1- Tokyo Story (Ozu) a small story about generations and family with an emotional impact that's just devastating. It possesses a maturity and assurance of vision that elevate it above any other film I've seen. The quiet beauty of the visuals infuses the narrative without ever being manipulative. Nothing is rushed; the characters are developed gradually, through activity and shading, and their dialogue is elevated by the camera's observational approach. This minimal technique increases the emotional content and, by the picture's end, the level of empathy that I feel is greater than that inspired by any other movie. A perfect film.
2- Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson) an intensely beautiful film by a very complex and unusual director. Bresson's work presents the story (about a donkey and humankind's numerous shortcomings toward the animal and themselves) in a rather striking way: instead of histrionic method-y acting and/or gratuitous visual signifiers, we get performances that gain emotional intensity through their lack of strained dynamics and a mise en scene that is completely devoid of artifice. Much has been written about Balthazar's allegorical significance (Christ, essentially), but this is presented as just one possibility; believers and agnostic alike are invited to feel the profound poignancy of Bresson's film. Couple the transcendent qualities of the visuals with the gracefulness of the storytelling and the non-accusatory tone, and what you get is an amazing work.
3- Vertigo (Hitchcock) the greatest film by the greatest of English language filmmakers. I can't think of a movie that better details the destructiveness of human desire and the difficulties of communication and understanding. The cumulative effects of Hitchcock's art are simply overwhelming. The use of color, the photography, the casting, how the actors are placed in the scenes, the use of sound and music are all seamlessly integrated with total mastery. Genius.
4- The Mother and the Whore (Eustache) long, sprawling, often bitter, and sometimes borderline reactionary, it's ultimately a kick in the groin to whatever was left of the Nouvelle Vague. Jean-Pierre Leaud's character is the embodiment of the early '70s pendulum swing away from the good-vibe optimism of the previous decade. He's not a character I look up to; rather, I'm in total awe of his anger, nihilist energy and the torrid momentum that carries him and the rest of his whole sick crew (sorry Thomas P.) to a mind-bending anti-conclusion. To me, the movie's greatest achievement is how it successfully depicts the disillusionment of its characters and their era, without ever being condescending or cynical. The supreme '70s film.
5- Weekend (Godard) a cathartic and caustic protest film from my favorite director. It features the greatest tracking shot in the history of cinema, and an unrelenting depiction of a nightmarish world that just totally unravels by the dénouement. One of Godard's most striking successes is how he deals with class issues in a manner that's all but unheard of in commercial films. Couple this with his deep distaste for society's self-destructive tendencies and the shallowness of humankind, and what you get is the filmic equivalent of a Molotov cocktail. But to be clear, a film that's just an excuse to make some political or social points is never much of anything: Godard's biggest strength is that he believes in the art of cinema, not only as a vessel of commentary and as an instigator of prospective change, but also purely from an aesthetical standpoint.
6- Paris, Texas (Wenders) sometimes it takes people from distant countries to make the most profound films about American culture. But like the movies of many great auteur talents from cinema's classic period, Wenders work doesn't bludgeon the viewer with the significance of its message. And actually, whatever message that's here isn't really all that tangible, except for rather obvious things such as the difficulty of communication and the unintentional emotional damage that people cause each other. Ultimately, Wender's restraint is his best tool. Whereas the vast majority of American filmmakers deal with matters of the heart in numerous inappropriate ways, going for bombastic moments or thick sentimentality (or a cool, hip detachment) that rings false, this director instead allows the characters to carry on with dignity that's quite rare.
7- Limelight (Chaplin) his silent films are excellent, of course, but Chaplin's sound pictures are the most meaningful to me, with this being at the top. It's a truly wonderful film, a work that shows that Chaplin was so much more than just a comedian: he was someone that possessed rich understanding of humankind's struggles, and the ability to tell stories about those struggles with subtlety and grace. He was a true man of the world, a quiet, dignified warrior, a champion of the downtrodden, and a consummate artist.
8- Detour (Ulmer) the greatest low-budget noir of them all, from a director that could create significant, meaningful films from the most unlikely resources. No money, blink-of-an-eye shooting schedules, undistinguished or downright banal scripts, whatever actors were on hand: Ulmer just plowed forward and used all of it, coming up with some against the odds artworks that show just how formidable ingenuity and imagination can be. Detour is a study in weird darkness, failure, rotten luck, and a dense hopelessness that is very much of its era. In spite of the above circumstances, or perhaps because of them, the film retains a strange, otherworldly power. One sure way to evaluate the abilities of an artist is to see if they can come up with something worthwhile from almost nothing. In Ulmer's case, this is probably a bit hyperbolic, but the point still stands. Given the type of circumstances that Ulmer routinely navigated, most filmmakers would flounder or produce something of mediocre quality. Detour is absolutely brimming with the spirit of raw creativity.
9- The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel) simply put, the man was a genius, an oftentimes surreal, always interesting master of visual language that, like Hitchcock, made films through six decades without ever losing his relevance. One of the best things about Bunuel's satires, of which this is one, is how they lack the mean-spiritedness that curdles so many satirical films, especially contemporary ones. Instead, the characters are placed in a narrative of increasing outlandishness, with the effect of expert lampoonery and calm commentary that is sometimes gentle, other times biting. Bunuel's cinematic achievements are so unique and assured that there isn't another filmmaker that's comparable (possibly Jean Vigo, but he made so few films that it's not really an appropriate contrast): he stands alone as an iconoclastic visionary whose films continue to gain significance with the passing of time.
10- Touch of Evil (Welles) Kane is a brilliant film of course, but I find myself in thrall to numerous other works by Welles, this one in particular. Its unique ruminations on the concept of sleazy noir have lost none of their power, the opening long take is possibly the greatest I've ever seen (plus the photography overall is flawless), and the quirky casting is wildly effective and quite contemporary (though many recent films tend to overdue this). Welles in particular plays his role with a sweaty, obese power that's just riveting. The restoration is the essential way to see this film, with the opening returned to Welles' original intentions and the masterful balance of visual and aural artistry on display throughout.
11- Rear Window (Hitchcock) what most filmmakers would see as limitations Hitch uses as strengths. A room and the view of a courtyard from a window. Add a small group of expert actors and a story that's full of tension, ambiguity, and questionable ethics, and what you get is a film that proves the old adage of addition by subtraction. Frame after frame, Hitchcock infuses the proceedings with subtlety and sophistication, integrating all his elements within the film with meaning: there are no empty gestures here, as well as no blunt, clumsy visual metaphors. One of Hitchcock's strongest qualities is his assurance of vision. He was able to articulate in visual terms through the medium of the entertainment film recurring motifs that, once those movies shed their contemporaneousness, revealed their true nature as art films par excellence.
12- Faces (Cassavetes) a film that's positively infused with the raw energy of human emotions. It is also thoroughly tied to the changing mores of the 1960s, and is populated with characters that are fighting to overcome a profound unhappiness. A broken marriage is at the center of this narrative, and the two participants drift through a series of events in an attempt to escape disillusionment and fear. Yet at every turn they encounter and interact with other people who are similarly at sea. One of the most heart wrenching aspects of this movie is how deeply it illustrates one of the hardest realities of growing old: coming to terms with who we really are and the lives we've made for ourselves. But there is more, of course. Faces is also one of the nails in the coffin that is one-dimensional, superficial, or downright false female characterization. The middle-aged women who appear in the film's second half are presented warts-and-all, but are also shown as complex and beautiful. The honesty in the content of the film is superlative, but only because its form is just as truthful. It is the antithesis of shallow Hollywood glamour, and strives to depict a reality without falling prey to the often stultifying effects of capital R realism. Its camera is rugged and blunt, a window into consciousness that most films could never manage.
13- Bringing Up Baby (Hawks) Howard Hawks made so many great movies in so many different genres that to examine his work in total is to be awestruck by a master craftsman who constantly elevated his work to the upper echelon of commercial filmmaking. I could easily replace this film on the list with at least a dozen others from his filmography: this one, however, seems a good choice not only because it's given me great pleasure over multiple viewings, but also due to how it seems to stand as representative of a certain type of studio-era filmmaking. That is to say, it relies on economy, momentum, and a certain understated approach to how it transmits its artistic essence. Hawks was so understated, in fact, that until the 1960s, many people (particularly in the USA) felt his films lacked any artistic merit. This is nonsense, of course. But what is not nonsense are the man's movies: they are perfect examples of a direct, intuitive style that is all but vanished from the medium.
14- Night of the Hunter (Laughton) one of the strangest American movies ever made. It is a surreal, noir-like excursion through backwoods USA. Robert Mitchum's murderous phony preacher is like something from a horror film, Shelly Winters' character embodies an emptiness and hurt (that is, before she's killed and dumped in the Potomac river by bad Bob) that seems meant to represent the state of mind which plagued countless women from the pre-feminist era, and Lillian Gish's protagonist radiates with a peculiar energy and pragmatic intelligence that serves as the film's emotional core. And the narrative is heightened by the aforementioned surreal atmosphere, a visual tour de force that is so much more effective at conveying the urgency of the story than the more conventional methods used by most narrative filmmakers. If it sounds a bit like Flannery O'Conner writing a screenplay for Luis Bunuel during his '50s period, well it is a bit like that, but it's mostly its own thing: a strikingly creative film from a one shot director who brought all of the talent manifest in his acting to the helming of this sui generis work.
15- M (Lang) his American films are what I hold in highest esteem, for they are in many cases little movies (at least on the surface) that add up to a formidable sum. But M is a dark, pessimistic, frightening work that is saturated with modernity from beginning to end. Lang was looking at the times in which he lived, and simply didn't like what he saw. But rather than propose a solution or even deliver an upbraiding message, he just lays the story out there to fester in the viewer's consciousness. Here's the world, now deal with it. Part of the attraction for me of Lang's Hollywood period is how he had to navigate the constraints of the studio system and still produce distinctive, original films. With M, he was obviously far less encumbered by meddlesome producers (and also had the uncertainty of a still growing film business at his advantage), so he was able to transmit his vision to celluloid with far less restraint (though this unrestrained manner regarding content never spilled over to the film's form: apropos that, he always possessed a deliberate, masterful sensibility). Lang is in many ways the consummate auteur: taking whatever hand he was dealt and coming up with something worthwhile. In M's case, he dealt the world a flush and signed one of cinema's most enduring and influential masterpieces.
16- The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy) some will say that it's sacrilege to rate this higher than any American musical, but I will only reply that I love this film's unabashed experimentalism, while at the same time being thoroughly caught up in its complete accessibility. It is a celebration of life, ultimately heartbreaking in its honesty, yet it is that honesty which provides hope and acceptance at the movie's end. Demy's use of color is flawless, and the score by Michel Legrand is an essential part of the film's richness. It is a picture made by a believer in the profound artfulness of cinema, populated by performers who believe in the vision of Demy, who in turn help raise its frames to the level of the sublime.
17- Shock Corridor (Fuller) the first time I watched this, I found it hard to believe the strange reality of the movie twisted existence. It's a B-film (by a legendary director, yes, but a B-film none the less) that walks a stressed tightrope between exploitation and human interest, while consistently moving away from the normal operating procedures for low-budget pictures: Shock Corridor is almost overloaded with content, its form assured and brutally direct. Unlike other B-pictures, it is never thin, lacking in continuity, or laughable. Instead, it is often bizarre, uncompromising, and darkly humorous. Sometimes tawdry, while never not being earnest, it's ultimately a tour through and indictment of stereotypes, injustice, and fear that's feverish in intensity and all the more effective for its low-brow quirks and lack of sheen.
18- Band of Outsiders (Godard) I could watch this movie 500 times, and it would never lose its appeal. The direction possesses such swaggering joie de vivre, the actors are perfectly cast and their dialogue is exceptional at capturing the nuances of youth and gender, the story is a perfect execution of the Nouvelle Vague tactic of bending genre conventions (in this case the crime film) into significant new directions, and the cinematography (by Raoul Coutard) is simply expert. For its duration, it exemplifies the qualities that make Godard such an amazing filmmaker: the blending of experimentation and classicism, the knowledge and references to assorted films, the integration of high culture and low, the singular characters and the actors chosen to animate them, the emphasis placed on aesthetic sensibilities. He can move from whimsical to erudite to foreboding in a matter of frames, and knows exactly which and how many conventions to push against or to break for the film's benefit. Some have described Godard's oeuvre as impenetrable, and for some of the films this is fair (yet only from a cursory perspective), but Band of Outsiders is far from difficult viewing.
19- Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich) one of the defining films of the 1950s. Noir in style, vicious in its tone, populated by characters whose moral compasses are all pointing south to varying degrees, it's a masterpiece of kinetic subversion. It turns Spillaine's Mike Hammer, a cornerstone of the tough-guy private eye novel, into a low-rent jerk who's devoid of any hero qualities. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the world we see is overrun by self-interest, distrust, and cruelty. All the while, Aldrich's visual scheme is simply flawless: it appears at times almost instinctive how camera movements, lighting, angles, close ups, cuts, and edits enhance the narrative. Aldrich was one of the prime auteur directors to emerge after World War II, along with such disparate talents as Otto P, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Budd B, and Don Siegel, and what these men shared (at least in the earlier portions of their careers) was the ability to infuse their pictures with a subtle artistic presence that was implicitly absorbed by the audiences rather than overtly noted. In the case of Kiss Me Deadly this is a real feat, since nearly everything in the film in storyline terms is delivered with an aggressive bluntness that feels at times almost like blows to the head. It's non-self-conscious brilliance at its best.
20- Le Samourai (Melville) a film of calm assuredness and rich detail. Jean-Pierre Melville is often associated with the French New Wave, but more as an influence than as an active member of the movement. Here he is depicting the milieu of French gangsters, women who are drawn to them, and the police who are out to put them in jail. Since it stars Alain Delon, it's obvious that a certain level of cool stylization will be in evidence, but it is always kept in check; never is this film an example of style over substance. And unlike many (so-called) hip crime films that have come since, films that seem determined to throttle the viewer with loudness, hamminess, and empty quirkiness, Le Samourai represents the essence of restraint. Ten minutes of the film go by before a single word is spoken. The story progresses with the confidence and patience of classical cinema. Scenes develop and information is given with a graceful visual presence. Nothing seems at all out of place. Melville's film takes on an elevated reverence in relation to its subject matter and formal approach that rises to the level of sheer profundity.