Top 100 Films (Centenary)
(in four parts)

from Time Out Film Guide

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Time Out Film Guide
Top 100 Films (Centenary)

from Time Out Film Guide

(part 4, ranked)

-- Notorious (1946), d. Alfred Hitchcock, US
One of Hitchcock's finest films of the '40s, using its espionage plot about Nazis hiding out in South America as a mere MacGuffin, in order to focus on a perverse, cruel love affair between US agent Grant and alcoholic Bergman, whom he blackmails into providing sexual favors for the German Rains as a means of getting information. Suspense there is, but what really distinguishes the film is the way its smooth, polished surface illuminates a sickening tangle of self-sacrifice, exploitation, suspicion, and emotional dependence. Grant, in fact, is the least sympathetic character in the dark, ever-shifting relationships on view, while Rains, oppressed by a cigar-chewing, possessive mother and deceived by all around him, is treated with great generosity. Less war thriller than black romance, it in fact looks forward to the misanthropic portrait of manipulation in Vertigo.

-- Out Of The Past (1947), d. Jacques Tourneur, US
The definitive flashback movie, in which our fated hero Mitchum makes a rendezvous with death and his own past in the shape of Jane Greer. Beguiling and resolutely ominous, this hallucinatory voyage has two more distinctions: as the only movie with both a deaf-mute garage hand and death by fishing-rod, and as one of the most bewildering and beautiful films ever made. From a traditionally doomed and perversely corrupt world, the mood of obsession was never more powerfully suggestive: Mitchum waiting for Greer in a Mexican bar beneath a flashing neon sign sums it up - nothing happens, but everything is said. Superbly crafted pulp is revealed at every level: in the intricate script by Daniel Mainwaring (whose credits for Phenix City Story and Invasion of the Body Snatchers need no further recommendation), the almost abstract lighting patterns of Nick Musuraca (previously perfected in Cat People and The Spiral Staircase), and the downbeat, tragic otherworldliness of Jacques Tourneur (only equalled in his I Walked With a Zombie). All these B movie poets were under contract to RKO in the winter of 1946, and produced the best movie of everyone involved - once seen, never forgotten.

-- The Red Shoes (1948), d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, GB
In outline, a rather over-determined melodrama set in the ballet world: impresario (Walbrook) 'discovers' dancer (Shearer), and makes her a slave to her art, until young composer (Goring) turns up to offer her a lifeline back to reality. But in texture, it's like nothing the British cinema had ever seen: a rhapsody of color expressionism, reaching delirious heights in the ballet scenes, but never becoming too brash and smothering its own nuances. And if the plot threatens to anchor the spectacle in a more mundane register, it's worth bearing in mind the inhibition on which it rests: the central impresario/dancer relationship was modeled directly on Diaghilev and Nijinsky, and its dynamic remains 'secretly' gay.

-- Sunset Boulevard (1950), d. Billy Wilder, US
One of Wilder's finest, and certainly the blackest of all Hollywood's scab-scratching accounts of itself, this establishes its relentless acidity in the opening scene by having the story related by a corpse floating face-down in a Hollywood swimming pool. What follows in flashback is a tale of humiliation, exploitation, and dashed dreams, as a feckless, bankrupt screenwriter (Holden) pulls into a crumbling mansion in search of refuge from his creditors, and becomes inextricably entangled in the possessive web woven by a faded star of the silents (Swanson), who is high on hopes of a comeback and heading for outright insanity. The performances are suitably sordid, the direction precise, the camerawork appropriately noir, and the memorably sour script sounds bitter-sweet echoes of the Golden Age of Tinseltown (with has-beens Keaton, H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson appearing in a brief card-game scene). It's all deliriously dark and nightmarish, its only shortcoming being its cynical lack of faith in humanity: only von Stroheim, superb as Swanson's devotedly watchful butler Max, manages to make us feel the tragedy on view.

(80) Casablanca (1942), d. Michael Curtiz, US
Once a movie becomes as adulated as Casablanca, it is difficult to know how to approach it, except by saying that at least 70 percent of its cult reputation is deserved. This was Bogart's greatest type role, as the battered, laconic owner of a nightclub who meets a girl (Bergman) he left behind in Paris and still loves. The whole thing has an intense wartime nostalgia that tempts one to describe it as the sophisticated American version of Britain's native Brief Encounter, but it has dated far less than Lean's film and is altogether a much more accomplished piece of cinema. There are some great supporting performances, and much of the dialogue has become history.

-- City Lights (1931), d. Charles Chaplin, US
With its plot focusing on Charlie's love for a blind flower-seller and his attempts to get enough money to pay for an eye operation, City Lights edges dangerously close to the weepie wonderland of Magnificent Obsession and other lace-handkerchief jobs. This horrid fate is narrowly avoided by bracing doses of slapstick (the heroine unravels Charlie's vest thinking it's her ball of wool) and Chaplin's supreme delicacy in conveying all shades of human feeling. Matters aren't helped by the film's structure, which is as tattered and baggy as the tramp's trousers. But there are plenty of great moments, and the occasional comic use of sound (despite its date, the film is silent) is beautifully judged.

-- Ran (1985), d. Akira Kurosawa, Fr/Jap
Kurosawa established himself as the best cinematic interpreter of Shakespeare with his recasting of Macbeth as a samurai warlord in Throne of Blood. That he should in his later years turn to King Lear is appropriate, and the results are all that one could possibly dream of. Ran proposes a great warlord (Nakadai), in a less than serene old age, dividing his kingdoms up between his three sons. True to the original, the one he dispossesses is the only one faithful to him,and ran (chaos) ensues as the two elder sons battle for power, egged on by the Lady Kaede (an incendiary performance from Mieko Harada). The shift and sway of a nation divided is vast, the chaos terrible, the battle scenes the most ghastly ever filmed, and the outcome is even bleaker than Shakespeare's. Indeed the only note of optimism resides in the nobility of the film itself: a huge, tormented canvas, in which Kurosawa even contrives to command the elements to obey his vision. A Lear for our age, and for all time.

-- The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), d. Victor Erice, Sp
Erice's remarkable one-off (he has made only one film since, the generally less well regarded El Sur) sees rural Spain soon after Franco's victory as a wasteland of inactivity, thrown into relief by the doomed industriousness of bees in their hives. The single, fragile spark of 'liberation' exists in the mind of little Ana, who dreams of meeting the gentle monster from James Whale's Frankenstein, and befriends a fugitive soldier just before he is caught and shot. A haunting mood-piece that dispenses with plot and works its spells through intricate patterns of sound and image.

-- Sunrise (1927) , d. F.W. Murnau, US
Apart from its sheer poignancy, the main achievement of Murnau's classic silent weepie is how it puts pep into pap. Its folksy fable is distinctly unusual: a love triangle dissolving into an attempted murder is only the start; two thirds of the movie is actually about a couple making up. The tension is allowed to drop in a glorious jazz-age city sequence, and then twisted into breaking-point as a journey of murderous rage is repeated. But its dreamlike realism is also to be enjoyed: when lovers appear to walk across a crowded city street, into (superimposed) fields, and back to kiss in a traffic jam, you have an example of True Love styled to cinema perfection. Simple, and intense images of unequaled beauty.

(85) The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), d. John Cassavetes, US
Cassavetes doesn't believe in gangsters, as soon becomes clear in this waywardly plotted account of how a bunch of them try to distract Gazzara from his loyalty to his barely solvent but chichi LA strip joint, the Crazy Horse West. Or rather Cassavetes doesn't believe in the kind of demands they make on a film, enforcing cliches of action and behavior in return for a few cheap thrills. On the other hand, there's something about the ethnicity of the Mob - family closeness and family tyranny - which appeals to him, which is largely what his films are about, and which says something about the way he works with actors. The result is that his two gangster films - this one and the later Gloria - easily rate as his best work crisscrossed as they are by all sorts of contradictory impulses, with the hero/heroine being reluctantly propelled through the plot, trying to stay far enough ahead of the game to prevent his/her own act/movie being closed down. It's rather like a shaggy dog story operating inside a chase movie. Chinese Bookie is the more insouciant, involuted and unfathomable of the two; the curdled charm of Gazzara's lopsided grin has never been more to the point.

-- Ordet (The Word) (1954), d. Carl Theodor Dreyer, Den
Dreyer's penultimate feature (Gertrud followed a full decade later) is another of his explorations of the clash between orthodox religion and true faith. Based with great fidelity on a play by Kaj Munk, it's formulated as a kind of rural chamber drama, and like most of Dreyer's films it centers on the tensions within a family. Its method is to establish a scrupulously realistic frame of reference, then undercut it thematically with elements of the fantastic and formally with a film syntax that demands constant attention to the way meaning is being constructed. The intensity of the viewer's relationship with the film makes the closing scene (a miracle) one of the most extraordinary in all cinema.

-- Three Colors: Red (1994), d. Krzysztof Kieslowski, Fr/Pol/Switz
The conclusion to the 'Three Colors' trilogy is set in Geneva and focuses on Valentine (Jacob), a young model with an absent but possessive boyfriend. After running over a dog, Valentine tracks down its owner, a reclusive, retired judge (Trintignant) who eavesdrops on phone calls, including those between a law student and his lover, a weather reporter. While Kieslowski dips into various interconnecting lives, the central drama is the electrifying encounter between Valentine - caring, troubled - and the judge, whose tendency to play God fails to match, initially, the girl's compassion. It's a film about destiny and chance, solitude and communication, cynicism and faith, doubt and desire; about lives affected by forces beyond rationalization. The assured direction avoids woolly mysticism by using material resources - actors, color, movement, composition, sound - to illuminate abstract concepts. Stunningly beautiful, powerfully scored and immaculately performed, the film is virtually flawless, and one of the very greatest cinematic achievements of the last few decades. A masterpiece.

(88) Aliens (1986), d. James Cameron, US
After a s-l-o-w build-up, Cameron scores a bullseye with a sequel which manages to be more thrilling than Alien (but less gory). Ripley (Weaver) survives 57 years of deep space sleep, only to be sent back, at the head of a Marine Combat Patrol, to the original Alien planet, where a load of colonials have mysteriously gone AWOL. No prizes for guessing what will happen: it's Marines versus Aliens, lots of them, with some added refinements such as Ripley's newly discovered maternal instinct, and another one of those androids being sneakily passed off as an ordinary crew member. One helluva roller-coaster ride.

-- Amadeus (1984), d. Milos Forman, US
Antonio Salieri, one of the most competent composers of his age, finds himself in competition with Mozart. This turns him into a hate-filled monster whose only aim in life is to ruin his more talented colleague. None the less Salieri emerges as the more tragic and sympathetic character, partly because he alone, of all his contemporaries, can appreciate this almost perfect music, and - more importantly, perhaps - because he speaks up for all of us whose talents fall short of our desires. The entire cast speaks in horribly intrusive American accents, but Forman makes some perceptive connections between Mozart's life and work.

-- L'Avventura (The Adventure) (1960), d. Michelangelo Antonioni, It
Though once compared to Psycho, made the same year and also about a couple searching for a woman who mysteriously disappears after featuring heavily in the opening reel, Antonioni's film could not be more dissimilar in tone and effect. Slow, taciturn and coldly elegant in its visual evocation of alienated, isolated figures in a barren Sicilian landscape, the film concerns itself less with how and why the girl vanished from a group of bored and wealthy socialites on holiday, than with the desultory nature of the romance embarked upon by her lover and her best friend while they half-heartedly look for her. If it once seemed the ultimate in arty, intellectually chic movie-making, the film now looks all too studied and remote a portrait of emotional sterility.

-- Badlands (1973), d. Terrence Malick, US
One of the most impressive directorial debuts ever. On the surface, it's merely another rural-gangster movie in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde, with its young 'innocents' - a James Dean look-alike garbage collector and his magazine-addict girlfriend - first killing her father when he objects to their relationship, then going on a seemingly gratuitous homicidal spree across the Dakota Badlands. But what distinguishes the film, beyond the superb performances of Sheen and Spacek, the use of music, and the luminous camerawork by Tak Fujimoto, is Malick's unusual attitude towards psychological motivation: the dialogue tells us one thing, the images another, and Spacek's beautifully artless narration, couched in terms borrowed from the mindless media mags she's forever reading, yet another. This complex perspective on an otherwise simple plot, developed even further in Malick's subsequent Days of Heaven (1978), manages to reveal so much while making nothing explicit, and at the same time seems perfectly to evoke the world of '50s suburbia in which it is set.

-- Barry Lyndon (1975), d. Stanley Kubrick, GB
A triumph of technique over any human content that takes Thackeray's hero and traces his rise and fall through the armies and high societies of 18th century Europe. Given the singular lack of drama, perspective or insight, the way the film looks becomes its only defense. But the constant array of waxworks figures against lavish backdrops finally vulgarizes the visual sumptuousness.

-- The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957), d. David Lean, GB
A classic example of a film that fudges the issues it raises: Guinness restores the morale of British PoWs by building a bridge which it transpires is of military value to the Japanese, and then attempts to thwart Hawkins and Holden's destruction of it - or does he? etc. The film's success also marked the end of Lean as a director and the beginnings of American-financed 'British' films.

-- The Color of Pomegranates (1969), d. Sergo Paradjanov, USSR
Originally refused an export license, Paradjanov's extraordinary film traces the life of 18th century Armenian poet Sayat Nova ('The King of Song'), but with a series of painterly images strung together to form tableaux corresponding to moments of his life rather than any conventional biographic techniques. Pomegranates bleed their juice into the shape of a map of the old region of Armenia, the poet changes sex at least once in the course of his career, angels descend: the result is a stream of religious, poetic and local iconography which has an arcane and astonishing beauty. Much of its meaning must remain essentially specific to the culture from which the film springs, and no one could pretend that it's all readily accessible, but audiences accustomed to the work of Tarkovsky should have little problem.

-- Don't Look Now (1973), d. Nicolas Roeg, GB
A superbly chilling essay in the supernatural, adapted from Daphne du Maurier's short story about a couple, shattered by the death of their small daughter, who go to Venice to forget. There, amid the hostile silences of an off-season resort, they are approached by a blind woman with a message of warning from the dead child; and half-hoping, half-resisting, they are sucked into a terrifying vortex of time where disaster may be foretold but not forestalled. Conceived in Roeg's usual imagistic style and predicated upon a series of ominous associations (water, darkness, red, shattering glass), it's hypnotically brilliant as it works remorselessly toward a sense of dislocation in time; an undermining of all the senses, in fact, perfectly exemplified by Sutherland's marvelous Hitchcockian walk through a dark alley where a banging shutter, a hoarse cry, a light extinguished at a window, all recur as in a dream, escalating into terror the second time round because a hint of something seen, a mere shadow, may have been the dead child.

-- Earth (1930), d. Alexander Dovzhenko, USSR
One of the last of the silents, and though increasingly an absentee from Ten Best lists, a very great film indeed. The director's trademarks - a field of sunflowers all waving goodbye, a lowering sky filling three-quarters of the frame - remained well nigh constant throughout his career, but he seldom recaptured the pantheistic phosphoresence of this hymn both to nature and to the gleaming new tractors and plows which aimed to transform it. Such is the authenticity of its pictorialism, in fact, that one has to remind oneself that it was actually shot like other films.

-- Fanny and Alexander (1982), d. Ingmar Bergman, Swe
Bergman's magisterial turn-of-the-century family saga, largely seen through the eyes of a small boy and carrying tantalizing overtones of autobiography. Perhaps more accurately described as an anthology of personal reference points, designed as an auto-critique analyzing his repertoire of artistic tricks. Years ago, in The Face, Bergman was agonizing over the humiliations of the artist caught out in his deceptions and manipulations; but Fanny and Alexander cheerfully acknowledges his role as a charlatan conjuring his own life into dreams and nightmares for the edification or jollification of humanity. Here again are the smiles of a summer night (transferred to a dazzling evocation of traditional Christmas celebrations), the terror of the small boy harried by a sternly puritanical father, the crisis of religious doubt, the apocalyptic materialization of God through a glass darkly (but seen this time to be only a marionette). Pulling his own creations apart to show how they tick, Bergman demonstrates the role of art and artifice, occasionally slipping in a stunning new trick to show that the old magic still works. Certainly the most illuminating and most entertaining slice of Bergman criticism around, even better in the uncut TV version which clocks in at 300 minutes.

-- La Jetee (The Jetty/The Pier) (1962), d. Chris Marker, Fr
This classic 'photo-roman' about the power of memory - 'the story of a man marked by an image of his childhood' - begins at Orly airport a few years before WWIII. That image is of a woman's face at the end of the pier; and in the post-apocalyptic world the man now inhabits as a prisoner, he is given the chance to discover its true significance as a guinea-pig in a time travel experiment. Marker uses monochrome images recognizably from the past, such as the ruins of Europe after WWII, and with a few small props and effects, subtly suggests a future environment. The soundtrack's texture is similarly sparse, and the fluid montage leads the viewer into the sensation of watching moving images. Until, that is, an extraordinary epiphany when an image genuinely does move: the man's sleeping lover opens her eyes.

-- Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), d. Robert Hamer, GB
The gentle English art of murder in Ealing's blackest comedy, with Price in perfect form as the ignoble Louis, killing off a complete family tree (played by Guinness throughout) in order to take the cherished d'Ascoyne family title. Disarmingly cool and callous in its literary sophistication, admirably low key in its discreet caricatures of the haute bourgeoisie, impeccable in its period detail (Edwardian), it's a brilliantly cynical film without a hint of middle-class guilt or bitterness.

-- The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), d. Nicolas Roeg, US
Roeg's hugely ambitious and imaginative film transforms a straightforward science-fiction story into a rich kaleidoscope of contemporary America. Newton (Bowie), an alien whose understanding of the world comes from monitoring TV stations, arrives on earth, builds the largest corporate empire in the States to further his mission, but becomes increasingly frustrated by human emotions. What follows is as much a love story as sci-fi: like other films of Roeg's, this explores private and public behavior. Newton/Bowie becomes involved in an almost pulp-like romance with Candy Clark, played out to the hits of middle America, that culminates with his 'fall' from innocence. Roeg, often using a dazzling technical skill, jettisons narrative in favor of thematic juxtapositions, working best when exploring the cliches of social and cultural ritual. Less successful is the 'explicit' sex Roeg now seems obliged to offer; but visually a treat throughout.

-- Mirror (1974), d. Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR
Tarkovsky goes for the great white whale of politicized art - no less than a history of his country in this century seen in terms of the personal - and succeeds. Intercutting a fragmented series of autobiographical episodes, which have only the internal logic of dream and memory, with startling documentary footage, he lovingly builds a world where the domestic expands into the political and crisscrosses back again. Unique its form, unique its vision.

-- Pandora's Box (1928), d. G.W. Pabst, Ger
A masterful adaptation/compression of Wedekind's Lulu plays, the most humanely tragic portrait of obsession that the cinema has to boast. Lulu's guilelessly provocative sexuality leads her from a gaggle of Berlin lovers and admirers (a lesbian countess, a newspaper editor, the latter's son, etc.) to a squalid garret in London, where she finds her Thanatos in the shape of Jack the Ripper. Louise Brooks' legendary performance and Pabst's brilliantly acute direction both remain enthralling.

-- The Quiet Man (1952), d. John Ford, US
Ford's flamboyantly Oirish romantic comedy hides a few tough ironies deep in its mistily nostalgic recreation of an exile's dream. But the illusion/reality theme underlying immigrant boxer Wayne's return from America to County Galway - there to become involved in a Taming of the Shrew courtship of flame-haired O'Hara, and a marathon donnybrook with her truculent, dowry-withholding brother McLaglen - is soon swamped within a vibrant community of stage-Irish 'types'. Ford once described it gnomically as 'the sexiest picture ever made.'

-- Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff) (1954), d. Kenji Mizoguchi, Jap
A humane provincial governor in 11th century Japan is forced into exile by his political opponents, and the members of his family (wife, son and daughter) fall victim to all the cruelties of the period while on their way to join him. Mizoguchi views this deliberately simple story (in Japan it is known as a folk-tale) from two perspectives at once: from the inside, as an overwhelmingly moving account of a man (the son) facing up to his own capacity for barbarism; and from the outside, as an infinitely tender meditation on history and individual fate. The twin perspectives yield a film that is both impassioned and elegiac, dynamic in its sense of the social struggle and the moral options, and yet also achingly remote in its fragile beauty. The result is even more remarkable than it sounds.

-- The Seventh Seal (1956), d. Ingmar Bergman, Swe
Bergman's portentous medieval allegory takes its title from the Book of Revelations - 'And when he (the Lamb) opened the seventh seal, there was a silence in heaven about the space of half an hour'. In the opening scene, a knight returning from the Crusades is challenged to a game of chess by the cloaked figure of Death (Ekerot), and from this point onwards an air of doom hangs over the action, like the hawk which hovers in the air above them. The time of Death and Judgment prophesied in the Bible has arrived, and a plague is sweeping the land. Bergman fills the screen with striking images: the knight and Death playing chess for the former's life, a band of flagellants swinging smoking censers, a young witch manacled to a stake. Probably the most parodied film of all time, this nevertheless contains some of the most extraordinary images ever committed to celluloid. Whether they are able to carry the metaphysical and allegorical weight with which they have been loaded is open to question.

-- Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), d. Kenji Mizoguchi, Jap
Mizoguchi's best-known work, based on two stories by the 18th century writer Akinari Ueda (often described as the Japanese Maupassant), was one of a handful of Japanese films to sweep up numerous awards at European festivals in the early '50s. Its reputation as one of Mizoguchi's finest works and a landmark of the Japanese 'art' cinema has remained undented ever since. Mizoguchi's unique establishment of atmosphere by means of long shot, long takes, sublimely graceful and unobtrusive camera movement, is everywhere evident in his treatment of the legend of a potter who leaves his family to market his wares during the ravages of a civil war, and is taken in and seduced by a ghost princess. A ravishingly composed, evocatively beautiful film.

-- West Side Story (1961), d. Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins, US
Jerome Robbins, who choreographed and directed the Broadway production, was originally hired to direct this lavish film version. He got about three weeks into rehearsal before his painstaking perfectionism looked like doubling the budget, and in a state of panic, United Artists brought in Robert Wise to direct the non-musical sequences. More intrigue followed, and finally Robbins was sacked altogether. But before leaving the set, he had completed four song sequences which remain the unchallenged highlights of the film: the whole of the opening sequence ('The Jet Song'), 'America', 'Cool', and 'I Feel Pretty'. If only he had been allowed to do it all...

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