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Ten films that leave me breathless…

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…and although Breathless is one of my favorite movies ever, it’s not making it on to my list today. It could tomorrow, it might have yesterday, but today, here’s how I’m feeling.

Ran directed by Akira Kurosawa: He’s made a good half a dozen films that I consider to be masterpieces, and a couple dozen more that are great (with a few that are slight but noble fun, i.e., The Hidden Fortress, which is Star Wars’ grandfather). It’s an impossible choice really, but in deciding to adhere to my arbitrary criterion of the day–only one film by any given director–this is the one I’m picking. As I suggested on the blog, I also consider this to be the single most successful adaptation of King Lear (set of course in feudal Japan!). A completely staggering film.

The Seventh Seal directed by Ingmar Bergman: a poignant, meditative film that covers a lot of philosophical ground. It’s at once brooding and playful, rich in mythological and historical allusion, inhabiting a world in which J.L. Borges, G.G. Marquez, Milan Kundera as well as Shakespeare and Goethe would be right at home. It’s probably Max von Sydow’s greatest part. I even once named my now-gone cat after his character. Sadly my cat was not a chess-player (yes, this is the film in which the protagonist plays chess with Death). It was also parodied to fine effect by Woody Allen in Love and Death.

Apocalypse Now directed by Francis Ford Coppola: I wrote a bit about this a few days ago. I was happy to see (via Eric Olsen on this site) that the British Film Institute voted it the best film of the last 25 years. I agree. Any of the qualifications that lingered around this film have finally been banished I think, and it’s claimed its rightful place as one of cinema’s great films.

The Rules of the Game directed by Jean Renoir: Another director of whose work it’s painfully difficult to pick a clear favorite, The Rules of the Game is a fantastically rich film, deeply nuanced and at the same time utterly accessible and engaging. It manages to fearlessly address weighty social and moral issues while never unravelling into self-indulgent didacticism (Oliver Stone take note). It’s a humane and sympathetic film, that is as subtly dark as it is comical.

Chungking Express directed by Wong Kar-Wai: From the director of the more widely-seen and beautiful In the Mood for Love, this film–set amongst disaffected Hong Kong residents in the 90s–launched Wong Kar-Wai into the directorial limelight. Upon it’s release, Tony Rayns of Sight and Sound declared that seeing Chungking Express for the first time was akin to seeing Godard’s Breathless for the first time in 1961. The effect is indeed breathtaking. The narrative is loose but that isn’t where this film finds its greatest strengths. Watching this film is akin to learning to see anew, almost as if the medium of film had been reinvented. This, while remaining completely engrossing and accessible. A contemporary masterpiece.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God directed by Werner Herzog: A harrowing film, admirable nearly as much for the sheer ambition that went into filming it as for the film itself. The narrative involves a company of Spanish conquistadors on an imperiled search for El Dorado. The film plumbs the depths of hubris and obssession and contains some of the most astonishing shots ever committed to celluloid, including one that effectively reduces humanity to little more than an ant-trail. To first-time viewers, comparisons to Apocalypse Now may be inevitable. A first-rate soundtrack by Popol Vuh is a plus as well.

La Jetee directed by Chris Marker: Sometimes considered more a film essayist than traditional director, Marker forged a half-hour film that is dazzling, unsettling and deeply thoughtful, even as it is, really, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure and love story. I’m not sure if I should reveal the most salient characteristic of this film; it would be giving something essential away. Let’s just say that it takes huge liberties with the basic assumptions of the medium itself; a risky proposition, but one that works. It’s a briliant experiment rich in theoretical implication that raises a lot of questions…even as it is enfolds classic ideas of narrative. It was the inspiration behind Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys.

Sunset Boulevard directed by Billy Wilder: I’ve sometimes thought that this is the perfect film: propelled by sterling narrative, it works on many levels. Nearly as much about film and storytelling themselves as it is vanity, age and death, this noir classic wears its darkness lightly, wielding a shimmering comic edge of wit and intelligence. An essential film I think, by anyone’s reckoning.

Once Upon a Time in the West directed by Sergio Leone: Leone’s masterpiece. Distinct from other westerns in its scope and grandeur, it tells an epic tale of avarice, love, faith, rememberance and forgetting. The opening sequence is a gem, and the closing gunfight an unparalleled exercise in tension, where time seems to go elastic. Time figures into the film in a crucial way, and Leone consumes vast tracts of it. Shot to the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, the film evinces a certain musicality in its pacing through movements, from lento to allegretto to presto and so forth. A final touch of excellence is the casting: amongst fellow players who are uniformly great, Henry Fonda plays a merciless killer, his blue eyes sparkling under the brim of his black hat. Epic stuff.

To Live directed by Zhang Yimou: Rich in metaphor and deeply immersed in history, To Live takes a panoramic view of a couple’s fortunes and misfortunes through the profound upheavals of 20th Century China, reflecting on privelage and privation and the consequences of choice and habit. Exquisitely composed and shot in a Realist fashion, it’s a finely wrought and open-hearted film that’s hugely affecting. Not generally considered as towering a film as some of its predecessors, I feel it’s his most completely moving film.

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About Pieter K

  • “Oliver Stone take note”? Are you kidding? That’s like telling Willem de Kooning to start painting like Da Vinci.

  • pk

    I’m laughing out loud here. Nice one Rodney, thanks!