Friday, February 20, 2009

Into the Lists

I was asked recently by a friend to send her a list of my favorite films. I will try to oblige her here, and will update the list as more titles occur to me.

I must say that I have never seen a sound film that is as good as the best silent films I have seen, (I think the cinema lost its soul with sound) and so I will start with the silents.

Der Letzte Mann by F W Murnau is, I think, the best film ever made, the simple, moving story of a hotel doorman (Emil Jannings - the greatest film actor of all time) who loses his job. Masterfully directed and acted. It is called The Last Laugh in English because of a stupid, demeaning coda that Murnau was forced to add, since his American distributor (typically) did not think that a domestic audience could bear the exquisitely tragic ending of the original. See the German version.

Murnau's Nosferatu the Vampire is also a masterpiece - the first vampire film, and one with only a single drop of blood. Beautifully directed and shot.

Other silent films that I admire are Wind, directed by Victor Sjostrom; City Lights, directed by Charlie Chaplin; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; Un Chien Andalou, the marvelous collaboration of the surrealists; and The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer's masterpiece of intimacy, which features the playwright Antonin Artaud, and caused me to fall in love with Maria Falconetti, or at least, with her face.

Among sound films, my favorite is Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece Andrei Roublev. (Tarkovsky and Murnau are, I think, among the very rare geniuses who have worked in film - perhaps the only ones.) I admire all of Tarkovsky's work, although it is uneven, but Solaris is important to understanding his aesthetic, and Stalker and Nostalgia are also among the films I admire most.

I think that Carol Reid's The Third Man, with Orson Welles is one of the best sound films ever made. I also greatly admire and have often watched Lawrence of Arabia. Beautiful script by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson (who was blacklisted and not credited until recently) and brilliantly directed by David Lean. Freddie Young's cinematography is magnificent.

The great Spanish director Luis Bunuel remains one of my favorites. Simon of the Desert, The Exterminating Angel, Tristana, Viridiana and El are, I think, among the most original and entertaining films ever made. Kurosawa, of course, is one of the masters of modern cinema, and Seven Samurai is a film I watch over and over. I have seen Throne of Blood again recently and, though it is much flawed, it is wonderful. Rashomon is, needless to say, a classic. Of other foreign films, I hold in high esteem La Strada; Eight and a Half; La Grande Illusion (with certain reservations about the script and the acting) and, a sentimental favorite, Truffaut's Jules et Jim, which was the first 'art' film I ever saw. I was seventeen, and it opened my eyes to what cinema might be.

Among American films, I admire Citizen Kane, though I have never been an ardent fan of the film. It is brilliant, but, like the music of Mozart of the novels of Dostoevsky about which I have written elsewhere here, Kane has never inspired me to love, as has, say, Andrei Roublev or Der Leztze Mann. W.C. Fields is one of my favorite film comics, and It's a Gift is my favorite comedy. Fields' slow burns in that film are pure comic brilliance.

Some of the more recent films that I have admired are Five Easy Pieces; Badlands (directed by Terrence Malick, who is one the living directors whom I most esteem); Bertolucci's The Conformist; and Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot. If there has been a film as good as Das Boot made since then (1981), I am hard pressed to name it. Even Wolfgang has not risen to that level subsequently.

I said that Terrence Malick is one of my favorite contemporary directors. I love the elegiac quality of his visual poetry, which is, I think, the essence of film making. There are two others whose work I truly admire: Peter Weir, a great storyteller, and Ang Lee, a great stylist and sensitive interpreter of material. Both are masters of the visual, as few other living directors are. Ridley Scott is a director of great talent and strength, and, of course, Oliver Stone is one of the current masters of the form. I have long admired Martin Scorsese's work (I think Mean Streets is his best film) but I do not share the awe which so many others profess for his talent. There are other directors who have produced work which I admire, but I do not wish to launch into a catalog of them here.