5. Alfred Hitchcock – 1954 – “Dial M for Murder” and “Rear Window”
One year, two classic Hitchcock thrillers. In “Dial M for Murder,” newly retired English pro tennis player Tony Wendice decides to murder his wife after discovering her affair with an American writer. Like any murder plot in a Hitchcock film, Tony’s plan doesn’t exactly go off without a hitch.
The initial premise evolves into a plot full of blackmail, wrongful accusation, hidden keys, and clever twists. “Dial M for Murder” is ideologically a bit more subtle than other Hitchcock works like “Vertigo” or “Psycho.” There are some strong thematic undercurrents about gender and marriage and infidelity (yes, you could easily read something Freudian into that key), but on the surface level, “Dial M for Murder” succeeds purely on suspense and intriguing plot turns.
“Rear Window” is one of Hitchcock’s absolute best works. It is set entirely in the apartment of professional photographer Jeff, who is stuck in a wheelchair after breaking his leg. Jeff takes to spying on his neighbors to pass the time and begins suspecting Lars, one of the tenants across from him, of murdering his own wife.
“Rear Window” has plenty to say about voyeurism (including the voyeuristic nature of cinema itself), gender roles, and community. As in “Dial M for Murder,” these themes are all wrapped up in a suspenseful thriller plot, and the claustrophobic cinematography (which is often as helplessly immobile as Jeff) and exceptional use of sound make the mystery all the more absorbing.
4. Jean-Luc Godard – 1965 – “Alphaville” and “Pierrot le Fou”
“Alphaville,” Godard’s foray into both sci-fi and noir, is set in a dystopian society where emotion, art, and autonomous thought are outlawed. The city of Alphaville is controlled by Alpha 60, a computer system with a seemingly omnipresent voice. Our hero is secret agent Lemmy Caution, who falls in love with Natacha, the daughter of the scientist who created Alphaville.
The prevalent theme of heart triumphing over mind is an interestingly sentimental theme for the typically detached Godard, but the emotional distance of his filmmaking prevents the story from becoming schmaltzy. “Alphaville” is a welcome departure from Godard’s generally more realistic work (though everything was filmed in Paris, with no special sets built), and definitely worth checking out for fans of Orwell or Bradbury.
“Pierrot le Fou,” on the other hand, is a good distillation of Godard’s typical style. He gives us abstract narration, random textual inserts, rule-breaking editing, and a variety of thematic concerns ranging from pop culture to Vietnam to the breakdown of language itself. At its base level, the film is a road-trip-crime-spree picture from before “Bonnie and Clyde” popularized the genre; Ferdinand and Marianne are the lovers on the run, and they are being chased by gangsters who want Marianne.
But Godard employs few of the conventions that would later define this kind of film. In almost any 60s American crime film, for instance, the camera would linger and move closer when revealing a corpse in an apartment. Godard, conversely, dollies past his apartment corpse as if it has no more relevance to the plot than any other set decoration.
3. Steven Spielberg – 1993 – “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List”
“Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List” are probably the paired films on this list which are most wildly different from one another (though I suppose Oz and the Reconstruction-era South are pretty far removed from each other too). “Jurassic Park” is a visual effects marvel and one of the great thrillers of the 90s, combining prehistoric wonder with glass-of-water-rippling suspense.
The sequels to “Jurassic Park” have run with the suspense and largely abandoned the wonder, so it is the wonder that makes the first film stand out from the rest of the franchise. Spielberg uses some nail-biting set pieces to capture the danger of dinosaurs, yes, but he also captures the awe that we would feel if we were able to see such long-extinct creatures today. The sense of awe is greatly magnified by John Williams’ beautiful score.
“Schindler’s List” is Spielberg’s greatest drama film and one of the best cinematic treatments of the Holocaust. The interplay of light and shadow in the black-and-white cinematography visually encapsulates the film’s larger thematic chiaroscuro: slivers of hope amid immense darkness.
“Schindler’s List” is full of evil and tragedy, but Spielberg balances these elements with moments of compassion and humanity. Though the film does document the evil of the Nazis, it is much more concerned with those who suffered, resisted, and even survived their evil.
Water is a recurrent symbol of hope here, as in the scene where Schindler directs a hose at the thirsty and overheated occupants of a boxcar, or the scene where a suspected gas chamber turns out to be a mere shower. And as in “Jurassic Park” (and most other Spielberg films), Williams’ score is one of the film’s greatest assets. The haunting violin melodies poignantly underscore the horrors – and the glimmers of hope – on display.
2. Ingmar Bergman – 1957 – “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries”
While Bergman’s filmography is packed with astounding films, he managed to make two of the most astounding entries in the same year. “The Seventh Seal” is recognizable even to those unfamiliar with Bergman, as the ongoing chess game between world-weary knight Antonius Block and black-cloaked, pale-faced Death is the most famous image in Bergman’s entire oeuvre.
The film is set during the Black Plague, and this already bleak atmosphere is made bleaker by Antonius’s struggles with faith and Death. But there is some levity, provided in part by the actor Jof and his family, who lead a plain and affectionate life that gives Antonius peace.
In one scene, for instance, Antonius eats milk and strawberries with them and manages to find some contentment in the midst of his spiritual crisis. Lighter, tranquil scenes such as this help balance the scenes that linger in philosophy and existential dread.
“Wild Strawberries” is similarly concerned with the search for meaning and peace. Aging Swedish professor and doctor Isak Borg takes a lengthy road trip to be awarded a degree for his fifty years of doctoral work. He is joined by his daughter-in-law Marianne, and they pick up hitchhikers along the way who remind Isak of his past.
While the road trip forms the backbone of the film’s plot, Bergman also lets us see Isak’s dreams and memories. Like Antonius, he has to come to terms with death: in one dream, he finds himself in a coffin. And yet, much of his introspection is more focused on the past than on the future. He has to learn to live with lost romances, missed opportunities, and loneliness. Antonius cannot stop looking ahead, and Isak cannot stop looking back; both of them end up finding peace by learning to look around themselves instead.
1. Francis Ford Coppola – 1974 – “The Conversation” and “The Godfather Part II”
Another director with the honor of two Best Picture nominations at a single Oscars ceremony, Coppola turned out two of the best films of the 70s in 1974 alone. “The Conversation” is about the antisocial, privacy-obsessed Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who uncovers an apparent murder plot.
Scripted and filmed before Watergate, “The Conversation” was perfectly – though accidentally – timed to tap into post-Watergate concerns about surveillance and shady figures in power. The film succeeds both as an exercise in paranoia and suspense and as a masterful character study of Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman in one of his best performances. The final scene is one of the most frustratingly but fittingly ironic endings in film history.
“The Godfather Part II” is the stronger of Coppola’s two 1974 masterpieces, recognized almost universally as one of the finest sequels ever made. The film consists of two parallel timelines: the efforts of Michael Corleone to protect his criminal enterprises – and his life – as the new Don of the family; and the immigration and successes of his father Vito in the early part of the twentieth century.
Vito’s story is compelling – especially due to Robert de Niro’s performance – but it is ultimately an illuminating counterpoint to the central story of Michael. Michael began the first film insistently removed from the family business, and by the end of the second film, he has sacrificed everything to secure his business. It’s a Faustian tragedy, the story of a man giving up his soul for power, and the power Michael ends up with is crushingly lonesome. Like the first film, “Part II” counts the cost of following the American dream to its darkest reaches.
Author Bio: Nathan Quick is an English major pursuing a career in filmmaking and writing. He believes that watching good films is an essential step toward making good films.