#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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#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

#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

#154 (tie) – In a Lonely Place (1950), dir. Nicholas Ray

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Temporary insanity. Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart are star-crossed lovers torn apart by Bogie’s potentially murderous temper in director Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place.

The noir movies of the 1940s rather muddied the waters when it came to movie protagonists. Even the heroes in noir films tend to be complicated or compromised, and there was perhaps no single actor more essential for creating the Hollywood antihero than Humphrey Bogart. Too gruff and brutish-looking to be a typical leading man, but too charismatic and talented for character roles, Bogie was perfect as a protagonist who straddled the line between hero and villain. It was as the thuggish, sarcastic, womanizing detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon that Bogie became a bona fide star, and he became an icon through his performance in Casablanca by playing a hero who was essentially an angry, jealous drunk. There was always a darkness to Bogart’s performances, and that darkness gets to come to the fore in director Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). A film set at the intersection of passion and violence, In a Lonely Place explores the capacity that we have for savagery — both to commit violence and to tolerate, or even love, those who give themselves over to rage. (93 min.) Continue reading

#127 (tie) – Spring in a Small Town (1948), dir. Fei Mu

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

A house divided. A woman prepares medicine for her husband while trying to ignore the stares of her former lover in director Fei Mu’s tense domestic drama Spring in a Small Town.

We’ve been stuck here of late at FWAMY. So far we’ve yammered about 73 Sight & Sound list films, all of which come from just eight countries. So it is very nice to welcome a new nation to the fold: China. Spring in a Small Town (Xiǎochéng zhī chūn, 1948) was filmed in the short window between the end of World War II and the beginning of communist rule in China in 1949. As such it captures a very unique — if very brief — chapter of China’s history, and offers insight into what the country thought of itself before Chairman Mao. But the epic turbulence of this period is kept well to the background in Spring in a Small Town, which is a domestic melodrama that contains a grand total of five characters. An ailing man lives in the ruins of his family’s mansion with his wife, sister and a servant. One day the man is visited by a friend — a friend who used to be romantically attached to the sick man’s wife. It is a simple set up, but evocatively constructed to be a slow burn of passion versus duty; romance versus friendship. And while set in a society that lasted all of a few years, the beautifully shot Spring in a Small Town reaches for something universal and timeless. (98 min.) Continue reading

#73 (tie) – The Third Man (1949), dir. Carol Reed

The Third Man (1949)

The League of Shadows. Set amid the devastation of post-war Vienna, The Third Man is a twisted take on the noir thriller — a black-and-white canvas for some very grey morality.

I suppose it was inevitable. You start making shadowy films and perhaps you give the camera a bit of a tilt. And I’ll be, that looks pretty damn cool. But soon you crave more — the tough streets aren’t tough enough; the light and dark still seem too grey; and that woozy angle, well, it feels more like a gentle lean. So you escalate — like a cinematic arms race: your Maltese Falcons become your Big Sleeps become your Out of the Pasts. But where does it end?

Apparently in Vienna.

Director Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1948) may not traffic in tough guy patois, but it is in many respects the ultimate in film noir. Who needs the mean streets when you have literally bombed out boulevards? Still too nice? — then we’ll take to the sewers. Shadows for atmosphere? — bah, make them dominate entire city blocks. And is there ever a need for the camera to be level? Written for the screen by acclaimed author Graham Greene, The Third Man is almost hallucinatory in its paranoia and intrigue. The film follows the inept sleuthing of Holly Martins — a failed novelist and walking personification of the ugly American — as he tries to clear the name of his friend Harry Lime. As twisting and turning as its cinematography, The Third Man is often cited as the best British film of all time. Continue reading

#154 (tie) – Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), dir. Max Ophüls

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

You’ll never walk alone. Joan Fontaine stars in director Max Ophüls’ melodrama of manners about a young woman whose obsession with a philandering musician leads to heartbreak and ruin.

The Sight & Sound list films of the latter half of the 1940s tend to either dwell in down and dirty realism or reach for the heightened realities of fantasy or film noir. This being the case, director Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman almost feels like a relic from the 1930s, with its upper-class sophistication and gorgeous, overstuffed settings. But there is a dark undercurrent running through the movie that seems more in keeping with post-war cinema, and the restrained but emotionally rich performances are hard to imagine from the more loquacious characters that populated the first decade and half of talkies. Epic in scope, but intimate in feel, Letter from an Unknown Woman follows the obsessive love of Lisa Berndle, a Viennese girl, as she pines for her neighbor Stefan, a womanizing pianist. Beautifully shot and a featuring a tremendous lead performance by Joan Fontaine, Ophül’s first entry on the Sight & Sound list can be thought of as an anti-melodrama — the rare film that thrums our rawest nerves by focusing not on our outbursts but our constraints. (86 min.) Continue reading