Writing this now, a full year after I first devised this list, makes me realize just how far my tastes have come even in that short time. Here I’ve got Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s glorious story of the rise and fall of a perpetual old soldier at the tail end of my top 25 films, but it could just as easily have been The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffman, or my earlier entry Black Narcissus. Hell, they all could have made it. I’m increasingly convinced that these guys were the greatest directors to ever work in the medium. I know Martin Scorsese agrees.
But I’m sticking to the original plan, and for now it’s just The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp here. It’s a wartime film made during wartime, boldly grappling with the state of the British military as it pits the old dog Clive Wynne-Candy against a younger generation of military men, no longer bound by the honor and tradition bred into him from his earliest years of service. Major General Candy is the hero, albeit a foolish one, but it’s impossible not to admire his convictions, which play an integral part in establishing the great friendships and loves of his life. Roger Livesey gives a towering performance in the central role, but no less impressive is the support from Anton Walbrook and Deborah Kerr, the later leaving her mark on three different roles. It’s the strongest story that the Archers (Powell and Pressburger’s production company) ever put together, which is saying a lot, and the larger than life characters, stylish direction and triumphant score leave you wanting little else.
Picnic at Hanging Rock holds a special place in my heart for so elegantly tearing down the walls of the oft-clichéd mystery genre and showing me just how much mileage you could get out of a perfectly crafted enigma. It was hardly the first film to do this, and perhaps had I seen L’avventura first, I would have instead latched onto that, but since it was Peter Weir’s film that I first came upon, it’s remained an essential one for me ever since. Like L’avventura, the first act of the film ranks among the most deliriously beautiful pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. At the outset I felt letdown that such a pace couldn’t be sustained, but after a third of the film devoted to weaving a haunting tale of disappearance when a group of young girls venture up to the peak of the temporal curiosity that is Hanging Rock, we get to dwell in those interminable days post catastrophe with the classmates and teachers they left behind, and it’s only at the end of all this that the film seems to truly have set itself apart. We’ve been fed a steady stream of clues, suspects, and bizarre occurrences, but never do we come closer to the answers we were initially looking for. And by that point, we really don’t care, something that diehard Lost fans should appreciate.
The point is that sometimes the uncanny is better left without explanation. There’s nothing scarier, nothing more haunting, than the unknown, and solutions (satisfying or not) often devalue the mystery that came before them. And with a mystery as elegantly construed as this one, we’re better off left to wonder.
Nashville, despite a Best Picture nomination, a slot on the AFI top 100 and the general consensus as Robert Altman’s best film, still feels grossly underrated. For that I can think of a few explanations, though not a one feels like a valid complaint. Sure it’s long, but not Lawrence of Arabia long, and there’s a real momentum behind every event, driving every member of the sprawling ensemble toward the fateful concert that will at last bring them all together. It’s also about grass roots politics and country music, and I can personally sympathize with any aversion to these, but it all works, a uniquely American genre of music and a slice of democracy actually at work among the people, woven among the cast of dozens without a single lead, altogether the most American movie I’ve ever seen. Dreams are both realized and shattered, love is discovered and hearts are broken, and people find strength in each other, but also in music. In a way, it tells the story of America without ever attempting to project that onto one individual or family. The many characters of Nashville form a more honest cross-section of the country, and the story doesn’t belong to any one of them, but all of them. Presented this way, it understandable doesn’t fit our anticipated mode of storytelling, but it never feels disconnected and the characters are fascinating to observe, and it all ties together in a landmark finale that’s among the most powerful there ever was. Underrated indeed.
A curious adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s finest works, Prospero’s Books is almost more of a multimedia experience than a film. Mad genius Peter Greenaway directs everything as if it were on the world’s largest stage, only to divide our attention through artful overlaid images, just some of the examples of his frame within a frame (which occur both naturally, and through post production). The ancient John Gielgud plays Prospero, truly standing in for the bard himself as he recites the lion’s share of The Tempest as the events unfold onscreen. It sounds complicated, but the film is anything but manic, thanks mainly to the elegant gliding camera of Sacha Vierny. It also may just be the most artistic film I’ve ever seen, committed to raising the level of literary adaptations above simply illustrated text and creating in the process something both truly cinematic and at harmony with all other forms of art. Call it pretentious if you like – I call it beautiful, every word of the play, every note of the score, and every frame upon glorious frame.
Bernardo Bertolucci remains more famous for the scandalous Last Tango in Paris, but his earlier masterpiece The Conformist has all the style and all the sex of that one just without the butter. It’s an intense political thriller that doesn’t mind damning its main character, Marcello, and we stick with him all the way anxious to see whether he is capable of mercy or he’s been conditioned as nothing more or less than a fascist assassin. Jean-Louis Trintignant in perhaps his definitive role has all the cool aplomb of Alain Delon in Le Samourai but his fascist ties severe much sympathy for him, though the film is gracious enough to explore childhood trauma crucial to his development. This only draws us closer to those around him, those who may feel the consequences of his actions, and sure enough the supporting ladies, Stefania Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda, figure prominently into many of the film’s greatest scenes. And there’s no shortage of great scenes here, though the very finest may be the dance hall, where Marcello finds himself consumed by the crowd, and Bertolucci gets a chance to pay homage to the other great Italian political epic, The Leopard.