A charmer of a film, deeper, even grittier than its Capra-corn romantic populism might suggest, It Happened One Night swept the 1934 Oscars—winning Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, and Director—and if it hadn’t edged out The Thin Man in doing so, I’d say, Bravo, well deserved. The story is a classic class-crossing fable: A spoiled rich girl runs away from her father to join the king she wants to marry; a hardscrabble newspaperman finds her, blackmails her into letting him come along to write a story; they take to the road, by bus, foot, thumb, and jalopy, squabbling, scolding, and, of course, falling in love with each other.
La Dolce Vita was Federico Fellini’s breakout hit: a critical and commercial sensation, even in America, where foreign films till then were strictly art house fare. It’s the winding tale of a litterateur-turned-gossip columnist wandering the streets, bars, and parties of newly decadent modern Rome, seeking love, meaning, and value but finally realizing their futility and wallowing in the miasma. The film coined archetypes of the era: a character named Paparazzo, a tabloid photographer who chases after sensational shots, spawned the word paparazzi; another, Steiner, a refined man of culture who commits a gruesome crime, became the prototype of the modern ineffectual intellectual.
Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion remains, 75 years on, one of the greatest films ever made. To some, it may seem a bit clichéd, but that’s only because so many movies since have cribbed from its plot lines. It takes place in German POW camps during the First World War and was shot on what many recognized at the time as the eve of a Second World War. One of the things it’s about is the world that vanished, for better and for worse, in the two decades between the two wars. There has been much debate over just which “great illusion” Renoir was referring to in his title. Some have assumed it’s war. But this is not a simple anti-war movie; at the end, our French heroes, who have escaped from the camp, can’t wait to get home so they can reenlist in the fighting.
Lawrence of Arabia may be the last extravagant blockbuster that was also a great film. It’s nearly four hours long, much of it consisting of men galloping on camels through the desert, shot on location with a cast of hundreds, no sex, almost no women—yet this is riveting, heart-pounding stuff, and witty, to boot. It’s based on the true story of T.E. Lawrence, the romantic British officer who led a gaggle of bedouin armies against Turkish strongholds in World War I, helped bring down the Ottoman Empire, came to believe his own myths and see himself as a demigod—and thus became a delusional monster. The film has the feel of a grand epic and an intimate psychodrama. It’s an adventure, a clash of cultures, and a tragedy.
To my mind, Lincoln was the best film of 2012. In any case, it’s a rare thing: an old-fashioned biopic, a 19th century costume drama, a “talky” set piece about a debate in Congress—and yet it’s riveting, stirring, transporting. This is a film about the struggle over the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery; but it’s also about the nature of hard-boiled politics, the tension between compromise and principle, and the meaning of leadership—and, somehow, it doesn’t come off as preachy (except, a bit, at the very beginning and ending, though what comes in between almost earns it the right of a little sentimentality).
Mulholland Drive is a wild and woolly movie, rife with swooning mysteries, esoteric clues, red herrings, black swans, and, even if the whole mélange remains a puzzle to you, it tosses up some of the most haunting and sensual images and sounds ever to come out of Hollywood. It begins with heavy breathing and soft focus on a red sheet, your first signal that what you’re about to see is someone’s dream, though how much, and at what point things flit back and forth from nightmare to reality (or, simply, to random jetsam from writer-director David Lynch’s own weird dreams and fantasies) is up for grabs.
All of you know the taxicab scene from On the Waterfront in which Marlon Brando tells Rod Steiger, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let’s face it.” But I’d bet not many have recently seen the whole movie—and never have you seen it looking as breathtaking as it does on this Blu-ray Disc, a wondrous collaboration between Sony’s 4K digital-restoration lab and the Criterion Collection’s special-features team.
Phoenix was one of the best films of 2015 (the U.S. release date): taut, nerve-racking, gorgeous in a lurid way. It has a Vertigo vibe, leaning heavily on Hitchcock’s German Expressionist influences, but marked with Angst of a more sociopolitical nature, as if the likes of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang had shot films just after WWII instead of the two decades before. It begins with a woman, an Auschwitz survivor (played by Nina Hoss), entering a hospital for facial surgery to repair the damage done by brutal guards. She wants to look the way she did before, so her husband can recognize her. After the operation, she finds him waiting tables at a nightclub called Phoenix.
Silver Linings Playbook is the most oddly enticing rom-com in a long time. Think Billy Wilder filtered through Martin Scorsese, which isn’t a bad way to describe the flip sensibility and kinetic style of writer-director David O. Russell at his best (Three Kings and Flirting with Disaster, not I Heart Huckabees). It’s a movie about crazy people: self-destructive and socially oblivious in various ways to varying degrees, all of them finding a place in the sun through love, family, community, music, and sports.
The Best Years of Our Lives is the best film ever made about war veterans. That’s not exactly an alluring endorsement, so let me add that it’s a nearly three-hour film without a moment of mind-drift. It’s funny, moving, wrenching—a total tear-jerker that earns its emotional wallop.