Here’s a graph of the movies on my list per decade.
While the change hasn’t been consistently up throughout the century, the general direction clearly is. Of course, this is only me and my perspective, but I do believe the overall quality of movies has been rising.
Sure, there might seem to be a lot of unimaginative remakes these days, but those have been around forever. Movies were being remade from their earliest days. The difference is that now we have more than a hundred years worth of material to remake, while they only limited material to draw on. I mean, the 2016 Ben-Hur (which no-one asked for) was the sixth version (including a mini-series) of the story. When THE Wizard of Oz came out in 1939, there had been at least five versions of it. And these are only the ones we know of, as most of the movies from the silent era are lost.
But beyond remakes, how can I claim movies are becoming better? Obviously technology is better. Cameras can now do things DPs could only dream of back in the day, we have computer graphics, editing software makes that process much easier, and the tools stuntmen need are also at a whole different level. The first one is the most important one. With new camera technology, basically anyone can now make a movie. Tangerine is a great movie and it was shot on an iPhone with a special lense.
We also have over a hundred years of experience and research to draw on. Paraphrasing Newton, directors can stand on the shoulders of giants. We know quite a bit about how people experience movies and that helps. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you can just change the material and redesign the spokes and you might come up with something great.
Also, as moviemaking has become cheaper (with the obvious exception of tentpoles, with pretty much all Disney releases striving for that status), which allows making movies for smaller audiences, which in turn means that these projects aren’t as risky as they used to be. Some of my favourite movies from the last few years include a breakup story set among an ancient cult in Sweden, a young woman painting another woman while trying to hide it, a biography of a 26-year-old (at the time) female wrestler, struggles of a Hitlerjugend, who has Hitler as his imaginary friend, a biography of Rudy Ray Moore, parents trying to stop their daughters from losing their virginity, and so forth.
And it’s not only about finding weird themes. I’ve mentioned Jennifer Kent’s excellent The Nightingale before. On paper it’s a revenge fantasy. A woman’s family is killed and she’s raped multiple times, which leads her to pursue the culprits. Sounds like I Spit on Your Grave and dozens of other such movies. However, Kent approaches this much more realistically. Killing anyone does not bring any kind of catharsis. Quite the opposite. You really should watch it.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that all movies are now masterpieces. It’s not like every director learned the lessons they should have, nor do all directors have enough control over their movie anyhow. One of the problems is that when comparing movies from different eras, we have a tendency to compare the movies we’ve seen from the past to what we’ve seen these days. The problem with this is that we only see the noteworthy movies from the past, while we might see or be aware of a lot of movies of varying quality. In effect we are comparing the average movie of today to the top movies of whatever period we are looking at. If we go out of our way to actually see more movies from a specific era in the past, I doubt they would hold up very well.
On to the list…
25. A torinói ló (Hungary 2011)
Director: Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky
A family unit of an elderly father and his old maid daughter try to maintain the routine of their simple life while the world around them seems to be falling apart.
There’s a genre of art movies known as slow cinema. It’s just what it says on the tin: long shots with not much action within them. This is just that. The movie start with a very long (over 10 minute) shot of a horse pulling a cart. And it’s mesmerizing. This is the magic of movies. I wouldn’t stare at a horse for 10 minutes in real life, but what can I say, it just works. Do I know why? Not really.
The life of the pair is not anything exciting. They just subsist. Many modern people would question whether this is even actually living, when these two don’t really have any control over their lives. They can’t go out and experience the world. They just live on their little farm and go about their business.
The movie is very bleak. It’s shot in black and white and the world is mostly made up of a very rundown farm with fatigued inhabitants. There is no hope. Even the hope for survival seems out of reach for them, but they must just go on.
I was done with this entry a long time ago, but then came COVID-19. Now, suddenly, the movie is topical in a new way. Sure, world was already ending due to climate change and we just try to keep our heads down, but that’s going to happen sometime relatively far into the future. Corona is here now as I’m writing this and people are dying, but we have to go on. Sure, social distancing helps, but that only deepens the feeling of helplessness, when you have to sit at home, actually doing nothing (well, gladly I can gwork from home). You can’t even escape it, because it’s everywhere, so you are constantly aware of it. Just like the two characters in this movie.
Now, I understand trying to convince someone to go out and see this, if they are looking for something relaxing or perhaps a date movie, is going to be impossible, but these kinds of movies are great. Tarr’s Satantango is actually seven hours long (more in the US with the different format), but is also worth seeing. Again, it might be hard to convince someone of this with the fifteen minute shot of cows wandering around a derelict village at the start of the movie.
24. Pulp Fiction (United States 1994)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Marsellus is a crime boss, who has Jules and Vincent retrieve something for him, Vincent keep an eye on his wife and make sure she has a good time, and wants Butch to lose his boxing match. Various complications arise in a nonlinear manner.
This movie changed how movies work. Suddenly everyone with a camera thought they could make an ultra-cool movie with a bunch of ultra-cool people. Sometimes this leads me to believe they didn’t even actually watch the movie. Although the violence in the movie is quite graphic, it’s not a violent movie. Sure, there’s a total of ten deaths, but we don’t even see one of them. There are no extended action scenes either. Deaths just happen quickly. It does not glorify violence. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Neither are the characters that cool. Sure, Jules and Vincent are hired killers, but Tarantino actually tries to make them seem a bit boring as they move through their job discussing things such as McDonald’s in Europe. In many ways it’s actually about the banality of their lives. They think they are cool, but it’s like they are imposing. They can tower over others physically, but it’s not effortless.
Obviously, a movie doesn’t work only based on banality (note to Linklater). In each of our stories the banality moves into the background as our protagonists manage to mess up their lives in various ways. Still, the dialogue is a huge part of the movie and also why it works. The dialogue actually sets many things up. It’s a movie about redemption or lack thereof. Some of them die, some of them find something new. There are hints to all of this in their various discussions.
While the three main actors are of roughly the same age (Jackson is actually somewhat older than Travolta and Willis), they were in very different places in their careers. Travolta was a has-been despite being under 40, Willis was on the top of his game, actively looking for something different and Jackson was (despite being the oldest) still someone who was mostly known as a character actor. He’s preceding role (which we shouldn’t read too much into) was in a not-much seen movie Hail Caesar and his character was named Mailman. While the movie did rejuvenate Travolta’s career for a while, he is now almost a joke. Willis has also lost much of shine as a star, but Jackson is still going strong.
23. Les diaboliques (France 1955)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Christina is the wife of Michel, a principal of a school owned by Christina. He is also openly having an affair with Nicole, another teacher at the school. Michel is abusive towards everyone around him, staff and students alike, which leads Christina and Nicole to kill him. They concoct a plan, which would leave Michel dead in a dirty pool in the school grounds to be found later on, when the two of them have alibis, so that the whole thing would seem like an accident. However, the body just doesn’t seem to surface.
So, here’s my problem with this movie: Clouzot, the director, was basically Michel himself. His wife, Vera, who played Christina, had health problems, but Clouzot would still push her in ways that might have actually lead to her early demise. She died at age 46 from a heart attack. Of course, this is just speculation. I don’t actually know. Still, this does cast a bad light on the movie. Sure, this happened during a time when directors weren’t called out for their actions as they have been in the last few years. This is definitely a good development.
After getting that out of the way, I guess I can talk about the movie, even if it does feel weird to me. This is difficult for me. It’s double-think, because I have dropped movies from the list because of various accusations on various people, who worked on those movies. How can I absolve people like Clouzot, Chaplin and Hitchcock, when I take a much more radical stance on the alleged criminals, such as Weinstein, Spacey and Singer? Well, as I said, double-think.
Anyhow, the movie…
I haven’t seen many of Clouzot’s movies, but the ones I’ve seen display an excellent sense of bringing out certain emotions in the viewer. In this particular movie, much in the same way as Le salaire de la peur, it’s suspense. Hitchcock once explained suspense thusly: If there’s a bomb under the table and it explodes, without informing the audience of it’s presence, it’s surprise, but when we are informed of it’s presence, giving us time to wish we could call out to the characters to warn them, it’s suspense. Here, we often know things and we are kept in suspense in whether certain other characters find out as well. We see the hints others might pick on as well and we get to put ourselves into the shoes of the characters to think about what we would do in their situation.
Later on this is flipped. We expect something to happen with the characters, but it doesn’t. So, what’s going on? We don’t have a clear view of the pool, as it’s covered with leaves and other dirt, so just like the characters, we can’t see either. This goes against Hitchcock’s definition, but works in a very similar way. Even though I do believe that movies are getting better, they just don’t make them like this anymore.
22. C’era una volta il West (Italy 1968)
(Once Upon a Time in the West)
Director: Sergio Leone
A beautiful woman moves into town just to find out the family she was married into had been slaughtered. As she doesn’t really have options, she tries to make it work, but the people behind the murders are still out there. Enter Harmonica, one of those silent types you see in Westerns, who joins forces with Cheyenne, a known bandit leader, to protect her.
There’s a weird progression in the number of main characters in Leone’s westerns. First we only had Joe, then Monco and Colonel Mortiner, then Tuco, Blondie and Sentenza, and now finally we have Jill McBain, Harmonica, Cheyenne and Frank. In some ways this makes the movie weaker, as the time has to be divided among all these characters, who are often not together. Despite this, the plot moves forward nicely.
The three men feel in many ways like copies of Leone’s character’s from his preceding movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Harmonica is silent like Blondie, while Cheyenne
It’s a gorgeous movie. The colors are flush and every shot is meticulously planned out. Leone has perfected the style he has at this point being working on for four movies. It has become the default view of the Wild West the movies after this one have imitated thoroughly, even if it was basically a fantasy by someone who didn’t have actual knowledge of the place or the time. Apparently he had just made up his mind about various things and now it’s what we imagine when discussing them. I guess that’s the power of great moviemaking.
At the time the movie released, one of the major discussion topics was apparently the role of Fonda, who took on a very villanous character, which was unique to him, as he was known as the hero (there’s two of his characters on AFIs greatest heroes list). He even found this disconcerting himself and according to Leone, he had to stop Fonda from using contact lenses to hide his blue eyes.
Actually, working with Fonda was one of the reasons Leone even agreed to do the film, as having just finished a trio of movies (now known as the Dollar trilogy) had left him feeling drained with the genre. So, he decided to subvert it.
The movie has strong revisionist Western components, but in a different light. Often the bad guys are trying to stop the progress in order to keep their own interests, but in this case the villains are trying to take control of the progress instead. Unlike most in the town, they know what’s going on (although it’s hard to believe no-one would have found out, but it’s a movie, so it’s not important).
21. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Germany 1920)
Director: Robert Wiene
Dr. Caligari is a showman who tours exhibiting Cesare, his somnambulist, to audiences. Cesare has an amazing ability to see the future. However, at night Dr. Caligari uses the easily controlled Cesare for his own nefarious purposes. After Francis’s friend, Alan, is killed after being predicted to die by Cesare, Francis begins to investigate.
This movie is the oldest one on the list. It’s a full century old. It also has it’s place in movie history and not only in one way. It was the first film to show the world that Germans could also make movies. Through 20s and 30s several German filmmakers would rise to prominence and make many memorable movies before the film industry became more nationalistic throughout the world.
Then there’s German Expressionism. This wasn’t the first movie of it’s kind, but was the one early on good enough to be still remembered. It has since influenced not only other movies within the movement, but the movement has since influenced everything from film noir to horror to Joker. Not only the movie Joker, but also the character. Think of how Joker always warps his surroundings into his own image. That’s basically the definition of expressionism. Until then, movies would be shot as if the camera was an objective on-looker, but here we are looking at the world very subjectively, as it was experienced by one of the characters.
And what about that horror? According to Roger Ebert it could be argued that this was the first true horror movie. There had been horror movies before, but they were just simple ghost stories, which were just someone having fun with early visual effects. This is all about what’s going on in your head and how much can you actually rely on it. It’s psychological horror at it’s finest, even though it hasn’t been refined through a whole 100 years of making these films. In the US it was thought that the movie was so scary that they added a spoken epilogue explaining that everything was fine with Francis in the end after the first ever twist ending (that I’m aware of).
I often emphasize that movies are becoming better over time (and this list strongly reflects my views), but every once in a while, a movie like this can survive for a full century without anything being able to top it in it’s niche. It’s a weird little movie that could. Someone has to be the first one to try anything, but it’s rare that the first attempt is so great.
20. Das Boot (Germany 1981)
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
The Battle of the Atlantic rages on, as a U-boat goes out to sea with it’s eager crew. They are about to learn better.
There’s been quite a few submarine films over the years, but I’ve never seen one that takes the whole thing as seriously as this one. Sure, they have similar themes regarding the daily problems of working in such a depth in close quarters, but this one just goes deeper (the stupid pun intended). Wolfgang Petersen, who in general seems like a very mediocre director, took it upon himself to make sure everything is as realistic as possible, which meant that the crew was not allowed to see sunlight during the production, so that they would look as believable as possible. I do find this kind of torture unethical and I’m not sure it would be tolerated today, but here we are. The characters do look very believable.
Often the length of the film works against it. In this case, even the six hour version actually works for it. You are never bored and you get a much better sense of the life on the boat. Many parts of the movie are excruciatingly tense as they try to evade various dangers. This is definitely one of those movies, where you get more out of the movie in the right conditions. No lights or other distractions. If you can get the smell of sweat and some oil would be probably make it even better, but I wouldn’t quite go that far.
Our closest thing to a POV character is interestingly enough a propaganda officer (or actually the war correspondent, but for whatever reason, I always think of him as a part of the propaganda machine, which he obviously is). In a lesser movie, that character would be the bad guy, but here he learns how things weren’t exactly what he had been taught. He’s character has an actual journey, while everyone else just becomes more miserable. Not that he dodges that fate. Actually, the navy was never that pro-Hitler and specifically the submarine section maintained more of an indifference, so being trapped as the sole proper Nazi with 40 other people for months on end would be at least psychologically onerous.
19. Batoru rowaiaru (Japan 2000)
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Things are bad with the Japanese youth, so the government decides to do something about it. They enact the BR legislation, which basically means that they’ll punish one class every year by forcing them into a tournament to death against each other. … Wait, what? Anyhow, Kitano-sensei is fed up with his class (being stabbed in the leg by one of them didn’t help), so his is the class that is chosen. Kitano also has various obsessions with the group of kids, which are not that healthy either.
Taking one class and weeding out everyone except for the most efficient killer doesn’t really feel like a good solution to a problem like this. You just end up with one psychopath, who is now just an efficient killer. The movie seems to acknowledge this even if this acknowledgement isn’t overt. Anyhow, you don’t really care about this huge problem with the world. You don’t care, because the movie manages to keep you interested in everything else. What’s happening with the kids is just that engaging.
Most of the characters are pretty unmemorable. Sure, we have the two contenders, who were brought back from previous years, we have the girl, who gets quickly into all this, and we have the techie, who tries to find a different solution to the situation, but most of the other kids are not that interesting, but that’s fine. They are kids. Even if their teacher has problems with the class and they were chosen for this tournament, they are actually pretty well-behaved for teenagers. At least from a western point of view. Mostly I remember situations. You remember the panicked kids trying their inept best to win, you remember the kids taking vengeance on past slights and you remember the betrayals. It’s actually just a soap opera, but with actual stakes. In some ways this reminds me of Lord of the Flies. How much does it really take to make us savages? Not much, apparently.
Of course, the bigger thing is the tournament. This was not the first movie to do such a battle royale. One could call Death Race 2000 one, but there have been various liberal adaptations of The Most Dangerous Prey, which use similar setups. Of course, there’s also The Hunger Games, which also raised this movie’s profile quite a bit.
18. Festen (Denmark 1998)
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
A family has come together with friends to celebrate the 60th birthday of their patriarch. Once the eldest son has his turn to give a speech, he tells the real reason their sister killed herself: Their father used to rape them daily. No one cares and the son is ousted from the party.
Here’s the thing: Danish have a strong tradition of hygge. I’m not Danish, so I can’t claim to fully understand this, but it’s about using peer pressure to maintain certain behaviors in order to avoid social awkwardness. Now, this might be an extreme example of this, but if it wasn’t this wouldn’t be a very good movie.
This was the first movie under the Dogme 95 rules set by the director of this movie, Thomas Vinterberg, and Lars von Trier. They wanted to go back to the simpler days of the French auteurs and other European realists, and thus made rules on the techniques you could use. They weren’t very staunch about these ideals, as they each made only one such movie before moving to other kinds of projects.
However, in this specific case, Dogme works very well. Although this is not a found-footage film, it does have a certain intimacy of a home movie, which works to it’s benefit.
The subject matter is very dark and the comedic tones of the movie just serve to make it feel even more desperate. Kudos to Vinterberg for being able to make this work. Child abuse just isn’t something you can joke about easily, so managing to walk the line takes skill. Of course it helps that the movie was probably quite obscure when first released, even if it somehow dis manage to get a Golden Globe nomination.
17. Det sjunde inseglet (Sweden 1957)
(The Seventh Seal)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Antonius Block has returned from the Crusades with his sort of loyal squire, Jöns. Block is actually already dead from plague, but manages to convince Grim Reaper to play a game of chess. Block wants to linger around until he can meet his wife again, so he travels while the game lasts. Along the way the two attract a small retinue of other travellers.
You can’t really cheat Death. Actually, Death cheats Block at some point in the game, when Block tries to reset the game by knocking it over. Death uses the opportunity to reconstruct the game wrong. Otherwise Death is content to follow Block on his journey and kill those around him. He even says in the very beginning that he has been travelling on Block’s side for a while already, implying that Block himself is his instrument, whether that’s through violence or spreading the disease (or probably both).
The late middle age depicted in the film was not a nice place. Besides war and pestilence, there was famines and the Catholic church was falling apart. These all lead to general pessimism, which reflected in art (the painting depicted in the film is about death in it’s many forms) and interpretation of Christianity (there is flagellancy in the movie). In this world not raping someone is an act of kindness. The name it self is a reference to the Book of Revelation. However, the movie isn’t only that. Even though Jöns is quite cynical, he doesn’t let that keep himself from making light of various situations in his own dark way. Despite his spoken attitude, he seems to be the only one who’s actions have any positive influence on the world.
Bergman handles the religion in a way only a true atheist can. His father was actually a chaplain and he received a strict religious upbringing. He also admired Hitler’s speeches before finding out about who the man really was. These kinds of things in your youth can really change your perspectives on life. Block wants to meet the Devil so that he can get answers abuot God. The woman sentenced to be burned for her ocntact with the Devil is clearly mentally unstable, which
This is the quintessential classic of world cinema and often mentioned as one of the best movies ever made. This has also lead to some backlash, as the movie isn’t exactly what people expect. If you only know it by the few scenes that have become famous, you’d think the movie is an overly self-important and self-indulgent piece of abstract art, but it’s nothing like that. It’s often funny and the fantastic elements are limited to Death’s presence. Many of the parodies aren’t really fair.
The movie isn’t a masterpiece of direction or cinematography. It didn’t break any ground in that sense. It often feels more like a play than a movie (and Bergman has worked in theater as well) and not necessarily in an especially good way. This doesn’t really detract from the movie. Even though every camera angle doesn’t really carry a meaning, the movie works due to how it handles the themes. We are not constantly bombarded with death, but it lurks everywhere. Literally, as we learn through the movie.