#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

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

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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

#144 (tie) – To Be or Not To Be (1942), dir. Ernst Lubitsch

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Where be your gibes now? Jack Benny stars as a pompous Shakespearean actor of the Warsaw stage who finds himself roped into the fight against the Nazis in director Ernst Lubitsch’s dark farce.

The devastation of Poland, Nazis, gross censorship, Nazis, infidelity, Nazis, espionage, Nazis, dead body disposal, and some more Nazis. Certainly doesn’t sound like much of a hoot, but director Ernst Lubitsch knew better. Radio comedy king Jack Benny and screwball comedy veteran Carole Lombard star as a Joseph and Maria Tura, a husband and wife team of actors in a Polish theater troupe. Due to the Nazi blitzkrieg and Maria’s dalliance with a young bomber pilot, the pair become caught up in a life or death ruse to silence a German spy and protect the Polish underground from the Gestapo. That all sounds like the plot of a super serious spy thriller, and that’s kind of the point, as To Be or Not To Be uses the look, beats, and fake facial hair of a wartime spy flick but turns everything on its head into a dark but supremely silly farce. The film was something of a bomb when it opened in 1942; apparently American audiences weren’t quite ready to laugh at the conflict they had just decided to finally join. But the movie has endured, most likely because, like Chaplin before him and Mel Brooks after him, the German-born Lubitsch knew that humor and satire are particularly powerful weapons in undermining the allure of Hitler and his minions. Countless movies since World War II have shown that the Nazis are among the most reliable cinematic villains; To Be or Not To Be demonstrates with aplomb that they can also be some of the best straight men in a comedic blitz. (99 min.) Continue reading

#2 – Citizen Kane (1941), dir. Orson Welles

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Bet you five you’re not alive if you don’t know his name… Orson Welles (left) and Joseph Cotten star in Citizen Kane, a portrait of the life and times of a towering newspaper magnate. For 50 years the film topped the Sight & Sound poll and remains one of cinema’s greatest achievements.

By the time he was 25 years old, Orson Welles was already acknowledged as a theatrical genius and radio drama innovator. When Hollywood came calling, Welles was given an unprecedented deal for a first time filmmaker in the days of the studio system — complete creative control over all aspects of production. At the age of 26, he directed, co-wrote, and played the title role in Citizen Kane (1941), generally considered one of the best movies ever made — if not the best. Loosely based around the life of yellow journalism tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane tells the story of the life and death of Charles Foster Kane, a fabulously wealthy businessman and newspaper publisher who never finds fulfillment in his riches. More specifically, the movie follows an attempt by a reporter to decipher the meaning of Kane’s cryptic dying word: “Rosebud”. Citizen Kane freely jumps back and forth through time, abandoning narrative convention as it examines Kane’s life through interviews with former friends, lovers, and associates. And it looks gorgeous as it does so, deploying extreme camera angles, brilliant use of light and shadow, and deep focus photography to chart an elaborate course through the big, complex life of a big, complex man. (119 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – The Great Dictator (1940), dir. Charlie Chaplin

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Schweinehund! Charlie Chaplin sticks it to the Fascists in the guise of Adenoid Hynkel, a petty, antisemitic dictator with a rather obvious inspiration. With World War II raging, The Great Dictator savages the demagogues of the day and makes the case for collective effort to make a kinder, better world.

It is a strange twist of fate that one of the most beloved and one of the most reviled men of the 20th century both sported the same iconic, if unflattering, bit of lip hardware. Charlie Chaplin donned the toothbrush mustache as essentially clown makeup, providing his Little Tramp character a trait every bit as essential as his derby and cane. Adolf Hitler certainly had an iconic appearance of his own, but chances are he didn’t find his stache to be particularly amusing. Chaplin, however, felt otherwise about the German Fuhrer, having apparently been inspired to parody Hitler after finding the overblown Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will to be laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Chaplin began filming The Great Dictator (1940) in September 1939, just as World War II kicked off, but it should be noted that this was an American film and the United States was still more than two years away from entering the war. In this regard, Chaplin was flying directly in the face of American isolationist sentiment and taking head on the Fascist forces and growing antisemitism of Europe. And in doing so he demonstrates one of the true powers of comedy: the mighty don’t necessarily mind being feared or hated, but to be made ridiculous… that hits where it hurts. (124 min.) Continue reading

#4 – The Rules of the Game (1939), dir. Jean Renoir

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Unnecessary roughness. Farce and tragedy collide head on in director Jean Renoir’s cynical take on pre-WWII French society — both high and low. In this shot, a marquis and the man trying to steal his wife carry the marquis’ mistress after she falls into hysterics — a taste of the complicated relationships woven throughout the film.

We dive back into the Sight & Sound Top 10 in this entry, yammering about director Jean Renoir’s remarkable upstairs/downstairs tragicomedy The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, 1939). The film provides a glimpse into the lives of the rich and remarkable in the halcyon days just before the Second World War, as it tracks the affairs and entanglements of an upper class clique while they party and hunt at the country estate of the Marquis de la Cheyniest. The marquis is trying to break things off with his mistress just as a heroic pilot makes a brazen attempt to steal the marquis’ wife. The film also follows the romantic shenanigans of the staff, with a poacher-turned-servant cozying up to a flirtatious maid who happens to be the gamekeeper’s wife. The setting is ripe for farce, and Renoir keeps the conversation and the action lively, escalating the insanity as romantic advances are accepted or rebuffed. But The Rules of the Game is not content to be just a comedy of manners or a madcap party. For all the comedic antics, this is a film of complex, thoughtful individuals with hurts every bit as strong as their lusts, and Renoir’s overriding cynicism finds the melancholy waiting to consume the mirth. So many films and tales urge you to follow your heart; The Rules of the Game suggests you may be better off using your head. (106 min.) Continue reading

#63 (tie) – Modern Times (1936), dir. Charlie Chaplin

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Motormouth. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp gets a taste of the latest technology in Modern Times, the comedian’s slapstick satire of industry and the plight of the working man.

We’ve previously mentioned on this blog that Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film City Lights very much went against the grain by being a silent picture at a time when sound had become all the rage in Hollywood. By that measure, the comedian’s next feature — Modern Times (1936) — is positively reactionary. Modern Times was meant to be Chaplin’s first foray into the all-talking movie, but he felt (and rightly so) that his Little Tramp character was essentially a vehicle for silent expression. Modern Times technically isn’t a silent film (we’ll get into that), but in most of the essential ways it is a product of the silent era. “Reactionary” isn’t just applicable to the film’s style, but also potentially its content. Modern Times doesn’t offer a story so much as a satirical broadside against the industrialized world — particularly the dehumanization of mechanized production and the pain and poverty experienced by large swathes of society. So, the film can be seen as reactionary in its insistence on the good old ways in a disturbing new world, but its sympathy for the little man and the worker made it revolutionary enough for Chaplin to be branded a Communist in 1950s Red Scare America. Whatever your take, Modern Times absolutely was the last silent film made in Hollywood, and it is appropriate that the Little Tramp would provide the final word — or intertitle — on the form. (87 min.) Continue reading