Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
A masterwork codirected by Emeric Pressburger and the sui generis Michael Powell, whose twisted imagination I revere. As usual, Powell and company go to extremes—nuns in love, isolated high up in the Himalayas. Interestingly, Powell felt this was his most erotic movie. It is worth watching for the seductive color scheme alone.
Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, and Tim Whelan
The Thief of Bagdad
Exactly what movies are meant to generate: fantasy, magic, beauty, and unapologetic escapism. The bizarre source material, stories from The Arabian Nights, gives costume designers Oliver Messel, John Armstrong, and Marcel Vertès license to unleash their prodigious imaginations. I collect the work of Vertès, who was also a prolific fashion illustrator.
Children of Paradise
My late father’s favorite movie. The film is disturbing on so many levels: the fact that it was made during the Occupation; the way theater and real life are layered and confused; the performance by Arletty, who would later be convicted as a collaborator. She notoriously justified her treason by saying, “My heart belongs to France, but my ass is international.”
La dolce vita
Fellini at his most fetching. But beneath the glossy surfaces, you can see the scars of war and the shame of having been on the wrong side. Just to get an idea of how much the film has infiltrated the popular lexicon, consider that the term “paparazzi” derives from the name of the movie’s scandal-chasing lensman. We can hardly picture the city of Rome anymore without recalling images introduced here by Fellini.
Don’t Look Now
The red raincoat is a horror image that never dies. Nicolas Roeg turns the beauty and decay of Venice into something terrifying and insists, in an almost Freudian way, on the proximity of eroticism to death.
The Fugitive Kind
With drifter Marlon Brando’s memorable snakeskin jacket standing in for Eurydice’s lethal serpent, and the actor’s guitar for Orpheus’s lyre, Tennessee Williams’s retelling of the Greek myth drips with sweat and sex. I think of Marlon’s jacket whenever I see python on the runway, which is frequently.
This is literary kismet, with screenwriter Truman Capote channeling Henry James—and with a child lead bearing the name of my own daughter, Flora. The story, which takes full measure of the spookiness and unknowability of children, has worked in every format—first James’s novella The Turn of the Screw, then the chamber opera of the same name, and finally this liminal black-and-white film.
Gregory La Cava
My Man Godfrey
The wonderful, ill-fated Carole Lombard stars in this perfect, slick Depression-era romantic comedy. I like that obsolete terms such as “forgotten man”—which in this case refers to the homeless William Powell—can live on forever in the movies along with the stars who utter them. Thankfully, New York no longer has Hoovervilles, but I regret that the madcap Manhattan socialite seems to be an extinct species.
See above about Michael Powell. This was the first picture of his I ever saw, and it is possibly the creepiest. He and Susan Sontag have similar ideas about photography as memento mori. It takes a certain amount of hubris for a filmmaker to liken his own profession metaphorically to a particularly perverse form of serial killing.
Nobody does it better than Visconti. Flawless, historically accurate elegance suffuses even the minutest detail, and with a B-grade American actor (Farley Granger) playing an Austrian, no less. The futility of both love and war is exquisitely and lushly juxtaposed. The movie happily reminds me of Manolo Blahnik, who introduced me to it.
Nathan Lee’s Top 10
Nathan Lee is a critic, curator, and unrepentant champion of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. A former film critic for the New York Times, the Village Voice, and NPR, he is a contributing editor of Film Comment and member of the National Society of…