Breaking the Waves wasn’t just one of Danish master (and I daresay, enfant terrible) Lars von Trier’s greatest efforts, it was also one of the pioneering works of the avante-garde school of filmmaking called Dogme 95. It is a sweeping, emotionally charged human drama that is at once devastatingly bleak and deeply affecting for the viewers. Set in a quaint albeit xenophobic Scottish village, this singularly disquieting tale is about a naïve, emotionally unstable and god-fearing girl called Bess (Emily Watson, in one of the most striking screen debuts), who falls in love and marries an oil-rig worker called Jan (the exceptional Stellan Skarsgard); however, a terrible tragedy strikes resulting in Bess walking down the self-destructive path to delusion, paranoia and madness. Divided into chapters with each beginning with brilliantly chosen soundtracks, and filmed on grainy hand-held camera, writer/director von Trier has tackled the two most potent human emotions of love and faith with such incredibly deft touches that it was at times difficult to fathom whether the intent was to provoke or to overwhelm. But think what one may, the end result is at once a profoundly disturbing and a supremely enlightening work of art. To cut a long story short, Breaking the Waves – one of the landmark movies of the 90’s – achieved the truly rare feat of being universal and personal at the same time.
Right from childhood we have this crazy, fun knack of making lists. And so it was a really fun and interesting proposition when Iain Scott, of the wonderful blog The One-Line Review - where, as the name suggests, he jots down his opinions of the numerous movies he watches in single line reviews which manage to be informative, dense, concise and revelatory all at once - asked me a couple of months back to take part in a survey to find a list to end all lists - "50 Greatest Films".
As any cinephile would observe, this is no mean task. Personally, though I'm still in what might be called 'learning curve', and am still way, way off a position where I can safely state that I've watched all the good ones, it still took quite some time in listing my 100 favourite movies which are listed on the right side of the screen. Hence I was up for a major challenge in bringing that down to 50; it was a nice experience nonetheless. And to reinforce Iain's unique style of movie reviews, I decided to attach one-line reveiws to the 50 chosen ones.
The '50 Greatest Films', selected from a survey of a plethora of participants, including yours truly - you'll find my list originally published here - was released for public viewing on the 2nd week of June here. I'm reprinting my alphabetically-listed submission to the poll verbatim at my blog should anyone be interested.
Ace in the Hole (US) – Arguably the most acerbic take on ‘Yellow Journalism’, this masterpiece from Billy Wilder stars Kirk Douglas as a cynic and an opportunist who would go to any extents for the sake of his prized scoop.
Alice in the Cities(Ger) – Though not as popular as his Paris, Texas, this tale of an unlikely friendship between a loner and a young girl, is a great road movie as well as a terrific exploration of urban alienation and human bonding.
Amores Perros (Mex) – Love and dogs play literal, as well as figurative roles in Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s explosive debut feature on three POV stories, set in an urban Mexican milieu, connected by a tragic car accident.
Aranyer Din Ratri (Ind) – Often regarded as Satyajit Ray’s greatest masterpiece, this chronicle of four Calcutta youths taking a trip to a rural place, turned into a fascinating deconstruction of urbanisation, friendship, love and the human character.
Asphalt Jungle (US) – One of the earliest movies to show crime from the perspective of criminals, John Huston’s landmark film noir concerns a veteran crook who plans the perfect heist, only for it to go awry from the first given instant.
Bande a Part (Fra) – One of French auteur Jean-Luc Godard’s most accessible films, it is about two Parisian buddies (straight out of American B-movies) who alternately cajole and seduce a lovely, naïve lady to rob her place, with disastrous consequences.
A Bittersweet Life (Kor) – A taciturn and once loyal enforcer attempts to seek revenge against his former boss, and what ensues is a near poetic ode to violence, mayhem and silent fury – aided by gorgeous photography and a haunting score.
Breathless (Fra) – Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic first feature, this is leas a story of Michel, a gangster on the run, and the beautiful Patricia, and more an unabashed tribute to film noirs, and is filled with signature touches that have made this a seminal work of the Nouvelle Vague movement.
California Dreamin’ (Rom) – First, and unfortunately the only, movie by Romanian director Cristian Numescu, and set during the Kosovo War, this is an incredible anti-war movie, filled with deadpan satires, pathos, and wry humour.
Casablanca (US) – The beautiful and fragile Ilsa walks into the café owned by the deeply cynical and bitter Rick, played mesmerizingly by Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, respectively, and what followed made this doomed romantic tale an unforgettable cinematic experience.
Chinatown (US) – A terrific hard-boiled neo-noir from Roman Polanski, it featured the brilliant Jack Nicholson as a cynical private eye drawn in a complex tale of lust, murder, deception and betrayal that culminates in a fascinating climax.
Chungking Express (HK) – Wong Kar-Wai’s most celebrated feature, this visually enthralling offbeat movie and a combination of two loosely connected tales – a noirish drama and a light-hearted comedy, is an irresistible ode to unrequited love.
Closely Watched Trains (Czh) – This outstanding movie by Jiri Menzel – a wry political satire in the garb of a delectable (and farcical) comedy, is a wonderful coming-of-age parable and a deeply human anti-war movie
Easy Rider (US) – The definitive movie on the anti-establishmentarianism and counter-culture movement during the Nam and Hippie era, this is a brilliant odyssey of two bikers criss-crossing America with rebellious abandon.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (US) – One of the most unconventional love stories ever made and penned by the mercurial Charlie Kaufman, this is a surreal tale of two individuals, performed incredibly by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, who have decided to erase each other’s memories.
Fargo (US) – With its wry, black humour, incredible performances and deep irony of fate, this quirky serio-comic tale of a kidnapping job gone horribly wrong is a crime drama like no other, and the Coen Brothers’ greatest masterpiece.
Fight Club (US) – This dark and violent psychological drama on the seedy underbelly lurking beneath an otherwise placid society, is a superb thesis on the duality of human nature, and features a gleefully psychotic turn by Brad Pitt.
The 400 Blows (Fra) – A landmark Nouvelle Vague output, Francois Truffaut’s celebrated semi-autobiographical tale of a troubled, rebellious teenager, is a nostalgic look at lost innocence and friendship, and a loving homage to growing up.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Rom) – This grim, disturbing and exquisitely enacted slice-of-life tale during the oppressive Ceausescu regime in Romania, is a gem of a movie set on the seemingly mundane premise of abortion.
Godfather (US) – One of the greatest American movies ever made, this Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, featuring awesome turns by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, is a bleak yet hauntingly mesmerizing tale on loyalty, honour, vengeance, and the quintessentially Sicilian concept of ‘Family’.
Gold Rush (US) – The movie Charlie Chaplin wanted to be remembered by, the despair, loss and heartbreak faced by ‘The Little Tramp’ during the Alaska gold rush, becomes the source for high farce filled with inimitable humour, satire and pathos.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Ita) – The most outstanding of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, Clint Eastwood’s iconic ‘Man With No Name’, the equally iconic score and fabulous gunfights made this one of the most stylish movies ever made.
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (Ind) – A movie where perhaps the only thing Satyajit Ray didn’t do was act, this immensely enjoyable tale on the adventures of two friends, is as much a popular children’s fantasy fable as it is a brilliant anti-war movie.
The Graduate (US) – Mike Nichols’ much loved coming-of-age story of a confused college graduate, this memorable romantic comedy boasts of a career making turn by Dustin Hoffman and two legendary songs by Simon & Garfunkel.
A History of Violence (US) – Directed by David Cronenberg, this is a near-poetic lamentation on violence, where the dark past of a seemingly mundane man, exquisitely played by Viggo Mortensen, catches up with him in spectacular fashion.
In A Lonely Place (US) – A dark film noir by Nicholas Ray and the cinematic equivalent of Camus’ Outsider, this is a disturbing character study of a violent man brilliantly portrayed by Humphrey Bogart, as well as a jab at society’s hypocrisy.
Interview (Ind) – Iconoclastic Bengali auteur Mrinal Sen’s most underrated work, this psedo-documentary about an educated Calcutta youth trying to get a job, is a candid, satirical and a provocative movie on Marxism vis-à-vis capitalism.
The Killers (US) – Starring Ava Gardener as perhaps the most unforgettable femme fatale ever brought to screen, this noir masterpiece about a good man led astray by greed and lust, is one of the most definitive movies of this genre.
Memento (US) – This incredibly original modern noir by Christopher Nolan about a man with short-term memory loss, and narrated in reverse, is a mind-bending and a thoroughly exhilarating thriller with a wacky sense of humour.
Modern Times (US) – Charlie Chaplin’s high farce on the complex nature of industrialization, this is a stupendous display of the great man’s ability to create a hilariously funny movie on man’s despair and suffering.
Nayak (Ind) – One of the very few movies to accurately portray the actual ‘face’ of a movie superstar, played brilliantly by Uttam Kumar, this Satyajit Ray classic is as much a great character study, as it is an amazing juxtaposition of cinema and theatre.
No Man’s Land (Serb/Bos) – Soldiers from either side during the ugly war between Serbia and Bosnia get trapped in a trench in no man’s land, and what follows is a brilliant black comedy and a biting satire on the irony and hopelessness of war.
Oldboy (HK) – Maverick Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s audacious poetry on extreme violence and misfortune, the tale of two men seeking vengeance on and destruction of each other is as visually arresting as it is deeply disturbing.
On the Waterfront (US) – A terrific masterpiece by Hollywood’s enfant terrible Elia Kazan, this story of an ex-pugilist, memorably played by Marlon Brando, seeking retribution, is one of the finest portrayals of labour union and the working class.
Out of the Past (US) – A quintessential film noir, this Jacques Tourneur classic is about a world-weary gumshoe whose past association with a slippery gangster and an icy femme fatale catches up with him with fatalistic consequences.
Pan’s Labyrinth (Mex) – Directed by Mexican visionary Guillermo Del Toro, this is a surreal, visually stunning and emotionally enthralling fantasy fable set against the backdrop of the violence and turbulence of Spanish Civil War.
Psycho (US) – Arguably the movie Alfred Hitchcock will always inextricably be linked with, this granddaddy of all slasher films, filled to brim with MacGuffins, suspense and terrific storytelling, is about a certain psychopath called Norman Bates.
Pulp Fiction (US) – This wild, wacky and outrageously violent epic crime movie, filled with ultra-cool dialogues, kinetic direction and superlative performances, is the movie that sealed Quentin Tarantino’s genius and iconoclasm for posterity.
Raging Bull (US) - Arguably the most powerful American movie of the 80s, this Martin Scorsese masterpiece is a brutal, unsentimental and disturbing character study of a champion boxer’s fall from grace, played with aplomb by Robert De Niro.
Reservoir Dogs (US) – This brilliantly enacted, irreverent and utterly unique crime thriller on what led to and what followed a bank job gone awry, is the movie that introduced the world to the devilish genius of Quentin Tarantino.
Roman Holiday (US) - William Wyler’s timeless classic on journalism and the meaning of freedom, this romantic tale of a modern-day princess (Audrey Hepburn) and a down-on-luck journalist (Gregory Peck), is as satirical as it is heart-rending.
Run Lola Run (Ger) – One of the most impossibly entertaining movies ever made, this pulsating narration of Lola’s attempts to arrange money for her boyfriend, is as wildly imaginative in its content as it is stunning in its execution.
Seven Samurai (Jap) – One of legendary Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa’s grandest ventures, this epic tale of 7 samurais hired to fight against a group of 40 local bandits, is a landmark cinematic achievement, what with its lyrical beauty and its astounding depiction of the art of warfare.
Sholay (Ind) – One of the greatest Hindi movies ever made, this timeless classic about two local goons hired to capture a notorious bandit, is as famous for its unforgettable characters and quotable dialogues, as it is for its superlative performances.
Shoot the Piano Player (Fra) – One of Francois Truffaut’s most audacious, albeit underrated masterpieces, this is an iconic Nouvelle Vague movie about a washed out pianist on the run, and a fascinating pastiche to film noirs.
Stranger than Paradise (US) - Directed by Jim Jarmusch, this is an offbeat low-budget character-driven indie cult classic and road movie, that with its deadpan humour manages to seamlessly evoke sentiments propounded by the Beat Generation
Sunset Boulevard (US) – Billy Wilder’s greatest creation and perhaps the best movie on Hollywood, this acerbic noir is a scathing assault on the hollow, amoral, narcissistic movie industry,and a brilliantly twisted thesis on the dream factory.
Taxi Driver(US) – American filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s raging masterpiece, this is a claustrophobic point-of-view account of an insomniac taxi driver – a violent vigilante cum anarchist, brought to screen through Robert De Niro’s bravado turn.
Three Colors(Pol/Fra) – This episodic trilogy on the themes propounded by the three colours of the French national flag, viz. liberty, equality & fraternity, is Polish master Krzyszstof Kieslowski’s magnum opus and his most resounding achievement.
Utsab (Ind) – Perhaps Bengali auteur Rituparno Ghosh’s most personal work, this is a sensitive though disturbing portrayal of human relationships set against the backdrop of Durga Puja – a time for joy and celebration in Bengal.
Even long before he went ‘mainstream’ with the masterly A History of Violence and its engaging quasi-sequel Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg enjoyed cult status among horror aficionados. And if you were to believe them, Videodrome, released way back in 1982, was his first great masterpiece. Though I wouldn’t go that far, I’d still call it a very interesting movie that deserves wider dissemination. Of course, given that the maker is Cronenberg, there’s a catch here – this deeply distressing and unabashedly provocative look into paranoia, hallucination, sadomasochism, mental breakdown and the decidedly sinister nature of technology, is certainly not meant for everyone. The movie isn’t just non-conformist, or for that matter grotesque and lurid, it is deeply shocking as well – for its content graphic violence and gore, as well as for its deliberate depiction of sexual innuendoes. The movie is about a sleazy television network owner, played with characteristic energy by James Woods, who accidentally stumbles upon an underground broadcast that unleashes upon him a chain of grisly consequences. Despite its typically B-movie look, the been-there-done-that sort of harangue on the evils lurking behind the friendly garb of technology, and the extremely disturbing contents, one must nonetheless appreciate the director’s bravado, the terrific SFX, and the bizarre yet vivid visual (and psychological) imagery.
Director: David Cronenberg Genre: Horror/Sci-Fi Horror/Psychological Horror/B-Film Language: English Country: Canada
Contemporary Bengali humorist, satirist, songwriter and cinephile Chandril Bhattacharya composed a tribute song on Jean-Luc Godard a few years back, and Pierrot Le Fou, along with its lead actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina featured prominently in it – such is the movie’s popularity among Godard aficionados. It is a loose (and perhaps a deliberate) companion piece to his groundbreaking first feature Breathless. However, though it still was a pastiche to American B-movies and film noirs, and the basic plot may be quickly encapsulated with the phrase ‘love on the run’, in place of the lighthearted and freewheeling dynamism of Breathless and even his Band a Part, the structure here was far more complex and cerebral. Filled with references that range from literary to pop culture to political, this was less about its plot (hell, Godard didn’t even have a script to start with while filming this movie), and more about the French iconoclast’s opinionated musings. And the chemistry that Belmondo shared with Karina might not be as crackling as the one with Jean Seberg, but was no less irreverent and breezy. Interestingly, the movie has two lovely impromptu songs and a memorable cameo by iconic American director Samuel Fuller.
Director: Jean-Luc Godard Genre: Romantic Drama/Road Movie/Avant-Garde/Experimental Language: French Country: France
Funny Games might not be Austrian director Michael Haneke’s best movie, but it sure as hell is the one he will be remembered by. The skeleton of the plot might sound overtly conventional – a family, while on vacation at their idyllic retreat, is taken hostage by a pair of sweet-talking, albeit mercilessly sadistic sociopaths; nonetheless, it doesn’t take long for one to realize that this is as far removed from the assembly-line of popcorn psycho thrillers (particularly the American ones) as can be.It is a vicious body blow to our pop culture, our mass media, and in turn our lives, violence has become a daily diet of which – a theme earlier propounded by Oliver Stone in his equally notorious Natural Born Killers. The acting is very good throughout, not just of the couple (the role of the husband has been played by the brilliant Ulrich Mühe of The Lives of Others fame), but also of the two young guys whose outwardly normal dispositions and their seemingly not having any reason for inflicting the kind of mayhem that they do, have made their characters chilling personifications of evil. However, I must finish with the statement that, despite the movie’s cult fame, it could have been far more effective had it slightly cut down on the pretentiousness front – the ‘rewind’ scene, the talking to the camera and the deeply ambiguous ending are a bit of a turnoff.
Director: Michael Haneke Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Psychological Horror Language: German Country: Austria
Legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is often considered as the greatest cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare. The master, of course, might have a point since his Ran, adapted from King Lear, is also equally renowned, if not more. However, there’s rarely any doubt in that Macbeth hasn’t received a more stunning and awe-inspiring cinematic rendition. Starring Kurosawa regular and inimitable actor Toshiro Mifune as the eponymous brave yet tragic hero, the movie is an epic Samurai take on the Shakespeare classic. Based during feudal war-torn Japan of medieval years – a time in which his Seven Samurai and Rashomon were also based – the movie is as much a visual spectacle as it is a deeply psychological one. The self-destructive ambitions of a samurai warrior, played with the kind of gleefully over-the-top, maniacal and utterly memorable swagger that few apart from Mifune could, has made for a grand tale filled with betrayal, treachery and murder. Right from the valorous warrior’s spectacular rise, till the bloody and deeply ironic denouement, the movie is a blast of high-octane force and a bleakly moody denunciation of man’s age-old lust for ‘power and glory’.
Director: Akira Kurosawa Genre: Drama/Epic/War/Samurai Movie Language: Japanese Country: Japan
While speaking of Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre, Casino is often brushed aside with the usual “good, but not great” logic; the reason for that, of course, is attributed to its structural and thematic similarities with his earlier Goodfellas. I personally find that a flimsy argument. A spectacular tour de force from start to finish, Casino is a sprawling, visceral, glamorous and visually arresting epic gangster drama, bolstered by its hyperkinetic narrative and a terrific soundtrack that managed to provide a remarkable zeitgeist of the times. A ravishing behind-the-scenes look at the mob-controlled circus called Las Vegas, the story has been presented through its three principal protagonists – Sam “Ace” Rothstein (the virtuoso Robert De Niro in his last collaboration with Scorsese till date), a shrewd bookie who’s given charge of a huge Vegas casino; Nicky Santoro (the mercurial Joe Pesci in a slightly toned down version of his bravura turn in Goodfellas), his childhood pal and a volatile, psychopathic mobster who meets with a truly poetic justice; and Ginger (arguably Sharon Stone’s finest performance), a stunning beaut and a self-destructive hustler. Though around 3 hours long, the incredible performances, the raw energy of Scorsese’s storytelling, voiceovers with shifting perspectives, and darkly humorous dialogues punctuated by moments of thumping violence, have made this a compelling and explosive though heavily underrated crime saga.
Director: Martin Scorsese Genre: Crime Drama/Gangster Drama/Film a Clef Language: English Country: US
Bloody Sunday might not be a great work of art per se, but believe me, it’ll get your blood boiling. On January 30, 1972 – a day that will forever be etched in collective and popular conscience as ‘Bloody Sunday’ – the British army and paramilitary forces opened fire on a civil rights march and murdered 13 unarmed people including 9 teenagers! This dastardly and gruesome act of violence not only shattered any hopes of peaceful resolutions, it scarred a generation of people who started joining IRA in greater numbers than ever before. Filmed in cinema vérité style, with terrific use of mostly short and medium long takes, the movie brought in a kind of hot-blooded, in-your-face kind of immediacy that made this a gripping, angry, explosive, unnerving, visceral and a deeply provocative movie. Very well dramatized, the movie is at once a powerful look at the tragic events that unfold on the screen, and a strong John Lennon-esque statement against the arrogance and high-handedness of so-called ‘Democratic Governments’. The largely non-professional cast has been led from front by James Nesbitt, as Ivan Cooper, the man who had organised what was supposed to be just a peaceful protest march on that fateful Sunday morning. The confrontational style of direction and pitch-perfect editing are really laudatory.
Director: Paul Greengrass Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Docu-Drama Language: English Country: UK/Ireland
Watching a universally renowned movie like L’Avventura –Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni’s groundbreaking masterpiece – can sometimes be a discomfiting experience. The reason is simple, you watch with huge expectations and the viewing experience might sometimes just fail to scale the stratospheric heights you’d hoped it would; something of that sort happened with this movie for me, leaving me a tad underwhelmed. While a group of blasé, affluent jet-setters is vacationing in a yacht, the neurotic fiancé of a successful but jaded architect (Gabriele Ferzetti) goes missing, and during the process of searching for her, he ends up developing a relationship with a beautiful but emotionally fragile lady (Monica Vitti) who also happened to be his fiancé’s best friend. A complex examination of human behaviour and a sharp critique of the shallow decadence of wealthy socialites, it isn’t really difficult to understand what made this the archetypal cerebral ‘Art Movie’ – especially given the deeply ambiguous ending. However, on the flip side, the lumbering narrative, numerous moments of seeming inaction, and the long running time, were factors that slightly alienated the movie from me from an emotional standpoint, if not from an intellectual one. Further, the acting, though good, in my humble opinion, wasn’t especially great either. Perhaps I shouldn’t be expecting a crackling movie like Breathless, 8 ½or Shoot the Piano Player every time I watch a European movie from that golden era, irrespective of how acclaimed it is.
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Avant-Garde Language: Italian Country: Italy
Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was tailor-made to be a typically maudlin ‘triumph of human spirit over gargantuan adversity’ kind of tale. However, in the same way that an American director making a movie in French is something completely out of the ordinary, so is this heartfelt and surprisingly unsentimental movie. Jean-Dominique Bauby – high-flying editor of Elle in the mid-90's, womanizer, and doting father – suffered a massive stroke one not-so-fine day, to be left with ‘locked-in syndrome’; his body was completely paralyzed but for his left eye and his ability to think and imagine. However, despite this crushing and debilitating blow, he managed to compose his memoir through the mere blink of his eye! This amazing story of Bauby has been presented with a touching concoction of poignancy and beauty, and brought to life by Mathieu Amalric. And Schnabel added to that just the right amount of irreverence, mordant wit and dry humour, thus making this moving story an absolute delight to watch. Interestingly, a major portion of the first half of the movie, in an inspired choice of action, has been presented from Bauby’s point of view – with the audience literally placed inside his fecund brain!
Director: Julian Schnabel Genre: Drama/Biopic Language: French Country: France
I might not have watched many Romanian movies, yet the few that I’ve seen are so good that The Death of Mr. Lazarescu might earn the least cookies of ‘em all. Yet, I must add, it is still good enough to be called a brilliant work of art. There aren’t any surprise endings in this movie, the title is clear enough. As soon as the movie begins, we see a lonely, cat-loving, hard-drinking, and slightly grumpy but otherwise good natured old man, suffering an apparently not so serious bout stomach and headache. And thus starts a deeply distressing odyssey where the titular Mr. Lazarescu is shuttled from one hospital to another, as his aches slowly and gradually start taking life threatening proportions. Shot in real time, the movie is a marvelous albeit documentary-style look at an otherwise mundane and unspectacular person living in Bucharest, which, like any teeming metropolis, is filled with cynicism, red tapism, insensitivity and hopelessness. Like its Romanian New Wave contemporaries, the movie is filled with unflinching, grim realism, and yet contains subtle doses of black humour, pathos and a deep sense of humanism. This exceptionally detailed and brilliantly enacted slice of life is at once a subversive and a humanitarian social commentary.
Director: Cristi Puiu Genre: Drama/Slice of Life/Social Satire Language: Romanian Country: Romania