#93 (tie) – Madame de… (1953), dir. Max Ophüls

Madame de... (1953)

Mirror, mirror, at the ball. Director Max Ophüls brings the elegance in Madame de…, a lavishly staged romance set in European high society.

Max Ophüls kicked off his directorial career in his native Germany, but as so many other Jewish artists, he fled the Nazis in 1933 and eventually made his way to Hollywood at the outset of the 1940s. There he made a number of well-received films, including previous list movie Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), which drew on a Continental sophistication and moral flexibility that one did not find in the generally more prudish American studio system. But many of Ophüls most admired films were produced after his return to Europe in the 1950s. With Madame de… (aka The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953) Ophüls ups the ante in his depiction of fin de siecle upper-class society, drowning the film in gowns and ornately dressed sets. It also follows the lead of his previous list film in following the progression of an intense, but ultimately doomed affair. But Madame de… trades in a greater subtlety, working within the unwritten — and often unspoken — rules of society and enhancing the dynamics among characters through remarkable camerawork and staging. It is a film as elegant as its aristocratic leads, and as sparkling as the diamond earrings that launch the story. (100 min.) Continue reading

#24 (tie) – Rashomon (1950), dir. Kurosawa Akira

Rashomon (1950)

I might have been lying when I said I was lying. Actress Machiko Kyo takes in the horror of her situation — at least in her version of the story — in Kurosawa Akira’s landmark film Rashomon.

A man lies dead in a forest clearing, his wife has been assaulted, and a bandit has made off with their horse and possessions. This much is known, but everything else is called into question as the bandit, the wife, and the dead man (speaking through a medium) tell drastically different versions of how this came to be. And a story level beyond, three men discuss these testimonies as they take shelter from the pouring rain and, confronted with an apparent web of death and lies, ponder the nature of the human soul. Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon (1950) was a major landmark in world cinema, breaking Japanese film into the global consciousness in a major way (and generally letting the West know that their was more than Europe and Hollywood out there). The film — which essentially tells the same story four times from radically different vantage points — is a remarkable deconstruction of narrative convention and calls into question the supposed impartiality of the camera’s gaze. Endlessly influential — the “Rashomon effect” has even entered standard legal parlance — the film calls into question the nature of truth and examines the urges and self-serving motives that obscure the pure core of our common humanity. (88 min.) Continue reading

#154 (tie) – Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), dir. Max Ophüls

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

You’ll never walk alone. Joan Fontaine stars in director Max Ophüls’ melodrama of manners about a young woman whose obsession with a philandering musician leads to heartbreak and ruin.

The Sight & Sound list films of the latter half of the 1940s tend to either dwell in down and dirty realism or reach for the heightened realities of fantasy or film noir. This being the case, director Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman almost feels like a relic from the 1930s, with its upper-class sophistication and gorgeous, overstuffed settings. But there is a dark undercurrent running through the movie that seems more in keeping with post-war cinema, and the restrained but emotionally rich performances are hard to imagine from the more loquacious characters that populated the first decade and half of talkies. Epic in scope, but intimate in feel, Letter from an Unknown Woman follows the obsessive love of Lisa Berndle, a Viennese girl, as she pines for her neighbor Stefan, a womanizing pianist. Beautifully shot and a featuring a tremendous lead performance by Joan Fontaine, Ophül’s first entry on the Sight & Sound list can be thought of as an anti-melodrama — the rare film that thrums our rawest nerves by focusing not on our outbursts but our constraints. (86 min.) Continue reading

#102 (tie) – Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944), dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Ivan the Terrible

C.C.C.People Power. Tsar Ivan Groznyy absorbs the will of the people as they march to beg his return to the thrown in one of countless powerful images from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I.

Sergei Eisenstein is one of the great directors. A pioneer of montage editing, inventive camera placement, and rousing action set pieces, Eisenstein was also a deeply cerebral filmmaker and a Marxist deconstructionist of film technique who put together some of the best theoretical pieces on movies ever written. In many ways he represented the leading edge of experimental Russian cinema in the cultural renewal that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. But like many of his contemporaries, things didn’t go so well for the director after Stalin came to power, and his film output dwindled. Still, with World War II raging and the Soviet Union suffering the brunt of the casualties, Eisenstein was called on to create a series of films meant to inspire the Russian people against the Germans. The director set out to craft a trilogy about Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar of all Russia, using the 16th century monarch as a representation of the supreme power of the State and a symbol of unity for the Russian people. Ivan the Terrible, Part I (Ivan Groznyy, 1944) was considered a triumph upon its release, and features some of the most stunning visuals found in any film, as it tackles the opening years of Ivan’s reign from his coronation to his first major victory over the scheming nobility. But Eisenstein’s success was short-lived. Though Part II was finished, it did not meet the approval of Stalin, who forbade the film from being released. Stalin also pulled the plug on the production of Part III, of which little footage has survived. Eisenstein passed away not long after. (99 min.) Continue reading

#73 (tie) – Children of Paradise (1945), dir. Marcel Carné

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Mime doesn’t pay. Baptiste, a lovelorn stage performer in 1820s Paris, serves as the soul of Marcel Carné’s epic melodrama of ardent love, self-destructive passion, and the populist power of theater.

With materials scarce and their country still under Nazi occupation, Marcel Carné, France’s most successful director of the era, and the famed poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert decided to make the biggest, most expensive film ever produced in France. From end to end Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis, 1945) was a poke straight in the eye of the modern reality of France and the modern motion picture in general. French Resistance were hid by the production as extras and crew. The set designer and composer were Jews whom Carné helped hide from the Nazis as they worked on the film. The Germans wouldn’t allow movies to be longer than 90 min, so Carné simply split his three-hour film in two and claimed it was two movies — re-running the credits again in the middle. But what appears on screen also places Children of Paradise well outside the realm of the conventional. Set in 1820s Paris, the story follows the tangled lives of several men who are vying for the love of the streetwise Garance. This in itself is nothing unusual, but the film’s vision of a bygone era is wholly unique — diving into the theatrical past to question the limits of the cinema of the present. The principal wooers of the film are Baptiste, a mime who is the first to elevate his art beyond pure slapstick, and Frédérick, an impoverished lothario with dreams of playing Othello. As such, much of the film is based around scenes of performance on the 19th century stage, often in mime and generally with an over-the-top brio that strays wildly from naturalism. Children of Paradise is wholly about passion — pure, lustful, possessive, or destructive — which the film lays bare in its chaotic vision of old Paris, its romantic cinematography, and the fervent declarations and actions of its characters. (190 min.) Continue reading

#183 (tie) – Day of Wrath (1943), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

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Bothered and bewildered. Lust, guilt, faith, and the dark arts collide as the disenchanted Anne confronts her aging minister husband Absalom in Carl Th. Dreyer’s domestic drama set in the witch burning days of yore.

In what is generally considered his magnum opus — The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) — director Carl Theodor Dreyer chronicled the trial and execution of the titular heroine at the hands of vicious and merciless clergymen. The idea must have strongly resonated with Dreyer, as he tackles a similar situation in Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag, 1943), only this time during the 17th century witch hunts of his native Denmark. The film follows the troubled existence of Anne, a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage with an older clergyman. Mired in a strict, dour household and tormented by her implacable and disapproving mother-in-law, Anne meekly goes through the motions of being a dutiful housewife. But everything is thrown into disorder when she falls for her aged husband’s dashing son and gets wrapped up in the capture and execution of a local woman accused of being a witch. The result is the lighting of a slow fuse leading inevitably to tragedy and misery in the face of a social and religious order that cannot tolerate a young woman fulfilling her innermost desires. Beautifully shot and brimming with tension, Day of Wrath delves deep into the inevitability of fate and the devastating power of guilt and desire. (97 min.) Continue reading

#59 (tie) – Barry Lyndon (1975), dir. Stanley Kubrick

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Those were the daze. Lord Bullingdon confronts his passed out stepfather, the spendthrift drunkard Barry Lyndon, in a gambling parlor. The painterly composition and use of natural light are characteristic of Stanley Kubrick’s 18th century epic .

In 1844 William Makepeace Thackeray began serializing The Luck of Barry Lyndon, an unusual new novel that may have been a first in English literature: a story with absolutely no heroes. Redmond Barry is a naive but thuggish Irish youth, who flees to the army after shooting the man his beloved cousin is to marry. Redmond stumbles through careers as a soldier, traitorous spy, and dishonest gambler before ensnaring the heart of a young noblewoman with an elderly and ailing husband. After a convenient heart attack, Redmond marries Mrs. Lyndon, adopts her last name, and proceeds to plow through her fortune at a fast clip. Barry has appeared to reach the top before a tragic death and his sniveling step-son bring him low. At first glance, the costume drama of Barry Lyndon seems like an unusual choice for the director of Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, but Stanley Kubrick’s films generally present protagonists who are either villains, ineffectual, or both. And the stately beauty that the director brought to outer space in 2001 he brings here to 18th century Europe, using sunlight and candlelight to create painterly visions of a bygone age. (184 min.) Continue reading