Category Archives: cinema

Korean War movies

Quite apart from its sizable tv audience, I’d guess that the 1970 movie “M*A*S*H” (the acronym for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) is both the best known and most popular film about the American military in the Korean conflict (1951 to be more exact), and the only successful comedy, however black a comedy it is.

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Soon after it, I became a major admirer of the work of its director, Robert Altman, but could not share the general enthusiasm for “M*A*S*H” — not because of its gallows humor (which was actually quite mild) or its flouting of hierarchy and convention (also quite mild), but for the expectation that the audience would join the film’s physicians in finding sexual harassment delightful (and even good for the harassed). I also could never muster much enthusiasm for Donald Sutherland as a leading man, though he was cast as one by some estimable directors during the 1970s. I found Elliot Gould funnier than Sutherland in “M*A*S*H.” Altman clearly found him more simpatico (maybe because Gould refused to support Sutherland in attempting to get Altman fired during the shooting).

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“M*A*S*H” takes place in a field hospital. I don’t think that it has any battle scenes. “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962, directed by John Frankenheimer) also has scenes set in Korea and involving military personnel, but no battle scenes. Rather, captured GIs including Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey are brainwashed by the North Koreans and sent back to the US. The whole group says exactly the same words about Raymond (Harvey), and the movie showcases one of the great sick mother-son ever with Angela Lansbury chewing and spitting out the scenery as Raymond’s mother.

In a 2004 remake without much fizzle, directed by Jonathan Demme, Denzel Washington played the Frank Sinatra part and Meryl Streep Lansbury’s, and Live Schreiber Harvey’s, with an implant rather the conditioning.

There are loose body parts in “M*A*S*H” and unhinged brains in “Manchurian Candidate.” I’m pretty sure that the Korean film “Taegukgi Hwinalrimyeo” (The Brotherhood of War, 2004, written and directed by Kang Je-Gyu) is the goriest one. The considerable emotional punch of the film does not come from the explicit mayhem, however, but from the relationship between two brothers drafted into the army of South Korea. Let’s say that one, the elder, Jin-tae Lee (Jang Dong-gun), becomes an efficient killing machine, while the other, Jin-seok (Won Bin)), attempts to remain humane. Both kill many other Koreans and take risks that it is difficult not to categorize as “insane.” Although very, very, very graphic, the implausibility of either of them surviving some of their endeavors makes it impossible for me to say the film is “cinematic.” (I didn’t think they looked much like brothers in the film, but in the poster they do so more. And, as I wrote, for taking extreme action, they very much resemble each other. Also in stubbornness.)

The music (written by Dong-jun Lee) strikes me as bombastic and I don’t like the jiggling camera for some combat scenes, but, for me, the most gripping drama set amidst the Korean War has no visible Americans (though some allusions are made to them). And, unlike the American movies that are limited to a single time/place, “Tae Guk Gi” sweeps from before to after the combat, with plenty of atrocities and arrogance in between.

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“Tae Guk Gi” makes the American war movies that were hailed as providing new heights of “realism” seem tame in comparison, though they are less sprawling, and one of them, “Steel Helmet,” has major Korean characters (including a vicious one), rather than the faceless, demonized Other of the other American Korean War movies I’ve seen.

My favorite Korean War film is one that was made during it: Written and directed by Sam Fuller, “Steel Helmet” was released in February of 1951. The camera, often shooting from low angles, moved fluidly, and Fuller overcame a tiny budget ($100K) that allowed only ten days of shooting (in the studio and in Griffith Park, a not obviously Korean-looking locale!) by showcasing hard-headed individuals… and “Short Round” (William Chun) a Korean orphan who hero-worships the very hard-bitten Sgt. Zach (Gene Evans) who doesn’t want to be a surrogate father… or to be in the fix he is in with a lieutenant likely to get everyone killed and a ragtag group… and a captured North Korean major trying to undermine the commitment of a black medic and Japanese American sergeant to the Stars and Stripes. “Steel Helmet” is one of Fuller’s best films and takes questions of racism in the American ranks head on. The action scenes are obviously low-budget, but the personal dynamics in the shelter of a Buddhist temple make for something close to being a masterpiece.

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What I think is the best American movie set on a battlefield of the Korean War is “Pork Chop Hill.” It was directed in 1959 by Lewis Milestone who had made the definitive World War I movie (All Quiet on the Western Front” (the best picture Oscar-winner for 1930) and some fairly formulaic, propagandistic World War II ones, particularly “Edge of Darkness” (1943), “The North Star” (1943), “Purple Heart” (1944), “A Walk in the Sun” (1945) and “The Halls of Montezuma” (1950), as well as some other standouts “classics” including “The Red Pony” (1949), “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946), “Of Mice and Men” (1939), “The General Died at Dawn” (1936), and “The Front Page” (1931).

Based on the book by solider/historian S. L. Marshall, and regarded by some as “the first modern war film,” “Pork Chop Hill” is the account of K Company, led by a stony Lt. Clemons (Gregory Peck), ordered to retake Pork Chop Hill from the Chinese in 1953, while negotiations to end hostilities are underway at Panmunjom. The hill has no particular strategic value, but those commanding Clemons believe that holding it will show US resolve to the communists. It is not for him or his men to understand, they’re just the ones dying there. Orders are orders, and theirs is not to reason why, but to stand and die — in considerable numbers— 107 of an original 135— if less considerable than the number of those trying to retake the hill after K Company takes it and digs in.

It is not just a matter of “face,” but of testing determination. It can easily seem childish “If you have it, I want it, if you want it, I want it,” but this is a dynamic not unique to the stalemated war in Korea!

The real Lt. Clemons was a technical advisor for the film, and Peck (whose production company made it) sought a gritty, realistic look. Peck is stalwart in battle, while being more than a little frustrated at the lack of promised flanking support and reinforcement needed to resist the teeming horde (the demonized enemy). Unlike Clemons, Peck had considerable support from George Shibata (the Japanese American second-in-command), black actors Bob Steele and Woody Strode, and white ones including Martin Landau and Rip Torn, et al.

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The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” (1954, directed by Mark Robson [Home of the Brave, Champion, Valley of the Dolls]) based on a best-selling novel by James Michener is darker than most big-budget, star-studded Hollywood movies. I regard it is the best American Korean War “action picture” particularly the final aerial assault on the heavily guarded bridges and the tense aircraft carrier landings.

There is a boring relationship (“the mushy stuff”) between William Holden and Grace Kelly slowing down the movie, as a bickering married couple. The real standout performance is Mickey Rooney’s as Mike Forney, a helicopter rescue pilot. Frederic March is also quite good as an Admiral keenly aware of ordering pilots into certain death missions. And Holden was always good as a fatalistic action figure who will glower and maybe bemoan, but eventually if ungraciously will bite the bullet. His wife wants him to be flying combat missions even less than he wants to be flying them.. and the movie demonizes the opposition for daring to defend territory and shoot back. (That anyone resisting American troops must be evil seems to be a part of The American Way, especially in movies, even if “Bridges” is soberer than many…. and though “Brotherhood of War” shows that the Koreans were plenty capable of demonizing each other!)

War Hunt” (1962, directed by Dennis Sanders) is notable for containing the screen debuts of Sydney Pollack (as Sgt. Van Horn) and of Robert Redford (whom Pollack was later direct in many movies), as the still-humane newly deployed Private Loomis, who is warned against associating with loose cannon Private Endore (John Saxon), who ventures out and carves up North Koreans at night (a sort of serial killer permitted by the US army). Endore has a young Korean orphan servant/charge whom he calls “Charlie” (Tommy Matsuda), perhaps influenced by the relationship between a gruff American long in the frontlines in Korea and an admiring Korean orphan boy in Samuel Fuller’s “Steel Helmet.”), though Sgt. Zac was grizzled, but not psychotic.

Loomis attempts to pry the boy away from Endore, but Endore is so determined to hold onto Charlie that he deserts to live in the mountains with him following the cease-fire that is still in effect (no peace treaty ever having been signed). In showing a psychotic American soldier and attempts to survive without committing war crimes, the movie looks forward to “Platoon” and “Casualties of War” from the Vietnam War canon. “War Hunt” was shot in the US on a very low budget and before Redford had developed as an actor, but is surprisingly effective.

Sam Fuller’s “Fixed Bayonets” is a more conventional war, talkier (sometimes dawdling) movie than “Steel Helmet,” which he made only a year before. Nonetheless, it provides an interesting portrait of a NCO who flunked out of Officer Cadet School because he could not lead facing the increasing certainty that command for a rear-action deployment of two platoons is going to devolve on him. Richard Basehart (:a Strada, He Walked by Night, The Brothers Karamzov), who played corporal Deno, who is thrust into command by the death of the officers of the two platoons, was a master of portraying neuroticism. Here he is brave and Gene Evans prepares him as best he can (being less egotistical but not less tough than he was for Fuller in “Steel Helmet.”) Basically, it’s Thermopylae in the snows of the Sierra Nevadas (that are supposed to be mountains in Korea) with an American man Rising to the Occasion. The movie has outstanding cinematography by Lucien Ballard and a once popular soundtrack by Roy Webb. And a very brief appearance near the end (but enough to get on the poster reproduced here!) of James Dean.

BTW, the US 1st Infantry Division did not serve in Korea, Fuller names his General and Regimental Commander after his the men he served under in WWII, service portrayed I “The Big Red One” (1980) Terry de la Mesa Allen, Sr. and George A. Taylor

Sayonara” (1957, directed by Joshua Logan [Mr. Roberts]), based on another James Michener bestseller is mostly about US servicemen on R&R in Japan during the Korean war and breaking the taboos of interracial romances. It was nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture, netted 4, including best supporting actor (Red Buttons) and best supporting actress (Umeki Miyoshi).The cinematography of Ellsworth Fredericks and acting of Marlon Brando garnered nominations (the latter, quite undeserved, as Brando seemed to be sleepwalking through the part as a Southern pilot while some of his comrades in arma EW discovering another world).. Ricardo Montalban’s kabuki actor providing editorial comments is best forgotten, and this is far more an “American occupation of Japan” movie (and “Orientalism exoticism”) than a “Korean War movie,” even though the American men are part of the war machine.

“All the Young Men” (1960, written and directed by Hal Bartlett) has Sidney Poitier as a sergeant put in command of a small detachment of Marines very much in harm’s way in the snows of 1951 Korea. There is, of course, a hardcore Southern bigot (Paul Richard), a busted-down rival preferred by the men (a way-too-old-for-the-part Alan Ladd) along with the usual wild mix of Hollywood war movies, including Swedish heavyweight champion (at the time) Ingemar Johansson, smart-mouthed New Yorker Mort Sahl, teenage hearthrob of the time James Darren (Gidget, etc. and, the next year, “The Guns of Navarone”), and a Native American with the subtle name “Hunter” (Mario Alcalde). The movie is very, very predictable and less interesting than the much earlier (1949) “Home of the Brave,” when the burden of proving the black soldier more than the white soldier’s equal was carried by James Edwards (in an unlikely WWII situation).

The Hunters” (1958, directed by Dick Powell [The Enemy Below]) is based on a superb book by “writer’s writer” James Salter, who was a fighter pilot in Korea. The aerial part of the movie (the first part) is good, but when hotdog F-86 pilot Robert Wagner and weary (heavy-lidded) veteran pilot Robert Mitchum are shot down and have to make their way cross country together, the movie becomes a hokey yawner. “Grounded” it is in every sense! For that matter, the adultery soap opera back at the base in Japan is also very phoned-in. Mitchum and May Britt have no chemistry. At least Wagner can irritate Mitchum a bit! The best parts are the airborne parts.

Douglas Sirk’s recurrent leading man, Rock Hudson (e.g., Written on the Wind), appeared in “Battle Hymn” in 1957. The movie about a guilt-wracked WWII bomber pilot (he accidentally bombed a Japanese orphanage) turned minister who reups for the Korean War received a Golden Globe (the award of the Hollywood Foreign Press) as “Best Film Promoting International Understanding”! It is based on the story of Colonel Dean ‘Killer’ Hess (played by Hudson). Its main interest for someone who has seen a lot of 1940s Hollywood movies is that it features Dan Duryea as an amiable can-do sergeant loved by the children(!). The story drips treacle (do I need to say more than the word “orphans”?), though it also has some good aerial bits.

Battle Circus,” directed by Richard Brooks from his own novel in 1953 is a very bad adumbration of “M*A*S*H” with Humphrey Bogart staffing a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and unconvincingly romancing June Allyson, band with attempts at humor falling flat. “The Rack” with Paul Newman and “Sgt. Stryker” with Lee Marvin show legal actions for former prisoners of war of the North Koreans. I haven’t seen the Howard Hughes movie (his last) starring Robert Mitchum and Ann Blyth, or the1986 Dutch/South Korean”Field of Honor.” One I’d like to see is the 210aa Korean film “The Front Line.”

Far and away the worst Korean War movie I’ve seen, however, is “Inchon” with Laurence Olivier failing to convince in the role of Douglas MacArthur that Gregory Peck had mastered in the less fanciful but still far from good Korean War-focused biopic “MacArthur.” Financed by Moonies, “Inchon” is in league with “Battlefield Earth” in more than suspect financing in being a serious competitor for the label “worst movie ever.”

Also bearing mention are some movies featuring American veterans of the Korea War returned to the US: A Hatful of Rain, Manchurian Candidate, In Cold Blood, Shock Corridor, The Big Lebowski, Big Fish.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Also see my list of the best WWII Movies here.

 

The Best World War II dramas about combatants

There are a very large number of movies set in and around the Second World War, including the various holocaust/Jewish survival movies such as

The Shop on Main Street (directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965)

Europa, Europa (directed by Agnieszka Holland, 1990)

The Pianist (directed by Roman Polanski, 2002)

Misa’s Fugue (directed by Sean Gaston, 2012)

Opansi put (directed by Mate Reija, 1963)

Schindler’s List (directed by Stephen Spielberg, 1993)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (directed by Mark Herman, 2008)

Higher Principle (directed by Jiri Krejic, 1960)

Devils on the Doorstep (directed by Jian Wen, 2000)

The Diary of Anne Frank (directed by George Stevens, 1959)

The Cranes Are Flying (directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, 1960)

The Seventh Cross (directed by Fred Zinnemann, 1944)

 

and many about the traumas of war on civilians, including

Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games, directed by René Clément, 1952)

Two Women (directed by Vittorio de Sica, 1961)

Malèna (directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, 2000)

Au revoir, les enfants (1987), and Lacombe Lucien (1974), directed by Louis Malle

Empire of the Sun (directed by Stephen Spielberg, 1987)

Mrs. Miniver (directed by William Wyler, 1942)

Hope and Glory (directed by John Boorman, 1987)

Army (1944), Port of Blossoms (1943 and 24 Eyes (1954) (directed by Kinoshita Keisuke)

The Fifth Seal (directed by Zoltán Fábri, 1976)

Grave of the Fireflies (anime directed by Takahata Isao, 1988)

Don’t Cry, Peter (directed by France Stiglic, 1964)

plus Night of the Shooting Stars (the Taviani brothers, 1982), also involving confused noncombatant males in an Italian village,

This Land Is Mine (directed by Jean Renoir, 1943) with a French coward finding courage,

Hangmen Also Die (directed by Fritz Lang, 1943) with a Czech family

Closely Watched Trains (directed by Jirí Menzel, 1966) with a young Czech rising to the occasion and sabotage

Written Off (directed by Aleksander Djordevic, 1974)

Au Revoir, Les Enfants (directed by Louis Malle, 1987)

Hiroshima, Mon Amout (directed by Alain Resnais, 1959)

and some Chinese films with longer historical arcs, even though the war there began earlier than in Europe (and Siberiade, which also has a long temporal span)

 

I have also excluded prisoner camp/escape movies such as

Robert Bresson’s masterpiece “A Man Escapes” (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut)

The Great Escape

Stalag 17

King Rat

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Railway Man

 

I have excluded these war-related genres and also movies focused on commanders such as Rommel (The Desert Fox) and Patton, and those involving Humphrey Bogart reluctantly getting involved (Casablanca, To Have and Have Not) to focus on dramas centering on combatants (air, land, and sea). I am saving comedies for another list.

My final prefatory note is that I am well aware that the three of the four most recent entries of my list all have some vociferous detractors. There are bases for criticism, though the vehemence with which some have been pressed puzzle me.

(15) Like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Enemy of the Gate” (2001), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, starts by throwing the audience into the chaos of war, in this case the German attack on Stalingrad. The terror of the evacuees is compellingly portrayed, but a hero is needed. In the rather unlikely person of the almost-too-handsome Jude Law as a shepherd from the Ural Mountains, one is manufactured. The propaganda machine is nearly as much of a focus in the movie as is the duel of wits between the Soviet champion Vassily Zaitsev (Law) and an aristocratic German officer sent to eliminate him, Major Koenig (Ed Harris). Both are superb marksmen, so the duel ultimately depends not on their marksmanship but on information. Gabriel Thomson’s Sasha is insufficiently realized, and I think that the rivalry for Tania.(Rachel Weisz) between private solider Zaitsev and officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), who is his de facto publicist, is a distraction. Bob Hoskins’s scenery-chewing Kruschev is not a distraction, because the considerations of building a hero to rally the people of Russia is absolutely central (in both Soviet and Nazi warmakers’ views). The cinematography and set construction would be hard to fault.

(14) The great American poet of violence, Sam Peckinpah, also directed a duel within an army movie. From the title, “Cross of Iron,” it is obvious that the army is the German one. It has Maxmillian Schell was the well-connected, vainglorious captain sending a subordinate who sees through him, is considerably more competent and cares about his men (James Coburn) to be eliminated. (James Mason is quite unlike Lee Marvin as the colonel in command, however.) In my view, it drags often and is inferior to “Attack!” The movie about Germans I’m including is the ultimate submarine movie Das Boot, directed by Wolfgang Petersen in. I have not seen the director’s cut, and my memory of seeing the movie in its theatrical release in 1981 is hazy. Human beings in a small underwater metal tube commanded by a savvy professional not wrapped up in Nazi ideology is also on view in “The Enemy Below.” The focus of “Das Boot” is entirely on the German sailors. If I remembered it better or watched the director’s cut, it would probably make my list.

(13) The earliest Hollywood movie that I’ve seen that shows some real agony rather than the “natural” triumph of the American military in WWII is William A. Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). The ersatz heartiness of Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle and some sentimentality of his narration (and the mascot dog) slightly undercut the gritty realism. There is the usual wide range of American types thrown together and Robert Mitchum as a brave and resourceful and caring lieutenant (later promoted to captain) whose unit the famous correspondent keeps finding in the Italian campaign. (The cast was heavily populated by recent G.I.s and war correspondents playing themselves.) The pace seems slow after decades of subsequent WWII movies, but the grand-daddy remains moving in my opinion. I find it more realistic and less sentimental than John Huston’s documentary “The Battle of San Pietro,” noting that it was heavily censored—and the combat scenes staged/recreated. And less sentimental than John Ford’s “Battle of Midway,” the other heralded US combat documentary from the war.)

(12) That Clint Eastwood shot a movie almost entirely in Japanese is pretty astounding. That it is very good is not astounding. I think that in general he should empower an editor to prune his movies, though I didn’t feel this about “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006). The movie shows the Japanese infantrymen as regular guys who wish that they were home, yet are often courageous, while showing a very authoritarian (not to mention suicide-drenched) officer culture, even for a military culture. Though Gen. Kuribayashi  (Ken Watanabe) tells his men not to kill themselves but to kill the enemy, he is not immune to the cult of the noble death and of suicide rather than surrender. And the whole exercise of defending the island (with undertrained as well as underarmed troops) is suicidal (the Japanese running out of ammunition and food, having to subsist on a diet of worms). (It is grim, but not in comparison to the Japanese movies occupying the top three slots on my list!)

(11) The concluding piece of a trilogy, Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) has haunting scenes of a bombed-out church, a chase, and a liaison formed near the end of combat in Poland. The star, Zbigniew Cybulski, was a charismatic young actor whose early death cemented his reputation as “the Polish James Dean.” It has some slow stretches, but is very visually striking. The preceding (1957) “Kanal” set largely in the sewers of Warsaw as the Red Army waits for the Nazis to kill off rebels is also very impressive. (The First, “A Generation” [1955} is about Nazi-occupied Poland, but not about combatants.)

(10) Terrence Malik’s adaptation of The Thin Red Line (199) by James Jones (whose From Here to Eternity and the great Fred Zinneman film, though about soldiers and ending with the Japanese attack on Hawaiian military installations on Dec. 7. 1941 I don’t consider a World War II novel or film) is also very visually striking with some slow stretches that seem like dawdling for those seeking nonstop action sequences. Using different techniques than Spielberg’s in “Saving Private Ryan,” Malik plunges the viewer into ground-level action (and the pauses with death continuing to lurk). It also contains revelatory performances by James Caviezel as Private Witt and Sean Penn as Sergeant Welsh.

(9) Stephen Spielberg’s many detractors level the charge of sentimentality at the last part of Saving Private Ryan (1999), too. The Omaha Beach landing in it is the most compelling part and far superior to depictions in other movies (such as “The Longest Day” and “The Big Red One”), and it juxtaposes intense action scenes with genuine character development, including Matt Damon’s title character’s, Jeremy Davies’s clerk, and Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller.

(8) I think the best WWII straight-ahead heroic action flick is The Guns of Navarone, directed by J. Lee Thompson in 1961. Based on a hugely successful novel by Alistair MacLean (who also wrote Ice Station Zebra and The Eagle Has Landed, both of which were turned into less memorable action movies). Gregory Peck was at his most strong, laconic, and  heroic, leading a motley crew on a seemingly impossible mission (to neutralize the title artillery on a Nazi fortress on an Aegean island). Anthony Quinn was flamboyant and ethnic (Greek), David Niven was wry (maybe even flippant) as an explosives expert. Both were in top form in their specialties. I have not included the later, somewhat similar raid by “The Dirty Dozen” directed by Robert Aldrich, despite the performance by Lee Marvin, mostly out of repugnance for a mission to incinerate civilians, which even wives of German officers and local French prostitutes were.

(7) Robert Aldrich’s Attack! is primarily a duel movie, though the duel is between American army (reserve) officers, the politically well-connected cowardly captain played by Eddie Albert and the seething lieutenant played by Jack Palance, who promises to come back and rip out the captain’s heart if he again fails to provide support for a platoon sent into the lion’s mouth. The combat scenes are excellent, and both the interior and exterior black-and-white cinematography of Joseph Biroc are notable, but it is the performances of Albert, Palance, Buddy Ebsen, William Smithers, and Lee Marvin that make the movie, overcoming some lame attempts at comic relief and an ending I find difficult to credit. I also think that Aldrich’s sardonic 1970 “Too Late the Hero” with Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson is very good and undeservedly forgotten.

(6) In my view, one of the best WWII action movies is the little-heralded 1965 John Frankenheimer movie The Train. I enjoy movies about duels of wits (such as The Enemy Below, Enemy at the Gate) and this one features a formidable German officer played by Paul Scofield and a resourceful French railroad controller played by Burt Lancaster. It has great railroad sequences, including a real crash. The DVD has a fascinating commentary track by John Frankenheimer (who reported that Lancaster insisted on doing all his own stunts). Jeanne Moreau needlessly slows things down, but Lancaster and Scofield are superb, as is the black-and-white cinematography by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz.

(5) Although the glamorous fly-boys are more a staple of movies about World War I than about World War II, and about the Korean War than World War II, they are not lacking altogether. The Air Force entry on my list, however, goes to one that does not glamorize. Twelve o’clock High (1949), one of the many movies starring Gregory Peck that was directed by Henry King. Peck plays a hard-driving general (with the unsbubtle name Savage) whipping into a shape a demoralized unit and pushing himself to breakdown. The supporting players, including Dean Jagger’s that got him a well-deserved Oscar, are convincing, but it is Peck who makes “Twelve o’clock High” a masterpiece.

(Peck also anchored “Pork Chop Hill” the greatest American-made Korean war movie. And he carried the unjustly forgotten “The Purple Plain” as well.)

(4) Roberto Rosselini’s Paisà[/n] is more uneven than “Twelve o’clock High.” It portrays a series of episodes in different locales from Sicily to the Po River estuary as the American Army pushed the German one north through Italy. The focus is more on relationships between the American troops and the Italians being liberated (but in dire straits) than about American-German combat and might be consigned to the “effects on civilians” subgenre. The battle scenes in the marshes are very unusual, though the most memorable sequence involves an African American MP and a desperately poor young boy who steals his boots when the MP passes out drunk in the rubble of Naples.

(2 and 3) Some of Rosselini’s film has a documentary look, some is actorly. Most of the movies on my list get down and dirty. The top spot goes to two very extreme (hyper-real?) 1950s movies directed by Kon Ichikawa, Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959) and The Harp of Burma (Biruma no tategoto, 1956). “Fires” portrays the desperation of Japanese soldiers on the Philippines at the end of the war, a tubercular one (Tamura, indelibly portrayed by Eiji Funakoshi) in particular, and “Harp” a haunted Japanese solider (the lute-playing Mizushima, portrayed by Shôji Yasui) burying the dead in Burma after failing to convince a company of his compatriates dug-into a mountain redoubt to surrender. “Harp” is more lyrical, though both are desolating reflections on life and death, compassion and ruthlessness.

(1) “The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer,” directed by Kobayashi Masaki has a harrowing performance by Nakadai Tatsuya dying in the snow trying to get home from Soviet captivity. The whole trilogy is gripping.

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©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Also see my overview of Korean War movies here.

My 54 favorite films

In sorting through some of the paper that is engulfing me, I found a list that I had made some time during the early 1980s of what I thought were the ten greatest films, supplemented by a list of my forty favorites.  Eight of my ten earlier picks survived when I tried again in 2003 (just posted here). The two casualties were very great Japanese movies from the 1950s—Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” and Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu monogatori.” That I included the latter puzzles me a bit, since I now  think Mizoguchi’s greatest movie was “Sanshô Dayû” (Sansho, the Bailiff).

All ten, including the one that is officially a comedy, are very serious. The list of my favorite movies has somewhat less art and more fun, and cleared the way for me to narrow down a list of the ten greatest movies of all time. In alphabetical order by director (I guess I’m an auteurist!) the list of favorites follow.

Robert Altman’s heartbreaking northern anti-romance “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) with a tough Julie Christie and a bluff Warren Beatty melting for her… and a lot of snow. (Like Leonard Cohen, whose music is central to that movie, I liked “Brewster McCloud” (1970) a lot at the time. However, the revisionist “The Long Goodbye” (1973) with Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe has aged much better than BM has. I think that “Nashville” (1975) has aged well, too, as has “Short Cuts” (1993). Altman has made other outstanding movies, plus some bewilderingly bad ones.)

Having been present when Tuvan throat-singer Kongar-ol Ondar was astounded to hear and meet a San Franciscan musician (of Canary Island descent) who had taught himself to make those strange (to most of us) sounds, and being intrigued by Central Asia, I was predisposed to like “Genghis Blues” when it premiered in 1999. Ondar has a smiling charisma, and Paul Pena’s journey to Tuva is very much in the meeting of divergent cultures genre that fascinated me even more than Tannu Tuva does. I was also completely charmed by the film-makers, Roko and Adrian Belic, first at the film’s première in a San Francisco International Film Festival and in the DVD interview.

Peter Bogdanovich’s ((1971) film of Larry McMurtry’s novel about growing up in the early 1950s in a dying West Texas town, The Last Picture Show has great performances all-around and great deep-focus cinematography from master Rober Surtees. The movie especially resonates for me in that I grew up (later) in a small town that no longer has a movie theater and that I learned (after having left it) had just as much dirty laundry and McMurtry’s Archer City, Texas. (I also think that Brandon de Wilde, Patricia Neal, and Paul Newman are superb in Martin Ritt’s movie “Hud,” also based on a McMurtry novel, also shot in black and white.)

Marcel Carné’s too long, but still dazzling “Les Enfants du paradis” (Children of the Paradise, 1945, written by Jaques Prévert) with transcendent performances by Arletty and Jean-Louis Barrault.

Chen Kaige’s “Life on a String” (Bian zou bian chan,1991) is not at all an accessible movie (for Chinese audiences or non-Chinese ones). Although I found it heartbreaking (reminiscent of Bresson’s “Mouchette”), the lengthy final song is magnificent. Huang Lei’s pain, particularly the gratuitous cruelty practiced on the blind youth is difficult to watch, but he too has an arresting final scene. “Farewll, My Concubine” is not exactly upbeat or light-hearted and deserves its acclaim, but “Life on a String” is my Chen favorite.

Jack Clayton’s (1959) “Room at the Top“: At an early age I seem to have identified with the aged being dumped and was terminally devoted to Simone Signoret, though mystified that anyone would want to have a relationship with Laurence Harvey, one of the most repellent movie stars ever (not just specializing in repellent roles like Christopher Walken or the young Richard Widmark).

I was charmed by Sami Bouajila in the French road movie “Drôle de Félix“(Adventures of Felix, 2000), codirected by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (and by their “Crustacés et coquillages” (2005), titled “Côte d’azur” here.

George Duroy’s (1998) NC-17 “Lucky Lukas,” with the stunningly handsome (if a bit bovine) Lukas Ridgestone and his livelier buddy Ion Davidov going at it, and, eventually, each other. Earlier, both have it on with the film’s “lucky Pierre,” Vadim Hausman, who also seems to be enjoying himself between them.

Bob Fosse’s (1972) “Cabaret,” the film for which Fosse not only beat out Coppola’s directing of the first “Godfather” for an Oscar, but probably should have. Despite the brilliance of Fosse’s “All That Jazz” and the success of “Fame,” until “Moulin Rouge” it seemed that “Cabaret” was “the ultimate musical” in the sense of last as well as in the sense of the best. Liza Minelli is too accomplished a singer to be Sally Bowles, but it’s hard to care.

Eytan Fox’s 2002 “Yossi and Jagger” is a love story, with the love between two front-line Israeli army officers garrisoning a desolate border outpost ((the burly Ohad Knoller and the long-eyelashed Yehuda Levi. It starts as a droll military comedy in the vicinity of “M*A*S*H.” What makes it, in my opinion, a great movie is the final scene. I also really like the music video of (more than from), “In Your Soul,” performed by Ivri Lider, aka Rita, and Fox’s 2004 “Walk on Water”  and “The Bubble” (2006).

Georges Franju’s “Thomas, l’imposteur” (Thomas, the Impostor, 1964) from the World War I novel by Jean Cocteau (whose “La belle et la bête” was on my earlier list and which I remember better, having seen it again more recently).

Stephen Frears’s (1985) “My Beautiful Laundrette,” which launched Daniel Day-Lewis (Johnny) to international stardom, screenwriter Hanif Kureishi to international attention, and should have launched a career for the movie’s star, Gordon Warnacke (Omar), who carried the film. I don’t think Frears is on anyone’s list of auteurs, but he also directed the far superior version of “Dangerous Liaisons,” as well as “The Queen,” “The Grifters,” “Prick Up You Ears,” and “High Fidelity,” each of which has fervent admirers (I’m an admirer, but not fervent), plus the interesting “Accidental Hero,” “The Hit,” “Dirty, Pretty Thing,” and “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.” A diverse body of work but skip the western in it, “Hi-lo Country”!)

Jean-Luc Godard’s noirish, nominally science-fiction film “Alphaville” with Eddie Constatine as the brutal romantic quoting Paul Êluard, Lemme Caution, and Godard’s muse (and then-wife) Ana Karina as the love object in a menacing not-very-futuristis Paris with a gravelly-voiced predecessor of HAL in Kubrick’s “2001.” No drugs are needed to enjoy “Alphaville”!

(Just deceased director) Curtis Hanson’s stylish and stylized “LA Confidential” (1997) was a commercial and critical success, but it is his 2000 adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys that most delights me with Michael Douglas, Robert Downey, Frances McDormand, Tobey Maguire, and Richard Thomas all superb (not to mention quirky). (I also like Hanson’s earlier “River Wild” with Meryl Streep, action hero, and Kevin Bacon.)

Howard Hawks’s (1944) “To Have and Have Not,” launching Lauren Bacall as a movie star and Humphrey Bogart’s mate, with Walter Brennan riffing on dead bees. This beat “Ball of Fire,” the best of Hawks’s comedies (with Barbara Stanwyck flummoxing Gary Cooper) in part because I like Hawks’s claim to have asked his hunting and fishing buddy Ernest Hemingway what was his worst novel and proving he could make a good film from whatever Hemingway named. Without interference with the censors, Hawks’s “Red River” would probably have made the list. There are other Hawks films I like a lot, including the snappy dialogue Humphrey Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe trades with Lauren Bacall and others in the delirious “The Big Sleep” and Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in the screwball comedy adaptation of “The Front Page,” “His Girl Friday.” (I love the ending of the 1947 Bogart/Bacall pairing “Dark Passage” and its nightmare on steps of San Francisco post-surgery sequence, too.)

Rajkumar Hirani’s (2009) “Three Idiots” is a hilarious Indian coming-of-age movie. The movie is innocuous enough to have found favor with many of those who did well in the ossified educational system, probably fantasizing about having had elements of Rancho, while more resembling “Silencer.” 

Alfred Hitchcock’s (1946) “Notorious” with a luminous Ingrid Bergman, the ever-suave Cary Grant, and a pained Claude Rains, along with Nazis about to make nuclear bombs, and the famous zoom to the key. I think this is the second most romantic movie ever. (There are a whole lot of other Hitchcock films I like a whole lot, plus Bergman and Rains in “Casablanca” (1942), though I chose another Bogart movie just above.) “Vertigo” is the runner-up (and the film elevated to the top of the most recent Sight & Sound critics’ poll).

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“Ye ben” (Fleeing by Night, 2000, directed by Hsu Li-Kong and Yin Chi). Sometime in the 1930s, Shaodong, the son of a rich Tajing merchant family, who is more interested in the cello than in business (Huang Lei, the younger blind musician in Chen Kaige’s heartbreaking “Life on a String”) returned from his lonely American studies to his North China banking family who falls in love with and fails both his fiancée (Rene Liu) and the star of the Kun opera “Fleeing by Night,” Lin Chung (Yin Chao-Te) who loves him and whom he loves. I was also fascinated by the long hair of (Tai Li-jen) who more or less owns Lin Chung. There is less of the successive disasters for the people that was China’s 20th century history than in “Farewell, My Concubine,” but enough to forestall hapiness for any of the characters. The movie has the glamorous 1930s look and flawless performances all around.

Steve James’s (1994) “Hoop Dreams” is fascinating documentary about ghetto black boys trying to shoot their way out without bullets. (“Crumb” is way too creepy to make my list–maybe if I ever do a best films of the 1990s…)

Buster Keaton‘s (1927) “College” was on my earlier list, though I think I now prefer “Our Hospitality” (1923), “Sherlock, Jr. (1924) and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1924). “College” is one of the best sports movies ever, for sure, and to be even close to certain which is my favorite would require watching them all again in succession, and even then which one I like best would vary from moment to moment. (Keaton’s (1926) “The General” is on my list of greatest films.)

Stanley Kramer’s (1965) film of Katherine Anne Porter’s allegorical novel Ship of Fools is uneven, though it has one of Simone Signoret’s ravishingly ravaged performances and Michael Dunn’s dwarf chorus. The indelible image, though, is Vivien Leigh pounding Lee Marvin to the ground in an orgy of self-loathing (on both their parts). This is even better than Montgomery Clift felling John Wayne in the fistfight in Howard Hawks’s “Red River”! (After all, Clift played a boxer, albeit one who refused to box for the army team, in “From Here to Eternity.”) I wouldn’t argue that “Ship” is a very good movie, but Leigh pummeling Marvin is as memorable as Brando bellowing “Stella” in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Kobayashi Masaki (1916-1996) is not as well-known as some of the other Japanese masters, but made the awesome Human Condition trilogy (1959-61) with Nakadai Tatsuya, who was also phenomenal in Kobayashi’s “Seppuku” (called “Harakiri” in English, 1962). Kobayashi’s other masterpiece, Samurai Rebellion(1967), is slightly less gruesome, but still heartbreaking.

IMO, Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998) is the master among masters of film-making. Of the 24 movies he directed that I have seen, there is only one that I dislike (Dodes’ka-den, 1970). There are some others I am not very enthusiastic about… along with a slew of masterpieces (Stray Dog, Rashômon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Red Beard, High and Low, Dersu Uzala, Kagemusha, Ran). The ultimate peak (the one in the second slot in my list of greatest films) is “Ran,” though Kurosawa’s adaptation of “King Lear” with Nakadai Tatsuya is easier to admire and even revere than it is to like. My favorites are the two dark comedies with Mifune Toshiro as a resourceful ronin (and Nakadai playing important supporting roles): Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). Both question the greedy, duplicitous elite to whom samurai were supposed to serve loyally (and unquestioningly) with Mifune contemptuous of his supposed social “betters.” They also look great with ample visual as well as verbal wit. (I also recommend the documentary, Kurosawa and am hoping that Criterion will undertake issuing more of Kurosawa’s movies.)

Fritz Lang’s “Die Kriemhilds Rache” (Kriemhilda’s Revenge, 1924), the second part of “Nibelung” (recently released with “Siegfried” on DVD as Die Niebelungen) with naked children dancing around the tree as the horsemen of Attila the Hun wreak revenge for Siegfried’s death at the behest of his single-minded widow. “Siegfried” is relatively staid, even with its dragon and the intrigue to gain and tame Bruhilde. Hitler allegedly did not like the second part, which is more an antithesis than a sequel… and brings down an apocalypse on the Burgundy court not unlike what Hitler would bring down on Germany two decades later. (“M” is Lang’s greatest film with a phenomenal performance by Peter Lorre, and The Big Heat with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame one of the very best film noirs. And Lang even made a surprising good western in Western Union— surprisng in that its subject matter is stringing telegraph lines.)

Alex Law’s “Qi qiao fu” (Painted Faces,1988) a harsh but lyrical portrayal of the ten-year indentured servitude/training of the young Jackie Chan, Samo Hung, and Yuen Biao under Master Yu (played by Samo Hung) in Hong Kong’s Peking Opera Academy. Less melodramatic and funnier than “Farewell, My Concubine,” the life portrayed was very hard, but the boys were exuberant, as one would expect from watching the adult Jackie Chan mug and do amazing stunts in his own movies.

Ang Lee’s (1999) “Ride with the Devil”: I really like “The Wedding Banquet,” probably more, but “Ride” deserves to be better known, not least for Tobey Maguire’s quintessential losing-innocence performance. “Brokeback Mountain” is a superlative adaptation and expansion of Annie Proulx’s hammer-blow story that is better known than “Ride.”

Sergio Leone’s 1968 “Once Upon a Time in the West“: With its contemporary, Sam Peckinpagh’s “The Wild Bunch,” this was the culmination of the western genre (with a less apocalyptic send-off), Like the misnamed “Man with No Name” trilogy, Ennio Morricone’s music did much to make this a great film. It’s a bit sprawling, and I wish it had Clint Eastwood instead of Charles Bronson, but… it’s filled with shots and sequences at which to marvel– as is Leone’s 1984 “Once Upon a Time in America.”

Joseph Losey’s (1975) “The Romantic Englishwoman” with Glenda Jackson in the title role, fleeing her marriage to Michael Caine for a romantic gallop across Europe with the meretricious Helmut Berger in a witty script by Tom Stoppard.

Baz Luhrman’s (2001) “Moulin Rouge“: The first time I saw this, I was tempted to walk out after the first uninspired and exhausting 15-20 minutes. Then I got used to the constant cutting and admired the cinematic genius involved and the performances of Jim Broadbent, Ewan MacGregor, and Nicole Kidman. (I also think that “Strictly Ballroom” is superb.)

Louis Malle’s ultimately unsettling coming-of-age and incest movie “Le souffle de coeur” (Murmur of the Heart, 1971) set against French jazz adoration (also see Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 “‘Round Midnight” with Dexter Gordon) and news from Dienbenphu. Malle’s Bardot/Moreau Mexican Revolution comedy “Viva Maria” is very entertaining, too, and “Lacombe, Lucien” is superb (if not all that likeable).

Joseph Mankewicz’s witty back-stabbing backstage romp “All About Eve” (1950). The standard rap, even repeated by his son on a comment track to the DVD, is that Mankewicz had no particular visual interest, but can those who say this have looked at the framings in this film? Or have seen the dazzling cinematography of “The Quiet American” or “Five Fingers”?

Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le samourai” (The Samurai, 1967) with Alain Delon as a contract killer. I consider this the culmination of “cinema noir.” (I consider Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” the greatest noir.) Another of my favorite films that is quite different in tone is Melville’s film of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles. And Melville directed two other great noirish films with Alain Delon, Le Cercle Rouge and Un flic.

Keni Mizoguchi’s “Sanshô Dayû” (Sansho, the Bailiff, 1954). I can remember being knocked out by this film when I saw it in college. It held up (as did “Ugetsu,” though I disliked the 1940s Mizoguchi films I saw between viewings of “Sansho,” especially his tedious version of 47 Ronin).

Fanta Régina Nacro’s La nuit de la vérité” (The Night of Truth, 2004) a very tense film about a truce in a tribal war in a West African failed state. Nacro said that despite her own family experience of atrocities in inter-ethnic atrocities, she drew especially on testimony from the survivors of the fission of Yugoslavia.

Okamoto Kihachi’s 1968 movie “Kiru” (Kill!) provides the most pointed social critique of any samurai movie I’ve seen (including “Sanjuro,” which was based on the same book). It is also very funny. There’s some cartoonish violence, but I mean the ironies with one main character eager to become a samurai and the other, a master swordsman, wanting to put being a samurai behind him (which proves as difficult as it is for Gregory Peck to retire from being “The Gunfighter” in the first great postheroic western). “Kiru” has considerable visual wit, too, and cinematographer Nishigaki Rokuro produced many excellent (widescreen, of course) compositions. “Kill!” has a superlative performance from the great Tatsuya Nakadai (along with those in such masterpieces as The Human Condition, Harakiri, Kagemusha, Ran).

Max Ophuls’s (1948) “Letter to an Unknown Woman“: I like Olivia de Havilland a lot more than her sister, Joan Fontaine, and Charles Boyer more than Louis Jordan, yet no de Havilland picture is on my list and I chose this instead of Ophuls’ probably greatest film, “The Earrings of Madame de…” with Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, and Vittorio de Sica and instead of William Wyler’s film of Henry James’s Washington Square, “The Heiress” with de Havilland, a caddish Montgomery Clift, a brutal Ralph Richardson, and a superb musical score by Aaron Copland. The two Ophuls movies are the greatest movies about obliviousness ever made; “The Heiress” more a masterpeice portraying rejection. Obsession, heartbreak, swirling cameras—”Letter from an Unknown Woman” has it all.

I recognized that “The Wild Bunch” (1969) was one of The Great American Movies on its orginal 1969 release, and still think so. It is Sam Peckinpah’s greatest ode to the End of the American West, but my favorite Peckinpah movie is “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973) with James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson in the title roles (Coburn’s closely related to the one Robert Ryan played in “The Wild Bunch”). It also has a knife-throwing Bob Dylan and a scene with Chill Wills and Katy Jurado at a water-hole as the sun setting that uses Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” to heart-rending effect.

Gilo Pontecorvo’s “Quiemada!” (Burn!, 1969). Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack has more to do with this choice than Marlon Brando’s somewhat suspect characterization. So much for this list being more light-hearted than my “10 greatest” list, ’cause this is definitely not an upbeat film. (Pontecorvo’s great “Battle of Algiers” strikes me as even more despair-inducing!)

Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” (1949), one of the great anti-romantic movies ever with the justly famed chase through the sewer system of Vienna and the late-in-the-proceedings shadow of Harry Lime and the later aerial encounter. Reed’s “Odd Man Out” with a desperate, fleeing James Mason  is right up there, too.

Martin Scorcese’s “New York, New York” (1977). It’s odd that this alphabetizing puts together four candidates for best anti-romantic movie almost contiguous to each other. And I’m surprised that Liza Minelli appears twice on this list, but I like Scorcese’s stylization here (as much as I admire it in “Raging Bull”). And kudos to “Kundun,” not least for Phillip Glass’s soundtrack.

Josef von Sternberg’s (1942) “Shanghai Express,” my other candidate for the most romantic movie ever with Marlene Dietrich refusing to explain and finally overpowering Clive Brook’s reservations. It also has great train photography, Anna May WOng,  and some geopolitical bite.

George Stevens’s 1953 “Shane” with the Grand Tetons looming behind the yearning young Brandon de Wilde as he hero worships Alan Ladd and Ladd faces off with one of Jack Palance’s snarling 1950s villains has superb (Oscar-winning) color cinematography by Loyal Griggs. Also iconic are Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in Stevens’s 1951 “A Place in the Sun”

Preston Sturges’s (1941) “Lady Eve,” a hilarious romantic comedy with Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck as grifters and Henry Fonda as an innocent herpetologist on a boat from South America. (This barely beat out “Unfaithfully Yours” with Rex Harrison imagining infidelities while he conducts a symphony orchestra.) Stawnyck could do many things; her other great comedy was Hawks’s “Ball of Fire” with Gary Cooper.

“Onmyoji” and “When the Last Sword Is Drawn” were both gorgeously shot historical dramas, but Takita Yôjirô attained another level in “Okuribito” (Departures, 2009), about a man (Motoki Masahiro) who loses one sense of vocation and finds another, also moving from Tokyo to a small seaside town. Astonishingly, this was the first Japanese movie to win the best foreign-language film Academy Award.

Johnnie To’s “Am zin” (Running Out of Time, 1999) with Andy Lau as a dying (of cancer) gangster toying with a police inspector played by Lau Ching Wan. Lau was also excellent in other To movies. And both have made lots of movies!

Along with most other viewers of the theatrical release of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso” (1988), I loved it. Along with most other viewers of the “director’s (un)cut” I was dismayed by the dilution of the story of the boy and the film projectionist with the grown-up boy’s neuroses. The original “Cinema Paradiso” doesn’t need another cheerleader, but Tornatore’s 2000 “Malèna” with a somewhat older boy smitten with a beautiful war widow and watching in horror what happens to her was not as universally admired, though I made a passionate case for it early in my epinions career.

The first time I saw “Run, Lola, Run” (“Lola rennt,” written and directed by Tom Tykwer) I thought it was exhilarating, hyperkinetic cinema with Franka Potente extraordinary in the title role. The second time, I was able to see the romance central to the three iterations of Lola’s run to save Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu)—and I had seen both stars and more work from director Tykwer that I enjoyed. (I hated “Perfume,” except for its helicoper shots and Dustin Hoffman; “Heaven” has great helicopter shots with more on a DVD bonus feature.)

Jean Vigo’s “Zero de conduite” (Zero for Conduct, 1933) a short, surrealistic film about a boarding school rebellion that was trampled in a 1960s remake as “If…”

Luchino Visconti’s epic of a Sicilian family trying to improve its lot in Milan, “Rocco e i suoi fratelli” (Rocco and his Brothers, 1960) starring Alain Delon at a time when he was the most beautiful man in the world. It surprises me that he pops up twice on my list not at all (I was smitten by the San Francisco updating of “Les Miserables” with him being hounded by Van Heflin, “Once a Thief” at an impressionable age.) I also love Visconti’s (1954) “Senso” with Alida Valli and Farley Granger. And Delon with Claudia Cardinale and Burt Lancaster in Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard.

I especially like the vanished San Francisco locations in Orson Welles’s “Lady from Shangha,” but, for me, his masterpiece is “Falstaff“/”Chimes at Midnight” (1967, just released on DVD and blu-ray by Criteiron) in which he plays a not-very-jolly Falstaff, John Gielgud and Keith Baxter convincingly play kings Henry IV and V. The battle is memorable, as is Gielgud’s (Henry IV) “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” speech with his breath visible. They are matched by the putting away childish things speech (of the newly crowned Henry V) withering, the final scene of the coffin unforgettable.

Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three(1961). Wilder was the master of many genres, including the great noir “Double Indemnity.” “Some Like It Hot” is the usual choice as his best comedy, but “1,2,3” is his fastest-talking, with James Cagney delivering machine-gun line delivery. I thought it was hilarious when I was a preteen, and it remains the most irreverent satire of Cold War capitalists and communists. (Though I think that it is a bit too long and has too much of George Raft in it, I enjoy “Some Like It Hot” a lot. I find Wilder’s Oscar-winning “The Apartment” and its follow-up with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, “Irma la Douce”, harder to like, though championing the widely panned and condemned “Kiss Me, Stupid,” and the earlier Americans in postwar Berlin, “A Foreign Affair. along with Wilder’s work in other genres, such as “Sunset Boulevard” and “Double Indemnity.”)

It’s difficult for me to choose my favorite film directed by William Wyler. I think it is “The Collector,” (with Terrence Stamp and Samantha Eggar), but I also like “The Heiress” (with a great score by Aaron Copland and great performances by Olivia de Haviland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson), the early (1936) Dodsworth, and the great Bette Davis vehicles “”Jezebel,” “The Letter” and “The Little Foxes.” (Definitely not the multi-Oscared but tedious and preposterous 1959 “Ben Hur”!)

Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” (2000), a meditation on freezing life with a camera, one wielded by an 8-year old. This movie shows that films from Taiwan need not be static and audience-unfriendly.

Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers” (2004, the Chinese title of which means “ten-sided ambush”) has incredibly gorgeous cinematography, more advanced (if overused) CGI than his previous international success, the also great-looking “Hero” and a romance between Zhang Ziyi and Kaneshiro Takeshi, Zhang Ziyi and Andy Lau, none of whom is hard on the eyes, all of whom have many talents. Although I read “Hero” differently from most (it seems to me to show that you can support or oppose central power, but will be killed either way; “Daggers” shows a dynasty in collapse rather than expansion).

I’ve skipped my favorite films by
Federico Fellini (Satyricon, edging out Nights of Cabiria),
Pedro Almodovar (Mala educación supplanting La Ley del deseo),
Michelangelo Antonioni (L’eclisse with Alain Delon and Monica Vitti at their most iconic),
Ingmar Bergman (Wild Strawberries holds up very well; as does “Smiles of a Summer Night”and the later “Autumn Sonata” with the other Bergman and Liv Ullmann),
Kristen Bjorn (alternating between “Comrades in Arms” and “Caracas Adventure”),
Jean Cocteau (“La belle et la bête” edging out “Orphée”),
Francis Coppola (“The Conversation”, edging out “Godfather II”),

Vittorio De Sica (Shoeshine),
John Ford (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “print the legend”over “The Searchers”),

Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo—I love Claudia Cardinale!),
John Huston (“Night of the Iguana” or “The Maltese Falcon”? What casts both have!)

Imamura Shohei (The Eel).

Kinoshita Keisuke (Spring Dreams)

Ozu Yaujiro (Ohayo/Good Morning)
Pier Paolo Pasolini Pasolini (“The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” or “Teorema”?)
Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, mon amour)
Roberto Rossellini (the very uneven Paisa[n] edging out “Il Generalle della Rovere” despite its great De Sica performance in the title role),
Shinoda Masashiro’s “Moonlight Serenade” (over “Pale Flower” and “Double Suicide”),

Also, Richard Brooks’s film of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958), more notable for its performances by Burl Ives, Paul Newman, and Elizabeth Taylor than for its cinematicness (and suffering from censorship)… Similarly, “Becket”( 1964) with Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud.

plus the somewhat guilty pleasure of the middle story from Anthony Asquith’s “The Yellow Rolls-Royce” (1964, directed by Anthony Asquith) which has the usually ultra-cool Alain Delon as a voluble Amalfi Coast gigolo romancing Shirley MacLaine, who is gangster George C. Scott’s moll and is under the lax supervision of Art Carney (all to the catchy song “Forget Domani,” that is “forget tomorrow”).

And also from 1964 Robert Aldrich’s Grand Guignol vehicle for Bette Davis, “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” which introduced Bruce Dern and costarred Olivia de Haviland, Joseph Cotten, Mary Astor, and Cecil Kellaway (all of whom did memorable work during the 1940s that I only discovered later in my cinéaste career). Perhaps because I saw “Charlotte” in its theatrical release, I cherish it more than Aldrich’s 1962 hit “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, in which Davis played the title role, persecuting Joan Crawford. I also think that Aldrich’s  1956 “Attack!” ( with Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin) deserves to be better known.

Even in its truncated forms, I am mesmerized by Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexican film footage (some released as “Thunder Over Mexico,” some as “Que Viva Mexico!“), and the prospects of the never-begun Part Three of “Ivan the Terrible” (the end of part one, reprised at the start of part two is an indelible image for me)…

©2003, 2016, Stephen O.Murray

The best non-American movies by country(/language)

Having interrupted my survey of Ozu films after demurring that “Tokyo Story” is not even the best postwar Ozu film, let alone the greatest film ever, with my ten-best list, I decided also to resurrect and update my list of best non-American movies by country (and a long list of my favorite films).

No one has seen everything, and although I estimate that I have seen between eight and nine thousand movies, I don’t doubt that I could reel off a list of at least a thousand that I’d really like to see. Being directed at what one has missed is a benefit of the “best of” list-making exercise—as long as the corrections are politely delivered, anyway. And the exercise reminded me of large (terrestrial) parts of the globe from which I’ve not seen any movies.
(Like most human categories, the boundaries of what is an “American movie” are fuzzy. Does it include major studio productions shot in Canada? Is “The Last Emperor,” shot in China by an Italian director an “American movie”? If not, should it be considered a “Chinese movie”? Etc.

My list:

Algerian: Italian director Gillo Montecorvo’s agonizing “Battle of Algiers” (1966) in its Criterion special edition may be the best docudrama ever made. Rachid Bouchareb’s (2006) epic “Indigènes” (ironically titled “Days of Glory” in English) about Algerian soldiers fighting for the unappreciative French in World War II is also notable, and also something of a docudrama. Its sequel with four of the five leading men returning (in different roles) “Hors la loi” (Outside the Law, 2010) is mostly set in France during the bloody struggle over Algerian independence.

Argentine: Best: “The Official Story” (1985, directed by Luis Puenzo).
A favorite: “The Motorcycle Diaries” (directed by Brazilian Walter Salles, 2004, and arguably a Chilean movie) beat out “Happy Together” (in Cantonese, directed by Wong Kar-Wai). My favorite, however, is the delirious romance of doomed bank robbers, El Nene (Leonardo Sbaraglia),  and Angel (Eduardo Noriega) in “Plata Quemada” (Burnt Money, 2000) cowritten and directed by directed by Marcelo Piñeyro. As I already said “an ____ian movie” is often not obvious for sorting. The next two entries further illustrate this.  (I haven’t seen Alejandro Doria’s “Esperando la carroza” (1985). I thought the 2009 Oscar-winning “El secreto de sus ojos” was quite good, along with the unassuming 2002 “Historias mínimas”.)

Armenian: “The Color of Pomegranates,” Sergei Paradjanov (1968) non-narrative movie about how Armenia (and Georgia?) may have looked to the 18th-century Armenian (Christian) poet/troubadour Haroutiun Sayakian, known as Sayat Nova (“the king of songs.” It is visually extraordinary (like Paradjanov’s celebration of Ukrainian pre-Soviet society in “Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors”) and very frustrating to anyone who wants a plot or character development or explanations of exotic customs. (This is probably the most alien—in the sense of opaque to me—film on my list, and I was tempted to substitue one of Armenian-Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s films, either “Ararat” or Calendar.)

Australian (English-language): If Baz Lurhman’s “Moulin Rouge” doesn’t count, then his earlier “Strictly Ballroom” (for best and favorite).

Azberjani: Sergei Paradjanov (1988) Ashugi Qaribi (Ashik Kerib, also known as “The Lovelorn Minstrel”) portrays another troubador (as in Paradjanov’s Armenian-language “The Color of Pomegranates.” It has more plot than “Color,” but plot was not a major concern of Sergei Paradjanov in any language.

Belgian (French-language): The only movie I’ve seen that I’m aware of being Belgian is “Ma vie en rose” (1997, directed by Alain Berliner), which was mildly amusing. The Oscar for the Serbian/Bosnian war black comedy “No Man’s Land” (1987)  was credited to Belgium. If that counts, it can be the best and my favorite. I certainly wouldn’t want to choose whether it is Serbian or Bosnian!

Bengali: Satrayjit Ray’s (1954-59) Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World of Apu), followed by other Ray movie. On my universal ten-best list, so all I’ll say again is “Wow!”.

Bhutanese: In Tibetan, Australian in financing, and less than explicit in where it is set (I think Nepal), still “Phörpa” (“The Cup”, 1999, written and directed by Khyentse Norbu) is a delight to include with its passionate soccer fans among the young monks as at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery (somewhere in the diaspora). The director was born in Bhutan, and also went on to make the very interesting Travelers and Magicians (2003).

Brazilian: The most memorable is “Black Orpheus” (and my memory has had to last a long time), directed by Marcel Camus. “Central Station” (Central do Brasil, 1998, directed by Walter Salles, who also directed “The Motorcycle Diaries”, which was shot in multiple countries) eclipsed “Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands” as my favorite. As the cranky old lady who earns her living writing letters for illiterates in the main train station of Rio, Fernanda Montenegro was unforgettable, as was the 9-year-old Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira). I was very impressed by “Cidade de Deus” (City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, 2002), but it is way too chilling to be enjoyable (the tv series “Cidade dos Homens” (City of Men, 2002-05) is less grim).

British/English: I’m not entirely sure that David Lean’s epic “Lawrence of Arabia” counts as “English.” The alternate “best” (shot in Vienna by Carol Reed) is “The Third Man,” and that or The Importance of Being Earnest (more for its source material perfectly delivered than for any cinematic merit) or “My Beautiful Laundrette” as my favorite (and sigh that Omar Wannecke did not go on to have much of a career, unlike Daniel Day-Lewis who threw his away) is my favorite.

Burkina Faso: “La Nuit de la vérité (The Night of Truth, 2004), directed by Fanta Rêgina Nacro is at once horrifying and hope-providing, a tale of attempting to get beyond a civil war filled with atrocities.

Canadian: I don’t understand the accolades for the tedious movies of Denys Arcand’s “Barbarian Invasions” and earlier “Decline of the American Empire,” both nominated for best foreign-language film Oscars. His 1989 “Jésus de Montréal”  (Jesus of Montreal), however is very impressive. My favorite is also about an extremely committed artist: Francois Girard’s 1993 “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.” The best is probably Atom Egoyan’s heartbreaking 1997 “The Sweet Herafter” with an awe-inspiring central performance by Ian Holm, but what a downer that is!

Chad: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s (2006) “Abouna” (Our Father) is a poignant tale of lost boys (their father has abandoned them; they are not as literally “lost” as the former child soldiers of the Sudan) in the tradition of “Aparajito” and “400 Blows,” coming from a country with no movie theaters.

Chilean: I sees 2005 “Machuca” is a poor relation to “Y tu máman, tambien”) insofar as it focuses on a friendship across class lines, but that is overwhelmed by examination of the American-sponsored 1973 coup.

Chinese (Cantonese): My favorite is Painted Faces” (Qi qiao fu, directed by Alex Law, 1988), followed by Jackie Chan grown up (sort of) in “Project A, Part II” (‘A’ gai waak juk jaap. 1987, directed by Chan). My favorite fight scene is the lion dancers near the start of “Drunken Master” (Jui kuen,1978, directed by Yuen Wooping). Among the best are John Woo’s “The Killer” (Die xue shuang xiong,1989) and Wong Kar-Wai’s Chunking Express. And I’m a big fan of Johnie To movies, such as “Running Out of Time.”

Chinese (Mandarin): My current favorite is “The House of Flying Daggers”, directed by Zhang Yimou. Either his earlier (1991) cross-Chinese-history tragedy “Raise the Red Lantern” or Chen Kaige’s (1993) “Farewell, My Concubine” may be the best, though for cinematography nothing I know in any language surpasses “The House of Flying Daggers.” A heartbreaking movie, the last part of which is guaranteed to make me cry is Chen Kaige’s “Life on a String” (1991).

Colombian (Spanish-language): “La Virgen de los sicarios” Our Lady of the Assassins (2000) is a haunting movie about gangster-overwhelmed Medellin and a very offbeat romance between a “civilized” man and desolate angels. It was directed by Barbet Schroeder, who was born in Teheran and has directed movies in English (Reversal of Fortune) and French (Maitresse), and the documentary “Idi Amin Dada.” For a Colombian-directed movie, partly in indigeouns languages, the visually ravishing “The Wind Journeys” (2009), written and directed by Ciro Guerra is great cinema, if less-than-great as a movie. His Oscar-nominated 2015)“El abrazo de la serpiente” (Embrace of the Serpent) has an amazing indigenous Amazonian performance by Niblio Torres.

Congo-Kinasha (Democratic Republic of the Congo): Djo Tunda wa Munga’s 2010 gangster/picaro “Viva Riva!” is quite lively.

Croatian: “Ovce od gipsa” (“Witnesses “in English, 2003), written and directed by Vinko Bresnan, a chilling examination of complicity with ethnic cleansing.

Cuban (Spanish-language): “Lucía” (1969, directed by Humberto Solís) is the sort of historical swath across history Zhang Yimou used to make before he went wuxia (and CGI). I was very impressed when I saw it, but have not heard of it being shown or available in recent years. “Memories of an Underdevelopment” (Memorias del subdesarrollo, 1968, directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea) is also very good. Color me tepid about “Strawberries and Chocolate( Fresa y chocolate (1994, also (co-)directed by Gutiêrrez Alea, but admiring of Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of Arenas’s Before Night Falls.

Czech: I love “Larks on a String” (Skrivánci na niti (made in 1968, withheld from release until 1990, directed by Jirí Menzel, more famous for having directed “Closely Watched Trains”), which is certainly a very good film. (And based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, author of the wonderful I Served the King of England. (Forget Milos Forman!)

Danish: The one world-class Danish director is Carl-Theodore Dreyer. I’d really like to choose his “The Passion of Joan of Arc” in this category. It’s silent, but surely it’s a “French film.” Not only is Day of Wrath (Vredens dag, 1943) not my favorite Danish film, I don’t even like it. It is the first movie that I rated 5-stars and checked “do not recommend to friends.” It is a great movie but repellent in latter-day complicity with witch-torture and execution (in contrast, there is no sense from “The Passion of Joan of Arc” that Dreyer thought she got what she deserved). Dreyer also directed the incredibly irritating but undeniably great “Gertrud” (1964). (I’ve steered clear of “Ordet.” Maybe some time when I’m feeling very masochistic…) For favorite Danish movie, the conventional choice is a welcome relief from Dreyer: Babette’s Feat (Babettes gästebud, 1987, directed by Gabriel Axel from a novella by the Danish baroness who wrote as Isaak Dinesen), not having seen “Festen” (1998, written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg) or “Bab el shams” (2004, directed by Yousry Nasrallah) or “Pelle the Conqueror” (1988, directed by Bille August). I’m not a Dogme fan, though I thought that Icelandic pop singer Björk was amazing in “Dancing in the Dark” (2000, directed by Lars von Trier).

Documentary: Tokyo Olympiad has a lot of drama as put together by the master director Kon Ichikawa (Fire on the Plains, Harp of Burma, Enjo, etc.)

Djbouti (in French): “Beau travail,”  Claire Denis’s 1999 updating Billy Budd and moving it to the French Foreign Legion outpost on the horn of Africa with striking visuals and superb performances by Michel Subor and Grégoire Colin.

Dutch: “Karakter” (1997, directed by Mike van Diem). How did an Oscar-winner get on my list? Well, that’s practically the only way a Dutch movie [or Argentinian] movie gets shown in the US? And that shows that it could win in a category more competitive than my favorite Dutch movie! It really is excellent. But why hasn’t van Diem made another movie since its success?

Equatorial Guinea: Editor/director “Where the Road Runs Out” (2014) directed by South African Rudolph Buitendoch, starring Ivory Coast-native Isaach De Bankolé shows a verdant countryside. De Bankolé’s character George leaves his life as an esteemed scientist based on Rotterdam for the country he left long ago, one in which his father had a large cacao plantation during Spanish colonial rule. The cinematography of Kees van Ostrum (Gods and Generals, Return to Lonesome Dove) is lovely, and the music by French composer Laurent Eyquem is almost as winning as the orphan Jimmy (Sizo Motoko) is. (This is the only movie made in the small Central African country).

Filipino: Outside counsel suggested “Manila by Night” (1980, directed by Ishmael Bernal) also known as “City After Dark.” It is unavailable in the US, alas. And Ricardo Ramos champions “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveras” (Aureas Solito, 2005), which is more likeable and less melodramatic than the other half dozen Filipino films I’ve seen.

French: Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” with Alain Delon as a cat-loving hit man is my favorite and I could argue is the best. (I also like Melville’s movie of Jean Cocteau’s Les enfants terribles a lot, and Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge also starring Delon, and, while I’m at it, Georges Franju’s movie of Cocteau’s Thomas, l’imposteur and Cocteau’s own “La belle et le bête” and “Orphée” The best is widely supposed to be Jean Renoir’s “La Règle du jeu” (which I always think should be plural). I prefer the Marcel Carné/Jacques Prévert “Les enfants du Paradis,” even though it is overlong. I’ll instead go with the intense “Un condamné à mort s’est échappé” (A Condemned Man Escapes, 1956, directed by Robert Bresson, whose “Pickpocket” is another minimalist masterpiece).
Georgian: “The Legend of the Suram Fortress”/Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa (1984) directed by Sergei Paradjanov, whose “Ashik Kerib) was also partly in Georgian. “Legend” was the first movie Paradjanov was allowed to direct after 16 years that included more than four in Soviet prison. Like his other movies starting with “Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors,” it celebrates pre-Soviet, non-Russian cultures/societies.

German: Fritz Lang’s “M” is one of the most influential movies in film history, and he produced a large body of striking films—silent, German, French, and American ones (see, and, better still, join my Lang writeoff). My favorite German film not in German (but with the wondrous Marianne Sagebrecht) is Bagdad Cafe, directed by Percy Adlon. Werner Herzog’s Fitzcaraldo is in German and I like it better than the more imposing (“greater”)”Aguirre: the Wrath of God.” (Both of which might be classified as “Peruvian films,” and then Herzog’s mostly ignored Cobra Verde with Klaus Kinski going crazy in another tropical locaiton can be Beininian…)

Greek: “Zorba, The Greek” had a Greek director (Michael Cacoyannis, actually Cypriote by birth; he also directed “The Trojan Women” in English) and a great Greek actress (Irene Pappas, Elektra, also directed by Cacoyannis and in Greek) and was filmed on Crete with the Ethnic for All Seasons Anthony Quinn in the lead role. If that doesn’t count as a “Greek movie,” my second choice “Phaedra” (directed by blacklisted American expatriate Jules Dassin, starring his wife, later Greek Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri in the title role and Anthony Perkins as a modern-day Hippolytus. It’s also English-language, but the category is “best foreign films” not “best foreign-language films”, no? (And would someone release the last Dassin/Mercouri movie, “A Dream of Passion” on DVD, please?)

Guinea-Bissau: Written and directed by Mohamed Camara (1959-), “Dakan” (Destiny, 2009) is quite beautifully shot a male-male romance (against cultural odds).

Hindi: Considering that “Bollywood” produces many movies, I’ve seen remarkably few movies in Hindi (fewer than in Bengali). I love R. K. Naryan’s novel The Guide, a comedy that turns to a wheeler-dealer being taken for a saint and taking on the role with lethal seriousness. The Hindi version runs nearly three hours and includes many plot-relevant songs that are not subtitled on the DVD I saw, but the story is still discernable. This 1965 movie, adapted and directed by Vijay Anand. was important historically in the diversification of the Indian film industry. It has outstanding performances by Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman. (I enjoy Mango Soufflé (2002), written and directed by Mahesh Dattani, though it is in some ways quite inept, but my favorite is the slapstick comedy “Three Idiots” (2009) directed and cowritten by Abhijat Joshi.)

Hungarian: The great Hungarian director is Istvan Szabo. I haven’t seen “Mephisto,” which won a best foreign-language movie Oscar. I think that “Colonel Redl” (which also has a powerhouse performance by Klaus Maria Brandauer) is the best of those I’ve seen, but “Sunshine” is more Hungarian in setting and characters than those two. (My real favorite is Kristen Bjorn’s “Comrade in Arms.”)

Icelandic: The slacker comedy “101 Reykjavìk” (2000, directed by Baltasar Kormákur. (I actually have seen other Icelandic movies, and been to Iceland). It is enhanced by having Almodóvar’s recurrent star Victoria Abril in it.

Indonesian: Langitku rumahku (My Sky, My Country, 1990) directed by Slamet Rahardjo is a touching film about two boys, one (Gempol) very poor, the other (Andri) quite rich but neglected who become friends and take to the road (prefiguring the older boys of different, but not as extremely different classes in “Y Tu Mamá, También”).

Inuit: I admit not to understand the most famed Inuit movie, “Atanarjuat: Fast Runner.” (dialogue entirely in Inuktitut). I was very impressed by the present-day story of some young  Iñupiaq in Barrow, Alaska, the most northernmost US town, in “On the Ice” (2011) written and directed by Barrow-native Andrew Okpeaha MacLean (with more dialogue in English than in Iñupiaq, I’ll acknowledge).

Irish: “In the Name of the Father” (1993, directed by Jim Sheridan) for best, “The Crying Game” (1992, directed by Neil Jordan) for favorite, Both are riveting tales focusing on IRA terrorist. (I also love Jordan’s “Mona Lisa,” though I don’t know if it qualifies as “Irish,” even being directed by Jordan.)

Israeli (Hebrew): “Yossi and Jagger” (2002) is a very moving romance between two soldiers in an isolated border installation. it was directed by Eytan Fox, whose 2004 “Walk On Water” is also excellent (and confronts the same issues as Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” did a year later). Also his “The Bubble” (Ha-buan, 2006). All three confront the difficulty of ending cycles of violence.

Italian: I’ll go with Luchino Visconti’s “Rocco and His Brothers” as the best as well as being my favorite. If anyone has failed to notice that I am forever smitten by the young Alain Delon, I might add Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’eclisse” (Eclipse). For me, none of Robert Rosellini’s or Federico Fellini’s movies are as good as the sum of their parts with the exception of Rosellini’s “Il Generale della Rovere” with a transcendent performance by Vittorio de Sica.” I can’t not mention Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Medea” mostly for containing the one movie performance by the diva of divas, Maria Callas. And Pasolini’s “Passion According to Saint Matthew” with his mother as the Virgin Mary… and “Teorema” with Terrence Stamp as the angel of Eros..

Ivory Coast:  “Bal Poussière” (Dancing in the Dust, 1988, written and directed by Henri Duparc) is a black comedy about five wives revolting when their husband, Demi-Dieu (Demigod) attempts to add a sixth. (Also see the Senegalese Xala.)

Jamaican: It’s not a great movie, though having raw vitality, but the soundtrack of “The Harder They Come” (1972, directed by Perry Henzell) and the charisma of Jimmy Cliff made it a favorite of mine, though it has been radically maimed turn it into an anti-drug movie. (“Countryman” (1982, directed by Dickie Jobson) has a good soundtrack and the pure-of-heart Rastafarian. (I love “Cool Running” with the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team coached by John Candy, but don’t consider it a Jamaican film.)

Japanese: I think that Kurosawa Akira directed more great movies than anyone else anywhere. Many of them (including its immediate predecessor, Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) and the earlier adaptation of Shakespeare, “Throne of Blood,” seem to lead up to “Ran” (Chaos), Kurosawa’s second masterpiece about old age (“Ikuru” was the first). “Ran” is a reflection on Shakespeare’s own final masterpiece, “King Lear,” with one of many great performances by Nakadai Tasuke. My favorite Japanese movie is the wry samurai black comedies from the mid-1960s starring Toshiro Mifune: “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro.” (And, if Kurosawa is the Mount Everest of film directors, he rises from a Himalayan range that includes Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kinoshita, Ichikawa, Kobayashi, Imamura, and Shinoda (in chronological order of their emergence).)

Kazakhstan: “Mongol,” directed by Russian director Sergei Bodrov about the early travails of Temüjin, who later came to be known as Genghis Khan was nominated for a 2007 best-foreign-language-film Oscar. (I don’t know what has happened to its sequel!) I preferred it to the Japanese-Mongoloian film also released in 2007, “Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea, directed by Shinichira Sawai, in which Takashi Sorimachi played Temüjin, but enjoyed the Central Asian location shooting in both.

Kenya (entirely in Maa): Though having too many extended shots of young would-be warriors walking across the savannah in pursuit of a possibly mystic lion, Les Guerriers de la Pluie” (Massai: Rain Warriors, 2004, directed by Pascal Plisson).

Kirghizi: Adopted Son/Beshkempir The first post-Soviet feature film produced in Kyrgyzstan film, although much of it is opaque to me, was quite a good one about coming of age with ethnographic scenes of matriachs’ ritual for warding off the Evil Away from a male infant, mud brick-making, leeching, and mourning rituals. And director Aktan Abdykalykov’s son Mirlan was excellent in the title role of a 13-year-old who discovers he had been adopted.
Korean: I liked the beautiful “Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom” Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring,” 2003, directed by Kim Ki-Duk). But “Tae Guk Gi” (Brotherhood of War, 2004) blew me away. At the very least, it is the best movie set against the Korean War.

Kurdish (from Iran):  The tragedy of an Iranian Kurdish youth trying to get from Le Havre to London in “Welcome” (written and directed  by Philippe Lioret, 2009) is a French movie. Which of Bahman Ghobadi’s movies is the best? I think “Turtles Can Fly” (2004), though I think I like “Niwameng” (Half Moon, 2006) better. The very difficult-to-cross borders within Kurdistan are central to both and frustration and tragedy run through even the French Kurdish movie (and the 2000 “A Time for Drunken Horses,” and 2004 “Marooned in Iraq”).

Lebanon (Canadian-made): “Incendies” (2010, directed by Denis Villeneuve) has multiple griefs from the ethnic cleansings/civil war of Lebanon during the 1970s revealed to a pair of twins by the tasks they are set in the last will of their mother (Lubna Azabal). I was disoriented between the 1970 and present on occasion, but I guess so were the twins on a very painful quest.

Liberia (mostly in English)” Out of My Hand” (2015) was shot partly in the Margibi region of Liberia, partly in New York City, receiving some funding from the Liberian government and starring Liberia-born Bishop Blay as a rubber tapper who may have committed multiple atrocities in the civil war there. After a failed strike, he goes to New York and becomes a cab driver, though the Liberian civil war follows him there.

Macedonian: Milcho Manchevski’s “Before the Rain” (Pred dozhdot, 1995) is strangely constructed in three parts that cannot quite be set in a chronological order. It shows the emergence of ancient hatreds tamped down by Yugoslav communism. (The middle panel of the triptych is set in London, the other two were filmed on location in Macedonia.) It has a great central performance by Rade Serbedzija (Batman Begins).

Mali: “Yeelen” (Brightness, 1987) written and directed by Malian Souleymane Cissé was much lauded and won a special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988. I find it pretty tedious with an enraged father calling down the wrath of a god over and over and over as he pursues his purer-of-heart son, the handsome Nianankoro (Issiaka Kane).

Mauritania (mostly in Hassaniya; one major character does not speak it though it is his mother-tongue and he is staying with his mother)  “Heremakono” (Waiting for Happiness, 2002) written and directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, looks very striking. Things happend in the movie, but why they happen or what formed the characters is left to the viewer to infer (or make up). It won the International Critics Award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, and to me has visual affinities with Antonioni movies (but not the alienation of characters in them).

Mexican: It would be hard to argue against Luis Buñuel’s “Los Olivados” being the best. No one would argue that my favorite, “Doña Herlinda y sus hijos” is the best, but it is a charming fairy tale, far removed from the bleakness of “Los Olivados” and “Amores perros. (The ending of “Y tu mamá, tambien” ruined that for me).

Mongolian: “Urga” (Close to Eden, 1991, directed by Nikita Mikhalkov) shows a family of nomads, who have some modern technology. which focuses on another nomadic family with some modern artifacts. (Less sentimental than “The Story of the Weeping Camel” and “The Cave of the Yellow Dog,” both quasi-documentaries, directed by Byambasuren Dava, both of which I liked.) I’d like to see “Nohoi oro”n (State of Dogs, 1998), a reputedly strikingly photogaphed movie about the spirit of a dog seeking to find its owner.It was codirected by Peter Brosens who also codirected the bizarre (at least in its final third) Khadak (2007). Although it begs the question of how Chinggis Khan became paramount leader, I was swept up in the 2007 historical epic “Mongol” (directed and cowritten by Sergei Bodrovhttp).

Moroccan: I like Benoït Graffin’s “Café de plage” (Beach Café, 2001 from a novella by Mohammed Mrabet, which is set in Morocco, but give the nod to Ismaël Ferroukhi’s 2004 haj/road movie “Le grand voyage.” (The last part is shot in Mecca, so perhaps I should list it under “Arabian.”)

Nepalese: Eric Valli’s (1999) “Himalaya – l’enfance d’un chef” is mesmerizing. The story is Tibetan, as are the performers and some of the crew, though the director and those credited for the extraordinary images (Eric Guichard and Jean-Paul Meurisse) are French. The Bhutanese director, Khyentse Norbu filmed his genial account of a conflict between monastery tradition and televised soccer mansions “The Cup” (1999) in Nepal.

New Zealand (Maori): “Whale Rider (2002), a very popular choice, adapted and directed by Nicki Caro (over “When We Were Warriors”) for best and favorite.

Nigerian: NIgeria produces more movies than any country other than the US and India, most direct-to-video, most atrocious.” The best one I’ve seen and the one I like most is “Confusion Na Wa,”  (2013) written and directed by Kenneth Gyang, shot in Kaduna (in the Muslim Northwest of Nigeria). There’s a lot going on in the movie, much of it connected to a cellphone picked up in the confusion at the start after someone was killed in the street.

Norwegian:  Max von Sydow delivers the performance of a lifetime (and he has had a formidable movie career) in the title role of “Hamsum” (1996), directed by Jan Troell. The movie about the Norwegian winner of the Nobel Prize for literature portrays a marriage of Strindbergian in its savagery (though the wife, Marie, played by Ghita Nørby, is more sympathetic than in Strindberg plays) and aLear-like old man who had long been anti-British, supported Hitler and the occupation of Norway, annoyed Hitler greatly when they met, and was protected in the same wa Ezra Pound was after the war. (Troell and van Sydow are Swedish, Nørby Danish, but the movie was filmed in Norway and is about a Norwegian writer concerned about Norway’s place in the Third Reich.) I like another Norewgian film about writers,  Joachim Trier’s “Reprise,” and was somewhat underwhelmed by the WWII sabotage/resistance thriller “Max Manus.”

Palestinian (in Arabic): “Paradise Now,” an absudist (dark) comedy on the difficulties of becoming a martyr and the frighteningly unreflective ease with which two young underemployed Palestinian friends undertake blowing themselves and as many Israeli soldiers as they can.

Peruvian:  Though inferior to the source novel by Mario Vargas Lllosa, Francisco J. Lombardi’s “Pantale y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja and the Special Services, 2000) is still a very funny satire on military rationality. Lombardi also directed the searing examination of class and sexuality,No se lo Digas a Nadie” (Don’t Tell Anyone, 1998), some of which I remember vividly. I was disappointed by “Máncora” (2011) despite fine acting in it.

Polish: I consider “Rouge” French, the Decalogue too uneven, visually static, and anthologyy for consideration which leaves me with Andrzej Wajda’s (1957) “Kanal” or his “Man of Iron” or Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” which  is in English. So “Kanal.”

Portuguese (the country, for the language, see Brazilian above): I was enraptured by the sweeping historical movie “Mysteries of Lisbon”  (Mistérios de Lisboa, 2010) directed Manoel de Oliveira (1908-2015).

Romani (aka “gypsy”): Tony Gatlif’s (1997) Gadjo dilo/Crazy Stranger goes from showing suspicions about the stranger played by Romain Duris, to recording music, to showing the hatred of the Romani by other Romanians.

And Romanian? I can go with the praise for Cristian Mungiu’s abortion tragicomedy  “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2007), whereas I thought Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Larescu” was a bit overpraised, though certainly not lacking bite. Corneliu Porumboiu’s (2009) “Police, Adjective” gives “4,3,2” a run for my nod. All three are slow-paced for popcorn-movie audiences.

Russian: Having opined that the bipartite Ivan the Terrible, directed by Sergei Eisenstein is the best film ever made, it has to be the best Russian film. Nevertheless, my favorite Eisenstein movie is the silent and fragmentary “Que viva Mexico.” I love the helmets and Prokofiev’s music for Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky,” a somewhat superficial and jingoistic movie in comparison with the two (of an intended three) awe-inspiring “Ivans.” Though not part of the Tarkovsky cult, I think his early (1962) “Ivan’s Childhood” is quite special, and I also like Sokurov’s (2007) “Alexandra” with the great Galina Vishnevskaya.

Scottish: At least shot in Scotland, by the Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), “I Know Where I am Going” is my choice, partly for the scenery, but mostly for Wendy Hiller (who thinks the title, but is mistaken). (Hitchcock’s “39 Steps” is ostensibly set in Scotland, but..) For more contemporary Scotland, Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” of course, is much touted, though I don’t like it. My favorite is Bill Forsyth’s “Local Hero” (1983), though Forsyth’s 1981 “Gregory’s Girl” is preferred by many.

Senegalese (Wolof- and French-language): “Ceddo” (1977, directed by Ousmane Sembene). With talk of the “clash of civilizations,” and the continued destruction of cultures not aligning with dar-al-Islam or Christendom (and the continuing contest between the Abrahamic religions in Africa), this movie, that I was fortunate to see in a retrospective of Sembene movies that he attended some years back, deserves to be far better known, as, indeed, do his other films. It is, unfortunately, not available even on VHS. His 2004 drama centered on female genital mutilation in a Bambara village, “Moolaadé” now is, as are “Mandabi,” “Xala,” and “Black Girl,” his first feature film. (I have seen a few Senegalese films not directed by Sembene in film festivals and the two feature films directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty on DVD; I was very impressed with his adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play “The Visit”, Hyenas, which is as good as the best Sembene movies.)

Silent: Favorite: F. W. Murnau’s “Tabú” (1931) on which Robert Flaherty collaborated for a while in various parts of Polynesia. A not entirely predictable locale for the culmination of German Expressionism, but one should remember how much European expressionism was influence by primitivism. Should I add his “Nosferatu” as “best”? (Keaton’s “The General” is IMO the best silent film, but does not belong in a list of “foreign” films! Whether Murnau’s 1927 “Sunrise” is foreign is also open to debate.)

Slovak: For me there is no question that “The Shop on Main Street” (Obchod na korze, 1965, directed by Ján Kadár) is a great movie with an unforgettable performance by Ida Kaminskia as an elderly Jewish shopkeeper befuddled when the Nazis come.

South Africa (in a slum patois drawing from Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, and English): “Yesterday” (2004, written and directed by Darrell Roodt ), which was nominated for a best foreign-language Oscar was a worthy endeavor, but I was very more impressed by Presley Chweneyagae in the title role of Tsotsi (a term meaning “thug”) and a very fine ensemble cast. The movie, which won the foreign-language film Oscar, is as likely to make people want to go to Johannesburg as “Crash” (which I think is not as good a movie as “Tsotsi”) is to make people want to visit Los Angeles. I have seen the arc of the movie described as “redemption”; I don’t think it gets there, but I think that it goes beyond “distraction from thuggery” (Roger Ebert’s characterization) to some expiation (like “Our Lady of the Assassins”, shot in Medellin, Colombia, though the palette of “Tsotsi” is darker that Schroeder’s movie’s).

Spanish: The movie from Spain by which I was most affected was “Cría [cuervos]” (1976), in which Carlos Saura directed his wife Geraldine Chaplin as a mother who is dying of cancer, though the focus is on her young daughter Mónica Randall, who keeps spinning a 45 rpm record “Porque te vas?” by Jeanette. My favorite, however, is Almodóvar’s “La ley del deseo” (Law of Desire, directed by Pedro Almodóvar, 1987), the last movie that Almodóvar made with Antonio Banderas the penultimate one with Carmen Maura (my other favorites are “Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios”[Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown] and “Mala Educación” [Bad Education]).

Sri Lanka (Tamil): “Dheepan” (2015) follows a Tamil Tiger after their defeat in the long-running civil war there and two refugees to France, where the pretend to be a family… and become one. The film won the Palme d’or at Cannes and has a significant amount of dialogue in French, though, I think, more in Tamil.
Swedish: I was transfixed by Ingmar Bergman’s “Seventh Seal” at an impressionable age (18). It or “”Smiles on a Summer Night “ can be my favorite. For the best, I’ll go with Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” (1958)—at least until I watch “Persona” again after many decades; it was certainly a film my generation of students loved to discuss. (The greatest non-Bergman Swedish film is the adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie,” directed in 1951 by Bergman’s mentor Alf Sjöberg.)

Taiwanese (in mixed Taiwanese [Hokkien] and Bejinghua [Mandarin]): Best and favorite are the same: Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” (2000) with another winsome child, Jonathan Chang, as an obsessive 8-year-old photographer of everything around. The movies of Hou and Tsai I find confusing and alienating, though there are moments of comic absurdity in Tsai’s and Hou’s “City of Sadness” has historical importance. Another 2000 film from Taiwan, “Fleeing by Night” *Ya Ben”) is heartbreaking.

Thai: “Rak Toraman” (Tortured love, 1986), the sequel to Pisan Archaraseranee’s 1985 film “Playing Soot Tai” (The last song) is a great revenge flick (also see Kon Ichikawa’s “Actor’s Revenge” in Japanese.) Yes, I have seen other Thai movies, including two by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. And I found much to admire in Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Beautiful Boxer, particularly the lead performance by champion kickboxer Asanee Suwan and the cinematography of Choochart Nantitanyatada.

Tibetan: I have to go with Martin Scorcese’s luminous biopic of the 13th Dalai Lama, “Kundun.” It was shot in Morocco by an American director of more than a little note, but it is in Tibetan and about the persecution and preservation of Tibetan culture. As is not the case for Bhutan, I have seen some movies filmed in Tibet (plus this list includes movies form Bhutan and Nepal about Tibetans), including Joan Chen’s very interesting (1998) “Xiu Xiu.” I also highly recommend Tom Piozet’s (2002) documentaries “Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion” and “Saltmen of Tibet, plus “Himalaya” l’enfance d’un chef” (1999), shot in Tibet by Eric Valli.

Tunisian: “Le fil”/”The String” (2010), directed and cowritten by Mehdi Ben Attia, stars the great Claudia Cardinale (who was born in Tunis and speaks Arabic among other languages, and plays a Frenchwoman who married an Arab) as the mother of a moody son Malik (Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan) who has returned after many years in France and takes up with similarly repatriated but decidedly lower-class Arab Bilal (Salim Kéchiouche).

Turkish:  I’d like to see “Bir tat bir doku” (2001, directed by Omer Faruk Sorak), and the award-winning “Yol,” but how? German-born director Fatih Akim’s 2004 movie “Gegen die Wand” (Head-On) partly takes place in Istanbul and won many awards, but I don’t much like the movie, preferring Akim’s earlier road comedy “Im Juli” (In July, 2000) and later road tragedy “Auf der anderen Seite” (The Edge of Heaven, 2007). The latter has gorgeous shots of the Turkish Black Sea coast, but for gorgeous cinematpgraphy, my new favorite Turkish movie is “Mutluluk” (Bliss, 2007), directed by Abdullah Oguz from the acclaimed 2002 novel by Zülfü Livaneli (who is a sometimes film director but wrote the musical score rather than the screen adaptation). Özgü Namal (who was 31, playing a raped shepherdess whose age was raised from the book’s 15 to 17) delivers a great performance in it. Though there is much to admire in Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (2011), I found it frustratingly gratuitously minimalist. I liked the 2015 Oscar-nominated (Franco-Turkish) “Mustang” about repression and five orphaned girls, directed by Ankara-born Deniz Gamze Ergüven.

Ukrainian: Sergei Paradjanov’s (1964) visually gorgeous, narratively frustrating “Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors.”

Uruguayan: the rather genial and scenic oldster train-hijacking movie El último train (The Last Train, 2002), cowritten and directed by Diego Arsuaga (categorizing “Quemada plata,” the last two-thirds of which is set in Uruguay as an Argentine movie).
Venezuelan: I was underwhelmed by the only Venezuelan movie I’ve seen, Lorenzo Vigas’s 2015 ugly-looking story of a middle-aged man, Armando (Alfredo Castro) who pickes up “rough trade,” and betrays the response he eventually engenders from the skinny jack-roller, Élder (Luis Silva). I much prefer the Colombian “Our Lady of the Assassins.”) I’m surprised the film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Vietnamese: I like the fairy-tale romance engineered by a plucky orphan in Stephane Gauger’s “Cú và chim se sáo” (The Owl and the Sparrow, 2007). Though somewhat confusing (in its time jumps and some opaque motivation), I think that “Mua len trau” (The Buffalo Boy, 2004) is the best Vietnamese movie (Le The Hu starred in both, and both were directed by men who were born in Vietnam and educated in California universities).
©2006, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

E-Bay has broken the links to my epinion reviews of most of these movies. I discuss the African ones in my Kindle e-book (the application is free, so a Kindle is not necessary to read it), An Introduction to African Cinema.

The best movies ever

Having disagreed with the Sight and Sound poll of film directors that Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” is the greatest film ever made, I wanted to revive my own list of the ten best (also see the  longer list of my favorites here). Here it is:

I tend to interpret “great” in the sense of sweeping and epic; even the most narrowly focused film on the list(#4) involves an epic struggle against evil).

Romance is central in four (3,6,7, 10a), but one of the lovers is dead by the end of three. The films were made between 1927 and 1985. Two of the three American-financed films were made partly on location away from Hollywood by British-born directors, as were the two films directed by American-born directors. I did not attempt geographical balance, but of the other seven directors, two are French, two German, one Indian, one Russian, and one Japanese. (Apologies to Italy, the cinema from which I much admire and the source of many of my favorite movies, including four on my list of favorites. And apologies to John Ford, who is certainly in my pantheon of great directors.)

I would not claim that all my favorite films are great, and there are some moments in the films on this list that I’d question, but “great” does not mean 100% good. Though necessarily subjective, my list does not include any of the idiosyncratic picks of my list of favorites. Most are recognized by the film-lovers who have seen them as great films, though there always a few dissenters (most likely about my American choices!), and my list is not markedly different from one I made around 1986. (Since posting this, I’ve been smitten by Kobayashi’s Human Condition trilogy.)

(10b) David Lean’s (1962) Lawrence of Arabia probably belongs on my list of favorites, but is definitely great in the sense of a wide canvas (of people and events, it was also shot in wide-screen format). It has some stupendous parts, starting with a dot in the distant sand growing into Omar Sharif riding into film stardom, one of the most memorable musical motifs of any film, great performances from Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, and Alec Guiness, et al. The parts do not entirely cohere, nor does its title character (not that it did in reality either…). Besides being a great film, it is of particular current relevance in showing the European powers’ connivance in establishing the House of Saud as rulers of Arabia and the general lack of understanding of the lifeways and conceptions of the Middle East on the part of western policy-makers. Al-Quaeda’s worldview and mission to destroy the modern world grows directly from the “fundamentalist” wahabbism the Saudi lineage has sponsored and proselytized from Mecca to the ends of the Islamic world. Continued cynical support from western regimes (and two Bush presidents) has maintained what are portrayed in the movie as the “freedom fighter” Arabs in power, and, if I recall, 18 of the 19 9/11 hijackers originated in Saudi Arabia.

(10a) Satrayjit Ray’s (1954-59) Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World of Apu) shows a Bengali boy growing up, the triumphs and tragedy of “ordinary” people. The world is filled with what seems picturesque to me, but shows the truth of John Ford’s claim that the most interesting thing to photograph is the human face. Some find the camera placement too static, but the framing is never less than perfect. Ray prefigured the French New Wave in using natural light (if not in jump-cutting!). This trilogy has moments of exhilaration and of despair that would make it sound manic depressive if I tried to recount what happens.

(9) This slot was occupied by Leni Riefenstah’s documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, “Olympia.” Having re-viewed and reviewed it (Part One and Part Two), I still think it is a great film and that it is not a part of the particularly Nazi cult of “Aryan” features, because its biggest star is the African American track gold medalist Jesse Owens and it also fetishizes some Japanese athletes (yeah, I know Japan was an ally, but it is bodies and athletic skills Riefenstahl shows and seems to worship, not Hitler or “Aryans” like herself. “Body fascism,” if there is such a thing, perhaps…). I’m tempted to substitute my favorite sports documentary “Hoop Dreams,” but am instead replacing it with the greatest of Olympic documentaries, Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (showing parts of the 1964 Olympics). The special drama of Jesse Owens winning races against the “master race” on its home turf (in Berlin 1936 with chancellor Hitler in attendance) is more than “sports history.” Ichikawa includes some images as striking as Riefenstahl’s and many human dramas (“Olympiad” has some longeurs; “Tokyo Olympiad” none IMO.)

Insofar as there is a star of the show, it is the Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila winning his second gold medal (at the age of 35 and only a month after an appendectomy). If there is a theme I could induct from the five Ichikawa movies I’ve seen, it would be perseverance.

(8) Tabu (1931), cowritten and codirected by the great master of German expressionist cinema F. W. Murnau (Last Laugh, Nosferatu, Sunrise) and the great early master of documentaries Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Louisiana Story) is an amazing, beautifully photographed film about forbidden love (involving a Polynesian sacred virgin and a fisherman) that was filmed in Bora Bora with nonactors who had probably never seen a movie. It has its kitschy moments, but the dancing is superlative, as is the photography of Floyd Crosby, particularly in the final sailing away scene. Flaherty quit and sold his share, so ultimately this is a Murnau film (and Murnau was dead before it was released) and it seems to me that the boat sailing away at the end is headed for Valhalla (with Matahi a stand-in for Murnau). Remembering it makes me shiver!

(7) I am a major Alfred Hitchcock fan. “Notorious” is my favorite, but I also adore (in chronological order) “The Lady Vanishes”, “39 Steps”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, “Spellbound”, “Strangers on a Train”, and Vertigo (1958). Alfred Hitchcock became very widely recognized as a tv personality, but until being loudly championed by François Truffaut and other Cahiers critics, was considered a genre (thriller) journeyman rather than as the creator of cinematic masterpieces. “Vertigo” in particular was poorly received by American audiences and critics on its release, though it is obvious now to many that it is a great portrait of obsession and role-making (far more effective than any of the films made of Pirandello’s plays), a superlative exercise in color photography (credit Robert Burke, as well as Hitchcock’s schema), a model of music (Bernard Hermann’s) enhancing the visual moods, and contains one of the greatest performances of screen icon James Stewart.

(6) Orson Welles’s (1940) “Citizen Kane” often tops best film lists. I don’t question that it is a great film, though it is a rather frosty one except for the obvious enjoyment of playing with the possibilities of the medium of film. I think that part of the tribute to it derives from sympathy for Welles never again having the resources and control he had in making “Kane.” Even cut by others, I prefer “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Despite his legendary difficulties with financing his ambitious visions, I think he managed a genuine masterpiece in which he played the role well-suited to the appearance of the “boy wonder” bloated and seemingly dissipated, Falstaff (aka, “Chimes at Midnight“, 1965,findally on DVD). Welles is a not particularly jovial, bonhomie Falstaff, but excels both in bluster and in heartbreak when Prince Hal is crowned Henry V and spurns him. John Gielgud’s Henry IV is nearly out of this world, near death and intoning the famous “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” speech in the famed Gielgud voice that the audience literally can see. Margaret Rutherford is memorable as Mistress Quickly; Jeanne Moreau is forgettable as Doll Tearsheet, but the film’s greatness depends on the battle scene (shot in the turmoil, like the great battle scenes in Kurosawa tragedies) and on the extraordinary performance of Keith Baxter as Prince Hal. The primary sources of “Falstaff” are the two plays titled “Henry V” and Baxter restores his part’s centrality, upstaging the master upstager. Also, the work of French cinematographer Edmond Richard, who also lensed Welles’s version of Kafka’s “The Trial” is outstanding in “Falstaff” (and was the best aspect of “The Trial”).

(5) Sanshô Dayû (Sansho, the Bailiff, 1954) has the knock-out emotional force and the visual riches that I thought I remembered from when I first saw it decades go. Although less an epitome of Mizoguchi Kenji’s concern with female sacrifices for male family members than the 1952 “The Life of Oharu” (in comparison to which the suffering and grief of “Sanshô” is mitigated), it has affecting performances (my favorite of which is that of Kato Masahiko as the ten-year-old falling from privilege into slavery). Both the famed visual compositions and the famed pans (the two starting and ending the final scene are particularly famous)were the responsibility–and inspiration of Miyagawa Kazuo (who shot “Rashomon” and “Yojimbo” for Kurosawa along with some of the visually dazzling Kagemusha and some of Tokyo Olympiad and other Japanese masterpieces.

(4) Robert Bresson Un Condamné à mort échappé (A Condemned Man Escapes, 1956) is one of the most intensely concentrated movies ever made. I think that I like Bresson’s (1958) “Pickpocket” (which also involves lots of closeups of the title character’s hands) more, but as a small-in-scale entry, the story of a WWII French resistance fighter clawing his way out of his prison cell is the ne plus ultra. Without overt symbolism, Bresson’s film exalts resistance to seemingly omnipotent oppressors.

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(3) Buster Keaton’s (1927) The General is a fixture on greatest film listings. There is very little comedy and, of course, no facial expression from The Great Stone Face, here playing a determined southern engineer whose beloved locomotive is seized by the Union army. As in other (all?) great Keaton movies, Keaton is maniacally determined to prove himself, this time to Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), who believes he has not joined the army out of cowardice (when his job has been judged indispensable and his volunteering was rejected by Confederate authorities). I wouldn’t be the first person to observe that parts of the movie seem like a documentary (though it was filmed in Oregon!), or at least to bring the still photography of Matthew Brady et al. to life. It is brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed, with one of the greatest chase sequences ever. Between 1924 and 1927 Keaton made a series of masterpieces. I’m not sure which is my favorite, probably “Our Hospitality”, which is far funnier than “The General.”

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(2) Kurosawa Akira ‘s Ran (Chaos, 1985). “King Lear” is the traditional climax of Anglophone actor’s mature artistry. Kurosawa’s adaptation, set in feudal Japan, with an aging father splitting his kingdom between three son-in-laws. As with Kurosawa’s adaptation of “Macbeth”(Throne of Blood),  the grandeur of Shakespeare’s language is jettisoned, but the wordless climaxes of each are pure cinema (not to mention pure cataclysm for the protagonists fully realizing their folly). It is long (2:40), bloody, beautiful, and a towering work of genius culminating a series of Kurosawa films that are among the greatest films ever made anywhere. It also has the best helmets of any film on my list, since I chose “Ivan the Terrible” rather than “Alexander Nevsky” for my Eisenstein masterpiece, and a haunting musical score by Takemitsu Tori . (Kurosawa thought that “Ran” would be his last film, and had difficulty getting it financed. He made some minor movies after it—just as actors who triumph as Lear may keep working… with nothing left to prove. Also, I like Kurosawa’s preceding anti-epic Kagemusha more, along with Sanjuro. Nakadai Tatsuya is in all three, and in some other amazing Japanese masterpieces including Okamoto’s Kill!, Kobayashi’s “Harakiri”/”Seppuku” and The Human Condition trilogy.

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(1) Sergei Eisenstein more or less invented cinema as an art form, or at least as an art form of montage. “The Battleship Potemkin” (1925) is the conventional pick for best film lists and certainly his most influential film, but with my predilection for understanding “best” in the epic sense, my choice is the two-part Ivan the Terrible (1944-46) about the first czar. For me, it is the culmination of expressionism (a mostly German idiom) with shadows as ominous as in the darkest night of cinema noir. (The first part exalts power and fervent leadership to an unsettling sense. Ivan’s loneliness and increasing derangement are the central features of part two).

Its musical score by Sergei Prokofiev is almost as great as the one he supplied Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” and the composition of the pointed-beard Ivan at a window as lines of supplicants sing the czarist anthem trudging through the snow is the most indelible composition in cinema history for me (as the montage on the Odessa steps from “Potemkin” is the textbook exemplar). The antagonists in part one are somewhere beyond operatic: Nikloai Cherkassov’s young Grand Duke of Moscow and the scheming Boyar princess Euphrosinia, played by Serafima Berman. The real dialectic (a Hegaeian rather than Marxist one) is between the human and the despot. Part One pleased Stalin as his henchmen (as “Alexander Nevsky”) had; Part Two was almost destroyed, and plans for a third part were cancelled, so that “Ivan the Terrible” is as important in the political history of film-making as it is in the history of representing political conflicts in films.

(The runner-ups: Jean Renoir’s “La grande illusion” (1937) and Carl Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) in which Falconetti is Jeanne going up in flames.)

©2005, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

Peter O’Toole as “Lord Jim”

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Richard Brooks (1912-1992) was a novelist (The Brick Foxhole, tamed onscreen as “Crossfire”) turned movie writer-directot with literary aspirations. He directed an uninteresting adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald “The Last Time I Saw Paris” and a deadly adaptation of (the I’ll grant unfilmable!) The Brothers Karamazov. IMO he did better with lesser literary properties: Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood, A Mule for the Marquesa (as “The Professionals”), Looking for Mr. Goodbar and two Tennessee Williams play adaptations: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Sweet Bird of Youth,” both starring Paul Newman paired with formidable presences (Elizabeth Taylor and Geraldine Page, Burl Ives and Ed Begley).

I’m not sure what is wrong with Brooks’ 1965 adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel Lord Jim, which was shot partly in and around the ancient Khmer (capital of Angkor Thom with an impressive cast headed by Peter O’Toole (fresh from Oscar-nominated performances in “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Becket”), along with James Mason, Eli Wallach, Jack Hawkins, Paul Lukas, and Curt Jurgens. Though the title character is very laconic through most of the movie, a lot of Conrad’s florid garrulousness comes out of the mouths of other characters (and from Jim’s just before the end).

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For me at least, there is too much talk at the beginning and the end of the long movie, with Jack Hawkins mostly redundant (to the images) voiceovering at the beginning and O’Toole’s Jim with his surrogate father trader Stein (Lukas) arguing that he must be punished in the last part (before a spectacular Balinese funeral with Angkor Wat in the background). 1965 audiences probably reacted “Haven’t we just seen this?” —that is O’Toole playing a man alienated from his homeland, preoccupied with not seeming a coward, seeing himself as a messianic leader for “third world” freedom fighters: Arabs against the Ottoman Empire, some generic Southeast Asian group against a warlord-like white bandit not too different from the one in Heart of Darkness. Both T. E. Lawrence and Tuan Jim are more than a little delusional about their transcendent wisdom and how beloved they are by nonwhite forces who don’t seem able to organize their own battles. Both are disappointed by their failure to deliver on their promises without white European leadership and after suffering disappointment, commit kinds of suicide.

As a young merchant marine officer who jumped ship, abandoning 800 pilgrims being transported to Arabia, Jim is dishonored and seeks anonymity (Lawrence’s dishonor in his memoir and in David Lean’s movie was being sodomized by a Turkish officer (played by José Ferrer in the movie) and Lawrence’s quest for anonymity came later in his lifecourse than Jim’s. Jim is tortured by the general, but is not anally raped. O’Toole has something of the same mad glint in his eyes in both roles and the same overestimation of his ability to make what he wants become reality.

Eli Wallach chews up a lot of scenery as the chief villain, known as “the general” preying on the upriver natives abetted by Stein’s corrupted and cowardly agent Cornelius (Jurgens). Back at the mouth of the river, Akim Tamiroff chews up more scenery as the owner of various boats in Malacca, Schmober. Eventually, a smoother villain “Gentleman” Brown (a bearded James Mason in a bowler hat) goes upriver to detach treasure from Jim’s self-invented protectorate. There is an undeveloped romance with a native girl (an affectless “performance” by Israeli actress Dalaih Lavi) and more developed male bonding with a boy (Eric Young?) and the hunky son of the headman. I guess it makes sense that the headman and his son are of the same ethnicity, though it being Japanese is noticeable odd (Saitô Tatsuo as the headman, Itami Jûzô [who later wrote and directed “Tampopo” and “A Taxing Woman”] as his son).

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Having panicked once, Jim is determined to prove himself and does so with manic intensity (not the grim determination of the maligned Gary Cooper character in “They Came to Condura”). I recall Conrad’s novel being primarily about that, though the movie is something of an epic in the style of an American western of clearing out bad guys who are dominating peaceful good small-town people that happens to have Cambodian backdrops, which were shot by Freddie Young, who had shot “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” for David Lean in other climes.

If the movie was overshadowed in 1965 by “Lawrence of Arabia” (even though O’Toole had played a real ruler, Henry II, in between), now it is overshadowed by Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now!” a version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with an upriver despot in, I think, Laos (filmed in the Philippines). And for me, the storm at sea pales against recent memory of those in “The Life of Pi.”

It’s impossible to consider this or any other movie in a vacuum. Alas for it, the associations it evokes are to better movies (including “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” for Wallach’s role). Somewhat unusually, rather than sagging in the middle, the middle of this movie that runs nearly three hours is better than the first or the last parts (IMHO).

The good-looking DVD has no bonus features except some theatrical trailers: not one for “Lord Jim” but ones for Brooks’s later “In Cold Blood,” and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (the last also focusing on a delusional British officer far from home in Southeast Asia).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray