James Leo Cahill
Director & Associate Professor, Cinema Studies Institute, University of Toronto
|Sergei M. Eisenstein
|SAN XIA HAO REN
|The Hour of the Furnaces
|Cléo from 5 to 7
|Goodbye, Dragon Inn
|Meghe Dhaka Tara
|West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty
Connecting revulsion to revolution through a close-up of maggots in rotting meat that will push sailors to revolt, Eisenstein’s second feature is rightly celebrated for its many formal innovations in montage and the political potentials of cinema. It is also a factory for some of the most iconic images in the medium’s history (the steps, the enucleated eye, the animated lion statues), that aim at doing nothing less than obliterating and reconfiguring our vision of the world and our commitment to transforming it. But Eisenstein equally reveals himself to be a committed sensualist and wit: who can watch this film and not appreciate its desirous, homoerotic gaze. Brothers! With its global reach – it is one of the few films that is also a veritable film school – it has inspired creators in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and even Hollywood.
SAN XIA HAO REN
Few filmmakers capture both the scale and scope of the disorienting and often monstrous historical transformations of the 20th and 21st centuries and their impacts on the intimate lives of ordinary people better than Jia Zhangke, and few of his films do so as poetically as Still Life. Using the late stages of the world-altering Five Gorges Dam project as his backdrop, capturing the creative destruction of state-sponsored capitalist expansion that literally demolished centuries-old cities and displaced millions of people in the name of 'progress', Jia tells a moving story of wounded people searching for human connection, captured in quotidian gestures of kindness from sharing cigarettes to bonding over a heartfelt song, whether belted by an urchin, a rock performer, or playing as a ringtone. Jia’s searing social realism is compliments by his sly surrealist touches, from the fleeting appearance of UFOs to the final shot of a funambulist suspended between two buildings. Jia expands André Bazin’s famous metaphor for cinema as 'change mummified' to include social, political, historical, and even geological change mummified.
The Hour of the Furnaces
The phrase “Don’t just make political films, make films politically” might belong to the Groupe Dziga Vertov, but nobody has embodied this ethos better than the Grupo Cine Liberación in their realisation of The Hour of the Furnaces. Working covertly and at great personal risk, they created one of the most striking, formally ambitious, and epic revolutionary films. Using every technique available to the medium – from direct cinema documentation to witty détournements to machine-gun style dialectical montage – The Hour of the Furnaces offers a sweeping and searing analysis of four centuries of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation but also four centuries of anti-colonial resistance. The film, which its makers encouraged audiences to transform into a political event at screenings, also took aim at the cinema itself, hoping to reanimate the masses of this exemplary mass medium.
Cléo from 5 to 7
Selecting a single film by Varda is a betrayal to one of the richest oeuvres in cinema but forced to do so, Cléo from 5 to 7 condenses everything wonderful about her work: her curiosity, generosity, wit, brilliant analysis, broad feminist commitments, and desire to make connections with people and places. 5 to 7 is often the hours of love affairs, but this affair concerns coming to terms with one’s self. The conceit of a beautiful young pop singer confronted with her mortality and 'killing' time until her diagnosis is ready provides the motivation for what Varda does best: engaging in wandering as mode of wondering; a philosophical inquiry of time, duration, and existential affirmation on two feet. Featuring cameos by Godard, Anna Karina, the composer Michel Legrand, some playful cats, and a swath of Paris (notably Varda’s beloved 14th arrondisement), the film feels as vibrant, playful and searching today as it must have upon its release. Cléo from 5 to 7: it’s about time.
Zoological surrealist Jean Painlevé accomplishes more in the nine-minute runtime of this film than many filmmakers fit into their entire oeuvres. Initially commissioned by the Pasteur Institute in 1938 as part of their research on vectors of blood-borne diseases, Painlevé transformed the footage of a Brazilian vampire bat feeding on a guinea pig in a terrarium into the perfect nature film, horror film, and anti-fascist film essay. His heterogeneous montage – combining footage of various creepy crawlies drawn from his own earlier films (ticks, mosquitos, grasshoppers, mollusks, seahorses, crustaceans) with segments from Murnau’s Nosferatu – is brilliantly paced to a mix of Duke Ellington’s “catchy” 'Black and Tan Fantasy' and 'Echoes from the Jungle'. The work combines scientific rigour, beautiful cinematography, uncanny aesthetics and a mordant surrealist wit that remains as biting as ever. Let it sink its teeth into you.
Jean Vigo’s surrealist fairy tale L’Atalante remains cinema’s great spotted fever dreams to unsettling eros and the beauty of strange collectivities – less a film than a surrealist monad that captures an entire world of insurgent possibilities in its porous, fragile form. Every image is bursting with an animal, adolescent energy that contains so much while spilling over and point to so many things beyond their frames. What is more, the film contains one of the greatest characters and performances ever to grace the medium: Michel Simon’s feral and tender turn as the tattooed, feline loving père Jules, whose serves as a conduit to the heterogeneous surrealism and anarchism of Vigo’s world. L’Atalante is primitive, raw, too sensitive, and utterly strange. This film is not perfect, it is not a masterpiece, in fact it is the exact opposite: something fragile, contingent, barely held together, and therein lies its evanescent beauty, which is absolutely of its time and oddly timeless.
If less celebrated than other Studio Ghibli films, Pom Poko, about groups of tanuki (raccoon dogs) in the Tama Hills suburb of Tokyo whose booming post-war expansion threatens them with extinction, pairs all the imagination, generosity, and skilful animation the studio is known for with a moving fable about how as a community and individuals these creatures respond to the pressures that encroachment and ecological collapse inflict. It explores how the various tanuki face death, learn how to die, and in doing so, in some cases, find ways to live with an animal joy. Takahata draws upon a variety of styles to capture how the tanuki see themselves as distinct individuals (in classic animé style), how they magically project themselves into metamorphic collective hallucinations thanks to their magical testicles (!), and how humans see them as undifferentiated animals. Like a secret companion to Ozu’s greatest films seen from the perspectives of animals, Pom Poko builds toward one of the most touching ends to a film I have ever seen: a collective display of cross-species generosity toward the dead followed by a joyous reunion on what is slowly revealed to be a golf course surrounded by an ever-expanding city.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Every film is ultimately a ghost story, and every movie theatre a haunted house, and nobody has captured these insights better than Tsai Ming-Liang in Goodbye Dragon Inn. Each sequence of the film is an experiment in slow-motion entropy, often with comic effects that rival those of Jacques Tati, and with a hospitality to we disoriented strangers, lost and in search of fleeting connection and companionship on and off screen.
Meghe Dhaka Tara
Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star, the first of his partition trilogy, exemplifies the critical potential of melodrama and popular forms to help us better understand the often disruptive and disoriented experiences of modernity and history – the 1947 partition – through concrete sensuous analysis. Although it's an important early contribution to Indian parallel cinema, Ghatak never wholly detaches his work from the aspirations or aesthetics of India’s popular cinemas, and even if he tones down the song and dance spectacle elements, the few songs (in which the camera dances for the characters) express what otherwise would be unspeakable. As a director of melodramas, Ghatak stands amongst the greatest of the mode in combining striking formal properties with probing social analysis and political critique, without the films ever seeming like lectures – indeed, he rivals Eisenstein for his compositional genius and extraordinary vertical montages. The Cloud-Capped Star invites us to feel through the sensations and emotions it orchestrates, while also providing fascinating sensuous and analytic lenses for better considering the circumstances and struggles of its characters and contexts and calling out in voice and song for a more just future, or simply the desire to live.
West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty
Dazzling, a little weird, and truly original, Med Hondo’s West Indies wagers that the history of modernity and the promise of better alternatives can best be understood by setting a time-travel musical on the deck of a French slave ship. From here he choreographs an moving exploration of the entangled histories of slavery, colonialism, exile, resistance, revolution and freedom. Hondo’s oeuvre is an audacious response to his own question – what is cinema to us? – that across every film tries to reinvent and reimagine cinema’s language as a vehicle for historical inquiry, sensuous enjoyment, and liberation.
This was both an immense pleasure and an almost impossible task: any of the 60 films on my long-short list could and should easily rank as 'the greatest' to my sense of the term. I was sad not to include Los Reyes by Bettina Perut and Iván Osnovikoff, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by Jacques Demy, Lovers' Rock by Steve McQueen, Les Enfants du Paradis by Marcel Carné, Lola Montès by Max Ophüls, and a million other truly great films. Hopefully I'll have another chance in another 10 years. Thanks for the invitation to participate.