10 great last films

With its heartbreaking story of life moving on, Yasujiro Ozu’s final film before his death, An Autumn Afternoon, ranks among his very best. Which other directors bowed out with masterpieces?

Samuel Wigley
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An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

Yasujiro Ozu made an incredible 53 feature films in his lifetime, before he died aged 60 in 1963. No one who grows to love his films would be without many of them, even if there’s an easy joke to be made about not being able to tell the later domestic dramas apart. And so it goes with his final film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962). The story is similar-to-identical to that of Late Spring (1949) and Late Autumn (1960): an ageing widower (Chishu Ryu) gently persuades his doting daughter to marry, even though he knows her marriage will leave him to live out his days alone.

Told in Ozu’s inimitable style of front-on shots, with the camera placed at seating level, it’s a heartbreaking tale of familial duty and selflessness, typically unsentimental yet devastating in its final effect. Ozu had already done this idea absolute justice with Late Spring, so it’s not as if the subsequent films were attempts at improving on it. Instead, he whittled away at this set-up that so preoccupied him, trying gentle variations, reshuffling the same cards to come up with a subtly different order. For all its autumnal finality, An Autumn Afternoon is less a summation of the director’s career than one more exquisite refraction of the elements that he’d come to perfect.

Not all great directors leave behind a final film to be so proud of, or that could safely be ranked among their best. Declining health, waning creativity or simply the bad luck of bowing out after an off-key film (with who knows what gems still potentially ahead) stack the odds against it. But, once in a while, pure gold is struck, as these 10 tours de force prove.

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

Director F.W. Murnau

Tragically, F.W. Murnau died after a car crash on the Pacific Coast Highway, one week before what would be his final film premiered in New York. He was 42. His swansong project, Tabu, found him moving away from the artifice of his Hollywood superproduction, Sunrise (1927), into the bright light of the South Seas. Set in French Polynesia, it’s the story of two lovers who flee their home island after the girl is chosen as a holy maid to the gods – and is therefore taboo for the attentions of men.

Murnau worked on the project with ethnographic documentary-maker Robert Flaherty, but the two differed in their aims for the film. Flaherty wanted veracity and naturalism; Murnau was a poet who saw the exotic locale as a springboard for visual poetry and a study in physical sensuousness. The result is contentious as a record of the native islanders’ disappearing way of life, but immortal as a fable about an Eden eclipsed, filmed with rapturous feeling and lyricism. Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes paid tribute to Murnau’s two-part paradise/paradise lost structure in his 2012 film Tabu.

Lola Montès (1955)

Director Max Ophüls

The ultimate (in both senses of that word) Max Ophüls film was made in France in 1955, two years before the director’s death. With fluid travelling shots and endlessly shifting compositions that surpass even his other late masterworks, La Ronde (1950) and Madame de… (1953), the director’s accomplishment with Lola Montès put critic David Thomson in mind of “some butterfly that discovers the most demanding and balletic movements in the air just before it expires”.

Also Ophüls’ first film in colour, it dramatises vignettes from the life of the eponymous 19th-century adventuress – her travels and romantic exploits with figures such as Franz Liszt and Ludwig II. These memories, served up for the sensational appetites of the crowd, are recalled via flashbacks from a circus ring, where she has become an attraction under the aegis of Peter Ustinov’s master of ceremonies. It was this complex structure that proved the film’s undoing at the box office, leading its producers to reorder the narrative and hack down the running time. It would be half a century before Ophüls’ original vision was restored and experienced again in its elaborate glory.

Street of Shame (1956)

Director Kenji Mizoguchi

Kenji Mizoguchi’s most famous later films, the period masterpieces Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho Dayu (1954), might give the impression of an ageing director retreating from his own time and into the distant past, but his last film gives the lie to that. Returning to the theme of prostitution which had figured in his work since the 1930s, Street of Shame brings a stripped-from-the-news urgency to its look at the rivalry and camaraderie among five women working in a brothel called ‘Dreamland’ in Tokyo’s red light district.

Rather as Robert Altman would do in the 1970s, Mizoguchi includes radio broadcasts in the background of the drama, here tying the story to the precise moment of a Japanese governmental debate about prostitution in the mid-1950s. Given that an anti-prostitution law was passed a few months after the film’s (wildly successful) release in 1956, the old master could hardly have been more relevant with this final testament. Moreover, few other filmmakers in the world at this time were looking at women’s issues with such clarity of purpose. Neither prurient nor prudish, Street of Shame remains a forceful account of the economic and emotional ties that bind lives in the sex industry. Mizoguchi died, aged 58, in the August after the film was released.

Gertrud (1964)

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer

Gertrud is in some senses the quintessential final film: it’s the one that typifies the idea of a tranquil serenity settling over a director’s last testament; the one where pace has slowed to an almost beatific calm; the one which was misunderstood, even booed, by critics upon release, only for history later to judge it among the greatest of films. The old man had been right all along.

Nearly a decade had passed since the last Dreyer release, Ordet (1955), during which time various new waves had crashed around the world, modernising and re-energising cinema in the process. Few knew what to make of this seemingly old-fashioned (it’s set in period garb at the turn of the 20th century) and theatrical (many of the shots are long, front on and static) adaptation of a Hjalmar Söderberg play about an upper-class woman’s romantic regret. Dreyer “just sets up his camera and photographs people talking to each other”, complained Esquire magazine, noticing neither the film’s very cinematic visual play with white light, mirrors and shadow nor the piercing, incantatory quality to the dialogues. Gertrud is slow, sure, but it creeps up on you as a sublime account of the affairs of a human heart. Dreyer’s long cherished film about the life of Christ never materialised, and the great filmmaker died in 1968.

Family Plot (1976)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

No twilit solemnity here; instead, the master of suspense bowed out with a twinkling, relaxed, buoyant thriller about two shady couples whose paths become entwined: a phony spiritualist and her ne’er-do-well boyfriend (Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern), and a jeweller and his partner (William Devane and Karen Black) who have a sideline in kidnapping millionaires, demanding diamonds as ransom.

It’s one last film to cherish from the director who’d made great films in every decade from the 1920s to the 1970s, though credit must also belong to screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who’d likewise helped make Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) such a delight. Hitch was working on a spy thriller in the run-up to his death in 1980, but the final shot of Family Plot – of Barbara Harris winking directly at the audience – seems a fitting enough coda to a mischievous and unceasingly playful body of work.

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Director Luis Buñuel

From his scandalous early surrealist films in Paris, Un Chien andalou (1929) and L’Age d’or (1930), via his vital period of commercial filmmaking in Mexico, to his late, re-energised collaborations with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière back in France, Luis Buñuel never ceased in his needling away at the foibles of male desire. The theme of frustrated sexual gratification is there at the beginning of his career, and it’s here at the end in this story of an ageing gentleman, Mathieu (Fernando Rey), who falls in love with a young Spanish woman, only to be led on a merry dance as she blows hot and cold, never quite giving him what he wants.

Buñuel’s masterstroke was to have the object of Mathieu’s desire played by two different actors: when Conchita is feisty and passionate she’s played by Angela Molina; when she’s cool and frigid, she’s played by Carole Bouquet. Poor old fool Mathieu, he’s so distracted by longing he never notices the change. Played out against the backdrop of terrorist insurgency in Paris, That Obscure Object of Desire ends Buñuel’s career with a bang, even as he leaves us to ponder the exact meaning of the cryptic final shot. Buñuel retired from filmmaking thereafter, but had one last indispensable project up his sleeve: his anecdote-packed autobiography My Last Sigh, published prior to his death in 1983.

L’Argent (1983)

Director Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson’s 13th and final film takes its inspiration from Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Forged Coupon’ and follows the accelerating tragedy set in motion after a counterfeit 500-franc note falls into the hands of a young student. Like Max Ophüls’ Madame de… insofar as it centres on an item being passed from person to person, drawing a panoply of characters into a corrosive chain of circumstances, L’Argent could hardly be more different in its style. Instead of Ophüls’ flowing camera movements, Bresson’s approach is to trace the unfolding narrative in its small details: isolated hands, faces and objects that form the physical material of his excavation of the human soul.

Into his 80s, Bresson’s characteristic austerity was now distilled into its purest form and, happily, critics were immediate in recognising L’Argent as one last masterpiece from the director who’d made A Man Escaped (1956) and Au hasard Balthazar (1966). He survived to the age of 98, dying in 1999. 

The Sacrifice (1986)

Director Andrei Tarkovsky

The last hurrah of Andrei Tarkovsky’s career channelled some of the spirit of Ingmar Bergman (whose own 2004 drama Saraband also deserves mention among the finest final films). It’s set on the Swedish island of Faro, where so many of the Scandinavian master’s psychodramas were filmed, and stars Bergman regular Erland Josephson.

Josephson plays a literary critic holed up in his remote home who is disturbed by television reports of imminent nuclear apocalypse and promises God he will give up everything he possesses if the disaster can be averted. Shot in long, immaculately composed takes by Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist, it’s a film of profound spiritual despair and dread, made when Tarkovsky knew he was facing his own end. His declining health from terminal lung cancer meant he wasn’t able to collect the prize his last testament won at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. He died in December that year, leaving behind a small but formidable body of seven fiction feature films.

The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1999)

Director Djibril Diop Mambéty

Billed as “a hymn to the spirit of street children”, this 45-minute wonder is set amid the bustle of modern Dakar, where a young girl with a false leg energetically fights to earn her crust selling tabloid newspapers. Conceived as the second part of a sadly unfinished trilogy of films about ordinary Senegalese people, The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun amazes with its abundance of colour, vitality and passion. All these are familiar elements to anyone who’s seen other films from Mambéty’s sparse but essential career (Touki-Bouki, 1973; Hyenas, 1992), but seem remarkable here given that the director was dying from lung cancer during production.

One scene in particular is one for the ages: a twitchy street dance sequence set to ghettoblasted music that brings the traditions of social realism and the musical crashing together to joyous effect. The New York Times called Mambéty’s film “a masterpiece of understated humanity” and they were right: it’s like a hipper, less sentimental Bicycle Thieves (1948).

Yi Yi (2000)

Director Edward Yang

Edward Yang was planning a $25m animated film featuring Jackie Chan before he died in 2007 at the age of 59. The project would surely have dramatically redrawn our perception of Yang’s career as a filmmaker, that of a cool, almost Antonioni-like creator of lucid dramas set in the director’s native Taiwan. With earlier masterpieces such as Taipei Story (1985) and A Brighter Summer Day (1991) still difficult to see, his last film is probably his best-known, thanks to a best director prize at Cannes and the film’s later appearance near the top of nearly every worthwhile best-of-the-2000s poll.

Yi Yi is a three-hour tapestry of the life of a middle-class family, seen through the eyes of the middle-aged businessman father (Nien-Jen Wu), his teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) and young son (Jonathan Chang). Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral, it’s a sprawling epic that excels in evocative, compassionate detail. Brimful of life’s worries, frustrations and joys, it’s one of cinema history’s comparatively rare examples of a director bowing out not with a footnote but with a magnum opus.

Your suggestions

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

  1. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
  2. The Dead (John Huston, 1987)
  3. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, 2011)
  4. Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)
  5. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
  6. Three Colours: Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)
  7. Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1976)
  8. The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1960)
  9. Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
  10. Once upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)

Directors’ final films proved a popular topic when we put the vote out on Twitter and Facebook to find out what you’d add to the list. Stanley Kubrick’s erotic nocturnal odyssey Eyes Wide Shut narrowly beat out John Huston’s elegiac The Dead as the most suggested title. Many others seem to take still-with-us Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr’s word for it that his apocalyptic The Turin Horse will be his last film, while The Night of the Hunter, actor Charles Laughton’s first and last film as director, was also popular.

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Available to buy

  • An Autumn Afternoon

    An Autumn Afternoon

    Yasujiro Ozu’s elegiac final film charts the inevitable eclipse of older generations by irreverent youth.

  • Late Spring

    Late Spring

    Yasujiro Ozu’s influential masterpiece is a tender meditation on family politics, sacrifice and the status quo.

  • Late Autumn

    Late Autumn

    Comedy turns to pathos in Yasujiro Ozu’s tale of a group of businessmen who conspire to match-make for a widow and her daughter.

  • Gertrud

    Gertrud

    Carl Theodor Dreyer’s final film centres on a woman who rejects the compromise of her marriage, suffers disappointment in her younger lover and retreats into a serene isolation.

  • Ordet

    Ordet

    Carl Theodor Dreyer’s beautifully photographed tale explores the religious intolerance and familial tensions within a Danish farming family.

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