Every ten years since 1952, the world-renowned film magazine Sight & Sound has polled a wide international selection of film critics and directors on what they consider to be the ten greatest works of cinema ever made, and then compiled the results. The top fifty movies in the 2012 critics’ list, unveiled August 1, include twenty-five Criterion titles. In this series, we highlight those classic films.
Jean-Luc Godard declared Kenji Mizoguchi to be “the greatest of Japanese filmmakers, or quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.” Watching Mizoguchi’s 1952 masterpiece Ugetsu, it’s not difficult to see why. The director, who is commonly remembered today as a crafter of socially engaged films about the plight of women in Japanese society, began making movies in the silent era. In the thirties, he broke through with a trio of films that are now considered among the greatest of early sound Japanese cinema—Sisters of the Gion, Osaka Elegy, and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums—but it wasn’t until the 1950s that his genius was internationally acknowledged, when made a series of dark, richly designed films about the human condition that could only have been the work of a seasoned master. Foremost among these is Ugetsu, an exquisite ghost story set in feudal Japan and focusing on the divergent paths taken by two peasant couples. Mizoguchi paints on a small canvas here, illuminating the weaknesses of the men, and the women who are affected by their hunger for success and power. The director’s astonishing level of craft is in full evidence in the following early scene from the film, which critic Philip Lopate has called “one of the most lyrical anywhere in cinema.” In it, the two couples come upon an ominous vision.