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Currently writing scripts, enjoying not having to deal with ignorant bureaucrats.
If one asks what makes a good film, frequently one hears observations like 'a good story', or 'good acting' or 'good cinematography' or 'good directing', which begs the question as to what all these entail. Of course, all of those can contribute to enhancing the cultural value of a film, but they 'ain't really where it's at', to quote Bob Dylan. So this list intends to give anyone who is interested the opportunity to see forty films that, between them, display virtually all of the unique characteristics of the cinema that make it the apogee of human cultural endeavour. It invites you to see beyond a film's story and theme and into its expressive dimensions.
To 'see beyond the story' is the first and most important lesson. If 'content' was all that was important in narrative art, Readers' Digest-style reductions of great novels would have the same cultural validity as the originals. And remember that Shakespare never invented a single story from which he forged his plays. Cinematic expression is the art of elucidating the thematic complexity and subtlety of a story through cinematic means. Each of these forty films gives a clear example of how that is done, in different ways.
They are NOT 'the greatest forty films ever made', nor 'my favourite forty films', but if you seek to understand the cinema, and you haven't seen any of these, you are looking in the wrong place. Is the list too conventional? Perhaps: I purposely avoided the avant garde and the quasi-avant garde because I thought that many films would be a shock to the system for many, if not most takers. Also, many of the key works of the avant garde are not available to the populous at large.
I have tried (oh so hard) to avoid tokenism so there are no films by von Sternberg and Hawks, both of whom made films that were better than many of the films on the list, but their work was very much 'within' the conventional 'film-space', and I have generally chosen other works to typify what is best in their cinemas. But elsewhere, I admit to not being able to countenance a list without Godard the innovator, for example, even though most of his work leaves me cold. My biggest agony concerned Madame de..... Ophuls 'represents' a very important tendency in the cinema, but I finally came to the conclusion that there were shots in Citizen Kane, and Psycho that demonstrated the (partial) truth of Godard's dictum that 'a tracking shot is a moral judgement' as well as anything in Ophuls' work. Ophuls' contribution to cinema aesthetics is across his work, rather than within it.
Is the list too serious? Well, the cinema is an art, which, more than any other, exposes and monumentalises different aspects of the human condition. Regrettably, the human condition can be, and often is, fairly grim, and we should remember Welles' response when asked by a skeptical journalist if it was not possible to make a film with a happy ending... Welles said "Yes, but only if you don't tell the whole story"... Also, even the darkest of films, if it is wonderful at a cinematic level, can be transcendentally elating, as in Au Hasard Balthazar.
Probably the earlier films will be less controversial than the more recent ones (but maybe not). However, if so, this should not be a surprise, as greatness in art is not only recognised by the expression involved but by the fact that it stands the test of time. However, I am confident that at least two thirds of these films are likely to be in contention if another list of double the size is posited in a hundred years time.
It may be observed that the period from 1960 until 1967 has a large number of films in the list. There are two explanations for this and I am not certain which is the more important. The first explanation is that this corresponded to the era in which I first became 'seriously' interested in film - and so I became also acutely aware of the methodologies of the then contemporary films that were most celebrated at the time. The second explanation is, I contend, just as important and that is that the 60s really was the decade of innovation and experiment in the arts, and none more so than the cinema.
My greatest hope is that this list will lead some people into new areas of cinema that can expand and enhance not only the enjoyment and appreciation of those new works, but an even greater appreciation and enjoyment of the films that they already love. I invite everyone to watch the entire list in its chronological order and say if it has not, in fact expanded his or her understanding of what a film can be.
I do not claim that the list is 'definitive', but any list that seeks to illuminate the mysteries of cinematic expression would need to contain a good number of these films, unless it sought to be obscure; (and why be obscure when the aim is 'illumination')?
Finally, forty films on DVD, even in 'used' condition is a tall order at a financial level for many people. Why not persuade your friends to join you in watching the films on the list and then share the DVDs among yourselves (or sell them). That way the cost can be very little on a 'per film' basis.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Key Largo is better.
By an astounding coincidence, the last film I saw before a preview of Tarantino's new film was a DVD of Key Largo, John Huston's celebrated 1948 film adaptation of a Maxwell Anderson play based in the Florida Keys.
Why is this an astounding coincidence? Because, to all intents and purposes, The Hateful Eight (Les Huit Salopards, as it is called in France) seems to be a typically Tarantino-esque remake of the Anderson play, and the Huston movie of it.
To remind those who have forgotten, Key Largo is the story of a criminal gang who have taken over a hotel on the seafront in the Florida Keys, with the aim of doing a deal with another mob that will aid the gang's leader, Johnny Rocco, in his attempts to escape his federal pursuers. His plans go awry, in part, due to a monstrous hurricane that keeps him on land while he had intended to be en route to Cuba.
Tarantino's film is transferred to land-locked Wyoming in the dead of winter a few years after the Amarican Civil War and the criminal gang are a bunch of confederate sympathisers trying to retrieve a female gang member who has been captured by bounty hunters. Other similarities include a snowstorm replacing the hurricane, a dead son of an old military man, and a number of innocent victims.
I am afraid I have long been of the opinion that Tarantino started brilliantly with his script for True Romance and has been going downhill ever since. His scripts remain clever - and I am not trying to be pejorative in using the word. He sets up situations replete with menace and irony - here the interdependence of a black bounty hunter and a racist sheriff. He continues his propensity for swapping the chronology of his action to add suspense and character interest - the film's story as told would be significantly less 'thrilling' if it were told chronologically.
He has also, from a technical standpoint, bucked the trend in choosing Ultra Panavision 70 as the visual format. But as, like Key Largo, 80% of the action is confined to a large saloon-style room, he doesn't really show the format off to its best effect for the most of the film.
Stylistically we get nods to Hitchcock and Peckinpah, and, probably, many more, but I wasn't sufficiently interested to seek out all the references. As this is a spoiler-free review, I won't mention the detail of what I regard as the film's major fault - its tastelessness. Suffice to say that the directors love of covering his canvas with gore is not withheld.
On the plus side, he has fun with a situation in which every few sentences someone is called a 'nigger' or a 'nigger-lover' - but he anachronistically allows one of his characters to accuse another of "racism", a term that didn't exist until almost 50 years after the events as presented. He is reasonably, and occasionally well served by his cast, notably the almost unrecognisable Jennifer Jason Leigh as the hapless Daisy Domergue, who manages to be truly menacing until the bitter end.
For all of its ironies and very convincingly presented freezing snowstorm, The Hateful Eight has nothing profound to say and adds not very much to Tarantino's two keynote items - the gunpoint confrontation and the chronologically twisted plot.
Footnote for film presentation historians: the Analogue 70mm version of the film sports a twelve minute overture which allows Ennio Morricone to show off his very eloquent, if occasionally OTT score. This used to be present for many 70mm presentations in the late 50s and early 60s - West Side Story being the finest example of which I am aware.
Knight of Cups (2015)
An enigma within and enigma (albeit a beautiful one).
Let me start by saying that I regard Terrence Malick as the sole currently working director who can be spoken of with the same reverence as that for the great early masters of cinema Welles, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Renoir (make your own list). Since 'The Tree of Life' - even since 'The New World', I have thought of him as the saviour of modern cinema from the slurry of bland naturalism.
But the enormous stylistic advances in cinematic expression that have characterised his recent works have come at a price, and the price is clarity of vision. We do not necessarily need to *know* what his images represent, but we need to *feel* it. Occasionally in 'The Tree of Life', frequently in 'To the WONDER' and most of the time in 'Knight of Cups' most people would, I suspect, be at a loss to rationally explain the relevance of much of Malick's visual expression. (They don't always 'feel' right, either.)
So (after three viewings) I offer my 'guide' to this enigmatic film. The 'story' (no story) of 'Knight of Cups' is that of a 'celebrity' Rick (Christian Bale) on the loose in Hollywood, who has lost his moral compass and lives a life of total debauchery drifting from one soulless sexual encounter to another in between failed relationships.
This is represented in a kaleidoscopic torrent of imagery reminiscent of the works of Bruce Connor in the 1960s. Bale does the best he can with the central role of Rick, a 'celebrity' in Hollywood, but, like Sean Penn in 'The Tree of Life', he has really drawn the short straw, as he, like Ben Affleck, Penn and Richard Gere before him tries to wordlessly express his response to ambiguous emotional and moral situations.
Malick, to his credit, tells us what the film is about in an opening voice-over, which recounts a story ('Hymn of the Pearl') from Acts of Thomas in the Apocrypha. A king sends his son to search for a pearl in a foreign land. The pearl is to be found in the sea, protected by a hissing serpent, but the prince is seduced by the inhabitants of the foreign country and given a sleeping draft. After he awakes, he has forgotten not only what he came for, but even that he is a prince.
Much of the first half of the film memorably (but not graphically) depicts the life of total decadence that Rick finds in Tinseltown. But this is interspersed with encounters real or imagined, present or past with people from his former life wife, brother, father.
The term 'emotional roller coaster' is often inappropriately used, but here it is very precisely apt, as one has the sense of Rick being propelled down paths he'd rather not take by external forces over which he has lost control. But, for me, at least, this section is too long and suffers from overkill, in the 'when you've seen one, you've seen 'em all' sense.
The rest of the film follows Rick in his attempts to make sense of his life and find 'the pearl', and, to be fair, the film does give the sense of an inexorable move in this direction which aids dramatic tension and gives clarity in some measure. As in 'To the WONDER', with the story of the crisis of faith of the priest, here also there are tangential sections in which compassion is seen as the alter ego of passion, and the place of young children adds positive emotion to an otherwise extremely bleak, if dazzlingly beautiful work.
Yes, Malick's unique visual lyricism is frequently on display, but, I would have to say that it seems less well integrated into the work's thematic thrust than it is in other of his films, but I could be mistaken here and I will be wanting to see it at least four or five more times when it opens in France in a couple of months.
Visually it is, from time to time, spectacular; sometimes Malick's montages are breathtaking, but there are great mysteries here that I have not come near to fathoming even after three viewings. Frequent shots of high-flying passenger jets, fast-moving shots from the front of a car on desert roads and long-held bleak landscapes from Death Valley and environs punctuate the film. It is not difficult to see the 'meaning' that these images carry, but it is difficult to know why they are repeated so often.
If I sound disappointed, I have not deceived, but Malick, with his entire work, has set the bar so high that anything not bordering on masterpiece simply has to be a disappointment. I drove a thousand kilometres to see this film and back again, and I do not regret the time and effort, but this is a desperately difficult work to fathom and, frankly, for me, makes 'To the WONDER' look like a model of clarity.
I see it as the third (and sadly least) in an intensely personal trilogy for Malick. So where next?
La doublure (2006)
An immense disappointment
At a time when French cinema is at, IMHO, its lowest ebb, with not a single great auteur in sight, I had come to rely on Francis Veber to provide excellence in comedy if of only a not very profound type. After Three Fugitives (both versions) and Le Dîner des Cons (to name just two) his films seemed to be heading into Blake Edwards territory.
But, oh my word!, what a catastrophe is this grotesque. The central character drifts through a series of 'adventures' involving an unpleasant millionaire (Daniel Auteuil) who is cheating on his wife (the fabulous Kristin Scott Thomas) with a model.
The whole thing is flat as a pancake, probably due to the casting of Gad Elmaleh - French cinema's most over-rated actor. This numb-skull drifts through promising scenes but doesn't give what is needed to bring them alive.
This is all the more troubling as, given he is playing the same character (or at least the character with the same name) as the central character in Le Dîner des Cons, François Pignon, One imagines what the magnificent Jacques Villeret could have done in the same rôle, had he not died just before the film went into production.
Magic in the Moonlight (2014)
Very enjoyable and effortlessly cinematic
Woody Allen's career seems to be on the up again. After 'Midnight in Paris and 'Blue Jasmine', 'Magic in the Moonlight' is another delight. Here he sets himself the problem of having a central character who is extremely unpleasant - arrogant, cynical, intolerant and close-minded. How will he win our hearts? The fact that the nasty Stanley is played by handsome, charming Colin Firth, of course, helps. But the actor's talent well convinces us that he is a nightmare on two legs.
Is is left to Sophie (Emma Stone), the lovely medium whom Stanley is trying to debunk, to bring out those limited human qualities that Stanley possesses. This is a gentle 'minor' Woody Allen but all the better for not trying too hard. The film is full of subtleties (and a few belief-stretching coincidences) that come into focus on second viewing. Stylistically, Woody seems to have evolved into late Chaplin, with the camera perfectly placed and unobtrusively expressive.
The Scarlet Empress (1934)
How to fill the frame....
I think it was during his press conference for 'Excalibur' at Cannes that John Boorman made the observation that his films were the opposite of 'minimalist' in expression. Like Boorman - but even greater in his command of cinema - Josef von Sternberg didn't want to leave anything to the imagination of the audience - it was all there on the screen.
I just saw 'The Scarlett Empress' for the first time in almost forty years (albeit on DVD rather than on the screen) and I saw that, of all directors in this great and glorious art of ours, von Sternberg knew how to fill the screen with expression. His is a cinema of light and shade, of scale and gesture, of visual expression on a grand scale.
The story of Catherine the Great is perfect for Sternberg's hyper- abbreviated style. No messing about here. Catherine has been given a bum steer by the handsome Count Alexei with whom, as a cloistered teenager, she has fallen in love. Her fate is to be married to the imbecile Grand Duke Peter - heir to the Russian throne (Sam Jaffe in an extraordinary debut performance). To triumph over this misfortune, Catherine must use all her charisma and sexual guile.
The rôle of Catherine is perfect for Marlene Dietrich - who, alone in actresses of the Thirties, was, like Marilyn Monroe twenty years later, an irresistible melange of innocence and raw sexuality. It is fascinating to see the way in which Sternberg takes her from wide-eyed ingénue to worldly-wise seductress.
But the acting is only a small part of Sternberg's creative methodology. The real genius (not a word I use very often) in this film is its use of decor - arguably the greatest piece of set design in history - to reflect the great historical forces that were at work in this 18th Century cauldron. Once arrived at the Kremlin, Catherine is surrounded by gargoyles and breath-taking interiors - headed by the jaw-dropping enormous throne of the Imperial court formed as a menacing double-headed eagle.
The Art Direction was done by the noted German Expressionist Art Director Hans Dreier, but Sternberg was noted for having a grip of iron over every part of his productions in this era, so I think we can give him the credit for this amazing piece of visual expression.
No matter - whoever takes the credit, it is magnificent. The film ranks with 'Shanghai Express' as one of Sternberg's greatest achievements and a monument to creativity in studio cinema of the 1930s.
What a massive disappointment
Though I am not a Bat-person, and do not wish to become one, I have admired Christopher Nolan for his early films and 'Inception', though, with the exception of 'Insomnia', I always regarded them as, in the immortal words of Andrew Sarris 'less than meets the eye'. I do not like to call films pretentious, but with 'Memento' and 'Inception' the word certainly came to mind. They seemed shallow pretending to be deep.
The same is, in my opinion, certainly true of 'Interstellar'. Yes, it carries you along for a ride, and yes the special effects are great, and yes, it might give us pause to think what will, in fact, be the destiny of our species. But, my dear Mr Nolan, surely you must realise that our species will not survive by planting American flags on distant planets. And, like 'Gravity' before it, the search for a happy ending has totally destroyed any shred of credibility of what might have gone before. The image of Cooper floating around Saturn without his spaceship, waiting to be picked up by a passing probe (just before his oxygen runs out, of course) is so ridiculous that if Stanley Kubrick were to be told that it is a respectful reference to the 'starchild' at the end of '2001', he'd punch you in the nose.
'Interstellar' - for all of its attempts to incorporate relativistic time dilation and very clever (I do not use that word in a derogatory sense) visual representation of multi-dimensional string theory towards the end, is void of any real cultural insight.
The film simply extends 'The Wizard of Oz' into the space age and decides at the end that there is really somewhere better than home. It is TOSH! Great films tell us something memorable about the human condition, or the nature of cinema itself. This film, for all its quotes from Dylan Thomas does neither. It is for people who think that the word 'awesome' has some profound meaning and not, as is the case, an excuse for not finding a more appropriate and restrained reaction.
Any suggestion that it deserves a Best Picture Oscar is a sad comment on the way that those awards have become debased in recent years.
As a passionate cinephile I get intensely annoyed when modern directors steal the ideas, situations etc., from great, and even not so great films from the past. 'Signs' is, in effect, little more than 'War of the Worlds' re-couched in a family environment that is reminiscent of 'The Birds' with a splash of 'The Wizard of Oz' thrown in. One has the idea that M Night Shymalan might claim that is film is some kind of homage to these films, but that is nonsense. It is a load of tosh (English slang for rubbish), that is interesting, up to a point, all the time it is 'about' crop circles, and disintegrates into ridicule when it becomes an apocalyptic vision. 'The Sixth Sense' was clever, well-constructed and thoughtful. This film is none of those.
A minor Mizoguchi, but exquisitely constructed
It's funny how, sometimes, one has to see a minor film by a great director to really understand the essence of their art. 'The Lady Vanishes', for example, is minor Hitchcock of his late British period, but it reflects the joy that he had found in turning expectations inside out and directing the eyes of the audience through camera and character movement.
A few weeks ago I bought a box set of the last eight films of Kenji Mizoguchi, and I am finally getting round to watching them. Of all major film directors, Mizoguchi is the one whose work I know least I had only seen two of his films (albeit two great masterpieces 'Ugetsu Monogatari' and 'The Life of O-Haru').
From those two films, I thought of the director as a great weaver of mystical tales and adherent of tracking shots, both of which are fine as far as they go, but perhaps limiting in films of lesser stature. However, taking the films in this set chronologically, I encountered first 'Oyu-sama' - a tragic melodrama about the forbidden love of a young middle-aged artisan for a widow of higher social station in turn of the century Japan.
In spite of being toted as a minor work, it impressed immediately with two aspects: first the painterly precision of the film's early rural exteriors that closely resembled, structurally, several major Japanese artists with nested planes of activity and visual interest drawing the spectator's eye irrevocably towards the focus of dramatic interest. The second and more important quality was that of the precision and the exquisite expression of the mise en scène.
The story revolves around the mistake made by the central male character, Shinnosuke, when being introduced to a potential wife. He sees from 'afar' the party of young women and falls for the elder, widowed, sister (Oye) instead of the bride on offer (Shizu). This is brilliantly managed by Mizoguchi by following the party of women in several long-shots largely from Shinnosuke's point of view, where Oyu takes the lead and Shizu is totally occluded by the other women. It sounds contrived, but in the context of Shinnosuke's ignorance and eagerness it fits the situation perfectly.
As the film progresses, the precision of the mise en scène becomes even finer. There is a scene late on in the film when Shizu is undergoing a personal crisis in her marriage and she runs out of the house onto the beach to free herself from her woes. Oye follows to comfort her, but Mizoguchi places the camera to show this as a pursuit with Shizu as running away from Oye and, dramatically, that is exactly what is happening, even though Shizu is trying to conceal it.
It is said that Mizoguchi was unhappy with the film, partly because the studio insisted on a linear narrative even though the novel on which it is based and the original script were structured as three long flashbacks. But there is enough complexity and resonance in the film to make it a valuable part of the director's work.
The well-known film that this most resembles, in my view is Renoir's 'Une Partie de Campagne', with which it shares a moving account of the way in which social conventions can devastate the lives of those who love unconventionally. It doesn't have the lyricism nor humour of Renoir's little masterpiece, but it does illuminate the film-maker's art as mentioned above and, through its modest achievements, show Mizoguchi to be the great director that his reputation announces.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Meaningless catalogue of grotesques
I have seen thousands of films in my life, but I cannot remember one in which every single character was a disgusting example of the worst elements of humanity. At last I have found one. Is this the 'truth' about Wall Street? I have no idea, but it corresponds almost exactly with my own beliefs. So I should like it? Right? It panders to my prejudices. It tells 'the truth'.
Oh, no. That is not what makes for great cinema. Great cinema surprises you, it opens new vistas, it invites one to question things that had been assumed.
All of Scorsese's films - even since 'The Big Shave' - have featured characters who exhibit aspects of masochism, or self-destruction. In 'The Wolf of Wall Street' it is moral masochism writ large that is on display. That is not necessarily a problem, but this is a film without a moral compass. If it could be reasonably described as a 'cautionary tale', it might have some merit. But it isn't, because the film is seen through the eyes of a human cockroach.
Scorsese knows the cinema well. He knows that the audience will identify with, and try to rationalise the actions of, the character who is on- screen for the most of the time. Thus it has been since the cinema began. And, without a shadow of a doubt, an enormous number of people whose own personal avarice is well advanced, will see the film and rationalise it as a series of errors of judgement by the eponymous Jordan Belfort.
Of course, there are some positives - the visual catch-line to Jordan's miraculously fortunate drive while stoned with his drugs raises a laugh, and certain ironies emerge in the final quarter of the film, but it is Jordan's story and it is clear that he thinks he was justified and just made mistakes (viz the final scene).
If it were possible to get all of the right-wing finance ministers from around the world and lock them in a cinema that showed this non-stop for a few weeks, it might just change their mind about the thrust of economic policy that encourages unbridled avarice, but that is a vain hope.
In the end we see Jordan all set to make the same mistakes in another territory. He evidently hadn't learnt a thing. And what is a thousand times worse is that he had evidently benefited financially from the film - it being based on his own book.
People who know me and my philosophical approach to cinema will probably find this review strange. In general, I detest the idea of judging the moral stance of a film. But this film doesn't, it seems to me, take a moral stance in a story that concerns itself with a subject that most blights the lives of the majority of our species - inequality, and one man's efforts to increase it. And it doesn't provide us with psychological or cinematic insight into its subject either... the film is inhabited by a bunch of grotesques that are barely human in their blind avarice.
Avarice is the most evil of the seven deadly sins, because it leads to all of the others. This is not something which emerges from either this film's form or content.
Don't get me wrong, it's not worthless, but like 'Children of Men' and unlike 'Y Tu Mama Tambien' it fails at a simple level of being convincing over it's entire length. I really don't mind when films make scientific gaffes, but this film simply changes situations that it has, itself defined when they prevent arriving at an artificial and totally improbable happy ending.
When one exits form a cinema and reflects on the film, one shouldn't feel cheated at a level of logic, with spectacular technical effects being used to mask the logical inconsistencies. The use of the fire extinguisher was clever, however. For some cheap temporary thrills and a glimpse into the psychology of astronauts, fine, for anything else, forget it.