Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu: Better Luck Next Time!
A couple of months ago, in the wake of another list-making exercise, film blogger par excellence Edward Copeland wondered aloud to the virtual room if anyone would be interested in participating in a vote in an attempt to compile a list of all-time great foreign films. Everyone who elected to participate (and it was quite a nominating committee) submitted a list of 100 films—each film to receive at least three votes would be put on a master list, from which each voter would then picks 25 for submission to make the top100 choices.
And now those choices have been revealed on
Edward’s site—it’s a list he cheekily refers to as The Satyajit Ray Memorial Anything-But-Definitive List of Non-English Language Films, his way of remarking on the fact that Ray, the great director of The Apu Trilogy and Distant Thunder among many others, went entirely unrepresented on the final of 122 titles.
Not only does Edward provide a handy introduction to the list, he also devotes a very nice page to the 22 films that didn’t quite make the rarified cut of the more round-sounding 100, which leads up to the big show: the list itself, which Edward has formatted with beautiful stills and a nice series of quotes from all the participants (including Yours Truly) to accompany each title.
About a month or so ago I made a somewhat masochistic list (based on the first collection of nearly 500 titles) of all the foreign-language films I haven’t seen, a humbling exercise, to be sure, but also one to inspire a whole new Netflix queue. And looking at the final product of Edward’s labor of love, I find myself inspired in much the same way. I’m going to print out the entire list of 100 and leave it conspicuously near my DVD player, checking off every title, even the ones I’ve already seen, until I’ve familiarized myself anew with old favorites and made up for all the lost time in my cinematic journey by acquainting myself with those I have yet to see. (Jim, Sansho dayu is on its way to my mailbox as we speak.) This was definitely a list worth compiling, one that’s going to be fun to read and contemplate for a long time. And no embarrassing aftertaste!
Many thanks to Mr. Copeland, and to everyone who participated, for words well written, films well evoked and a job well done.
For what it’s worth, here’s a list of my final 25 picks. I have left them in the order in which I ranked them, but I admit to a certain top loading of my favorites into the first 10 choices in a bald-faced attempt to bolster their standing on the final list. In some cases, the movies (Rules of the Game, for instance) didn’t need my help. In most cases, (Amarcord, for one) it didn’t really make much difference. This is just my semi-rational way of saying that the rankings here are about as arbitrary as they could possibly be, that a #1 for Amarcord doesn’t mean that I think it’s a better film than Rules of the Game or Seven Samurai or Madame de…. They are really ranked for purposes of the game only. All 25 are firmly anchored in my heart.
1) Amarcord-- Surely not the "best" of the movies on this list, and maybe not even Fellini's "best"--- but there's something about this film that transcends Fellini's nostalgic view of his own boyhood and becomes, for me, something more about what it was to have been Italian, in those days, and what it means sometimes in these.
2) Pierrot le fou-- The kind of movie that, if you see it at the right time in your life, might have to power to change the way you look at movies forever. Belmondo and Karina (likable/unlikable/charming/maddening) spin through Godard's fractured cinematic landscape with sensual abandon and absurd wonder; the film is a masterpiece that marked the first turn toward the more didactic, essay-driven obsessiveness that has driven Godard's career ever since.
3) Rules of the Game-- Renoir's prescient pre-war drama of societal collapse sneaks up on you and works on you from the inside out with a kind of unbearable lightness of feeling. Everyone should quit complaining that it routinely shows up in the top two of all these All-Time Best lists, just accept its greatness and bask in it.
4) Tokyo Story-- A beautiful, peerlessly perceptive poem of the separation of two generations in a Japanese family. Ozu's genius is in unobstrusive observation and the unexpected, often painful insight that rises up from it.
5) Nights of Cabiria-- Fellini's tale of an outsider's outsider moving through a series of whimsical and haunting adventures and disappointments in post-war Italy is his most nakedly emotional film, as well as a bitterwsweet farewell to the neorealist tradition in which he began his career. The movie is anchored by a great perfromance from Guiletta Masina.
6) M-- Were there ever darker shadows than the ones in Fritz Lang's grim expressionist noir? Or a performance as skin-crawlingly sympathetic as the work Lorre does here?
7) Exterminating Angel-- I just saw it for the first time last week, and it instantly became my favorite Bunuel movie. Lots of nasty, sacreligious fun to be had watching a slice of upper-crust society panic and crumble when their support systems, as well as every belief they hold dear, inexplicably disappear. One of the best, bitterly ironic endings ever.
8) The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie-- Bunuel had mellowed in temperament by the time of this companion piece to Angel, but his brutal wit is still much in evidence, and he's still got plenty to say about class entitlement and power and getting a good bite to eat.
9) The Seven Samurai-- Kurosawa's supremely entertaining, durable and expansive action epic has probably gotten better with age, standing proudly near the top of the heap watching filmmaker after filmmaker try, and usually fail, to approach its timeless mixture of personal drama, broad comedy and surging, emotional adventure.
10) Woman in the Dunes-- Teshigahara's adaptation of Kobe Abe's novel was one of the first movies to open my eyes to the expressively designed visual possibilities of film. An agonized, desperate echo of despair, obsession and madness ringing out for no one, and everyone, to hear, rendered in aridly beautiful, claustrophobic imagery.
11) Aguirre the Wrath of God-- Everything that is great about Herzog's recent spate of documentaries-- his obsession with those who must peer into the abyss, and his willingness to join with them-- was there all along in his superb 1972 adventure tale. Paced like no other film, and certain acted like no other, this is a movie carried along on rippling heat waves of hallucinatory images and sounds into a very personal heart of darkness.
12) Beauty and the Beast-- Hallucinatory images again (a recurring motif on this list, perhaps) crossed with dark romanticism power Cocteau's ambitious and lovely fairy tale, a rich evocation of place and spirit, a superb achievement of the imagination.
13) Open City-- I first saw Rossellini's clear-eyed neorealist masterpiece when I was in college trying to sort of the aftermath of Vietnam in my head and facing down a future of possible wars. The way in which this movie taps into the primal brutality of fascist occupation during WWII still has the power to enter my dreams and turn them into nightmares.
14) Belle de Jour-- Bunuel powers the story of a bourgeois housewife who inexplicably takes up prostitution with an erotic dream logic that takes full advantage of Catherine Deneuve's sleepily sensual screen presence.
15) The Seventh Seal- Bergman's consideration of the existence of God. The movie's images are iconic and so often parodied as to now be beyond parody, and the device of a chess game with death frames a story that is existentially chilling and at the same time ironically light on its feet.
16) Ugetsu monogatari-- An essential Japanese ghost story by Kenji Mizoguchi that swirls around the inevitability of greed and the betrayal of love. The unsettling mood of this movie is one of the most subtle and insinuating of any movie like it ever made. It was J-horror when J-horror wasn't cool.
17) Ikiru-- This powerful story of a dying man's hope to leave a piece of himself in the world should be required midlife crisis viewing. Kurosawa directs Takashi Shimura to one of the great performances in screen history.
18) The Blue Angel-- A film school classic that is about as unmusty and exciting as an early talkie can be. In this film Von Sternberg unleashes Dietrich as we will always know her, and by the end the audience is as devastated as poor obsessed Emil Jannings. Because whatever Lola wants...
19) Au hasard Balthazar-- Bresson’s vision of the poetry of submission to the everyday, of the sacrifice of saintliness, a religious allegory centered around the titular donkey, witness to life, made all the more powerful by how the director's style amplifies, without self-consciousness, a clear-eyed vision of utterly ordinary events touched by the sacred.
20) Madame de...-- This story of the passing along of a pair of disregarded earrings is so lush and nimble in its imagistic poetry, so buoyant in its dark comedy of manners that it could truly be termed a visual symphony. That's certainly only but one of many things that Max Ophuls' lovely, probing, heartbreaking drama so vibrantly is.
21) In the Mood for Love-- The most erotic paean to sustained, unfulfilled desire I've ever seen. Wong Kar-wai manages to convince us, through the palpably lovely cinematography and his own will to gaze into their souls, that Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are perhaps the most beautiful people to have ever lived, rendering their isolation even more tragic.
22) Sonatine-- Takeshi Kitano's inexplicably funny, terrifying and elliptical gangster movie is all about the decptive lulls, the digressions, diversions, and the stoic faces of a group of gangsters that sit quietly, all between sudden acts of savage violence. Kitano's movie has a peculiar rhythm all its own-- volumes are spoken in the few extra seconds he lets a take run after a shock, or a laugh, or a shot to the head.
23) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg-- An everyday romance given the pulse and expansiveness of an extended pop aria, Jacques Demy's bittersweet tale of two lovers whose desire is thwarted by circumstance is rendered entirely in Michel Legrand's songs, or rather his rendering of Demy's deliberately mundane dialogue in soaring, lilting, transcendent melody. Catherine Deneuve may have never been lovelier on screen, and that's saying something.
24) Spirited Away-- Hayao Miyazaki's supreme achievement, an act of glorious, unrestrained imagination that may well be unplumbable. The long, sorrowful nighttime train ride Chihiro takes across what seems to be an endless ocean, accompanied by a silent masked spirit, must be one of the great sequences in any animated film.
25) Day for Night-- The joy of making cinema, and the agony, and the comedy, and the futility, and the nonsense. Truffaut knows of what he speaks. One of his most unabashedly delightful movies.