First of all, a slight apology if in the course of last week’s post I accidentally ruined “Never Let Me Go” for anyone who hadn’t seen it, which judging by how quickly it fell out of the UK Top Ten is most of you. I would like to definitively point out that when I write about a film I do so in the assumption that people have seen it, simply because sometimes you can’t adequately discuss a film without giving away spoilers. This was certainly the case for “Never Let Me Go,” and if I did ruin it for anyone please forgive me, and do still go and see it: I went in knowing the twist and if anything it enhanced my appreciation of the film.
This week, then, I’ve decided to postpone my thoughts on “The Adjustment Bureau,” or rather my thoughts on its lead actor, and put things right a little. Instead of spoiling a film you haven’t seen, I’m going to provoke your interest in some films I consider to be masterpieces which you might not have got around to watching yet, even though they’re all pretty well-known. It should also be a refreshing change from my rather rambling prose:
10) “Barry Lyndon.”
Everyone can list the Kubrick films considered to be undisputed masterpieces, but people rarely rave about this one in the way they do about “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Dr Strangelove.” It tends to be dismissed as very visually impressive but marred by a slow pace and bland acting. Certainly it’s a bit of a marathon watch at three hours, and the deliberately slow-moving story can be potentially alienating and bum-numbing. It is, however, one of the most achingly beautiful and profoundly melancholic films ever made. Kubrick’s visual palette for the film was shaped by intense study of the portrait and landscape art of the period, and as such the film really inhabits an idyllic version of the historical period portrayed. Kubrick, however, tells the story with such fantastic irony that the reality of this imperfect world of social posturing and advancement is laid bare to us, and his characters are strikingly highlighted as weak failures leading turbulent lives, powerless to control their own destinies in a superficially perfect world.
I’m not the biggest fan of Jean-Luc Godard: in fact I can’t stand his films. I find them to be cold and superficial, relying on an ostentatious style and pretentious dramatic situations to appear intellectual, when in fact all he succeeds in crafting are films which are as exhibitionist as they are un-engaging. Even I have to admit, though, that this film is genuinely stylish, provocative and intelligent. It’s a thrilling and literate sci-fi drama utilising stark and distant urban cityscapes to create a future world that’s simultaneously cool and inhuman. The two central characters are portrayed with an interesting neo-noir focus, and their conversation is as dramatic as the finale is exciting.
8) “For A Few Dollars More.”
I’ve always rated Leone’s “Once Upon A Time in the West” as one of my favourite films, and I prize it above his other work because it combines his energetic visual style, intense action set pieces and use of Morricone’s excellent music with elements of historical revisionism and political commentary. It’s a mixture Leone increasingly favoured, but I think he goes too political with “A Fistful of Dynamite,” and the merger of his visual and thematic ideas in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” never seemed as well handled as in his follow-up epic. However, for sheer, unadulterated Leone action, you can’t beat the pure excitement of the second film in his Dollar trilogy. It never gets as much attention as the other two, yet it’s surely the best film of the three: an action packed thrill ride which demonstrates Leone’s distinctive, electrifying style at its very best.
7) “Aguirre, The Wrath of God.”
The best film to emerge from the volatile Herzog/Kinski collaboration, this is a hypnotic and searing portrait of obsession, insanity, and the confrontation of the unknown. Kinski’s Aguirre leads a cohort of conquistadors on a quest through the unforgiving Amazon jungle to find the fabled city of El Dorado: a quest which ends with the slow and agonising death of the crew and Aguirre’s complete descent into madness. It’s an astonishingly haunting film, both visually and dramatically, and the final scene is pure cinematic magic: Aguirre, now completely alone, sails his raft down the river to inevitable doom, surrounded by diseased monkeys and raving in voice-over about his delusions of divine grandeur.
6) “Rome, Open City”
Forget De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves,” the first and last word in Italian neo-realism is Rossellini’s great film about the fascism which had only recently left his country. The director filmed in streets still bearing the clear scars of the terrible war which had ravished Italy, and the film’s authenticity is strengthened by the crumbling buildings and smashed cobbles which stand omnipresent in the background. In the foreground is a devastating story of courage and resistance, played out with quite remarkable naturalism by a cast of largely unprofessional actors. The then unknown Anna Magnani is breath-taking in the tragic scene when her child is taken away, and the fate of the priest in the film’s final scene is astonishingly poignant.
5) “Andrei Rublev”
This film by Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the great allegories in cinema history. The Russian director faced constant pressure and opposition from his own Government, who believed his films were not representative of the country’s political philosophy, and so limited Tarkovsky’s ability to make and distribute films. In this work, he found a startling metaphor for his own situation in the life of the medieval icon painter Andrei Rublev, who produced beautiful and profound works of art in the midst of a country torn apart by violence, plague, fanaticism and oppression. The film is a similarly beautiful and profound work of art, which at times rises to a spiritual profundity I have not encountered in any other cinematic work. It’s a truly sublime film that has to be seen to be believed.
4) “Inland Empire”
If you thought “Mulholland Drive” was confusing, wait until you watch this. David Lynch is a director who epitomises art house filmmaking, simply because whilst European art film directors aspire to create work which replicated the experience of dreaming, Lynch is trying to realise a nightmare world in his films. He succeeds nowhere better than in this masterpiece, which is deliberately impossible to figure out, sacrificing narrative and indeed comprehensibility in favour of the visceral and intense experience of journeying through a nightmarish odyssey. Nightmarish is certainly the right word, as several images in the film are as frightening as anything I’ve ever seen, and the sustained atmosphere of horrifying, chilling menace makes for a truly unsettling and unforgettable watch.
3) “Tokyo Story”
Quite honestly, this film comes closer to hitting upon a universal, poignant and tragic fact of life than any other piece of cinema. It’s a subtle and gentle yet eloquent and powerful drama which illustrates familial disintegration and responses to loss in a far more moving and affecting way than many dramas whose events are more dramatically excessive. The acting is incredibly fine, the characters multi-layered and believable whether they’re endearing or callous, and the script is a masterpiece of tender humour, immense sadness and towering humanity.
2) “Fanny and Alexander”
One of the truly great Ingmar Bergman’s last films, this may be a very long work but it’s also his most accessible. It concerns the lives of two young children, born into a privileged theatrical dynasty, who experience torment, fear and ultimately magical redemption when their father dies and their mother falls for the icy charms of a cruel and tyrannical bishop. The film is a mystical, theatrical, haunting, scary, funny and warm film about the innocence and wonder of childhood. I fail to see how anyone couldn’t be entranced by the rich characters, wittily philosophical screenplay and wondrous story present in this film, a work which in one fell swoop shows Bergman to be much more playful and human than the fiercely artistic intellectual he is perceived to be.
When people talk about Kurosawa, they tend to talk about his earlier black and white samurai epics, and dismiss his later work as ponderous and excessive, lacking the raw exuberance and dramatic urgency of his initial run of masterpieces. Denying yourself the chance to see “Ran,” however, is denying yourself the chance to enjoy a truly sublime work of art. The film transposes Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to feudal Japan, replacing the daughters with sons and focussing more on the destructive ravages of war upon God’s earth as a backdrop to the power struggles and spiritual breakdowns of the story. The acting is uniformly memorable, powerful and focussed upon the rich realisation of the characters. The battle sequences are the best I’ve ever seen put on screen. Kurosawa’s direction is achingly beautiful, with every frame subtly and strikingly getting the message of the story across. Most remarkably of all, the film captivates us through complete involvement in the human drama of the story, yet at the same time places us at a distance from the characters: just as God observes the folly and tragic waste of human struggle from heaven, so too do we open our eyes to the destruction and frailty of the world.