#90 (tie) – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Matter of Life and Death

Stairway to Heaven. The great figures of world history line the massive staircase connecting Earth and the afterlife in Powell & Pressburger’s giddily inventive fantasy romance A Matter of Life and Death.

We are now making our way into the second half of British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s amazing run of films in the 1940s. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is also the duo’s first movie made after World War II, but the war still heavily informs the film, which centers on the near-death experience of English bomber pilot Peter Carter (played by David Niven). The film also continues the explorations of Anglo-American relations that can be found in A Canterbury Tale and (to a lesser extent) Colonel Blimp, by having Peter’s love interest be June, an American girl serving as a military radio operator. But all of that sounds rather serious, when A Matter of Life and Death is really a fantasy romance, taking the whimsy of Powell & Pressburger’s previous efforts and ratcheting it up to 11. The basic plot is that Peter is forced to jump from a burning aircraft without a parachute. His death is certain, but due to a clerical error in the afterlife he doesn’t die. Heaven tries to correct its mistake, but Peter appeals his death on the grounds that he and June have fallen in love. But then again, this all might be in Peter’s head. With visual pizzazz that matches the fantastical plotting, A Matter of Life and Death is often considered the high water mark of Powell & Pressburger’s filmography, and is the highest ranked of their six Sight & Sound films. (104 min.) Continue reading

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#144 (tie) – The Wizard of Oz (1939), dir. Victor Fleming

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And your little blog too! Dorothy’s adventure with the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion represents one of the most enduring children’s classics to ever come out of Hollywood. But how does The Wizard of Oz hold up to adult eyes?

It’s very difficult to open a yammer on The Wizard of Oz (1939) without resorting to lame jokes about not being in Kansas or otherwise heading somewhere over the rainbow — so we’ll just skip that and get to it. Now a beloved musical and children’s film, The Wizard of Oz was actually a tumultuous production that burned through a number of directors and stars before largely failing at the box office upon its initial release. But the movie slowly gained traction through airings on television, moving from cult status to bona fide classic in subsequent decades. As you likely know, the movie tells the adventures of farmgirl Dorothy Gale, who travels through the magical land of Oz with a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion as they seek the assistance of the titular wizard. Of course, there’s a wicked witch and some flying monkeys to contend with along the way. The movie is an unusual one for the Sight & Sound list, which is often so vigorously serious and adult with regard to its selections. The Wizard of Oz is very much a children’s film, abounding with broad performances, outrageously vibrant costumes and sets, goofy (but unshakable) songs, and a decided lack of nuance or subtlety. But there is a definite charm and energy to the film that makes it worthy of the declaration in its opening credits: “to the Young in Heart …we dedicate this picture.” (101 min.) Continue reading

#171 (tie) – King Kong (1933), dir. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack

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Knock. Knock. The mighty ape bursts through the barred gate of Skull Island’s protective wall to retrieve his blonde in King Kong, the special effects-driven spectacular that revolutionized adventure/fantasy cinema.

If there’s one Sight & Sound film of which everyone knows at least the basic story, it’s King Kong (1933). Giant ape, blonde, airplanes, and the Empire State Building. It is one of the great enduring creations of Hollywood and has filtered across the global cultural lexicon through countless references, parodies, and remakes for 80 years — so we won’t trouble you with a lengthy recap. King Kong was the brainchild of filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, whose sparse filmographies belie their influence. Cooper was a real-life adventurer — and the inspiration for King Kong‘s Carl Denham — and he and Schoedsack had previously collaborated on some well received silent docu-dramas filmed in Persia and Siam (elephant stampede footage from their 1927 film Chang is actually used in Duck Soup). But however much adventure and exoticism Cooper and Schoedsack brought to the proceedings, the bulk of the genius behind King Kong probably came from Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion animation pioneer who brought Kong and the film’s menagerie of prehistoric beasts to life. Kong was a special effects marvel in its day, and still has the power to awe with its inventiveness and visual splendor. Combine that with some killer action set pieces, frenetic pacing, and Max Steiner’s influential (and supremely bombastic) score, and you have a film that rivals the titular ape in scale and power. (104 min.) Continue reading

#235 (tie) – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), dir. Robert Weine

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Fractured fairytale. The somnambulist hauls his victim over the German Expressionist rooftops of the warped world of Dr. Caligari.

An early foray into cinematic horror, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920) features some of the most wildly distorted sets the movies have ever seen. A touchstone of German Expressionist cinema, the film largely ignores naturalism of any kind in its settings, instead creating its own looming, jagged world in which terrible events transpire. The story revolves around a series of mysterious murders that occur shortly after a fair comes to town. A featured spectacle at the fair is the cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which houses Cesare, a young man who is almost permanently asleep and can supposedly divine the future. Soon suspicion swirls that Dr. Caligari is responsible for the murders, but proof is elusive. (75 min.) Continue reading

#171 (tie) – A Trip to the Moon (1902), dir. Georges Méliès

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That’s gotta hurt! One of the most famous images in the history of cinema also happens to come from one of the medium’s earliest triumphs, the 1902 science fiction romp A Trip to the Moon.

We will be bouncing around a lot in this blog, but we plan to generally present the Sight & Sound 250 roughly in the order in which they were produced. So without further ado, we present the oldest film on the critics’ list, the 1902 science fiction classic A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage danse la lune). French filmmaker George Méliès was a magician and one of the first directors to really exploit the possibilities of special effects and fantastical narratives. This short film draws from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to tell the story of a group of surprisingly medieval scientists using a cannon to fire themselves to the moon. There they encounter a race of moon men and things get kind of crazy. The copy we watched was the hand-coloured version of the film and featured a score by the French ambient duo Air. (13 min.) Continue reading