Top 100 Films

At Arts and Faith--The Top 100 Films (via Books Inq)

Of them I have seen many.  Remarkable among them is number 2 (I haven't seen number 1) which was a series of ten short films originally aired (I believe) on Polish television, tracing out the Decalogue.  Some are stronger than others; but all are good. 

Number 3, Babette's Feast,  and 4 The Passion of St. Joan of Arc (despite its exceedingly grizzly climax, are among my very favorite films.  Babette's Feast is, literally, a feast for the eyes and the heart.

Number 6, Au Hasard Balthasar, is, in its own way as troubling and as difficult as Mel Gibson's The Passion, in part because it tells the same story--but in a certain way even more effectively because we can understand the essential innocence of Balthasar, a donkey.

I've seen 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, and 15--Andrei Rublev, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Diary of a Country Priest, The Seventh Seal, Ikiru, The Three Colors Trilogy (this last by the same auteur who gave us The Decalogue.)  Of these, standout favorites were the last three.  Ikiru is a powerful Akira Kurasawa film about a man dying of stomach cancer who wants to leave a legacy.  The three colors Red, White, and Blue (blue actually being the first) are moving, funny, tragic, appalling.  If I remember correctly Blue is in French and the other two are in Polish.  The detail vanishes, but I remember loving moments in each film and really loving Blue start to finish.

I won't continue.  I've seen many, but given the quality of the list I can see that there are a great many more which I must see.

Below are reposts of older reviews I did of some of these films.

More on the top 100 films

The Decalogue I-III

 
 
In 1987 Krzysztof Kieslowski did a series of ten films for Polish Television. We might refer to it as a mini-series; however, it differs in that while some characters show up in the films that feature others, there is no continuity of story and no strong connections between them. These are short stories, short films, to be viewed each as a separate piece. Kieslowski employed ten different cinematographers so that there would be a distinct visual style with each one.

So far I've seen the first third of these films and all I can say is that if television were like this even 10% of the time, it would be worth watching. They are superbly acted miniatures, each dealing with the dilemmas and problems that come from violating the commandments. Roger Ebert points out that there is little purpose in trying to determine which film is linked to which commandment, as many are linked to more than one, and some are obscure.

For example, in the first film, a young, brilliant professor and his son work together to devise a program that will calculate when ice will be thick enough to safely skate on a nearby lake. The results are disastrous. It appears that this might be "I am a jealous God , thou shalt have no other gods before me." But it's difficult to say. The second of the three is somewhat easier--"Thou shalt not commit adultery." But it presents us with a profound moral dilemma of the type "you will not do evil that good will result."

SPOILER ALERT
What follows has spoilers, although I'm uncertain that these films can be spoiled. A young woman consults her husband's doctor to find out if her husband is going to survive after an operation. She loves her husband but she had been seeing another man and is pregnant by him. If her husband will survive, she will abort the baby--her only chance of having a child because her husband is infertile. But if he will die anyway, she will carry the child to term. In the Poland of this time, there appeared to have been restrictions with regard to the term during which one might have an abortion and she is at the very limits of that term. Anyway, the problem is resolved because of a lie the doctor both manufactures and supports with false evidence and another doctor's opinion. The husband will survive after all and the end of the movie shows the husband thanking the doctor for the lie that will preserve the child he and his wife are to have.

Thus, this film deals not only with adultery, but also with false witness--a pair that seems to go together rather naturally. Believe it or not, even with this spoiler, there is tons of other stuff going on, both subtle and overt, that make this film worth watching over and over.
END SPOILER ALERT

The third of the three I've seen so far has been the weakest and least conclusive. It covers "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." It features a woman who at one time had an affair with a man and now, on Christmas Eve, seems to be seeking him again.

The films are instructive in another sense. We see in them the elite of Polish society--a musician in an orchestra, a Doctor, a Professor. We see also the conditions in which they live, which, while not absolutely squalid, are bleak. The hospital the husband is recovering in has a leak in the ceiling and down the walls and the paint is peeling off and flaking, the Doctor's offices are tiny uncomfortable cubicles. We have here a chronicle of just post-Soviet Poland and the bleak grayness to which communist policies reduced everything.

So far these films have the very highest recommendation. They are short, taut, brilliantly conceived. They are to cinema what Chekhov or deMaupassant were to literature--brilliant miniatures connected by theme and recurrent characters, but each an individual film.

The Decalogue: IV and V

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As I noted in the review of the first three films in this series, it is not always possible to sort out which parts of the decalogue are being dealt with in any given episode. This is particularly true of IV, but not at all true of V.

Film IV appears to encompass honoring your father and mother, not coveting your neighbors wife (husband), and not bearing false witness. In IV a Father leaves his daughter during a business trip. She discovers an envelop that has written on it "To be opened in the event of my death." And she considers opening it. Finally she does open it to find within another envelop, labeled in a different hand, "To my darling daughter." From this simple kernel, a plot of intrigue, deceit, false and real betrayal and reconciliation all spins out. By far and away one of the more complex of the series so far.

In V we get a simple admonition, "Thou shalt not kill." We see a young man who, apparently at random, decides to rob and murder someone. Everything possible is done to make the young man thoroughly unlikable. His counterpoint is the young attorney who is assigned to defend him and who does everything in his power to convince the court that capital punishment is not justice but institutionalized revenge. This is the summary speech that occurs at the beginning of the film and which only gradually begins to make sense.

I'm uncertain what feeling I was supposed to leave with. We have at the end the young attorney hammering on his car in a field and saying, "I abhor it. I abhor it." I don't know if he speaks for the director, for himself only, or for some other group. But I didn't find the appeal particular persuading in this instance. While I am sympathetic to the argument overall, this didn't strike me as a very strong entry in opposition to it.

Still, despite that failure on my part, it is enjoyable to watch. Most interesting are some of the cinematic techniques used to couch the whole story. And also interesting is the appearance of the young man, said by some to symbolize Christ or His Angels. He has appeared in every film to this point, always at key junctures. In IV he appears twice and seems to be the impetus toward reconciliation and redemption.

So far, the only thing close to a misstep in the series is # 3, and even that was supremely interesting. Highly recommended.

Ikiru

I can't afford to hate people. I don't have that kind of time.

Among the many lessons that can be derived from this beautiful, compassionate, and sensitive Kurosawa film of 1952, the sentences above resonate both in post-war Japan and in the world today. No one has the time to hate people.

Ikiru means "to live." And the story traces the end of life for one man, Watanabe-san, who has been diagnosed, but not formally told, that he has stomach cancer. He is introduced to us via an x-ray of his stomach and we are told that he has not lived in the past thirty years, he is dead already.

The story follows Watanabe-san's awakening through a night of drunken revel and a few weeks of dating a young woman from his office. About two-thirds of the way through the movie Watanabe-san dies off-stage and the remainder takes place through flashbacks and at his funeral.

It is at the gathering of office workers at the funeral that we get the other piece of wisdom that has not changed in lo! these many years. "Doing anything but nothing is radical." That was the root of Watanabe-san's radicality, he did something other than the nothing that bureaucracy is erected for.
I've already said more than enough about the film and given away too much perhaps because this is a small and intimate film; little details tell too much. Every moment is fraught with meaning, every line carefully considered, every gesture, every action choreographed to the lustrous end. And yet, fraught as it is, it is never heavy nor depressing. It is at times positively light and playful and at others deeply felt. Particularly poignant is a scene in the park where Watanabe-san swings in the snow and sings a song introduced earlier in the film, only this time quite differently.

Don't trust too much the liner notes that talk about this as a modernist existential film tract. As a professor once told me about Shakespeare: bring to it any ideological system and you can make it light up--feminist, socialist, homosexualist, you name it. I have a feeling the same may be true of this film. For the time, it is remarkably forward thinking in the portrayal of women, hence feminist. And already there are the signs of the "think globally, act locally" cant that runs the rounds in many circles today pretending to be thought.

Our lives would all be immeasurably better if we could remember Watanabe-san's words quoted beneath the header. We might consider them the Japanese equivalent of, "She would have been a good woman if there’d been somebody to shoot her every day of her life." Let's rather choose not to make this our emblem and to take after Watanabe-san--a Silas Marner, an Ebeneezer Scrooge, a Watanabe-san after his own fashion.

Rashomon

I know, a lot of reviews, but when you have a lot of laundry to take care of, and other relatively immobile housework/repair, one has time for movies. And what a movie!

Akira Kurosawa's 1950 masterpiece remains as relevant and as pointed today as when it was first made. Based of two stories by Akutagawa (who is sometimes called the "Poe of Japan"--I'd say he is the de Maupassant of Japan) Rashomon tells the story of the forest rape of young woman and the murder of her husband. And all of this with neither overt sexuality nor overt bloodshed.

But the events of the story are less important than its telling. The main events are narrated by four different narrators--a bandit, the wife, a witness, and the dead person through a medium. It is this last that gives the film some of its creepier moments, as the medium is a pretty Japanese woman speaking in the voice of a Samurai.

Naturally the four stories do not agree on the details and particularly not on the manner of death of the Samurai. And what you realize is that there is no way for an observer outside the scene based upon the stories alone to say what really happened.

When I finished watching the film, I thought, "Wow, it's just like reading any modern political commentary--Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Pat Buchanan--most are documented to a greater or lesser extent and yet look at the same presidency and the same actions and see entirely different things. And each of the things they see redounds to their greater glory and honor, just as in the film. Odd, no?
Kurosawa managed to give the film a "happy" resolution, which is more than I can hope for from the American Political scene or news scene. I remarked in an email to TSO one time that I didn't see any reason to read a book by John Cornwell because I felt upon finishing anything I had to go and check out everything that had been written.

Kurosawa aptly taps into the human condition, and he does it in the context of a beautifully filmed movie. This is one of those films "in glorious black and white" that just shimmers and explodes off of the screen to come alive in the mind. The questions Kurosawa poses and the lack of a substantive response are disarming and to those unconvinced of the fall of humankind, perhaps a bit disheartening. But they are eye-opening and they are the necessary questions even for today.

Highest possible recommendation--even though you will have to read it and perhaps watch it several times for it to sink in. Also, the Criterion package (I love Criterion produced DVDs) includes a booklet that contains the short stories "Rashomon" and "In the Grove" on which the film was based.

Ushpizin



Set in Jerusalem during the feast of Succoth (The Feast of Booths), Ushpizin is the story of Moshe and Mali, two impoverished Chassid who are casting about for a way to properly celebrate Succoth. During the feast it is required that the people of Israel live is succah, or booths, to recall the Exodus from Egypt. Moshe and Mali are too poor to have a succah (or booth). In fact, they are too poor to pay their ordinary rent.

Moshe and Mali pray, and a miracle occurs. A succah becomes available and Moshe is given a gift of $1,000. There are elements of the prayer scenes and the reception of the news scenes that bring to mind Fiddler on the Roof, but they are delightful.

Add to this mix two escaped convicts, one a former friend of Moshe, who arrive as Ushpizin for Succoth. Ushpizin means visitor or "holy visitor." The havoc begins.

Moshe spends part of the money he receives on a citron that is considered the most beautiful ever seen in the city. It cost 1,000 shekels and Moshe buys it as a blessing for his marriage to Mali that it might bring them children.

To cut to the chase, the film is a serious and yet light-hearted look at what it means to be a person of faith and what the trials of a person of faith are all about. While the subject matter is a youngish Jewish couple, the theme is universal and beautifully played out. If you are interested in films that treat the life of faith seriously and present it with respect and you are tolerant of having to read your way through a film, you might find Ushpizin to your liking.

Highly recommended for all viewers.



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