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|50. Sátántangó (Tarr, 1994)
Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum stated that "One of the few filmmakers Béla Tarr has expressed admiration for is Tarkovsky… without the religion." If God is anywhere to be found in Sátántangó, a minimal, neo-realist examination of human weakness and corruption, one might have to look in the local tavern. Perhaps God could be found on a bar stool, in front of a half-empty bottle, numb and disgusted with back turned in shame on His miserable creation. Perhaps Béla would sneak up on God as his camera often does behind his characters and allow us, for a few moments, to read His thoughts, to see what He is seeing. God is not a character in this film, however. This film is about dancing with the Devil.
In a decade of chaotic, rapid-fire editing and hyperkinetic cinema, Béla Tarr decides to slow things down. A master of the long shot and melancholic atmosphere, he dares to give his narrative and characters proper breathing time. Much has been written about Sátántangó's length (7 hours). The running time is not excessive, rather it is justified by the necessity of showing a chain of events and the consequences of these events to completion, without condensation.
A group of people on a small farm commune in an Eastern European "anytown" after the fall of communism are about to collect their wages for a year of brutal work. Harvest is over. Rainy season and the long, bleak winter have set in. A charismatic con man who used to be a member of the community and had been reported dead has surfaced. The news has agitated the community as we discover from the varied perspectives of 12 villagers who comprise our wretched band of players. Some had been preparing to swindle the others and leave quickly when a local village girl tragically dies. This event deeply upsets the community. All plans come to a halt. Realizing the villagers are unmoored and frightened at the possibility they may have been responsible for the tragedy, the con man convinces them to band together under his leadership. Noticing that they are unused to their sudden economic reward, he convinces them to turn over their wages to him in order to build a new commune. Communist-style oppression is slyly resurrected with the Second Coming of the con man, and hope of any personal sense of freedom is shattered.
Power and control versus freedom. A tango of sorts. The film takes its structure from this rigorous and sensual dance. Stepping forward only to step backwards. One side takes control while the other submits. In Sátántangó, the characters do dance. Sensually? Hardly. Their dancing is clumsy, drunken, pathetic. It tires them and leads to inertia. Sensuality is replaced by debauchery and freedom gives way to fear. At the end of their dance, their feet are in the same place where they started but these dancers are sadly off balance and exhausted.
Any sensuality experienced here takes place within the viewer. Meticulously composed and shot in high contrast black and white, the film allows the viewer a deeply sensed film-watching experience that is rare. After breathing together with these characters (impeccably acted) and spying on each other with them, after drinking, hoping and despairing with them for 7 hours, it becomes evident that they are you and you are them. You, as the viewer, have stepped into the experience and become part of this metaphysical landscape. You exist within the film. It envelopes you. The flies buzz in your ears and the wind and rain chill your bones. You will rarely get to experience art so fiercely and intimately. Sátántangó is not to be missed. It is radical, courageous, assured, uncompromising filmmaking and a crowning achievement of the decade.
49. Miller’s Crossing (Coen & Coen, 1990)
The 1920s: fast cars, loose women, tommy guns and slugs, bootlegged liquor. And the only thing a man can count on is his hat.
This is the world the Coen brothers recreate in Miller’s Crossing. It is a world filled with hatred of “others” (whether they be women, Italians, Irish, homosexuals or, especially, Jews), a world where the man you saved yesterday is the man who blackmails you today. It is a sumptuous world, beautifully supported by Carter Burwell’s Irish-tinged, melancholy score. It is a dying world. And the only one who realizes it is Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Regan.
Tom is the moral center of his world precisely because he has no morals, save loyalty to Albert Finney’s Leo, and that’s only because Leo’s never betrayed him, either. Everything else goes by the wayside in his quest to save Leo from the coming crime war with Jon Polito’s Eye-talian ganglord Johnny Caspar. And what do morals get Tom, anyway? He saves the life of Bernie Bernbaum (a superb John Turturro) only to be blackmailed by Bernie for doing precisely that. It’s no wonder when Bernie begs him to look in his heart at the end, Tom replies, “What heart?”
“Ethics,” ruminates Caspar. You can’t have business without ethics. At least, that’s how things were in the old country: “If you can't trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return, you gotta go bettin' on chance — and then you're back with anarchy, right back in the jungle.” But the time of ethics is over, Miller’s Crossing ominously hints. The mob is returning to the jungle. The most loyal characters in the film are betrayed by those they trusted most. Promises are broken. People switch sides by the day to survive. And all Tom has in the end is his hat. Perhaps that’s enough.
48. La belle noiseuse (Rivette, 1991)
Jacques Rivette has spent much of his 40-year career playing with narrative form and analyzing the processes through which art is experienced, the latter by his contrasts between film and theatre, artist and spectator, actor and material. In his 1991 film La belle noiseuse (The Beautiful Nuisance), he adds another facet to this exploration: the relationship between artist and subject.
Nicolas, an artist, is on vacation in the French countryside with his girlfriend Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart), visiting the renowned painter Frenhofer (played by legendary actor Michel Piccoli) and his wife Liz (Jane Birkin). In an effort to ingratiate himself with someone he admires, he offers up Marianne as a model for Frenhofer to use to complete a project he abandoned years ago. She initially refuses, then acquiesces to spite Nicolas (who almost immediately regrets his idea), and what follows is a battle of wills between Marianne and Frenhofer, the fallout of which threatens to upend the relationships of the two couples.
Rivette is known for his films' lengthy running times (something which has prevented him from attaining the exposure and popularity of his French New Wave contemporaries), and over the course of four hours we see a variation of a mating ritual as Frenhofer attempts to tame and frame the feisty Marianne by subjecting her to long and difficult poses both physically and psychologically grueling. It's not clear what he's looking for other than some kind of elusive essence he's detected in Marianne, and the viewer is privy to the whole arc of his process, from ink sketches to charcoal and finally to paint. Long stretches go by where all one hears is the scratch of pen on paper, the creak of wood, breathing. What sounds interminable is conversely engrossing, the frustration and deliberate pace of the act of creation captured perfectly by Rivette but delivered to the audience in an enigmatic cloak that manages to elicit suspense and empathy.
Béart bravely spends a good portion of this film in the nude, but what is truly impressive about her performance is the way she portrays the stripping away of Marianne's personality, her "mask," as she describes in her narration of the film. And while the plot centers around Frenhofer's painting, we are really here to bear witness to a chrysalis of Marianne evolving. A selfless act that Frenhofer commits at the end of the film is a testament to his present model as well as his previous one (Liz being a former subject), revealing that he has been transformed by their collaboration as well.
La belle noiseuse received the Grand Prix of the Official Jury and a Special Mention from the Ecumenical Jury at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.
|47. The Truman Show (Weir, 1998)
Unus Pro Omnibus, Omnes Pro Uno
For many years after its release, I considered The Truman Show my favorite movie of all time… It literally took my breath away when I understood Christof was going to make the sun rise in the middle of the night, or when Truman touched the sky… I’m not going to call it “the best film ever made” today, but it’s still a terrific film with one of the smartest scripts ever written. And let me also add, I love almost anything Peter Weir has done so far (well, except The Cars That Ate Paris).
The Truman Show was obviously quite a risky film to make, since it’s really walking on thin ice. Yet not even being so metaphor-charged can hurt it, because it’s all crafted on a perfect ground to mix the specific ingredients. It simply works, and works on so many levels. It works as an original father-and-son drama, but it also works as metaphors of God vs. Man, State vs. Citizen, and even Director vs. Actor.
The Truman Show was also science fiction. The film never addressed it directly, but it’s safe to say that it took place in the near future. We are living in that near future now, where reality shows are a part of our culture. And we have witnessed real lives on air. People are willing to commit their lives to TV shows now, unlike our poor Truman who never had a say in his life until the end of the film.
It’s a common feeling in human beings, the paranoia that our lives are being watched and controlled without our knowledge, and the people we know and hold dear may only be part of the game. It’s mostly a childhood thing, but goes hand in hand with the fact that we all tend to see ourselves as the center of the Earth. We all are in a sense, from our personal point of view. But that’s also extremely terrifying. In Truman's example, we see him face his worst fears in order to free himself from such restraint.
It may be his exceptional condition that gives him the courage and force to run away from his hell, which is notably designed as a heaven (Christof defines the world he created for Truman as the world as it should be; and that’s a topic upon which pages could be written). But not everyone is lucky enough to escape from their cages. We see the viewers of the show throughout the film, none of them seeming able to leave their space. A man supposedly living in a bathtub… Two old ladies never seen off of their couch… The people in the bar or two security guards in a cabin… Peter Weir shows us that we all live in such cages and in the end The Truman Show is some kind of catharsis for all of us, as the fictional TV show within the film also is to all those people watching passionately.
Therefore, The Truman Show can also be seen as a criticism of our modern-day lives, the cages we create for ourselves. And we are in such pathetic condition that television and movies are our only hope for escape.
So please tell me, do you really think Elizabeth or Life is Beautiful or even Shakespeare in Love were better films than The Truman Show (as many Academy members obviously did)?
|46. Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale & Wise, 1991)
"Tale as old as time," as the song goes, but Beauty and the Beast never gets old. Time and time again, this film is such a reinvigorating experience whenever I watch it. As the lone animated film (before 2010) to receive a Best Picture nomination, Beauty and the Beast lives up to its legend and then some. Featuring fluid camerawork that revolutionized Disney animated storytelling and sweeping music that reenergized the musical, Beauty and the Beast is a testament that cinema can still be fun, entertaining and great at the same time, especially in the midst of films created by abstract phonies, pretentious grouches and bombastic studio hacks.
The lead character, Belle, belongs to the upper pantheon of Disney heroines. She exudes a charisma and beauty not seen in Disney films since perhaps Cinderella. She is an Everywoman, someone that people can aspire to, without looking like a calculated archetype. Then there is the Beast, a complex screen hero (or antihero?) whose sudden physical transformation at the end is accompanied by such a gradual emotional transformation through the course of the film, a transformation carefully and seamlessly done. Of course, they are supported by a very lovable ensemble cast of household furniture and dinnerware. I mean, what more can you ask for? Food, perhaps? Yes, Beauty and the Beast is not just empty fun but is food for thought — one that is thematically dense in content, as “true as it can be.”
|45. Husbands and Wives (Allen, 1992)
Upon its initial 1992 release, Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives failed to receive its deserved acclaim. The film didn't necessarily go unnoticed by audiences and critics, but they certainly didn't embrace it. Released soon after Allen's highly publicized scandal involving then-partner Mia Farrow and her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, the film was subjected to endless debate about its relationship to the real-life controversy. While definitive conclusions were never reached, I ask: Who cares?
As a result of this salacious speculation, many viewers missed out on a brutal and biting comedic masterpiece. Husbands and Wives revolves around married couple Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack), who decide to separate at the start of the film. They share this news with their best friends, Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow), who are shocked by the couple's casual demeanor. This event sets into motion a series of affairs, separations, and reconciliations that occur over the next year and a half in the lives of this foursome.
Allen's use of a docudrama style, in which characters occasionally speak directly to the camera, gives the film a harsh realism throughout. His signature brand of humor and New York sensibility is still present, but it feels as if a layer has been peeled back, revealing something unexpectedly raw and bleak. Allen has rarely felt freer. He essentially places the viewer in the uncomfortable position of a Peeping Tom. Although we're led to believe that some type of documentary is being filmed, we witness moments that should never be filmed or seen by an outsider. These moments, intimate, self-reflexive, and often hilarious, contribute to a general dissection of marriage. When should we stay together, and when is it time to call it quits?
Per usual, Allen's writing is undeniably strong and provocative. His direction is continuously surprising. Many critics have noted Bergman's influence on Husbands and Wives, and I can certainly see their point. The film comes across as Woody's modern comedic, although no less dark, spin on Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (1973).
Further, the film is blessed with a universally excellent cast of actors. Allen and Farrow are impressive, with the latter finding the perfect pitch for the deceptively powerful Judy. However, Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack deserve "best in show" honors for their terrific performances as Sally and Jack. Davis, in particular, is amazing as the neurotic Sally. Woody Allen is known for his ability to write great female characters, and this one is no exception. For her impressive turn, Davis made waves during the 1992 awards season. Although she eventually lost the Academy Award to Marisa Tomei (for her slight work in My Cousin Vinny), she did pick up a handful of critics' prizes, including the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) award.
Overall, Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives is both disturbing and hilarious. It may not have gotten its due in 1992, but I urge everyone to check out this overlooked masterpiece. It certainly ranks as one of Allen's best films, and, in a filmography that includes classics such as Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters, that's saying something. Forget the gossip. See the film.
|44. Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993)
Much has been said about Spielberg's 1993 film, Schindler's List. I found it to be a deep and extraordinarily moving film experience. Technically it is superb: stellar cinematography by the great Janusz Kaminski, excellent editing by Michael Kahn, and a beautiful John Williams score (featuring superb work by Itzhak Perlman).
Much credit should be given to Spielberg's direction; it may tug mightily, but it pulls off the emotional response intended. Spielberg manages to capture the horrors and random upheaval of Jews under National Socialism in occupied Southern Poland. The round-up scene in Krakow is one I shall never forget, with amazing pacing and scope.
The cast is top-notch all around. Liam Neeson does a wonderful job steering us through the evolution of Oskar Schindler, from war profiteer to a man who has responsibilties which are far greater than he had ever originally intended. Embeth Davidtz and Ralph Fiennes also deliver exceptional support, but Ben Kingsley delivers the film's standout performance. Kingsley's quiet and subdued Itzhak Stern allows us the real glance at the daily terror felt by Schindler's Jews.
Schindler's List focuses on one story in the huge epic tragedy of World War II. It reminds us of the insanity, chaos, and human toll of the regimes of National Socialism. It is a narrative worth repeating, and never forgetting.
43. Fargo (Coen & Coen, 1996)|
Can crime be funny? Perhaps the better question would be, should crime be funny? I think the answer to both questions is, or at least can be, yes. Comedy has been present in crime films since the early silent films of Chaplin and I'm sure even before that. For some reason, there is something very identifiable about seeing comedic elements used in crime films. No one seems to know this better than Joel and Ethan Coen, the directors of Fargo. Seen through the eyes of the main protagonist, Marge Gunderson, Fargo is nothing if not a comedy of observation. As the viewers we're able to watch the characters' quirky antics, the absurd "crime" that sets the whole yarn in motion, and the snowball effect it has on the characters. And through it all, the Coens almost dare us to laugh at what is occurring on-screen.
Marge Gunderson, played wonderfully by Frances McDormand, is, for lack of a better term, the "straight man" in this film. While she too has the funny accent, she isn't a comedic character. She is the police chief of Fargo and a good one at that. While the Coens do accentuate her accent and some of her more homely aspects, they take her quite seriously and treat her with respect. Therefore it isn't so much her actions that are funny but rather her reactions to what is happening around her. She is a simple person but a sharp policewoman, yet she is still dumbfounded by many of the actions of the two kidnappers and the husband who arranged the kidnapping in the first place.
As in many Coen brothers films, they play with all three basic comedic concepts, especially superiority (the quirks of the characters are arguably too heightened to become mockery of this specific type of American) and tension release (the Coens once again seem to be daring the audience to laugh at absurd and often extremely violent scenes). Take the scene in which Marge stumbles upon the lake house where the kidnap victim is held and hears a loud noise coming from the back yard. The sight she, and we the audience, see is horrific (one of the criminals has just killed the other with an axe and has proceeded to dispose of the evidence by placing his dead cohort in a wood-chipper — Marge sees a leg stuck in the chipper, the foot comically dangling). And yet the placement of the leg that he had previously been attempting to jam down the chipper is, well, funny.
But why is it funny? Is it all just a cosmic joke to the Coens? Many of their films seem to suggest this; there is plenty of supporting evidence in Fargo alone. With the malevolent weather trapping these characters, the seemingly mundane crimes that snowball into much bigger things (such as the fake kidnapping that turns into murder and the license dealer's tag that leads to the cop and two passersby being murdered), the repetition of dialogue, snow, and pointless killings — all support the idea of it being a cosmic joke. The joke is also present, though perhaps in an even darker way, in two of the Coens' most recent works: No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man. Each of these films once again shows a hapless man saddled with a moral dilemma (whether to take drug money or not in No Country, and everything imaginable in A Serious Man) with the world seemingly coming in around him or, more accurately, against him. It's an arguably bleak worldview, but through it all the Coens find the humor in the bleakness, in their dark little worlds, and ultimately in other human beings.
|42. Naked (Leigh, 1993)
A manic Scotsman rages after his girlfriend in the big shitty, "Maggie!" Johnny staggers onto this scene, analysing and scoping the wreckage.
It is difficult to believe that director Mike Leigh is not taking the piss with the choice of girl’s name in this shot. Naked, despite utterances to the contrary, is about family. This take on London in the nineties aches with irony and torment against Thatcher’s declaration that there is no such thing as society. Naked, as Leigh has stated, is assuredly about the longing for a sense of family and is not confining the audience to a singular definition of those bonds.
Seen as a variation of Leigh himself, David Thewlis gives us one of cinema’s most unforgettable antiheroes in Johnny. We’re not sure if he has a condition of the body or the soul: perhaps both? But Johnny doesn’t so much walk as invert into space. He seeks out an old girlfriend and he is threatened by the fact that she has a job and has moved away from Manchester. This is almost like an underground, bastardised, terrifying road movie where Johnny, who doesn’t seem to belong to anything or anyone, drifts from one human encounter to another, spewing theories, existential mutterings and angry smart-arse retorts. Words may be his shield and his weapon but it’s too often worn on his sleeve. Johnny always seems near impatient explosions yet seems agonizingly desperate to connect with someone, somewhere!
There is very little daylight in Leigh’s Britain and he highlights repeatedly, through use of non-space, the lack of connectedness in this world. The conversations are persistently framed in stairwells, corners, alleyways, doorways, to underline their loss of foundation, solid grounding, and history in the post-Thatcher disarray. Even a guard is employed to protect empty space. This is mournfully about being loved and nurtured and you see this in Johnny’s yearning for Louise. In one scene, after Johnny has been badly beaten, he and Louise sit crouched around the toilet and she asks if he would cuddle her. His response, a simple "Yeah," is heartbreaking. But Johnny isn’t destined for a happy ending in this place, and under a bizarre sense of duty disguised as a heartless act, Johnny hobbles away into the future in a rare unfolding into sunlight.
|41. Edward Scissorhands (Burton, 1990)
The sweet, dark fable of a lonely outcast who tries to be accepted for what he is. That could be the premise of every movie made by Tim Burton, and it's definitely the core of this unforgettable and genre-defying gem of the nineties, shining and layered as a snowflake, melancholy as the glowing and tear-filled eyes of a grandmother who tells a fairy tale to her granddaughter, a tale apparently crystal clear and yet mysterious and fragile as an ice sculpture.
It's the tale of an "uncommonly gentle man" trapped in the body of a monster, with the soul of a child and the clumsy moves of Charlie Chaplin (as filtrated by a young Johnny Depp). The "Avon Lady/Guardian Angel" (as Tim Burton describes Dianne Wiest) of a colorful and stylized piece of American suburbia shows Edward the outside world, separating him from his birthplace, that intimidating gothic castle where his "father," the Inventor (a movingly crepuscular Vincent Price) fell asleep to never wake up. It's a disturbing and bizarre journey from a Roger Corman movie to Epcot Center. In his new life Edward will meet, for the first time, all the shades of human cruelty as well as the tender caring of an open, accepting family, and learn that the razor-sharp symbols of his curse can also become the tools to express his creativity — alienation and art, once again, go hand in hand (no pun intended).
Most importantly, for the first time his heart (a heart made of the same substance of dreams… a cookie heart and the heart of the Tin Man) melts before the beauty of "a dark Hayley Mills" (Winona Ryder as described, again, by Burton), who becomes, surprisingly, a fair-haired, delicate figurine inside a snow globe, at least in Edward's mind.
And, in the end, that's the image which really became part of the film culture of this decade — an image which summarizes a freak's impossible love for a life always out of reach of his deformed scissorhands.
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