fifteen

In looking back at the movies I watched for my 40s viewings as compared to my 50s viewings, I am struck with the quality of the movies from 1950 to 1959. How much of this stems from my expanding this quest the more I go (I watched nearly double the amount of 50s movies as 40s), the fade of memory, resurgence of international movies post-war, or the actual deepening of the cinematic art is all hard to distinguish. Regardless, if one uses Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) to mark the end of the Golden Age of Cinema, as I have heard posited, than the Golden Age went out with a bang. Here is my ranking of my top 10 movies (Okay, 15 movies. See below)

This list was hard to finalize as I feel like I am not crediting some very great movies. A thing I often reflected on as I ranked these movies was the power of multiple viewings. Watching a movie once and then rating it (like a book) is a type of ridiculous, perhaps even arrogance. Anything that is truly artful must be ingested repeatedly to be best represented. What is more, as art attempts to relate life and truth in various forms and alterations, the stage of life, of thought, of circumstance will take the same unchanged thing of art and give it entirely different voice. All this to say, a theme in these rankings, a qualifier I will often give, is the number of times I have experienced a film. Some movies seem better on first chew, and on second you realize that you have already tasted everything; another may seem bitter at first bite only to realize the true substantive flavor underneath upon the second or third.

Thus my rankings are entirely silly and trivial. Throw stones as you like.

Another note, I found my list overwhelmed with a particular filmmaker. And it can make a list uninteresting (to me) if the lister is actually only ranking a particular director's movies rather than having a variety of voices. All that to say, I expanded my list to include the top few movies that would highlight 10 filmmakers, which put me at 15 movies. Really, it was probably just an excuse to add more movies than my original criteria permitted.

Preamble off (given most studies of internet reading, you likely skipped all that anyways and scrolled down to the first picture/video), let's get started. Get your pitchfork and torches ready.

15.



Touch of Evil
Directed by Orson Welles

"That wasn't no miss, Vargas. That was just to turn you 'round, so I don't have to shoot you in the back. Unless you'd rather run for it."

My last list closed with Orson Welles's first, and here I begin with his end (as a director). Some say this is the final entry in the classic noir scene. There is a lot there that is pretty hard to define, so let's just leave that be and talk about the movie. Film Noir often has blazing fast, smart dialogue. That dialogue was here at times, but instead it was the camera that left me dizzy. There is this frenetic feel to the movie that bounced and rolled through this dark and dingy world. And then there is Orson Welles turn as Detective Hank Quinlan which clearly outshines Charlton Heston's unfortunate attempt at a Mexican Police Officer. Things go from dark to darker with a feeling of helplessness as the do-badders do bad. In typical Wellesian fashion every shot impresses, black and white never looking so good, err, so bad. i would love to learn more about the history of the versions that have been released for this movie. The version I watched was supposed to be an attempt at Welles original vision prior to the studio seizing control from him (as was the normal occurrence for his movies post-Kane) and doing their own edit. It seems like a conflict worth its own movie. If nothing else, enjoy this famous tracking shot which opened the movie.

14.


Vertigo (1958)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

"Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice."

Sight and Sound recently ranked this movie #1 all-time (knocking off my #1 from last decade) as a poll from international filmmakers. In other words my list here is already rubbish by Vertigo being so low. Differing from the other films here listed, I feel like I have to argue for why this movie is so low, rather than why it is on the list. Why all this noise and nonsense? Vertigo is widely considered Alfred Hitchcock's best movie while Alfred Hitchcock is often thought the greatest director. If you have some math skills you could probably work out the equation here: Best + Best = Best, right? Well, of course both those earlier positions are still debated, some will consider Psycho higher, some Rear Window, the more adventure-lover kind might put up North by Northwest. And then there's the Notorious people, and so on. The man did a lot of great movies, no question. As for the best director bit, how do you even judge this? Anyways, I am wasting time, let me forget the argument and actually talk about the movie.

When I was younger and first started watching Hitchcock movies, I think I was uncertain what to expect. I hear he is the greatest director ever, I hear Vertigo is his best: so I see the movie... and get left expecting more. A lot goes into this, but I think foremost I didn't know how to experience Hitchcock. (I was also just a kid upon my first viewing so cut me some slack.) I believe you have to first just enjoy the ride. Hitch was an entertainer. We (or maybe just I) hear great movie and I think it is going to be this very deeply (and immediately) insightful contemplative work. Hitch has that, and perhaps more so in Vertigo than anywhere else. But first and foremost he is an entertainer. And actually, initially Vertigo struggled to even entertain audiences being mostly forgotten as it was released. Yet the movie is a multi-layered beast. And to use my chewing image from earlier, every viewing of this movie allows me to bite just a little deeper in the twisted story of obsession and desire. This movie feels like it has the most components of what makes a film a Hitchcock film firing than any of his other works. It has an interesting two-story structure, a bit cyclical, kinda like a swirling, twisting, vortex... Every shot has intention, every color, every look. It plays with identity, desire, murder, it twists the innocent, and punishes the guilty. Every viewing makes the movie better. Every listen gives the score more power. Every still makes you see yet one more thing you never noticed. Perhaps no movie deserves more watches to unpack its depths, and if I just keep watching, mayhap it'll ultimately win the crown. For now it sits here at 14. Sorry...

13.


Kumonosu-jô (1957) or Throne of Blood
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

"You, who would soon rule the world, allow a ghost to frighten you."

Shakespeare's Macbeth. It is a classic for good reason. And here you have the best adaptation of it I have seen despite the fact that it never uses a word of the Bard's dialogue. So we have Macbeth set in feudal war-fraught Japan. Every one's favorite samurai, Toshirô Mifune, chewing more scenery than is healthy for sure; the creepiest Lady Macbeth you ever did see; and one of the greatest death scenes ever on film to close us out (did I mention chewing scenery?) You'll be forgiven if you think Kurosawa only did samurai movies because he just did them so well. This movie is a great mash-up of a lot of things I enjoy.

12.


Paths of Glory (1957)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Corporal Paris: See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we'll be dead and it'll be alive. It'll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I'll be nothing, and it'll be alive.
[Ferol smashes the roach]
Private Ferol: Now you got the edge on him.

Did someone say greatest director? Here is another fellow that gets thrown into that conversation. Now I can show my flag here and let you know that Kubrick has not won me over yet, but I am certainly looking forward to experiencing a number of his movies in their proper chronology; some for the first time and some for the second (I will also be skipping some...). This particular viewing was a first for me. Paths of Glory from what I hear is when many believe Kubrick truly arrived as a director. It is an anti-war World War I drama that combines war with court room drama and a little twist of farce that hints at the tone to come in his Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The farcical are the French brass who command their troops into impossible tasks for the sake of their name, while we watch Kirk Douglas having to live out the real consequences of his generals impaired reality. Kubrick uses the twist of humor contrasted against the brutal experience in the trench to highlight the disconnect between the "leader" and the soldier to great effect. And you can see Kubrick's great eye for image on full display.

11.


Smultronstället or Wild Strawberries (1957)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman

"As professor emeritus, you ought to know why it hurts. But you don't know. You know so much, and you don't know anything."

Quiet and contemplative with a touch of the fey, in Wild Strawberries, Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman (not to be confused with Ingrid Bergman, mind you) takes his audience on a spiritual journey accompanied by a physical. On his way to be honored as Doctor Jubilaris, Isak Borg (Viktor Sjöström) finds himself meeting various travelers who all represent different stages of his own life. Coupled with visions of yesteryear and a few dreams of death, Borg begins to seek a reward in life that is of far greater worth than a title of scholarly honor. This was my third Bergman film; so far my favorite. I look forward to further discussions on questions of life and faith with him next decade.

10.



A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Directed by Elia Kazan

"I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don't tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth."

A Tennessee Williams play transported from Broadway to the Screen by way of the same director and the same stars excepting a little studio infusion of star power with Vivien Leigh as the lead. I first read the script and subsequently watched the movie in a high school English class. I remember thinking, "That was well done," and leaving the thing there. This movie was more than well done. It is crazy to think that Marlon Brando may have given his best performance ever in his first movie ever... it was all downhill from there. I guess if you start at Everest, downhill is still pretty high up. He possesses the camera in his scenes in a way that was entirely unique excepting perhaps Orson Welles at this point. From the Stanislavski System of acting, Brando raged and cried with danger and vulnerability bleeding all over the place. It was wild and unpredictable and oodles more captivating than the other noted young Stanisavskis, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. Vivien Leigh's "old" acting almost better functions as a conflict to the new Brando in that her character of Blanche is such an acted character, opposed by the raw "real" Stanley. It is mesmerizing acting. Kazan does a great job here but one could argue you are watching a stage show more than perhaps the cinema.

9.


Ordet (1955) or The Word
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Based on the play by Kay Munk, I wonder how this movie would hold up under multiple viewings, because its ranking here has everything to do with how I first interacted with it. I had no idea what I was getting into here; I saw Ordet on a list somewhere, it ended up on my list, and when the time came I sat down to a Danish film of which I had zero expectation. And while the movie kept telling me what it was, I continued to doubt it up to the final scene. I was having physical reactions to the chief tension of the movie. What is that tension? Faith. Specifically Christian faith in the modern European world. I hesitate to say too much, because so much of what I like stemmed out of my not knowing anything to begin. Let us just say, my faith was tested, and I continue to think back to this movie continually. Beautifully shot, somber and quiet, you feel wind-swept and tired as you witness a Danish family being tested at every joint.

8.


All About Eve (1950)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Margo Channing: So many people know me. I wish I did. I wish someone would tell me about me.
Karen Richards: You're Margo, just Margo.
Margo Channing: And what is that, besides something spelled out in light bulbs, I mean - besides something called a temperament, which consists mostly of swooping about on a broomstick and screaming at the top of my voice? Infants behave the way I do, you know. They carry on and misbehave - they'd get drunk if they knew how - when they can't have what they want, when they feel unwanted or insecure or unloved.

If you recall from my last list, I love movies about movies, which still tends to hold when we are speaking of movies about the stage as well. And here fits All About Eve. With a cutting, perfect script, delivered with a knowing cynicism, great performances abound led most prominently by the aging stage actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) realizing her limelight is passing her on, as the younger generation steps up to take one's place. Are we talking real life, are we talking about the movie? Who cares. The insecurities of Channing/Davis prove a fertile ground for exploration. And I haven't even mentioned our eponymous character... Let us just say, ambitions abound. Perhaps the only drawback is this movie functions more as a play than a film. I suppose that makes sense, this being about the stage, but Mankiewicz allows the characters the battlefield and doesn't bring the camera into it. Some may say this is actually a good thing, (if I even have the right of it), but my opinion is it does not use the medium it is in. Overall, a small objection to a wonderful movie.

7.



Ikiru (1952)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

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

And not a samurai sword in sight. The tone of this movie took me a while to adjust, but once I did, I really enjoyed its half-humorous, half-melodrama discussion of real life. I feel like it is a common and silly refrain in movies today, however it takes on new light in an even more success-driven culture of Japan, to see work as not an end. Ikiru means "to live", and so we see a man who has never lived and is about to die attempting to figure out his first steps. Something I appreciated in his dabbling with various kinds of living, the living he ultimately finds is serving.

6. 


Shinchinin no Samurai (1954) or Seven Samurai
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

"This is the nature of war: By protecting others, you save yourselves. If you only think of yourself, you'll only destroy yourself."

Uh, there are a couple Samurai swords here. This can be another dangerous movie to enter with expectation. Kurosawa's great epic, oft-imitated and never bested has a little bit of everything. Yeah, there's the samurai action, but if that is all you came for, you are going to have a long wait. Clocking in at the traditional epic movie length of 3 hours and 27 minutes, you have about 2 and a half hours before the battles truly begin. Instead Kurosawa walks you through about every other stage and circumstance of life to get you there, and it is well worth the journey. Beautifully shot in typical Kurosawa fashion this probably is indeed his best, yet it is another work that grows on me. I do not promise you you will love this movie, but you should at least give it a chance. If you do not like it the first time, watch it again and again until you do. Oh, that Mifune guy is back chewing scenery again.

This may be the point to discuss Kurosawa's capability at image and its moving. I feel a bit false trying to act like I know what I am talking about, but Kurosawa had an incredible power in visual storytelling. He would frame a shot that told you everything that was occurring, dialogue unneeded. I have often been impressed with his lighting, and separating images in the black and white medium to incredible effect. Now, I am aware that this is all mostly the cinematographer's job, not the director's, so to a degree I am crediting the wrong individual, but that's kind of how us ignorant movie-viewers operate.  All that to say, in Seven Samurai, Kurosawa's framing, lighting, and general storytelling through image is in full swing, perhaps only bested by a movie I have yet to name (hint, hint).

5.

Tōkyō Monogatari (1953) or Tokyo Story
Directed by Yasujirō Ozu


You may or may not remember the entry Late Spring by Ozu in my last list. If anyone has become my great discovery of this chronological movie quest, it has been Ozu. I really could watch his images all day. And that only compliments this story of generations and an almost silent war of culture as Japan transitions post-war. In a world of family honor, parents find themselves adrift amidst the various tensions and desires of their children. There is no place for the old amongst this new and changing world. Often considered Ozu's masterpiece we have another quiet reflection on family and age and marriage and just about everything. I fully believe Ozu movies will grow on me immensely upon later viewings but these are all my first pass.

Ozu has this incredible way of creating a visual frame for the mundane.  As if it is the normal conversations of life that are most important to photograph and remember.  And his work exemplifies this. The major events which our self-stories would want to highlight, he relegates to off-screen and instead he steps down into the twist and turn of a family conversation and the normal tensions of life. It is like the anti-social media perspective.

4.


Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Directed by Billy Wilder

Joe Gillis: You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I *am* big. It's the *pictures* that got small.

What is Sunset Blvd.? A film noir? A black comedy? It is crazy fun is what it is. Billy Wilder directs so you know the script will be sharper than a pencil on your first day of school. It is a movie about movies again, too. Turning the old turtle over and showing the dark side of fame and fortune. Norma Desmond performed in abundance by Gloria Swanson is a silent movie actress (hey, so was Gloria Swanson...) who has "aged" out of film and cannot enter a new stage of life, living in a world of her sick and twisted make-believe. William Holden as Joe Gillis gets caught in her orbit and well, you read me say noir, right? This movie has a little of everything, style, wit, pathos, Buster Keaton. I want little more in my movies.

3.


Apur Sansar (1959) or The World of Apu
Directed by Satyajit Ray

"Take good care of yourself. I'm well, but my heart is sick. It will heal when you come. If you don't - I'll never speak to you ever ever again."

Apparently Akira Kurosawa said, "Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon." Now artists are in the business of overstating things and you may recognize this as overstatement, however it was a wonder to finally behold a hint of Satyajit Ray's work. Apur Sansar actually functions as the third part of a trilogy following the titular character, Apu, from a small child (Pather Panchali (1955)) to a young teen (Aparajito (1956)) and finally to a young man (Apur Sansar(1959)). Pather Panchali was Ray's first work and is a marvel for a first time filmmaker of subtlety and courage as an artist. He is assured of his work and it shows. Yet for me, Apur Sansar was the best of this bunch, as it finally came to the point of Apu deciding. It is a moving story of your expected tropes, life and love and loss and living, but all handled with a beautiful touch. Once more, this ranking is the most subject to change as I have only just experienced the film for the first time. Or in Kurosawa's words, I have only just seen the sun.

2.



On the Waterfront (1954)
Directed by Elia Kazan

Charlie: You're getting on. You're pushing 30. You know, it's time to think about getting some ambition.
Terry: I always figured I'd live a bit longer without it.

For some reason, I have the strongest fear in posting this movie so high. I guess I suspect all of the fans of those lower-regarded movies will have the most fuel to chip away herein. Yet there is something about this simple story of a failed man learning how to stand that hits a sound and easy note for me. We have Brando again doing the Brando thing. Eva Marie Saint as Innocence herself seeking restitution for her dead brother upon the corrupt New York waterfront. For my money this is Kazan's finest work. Of course, there is the shadow of Kazan attempting to argue his own righteousness for his actions before the House Committee on Un-American Activities which is still rightly controversial. Yet the movie stands apart from this. This is (at present) my favorite American movie of the 50s.

1.



Rashōmon (1950)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Priest: I don't want to hear it. No more horror stories.
Commoner: They are common stories these days. I even heard that the demon living here in Rashômon fled in fear of the ferocity of man.

Yeah, he's back. I love narrative voice. In literature, I love interacting with the narrator as a character with his own perspective and biases, adding another layer of required discernment from the reader. What is Rashōmon? Part court room drama, part noir if I may be so bold as to throw that genre across the seas and in a different historical period entirely. I would argue this point by the fact that it involves crime and likewise addresses self-interested survivalists as do many a noir. But you are still asking, what is Rashōmon? Its central conceit is a trial where the conflicting testimonies are displayed before the audience in order that they see the same actors, if you will, replay the same occurrence over and over, yet with entirely different actions and motivations: truth being abandoned for self-interest. This movie does indeed have samurai swords, but it is a timeless story of the depths of man, sacred and profane. And the cinematography! That Mifune fellow is back again as well.

Concluding:
There are a lot of good movies I watched and could not fit onto this list. I am sure there are many I failed to put on my list. There are a couple I missed due to accessibility. If your movie did not make my list, feel free to tell me about it, heh. I hope you enjoyed the samurais and Brandos and music and nonsense.

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