I’m joining in the spirit of the year-in-review post, even though the way I watch movies isn’t really conducive to the kind of list that one usually sees at the end of the year. (Incidentally, if you happen to be a recent music aficionado, friend of the blog Matt will have his year-end list of 2018 rock albums up any minute now.) By my count I will probably not go to the movies ten times this year, which even when accounting for the sheer number of movies I’ve found at the library or on legal streaming sites is too low to make a genuine comprehensive review. Nor are recent movies primarily what I enjoy watching. At the beginning of the year, one of my movie-watching goals was to watch 400 movies I hadn’t seen before. Those movies are overwhelmingly from the 20th Century, and they constitute my attempt to really start to get a sense of what was out there. The goal was to learn something about movies and their history, to see what had lasted and what would endure. Part of the reason I think movies like The Artist, La La Land, and the new A Star Is Born gain so much traction is because viewers (and more emphatically, reviewers) lose their sense of the past. If you have a silent comedy like The Freshman in your heart, how can you find room for The Artist? The same is true for An American in Paris and La La Land, or the ’54 Star Is Born and the ’18 Star Is Born.
That’s why this year-end review is not about recent movies, although there are a couple here that only got wide release stateside this year. Here are some things it is and which it is not:
- This is terribly personal. It’s not the eighteenth-century anymore, and the journal/diary is a dying art replaced by the WordPress account. I will try not to stare down my own belly button.
- This is not a list of the fifty best movies I watched this year, or otherwise it would be quite tiresome.
- This is not a list of my fifty favorite movies I watched this year, or otherwise it would be even more tiresome.
- This is organized by tiers. I did a quick ranking of the movies from 1-50 because Matt made me feel like a wimp for not doing it. After I did that I then organized the order of the tiers by the average ranking of the movies within each tier.
- This has some limits on how many times a director appears, but none of those limits are hard and fast.
- This has spoilers.
- To make the list below, a movie has to have moved me somehow. Maybe it’s because I’d never seen anything like it before, because I don’t expect to see anything like it again, because it changed me somehow, because I couldn’t stop thinking about it, because it was different. If I were to tell someone about the movies I watched this year which I’d never seen before, these are the movies I’d want to talk about.
I capped this at fifty movies because as of this day, that’s exactly ten percent of the movies I hadn’t seen before the calendar turned. Because of that self-imposed limitation, I’m leaving out: proof that a streaming service can make arthouse, a movie that forces you to live deep inside your own brain, the revisionist western Clint Eastwood and Taylor Sheridan don’t have the capacity for, Lubitsch in glorious Technicolor, the drumhead played “Waltzing Matilda,” the dark heart of collaborationism, a movie about American poverty which doesn’t think it’s romantic, a fable of fool’s feast from Franco’s fiefdom, the best Philip Roth movie ever made (and not coincidentally having nothing to do with him), and an epic unlike any other I’ve come across.
Tier 1: Bergman and Mizoguchi
3) Fanny and Alexander (1982, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
13) Through a Glass Darkly (1961, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
Because John Ford only directed like, twenty percent of How the West Was Won, Ingmar Bergman is the person I watched more of than anyone else this year. It was the centennial of his birth in July. If he wasn’t my favorite director in January, he sure is now. As I’ve written about before, and as just about everyone else seems to agree, Fanny and Alexander is the culminating event of his career. (I’m tempted to be a contrarian and say that title belongs to the far more austere After the Rehearsal, but it’s Christmas.) Even if you’d call another one of his movies the best of his oeuvre, which is fair, Fanny and Alexander is the one that worries about sex and God, tenacious womanhood and masculine oppression, family, the future giving the past a piggyback ride. And it adds another ingredient, one that is loudly absent in Shame and Cries and Whispers, and one that is finally addressed head-on in Autumn Sonata: children. The adults of Fanny and Alexander, even the ones who are demonstrably good like Emelie and Grandmother Ekdahl, are badly flawed. Emelie disastrously mistakes autocracy for strength, a failing that Bergman, who has been taken in by the Nazis as a young man, knew all too well. Helena allows her age and her distance to keep her from more actively keeping up with Emelie as Bishop Vergerus tightens his grip on her. Gustav Adolf is too confident and Carl too envious. What it means is that Alexander and Fanny, two imaginative and hopeful children, are thrown to the wolves until a miracle occurs. What a miracle it is, too, and brought about with Bergman’s eeriest scene.
Through a Glass Darkly is a culmination of sorts as well, although it’s a culmination of a rather different color. It’s perhaps the last movie in Bergman’s oeuvre which believes fully in God, although the God of Through a Glass Darkly is a frightening one indeed. (What is crueler: calling God a giant flailing puppet, as he is in Fanny and Alexander, or believing that he does exist but in the form of a human-sized, raping spider?) Few scenes ever put on film have ever had the raw power or shone a light on the kind of personal terror that Karin experiences. Of all the movies I’ve watched this year, both new and old to me, this might be my favorite. The old saying goes that whom the gods would destroy, they first would make mad. Through a Glass Darkly posits that those whom the gods would like to introduce themselves to, they first would make mad; Karin’s mental illness hangs over the film from the first. It’s not until later that we realize that insanity is the only way for any of these people to really understand God, and that insanity makes knowing God no smiling pleasure trip but an intensely painful deconstruction.
19) Osaka Elegy (1936, dir. Kenji Mizoguchi)
4) The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939, dir. Kenji Mizoguchi)
I only watched five Kenji Mizoguchi movies this year—aside from these two, I added Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, and A Story from Chikamatsu—and where these two stand out for me is the camerawork and staging that is light years ahead of its time. Osaka Elegy uses deep focus with almost casual familiarity. A woman mans the telephones in the very near foreground while a man answers in the far background. A young woman and her lover meet in a practically empty restaurant; they are seated in the middle of the field, but all around them is essentially empty space, making the effect rather like a play without it ever becoming stuffy. Osaka Elegy has a story like that as well: old, but not faded. A young woman whose father is habitually unsuccessful in business and whose brother is a poor student at university finds herself in a jam. With money running out, she takes up the offer of a superior at work: come live in an apartment I’ll set up for you and be my luve, and we shall all my pleasures prove. The man’s wife finds out about her; she ends up with a different guy; all this time she does her best to shuffle her actual fiance, who is in the dark. Yet in the end everyone finds out about what Ayako does, and no one takes her side or recognizes what she has given up. Her father is ashamed; her brother is livid; her sister does not stand by her; her fiancee storms out on her. It isn’t the most technically stunning scene, but the one where she tries to make conversation with her family at dinner, eating the food that she has managed to put on the table for them and excoriating her out of the other side of their mouths, is infuriating.
The sacrificial woman in Chrysanthemum is Otoku, a wet nurse who is either naive enough to speak the truth to a mediocre young actor or who already must care for him enough to take the risk. As it is, the young actor, Kiku, finds that Otoku’s directness is just what he needs to break out of his rut. It’s a good scene, but the reason it’s exceptional is because I’ve never seen another one like it. I don’t think it’s my relative inexperience talking either: Mizoguchi has this scene shot from below, from a distance, and tracking to boot. It is long. With no cuts to show facial expressions up close or to give us a point of view we don’t need, this comes off as a long, private conversation that we happen to overhear, that we’re nearly spying on. The rest of the film will follow this same general roadmap: no close-ups in our fraught interpersonal drama, long takes which build drama organically and in real, comprehensible time. Kiku falls for Otoku, although this is the late nineteenth century and no well-to-do actor, no matter how incompetent, can marry the wet nurse his adoptive father employs. He does anyway, and so begins a long cycle in which Kiku makes bad decisions against Otoku’s better judgment and she is forced to scramble to make ends meet; meanwhile, Mizoguchi films full frames from wild angles. It’s a work of art that just doesn’t look anything like other movies made before or since. They say that in Anglophone cinema 1939 was a Miracle Year, but Last Chrysanthemum is a more inventively shot film than Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, or Stagecoach.
Tier 2: John Ford’s America
16) My Darling Clementine (1946, dir. John Ford)
20) Stagecoach (1939, dir. John Ford)
The hero of Stagecoach is the Ringo Kid, an outlaw who means to avenge his family. Despite the fact that he’s technically under arrest through the entire movie, the law lets him go with his gal, Dallas, to Mexico. The hero of My Darling Clementine, on the other hand, is the most famous lawman of the Old West, Wyatt Earp. Like the Ringo Kid, he’s also trying to avenge his family. Unlike the Ringo Kid, he means to do so as the avatar of law and order. It’s a new day for John Ford, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what lies between the two pictures. Perhaps if World War II never happened, then Ford might have continued making more movies about decent outlaws, good men who happen to be on the wrong side of the law. Instead, My Darling Clementine is the first of several westerns Ford made in the immediate postwar years about authority figures doing by and large the right thing. (The sympathy isn’t gone for those people; Ben Johnson’s character in Rio Grande is not unlike Wayne’s in Stagecoach, and his escape at the end of that movie is very similar to Wayne’s.) Stagecoach is probably the more visually inventive movie and certainly the more influential, but My Darling Clementine is the better movie. Stagecoach doesn’t have a protagonist, really—and if it does, I’d say it’s Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone—but Clementine has Henry Fonda at peak Henry Fonda. The movie can put the world in opposition to him. His brothers share his tenacity but lack his insight; Doc Holliday has his gunslinging bona fides but lacks his sense of civic responsibility. Clementine, the Easterner, is the most evolved character in the film and all the same could never bring civilization to the West the way Wyatt Earp endeavors to do. Add in what is arguably the best photography in any of John Ford’s movies, and this is a magnificent film made by a filmmaker exploring the new apex of his ability.
Tier 3: Listening to Britain
15) Odd Man Out (1947, dir. Carol Reed)
There’s a turning point in Odd Man Out where the IRA members on the run from the law have been whittled down just to Johnny McQueen, a slowly frantic and unusually accented James Mason. The movie had been content to tell the story of this robbery gone wrong, which left Johnny badly hurt and alone in Belfast and which left his accomplices in hot water. But when those accomplices, incompetent as they were, are obliterated, the people of Belfast become the major characters: an idealistic priest, a grandiloquent painter, a malcontent ex-student, a shabby bird-lover, Johnny’s innocent lover. Johnny’s robbery and disappearance is the talk of the town, and while the police are certainly hot on his trail, the people of his own town seem to want to find him even more. The painter is fascinated by the death in Johnny’s eyes, while the bird-lover becomes increasingly sympathetic to Johnny personally as opposed to seeing him as a payout from the highest bidder. It’s Kathleen whose motivations turn out to be the most fascinating and haunting. Too inexperienced at love but too cognizant of these brewing Troubles, her thoughts become increasingly bloody as the noose begins to tighten around Johnny. This is almost the best movie I’ve watched this year about Ireland (whaddup, Hunger), and certainly the most humanistic.
10) Kes (1969, dir. Ken Loach)
I knew it would break my heart. It broke my heart. Go get your heart broken if you haven’t already.
31) Sapphire (1959, dir. Basil Dearden)
I watched four Basil Dearden movies in a row back in January, which is one of my favorite stretches from this past year. Of those four, Sapphire is probably the best of the lot (and The Smallest Show on Earth, though it’s clearly the worst of the four I watched, is the one that won me over). The deeply underrated Nigel Patrick plays a stoic detective named Hazard whose murder investigation quickly takes on more meaning than he’d bargained for. The girl, Sapphire, was pregnant, for example; her young fiance becomes a suspect, especially because his alibi seems a little thin. What surprises the inspector, and us too, is that when they call in the victim’s doctor brother, he’s black. Sapphire was passing for white in the way that her brother cannot, and the case goes from sadly routine to socially horrifying. It’s impossible not to connect Sapphire with Imitation of Life, which was released in the same year. Although Douglas Sirk is not frequently accused of subtlety because of his colors and dialogue and frequent use of Jane Wyman, Basil Dearden is somehow even more unsubtle. Sapphire is not his first foray into racially conscious drama—I thought about putting the exceptional Pool of London here instead—but it is a shocking movie, lurid and even a little prurient, and yet the reveal of who actually murdered Sapphire is entirely unsurprising. Hazard spends an awful lot of time investigating the London underworld in this picture, and the entire time, to Dearden’s credit, it feels like a misstep. Whoever killed Sapphire didn’t come from the jazz clubs to do it, a fact that we know instinctively.
Tier 4: Shock and Awe
37) Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001, dir. Zacharias Kunuk)
The people of The Fast Runner are dogged by a series of betrayals going back generations. It’s taken as a sign that there is something amiss in the community, although the ones who benefit most richly from those betrayals, double-crosses, and tricks would never relinquish them on their own. The task falls, in the end, to Atanarjuat, who is no saint himself. He has a way with women and likes it; no sooner has he married one woman than he is banging another. He squabbles with his brother over their shared mistress. Where the movie begins to take flight is with a violent act. Atanarjuat’s great rival takes his thugs to the brothers’ tent, collapses it, and they begin to stab their way through with spears. Miraculously, Atanarjuat, completely naked and unarmed, rushes out of the tent and begins to run across the tundra. The chase is exhilarating, partly as we fear for Atanarjuat, who would be in terrific danger even if he did escape his assailants: naked and defenseless in the Arctic is no joke. Part of it, though, is for the incredible scenery that Kunuk films. Almost nothing like this setting is present in narrative cinema; the tundra is usually set aside for nature documentaries, not Shakespearean dramas which culminate with the invocation of ancient magic and mysterious rituals.
14) Dogtooth (2009, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Yorgos Lanthimos has been making the same movie since Dogtooth (and having not seen any of his earlier work, for all I know he’s been doing it even longer). People keep hitting themselves in the face, which, fine, it’s weird. Ben Whishaw and Emma Stone do a good job with it. Angeliki Papoulia is the GOAT. I tend not to say anything during movies that I think are good, but I was straight up moaning during that one scene in Dogtooth where the older daughter, desperate to get out of her parents’ house but not knowledgeable enough yet to realize that she could just leave without losing her dogtooth…ugh. When she stares in the mirror, holding that weight, and you just know what’s going to happen and you’re not sure you’ll be able to stand it, and then of course you watch it anyway and you have to stand it…just ugh. It’s not gross or disgusting, really. It’s just not okay, somehow the most difficult thing to happen in a movie that includes killing a cat with garden shears and straight up incest. Nor would this scene be as effective without the incest, the “licking,” the cat killing, the physical violence, the child abuse, the cultish control the parents in this movie have over their nameless children. It’s why I don’t buy the idea that Lanthimos simply does things for shock value. It’s easy to shock people, but it’s hard to make that shock linger in meaningful ways after you’ve left the theater.
49) War and Peace (1967, dir. Sergei Bondarchuk)
A lot of this movie is messy, almost like it’s hard to make a movie seven hours long with thousands of extras over half a decade. The messiness is the price of having a War and Peace adaptation that tries to be this faithful, that tries to fill as many of the major characters as possible, and that tries to create the Battle of Borodino as well as other conflicts. Credit is due for that wonderful mirror shot at the ball where Andrei meets Natasha, for the hazy horror of Pierre’s hidden resistance in Moscow, for the willingness to go abstract with Nature, for every scene with Napoleon, for the sleigh rides and drawn-on mustaches in mirrors. Vyacheslav Tikhonov’s performance as Andrei Bolkonsky is icy and stoic and humane; if I were to make a list of my favorite performances from this year, which I wouldn’t because I’m not totally cracked, Tikhonov would have to be in my top twenty. It’s something exceptional that helps the movie hold together, and which it desperately needs. A single loose thread in the casting would be fatal for a movie that sprawls over so much territory, and with Tikhonov at the fore and good performances from Bondarchuk and Ludmila Savelyeva too, it’s enough to make us care even when the action is so far beyond a single individual.
23) Breaking the Waves (1996, dir. Lars von Trier)
Maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to include Breaking the Waves when I’ve got Through a Glass Darkly up there, but maybe I’ve got a type. I do know that after I watched Breaking the Waves, I felt very sure that this was the only movie I’d ever seen that felt like a Bergman movie; I wouldn’t liken von Trier’s style to Mizoguchi’s, but the picture of a woman who becomes Christlike for her man is here too. Bess speaks to God more actively than Karin does, but her interactions with God, mixed up with what her paralyzed husband wants for her in the wake of his accident, make her suffer far more. Mental illness meets crippling love meets strict religion, and the cocktail sends Bess, played by Emily Watson with fiery, wide-eyed desperation, beyond the edge of destruction. Under duress, Bess can say what her God-given gift is: “I can believe,” she says. It’s a gift reserved to saints, martyrs, and children, a trinity she can claim some membership in. It’s a long movie—I can only imagine how much of the atmosphere von Trier sucks in at parties—but it’s a long movie that becomes more and more engrossing and painful and terrible the longer it goes. One of the most sublime movie experiences of the year for me; I’m still waiting for the next Bergman movie made by someone other than the man himself.
5) The Mirror (1975, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
A literally unique movie, far easier to read than its reputation would have you believe, and absolutely worth the time spent after the movie in which one must think on it further. No movie works like The Mirror does to consider the conflation of dream and memory, the strangeness of waking up, going about one’s day, and realizing that the memories we have and the fantasies of our sleep are kissing cousins. Margarita Terekhova is the primary example of a person double cast, playing Alexei’s wife and Alexei’s mother in different scenes. But the other characters of the story, down even to the minor roles, appear multiple times. The memories of this dying poet are bound with his dreams? traumas? guesses? hallucinations? and the overall effect is otherworldly. It could not have come from any director but Tarkovsky, whose style is as singular as his movie. No one else I’ve watched this year, with the possible exception of Ozu, stamps his or her movies with such an unmistakable look.
22) Leviathan (2014, dir. Andrey Zyvagintsev)
After the untimely death of his wife, Kolya begins drinking. His life has been a nightmare already—his wife was sleeping with a good friend, who has returned to Moscow from this small town on the Barents Sea—but her death shakes Kolya more deeply than any event has before. Drunk and shaking, he challenges a priest one day, asking why God should be so cruel to a man. The priest is unimpressed, sensing the arrogance in Kolya’s statement, and he says something I didn’t expect: he invokes Job, who Kolya has himself been channeling pretty clearly, and whose name I did not expect to hear in the movie. Yet Zyvagintsev has also done something the Bible didn’t. No one in Job’s family, so far as we can tell, ever saw the leviathan. Yet before her death, which remains a mystery to the police until they pin it on Kolya, she saw the leviathan. The head stays submerged, but the back breaches the surface and goes back below. His son will see the skeleton of a whale on the beach. But Kolya never does see the leviathan; the leviathan that would have proven the might of God—or, given the movie’s ugly, cynical ending—the might of the much more cleverly arrayed forces against him, avoids him. I may be rating this movie too low. This is one of the most exceptional movies of the 21st Century so far and an absolutely beauty to watch. This desolate region, highlighted at the beginning and end of the film, is coupled with a desolate message, but overall this is a movie that filled me with intense feeling.
7) Three Colors: Blue (1993, dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski)
I think the pleasant contrarian view on the Three Colors Trilogy is to place White at the top, which I can’t see myself doing, and the classic take is to put Red there. I have Blue in that spot by an ever-widening margin, though I’m not alone there. The recent/very strange BBC poll for the 100 greatest “foreign language” movies put it 64th, ahead of Shoah, La Strada, The Conformist, and Ordet. I think that’s wild, but I’m not complaining. This is a great movie, and the difference between Blue and its two siblings is Juliette Binoche. The first movie I ever saw her in was The English Patient, and it left me a little cold to her. I’ve come around in a huge way. Her performance in this movie is a masterpiece of in-betweenness, as so many great performances are, but it is done with remarkable subtlety. She can act with her eyes more than most actors can with all of their other tools put together. They are dead, blank, vacant for long stretches especially in the beginning of the movie. Her suicide attempt, or what passes for it in desperation, is marked with intense desperation; the majority of the picture sees her frigid and contemplative. Her approach to the baby mice that she finds in her apartment makes for some of the most chilling and encouraging story that I watched this year. She finds it in herself to destroy again after having nearly been destroyed herself; she knows too that she cannot easily take life knowing how quickly it is snuffed out. Death was never more real.
1) Battleship Potemkin (1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein)
When I was in high school, I looked for the Odessa Steps sequence without actually being interested in the rest of the movie; this led to a weird moment for me when we watched The Untouchables in one of my classes a year or two later, and I learned that intertextuality is a double-edged sword. Watching the movie in its entirety was a wonder, a far cry from the bland propaganda (propablanda?) of Alexander Nevsky. This is propaganda written in tablets, a masterpiece of creating a mood in the audience of pure outrage. It’s obvious that the officers aboard Potemkin care not at all for the men, as when they are given maggoty meat to eat or, worse, threatened with execution tantamount to murder. Eisenstein—yes, using montage—makes a movie where even the most ardent militaristic capitalist must feel for the men aboard Potemkin, must root for themselves to stand as men instead of living under the whip a moment longer. When the men do mutiny, a decision that takes some time to unfold, it’s a physical relief that’s come long after we’ve been able to see in overhead shots just how many more of the men there are, of how many of them are already armed, of how they could strike a blow. And if the culmination of the movie is the Odessa Steps instead of the pursuit of Potemkin by presumably unfriendly warships, then that’s only fair. It’s a chapter which was so far ahead of its time that filmmakers today are still catching up to it.
Tier 5: I Won’t Say I’m in Love
18) They Live by Night (1948, dir. Nicholas Ray)
Bernard Eisenschitz’s essay in the Criterion edition of this film says that They Live by Night may be the greatest movie debut of any director, Citizen Kane not excepted, and while he’s exaggerating a little it ain’t by much. They Live by Night finds the youthful sweetness in Farley Granger and the cool intelligence of Cathy O’Donnell and makes us fall in love with them while they fall for each other. Everyone they don’t know is after Bowie, who is the presumed leader of a bank-robbing gang, but everyone they do know is an even worse danger. The members of Bowie’s gang call for him to do a job with them after he’s married Keechie, which only serves to put him further down the dolorous road we know he must traverse. “They live by night” is an apt name for the movie, primarily because the vast majority of this picture is shot after the sun’s gone down, but it’s also because the night is a more dangerous time than the day, a time when hunted animals like Bowie and Keechie ought to hunker down and wait. They don’t: they marry, they get pregnant. A pair of no-account hicks with rough pasts and nothing on the horizon before they met each other find hope in each other’s arms—a real, incandescent affection, not just some cheap sex—but when Arthur and Catherine sign their names for their wedding, they sign a death warrant for their love. Nicholas Ray would make a much more famous movie about youth in the next decade, but he never made a movie this real again about young people or anyone else.
8) Journey to Italy (1954, dir. Roberto Rossellini)
Remember those promos for that ill-begotten Netflix season of Arrested Development, where the vulture just straight up lands next to Michael as he’s surveying his doomed housing development? Journey to Italy is like that for the Joyces’ marriage, except good. Really good. Journey to Italy is a perfect movie about marriage, unequaled until Scenes from a Marriage, and it took Bergman four and a half hours to do what Rossellini did in less than an hour and a half. Alex and Katherine are short with each other early on, somewhere between disinterested and a little frustrated. Something about Italy makes Katherine think of a dead poet friend, which is very James Joyce. Nothing about Italy has taken the edge off of Alex. It doesn’t take long to realize that these two are actively sick of each other, and that try as they might being in a different place— has not, go figure, made their feelings about one another different. Rossellini surrounds Ingrid Bergman in particular with images of death: a disturbing and very personal ossuary, the statues made by figures of the distant past, Pompeii. When they talk about films having atmosphere, the best version of it is here in Journey to Italy, which recognizes no difference between the feeling in the couple’s hearts and the world they bumble about in.
11) Nights of Cabiria (1957, dir. Federico Fellini)
This is the only Fellini film I’ve watched this year. Last year I watched Juliet of the Spirits, and it left such a bad taste in my mouth that I was in no hurry to pick up Fellini again. Nights of Cabiria is the perfect antidote to Juliet of the Spirits, a movie which is almost as weird in practice as its sister but more frenetic. Giulietta Masina is the only person in the world who could have played Cabiria, an empirically foolish and silly woman whose dream is to be a real person, like it’s something one aspires to. Playing half of that person is simple enough, which is clear from Shirley MacLaine’s performance in Sweet Charity. But doing both is nearly impossible, and for Masina to play a woman who gets robbed by a lover not once but twice, who under hypnosis and a church service bares her soul in a crowd, and who weeps a tear of melancholy joy at the end of the film is nothing less than exceptional.
46) A Letter to Three Wives (1949, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Addie Ross is unseen in A Letter to Three Wives, which is just as well because she couldn’t ever exist anyway. She is the absolute male fantasy: half Melanie Hamilton, half Scarlett O’Hara. She is emblematic of class, grace, and charm, and all the same they can’t stop thinking about how good she would be in bed. It’s that latter piece that gets Deborah, Rita, and Lora Mae worried, and which forces them to remember some recent event which they know has made their husbands think less of them. For Deborah, a rube playacting as suburbanite, she is painfully aware that her husband would love it if she had Addie’s style. For Rita, who writes radio soaps, she knows that Addie’s cultural sophistication appeals to her schoolteacher husband. For Lora Mae, a beauty picked off the scrap heap of the local slums, the difference between her and Addie is most pronounced because her husband pronounces it so often in her presence. If it had been made thirty years later, the ending would have been quite different; if it had been made fifty years later, the ending would have been the same. I wonder how things might have been different if victorious adultery hadn’t been taboo in Hollywood, and all the same I think the point is made: the upside in being someone’s wife in ’40s America simply ain’t that good.
26) The Palm Beach Story (1942, dir. Preston Sturges)
The Palm Beach Story sees your “this woman has a small leopard and a dog with a hankering for this paleontologist’s bone” and raises you “two pairs of identical twins are introduced in a historically unsettling credits sequence and then basically forgotten about until they can be released for maximum disorder.” I almost have a hard time describing this movie because of how ridiculously everything is set up, and yet the landing is silky smooth; this is the Chesley Sullenberger of screwball comedy. It’s the Preston Sturges guarantee, and although a year and a half ago I ranked two of his movies higher, I don’t know that I’d be able to do that again knowing what I know now about Toto. One of the great pleasures of moviewatching is being unable to keep from laughing when a person even appears onscreen; Sig Arno, speaking some absolute indecipherable nonsense, is the king of The Palm Beach Story, but from there I like just about everyone else in the movie (Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, even Rudy Vallee) more than I like them anywhere else. Leningrad Cowboys made me laugh more than any other movie I watched this year, but The Palm Beach Story was a very respectable second. Go shoot the crap out of a train with your hunting club.
32) My Night at Maud’s (1969, dir. Eric Rohmer)
This movie had me at “applications of the philosophy of Blaise Pascal,” but My Night at Maud’s is hands-down the sexiest movie I have ever seen. There’s no sex scene, no silky lingerie, no steamed-up car windows. It’s Francoise Fabian making her own wager with the Pascalian Jean-Louis Trintignant: you know we want each other, and you won’t be able to stay the night without succumbing to me. This movie, as I’m sure is the case for a whole lot of people, introduced me to Eric Rohmer, who stands with Bergman, Mizoguchi, Rossellini, Hitchcock, Ford, Melville, Wyler, and Chaplin as one of the directors whose work most filled my year. This is the best of his Moral Tales, the headiest mixture of attentive camerawork, searing dialogue, and, well, morality. The primary difference between this movie and the rest of Rohmer’s Moral Tales is Trintignant. There are performances by women which are nearly as strong as Fabian’s, although not like hers at all. But Jean-Claude Brialy and Bernard Varley are nowhere near as interesting as Trintignant is in this movie. These men are too turtlenecky, too self-consciously suave. Trintignant’s pushy nerd is less predictable than his compeers, and thus what he’ll do is far more interesting.
Tier 6: We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
21) Spirited Away (2001, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
No movie I watched this year filled me with such longing. The fact that I felt this longing for, what, a gross and thankless job at a magic spa, is what makes that seem inconceivable to me. I didn’t like the main character all that much, nor did I really find myself taken with the villain or the majority of the supporting characters. But I know that as the credits rolled, I wanted to go back and watch this movie again. This place, luminously colored and just real enough to make the strangeness possible, was so enchanting. Watching the train go over the water to endless stations, through day and night, past isolated houses, dropping off shapeless commuters, was hypnotizing. The glow of lights in rain, a common effect drawn for the film, made me mothlike. Even if this is a world filled with hard labor and trickery, it is also one that is distractingly beautiful; no wonder Chihiro spends so much time gaping at what she finds, and no wonder this movie has captured so many hearts.
28) Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989, dir. Aki Kaurismaki)
I did everything short of barf because of how hard I laughed during this movie, which just absolutely slays. Stay for a minute past the hair and the shoes and the occasionally spectacular musical number, though, and this makes itself known as a brilliant road movie. From New York to the Deep South (and of course to Mexico, where the Cowboys finally get some work), they traverse an America that we don’t often see in our movies. The people of Louisiana, say, don’t have much, and yet they aren’t condescended to. If they are poor, the point isn’t to make us pity their poverty. And if they have a good time, it’s not a comment on the American people; Kaurismaki isn’t doing Tocqueville. This is a subjective film that points and shoots what it sees, and which takes all of it basically in stride. The Cowboys are, although no one ever says it, immigrants trying to figure out the right path in America. They are forced to change from their polkas to increasingly modern types of rock once they come to the States. They only really start to become popular once they bring on a distant relative who is born and raised with these Americans, who give them the side-eye as much as they welcome them. And what they find in the land is quite different than what they were used to in Siberia. Swamps replace steppes, and they have to learn this new terrain in more ways than one.
6) Walkabout (1971, dir. Nicolas Roeg)
Occasionally harrowing but mostly awe-inspiring, Walkabout defies easy description. The simplest way to talk about it is to say it’s about two British children lost in the Outback who are saved by an Aboriginal teenager on Walkabout. It’s not that simple, obviously. Walkabout is like a crash course in literary theory on film, a masterpiece of ecocriticism, second-wave feminism, postcolonialism, and deconstruction, and all of it is succinctly contained in a ravishingly shot portrait of Australia from the perspective of two types of outsiders.
41) The Lost City of Z (2016, dir. James Gray)
In spite of the general consensus that his hypotheses of an ancient city buried deep in the Amazon are foolish, Fawcett seems to grow more confident with every journey he takes to South America. His first one requires a guide, and we can sense a trepidation that he will not feel on later voyages up the river. He is feeling out the terrain, sensing his limits. By the time he takes his son to the Amazon with him, a son he has hardly known for spending so much time in South America, he borders brashness. (Tellingly, the first trip to the jungle is misty, difficult to see through, perpetually cloudy. The second expedition is a more clearsighted one, but the last is very much more like the first.) His old partner, Costin, refuses to go on such a trip, worrying that he may have already run through his chances to cheat death. Fawcett is dismayed but undeterred. What happens in the end is rather what we might have expected, and yet the film doesn’t cast Fawcett as a failure even though he can neither report back on Z or report back to his wife. He has seen more and learned more and experienced more and wagered more than any other person in the film, and for that The Lost City of Z respects its protagonist while quietly pointing out the flaws in the approach.
36) Maria Full of Grace (2004, dir. Joshua Marston)
What happened to this movie, and why aren’t people still talking about it? Maria is an exceptional character study, whipsmart on the subject of teenagers and the way they think. Maria is tired of feeling beholden to a mother, of feeling passed over for another sister, of feeling like no one takes her seriously. She wants to be an adult, but the way she acts with her supposed boyfriend makes it clear she doesn’t know how to do that; like most teenagers who think they are intrepid butterflies busting out of the chrysalis, she clashes with her mother more than she ought. Her mediocre job dealing with flowers is just that, but it’s stable; naturally she wants to get out of there as soon as possible. Becoming a drug mule is a choice that makes her an adult, although it’s not in the way she thinks. Maria is a scary, scary movie, and those first twenty-four hours in America are probably the scariest of all. (My gag reflex has frightened dentists for years; I don’t even want to think about her swallowing all of this packages.) After watching an experienced mule sweat and suffer during the entire flight—one or more of the pellets has basically exploded inside of her—Maria barely sneaks through customs, is wrapped up in a van, and locked up with her increasingly unsympathetic friend while they try desperately to help the other girl. It doesn’t end well, and Maria finds herself, like the Cowboys, trying to negotiate an intimidating and impatient new country. Catalina Sandino Moreno is still working, but she gives an absolute all-timer of a performance when she was the same age as most college seniors, blending naivete, self-preservation, and a conscience which emboldens her.
24) Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016, dir. Bill Morrison)
The Yukon is another world. The early 20th Century is definitely another world. Bill Morrison’s documentary uses the promise of ultra-rare found footage from some silent movies as its entry point, but really he’s most interested in the half-lives of a boom town. Life was surprisingly normal despite the unbelievable and remote cold, we find. They had the saloons and some of the violence and definitely the fires, but they also had the movie theater and the hockey rink and the small businesses. Dawson City doesn’t shy away from letting us know about the immense difficulty of the time, but it layers in the stories of these miraculously found movies with their own destruction. The residents of Dawson City in the 1970s and before knew that the nitrate would catch, and so they’d light some of the celluloid on fire; their forbears had shipped some of those old precious reels into the river for lack of anything else to do with them. And some of the film still survives, of course, but with patches and deformations and indescribable patterns in the print. It’s a metaphor for the town itself, but Morrison is never so gauche as to say it himself. The documentary is mostly silent, mostly black and white, and entirely captivating. It’s not really a story he’s telling so much as a headspace.
Tier 7: World War II and the Postwar Reckoning
47) The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, dir. George Stevens)
Maybe this is an overstatement, but I’m not sure another movie I watched this year combined, in a single sequence, utter terror and total silliness. But that’s exactly what happens in the most famous chapter from The Diary of Anne Frank, when the Nazis, brought to the office below the Secret Annex because of a thief, ascend the stairs. One, in a very literal Dutch angle, takes his flashlight and goes searching. The light pours in through the cracks of the bookshelf-door. It illuminates the faces of Anne and Peter, who will be the first to be taken if the soldier finds them. Meanwhile, a cat finds some food in a funnel, sticking his entire face into it to lick out the scraps; there’s barely enough food for the people there. By now another Nazi has shown up. The cat finds the better part of a sandwich, chows down on it, and the residents of the Secret Annex are now no longer focusing on the Nazis but are looking stage right to the cat, who knocks the dish into the sink, mews, and jumps down. It seems like it ought to be curtains for them—an indisputable noise from a place where there should be no people. But the Nazis look at each other and laugh; it’s a cat, they say, and return to where they came from. It’s a very cute cat doing very meme things while lives hang by the thinnest thread. This is the scene I think of first for George Stevens. There’s a man in there like the one who made The More the Merrier and then rushed off to war, who knew how to make us laugh, but there’s also the man who filmed Dachau firsthand and knew that the world couldn’t be that lighthearted ever again.
27) Night and Fog (1950, dir. Alain Resnais)
At thirty-two minutes, Night and Fog is easily the shortest movie on this list and, I guess predictably, one of the most memorable. I feel like the only thing I write about is how badly the Holocaust translates to narrative cinema with very rare exceptions. (See above.) Night and Fog removes the artifice, relying a little on footage Resnais shot of some concentration camps and overwhelmingly on footage shot during the war. Michael Bouquet’s narration, written by Holocaust survivor Jean Cayrol, is spare and to the point, beautifully crafted but very much short of floral. Resnais and Cayrol approach the camps with the same trepidation and search for a streamlined continuity that the vast majority of commentators professional or otherwise share. In one sequence, the trains in historical footage are sent off, and the film cuts to contemporary footage following the train tracks. Where, the narration wonders, are the signs of death? Of the evil that occurred there? Where are the people who were shunted into the night and fog? The answer, which the film doesn’t need to give us, is that there is no obvious sign. The stones will not rise up and speak if people forget the atrocities, and so the task must be left to those still living. Night and Fog does just that, and does so with absolute decorum.
17) Paisan (1946, dir. Roberto Rossellini)
Rome, Open City is the great neorealist classic and Germany Year Zero is the stark tearjerker, I suppose, but Paisan is, in my mind, the mightiest picture of Rossellini’s War Trilogy. Broken into its six episodes, each about the (ugh) “failure to communicate,” Paisan finds six ways to make us feel what it was to be in Italy once the Americans invaded. The first and third sections connect American soldiers with Italian women, who win them over only to find that the joys of these new girls is short-lived. One is assigned to keep an eye on the unit’s Italian guide who they don’t trust all that much, and the other meets an Italian girl and falls in love during the liberation of Rome. Unsurprisingly it doesn’t end well for either of them, because Paisan is utterly dour about the war. Mussolini may have died and the Fascists were defeated, but it is a war that Italy emphatically lost. The final chapter of Paisan, and probably the best of them, focuses on American agents and Italian partisans trying to rescue British flyers. Outnumbered by the Nazis, these few men run out of ammunition, are captured, and finally are executed. One hopes for them, but from the beginning we know their situation is hopeless. A bobbing body with a sign on it (“Partisan,” in italiano) floated down the Po while regular Italians look on and gape; it’s not the beginning, really, but a cycle.
25) Le silence de la mer (1949, dir. Jean-Pierre Melville)
9) Army of Shadows (1969, dir. Jean-Pierre Melville)
Made twenty years distant from each other, the character of these two movies are also quite different. Le silence de la mer is about normal French citizens who are forced to suffer the Nazis, although the silence they do it in is not necessarily required. Army of Shadows is about the French who refused to suffer silently, who made it their mission to reject the Germans as loudly and lethally as possible. Both visions are brilliant. The former is more complex, I think, although it’s a much simpler movie with only a few sets and a smaller cast of characters. A man and his niece quarter a Nazi officer and decide not to speak to him even a little. The officer, who speaks fluent French and intimately knows French culture and literature, fills the gaps in conversation himself. He loves music and likes to play it. He is utterly courteous to his unwilling hosts. He is a Good German, in other words, one who does not particularly care for the principles of Nazism but who sees military service as a patriotic goal unto itself: y’know, sort of like the Americans who volunteered for the Vietnam War. The uncle, who narrates the movie, finds himself hating the uniform and in the end even pitying the officer, whose sheer idealism is fractured when he realizes that the idealism of his Nazi officer corps is, of course, totally monstrous. Le silence is a tightly, tightly wrapped chamber play in which the walls of the little house are never out of the camera’s view. Everyone in this conception of the war is trapped. So are they trapped in Army of Shadows, a film where even the most loyal and most resourceful Resistance members can be gunned down or imprisoned or worse. Death is an uncredited player in that movie, because choosing to enter the Resistance is a suicide mission as sure as what the German officer of Le silence chooses by the end. Either the Nazis find you, you betray your comrades, and they kill you, or the Nazis find you and they kill you before your friends can. Like Paisan, a movie made after the war was won, Army of Shadows brings us back to the feeling of what it was like to die through the evil times.
50) 49th Parallel (1941, dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
Remember a few years ago, when every recipe had “bacon” or “sriracha” in it, and how awful that was? Something similar happened to Anglo-American filmmaking during World War II, where it seems that just about everything had the war stamped on it. 49th Parallel is an early Powell and Pressburger collaboration, and what might have been a fairly simple movie about a manhunt in peacetime becomes a referendum on Canadian participation in the war, which is really a referendum on America’s then-neutral status. A German U-boat surfaces in Hudson Bay, with orders to wreak havoc on Canada as far as they’re able. A few of the sailors are put onshore to do some dirty work, and not long after that the sub is sunk by Canadian bombers. What follows is a tour of Canada, as the leader of the group and his rapidly diminishing command tries to stay one step ahead of the Canadians hot on their tail. It’s a top-notch thriller that mixes in the occasionally poignant sequence; Leslie Howard’s death at the hands of the Luftwaffe two years after 49th Parallel was released has layered the film with more sadness than I think it wants. The best of the chapters slows the pace of the film down a little bit. The Germans find themselves on Hutterite land, and their assumption that these German descendants will be friendly to the Reich is misplaced. They are friendly—Anton Walbrook, plays their leader, who is civil but suspicious—but they mean what they say about peace and living simply. It is the one piece of the film that does not end with a fight between the Germans and Canadians; it ends much more robustly, with the Germans executing one of their own when he tries to stay behind and bake bread with his new Hutterite brethren. No element of the film gets Powell and Pressburger’s propagandistic point across more clearly.
34) The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993, dir. Ray Muller)
Before I saw this movie, I thought it possible, if not necessarily credible, that Leni Riefenstahl might have been ignorant of what she did. It doesn’t take long to realize that even if Leni Riefenstahl was the most apolitical person to live, the most credulous person to ever pick up a camera, the most aesthetic painter to ever aesthete, she would still have been smart. The Wonderful, Horrible Life was released when Riefenstahl was over ninety, but she has the lucidity of a person half that age in the interviews she does with Muller. Surely in the 1930s she must have been an absolute force, and there is no doubt that she must have known what was happening. She was too smart not to know where the extras came from in Tiefland. She was too smart not to know what Triumph of the Will would do to the people who saw. She was too smart not to read between her own lines in Olympia. And she was too smart not to realize who Hitler and Goebbels and Himmler were! Riefenstahl has an answer to everything in this picture, and that’s the final nail in the coffin: with the years behind her to practice her answers the way she practiced her lines in the mountain films she acted in, she can gild her activity during the years of the Third Reich. The problem is that gilt is all too easy to peel away, a fact that Muller understands and brings out brilliantly over three speedy hours.
2) Late Spring (1949, dir. Yasujiro Ozu)
Why is there a long interlude in Late Spring featuring the Noh theater? Why does it matter how many tons can drive on a road where Noriko rides her bike? Why is it so hard to find a young man to marry, anyway? Why does Noriko cling so closely to her father, Shukichi? It’s because the Americans, by dint of the occupation, have emasculated Japanese culture, have set aside the roads for troops and munitions, have killed the flower of a generation, have obliterated security. From this background Ozu made arguably his best movie, one that I can’t believe I put off as long as I did. It’s a perfect movie.
Tier 8: Funny in the Worst Way
44) Five Easy Pieces (1970, dir. Bob Rafelson)
40) The Last Detail (1973, dir. Hal Ashby)
Jack Nicholson’s brilliance as a comic actor in his early years of fame was something that prior to this year I had read about but not experienced much for myself. Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, and The Last Detail are a wonderful tetralogy, each one showcasing a different Nicholson than the other. Here, I made a very scientific chart:
Orange is Easy Rider, red is Marvin Gardens, purple is Five Easy Pieces, and green is The Last Detail. For me, that purple is the sweet spot for him. As much as the voice is part of who Nicholson is, it’s also less effective than a face which is almost as expressive as Jim Carrey’s and much more memorable. His scowls in Five Easy Pieces are works of art as much as his leers, the way into believing that the darkness he carries around with him isn’t just teenybopper angst. The movie’s reasons for Bobby’s anger are a little soft—his relationship with his father is broken beyond repair—but Nicholson’s performance as someone who lives with that anger, who denies his talent and ability in order to spite the father who brought music into his life, is believable. It makes us believe in him when he’s shouting at a Denny’s waitress who doesn’t feel very compliant, when he refuses to jettison Rayette because he’s sensitive to the difference in their social class but more because she’s a great lay, when he is kind to the sister who is still family but not an enemy. Five Easy Pieces is a funny movie because of Nicholson’s ability to get us to laugh at Bobby’s pretensions while tolerating the man. The Last Detail is a funny movie because Nicholson goes full psycho without indulging the ham brought out in A Few Good Men. Billy Buddusky (but that’s “Badass” to you) swears up and down, threatens virtually everyone in his path, screams and rants and raves and complains and bitches and does all of those things a few times more. He is not a raw wound but chafed skin; no matter how muscular Nicholson got for the role, no matter how thick his mustache is, and no matter how angry he gets, each time he gets a little smaller. Badass is countered on all sides by checks to his power. Mulhall is there, and Mulhall has more sense. Meadows is there, a reminder of the job he’s been ordered to do even if he sees no reason the kid ought to rot in military prison. And the Navy hangs over all of it, the most puissant and unfair and terrible and incontrovertible power of them all. If we’ve ever laughed at a terrier yipping at a lab, we know what it’s like to laugh at Buddusky, too.
33) Ace in the Hole (1951, dir. Billy Wilder)
More “but not in the ‘ha ha’ sense” humor from Wilder, whose take on the news is more prescient than Paddy Chayefsky’s in Network because, quite frankly, Wilder understands that newsmen make the news. Chuck Tatum, a brilliant newspaperman whose personality precedes him, decides to get back into the game because he recognizes the human interest angle of a man trapped in a cave-in. Although the man could be gotten out in a matter of hours, Tatum decides to take advantage of the situation: the right combination of ambitious politicians, dumb crackers, moneygrubbing salespeople can turn this into a circus. He’s not wrong, and for a while his plan to bring the ill-fated Leo Mimosa out as slowly and dramatically as possible makes him the second-most interesting man in the country. The problem is that Tatum cannot see all ends; he has not planned for any eventuality except the one that best suits him and his career. That such a hitch does arise and place him directly in the cross hairs of responsibility makes this movie tremendously funny. The reason we know it’s a parable and not a documentary is that Tatum connects the dots and recognizes his culpability and is changed by that fact. Few are the journalists of any stripe today with that sort of conscience, no matter what kind of cave-in trapped it in the first place.
12) The Exterminating Angel (1962, dir. Luis Bunuel)
The subplot with the poors in Titanic has something in common with the first twenty minutes or so of The Exterminating Angel. The Irish and other various disciples of Leonardo DiCaprio’s steerage party follow a trail of rats running as fast as they can; the rats know how to get off the sinking ship. The servants do much the same thing in The Exterminating Angel: they are overwhelmed with some sense that they must get out, and they do. The wealthy are left to the lifeboats of their own making, and in The Exterminating Angel those are slim indeed. It has one of the great premises: once the guests of an elegant party enter a room, they find themselves unable to leave. There is no door to this room, and there is nothing strange or hostile about the rest of the house, and none of them have changed. They simply cannot leave. It’s a premise which is funny enough on its own and which becomes somehow more and less absurd the longer the movie goes on. One begins to accept the premise that these educated, well-bred people simply can’t get out, and yet the longer none of them just walk across the border to the next room the more ridiculous the entire ordeal becomes. The room claims three of them, some number of unfortunate sheep, and every ounce of dignity and superiority that these people believe they have. Bunuel, for his part, sells the ruse, cramming every frame with multiple people and plotting out states of disorder coded by falling coiffures, strewn jackets, and a set that increasingly appears to have survived a bombing raid.
Tier 9: Genres I’d Basically Given Up On
29) All That Jazz (1979, dir. Bob Fosse
“To be on the wire is life,” Joe Gideon quips early on in All That Jazz. The wire that All That Jazz walks on is lively, sure, but for the majority of the film it’s more like sticking a paper clip in a socket. Sometimes it doesn’t do very much at all, as it does during the unusual impediment of Airotica. And sometimes it gives you such a buzz in your hand that it overwhelms all the nerves and leaves you gasping with awe, as the film does during its opening and closing musical scenes. (Author’s note: don’t stick paper clips in the outlets, because one of those times it really will get you right in the middle of Biology class and you’ll feel like an idiot.) All That Jazz is the capstone on Bob Fosse’s uneven and occasionally spectacular directing career; we’re just gonna leave Star 80 out because who cares. Yet it’s also a statement, to some extent, on his personal life. All That Jazz has gotten comparisons to 8 1/2, and there’s not a serious comparison in terms of quality. The fact that All That Jazz doesn’t wilt under the comparison, though, is something, and heaven knows it’s a more entertaining movie to watch. If ever you’ve been taken in by “theatricality” or “the glitz and glamour of showbiz,” All That Jazz sees you, recognizes you, and has some Dexedrine with your name on it.
45) Loving (2016, dir. Jeff Nichols)
I spent a lot of time in my original review of this movie talking about how annoying biopics can be, and worse, how frequently they serve simply as prestige vehicles for movie stars out for trophies, so I’ll skip that speech. Loving benefits from the fact that it does not have a giant star in either of its leading roles. It benefits from Jeff Nichols’ powerfully understated direction, his belief in a film which depicts believable characters rather than Hollywoodized types on a mission to fulfill their character arcs. It benefits from Joel Edgerton’s risky performance, so quiet and taciturn that it would be bland if he couldn’t show us Richard Loving’s force of will and ability to learn. It benefits from Ruth Negga’s performance, which is unpretentious and steely. In short, it is not a model for profitable biopics or, as it’s turned out, award-winning biopics; it is a model for anyone looking to make a genuinely affecting picture about real people acting like real people.
38) Caravaggio (1986, dir. Derek Jarman)
Then there’s Caravaggio, which I wouldn’t call a biopic and neither should you, really. It’s such a dramatic movie even though very little happens in it because of its uncommon mise-en-scène, which simultaneously combines bold anachronisms (the typewriter is my favorite – somehow out of date no matter how you look at it) with sets that mirror the real Caravaggio’s distinctive paintings. Nigel Terry is remarkable in the part, even if the movie is remembered now for a young and ribald Sean Bean and a young and fluid Tilda Swinton. As Caravaggio, Terry supplies energy and sexuality in long stretches, but then again the movie does begin with him on his deathbed, cutting back to him there now and then. There’s nothing particularly real about the events of Caravaggio, but in its own way, it gets at Jarman’s truth about the painter and pugilist. (I imagine Jarman himself would have thought Caravaggio a far more realistic text than Loving, and I dunno that I’d want to argue about it.) Art and violence go way back for Jarman, who was roughly equidistant between Jubilee and Blue. Caravaggio, although it does not on its surface have much to do with its older punky sibling, has the same kind of understanding that creativity, making something, often requires destruction followed by creation. How else would Caravaggio paint a corpse he had possibly just satisfied himself with?
30) Witness (1985, dir. Peter Weir)
Peter Weir’s last movie was The Way Back, which was released in 2010. Before that, he hadn’t made a movie since Master and Commander in 2003. I think it’s safe to say he’s about done, and the career he leaves behind him is utterly strange to me. Master and Commander is on the dust jacket for the book “Movies They Don’t Make Anymore.” The Truman Show and The Year of Living Dangerously are high-concept and low-emotion. Dead Poets Society is going to go up against the wall pretty early when the revolution comes. But this is the same man who made Picnic at Hanging Rock and Witness, which are two of my twenty or so favorite movies ever made. I love Witness. The fastest way to my heart in a movie is to make it serious about faith, and Witness, which never condescends to the Amish even though popular culture seems hellbent on finding ways to make fun of a people who believe wholeheartedly enough to leave the world behind. At his best, Weir can/could balance deeply meditative elements with heartpounding action, and Witness is his greatest testament to that rare ability. Jan Rubes’ monologue about the evil of violence is followed up not long after with a man asphyxiating in a corn silo, itself followed up by the implicit witness that a crowd of Amish folks intend to give should Schaeffer fire on Book. Cop movies often clean up the bloody corpses and wonder “Why do we do this?” That question means much more in Witness because the movie takes it seriously.
48) Separate Tables (1958, dir. Delbert Mann)
Separate Tables squeezes an awful lot of people into a little seaside hotel: Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Deborah Kerr, David Niven, and Wendy Hiller are all running around there, and that doesn’t include Rod Taylor, Felix Aylmer, Gladys Cooper, May Hallatt, etc. Gone with the Wind has a million people too, but that’s a movie which is twice as long as Separate Tables and unifies everyone around a single plot. Yet Separate Tables is never truly crowded by its cast or its number of plots, and more than that each one is focused enough to draw us in because each one is similar in its own way. Separate Tables is about people whose pride gets cut to ribbons over the course of twenty-four hours, and how they react to the shuddering. Pollock is a deeply pathetic man, and the report of his sexual harassment in the newspaper also makes plain that he was never the military hero—or the officer—he has been playacting as. Miss Cooper, not as young or beautiful or exciting as her fiance’s ex, stands aside. Mrs. Railton-Bell comes a cropper when her coercive power collapses underneath her. John realizes that he isn’t the reformed man he gave himself credit for being. There’s such an understated ending in the film that does a beautiful thing: it allows you to work out your own feelings toward the characters without pressuring us in any one direction.
39) The Browning Version (1951, dir. Anthony Asquith)
Tired: Tennessee Williams adaptations. Wired: Terence Rattigan adaptations.
Short of the regular stuff—crippling poverty, hamfisted political meddling—there may not be another cultural element as damaging to education as a profession as the movie business. People watch movies like Goodbye, Mr. Chips or To Sir, with Love or The Blackboard Jungle or, God forbid, Waiting for Superman and walk away thinking that any fool can walk into a classroom and expect a miracle. The Browning Version would work even if its protagonist, Crocker-Harris, worked in an entirely different profession. But the humiliation and desperate hope that you’ve done something worthwhile is, if not special to teachers, part and parcel of the job. Sneered at by children, condescended to by adults, hated by his wife, and forsaken by his own body, Crocker-Harris spends the movie trudging into a chasm. There’s a great deal of hope for him at the end of the movie, far more than I think the story ought to have. All the same, here’s a movie about a teacher who does not empower or ennoble anyone. It is enough of a struggle for him to go on with the rest of his life without turning water into wine.
Tier 10: Contemporary American Movies
42) First Refomed (2017, dir. Paul Schrader)
First Reformed ends hopefully, and it does so believing in the hope we might gain from other people. What First Reformed doesn’t do is give us hope for the planet as we know it, and I think it’s because Schrader realizes there isn’t any. Will there be more movies which consider the environment in the years to come? Will they be as bleak and doubtful? Certainly not, for there isn’t enough money in this sort of realistic drama compared to the glory of blind optimism. This must be the best movie about staring down global climate change—Snowpiercer looks backward at it, and An Inconvenient Truth failed—and realizing that it may be immoral, even sinful, to bring a child into a world this irrevocably broken. In Winter Light, which First Reformed straight up plagiarizes, one character is worried to death about what the Chinese will do with their nukes. His analog in First Reformed does him one better; he is worried to death about global climate change. We know that the character from Winter Light needn’t have killed himself because of the possibility of nuclear holocaust, but could we have expected the one from First Reformed to do anything else when the facts so clearly show us the world is ending?
43) Sorry to Bother You (2018, dir. Boots Riley)
Sorry to Bother You is a movie nearly as odd as House, but where House is pretty clearly a punchbowl containing about fifty fantasies, Sorry to Bother You is a this-is-insane-but-is-it-really satire with far fewer fantasies and a much more potent kick in the caboose. I know I said there were spoilers up there, but I really don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t seen this movie, which I thought was going in one direction with a fairly direct critique of late-stage capitalism and turns out to have gone in a totally different direction with a way more incisive set of ideas. Just a few things: let’s watch more movies with Lakeith Stanfield, let’s give Boots Riley a three-picture deal somewhere, and if Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk had the idea that Armie Hammer’s character had in this movie, his stock prices would absolutely skyrocket.
35) Columbus (2017, dir. Kogonada)
One of the most elegant movies made in America in the past decade or so, anchored in the unusual and fascinating history of Columbus, Indiana, and witnessed through the eyes of two people who have the education to know how marvelous the town is and who desperately wish they weren’t there. Casey wants to become an architect, but cannot tear herself away from mothering her druggie mom; Jin has come from South Korea because his father, an eminent architectural historian, has been hospitalized there. Even if John Cho is twice Haley Lu Richardson’s age, the fact that both of them have parents who have let their kids down is most of what their characters need to connect. In an early scene Jin expresses his discontent just having to come to America in a not-critique of the culture he’s left: Family is the most important thing, but work is the most important thing to, so you’re still on deadline. He’d rather be on deadline than preparing to do whatever performative mourning he cannot identify with for this father he feels no bond with. Casey, we find, would give anything to have a father like Jin’s, seeing as she’s been eating up every architectural lecture and giving as many architectural tours of the town as she can. That modern architecture gives her the clue she needs that her mother has betrayed her trust is so fitting, so perfectly designed. The entire movie is designed this way, with absolutely gorgeous shots that never let you forget the town’s architectural position (“quite the Mecca,” Jin quips) or the fact that it’d be as easy to be sucked up in the relative nothingness of the town as it would in Sirk’s Stoningham or Bogdanovich’s Anarene.