Michael Sragow

Critic, Author, Screenwriter

Voted for

The Wild Bunch1969Sam Peckinpah
UMBERTO D.1952Vittorio De Sica
Rashomon1950Akira Kurosawa
The Seventh Seal1957Ingmar Bergman
Citizen Kane1941Orson Welles
The Wizard of Oz1939Victor Fleming
The Unbearable Lightness of Being1987Philip Kaufman
The Godfather Part II1974Francis Ford Coppola
Odd Man Out1947Carol Reed
The Maltese Falcon1941John Huston


The Wild Bunch

1969 USA

The director, Sam Peckinpah, rips himself open and, against all odds, puts himself back together, frame by bloody frame. He creates a masterpiece: the apex of the kind of personal filmmaking that's capacious enough to encompass history and the world. It's at once an extraordinary summation of Peckinpah’s complex personality and a wrenching piece of 20th-century mythology about the last stand of an Old West outlaw gang. Peckinpah's bandits experience the closed frontier as purgatory and Mexico as an escape-hatch. Peckinpah's lyrical image-making and kaleidoscopic editing catalyze complex feelings about their freedom, brotherhood and professionalism, their manliness and childishness. The script, cowritten with Walon Green, puts the cast through tests of individual strength and loyalty that harrow Peckinpah’s obsessions with appetite and anarchy and the codes that rein us in. It releases the group energy of the most quirkily expressive ensemble ever assembled for an action movie. William Holden brings a multilayered gnarliness to the role of the gang's leader: he screwed up in the past and is determined to pull off his last job and “do it right.” No movie embodies "doing it right" better than 'The Wild Bunch.' It's the Gotterdammerung of westerns.


1952 Italy

Contrary to what Orson Welles said, the greatness of De Sica is not that he makes the camera and the screen disappear. It’s that he fills the frame with so much life that the virtuosity of his staging and compositions become trivial by comparison. With this story of a debt-ridden retired civil servant, he quietly scales the peak of neorealism. On the surface, he simply follows the title character, played with tattered bourgeois hauteur by the retired professor Carlo Battisti, as he and his dog Flik wander through Rome in a futile search for money and fellowship. But De Sica turns mundane incidents into searing presentations of character: when Umberto D teaches Flik to beg with his homburg hat, the combination of heartbreak and comedy is transporting. The movie starts with its only panoramic scene: elderly men demanding an increase in their pensions; De Sica echoes that scene later in a dog pound. His artful symmetries support his embracing vision. He tightens his focus so unerringly that the final shot -- of Umberto D playing fetch with Flik, trying to win back the dog's alienated affections -- becomes a prodigious expression of canine loyalty and human solitude.


1950 Japan

“Rashomon.” No other director can match Kurosawa’s genius at developing a story by leaps and bounds while revealing irresolvable discrepancies in a multi-voiced group narrative. No one can match his visual range, either: here his vision spans the storybook tableau of a white-clad woman sitting near a white horse in an enchanted grove—and the horrifying set piece of a bound husband watching a brute ravishing his wife. The test of a great, innovative movie is whether its power survives decades of imitation. Kurosawa's masterpiece dwarfs its legions of successors.

The Seventh Seal

1957 Sweden

In a countryside ravaged by plague and fear, Max von Sydow’s Crusade-weary knight cries out to a deity "who must be somewhere." Does he receive a response? In the climactic image a string of travelers dance with the Grim Reaper "away from the dawn"--as writer-director Ingmar Bergman put it in the screenplay-- “while the rain washes their faces and clears the salt of the tears from their cheeks." Does that mean they will be redeemed? These questions are the source of the movie’s tension but not of the black magic it sustains from the moment the knight joins Death in a chess match to a dance of death so poetically acute it invades our dreams. Bergman takes one visionary leap after another, without a net. His ability to inject modern skepticism into medieval fable, without diluting either, delivers spiritual adventure with the detail and nuance of experience and the heat of prophecy and inspiration.

Citizen Kane

1941 USA

Orson Welles' jigsaw-puzzle portrait of a Hearst-like magnate named Charles Foster Kane is a completely and excitingly externalized portrait of a world-class power-monger. The camera movements seem to trace the effects of Kane's centrifugal force. The scintillating soundstage chiaroscuro that Welles cooked up with cinematographer Gregg Toland sensualize the convergence of good and evil in Kane's character (and in Kane's America). The pith and banter of Welles and Herman Mankiewicz's script crackle with an almost Elizabethan freshness and fecundity. Throughout the last 80 years, it's no wonder that movies hailed as exuberant outbursts of innovation -- films as different as 'M*A*S*H' and 'Mean Streets' -- usually owe some stylistic debt to 'Citizen Kane.' Welles' brilliance as a young actor and director in this movie epitomizes the perennial youth of vital movie art.

The Wizard of Oz

1939 USA

This film defines the beauty of "the willing suspension of disbelief." The director, Victor Fleming, makes the story unfold at the intersection of spontaneous theatrical revelry and big-studio sorcery, as the flesh-and blood longings Dorothy generates on a Kansas farm intersect with her fantastical experiences once a twister takes her to that wonderland called Oz. Comedy detonates poignancy -- and vice versa. Fright leads to catharsis. And this movie invites everyone to participate in its make-believe. When Dorothy opens the door of her aunt and uncle's house and leaves the pewter tones of Kansas for the Technicolor of Oz, she becomes every boy or girl entering the world of unfettered yearning and imagination. She gets to behave in a manner that future generations would call "acting up" or "acting out" while her co-stars get to tap, joke and act up a storm as potent as any tornado. Tiny comic touches register vividly, like the piece of red sash Toto proudly carries in his mouth after he and the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion conquer some Winkies in front of the Wicked Witch's castle. No movie has ever been more casually potent in its escapism. We surrender our disbelief gleefully.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

1987 USA

Has there ever been a movie that more triumphantly fuses Dionysian and Apollonian art--wit and passion, savvy and sensibility, poetry and narrative momentum? Director Philip Kaufman dares to flesh out Milan Kundera's brilliant triangle novel about a wily Czech doctor (Daniel Day-Lewis). a painter (Lena Olin) as worldly and sensual as himself, and a provincial waitress turned photographer (Juliette Binoche) whose ardor cuts him to the quick. The film makes palpable, in ways the novel doesn't, their varieties of love. The movie's portrait of Prague Spring revitalizes the heart and soul of liberalism. Its account of Soviet tanks crashing through the city's steets--a peerless collaboration among Kaufman, editor Walter Murch, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and cowriter Jean-Claude Carriere--is a cautionary nightmare of repression.

The Godfather Part II

1974 USA

As longtime Coppola collaborator Walter Murch once told me, what enabled Francis Ford Coppola to connect so profoundly to Mario Puzo's Godfather saga was not just his ability to tie it into "his life as a member of an Italian family" but also into his life as a sensitive and ambitious young filmmaker "who'd experienced the movie business as Big Business [and could envision the Mafia as Big Business]. The fusion of the two was what was new about the film. It gave us IBM or AT&T with a human face. Rather than seeing a corporation as thousands of faceless people, Francis got it down to five faces, each a psychological type, the father and four brothers." Under pressure to repeat his first success, Coppola instead wrought a unique American epic. In audacious parallel storylines spanning 60 years, it told us that the immigrants who became this country's backbone were prey to economic and political manipulation that took diverse, insidious forms. The American Dream was real but it was limited by the burdens of poverty, unsettled Old World scores and warring, insular subcultures. The movie is a modernistic memory play, a family chronicle, a tragedy--and, altogether, an astonishment.

Odd Man Out

1947 United Kingdom

Carol Reed does the near-impossible: he physicalizes the ravages of conscience. After escaping from prison and lying low for months in a cramped rowhouse, the chief of Northern Ireland's revolutionary "Organization," Johnny McQueen (James Mason), coolly plots a payroll robbery. But something goes wrong in his head. The street rises and falls before him -- it seems to track into his brain. The buildings tower over him with vertiginous force. The sunlight confuses and dizzies him, and even after the job, he grows faint and hesitates. A chaotic exchange of shots leaves a company man dead and Johnny too seriously wounded to hang on to the speeding getaway car. At a point where most movies would climax, this one begins. This harrowing story of police pursuit concentrates on the souls of the fugitive and the men and women who briefly harbor but cannot heal or succor him. It makes Johnny's search for salvation the source of gut-clenching suspense. The movie climbs to peak intensity not during shootouts or close calls, but when Johnny rouses himself to quote 1 Corinthians: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not Charity, I am become as sounding brass."

The Maltese Falcon

1941 USA

The ultimate movie about people living by their wits. As a first-time writer-director, John Huston turned Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel about the interplay of hard-bitten private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) with a trio of elegant con artists (Mary Astor's breathless liar Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Peter Lorre's exotic connoisseur Joel Cairo, and Sidney Greenstreet's diabolically articulate Kasper Gutman) into a game of existential charades, played for blood and money. As they spar for possession of the jewel-encrusted falcon, they keep each other and the audience guessing not just about their tactics and morality, but also about who these characters really are. Huston anchors the story in Spade’s tough-minded professionalism, which makes no concessions to legality, politesse, passion, or compassion. He knits a dense, vivid tapestry of men and women zigging and zagging through an urban dream world. His vision of San Francisco, created on the Warners lot and with stock footage, helped to define the ambiance of film noir, the great iconoclastic city genre—Hollywood’s alternative to mom-and-apple-pie Americana. The climax, of course, is a long night's journey into day.