#81 (tie) – Lawrence of Arabia (1962), dir. David Lean

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

On the road to Damascus. Peter O’Toole makes his debut as a leading man in Lawrence of Arabia, a bio-pic recalling the Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War I.

When it comes to the film epic, it might be fair to say there are two kinds: Lawrence of Arabia and others. To be sure, there are plenty of films that aspire to go big — be it butt-testing running times; stories that cover years, if not decades; or spectacles on the grandest of scales. But Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is a different beast altogether. Relying less on overt pomp and largely devoid of ornate sets or heightened reality, the film derives its grandeur from remarkable desert landscapes and an intensity generated not just from incident but from the inner lives of its characters. In this, the film was no doubt aided by being based on the autobiography of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who helped lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. But the film is also rooted in the keen sense of character and relationships that director David Lean showcased in his earlier, more modest dramas like Brief Encounter (1945). By being — or at least feeling — true to history and humanity, Lawrence of Arabia is able to take one man’s story and make it as intense and sprawling as the desert itself. (227 min.) Continue reading

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#78 (tie) – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), dir. Sergio Leone

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Fan With No Name. Charles Bronson circles for a showdown in Italian director Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a widescreen epic take on violence, business, and ethics in the American Wild West.

We’ve made it through every movie on the Sight & Sound list up through 1945 but not a single one has been a Western, surprising given that the genre was a popular favorite going back to at the least The Great Train Robbery (1903). We’ll soon be getting to a few classic Hollywood oaters, but our first foray into the Wild West is coming via Italian director Sergio Leone. In 1964 Leone brought a TV actor by the name of Clint Eastwood out to make a Western based largely on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo (1961). The resulting picture, A Fistful of Dollars, kicked off a wave of Italian-made cowboy flicks generally known as Spaghetti Westerns, with Leone and Eastwood’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) almost certainly being the most famous. But it is Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era un volta il West, 1968) that has generally ended up being the most critically lauded of Leone’s films. Starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and Henry Fonda in a rare villain role, Once Upon a Time in the West is something of a culmination of the style developed by Leone in his work with Eastwood. Through a barrage of intense close ups, slow builds of tension, exaggerated sound effects, moral ambiguity, and dynamic widescreen compositions, Leone manages to utterly redefine the Western, making many of his influences seem tame by comparison. (166 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