#63 (tie) – Sunset Blvd. (1950), dir. Billy Wilder

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

The pictures got small. With her depiction of a faded silent movie star desperate for relevance, Gloria Swanson grabs the spotlight with a vengeance and refuses to let go in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.

Movies can be about most anything — and the Sight & Sound list is proof positive of that basic sentiment. The prehistoric battle royale of King Kong is worlds apart from, say, the psychological noir of In a Lonely Place or the kaleidoscopic view of everyday life in Man With a Movie Camera. But one theme that seems to enthrall filmmakers is the art and business of making movies — it’s a theme that, for instance, runs through all of the films in the previous sentence. And why wouldn’t filmmakers be obsessed with with both their craft and the business that makes it possible — it’s basically the movie-making equivalent of “write what you know”. And few people knew movie making better than Billy Wilder. A German emigré who arrived in the United States with hardly any English, Wilder managed to quickly become one of the top scriptwriters and directors in Hollywood, known for his barbed humor and sophisticated dialogue. After two decades in the business Wilder turned his focus on Hollywood itself. Sunset Blvd. (1950) is a savage look at the way Hollywood operates, particularly in its capacity for casting aside those who gave their all to the business. But while the film bears the hallmarks of Wilder’s caustic wit and subtle direction, Sunset Blvd. is truly dominated by one of the great screen performances of all time by former silent movie star Gloria Swanson — an actor who was decidedly ready for her closeup. (110 min.) Continue reading

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#73 (tie) – La Grande Illusion (1937), dir. Jean Renoir

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La grande fuite. Jean Gabin, France’s biggest box office star of the day, waits for his moment in Jean Renoir’s prisoner-of-war drama La Grande Illusion, an exploration of, well, a lot of things about pre-WWII Europe.

French director, critic, and future yammer subject Francois Truffaut once noted that it is impossible to make an anti-war film, because the very act of depicting war inevitably glamorizes the combat or glorifies the soldiers involved. Truffaut is probably right concerning most war pics, but it is doubtful his maxim could apply to director Jean Renoir’s prisoner-of-war film La Grande Illusion (1937). Set during World War I, the film follows two French officers, the aristocratic Captain de Boldieu (Pierre Fresney) and the working class pilot Lieutenant Maréchel (Jean Gabin), as they deal with being POWs in German custody. The film establishes a number of prisoner-of-war movie archetypes that would be copied by numerous later films (with one prominent scene being lifted pretty much wholesale for Casablanca). But it is a distinctly unusual war movie, in that there is no combat and no bad guys. Even the attempts at escape serve more as backdrops for character studies and observations about the absurdities of nationalism and class divisions or the way that fate has of undoing even our best laid plans. Most anti-war films look to man’s brutality to make their point; La Grande Illusion instead chooses to showcase our common humanity. (114 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