" issues: poverty, war, The Holocaust, even the death penalty (the subject of Morris' own THE THIN BLUE LINE). This film, which in my opinion is the best documentary I've ever seen, is ostensibly about pet cemeteries, but ultimately it's about the ways in which we deal with the death of those we love, and by extension with our own mortality. One of the chief pleasures of GATES OF HEAVEN is in the distinctive and colorful ways the various interviewees talk- from the resignation of failed cemetery owner Floyd McClure to the regurgitated management philosophies or Philip Harberts to (especially) ornery old Florence Rasmussen, each person interviewed for the film has an inimitable personal style which is impossible to write but key to the success of this film. As Morris interviews various owners of dead animals, they reflect on how important these pets were in their lives as a source of companionship and unconditional love- sure, these people sound a little crazy for projecting these feelings onto animals, but simply by presenting these people the film asks us how many people can offer the same kind of loyalty these pet owners felt from their pets? In the end, this film offers a great deal of food for thought, and no small amount of philosophy, as when one pet owner states, "there's your pet, your pet's dead. But what happened to the thing that made it move?" No film I've seen is this profound about the ways in which people seek meaning not in art or centuries-old wisdom, but in the lives (and deaths) of others.

The General (1927)

Directed by and starring Buster Keaton. Co-directed by Clyde Bruckman.

I've never made it a secret that I prefer Buster Keaton to Charlie Chaplin. It's not that I don't like Chaplin, but while Keaton was never as beloved or recognizable figure as Chaplin, he was a much greater filmmaker. It was tougher to choose only one of his films for the list (SEVEN CHANCES and SHERLOCK JR. were also strong contenders) but in the end I kept coming back to his Civil War-era film- the best Civil War movie, in my opinion. Here the Great Stone Face stars as a put-upon engineer who isn't allowed to join the Confederate Army because his train, The General, is needed for the war effort. Much of the film is comprised of scenes with Keaton alone on the train, and these scenes feature some of the most ingeniously realized gags ever put on the screen- the most legendary being the one in which Keaton finds a railroad tie atop the tracks in front of the train, so he carefully climbs down onto the train's cowcatcher and uses another railroad tie to knock the first one off the tracks. Like so many of the film's great moments (which are plentiful) this gag is less about gut-busting hilarity than engineering- we marvel at the simple ingenuity of it, with the added charge that Keaton did even the most dangerous stunts himself. Theres also a nonchalance about the film that's refreshing, a charm that takes its cue from its star's unassuming demeanor, that allows even the most intricate gag or potentially deadly stunt to feel like a throwaway, as though instead of a showstopping moment it's all just another annoyance to this character's routine. While Chaplin's sentimentality makes so much of his work feel like a time capsule from the days of silent cinema, it's his pricklier and less overtly emotional kind of filmmaking that makes Keaton's work feel modern even today.

Play Time (1967)

Directed by Jacques Tati. Starring Barbara Dennek and Jacques Tati.

I don’t think that any viewer who is paying attention can possibly deny what a singular directorial achievement PLAY TIME is. With this film, a box-office disaster on its initial release, Tati re-created modern-day Paris on his own terms as a sterile maze of boxy skyscrapers, plate-glass windows, and beeping gadgetry. But while other filmmakers might be tempted to turn this setting (built entirely from scratch for the film) into an urban nightmare, Tati- true to the film’s title- concentrates on the funny little eccentricities that sneak their way in. This approach is ideal, as it turns out, as Tati’s hyper-detailed direction (his skill at engineering visual moments is even keener than Keaton’s) would run the risk of becoming stifling if it wasn’t done with such offhand charm. To describe any of the priceless moments in the film wouldn’t spoil them so much as it would sell them short, as Tati pulls them off so perfectly, yet so unassumingly. And in the midst of it all is Tati’s signature character M. Hulot, a bastion of old-fashioned provincialism, who would exist at odds with his hyper-modern surroundings but for his singular brand of good-natured aloofness, which translates surprisingly well to his new environment. PLAY TIME is a strange sort of comedy, one that invites chuckles of recognition rather than guffaws springing from easy payoffs, and leaves me with a goofy grin on my face every time I watch it. PLAY TIME is bravura filmmaking of the gentlest kind, which demands to be revisited- and seen on the biggest screen possible- innumerous times to be appreciated, and is sheer delight on each and every viewing.

Decalogue (1988)

Directed by Krzystzof Kieslowski.

This legendary Polish miniseries is the highest-placing television offering on the list, and like THE SINGING DETECTIVE and JOAN THE MAID it feels more like a very long and episodic film than like a conventional television program. Kieslowski and collaborator Krzystzof Piesiewicz formulated the central idea for the miniseries- 10 one-hour telefilms inspired by the Ten Commandments- but the films' triumph is not in the conception but in the execution. Rather than telling simplistic parables in which the characters illustrate the commandments, Kieslowski and Piesiewicz go much deeper, examining the ways in which people in the modern world struggle with these age-old decrees, not always successfully. In one of the episodes, a girl who has grown close to her widower father must decide how to deal with her feelings after she discovers that he isn't her biological father after all; in another, the unfaithful wife of a gravely ill man finds out that she is pregnant by her lover, and tells her husband's doctor that the unborn child's fate will be decided by whether or not he believes her husband will die. All ten stories are set around a high-rise apartment building, and as we see characters from the other films going about their private business, the setting becomes a microcosm for our messy contemporary society, in which we bustle about and contend with our own troubles, oblivious to those of the people around us. The one exception to this in the DECALOGUE comes in its most beloved episode, in which a teenage voyeur falls in love with a woman he spies on, and decides to become part of her life. The way this film plays out defies all expectation, and yet in the end makes complete sense. The same could be said for the work as a whole, a transcendent and beautiful work which regardless of its original medium stands as a masterpiece.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Directed by and starring Orson Welles. Also starring Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, and Everett Sloane.

So much has been written about what a directorial tour de force this film is that it would be futile for me to find a new angle on this idea. What separates this film from so many other technical achievements is what a great entertainment it is. When I first saw this film in high school, I came to it through its reputation as the universally-canonized Greatest Movie Ever, and so it was a little intimidating to sit down and watch it. That first time, I mainly enjoyed it for its storytelling style, with flashbacks within flashbacks and differing perspectives on its title character. Later on, in college, I had learned to pay more attention to things like style and technique, and so I was able to appreciate the film's triumphs in these aspects as well- deep focus, high-and-low-angle shots, chiaroscuro, and Welles' ever-inventive ideas for leading in and out of flashbacks. So far so awesome, but one night a few years ago I was lying on my couch watching television late at night, unable to sleep, when I came across KANE on a classic movie channel, so I watched it. And while watching it again something dawned on me- CITIZEN KANE is FUN. On top of all the innovations Orson Welles and his gang of theatre and cinema mavericks contributed to this film, there's also a showman's flair for entertainment that has kept the film fresh and exciting for more than sixty years. What makes the film so successful both as art and entertainment is that the technical stuff never manages to suffocate the entertainment value. Much of the credit for this must go to Welles, who was directing his first film here- although he had many collaborators in the making of this movie, it's his youthful boldness and outsize spirit that dominates the film even today. The film stands proudly, not only as a near-impossible goal for first-time filmmakers to shoot for, but also as one of Hollywood's crowning achievements. As the film's original poster announced, "It's Terrific!"

Orpheus (1949)

Directed by Jean Cocteau. Starring Jean Marais, François Perier, Marie Déa, and Maria Casares.

Cocteau's film is a strange and wonderful retelling of the Orpheus myth, operating on the idea that (to quote the film's introduction) "a legend is entitled to be beyond time and place." And in the case of this film anyway, this wisdom applies. Of course, Cocteau inserts his own personal touches into the film as well, not least in the creation of one of the kinkiest love-quadrangles the big screen has ever seen: the titular poet (Marais), his wife Eurydice (Déa), Death herself (Casares), and her chauffeur Heurtebise (Perier). Some have complained (heck, I've even complained) that Casares lacked the presence to embody such a character as Death, especially in comparison to Cocteau's original choices for the role, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, but watching the film again changed my mind. It's because Casares is so life-sized and lonely in the role that the love entanglements are as poignant as they are- a larger-than-life actress might have tipped the balance too far in her favor, as well as seeming to be above needing the love of a mere mortal, Jean-Marais-handsome though he might be. Another immortal touch Cocteau brought to the film was his knack for making the real world surreal, not merely through editing and camera trickery (film run backwards for eerie effect, characters suddenly disappearing into thin air), but also through strange locations (a bombed-out building used as the realm of the dead) and surreal plot points (chiefly among them the car radio on which Orpheus listens to the bizarre "poetry"). Cocteau was a talented artist in many media, cinema being one of them, and ORPHEUS is on top of everything else one of the great films about the uneasy mix between art and life, in which life and art intrude onto each other, but in the end if the art is truly enduring then not even death- or Death- can take it from the world.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

Directed by Sergio Leone. Starring Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda.

And so we reach the final five. I could go into (a little bit of) detail about how Leone simultaneously anticipates the "demythologized" Westerns of the 1970s and beyond and blows them all out of the water, but to do so would be pigeonholing the film's achievement. This film isn't just the greatest Western of all time- it's one of the all-time great experiences one can have in a movie theatre. Leone's command of iconography is second to none, and his juxtaposition of pore-baring closeups and expansive landscapes is justifiably legendary. Many have called this film"operatic," and for good reason; this is an epic story told on a grand scale, with wonderfully archetypal characters who linger on and on in the mind. Much credit is due to the great Ennio Morricone, whose score defines the film's characters by their respective musical themes (love the way Henry Fonda's acid-guitar theme and Charles Bronson's guitar noodling mesh, suggesting their shared fate). One of the greatest pleasures for a filmgoer is finding a timeless scene- a "Moment Out of Time," as it were. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is so assured and startling that it contains one Moment Out of Time after another, adding up to a peerless entertainment- tense, moving, funny, artful, exciting as all hell, and above all the very cinematic definition of "iconic."

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Directed by Chantal Akerman. Starring Delphine Seyrig.

This film is unavailable in video or DVD in the United States, so you're going to have to either find a bootleg of this on eBay and see for yourself or simply take my word for it- this is one hell of a movie. The storyline is unassuming enough- the title character, a single mother (Seyrig) who goes about her daily routine, raising her son, doing errands, and prostituting herself once a day for spending money. What really distinguishes the film is Akerman's attention to detail in the woman's life, with extensive use of real time. As we see her performing her usual business, we become caught up in the rhythms of her life and surrender over to the film's pacing, Akerman's mastery of which is nothing short of masterful. I saw this twice, projecting it one reel at a time on 16mm film, and both times I saw it a strange thing happened- as each reel progressed, I became so wrapped up in the seemingly mundane events of the film that time seemed to bend and before I knew it the reel would be over. It's this patience on the part of the filmmaker to take the time to establish the patterns of Jeanne's life that makes the later scenes that much more effective, as we see her begin to deviate in small ways from the routine (forgetting to replace the lid on a soup tureen, sitting in a different booth in a restaurant), and these small moments have a startling amount of impact because how different from the norm they feel to Jeanne and, by virtue of Akerman's direction, to us. After I saw the film for the first time I had characterized Jeanne as a control freak, who keeps to her routine and who after deviating from it repeatedly starts to lose her grip on reality, leading up to the film's shocking climax. However, shortly after seeing the film for the second time, I read that the director had dedicated the film to her mother, and I realized that Akerman meant Jeanne to represent housewives in general, whose unheralded lives can be so stiflingly regimented that there can be little room for error. This realization casts the film into sharp relief, making the film not only one of the greatest I've ever seen but arguably one of the most important as well, a rare and altogether quite special document of real life.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Starring Falconetti and Antonin Artaud.

My second Joan of Arc film on the list (the first being JOAN THE MAID) is by far the greatest historical film ever made because it's one of the few that manages to successfully evoke the experience of witnessing the events. Dreyer deliberately avoided the formulas of biopics in this film, instead condensing Joan's many trials into a single long one, and focusing on the ordeal she had to endure the final days of her life. I'm not a religious person, and most works about the saints' lives quite frankly don't move me, but I think the reason this film (and, to be fair, Rivette's as well) works so magnificently is because it doesn't feel like a religious film. Rather, the style is more like that of a courtroom drama played at high-speed, in which the questions asked of Joan are less important than the faces of those who so coldly hold her in judgment. Dreyer's editing style turns the trial into a flurry of faces, oppressing and almost assaulting our heroine simply through their hardened stares. The other major reason for the film's triumph is the performance of Falconetti as Joan. This was her only performance on film, and it's quite possible that there's never been a better one, and the reason it works is because it stands so resolutely in contrast to all others in the film. Falconetti's performance seems positively lit from within, and this is key because she must radiate pure faith even in the face of fear, pain and death, as though her great belief in God is what sustains her through these trials, and almost like she operates on the belief that the hardship is something she MUST endure in order to prove herself worthy. It's this interplay between Dreyer's stark vision of Joan's world and the overwhelming power of Falconetti's performance that makes the film really sing, not simply as one of the great films about religion or faith, but as one of the greatest of all films.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and Douglas Rain.

All fans of this film know how amazing it is, and how audacious it remains even today. Who other than Stanley Kubrick would have the sand to tackle a subject as huge as the rise of mankind? To say nothing of the way he completely bypasses the present tense outright, by cutting from the discovery of technology by apes to the titular year, which for all its imperfect details (for example, Kubrick's prediction that Pan Am would still be flying proved incorrect) for the most part still has yet to come to fruition. Back in 1968, the space race had heated up, but since then has cooled considerably, and it's due to this fact that we still don't have colonies on the moon, commercial space transport, and so on. This tendency for striving, which has fallen by the wayside somewhat in the intervening years, is at the center of 2001. The film is mind-bending in its presentation of big ideas, not the least of which is the somewhat frightening and unpopular notion that modern-day man is but one rung on the evolutionary ladder, and that we will one day evolve beyond this stage into something greater (the film's psychedelic coda resembles nothing so much as the prenatal progression of the new species). Yet the most enduring reason for the film's immortality is Kubrick's commanding direction. The film's detractors tend to call the style lugubrious, but a hugely ambitious narrative like this one must be told in a manner that does it justice, and Kubrick's masterstroke was to focus not on longwinded discussions of the film's ideas, but to illustrate them and let the audience glean them from viewing the film. It's entirely possible to appreciate the film without consciously acknowledging the ideas it contains, becoming enveloped in the intoxicating duet of image and sound that Kubrick presents. Few films so intoxicatingly mingle beautiful visuals with a soundtrack that complements them so well- a recent example is WAKING LIFE, in which the animation sings and the words become the music. Really, this is such an amazing film that it's a strong contender for the greatest ever made, and I was toying for a while with the idea of putting it at the top of the list, although sentiment ultimately won the day...

Belle de Jour (1967)

Directed by Luis Buñuel. Starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, and Michel Piccoli.

I guess I'm just a sentimental guy at heart. While the intellectual smart-guy voice in my head (no, not literally, for you armchair shrinks out there) tells me to choose something more cinematically transcendent- 2001, for example- I just can't bring myself to NOT pick BELLE DE JOUR. People who know me know that this has been my favorite for years, once I had set aside my experiment with having a favorite for every day of the week (the others being ANNIE HALL, CITIZEN KANE, VERTIGO, CHINATOWN, and the aforementioned numbers 2 and 3 on this list). So why is this my favorite, you ask? Honestly, I've loved it so long that it's impossible to satisfactorily explain. BELLE DE JOUR has, for lack of a better explanation, become MY movie, of which I've become possessive and protective, the film I've told all my friends to see at some point, and their sometimes dissenting opinions of which, though I'm receptive to them, I can't really understand. I've never allowed it to be a deal-breaker in regards to friendship, merely one of those things upon which we must agree to disagree before moving on. But I guess that if someone held a gun to my head and told me that I had to say why I love BELLE DE JOUR lest he paint the wall with my (limited) critical capacities, I guess it would have to come down to Catherine Deneuve. Ah, Catherine- for me, the eternally bewitching face of the cinema, so impossibly beautiful and refined that her impossible elegance haunts my dreams. Deneuve stars in three films in my top 100, and though the most-represented actor on this list (Jean-Pierre Léaud) appears in five, the difference is that while Léaud (though I like him a lot) is fairly incidental to my enjoyment of at least two of his listed films, Catherine is a if not THE key reason for all three films' dearness to my heart. As BELLE DE JOUR is My Film, so Catherine is My Movie Star. Luckily for me then that BELLE DE JOUR is, from a critical standpoint, a masterpiece of the medium (lucky because otherwise this piece would turn into a long gush and all pretense of critical objectivity, however feeble, would fly right out the window). The film, which for those of you who haven't seen it (rectify this IMMEDIATELY, dudes) centers around a housewife's fantasies of becoming a prostitute, has real mystery to it, and as we see Severine (Deneuve, naturally) acting out her fantasy we become fascinated by her activities, as Buñuel implies more about her than he actually says. In scene after scene the film works its magic, cycling between Severine's dreams and real life until it's impossible to tell the difference anymore. As with all of Buñuel's best work, BELLE DE JOUR deals unforgettably with the strange urges people have, the things we're drawn to on a level rooted so deeply within us as to render our connection to them unexplainable. I suppose that sums up why I love it so much as well as anything I could possibly say.

See also: The Movie Moment: Belle de Jour (Screengrab)