I actually went to the theater as an eleven-year-old and saw this film in its original release. (I know. Weird.) The cinematography (Raoul Coutard), the editing (Françoise Bonnot won the Oscar), the score by Mikis Theodorakis, and the performances by Yves Montand, Irene Papas, and Jean-Louis Trintignant created an overall intensity that overwhelmed me. One of the most searing political thrillers ever made, and one of Costa-Gavras’s greatest, it won best foreign language film at the Academy Awards in 1970.
Sweet Smell of Success
Few films handled Burt Lancaster’s unique brand of ceaseless virility as well as this release from 1957. Lancaster made many wonderful movies but at times almost seemed to be biting the camera lens with his crisp forcefulness. In Sweet Smell of Success, as in pictures like Birdman of Alcatraz, Lancaster sits on his patented intensity and delivers astonishing results. The gleaming, indefatigable J. J. Hunsecker is probably Lancaster’s best acting. Burnished. Terrifying. Add to that the wonderful costar turn by Tony Curtis, the photography of the legendary James Wong Howe, and a screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. Fifties film noir at its best.
Sid & Nancy
Any film that propelled Gary Oldman to stardom is an important film, as I believe Oldman is the greatest film actor of his generation. The lives of the waifish/shrewish Nancy Spungeon and enfant terrible Sid Vicious make for a tough haul and present a somewhat jaundiced vision of the seventies punk scene. However, Sid and Nancy features director Alex Cox at the peak of his talent, cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, and a wonderful, damaged kookiness from Chloe Webb. But it’s the preternaturally gifted Gary Oldman you can’t take your eyes off of.
The Royal Tenenbaums
When Wes Anderson asked me to provide incidental narration to his film about the Tenenbaum tribe, I honestly could not make out what the film was about. It turned out to be a Wes Anderson film, which, in my mind, is the New Yorker magazine’s cartoon staff meets Jules Feiffer meets Preston Sturges. Or, perhaps, none of that. The Royal Tenenbaums, at the time of its release, was arguably one of the most original movies, in tone and style, since Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. The cast is pitch-perfect, and the film features Gene Hackman’s greatest work. (I know. That’s saying a lot. But it’s true.) Anderson and Owen Wilson were nominated for best original screenplay at the Oscars in 2002. With cinematography by the remarkable Robert Yeoman (Drugstore Cowboy, The Squid and the Whale).
Paths of Glory
Sitting on nearly everyone’s perennial list of the greatest antiwar films, Stanley Kubrick’s classic, set amid the ranks of a decadent French army command during World War I, offers breathtaking filmmaking on every level: acting, directing, writing, technical. A piercing Kirk Douglas shows up with his reliable blend of machismo and conscience. Veteran actors like Adolphe Menjou and George Macready are magnificent. However, Wayne Morris, Timothy Carey, and Kubrick regular Joseph Turkel bring a grit and suffering to offset the spit and polish of the debauched French commanders. Calder Willingham and the great novelist/screenwriter Jim Thompson wrote the script. The film features incredible photography by George Krause. Along with The Killing, Paths of Glory marks the critical onset of Kubrick’s now legendary career.
High and Low
Akira Kurosawa made films covered in rich tapestries of Japanese history and charged with terrible violence and drama. Yet here, the contemporary and confined world of a rich industrialist (Toshiro Mifune) who is faced with an overwhelming decision is spare, cold, and objective in the extreme. Hideo Oguni, who worked on seven Kurosawa films, including Seven Samurai, wrote the screenplay based on an Ed McBain novel. Mifune, once again, shows why he is the Japanese Marlon Brando, Edward G. Robinson, and Gregory Peck rolled into one.
David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
To look at Mick Jagger’s creative output today, working hard to suggest the dynamism of his early career, you may wonder what it is he is straining to return to. This film offers an answer. Rock and roll, particularly British rock of the late sixties and early seventies, featured pioneering, Dionysian front men who lured their fans, male and female, into a bacchanal of sex, drugs, and blistering music. Those gatherings were often combustible. In this case, tragic. The remarkable Maysles brothers and Ms. Zwerin fashion a kind of cinematic, pop Warren Commission of the Altamont Speedway concert/crime scene. You don’t need drugs to get high watching the Stones at their peak. The band, and especially Jagger, are a drug.
It’s quite hard to consider Lean’s filmography and put forth any favorites. Lean is certainly one of the greatest film directors of all time. The scope and richness of his work, from Great Expectations to The Bridge on the River Kwai, from Lawrence of Arabia to A Passage to India, mark the career of a filmmaker who was bold and determined like no other. However, a fondness for Dickens (and for Lean’s fondness for Dickens), and for the remarkable reality and suffering of the working class of England in the early nineteenth century that is brought to life here, always brings me back. To Guy Green’s photography, to the film’s exquisite art direction, and to the acting. The cast is flawless. Guinness, a young Anthony Newley, Kay Walsh, and the emotional sledgehammer of Robert Newton’s performance. Ronald Neame produced this and other great British films.
Do the Right Thing
To live in New York is to live in a place that is both heaven and hell, kept from dissolving into economic and racial chaos only by the maintenance of a minute-by-minute decency, respect, and understanding. Spike Lee spends a good amount of time, early in the film, dousing a Brooklyn neighborhood with gasoline, as we hold our breath to see who will strike a match. Making perhaps one of the twenty-five greatest dramas of the past thirty years, Lee is in Sidney Lumet territory here, by way of Paddy Chayefsky, by way of Huey P. Newton. The acting is, at times, as raw as you see in film. Danny Aiello, in the self-immolating role of the pizza shop owner who strips away decades of spiritual growth in a matter of minutes, gives one of the great performances in contemporary movie history, and both he and Lee, as screenwriter, were nominated for Oscars. Giancarlo Esposito, Ossie Davis, and John Turturro are riveting. Ernest R. Dickerson’s photography is memorable, as is Bill Lee’s music. But it’s Spike Lee, on his way to making films like Malcolm X and Clockers, who knocks you on your ass so hard you have trouble getting up at the closing credits.
The story of Bobby Sands and the hunger strike he died from while imprisoned by the British government at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland in 1981 is not for the faint of heart. Michael Fassbender, as Sands, takes your heart nearly to the grave with him in a miraculously dedicated and brave performance. The politics of the strike, orchestrated to protest the unwillingness of Margaret Thatcher to recognize the IRA inmates as political prisoners, is a quiet backbeat to the action and is never demagogic. But like with all great films containing shattering performances, your feelings for the cause of the IRA at the hands of the British government circa 1981 cannot help but be brought into sharper focus. McQueen won the BAFTA Award for most promising new filmmaker for this film.
Bret Easton Ellis’s Top 10
Bret Easton Ellis sent us his ten favorite Criterion films in alphabetical order, with the caveat that his list “could have been different last week and it might be different next week.”