Timeless stuff that works on all levels. You can choose to experience this movie either as if you were living during a turning point in the twentieth century (Weimar Germany) or as an immersion into a fantastical world that only the best of movies can offer. M is both intellectually deep and a crackling entertainment—chilling, suspenseful, darkly humorous, and rich (in plot, characters, and visual design). There is also a terrific audio commentary by two German scholars.
Heaven Can Wait
Perfect movie. Perfect DVD. If enough people see this disc, Heaven Can Wait will gain its rightful place in the pantheon of the greatest movies ever made. Elegant, warm, funny, wise, and unbelievably exquisite-looking, this film is Lubitsch’s finest two hours. I vote that we retire It’s a Wonderful Life for a few years and annually watch Heaven Can Wait instead. It is the better movie. The DVD extras include Richard Corliss’s intelligent interview with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, and the video analysis by Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell (the Tracy-Hepburn of film criticism) is as sublime as the movie.
Antonioni’s best film. This movie puts me into such a pleasurable deep funk. Profound, chic, visual existentialism has always been up my alley. Every image is boldly striking—from the hustle and bustle of the stock market (as timely as today’s headlines) to the urban architectural landscapes to the lovers Monica Vitti and Alain Delon. The last are especially easy on the eyes. This movie caters to the intellectual fantasy in many of us. If you are a professional philosopher or lay thinker (like myself) who likes to contemplate the nature of “reality,” the last ten minutes will totally blow your circuits. This is one very cool movie. Richard Peña’s commentary has so much information, minute for minute, you wonder how the guy keeps it all in his head.
A truly inspiring movie. Kurosawa is one of those rare directors who knows how to tell a story in the compelling way we all like to see them told on-screen. In Ikiru, we, as individual viewers, so identify with the moment-to-moment experience of the main character (played by the great Takashi Shimura) that somehow it becomes our own story. As we watch this movie, we progressively go through bouts of fear and guilt and then, by movie’s end, achieve a sad satisfaction coupled with the personal conviction that we must somehow do better as human beings. This one becomes even more moving as we get older and the story becomes closer to our own reality. This one puts me through the ringer every time.
Ernest Hemingway’s superb eight-page short story is the jumping-off point and inspiration for these two essential and very different movies (Stacy Keach reads the story magnificently in one of the DVD extras). I don’t understand why more people don’t know the 1946 Siodmak film. For my money, this is not only the best noir movie of all time but is just about my favorite Hollywood drama from the 1940s. The complex narrative structure begins as a jumbled Rubik’s Cube, and, slowly but surely, each piece falls into its precise place by movie’s end (the stuff Quentin Tarantino’s dreams are made of). The moody atmosphere provided by Siodmak and his technicians is a marvel. The cinematic execution of a heist has never been better. Here marks the birth of two glorious stars: Burt Lancaster (a beautiful caged animal, all teeth) and Ava Gardner (wow). Paul Schrader’s seminal essay on film noir, as a DVD extra, is invaluable. For those of you who wonder why Siegel’s 1964 violent, stylish, quirkily entertaining B version (the first TV movie ever made) is on this list, I have two words for you: Lee Marvin. There has never been a star like him before or since. Words simply cannot do justice to the magic of this guy—the timbre of his voice, the calm, paranoid, roughneck danger in his physical moves. In a spectacular extra on this DVD, fellow actor Clu Gulager gives a very moving (and, one feels while watching it, very truthful) account of working with Marvin, Siegel, and Ronald Reagan (who hated the movie—yet another reason to see it!).
That Obscure Object of Desire
I am convinced that Buñuel had intimate conversations with God throughout his life, wherein they would share their observations on humanity and tell lots of jokes. Buñuel’s movies are evidence of these dialogues. That Obscure Object of Desire is about a little man like you and me, self-satisfied and lustful. He is in love with a woman who refuses to give herself to him physically. This 1977 movie (Buñuel’s last) is irreverent, sexual, funny, elegant, shocking, embarrassing, political, and light as a feather. The way to enjoy it is to just let it happen to you, rather than to harbor any preconceived thoughts. To try to analyze why the director uses two actresses to play the same character and the motivation behind when he chooses to use each one is to miss the movie entirely (and to be the butt of a Buñuel practical joke—that’s him laughing at you while you are engaged in this fruitless exercise). As the story unfolds, you begin to feel that these two physically opposite actresses (the drop-dead gorgeous Carole Bouquet and the sultry, exotic Angela Molina) are the same woman and represent Buñuel’s complete male fantasy. Like many of his great films, this one includes a pig, a few nuns, a dwarf, and Fernando Rey.
A powerful story told simply and with finesse. This movie is all clarity and as lean as a movie can be. A tale of redemption that has inspired and influenced countless other really good movies. The protagonist’s face will haunt your dreams. This one is a real beauty. Paul Schrader’s DVD introduction (once again) provides an ideal context.
A visual and aural feast. The best movie ever made about moviemaking. Greece and Brigitte Bardot provide the purest form of seduction; Jack Palance provides the sleaziest. The subtext that explains the title is sexual politics at its most provocative. Every frame of this movie is invigorating. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard and composer Georges Delerue deserve to be canonized. The already anointed Fritz Lang, playing himself, gives the film yet another pleasurable dimension of film truth.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The lack of interest in Fassbinder’s work depresses the hell out of me. For me, he is the birth of the new. His high-concept stories, told in bold dramatic strokes and with vibrant colors, teach us about everything from class and racial politics to family responsibility and true love. His theatricality comes out of the Brecht mold, but it is new, it is melodramatic and involving and funny, often bitter and ironic, always with good humor, but, for me anyway, never cynical. He wears his heart and soul on his sleeve. He traverses the taboo, attacks intolerance, and loves his characters so much, even if at first they appear totally unappealing. Fassbinder is an original, and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is one of his best films, made on the run like so many of his others. The world would be a better place if more people embraced movies like this one.
The Shop on Main Street
Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos
My first foreign film experience, at the age of eleven, is one of the finest films on the subject of the Holocaust. Without showing any scenes of extreme violence, it fully realizes, through its simple characters, the devastation of what happened and how it can happen if people don’t pay attention or fall prey to delusion. Here is where I also discovered great acting for the first time. Forty years later, Ida Kaminska and Josef Kroner’s performances remain amongst the best I have ever seen on the screen.