Winter Light, (1963) by Ingmar Bergman
Pickpocket, (1959) by Robert Bresson
Beauty & the Beast, (1946) by Jean Cocteau
Diamonds of the Night, (1964) by Jan Nemec
Mirror, (1975) by Andrei Tarkovsky
City Lights, (1964) by Charles Chaplin
Charulata, (1964) by Satyajit Ray
The Thin Red Line, (1998) by Terrence Malick
The Illusionist, (2010) by Sylvain Chomet
The Wayward Cloud, (2010) by Tsai Ming-liang
It disturbs my sense of conviction to omit one of Kubrick’s immaculate explorations of human dilemma (2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut), one of Hitchcock’s voyeuristic schemes of suspense and psycho/sexual intrigue (Rebecca, Vertigo, Psycho), one of Lynch’s constructs of the unconscious (Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive), or any one of those various gems that dot my personal history—The Lady Eve, The Browning Version, Eyes Without a Face, Sans Soleil, not to mention the works of Renoir, Kurosawa, Lean, Truffaut, Ozu—the list goes on and on. So naturally I find a way to title drop a number of additional favorites at the risk of seeming pretentious, if not merely succumbing to an irresistible urge to defy the limits of my list. As one last irrepressible note, I claim misgivings in confining my options to feature films at the expense of any work from my heroes of the avant-garde, notably Stan Brakhage, Peter Hutton, and Nathanial Dorsky.
Like Dreyer before him (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet), Ingmar Bergman devised a cinematic experience through a confinement of means. Drawing uniquely on the experimentation of Strindberg drama and utilizing intimate settings and confessional monologues, Bergman granted the viewer access to an outpouring of spiritual and emotional preoccupations (Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly, Hour of the Wolf). Winter Light is my personal favorite and reveals a complete mastery of his design in art direction, cinematography, choreography, and thematic layering.
Robert Bresson's method of directing actors was so singular that not another director that I can think of has since risked an overt emulation of his style, of which he says, “Films can only be made by bypassing the will of those who appear in them, using not what they do, but what they are.” By controlling the position of a performer’s natural demeanor, even preferring the overt action of hands to the framing of faces, Bresson conducted his films not through a revelation of personality but through the choreography of the soul. I return to certain of his films time and time again (Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Au Hasard Balthazar) for guidance.
I once heard Stan Brakhage say that it was his viewing of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast that convinced him of film’s potential as an art form; that, like poetry, moving images could replace the spoken word to communicate, or rather be in communion, with the mind’s eye (taken in exchange for the mind’s ear). I could go on to detail its many virtues, but what more needs to be said about a film that elicits such awe in children and adults alike?
Diamonds of the Night
I'm compelled to say and without much reservation that Jan Nemec's Diamonds of the Night is my favorite film of all time. Seemingly unavailable at the time of this writing, except in bootleg form, it is a little known 65 minute feature film from the Czech New Wave that desperately needs discovery and preservation. Its premise is of two Jewish boys who escape from a train on its way to a concentration camp, and who then wander cold and hungry through a dark wood. As one of the nameless boys follows the other toward an uncertain fate, his memories, daydreams, and hallucinations, gradually blend with the journey and quietly progress towards a rare transcendental moment of haunting beauty.
I am simply enthralled to the visual poetry of Andre Tarkovsky’s films (Andre Rublev, Nostalghia, Sacrifice), the same way I believe I would be moved by beautifully sung music in a language I could not speak.
At a time when synchronized sound capability was obsoleting silent filmmaking, Chaplin gave three years and everything he had to design a comedy that would reveal the beauty of silent cinema. City Lights is a full expression of everything he had developed in the preceding years, focusing on plot and character foremost while still maintaining a continuity of those famously delightful gags.
With each new Satyajit Ray masterpiece I discover (The Apu Trilogy, The Music Room, Days and Nights in the Forest, Nayak: The Hero), I fall in love enough that I hesitate to write something of that affection now for fear my words will fall short of my regard. But I’ll dare to offer this bit of sentiment, that it was the scene halfway through Charulata in which Soumitra Chatterjee sings to Madhabi Mukherjeethat that won my heart forever.
The Thin Red Line
It's the transformative effect lyricism makes on the narrative of a Terence Malick film that interests me most—lyricism being a term often misused as unquestioned praise for filmmakers who display some loose reverie or worship for aesthetic beauty that substitutes a lack of depth or context. To be clear, Malick’s Badlands is a languidly composed love-on-the-run crime spree imbued with unusual fairytale qualities when presented through the perspective of an adolescent girl. And his Days of Heaven is a complex love-triangle between two lower class workers and a wealthy landowner, whose emotional entanglements remain profoundly latent beneath the younger sister's child-like wonder for and remove from the events. As for The Thin Red Line, this is Malick’s grand attempt at multi-lyricism. Structured within the context of a battle in the South Pacific, the film presents the inner life of multiple characters, their voices mingling ponderously, emotively, conveying a complex shared and unshared human experience.
It was said that Bergman adored Chaplin’s The Circus and screened it annually to friends and family. If I were to initiate this tradition myself, then I would likely choose to screen Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist. His film is much more than simple homage to the substance of Jacques Tati and his famous Mr. Hulot character (Playtime, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday). The story is accredited to a previously un-produced screenplay by Tati of course, but each visual feat is a testament to Chomet’s brilliance—the shadow cast by a wisp of cloud passing swiftly over a coastal bluff, the flickering firelight gently upon a wall, the early morning haze over a Scottish bay, or the incandescent flashing of a theater matinee—though the effects are stunning and go rather unnoticed by the characters, they are more than mere accurate display of atmosphere, for they culminate gradually in a moment of magic unseen when the pages of a windblown book casts its shadow like a fluttering bird against the wall of an empty room.
I could hardly pass up a chance to name at least one film from the Taiwanese New Wave (Yi-Yi by Edward Yang is an absolute masterpiece). Having seen The Wayward Cloud only once, I suppose it’s the most tenuous choice on my list. But Tsai Ming-liang has enthralled me with his films ever since I first saw What Time is it There? in 2001. If you haven’t seen his work, then don’t let the clip here mislead you, as it’s a rare and lively interlude from his usual style—more accurately defined by wide composition, meditative long takes, still framing, gradual action, acute ambient sound, and few if any words.