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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Five Best Plus: My Personal Blind Spots

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The other day, I was talking to my boss when she revealed a disheartening fact: she had never seen The Matrix. While I would never put the film in the pantheon of the greatest movies ever made, it's still necessary viewing for anyone older than fifteen years old in this day and age. It was a pretty definitive film in the 1990's, after all. But, it got me thinking - I claim to be such a lover of film and film history, but I have a number of films that every movie critic and enthusiast should see that I have not. In fact, all of these are found on "Sight and Sound's" recent poll of the greatest films of all time. So, while it pains me to do so, these are the films at the top of my "must see" list if I want people in the film criticism community to take me seriously. Here we go...I'm sorry.

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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

In 1928, the first Oscars were given out. Best Picture went to the silent classic Wings, while a second, now non-existent award went to F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, called "Unique and Artistic Production." The film, based on the Carl Mayer short story "A Trip to Tilsit," starred George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor as an unnamed married couple. A woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) arrives and lingers, baiting the husband into an affair. She convinces him to kill his wife, though he cannot follow through with the act. The movie is mysterious and moving, using limited title cards. Consistently viewed as one of the first great films ever made, Murnau's German expressionist film does more with the camera than plenty of much more "showy" films.

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The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Another silent film, this time from Carl Dreyer. What is typically called one of the more agonizing films to sit through, this French film has one of the greatest screen performances of all time from Renee Jeanne Falconetti. It details the trial, imprisonment, torture, and execution of French hero at the hands of the English. I began watching this once, but got sidetracked and never finished. It's not really a film you "half watch." Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ takes a much more brutal, but much less mystifying approach to the subject, while Dreyer's film still stands as a landmark to what film should be and how performances should be sculpted.

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The Rules of the Game (1939)

Another film I began watching, but was taken away and never finished. Jean Renoir's adaptation of Alfred de Musset's "Les Caprices de Marianne" is a stopping point in the history of films criticizing and making fun of the upper class, especially in the European sector. The film focuses on a group of bourgeois at the beginning of World War II, all meeting in a French chateau, floating in and out of relationships and disagreements. The topic would eventually be tackled in surreal fashion by directors like Luis Bunuel, but Renoir's original is a realistic, though somewhat comical look at how silly the nature of the ruling class can be when love is involved.

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Tokyo Story (1953)

To make this entry even worse, I don't believe I've seen any Yasujiro Ozu films at all, let alone this one, typically recognized as his greatest. The film revolves around an elderly couple and their trip into the city to see their children and grandchildren. When they arrive, they find their offspring has little time or use for them, resulting in them being sent away to a resort. From there, it becomes a moving discussion on mortality and what it means to suffer neglect. Written by Ozu and co-writer Kogo Noda, this film is consistently put near the top of the greatest films of all time, though it remains unseen by me.

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L'Avventura (1960)

When I began heavily reading about and researching film, becoming completely engrossed in film history and criticism in the late 90's, this was at the top of my list of foreign films to see (along with Last Year at Marienbad, which I still haven't seen, but I wouldn't call "necessary" quite yet). Somehow I never got around to it. Michelangelo Antonioni's story of a woman's disappearance and the subsequent search and love story has always sounded incredibly interesting to me, especially given Antonioni's use of broken narrative and alternative camera and storytelling techniques. Actually, all of Antonioni's career is still unseen by me, so I have more work to do after this one.

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Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Robert Bresson's masterpiece of French New Wave Au Hasard Balthazar is a simple story about a donkey, his life and eventual death. Widely recognized as one of the great studies on spirituality and saintliness, Balthazar gives us the world through the eyes of the loved, then mistreated beast of burden, as he gets passed from owner to owner, each one treating him differently. As time progresses, the title animal serves as our sight into the windows of various lives: the donkey's unwavering obedience serving as a nonjudgmental glimpse the audience can never achieve. While we, as a society, look at everyone through our own gloss, Balthazar's unfiltered vision gives Bresson another camera that makes the film one of the most original looks at society and human behavior.

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Persona (1966)

Ingmar Bergman's film catalog is something to behold, with entries like The Seventh Seal, Fanny and Alexander, and Wild Strawberries. But, Persona is the one that stands out, and I have yet to see it. The story focuses on a young nurse sent to care for an actress who, by all accounts seems fine, but will not speak. As time carries on, the two form an unreasonably close bond and the line between the two of them begins to blur, making it difficult to tell one from the other in terms of personality and behavior. It's a fascinating storyline and one I'm shamed to say I haven't taken the time to view yet. I've seen John Woo's Face/Off though. Does that count for anything?

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The Mirror (1974)

Confession: up until this year, I had never even heard of this film. Possibly the greatest Russian filmmaker of all time, Andrew Tarkovskiy delivered a number of great films in his short life. I, personally, have only seen Solaris. I went back and forth between The Mirror and his other film, 1979's Stalker. But, after a lot of research and critical lists, I settled on this one. In The Mirror, a man is on the verge of dying and begins to remember his life - his childhood during World War II, his youth, and the disintegration of his family. Tarkovskiy uses a mix of flashbacks, historical footage and poetry to deliver his story, which doubles as a narrative on the history of Russian federation and where it stands. I'll tell you this much - I'm certainly aware of it now.

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In the Mood for Love (2000)

Finally, the most recent on the list: Kar Wai Wong's story of a man and woman in Hong Kong who form an unlikely bond as they commiserate over their respective spouses' extra-marital activities. But, while they form a growing friendship, their refusal to stoop to the depths of their spouses forms one of the more difficult love stories to tell. Kay Wai Wong's career has featured other highlights (i.e. Chungking Express), but none have measured up to this critically acclaimed masterpiece. One of only two films from the 21st century on "Sight and Sound's" most recent list (Mulholland Dr.), In the Mood for Love has proven a critical impact larger than almost any other film in the past 25 years.

Again - my guess is that the normal moviegoer hasn't seen any of these films. But, to call myself a true film enthusiast and film critic, I need to see these (plus many more). Fellow critics - please forgive me. I know not what I do. I came to this game relatively late, but I have plenty of time. I'm only 29, after all.

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