#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

Advertisements

#17 – Seven Samurai (1954), dir. Kurosawa Akira

Seven Samurai (1954)

The Magnificent Seven. The great Toshiro Mifune leads a stellar ensemble cast in the grandest of Japanese epic films, Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai.

These days Ozu Yasujiro is probably considered to be Japan’s greatest filmmaker, but it’s a good bet that more people have gotten their introduction to classic Japanese cinema through Kurosawa Akira. This is perhaps not terribly surprising, given Kurosawa’s eye for spectacle and a well honed populist streak that makes for stellar entertainment. It also doesn’t hurt that Kurosawa’s films frequently draw from Western cultural touchstones like film Westerns, noir detective fiction and Shakespeare, making his work more accessible to Western viewers. Though a versatile filmmaker who did everything from quiet domestic dramas to urban thrillers, Kurosawa is probably most famous for his samurai pictures, and there is no film in the genre as epic and grand as 1954’s Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai). The plot of the film is quite simple: a village hires seven samurai to defend it from bandits. But within that simple framework Kurosawa creates a sprawling epic touching on issues of class and economy, bravery and cowardice, selfishness versus community, and the nature of loss. Exciting and funny, smart but not preachy, Seven Samurai pretty much defined the action film, giving movies an energy they had never previously known. (209 min.) Continue reading

#93 (tie) – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Image

Gad, sir, Major General Wynne-Candy is right. War starts at midnight in Powell & Pressburger’s warmhearted satire of British conservatism in the face of the German blitzkrieg.

In the 1930s, New Zealand political cartoonist David Low devised the character of an old school military blowhard as way to satirize the right-wing politics of his adopted country of Great Britain. Bald, red-faced, and walrus mustachioed, Colonel Blimp was meant to sound like the product of another era — out of touch but insistent; dimwitted but righteously certain. But when it came time for Blimp to make his debut on the silver screen, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger decided to take the character in a rather unexpected direction. Sure, the beached whale we’re first introduced to in a Turkish bath is very much the man from Low’s comic, but the filmmakers decided not focus on the man that is.  They instead turn back the clock to show us how he became a caricature of conservative bluster. So from a one-panel, one-note joke of a comic we get a four decade exploration of honor, love, war, and true friendship as we follow the life of Clive Candy from vivacious young man to bloated relic. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) has been referred to in some corners as the “British Citizen Kane“, and while a bit too simple, that description is largely apt, as Powell and Pressburger contrived a multifaceted narrative that attempts to explain the life of an iconic man. And the duo manage to pull it off with a wealth of clever storytelling, hugely sympathetic performances, and some of the best color cinematography of the era. (163 min.) Continue reading

#36 (tie) – Metropolis (1927), dir. Fritz Lang

Image

Futurama. The prototypical mad scientist Rotwang shows off his mechanical hand and his mechanical-man to Joh Frederson, the effective ruler of Metropolis, the dystopic society created by director Fritz Lang.

Above ground, a towering, glittering city filled with a pleasure-seeking elite. Below ground, the tenement colony of workers who operate the massive machines that drive the city above. Metropolis (1927) is the story of a young man and woman who try to break down the divide between the classes in the name of love and common humanity. But little of that matters, because the film is foremost a canvas on which director Fritz Lang creates some of cinema’s most enduring images and characters. The most expensive silent film ever made, Metropolis represents ground zero for cinematic science fiction — even more so than A Trip to the Moon. Every cinematic dystopia from Blade Runner to Akira to The Matrix owes a debt to Metropolis‘ title city. The novel Frankenstein may have created the mad scientist, but it is the performance of Lang regular Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the fiendish inventor Rotwang that serves as the model for every deranged scientist to come. And Metropolis‘ most famous creation, the Machine-Man, was effectively cinema’s first robot (and served as direct model for C-3PO in Star Wars). In all, Metropolis is a simplistic take on class conflict, but one told on a grand scale and with a visual inventiveness that has kept it relevant and eye-popping for over 85 years. (150 min.) Continue reading

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

Image

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

#144 (tie) – Napoleon (1927), dir. Abel Gance

Napoleon (1927)

Able was I… Napoleon surveys the rain-soaked aftermath of his assault on a British garrison during the siege of Toulon in Abel Gance’s silent epic on the youth and early career of the famed French military commander and emperor.

For a time he was the most feared and powerful man in the world, he gave his name to an era of history, and he was a character in both War and Peace and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But before he would command hundreds of thousands of troops and be crowned an emperor, he would first need to win a snowball fight. At least that’s how it all starts in director Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic Napoleon. The massive, sprawling film spends over five hours (in the version we watched) documenting the early years of Napoleon’s rise to power, beginning with his days at school and moving through the first years of the French Revolution, the siege of Toulon, the Reign of Terror, Napoleon’s courtship of and marriage to Josephine, and his invasion into Italy. The film features a remarkable array of cinematic techniques and innovations to tackle the incredibly complex story of not just a remarkable man but also the fate of a nation in transition. Perhaps Gance’s most famous innovation in Napoleon was the first use of a widescreen format, which he accomplished by utilizing three cameras which would simultaneously film scenes that would then be projected onto three linked screens. Unfortunately unavailable on DVD, Napoleon is tricky to track down but it presents truly remarkable spectacle on a scale most movies can only dream of. (310 min.) Continue reading

NiL – Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), dir. Fritz Lang

Image

You are getting creepy, very creepy. Fritz Lang’s 1922 epic about a criminal mastermind and hypnotist is full of innovative and interesting scenes, like the one above showing a victim’s perspective as he begins to succumb to Dr. Mabuse’s hypnotic gaze. This film is not in the Sight & Sound Top 250.

We are straying a bit from the general format of the blog with this entry to present a film not in the Sight & Sound Top 250 — Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922) — mostly because our next blog entry is the sequel to this film. This four-and-a-half hour, silent crime epic was a big hit for Lang, and introduced a character he would come back to twice more in his directing career. Mabuse is a brilliant psychologist turned criminal mastermind, who crafts elaborate plots to manipulate world markets but isn’t above using his mastery of hypnosis to cheat at cards. The brilliance of the character and his spiraling decline offer up the chance for Lang to engage in some wonderfully stylized imagery and bravura action sequences — but perhaps not enough to justify the runtime. (271 min.) Continue reading