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There are many quality collections of the best films ever made, but no other felt as comprehensive and naturally chosen as Ebert's "Great Movies." He started the list simply by picking a film (the first was Casablanca) then writing about it, choosing a new film every other week or so; just picking another film he fancied writing about. Before he died he wrote about three-hundred-sixty separate entries and, unsurprisingly many of them saw Criterion releases. In alphabetical order, accompanied by Ebert's words about the film:
“The film shows us nothing of the trial itself except for the judge's perfunctory, almost bored, charge to the jury. His tone of voice indicates the verdict is a foregone conclusion. We hear neither prosecutor nor defense attorney, and learn of the evidence only second-hand, as the jurors debate it. Most courtroom movies feel it necessary to end with a clear-cut verdict. But ‘12 Angry Men’ never states whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. It is about whether the jury has a reasonable doubt about his guilt.”
“And so I descend once more into the mysterious depths of "3 Women," a film that was imagined in a dream. Robert Altman's 1977 masterpiece tells the story of three women whose identities blur, shift and merge until finally, in an enigmatic last scene, they have formed a family, or perhaps have become one person. I have seen it many times, been through it twice in shot-by-shot analysis, and yet it always seems to be happening as I watch it. Recurring dreams are like that: We have had them before, but have not finished with them, and we return because they contain unsolved enigmas.”
“Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" (1959) is one of the most intensely touching stories ever made about a young adolescent. Inspired by Truffaut's own early life, it shows a resourceful boy growing up in Paris and apparently dashing headlong into a life of crime. Adults see him as a troublemaker. We are allowed to share some of his private moments, as when he lights a candle before a little shrine to Balzac in his bedroom. The film's famous final shot, a zoom in to a freeze frame, shows him looking directly into the camera.”
"The conventional wisdom is that Federico Fellini went wrong when he abandoned realism for personal fantasy; that starting with "La Dolce Vita" (1959), his work ran wild through jungles of Freudian, Christian, sexual and autobiographical images. The precise observation in "La Strada" (1954) was the high point of his career, according to this view, and then he abandoned his neorealist roots. "La Dolce Vita" was bad enough, "8 ½" (1963) was worse, and by the time he made "Juliet of the Spirits" (1965), he was completely off the rails. Then all is downhill, in a career that lasted until 1987, except for "Amarcord" (1974), with its memories of Fellini's childhood; that one is so charming that you have to cave in and enjoy it, regardless of theory.
This conventional view is completely wrong. What we think of as Felliniesque comes to full flower in "La Dolce Vita" and "8 ½." His later films, except for "Amarcord," are not as good, and some are positively bad, but they are stamped with an unmistakable maker's mark. The earlier films, wonderful as they often are, have their Felliniesque charm weighted down by leftover obligations to neorealism.”
“There's not a soft or sentimental passage in Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" (1951), a portrait of rotten journalism and the public's insatiable appetite for it. It's easy to blame the press for its portraits of self-destructing celebrities, philandering preachers, corrupt politicians or bragging serial killers, but who loves those stories? The public does. Wilder, true to this vision and ahead of his time, made a movie in which the only good men are the victim and his doctor. Instead of blaming the journalist who masterminds a media circus, he is equally hard on sightseers who pay 25 cents admission. Nobody gets off the hook here.”
“The first shots set up the theme: them against us. An older woman, dumpy and plain, walks into an unfamiliar bar and takes a seat at the table inside the door. The barmaid, an insolent blond in a low-cut dress, strolls over. The woman says she will have a Coke. At the bar, a group of customers turns to stare at her, and the camera exaggerates the distance between them. Back at the bar, the blond tauntingly dares one of her customers to ask the woman to dance. He does. And now the camera groups the man and woman together on the dingy dance floor, while the others stare.”
“If ever there was a movie made entirely out of nostalgia and joy, by a filmmaker at the heedless height of his powers, that movie is Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord.” The title means “I remember” in the dialect of Rimini, the seaside town of his youth, but these are memories of memories, transformed by affection and fantasy and much improved in the telling. Here he gathers the legends of his youth, where all of the characters are at once larger and smaller than life -- flamboyant players on their own stages.”
“Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" is about members of the French Resistance who persist in the face of despair. Rarely has a film shown so truly that place in the heart where hope lives with fatalism. It is not a film about daring raids and exploding trains, but about cold, hungry, desperate men and women who move invisibly through the Nazi occupation of France. Their army is indeed made of shadows: They use false names, they have no addresses, they can be betrayed in an instant by a traitor or an accident. They know they will probably die.
This is not a war film. It is about a state of mind.”
“Robert Bresson is one of the saints of the cinema, and "Au Hasard Balthazar" (1966) is his most heartbreaking prayer. The film follows the life of a donkey from birth to death, while all the time living it the dignity of being itself--a dumb beast, noble in its acceptance of a life over which it has no control. Balthazar is not one of those cartoon animals that can talk and sing and is a human with four legs. Balthazar is a donkey, and it is as simple as that.”
“There is such exhilaration in the heedless energy of the schoolboys. They tumble up and down stairs, stand on stilts for playground wars, eagerly study naughty postcards, read novels at night by flashlight, and are even merry as they pour into the cellars during an air raid. One of the foundations of Louis Malle's "Au revoir les enfants" (1987) is how naturally he evokes the daily life of a French boarding school in 1944. His central story shows young life hurtling forward; he knows, because he was there, that some of these lives will be exterminated.”
“The more you learn about Yasujiro Ozu, the director of "An Autumn Afternoon" (1962), the more you realize how very deep the waters reach beneath his serene surfaces. Ozu is one of the greatest artists to ever make a film. This was his last one. He never married. He lived for 60 years with his mother, and when she died, he was dead a few months later. Over and over again, in almost all of his films, he turned to the same central themes, of loneliness, of family, of dependence, of marriage, of parents and children. He holds these themes to the light and their prisms cast variations on each screenplay. His films are all made within the emotional space of his life, in which he finds not melodramatic joy or tragedy, but mono no aware, which is how the Japanese refer to the bittersweet transience of all things.”
“Holly describes her life as if she’s writing pulp fiction. 'Little did I realize,' she tells us, 'that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana.' It is the wondering narrative voice that lingers beneath all of Terrence Malick’s films, sometimes unspoken: Human lives diminish beneath the overarching majesty of the world.”
“‘The Ballad of Narayama' is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens up between its origins in the kabuki style and its subject of starvation in a mountain village!”
"’The Bank Dick’ (1940) is probably Fields' best film, but his career resides not so much in individual films as in scenes and moments scattered here and there between his first short subject, in 1915, and his last films in the mid-1940s. He recycled material tirelessly. Bits from his vaudeville act were being dusted off 40 years later, and he always played more or less the same character. Even as Mr. Micawber in ‘David Copperfield’ (1935), his most disciplined and polished performance, he was recognizably himself in costume (or, it could be argued, Micawber was simply an earlier fictional version of Fields).”
“Pontecorvo's film was released at the peak of anti-war sentiment in the United States, and had a surprising box-office success; it played for 14 weeks in Chicago. It was described at the time as ‘impartial,’ alternating between the stories of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and the French police and paratroopers assigned to destroy it. ‘Pontecorvo has taken his stance,’ I wrote in my 1968 review, ‘somewhere between the FLN and the French, although his sympathies are on the side of the Nationalists. He is aware that innocent civilians die and are tortured on both sides, that bombs cannot choose their victims, that both armies have heroes and that everyone fighting a war can supply rational arguments to prove he is on the side of morality.’"
“Before Disney's 1991 film and long before the Beast started signing autographs in Orlando, Jean Cocteau filmed "Beauty and the Beast" in 1946, in France. It is one of the most magical of all films. Before the days of computer effects and modern creature makeup, here is a fantasy alive with trick shots and astonishing effects, giving us a Beast who is lonely like a man and misunderstood like an animal. Cocteau, a poet and surrealist, was not making a "children's film" but was adapting a classic French tale that he felt had a special message after the suffering of World War II: Anyone who has an unhappy childhood may grow up to be a Beast.”
“In the days after I first saw Stanley Kubrick's ‘Eyes Wide Shut,’ another film entered my mind again and again. It was Luis Bunuel's ‘Belle de Jour’ (1967), the story of a respectable young wife who secretly works in a brothel one or two afternoons a week. Actors sometimes create "back stories" for their characters -- things they know about them that we don't. I became convinced that if Nicole Kidman's character in the Kubrick film had a favorite film of her own, it was ‘Belle de Jour.’
It is possibly the best-known erotic film of modern times, perhaps the best. That's because it understands eroticism from the inside-out--understands how it exists not in sweat and skin, but in the imagination.”
“‘The Bicycle Thief’ is so well-entrenched as an official masterpiece that it is a little startling to visit it again after many years and realize that it is still alive and has strength and freshness.
Given an honorary Oscar in 1949, routinely voted one of the greatest films of all time, revered as one of the foundation stones of Italian neorealism, it is a simple, powerful film about a man who needs a job.”
“Jean-Pierre Melville's ‘Bob le Flambeur’ (1955) has a good claim to be the first film of the French New Wave. Daniel Cauchy, who stars in it as Paolo, Bob's callow young friend, remembered that Melville would shoot scenes on location using a handheld camera on a delivery bike, ‘which Godard did in 'Breathless,' but this was years before Godard.’ Melville worked on poverty row, and told his actors there was no money to pay them, but that they would have to stand by to shoot on a moment's notice. ‘Right now I have money for three or four days,’ he told Cauchy, ‘and after that we'll shoot when we can.’”
“Modern movies begin here, with Jean-Luc Godard's ‘Breathless’ in 1960. No debut film since ‘Citizen Kane’ in 1942 has been as influential. It is dutifully repeated that Godard's technique of ‘jump cuts’ is the great breakthrough, but startling as they were, they were actually an afterthought, and what is most revolutionary about the movie is its headlong pacing, its cool detachment, its dismissal of authority, and the way its narcissistic young heroes are obsessed with themselves and oblivious to the larger society.”
“All discussions of Marcel Carne's ‘Children of Paradise’ begin with the miracle of its making. Named at Cannes as the greatest French film of all time, costing more than any French film before it, ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ was shot in Paris and Nice during the Nazi occupation and released in 1945. Its sets sometimes had to be moved between the two cities. Its designer and composer, Jews sought by the Nazis, worked from hiding. Carne was forced to hire pro-Nazi collaborators as extras; they did not suspect they were working next to resistance fighters. The Nazis banned all films over about 90 minutes in length, so Carne simply made two films, confident he could show them together after the war was over. The film opened in Paris right after the liberation, and ran for 54 weeks. It is said to play somewhere in Paris every day.”
“Varda is sometimes referred to as the godmother of the French New Wave. I have been guilty of that myself. Nothing could be more unfair. Varda is its very soul, and only the fact that she is a woman, I fear, prevented her from being routinely included with Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer and for that matter her husband Jacques Demy. The passage of time has been kinder to her films than some of theirs, and ‘Cléo from 5 to 7’ plays today as startlingly modern. Released in 1962, it seems as innovative and influential as any New Wave film.”
“‘Cries and Whispers’ envelops us in a tomb of dread, pain and hate, and to counter these powerful feelings it summons selfless love. It is, I think, Ingmar Bergman’s way of treating his own self-disgust, and his envy of those who have faith.”
“‘Crumb’ is a meeting between two eccentrics in sympathy with each other. The artist R. Crumb created such bizarre images in his underground comic books that the art critic Robert Hughes named him ‘the Brueghel of the last half of the 20th century.’ The director Terry Zwigoff knew him before he had any notion of making this documentary. They shared a love for obscure musicians on 78 rpm records from the 1920s and 1930s, and they once played in the same band. Long before he knew the inhabitants of Crumb's childhood home would be the keys to this film, Zwigoff had slept the night there and met Crumb's brother Charles, who is perhaps the key to the whole Crumb story.”
[Ebert Bonus Points: The DVD and Blu-Ray includes commentary by Ebert and the director]
“Terence Malick's ‘Days of Heaven’ has been praised for its painterly images and evocative score, but criticized for its muted emotions: Although passions erupt in a deadly love triangle, all the feelings are somehow held at arm's length. This observation is true enough, if you think only about the actions of the adults in the story. But watching this 1978 film again recently, I was struck more than ever with the conviction that this is the story of a teenage girl, told by her, and its subject is the way that hope and cheer have been beaten down in her heart. We do not feel the full passion of the adults because it is not her passion: It is seen at a distance, as a phenomenon, like the weather, or the plague of grasshoppers that signals the beginning of the end.”
“The young priest only smiles once. It is on the day he leaves the cruel country town to catch a train and see a doctor. A passing motorcyclist gives him a lift to the station, and as he climbs on behind him we see a flash of the boy inside the sad man. It is a nice day, it's fun to race though the breeze, and he is leaving behind the village of Ambricourt.”
“Dinner is the central social ritual of the middle classes, a way of displaying wealth and good manners. It also offers the convenience of something to do (eat) and something to talk about (the food), and that is a great relief, since so many of the bourgeoisie have nothing much to talk about, and there are a great many things they hope will not be mentioned. The joke in ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ is the way Bunuel interrupts the meals with the secrets that lurk beneath the surface of his decaying European aristocracy: witlessness, adultery, drug dealing, cheating, military coups, perversion and the paralysis of boredom.”
“I have been given only a few filmgoing experiences in my life to equal the first time I saw ‘Do the Right Thing.’ Most movies remain up there on the screen. Only a few penetrate your soul. In May of 1989 I walked out of the screening at the Cannes Film Festival with tears in my eyes. Spike Lee had done an almost impossible thing. He'd made a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants. He didn't draw lines or take sides but simply looked with sadness at one racial flashpoint that stood for many others.”
“Here is a film about a feeling. Like all feelings, it is one that can hardly be described in words, although it can be evoked in art. It is the feeling that we are not alone, because there is more than one of us. We are connected at a level far, far beneath thought. We have no understanding of this. It is simply a feeling that we have.”
“‘Unhappiness is an invented thing.’
So the General tells his wife. He is convinced she wants to be unhappy. She places herself willfully in the way of sadness. It is her choice. There was a time when Louisa would have agreed with him, when their views on society matched perfectly. But now she is truly unhappy, and it is beyond her choice. The General will never understand that. Neither, probably, will her lover, the Baron. It is the gift these men have given her: The ability to mourn what she has lost or never found. It is the one gift they cannot take back. Without it, she would have been unable to understand happiness. Certainly the men cannot.”
“Nobody went to see ‘Easy Rider’ (1969) only once. It became one of the rallying-points of the late '60s, a road picture and a buddy picture, celebrating sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and the freedom of the open road. It did a lot of repeat business while the sweet smell of pot drifted through theaters. Seeing the movie years later is like opening a time capsule. It provides little shocks of recognition, as when you realize they aren't playing ‘Don't Bogart That Joint’ for laughs.”
“At the dawn of the U.S. independent film movement, two of its founders made what Variety called its first epic. ‘El Norte’ told the story of a Guatemalan brother and sister who fled persecution at home and journeyed north the length of Mexico with a dream of finding a new home in the United States. They were illegal aliens, but then as now, the California economy could not function without their invisible presence as cheap labor. ‘El Norte’ (1983) tells their story with astonishing visual beauty, with unashamed melodrama, with anger leavened by hope. It is a ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for our time.”
“Luis Bunuel's ‘The Exterminating Angel’ (1962) is a macabre comedy, a mordant view of human nature that suggests we harbor savage instincts and unspeakable secrets. Take a group of prosperous dinner guests and pen them up long enough, he suggests, and they'll turn on one another like rats in an overpopulation study.”
“Ingmar Bergman's ‘Fanny and Alexander’ (1982) was intended to be his last film, and in it, he tends to the business of being young, of being middle-aged, of being old, of being a man, woman, Christian, Jew, sane, crazy, rich, poor, religious, profane. He creates a world in which the utmost certainty exists side by side with ghosts and magic, and a gallery of characters who are unforgettable in their peculiarities. Small wonder one of his inspirations was Dickens.”
“Milos Forman's ‘The Firemen's Ball’ was banned "permanently and forever" by the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1968, as Soviet troops marched in to suppress a popular uprising. It was said to be a veiled attack on the Soviet system and its bureaucracy, a charge Forman prudently denied at the time but now happily agrees with. Telling a seductively mild and humorous story about a retirement fete for an elderly fireman, the movie pokes fun at citizens' committees, the culture of thievery, and solutions that surrender to problems.”
“‘Easy Rider’ proved in 1969 that Jack Nicholson was a great character actor. ‘Five Easy Pieces’ proved in 1970 that he was a great actor and a star. This is the film, more than 10 years into his career, where he flowered as a screen presence, as Jack the lad, the outsider, capable of anger, sarcasm, self-pity, also capable of tenderness and grief, ready for violence but not very good at it. There were glimpses of this persona in earlier films (see his character poet in ‘Hell's Angels on Wheels’ in 1967), but now here was a film of uncommon depth and originality, a canvas for a man named Robert Eroica Dupea, his middle name inspired by Beethoven's Third Symphony.”
“Sooner or later, everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu. He is the quietest and gentlest of directors, the most humanistic, the most serene. But the emotions that flow through his films are strong and deep, because they reflect the things we care about the most: Parents and children, marriage or a life lived alone, illness and death, and taking care of one another.”
[Ebert Bonus Points: DVD and Blu-Ray include commentary by Ebert]
“We must turn to the past for a film as innocent as ‘Forbidden Games’ (1952), because our own time is too cynical to support it. Here is a film about children using their powers of fantasy and denial to deal with death in wartime. A modern film would back away from the horror and soften and sentimentalize it. It would become a ‘children's film.’ But in all times children have survived experiences that no child should have to endure.”
“It is universally agreed that Jean Renoir was one of the greatest of all directors, and he was also one of the warmest and most entertaining. ‘Grand Illusion’ and ‘Rules of the Game’ are routinely included on lists of the greatest films, and deserve to be. But although ‘Rules’ contains scenes of delightful humor, neither suggest the Renoir who made ‘Boudu Saved from Drowning’ (1932), or ‘French Cancan’ (1954), ‘French Cancan’ a delicious musical comedy that deserves comparison with the golden age Hollywood musicals of the same period.”
“[I]f ‘Grand Illusion’ had been merely a source of later inspiration, it wouldn't be on so many lists of great films. It's not a movie about a prison escape, nor is it jingoistic in its politics; it's a meditation on the collapse of the old order of European civilization. Perhaps that was always a sentimental upper-class illusion, the notion that gentlemen on both sides of the lines subscribed to the same code of behavior. Whatever it was, it died in the trenches of World War I.”
“Chaplin's film, aimed obviously and scornfully at Hitler himself, could only have been funny, he says in his autobiography, if he had not yet known the full extent of the Nazi evil. As it was, the film's mockery of Hitler got it banned in Spain, Italy and neutral Ireland. But in America and elsewhere, it played with an impact that, today, may be hard to imagine. There had never been any fictional character as universally beloved as the Little Tramp, and although Chaplin was technically not playing the Tramp in ‘The Great Dictator,’ he looked just like him, this time not in a comic fable but a political satire.”
“A director adapting a Dickens novel finds that much of his work has been done for him.
Certainly that's the case with David Lean's ‘Great Expectations’ (1946), which has been called the greatest of all the Dickens films, and which does what few movies based on great books can do: Creates pictures on the screen that do not clash with the images already existing in our minds. Lean brings Dickens' classic set-pieces to life as if he'd been reading over our shoulder: Pip's encounter with the convict Magwitch in the churchyard, Pip's first meeting with the mad Miss Havisham, and the ghoulish atmosphere in the law offices of Mr. Jaggers, whose walls are decorated with the death masks of clients he has lost to the gallows.”
“Samurai films, like westerns, need not be familiar genre stories. They can expand to contain stories of ethical challenges and human tragedy. ‘Harakiri,’ one of the best of them, is about an older wandering samurai who takes his time to create an unanswerable dilemma for the elder of a powerful clan. By playing strictly within the rules of Bushido Code which governs the conduct of all samurai, he lures the powerful leader into a situation where sheer naked logic leaves him humiliated before his retainers.”
“No screenwriter would dare write this story; it is drama and melodrama, packaged with outrage and moments that make you want to cry. ‘Hoop Dreams’ (1994) has the form of a sports documentary, but along the way it becomes a revealing and heartbreaking story about life in America. When the filmmakers began, they planned to make a 30-minute film about eighth-graders being recruited from inner-city playgrounds to play for suburban schools. Their film eventually encompassed six years, involved 250 hours of footage, and found a reversal of fortunes they could not possibly have anticipated.”
“Almost all of David Mamet's movies involve some kind of con game. Sometimes it is a literal con, as in ‘House of Games,’ where a character is deliberately deceived by fraudsters. Sometimes it is an inadvertent con, as in ‘Things Change,’ where an old shoeshine man is mistaken for the head of the Chicago mob. Sometimes it is a double con, as in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ where real estate salesmen con customers while they are themselves being conned by the company they work for.
None of these cons is written or presented in simple criminal terms, as classic confidence games. They all involve an additional level of emotional conning, which makes them such splendid material for drama.”
“There are two conversations in ‘Howards End’ (1992) between Henry Wilcox, a wealthy businessman, and Margaret Schlegel, who becomes his second wife. The first is amusing, the second desperate, and they express the film's buried subject, which is the impossibility of two people with fundamentally different values ever being able to really communicate. Around these conversations revolves a story involving those dependable standbys of circa 1900 British literature: class, wealth, family, hypocrisy and real estate.”
“I saw ‘Ikiru first in 1960 or 1961. I went to the movie because it was playing in a campus film series and only cost a quarter. I sat enveloped in the story of Watanabe for 2 1/2 hours, and wrote about it in a class where the essay topic was Socrates' statement, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ Over the years I have seen ‘Ikiru’ every five years or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.”
“The two parts of Eisenstein's ‘Ivan the Terrible’ are epic in scope, awesome in visuals, and nonsensical in story. It is one of those works that has proceeded directly to the status of Great Movie without going through the intermediate stage of being a good movie. I hope earnest students of cinema will forgive me when I say every serious movie lover should see it -- once.”
“The movie was released in 1962, at the time of the creative explosion of Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Resnais, Malle and the other New Wave directors, and it was Truffaut's third feature (after ‘The 400 Blows’ in 1959 and ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ in 1960). Although a case can be made for Godard's ‘Breathless’ (1960) (based on a story by Truffaut), ‘Jules and Jim’ was perhaps the most influential and arguably the best of those first astonishing films that broke with the past. There is joy in the filmmaking that feels fresh today and felt audacious at the time. In the energy pulsing from the screen you can see the style and sensibility that inspired ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (1967), a film Truffaut was once going to direct, and which jolted American films out of their torpor. And you can see the '60s being born; Jules and Jim and their great love Catherine were flower children -- for a time. The 1960s ended sadly, as did ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ as did ‘Jules and Jim,’ as did ‘Thelma and Louise,’ a film they influenced; the movement from comedy to tragedy was all the more powerful for audiences who expected one or the other.”
“Sometimes, however, you get your best look at an artist's style when he's indulging it. ‘Juliet of the Spirits,’ Fellini's first film in color, is the work of a director who has cut loose from the realism of his early work and is toying with the images, situations and obsessions that delight him.”
“Stanley Kubrick considered ‘The Killing’ (1956) to be his first mature feature, after a couple of short warm-ups. He was 28 when it was released, having already been an obsessed chess player, a photographer for Look magazine and a director of ‘March of Time’ newsreels. It's tempting to search here for themes and a style he would return to in his later masterpieces, but few directors seemed so determined to make every one of his films an individual, free-standing work. Seeing it without his credit, would you guess it was by Kubrick? Would you connect ‘Dr. Strangelove’ with ‘Barry Lyndon?’”
“It is an injustice that he is best remembered as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the ‘Star Wars’ movies, which he told me were boring to make because he spent most of his time standing alone in front of a back-projection screen, reciting dialogue.
Consider how unnecessary such special effects were in ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ (1949), in which Guinness plays eight different members of the same family, of both genders and a six-decade age span, by doing relatively subtle things with makeup, posture and behavior. Because he was nobody he could be anybody, and here he creates characters who are pompous, silly, inconsequential, or even actually nice to Louis. (‘I was glad,’ says the hero of the film about his employer Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, ‘after all his kindness to me, that I should not have to kill him.’)”
“It is on many lists of the greatest films, a distinction that obscures how down to earth it is, how direct in its story of a new marriage off to a shaky start. The French director Francois Truffaut fell in love with it one Saturday afternoon in 1946, when he was 14: "When I entered the theater, I didn't even know who Jean Vigo was. I was immediately overwhelmed with wild enthusiasm for his work." Hearing a critic attack another movie because "it smells like dirty feet," Truffaut considered that a compliment, and thought of Vigo and the pungent life he evoked on a French canal barge.”
“‘L'Avventura’ created a stir in 1960, when Kael picked it as the best film of the year. It was seen as the flip side of Fellini's ‘La Dolce Vita.’ Both directors were Italian, both depicted their characters in a fruitless search for sensual pleasure, both films ended at dawn with emptiness and soul-sickness. But Fellini's characters, who were middle-class and had lusty appetites, at least were hopeful on their way to despair. For Antonioni's idle and decadent rich people, pleasure is anything that momentarily distracts them from the lethal ennui of their existence. Kael again: ‘The characters are active only in trying to discharge their anxiety: Sex is their sole means of contact.’”
“Rohmer (1920-2010) was older than his fellow directors in the French New Wave, and it's remarkable that he was already 47 when he made the film that enfolds so much of the indolence and narcissism of youth. Much of his prolific output fell into three groupings: Six Moral Tales, Comedies and Proverbs, and Tales of the Four Season. The moral tales studied tricky questions of romance, and there was little or no sex in them but much discussion about it. He found actors of undeniable physical appeal, and his camera caressed them as they spoke, and spoke, about the possibility of caressing each other.”
“If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges' ‘The Lady Eve,’ and watching as Barbara Stanwyck toys with Henry Fonda's hair in an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds.”
“‘Try one?’ he says, offering Sonny the makings of a hand-rolled cigarette. And then he begins an wistful monologue, about a time 20 years ago when he brought a girl out to the tank and they swam in it and rode their horses across it and were in love on its banks. The girl had life and fire, but she was already married, and Sam even then was no longer young. As he tells the story, we realize we are listening to the sustaining myth of Sam's life, the vision of beauty that keeps him going in the dying town of Anarene, Texas.”
“Reading my 1988 review of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ I find it is more concerned with theology than cinema. It must have driven Martin Scorsese crazy to read reviews of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ in which critics appointed themselves arbiters of the manhood or godliness of Jesus Christ, and scarcely mentioned the direction, the writing, the acting, the images or Peter Gabriel’s harsh, mournful music.”
“How clearly I recall standing in the rain outside the Co-Ed Theater near the campus of the University of Illinois, waiting to see ‘Last Year at Marienbad.’ On those lonely sidewalks, in that endless night, how long did we wait there? And was it the first time we waited in that line, to enter the old theater with its columns, its aisles, its rows of seats--or did we see the same film here last year?”
“It is typical of Ozu that he never shows us the man Noriko will marry. In his next film, ‘Early Summer’ (1951), the would-be bride in an arranged marriage sees the groom only in a golfing photo that obscures his face. Ozu is not telling traditional romantic stories. He is intently watching families where the status quo is threatened by an outsider; what matters to the brides is not what they are beginning but what they are ending.”
“Like a painter or a musician, a filmmaker can suggest complete mastery with just a few strokes. Jean-Pierre Melville involves us in the spell of ‘Le Samourai’ (1967) before a word is spoken. He does it with light: a cold light, like dawn on an ugly day. And color: grays and blues. And actions that speak in place of words.”
“In 1961, one year after he appeared in ‘Breathless’ (1960) and two years after she appeared in ‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour,’ Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva made "Leon Morin, Priest." They were both in the white heat of their early careers; Belmondo would make five other films that year. The director was Jean-Pierre Melville, known for his films about gangsters and the Resistance. A crime film might have been ideal for them, but instead they filmed this story at the intersection of desire, religion and politics.”
“‘The Leopard’ was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character. The first of these claims is irrefutable, because Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a Sicilian aristocrat, wrote the story out of his own heart and based it on his great-grandfather. Whether another director could have done a better job than Luchino Visconti is doubtful; the director was himself a descendant of the ruling class that the story eulogizes. But that Burt Lancaster was the correct actor to play Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, was at the time much doubted; that a Hollywood star had been imported to grace this most European--indeed, Italian--indeed, Sicilian--masterpiece was a scandal.”
“One of the many miracles of ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ is the way the movie transforms a blustering, pigheaded caricature into one of the most loved of all movie characters. Colonel Blimp began life in a series of famous British cartoons by David Low, who represented him as an overstuffed blowhard. The movie looks past the fat, bald military man with the walrus moustache, and sees inside, to an idealist and a romantic. To know him is to love him.”
“Her life is the fate in microcosm of many Japanese women for centuries, in a society ruled by a male hierarchy. Kenji Mizoguchi, its director, was as sympathetic with women as any of his contemporaries, even Ozu, who whom he is often ranked. He made prostitutes a frequent subject, as in his ‘Street of Shame’ (1956). He was known to frequent brothels, not simply to purchase favors, but to socialize with their workers; it made a great impression on him that his own sister, Suzo, who raised him, was sold by their father as a geisha. The same thing happens to Oharu in this film.”
“What was Lang up to? He was a famous director, his silent films like ‘Metropolis’ worldwide successes. He lived in a Berlin where the left-wing plays of Bertolt Brecht coexisted with the decadent milieu re-created in movies like ‘Cabaret.’ By 1931, the Nazi Party was on the march in Germany, although not yet in full control. His own wife would later become a party member. He made a film that has been credited with forming two genres: the serial killer movie and the police procedural. And he filled it with grotesques. Was there something beneath the surface, some visceral feeling about his society that this story allowed him to express?”
“The movie is not a melodramatic tearjerker. It's so tough it might not be filmable today, when even Alzheimer's stories have happy endings. The director, Leo McCarey, made his name with laughter and uplift. He was the first to pair Laurel and Hardy, he directed the best Marx Brothers' movie (‘Duck Soup’), he made those films our priest sent us to see, ‘Going My Way’ and ‘Bells of St. Mary's.’ In the same year as ‘Make Way for Tomorrow,’ he made Cary Grant a star in ‘The Awful Truth.’ When McCarey won the Best Director Oscar for the latter, Peter Bogdanovich tells us, he stood up and said, ‘You gave it to me for the wrong picture.’”
“Robert Bresson's films are often about people confronting certain despair. His subject is how they try to prevail in the face of unbearable circumstances. His plots are not about whether they succeed, but how they endure. He tells these stories in an unadorned style, without movie stars, special effects, contrived thrills and elevated tension. His films, seemingly devoid of audience-pleasing elements, hold many people in a hypnotic grip. There are no ‘entertainment values’ to distract us, only the actual events of the stories themselves. They demonstrate how many films contain only diversions for the eyes and mind, and use only the superficial qualities of their characters.”
“Fassbinder's world was one in which sex, ego and money drove his characters to cruelty, sadism and self-destruction. It is never difficult to discover what they want, or puzzling to see how they go about it. His occasional gentle characters, like the old woman in ‘Ali -- Fear Eats the Soul’ (1974), are eaten alive. The suggestion is that the war years and the postwar years wounded the German psyche so profoundly that the survivors wanted what they wanted, now, on their terms. Fassbinder himself was cruel and distant to those around him, particularly those who loved him, and in Maria Braun, he created an indelible monster who is perversely fascinating because she knows exactly what she is doing and explains it to her victims while it is being done.”
“The Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki fascinates me. I am never sure if he intends us to laugh or cry with his characters--both, I suppose. He often portrays unremarkable lives of unrelenting grimness, sadness, desolation. When his characters are not tragic, he elevates them to such levels as stupidity, cluelessness, self-delusion or mental illness. Iris, the match factory girl, incorporates all of these attributes.”
“Schrader has throughout his life as a screenwriter and director been fascinated by the starting-point of a ‘man in a room,’ as he describes it: a man dressing and preparing himself to go out and do battle for his goals. In his screenplays for Scorsese's ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull,’ great emphasis is placed on Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta preparing for conflict, Bickle with his elaborate gun mounts and verbal rehearsals, LaMotta in his dressing room. In Schrader's own ‘American Gigolo,’ his hero trains and dresses himself to seem attractive to women, and in his latest film, ‘The Walker,’ he shows a man carefully preparing to be a presentable companion for older women.
Mishima is his ultimate man in a room.”
“Hulot is always the same. Tati's character, who also appeared in ‘Playtime’ (1967) and ‘Traffic’ (1971), varies as little as Chaplin's tramp, and is often seen in a brown fedora, a tan raincoat, a bow tie, too short pants, striped socks. He is never without his long-stemmed pipe, and at moments of urgency or confusion, he nervously taps it against his heel. He hardly ever says anything, and indeed ‘Mon Oncle’ is halfway a silent film, with the dialogue sounding like an unexpected interruption in a library. The music is repetitive, simple, cheerful, like circus music while we're waiting for the clowns.”
“That ‘Mon Oncle Antoine’ is such a fine film only underlines the tragedy of the director's later life. Jutra had started full of promise. He first studied medicine, then became a student at the National Film Board of Canada (which produced this film). He worked in France as an apprentice to Truffaut. He worked with a script by Clement Perron, who was inspired by events in his own life. Jutra made other films before learning he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's. He disappeared in the winter of 1986, and his body was found in the St. Lawrence River the next spring. He was presumably a suicide. He made an earlier film in which the character leaps into the same river.
What he left behind is a film to treasure...”
“The first time I saw Jacques Tati's ‘Mr. Hulot's Holiday,’ I didn't laugh as much as I thought I was supposed to. But I didn't forget the film, and I saw it again in a film class, and then bought the laserdisc and saw it a third and fourth time, and by then it had become part of my treasure. But I still didn't laugh as much as I thought I was supposed to, and now I think I understand why.
It is not a comedy of hilarity but a comedy of memory, nostalgia, fondness and good cheer. There are some real laughs in it, but ‘Mr. Hulot's Holiday’ gives us something rarer, an amused affection for human nature--so odd, so valuable, so particular.”
“Satyajit Ray's ‘The Music Room’ (1958) has one of the most evocative opening scenes ever filmed. A middle-age man, his face set into deep weariness, sits on the wide, flat roof of his house in an upholstered chair that has been dragged outdoors for his convenience. He stares into space. His servant, his face betraying long alarm about his master, scurries toward him with a hookah, one of those ancient water pipes smoked by the Cheshire Cat in Alice and by the idle in Indian films. The man observes the preparations. ‘What month is it?’ he finally asks."
“Someone asked me the other day if I could name a movie that was entirely devoid of clichés. I thought for a moment, and then answered, ‘My Dinner With Andre.’ Now I have seen the movie again; a restored print is going into release around the country, and I am impressed once more by how wonderfully odd this movie is, how there is nothing else like it. It should be unwatchable, and yet those who love it return time and again, enchanted.”
“A couple of reviewers on the Web complain that the plot is implausible. What are we going to do with these people? They've obviously never buttled a day in their lives. What you have to observe and admire is how gently the film offers its moments of genius. Irene has a mournful line something like, ‘Some people do just as they like with other people's lives, and it doesn't seem to make any difference ... to some people.’ Somehow she implies that the first ‘some people’ refers to theoretical people, and the second refers to other people in the room.”
“Can you already guess that ‘Mystery Train’ is a romance? Not a romance between people, but about the romance of the big city and its obscure corners where outsiders, seekers and the forlorn go to spend the night. I hope Charles Bukowski saw this film before he died. Then again, he didn't need to.”
“We know, because Flaherty was frank about it, that he recruited the cast for his film. Nanook was chosen because he was the most famed of the hunters in the district, but the two women playing his wives were not his wives and the children were not his children. Flaherty's first footage was of a walrus hunt, and he revealed that Nanook and his fellow hunters performed the hunt for the camera. ‘Nanook’ is not cinema verite.And yet in a sense it is: The movie is an authentic documentary showing the creation of itself. What happens on the screen is real, no matter what happened behind it. Nanook really has a seal on the other end of that line.”
“Yet what a compelling, frightening and beautiful film it is! And how well it has survived its period. Many films from the mid-1950s, even the good ones, seem somewhat dated now, but by setting his story in an invented movie world outside conventional realism, Laughton gave it a timelessness. Yes, the movie takes place in a small town on the banks of a river. But the town looks as artificial as a Christmas card scene, the family's house with its strange angles inside and out looks too small to live in, and the river becomes a set so obviously artificial it could have been built for a completely stylized studio film like ‘Kwaidan’ (1964)."
“Cabiria's eyebrows are straight, black horizontal lines, sketched above her eyes like a cartoon character's. Her shrug, her walk, her way of making a face, all suggest a performance. Of course a prostitute is always acting in one way or another, but Cabiria seems to have a character in mind--perhaps Chaplin's Little Tramp, with a touch of Lucille Ball, who must have been on Italian TV in the 1950s. It's as if Cabiria thinks she can waltz untouched through the horrors of her world, if she shields herself with a comic persona.
Or perhaps this actually is Cabiria and not a performance: Perhaps she is a waiflike innocent, a saint among the sinners. It is one of the pleasures of Giulietta Masina's performance that the guard never comes down. As artificial as Cabiria's behavior sometimes seems, it always seems her own, and this little woman carries herself proudly through the gutters of Rome.”
“Alfred Hitchcock's ‘Notorious’ is the most elegant expression of the master's visual style, just as ‘Vertigo’ is the fullest expression of his obsessions. It contains some of the most effective camera shots in his--or anyone’s--work, and they all lead to the great final passages in which two men find out how very wrong they both were.”
“‘On the Waterfront’ was, among other things, Kazan's justification for his decision to testify. In the film, when a union boss shouts, ‘You ratted on us, Terry,’ the Brando character shouts back: ‘I'm standing over here now. I was rattin' on myself all those years. I didn't even know it.’ That reflects Kazan's belief that communism was an evil that temporarily seduced him, and had to be opposed. Brando's line finds a dramatic echo in A Life, Kazan's 1988 autobiography, where he writes of his feelings after the film won eight Oscars, including best picture, actor, actress and director: ‘I was tasting vengeance that night and enjoying it. ‘On the Waterfront’ is my own story; every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and fuck themselves.’”
“Why was I thinking about flower arrangement while watching ‘The Only Son’ the first sound film made by the Japanese master Ozu? It must have involved the meticulous and loving care he used with his familiar visual elements. In Japan in 1984 I attended a class at the Sogetsu School, which teaches ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. I learned quickly that sorting a big bunch of flowers in a vase was not ikebana. One selected just a few elements and found a precise way in which they rested together harmoniously.
If you think that ikebana has nothing to do with film direction, think again. The Sogetsu School was then being run by Hiroshi Teshigahara, the director of ‘Woman in the Dunes,’ who left filmmaking to become the third generation of his family to head of the school.”
“For the ordinary filmgoer, and I include myself, ‘Ordet’ is a difficult film to enter. But once you're inside, it is impossible to escape. Lean, quiet, deeply serious, populated with odd religious obsessives, it takes place in winter in Denmark in 1925, in a rural district that has a cold austere beauty.”
“‘Orpheus’” shows Cocteau's taste for magic and enchantment; he uses simple but dramatic special effects and trick shots to show his characters passing into the world of death by stepping through mirrors, and when he wants a character to spring back to life, he simply runs the film backward. He weaves his effects so lightly into the story that after a time they aren't tricks at all, but simply the conditions of his mythical world.”
“‘Pale Flower’ is one of the most haunting noirs I've seen, and something more; in 1964 it was an important work in an emerging Japanese New Wave of independent filmmakers, an exercise in existential cool. It involves a plot, but it is all about attitude. Muraki, elegantly dressed, his hair in a carefully stylized cut, his eyes often shielded by dark glasses, speaking rarely, revealing nothing, guards his emotions as if there may be no more where they came from. He glides through nights and an underworld of high-stakes gambling clubs and hooker bars, but lives in a rude and shabby room as if it is merely a cave for sleeping.”
“Louise Brooks regards us from the screen as if the screen were not there; she casts away the artifice of film and invites us to play with her. Her beauty was ‘almost impersonal,’ Pauline Kael wrote; she carries it like a gift she doesn't think much about, and confronts us as a naughty girl. When you meet someone like this in life, you're attracted, but you know in your gut she'll be nothing but trouble.”
“The man comes walking out of the desert like a Biblical figure, a penitent who has renounced the world. He wears jeans and a baseball cap, the universal costume of America, but the scraggly beard, the deep eye sockets and the tireless lope of his walk tell a story of wandering in the wilderness. What is he looking for? Does he remember?”
“You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti. In a medium without words, where the filmmakers believed that the camera captured the essence of characters through their faces, to see Falconetti in Dreyer's ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928) is to look into eyes that will never leave you.”
“‘Paths of Glory’ was the film by which Stanley Kubrick entered the ranks of great directors, never to leave them. When I interviewed Kirk Douglas in 1969, he recalled it as the summit of his acting career: ‘There's a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don't have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now.’ It has an economy of expression that is almost brutal; it is one of the few narrative films in which you sense the anger in the telling. Samuel Fuller, who fought all the way through World War II, remembered it in ‘The Big Red One’ with nostalgia for the camaraderie of his outfit. There is no nostalgia in ‘Paths of Glory.’ Only nightmare."
“The movies make us into voyeurs. We sit in the dark, watching other people's lives. It is the bargain the cinema strikes with us, although most films are too well-behaved to mention it.
Michael Powell's ‘Peeping Tom,’ a 1960 movie about a man who filmed his victims as they died, broke the rules and crossed the line. It was so loathed on its first release that it was pulled from theaters, and effectively ended the career of one of Britain's greatest directors.
Why did critics and the public hate it so? I think because it didn't allow the audience to lurk anonymously in the dark, but implicated us in the voyeurism of the title character.”
“Bresson, one of the most thoughtful and philosophical of directors, was fearful of ‘performances’ by his actors. He famously forced the star of ‘A Man Escaped’ (1956) to repeat the same scene some 50 times,until it was stripped of all emotion and inflection. All Bresson wanted was physical movement. No emotion, no style, no striving for effect. What we see in the pickpocket's face is what we bring to it. Instead of asking his actors to ‘show fear,’ Bresson asks them to show nothing, and depends on his story and images to supply the fear.
“Peter Weir's ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (1975) constructs a film of haunting mystery and buried sexual hysteria. It also employs two of the hallmarks of modern Australian films: beautiful cinematography and stories about the chasm between settlers from Europe and the mysteries of their ancient new home.”
“Jacques Tati's ‘Playtime,’ like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘The Blair Witch Project’ or ‘Russian Ark,’ is one of a kind, complete in itself, a species already extinct at the moment of its birth. Even Mr. Hulot, Tati's alter ego, seems to be wandering through it by accident. Instead of plot it has a cascade of incidents, instead of central characters it has a cast of hundreds, instead of being a comedy it is a wondrous act of observation. It occupies no genre and does not create a new one. It is a filmmaker showing us how his mind processes the world around him.”
“Akira Kurosawa's ‘Ran’ is inspired by ‘King Lear,’ but may be as much about Kurosawa's life as Shakespeare's play. Seeing it again in a fine new 35mm print, I realized the action doesn't center on the old man, but has a fearful energy of its own, through which he wanders. Kurosawa has not told the story of a great man whose sin of pride drives him mad, but the story of a man who has waged war all his life, hopes to impose peace in his old age and unleashes even greater turmoil. There are parallels not only with kings but also with filmmakers, who like royalty must enforce their vision in a world seething with jealousy, finance, intrigue, vanity and greed.”
“The genius of "Rashomon" is that all of the flashbacks are both true and false. True, in that they present an accurate portrait of what each witness thinks happened. False, because as Kurosawa observes in his autobiography, ‘Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.’”
“Told in the world of early 19th century Japan, Akira Kurosawa's ‘Red Beard’ is a passionate humanist statement, almost the last he would make about an exemplary human being. After completing its two years of filming in 1965, the master would turn to flawed and damaged characters -- one of them, the hero of ‘Ran’ (1985) inspired by Shakespeare's ‘King Lear.’ Dr. Kyojô Niide would be the closest he ever came to creating a man moral and good in every respect. In the film you can sense Kurosawa's best nature shining.
“There is tension between two kinds of stories in ‘The Red Shoes,’ and that tension helps make it the most popular movie ever made about the ballet and one of the most enigmatic movies about anything.”
“‘Rififi’ was called by Francois Truffaut the best film noir he'd ever seen (it was based, he added, on the worst noir novel he'd ever read). Dassin's inspiration was to expand the safe-cracking job, which is negligible in the book, into a breathless sequence that occupies a fourth of the running time and is played entirely without words or music. So meticulous is the construction and so specific the detail of this scene that it's said the Paris police briefly banned the movie because they feared it was an instructional guide.”
“‘The River’ is like an Ozu film in the way it regards life without trying to wrest it into a plot. During the course of the year, the girls fall in love with the same unavailable man, there is a death and a birth, and the river continues to flow."
“I've seen Jean Renoir's ‘The Rules of the Game’ in a campus film society, at a repertory theater and on laserdisc, and I've even taught it in a film class -- but now I realize I've never really seen it at all. This magical and elusive work, which always seems to place second behind ‘Citizen Kane’ in polls of great films, is so simple and so labyrinthine, so guileless and so angry, so innocent and so dangerous, that you can't simply watch it, you have to absorb it.”
“I didn't find myself laughing, but I watched in fascination. I don't love the [Lloyd] character with the intensity I reserve for Buster and the Little Tramp. But I was there with him every inch of the way up that building, and I shared the physical joy of his triumph at the top. I could understand why Lloyd outgrossed Chaplin and Keaton in the 1920s: Not because he was funnier or more poignant, but because he was merely mortal and their characters were from another plane of existence. Lloyd is a real man climbing a building; Keaton, as he stands just exactly where a building will not crush him, is an instrument of cosmic fate. And Chaplin is a visitor to our universe from the one that exists in his mind.”
“The tension in ‘Samurai Rebellion’ is generated by deep passions imprisoned within a rigid social order. The words and movements of the characters are dictated to the smallest detail by the codes of the time, but their emotions defy the codes. They move formally; their costumes denote their rank and function; they bow to authority, accept their places without question, and maintain ceremonial distances from one another. The story involves a marriage of true love, but the husband and wife are never seen to touch each other.
The visual strategy of the film reflects the rules of its world.”
“[Mizoguchi] is known for the elegance of his compositions and the tact of his camera movement, and his theory ‘one scene, one shot,’ as in a famous scene in ‘Sansho’ where the suicide by drowning of one of the characters is not shown, but merely indicated by ripples on the surface of a lake. Remarkably, since his characters always seem carefully composed within the frame, we learn that he never instructed the actors about where to move or stand, but simply indicated the desired result and let them move and place themselves. No doubt this leads to a subtly-sensed feeling of unstudied natural movement.”
“‘It is a relentless excursion into style,’ Josef von Sternberg said of his ‘The Scarlet Empress’ (1934). That's putting it mildly. Here is a film so crammed with style, so surrounded by it and weighted down with it, that the actors peer out from the display like children in a toy store. The film tells the story of Catherine the Great as a bizarre visual extravaganza, combining twisted sexuality and bold bawdy humor as if Mel Brooks had collaborated with the Marquis de Sade.”
“‘Senso’ is lush, broadly emotional and beautifully photographed, but it has always ranked below The Leopard’ in popularity, perhaps because its leading characters are rotten to the core.”
“The movie is long (207 minutes), with an intermission, and yet it moves quickly because the storytelling is so clear, there are so many sharply defined characters, and the action scenes have a thrilling sweep. Nobody could photograph men in action better than Kurosawa. One of his particular trademarks is the use of human tides, sweeping down from higher places to lower ones, and he loves to devise shots in which the camera follows the rush and flow of an action, instead of cutting it up into separate shots. His use of closeups in some of the late battle scenes perhaps was noticed Orson Welles, who in ‘Falstaff’ conceals a shortage of extras by burying the camera in a Kurosawian tangle of horses, legs, and swords.”
“Images like that have no place in the modern cinema, which is committed to facile psychology and realistic behavior. In many ways, Ingmar Bergman's ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957) has more in common with the silent film than with the modern films that followed it--including his own. Perhaps that is why it is out of fashion at the moment. Long considered one of the masterpieces of cinema, it is now a little embarrassing to some viewers, with its stark imagery and its uncompromising subject, which is no less than the absence of God.”
“For more than nine hours I sat and watched a film named ‘Shoah,’ and when it was over, I sat for a while longer and simply stared into space, trying to understand my emotions. I had seen a memory of the most debased chapter in human history. But I had also seen a film that affirmed life so passionately that I did not know where to turn with my confused feelings. There is no proper response to this film. It is an enormous fact, a 550-minute howl of pain and anger in the face of genocide. It is one of the noblest films ever made.”
“So begins Ingmar Bergman's ‘The Silence’ (1963), the third part of his ‘Silence of God’ trilogy. If ‘Winter Light’ (1962) directly referred to God's silence, and ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ (1961) did so by implication, there is no theology in "The Silence" -- only a world bereft of it.”
“The popularity of Jonathan Demme's movie is likely to last as long as there is a market for being scared. Like ‘Nosferatu,’ ‘Psycho’ and ‘Halloween,’ it illustrates that the best thrillers don't age. Fear is a universal emotion and a timeless one. But ‘Silence of the Lambs’ is not merely a thrill show. It is also about two of the most memorable characters in movie history, Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, and their strange, strained relationship (‘people will say we're in love,’ Lecter cackles).”
“Pauline Kael called this a nearly perfect film. Having not seen it for most of a lifetime, I was startled by how quickly it beguiled me. There is an abundance of passion here, but none of it reckless; the characters consider the moral weight of their actions, and while not reluctant to misbehave, feel a need to explain, if only to themselves. Perhaps here, in an uncharacteristic comedy, Bergman is expressing the same need.”
“The films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky are more like environments than entertainments. It's often said they're too long, but that's missing the point: He uses length and depth to slow us down, to edge us out of the velocity of our lives, to enter a zone of reverie and meditation. When he allows a sequence to continue for what seems like an unreasonable length, we have a choice. We can be bored, or we can use the interlude as an opportunity to consolidate what has gone before, and process it in terms of our own reflections.”
“What follows is considered a coded message about Franco’s fascist regime, but it’s not for me to connect the dots. I relate to it more strongly as a poetic work about the imagination of children, and how it can lead them into mischief and sometimes rescue them from its consequences.”
“‘Stagecoach’ is a film in which two great careers were renewed. Although he had appeared before in many films, as an extra, a stuntman and then an actor in B films, this was John Wayne's first starring role in a film by John Ford. For Ford, it was a return after some years to a genre about which his ideas had grown--the genre in which he would make many of his greatest films. With Ford's clout as a director and Wayne's clout as a star, they would make iconic films and establish themselves as one of the legendary partnerships in cinema.”
“The two men in ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’” relate to each other like junkyard dogs. One is dominant, and the other is a whipped cur, circling hungrily, his tail between his legs, hoping for a scrap after the big dog has dined. The dynamic between a powerful gossip columnist and a hungry press agent, is seen starkly and without pity. The rest of the plot simply supplies events to illustrate the love-hate relationship.”
“This 1940 movie is one of the great entertainments. It lifts up the heart. An early Technicolor movie, it employs colors gladly and with boldness, using costumes to introduce a rainbow. It has adventure, romance, song, a Miklos Rozsa score that one critic said is "a symphony accompanied by a movie." It had several directors; as producer, Alexander Korda leaped from one horse to another in midstream. But it maintains a consistent spirit, and that spirit is one of headlong joy in storytelling.”
“Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed's ‘The Third Man’? The score was performed on a zither by Anton Karas, who was playing in a Vienna beerhouse one night when Reed heard him. The sound is jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark. It sets the tone; the action begins like an undergraduate lark and then reveals vicious undertones.”
“‘This Is Spinal Tap,’ one of the funniest movies ever made, is about a lot of things, but one of them is the way the real story is not in the questions or in the answers, but at the edge of the frame. There are two stories told in the film: the story of what the rock band Spinal Tap thinks, hopes, believes or fears is happening, and the story of what is actually happening. The reason we feel such affection for its members is because they are so touching in their innocence and optimism. Intoxicated by the sheer fun of being rock stars, they perform long after their sell-by date, to smaller and smaller audiences, for less and less money, still seeking the roar of the crowd.”
“Because he made most of his early work in Poland during the Cold War, and because his masterpiece ‘The Decalogue’ consists of 10 one-hour films that do not fit easily on the multiplex conveyor belt, he has still not received the kind of recognition given those he deserves to be named with, like Bergman, Ozu, Fellini, Keaton and Bunuel. He is one of the filmmakers I would turn to for consolation if I learned I was dying, or to laugh with on finding I would live after all.”
“The great subject of the cinema, Ingmar Bergman believed, is the human face. He'd been watching Antonioni on television, he told me during an interview, and realized it wasn't what Antonioni said that absorbed him, but the man's face. Bergman was not thinking about anything as simple as a closeup, I believe. He was thinking about the study of the face, the intense gaze, the face as window to the soul. Faces are central to all of his films, but they are absolutely essential to the power of what has come to be called his Silence of God Trilogy: ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ (1961), ‘Winter Light’ (1962) and ‘The Silence’ (1963).”
“From these few elements Yasujiro Ozu made one of the greatest films of all time. ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953) lacks sentimental triggers and contrived emotion; it looks away from moments a lesser movie would have exploited. It doesn't want to force our emotions, but to share its understanding. It does this so well that I am near tears in the last 30 minutes. It ennobles the cinema. It says, yes, a movie can help us make small steps against our imperfections.”
“The world of French crime films is a particular place, informed by the French love for Hollywood film noir, a genre they identified and named. But the great French noirs of the 1950s are not copies of Hollywood; instead, they have a particularly French flavor; in ‘Touchez Pas au Grisbi,’ the critic Terence Rafferty writes, ‘real men eat pate,’ and this is ‘among the very few French movies about the criminal class in which neither the characters nor the filmmakers are afflicted by the delusion that they are Americans.’ A few years later, in Godard's ‘Breathless’ (1960), Belmondo would be deliberately channeling Bogart, but here Gabin is channeling only himself. He is the original, so there is no need to look for inspiration.”
“When I was small I liked to go to the movies because you could find out what adults did when there weren't any children in the room. As I grew up that pleasure gradually faded; the more I knew the less the characters seemed like adults. Ernst Lubitsch's ‘Trouble in Paradise’ reawakened my old feeling. It is about people who are almost impossibly adult, in that fanciful movie way -- so suave, cynical, sophisticated, smooth and sure that a lifetime is hardly long enough to achieve such polish. They glide.”
“Mizoguchi (1898-1956) was famous for the theory that one scene should equal one cut, although sometimes he made exceptions. The great Yasujiro Ozu had the same theory, with the difference that Ozu's camera never moved in his later films, while Mizoguchi's style was constructed around flowing, poetic camera movement. Consider a scene where Lady Wakasa visits Genjuro as he is bathing in an outdoor pool, and as she enters the pool to join him, water splashes over the side and the camera follows the splash into a pan across rippling water that ends with the two of them having a picnic on the grass.”
“The film is told without false drama. Even when Umberto calls the ambulance and has himself taken to the hospital, there is no false crisis, no manufactured fear that he will die. Later, when Umberto considers suicide, he goes about it in such a calm and logical way that we follow his reasoning and weigh the alternatives along with him, instead of being manipulated into dread. ‘Umberto D’ avoids all temptations to turn its hero into one of those lovable Hollywood oldsters played by Matthau or Lemmon. Umberto Domenico Ferrari is not the life of any party but a man who wants to be left alone to get on with his business. In his shoes we might hope to behave as he does, with bravery and resourcefulness.”
“The title ‘Vengeance Is Mine’ poses an implied question that is never answered: Vengeance for what? This portrait of a cold-blooded serial killer suggests a cruel force without motivation, inspiration, grievance. Unlike most sociologically oriented films in the true crime genre, it lacks the Freudian explanation for everything and shows us pure evil, remote and inhuman. A few scenes from the killer's boyhood feel almost like satirical demonstrations of how any ‘explanation’ would be impossible.”
“Fassbinder (1945-1982) was an immensely productive filmmaker. In his 37 years he directed 40 features, 24 stage plays and two long TV miniseries (notably "Berlin Alexanderplatz"). His death seems to have interrupted this flow in mid-stream. Powerfully influenced by the heavily stylized works of the German-Danish-American director Douglas Sirk (‘Written on the Wind’), he may have worked at a feverish pace but his films always look carefully planned. In this film, for example, he evokes period b&w with a diversity of wipe shots, iris shots, pans, tracking, and the careful positioning of foregrounds. In other films he often uses zooms-in to underline dramatic points. His films are visually mannered, formal, and far from seeming improvised; the visual strategy of "Veronika Voss" suggests he was moving even closer toward the classic Hollywood style.”
“Recent critics find ‘Victim’ timid in its treatment of homosexuality, but viewed in the context of Great Britain in 1961, it's a film of courage. How much courage can be gauged by the fact that it was originally banned from American screens simply because it used the word homosexual.’ To be gay was a crime in the United States and the U.K., and the movie used the devices of film noir and thriller to make its argument, labeling laws against homosexuality ‘the blackmailer's charter.’ Indeed, 90 percent of all British blackmail cases had homosexuals as victims.”
“I can't think of a more mischievous filmmaker than Luis Buñuel. After you get to know him, you can catch him winking in the first few shots. Under the opening title shot of ‘Viridiana,’ we hear Handel's ‘Messiah,’ but knowing Buñuel we doubt this will be a religious picture. In the second and third shots, we see a Mother Superior advising a novice at a cloistered convent to visit her old uncle before he dies. No good can come of this in a Buñuel film. The fourth shot shows a girl skipping rope. Well, not the whole girl, just her feet, observed for a little too long. ‘That was a wonderful afternoon little Luis spent on the floor of his mother's closet,’ Pauline Kael once observed, ‘and he has never allowed us to forget it.’"
“Godard. We all went to Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s. We stood in the rain outside the Three Penny Cinema, waiting for the next showing of ‘Weekend’ (1968). One year the New York Film Festival showed two of his movies, or was it three? One year at the Toronto festival Godard said, ‘The cinema is not the station. The cinema is the train.’ Or perhaps it was the other way around. We nodded. We loved his films. As much as we talked about Tarantino after ‘Pulp Fiction,’ we talked about Godard in those days. I remember a sentence that became part of my repertory: ‘His camera rotates 360 degrees, twice, and then stops and moves back in the other direction just a little_to show that it knows what it's doing!’”
“‘Maybe it is like a mirror,’ Makavejev told me late one night in Chicago. ‘People hold it up to themselves and see reflected only what they are most offended by.’ That has a way of happening with his work. ‘Sweet Movie’ (1974) was described by Time as "not a movie -- a social sickness." At that crucial period in history spanning the late 1960s to the late 1970s, Makavejev (born 1932) was the most eclectic, eccentric, impenetrable, jolly anarchist to come out of eastern Europe.”
“Is ‘Walkabout’ only about what it seems to be about? Is it a parable about noble savages and the crushed spirits of city dwellers? That's what the film's surface seems to suggest, but I think it's also about something deeper and more elusive: The mystery of communication. It ends with lives that are destroyed, in one way or another, because two people could not invent a way to make their needs and dreams clear.”
“Wings of Desire” is one of those films movie critics are accused of liking because it’s esoteric and difficult. “Nothing happens but it takes two hours and there’s a lot of complex symbolism,” complains a Web-based critic named Peter van der Linden. In the fullness of time, perhaps he will return to it and see that astonishing things happen and that symbolism can only work by being apparent. For me, the film is like music or a landscape: It clears a space in my mind, and in that space I can consider questions. Some of them are asked in the film: “Why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and why not there? When did time begin and where does space end?”
“On the day Ingmar Bergman died, the first film of his that came into my mind was ‘Winter Light.’ Odd, because I had not seen it since teaching a film class in the 1970s. In the weeks that passed, I found it lingering there, asking to be seen again. What did I remember about it? That it was part of Bergman's ‘Silence of God’ trilogy. That it was about a pastor who was unable to comfort a man in dread of nuclear holocaust. That the pastor rejected a woman who sought to comfort him. That Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, sat in a rural church for a winter day to note how the sunlight moved through the space.
In short, I hardly remembered the film at all, because those sparse memories were not enough to ignite a need to see it again. Yet I felt one.
Finally I took ‘Winter Light’ (1962) down from the shelf, watched it again, and was awestruck by its bleak, courageous power."
“In my drinking days, some of us would gather around noon on Saturdays at Oxford's Pub for what we called Drunch. We would commence with shots of creme de menthe and pint glasses of real Coke, in the hope that a combination of alcohol, sugar and caffeine would restore us. Then we would laugh until the tears ran down our faces about the hilarity of the dreadful things that had happened the night before. In doing this, I would often quote "We laugh, that we may not cry," although just now I have discovered that no one originally said that. I always thought it was Shakespeare. It was me.
I relate this story to explain why I identify with ‘Withnail & I’ (1987), which conveys the experience of being drunk so well that the only way I could improve upon it would be to stand behind you and hammer your head with two-pound bags of frozen peas.”
“Of course there is no logic beneath the story, and the director, Hiroshi Teshigahara, has even explained that sand cannot rise in steep walls like those on the sides of the pit: ‘I found it physically impossible to create an angle of more than 30 degrees.’
Yet there is never a moment when the film doesn't look absolutely realistic, and it isn't about sand anyway, but about life.”
“John Cassavetes is one of the few modern directors whose shots, scenes, dialogue and characters all instantly identify their creator; watch even a few seconds of a Cassavetes film, and you know whose it is, as certainly as with Hitchcock or Fellini. They are films with a great dread of silence; the characters talk, fight, joke, sing, confess, accuse. They need love desperately, and are bad at giving it and worse at receiving it, but God how they try.”
“Opinion on the melodramas of Douglas Sirk has flip-flopped since his key films were released in the 1950s. At the time, critics ridiculed them and the public lapped them up. Today most viewers dismiss them as pop trash, but in serious film circles Sirk is considered a great filmmaker--a German who fled Hitler to become the sly subverter of American postwar materialism.”
“There is a moment at the end when old and new hang in the balance. The wounded Sanjuro no longer has his sword, but we have seen him practicing with a knife -- skewering a bit of paper as it flutters around a room. He faces Unosuke, the gunman. Without revealing precisely what happens between them, let me ask you to consider the moment when Unosuke aims his pistol at Sanjuro. It may be loaded, it may not be. Sanjuro cannot be absolutely sure. He is free to move away or to disarm Unosuke, but instead he sits perfectly motionless, prepared to accept whatever comes. This, it strikes me, is the act of a samurai aware that his time has passed and accepting with perfect equanimity whatever the new age has to offer.”
"If only one of Charles Chaplin's films could be preserved, “City Lights” (1931) would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius. It contains the slapstick, the pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness, the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp--the character said, at one time, to be the most famous image on earth."
"The movie is made with boundless energy. Fellini stood here at the dividing point between the neorealism of his earlier films (like "La Strada") and the carnival visuals of his extravagant later ones ("Juliet of the Spirits," "Amarcord"). His autobiographical "8 1/2," made three years after "La Dolce Vita," is a companion-piece, but more knowing: There the hero is already a filmmaker, but here he is a young newspaperman on the make."
"Ford's story reenacts the central morality play of the Western. Wyatt Earp becomes the town's new marshal, there's a showdown between law and anarchy, the law wins and the last shot features the new schoolmarm--who represents the arrival of civilization. Most Westerns put the emphasis on the showdown. “My Darling Clementine” builds up to the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral, but it is more about everyday things--haircuts, romance, friendship, poker and illness."
"The buried message may be that life doesn't proceed in a linear fashion to the neat ending of a story. It's messy and we bump up against others, and we're all in this together. That's the message I get at the end of "Nashville," and it has never failed to move me."
"The opening sequence suggests that "Persona" is starting at the beginning, with the birth of cinema. The break in the middle shows it turning back and beginning again. At the end, the film runs out of the camera and the light dies from the lamp and the film is over. Bergman is showing us that he has returned to first principles. "In the beginning, there was light." Toward the end there is a shot of the camera crew itself, with the camera mounted on a crane and Nykvist and Bergman tending it; this shot implicates the makers in the work. They are there, it is theirs, they cannot separate themselves from it."
"When Peter Bogdanovich needed a movie to play as the final feature in the doomed small-town theater in “The Last Picture Show,” he chose Howard Hawks' “Red River” (1948). He selected the scene where John Wayne tells Montgomery Clift, “Take 'em to Missouri, Matt!” And then there is Hawks' famous montage of weathered cowboy faces in closeup and exaltation, as they cry “Hee-yaw!” and wave their hats in the air.
The moment is as quintessentially Western as any ever filmed, capturing the exhilaration of being on a horse under the big sky with a job to do and a paycheck at the other end. And “Red River” is one of the greatest of all Westerns when it stays with its central story about an older man and a younger one, and the first cattle drive down the Chisholm Trail. It is only in its few scenes involving women that it goes wrong."