The Arts & Faith Top 100 Films
Telling the truth, on screen.
This list of 100 greatest films seeks to capture stories that, bathed in artistry and cinematic talent, mean to experiment with recurring spiritual motifs and questions presented throughout human experience. These films illustrate stories expressive of history and faith, struggle and reconciliation, family dynamic and fellowship, and more. They are representative of “engaging the realities that are eternal,” realities that existed well before and after illustrated on a screen. Showcasing top films and directors from around the world and spanning cinematic history from silent movies to contemporary films, this list is the culmination of years of discussion and debate within the Arts & Faith online community.
The Arts & Faith Top 100 Films is sponsored by Image, a literary and arts quarterly founded in 1989 to demonstrate the vitality and diversity of well-made art and writing that engage seriously with the historic faiths of the West in our time. Now one of the leading literary magazines published in the English language, it is read all over the world—and it forms the nexus of a warm and lively community. Explore Image here.
For more thoughts about this list by Steven D. Greydanus, click here.
1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Carl Theodor Dreyer
To witness The Passion of Joan of Arc is to glimpse the soul of a saint in her hour of trial. The film is more than a dramatization, more than a biopic, more than a documentary: It is a spiritual portrait, almost a mystical portrait, of a Christ-like soul sharing in the sufferings of Christ. At the heart of this portrait is the haunting face of Maria Falconetti, whose transcendent evocation of the Maid of Orleans has been called the greatest performance ever filmed. It is a haunting face because it is a haunted face: a face overshadowed by visions, by fear, by death. Crushing exhaustion, visionary ecstasy, peasant cunning, and unconcealed terror wash over her features.
Dreyer didn’t simply reenact scenes from Joan’s trials, he virtually recreated them. The shoot proceeded chronologically rather than according to production convenience, and lasted six months, about the same time-frame as the real trials. Verbal exchanges between Joan and her interlocutors were taken directly from the historical records of her trials, and the costumes and props, based on fourtenth-century paintings, are also authentic.
Joan’s best lines are faithfully reproduced, from her disarming replies to questions about St. Michael’s appearance to her great rejoinder to the question whether she is in the state of grace: “If I am not, may God put me there! And if I am, may God so keep me!” In this film, Joan again stands accused, and her long silences and simple answers continue to frustrate and confound.
2. Andrei Rublev (1973), Andrei Tarkovsky
In the spirituality of the Christian East, icons are sometimes described as “windows into heaven.” Even when they depict earthly events, their stylized approach is meant to evoke transcendent realities. Such transcendence in art is both the subject and the method of Andrei Tarkovsky's haunting, challenging Andrei Rublev, which takes as its point of departure the life of a 15th-century monk who was Russia's greatest iconographer.
Neither biography nor historiography, Andrei Rublev is a collection of loosely related episodes touching on crises of faith, brutality and chaos, and finally the response of the artist and believer. With its medieval setting, black and white cinematography, deliberate pacing, and serious, even grim exploration of ultimate issues, Andrei Rublev is like a Russian variation on The Seventh Seal, with sex and violence. Yet where the unbelieving Bergman’s characters are for the most part isolated any source of meaning or grace and find ultimate answers only in death, Tarkovsky the Orthodox convert allows for community, penance, faith, and redemption.
What is the answer to the cynicism of Theophanes, the naturalism of the carnal witch, the brutality of the Tatars? It is not an idea; it is nothing that can be expressed in words. It is something that can only be glimpsed, through a glass darkly, or a window into heaven. The notion of art as a “religious experience” is sometimes bandied about too freely. Tarkovsky is one of a handful of filmmakers for whom this ideal was no cheap or desanctified metaphor, but literal truth.
—Steven D. Greydanus
3. Ordet (1955), Carl Theodor Dreyer
Politics is easy. So are history, biography, and formal technique. But transcendence is tough.
Based on Kaj Munk’s play of the same name, Ordet tells the story of Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), a prosperous farmer whose three sons have each laid a particular burden on their father’s shoulders. The eldest, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), has renounced the religious beliefs of his ancestors, claiming that he no longer has even “faith in faith”; the second, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), has gone mad from too much study and now claims to be Jesus of Nazareth; and the youngest, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), has disobeyed his father by pursuing the hand of a young woman whose religion puts her family at odds with the elder Borgen.
On the surface, Ordet is primarily concerned with the Romeo and Juliet-like Anders plot, along with a more dramatic sidebar involving Mikkel’s heavily pregnant wife, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel).
Ordet is really about faith, though. It’s about the mysteries and contradictions and beauty of belief. Unlike most other films, though, Ordet treats this subject with both measured skepticism and reverence, forcing us to distance ourselves, even if only temporarily, from our personal beliefs so that we might reexperience “true faith” (whatever that is) free of cultural baggage and biases.
Dreyer accomplishes this by way of something akin to the Verfremdungseffekt, Bertold Brecht’s “alienating” approach to theater. John Fuegi has described the purpose of the V-effekt as disrupting “the viewer's normal or run of the mill perception by introducing elements that will suddenly cause the viewer to see familiar objects in a strange way and to see strange objects in a familiar way.” Ordet does both, defamiliarizing the now-mundane words of Christ, while also making perfectly acceptable the probability of miracles.
For Brecht, the use of the V-effekt in a film or play like Ordet would be a political tool, a means by which audiences might be wakened to their slavish acceptance of hypocritical or oppressive religious dogma. And, in a sense, Dreyer does just that. But whereas Brecht would completely dismantle faith as a dangerous ideological construct, leaving it in ruins, Dreyer strips it to its foundations so that each viewer might potentially rebuild that faith, and rebuild more strongly.
Ordet is, quite simply, one of the most beautifully photographed films ever made. Dreyer’s cinematographic trademarks are all on display: slow, elegant tracking shots and pans; stylized, almost expressionistic lighting; meticulously orchestrated movements and compositions.
4. The Decalogue (1989), Krzysztof Kieślowski
“What is the true meaning of life?” Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski has asked. “Why get up in the morning? Politics doesn't answer that.” The Decalogue, Kieślowski's extraordinary, challenging collection of ten one-hour films made for Polish television in the dying days of the Soviet Union, doesn't answer Kieślowski's questions either. What it does is pose them as hauntingly and seriously as any cinematic effort in the last quarter century.
The decalogue is not easy to keep, and The Decalogue is not easy to watch. Although the ten episodes explore moral questions, they do so in the context of disordered, sometimes dysfunctional lives of a modern, generally areligious urban populace. Kieslowski never preaches, and seldom even seeks explicitly to clarify lines between right and wrong, but the prevailing mood is somber and downbeat, the general sense of something having gone wrong unavoidable. Like much of the Old Testament, The Decalogue is a chronicle of human failure.
The ten episodes are linked by a common setting, a Warsaw high-rise apartment complex where all the characters live (an early establishing shot perhaps suggests the Tower of Babel), and also by the occasional overlapping of characters from one episode into another. There is also an enigmatic, silent observer whose presence in nearly all the episodes suggests some symbolic role. This observer has been variously identified with God, truth or conscience; Kieślowski’s agnostic comment was “I don't know who he is” though he also added, “He’s not very pleased with us.”
—Steven D. Greydanus
5. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), Robert Bresson
With a rigorous style that is often off-putting to newcomers, Bresson eschews the usual emotional cues we’ve become conditioned to expect at the movies. His editing is, above all, efficient—refusing to emphasize one moment over another. We’re forced to pay fierce attention and draw our own conclusions about which words and gestures were important. But his framing is very deliberate. He wants us to appreciate the extraordinary implications of seemingly ordinary details and exchanges.
In Au Hasard Balthazar (Or, “By Chance, Balthazar”), he wants us to notice the donkey...an animal who quite naturally just blends into the background. When Balthazar raises his voice, braying obnoxiously during the opening music, he clashes with it so harshly that audiences have been known to burst out laughing. Balthazar’s a “holy fool” who cannot speak (thank goodness) to give us particular insight into his plight. Silent for most of the film, he quietly does what is asked of him from various masters and strangers, receiving affection, suffering abuse, performing hard labor, and living out his life with very little appreciation or reward. But everywhere he goes—from his gentle companionship with young Marie in the Edenic garden, to the torments inflicted by a cruel master, to the humiliation of a traveling circus—his humble, dutiful demeanor shines like a light that illuminates the natures of all who come near him.
Bresson knew what he was doing in choosing this animal to catch the conscience of the audience. For we all know what humble servant carried the suffering redeemer to Bethlehem, and then again into Jerusalem.
6. Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Leo & Ray McCarey
With the help of the Marx Brothers and other comedy greats, Leo McCarey made a lot of audiences laugh. He also made them swoon with romances like An Affair to Remember. But in time it may become clear that Make Way for Tomorrow, his depression-era drama about an aging couple who come to depend upon their difficult children, is his most important film. The Criterion Collection’s exquisite restoration has a lot to do with the film’s appearance on this list. While Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece, Tokyo Story, has long been revered by film enthusiasts around the globe, Ozu himself spoke of the influence of Hollywood pictures on his vision and the influence of Make Way for Tomorrow is obvious.
What may surprise you is that McCarey’s film surpasses that Japanese masterpiece in complexity and nuance. It’s funny, romantic, political, beautiful to look at, discomforting, and ultimately profound. And where most filmmakers would have found a scapegoat among the bickering siblings who argue over what should be done with their father and mother, McCarey refuses to disgrace or idealize any of his characters.
Furthermore, the movie provides treasures rarely seen in American movies: an appealing romance about a couple married fifty years (played by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi); a powerful reminder that independence can be corrosive to the conscience, especially when it comes to family relationships; and a moving exploration of the Fifth Commandment. Make Way for Tomorrow should come with a caution: This film might complicate your relationship with your parents, or your children in the best possible way. The DVD features a revealing interview with Peter Bogdanovich, who tells us that Orson Welles was a great admirer of McCarey’s movie. Asked if he’d seen the film, Welles said, “My god! I watched it four times and cried my eyes out every time! That movie would make a stone cry!”
7. The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), Pier Paolo Pasolini
Some of the most intriguing artistic tributes to faith and religion come from nonbelievers. A Man For All Seasons, the great drama of the life and martyrdom of St. Thomas More, was written for the stage and screen by the non-Christian Robert Bolt. The story of The Song of Bernadette, the Marian visionary of Lourdes, was first written as a historical novel by a Jewish author, Franz Werfel. And Mark Twain’s favorite work among all his books was his Joan of Arc.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was an atheist, indeed a Marxist, and The Gospel According to Matthew is routinely interpreted as a proto-Marxist allegory. Yet Pasolini was perhaps first of all a poet, and the concepts of the sacred and the divine, far from repelling him as so much religious superstition, held for him a powerful appeal. In 1962 he came to Assisi in response to Pope John XXIII’s call for dialogue with non-Christian artists. While there, he read through a book of the Gospels “from beginning to end, like a novel,” later proclaiming the story of Jesus “the most exalting thing one can read.”
—Steven D. Greydanus
8. The Son (2002), Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
It’s tricky to review The Son without raising viewers’ expectations. To rave about the film’s artistry might create a certain anticipation of being dazzled. But, “the truth must dazzle gradually,” and The Son — like all of the Dardenne Brothers’ films — is the antithesis of what most moviegoers consider “entertainment.” It is, rather, a story that unfolds without instructions about how to feel or think about what we’re seeing, and with no exposition to acquaint us with the characters or the context. In other words, watching this film takes patience and contemplation.
Olivier Gourmet won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002 for his role as Olivier, an ordinary man in overalls and thick glasses, who teaches young boys how to measure, cut, and construct simple but solid things. But Olivier seems agitated. When a new boy named Francis (Morgan Marinne) arrives at the school, Olivier begins to behave strangely, dashing down hallways so he can spy on the newcomer. Viewers may well suspect that Olivier is a sexual predator. But the truth is much more interesting. To say more about it would be to rob you of the reward of solving this puzzle on your own.
By following Olivier through routines again and again, the filmmakers begin to reveal what is important to him — accuracy, craftsmanship, a process of refinement, discipline, kindness. The most incidental elements of his daily life begin to resonate with metaphoric significance. As Olivier carefully trains the boys in the importance of exactness, of cutting things “just so” and making sure the lines are straight, he speaks to them about their lives. As he carries heavy beams around the shop, he gives us a picture of the hard work of bearing one’s moral responsibility, and even more, to take and bear someone else’s cross.
Even if the Dardennes were to insist that their characters have no religious affiliation, Olivier’s choices still add up to a passion play. This is as pure a “movie parable” as you’re likely to find.
9. Ikiru (1952), Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
“Ecce homo!” So declares a fellow patron in describing Kanji Watanabe, a dying man seeking some sort of legacy. Watanabe-san is a mumbling, staid bureaucrat in post-war Japan. His world, consisting mostly of stacks of unprocessed documents, crumbles as he receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer. What does it mean for Watanabe to live? What can he hope to be remembered by?
Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film, Ikiru, is quite different than his better known films, period dramas such as Rashomon or Yojimbo. But the story of a man’s choice to make a moral stand against injustice is a theme that runs deep in Kurosawa’s body of work. In taking such a stand, Watanabe makes a dramatic and wondrous transformation.
But even beyond this external purpose, Watanabe faces the stark emptiness that his life has become as he’s been drifting along. Seeking redemption in family and revelry fails him. But when he returns to the office and sees that stack of paperwork, he remembers the case of a local neighborhood that needs help.
Watanabe seeks a rebirth, which Kurosawa both gives and takes away through artful editing. As Watanabe’s rebirth unfolds, Kurosawa frames the change dramatically, in high angles, and with flourishes of motion. But his simplest shot, his most beautiful shot, finds Watanabe on a swing, alone at night, and singing of love. Snow falls, and Watanabe is peaceful and happy. We recall his colleagues’ struggle to understand his newfound passionate embrace of life. Finally, Kurosawa nudges us, here is the man.
10. Babette's Feast (1989), Gabriel Axel
Behind the film’s deceptively simple story is a sort of parable or fable of religion and life. A voice-over narrator introduces us to a pair of aging sisters, daughters of a now-deceased Protestant minister on the Jutland coast of Denmark, whose names are Martina (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) — “after Martin Luther and his friend, Philip Melanchthon.” These pious sisters lead quiet lives of touching service among their late father’s remaining followers, a handful of older residents of a tiny nineteenth-century coastal settlement that is at once almost a religious community and a sect unto itself.
Babette’s Feast is a feast in itself, for the heart, the senses, and above all the spirit. At the same time, unlike many food-themed films (cf. Like Water for Chocolate; Tortilla Soup), it isn’t a voluptuous or sensual affair. It’s sensitive, funny, hopeful, and ultimately joyous; but there’s a restrained, almost ascetical quality to it, especially in the first half. Even in the climactic feast there is no collapse into epicurian dissolution. Elevation, not self-gratification, is the goal of Babette’s Feast.
—Steven D. Greydanus
11. The Mirror (1975), Andrei Tarkovsky
A stuttering student is hypnotized to cure his impediment. A strong wind blows across a field. A ceiling collapses in a rainshower. A bird lands on a boy’s head. A sleeping woman levitates over her bed. A man clutches some feathers in his hand, and a bird flies out.
It is difficult to imagine all of these images coexisting in a single story, and while they all occur in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror, it would be a stretch to say they are all part of a single story. In fact, it’s hard to say if The Mirror is telling a story at all.
Along with these images, Tarkovsky incorporates wartime newsreel footage, elliptical references to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and voiceover audio of his father reciting his poems. The sections of the movie that most resemble a traditional narrative center on a boy named Ignat who is asked to choose if he wants to live with his mother or his father. Even these scenes, however, are not necessarily shown in a chronologically recognizable order and often feature dreamlike qualities.
Instead of navigating his film by means of traditional markers such as story and character, Tarkovsky instead invites his audience on an oneiric journey in which the emotional import of images is more important than their literal meanings.
If all of that makes The Mirror sound like a difficult viewing experience, it is. The tools with which we usually interpret and understand a movie are more of a hindrance than a help when watching The Mirror. Even with its considerable learning curve, though, it is often called Tarkovsky’s masterpiece.
The question that naturally arises, of course, is “Why?” One reason is that the sheer visual power of the images in The Mirror exerts a strong spiritual impression, even if their meaning is not readily apparent. Additionally, when the viewer accepts Tarkovsky’s approach and interacts with the film on his terms, it can evolve into a profound meditation on memory, love, sacrifice, and rebirth.
12. Sunrise: The Song of Two Humans (1927), F.W. Murnau
German director Murnau (Nosferatu) came to Hollywood to make this brilliant fable about a man and wife struggling through a very dark moment in the marriage. A seductress uses this moment of weakness in the couple’s marriage to try to convince the husband to murder his wife, sell his farm, and run away with her. As we watch the man become a monster, we are also shown lighter, even comic, moments of the marriage as the movie builds towards its suspenseful conclusion.
This tightly-written movie is full of innovative film techniques, from clever use of models to elaborate tracking shots, fascinating set and camera angles, and other delights. It represents the peak of silent film-making before the “dark ages” of the 1930s forced cinema to take two steps back to accommodate sound stages and production.
—Steven D. Greydanus
13. The Seventh Seal (1957), Ingmar Bergman
Starkly existential, boldly poetic, slow and grim, Ingmar Bergman’s great classic has haunted film aficionados, baffled and bored college students, inspired innumerable parodists, and challenged both believers and unbelievers for nearly half a century. Bergman's medieval drama of the soul can be difficult to watch but is impossible to forget.
The film opens and closes with the passage from Revelation from which it takes its title: “When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Rev 8:1). “Silence in heaven”—or rather the silence of heaven, the silence of God in the world—is Bergman’s theme, along with mortality and death, existential dread, and apocalyptic fears.
Bergman confronts these issues with the directness of a medieval allegory. In fact, it is a medieval allegory, though for modern sensibilities and anxieties, after the loss of medieval faith. At its most optimistic, it hopes for the pious happiness of its simple player family, whose way of life the director, like his protagonist, is unable to enter into, but which he somehow finds comforting. Their path may not be his, but he doesn’t wish to see them deprived of it.
—Steven D. Greydanus
14. Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94), Krzysztof Kieślowski
The great and final act of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s remarkable career was the production of a trilogy called Three Colors—Blue, White, and Red—that represents the colors of the French flag, and the values they represent: liberty, equality and fraternity. Filmed in three countries (France, Poland, Switzerland), their plots overlap only slightly. Watch closely, and you’ll see the different main characters pass each other and remain strangers.
Blue, empowered by what may be Juliette Binoche’s greatest performance, is the first: In it, the grieving widow of an internationally renowned composer must decide whether to assist in the completion of her husband’s unfinished work—a symphony about the reunification of Europe. As she tries to begin a new life and escape the pain of memory and loss, she becomes entangled in the lives of her husband’s assistant Olivier, a prostitute named Lucille, and a beautiful stranger named Sandrine who keeps a scandalous secret. The film is a personal journey of grief, forgiveness, and healing, but it is also a story about the heart of Europe, which history has broken to pieces, and all that will be necessary for reconciliation and hope.
White is a dark but whimsical comedy about Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a Polish hairdresser whose wife (Julie Delpy) humiliates him and abandons him. Furious and vengeful, he makes a devil’s bargain with a depressed stranger named Mikolaj, finds his way into wealth, and then stages a disappearing act that will help him carry out a wicked plot. Even as the film focuses on Karol’s misery, his unexpected failures, and his attempt to “dominate” Dominique, it’s also about Poland’s uncertain future and how cultural transformation may bring in a whole new wave of problems.
Red, the last chapter, follows a young fashion model named Valentine (Irene Jacob) who catches a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in an act of voyeurism. Frustrated by the legal system’s inability to uncover the truth of a matter, the old man sits at home and uses sophisticated surveillance to listen in on the “truth” of his neighbors’ private telephone conversations with some sophisticated surveillance. While the judge has given up on law, Valentine’s legalism makes her judgmental and condemning. Slowly they explore a middle ground—fraternity—until the film brings all three of the trilogy’s episodes together in an unexpected and dramatic finale.
15. Stalker (1979), Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is a film set in two worlds, but one that takes place entirely on Earth. The first act of Stalker shows us an unnamed, dilapidated city shot in washed-out sepia tones so murky and muted it is difficult to imagine anything surviving there. In this city lives the Stalker, a man called to guide people into the mysterious region known as the Zone.
The Zone is Stalker’s second world, shot in color and populated with the sounds of animals. It is the result of an unexplained alien encounter that occurred some twenty years prior to the action of Stalker. At the center of the Zone is a room that, when you enter it, will grant your deepest wish.
The Stalker leads two men, a professor and an author, first on an illegal escape from the city, and then through the complicated, capricious series of traps guarding the room. He tells them: “It lets those pass who have lost all hope; not good or bad, but wretched people.”
Stalker incorporates a number of Scriptural allusions on their journey, including a recitation of the Emmaus Road story and a character donning a crown of thorns. The film’s climax, too, is an extended dialogue on the struggle between proof and belief.
Along with its science fiction elements, Stalker is also a family drama. At the beginning of the film, the Stalker’s wife pleads with him not to undertake another journey to the Zone, for his sake—he has been imprisoned for previous trips—as well as for their invalid daughter, incongruously named Monkey (whom barely knows him). Even though he does not listen and leads the professor and author into the Zone, they are there for him when he returns, and it is from the Stalker’s wife and daughter that the film’s two strongest notes of grace come at the very end of the film.
16. Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson
“This was not just a matter of chance,” the narrator of Magnolia tells us, and so begins an odyssey of coincidence, absurdity, failure, and redemption. A television producer lies dying, his memory failing, crying out for his estranged son. A cable-TV pseudo-celebrity, renowned for his seminars on how to successfully seduce women, finds himself confronted by the past he has tried to forget. A former quiz-kid champion struggles with the uselessness of his knowledge and the loneliness of his life. An up-and-coming quiz kid champion tries to break free of his father’s control. Haunted by sexual abuse, a young girl struggles to overcome her mess of a life and find solace in a romantic relationship with an insecure police officer. There are some, but not all, of the many individuals who populate Magnolia, and all of them are, in one way or another, bound together.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s intimate direction keeps us close to these characters, and if the film seems epic, it’s only because of the sprawling of the narrative and the sweeping emotions. Magnolia never holds too closely to realism—the centerpiece of the film features a kind of group sing-a-long, like a brief venture into a musical—but it never departs from its distinctly human struggles. The ending's strange climax recalls the work of Charles Fort and the Biblical plagues of Egypt in one stroke, suggesting that absurdity and providence may be two sides of the same coin.
At the end of Magnolia, many of these characters step towards redemption. Others fall to a kind of judgment. Absurd chance, or perhaps some form of greater providence, has brought them together and has forced them to confront their failings. Magnolia is exhausting in its relentless depiction of human brokenness, but it ultimately points to the existence of grace and the hope for redemption.
17. Winter Light (1963), Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman infuses Winter Light with a sense of aloneness akin to the unforgiving winter scenery in the film. Grotesque imagery mingles with religious metaphors and uncomfortable close-ups. Winter Light provides an almost voyeuristic window onto its characters’ spiritual wounds, but there are also faint glimmers of hope.
Tomas Ericsson (Gunner Bjornstrand) is a Lutheran pastor who is first seen administering the Eucharist to his few congregants. Filled with hatred for himself, others, and God, Tomas alienates his flock as well as the viewer. He has not only suffered loss and trauma during the Spanish Civil War but also has lost his wife. Tomas ministers to Jonas (Max Von Sydow), a fisherman and boatmaker whose placid nature is radically disturbed by an obsession with the presence of evil in the world. As a result of his obsession, Jonas becomes virtually catatonic.
Tomas reveals to Jonas that he has renounced God. Later, he faces the image of the crucifix and proclaims himself free, but the declaration is unconvincing.
Tomas becomes more and more estranged from his community and his faith. Karin (Gunnel Lindblom), wife of Jonas, deals with her own bereavement by nurturing her family and her children, rejecting the religion that has failed her. The church sexton, crippled for life, survives his suffering with more wisdom than the learned Tomas by questioning his faith and applying those lessons to his own life. Marta (Ingrid Thulin), Tomas’ agnostic mistress, is unveiled as needing to suffer at the hands of her lover.
In the final scenes, Marta prays as Tomas begins the service with only Marta in attendance, but it is her love that ministers to him. The film ends as it begins with Tomas presiding over a religious service, leaving the impression of an unchanging cycle of empty religious ritual.
Bergman’s cinematography is bleak: the church scenes echo the Swedish landscape, providing no warmth or sense of community. Though they struggle with spiritual injuries, many characters in the film cling to a semblance of faith. But the presence of God is not felt in Winter Light. There is no background score to uplift, no landscape to enlighten. Despite the rare glimpses of hope, one is left with the harsh reality of the elements, giving the impression that this, along with hollow rituals, is all that there is.
—Michelle R. King
18. The Searchers (1956), John Ford
John Ford’s 1956 Western, The Searchers, ends with the camera framing a doorway, looking out into the gloriously filmed desert. As his remaining friends and family cross over the threshold into the welcoming house, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards stays outside, watching them. Then he pauses a moment, turns, and walks off into the red dust. There’s a lean to his shoulders, a loll to his gait that no dialogue could quite capture. Ford’s film lingers on his actor as the door slowly shuts, and the film ends.
Ethan Edwards, ex-confederate sergeant, fitting the description of several wanted men, returns home to the Texas frontier in 1868. It’s his brother Aaron’s place, and it proves to be an awkward reunion. Tellingly, Ethan glares at the sun-darkened skin of Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a now-grown foundling that he’d rescued from an Indian massacre years before. “A fellow could mistake you for a half-breed,” growls Ethan. And with that glare, Wayne exposes his character’s darkened heart, unsettling his family.
Soon after, as Ethan and Martin are on a search party looking for lost cattle, the Edwards’ homestead is attacked by a Comanche war party. They return too late. The family has been murdered, save for the youngest daughter, Debbie. Ethan and Martin set off to rescue her, and the days drag on to months and years. As they inch ever so closer to their goal, critters that won’t give up, Martin begins to despair. He sees in Ethan not just persistence, but a persistent hatred. He fears what will happen if they do find Debbie. He resolves to stand before her, vowing to prevent whatever act Ethan intends to commit in order to wipe out the stain of a half-breed life.
Ford’s film is, of course, about the search for Debbie. But it’s far more than that—jarring to modern ears, its racial politics are belied by the sensitive portrayal both of the Native American actors themselves and the vitriol embodied by Wayne’s Edwards. Ethan cares, and swears, that after years of captivity, Debbie is no longer “white.” But when the climactic moment comes, and Debbie is found, Edwards must choose between a bitter hate and a searching love. We see that while Debbie has been the subject of the search, she has not been its only object.
19. Tokyo Story (1953), Yasujirō Ozu
Until very late in Yasujirō Ozu’s film Tokyo Story, there is no crisis more dramatic than some uncomfortable silences. So what is it that makes this film one of the most revered dramas ever crafted?
It’s the simplest of stories: An elderly couple—Shukichi and Tomi—drop in on their adult children in Tokyo, only to find that time and change have increased the cultural gap between generations. The death of their middle son in World War II is a wound that binds them to his widow Noriko, who has never remarried. Their relationships begin to break down due to the accelerating lifestyles of the younger generation—a theme recently revitalized by Olivier Assayas in Summer Hours.
Ozu’s dislike for the ugliness of an evolving technological age may have influenced similar imagery in the films of Robert Bresson and David Lynch. Like Ozu himself, the old father has a way of expressing a great deal while saying very little; the quietest character becomes, in a way, the most powerfully evocative.
Ozu, one of the cinema’s most influential masters, frames each scene with great restraint—no dramatic music, no slow zooms to tell us which character is important, no sense of manipulation. His camera is set low, approximately the view we’d have if we knelt watchfully on a tatami mat in a Japanese home. Places are as important as the characters passing through them; note how the camera lingers on rooms after people have left them.
By the conclusion, these characters have never surprised us with anything showy, lurid, or sensational. They’re modest, ordinary human beings, treated with a fierce attention that feels like deep respect. Jonathan Rosenbaum writes: “To accept people when they are doing essentially nothing, between the moments when they make decisions, is to accept their souls; and Ozu’s acceptance transcends toleration and empathy—it is a kind of cosmic embrace.”
The influence of that “cosmic embrace” can be seen in films as varied as Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Café Lumiere, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, Hirozaku Kore-eda’s Still Walking, and Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Instead of feeling like “the Movies,” Tokyo Story feels like life.
Ozu is tuning—or better, re-tuning—our attention to what is happening all around us, what is important, the slow changes in relationships that we often realize too late and then regret. Ebert calls him “not only a great director but a great teacher, and after you know his films, a friend.” He adds: “With no other director do I feel affection for every single shot.” But the phrase that best describes the virtues of Ozu’s work this—Tokyo Story “ennobles the cinema.”
20. La Promesse (1996), Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
“How can you be guiltier than anyone in the eyes of all? There are murderers and brigands. What crimes have you committed to blame yourself more than everyone else?” “My dear mother, my deepest love, know that everyone is guilty in everyone’s eyes. I do not know how to explain it to you, but I feel that is so, and it torments me.”
Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne cite the above exchange from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov as the genesis of their first narrative feature film, La Promesse. Marcel’s guilt and torment is played out onscreen in the person of Igor (Jérémie Rénier), the fifteen-year-old son of a slumlord who traffics in illegal immigrants.
When one of their tenants dies in an accident, Igor is forced to confront the consequences of his and his father’s disgraceful actions while fulfilling “the promise” he makes to the dying man: protecting the man's wife and infant son becomes for Igor both a burden and a vehicle for possible redemption.
La Promesse is a remarkable film whose beauty is born from the Dardennes’ precise suffusion of no-pulled-punches honesty and moral complexity into standard narrative conventions. The film follows a basic two-act structure (before and after the promise) and is a classic coming-of-age tale, but the Dardennes’ style breathes new life into the form.
Like Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, whose Decalogue and Three Colors Trilogy also appear in the Top 100 (#4 and #14, respectively), the Dardennes began their careers as documentary filmmakers, and their cinematic language likewise eschews the conventions of classic continuity editing. For example, there are no shot/reverse-shots, the method typically used to cut between two characters who are having a conversation. Instead, the Dardennes’ handheld, documentary-like camera lingers at a distance, occasionally peering over shoulders and only rarely moving in for a close-up (and even then only on Igor and Assita, the widow who becomes Igor's maternal surrogate).
The performances are likewise completely natural—so much so, in fact, that the lead actors (Renier and Olivier Gourmet, who plays Roger, his father) might easily be mistaken for non-professional, “real” people by viewers who have not seen them in other roles.
One particularly impressive scene takes place in a bar, where after singing together, Igor and Roger sit down for drinks with two women. We have learned in an earlier scene that Igor is a virgin, but Rénier’s uncomfortable and self-conscious performance here makes such exposition unnecessary. Later, the inevitable confrontation between father and son plays out in real time in a scene that, even after multiple viewings, is excruciatingly tense and tragic. It’s scenes like these that have made the Dardennes such a favorite of the Arts and Faith community. All four films they’ve made since La Promesse are also included in the Top 100.
La Promesse ends with a stunning moment of ambiguity, confusion, and, quite possibly, grace. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote of it: “I find it impossible to imagine what transpires between Assita and Igor after the final shot.” Both characters have been transformed by their experience, but the Dardennes rightly deny that strong narrative drive in all of us—the desire for closure, for a neat and happy ending. A moment of redemption is enough. It’s plenty.
21. Tender Mercies (1983), Bruce Beresford
Though set in Texas, Tender Mercies is a poignant reflection on experiences and challenges that are universal. It moves unhurriedly through the struggle of a middle-aged man to understand why, even after he seemingly made every effort to ruin his life, God still blessed him. His struggle, like the movie itself, isn’t always pretty or smooth. When asked if he can immediately feel the effects of his conversion to Christianity, he admits, “not yet”—yet his smile, so rare and so bright, gives away the joy he almost fears to show.
Robert Duvall plays Mac, a man who has been hurt and who has in turn deeply hurt others. Rosa Lee, a younger woman, gives him a job and motivation to stay sober. Her deeply-rooted and simple-hearted faith (in moments of great fear she centers herself with the Psalms) touches him deeply, and soon he is learning again to live in the moment and to respond to love with love.
The film’s craftsmanship will attract even those for whom the cultural milieu of the American South is foreign. These are folks who can sometimes communicate better through their music than they do in speech, and whose emotions are often best expressed when they are suppressed.
But the shudder of pure joy that goes through Rosa Lee at Mac’s baptism, or the look of pride in his eyes when he can tell her that he has gone another day without succumbing to booze, are recognizable to everyone.
22.The Apostle (1997), Robert Duvall
A sensitive cultural ethnography of the exotic, much-maligned world of Southern Pentecostalism; a complex study of a character whose many contradictions startlingly combine sacred and profane dimensions; a spiritual exploration of the inscrutable workings of guilt and grace: The Apostle—long labored over by writer, director, producer, and star Robert Duvall—is all of these.
Duvall’s film contemplates the trajectory of Eulis “Sonny” Dewey, a charismatic holiness preacher from rural Texas whose utter confidence in Jesus is unshaken by his proneness to womanizing, domineering behavior and anger—until mounting crises and a shocking act of violence set his life spinning out of control. On the run in the backwoods of Louisiana, Sonny makes an extraordinary overture for redemption, taking on a new identity and devoting himself almost recklessly to the work of God.
Duvall persuasively brings Sonny’s contradictory elements together to create a convincingly realized portrait of a man with whom we cannot quite sympathize nor quite condemn, a man who wrestles with God with the emotion and frankness of a Job, yet without Job’s righteousness. To humanize and indeed to locate the hand of grace in this unpromising figure and his unfashionable world is an act of faith and art worthy of Flannery O’Connor. The documentary-like tone is aided by a non-professional supporting actors cast from the culture depicted onscreen.
23.Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Robert Bresson
“Ponderous”? Yes. “Slow”? Indeed. But Robert Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest is an undisputed classic. It was the third of thirteen films by Bresson who, according to Francois Truffaut, is to French movies what Mozart is to German music. And it may be the best entry point for appreciating his unique style.
A sensitive new priest (Claude Laydu) moves into a parish in Northern France so he can serve a small village called Ambricourt, only to discover he is less than welcome. As the town’s dark secrets emerge, his attempts to provide insight or comfort fall on deaf ears, and the weight of the troubles threaten to crush him. He doesn’t get along well with the older priest up the road, who shows little concern for how the villagers have hurt his feelings. A local countess is in pieces over the death of her son. The countess’s husband is carrying on an extramarital affair with their daughter’s governess. And their daughter, a cynical and resentful adolescent named Séraphita (Martine Lemaire), is becoming quite a monster. Exhausted by stomach trouble, the priest relies on what little nourishment he can draw from a strict diet of hard bread and wine. His “godless” doctor does little to lift his spirits. His plight inspires our sympathies, even though he lacks any kind of charm.
A master class in visual composition and sound design, Diary has influenced filmmakers for generations by proving the gravity of telling cinematic stories without many of the common enhancements we’ve been conditioned to expect. Its rare glimpses of the French countryside are stark and striking, suggesting that any man who would truly pursue holiness will walk hard roads through desolate lands.
24. Bicycle Thieves (1948), Vittorio De Sica
Bicycle Thieves is Vittorio de Sica’s masterpiece of Italian neo-realism. The story centers on the dire conditions of the working poor in post World War II Italy. Antonio Ricci is a poor man who gets his job pasting posters up in thoroughfares in the streets of Rome simply because he owns a bicycle. On his first day on the job, Antonio’s bike is stolen. Without his bicycle, he will lose his job. The rest of the film is taken up with the quest by Antonio and his son to recover his stolen bicycle.
The film’s spirit swirls around the desperation of the poor. The good man, Antonio, like Christ, is a poor man. Injustice occurs, but it is not cathartic. The main character has no tragic flaw other than being poor and desperate for work. So his story parallels that of the cross—a terrible injustice is done to an innocent man. Except in this instance, the harm done to the main character forces us to reflect on what we would do under similar conditions. The dilemma the film puts before is this: do we bear the cross like Jesus, or do we allow the circumstances to justify desperate decisions?
25. A Man for All Seasons (1966), Fred Zinnemann
Steely with conviction, luminous with wisdom and wit, Fred Zinnemann’s impeccable film of Robert Bolt’s play about the life of Thomas More explores what defines a man, or what is left to a man who has no defining center that cannot be bought or coerced. Successful, urbane, gregarious, ridiculously talented and accomplished, Thomas More was the toast of his times. Then, at the height of his career, this splendidly well-adjusted man abruptly withdrew from public life, gave up his household and living, and eventually submitted to arrest and imprisonment, and finally execution. All this, because he would not give approval under oath to King Henry VIII’s claimed title “Supreme Head of the Church in England,” nor accept Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn after divorcing Catherine.
Such costly conviction is foreign to our post-Clinton era, when achieving or maintaining power or fame is its own justification, and the capacity for reinventing oneself is a basic survival skill. When a brilliant and charismatic lawyer becomes his country’s highest ranking government official, and is then accused and tried for a crime, we don’t expect him to be so concerned about perjury that he chooses to sacrifice his career, income, holdings, freedom, and eventually his life.
Paul Scofield, who originated the role of More on the stage, gives an effortlessly layered performance as the man whose determined silence spoke more forcefully than words, until he spoke even more forcefully by breaking it. The screenplay, adapted by Bolt, is fiercely intelligent, resonant with verbal beauty and grace, often relying on More’s own words. “For the rest,” Bolt has noted, “my concern was to match with these as best I could so that the theft should not be too obvious.” He succeeded.
26.The Miracle Maker (2000), Stanislav Sokolov & Derek W. Hayes
The Gospel story has been told so many times before on film, in so many ways, that The Miracle Maker’s accomplishment is all the more remarkable. It is entirely faithful to the Bible: when it adds scenes that do not occur in the Gospels (in an early scene Jesus is shown as a traveling laborer who sees Jairus’ daughter long before he miraculously cures her) they are deeply respectful of the Gospels’ narrative. Where it appeals to emotions, these emotions are rooted in an idea of Jesus’ humanity that allows him to weep, to rejoice, and to delight in the company of his friends and disciples. And when it takes artistic risks, they pay off in beautiful ways.
The Miracle Maker is an animated movie, created largely with stop-motion puppets. There are some scenes, such as the temptation in the desert and the exorcism of Mary Magdalen, that are animated using hand-drawn cels, and there some effects, like water or fire, that are created using computer-generated images. The animation, far from detracting from the sacredness of the movie, enhances it. Some have seen echoes of great classical art, especially in the depictions of the crucifixion and resurrection. The “performances” of the puppets are nothing short of astonishing, because they, and the excellent voice acting, communicate the richness of thought and feeling each person is experiencing.
The Miracle Maker has undeniable value for children, to introduce the Gospels in a vivid, memorable medium, but these same virtues are present for anybody who can see them. In its quiet, modest way, The Miracle Maker manages to embody Gospel virtues like humility and love for neighbor, and to remind that Christ calls all to come to him like children. It’s no wonder that some of us in the Arts and Faith community have begun to make this movie a yearly ritual around the season of Easter, because it reminds us of the big picture, the meaning of that season.
27. Paths of Glory (1957), Stanley Kubrick
Classifying Paths of Glory as an anti-war film is the result of lazy thinking. Shot in simple black-and-white in 1957, this is the film that put director Stanley Kubrick on the map, and there’s a very good reason why. While loosely based on a true story referred to as the “Corporals of Souain” during World War I in France, the film’s criticism of officers in the military was considered offensive and it was not allowed to be shown in France until 1975.
But Paths of Glory is interested in a hell of lot more than telling us that war is bad. Instead, it is a sophisticated look at both moral boundaries and the nature of man.
The picture is bleak, stark, cold, and in your face from the moment the military drums start pounding during the opening credits. It is 1916, two years into World War I. The film begins with two self-important French generals sitting in a rich, luxurious mansion, discussing (or conspiring over) their next planned attack.
When General Mireau (George Macready) is asked to order an impossible attack on an impregnable German position called the “ant hill,” any pretensions to conscience are disposed of by a promised promotion. The next scene shows Mireau uncomfortably strutting through the muddy trenches, awkwardly trying to communicate with and encourage his men—but having the opposite effect.
Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is different in that he actually lives with and fights alongside his men. When given orders to carry out the impossible attack, he can only follow them reluctantly or be replaced. Kubrick slowly and painfully pans the camera throughout the attack as it fails, moving through a seemingly infinite amount of mud, explosions, bullets, bodies and barbed wire. A dreadfully large part of the regiment is slaughtered before they can get even close.
All this is just the beginning of the film.
Paths of Glory is really the story of when the furious General Mireau orders the court martial for cowardice of three of his surviving men (arbitrarily selected) to make them be examples for the rest of the regiment’s failure. General Mireau’s tantrums are petty and childish, but they are costing the lives of his men.
Kirk Douglas’s character, knowing his men are innocent, is determined to defend and save them from the firing squad. Of the three men chosen to serve as “examples,” one is a Christian, one an agnostic, and one an atheist. Each of the three has a separate response to the priest who arrives to comfort them. All three are helpless and defenseless in this situation. Ferol (Timothy Carey) is selected as “socially undesirable.” Paris (Ralph Meeker) is selected because he was a witness to his superior officer’s cowardice. Arnaud (Joe Turkel) is selected simply by casting lots. All three are unjustly accused of cowardice.
Kirk Douglas plays the hero of the film in what is probably one of the best performances of his career. His entire presence on the screen seems to be one of suppressed and contained anger. His character focuses the viewer on an important theme. C.S. Lewis begins Mere Christianity by suggesting that everyone knows right and wrong, but that no one measures up to what he knows to be right all the time. Lewis also admits that it is possible to eventually insulate your conscience against morality completely.
Douglas’s Colonel Dax is the film’s lone voice crying out for justice. He strongly believes in a clear, black and white, moral law that the other officers simply choose to ignore and keep explaining away. This is an important difference between them. And ultimately, the success of his efforts to save his men finally turns upon whether he can convince his superior officer that this difference even exists.
Recognizing our own depravity is the very first of all steps to redemption. There are multiple characters in this story who refuse to recognize their own depravity. Towards the end, one character even asks Colonel Dax, “Wherein have I done wrong?” proving that he still hasn't learned this simple lesson.
That question is then immediately followed by the last and most perfect scene in the film, which, for the first time, finally and actively illustrates the principle of recognizing your own fallenness. This lesson is learned by a group of characters in the tears and trembling of a captured, terrified German girl.
Who would think hard enough to set up a contrast like that at the end? Only a great director making his first great film.
28. Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Isao Takahata
Drawing upon a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Isao Takahata’s animated masterwork Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of two orphans caught in the middle of the firebombing that decimated the cities of Japan in the final months of World War II.
Seita is in many ways an ideal big brother, adoring and protecting his younger sister Setsuko, but his best intentions are progressively overwhelmed by a cascade of horrible circumstances. After their mother dies in an air raid (their naval officer father is at sea and incommunicado), they are placed at the mercy of a bitter, resentful aunt, such that Seita imprudently decides that he and Setsuko would be better off trying to live on their own.
We as viewers know from the outset that Seita and Setsuko did not survive the war, as Grave of the Fireflies opens with the reuniting of the siblings’ deceased spirits. By thus choosing to eliminate a large measure of suspense, Takahata instead allows us to marvel at the multitude of details furnished to our senses: the scream of falling bombs, the jingle of prized confections in a candy tin, the jumble of corpses beside an open mass grave, the glow of captured fireflies reflected on Setsuko’s joyous face.
Repeatedly shown as small figures against a background of decimated buildings or nature’s vastness, Seita and Setsuko like the insects of the title are tiny, ephemeral, fragile, and lovely. Remarkably, Grave of the Fireflies was first released in Japanese cinemas as half of a double feature with Hayao Miyazaki’s serene My Neighbor Totoro. On second glance, however, such a pairing makes sense, as both films contain the child’s eye view and watercolor-like imagery that one has come to expect from these two leading lights of Studio Ghibli.
In addition, each work urges a type of remembrance: in the case of Totoro by conjuring the gentle spirituality of a nature-centered bygone era, and with Fireflies an honoring of innocents lost. As shown in the final scene, Seita and Setsuko’s spirits still reside in the city, even if the rubble has long since been replaced by steel and glass.
29.Wild Strawberries (1957), Ingmar Bergman
“Recently, I’ve had the weirdest dreams,” says the aged physician Isak to his daughter-in-law Marianne. His confession is an understatement. Isak’s dreams create the crises and categories for a film about legacy and death. Beginning with a Dali-esque vision—Gunnar Fischer’s magnificently shot chiaroscuro sequence for people who think David Lynch is too normal—and through flashback sequences, Isak’s dreams present the picture of a man obsessed with his age: the mistakes of youth and the mortality of his last days.
Wild Strawberries is a road movie. It tells the story of the famous doctor driving to an award ceremony. Marianne travels with him and, along the way, they stumble across other sojourners. These pilgrims are both strangers and reincarnations for Isak, from the radiant Sara (a name shared with Isak’s lost love) to Sara’s suitors (fist fighting over the existence of God) to a quarrelling couple (the mid-life picture of love gone cold). In each stop and each stretch of road, Isak’s past reappears in a new form. Marianne, watching the old man face these ghosts, joins the audience in finding empathy, terror, and respect for Isak.
Ingmar Bergman’s film combines Chaucer with Dickens. Yet Bergman’s use of allegory usually elevates rather than flattens characters. As such, the story’s heart remains with Isak and Marianne and how they, for all their inconsistencies and flaws, are real people. In some ways, this film shares lineage with the dysfunctional but warm world of Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys (2000), the tale of an aging professor and the young pilgrims who give him a new glimpse at life. In any case, Wild Strawberries signals the beginning of Bergman’s unequaled string of powerful, disarming, and provocative films exploring the soul in conflict.
—Joseph J. P. Johnson
30. Into Great Silence (2005), Philip Gröning
Søren Kierkegaard wrote: “The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I would reply: Create silence! The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the Word of God. Therefore create Silence.”
Philip Gröning’s transcendent work of pure documentary creates silence—not just absence of noise, but inner stillness. An odyssey, or perhaps a pilgrimage, into a world of silence, the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, head monastery of the Carthusian order, where Gröning received unprecedented permission to spend half a year filming, living with the monks and observing in both senses of that word their rigorous way of life, from their discipline of silence to their grueling routine of prayer, work and sleep. Working alone, using only available light, he shot for approximately three hours a day, eventually amassing over 120 hours of material.
Ultimately, Into Great Silence reveals itself to be about nothing less than the presence of God. So many spiritually aware films—The Seventh Seal, Crimes and Misdemeanors—are about God’s absence or silence. Here is a film that dares to explore the possibility of finding God, of a God who is there for those who seek him with their whole hearts. This life is not for us, perhaps, yet it isn’t something irrelevant or unrelated either. The silence of the monks has something to say to us, if we have ears to hear.
31. Munyurangabo (2007), Lee Isaac Chung
We’ve seen some powerful, horrifying films about the war in Rwanda. But we’ve never seen anything like this—a film made with the help of Rwandans, informed by their own experiences, and performed in their own language.
Sangwa’s a prodigal son of the Hutu. He’s come back to the family farm after three years in the city, only to find his father furious and reluctant to forgive. It doesn’t make things easier that Sangwa’s brought a friend along with him—’Ngabo, a boy from the Tutsi people. Watching Sangwa’s family, ’Ngabo is reminded of all that he lost in the war between the Rwandan peoples. This only fuels his determination to journey on from there, machete in hand, to find and kill the man who slaughtered his family.
An American filmmaker who grew up in South Korea, Lee Isaac Chung made this film in order to teach young Rwandans the craft of filmmaking. It’s a work of selflessness and service, a mournful and beautiful work of art that is poetic, meditative, powerful. (Roger Ebert called it “a masterpiece.”) The actors, voices, scenes, stories—even the jokes—come from the people who live there. As Chung paints authentic pictures of today’s Rwanda, he resists the temptation to conclude on a note of false hope. Reconciliation in this blood-soaked country will be a very steep climb indeed, a process of daily forgiveness.
32. The Apu Trilogy (1955-59), Satyajit Ray
Between 1955 and 1991, Indian director Satyajit Ray made more than thirty feature films, but he’s best remembered in the West for The Apu Trilogy, which launched his career. Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959) are based on the novels of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhya and follow their hero, Apu, from his impoverished childhood in a small Bengali village through early adulthood, when he becomes a novelist, husband, and father. Together, the films constitute one of the cinema’s true masterpieces, a work of Dostoevskian richness-of-detail and emotional complexity.
After studying art in college, Satyajit Ray worked as an illustrator in the advertising industry while also pursuing his amateur interest in film. In the late 1940s he established a film society in Calcutta, and in 1950 he determined to make a small, intimate film of his own, one like those he'd seen on a recent trip to Europe. Of particular influence on Ray were the Italian neo-realists, who took their cameras out of the decimated studios and filmed using natural light in the rubble-strewn streets of post-war Rome.
Apu doesn’t make his first appearance until twenty minutes into Pather Panchali. Instead, Ray introduces viewers to day-to-day life around the boy's home: his older sister Durga tends her kittens and steals fruit from a neighboring orchard for her aged “auntie”; his long-suffering mother cooks and cares for her family; his underemployed father daydreams of becoming a great priest and poet.
When we do finally meet Apu, it’s an iconic image: Durga wakes him by pulling back a sheet, revealing first just one wide eye before exposing his full, smiling face, all amid a flourish of music from Ravi Shankar (Pather Panchali launched Shankar’s career in the West as well).
Over the next five hours, we watch as Apu grows into a promising student, leaves home to live in Calcutta, suffers tragedy, and experiences great joy, all captured by Ray’s curious and compassionate camera. There are frequent moments of jaw-dropping cinematic beauty throughout the trilogy, but Ray is no showman or grandstander here. In these particular films he stays true to the Neo-Realist spirit, privileging the mundane details of life over big-budget splendor and artifice.
The Apu Trilogy is also notable for introducing Western audiences to Indian cinema. In the 1950s, Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Ingmar Bergman, Rossellini, and, later, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Éric Rohmer were among a group of now-canonized foreign filmmakers who received wide distribution of their work in the United States. Many of these directors are represented in the Top 100. Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) at #19 is an especially good pairing with Aparajito, the second of the Apu films. The Neo-Realist line that runs through the Italians and Ray extends all the way to contemporary filmmakers in the top 100 like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Abbas Kiarostami, Jia Zhang-ke, and Lee Isaac Chung.
33. The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), Roberto Rossellini
In keeping with the Italian neo-realist precept of casting non-professional actors in suitable roles, Roberto Rossellini went to the Franciscan friars of the Nocere Inferiore monastery in Rome to cast St. Francis and his followers in this delightful cinematic meditation on the Little Flowers of St. Francis. Despite the Italian title (Francis, God’s Jester), it is Francis’ followers, especially Brother Juniper, who are foolish jesters trying to follow in their master’s footsteps—but they are also joyful and free, and even materialistic moderns may recognize here something lacking in our desacralized age.
Yet Rossellini doesn’t cater to contemporary sensibilities by reinventing Francis as a mere eccentric free spirit. Francis remains challenging to modern audiences, his childlike spirit joined to insistence on strict religious obligation and zeal for evangelization. All three principles converge with sublime perfection in the delightful climactic episode in which Francis commands his followers “under holy obedience” to spin around “like children at play” until they collapse from dizziness, at which point they must strike out in whatever direction they are facing to preach the gospel.
The episodic film makes no attempt to cover Francis’s early life and conversion, or his reception of the stigmata and his death. Instead, the film focuses, in Rossellini's words, on “the merrier aspect of the Franciscan experience, on the playfulness, the ‘perfect delight,’ the freedom that the spirit finds in poverty, and in an absolute detachment from material things.” The fruit of Rossellini’s efforts is a beautifully simple little film that is as much a tribute to the spirit of humane curiosity in which the film itself was made as to the spiritual heritage that is its transcendent theme.
34. Nights of Cabiria (1957), Federico Fellini
Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) transcends the well-worn cliche of the golden-hearted prostitute. The film stars Fellini’s wife and constant collaborator, Giuletta Masina, as a woman named Maria Ceccarelli but known to everyone in her social strata as Cabiria. Cabiria was pushed into prostitution by her destitute mother when she was young and beautiful, and her difficult life has instilled in her a fierce, street-smart independence tempered by a song-filled heart.
Cabiria lives in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of Rome, yet is proud to have a place of her own with heat, electricity and running water. Apart from “a night or two,” she has avoided the fate of other prostitutes who sleep under arches. While many of her fellow streetwalkers have been coarsened by the life, Cabiria retains an incongruous frivolity, dancing and smiling when the music plays. At a pilgrimage to seek the Virgin Mary’s grace, Cabiria’s pimp and the other prostitutes go through the motions and ask selfishly, but she's struck with a desire to change her life, though she doesn’t know how. At her core, Cabiria still believes in redemptive romantic love, which makes her vulnerable.
Cabiria’s nights as a streetwalker chronicle the heights and depths of Roman society. One night she’s a companion to a movie star and is made privy, however briefly, to the champagne-and-lobster life. Then she spends a few hours in the company of a man who delivers food and clothing to the poor who live in caves. At each stop, however, her ideals and desires are exploited. She’s a permanent second-class citizen.
And yet, despite all of the manifest injustices visited upon her, it is Cabiria’s will to persevere that triumphs. The film’s final shot makes clear that she is her own happy ending. After suffering an unimaginable betrayal, she’s left penniless and alone on a deserted road. Suddenly, the road is filled with travelers caught up in festive singing. In spite of her recent heartbreak, Cabiria can’t help herself. Upon receiving the travelers’ well-wishes, a tiny smile forms on her mascara-stained face. In extreme close-up, her eyes come to life and move across the frame, directly meeting our own for a pregnant moment.
What can this mean? Her eyes seem both to ask a question—“Do you have in you what I have in me?” and to declare convincingly, “Nobody can take this from me.”
35. The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton’s surreal thriller ruins and then redeems a favorite hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Taking standard thriller tropes of hypocritical clergy, hidden cash, and endangered children, Laughton’s brilliant film stirs them in an alchemy of visual and auditory expression and pours out a masterpiece.
Robert Mitchum chills as Preacher Harry Powell, who’s got his own brand of religion—namely, serial killing—and Lillian Gish entrances as Rachel Cooper, whose brand of religion haunts the story with a fierce love. But it’s Harry Chapin as young John Harper who anchors this story with a fierce intensity and fervent grace.
Laughton’s tale, based on the book by Davis Grubb, concerns a violent and disturbed con man, Harry Powell, who, posing as a preacher, preys on widows and orphans. Encountering bank robber Ben Harper in prison, he learns of a $10,000 sum hidden by the man’s family. When he’s released, Powell heads to a West Virginia river town to seek this fortune. He easily ingratiates himself to the widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and the far too credulous townsfolk.
But young John, wise to this wolf in sheep’s clothing, stands firm to the promises he’d made his father—to protect his sister and to never share his secrets. When Powell threatens Pearl, and their mother suspiciously disappears, John takes his sister and flees.
What follows is among the most dream-like and delightful sequences I have seen—not so much for the technical aspects of it, but for the lyrical nature of the children’s desperate journey downriver. The river escape sings, so perfect for a film infused with music. Laughton brings a keen eye and sensitive heart to his John, Pearl, and Mrs. Cooper and in them explores themes of true and child-like faith and the resilience of the human spirit. Likewise for Laughton, and embodied with serpent-like malevolence by Mitchum, evil is manifest, and its consequences are lasting. But it does not, and cannot, win in the face of real and powerful love.
36. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1951), Stanley Kubrick
A few times in Pascal’s Pensees, the reader runs across this thoughtful refrain: “It is an image of the condition of man.” Regardless of one’s response to the end of Kubrick’s 2001, it is bound to have the same universal tone that Pascal attempted to evoke in his philosophical imagery.
The condition of man in 2001, however, has been a matter of debate ever since the film was released. Do we see in the film an image of mankind groping blindly through the cosmos toward an encounter with a technicolor Something that can explain who and what we are? Do we see in the film a poetic recitation of the evolutionary process by which mankind emerged, gene by gene, from a complex miracle of chance? Perhaps the film is about something more specific, in that 2001 is the tale of mankind’s first contact with bona fide extraterrestrials.
In part, the film inspires such varied readings because of the way Kubrick embeds such cosmic imagery in long, thoughtful takes that prize the sensation of time and space over narrative detail. The rudiments of a plot are scattered throughout 2001, signaled by the appearance of a gleaming black monolith at key intervals.
It first appears, brimming with significance, amidst a clan of Pleistocene era ape-men that have just learned how to use the bones of their ancestors to clobber neighboring pedigrees. Again we see it poking through the dust of the moon, signaling space travel-era mankind toward a point in the darkness just around the lip of Jupiter. It is between this appearance and the next that the film spends most of its time, as we track the journey of three scientists sent to investigate the terminus of this galactic vibrato.
During this movement of the film we meet Drs. Bowman and Poole, and HAL 9000, the impeccable computer directing their extended flight. The chamber drama that unfolds between these voyagers fated with all the tension of a Greek epic plays out with alarming precision until the third appearance of the monolith. Here we find Bowman, in a fulfillment of every possible science-fiction fantasy, hurtling through flickering panes of light toward a baffling sequence of set pieces that have haunted film culture ever since.
2001 was released at the height of the US vs. USSR space race. A manned Apollo capsule was circuiting the earth, anticipating a full-on run at the moon. These were exciting times for a world finally coming to grips with its ability to, as Reagan would say while memorializing the Challenger disaster, “touch the face of God.”
However you parse the abstractions, 2001 features what may be one of the best conversion experiences caught on film. The coordinating points of this conversion are obscure, but it is an experience that makes us grapple in a revelatory way with the raw facts of human progress.
37.Chariots of Fire (1981), Hugh Hudson
Chariots of Fire, based on the story of British Olympians Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1981. The film stretches the boundaries of both the biopic and sports genres as it presents a series of vignettes from the lives of these two athletes in the years and months leading up to the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. As an athlete and a Jew, Abrahams strives to find acceptance at Cambridge University while Liddell struggles to reconcile running with the dictates of his Protestant faith.
While a few of the facts surrounding the lives of these two athletes were altered for dramatic effect in the film, the narrative remains true to the historical record. But even as it explores the details of this inspiring story, Chariots of Fire is constantly asking bigger questions. What is the meaning of personal identity, national identity, spiritual identity?
Director Hugh Hudson filmed and edited most of the running sequences to emphasize the internal struggle of the runners rather than the drama of the races themselves. The film’s soundtrack, by Vangelis, is one of the most recognized of all time. These elements, along with strong performances from the cast (which includes an often scene-stealing Ian Holm as a running coach), helped make Chariots of Fire a profound and moving film.
—Darryl A. Armstrong
38. The Straight Story (1999), David Lynch
When you know that David Lynch directed such surreal, twisted films as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway, hearing that he also made a G-rated film about an old man and his tractor sounds like the beginning of a monumentally bad joke. In 1999, though, he did just that, and the movie he made is The Straight Story.
The Straight Story gets its title from its protagonist, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, nominated for an Oscar in his final film role; he died the year after the film was released), although the title can also be taken as a warning to Lynch fans expecting his usual lurid twists and turns: this story will be straightforward and simple, quiet and reflective.
As far as the story goes, it is about Alvin’s journey to visit his ailing brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), with whom he has not spoken in years. Alvin’s eyesight is too poor for him to drive, and he does not like riding with anyone else driving, so he decides to drive his riding lawnmower the ninety-odd miles to visit his brother before it is too late. He meets some people and has some minor setbacks along the way, but that’s really it as far as plot.
As quietly captivating as Farnsworth’s performance is, the star of The Straight Story is really the midwestern landscape. Captured by cinematographer Freddie Francis, who also worked with Lynch on The Elephant Man and Dune, the green cornfields and, yes, amber waves of grain become a contemplative space onscreen, allowing the audience to enter in to the languid, possibly mystical experience of Alvin Straight’s journey.
And if the cinematography is the star, the soundtrack is the supporting actor. Frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti’s spare, evocative score perfectly complements Francis’s images, inviting the audience to slow down, look around, and pay attention to the deep mysteries of the journey.
39. Touch of Evil (1998), Orson Welles
Set on the border between Mexico and America, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil tells the tale of a murder investigation that pits two determined men against one another: Miguel Vargas, an official in the Mexican government, and Hank Quinlan, an American police captain.
Vargas is an articulate, young, handsome, wealthy, educated, straight-shooter with a bright future. Quinlan is ill-mannered, mature, ugly, lower-class, street-smart, and corrupt. The two dislike each other almost immediately, and when Vargas thinks he has caught Quinlan framing a suspect for the murder, their conflict escalates to dangerous extremes.
Welles refuses to pain this conflict in straight black and white; for all of Vargas’ uprightness, there are times where he seems almost ignorant of the corrupt cesspool around him, and the film’s narrative forces him to pay for his naïveté.
On the other hand, Quinlan, diabolical though he is, remains a tragic figure; unlike Vargas, Quinlan has spent some time in the darker corners of the world and knows them for what they are, and the experience has left him forever changed. Quinlan is fallen hero, a man who has spent far too long living in a world where justice rarely shows its face and has succumbed to its dark influence.
The film’s structure, quite unusual for the time (too unusual for the studio’s taste, which re-cut the film for its original release, although a new version of the film, released in 1998, attempted to honor Welles’ wishes and restored it), cuts between multiple story lines and vignettes, creating a suspenseful narrative build-up out of a network of characters and their own interests where mistakes and misunderstandings are permitted to have distant repercussions.
These repercussions ultimately catch up with Quinlan, and that marks the difference between himself and Vargas. Vargas has a future, but Quinlan has made a lifetime out of deception and fraud, and it swallows him whole. As one character famously tells him, his “future’s all used up.”
40. It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Frank Capra
“No one is born to be a failure. No one is poor who has friends.” These platitudes, plastered across the packaging of home-video editions of Frank Capra’s evergreen Christmas classic, embody the film's popular but misleading image as sentimental, schmaltzy “Capra-corn.” Yet the film itself is leavened by darker themes and more rigorous morals about self-sacrifice, disappointment, and the fragility of happiness and the American dream.
Like another popular Christmas story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life is in part about an oppressive relationship between a cruel rich man and a sympathetic, less well-to-do family man, that results in supernatural intervention and an alternate vision of reality. But where A Christmas Carol was about the redemption of Scrooge, It’s a Wonderful Life is about its Bob Cratchitt, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), and his heroic virtue and consistently selfless choices, his dark night of the soul, and his ultimate vindication.
Like many Christmas films, It’s a Wonderful Life has little to do with the real meaning of Christmas, apart from St. Joseph in heaven appearing in voiceover. The movie even perpetuates the popular religious confusion about human beings becoming “angels” when they die. Still, the movie's milieu is more recognizably spiritual than A Christmas Carol and most of its ilk. The story is set in motion by the prayers of men and women all over town offered for George Bailey. And while George himself confesses to God in his darkest hour that he is “not a praying man,” what he does in its own way reflects the Christmas story: He empties himself out of love, becoming poor for the sake of his people, the citizens of Bedford Falls.
41. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007), Cristian Mungiu
In a key scene of Romanian writer–director Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, Gabita Dragut (Laura Vasiliu) and her college roommate and friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) agree never again to discuss the horrific events of that day. To draw a shroud of silence over certain overwhelming experiences is a natural impulse. We avert our eyes, like urban pedestrians avoiding the gaze of a derelict on the sidewalk. Like the previous Romanian export, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months compels us not to avert our eyes.
The film is set in 1987, in the last years of the Ceausescu regime, during which abortion was illegal. As with anything else, black-market forces dictate that where demand is great enough, those willing to pay the price can find a potential supplier. Like Lazarescu, 4 Months is deliberately mundane in its naturalism, with extended, unbroken shots of blighted urban decline, low-key performances and exchanges that sound like snatches of conversation overheard in a corridor. The “fly on the wall” effect embodies the humanistic perspective, characteristic of the new Romanian cinema, simply to relate the story of a significant human event, to tell the truth without gloss or commentary, has value in itself.
4 Months throws into relief the terrible collateral of illegal backroom abortion, yet the pathos of the film’s events is not exhausted by the degrading and dangerous consequences of its black-market circumstances. There is a final moment of truth in which what had been a problem to be gotten rid at any cost of is given a face, and the human dimension of the proceedings is squarely confronted.
42. Apocalypse Now (1979), Francis Ford Coppola
Whirring helicopter blades slowly dissolve into the rotating ceiling fan of Capt. Willard’s Saigon apartment, as he drinks himself into oblivion. Lt. Col. Kilgore blasts Wagner from his infantry helicopters as they decimate a Viet Cong village. The mad genius, Col. Kurtz, sets himself up as a god, deep in the jungles of Cambodia.
These are but a few of the haunting images present in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a film not so much about the Vietnam War, but about war in general and the conflict for the souls of men; a conflict between rational and irrational, good and evil. What does it even mean to be a “good” man in the midst of such chaos?
Coppola’s film has been both praised for delivering a feverish and immersive account of the American experience in Vietnam, and lambasted for unfairly dwelling on the loss of American faith in its own righteousness, by focusing on atrocities. However, to become fixated on those political aspects of the film is to miss its grander accomplishments.
Coppola achieves something close to an Eisensteinian synthesis through the montage of images in the film; the meaning is made clear in the overall effect of the imagery, not in the specifics: madness is piled upon madness, reaching a fever pitch deep in the jungles of Cambodia, where realism seems to be abandoned for an expressionistic frenzy.
For this reason most viewers prefer the 1979 cut of the film to Coppola’s expanded 2001 Redux version, as the addition of more material seems to ground the film too much in the contemporaneous specificity of Vietnam, and waters down the more universal point to be made about the horrors of war and the absurdity of attempting to condemn a man for murder amongst such chaos.
Ultimately, viewing Apocalypse Now in dialogue with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the novella it was based on, not only increases its literary pedigree, but also informs our understanding of the original rather than slavishly imitating it. Conrad and Coppola both question man’s moral fortitude when faced with the temptation to become like gods. As noted early in the film, we can never simply assume the victory of Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” against the temptation to claim the will to power. As Dennis Hopper’s delusional photojournalist notes, all we are left with is “Man as f***in’ pagan idolatry!”
The film leaves us to be the judges of the results, confronting the horror and mortal terror in the very soul of man: the true heart of darkness.
43. Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (2000), Michael Haneke
A melting pot of social, racial and biological interactions, with injustice and violence and voyeurism thrown into the mix, Code Unknown is a film about owning up to the mystery of human relationships—how we stumble to connect through the maze of our own expressions. The film’s continual emphasis on cameras, and on the deaf and their sign language is a reminder that gestures carry just as great a weight; that symbols are as important as words.
On a business day on a crowded Parisian street, Anne (Juliette Binoche, outstanding as always), a local actress, is surprised by her lover’s little brother, Jean, who has run from his father’s home and needs the code to get into her flat. She loans him the key with a stern reminder that the place is small and that his stay will be short-lived.
On his way back to her flat he discards a wrapper on the lap of an immigrant woman sitting in the street. He is immediately challenged by a young black man, Amadou, about the rudeness towards the woman. Amadou seems interested in justice and demands that Jean apologize to the woman, who at this point seems to want to get away from the developing scene. The hardened kid refuses an apology, a street scuffle ensues and the police are quickly on the scene.
In the first key misfire in deciphering a social disruption (a sort of “code”), the police arrest Amadou and the immigrant woman is detained, and later put on the next plane out of France. Sometimes you speak for justice only to create a larger, more alienated mess. The scene cuts away suddenly, as do many scenes in the film, leaving you wondering how the strange event ended up.
The story picks up with Anne’s acting career—she is constantly in front of cameras and directors (her photographer-lover Georges is out of the country snapping war photos for a feature in a respected journal)—and several immigrant families and their isolation in a Paris that, for them, is harder to live in than they thought.
The fragmentation of society and the isolated lives within it are at the film’s central themes—regardless of the social or economic status of the individual.
At one point Anne stands on an empty, dark theater stage in an audition for an upcoming production. For several minutes in a static, still shot, she gives her lines in character, giggling and laughing hysterically, absorbed in the lively role. At the end of her lines the room is silent and still. With the spotlight in her eyes, she can’t see anything in the room. “Anyone out there?” she questions, and it feels like the central question of the film. Yes, the director and his assistant are still there. Yes, they’ve seen and are evaluating her scene. She waits like a refugee for an answer.
And yet in another brilliant moment the film counters the notion that we’re alone, that someone will be there in the middle of our need. On the subway, Anne is later threatened and intimidated by some kids with nothing better to do but act like jerks to traveling passengers.
Their intentions are not known, but one of them gets a taste for barking at Anne and abusively follows her around on the car. When he gets nothing but the silent treatment, he goes so far as to spit in her face. A man she's never met takes a great risk and stands up to the kid. He stands the kid down, and when the kid gets off, Anne, who has been courageous up to this point, finally falls apart in tears. A stranger has just come to her aid.
There are particular things to watch for in the minimalist editing and camera movement in Code Unknown. The film is based on a series of one-takes which lends an honesty to the way the story develops. There’s no deception in the image, and no soundtrack to manipulate the viewer. The well-acted scenes are relayed in a pure way; they live and die by the strength of the acting.
The camera also follows this route in aiming for full disclosure, almost moral in its use of tracking and still shots, in prolonged takes that are horizontal in motion in honor of human connectivity and concern. Watch for movement that sweeps from right to left, and back, until one of the final, lingering images, where an unknown code is lost while a key character gazes skyward.
As Georges says, when going through photos from a recent trip: “It's easy to talk about the ‘ecology of the image,’ and ‘value of the non-transmitted message.’ What matters is the end result.” It sounds like the resolute words of our story-teller, director Michael Haneke, on his most honest and well thought-out film to date.
44. Black Narcissus (1947), Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
This classic, brilliantly colorful film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger follows five nuns, led by Sister Clodagh, into the Himalayas to start a hospital and school for the local villagers. The battle against the elements and the local culture proves to be a formidable one, though Sister Clodagh’s most difficult tasks comes from within—through the envious Sister Ruth and Clodagh’s own struggle with her calling and commitment.
The film’s location plays an integral role in the overall thematic arc as a battle between competing worlds. Clodagh struggles to reconcile her pastoral memory of the past with the stony heights of her present. The nuns struggle to bring their English Christianity to bear on the lives of the Himalayan villagers. Powell and Pressberger’s stunning use of color helps to underline these dualities, providing a consistent stream of beautiful images both natural and unnatural, lush and rough, pitting worlds against one another in a visual sense. These formal elements serve as fine complements to the narrative of the film, which follows the nuns as they navigate their way between their competing worlds.
Beyond the exploration of these opposing realms, the film also serves as a meditation on the Incarnation, particularly in the notion of Christ’s descent from heaven to earth, His taking on of human flesh, and His service among humanity. The crucifix finds its way into shots repeatedly—appropriate for a nunnery to be sure, but also drawing the viewer to reflect on the intersection of this narrative with the life of Jesus. Black Narcissus is no allegory, but its theological echoes are undeniable.
45. Day of Wrath (1943), Carl Theodor Dreyer
There are few films that fill us with such righteous indignation as Day of Wrath. Featuring empathetic characters caught in a callous system, the film can easily evoke our anger. Religious intolerance and dehumanizing persecution are nothing new, of course, but Day of Wrath reminds us that they have a long history. At the same time, the film suggests that systems of spiritual abuse are still with us.
The film may make your blood boil, but it remains a masterpiece. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, which Dreyer filmed more than twenty years earlier, Day of Wrath is a lifeline for assessing religious and political conflict.
Like Nicholas Hynter’s film version of The Crucible and many stories on the Salem Witch trials, it centers on a devout community persuaded that there are witches in their midst. The witches in this case are living in Denmark in 1623. After being tortured to obtain “confessions,” these witches are destined to be burned alive. In one of the awful and agonizing first acts, an elderly woman named Herlofs Marte is burned at the stake while a boys’ choir sings.
There are those who believe that the hunt for another’s sin is a greater cause than stalking and defeating their own. It may be illegal to burn or kill people for their alleged sins in our society—we don’t often see the cringe-inducing horrors faced in Dreyer’s story—but it doesn't mean that harsh pronouncements aren't still made—that pain and guilt aren’t still inflicted, that people aren’t hurt by authority figures, or that the heart of the Gospel is often missed.
In A Little on Film Style (1943), Dreyer wrote that after finishing Day of Wrath it became a reproach to him, that the film felt too heavy, too slow. Having recently sat with it again, I’m at odds with his final regret. The story builds on a rhythmic calculus, layering soft gray over shadow-black tones; un-made-up actors avoid any falsity or extremism by bringing a concrete, believable, and valuable performance to the table. Dreyer’s background was of course in silent cinema—in Day of Wrath he achieves a “quiet” cinema, in which a tension is created between the spaces. It is the perfect approach to the subject of abuse committed in the name of the church.
46. The Child (2005), Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
After four consecutive “masterpieces,” what did the Dardenne brothers do? Make another movie every bit as good as those. Like La Promesse, Rosetta, and The Son, The Child (L’Enfant) is a subtle parable about tests of conscience and character in a punishing world. We’re introduced to Bruno (the extraordinary Jérémie Renier). He’s young, but he’s already a hardened criminal.
Embracing the possibilities of capitalism at the cost of his conscience, he constantly references his cell-phone’s index of buyers. He’ll sell anything if he can benefit from it—even his own newborn child. But this lucrative sale may cost him the one truly meaningful blessing in his life: his beautiful girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François).
Like Kieślowski’s Decalogue, the Dardennes’ films are simple stories that become nerve-wracking thrillers, and they’re growing into a collection of provocative discussion-starters. And by the way, this one has a riveting car chase.
47. Close-Up (1990), Abbas Kiarostami
In Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami retells the true story of the trial of Hossein Sabzian, a man who fraudulently convinced a family that he was the famous film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The entire incident comes about in a seemingly innocent way; however, the moral struggle surrounding the deception involves a complex wrestling with themes of identity, belonging, forgiveness and repentance.
Sabzian is arrested, imprisoned, and put on trial for fraud. The family he defrauded suspects him of conspiring to steal from them by pretending to be a famous film director. During the trial Sabzian refutes this, insisting that he never had any intention of stealing from them and that he was rather uncertain of his own motives. (Sabzian does admit later in the movie, “I am tired of being me.”)
Sabzian is a poor man who finds comfort in Makhmalbaf’s films because he identifies with them so deeply that they become a part of him, shaping his identity and kinship with the famous director. Conveying the struggle and suffering in life, Makhamalbaf can articulate all that Sabzian cannot and he does it with authority and the attention and respect of those who listen.
The film raises many issues. For example, identities are formed and shaped by a variety of influences; how we present ourselves is influenced by how we want to be seen. Each one of us possesses the potential to display ourselves in fraudulent ways. Deception is often seen as a two-way street; one cannot deceive without a person who wants to be deceived. Sometimes one wants to deceive oneself.
Some in the family he defrauded wanted to believe him—especially the sons, who were struggling with their own identities. Sabzian admits that he liked playing someone else, “above all because they respected me.” Sabzian is not on trial alone in this film. Cinema in general is also placed in the chair of the accused. This is most apparent in the courtroom scenes where Kiarostami is obviously directing the proceedings—demonstrating that film involves a form of manipulation.
In the structure of a docudrama (part documentary, part reenactment, and part “set-up”) the retelling of these true events by Abbas Kiarostami offers us a close-up look at the struggle involved in the process of repentance and forgiveness as well as a reflection on the presentation of self and the effects cinema has on our lives.
48. Yi-Yi: A One and a Two (2000), Edward Yang
Most family epics are downers, tragedies, stories of something organic that slowly unravels. But Yi Yi—Edward Yang’s painstakingly observant film about a couple of weeks in the life of a Taiwanese family—is a vast tapestry of discouragement, questioning, realization, and hope. Has there ever been a family epic that offered a richer vision of trouble and joy, hurt and healing?
It begins with a wedding, proceeds quickly to a birth, and eventually to a funeral. But the film’s greatest strength is Yang’s way of capturing moments that, while seeming incidental and spontaneous, speak powerfully to the film’s main themes.
When the elderly matriarch of the family collapses into a coma, her family members visit her to carry out the doctor’s instructions: Talk to her. She becomes like a confessor, her presence drawing out her family’s troubles, questions, and hopes. The film’s “head” is located in her son, N.J., who struggles to address his family’s heartaches. His wife suffers from spiritual disillusionment; his daughter is experiencing first love and first heartbreak; and he himself is wrestling with vocational frustration and a temptation toward an extramarital affair.
But the movie’s “heart” is found in the watchfulness, timidity, and wonder of N.J.’s young son Yang-Yang. Yang-Yang finds inspiration by photographing “the backs of people’s heads.” He seems destined to become an artist, showing people truths about themselves that they would never otherwise discover. Meanwhile, Ota (Issey Ogata), one of N.J.’s business associates, becomes a figure almost impossible to find at the movies: a wise, ethical, inspiring businessman. He manifests the director’s compassionate hearts and childlike sense of curiosity.
49. Ponette (1996), Jacques Doillon
Victoire Thivisol was four years old when she played Ponette, a girl struggling to understand her mother’s death in a car accident. The range and depth of emotion she displays makes me a little worried about what director Jacques Doillon did to coax the performance out of her. Thivisol became the youngest actress to win Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, an honor for which Doillon gave her a puppy.
At her mother’s funeral, Ponette’s young cousin Mathias tells her that her mother cannot come up from her grave because “they put a heavy cross on you to keep you in.” He adds, “Only zombies can come out.” As we watch Ponette try to adjust to her shattered world, it becomes clear that she has a heavy cross to bear herself.
Intending to comfort her, Ponette’s aunt Claire tells her the story of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. What the girl hears, though, is that she needs to sit and wait and not play until her mother comes back to life. Later, a Jewish girl at Ponette’s school leads her through a series of trials, such as traversing the ground they are pretending is made of lava, so that she can become a “child of God” and persuade God to listen to her prayers.
Doillon films many of Ponette’s scenes from a child’s eye perspective reminiscent of the “tatami level” point of view Yasujiro Ozu used in his films. This camera placement, as well as the extraordinarily articulate performances of Thivisol and the other child actors in the film, gives their scenes a disconcertingly adult feel, an effect Doillon uses to emphasize the similarity between Ponette's questions and those adults continue to grapple with their entire lives.
50. The Burmese Harp (1956), Kon Ichikawa
Kon Ichikawa’s deeply humane, spiritually resonant masterpiece is routinely but reductionistically described as “pacifist” or “anti-war.” War, though, is the occasion for the central theme, not the theme itself, which is nothing less than the intractable mystery of suffering and evil, affirmation of spiritual values, and the challenge to live humanely in evil circumstances.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Michio Takeyama, The Burmese Harp’s simple, almost fable-like narrative follows a division of exhausted Japanese soldiers stationed in Burma, who struggle to keep their spirits and humanity alive by singing. The universality of the soldiers’ melancholy circumstances and simple longing is emphasized by the one tune to which they return again and again, Hanyu no Yadu or “There’s No Place Like Home.”
Although the story dwells on war-related horrors, the message of The Burmese Harp is not simply that war causes suffering. Nor, despite its Buddhist milieu, does the film endorse the Buddhist doctrine that suffering (dukkha) is caused by desire (tanha). Instead, the film declares, like the Book of Job, that we mortals do not know why suffering happens. Rather than diagnosing a cause, The Burmese Harp emphasizes the importance of compassion, humility, and spirituality in facing up to the disease.
51. Stroszek (1977), Werner Herzog
Eva: “No one kicks you here, Bruno.”
Bruno Stroszek: “Not physically, here they do it spiritually.”
Stroszek is a film riddled with misfits. Its title character, the musician Bruno Stroszek, is the quintessential misfit. Director Werner Herzog sets him against characters more comfortable in their social roles and identities.
Bruno is an outcast wherever he lives, and both the German friends he leaves behind and his newfound community in Wisconsin judge him to be nothing more than an alcoholic ex-con (whose crime the audience never learns) whose instruments are out of tune. He is just another immigrant who can’t pay his rent.
The banker who reclaims Stroszek’s mobile home confesses to him that the systems we’ve made are “out of our control.” Herzog reveals with startling clarity how those systems chew up and spit out people like Stroszek. He thus becomes a sort of scapegoat, punished with unwarranted shame.
But to the audience and to Eva (the prostitute he lives with for much of the film) Stroszek is an artist whose music deserves to be heard and whose hopes deserve to be fulfilled. To Eva he’s neither a knight in shining armor nor a charming womanizer. He’s simply Stroszek, who loves her.
This simplicity, spontaneity, and outsider mentality reflect Herzog’s approach to the film. Most of his actors were not professionals. The music was largely improvised. In fact, the film was written in only four days specifically for the German actor, musician, and artist Bruno Schleinstein.
Stroszek is a painful story. Few of Stroszek’s immigrant American Dream-style hopes and humors are realized. Though the ending is ambiguous, the final scenes impress the audience with the paradoxical sorrow and light-heartedness that are present on Stroszek’s face from the outset. As Stroszek sinks deeper into sorrow, his sturdy demeanor forms a constant throughout the film, thereby expressing the absurdity in the inextricableness of both sorrow and joy. In this way, the film itself is a misfit; just like Stroszek, it’s caught between tragedy and comedy. Thus, the audience senses that they have encountered a real person, not just a film.
52. Places in the Heart (1984), Robert Benton
Places in the Heart (1984), written and directed by Robert Benton, won two Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress for Sally Field. The film also received nominations for Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Lindsay Crouse), Best Supporting Actor (John Malkovich), and Best Costume Design.
Considering the flashy blockbusters that often win big prizes today, one may wonder what drew the Academy (and several other media organizations) to honor this quiet, understated film.
Places in the Heart tells the intertwined stories of two sisters, their families, and neighbors in 1930s Waxahachie, Texas. Edna (Sally Field) is married to the local sheriff, while Margaret (Lindsay Crouse) runs a beauty salon in her home to supplement the income of her freelance mechanic husband Wayne (Ed Harris). When a random bullet kills Edna’s husband, she’s forced to find new ways to keep her family together.
Benton won the Oscar for best screenplay, but it’s not the writing that one remembers in this film, it’s the images. The soundtrack is also key. Consider the opening sequence, which begins with a shot of a large church dominating the skyline, accompanied by piano and choir rendering of “Blessed Assurance,” then cutting to a much smaller, different church, just letting out of service, and a series of vignettes of various characters and scenes: the local school-teacher and her husband in a restaurant; a homeless woman living in her car (establishing the Depression-era timeframe); a house in the country, possibly abandoned; a black man begging at a door and saying grace over the food (we’ll later be introduced to him as “Mose”); another shot of the distant church tower; Margaret’s house and her family at dinner; a large black family at their Sunday dinner; a random assortment of fellows hanging out; and finally Edna’s house, and she brings in the mashed potatoes as the hymn ends.
One interpretation is that we are being presented with a vision of “the holy catholic church”: all these people are part of the community, some more central than others, but the “big” church embraces them all.
Another possibility is that the big church symbolizes God or Christ (the church is, after all, the Body of Christ), watching over the community, occasionally seeming to be distant. Note that none of the movie characters ever actually enter this enormous, imposing church, only the small, more humanly-scaled one. Yet it appears in scene after scene, a guarding or judging presence: For example, before the bank rejects Edna’s loan application, we see this church, and also before a great tornado that brings some significant changes to the town and its people, both physical and spiritual. Without these subplots and characters, the final scene would not have the weight it does.
The character of “Mose” is an obvious Christ-figure. As a black man, Mose occupies the lowest place in this 1930s Texas community, yet he teaches Edna how to farm cotton, helps her harvest the crop, and keep her misfit family of children and a blind broom-maker together. As in the Gospels, the powerful cannot bear a challenge to their authority from the lowly, and Mose is driven out, but not before achieving his purpose and leaving gifts with his “disciples.”
In the final scenes, we return to “Blessed Assurance,” the great church, and the small one. Look carefully at who is in the pews as the hymn ends, the pastor begins reading the Scripture, and the communion plates are passed. This scene is the best symbolic image I’ve ever seen of “the communion of the saints”: the Holy Eucharist or Lord’s Supper in which we are united in remembering Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection, and also the mystical unity of the church, the Body of Christ, which exists both now and in eternity.
53.The New World (2005), Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick’s 2005 epic poem about the European settlement of Jamestown, the ensuing battles with furious natives, and a legendary cross-cultural love affair depicts the dangers of ambition and the necessity of conscience. With the help of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men), Malick captures a sense of the unspoiled beauty that once welcomed pilgrims to this “promised land.”
That beauty seems to speak directly and eloquently to the hearts of the central characters, the surly explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the beautiful young native Rebecca (Q’orianka Kilcher). “What voice is this that speaks within me, guides me towards the best?” asks Smith as he helps his fellow settlers make a start. Enthralled, he has stumbled into love with the natives’ beguiling princess. They bring out the best in each other for a while, their trust expanding to unite the European newcomers and the wary natives. Rebecca thinks Smith is “a god.” He thinks her a treasure.
When war breaks out between the untrustworthy English and the panicking Indians, threatening to break this unlikely bond, Smith must fight to survive not only the natives’ attacks but also the betrayals of his own people. But there are other treasures calling this explorer. In time, Rebecca’s heart becomes painfully torn between the ambitious adventurer and a humbler man, a tobacco farmer named John Rolfe (Christian Bale) who promises faithfulness and love. Malick’s movie becomes a hymn to the spirit that moves through the natural world, whispering to us in mystery and metaphor about faithfulness, sustenance, and endurance through hardship and change.
54. Still Life (2006), Jia Zhangke
Still Life is director Jia Zhangke’s meditation on the effects—personal, societal, and environmental—that occur during the building of the magnificent Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River in central China. As the dam moves closer to completion, authorities hold back more and more water, meaning that low-lying communities close to the dam will soon be underwater. Therefore, the government has undertaken a massive “deconstruction” project in these communities, moving people out and tearing down old buildings and ancient neighborhoods.
The beautiful setting amidst a lush, green valley contrasts strongly with the piles of gray rubble scattered throughout the area. And this contrast in the physical world mirrors the contrasts taking place in the two stories Jia weaves together throughout the film: change and stasis, breaking down and putting back together, life and death.
These two stories, simple in their conception and careful in the way they reveal themselves, depict a man and a woman looking for their respective spouses. Neither couple has been together in years. The reasons for leaving remain unclear for most of the film, yet we know that each of these people wants nothing more than to find that spouse—for what, we can only presume.
That Jia allows these stories to develop slowly and makes close observation of their mostly fruitless searching imbues each character with a humanity that rings true. We know these people, or at least people like them—people with hopes and regrets, foibles and virtues. And as the events unfold, as the characters move ever closer to their respective goals, Jia records moments of such purity and poetry that the film strikes at the deepest chords of what it means to be human, summing up the film’s themes and ideas in images that bring contrasts together: out of rubble grows hope; out of death springs life.
55. Jesus of Montreal (1989), Denys Arcand
Before he became an Oscar-winning filmmaker, Denys Arcand was an historian. And some of his first historical projects—such as a government-sponsored documentary about Samuel de Champlain, one of the founding fathers of Canada—got him into trouble with the powers that be, who felt he didn’t toe the official line as closely as he should have.
So Arcand knew whereof he spoke when he wrote and directed Jesus of Montreal. The film concerns an actor who, upon being hired to produce a passion play for one of Montreal’s churches, decides to base the play not on the gospels per se but on his own reconstruction of the “historical Jesus”—and because his play challenges Christian dogma at every turn, he quickly runs afoul of the priests who hired him.
Along the way, the actor in question faces temptation from fawning critics and wealthy agents alike, and he takes a bold stand against the commercialization of art and the dehumanization of his fellow actors. And so the actor’s life takes on an allegorical dimension as he becomes a sort of Christ-figure: he inspires his fellow thespians, he confounds the secular authorities, and, ultimately, he dies for his artistic integrity.
It would be a mistake to suppose, as some have done, that Arcand is asking, “What would it be like if Jesus had come today?” Instead, Arcand is doing what he often does: holding history up as a mirror to our own time, and noting how human behavior has a tendency to repeat itself. (See his documentary Comfort and Indifference, in which an actor playing Machiavelli comments on the forces at work in Canadian politics; or see his dramatic films The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions, which draw an explicit parallel between the decadence of ancient Rome and the decadence of today.)
Arcand is also profoundly concerned with the question of meaning and how it can be found in a post-modern world teeming with so many contradictory stories and messages. Note how the very same stage that hosted an adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov in the film’s opening scene is used a short while later for a beer-commercial audition: every stage and every screen is a blank space waiting to be filled, and it doesn’t matter what fills it. Similarly, at one point, the passion-play actors tease the priest who first commissioned their play—and now wants to revise it—by acting out the different genres through which they could filter the story of Christ: kabuki, method acting, comédie française. What difference can the content of the story make when its form is dictated by conventions such as these?
And yet, in a strange way, there is hope here. One of the most important scenes in the film doesn’t concern Jesus at all: instead, it features an actor in a recording booth, as he narrates a documentary about the vastness of space and the insignificance of human life. That, right there, is the modern story. But once he has finished his narration, the actor hands the script to the man who wrote it and says, “It leaves a lot unanswered.” “Yes,” the man replies, “and though it’s valid today, in years it may change.”
So the narrative that says life is essentially meaningless is, itself, just another meaningless story, fighting for space with all the other stories out there. That, right there, is the postmodern story. And this, the characters seem to recognize, simply will not do. There must be stories that mean something, and these people are determined to tell them. The story of Jesus, however incomplete their understanding of it might be, is not a bad place to start.
—Peter T. Chattaway
56. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2006), Cristi Puiu
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a slow film about a man fading quietly from this life in a death rite of bureaucratic and cultural ineptitude. But the carelessness that lends Lazarescu its excruciating pace creates a setting for a criticism of the Romanian health care system that transcends its own context.
Mr. Lazarescu has had a headache for four days, so he calls an ambulance for help. When they arrive and find yet another man wasted by alcoholism, they leave him to his neighbors to help him sleep it off.
To deal with his insistence that something may be wrong, they call an ambulance again, which leads to a slow journey through four different hospitals equally unconcerned about the plight of this incoherent man. He soils himself in their CT scanners. He garners the sarcasm of residents. And despite the opinion of a faithful ambulance attendant that he needs brain surgery to relieve a blood clot, his condition worsens in a series of hallway gurneys.
Much like Bresson’s A Man Escaped, the very title strips the film of any artificial suspense that would distract us from the fact that we are watching Mr. Lazarescu die. Even though Mr. Lazarescu has set the film in motion, we eventually watch his body simply pass through this series of indignities until the lights go off.
Puiu’s immersive cinema is not just an affectation that lends gravity to Lazarescu’s plight. It is a space in which we begin to feel the crushing weight of loss that seems an inherent risk of this health care system. There is no action-packed ER script to tie these loose ends together at the end. There is just a slow and inevitable indictment of the ease with which we watch the margins of society slip into government regulated systems of care.
57. Eureka (2000), Shinji Aoyama
Eureka’s running time of three and a half hours may put off even the most hardy of film fans. This would be a rookie mistake as it is an engaging, gentle, and immaculately composed treatise on violence, loss, and trauma that deserves not only every minute of the audience’s attention but also the accolade of a modern masterpiece.
Eureka starts with the hijack of a bus journey that leaves three survivors; the driver, Makoto, a young girl, Kazue, and her brother Naoki. The film is not interested in the nature of violence per se, but rather with the effects on the private and social identities of survivors of violence.
Following the events on the bus a clearly traumatized Makoto leaves his wife and disappears. Kazue and Naoki are shocked into silence, and suffer further loss that leaves them parentless. Alone in a huge house and with a sizeable insurance pay-out, the children grow increasingly detached from the world.
This “prelude” lasts a mere nineteen minutes. The remainder of the film, set two years later, deals with the slow, painful process undertaken by the three to reconstruct their disintegrated lives following Makoto’s return home. Makoto soon moves in with the children to be joined by Akihiko, the children’s talkative teenage cousin who has survived a similar traumatic violent experience. Together, these damaged souls begin the struggle to take control of their lives in an attempt to rediscover meaning and joy.
Whilst such ponderous territory has the potential to be boring, the characters’ regeneration remains interesting because of its unpredictability. Director Aoyama plays out the scenes in long takes that are cleverly composed and meticulously timed. Wide shots with multiple planes of action permit the camera to remain still or make minimal movements to reveal unfolding events, suggesting the characters’ individual actions are inseparable from the group’s dynamic. Elsewhere, they are framed in flat contrast to their stark backgrounds; as tiny figures slowly making their way across vast landscapes, or trapped in claustrophobic rooms.
At all times the apparent stillness of the frame suggests a deep inner movement. This tension-in-stillness is exemplified in a visual motif that reappears throughout the film, a glass office toy placed on the house window frame gently rocks back and forth whilst inside it a tumultuous wave crashes around, a reference to the opening words of the film spoken by Kazue: “A tidal wave is coming. Soon, I am sure, it will sweep us all away.” The omnipresence of the ambient noises of the quiet rural setting, set at elevated volumes, reinforce the tension; the continuous rumble of wind and chirp of crickets a further sign of the disturbed inner lives of the characters.
One of the most effective moments of the film, and that also demonstrates Aoyama’s skill as an editor, takes place when the “whoosh” of Akihiko’s golf swings reach an unbearable level for Naoki who races into a field and cuts down the plants. The action clearly grants him temporary relief and Aoyama’s camera lingers on a bleeding plant that pours out its sap, inter-cutting with Kozue silently watching at the window. The children’s inner anguish suggested by this scene is heart-rending.
Eureka’s final section provides renewed momentum following the characters’ relative inertness in the middle passage. Makoto buys “a different kind of bus” and takes the children on a road journey. This begins the process of reclaiming their lives and they seem able to envision a positive future in which they are at peace with their loss, and the violence they experienced is no longer a controlling force.
58. Heartbeat Detector (2007), Nicolas Klotz
Simon Kessler is a psychologist high up in the human resources department of the Paris branch of the German company chemical company SC Farb. Kessler’s boss gives him what must be an intimidating job, though he never shows any hesitation. He needs to investigate the company’s CEO, who has been acting irregularly, deteriorating quickly from coming to work tardy a few times to showing full-on attacks of paranoid delusions.
This job seems suited to Kessler, thanks to his interest in “the human question,” the literal translation of the film’s French title. His job is to know what makes the executives of this company tick. But the other side of his job is to create “selection criteria,” to quantify the value of the company’s employees so his bosses can best know who to fire and who to keep.
“How do you reconcile the ‘human factor’ with the company’s need to make money?” Kessler is asked in one scene by Jüst, the CEO whom he is investigating.
Through long, static shots (often backgrounded with silence, often with indiscernible mechanical noise, occasionally with vaguely musical hums), Klotz follows both Kessler’s investigation and the moments of release from the sterile corporate offices he inhabits and the black business attire of everyone within.
The investigation leads Kessler on a path that takes him deep into his own beliefs about what he does and deep into Farb’s history, and the releases underscore the unexpressed, pent-up, humanity of Farb’s employees. “Violence is a thriving market, a way to let off steam, a kind of necessary ritual,” states one of Jüst’s former colleagues, a sentiment that is highlighted when Kessler loses control at a rave party.
But for all the talk of investigation and the mystery of what is troubling Jüst, the movie is not a thriller. It’s not interested in building suspense, but rather exploring the “human question” slowly, even ponderously. It doesn’t give any solid answers to the questions asked by Jüst and Kessler, but it makes clear the human misery that results when they are disregarded.
59. Summer Hours (2008), Olivier Assayas
As the sun sets on a chapter of history, a beautiful estate in the countryside outside of Paris becomes the setting for this intricate meditation on art and history: What makes an object valuable? How is globalization changing our values? How is it changing the role of art in culture, the way things are made, and what we do with them?
This sounds very cerebral, but Olivier Assayas’ film Summer Hours is an intoxicating family drama about a woman with a scandalous secret; the haunted works of art she guards in her home; the challenges facing her children, who are grown, married, and living far from home; her preparations for death; and her desires regarding the future of her estate and its treasures.
A radiant ensemble cast, including Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, and Jérémie Renier, bring this family to life, navigating complicated emotional territory. As we watch a world rich with history and secrets fading before our eyes, we’ll share realizations of deep loss and discomforting secrets, and we’ll catch glimpses of a new world full of energy and freedom. In its closing scene, Summer Hours takes a sudden turn that will be exhilarating for some viewers and heartbreaking for others.
60. Playtime (1967), Jacques Tati
The great French comedy director Jacques Tati starred in four of his own films, playing one of cinema’s most beloved comic figures, Monsieur Hulot. Hulot has a charming, Chaplin-esque presence, but the wonder of Tati’s films come from the extravagant activity that plays out in the world around him. You might consider Hulot an ancestor to Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, and plenty of directors have shown Tati’s influence on their work. (The city may remind you of Metropolis or the chaotic cityscape of Brazil. Tom Hanks has something of Hulot’s demeanor in Steven Spielberg’s fish-out-of-water comedy The Terminal.) But Hulot isn’t exactly a clown; often, he’s merely an awkward observer stumbling through a world fraught with hilarious, barely controlled chaos.
In Playtime, the subject is not Hulot, but the developing civilization around him. Paris is growing and changing at such a frantic rate that many of the film’s absurd and elaborate sets seem to be in a constant state of simultaneous construction and deconstruction. (You may not even recognize that it’s Paris until you catch a fleeting reflection of the Eiffel Tower in an opening door.) What we hear is almost as overwhelming and encompassing as what we see. If you’re lucky enough to see this in a theater, don’t miss it. Otherwise, settle for nothing less than Criterion’s DVD presentation. You’ll want to see this on the largest screen you can find, with the best surround-sound you can set up.
The film, a failure at the box office, was a project of extraordinary ambition with a huge price tag, and it shows. The Paris of Playtime is a prophetic vision of this present high-speed society, in which architecture sacrifices style for practicality, and the trends of the fashionable are often downright ridiculous. Tati’s physical comedy is relentlessly clever, sometimes playing out in several situations at once. (Watch the glass-front apartment complex as a man watching TV in his living room seems to be responding to the woman undressing in the next apartment. In another confounding sequence, a restaurant’s glass door shatters, and the doorman picks up the door handle so he can pretends to continue to dong his job, while the arriving diners fail to notice.
Playtime may frustrate viewers who demand a compelling plot, and it takes some getting used to as its panoramic spectacle keeps us at a distance from the action. Remember, this was meant to be seen on a Cinerama screen. And some may find it a tedious expression of cynicism about contemporary trends. (Where is the natural world? Has humanity wiped it out?) But the more you pay attention to Tati’s intricate details, the more you’ll find that this film delivers exactly what its title promises. Even as it reminds us to have a sense of humor about ourselves, Playtime is full of affection for the relentless circus of human creativity.
61. Ran (1985), Akira Kurosawa
Blending 16th century Japanese history, traditional Noh theater conventions, and a Shakespearean narrative, Kurosawa’s Ran tells the story of an aging feudal lord and his sons. Patterned after King Lear, Lord Hidetora wishes to retire after 50 years of conquest and bloodshed. Betrayed by two power-grasping sons, he instead must flee into the wilderness accompanied only by his bitterly perceptive fool and a loyal soldier.
Ran achieves a masterful level of both abstractness and wrenching emotion. A scarcity of close-ups and a repeated motif of cloud images give the film a detached quality. Yet other sequences exemplify Kurosawa’s belief that sound and image should combine to multiply a scene’s emotional impact. Rightfully famous are the scenes showing the assault on Hidetora’s Third Castle: overlaying five minutes of horrifying images of slaughter there are no battle sounds, only the music of Toru Takemitsu’s score, intended by the director to resemble “the wailing of countless Buddhas.”
In creating Ran, director Akira Kurosawa wished to consider how God and Buddha, if they exist, view the same violent cycle of human behavior absurdly repeating itself. Dialogue throughout the film wavers between an angry atheism and a theology in which God woefully watches from a distance but is powerless to alter history.
The final take on this dialectic is expressed wordlessly in the concluding scenes. After almost three hours of unrelenting despair, Ran ends with a man, blinded as a boy by Hidetora, standing alone on the ruins of a castle wall. Having dropped a Buddha scroll into a crevice, whose image stares up sadly yet impotently, the camera pulls back to a very long view of this isolated, vulnerable figure. Aptly, the last sentence in Kurosawa’s screenplay is the single word, “Wretchedness!”
62. Rashômon (1950), Akira Kurosawa
Taking shelter from a torrential rainstorm in a demon-haunted temple, two men struggle to comprehend the story of a murder. They have witnessed crimes before, but something about this one has left them shell-shocked. One of them laments, “This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul.”
What follows in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon is perhaps the most famous example of point-of-view storytelling in cinema, as four witnesses to the murder recount their wildly different, contradictory versions of the crime. The conflicting point-of-view narrative device has also been used in movies such as Harakiri, Hero, and Vantage Point.
Most point-of-view films use the device to gradually reveal the true events obscured and distorted by each teller’s version of the story, but Kurosawa uses it differently here, because with each version of the crime, the truth only becomes murkier. As one character says, “The more I hear, the more confused I get.”
All of the versions agree on a few points: Some articles of clothing and a rope were left in the forest; a wife and husband were attacked by Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), an infamous bandit; Tajomaru forces himself on the wife; the husband is killed. Beyond these basic facts, though, the stories become so convoluted and sordid it seems the real truth may never be known.
In Rashômon, Kurosawa is not seeking to simply solve a mystery. Indeed, it is difficult to say whether the mystery is ever solved at all. Instead, he paints a picture of hell: “If men don’t trust each other, this world might as well be hell.” When we cannot definitively know the truth, what is there to fall back on? Is there any way to trust people who might be lying to us?
In the end, Rashômon provides a sort of resolution, but as with the rest of the film, it all depends on interpretation. It might be an act of God, or it might just be a change in the weather.
63. The Double Life of Véronique (1991), Krzysztof Kieślowski
This is the story of two strangers with the same face and the same name. They’ve never met. But they have a strange intuition that they’re bound to somebody else, somewhere. Irene Jacob won the Best Actress award at Cannes for playing both of them—Weronika, a sensual soprano living in Poland, and Véronique, a melancholy music teacher living in France.
One Weronika, a singer, captivates a teacher—and eventually an audience—by performing with extraordinary passion. In her glorious performances, she seems to be trying to break through to heaven. The other Véronique, seeking something that will fulfill a sense of incompleteness, becomes enchanted by a mysterious puppeteer. Who is he? Is he cruel and controlling? Or is he benevolent, leaving clues like breadcrumbs so she will follow him into a new kind of intimacy?
Kieślowski’s most enigmatic film traces the edges that divide one life from another, and the tenuous cords that unite them. While the characters face different challenges and fall for different lovers, they are compelled by very similar longings. To say much more than that about the story would be to risk spoiling its many surprises. While this is the project that set the stage aesthetically for Krzysztof Kieślowski’s masterful Three Colors trilogy—Blue, White, and Red—it is more mysterious and alluring than any of those films.
And it should be celebrated as a masterpiece of collaboration. The contributions of Kieślowski and Jacob are equaled by Slawomir Idziak’s masterful cinematography, which transforms light into an active and engaging character. Zbigniew Preisner’s music is what it always is in Kieślowski’s work—a vital piece of the puzzle, essential to any interpretation of the whole.
64. My Night at Maud’s (1969), Éric Rohmer
A romantic triangle is one of the most common storylines in film. The characters are usually pretty well defined: a well-meaning guy with a raging libido, a gorgeous woman with loose morals, and a sweet sensible girl pining for a husband. And of course, there is sex. But what if a film replaces this formula by replacing the libido with the intellect? Would it make things any less complicated? This is the intriguing concept of My Night at Maud’s, the third film in Éric Rohmer’s series, Six Moral Tales.
Jean-Louis, a recent convert to Catholicism, faithfully attends Mass, where one day he catches the eye of a pretty lady named Françoise. He decides that he wants to pursue a relationship with her. But then an old friend invites him to visit his friend Maud, an attractive divorcee, in her apartment. The two of them engage in philosophical discussions that test Jean-Louis’ intellect and spiritual convictions, and Maud invites him to stay the night.
Now Jean-Louis faces a couple of moral quandaries. One is obvious: will he sleep with Maud? But the other is: has he already pledged his heart? Will he choose his intellectual soul-mate—the free-thinking Maud—or his spiritual one—the religious Françoise?
The resolution to this dilemma turns the table on the Hollywood depiction of modern romance. A man and a woman share a bed together and do nothing but talk? A romantic triangle that isn’t resolved with sex, money, or power, but instead turns on a debate about the philosophy of Blaise Pascal? And a film that respects the minds and hearts of men and women more than their libidos? How liberating!
65. Becket (1964), Peter Glenville
A film that has often invited comparisons to A Man for All Seasons (Top 100 #25), Becket is also the story of a high official in Britain who chooses God over king and is slain for his beliefs. Thomas Becket begins the movie as the king’s closest friend, and thus his transformation into God’s man and the king’s opponent seems all the more striking. The power of the Christian idea had never before captured him; but the reality of actually being responsible for the well-being of the children of God changes his life.
But King Henry II’s power has gone to his head (on several occasions he refers to one of his unfortunate subjects as “it”). He can only relate to Becket, whom he considers his ethnic inferior, if Becket submits all aspects of his life to the king. Even Becket’s wife is subjected to gross mistreatment by the king, to test Becket's willingness to sacrifice anything for the king's good pleasure. When the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, Becket is appointed to the position—over his own objections—because the king is sure he will be his stooge.
The effect of his ordination to the episcopate is immediate (perhaps a bit too immediate). Before, his honor was sold to the highest bidder—the king. Now his honor goes to God. As he tells the king, “you have introduced me to deeper obligations.”
The friendship of these two men forms the emotional heart of the story. Henry hates Thomas for standing up to him, but loves him for much the same reason. He loved Thomas because he was a man without deceit. Now that this man of honor has found a more honorable monarch, the king reacts like a jilted lover, as though if he cannot have Thomas Becket for his own, then no one can have him.
The story of Becket is significant not only because of Becket’s new understanding of God, but also because it shows the dangers of idolatrously placing a person at the central position of our universe, a place only God can rightly claim.
66. Silent Light (2008), Carlos Reygadas Barguín
“All creation groans” in the unforgettable, long shots that open and close Carlos Reygadas’ remarkable film. It’s hard to believe this movie was released in 2008—it has a quality that will make it a major event for film students for many decades to come.
It’s set in a Mexican community of Old Order Mennonites, where Johan, an unfaithful husband, tries to rationalize his infidelity—with devastating consequences. Arguing that his attraction to an ice-cream-selling woman named Mariane was given to him by God, he brazenly offends his father and the religious order, breaking his wife’s heart.
The movie’s a marriage of the religious exploration of Carl Dreyer’s Ordet and the metaphors of the natural world in Terrence Malick’s The New World. Some may find it overbearing in its stiff formality. But many are left breathless by the radiant cinematography and the film’s climactic affirmation of fidelity and faith. In Books and Culture, Roy Anker wrote: “Reygadas displays the whole of his tale within an effulgent, circumambient radiance whose quiet majesty seems to bestow meaningfulness of some kind on all that happens. Call it, if you wish, the loving eye of God, which goes everywhere, attending and transfiguring, even into dankest corners of woe and evil.”
67. Wings of Desire (1987), Wim Wenders
We must decide to be human. In the People’s Square, before a great crowd of witnesses and in representing them, we must make the decision to be wholly human. Wim Wenders’ wonderful and dreamlike 1987 fantasy, Der Himmel über Berlin, portrays two angels observing the people of a divided Berlin.
As the camera floats freely above East and West Berlin, Wenders allows the angels to listen in on the thoughts of those around them, eavesdropping on the hidden conversations we all hold with ourselves. This soundtrack creates a kind of music all its own, as the German and French and English roll on in layers over the rich black and white imagery.
The angels Damiel and Cassiel report back to each other their observations and interactions with those around them. Damiel, enthralled with the humanness of existence, begins to consider exchanging his spiritual life for mortal flesh. Cassiel, stark and reserved, urges his compatriot to hold himself in angelic ranks. Yet two mortals speak more compellingly to Damiel’s longing than do Cassiel’s pleas. Marion, a circus acrobat, and Peter Falk, in Berlin for a film shoot, both ignite Damiel’s fascination and, more importantly, his imagination.
With that, he steps into mortal shoes. Wenders shifts from black and white to color film, from one side of the Wall to the other, and vibrant tones leap off the screen. The effect is not unlike a child opening a box of Crayolas and transforming a blank page into a canvas of brilliant color. A refreshing, new day dawns as Damiel seeks out both Falk and Marion, embarking on a journey of wholeness, in the unification of spirit and flesh. And Cassiel, still in his black and white, now watches him.
68. A Man Escaped (1956), Robert Bresson
In her essay “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” Susan Sontag argues that “all of Bresson’s films have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty.” A Man Escaped develops this theme more explicitly than in any other of his works, making it the best entry point into Bresson’s oeuvre.
The film details the imprisonment of a Free French rebel in World War II. Typical of Bresson’s style, it contains lengthy sections of wordless action—the prisoner Fontaine plotting escape alone in his cell, leaving his cell for a meal, or waiting in line to dump his waste bucket. Bresson punctuates these scenes with evocative sound; the intense focus on physical and mundane tasks compels the viewer to look within the characters to understand.
But there Bresson places a second roadblock. In A Man Escaped, as in all of his films after Les Dames du Boulogne, the actors do not emote. Blank looks and unemotional responses populate the characters in the prison. Bresson resists the temptation to allow his characters to explain their deepest feelings and motivations. Such psychological speculation is simply out of the question.
By making these kinds of stylistic choices Bresson drives the viewer to grapple with the spiritual realities of the narrative. In other words, as the main story focuses on the mundane, leaving the characters opaque, Bresson invites the viewer into spiritual contemplation. Rather than dictating particular thoughts or feelings to the audience, A Man Escaped opens a space for the viewer to interact and engage with the profound mysteries of human life, of our desire for freedom, and of the presence of God amid our struggles.
69. Faust (1926), F.W. Murnau
A useful starting point when approaching Friedrich Wilhelm (F.W.) Murnau’s Faust is Rembrandt’s 1652 etching of the same name. In it, we see Faust alone in his library, poring through parchments, surrounded on all sides by scientific paraphernalia. But Rembrandt pays little attention to the things in the room and, instead, directs our focus toward Faust’s desperate face, which stares intently at the otherworldly light shining through his window.
Rembrandt’s etchings are brilliant studies of chiaroscuro, the dramatic interplay of light and darkness in a work of art. An etching is a symbolically-rich form for depicting Faust, the classic, oft-told story of the battle between good and evil for one man's soul.
Murnau is likewise admired for his mastery of chiaroscuro. The release of Faust in October 1926 and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis three months later marked the beginning of the end of an important era in film history. Between the two world wars, Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) was the largest film studio in Germany, but it’s best remembered today for a string of productions in the 1920s. Innovative directors like Murnau, Lang, Robert Wiene, Paul Wegener, and Arthur Robison were encouraged by studio head Erich Pommer to push cinematographic technologies and to experiment freely with set design and lighting.
The result was “German Expressionism,” a style of film-making closely associated with other contemporary Modernist art movements, particularly Expressionism and Surrealism. Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is often named the first great film of an era that also produced such masterworks as Wegener’s The Golem (1920), Lang’s M (1931), and Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924).
All of the formal trademarks of German Expressionism are on display in the opening scene of Faust. The film begins with what audiences in 1926 would have greeted as a groundbreaking display of special effects—a dramatic, mist-filled battle between Mephisto (played by legendary German actor Emil Jannings), the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and a heavenly angel. Murnau shoots Jannings from a low, cockeyed angle, which distorts the perspective and heightens emotions. (Over the past eighty years, the innovations of German Expressionism have become tired staples of horror movies and music videos.)
When Murnau cuts to our hero, Faust, who is lecturing beside an orrery like the one we see in Rembrandt’s etching, Murnau likewise works in few shades of grey. Instead, Faust is illuminated brightly and made the focal point of the image, while his listeners in the foreground and background are lost in shadow. The exaggerated acting styles and full-blown emotionalism (sentimentality, horror, despair, awe, etc.) of Faust might at first seem mannered to the point of comedy for some twenty-first century viewers. Consider watching it in tandem with Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) at #1 on the list or a more recent but equally stylized German film like Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987) at #67.
It’s worth noting that soon after the release of Faust, Murnau left Germany for Hollywood, where his next project was his masterpiece, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), which is #12 on the Top 100. Murnau was recruited personally by William Fox, who was interested in making what we now think of as “prestige” pictures. Once at Fox, Murnau had a tremendous influence on other filmmakers at the lot, most notably the great director of expressionistic melodramas Frank Borzage (check out 7th Heaven  or Street Angel  and the young John Ford (Ford’s Four Sons  looks like it could have been made at UFA).
70. Lawrence of Arabia (1962), David Lean
Some movies you watch for entertainment value. Some movies give you something to think about. And some movies draw you into the sheer experience of being in a different place and time. Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the second of David Lean’s war epics to win the Oscar for Best Picture (the first was 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai), is all of this and more—especially if you see it on the big screen, where its depiction of the sun beating down on the Arab rebels and the British officer who leads them across one desert after another has been known to send thirsty moviegoers flocking to the concession stand during intermission.
Lawrence of Arabia delivers many of the goods that one has come to expect from a classic of its sort: vast epic scenery; a cast of thousands; bold, dramatic performances; and a stirring, majestic score, courtesy of Maurice Jarre. But at the center of it all is an enigma, namely the character of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) himself. Who is this man, and why did he play the role that he did during the Arab Revolt? Neither his British superiors, nor the Arabs who fight alongside him, seem to know—and neither does Lawrence himself. And it is this mystery around the man that makes Lawrence of Arabia a compelling work of art that lingers in the mind long after the spectacle has come and gone.
The film, written by Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons, The Mission), is essentially about a man with an identity crisis—and the long-term effects of that crisis on one of the most volatile parts of the globe. Lawrence, the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish gentleman, and a bookish military intelligence officer to boot, doesn’t fit in with his fellow Brits very well, nor can he ever be just “one of the guys” like his fellow soldiers; he is drawn to the exotic, warlike Arabs but he is also repulsed by what he regards as their barbarism. By negotiating alliances between the Arab tribes and leading them in successful battles against the Turks, he becomes a leader of men, but he is also a puppet of sorts, whose growing legend is exploited by generals and princes alike. One moment he basks in his godlike status among the Arabs and brags about his reputation for invulnerability; the next, he is captured and raped by Turkish soldiers who don't even recognize him, despite the fact that their side has offered a rather large reward for his capture.
But the film is about more than just the one man; it also raises fascinating questions about the nature of freedom, and whether it is ever truly attainable. Can a man be whatever he wants to be, or is there something built into him that determines what he wants? Is a man’s fate “written,” or can he write it for himself? And is it possible to give people freedom while also dictating what they do with that freedom?
Lean, who had previously explored passion of a romantic (and dangerous) sort in films like Brief Encounter (1945), also gets to explore “the passions” in a broader sense here, comparing and contrasting them with the strategic calculations and simple practicality of Lawrence’s colleagues. (“With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion,” says one Arab prince to an American journalist. “With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.”)
More than anything else, though, the film is just sheer good cinema, full of startling images—from Omar Sharif’s first appearance as a mirage, flickering on the horizon, to the steamship funnel that Lawrence spots sailing over a dune near the Suez Canal—and clever edits, like the famous bit where Lawrence blows out a match and we instantly cut to a shot of the sun. Add to this an unusually literate screenplay and performances filled with sly, engaging wit, and you have one of the best “big” films ever made.
—Peter T. Chattaway
71. Koyaanisqatsi (2009), Godfrey Reggio
If, as they say, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then how does one describe a film like Koyaanisqatsi (1983), which has no actors, no dialogue, and no plot, but consists instead of nothing but music and images (some of which, incidentally, do happen to revolve around architecture)?
Well, we can begin by looking at the title, which comes from a Hopi word that is translated within the film: “Crazy life. Life in turmoil. Life out of balance. Life disintegrating. A state of life that calls for another way of living.”
Directed by Godfrey Reggio, a former monk and community activist, and accompanied by a mesmerizing score courtesy of Philip Glass, the film juxtaposes images of nature at its most awe-inspiring with images of modern industrialized society run amok.
An early time-lapse image of clouds moving across a mountain range suggests something beautiful and marvelous; the vapor rolls over the peaks like water over rocks in a stream. But later time-lapse images of cars racing through a city street, or subway passengers crowding onto an escalator, or Twinkies being moved from one assembly-line conveyor belt to another, are more ambiguous: the red lights zipping down the road might remind you of blood cells, for example, and might seem almost organic on that level; but in other ways, the film suggests not-too-subtly that we have all become cogs in our own machines.
Described like that, the film might sound kind of preachy, and indeed its sequels—Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002)—have been accused of stacking the deck. But Koyaanisqatsi is not as one-sided as you might think.
For one thing, while the film encourages us to reflect on the role that technology plays in our lives, there is no escaping the fact that the film is, well, a film—which means it is just as much a part of the technological landscape as anything it depicts. (The film even acknowledges this, when it shows people watching TV or sitting in a movie theatre.) But more than that, the film can even be construed, despite itself, as a celebration of technology; it is only because of films like this, after all, that we can watch the clouds move so fluidly in the first place.
And it is only because of films like this that we can experience so many different things, however vicariously, in so short a span of time. The images—lensed in part by Ron Fricke, who would go on to direct socially-conscious, non-narrative films of his own, such as Baraka (1992)—cover everything from nuclear blasts to lightning storms, from rockets to hot-dog factories, from cave paintings to the demolition of an abandoned housing project. (For more on that housing project, and how its destruction is said by some to mark the end of the modernist era in architecture, look up “Pruitt-Igoe” at Wikipedia.)
Reggio and Glass would go on to collaborate on a few more films—in addition to the Qatsi sequels, they also produced Anima Mundi (1992), a half-hour nature film of sorts, to raise money for the World Wildlife Federation—but Koyaanisqatsi remains their masterpiece, a stunning and densely detailed work of self-reflection that rewards repeat viewing.
—Peter T. Chattaway
72. Paris, Texas (1984), Wim Wenders
Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) has been wandering in the desert for some four years at the beginning of Paris, Texas, and it shows. His suit is so begrimed with dust that it’s hard to tell what color it originally was, and in his eyes is the look of a man who does not know where he is, and does not want to know.
When Travis stumbles into a convenience store and collapses a minute later, we still do not know who he is or why he has ended up there. It will be quite a while before we find out, too.
In the first act of Paris, Texas (screenplay by Sam Shepard), director Wim Wenders gives us only a minimum of exposition—and a minimum of dialogue, for that matter. Instead, he allows the film’s stark, beautiful images, courtesy of cinematographer Robby Müller, and evocative music, written and performed by guitarist Ry Cooder, to ease us into the story.
Travis’s first line of dialogue, “Paris,” occurs more than half an hour into the film. He speaks it to his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), who has traveled to Texas to retrieve him. He is not referring to Paris, France, we learn, but instead to Paris, Texas, the town where Travis believes he was conceived and where he has purchased a vacant lot. For Walt and his wife, Anne, Travis’s sudden appearance is particularly jarring because after his disappearance, they took in Travis’s son, Hunter, and have been raising him as if he were their own son.
In the second half of Paris, Texas, Travis and Hunter, who have gradually formed a bond as father and son, embark on a journey to find Jane (Nastassja Kinski), Travis’s ex-wife and Hunter’s mother. Travis’s motives for wanting to find her remain unclear until a brilliantly-filmed—and acted—scene involving a one-way mirror that stands as one of the greatest moments in Wenders’s long career.
73. My Life to Live (1962), Jean-Luc Godard
My Life to Live (1961) opens with a series of closeups of Nana (Anna Karina)—her left profile, her face straight on, her right profile, and then, in the first dramatic scene of the film, a two-minute shot of the back of her head, as she breaks up with a boyfriend in a busy Parisian cafe. The sequence of portraits anticipates much of what will follow, both thematically and stylistically.
Subtitled “A Film in Twelve Scenes,” My Life to Live presents a dozen moments in Nana’s life, with few clues as to how much time has passed between them and with little of the exposition or psychologizing one typically finds in a narrative feature film.
Jean-Luc Godard, who directed and co-wrote the film, has little interest in traditional notions of storytelling. Rather, his goal is simply to observe a particular woman’s fall into prostitution, experimenting with the tools of cinema as the Naturalist writers of the late-nineteenth century had done with language. (Nana could be a character from Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser, or Frank Norris.)
My Life to Live is Godard’s third feature-length film, following Breathless (1960) and A Woman is a Woman (1961). The former is Godard’s elliptical take on the “lovers on the run” genre of American movies he often championed as a young critic at Cahiers du Cinema, the magazine around which the French New Wave was formed, and the latter is his ode to Technicolor American musicals of the Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, and Vincent Minelli variety.
My Life to Live is likewise dedicated to “B Movies” and reflects Godard’s genuine admiration for the “fallen woman” stories that have always been a staple of low-budget American film-making. However, while most B movies sentimentalize and/or exploit the subject matter, Godard reveals little of his own attitude about Nana and, as a result, complicates our viewing experience. His camera tracks slowly from side to side, occasionally peering through windows at the world of opportunity and freedom unavailable to Nana, but he almost always remains at a critical distance. Nana is worthy of our admiration and our pity, desperate and trapped in a world outside of her own making.
Godard has had a long career—his latest feature, Socialism, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010—and is among a small handful of the most important figures in all of film history. My Life to Live is by most accounts the masterpiece of the first phase of his filmography, roughly from Breathless to Pierrot le Fou (1965), during which he completed an astounding ten features, all of them quite good, before moving into a more politically radical mode of film-making.
It’s worth noting that the #1 film on the Arts and Faith list, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, features prominently in My Life to Live. In the film’s most memorable scene, Nana steps into a theater to watch Dreyer’s film, and Godard cuts between tear-streaked closeups of Falconetti’s Joan and Karina’s Nana. It’s a beautiful and typically sticky moment from Godard, as it simultaneously celebrates the cinema, echoes the mugshot-like portraits that opened the film, and draws revealing parallels between these two very different women.
74. How Green Was My Valley (1941), Richard Llewellyn
This film’s Anatoly is a priest who lives among a remote monastic community as prophet and provocateur. Director Pavel Lungin’s story about him is of course a film, but it seems to be of a piece with the great Russian literary tradition. Anatoly’s actions toward the other monks are like those of a wily prankster, yet it is possible to view these affronts as a holy fool’s acts of mercy—exposing the monks’ hypocrisy in order to heal it. Perhaps we are to see Anatoly’s actions as reflections of God’s mercy shouting to a world in which, as Paul Simon wrote, “no one dared disturb the sound of silence.” Yet the humanity of Anatoly comes into deep focus through the ways he himself receives mercy—at the film’s beginning being granted a mocking copy of mercy, then at the end a mercy that is genuine and flows from love. This is a film whose berth is wide enough to contain both the mysteries and the certainties of mercy.
75. The Return (2003), Andrey Zvyagintsev
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s celebrated feature-length debut is a story about two brothers who must decide whether to trust the stranger who suddenly arrives in their home claiming to be their father.
As the sons argue about how to respond, they follow this stranger out on what they believe will be a fishing trip. It becomes something altogether different—a journey of increasing and troubling mysteries, until the brothers are divided as to whether this man is who he says he is, and whether or not he means to do them harm. Is this a rite of passage into manhood? Is it a lesson in wilderness survival skills? Are they being led to their deaths?
Zvyagintsev’s film will test a viewer’s own feelings about authority figures. Is it ever enough simply to “trust and obey”? Is it arrogant for us to demand justification for the behavior or instructions of our elders…or, for that matter, of God?
The movie has also inspired speculation that it is a parable about Russian history, and the return of religious faith to the country after a time of oppression and hardship. Mikhail Kritchman composes images worth capturing and contemplating. The Return ultimately feels like a lost Dostoevsky novella brought to life.
76. M (1931), Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre accomplish a remarkable feat in M. They humanize child murderer Hans Beckert. Suspenseful, drenched in tragedy, M brings the audience through Beckert’s harrowing final days as he evades both police and the criminal underground. Beckert’s frantic efforts to escape the tightening noose echo his attempts to overcome his compulsion. A scratched and worn window sill in his apartment give the police clues into his whereabouts, and to the viewer clues of the scarring in Beckert’s own soul.
Broken doors, warped reflections in windows, the sense of things corrupted from their true purposes fill the scenes of Lang’s film. Beckert cannot stop whistling an eerie tune from Edvard Grieg; it lingers throughout the first two acts, just as he can’t stop his own monstrous actions. Finally brought to answer for his crimes before a kangaroo court of criminals, Beckert bares his soul. He is no monster, he is a man—broken and distorted, unable to live with himself, and unable to control himself.
Lang’s editing choices, his use of composition, his use of sound and silence continue to have tremendous influence on today’s films. Often, however, what his successors do in attempting to humanize the serial killers that haunt our fears is to excuse them, to explain them, to show that they are not responsible for their actions—even Hitchcock falls prey to this in his classic Psycho. Lang makes no such excuses for Beckert. We see his warped soul as if we see ourselves in the funhouse mirror. The justice of courts or of lynch mobs cannot overcome this darkness, only react to it. It’s no coincidence that a blind man first identifies Beckert.
77. The Island (2006), Pavel Lungin
This 2006 Russian film, available on DVD from Film Movement, takes us to a monastery on the edge of the White Sea. There, the monks are troubled by the antics of one of their own—a prankster who speaks in riddles and tends to a fiery furnace. In 1941, Anatoly was a Russian naval officer whose behavior during a Nazi attack left him scarred for life. Now, in 1976, he’s penitent to a fault, becoming either a madman or a puckish agent of revelation.
It may sound ponderous, but it’s actually a film that careens between crisis and comedy. The priests are a grizzled, grouchy bunch, and it’s amusing to see how Anatoly’s antics upset their solemn rituals.
Pavel Lungin finds striking imagery in the stark landscape, and his lead actor, former Russian rock star Pyotr Mamonov, has an extraordinary face. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007. Nora Fitzgerald of the Washington Post notes, “After it opened in Moscow, priests and bishops began to bless the film, often standing in prayer outside theaters.”
78. Days of Heaven (1974), Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick’s 1978 story of adultery on the Texas Panhandle is set just before World War I, but it resounds with echoes of Old Testament drama. Blast-furnace worker Bill (Richard Gere) gets in a fight with his foreman, then goes on the run with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and little sister Linda.
They settle as field workers for a rich farmer (Sam Shepard), who eventually falls for the irresistibly beautiful Abby. Bill sees this as an opportunity to get rich not-so-quick. And his plot is the first step toward violence, which blazes up in a conflagration that may be the greatest inferno ever filmed.
Captured indelibly by cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, Malick’s film has a visual syntax so eloquent and graceful—its fields of gold cause its quiet characters to stand out like mythic figures—it would play powerfully as a silent film. (Shots of a hand extended to brush across the wheat fields have inspired numerous imitators, including Gladiator’s Ridley Scott.)
But the poetic narration by young Linda is endearing, and it keeps the goings-on from becoming too ponderous. After making this meditative masterpiece, Malick abandoned filmmaking for thirty years, only to return with greater ambition, and similarly spellbinding cinema.
79. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Woody Allen
Woody Allen got his start lampooning the deadly serious foreign films that were all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s. Then the former stand-up comic began to emulate (some might say imitate) those films as he turned out dramas like Interiors and September. Along the way, he left a trail of theological breadcrumbs in comedies like The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which a Catholic movie buff says life without God would be “like a movie with no point and no happy ending,” and Hannah and Her Sisters, in which Woody himself goes religion shopping after a brush with death leaves him wondering what it all means.
All of these themes and styles come together in Crimes and Misdemeanors, one of Woody’s most daring and ambitious films. Unlike his previous films, which found a single tone and kept to it, Crimes and Misdemeanors alternates between two seemingly different storylines, one tragic and the other comedic, to make a larger point about the things people are capable of when they don’t believe in a morality that is higher than them.
The “funny” story stars Woody as a filmmaker who compromises his principles by agreeing to make a documentary about a shallow, selfish Hollywood producer, while the “serious” story stars Martin Landau as an ophthalmologist, who considers going to extreme lengths to prevent his mistress from revealing their affair to his wife. And both stories are profoundly theological: Woody’s character is also making a documentary about a philosopher who comments on the Old Testament, while Landau’s character grew up in a devoutly Jewish home and one of his patients is a rabbi who, significantly, is going blind.
Some have criticized the film for suggesting that murder can be put in the same category as mere vanity or careerism, but one of the film’s main points is that sin is sin, even if the size of the sin seems different to different people. (Note Landau’s response when the rabbi mentions Landau’s “small infidelity.”) The film also probes whether seemingly trivial things like art or pop culture are any better or worse than religion or philosophy when it comes to answering the big questions—or to hiding the possibility that there aren’t any answers to those questions.
Amusing, disturbing, and blessed with good performances (especially from Landau) and some suitably dramatic cinematography (courtesy of Bergman and Tarkovsky veteran Sven Nykvist), Crimes and Misdemeanors offers plenty of food for thought.
—Peter T. Chattaway
80.Paprika (2006), Satoshi Kon
Anyone impressed by the complex, multi-layered narrative in Christopher Nolan’s multi-layered Inception should see Paprika, which came out in 2006.
In Satoshi Kon’s animated science-fiction epic, we follow a Japanese research psychotherapist named Dr. Atsuko Chiba who, by night, adventures into her patients’ dreams using a high-tech innovation called a DC Mini. As she enters these virtual realities, she takes on the name Paprika. And when terrorists nab DC Minis so they can invade other people’s dreams, Paprika goes dream-diving to track down the true identities of the crooks. And we’re taken on an exhilarating ride through kaleidoscopic imagery.
For all of the laughs and surprises in his film, Satoshi Kon explores frightening possibilities. He suggests there is a sort of stealth warfare occurring as we watch a parade of American icons advance down the avenues of a Japanese imagination. We’re left to ponder how movies, pop-culture, and other art forms can be used to shape the thoughts of impulsive people.
But the film is not a condemnation of imagination. The characters end up fighting for their dreams, defending them against those who would manipulate them. It’s not just a cartoon. Paprika is a rewarding, entertaining, and sometimes terrifying movie for discerning adults.
In 2001, Spirited Away won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and won a new American audience for Japanese animated features. Now Hayao Miyazake’s movies are major big-screen events, and he’s still working. Satoshi Kon was just beginning to command that kind of respect after the release of Paprika. To the shock and dismay of animation fans around the world, he died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer. He was only 46.
81. Floating Weeds (1959), Yasujirō Ozu
In 1959, near the end of his career, Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu returned to a story he had directed twenty-five years earlier, remaking his silent-film classic A Story of Floating Weeds as Floating Weeds. (A Story of Floating Weeds: 1934, silent, black-and white; Floating Weeds, 1959, sound, color.)
Keeping the arc of Ozu’s career in mind makes for an especially poignant experience when watching Floating Weeds, because it is also a story of returning.
Floating Weeds opens with the fanfare of a traveling acting troupe arriving in a small, seaside Japanese town. In an essay for the Criterion Collection, Japanese film historian Donald Richie notes aspects of Ozu’s mature visual style—“the famous camera position, just up off the tatami, its refusal to chase after the actors (the dolly) or even turn its head (the pan)”—that can be observed as he captures the excitement of the town’s children as they follow the troupe through the streets; many of them, it seems, have never seen live theater before. We quickly learn, however, that this is not the first time the troupe has visited this town.
Ozu interweaves scenes of the acting troupe preparing for their performances with the story of Komajuro Arashi, the aging leader of the troupe, visiting Oyoshi, a woman from the town, and her son, Kiyoshi. Kiyoshi has grown up believing that Komajuro is his uncle, when he is actually his father. The ways in which this secret is revealed, and the consequences it spawns among the family and the troupe, form the dramatic core of Floating Weeds.
In his Criterion essay, Richie notes that while Ozu employs many of the same techniques in both A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds, the pain of the latter film is not felt as sharply as it is in the former: “The earlier version seems the more bitter of the two. Toward the end of his life, Ozu mellowed, and one does not, for example, see or feel in Floating Weeds the pain of the once-again abandoned mother...A Story of Floating Weeds shows us a bleak despair rarely seen in Ozu’s more expansive later work. In 1934, Ozu felt deeply and personally the wrong that life inflicts. Twenty-five years later, he felt just as deeply, but perhaps less personally.”
82. Born into Brothels (2004), Zana Briski & Ross Kauffmann
If Born into Brothels merely recorded the marginal lives of the beautiful, all-but-doomed children of a Calcutta brothel, it would probably be nearly unbearable, though potentially still worthwhile. But photojournalist Zana Briski, a Cambridge religion student who moved into the Sonagachi red-light district with the intention of understanding and documenting brothel life, doesn’t merely document the children’s milieu. Instead, she does something revolutionary: she empowers them to document it for themselves, putting cameras in their hands and teaching them to use them.
The results are arresting, if not always inspired. The kids take to photography with alacrity, learning composition, depth of field, point of view. Mistakes are made, but the best of their work has real power and verve (visit kids-with-cameras.org to see—or purchase—samples of their work). There are art shows and actions, and the children watch in delight and fascination as wine-and-cheese Westerners peruse and purchase their work.
The closing titles, in which we learn which children have or haven’t managed to break out of the invisible bars of deprivation and depravation, temper hope with heartbreak, idealism with reality. Despite this, Born into Brothels both illustrates and exemplifies the power of art and artists to make a difference. Next to Briski’s enacted prayers, what prayers I might offer today for these children half a world away seem woefully inadequate.
—Steven D. Greydanus
83.Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock
“We stood there and I kissed her for the last time, and she said, ‘If you lose me you’ll know that I loved you and wanted to keep on loving you.’ And I said, ‘I won’t lose you.’ But I did.”
So speaks Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) about Madeline Elster (Kim Novak) in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo, a tale of failure, regret, and obsession. In the story, Scottie Ferguson, a retired police officer, ends up engaged in a mystery and falls in love with the center of that mystery, a beautiful, enigmatic woman named Madeline.
But when Ferguson fails to save Madeline from death, Ferguson refuses to make his peace with his history. Ferguson makes an idol of the past, attempting to impose his will on history by reversing time through artifice and imagination.
Vertigo continually blurs the line between imagination and reality, often entering into the subjective points of view occupied by the characters. The story itself returns to images and events time and time again, revising their significance as the story develops and shifts. The film’s climactic moment comes as a definitive revision, shattering illusion altogether. Ferguson's attempts to live in the past are in vain; the narrative of his life cannot be overcome through something as fragile and faulty as fantasy.
Hitchcock’s direction is remarkably precise, even by his own standard, and we are treated to one breathtaking image after another of an especially dreamy, hazy San Francisco. The dramatic leads, Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, deliver two very haunting performances, bringing humanity to grand melodrama. Bernard Herrmann’s score, with its achingly mournful, passionate love theme, underlines the story’s events with a suitable sense of dread; Herrmann’s score makes it clear from the main title that no happy ending lies in store.
84. Syndromes & a Century (2006), Apichatpong Weerasethakul
The fifth feature film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul is superficially a retelling of the moment that the director’s parents met at an occupational psychology interview in a Thai country hospital. This description, however, misrepresents Syndromes’ visually refreshing meditative exploration of first encounters, memories, and place.
Syndromes’ meandering narrative presents events as though the camera happened to pass in front of them. The film cuts between individuals that are unconnected by anything besides working in the same hospital; stories remain half-told; characters talk about seemingly inconsequential things; and the same stories are recycled and repeated throughout the film.
And yet the glimpses afforded into these people’s lives are somehow transfixing and illuminating. This is Apichatpong’s genius, as his unique visual style gently and playfully reminds the viewer of the privilege of being granted access to the retelling of these moments of individuals meeting. The camera remains an unobtrusive participant as events slowly unfold in still and medium shots, a technique that bestows a quiet dignity and significance far beyond the apparent simplicity of what we are shown.
Having settled the viewer into the role of observer, Apichatpong then draws us into acknowledging the falseness of these realities. The opening meeting ends with the characters leaving the room; the camera follows and is drawn to a view over a balcony where it remains transfixed upon the lush green vista as we hear the increasingly distant characters discuss work. Towards the end of the conversation, the actors come out of character and discuss the day’s filming.
Throughout the film, the camera wanders off, distracted and fascinated by the spaces in which these lives are lived. A ventilation system in a hospital basement provides the opportunity for one such occurrence, and reminds us of the camera’s and, by default, our presence. Nonetheless, this acknowledgement of the createdness of these retellings is achieved in such an effortless manner that it is as though Apichatpong were doing something entirely natural and so, whilst unexpected, it does not feel like a surprise.
The seamless integration of the audience into the narrative that occurs in the opening scene, which is later repeated almost word for word, provides a key to the film’s heart: that in the encounter of two individuals something holy occurs.
In bearing witness to one such encounter, Syndromes & a Century celebrates the moments of creation in such meetings. It also suggests that the cyclical retelling of these moments through conversations, stories, or films is a similarly creative act that points towards the essence of the eternal. The presence of the camera and audience—a witness—is thus an essential component of that retelling and of Apichatpong’s visual style.
Apichatpong, however, consistently grounds his observation of transcendence in the mundane and often silly realities of daily experience. In one of the film’s more touching moments a dentist that moonlights as a club singer serenades his patient, a monk who has abandoned his wish to be a DJ. The encounter results in the disclosure that the dentist believes the monk to be a reincarnation of his brother whose death he always felt responsible for.
The moment is revelatory and yet little weight is attached to it; it happens, it is felt, and it passes. The film thus ends with a scene of a group of people in tracksuits jumping along to an exercise class in a park. The ridiculousness of the scenario is fitting for a film that is wise enough to make allusions towards transcendence without losing sight of the beauty of the commonplace.
85. After Life (2010), Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo
Hirokazu Koreeda is a director seemingly preoccupied with death: his films Maborosi, Hana, and Still Walking all focus on characters dealing with the death of a loved one. After Life is also concerned with death, but Koreeda approaches his subject from a different angle in this film. Whereas his other films showed what happens to the living after someone they know dies, After Life, as its title suggests, imagines what might happen to those who have died.
After Life is set in a kind of halfway house for the dead. In the film, the dead arrive at a school-like building where they will prepare themselves for eternity. When they arrive, the dead are told they have one week to select a memory from their lives in which they will live forever. Once they have selected their memory, the staff of the house work with them to produce a film that will capture their eternal moment. After they leave the house, we learn, everything else about who each person was will fade away, leaving only that singular moment.
The scenes of the varied inhabitants of the halfway house, ranging from a rebellious teenager to a World War II veteran, recalling their lives feel almost improvised, as if Koreeda were making a documentary of the afterlife. And in a way, he was. Roger Ebert’s review of the film notes that “Some of these people, and some of their memories, are real (we are not told which). Koreeda filmed hundreds of interviews with ordinary people in Japan. The faces on the screen are so alive, the characters seems to be recalling events they really lived through, in a world of simplicity and wonder.”
While the way After Life moves from one character’s memories to the next gives the film an episodic feel, there is more than just a series of individual stories at work. Koreeda slowly reveals poignant connections between the characters in the film, and also what happens to those who are unable, or who refuse, to choose a memory for themselves.
86. Spirited Away (2001), Hayao Miyazaki
Spirited Away, perhaps Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest work of art, is the beautiful and engrossing tale of a young girl, Chihiro, who enters a magical world through an abandoned amusement park. Of course, such a summary necessarily fails to do justice to the grand imagination on display in the film. The comparisons to Alice in Wonderland are obvious; however, unlike Alice’s adventures, where the cause and effect relationship is thwarted and non-existent, as Chihiro navigates the world of the Yubaba’s bathhouse she must seek to uncover its own particular rules and strange cause and effect logic.
The result is a film that is both meandering and gentle, and, conversely, strangely menacing. The guiding logic of this magical world is that of dreams, as good and evil are ever shifting in contention for Chihiro’s very identity—Yubaba renames her Sen, and Chihiro is warned to hold onto her real name if she ever hopes to leave.
The success of Chihiro’s quest is never certain, but her “large-heartedness” wins the day, as she encounters memorable characters such as Haku, No Face, and a multitude of spirits culled from both Japanese tradition and the unique imagination of Miyazaki.
Accompanied by Joe Hisaishi’s marvelous score, Spirited Away is uncommonly long for an animated feature, at 125 minutes, allowing us to really take our time in entering into Miyazaki’s world, and allowing for entrancing digressions with creatures like the mud-filled river spirit.
Miyazaki’s animation, both hand-painted and aided by carefully used computer effects, has never been more beautiful, showing an attention to details and wonderful imaginative world building. This succeeds in emphasizing Miyazaki’s recurrent theme of harmony with nature. The spirit bathhouse is perhaps one of the most well realized fantasy settings in cinema, from the steam room in its deepest bowels, to Yubaba’s study in its towering heights. Spirited Away is one of the few recent works of fantasy that can actually take your breath away, all the more astonishing without gratuitous action sequences or massive battles. Chihiro’s battle is one of will and spirit.
While Spirited Away’s real stakes and sense of danger, as well as the dearth of clear-cut good and evil characters, might disqualify its appropriateness for all ages in some quarters, it does give the film a greater thematic weight and helps it to earn its place as one of the great films of the early twenty-first century. Westerners have much to learn from the Japanese in realizing that animation is not just for children. Spirited Away offers guidance for living in a recognizable postmodern world, where the only sure thing is kindness.
87. The Trial (1962), Orson Welles
Orson Welles famously claimed that his 1962 film, The Trial, an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s seminal novel, was the greatest film he had ever made. Whether or not this is true is certainly up for debate given the richness of Welles’ cinematic oeuvre, but The Trial is, in many ways, one of his purest visions. Unlike the countless films he had produced after Citizen Kane, Welles retained control of The Trial during its conception, production, and post-production, and therefore it does not bear the fingerprint of studio tampering in the way that The Lady from Shanghai or Touch of Evil do. Furthermore, it is one of the purest statements of one of Welles’ core thematic concerns: injustice.
Welles’ films repeatedly furnish portraits of individuals who abuse power through schemes and deception, from the bent lawyer in The Lady from Shanghai to the murderous Arkadin in Mr. Arkadin. But in Welles’ other films, there remains some degree of counterpoint to corruption, some kind of force that challenges it. The Trial offers no such reprieve. “It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream,” Welles’ narration tells us at the opening of this film, and it is true. The Trial is a cinematic nightmare, a vision of a world where the legal system has been fractured on every level, where justice exists as an idea but not as reality.
At the center of The Trial is the nervous Joseph K. (played marvelously by Anthony Perkins), who finds himself accused of being a criminal, but is not given the slightest inkling of the nature of his crime. Despite attempts to discern his situation and plead his case, he finds himself thwarted at every turn, by uncaring neighbors, by his malevolent lawyers, by his inept prosecutors. Bereft of friends and bereft of hope, Joseph K. becomes increasingly desperate. In a world this hostile, death is the only escape.
Justice may be absent in The Trial, but the film nevertheless aches for it in its absence. Just as the lament for the death of a loved one affirms the value of life, so The Trial, which recoils in horror at the vision of a world where corruption reigns, loves justice.
Here Welles takes the style he had developed in his previous films and takes it to greater lengths. If The Lady from Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin have an affection for the grotesque and the bizarre, then The Trial positively revels in it. Everywhere the world is disordered, dressed up in the imagery of post-World War II decay and ruin. The locations swing between extremes; the film moves from vast, overwhelming spaces to tight, claustrophobic chambers, while the cinematography highlights these uncomfortable spatial relationships. Further heightening the disorienting effect, dialogue spills out at great speed and volume, so that, like the film’s hopelessly befuddled protagonist, the viewer has to struggle to keep up.
88. The Rules of the Game (1939), Jean Renoir
At a surface level, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) looks quite a bit like one of those comedies of manners that Western art has been pumping out without interruption over the past five hundred years. Take a group of aristocrats, have them declare their love for people other than their spouses, throw in some witty exchanges and mistaken identities, and let hilarity ensue.
On the eve of the Second World War, however, Renoir was going for something a little stronger.
The Rules of the Game is about a French aristocrat, Robert de la Cheyniest, who is married to Christine, the daughter of a prominent Austrian composer, and engaged in an affair with a society woman named Genevieve which he feels compelled to break off. Andre Jurieux, an unmarried aviator and national hero who has just completed a transatlantic flight, is convinced that he’s in love with Christine. The threads of the various affairs are woven together and the plot is set in motion when Cheyniest invites much of Parisian high society, including Genevieve and Jurieux, for a week of hunting and carousing at his country estate. The guest list includes additional admirers of both Christine and Jurieux, and the estate’s servants are as engaged in the flirtations as the elite.
Renoir’s film is put together with remarkable artistry. The interior of the country estate is typically shot in deep focus, which permits characters all over the depth of field to remain sharp and foregrounded as they move in and out of the scene. There’s a Rube Goldberg-like mechanism at play in the characters’ movement in and out of doors and through hallways, with an organic flow from one pair or trio of arguing lovers to another. These spectacular interior scenes are interrupted by a long exterior scene of the hunting party, complete with smock-clad servants beating the bushes to chase the rabbits and pheasants toward the hunters. The film takes on a sudden incongruous grim tone as Renoir focuses on the rabbits and pheasants being blasted into stillness.
As the film’s characters ferociously pair off, there’s no attempt to ground their actions in any larger understanding of ideal love. Renoir’s not contemptuous of his star-crossed lovers, but he suspects they’re a foolish and deeply unserious people. The film ends with an abrupt, tragic act of violence that circles back to the callousness of the hunting scene and leaves one wondering on the eve of war whether this aristocracy is worth the shedding of one's blood.
89. Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Preston Sturges
In his book Generous Justice, Tim Keller has just controversially suggested that if you are not taking an active part in helping the poor, then you are not taking your Christianity seriously. Indeed, you are something of a hypocrite. Sullivan’s Travels is the story of a young, rich, and idealistic movie director who wants to make a film that will help the poor without being a hypocrite.
Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is interested in making his films preach social justice messages to his audience and poverty is his next subject. When confronted with the fact that, because of his sheltered life, he has absolutely no idea how the downtrodden experience hardship, he immediately resolves to join them as an act of self-education.
He is warned against trying this from all sides. But most thoughtfully of all, his own valet explains to him that the caricaturing of the poor and needy in film helps nobody. “The poor already know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.” Poverty causes suffering, and it is a problem for humanity that is never going away.
But Sullivan is still resolved, and with nothing but a bunch of raggedy old clothes on his back and ten cents in his pocket, he sets out on the road to live the life of a tramp, and more importantly, to experience the hardship that the poor experience every single day. His ensuing journey reminds one a little of Pilgrim’s Progress.
Adventurous and romantic as the journey sounds, his goals prove harder to accomplish that they might at first seem. He still has a lifeline to use whenever he gets into too much trouble, and the temptation to keep on using it proves to be too strong. But Sullivan is also stubborn and persistent, and eventually, along with the help of a down-on-her-luck girl (Veronica Lake, in her first starring role), he does spend some time experiencing deprivation of food and shelter. He feels what it’s like to be cold and hungry, to be used by the rich (for their own purposes) in order to make themselves feel better, to be exhausted and to have no place to rest his head, and to be an unwanted stranger in a hostile environment.
Experiencing all of this does make him want to help the poor, but it’s still not quite enough. There’s something about his experience that doesn’t quite match up with the tragedy and hardship suffered by others that he still has no real connection with. While things eventually do get worse and Sullivan even experiences injustice—an injustice in the legal system that applies only to the lower classes of society—the fact remains that, unlike everyone else there, he still has way out.
But unexpectedly while in need, Sullivan is given kindness in the form of the help of a fellow prisoner (Jimmy Conlin) and in the form of a little entertainment offered to outcasts by a church. The admonishments that we are allowed to hear a preacher deliver to his congregation, right before their act of kindness, is one of the most practical applications of God’s grace that I have ever heard on film. It is experiencing this, not by experiencing the hardship, the cold and the hunger, that finally changes Sullivan’s priorities.
Loving the poor and needy means doing something more than occasionally helping them just enough so that you feel good about yourself afterwards. The Coen brothers said their O Brother, Where Art Thou? was almost the sort of film they imagined Sullivan making at the end of Sullivan’s Travels. There’s a reason for that. Different films are meant to be enjoyed for different reasons. A film, just like any other human creation, can be a means of sharing joy with others. And if joy is something that can be shared, a question this film asks you is—how do you go about actually sharing it? That is the question Sullivan ultimately finds himself preoccupied with.
90. Schindler’s List (2005), Steven Spielberg
Provoking intense responses both from admirers and detractors, Schindler’s List is the story of a Nazi, Oskar Schindler, who saved more than 1,000 Jews from death. The relationship of mutual gratitude between Schindler and the people he saves is the irreducible element that sets Schindler’s List apart from other chronicles of the Holocaust.
Schindler saves the Jews from the horrors of the Nazi genocide, and he himself is saved also, by emerging—if only partially—from his life of immature, debauched self-indulgence. The Jewish faith is the moral framework within which this world moves and breathes—the dramatic action opens and closes with a Jewish Sabbath prayer, the Kaddish—and Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s business manager, is the silent moral compass and observer, the true hero on whom Schindler leans to understand what he must do, or in one difficult closing scene, how to understand what he has already done.
Grounded in the remarkable historical reality of Schindler’s life, Schindler’s List takes only minor historical liberties. Filmed in black and white, and often relying on hand-held cameras, the experience is immediate and the violence never loses potency or becomes exploitative. Indeed, again and again viewers are required to look deep into the eyes of those about to die, as in one deeply moving scene where the patients of a Jewish hospital drink poison moments before the Nazis would butcher them for being too weak to work.
This humanization is vividly contrasted with the Nazi pogrom’s systematic, bureaucratic slaughter. One Nazi soldier tells Schindler that he bears no ill will to the Jew he unjustly condemned—it’s just that “inconvenience to the list” prevents him from acting. Thus, Schindler ultimately saves “his” Jews the only way a Nazi can: by creating a different list, one that will preserve life instead of cutting it off. It is about names and faces, not numbers; at one point, the Nazi government bunglers take some of his workers to Auschwitz by accident, and offer to replace them with other, healthier workers, but Schindler demands the return of these particular people, the ones on his list.
The melodramatic Hollywood story structure that Schindler’s List strains but never abandons requires a villain who can personify the Nazi moral sickness, and this villain is Amon Goeth. A grown child, Goeth seems not so different from Schindler in superficial ways, but he vacillates between surprising solicitude and cruelty that delights in toys for butchery. There exists no significant check, physical or moral, on his power. He calls Schindler cruel because Schindler offers the Jews hope; in fact, Schindler has learned to treat the Jews with kindness for its own sake, whereas Goeth suppresses his ability to feel compassion via brutal, dispassionate assertions of power.
Schindler’s List looks, at least briefly, at each significant “stage” in the Nazi slaughter, from the internment in ghettos to the work camps to the concentration camps. As such, it is a learning opportunity about the Holocaust for some audiences, and this is at the heart of the controversy that surrounds it. It can be argued that what it is not about (the millions of deaths that make the Holocaust the defining moral horror of the twentieth century) is more significant than what it is about (the saving of a relatively small number of lives).
But Schindler’s List is not the last word on the Holocaust, and we do not deny or diminish the cruel horror of the Holocaust when we raise our eyes to the hope that one man offered to a few condemned people, and that they in turn returned to him.
91. Dogville (2003), Lars von Trier
What—or rather, who—is Grace?
Perennially controversial and once again in a mood to provoke, Danish director Lars von Trier has in Dogville constructed a minimalist tale of a bygone era on a simple symbolic stage. The film’s depiction of evil and our own response to it inevitably generates intense debate.
The story centers on runaway Grace, hiding out from both the mob and police in the small town of the film’s title. Nicole Kidman, as Grace, brings one of her finest performances to the role. She, and her story of blending in and serving the town’s people, are quite subtle—almost kind—at first.
But Dogville is a huge crescendo of a film, ending on the grandest scale possible, a Shakespearean-style tragedy of biblical proportions that’s willing to swallow whole anyone that gets in the path of Grace.
The director’s well-known and worn out trademark from recent films is his misogynistic treatment of the leading women in his films. Take note: Dogville is no exception to this. But to this viewer von Trier makes a habit of being concerned with capturing the suffering and, in general, the abuse of Grace as well. He is a consummate artist whose ambitions are often to wrestle with or against the sky, whether he admits there's anyone up there or not.
Von Trier, as the one who holds the Joker and stacks the deck, is sometimes compared to Werner Herzog in his probing of things natural and eternal. These are artists willing to strike first and ask questions later; they are sometimes despised for their willingness to take risks.
Dogville’s greatest strength is in its ability to evoke so many (sometimes infuriating) views and perspectives. It spawns multiple readings, which are as varied as its viewers. Critics often talk about the film’s political agenda, but there are quite a few interpretations that are overlooked: New Testament grace in light of Old Testament law; how far grace is willing to go before judgment steps in and takes over; blood ties of a prodigal daughter and the lengths a father goes in bringing her home; and the typical critic’s view, which is American puritanism (then) vs. capitalist, imperialist greed (now).
The latter is obviously the anti-American angle, and the reading, judging from the film’s closing credits, isn’t undeserved. The song of choice (David Bowie’s “Young Americans”) that plays over the credits is like poking a finger in your face if you happen to live in what the film calls, “The US of A.”
There’s a lot to chew on here, but the subject remains the disposition of Grace. Some viewers may forget the meaning of the word when it begins with a capital G, but that may be the deepest meaning of all in this provocative film.
92. There Will Be Blood (2007), Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, a grand tale of unyielding greed set in the American past, tells the tale of an oil prospector named Daniel Plainview, whose all-consuming desire to succeed in his conquest for oil sets him up in opposition to a small-town preacher and isolates him from his adopted son.
Anderson adapted There Will Be Blood from Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil!, a novel fraught with political significance. In his adaptation, Anderson departs from Sinclair’s novel, opting instead to focus on relationships rather than political ideas, but their specter remains; in Anderson’s hands, There Will Be Blood becomes an ambiguous, intense portrait of the demons that plague the American spirit. Plainview, brought to life with tremendous gusto by actor Daniel Day-Lewis, makes many different impressions. He is, in turn, determined, intimidating, charismatic, preposterous, vile, and, finally, pathetic.
There Will Be Blood, like so many other stories of wanton greed, spins a yarn of self-damnation. Plainview becomes so relentless in his pursuit of victory that he becomes blinded to everything else, unable to see the world through any other lens but that of competition.
Paul Thomas Anderson renders Plainview’s story in a series of unforgettable images, beautifully captured by cinematographer Robert Elswit. Towards the opening, Plainview’s soon to be adopted son is christened with pitch-black oil, marked for life by its taint. Later, a mishap at an oil well sends a malevolent pillar of flame shooting into the dark sky, like some burst from the inferno. Beneath it all, Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score sizzles and strains, suggesting the malevolent forces at work in Plainview's soul.
93. Spirit of the Beehive (2006), Víctor Erice
Victor Erice’s 1973 poetical allegory of the impact of the Spanish Civil War was widely acclaimed at the time of its release and has since been justly recognised as a masterpiece of Spanish cinema. The Spirit of the Beehive tells the story of a family living in rural Andalucia in 1940 (a year after the end of the Civil War), focusing primarily upon the two young daughters, Ana and Isabel. Following the village screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein, older, mischievous Isabel tells curious Ana that Frankenstein’s monster is a spirit living in a nearby deserted hut. This sparks in seven-year-old Ana’s mind a childish fascination with the monster that results in her “adoption” of an army deserter.
The seemingly simple plot is massively enriched by the fairytale-like rendering that privileges the child’s vision of the world as a mysterious, enigmatic, and potentially threatening place. However, in this it parallels the film at the centre of its narrative and shows beauty and horror to be integral rather than binary components.
A mushroom-hunt in a sun-drenched forest is set to a jovial flute-tune but soon turns into an educational treatise on the potential treachery of mushrooms; children fascinated by a bonfire jump through the flames; the beehives of the title produce rich golden honey but are a ruthless dark mass with a futile existence; the initial excitement of a listening to the track for an approaching steam-train turns into nervous worry for the girls’ safety as the huge mass ploughs past, dwarfing the two curious figures.
This is also written into the delicate cinematography. Luis Cuadrado’s camera finds patterns in everything it points at, and the girls are shown either in wide shots, amidst barren landscapes that emphasise their fragility, or in close ups that are endlessly fascinated by their childish response to the world. Ultimately, it is Cuadrado’s brown and green dream-like rendering of these childhood landscapes that gives Spirit of the Beehive its evocative power.
To this end, Spirit of the Beehive is perhaps best summed up by a moment that comes in the middle of the film: a girl reads a strangely dichotomous passage aloud to her equally young classmates: “I only feel thirst, a thirst for I know not what. Rivers of life, where have you gone? Air, I need air. What do you see in the darkness that makes you silently tremble? I have the eyes of a blind man who stares at the sun’s face.”
In the midst of the destruction and futility of war, Erice’s film makes a resounding call for a return to engaging with the mysteries of existence, as seen in Ana’s abiding curiosity and her closing call to her spirit-friend. After experiencing the shock of her monster’s killing, she stands at the window and repeats her sister’s lesson about spirits: “If you’re his friend, you can talk to him whenever you like. Close your eyes and call to him.”
94. Early Summer (1972), Yasujirō Ozu
The centerpiece of Ozu’s trilogy of films about the drift of family and tradition in post-war Japan, Early Summer is every bit as gently provocative as its two more celebrated bookends. As far as cinema is concerned, Ozu was ahead of his time, and Early Summer is a great example of the way his films show us the inertia of change in the lives of extended families slowly disintegrating in the wake of modernization. In this installment, a mother and father are trying to find a proper husband for their aging daughter so that they can retire to a rural town. Matchmaking conversations and strategies at work and home strain the already creaking structure of this extended family, and through the cracks we begin to see the startling differences between each of the three generations involved.
Ozu is fascinated with all the things that we lose as time progresses through generations, war, and the disorienting march of modernization. In Early Summer, these reflections take the form of balloons slipping away, caged birds, or a broken loaf of bread. His slow pacing gives us time to explore this curio shop of gestures, images, and unspoken reflections on the quiet bonds of family. Several times, Early Summer also slips out of Ozu’s typical low angle, and wide shots of the sea or fields of barley punctuate the film with the grace of simple geometry. This list would be incomplete without Ozu’s formative reflections on what happened in the middle of the 20th century, the fallout of which has settled across the way we see ourselves as part of families, societies, and the patronizing pace of progress.
95. Amadeus (1984), Miloš Forman
Christian theologians teach that God speaks to us through special revelation and general revelation. Miloš Forman advances the idea, in his film Amadeus, that God can also speak to us through the work of inspired artists as one form of general revelation.
Think whatever you want about how the most religious character in the film is portrayed, there’s really no other film where the idea that God personally speaks to us through art comes across more clearly. Can God use music, written by man, to show to us just a few glimpses of His truth and beauty?
According to Amadeus, the answer is a resounding yes.
A fictional take on the lives of classical composers Mozart and Salieri, Amadeus is narrated to a priest by what appears to be either a self-confessed murderer or a complete lunatic. F. Murray Abraham eats up the screen as Antonio Salieri, a cold, calculating, hungry, jealous fellow who seems obsessed with trying to write music for God.
But it’s only in Mozart (Tom Hulce) that he sees a man being used by God in order to speak to people through music, and he covets Mozart’s talent so badly that it begins to drive him mad. Also, Salieri does not just grow to hate Mozart because of his musical God-given gift; he also is repulsed by what he considers to be a childish, vulgar, and irreverent man “with an obscene giggle.” Salieri demands to know why God would give this foolish little man genius, and the answer to his question rests at the heart of the film.
It’s true. The Mozart in this film is shameless, crude, and tells dirty jokes. Hulce gives him a childlike quality where he takes joy in the seemingly stupid and trivial. He is not a character one would expect God to use for much of anything. In fact, he is a character who would be found very offensive if he walked inside any modern day Christian church.
And yet, there is a joy about him. He and his wife, Stanzi (Elizabeth Berridge), obviously intensely love life and each other. While there is something dangerously happy-go-lucky and naive about them, they also understand a little about living lustily and taking delight in little pleasures—an understanding that none of the characters who Mozart offends are capable of sharing. It is this intense joy that you often hear coming across through Mozart’s music. So as the film continues, the viewer can’t help feeling there is method to the madness, and perhaps something in Mozart of a “holy fool.”
But Amadeus also gives us another picture. In this film we are shown allegorically the age-old story of the devil envying and therefore deciding to destroy God’s creation. Salieri recognizes the beauty and the divine in the music composed by Mozart. He regularly complains how it astounds and transfixes the listener. He believes that it is “of God” and then slowly decides that he wants to destroy it. This is an inherently Christian understanding of evil. Evil cannot create anything of its own, so it only seeks to wreck that what is good.
While it is not the most historically accurate film, the screenplay, written by Peter Schaffer, has a little genius of its own. It even offers a lonely and tortured Salieri an opportunity, at one moment, for genuine friendship and redemption when a surprisingly humble Mozart asks for his forgiveness. It’s subtle, but Forman uses his story to contrast Salieri’s view of a capricious and cruel god with another different God, one who is capable of speaking through the music written by Mozart.
This is essentially what makes Amadeus one of the most timeless films to come out of the 1980s. Listening to the soaring music composed by a man inspired, the viewer is left with the idea that there could be a God who speaks to us, and who uses the sometimes very unexpected, in order to reveal divine beauty to man.
96. Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Norman Jewison
The more particular you make your story, the more universal it becomes, or so they say. And Norman Jewison’s adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), one of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history, is certainly a case in point.
On the surface, it is a story about a poor Jewish milkman living in Tsarist Russia in the early 1900s. The film makes frequent references to Jewish culture and ritual, and one of its subplots even links this milkman and his family to the political protests that took place at the time, only a dozen years or so before the Bolshevik Revolution. But the core theme of the film—tradition, and the ways in which people hold on to it, resist it, and sometimes do both at the same time—has helped it to win audiences over around the world.
Tevye (Topol), the milkman in question, explains at the beginning of the film that tradition is what has helped the Jewish people to survive for so many years in so many parts of the world, despite sometimes intense opposition. Tradition, he says, tells the Jewish people who they are and what God expects of them. But Tevye has five daughters, three of whom are of marriageable age, and the choices his daughters make as they step into adulthood force Tevye to examine the role that tradition has played in his life.
First, there is Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), the eldest, who shocks her father by choosing her own husband rather than accepting the man who has been picked for her by the local matchmaker. (Tzeitel’s preferred husband, incidentally, is a tailor who eventually buys a sewing machine and declares excitedly that no one in the village will have to wear hand-stitched clothes anymore; his neighbours may object to some forms of modernization, but they do not object to this.) Second, there is Hodel (Michele Marsh), who falls in love with a young Marxist. And third, there is Chava (Neva Small), who falls in love with a local Christian and thus risks being disowned by her family altogether.
Tevye’s efforts to deal with these situations lead to much humour, a fair bit of drama, and one fantastic song after another, from the comic fantasy of “If I Were a Rich Man” and the boisterous celebration of “To Life” to the liturgical formality of “Sabbath Prayer” and the thoughtful reflections prompted by a wedding ceremony in “Sunrise, Sunset.” And as Tevye and his wife (who were paired off by a matchmaker many years ago, before they had even met) ponder the romantic attraction that has besotted their daughters, they realize that an even deeper love has grown between them, as well (“Do You Love Me?”).
Like most musicals, Fiddler on the Roof retains an element of theatricality, most notably in the way Tevye frequently addresses the audience. But unlike a lot of earlier musicals—and with one notable exception, namely a comically nightmarish dream sequence—director Norman Jewison gives this film a more naturalistic feel by shooting much of it on location in Eastern Europe, specifically in what was then known as Yugoslavia. (Jewison would go on to embrace a more openly artificial aesthetic in his next musical, the 1973 adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar.)
Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964, the film came out in 1971, and a lot had happened in American culture between those two points. So it would not be too hard to imagine that the film is, on some level, addressing—and trying to ease—the tension of its times between the old-fashioned way of doing things and the newer, more radical ways advocated by some. But the film, and the musical on which it is based, transcend that subtext; by staying rooted in the experiences of Tevye and his neighbors, Fiddler on the Roof remains a story for everyone and has, indeed, become a tradition unto itself.
—Peter T. Chattaway
97. Sophie Scholl (2007), Marc Rothemund
Marc Rothemund’s fact-based Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is a riveting portrait of a young woman of formidable intellect, dogged self-possession, and excruciatingly steady nerves. At 21, Sophia Magdalena Scholl (Julia Jentsch) is old enough to have outgrown the brash overconfidence of immaturity, but not too old for the purity and ardor of youthful idealism.
She is pitted against Nazi interrogator Robert Mohr (Alexander Held), a savvy, tough-minded professional who suspects, but does not have decisive proof, that Sophie is involved in anti-Nazi resistance. His interrogation of her becomes a battle of wills between a vibrant young heroine and an older, more experienced opponent.
Sophie is one of a very few screen heroes (Paul Scofield’s Thomas More is another) who makes heroic goodness not just admirable, but attractive and interesting. (One may admire and respect Falconetti’s Joan of Arc, but how much would one enjoy being her friend?) Sophie is not simply good and brave (though how good and brave she is). She is an ordinary university student, a biology major, an intellectual who enjoys music and philosophy. She is no social discontent or misfit; her exceptional heroism has nothing to do with psychological needs on her part and everything to do with the pathologies of the world in which she lives.
Though it is clear beyond a certain point how things will play out, the final scene still comes with a shock. Thomas More at least was allowed some dignity and ceremony to the end; he was permitted his final words, and he laid down his own neck before the executioner’s blade. Sophie is afforded no such dignity. In the end, the masks that she and her opponents have worn throughout much of the film are stripped away, and there is only only naked evil and naked virtue, unmasked forever, even if one of the two sides hasn’t yet noticed.
—Steven D. Greydanus
98. Ratcatcher (1999), Lynne Ramsay
An art film disguised as social melodrama, Ratcatcher funnels Scotland’s notorious garbage strike of the 1970s through the eyes of children in an impoverished Glasgow housing project. The film’s beautifully captured images of these kids beset with hardship are remarkably honest, sometimes disturbing, and often haunting.
On the banks of an infested sewage canal running adjacent to their home, young James and neighbor Ryan Quinn are playing or fighting—it’s hard to know the difference growing up in urban decay. The kids are prone to the typical adolescent problems one expects in a neighborhood like this; if growing up is difficult anywhere, then growing up here can be downright traumatic.
After their brief encounter, James isn’t certain of his guilt or innocence in Ryan’s death. He fled the scene too quickly to know for sure. What he does know is that he bullied the smaller Ryan, and when he fled the scene Ryan was in the cold currents of the canal, being drawn underneath to a quick and frightening end.
The guilt eats away at James, creating a rubbish in his heart like the clutter no trash man can take away. The bulk of the film follows James and a guilt constantly there behind his eyes, reflecting a conscience he somehow holds to in the midst of many crises. An alcoholic and unemployed dad inside the home and bigger-boy bullies outside, he needs to get away from a world he sees in a perpetually rotting state.
As the kids chase rats in the piled up heaps outside, James hops a bus to nowhere, no destination in mind. He finds a new, more prosperous housing project on the other side of town—the kind his family wants to move into. Even the same sky with the same clouds seems prettier in new structures and open fields on the town’s other side.
Ratcatcher is a film about learned behaviors, from James being bullied and then becoming a bully when he can, to street kids who create the same sexual tension they’ve seen at home, to a housing project left in disarray, where even the ever-present garbage symbolically speaks of a neighborhood left behind.
There’s a neighbor kid, Kenny. He’s a bit slower than the rest, not quite as bright. He functions as a sometimes comic relief in a film that desperately needs him. All of us have a Kenny in our lives—the person who is often overlooked, the one that gets by in the joy of his own world, a world that when shared is seen as “different.”
Kenny doesn’t need much attention as he tends to his own quirky behaviors. He’s also the “ratcatcher” in the film, and as such gives us an unexpected, delightful scene of imaginative reprieve from the spiritual and social squalor of trash-infested Glasgow.
Rich, raw visuals fill up Lynne Ramsay’s debut directorial feature, lending poetic imagery to the hardship she depicts. Criterion's choice of subtitles helps with what would be unmanageable Scottish accents; titles are available on the disc as well as streaming at Netflix. This is a good thing—the film is in English, but it’s barely recognizable, which adds to the other-worldly feel of this neglected neighborhood.
99. The Iron Giant (1999), Brad Bird
Near a small American town, during the Cold War, something falls from the sky. It’s not widely noticed, and most speculation as to its nature is written off as crackpot theorizing. But soon afterwards, a young boy encounters and befriends the extra-terrestrial visitor to our world, and defends him from the fearful forces that only see it/him as a threat.
You could certainly be forgiven for mistaking the plot summary of The Iron Giant with that of E.T., but Brad Bird’s animated delight stands on its own two feet and can certainly hold its own against any other film that mines this archetype of the lonely boy who befriends a foreign stranger.
Hogarth Hughes, the boy who discovers the giant alien robot, is quite unusual in the canon of young male protagonists in American animated films. He doesn’t live in a distant, exotic past or locale. He doesn’t have any spectacular powers or skills. But the qualities that do set him apart are his intelligence, imagination, inquisitiveness, and sympathy. In spite of his likability, he’s clearly a lonely child, fatherless and misunderstood by his classmates, and the film’s subplot of the development of his friendship with a beatniky artist/junkyard manager named Dean makes an interesting foil to the main plot of his friendship with the giant.
That relationship between Hogarth and the giant is the film’s focal point; there is a lot of comedic mileage in his efforts to keep its existence, whereabouts, and nature secret from the US government, represented mainly by Agent Mansley, a consummate bureaucrat who is as incompetent as he is infatuated with his own significance as an agent of the Federal government.
Mansley’s idiocy certainly contributes to his villainy as he tracks down the giant, but the film also goes out of its way to put his actions in the context of the paranoia of the Cold War. It’s autumn of 1957, Sputnik is in the newspapers, cheerful duck-and-cover films play at Hogarth’s school, and one of his comic books is entitled Red Menace. Progressive revelations about the giant’s capabilities and purpose further muddy the moral waters of the actions taken against the giant. This level of texture in the characterization of the villains is one of the qualities of the film that elevates it above other children’s animated movies, as well as live action films that explore similar territory (such as E.T.).
In a film like this, it would be remiss not to discuss the quality of the animation. Brad Bird uses a clean-line animation style that emphasizes quality of motion and expressiveness over texture and detail, especially in the characters. Backgrounds are also often rendered in this style, but sometimes, especially scenes depicting the Maine forests in their autumn beauty, a much more lush and detailed technique is used. This is entirely appropriate in light of the significance of the giant’s encounters with beauty and nature.
As I have hinted, the giant is not simply harmless and misunderstood; he does indeed hold a good deal of menace just under the surface. One of the greatest joys in the film is to see how the power of stories and relationships influence the giant and how his insistence that “I am not a gun” plays itself out in the film’s climax.
The Iron Giant might not bring much new to the table, but the dishes it does lay out are so thoughtfully and appealingly prepared that one cannot help but enthusiastically enjoy the feast.
100. The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), Byambasuren Davaa & Luigi Falorni
Here’s the drama: A baby camel is born, and the mother rejects it. Sounds unimpressive, but filmmakers Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni found quite a story in southern Mongolia, and they caught it with their cameras.
A family living in a close-knit series of beautifully decorated tents—yurts—endure blasting sandstorms and searing heat, raising sheep, goats, and camels. The camels, of course, steal the show. They’re strangely beautiful with their thick golden manes and huge dark eyes; they’re often amusing and sometimes piercingly eloquent.
But there’s something deeply therapeutic about spending time with this multi-generational clan. At first, their life seems simple. Then, as were introduced to hardships that come at them from within and without, we come to see that their existence is fragile and endangered.
For all of the storms they suffer, a child’s discovery of television during a necessary trip into town may be the biggest threat of to all to his family’s tradition. It will be hard for most viewers to believe that this kind of life continues today. And it will be painfully clear that it may not last much longer.
The film culminates in a way I must take care not to spoil. Suffice it to say that the family is forced to take drastic measures out of concern for the poor, abandoned baby camel. Their solution touches something of the miraculous, suggesting that when the world is out of balance, what we need is close attention to beauty, which can bring our dissonant internal instruments back into tune, and draw us closer to what we were meant to be.
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