10. Short Cuts by Robert Altman
Robert Altman came roaring back to the cinematic landscape with the fury of an old geezer with something to prove. After being unceremoniously dumped from the Hollywood cesspool after taking their money and doing with it as he damn well pleased – favoring personal passion over monetary import – the early 90’s were a coming home party.
And after returning to Hollywood by barely suppressing a superior snicker at Tinseltown’s own expense with The Player, he turned to the LA lifestyle more widely and served as prophet to the city’s decay. It would seem Hollywood had spread outward and overtaken everything in its path, festering in the soulless hollow shells where once humans reigned, and this modern day collectivist Wilder is there to bask in every moment of it.
He captures seedy impertinence with an observational eye, drawing people from all over LA’s artificial, archly-detached geometry and bubbling them into a stew of distaste. He eschews narrative, taunts overhead with his camera, and latches on to the minutiae of everyday in-humanism.
It’s a deeply, depressingly cynical film, egalitarian in its contempt for humanity, and a work that draws people together in the most unexpected of ways only to explore how disconnected they truly are. It’s a great cinematic trick, and like any ring-leader, Altman marries bark to bite and plays both the ecstatic showman and the caustic, lonely artist.
9. Rio Bravo by Howard Hawks
A particularly playful, flighty number from the mind of Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo trades in his usual tried-and-true terseness for something altogether unexpected: a light theater piece. You wouldn’t know it from a first look though. In fact, the main idea sounds like a set-up for a thriller to end all thrillers – a collection of friendly faces, including John Wayne and Dean Martin, wind up prey to merciless gang members slowly circling their town while our heroes hold up in an increasingly desperate sheriff’s office.
But while John Carpenter took the premise and made that motion picture seventeen years later, Hawks decided he’d rather take his new friends and chill for a bit. For almost three hours in fact, placing his camera down and just having his boys hang about on a lackadaisical summer’s afternoon, occasionally remembering in the interim that those who want their heads skulk about outside.
Shootouts interrupt the frame and clever visual touches doctor them up, don’t get me wrong, but the majority of Hawks’ film hangs out between melancholy and frothy and lets everything slide on down the middle. It’s a particularly purring, subversive Western for this reason, flouting its assumed pugnacious potency and taking the whole idea of the Wild West and taking all the wild out of it.
It posits that the Wild West was the stuff of dreams and that the most fulfilling life, in fact, might just be found in the company of our own friends and in our own home.
8. The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock
A tad long in the tooth, The Birds is nonetheless Hitch’s final great work, and his most abstracted in its open-faced nihilism. While it doesn’t quite uphold itself to the formal rigor and icy intellectualism of Vertigo, nor play around with narrative storytelling and star performance quite like Psycho, it’s an enrapturing look at social decay in enigmatic, brash terms.
Certain characters hint quite clearly that it is main character Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren) who brings the birds through her sexual impurity (this is Hitch, and this was Hitch right smack-dab in his outdated Freudianism and worrisome anxiety over female sexuality). But we, and Hitch, are never sure. Its morality play is sometimes excessively talky, but in the end, the greatest haunt is the film’s soul-deep nihilism, washing over the film like in no other Hitch effort.
Every one of his former films at least made sideways glances at a MacGuffin, providing some false reason for the human decay it inevitably depicts. The Birds knows no such logic; it is an abstract motion picture, the birds representing any and all of mankind’s fears and inadequacies crashing down upon them with fury and unthinking passion.
Even the questionable bird effects serve this purpose, passing by without distinction like abstracted white and black dots piercing a background of humankind. They know no reason, and neither does the film.
7. The Searchers by John Ford
The Searchers is the look and feel of an old master coming to terms with himself. The de facto Western auteur then and today, Ford was a fairly conservative man, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t face demons about it. Prone to moments of progressivism when need be, The Searchers saw a post-War America debating with its own memory and finding itself largely flustered as a result.
The story concerns Ethan (John Wayne) on the hunt for his young niece (Natalie Wood) stolen by a local Apache tribe, but like all Westerns, it’s really about America. This is merely one of the first to be particularly anxious that the vision may not be what we want of it, and that it may have other things on its mind.
The Searchers isn’t really a post-racial film, even if it thinks it is – Wayne is still the anti-hero at the end, and the Native Americans are still treated unceremoniously even in the film’s attempt to reduce Wayne to savage status. But there are a smattering of beacons for the coming storm of post-structuralist revisionist Westerns in this film’s self-conscious mythologizing and reflection on its own falsity.
At the beginning of the film, the arch White Hero John Wayne swaggers in out of the wilderness, Ford framing him in a doorway to signal a moment of passage into the modern world.
As Ford comes to reckon two hours later, when his symmetrical eye passes a sideways glance to Wayne leaving the house the way he came in, boxed off by that door that might swallow up any man or woman if it wanted to, he’s learned the greatest truth of all: Ethan, and by extension the Wayne character and the Western genre as a whole, doesn’t belong in modern society. It’s a dream, perhaps a useful one for some people under its spell, but a false hope all the same.
6. L’argent by Robert Bresson
Updating Bresson’s monomaniacal focus on the material world and the routines and rhythms of physical stresses that delineate time for humankind, L’argent certainly saw one of the most transformative, idiosyncratic, singular forces of film-making in all history off on his best foot.
L’argent is slightly more conventional than Bresson’s more earlier works like Pickpocket and Au Hasard Balthazar (then again when your most famous film finds a Jesus parable about all humankind in the life of a beleaguered donkey, there is no way to go but toward convention). Yet, it finds convention treating him well in old age, dissecting with poetic detachment the unceremonious passage of money around modern society and drawing us all together only in our fixation around material well-being.
Bresson concentrates on the physical world, quieting his humans and cutting through their forms like a knife through butter by blocking them and boxing them in with the material objects that lay siege to their lives on a day to day basis. It’s a crisp, note-perfect slice of modern Marxism, a cynical, clinical exploration of man in the material world that keeps humanity at a distance for that is exactly what humanity has done to itself.
5. Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick took his time, but he always paid off in the final analysis. His final completed film Eyes Wide Shut befuddled and bedeviled audiences upon its release in 1999, with most of humanity having been lulled into a sleep-like state with the boredom of modern American film-making and its reliance of continuity storytelling.
Fittingly, Eyes Wide Shut is a somnambulant motion picture, walking and talking a dreamlike haze of worrisome beauty and glazed-over operatic flourishes. It’s not quite the scream in the night we’ve come to expect from the famously clinical, anti-human British intellectualist, but it is as icy and as chilly as anything he ever directed. He uses his longer-than-ever takes to glide in and out of characters and around their lives spiraling out of control, connecting them with the geography of a world they barely notice around them.
The ghostly, necromantic, freely-floating cinematography feels forever unhinged and finds Kubrick’s enigmatic style at its most lovely and yet most horrific, and the score by Jocelyn Pook varies between oppressively beautiful operatic grandeur and minimalist piano haunts as it lurches about on its own fire and ice. The mid-film Gothic decay of the orgy party may be the most hypnotically filmed sequence of American cinema from its decade. It feels eternally deadened, and yet it finds human, and cinematic, life within.
4. Gertrud by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Carl Dreyer’s much debated final film doesn’t go down easily, but its surface-level bubbling and toiling are matched only in conviction by the violence it does down below.
Dreyer’s film begins with a businesslike dissection of a failed relationship, two character trading frank and disturbing barbs like they were speaking through a lawyer’s vice. Look again, and you’ll observe the subtle fluctuations in the caressing camera as it warmly delineates with a clear, composed eye the power structures scaffolding the scene.
Gertrud’s tiresome dialectic seems one-note on the surface, lacking the psychoanalytic Danes’ trademark visual hush and incorporeal majesty, but deep down, it reveals a perfected dissection of love lost and human distance by way of its angular, perceptively structural core that defines time, space, and character through the literal symmetry of form-fitting film-making.
Take for example the way Dreyer opens up the doors to his claustrophobic fable when his titular character, ever in search of perfect love, is given the gift of truly lovely, if scorching, lighting reminiscent of Dreyer’s hazy earlier works, romanticizing her past even as it underlines it as a work of strict falsity and nostalgia in contrast to the film’s “present”.
It lacks the mystifying allure of Vampyr or his piercingly literal Passion of Joan of Arc, but as a work of formalism, it discloses untold mysteries that simmer and grow more passionate today.
3. Ran by Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear changes tone and story specifics – King Lear is a generally benevolent leader undone by others and Kurosawa’s Hidetora Ichimonji is a vicious, cruel monster destroyed by personal hubris – but the real difference is in the jump from stage to screen.
Kurosawa hand-painted every storyboard for the film, sticking to them like a moth to the flame, and after seeing the finished product, one can never turn back. It is an absolutely gorgeous, incandescent motion picture, alive with vivid color and energy and knowing nothing to the logic of plot when it can subscribe to the emotional logic of image and sound.
The story and the characters are stupendous in their own, more quiet, way, but Ran is first and foremost a visual experience, a tone poem to human frailty and Nohtheater in its East meets West fusion. It is a film where form and content are intertwined to the core, the cinema’s greatest moving painting.
Take a mid-film battle sequence for instance, rivaled in all of cinema only by Orson Welles’ impressionist chaos in his Shakespeare adaptation Chimes at Midnight (funny that the master of words proves a jumping off point for the two most cinematic battle scenes ever captured on film). Kurosawa abstracts the sound so the entire sequence is coated in a mournful melancholy of moans that approach us like a subliminal gut punch, and they become one with the images that function more like clashing color than humans in armor.
Kurosawa accomplishes more with red, blue, and yellow than any director ever before or since, all the more shocking for his long-held friendship with black-and-white cinema.
2. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by Luis Bunuel
Luis Bunuel always had a right time making a film; his loopy, kinetic passion is never far from the screen. He knew how to have fun with us, and how to get us involved, producing something combustible and compulsively high on its own energy even as it primarily operated at one speed: angry.
For Bunuel, his absurdism aside, was a satirist, and satire needs smug superiority and rage to fly and be free. Bunuel doesn’t operate on the level of his subjects. Oh no, they are his objects, and he is out to do with them as he pleases.
For his early 60’s masterpiece The Exterminating Angel he lined up his bourgeois players and created a grand existential party around them: they had gathered for a night of pleasantries, and, for whatever reason, they could not leave the room they occupied. They were not physically barred, but they could for no identifiable reason leave the party at hand. It was an eternal party, and they were trapped in their own indulgence.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a most fascinating flux on the same idea, a nifty turn-of-phrase that turns things on its head by forever interrupting the party in the first place. By all manner of reasons, most of them involving Bunuel forcing his filmic hand and explicitly screwing with his characters, the aristocrats of his chosing cannot get down as they might want; he is always there, the author’s hand eternally disrupting their lives and making play with them just as their New Money had made play with human life for centuries (Bunuel ever the Marxist, and making no apologies for explicitly targeting the wealthy here).
It’s the closest live-action cinema has ever gotten to recreating the post-structuralist absurdism of the Looney Tunes when they went Duck Amuck. Fun and fancy free all right, but it boasts a dark heart.
1. Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman
Bergman intended Fanny and Alexander as his swan song, and although the director found a new hunger in old age and continued making films periodically for the next twenty years, his passion for Fanny and Alexander shows. It clearly held a special place in his heart, and perhaps for this reason it finds Bergman in an uncharacteristically unencumbered, happy place as he explores the life of a bourgeois family from the perspective of a young male onlooker.
Brittle emotions and human frailty hide within, but Bergman adopts the perspective of a cheeky bystander, allowing his characters to prod themselves at their own, unhurried pace. Equal parts Amarcord‘s cheery parody, Renoir’s humanist bitters, and Bunuel’s later period diluted-absurdist amusement (with no small portion of Bergman’s own intellectually rigorous melancholy and pain thrown in for good measure), Fanny and Alexander sees him in an especially playful mood as he opens on images of a children’s sized theater, only to pull back the curtain and reveal his young observer bored as can be.
It would seem his toy bores him, so he gets up, dusts himself off, walks about a bit, and wanders into the theater of his own home. Bergman fills the screen with triple layered storytelling motifs accordingly (even in the opening image, the boy is on the stage himself from of our view, implying that he too is part of this theater for us), drawing out the parallels between real life and fiction like a pitchman who moonlights as a conceptual artist.
Author Bio: Jake Walters is a recent graduate of Amherst College and an aspiring film-writer/ist. He shares his thoughts on film at his website, thelongtake.net and is particularly interested in film in relation to society, race, class, and gender, He writes frequently on horror films and looks to Werner Herzog, Michel Foucault, and John Shaft for life advice. You can find him on Twitter@long_take.