My Favorite Year in Film – 1966

I was reading some old AVClub articles earlier today and came across a series of articles published in 2008 in which several writers picked their favorite year in movies and wrote a summary of that year.  I found this to be an interesting thought experiment and decided to pick a year of my own to explore. I fully admit that my choice of 1966 is an arbitrary one motivated largely by a sense of obligation to include Persona on any list which invokes my favorite films.

My Favorite Year in Film – 1966

1966 found worldwide cinema culture in flux.  The Nouvelle Vague was now a global export, spawning legions of new filmmakers in every European nation, even as the French directors who gave birth to the movement began to abandon it for other fare.  This is the year that brought use such arthouse classics as Godard’s Masculin Feminin and Made in USA, both abstract and experimental films which gesture towards the director’s complete abandonment of traditional narrative in the 70’s.  Other classics of European cinema from ‘66 include Au Hasard Balthazar, The Battle of Algiers, Daisies, Juliet of the Spirits, and Yesterday Girl.  That this is merely a sampling of the international films released demonstrates the high level of artistry in the cinema at this moment in time, buoyed by the counterculture movements of the day and film’s status as the artform of the revolutionary youths.

Turning our gaze stateside, a look at the highest grossing films of 1966 further reinforces the idea of a culture in flux, with holdovers from Hollywood’s Golden Age competing with filmmakers working in the auteurist mode of the European cineastes.  Number 1 at the box-office was the bluntly titled The Bible: In the Beginning, tailed by the historical epic Hawaii, and Mike Nichol’s debut feature, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  That two of these films are hardly remembered while the third is an avowed classic which marked the beginning of hugely successful period for Mike Nichols suggests that the new class of baby boomer filmmakers are quickly overtaking their predecessors.  However, theatre-goers who might be less attuned to the sensibilities of the younger generation would still have had plenty to watch with western classics such as Stagecoach, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and El Dorado debuting in ‘66.  Similarly, a steady stream of Cold War Thrillers continued in the mid-60’s with Alfred Hitchcock directing Julie Andrews and Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and the masterful adaptation of John le Carre’s novel of the same name in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.  The disparate quality and content of Hollywood films in this period is indicative of the death of the studio system which created room for the New Hollywood movement which was still coalescing in ‘66.

I would be greatly remiss if I didn’t touch on some of the more cult offerings available to audiences in 1966 as this period was a particularly fertile one for outsider film artists, specifically those tapped into the youth culture of psychedelia, political activism, and general subversion.  Movies which demonstrate this sensibility from the class ‘66 include such titles as The 10th Victim, a pulpy italian thriller featuring Marcello Mastroianni, the psych-feminist freakout of Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, and a one two-punch from Chytilova’s cohorts of the Czech New Wave in Closely Watched Trains and A Report on the Party and Guests.  Other underseen gems from 1966 which are worthy of mention include Alexander Kluge’s Godardian experiment, Yesterday Girl, the Japanese noir classic Tokyo Drifter, and Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac.  

Top 5 Favorite Films of 1966.

5.) Juliet of the Spirits, dir. Federico Fellini

juliet of the spirits

While I personally don’t love Juliet of the Spirits as much as such Fellini films as La Strada or La Dolce Vita, it is undeniably one of the peak cinematic achievements of 1966.  Fellini’s first feature to be photographed in color, the director uses this new element to great effect in creating a series of tableaus representing the troubled psyche of the titular character.  Guilietta Masina, Fellini’s spouse and frequent collaborator, is in top form here as a meek woman who slowly gains self-awareness through exploring her own desires and examining her relationship with a philandering and domineering spouse.  The importance of dreams had always been a focus in Fellini’s work and Juliet’s increasingly provocative visions rival famed sequences in 8 ½ and Roma in creativity and psychological complexity.  The film is also augmented by Nino Rota’s score, one of the finest he compose for Fellini, which suggests themes of the carnivalesque in its use of calliope and saxophone.  Overall, it signals a shift in Fellini’s work from his early classics which were universally beloved to his films of the late-60’s and 70’s which divided critics and challenged audiences with their elaborate set pieces and abstract narratives.

4.) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, dir. Mike Nichols

who's afraid

In retrospect, it’s baffling to me that a picture as acrid and cynical as this could have been a huge hit.  However, it is perhaps merely a testimony to the enormous talents involved in the production of Virginia Woolf which ensured its success with contemporary audiences as well as its place in the pantheon of all-time great American films.  Mike Nichol’s film betrays its roots as an Edward Albee stage play in its minimalistic set-dressing and utilization of a very limited cast.  Instead of becoming a distraction, however, these dramatic choices highlight the claustrophobic nature of the relationship at the center of the film, that of Martha and George, portrayed by real-life couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  The film creates its conflict in the mind games these two play with each other, ensnaring an unsuspecting young couple in their web of loathing and emotional sadism. Perhaps the most profoundly shocking aspect of the film is the viewer’s eventual realization that the meltdown to which they are witness is not a singular moment of love’s disintegration but merely one skirmish in a lifelong war of contrition and abuse.   With Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Nichols demonstrated himself to be one of the nation’s most promising filmmakers whose keen eye for human psychology enabled him to direct his actors to new heights of achievement on the screen.


3.) The Battle of Algiers, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo


Gillo Pontecorvo’s controversial masterpiece demonstrates both the capacity for film to act as effective political propaganda as well as a blending of narrative and documentary techniques.  As such, The Battle of Algiers is as “real” a film as any, calling upon actual Algerian revolutionaries to restage their own violent uprising against the French colonial occupiers.  Due to its staunch, anti-French stance, the film was censored at the time of its release, but it still found a receptive audience in the politically engaged youths of the day who would themselves take part in massive protests the following year.  Clearly inspired by the Italian Neorealist school, Pontecorvo presents the eponymous battle using newsreel-style black and white photography which heightens the sense that one is witness to authentic historical events instead of a sanitized reenactment.  Given the film’s sympathetic portrayal of the Algerian struggle for independence, it is not surprising that the film has been cited as an influence on groups such as The Black Panther Party, The Irish Republican Army, and Andreas Baader of the Baader-Meinhof Group.  While the film does not actively campaign for the guerilla tactics employed by the Algerians against their oppressors, it clearly demonstrates the inherent inhumanity of colonization and suggests that the overthrowing of colonial powers by native populations is inevitable.  Few films manage to present a political issue so clearly without regressing into didactic pedagoguery. This is a testament to the film’s many thrilling crowd sequences which depict the might of the people acting in collective resistance against imperial forces.

2.) Au Hasard Balthazar, dir. Robert Bresson

au hasard

No director has ever used an animal as a character in a non-animated feature to as great an effect as Bresson in this film.  The beatific donkey, Balthazar, is transformed from a lowly barnyard creature into a symbol of all that is innocent and all that is victimized in this world.  This feat is achieved through the use of a parallel narrative structure which compares the experiences of Balthazar, an animal doomed to experience mistreatment at the hand of its various owners, with those of Marie, the only human who ever showed any degree of compassion toward the beast.  Bresson’s trademark minimalism is on display here, denying the audience expected moments of pitched drama, instead opting for a slow-burning emotionality. The pace of this film might turn off viewers accustomed to more propulsive fare. However, if a viewer can becomes lost in the melancholic beauty of Bresson’s pastoral images, the experience of viewing Au Hasard Balthazar can be one of the most rewarding cinema has to offer.  Even the staunchest skeptic, like myself, will not be able to help but be moved by the film’s breathtaking religious symbolism and its compassionate depiction of the suffering of the innocent at the hands of the callous and cruel.

1.) Persona, dir. Ingmar Bergman


I count myself proudly as a member of the Person(a)kult, a term coined by Swedish film critics to describe those who sang the praises of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece in the late 1960’s.  Legend has it that Ingmar Bergman conceived of the project after watching some experimental films by French directors and decided that he could do a much better job of crafting an avant-garde narrative which includes meta-cinematic elements suggesting a deconstruction of the artform itself.  Few films demonstrate the level of artistry and daring originality on display in Persona.  From the film’s jarring opening sequence featuring an erect phallus and images of a child clinging to projected images of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson to its equally enigmatic conclusion, the images crafted by Bergman are unlike anything the cinema has seen before or sense.  Though the film has had a clear influence on works such as Mullholland Dr., 3 Women, and Week-End, no other director can match the original for sheer inventiveness and fearless exploration of the darkest aspects of the human psyche.


Blow-Up, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni

blow up

Based on the same Julio Cortazar short story that would later inspire Brian De Palma’s Blow-Out, this film marries Hitchcockian suspense to psychedelic visuals inflected with Antonioni’s trademark sense of alienation and absurdity.  Far less concerned with its central mystery than the aforementioned De Palma picture, Blow-Up is a portrait of London in the Swinging 60’s, complete with hip Herbie Hancock score and a protagonist whose career as a high-fashion photographer brings him into proximity with remarkably glamorous women and the city’s burgeoning rock scene.  One of the film’s most interesting sequences is an early concert by the Yardbird featuring various British rock luminaries who would soon rocket to superstardom.  Remarkably, this plotless, drug-addled movie was an enormous box office success whose critical and popular appeal perturbed censors who attempted to stop the film from screening in America.

Masculin Feminin, dir. Jean-Luc Godard

masc fem

Along with Made in the USA which was also released in ’66, Masculin Feminin marks the end of what is normally considered Godard’s Nouvelle Vague period, though its arguable that he broke with the movement far earlier.  Regardless, this is the last of Godard’s films with a strong narrative focus until he returns to commercial filmmaking in the late 80’s.  Exploring the dialectic relationship between France’s ye-ye teen culture and the Marxist politics which were gaining popularity with Parisian youth, this snapshot of Paris in the 60’s both foreshadows the events of May ’68.  Masculin Feminin is perhaps best evoked by an intertitle which appears in the film and has since become one of the most famous Godardisms: “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.”  This tension between capitalist culture, indexed in the film as the various cultural exports, and the radical politics which had become a key aspect of the French counterculture is echoed even in the casting which pairs Jean-Pierre Leaud, the single actor most identified with the Nouvelle Vague, and Chantal Goya, a teen-pop idol in her own right.  Fans of Godard’s early films will find plenty to love here, even if it skirts the line between traditional, narrative filmmaking and the didactic essay-style which Godard would soon embrace.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, dir. Sergio Leone

good bad ugly

This epic tale of greed and vengeance could be pointed to as the pinnacle of achievement in the Spaghetti Western genre.  It evinces all of the trademarks of the genre, and Leone’s trademark extravagance is on display here with the film playing out over nearly 3 hours of tense rising action before a climactic showdown in the desert.  Clint Eastwood returns to his legendary Man With No Name character, smoldering with cool intellect and a subdued benevolence.  The contrast between his portrayal of Blondie and Lee Van Cleef’s turn as the sadistic and amoral Angel Eyes is such a compelling dynamic that it buoys the film through its more languid passages.  Though other westerns are more exciting or genre-defying, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly remains a key piece in both Eastwood’s lengthy career as well as the course of western films in general following their heyday in the 40’s.

I Knew Her Well, dir. Antonio Pietrangeli

I Knew Her

This beautifully photographed, black & white film depicts the glamorous life of the cosmopolitan classes inhabiting Rome during the period of the post-war Economic Miracle.  Reminiscent of the work of Antonioni and Fellini from just a few years earlier, Pietrangeli also captures the ennui of the rich and aimless, though his picture does lack the sense of existential angst which turns a film like La Dolce Vita from a stylistic experiment into a gripping psychological study.  There is something about the hyper-modernity of Rome in this period with its culture of decadence and frivolity that has always fascinated me.  Though I Knew Her Well is less accomplished than the better known Italian classics, it is still worth seeking out for those who have seen and enjoyed those films.

Andrei Rublev, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky


Tarkovsky’s painstaking study of 15th century Russian life is hardly a faithful biopic of its titular subject.  However, it is among the most moving and engrossing visions of The Middle Ages ever portrayed on the screen.  Andrei Rublev abounds with Christian imagery, foregrounding this aspect of Russian culture as central to the nation’s historical development, a stance which would have put Tarkovsky at odds with Soviet censors.  Similarly, the director portrays Rublev as a character of world-historic importance who struggles against political censorship and authoritarianism  during the period in which the tsardom was established.  This is a film which insists upon the dignity and the autonomy of the artist, suggesting that transcendent artistic achievement is only possible when the artist is able to overcome the limitations imposed by society.  As such, it can be read as Tarkovsky’s mission statement, a promise to live in defiance of the dehumanizing bureaucracy which had rendered the USSR as oppressive as any medieval fiefdom.

A few other films from ’66 that I’ve seen and love:

DjangoThe ServantChelsea GirlsChappaquaThe Sword of DoomWho Are You Polly Maggoo?, How to Steal a MillionSecondsA Bullet for the GeneralChimes at MidnightThe Face of AnotherThe Hawks and The SparrowsYoung Torless


Pierrot le Fou, Jean-Luc Godard, 1965

If one undertakes the task of viewing Godard’s films of the 1960’s chronologically, it is evident that Pierrot le Fou marks a significant break from the director’s Nouvelle Vague period.  Though he had been experimenting with formal artifice for years and had always delighted in breaking the fourth wall, PLF finds the director deconstructing cinematic tropes to their most basic elements, blurring the lines between experimental impressionism and Hollywood-style narrative cinema.  This amalgamation of antithetical modes would reach its zenith with 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.

Already, one can begin to see the stylistic preoccupations developing which would lead Godard to explore filmic essays later in his career.  However strange the film may seem to fans of Breathless and Band of Outsiders, it’s still considerably more character driven than films like Made in USA, which itself seems to operate as an abstracted meditation on many of the themes present in PLF.  The lead actors are in peak form in this film with Belmondo, in particular, delivering a performance of surprising vulnerability.

Pierrot le Fou is a deceptively straightforward film, continuing the critique of bourgeois consumerism which motivated France’s intellectual Left during the period.  Though it is more overtly political and topical than the films of the early Nouvelle Vague, its compelling narrative of love, and deception, on the run makes the film accessible to those who might find Godard’s late-60’s output too didactic.

Vivre Sa Vie, Jean-Luc Godard, 1962

This film finds Godard firmly situated within the oeuvre of the Nouvelle Vague.  Its matter-of-fact treatment of the life of a prostitute is reminiscent of many contemporary films which deal with the subject of sex work in that it resists any impulse toward moralization.  Instead, it vacillates between a neo-realistic depiction of the life of struggling actress/sex worker and playful meta-cinema, as is Godard’s trademark.  At a brief 85 minutes, the director demonstrates his ability to create a minimalistic cinema which still capitalizes on all the possibilities of the form.

The film’s tableaux structure gives the impression of a series of inter-connected short films, each starring Anna Karina.  In fact, Vivre Sa Vie is, above all else,  a love letter to Ms. Karina, her face occupying the screen in medium or close-up shots for the majority of the runtime.  In that manner, it bears a strong resemblance to Malle’s use of Jeanne Moreau in The Lovers, another film driven by the natural charisma and screen presence of its female lead.  However, Vivre Sa Vie is considerably more light-hearted than Malle’s existential portrait of desire and indecision.

Vivre Sa Vie demonstrates Godard’s growth into the master experimenter and formalist of the Nouvelle Vague.  While still making use of many of the techniques which caused Breathless to become a global sensation, this film demonstrates a developing sophistication in narrative structure and dialogue, emphasized by Karina’s movie star qualities and symbolic status as representative of Godard’s artistic vision.   Such dynamics are in play in the film’s most powerful sequences such as one in which Karina takes in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc; tears pour from her large, doe-like eyes, inviting the viewer to draw comparisons between Karina’s developing persona as a symbol of the new cinema and Renee Falconetti’s legendary embodiment of Joan.

Simultaneously more experimental and more traditionally narrative than the Godard films which preceded it, Vivre Sa Vie hints at the heights of Godard’s late-60’s innovation while demonstrating his valence to the Nouvelle Vague as that short-lived but enormously influential movement was still in full-swing.  A compelling and visually delightful work, this movie is sure to please both cinephiles and more casual viewers who aren’t adverse to a little modernist noodling.

The Damned, Luchino Visconti, 1969

Visconti, like so many other Italian artists of his generation, spent a great deal of his career attempting to make sense of fascism and the terror it wrought on Europe.  The Damned is the ultimate expression of that struggle in Visconti’s work.  A tale of depravity, sensuality, wealth, and social decline, this film depicts the liberal political climate which birthed Nazism through the exemplar of one wealthy, bourgeoisie family.  Like many Visconti films, The Damned finds connections between sexual depravity and moral vacuity, as the family’s descent into backstabbing and incest is connected to their relationship with the ascendant Nazi government.  This metaphor is refigured and re-expressed throughout the film’s plot.

Stylistically, The Damned shares many features in common with the Giallo genre, a school of Italian horror-thrillers well known for its expressionistic use of color and lush, sensual images combined with unflinching depictions of violence.  The Damned‘s score is moody and foreboding.  This moodiness is reinforced by Visconti’s glacial camera movements which bear witness to the many of varieties of perversion which entertain the Nazis and their collaborators.  The set dressings are highly stylized and minimalistic, almost Brechtian in character.  Overall, the film is one of Visconti’s most singular visions of Europe in decline.

The Damned is a fantastic piece of cinema.  Its story is full of enticing reversals, but it does not become blogged down in plot-heavy, expositional sequences.  Similarly effective is Visconti’s vision of the Weimar Republic–acutely surreal, like a waking nightmare.  It works well as a proto-Giallo thriller in which the horrors of the Holocaust are foreshadowed in the moral failures of the industrial class who enabled it.

La Terra Trema, Luchino Visconti, 1948

La Terra Trema is among the most evocative and emotionally devastating examples of the Italian neorealist aesthetic.  Compared to the more optimistic fare of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica, Visconti’s vision of life in a coastal fishing village is practically nightmarish in its abject fatalism.  That Visconti highlights the specific political and economic structures which contribute to the oppression of the fisherman and their families lends the film a leftist bent which will emerge as a major theme throughout Visconti’s career.

In the tradition of neorealism, Visconti makes use of non-professional actors which lends the performances a visceral, documentarian quality and lends the images a lived-in feel.  Similarly, the depiction of a cycle of life in a fishing village takes on a timeless, mythical quality; the film’s conclusion gestures towards the start of a new cycle, meaning that the struggles and tragedies of the depicted generation will be revisited on their children and grandchildren.

One of the major works of Italian cinema, La Terra Trema displays a depth of empathy and understanding for the plight of the working class which, though commonly found in other films of the period, takes on an epic proportion through Visconti’s careful construction of family life in the process of collapse.  The film’s themes of community and exploitation are balanced with careful characterizations and attention to the specific impact of various social phenomena on the individual.  All things considered, La Terra Trema is a film which deserves to be placed among the most acclaimed works of world cinema.



Top 10 Essential Films

I was bored today so I decided to attempt to compile a list of my 10 most essential films.  I’m not claiming that these are the best films of all time.  Simply put, these are films that I feel anyone who’s serious about cinema should watch and study closely.  Also, they’re all films that were important in the development of my own ideas about film and film criticism.  These are presented in no specific order because I don’t think I could objectively rank them in any way.

  1. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
    Godard remains, in my estimation, one of the most innovative and original filmmakers of all time. Seeing 2 or 3 Things… for the first time completely exploded my notion of what film could be and do as an art form.  Its experimental, recursive structure allows for Godard to present a perceptive, incisive critique of modern, bourgeoisie society.  Despite its obvious ideological overtones, it remains a visual wonder, a showcase of the many techniques Godard developed over his first decade as a director.  Using these refined techniques, Godard destroys the traditional grammar of film, challenging the nature of the visual sign in cinema and offering a truly deconstructive portrait of the post-modern world.  Even viewers who resist the lure of the avant garde will find that 2 or 3 Things… is a cinematic triumph.
  2. La Dolce Vita (1960) dir. Federico Fellini
    It’s hard for me to talk about this movie without thinking about my first film studies teacher, Dr. David Lavery.  He was the first person to turn me on to European arthouse cinema, and La Dolce Vita was the first of his recommendations that elicited a visceral response from me.  The version of Rome constructed by Fellini in this film is endlessly fascinating to me, and Marcello Mastroianni’s lead performance so perfectly capture the ennui and alienation of mid-century life.  Though some may consider 8 1/2 Fellini’s true masterpiece, La Dolce Vita crystallizes the social landscape of Roman society in the post-war economic boom better than any other film I’ve seen.
  3. Kings of the Road (1976) dir. Wim Wenders
    The ultimate road trip movie from a master of the format, Kings of the Road is both a perfect distillation of Wim Wenders’ early filmography as well as pure cinema of the highest order.  Like many road trip flicks before it, this film uses the picaresque structure afforded by a travelogue to create a series of vignettes which explore West German culture, the influence of American culture on Europe, the art of filmmaking, and the compulsions which drive the urge known as wanderlust.  Wenders’ training as a photographer has never served him better than in this film.  Each frame is so deliberately and provocatively structured as to lend the film an otherworldly beauty which acts as a counterpoint to the film’s mundane and recursive narrative framework.  Though it offers little in the way of plot, Wenders’ stylistic preoccupations and slowly unfolding characterizations more than make up for a lack of traditional adventure motifs.
  4. Blue Velvet (1986) dir. David Lynch
    I don’t know what else to say about this film that hasn’t already been said.  This was undoubtedly my first taste of truly independent cinema.  I was brought into contact with Blue Velvet by my father’s lifelong love of Dennis Hopper, and his turn as Frank remains, in my mind, one of the most powerful evocations of malevolence and madness ever put to film.  Something about the dreamy surrealism of Lynch’s work speaks to me on a subconscious level, and even though he’s made a career of probing the deep-seated psychological trauma which lurks beneath the facade of suburban normalcy, this early treatment of that theme remains his most fully realized.
  5. L’Avventura (1960) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
    It’s extremely difficult for me to pick a favorite film from Antonioni’s trio of alienation (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse) and perhaps they’re best studied as variations on a common theme.  However, there’s something about Monica Vitti’s performance in L’Avventura which renders it more memorable and weightier than the actress’ other collaboriations with Antonioni.  Antonioni is the unchallenged master of existential angst, a cinematic poet capable of capturing and transmitting the atomized nature of man/woman under the strictures of bourgeois, capitalist society.  His work explores the total alienation of the individual from the society at large.  In L’Avventura, this probing takes the form of an unsolvable enigma in which the ontological and phenomenological issues raised by existential philosophy find their expression in Antonioni’s stark, anti-romantic imagery.  Though it bears a certain gravity due to its creator’s ideology, above all else L’Avventura is a mesmerizingly austere journey into the heart of mankind’s overwhelming dissatisfaction with the existing social and moral structures through a collection of expertly crafted images and motifs.
  6. Miracle in Milan (1951) dir. Vittorio de Sica
    If there was any justice in this world, Miracle in Milan would have become as widely watched and as treasured as any film from Disney or Warner Bros. in the decades since its release.  On its surface it is a simple parable of positivity and perseverance in the face of injustice.  De Sica manages to inscribe the entire ethos of Italian neo-realism in this simple fable which lacks the historical heft of other films from that period which deal directly with the roll of fascism on the psyche of Europe.  Instead, it substitutes the gritty, documentarian style of Rossellini or even De Sica’s Umberto D. for a magical realist narrative arc in which the oppressed and downtrodden are redeemed from their lives of abject suffering and privation.  Though some might find it overly precious, De Sica’s masterful presentation of the moral and social issues facing post-war Italy completely eclipses any tendency toward naive optimism.  Though the film’s ending suggests that the only escape possible for the poor is that of divine intervention, it still never fails to impress upon me the importance of movies as a means of overcoming the ideological structures created by capitalism and imperialism which foreclose upon any vision of a world in which those systems no longer hold sway.
  7. Oedipus Rex (1967) dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini
    This is probably a strange pick for a favorite Pasolini film, especially considering I typically respond strongly to films which speak directly to my political viewpoint (Porcile, Teorema, Salo).  However, the mythic quality achieved by the director in this adaptation of the classical legend of Oedipus speaks directly to the power of symbols and narrative to speak to the essential aspects human consciousness.  Pasolini’s visual amalgam of Greco-Roman, African, and pre-Christian culture grants the film a certain universality which pairs perfectly with the tale of Oedipus, a parable which has often been seen as an illustration of certain invisible, psychological textures related to sexuality and the construction of masculinity.  Pasolini’s work often has a hypnotic effect, and Oedipus Rex uses this quality to communicate with the viewer on the level of the subconscious, tapping into archetypal narrative forms and themes as old as civilization itself.
  8. The Conformist (1970) dir. Bernardo Bertolucci
    A perfect marriage of visual sensuality and psychological depth, The Conformist remains one of the most compelling and influential explorations of fascism in cinema history.  Through the construction of the fascist subject characterized in the film’s protagonist, Marcello, Bertolucci explores the ideologies and pathologies which led to the rise of Mussolini, a monumental dictator whose regime was enabled by the collaboration and capitulation of the masses.  Through its exploration of loyalty, sexuality, and the psychology of mass movements, The Conformist creates a believable template for explaining how seemingly well-adjusted, bourgeois citizens can be persuaded to embrace the tenets of far-right militarism in the face of liberal democracy’s inadequacies and failures.  That Bertolucci manages to accomplish this task without ever sacrificing the lush, poetic imagery for which he is best remembered is a testament to his mastery of the art form and his understanding of the Italian society into which he was born.
  9. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) dir. Luis Buñuel
    Buñuel is the master of cinematic surrealism in the truest sense.  Surrealism is a movement which seeks to upset the established social order of the day through a preponderance of images which upset the structures of logic and reason in favor of dreamlike associations and metaphoric exploration of mankind’s attempts (and failures) to superimpose meaning on the meaninglessness of the universe.  This is project remained a preoccupation for Buñuel long after the cultural upheaval of the inter-war period gave way to the crushing conformity of the Cold War.  The Discreet Charm… is the perfect summation of Buñuel’s cynical and iconoclastic view of middle-class consumerism as expressed through a series of loosely connected stories which seem to weave together the fabric of dreams and waking life.  Though its overall narrative structure defies concise explanation, its depiction of imperialism, vapid materiality, and a perceived inability of the bourgeoisie to gain perspective on their own role in reproducing the worse aspects of global capitalism render The Discreet Charm… an essential component of the European New Wave.
  10. Cries and Whispers (1972) dir. Ingmar Bergman
    I’ve never been a huge fan of conventional horror films, though I do find them interesting subjects for deconstruction and analysis.  Something about the construction of the horrific in typical generic conventions leaves me cold.  But the work of Ingmar Bergman is deeply unsettling to me on a variety of levels.  His gothic preoccupations and ability to transmit abstract terror and anxiety through narrative film render him one of the most fascinating figures in cinematic history, by my estimation.  Cries and Whispers deals with many of Bergman’s pet themes (sickness, death, broken families, recurring psychological trauma, and fear of the supernatural).  All of this is communicated through the director’s mastery of tone, using  subtle cinematographic and narrative techniques to create a sense of creeping dread which permeates every fiber of the filmic atmosphere.  Though it offers little in the way of jump scares or gore, Cries and Whispers is a film which I remain (contentedly) haunted by.


The Milky Way, Luis Buñuel, 1969

One thing that makes Buñuel such a fascinating figure is the process through which he came to be one of the dominant European directors of the 20th century.  Specifically, he cut his teeth as a filmmaker in the 1920’s in collaboration with Salvador Dali and the French surrealists.  The two products of this collaboration, Un Chein Andalou and L’Age d’Or, both catapulted Buñuel to international fame and basically guaranteed that the young artist would become a persona non grata on the arts scene due to the blasphemous and iconoclastic content of his works.

The Milky Way is, in large part, a return to the concerns and provocations which caused the Vatican to denounce Buñuel as an enemy of the church due to L’Age d’Or‘s connection of the legacy of Jesus Christ to the writings of Marquis de Sade.  Like the aforementioned silent features, The Milky Way is a parabolic, episodic film in which a variety of interconnected vignettes are developed to explore themes of faith and dogma as they pertain to the teachings of Catholicism.  In the hands of a less artful director, such a structure might seem didactic and repetitive, but Buñuel manages to bring his trademark brand of surrealism to play in a way which makes The Milky Way‘s amalgam of modernity and medievalism feel perfectly suited to dealing with the theological issues which the film explores to humorous and delightfully irreligious effect.

Buñuel’s filmography spans decades and continents, taking him from the impetus of modernist art in the inter-war period to the heights of mid-century, arthouse cinema.  As such, he presents a unique opportunity to engage with the ways in which filmmaking developed as an art form.  Students of his work will be able to trace the themes and images which are most meaningful to Buñuel and chronicle the ways in which they are recursively treated by his many works.  The Milky Way finds the director at a crucial moment in his career, having achieved a degree of fame on the festival circuit in the early-to-mid 60’s.  In both form and substance, The Milky Way both points backwards to Buñuel’s artistic roots as well as presaging the works he would make in the last decade of his life, which are among his most studied and well-loved.

Nazarín, Luis Buñuel, 1959

Exploring Buñuel’s early films has been a curious, rewarding task.  Even if I do not love all of the films he made while living in Mexico, I consistently find his cynicism and penchant for iconoclasm delightful.  That Buñuel was particularly productive during this period, making more than 12 films in the 1950’s alone, allows a viewer to watch the filmmaker’s singular style develop over the course of a decade.  It is fitting that he would bookend that period with two of his strongest early films, Los Olivdados (1950) and Nazarín (1959); though the former is one of the director’s most affecting and empathetic works, the latter finds the director developing the penchant for satire and cultural critique which he first evinced in the surrealistic Un Chien Andalou (1929).

Nazarín is, above all else, a tragi-comic adaptation of Jesus Christ’s messianic narrative.  Set in rural, poverty stricken districts of Mexico, it tells the story of a Spanish priest whose selfless, Christlike behavior consistently brings him into conflict with the worldly, sinful Mexicans whom he seeks to redeem.  The racial politics of this tale are certainly cause for concern.  There is no doubt that the image of a fair-skinned, European Christ-figure attempting to evangelize a dark-skinned, native populace is deeply problematic, but one can read this as a sly commentary on the part of Buñuel.  As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the director’s main purpose of this tale is to satirize impulses toward evangelism by high-minded religious leaders who understand little about the populations they mean to save.  Similarly, the film also reveals the vice-ridden peasantry as both comic figures whose impoverishment renders them combative and irrational and embodiments of tragedy, forced to hustle and scheme to eke out an existence in the slums.  Though Buñuel populates rural Mexico with a cast of ridiculous figures, the film’s plotting makes it clear that his sympathies lie with them throughout.

There might be a temptation among some critics to read the film as a condemnation of modern society, a world in which egocentrism and sinful delights have inoculated the populace against the positive influence of Padre Nazario.  However, that viewpoint assumes that Buñuel, a director whose irreligious provocations toward the catholic church were legendary, has crafted a film based on the idea that the redemption offered by the church is a legitimate and beneficial service.  Instead, I would counter that the film’s conclusion, in which Padre Nazario avoids death which is the logical ending of a Christ-narrative, suggests that his humiliations and ultimate loss of status within the church represent the ultimate incompatibility of altruistic, humanistic philosophies with the structures of organized religion and the fragmented, stratified society produced by capitalism.

Nazarín demonstrates decisively that Buñuel developed his preoccupations early in his career and returned to them often in a variety of works, from many different perspectives.  Viewers who enjoy the enjoy the tempered misanthropy and anti-bourgeoisie sentiment of The Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm will enjoy the political subtexts of this film, even if its narrative structure and visual compositions are more traditional than either of the aforementioned movies.

Beau Travail, Claire Denis, 1999

One of my favorite things about this film is the way in which it manages to tap into all of the major themes of its source material, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, while also transforming Melville’s scenario into one which invites connections to ideas of post-colonial critique. Through her portrait of a homosocial, militarized environment, Denis taps into homoerotic undercurrents and picks apart the deleterious nature of violence and militarism on the psyche.

Though the images present a realistic landscape in the not-too-distant past, Denis manages to cultivate a mythic tone which lends gravitas and profundity to the intensely personal narrative she has constructed. This creates a space in which the viewer can become invested in the well-being and actions of certain characters while also pondering the film’s commentary on society as a whole.

No Fear No Die, Claire Denis, 1990

No Fear No Die is primarily an examination of the psychological and spiritual cost of cruelty–in this case, the cruelty humans inflict on animals in the name of profit. Though its general statements on humanity are thinly sketched, the film provides a showcase for the magnificent performances of its two leads who find themselves deformed and deranged by their participation in a cockfighting ring.

Denis’s location work brings to mind elements of Jean-Pierre Melville’s seedy crime-dramas. One gets a sense of the isolation experienced by alienated, immigrant communities living on the fringes of French society. As the camera follows the lives of two black men who want badly to be accepted by their adopted homeland, it becomes apparent that their exploitation at the hands of French gangsters is intrinsically linked to their status as racial outsiders.

Though the film’s subtexts are difficult to interpret, engaging characterizations and beautiful cinematography renders No Fear No Die immensely compelling. It displays the careful attention to human relations and socialization which has defined the works of Denis, many of which focus on the struggles of the individual to succeed in the face of society’s totalizing impulses.