Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sight and Sound Movie List - Der Gronowski

Listed in no particular order because making me rank these against each other is just cruel.  After I finished, I realized there was only one American film on here.  That’s probably going to land me on some kind of list.  Like a no-fly list.  Anyway, here are my top ten favorite films of all time!

Solyaris (1972) – Sci-fi cut not quite from the same quilt as Michael Bay’s Transformers, to grandly understate the case.  If you’re not familiar with Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, let me just say that patience, perception and empathy are your best friends while watching.  I found this film so beautiful, mysterious and ultimately haunting that I just sat there thinking about it for 20-30 minutes before I could get up and slowly turn off the TV.

Honorable Tarkovsky Mention: Andrei Rublev (1966) – I could not care less about some medieval Russian painter-monk’s life story, yet I sat riveted to the screen for over 3 hours watching just that.  That’s how good this one is.

Seven Samurai (1954) – What can I say.  If you haven’t seen it, please do so and rectify that tragic state of affairs.  This film is what every Hollywood movie of every genre aspires to be and then fails miserably.  It features amazingly strong, subtle performances from two of the era’s top Japanese actors (Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura), a supporting cast that is no less amazing and varied, one of the first slow motion scenes in film history, a funny, tragic, wise, action-packed script that blends at least four different genres and a final battle scene that dramatically unfolds in a classic Kurosawa rainstorm of surreal intensity.  It’s so hardcore that they used real arrows in the battles to make it look authentic; professional archers shot them at full speed into wooden blocks that were under the receiving actors’ shirts!  Talk about trusting your director’s vision.

Honorable Kurosawa Mention: Basically every film he’s ever made with one or two exceptions.  Seriously, a Top Ten Kurosawa Films list would be tough for me to put together.

Harakiri (1962) – Akira Kurosawa was my undisputed favorite Japanese director of all time…until I saw Harakiri.  Then things got complicated.  Kurosawa may be the greater overall filmmaker of the two, but Masaki Kobayashi is a man after my own heart.  Harakiri utterly destroys the entire basis of the authority of the Shogunate, and by extension the modern Japanese state, by exposing its key pillars of honor and integrity as complete and total bullshit.  And it does it through a masterfully told, intensely compelling and tragic story that keeps you guessing for about half of it before it turns into a freight train of righteous inevitability…until it tears your heart out.  Worth seeing for Tatsuya Nakadai’s incredible performance alone.

Lock, Stock and TwoSmoking Barrels (1998, dir. Guy Ritchie) – I have a weakness for heist movies and this one is my favorite.  Pure comedy, pure entertainment.  Things go from bad to worse, to worst for several groups of thugs - who range from the innocent, to the brutal, to the insane and back again - and I’m loving every minute of it, every time.  You could select any random five minutes of this movie and force me to watch it once an hour for the rest of my life and I would never get sick of it.  I like to think this movie taught me to speak Cockney, even though that’s patently ridiculous.  Also, if you care about this sort of thing, it is Jason Statham’s first film appearance.

Network (1976, dir. Sidney Lumet) – Sheer brilliance.  Prophetic and somehow still timeless, Paddy Chayefsky’s Network lays bare the madness of our mediated society.  He depicts it as a fast moving train that cannot be derailed and will run over, sooner or later, everyone who refuses to get aboard…and yet the film somehow still avoids being completely dark and nihilistic.  Probably. Anchor Howard Beale’s descent into madness is a wildly popular spectacle of resistance on TV.  An old man of the old guard has an affair with a soulless young producer who is looking to make a hit reality show out of Black Panther-esque revolutionaries.  All the while, the film is watching you watching it, and you’ll see that if you pay attention closely.  And damn, Max’s break-up with Diana.  If she weren’t just a “humanoid,” that would’ve hurt.

Bright Future (2003) – Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) is known for his horror films, but this one is a drama though you can certainly feel that influence throughout.  It’s a quiet, slowly developing story that sails right on the edge of a truly horrifying, yet quite beautiful abyss.  The two central young men are alienated to point that seeing well-adjusted people drives them to contemplate murder, yet one is still capable of nearly unbelievable sacrifice for the other.  The jellyfish Mamoru keeps are as pretty as they are deadly (and their disarmingly cute song makes you want to float among them, even if it kills you).  Bizarre, yet fatally realistic, this is one of my favorite films of our era.

Le Samourai (1967) – Alain Delon defines cool in this film as a hitman of few words and perfect technique.  The title is a metaphor - this isn’t a samurai movie - as Delon is depicted as a lone warrior, obsessed with the art of contract murder at the expense of having any kind of normal life.  As consummately professional as he is, complications set in when a beautiful piano player witnesses him leaving the scene of his latest hit.  This may not sound distinctive, but I truly believe this is the greatest of the noirs.  It’s deliberate, heart-poundingly intense pacing matches Delon’s ice-cold demeanor and director Jean Pierre-Melville probably sets the record for slowest yet awesomest chase scene with a ride through the Paris Metro.

Honorable Pierre-Melville Mention: Bob le Flambeur (1954) – English title Bob the Gambler. Sometimes considered the very first film of the French New Wave, this “one last heist” film is what Ocean’s Eleven could have been if it wasn’t burdened by half the top stars of the era and the corresponding expectations. The heist of course goes downhill, but in a way you’re probably not expecting at all.  It literally left me cheering.

Duck, You Sucker! (1971) – One of Sergio Leone’s least well known Spaghetti Westerns, this one grew on me over the next few weeks after seeing it.  I liked it well enough at first, but I kept involuntarily recalling events and scenes from the movie and pondering different aspects of the characters.  Ennio Morricone’s outstanding, ponderous soundtrack was background music in my mind for weeks and it didn’t bother me.  Eventually, I realized that I was in love with this movie.  Does an exiled former IRA bomb-maker getting mixed up in bank robberies and the Mexican Revolution along with a wise-ass, outlaw with his gang of six kids – all from different mothers, of course – sound ridiculous to you?  Don’t worry.  See it.  You won’t be disappointed.  You might even fall in love.

The Rules of the Game (1939, dir. Jean Renoir) – This one is on Evan’s list already, but I just had to include it on mine, so I’ll keep it brief.  If there is a Heaven, this is the kind of film they would make there.  It’s about as perfect as you can get in an imperfect world.  As soon as it was over, I hit play from the dvd menu and watched it again, then invited my girlfriend to watch it with me the very next night.  After three viewings in 24 hours, I was still sad to send it back to Netflix.

Band of Outsiders (1964) – Other Jean-Luc Godard diehards might hate me for choosing this one, but after careful thought I had to go with Bande a Part.  It’s not Godard’s greatest achievement in filmmaking, it isn’t his most original or most experimental and it probably doesn’t feature the “best” performances from some New Wave icons, but it really is my favorite Godard film.  It is definitely the most fun.  Every minute, even – perhaps especially - the famous minute of silence where the entire soundtrack cuts out, is bursting with life and energy.  But all the time our three protagonists are barreling toward disaster with their absurdly amateurish “heist.”  The whole café scene is cinema Valhalla.  Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey dancing the Madison in complete unison!  It walks a wonderful line between being real, entertaining and self-conscious.  It isn’t quite as in your face about the whole “This is a film” concept like in A Woman is a Woman, but there is no mistaking that this is in fact a film and Godard wants you to remember it.  And what a film it is.

Honorable Godard Mentions: Alphaville (1965), Breathless (1960), Le Petit Soldat (1963) and Film Socialisme (2010)


  1. I'm glad to see Seven Samurai and lock stock on this list. You might also like Battle of Algiers.

  2. Duck You Sucker! was amazing indeed. For some reason, though, as far as Spaghetti Westerns with strong historical subtexts go, I prefer Once Upon a Time in the West... I think the compromised heroes of the latter film got me more personally involved in their conflicts.

    In other news, you've convinced me to push Network back up toward the top of my queue.