Generally accepted as Mizoguchi’s greatest work, Ugetsu is based on supernatural Japanese folk tales by the celebrated eighteenth-century author Ueda Akinari. Mizoguchi is most concerned with a compassionate telling of human sorrow, and he finds plenty of substance in Akinari’s short stories. Infamously uncompromising, Mizoguchi was a perfectionist when it came to all aspects of the process. His visual compositions, the production design, the special effects, the lighting, the performances by the actors (especially Machiko Kyo, who adheres in this case to a more traditionally Japanese theatrical style of performance), and the sound design are all so finely tuned and executed, it’s as though Mizoguchi had the ability to be in multiple places at once.
Kwaidan is a film like no other. Adapted from Japanese legends and myths that were collected by Irish author Lafcadio Hearn, the film is an anthology of four ghost stories. The superstitiousness of Irish culture clearly influenced Hearn’s recording of these tales, and to see these stories adapted again by a Japanese artist is fascinating. I think Kobayashi poured his soul into this project. Kwaidan, in every way, bleeds Japanese culture and identity: not a loud and obnoxious nationalistic pride, but a thoughtful and considered love and respect for its heritage. Toru Takemitsu provides an austere and haunting score using traditional Japanese instruments and warped sound effects. The majority of the film is shot on a soundstage and features strikingly, often eerily painted backdrops. This was Kobayashi’s first color project, and cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima uses light, a 2:35:1 aspect ratio, and refined camera movement to astonishing effect.
Empire of Passion
The Japanese New Wave is almost synonymous with Nagisa Oshima. His film In the Realm of the Senses outraged critics and audiences alike with its many scenes of unsimulated sex. Here he takes similar themes of lust and murderous passion and explores them through the supernatural, crafting a ghost story that puts Japanese society and cultural conventions on trial in a masterful way. Who are the criminals here? Those who dare to pursue their feelings and impulses, or the society that forbids them the freedom to do just that?
When Peeping Tom was released in 1960 it was savaged by critics who’d seen the film at a special press screening. Those British critics must have been outraged with Michael Powell, whom they had trusted as a director who would reinforce their British identity and value system. That trust must have been completely broken by this scathing indictment of voyeurism and extreme violence. There are many similarities between this and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, released the same year, and Hitchcock shrewdly avoided press screening his film after having seen Powell’s fate just a few months before. Powell’s career was over, with the exception of a few obscure projects, but the culture of slasher films was just beginning. And whether people realized it or not, this was ground zero. Critical reappraisal of Peeping Tom has secured the film where it belongs, in the category of crucially important cinema. Personally, I prefer Powell’s film to Hitchcock’s, but both should be regarded as examples of great horror cinema that demands critical thought and analysis.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
This is as close to a perfect film as I have ever seen. Thousands of years of humanity honing the blade of satire culminated in this searing parody from Stanley Kubrick. Typically his direction is the star of his films, but the performances here from Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Sterling Hayden turn this into a perfectly pitched collaboration among artists who were, at that moment in history, each firing on all cylinders. Sellers in particular excels in three completely different roles. It’s a true master class in character acting.
Few films have ever satiated my appetite for an experience of pure cinema the way Cul-de-sac did the first night I watched it. It’s a film that doesn’t strictly belong to any one genre but dances between thriller, psychological horror, and comedy. One of my favorite actors, the hugely undervalued Donald Pleasence, turns in a career-best performance as a highly pedantic, sexually frustrated, oddball English husband, while his fiery young French wife is played with dangerous irresistibility by Françoise Dorléac.
Hour of the Wolf
This is a visceral tale of an artist (Max von Sydow) whose mind begins to unravel as he’s plagued by insomnia and macabre visions of demons. His pregnant wife (Liv Ullman) is so concerned by this that she begins to stay awake with him night after night as he tries to process his grief. This is clearly a very personal work for Bergman, who admirably attempts to grasp and explore an existential issue for all artists. The pursuit of knowledge or truth or clarity or enlightenment—whether by means of artistic expression, religious belief, or science—has the capacity to rend an individual’s personality to shreds. As the saying goes, there’s a fine line between genius and madness.
Women in Love
This adaptation of the D. H. Lawrence novel examines the relationships between two sisters and their respective romantic partners in post–World War I England. Ken Russell does a fascinating job of exploring themes of jealousy, lust, homosexuality, fidelity, and social class in a challenging and often pointed way. He turns the notion of virtuous love on its head and, in true Russell fashion, throttles the characters and the audience, unflinchingly asking them the deeper questions that we typically dare not even ask ourselves. There are breathtaking locations, arresting cinematography, and a wrestling scene that makes Viggo Mortensen’s nude knife fight in Eastern Promises look tame. As with all Ken Russell movies, be prepared to have this one on your mind for a while after the credits have rolled.
As with all Andrei Tarkovsky films, Stalker deserves multiple viewings. At three hours, and with most shots exceeding a full minute in length, it demands a commitment from the viewer. The production was infamous, a majority of the footage was lost and had to be reshot, and multiple cast and crew members died from cancer, which was attributed by many involved to toxic conditions at some of the shooting locations. The results of the film, however, are as unique as they are impressive. The imagery and symbolism remain some of the most beautiful and haunting ever put on film. And the soundtrack and score are interwoven with the images in a style not unlike the collaborations of Kobayashi and Takemitsu, where sounds are processed and stretched to disorient and then reconnect the viewer.
The thing that makes The Vanishing so chilling is its unorthodox structure. It starts with a girl being kidnapped at a service station while her boyfriend waits in the car. Then the story picks up three years later with the boyfriend still searching for her while her killer monitors his movements. From very early on we know who the killer is, and we’re fairly sure that the girl is long dead. What makes the film special is that it retains its tension despite giving so much away so early on. There’s an incredible balance of likability and abject coldness in Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu’s performance as the villain; the character is a seemingly respectable family man who, unbeknownst to his wife and children, is in fact a textbook sociopath. Watching him as he patiently plans out the crime makes us feel like we are watching a car crash in slow motion. We know there’s nothing we can do to stop what’s going to happen; in fact it’s already happened. Stanley Kubrick cited this as the most terrifying film he had ever seen. And I can see why.
Michael Atkinson’s Top 10
Michael Atkinson writes film criticism for IFC.com, Sight & Sound, and Moving Image Source. His books include Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood and the novel Hemingway Deadlights.