#144 (tie) – Diary of a Country Priest (1951), dir. Robert Bresson

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Confessions. Our unnamed titular protagonist pays his respects at the death of the one person who he was able to truly comfort in director Robert Bresson’s meditation on faith and anguish.

This is kind of a big one — our first Robert Bresson film at Fan With a Movie Yammer. Bresson is the most decorated director on the Sight & Sound list, with a remarkable seven films (more than half his total output) earning a spot on the list. Among the most respected and revered of French directors, Bresson is known for his minimalism and use of non-professional actors, and his films are credited with paving the way for the French New Wave of cinema. The director’s third feature, Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1951), is his first film on the Sight & Sound list. Featuring unorthodox plotting and a distinctly spiritual bent, Diary of a Country Priest follows the travails of a young priest who has just received control over his first parish. There he meets suspicion and resentment from his parishioners, and his internal struggles — both bodily and spiritually — threaten to consume him. Spare and elegant, but displaying an ever tightening emotional tension (and a wry, satiric bent), Diary of a Country Priest is an exploration of what it means to find consolation in a world full of tragedies and malice. (115 min.) Continue reading

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#154 (tie) – Black Narcissus (1947), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Black Narcissus

Nun too difficult. You are almost contractual obliged to use a bell-ringing shot atop any article about Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. And there is little wonder why, as this movie about a group of nuns atop a mountain in India is a visual feast of extraordinary sumptuousness.

After four movies set firmly within wartime Britain, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger finally put World War II behind and look to the outskirts of Britain’s colonial empire for their fifth entry on the Sight & Sound list, Black Narcissus (1947). Though set in the mountains of northern India, the film sticks with a predominantly white, English cast (unfortunately even for a number of Indian roles), presenting the trials and tribulations of a group of nuns attempting to set up a school and clinic in a mountaintop palace. Few in number and living in isolation, the nuns (led by Powell’s beloved Deborah Kerr) struggle with their living situation, the local people, and among themselves as they try to cope atop the mountain. The film uses the nuns to delve into questions of faith, duty, colonial attitudes, lust, love, and madness. But the treatment of these themes is generally superficial, with the movie preferring to work more as an exercise in tone and image. And in that regard Black Narcissus is a thrilling work of art channeling the compositions of Vermeer, a liberal dash of Orientalism, and a sinister Technicolor palette to create an unreal world where enlightenment and derangement sit side by side. (100 min.) Continue reading

#117 (tie) – A Canterbury Tale (1944), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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Pilgrims’ progress. Alison and Mr. Colpeper share a moment atop a hill overlooking Canterbury in Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, a wartime homage to English tradition and a jovial examination of the ties between Britain and America.

Badly burned by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that is Meet Me in St. Louis, we had the pleasure of being promptly salved by the soothing and airy A Canterbury Tale (1944), the next Powell & Pressburger entry on the Sight & Sound list. We’ve already yammered about one Powell & Pressburger film (the excellent Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), but have said little of the famed filmmaking duo, who were known as “The Archers”. Though they share directing, writing, and producing credits on their films, the majority of the directing duties fell to Michael Powell, who had been working in the business since the silent film days. Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian emigré to Britain who was the principal writer of the films and handled much of the production duties. Together they went on a critically acclaimed run in the 1940s like nobody else — landing six films on the Sight & Sound list in six consecutive years (1943-1948). Perhaps the gentlest and most modest of those six is A Canterbury Tale, which follows an American sergeant, a British sergeant, and a young woman in the Women’s Land Army as they try to unravel a mystery in the countryside of Kent, before all journeying to Canterbury. Though slight in scope and full of gentle (and genuinely funny) humor, the film manages to tackle a wide array of issues, from Anglo-American relations, the urban/rural divide, and faith in the face of adversity, to our connection to history and the extent to which good intentions can mitigate bad actions. It’s a pilgrimage well worth making. (124 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

#171 (tie) – Tabu (1931), dir. F.W. Murnau

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That’s a paddlin’. Matahi (left) and other indigenous islanders race out to a sailing vessel in F.W. Murnau’s Tabu, a silent film shot on location in the South Pacific using local people in all of the principal roles.

The maiden sacred to the gods has died and must be replaced; the chief has sent his emissary to collect Reri, the young woman who will become the new sacred maiden. As such she is forbidden contact with all men, and any man who violates the tabu placed upon Reri must suffer death for his crime. Reri and her love Matahi cannot abide by this decision, and so the pair steal away in the dead of night to flee the tabu and the wrath of their people. Tabu (1931) is an unusual American production for its day, in that it not only doesn’t focus on the doings of Western characters but also utilizes non-white actors for all of the principal roles. This was no doubt due to the influence of Robert Flaherty, the early documentary filmmaker most famous for Nanook of the North (1922). The project was meant to be a collaboration between Flaherty and influential German director F.W. Murnau, but as filming got underway, Murnau assumed more and more control of the movie. As such, the film involves an interesting blending of documentary sensibilities with plot elements and contrivances that are more typical of Hollywood dramas. But however Westernized the tale may be, the on-location shooting, native cast, and impressive cinematography make Tabu a unique movie experience. (85 min.) Continue reading

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

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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

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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