#2 – Citizen Kane (1941), dir. Orson Welles

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Bet you five you’re not alive if you don’t know his name… Orson Welles (left) and Joseph Cotten star in Citizen Kane, a portrait of the life and times of a towering newspaper magnate. For 50 years the film topped the Sight & Sound poll and remains one of cinema’s greatest achievements.

By the time he was 25 years old, Orson Welles was already acknowledged as a theatrical genius and radio drama innovator. When Hollywood came calling, Welles was given an unprecedented deal for a first time filmmaker in the days of the studio system — complete creative control over all aspects of production. At the age of 26, he directed, co-wrote, and played the title role in Citizen Kane (1941), generally considered one of the best movies ever made — if not the best. Loosely based around the life of yellow journalism tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane tells the story of the life and death of Charles Foster Kane, a fabulously wealthy businessman and newspaper publisher who never finds fulfillment in his riches. More specifically, the movie follows an attempt by a reporter to decipher the meaning of Kane’s cryptic dying word: “Rosebud”. Citizen Kane freely jumps back and forth through time, abandoning narrative convention as it examines Kane’s life through interviews with former friends, lovers, and associates. And it looks gorgeous as it does so, deploying extreme camera angles, brilliant use of light and shadow, and deep focus photography to chart an elaborate course through the big, complex life of a big, complex man. (119 min.) Continue reading

#4 – The Rules of the Game (1939), dir. Jean Renoir

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Unnecessary roughness. Farce and tragedy collide head on in director Jean Renoir’s cynical take on pre-WWII French society — both high and low. In this shot, a marquis and the man trying to steal his wife carry the marquis’ mistress after she falls into hysterics — a taste of the complicated relationships woven throughout the film.

We dive back into the Sight & Sound Top 10 in this entry, yammering about director Jean Renoir’s remarkable upstairs/downstairs tragicomedy The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, 1939). The film provides a glimpse into the lives of the rich and remarkable in the halcyon days just before the Second World War, as it tracks the affairs and entanglements of an upper class clique while they party and hunt at the country estate of the Marquis de la Cheyniest. The marquis is trying to break things off with his mistress just as a heroic pilot makes a brazen attempt to steal the marquis’ wife. The film also follows the romantic shenanigans of the staff, with a poacher-turned-servant cozying up to a flirtatious maid who happens to be the gamekeeper’s wife. The setting is ripe for farce, and Renoir keeps the conversation and the action lively, escalating the insanity as romantic advances are accepted or rebuffed. But The Rules of the Game is not content to be just a comedy of manners or a madcap party. For all the comedic antics, this is a film of complex, thoughtful individuals with hurts every bit as strong as their lusts, and Renoir’s overriding cynicism finds the melancholy waiting to consume the mirth. So many films and tales urge you to follow your heart; The Rules of the Game suggests you may be better off using your head. (106 min.) Continue reading

#6 – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), dir. Stanley Kubrick

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Close encounter. Dr. Floyd examines a black monolith buried on the Moon by an alien intelligence in the science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The best science fiction tends to be less about science than it is about philosophical inquiry. The spaceships and aliens are really conduits for using the power of imagination and metaphor to illuminate greater truths (or questions). This can be lofty and difficult territory, and it is very much the headspace of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly one could see the slowly unfolding story of 2001 as simply a series of vignettes based around man’s encounters with an alien intelligence, but the film runs deeper. The movie begins with our humanoid ancestors in Africa making a technological leap as the result of contact with a mysterious black monolith. What follows is a journey that takes man to the Moon and onward to Jupiter. But beyond the mesmerizing depictions of space travel and the tense duel that develops between man and machine are much larger questions. What is consciousness? And to what end will our reason and spirit take us? 2001 offers no easy answers, but it provides a gorgeous canvas upon which to meditate. Let it linger. (141 min.) Continue reading

#5 – Sunrise (1927), dir. F.W. Murnau

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Love is blind, careless. The Man and The Wife rekindle their love and stroll right into traffic in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, which makes use of innovative visual techniques to tell a modern day fairy tale.

After a number of big hits in Germany, director F.W. Murnau was enticed to come to Hollywood, given a massive budget, and promised complete creative control. The result of this deal was Sunrise (1927), the highest ranking silent film on the Sight & Sound list. The story of Sunrise is very simple: a farmer is seduced by a woman from the city and convinced to kill his wife. He finds himself unable to commit the murder and instead falls in love with his wife all over again during a day out in the big city. But to tell this fable Murnau employs a number of innovative visual techniques, impressive and elaborate sets, and some of the first use of sound in a major motion picture. For most of the silent era the camera remained static, or perhaps a few tracking shots were possible; in Sunrise the camera flies over tables and marshes, freed from prior constraints. It was also the first movie to have a musical score attached to the film, enabling the syncing of music and even some sound effects to the action on screen. At the first Academy Awards, Sunrise won the Oscar for Best Creative or Artistic Film, an award that has not been handed out since. (95 min.) Continue reading

#9 – The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

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The bower of prayer. Maria Falconetti gives an impassioned performance as the 15th century teenage heroine of France, Jeanne d’Arc, in Carl Th. Dreyer’s silent masterpiece.

Shackled round the ankles and dressed simply in boy’s clothing, Joan of Arc is escorted into a austere white room to be jeered and ogled by hostile soldiers and scheming clerics. The fearful teenage girl is placed upon a stool and the gallery of old men sets to work wringing a confession from her. What follows in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (La passion de Jeanne d’Arc, 1928) is an unusual take on the courtroom drama, and not just because of its medieval setting and strongly religious elements. A fortune was apparently spent constructing the movie’s elaborate castle sets, but you’d never know it as Dreyer photographed almost the entire film in close-ups, making The Passion of Joan of Arc a viewing experience very different from traditional narratives. With few intertitles and almost no wide shots to get one’s bearings, it is the makeup-less faces of the actors that communicate the downfall of the heroine of Orleans. (82 min.) Continue reading

#8 – Man With a Movie Camera (1929), dir. Dziga Vertov

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Creative sparks fly. The cameraman sets up in a steel mill during a particularly impressive sequence in Man With a Movie Camera (1929).

We start our discussion with the namesake of this blog and the #8 film on the Sight & Sound list: Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom, 1929). This silent documentary is the creation of director Dziga Vertov, a truly revolutionary force in early Soviet cinema. Vertov was the editor of the Soviet state newsreels during the Russian civil war, and came to have increasingly radical views about film. He believed that the newly communist Russia needed a completely new cinema, one that totally eschewed all forms of narrative content and elements of fiction, which he thought of as the new “opiates of the masses”. Therefore, this film has no actors, no plot, no sets, and no intertitles. It is composed of a diverse collection of everyday images creatively strung together to create a rapid-fire montage of Soviet urban life in the late 1920s. (68 min.) Continue reading