How Green Was My Valley (1941) dir. John Ford
This film exemplifies everything that is great about John Ford, even more so than any of his revered Westerns. Ford's signature elegant style creates a romantic view of Welsh coal mining family living through turbulent times. Told from the point of view of young Roddy McDowell's character there's a filter of romanticized nostalgia which Ford embellishes with all his cinematic powers. Breathtaking recreation of the town is front and centre. Arguably one of the greatest locations and sets ever built. The coal mine perched atop a hill at the end of the town and the rows of houses which follow down the valley creates Parthenon-like compositional perfection. And those plumes of smoke which linger in distance so perfectly in the frame was all part of Ford’s obsessive design. The film's trump card though is the astonishingly emotional ending, as moving and powerful as anything in Ford's oeuvre and the history of cinema for that matter. To some the film is notable for being the one that bested Orson Welles and Citizen Kane for Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards but How Green Was My Valley is better and I bet Welles would agree.
The Elephant Man (1980) dir. David Lynch
Speaking of powerful emotional finales it's not hard to argue The Elephant Man as the tearjerker to end all tearjerkers. David Lynch's second film, chosen by producer Mel Brooks who saw the young man’s his genius in Eraserhead, is a unique marriage of his avant garde sensibilities and Hollywood conventionality. Lynch embraces all the pulpy melodrama of the real life story of the deformed London circus freak who becomes embraced by the upper class Victorian elite through the help of an opportunistic doctor, but tells the story with the strange aesthetic he would later cultivate. Lynch's depiction of industrial London and its East End poverty is striking and vivid. Rich black and white, anamorphic photography, textured period detail and Lynch’s signature sound scape design create a unique experience. And oh, that finale – a wallop of monumental proportions set to weepy Samuel Barber piece Adagio for Strings (also used extensively in Platoon), which begins in John Merrick’s bed and ends in the deep reaches of space is impossible to forget. What an ending!
I Am Cuba (1963) dir. Mikhail Kalatozov
And here arrives a film way out of the box in comparison to the melodramatic audience-friendly pictures of above. But if there’s common thread of all these films is an aesthetic sensibility unmistakable to it’s filmmaker. I Am Cuba was in all rights a propaganda film produced by the Soviet Union about the Cuban Revolution, exalting the triumph of its rural poor population over it’s imperialist American-centred upper class elite. The stench of Communist party-line values is pure, but there’s no denying the cinematic bravura on display. Mikhail Kalatozov had already established his flare in pictures The Cranes Are Flying and The Letter Never Sent, but the stark cinematography and swooping wide angle long takes of Cuba are taken to astonishing levels of technical bravura.
Casablanca (1942) dir. Michael Curtiz
I remember the first time seeing this film in an intro-to-Film class in university. I was 21 or so, weaned on 80's action cinema. I immediately responded to the superb studio craftsmanship on display but in particular Michael Curtiz's lively direction. I immediately saw its influence on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and in general the mise-en-scene of Steven Spielberg. After quickly developing a healthy obsession with the film I sought out everything to do with Michael Curtiz. The fact is he's an unheralded genius of cinema - a man like Hitchcock, Ford and Capra, able to inject a personal style inside the conforming studio system. It's been remarked he preferred to watch a good dolly shot more than the performances of his actors – likely an embellished anecdote but one which speaks less about his dismissal of directing than his remarkably consistent artistic vision across his long career. And here in his greatest picture war, romance, spies and politics were never told any better than in Casablanca.
The Thin Red Line (1998) dir. Terrence Malick
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this film is the ability of Terrence Malick, after an elusive 20 year absence from filmmaking, to execute an ambitious endeavour with such a high degree of artistic precision. The Thin Red Line is a natural extension from Days of Heaven, stunningly photographed stories of conflict (in this case war) against the beautifying backdrop of the natural environment. Some might say the narrative gaps in the film and oft kilter structure, which has characters appearing and disappearing from the film at random, would show Malick's rust from his inactivity, but it’s what makes the film so memorable. Unconventional storytelling and yet as moving and powerful as its contemporary comparable, Saving Private Ryan.
Star Wars (1977) dir. George Lucas
This was the first film I ever saw in the theatre. Somewhere around 1979, in one of the many re-releases of the film (before video!). The impression of a film likes this on the brain of any kid obsessed with guns and toys is no doubt powerful. But this is just one of the reasons why this picture is a legitimately great piece of film. Thinking back to 1977, and comparing it to others of its type, what a monumental leap forward to mass-market entertainment. George Lucas’s picture is as rousing as cinema gets – swashbuckling tone, cliff hanger jeopardy, bold imaginative new worlds, all with the most immersive special effects of its time. This movie is the work of a supremely talent filmmaker working at the peak of his abilities, taking bold creative risks. After all, I can’t only imagine how ridiculous the corny dialogue might have sounded on the page, or describing a 7 ft tall wookie in the stage direction. Without Lucas’ vision, the picture is laughable. We’re still able to marvel at Lucas’ mastery of visual composition, lighting, production design and tone – hallmarks consistent across his first three films in the 1970’s. And even after all the distracting noise of inferior prequels, branding merchandise etc, this first picture is still a great film.
Fellini's 8½ (1963) dir. Federico Fellini
A whirling dervish of cinema, Fellini’s 8½ is a thrill beyond imagination. The famously auto-biographical film is perhaps the ultimate example of cinematic self-examination. Before Charlie Kaufman put himself into his own movie in Adaptation, Fellini did it first and best with 8½. The choreography of the camera and actors within the frame is what piques my interest each and every time I see the film. It’s a director’s film if there ever was one. But every stylistic flourish in the film is designed to compliment the hallucinatory experience of Fellini’s alter-ego Guido who walks around in a daze as he scrambles to figure out what his next movie will be. Fantasy and reality intertwine elegantly in a seamless connection of scenes linked without almost no plot whatsoever.
Boogie Nights (1997) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Great cinema appreciates with age, and as one of the youngest films on this list I've placed it with the greatest scrutiny on my part. Boogie Nights was a wholly entertaining experience for me in 1997, and each successive viewing has further supported its own greatness. There’s no doubt Anderson’s 70’s/80’s porn industry opus is told in a style stolen from his heroes Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, and yet, Boogie Nights still manages to stand on it’s own. What’s most remarkable is Anderson’s ability to nimbly move from absurd juvenile humour in the first half and effortlessly segue into stone cold serious heavy drama. Like Quentin Tarantino Anderson’s influences dig quite deep beyond style. I only recently recognized the riveting firecracker scene in Alfred Molina’s den as remarkably similar a scene in Mathieu Kassovitz’ La Haine (‘95). So why am I complimenting the film for reworking scenes from other films? It’s part of the lineage of cinema, our ability to chart the progression of the art form through the influences of other filmmakers.
Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) dir. Stanley Kubrick
I was torn as to which Stanley Kubrick to put on this list. There needed to be at least one. Today, I would probably cite Barry Lyndon is his best film. And who knows, that might change 10 years from now. But I can’t discount the obsession I had with Dr. Strangelove in my youth. This was my absolute favourite film 20 years ago. Back then as I was voraciously consuming cinema Strangelove was tops. The black comedy, audacious sexual innuendos, Peter Sellers' triple role, Ken Adam’s glorious war room set, and the incredible suspenseful Cold War plotting created a perfect kind of magic. It’s also arguable that the pinnacle of Black and White cinematography was the 1960’s and Kubrick’s remarkably crisp and expressive images (like Fellini’s) as shot by Gilbert Taylor are no exception.
SHOAH (1985) dir. Claude Lanzmann
This one is actually the most recent film I've seen for the first time (last year). Each and every moment in the nine hours of Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust chronicle is riveting cinema. And yet the film contains no archival footage, only contemporary-shot film and mostly talking head testimony from remarkably composed and articulate interviewees. Despite the tragedy there’s very few tears shed in the film. When tears do fall, (Polish resistance fighter, Jan Karksi for instance) it’s extremely powerful, but the intense focus and emotional detachment from their stories draws us in more. Of course Lanzmann’s interviews were conducted 30-40 years from the events, but the memories recounted are so vivid to the witnesses, it feels like yesterday – a direct connection to the horrible events which will resound greater as years go by. This film sticks to you like nothing else you've ever seen.