Film critic at Slate
|Don't Look Now
|The Gleaners and I
|UMARETE WA MITA KEREDO
|In a Lonely Place
|Killer of Sheep
|Portrait of a Lady on Fire
|The Spirit of the Beehive
|Steamboat Bill, Jr.
|Charles F. Riesner
The most profound and most moving film in the Iranian master's impressive lineup, Close-up is a drama about identity theft that's based on a true story and stars the real-life perpetrator re-enacting his own con, a fraught situation that the movie treats with deep compassion and a gentle sense of humour. Close-up is a brilliant movie of ideas – about class, fame, performance, the drive for human connection, the true purpose of art – that is never cerebral or preachy. Walking out of it for the first time, a friend and I came to a brusque, almost wordless agreement that it was among the greatest movies we'd ever seen. There was little left to add, since this is one of those rare films that contains its own ideal analysis, a work of art as intricate as a jewelled puzzle box.
Don't Look Now
I'm making Don't Look Now do a lot of symbolic work on this list. In my mind it stands in for a whole era of freewheeling, visionary, auteur-driven filmmaking – the years of 'New Hollywood', even if Roeg, as an English director, was operating in a different context than American contemporaries like Coppola, Scorsese, Lumet or Cassavetes. Don't Look Now is a formally daring, emotionally unsettling work of metaphysical horror that contains all the elements that made cinema in the late 60s and early 70s feel so raw, so powerful and so urgent: deliberately disjunctive editing; an extended and startlingly honest sex scene that is regularly cited as one of the best in film history; and a visual design so intense the colour red at one point floods the frame, seeming to melt the very celluloid away.
Groucho Marx dismissed questions about the larger meaning of this free-form political satire with the assurance that it all added up to nothing more than "four Jews trying to get a laugh". The last of the run of early, anarchic comedies the brothers made at Paramount before moving on to the more convention-bound atmosphere of MGM, Duck Soup landed less than successfully with Depression-era critics and audiences for a reason: its goofy yet irrefutable anti-war message, and its prescience about the rise of fascistic nationalism around the world, were years ahead of its time. Some of its comic set pieces, including the mirror scene in which Groucho and Harpo recreate one of their best-known stage routines, live on in everything from Bugs Bunny cartoons to the provocations of Sacha Baron Cohen. Am I including it here in part to ensure that comedies in general get the credit they deserve but seldom receive in the world film canon? Maybe. But would the world be a better place if more people in it had seen Duck Soup? No question.
The Gleaners and I
In her last two decades, Varda became so well-known as a maker of bricolage-style autobiographical documentaries that it’s easy to forget she all but invented the form alongside her friend and fellow New Wave legend Chris Marker. Any one of Varda's late-life docs might belong on this list, as would her dazzling 1962 Cléo from 5 to 7 and her enigmatic psychological study Vagabond (1985). But The Gleaners and I, a kind of philosophical road movie that takes the viewer on a spin through both present-day France and French history, marks the moment Varda found her late style as a film essayist of inimitable originality and tireless curiosity. She was 72 years old and just entering her most productive and artistically ambitious years as a filmmaker, a role she never stopped reimagining and redefining. How many directors of any age can say the same?
UMARETE WA MITA KEREDO
One of the many curiosities of this miraculous comedy/drama is the way it doesn’t live on in your memory as a silent film. Thanks to the subtlety of Ozu's technique, the emotional directness of the story, and the across-the-board greatness of the whole acting ensemble, I always look back on it convinced I can hear the voices of every character, from the two young boys who play brothers growing up in the Tokyo suburbs to the soon-to-be-legend Tatsuo Saito as their loving but flawed salaryman father. This at first slight-seeming, ultimately heartbreaking film would make the perfect appetiser for a full-on Ozu feast. He's a director whose six-decade career survived the shift from silent to sound and from black-and-white to colour, a domestic miniaturist whose quietly observant camera seldom left the interior of his characters' homes (he even remade this very film, 27 years later), yet who somehow documented the whole sweep of 20th-century life.
In a Lonely Place
Just as I used Don't Look Now to stand in for a whole era of New Hollywood cinema, I will now burden In a Lonely Place with representing the entirety of post-WWII film noir, even if this tale of doomed romance and suspected murder is in some ways untypical of that hard-to-define style. Above all, In a Lonely Place is a deeply personal movie. Though the story is based on a crime novel, Ray was less interested in working out who done it than in working through issues springing from his crumbling marriage with star Gloria Grahame, who gives perhaps the greatest performance of a very distinguished career. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, as magical as their on-and offscreen connection was, always seemed like a couple created by and for the movies. Bogart and Grahame, playing two loners who briefly convince themselves they can make one another happy, seem as real and as tragic as a troubled but passionate couple you might meet in real life and find yourself rooting for, against your own better judgement.
Killer of Sheep
There are debut films that land with an absolute rightness, as solid and impactful as a meteor. Charles Burnett’s thesis project at UCLA film school, shot on black-and-white 16mm film with no budget to speak of, is one of those – it's a movie that has changed the history of the medium despite the fact it went virtually unseen by the general public for three decades after its making. Burnett's use of nonprofessional actors and locations in the housing projects of L.A.'s Watts neighborhood makes for a sad, sexy, sometimes wryly funny domestic drama that doubles as a quiet but anguished protest film about systemic racial inequities and inhumane labour conditions (content warning: the scenes shot at the slaughterhouse that give the movie its title remain gruelling to watch.)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
As a kind of bet on the future of cinema, I wanted to include a very recent film on this list, and this rigorously pared-down period romance from one of the most gifted directors now working was the one of the first post-2020 candidates to spring to mind. Form and function are effortlessly integrated in this fable about art-making as a sublimated form of (and in the case of this movie's central couple, a suspenseful prelude to) lovemaking. That the star-crossed lesbian lovers are casualties of the ambient homophobia of their time (and, increasingly, our own) requires no explicit commentary on the part of either the characters or their director. We learn all we need to know about their thwarted fate through the film's precisely chosen images and sounds, up to and including the musical and emotional thunderstorm that rips through that final, devastating scene.
The Spirit of the Beehive
No matter how acclaimed it becomes (it made Sight and Sound's list in 2012, yet many dedicated cinephiles I know have never seen it), Victor Erice's lyrical, at times inscrutable debut will always feel like a secret talisman passed from one devotee to another. A Franco-era-set political fable with one of the great all-time child performances from the owl-eyed Ana Torrent (only six years old at the time of filming) and an unforgettable cameo from a maybe-imaginary, maybe-not Frankenstein's monster, this one-of-a-kind movie seems, like the backlit beehive tended by the tiny heroine's father, to glow from within.
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Keaton's last independently produced feature represents both a technical pinnacle and a personal milestone for the comedian/stuntman/director who, as I tried to argue in a book published earlier this year, moved through 20th-century history like the still point at the centre of a hurricane. That image becomes literal in Steamboat Bill, Jr.'s hallucinatory action climax, as a storm causes an entire riverfront city to collapse around the impassive figure of its luckless but indefatigable hero. Steamboat Bill, Jr.'s onscreen directing credit goes to co-director Charles Reisner; Keaton disliked credit hogs and always tried to give his collaborators a leg up in the business. But the film's idiosyncratic vision is entirely his, from the falling housefront that has become his best-remembered onscreen stunt to the hard-won father/son reconciliation that serves as this never less than hilarious movie's surprisingly sturdy dramatic backbone.
My only method was to try to represent a fairly broad swathe of cinematic eras and styles, without fretting too much about including a choice for every decade or tradition. These movies represent not a would-be film-historical canon but a sampling of my own personal favourites, films I could watch again countless times without ever exhausting their infinite variety.