#183 (tie) – The Grapes of Wrath (1940), dir. John Ford

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The best laid plans… Just released from prison, Tom Joad returns only to find his home abandoned and his family set to flee for (supposedly) greener pastures in California in The Grapes of Wrath, a tale of Depression, family, and the rights of labor in the wake of the Dust Bowl.

The Great Depression was a shockingly difficult time for millions across the globe, but few were hit as hard as the farmers of Middle America, where economic hardship was cruelly compounded by severe drought and massively damaging dust storms. In 1939, author John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, tracking the crippling obstacles and travails of a family kicked off their land in Oklahoma and hoping to find security, if not prosperity, in California. With its unflinching look at the poverty and hardship of agricultural workers and the callous and brutal tactics used by employers and law enforcement, the novel sparked instant controversy and was the subject of book burnings and bans — but it was also a best-seller. Hollywood quickly took up the book, with director John Ford helming a film adaptation released in 1940. This is the first Ford film we are discussing on this blog, but it won’t be the last — indeed, his 1956 film The Searchers sits at #7 on the Sight & Sound list. Ford’s Grapes of Wrath does stray some from the stark grimness and overtly leftist politics of Steinbeck’s novel, but it does compellingly depict a time of immense hardship and the befuddled mind-state of a family witnessing their world fall apart. It also happens to be one of the most gorgeously shot films ever to come out of Hollywood, a result of Ford using talented cinematographer Gregg Toland, who experimented here with a number of techniques he would use to even greater effect in Citizen Kane the following year. (129 min.) Continue reading

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#183 (tie) – The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), dir. Mizoguchi Kenji

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Journey to the end of the night. Otoko (played by Kakuko Mori) prays beneath the stage, hoping her husband will finally put on the performance that will redeem him, in Mizoguchi Kazuo’s exquisitely shot tale of devotion in the face of social rigidity.

We finally get a little break from 1930s French and American movies to tackle the oldest Japanese sound film on the Sight & Sound list, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Zangiku monogatari, 1939). Japanese cinema didn’t get much international recognition prior to the Second World War, but it roared into the global consciousness in the 1950s, in no small part due to the work of director Mizoguchi Kenji. A prolific filmmaker, Mizoguchi produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 films in his career (many of which, sadly, are lost), but The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is considered to be the moment his style fully crystallized. The movie follows the career trajectory of a kabuki actor in the late 19th century. The adopted son of a famous Tokyo stage actor, Kikunosuke is a bad performer coasting on the coattails of his father’s name. Otoko, the wet nurse of his infant brother, is the first person to be honest about his poor acting and urges him to really focus on his craft. Bolstered by Otoko’s encouragement and love, Kikunosuke disobeys his parents and heads off to make his own name on the stage — but that path is destined to be arduous, if not tragic. Though leisurely paced and restrained in mood, Last Chrysanthemums is a bravura exercise in lighting, choreography, and camera movement that never fails to impress. (143 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

#183 (tie) – I Was Born, But… (1932), dir. Ozu Yasujiro

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Ah so desu ka. Kids peer on with interest as a friend tricks his dad into removing his dentures in Ozu Yasujiro’s I Was Born, But…, a coming of age comedy set in the suburbs of Tokyo.

I Was Born, But… (Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo, 1932) is an adult story from a child’s eye point of view. Having just moved to a suburb of Tokyo, brothers Keiji and Ryoichi find themselves as outsiders among the neighborhood children. The movie deals with their struggle to ingratiate themselves with the local kids and to come to terms with the importance — or non-importance — of their family in the world at large. Oh, and it’s also extremely funny. I Was Born, But… is the latest totally silent film on the Sight & Sound list (1936’s Modern Times doesn’t quite count), and it is also the oldest Japanese film in the Top 250. The movie is by the prolific director Ozu Yasujiro, whose very formal directorial style works surprisingly well with the kinetic shenanigans of the children in this movie, creating something like an art house Little Rascals movie. Alternately beautiful and supremely silly, I Was Born, But… is the rare movie that let’s children be children, instead of being participants in a sanitized fairy tale or a live-action cartoon. It also let’s adults be adults, acknowledging that they can be nearly as ridiculous as their kids. (91 min.) Continue reading

#84 (tie) – Greed (1924), dir. Erich Von Stroheim

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“Open up and say, ‘Meh.'” Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed strives to tell the story of ordinary working class people corrupted by a winning lottery ticket. The film makes strong use of real life locations instead of the usual Hollywood sets.

Pretty much from the beginning, Hollywood has been a factory for producing glitz and glamour — attractive people engaged in impossibly amazing stories meant to entertain the masses (and turn a profit). Greed (1924) was an attempt by Austrian-born director Erich Von Stroheim to run against the grain of the system to produce a down-to-earth story that would tackle the unpleasant lives of some rather unpleasant people. Adapting the late 19th century realist novel McTeague, Von Stroheim steered clear of the artificial opulence of Hollywood to film on location at the actual places mentioned in the novel — including the scorching Death Valley, California. He also cast actors who are decidedly not among the beautiful people, wanting to have his characters portrayed by individuals who would suit the working class environments in which the story takes place. But that does not mean Von Stroheim was content to have the film look as everyday as its sets and actors; Greed utilizes numerous unusual techniques for the period, including selective bursts of color, chiaroscuro lighting schemes, montage editing, and deep focus cinematography (16 years before The Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane). But Greed is perhaps most famous for its epic length. The first cut was over 9 hours, but was eventually slashed down by the studio to just over 2 hours without Von Stroheim’s approval (he disowned the final cut). The excised 6-plus hours of the film still remain unaccounted for and are considered by many to be the holy grail of cinema. (140 min., 239 min. in TCM reconstruction) Continue reading