8. The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
Taken from Jacques Offenbach’s opera, this glamorous and good-looking Techni-color chimera from writer/producer/director team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is an undeniable classic.
These complex and kaleidoscopic tales of youthful inexperience and intractable self-loathing feels incredibly modern, and has inspired a wide cross-section of filmmakers, including Darren Aronofsky, George Romero, and Martin Scorsese, amongst so many others. In fact, it was Romero who enthusiastically touted, “[The Tales of Hoffmann] is my favorite film of all time; the movie that made me want to make movies.”
Traversing, with a ballerina’s grace, differing, disparate genres, blurring lines and intellections of femininity and masculinity, espousing gorgeously rich and rendered cinematography with tightly edited tonal signatures that are still innovative today, The Tales of Hoffmann is amongst Powell and Pressburger’s finest feats, a surreal fantasy, a musical opera in a class all its own.
7. Intolerance (1916)
D.W. Griffith’s highly influential historical masterpiece, Intolerance, is also a landmark marvel of sophisticated storytelling, and one of the most elaborate productions ever mounted. Braiding together four tales of oppression and enmity over a 2,000 year narrative, this is the showpiece that Pauline Kael called “one of the two or three most influential films ever made, and I think it is also the greatest.”
At three-and-a-half hours and with a cast of “thousands,” Intolerance, unfairly, flopped upon its initial release, but in later years was reappraised for the towering masterwork it truly is. With a complex structure, diverse locales (one story thread picks up in 539 BC, during the fall of the Babylonian Empire, another in contemporary urban America), and gob-smackingly colossal sets, Intolerance is the very definition of spectacle, and one of the finest and most imposing films ever wed to celluloid.
6. Chungking Express (1994)
Wong Kar-Wai’s ecstatic romantic comedy drama casts C-pop superstar Faye Wong in one of two impossibly energetic, color-saturated, and highly stylized stories. With a music video aesthetic, this vibrant, visceral film is also buoyed by its use of music (will Mamas and the Papas smash “California Dreamin’” ever be used to such glorious effect ever again?), adding the occasional clandestine dip into almost surreal reverie.
Chungking Express is hard to forget — romantic yearning and sacrifice both poignant and impassioned frisk with the facile uncertainties of youth and acquired wisdom — amounting to Wong’s first real masterpiece.
5. Mystery Train (1989)
A personal favorite amongst many of Jim Jarmusch’s diehard adherents, the musical pedigree alone in this marvellous 1989 anthology film, an exuberant love letter to Memphis and its melodies, astounds. Heartfelt, hilarious, and tragic turns from the likes of Joe Strummer, Rufus Thomas, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and a clever cameo from Tom Waits (stealthily reprising his role from Down By Law) help make this film an out and out atmospheric reverie.
John Lurie’s score is sublime, the misty ‘round midnight score is haunting, while the fractured narrative enchants all the way, Robby Müller’s cinematography is superb as ever, and all those quirks and embellishments that make Jarmusch so singular are all on bright display. Mystery Train is an anecdotal delicacy with lovable, pitiable, and sympathetic characters that somehow feels like a lucid, lively dream, one that’s listless, lovely and neon-lit.
4. The Decalogue (1988)
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s clear-eyed epic, The Decalogue, is a masterpiece, full stop. At almost ten hours, this fable-like spiritual/psychological episodic showpiece casts an enormous shadow.
Set within a modern Warsaw apartment complex, Kieslowski’s massive film endeavour is comprised of ten episodes, each inspired by the Ten Commandments and each featuring the finest Polish actors of the day (Maja Komorowska, Grazyna Szapolowski and Jerzy Stuhr amongst them). There’s ingenious overlap in these tales, frequently one story’s major character is a periphery presence in the next, and so on. So many of these vignettes stand out (Thou shalt not commit adultery and Thou shalt not kill are amongst the most sublime, but there isn’t a weak link to be found throughout).
Kieslowski, a moralist easily of the calibre of Ingmar Bergman, also wields a coolly subjective, often melancholic tone (think Ken Loach or Mike Leigh), and yet, befitting his art-house acumen, perhaps, has crafted a film of overwhelming power, staggering beauty, and intriguing intellect.
3. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Easily the most influential film of the 1990s, Tarantino’s pop culture-saturated dialogue is an outright delight and his visual style is more than just a grab-bag of showy devices — it adds immeasurable dimension to the characters and settings — making for an intricate, artful, yet totally trashy crazy-quilt celebration of cinema.
Like the yellowing pulp magazines its title explicitly references, Pulp Fiction tells multiple interlinked stories — none of which are told in sequence — in a film as ambitious as it is zeitgeist defining.
A diverse cast delights in its archetypal noir situations (Bruce Willis’ boxer who won’t go down, Samuel Jackson’s hitman who’s gonna go clean, etc), unafraid of shaggy dog detours and black comic violence and vitriol, this is Tarantino’s first masterpiece and will certainly be what he’ll be remembered for. Few films have been as quoted, as cloned, or as dissected, and yet, after repeated viewings, this Godard-worshipping, hard-hearted, always half-joking gem is untouchably awesome.
2. Fantasia (1940)
The experimental masterpiece Fantasia, represents the apex of animation married to music, and was so far ahead of its time that it alienated audiences upon its initial release. Viewed today it seems almost sacrilege to suggest that Walt Disney’s analect is anything less than a near perfect pièce de résistance.
Taking seven interlinked short films each utilising drastically differing styles, set to impressive orchestral works, Fantasia is a dreamlike miasma of sight and sound, as appealing to adults as it is to children, and utterly unforgettable.
Opening with live action musicians, the film quickly segues into abstract animation to Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Other highpoints include the tutu clad alligators and hippos pirouetting to Dance of the Hours, and a magical Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Not just a milestone for Disney, Fantasia is also a landmark motion picture for all of cinema.
1. Short Cuts (1993)
This magnificent LA-based ensemble piece weaves together a batch of Raymond Carver’s trademark spare and disturbing short stories into an unordinary quagmire of disparate, desperate characters in a precarious and incensing fashion that could only stem from the legendary Robert Altman, here at the height of his considerable powers.
Short Cuts, bookended between two disasters; aerial spraying during a medfly outbreak and an unsettling earthquake, also uses a huge and totally committed cast — some twenty-two principals, including Robert Downey Jr., Julianne Moore, Annie Ross, Lili Taylor, Lily Tomlin, and Tom Waits — under Altman’s twinking, assured direction.
As with Altman’s best work, and Short Cuts easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Player, it touches upon many moral issues but does very little moralising. This mixture of sentiment and cynicism, heartbreak and hysterics careens fearlessly into self-reflexive thoroughfares, boldly and brazenly taking the viewer into the darkest avenues that humanity lurks and leans in.
An emblematic example of 1990s cinema, it may be Altman’s greatest work, awash with restless, allusive imagery, insights, and intensity. Short Cuts is a long ride, and an extraordinary wandering of unforgettable nonstop art and impact.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.