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The Good (90 – 100)

The Good (90 – 100)

Title Director, Genre, Year

Rating

2001: A Space Odyssey
Kubrick’s visionary masterpiece is arguably the most ambitious, technically and conceptually innovative film project of all time. A profound study of evolution, intelligence, and humanity’s place in the universe, the story spans hundreds of millennia culminating in a manned space flight to Jupiter and beyond the infinite. The special effects are timeless, the production design has never been equalled, the editing is flawless, and the music is inspired. The dialogue is utterly believable, the acting is universally first rate, and the voice of HAL9000 has had theses written on it. What more is there to say?
Kubrick, Sci-Fi, 1968

97.9

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The Night of the Hunter
“Children are man at his strongest. They abide.” This truly majestic film tells the story of two orphaned children on the run from Robert Mitchum’s murderous preacher. Mitchum was never better as the malevolent criminal who disguises himself as a man of the cloth in order to locate stolen money which was stashed by his former cell mate. There have been few performances as brave, captivating, and disturbing as his and it would surely have been the most memorable feature of the picture if it wasn’t for what director Charles Laughton was doing behind the camera. More used to being in front of it, Laughton gave a master class in the use of light, shadow, and perspective to give the ordinary and mundane a mythical and otherworldly feel. The film flows with a dreamlike quality with the two river sequences in particular demonstrating an innovation and boldness which few established directors of the time were demonstrating, let alone first time directors.
Laughton, Film-Noir, 1955

97.5

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The Godfather
Francis Ford Copolla’s epic tale of the Corleone crime family gives us two of the finest acting performances in history and is the peak of cinematic story-telling. Marlon Brando is at his improvisational best and commands every bit of our attention when the camera is on him. On the other hand, Al Pachino gives us the most complete and contemplative performance imaginable. He is nothing short of mesmerising as he transforms before our eyes from the young and innocent war hero to the cold and calculating puppet-master. Rather than embracing the counter-culture of many of his contemporaries, Copolla tells the story in the classic style of old Hollywood and the result is a Shakespearian masterpiece of pacing and intrigue and in the scene where Michael meets Sollozzo and McClusky, he gives us perhaps the best example of tension building the medium can offer. Sublime.
Coppola, Gangster, 1972

97.4

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Seven Samurai
This inspired meditation on class, morality, passion, and duty is Kurosawa’s finest hour behind the camera and possibly Mifune’s finest hour in front of it. As funny as it is touching, there’s not a single aspect of this film that could’ve been improved upon and it offers more than perhaps any other. Watch how Kurosawa wonderfully counterbalances the necessarily languid scenes where the characters are waiting for the battles to commence with the shocking brutality of those battles one they begin. As incredible as Mifune is he’s equalled by Takashi Shimura’s simmering portrayal of the head samurai which is one of most quietly powerful pieces of acting ever captured by a camera. With every rub of his shaven head Shimura expounds kindness, generosity of spirit, and a keen sense of leadership and in doing so, his performance as much as any other aspect of the film reflects the soul of this poingent masterpiece. Timeless.
Kurosawa, Jidaigeki, 1954

96.7

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Picnic at Hanging Rock
Quite simply the most haunting film you will ever see, this tale of three girls who walk up a rock formation never to be seen again forgoes ghouls, monsters, or ghosts in favour of an intangible force altogether more terrifying. Set in the early 1900’s, it follows a party of school girls from a prestigious boarding school who, accompanied by their teacher, visit the ancient rock formation known as Hanging Rock on a sunny Valentine’s Day afternoon. Weir gives the early stages to this film a hypnotic dreamlike flow as the teenage girls prepare for and embark upon their eagerly awaited trip. However, as the movie proceeds, this dreamlike haze begins to feel more and more like a spell cast on the girls and audience alike by something far greater and more intangible in presence. As three of the party break away to be whisked up the rock by some irresistible pull, out of nowhere, the film takes a startling if not piercing turn. Peter Weir’s ability to imbue the otherwise lifeless rock with an elemental and terrifying life-force that dwarfs anything our minds can conceive of is one of the truly great directorial feats and sadly, it is one that often goes relatively unrecognised. However, looking back on Picnic at Hanging Rock after just watching it, what he does in this film seems far broader in scope, as you get the unavoidable feeling that you were truly mesmerised and lulled into a thick perceptual and conceptual haze. That you were lured up that rock yourself! This isn’t frightening in the typical shock horror movie sense. This is frightening in a much more primal and evolutionary sense as if Weir is tapping directly into the baser regions of our psyche. This is cinematic power at its most sophisticated.
Weir, Horror, 1975

96.2

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Kill Bill Vol. 1 
As technically and conceptually innovative as 2001: A Space Odyssey (seriously), Quentin Tarantino pulls out all the stops in this relentlessly imaginative and convention twisting story of an assassin who mercilessly hunts down former colleagues who put her in a coma for 4 years. Not content to toil in one of the many action sub-genres, QT bridges at least 4 genres from Spaghetti Western to Japanese Anime, seamlessly interweaving the different styles and pushing the boundaries of their conventions to the point that the viewer finds his/herself witnessing a broader yet unique and singular genre of QT’s own creation. With each passing scene, QT squeezes, twists, and stretches traditional conventions to find new ways to lure the viewer into his frenetic world of pure vengeance. The result is the most dazzling synthesis of visuals, sound, and music in cinematic history as QT crafts one mind blowing scene after another. There’s a fight scene to rival anything from the Jidaigeki genre, a tracking shot to rival Scorsese’s Goodfellas “Copa shot”, a split screen shot to rival the best of DePalma, and an Anime scene as good as anything that that genre has produced. On top of all that, the inspired casting gives us an utterly superb collection of performances lead by Uma Thurman’s scintillating portrayal of the Bride which finally gives us an action-heroine who talks and acts like a woman and not a man. Unmissable.
Tarantino, Martial Arts, 2003

96

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Moon
Duncan Jones’ story of the sole member of a moon base (Sam Bell) who encounters a duplicate of himself is a masterpiece of science fiction which boasts one of the truly great acting performances of the modern era delivered by the sensational Sam Rockwell. Telling a beautifully crafted story full of delicious and sometimes audacious nods to previous sci-fi classics, this film is a testament to the idea that the clever use of modest but flawless special effects and production design can result in a better looking film than the countless blockbusters that spend millions on both just for the sake of it. Clint Mansell’s score is mesmeric, which combined with Jones’ direction, becomes a principal component of the editing process. Ultimately it is the poignancy of Moon that makes it so deeply brilliant and that poignancy is drawn from the story through the intuitive combination of Rockwell’s searing performance and Jones’ profound and visionary direction. In one standout scene this perfect harmony between the two and their respective crafts is realised as Bell sits in his rover talking to his daughter. As Bell begins to emotionally crumble before our eyes Jones cuts to an exterior shot, which pans behind the rover and the more distant blue sphere of the earth. This is perhaps one of the most beautiful and haunting scenes in the history of cinema.
Jones, D, Sci-Fi, 2009

95.8

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Once Upon A Time In The West
Sergio Leone’s meta-western was the first true revisionist western. The man with no name is not Clint but Bronson and he’s not as much a man as he is the embodiment of a dying breed of men and the western genre itself. The plot is inconsequential as it is merely a vehicle for Leone, Dario Argento, et al.’s anthology/meta-analysis of the genre: its glory and what they saw as its inevitable demise. But what a vehicle it is. From the beginning of the first reel, Leone is reaching into our psyches, tantalising us with familiar shots and references to half-remembered images from yesteryear. He scales the story both wide and narrow, subverting our expectations (that was Henry Fonda right?), deconstructing mythology, and employing the most audacious yet subtly appropriate use of metaphor in the history of the medium (he got up!). And all this ticks along to Ennio Morrincone’s spell-binding score, themed perfectly to the four main characters played by Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda, and Claudia Cardinale.
Leone, Western, 1968

95.7

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Blue Velvet
David Lynch’s unhinged masterpiece follows the fresh faced Jeffrey (Kyle Maclachlan) into the dark underbelly of a seemingly idyllic all-American town where he encounters cinema’s most disturbing psycho Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). It all begins with the discovery of severed ear, against the backdrop of Jeffrey’s white-picket fenced suburbia. Where the investigation of that ear takes the curious young Jeffrey is almost impossible to explain for this is a uniquely skewed and powerful analysis of a world that exists just beyond our comfort zone in our subjective unconscious. In telling Jeffrey’s story, Lynch traverses a number of genres, from film-noir to romance to outright fantasy but it’s the romance that shines through the strongest in his eye-of-the-duck scene. On the technical front, the film represents nothing less than the perfect blend of image and sound with Lynch giving life to the latter like no other film before it or since. Machlachlan is truly outstanding in a role that is admittedly tailor made for him. Laura Dern is equally terrific as Jeffrey’s girl of interest while Dennis Hopper simply redefines the concept of madness on film. Raw cinematic power.
Lynch, Mystery, 1986

95.5

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Jaws
“Summer’s over. You’re the mayor of Shark City.” This 1975 classic is Spielberg’s magnum opus and arguably one of the best directorial achievements from anyone let alone someone who was essentially directing his third film. Even if you have managed not to see it yet, you’re probably familiar with the plot. Chief of Amity Island police, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) believes a large great white shark has staked a claim to the waters off his idyllic island but the township don’t want to know given that their lucrative summer season is about to begin. As the shark attacks continue, Brody teams up with marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and salty fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) and together they set out to catch and kill the terrifying fish. Jaws is beautifully filmed full of wide beach and ocean shots and Spielberg uses that masterful technique of tracking the lead character early on in the film as he walks through the town in order to familiarise the audience with the town (a technique his protege Joe Dante would go onto use to great effect in Gremlins and The Burbs). Thus, Amity Island feels welcoming and homely to the viewer and so the horrific intrusion of the shark into this environment feels as alien and scary to the audience as it should to the characters. The tension that Spielberg builds prior to the individual shark attacks would have Hitchcock salivating as the sound of kids splashing and laughing in the water while radios play somewhere on the beach is slowly replaced by John Williams’ legendary creeping score. In fact, one such scene climaxes with a seemingly effortless “dolly-zoom” shot (dolly-back/zoom-in) which Hitchcock spent years trying to pull off (finally accomplishing it in Vertigo). The acting is uniformly superb with the great Roy Scheider being as likeable and as watchable as ever. The chemistry between the three leads is terrific and drives the latter half of the film when the story involves nobody but them and the shark. The shots of the shark itself work brilliantly even to this day as Spielberg made up for the static nature of the mechanical prop by intermingling shots of it with footage of actual great whites. Jaws not only forged a whole new genre of film making but was probably the first major studio blockbuster and so it changed cinema for ever. However, even if that were not the case it would still remain to this day one of the most entertaining yet technically proficient exercises in movie making. “Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women”.
Spielberg, Horror, 1975

95.4

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Lawrence of Arabia
Perhaps the greatest epic of them all, David Lean’s biopic of T.E. Lawrence is definitely a gargantuan landmark in the history of cinema. Charting Lawrence’s journey into the desert in an attempt to unite the Arab people under one fearsome banner, Lawrence of Arabia is a magnificent portrait of a personality whose dimensions are reflected only in the expanses of the desert. It’s a figurative journey into the heart and soul of an enigmatic soldier who is driven by pure ideal and the weight of self-imposed responsibility. More than any director ever did before or since, Lean transforms the screen into a living canvas sweeping his camera across it always from left to right to accentuate the journey at the centre of the story. It’s a seamless collaboration with cinematographer Freddie Young as their complementary use of wide and close angles shots capture the awesome qualities of both the desert and the drama alike and their audacious framing, lighting, and composition give the near incredible vistas a life of their own and, with it, make the desert a central character in the film. Of course, this film is all about what Lean and Peter O’Toole were doing on their respective sides of the camera. O’Toole, for his part, is irrepressible as the eccentric British lieutenant and it’s fair to say we’ve never seen an acting performance like it. Brave and subjective, O’Toole inhabits Lawrence from his bold adventuring spirit to his deep lying insecurities. At nearly four fours in length, Lawrence of Arabia is epic in length too but it doesn’t feel as long to watch due to the compelling story at the centre of it, the magnificence of the way it was shot, and the fact that, in every way, Lawrence of Arabia is a monument to the cinematic spirit.
Lean, Adventure, 1962

95.4

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On the Waterfront
Easily one of the most inspired pieces of film-making to grace the silver screen, Elia Kazan’s film about a young longshoreman who gets mixed up with his local mob-run union is a searing triumph of writing, direction, and acting. Marlon Brando is the ex-fighter Terry Malloy, whose path towards the world championship abruptly ended when his educated yet corrupt big brother began using him to do some of the mob’s nickel-and-dime dirty work. Rod Steiger is the brother, a sophisticated hoodlum who runs the numbers for his hard-as-nails self-made mob boss Lee J. Cobb. Together they have perfected a despicable racket on the docks whereby only those dockworkers who take out extortionate loans from their outfit get work. Eva Marie Saint stars as the sister of a dock worker recently murdered by the mob for speaking out against this enterprise while Karl Malden rounds off this solid gold cast with a firecracker turn as the local priest whose exasperation with the climate of fear his flock live under, leads him to take an open stand against the union. Given how well history has remembered the directing and particularly the acting in this film, it’s no small thing to say that Budd Schulberg’s script is just as good. It tells an essential story which reaches into soul of humanity. The unnatural corruption of people lies at the centre of this allegory – from the perversion of a man’s right to work by making him pay for it (corrupting its direct function of acquiring money in the first place) and fight others like him for it (corrupting its wider function of contributing to society) to the manner in which the victims are cultured (programmed) to see this as the natural law and to call any man who stands up for them “a rat”. In fact, by the time Marie Saint’s character poses the question “Isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?”, the more perceptive audience members will find themselves sickened at the all too real way in which normal people can be twisted away from normal healthy behaviour by bullies who shout louder and harder. On a more technical level, the screenplay is just as impressive. The character dynamics are inspired as the link and connection between everyone from dock-worker, to cop, to priest, to mob-boss profoundly reverberates with the broader tropes of the tale while simultaneously setting up some powerful confrontations both dramatic and subtle and within practically every scene. The dialogue is deeply affecting and always feels real even (especially!) when Lee J. Cobb is “LeeJCobb-ing” it to the max – “They’re dustin off the hot seat for me”. As with all great dialogue, the cast are mutually inspired by such writing with Cobb, Steiger, Malden, and Marie Saint all giving uniquely memorable performances. But of course what Brando does with it is even more special. For those of us who didn’t grow up watching the old greats of the acting profession, it can take years of watching to appreciate the depth and importance of what they were doing on screen. Not so with Brando and definitely not here. From the first moment we see him, there’s an unmissable magnetism that utterly captivates. The improvisation, the intensity, the innate understanding of how to move in relation to the camera. At times, it feels like the performance could become too big for the film even with a story this powerful. That is until we realise that his acting is, in its own unique way, directing the film as sure as the man behind the camera is. It’s an astonishing thing to behold and in the moment when Kazan’s direction, Schulberg’s writing, and Leonard Bernstein’s score catch up with him in the back seat of that car as he delivers that line, it’s as perfect a cinematic moment as we could ever hope for. Seriously! A final word should be saved for Kazan because On the Waterfront is directed with gargantuan vision. Every shot is masterfully composed with the lighting, staging, and camera movement at times eclipsing even what Brando was doing with his words (the alleyway scene towards the end being a prime example). Whether or not Kazan’s passionate take on a story about everybody being part of everybody else can be interpreted meaningfully with regard to his role in the Hollywood blacklistings of the 1940’s and 50’s is beyond the scope of a straight review of the film’s virtues as a film but a more sensitive depiction of the downtrodden worker yet scathing indictment of the perils of free enterprise you couldn’t find. What is clear, however, is that On the Waterfront is as close to cinematic perfection as few films have got.
Kazan, Drama, 1954

95.4

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Shogun’s Samurai
This under-appreciated masterpiece portrays an epic battle between two brothers vying for the position of Shogun, feudal lords, hordes of ronin, and the imperial court all orchestrated by the master schemer and swordsman Yagyu (in an unforgettable performance by Kinnosuke Nakamura). This is known mostly for Sonny Chiba’s stunning turn as Yagyu’s son but even he is blotted out by Nakamura’s mind-blowing performance. Forget any historical inaccuracies, this film is about epic story-telling culminating in the most impressive duel evercommitted to celluloid.
Fukasaku, Jidaigeki, 1978

95.2

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To Kill a Mockingbird
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing”. To Kill a Mockingbird is cinematic power exemplified as Robert Mulligan brings Harper Lee’s spellbinding novel to the screen and does every word of it justice. Gregory Peck takes on the role of Atticus Finch, the dignified lawyer and father of two whose defence of a black man accused of raping and beating a white woman brings him and his family face to face with the ugliest side of their southern town. Mary Badham and Philip Alford play Scout and Jim, Finch’s two children and it is through their eyes the story is told. Telling this particular story through the perspective of children is surely one of the most ingenuous devices employed in modern story telling as their perspective becomes the soul of the story. If the children are the soul of the film, Peck’s performance is truly its heart and he is utterly tremendous as Finch. In what must be one of the best acting accomplishments in the history of the medium, he gives a masterclass in the power of simplicity as he allows Finch’s disciplined modesty to be the lawyer’s loudest weapons.
Mulligan, Drama, 1962

95

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Harakiri
Masaki Kobayashi’s entry into jidai-geki (Japanese period drama) was as stunning and awe-inspiring as any samurai film that has come before it or since.  The tale centres on a ronin named Tsugumō (played by the always brilliant Tatsuya Nakadai) who has presented himself at the gates of the proud and powerful Iye clan with a request to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) in their courtyard. We join the leader of this clan as he recounts a story to the ronin of a similar incident months earlier. We learn that there has been a spate of such requests in recent times by ronin who are hoping to elicit pity from the houses they visit and instead be rewarded with charity. We see through flashback that the previous ronin to visit the Iye castle was not turned away with money but forced to go through with the ceremony by the clan elders who were attempting to discourage the practice. Professing strict adherence to the bushido code, they even forced the ronin to disembowel himself with the bamboo swords he carried since his real blades had been pawned. As the clan elder expands on their sneering claim to the adherence to their sworn code, we begin to learn about their most recent visitor through both flashback and the shuddering low tone of his own narration. As Tsugumō carries us back in time, the Iye retainers as well as the audience feel the cold reach of consequence and retribution nearing ever closer. Known in Japan as “Seppuku” (the written word for Harakiri), Kobayashi’s film is a softly surrealist master class in composition, staging, lighting, and pacing. Furthermore, Hashimoto Shinobu’s screenplay is steeped in a profound meditation on honour and hypocrisy. Together Kobayashi and Shinobu’s efforts produce an unstinting stab at the heart of the samurai class, more particularly, what it had become by the 1600’s.
Kobayashi, Jidaigeki, 1962

94.9

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A Streetcar Named Desire
Vivian Leigh is Blanche, the ageing former southern belle who arrives in the seedy part of New Orleans to live with her sister (Kim Hunter’s) Stella and her husband Stanley. Coming as they do from old money, Blanche soon informs her sister that their family estate has been lost, an announcement which Stanley meets with suspicion and anger. Over the next two acts we gradually learn that this change in circumstance is only one symptom of something deeper. With all the outward pretensions of a lady, Blanche is nonetheless damaged and she reveals glimpses of recent corruption here and there, more than enough for her typically blunt but perversely perceptive bother in law to hone in on. Everything that makes a film truly great is in play here. Bertram Tuttle’s set direction and general production design and Harry Strandling’s cinematography are the very definition of classic. Of course, the real meat and potatoes of this tension lies in the acting and writing and Kazan was clever, disciplined, and secure enough to, in every other way, turn Streetcar into a vehicle for such. Firstly, Hunter’s contribution has always been in danger of going underappreciated given the quality of the material the two leads had to play with but Stella is the lynchpin and she handles it perfectly. At all times, Hunter instinctively balances Stella’s gentry upbringing with the rough edges life with a boorish husband has left her with. Therefore, she perfectly relates to both sister and husband even though at times they seem to speak different languages. It’s not that she’s a translator but more a diplomat and a wearily clever one at that. Leigh is dizzingly effective as the detached and spiralling older sister who herself performs a powerful balancing act between victim and manipulator, abused and abuser. She postures delicately in front of men attempting to wield what she desperately tries to convince herself is a weapon against them. But when one of those men is Stanley Kowalski, it’s only a matter of time before that pretension is obliterated. And with Brando’s undiluted power and magnetism, when that happens its just about one of the most difficult things to watch on screen. Brando is beyond immense harnessing as he does all his capacity for innovation and wisdom for character into the focused personality of an inarticulate lout. His burly tempestuous presence ripples through film catching everyone else in its wake and with each gesture and uttered word the audience is well and truly hooked whether we like it or not.
Kazan, Drama, 1951

94.8

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Annie Hall
The film that influenced 30 years of comedy (and still counting) is one of Allen’s funniest. He plays the typically neurotic New York comedian while Diane Keaton plays the ditzy love interest who forces him to brave his hated LA in order to maintain their relationship. Chances are if you haven’t already seen Annie Hall, you will have seen one of its many derivatives. However, if you bear in mind that this is where it all began it will feel as fresh and innovative as the day it was released.
Allen, Comedy, 1977

94.8

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Mean Streets
Martin Scorsese’s searing Mean Streets screams counter-culture from the first scene to the last as Harvey Keitel plays a loan collector who must continually balance morality, religion, familial duty with a night life of dangerous partying on the mean streets of the director’s youth. Keitel’s performance is flawless and full of playful improvisation which adds layers of substance to his various on-screen relationships. However, this film has been best remembered for Robert De Niro’s incendiary performance as Johnny Boy, Charlie’s unstable cousin who has been ostracised by everyone but Charlie and whose continuing descent threatens to take Charlie with him. The level of innovation and style present in Scorsese’s direction is truly breath-taking with the closing sequence in particular standing out as one of the great moments of 1970’s cinema. In fact, on many levels, even those beyond its direction, Mean Streets is arguably Scorsese’s best picture. A true cinematic masterpiece.
Scorsese, Crime, 1973

94.7

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Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino does for WWII films what Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West did for westerns. As is usual with Tarantino’s films, there is an array of interesting actors on show here, many giving career bests. Brad Pitt leads a group of Jewish soldiers into occupied France to do what they’re best at: “killin Nazis”. Only one man seems smart enough to stop him: the dastardly Christopher Waltz in an Oscar winning performance. Inglourious Basterds is a daring meta-analysis of the genre, a war film about war films, making an audacious and powerful statement on the interaction between film and history which plays on a multitude of levels. Being a tongue-in-cheek examination of propaganda films, the majority of characters are all necessarily caricatures from Michael Fassbender’s wonderful portrayal of the quintessential British officer to the master of cliche exploitation himself Mike Myers’ hilarious performance wherein he embodies the distilled comic essence of every British General we’ve ever come across on screen. Tellingly, the only two well rounded characters in the film are those whose life the “two films within the film” are about: the Jewish girl whose out for vengeance against the entire Nazi elite (Mélanie Laurent in a barnstorming performance) and the German war hero whose enamoured of her (Daniel Brühl). Only in their respective “films” do their characters become cliched. There are a couple of rare but minor missteps by Tarantino. Specifically, his mate Eli Roth was totally miscast as the Bear Jew (a Basterd? yes; the Bear Jew? no) and that Stiglitz intro which was totally out of sync with the rest of the film. Those minor quibbles aside, Inglourious Basterds is as clever and entertaining a war film as you’ll find. And with that ending, it becomes downright halting.
Tarantino, War, 2009

94.5

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Pulp Fiction
This is the film that confirmed to the world that Reservoir Dogs was no fluke and that a master film-maker had emerged from the position of a video store clerk. Pulp Fiction skillfully interweaves the stories of Vincent (John Travolta), Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), Butch (Bruce Willis), & Mia (Uma Thurman) into an innovative tale of crime and punishment in LA. The set pieces are spellbinding, the source music is inspired, every single one of the cast give a career defining performance, and the dialogue is the coolest, most original writing to be ever uttered on screen. “Let’s get into character”.
Tarantino, Crime, 1994

94.5

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The Exorcist
When a young girl succumbs to an unknown illness, her movie star mother becomes convinced that there are demonic overtones to her convulsions and solicits a conflicted priest to examine her. To his shock, he comes to agree with the mother and turns to seasoned exorcist Max von Sydow to expel the intruder. The daddy of all horror movies, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a testament to the power of psychological terror. Turning the horror movie model on its head, this crawling piece of cinema limits its shocks and jolts almost entirely to one room, the girl’s bedroom, but bathes the external drama in a pool of socio-cultural unease. The canon and rituals of Catholicism are fertile ground for sophisticated horror cinema and, though Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty weren’t the first to plough it, most others did so directly on a mythological level. These guys, however, did it through everyday character construction and forensic examination of the intangible touch points between spiritualism and psychological vulnerability, between faith and the harshness of the real world, between taboo and subjectified sacrilege, wincingly subjectified.
Friedkin, Horror, 1973

94.5

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The Godfather Part II
Coppola’s follow-up is generally regarded not simply as the best sequel of all time but one of the best films of all time. The linear format of the first story is relinquished in favour of two interwoven tales. One focuses on Michael (Pachino) as he continues to lose the battle for his soul while the other tells the the tale of how a young Vito (played by Robert De Niro) managed to rise to the rank of Don Corleone during his early years in the US. Timeless.
Coppola, Gangster, 1974

94.4

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The Sword of Doom
“The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword”. Oksmoto’s masterpiece has been criticised and praised for its erratic and deeply unconventional ending but no matter which way you slice it (pun intended) this is a riveting and frightening character study of a man who in the absence of any moral centre is led by the greedy appetites of “his sword”. As usual Mifune is excellent but this is Tatsuya Nakadai’s film from start to finish as we watch the evil Ryunosuke descend further and further into a hell of his own creation.
Okamoto, Jidaigeki, 1966

94.2

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Out of the Past
”Just get out. I have to sleep in this room.” One of the great film-noirs, Out of the Past sees Robert Mitchum as the former PI living under an assumed name to evade a mobster (Kirk Douglas) whom he double-crossed years before hand on account of who else but a devious woman (Jane Greer). The film begins with him being discovered and the process of bringing Mitchum “back in the fold” begins while the backstory is told in flashback. As is typical of the great film-noir, the plot is far too complex to summarise. What can be said is that this is one of the most intelligent and compelling stories to come out of Hollywood in that great era. Tourneur’s direction is spot on demonstrating some of the most subtly brilliant staging in a series of sumptuous nighttime and daytime scenes. The acting is terrific with Mitchum and Douglas in blinding form. However, the standout strength of the picture is without doubt Daniel Mainwaring’s deeply intelligent and downright sizzling dialogue (adapted from his own novel), which perhaps more than any other film noir paints the murky and romantically charged world of ambiguity that so defines the genre. With the superbly timed delivery of Mitchum and co it takes on an easy grace that massages your ears and captures your imagination. Timeless.
Tourneur, Film-Noir, 1947

94.1

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Night of the Living Dead
George A. Romero’s B-budget horror piece was revolutionary at its time and that still shows today. Beginning in a patient yet sinister fashion and maintaining a controlled pace to the end this film seems to creep into our psyche. A group of strangers accosted by ravenous undead humans board themselves up in an isolated house. The internal squabbling that erupts between the group slowly takes on the air of inevitability in much the same way as the relentless pursuit of the creatures outside does. This is where it all began and there’s a fresh sense of terror which any number of subsequent zombie movies has failed to replicate. Duane Jones became a folk hero most notably because he was one of the first black men to lead a cast of white people. Romero cleverly reserved any commentary on racial issues until the ending which is utterly unforgettable and all the more potent because of the wait.
Romero, Horror, 1968

94

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The Maltese Falcon
One of the undisputed all time great films, this intricately woven tale of deception, greed, and murder has Humphrey Bogart playing the iconic Sam Spade, a San Francisco private detective whose partner is killed soon after a mysterious woman hires them to do a job. This was Huston’s directorial debut and he sets the atmosphere wonderfully with one beautifully lit interior after another. Although he was new to the directing game, he was already a seasoned writer and it is in that writing (adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s novel) that this film comes alive like few before it or since. Sumptuous line after sumptuous line is perfectly crafted to the pace of its scene and coming chiefly from the surly Bogart, they are immortalised. They command your attention not only because with every word the plot is speeded forward but also because of their lyrical quality and Bogart’s sublime timing. The standard enough plot comes across as complex because of it and of course that’s exactly the point. For even the most simple of motives are a forest of ambiguity when they belong to the type of master manipulators that this story focuses on.
Huston, Film-Noir, 1941

94

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The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly
“Every gun makes its own tune.” Perhaps the most iconic film ever made sees Clint (the Good) going toe-to-toe with Lee van Cleef (the Bad) and Eli Wallach (the Ugly) in a thrilling epic involving bounty-hunters, the American civil war, and buried treasure. The premise is simple enough (three men hunting for some buried treasure) but the telling of it resulted in a sprawling masterpiece of screen writing, direction, cinematography, score composition, and acting. Eastwood never really received enough praise for his performance as Blondie and in this prequel to the “Dollars” films (where he lost that name), we see a more amusing and even caring side to the character that defined the modern hero archetype. Van Cleef gives a layered yet vindictive performance but all fall in the shadow of Wallach’s über-charismatic Tuco. He sets much of the film’s tone with his menacing yet endearing outlaw. However, in the final analysis this film is all about Sergio Leone’s mesmerising talent. He had shown us in the aforementioned Dollars films that he could portray action better than anyone before or since but he raises his game even higher here with some of the most amazingly choreographed and photographed duels ever captured by the medium. However, unlike the Dollars films, Leone implants the action in a historical setting and the manner in which he sews the civil war theme into the wider story and the poignant depths it adds to it, is surely one of the more remarkable cinematic achievements. As usual, Leone’s direction is inseparable from Ennio Morricone’s unequalled talents as this is the movie that gave us the definitive Western themes: Blondie’s, Angel Eye’s, and Tuco’s signature accompaniments (which are variations on the same theme) and the minblowing “Ectasy of Gold” which accompanies Tuco as he races through the graveyard hunting for the gold:- a sequence which might just be cinema’s most powerful example of camera direction and score coming together as Leone and Morricone outdo even themselves.
Leone, Western, 1966

93.9

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A Touch of Zen
There are really few films that have the capacity to take your breath away and this is certainly one of them. What’s more is that this film was released in 1971 and was the first of its kind so if it still manages to knock you for six today, imagine what it did to audiences who had never seen anything of its kind before. Moreover, imagine how inspired its creators must have been to conceptualise it when there were no archetypes begin with. All these considerations are pertinent when it comes to properly judging the scale of this film’s brilliance. It tells a sweeping story that walks a fine line between the natural and supernatural and opens with one of the most quietly stunning and contemplative moments you’re likely to witness on screen. We begin by following Ku, a modest artist who lives with his mother in an old abandoned fort that is reputed to be haunted. When he discovers a beautiful young woman has moved in to the house across from him, he gets embroiled in a conflict between her and the imperial soldiers who for reasons which eventually become clear are pursuing her. Having proceeded on a very supernatural note until this point, the film then explodes into a martial arts epic with choreography and action on a scale that the later famed Hong Kong studios (Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers) would take a decade to match. A Touch of Zen gives us our first taste of “wire-fighting” but director King Hu was far too clever to saturate us with it. Instead, we see our heroes and villains gliding through trees and over rooftops very seldom and always in a fashion that adds to the story’s mystique. Though this film could have succeeded wonderfully solely as a martial arts film, around half way through it signals that it is going to be in fact much more and in a final sequence as spellbinding as anything any genre has ever thrown up, it confirms that promise and simply blows your mind. This is cinema.
Hu, Martial Arts, 1971

93.8

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Taxi Driver
This brave examination of a borderline sociopath who becomes increasingly alienated from the world as he sees it from his taxi-cab provides a fascinating and cynical analysis of the thin line between society’s perception of good and evil. De Niro is stunning and he makes Bickle his own like few if any actors have made any of their characters. This is not “acting” we’re witnessing but the intuitive realistion of Bickle’s psyche. Martin Scorsese’s direction is every bit as astounding to the extent that Taxi Driver counts as one of the most innovatively directed and conceptually energised movies ever made. Although, Taxi Driver is very much defined by De Niro’s central performance and Scorsese’s direction we should never forget Paul Schrader’s seminal script and the great Bernard Hermann’s mesmerising (and final) score both of which played an equal part in establishing this film’s place in history.
Scorsese, Drama, 1976

93.7

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Schindler’s List
Steven Spielberg’s most personal film about the attempt of a German industrialist to save 1,100 Jews from the gas chambers by cajoling, bribing, and manipulating the greedy, preening officers of the SS camp in which they worked. There are few subjects so in need of honourable treatment than the Holocaust of WWII and that might explain why there are precious few cinematic accounts out there. That the most moving came from the master of the big screen adventure is both unlikely and likely. His experience with the ‘in-your-face’ cinematic techniques of the Hollywood emotional payoff is as much responsible for the effectiveness of this film as his more deft qualities. For the holocaust is a piece of history that requires in-your-face type confrontation. In retrospect it seems now that nobody could inhabit Spielberg’s carefully constructed space better than Liam Neeson. He brings all the gravitas of an A-lister to the film but with the daring of an actor who has had to work for a living. It’s a tightrope of a turn that requires capturing all the ego, manipulation, caring, and bravery of the man. As his right hand man, Itzhak Stern, Ben Kingsley is beyond praise. Ralph Fiennes is to be commended too for giving what could’ve (and may well have been in reality) a mono-dimensionally evil character enough layers to, not excuse his actions (and those of many others like him), but to explain them. However, whether the conversation be the acting, the editing, or John Williams deeply moving score, one always comes back to the director.
Spielberg, War, 1993

93.7

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Alien
Ridley Scott’s seminal film tells the story of the mining ship Nostromo and its crew who are asked to land on an uncharted planet to investigate a crashed spacecraft. Things take a turn for the horrific when one the crew comes back with a creature attached to his face. Made with a level of discipline and patience not often demonstrated in Hollywood films, this genuinely terrifying film slowly reels you into its futuristic world. The action doesn’t get going until about midway through but the wait only serves to heighten the tension of the later scenes and the sense of alien intrusion. And once the alien does appear, H.R. Giger’s design of the creature (in its different stages of maturation) combined with Scott’s notion for how it should behave are so deeply primal and bone-chilling that they seemingly tap into the deepest reaches of our psyche. The cast, replete with serious heavy hitters, is uniformly superb and their freedom to improvise their lines paid off in spades as the authenticity that Scott’s vision generates so well is only compounded.
Scott, R, Sci-Fi, 1979

93.5

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Apocalypse Now
Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness switches the action from Africa to Vietnam. Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard is sent to deal with Brando’s brief but unforgettable Col. Kurtz in this mesmerising and reflexive exploration of the dark side to humanity. The stories behind the film’s making are legendary (a typhoon destroying the helicopters being used on the film, Martin Sheen’s health troubles, etc.) but the end product is mesmerising. This is a war film like few others made by a genius director when he was at the height of his powers.
Coppola, War, 1979

93.4

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Rio Bravo
The film that inspired some of the greatest directors of the last 30 years tells the tale of a sheriff (Wayne) and three deputies who after arresting a man for murder find themselves under siege by his wealthy brother and his hired guns. With great acting, original characters, insightful writing, and Hawks patient directing, this film is damn near perfect. Check out those scenes in which Burdette attempts to psych out Wayne with the Deguello guitar tune, a scene which more than any other from that time heralded the beginning of the more contemplative, darker western. Magic.
Hawks, Western, 1959

93.2

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A Clockwork Orange
Kubrick’s delicious take on Anthony Burgess’ futuristic novel begins in a grim Britain that seems overrun with disaffected youths with a taste for the old ultraviolence. The central character Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the epitome of this youth terror and the film follows his antics which ultimately see him being sent to prison for behaviour correction. The film is a lyrical delight and it is the monologue and dialogue more than anything else that sweep you through a film that is so darkly counter-pointed by Kubrick’s superb vision of desolation.
Kubrick, Satire, 1971

93.1

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The French Connection
The ultimate cop thriller sees hard-boiled detectives Popeye Doyle (Hackman) and Russo (Schneider) take on the deviously clever Charnier (Rey) as he attempts to smuggle “Grade A, junk of the month” right under their noses. As gritty as it is savage, this film pulls no punches as it offers us a glimpse into the obsessed mind like few other films have. Friedkin cleverly draws us into this dark world by familiarising us with the lead characters and their idiosyncratic relationships early on. From then on, it’s just the small matter of great dialogue, seminal acting, and startingly insightful direction that keep us glued to the screen.
Friedkin, Crime, 1971

93.1

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Breaking Away
The story focuses on four high school graduates from the working class part of a university town who must decide what they want to do with their lives while living in the shadow of the blow-in college kids who seem to have it all. Dennis Christopher plays one of these kids, an obsessed and ferociously talented cyclist (though the film cleverly deals with this in only an incidental manner) who temporarily avoids this pressure by assuming an Italian identity in honour of the cycling team he worships, much to the despair of his no-nonsense father (played wonderfully by Paul Dooley). Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley play the other kids who each have their own specific ways of confronting the same pressures of life while Barbara Barrie turns in a lovely performance as Christopher’s equally romantic mother.
Yates, Drama, 1979

93.1

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Paths of Glory
A humiliated general is left fuming at his troops’ retreat and orders three of them to be randomly selected for court-martial under penalty of execution. However, much to his chagrin, his regiment commander, Colonel Dax, refuses to let these men suffer a straw trial and takes it upon himself to defend his men in court. A truly astounding piece of cinema, Stanley Kubrick’s most poignant anti-war statement was like no other war film before it and is perhaps the most visceral cinematic critique of the mindless trench warfare employed on the battlefields of WWI.
Kubrick, War, 1957

93.1

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The Social Network
”Creation myths need a devil.” It was hyped by some as one of the best films of all time on its release and they just might have been right with this one. A master class in pacing and screenwriting, this story about the founding of Facebook and the man behind its creation is one of the most compelling films of the modern era. Everyone involved acts their socks off but this film is built around the ever excellent Jesse Eisenberg’s sensational performance as Mark Zuckerberg. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ subtle score is perfectly weighted and wonderfully carries the audience through the complex social worlds the characters inhabit. However, the final words of praise should be saved for director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin who craft a complex, three tiered tale into a fascinating study of the struggle for acceptance in modern world.
Fincher, Drama, 2010

92.9

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Zatoichi
Hugely innovative and sublimely paced celebration of the classic Japenese TV show sees actor/director “Beat” Takeshi playing the blind swordsman. This film is spectacular on every level from the blink-of-an-eye sword fights to the hypnotic sequences of people going about their daily business. One of the great modern directors, Beat Takeshi sews the story together seamlessly from the first scene to the last leaving us with a mesmerising, beautiful, uncompromising, and suddenly savage tale of revenge. Yanagijima’s cinematography provides the perfect background for the action while the breathtakingly choreographed fight scenes are astonishingly visceral thanks primarily to Takeshi’s emphatic use of sound. In a film about a blind swordsman, sound was always going to be important but, in this film, it becomes a veritable motif.
Kitano, Jidaigeki, 2003

92.8

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Sweet Smell of Success
Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster revel in the delivery of some of the best lines ever written for the screen. Curtis was rarely better as the struggling PR agent, Sidney Falco, who operates on the whim of Lancaster’s merciless J.J. Hunsecker, an all powerful column writer who makes or breaks celebrities and politicians with every word he types. When the latter gives Falco the difficult task of breaking up a relationship between Hunsecker’s sister and a principled young musician all his skills of manipulation are put to the test along with the few scruples he has left. Director Alexander Mackendrick brings the world of the socialite to splendid life back-dropping it against the bustle of New York City and ambition of its inhabitants. The staging and lighting in particular are sensational with the latter being used to especially well to accentuate Lancaster’s ominous presence. As good as this film looks, however, it’s defined by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehmen’s sizzling screenplay (adapted from Lehmen’s short story) and the performances which give that script its legs.
Mackendrick,Film-Noir, 1957

92.8

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City of God
City of God is a broad sweeping and utterly captivating tale of life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. It chronicles the rise to power of two drug lords as perceived through the eyes of its main character “Rocket”. Rocket is an intelligent and mostly honest young man who wants to escape from the slums and become a photographer. However, it’s his ability to get up close and personal with the deranged Li’l Ze (and his hip and all together nicer partner Benny) that get the attention of his newspaper and so he must continue to walk the dangerous slums to get the pictures his editors want. City of God is an extraordinary achievement thanks chiefly to director Fernando Meirelles’ ability to give a clear sense of authenticity to the proceedings. Non-Brazilians may never have experienced this world but the film quite amazingly transports you there for all of its 130 minutes. Meirelles’ pacing of the film as it leaps years at a time is also faultless and at times he creates a sense of dread so powerful that few out-and-out horror movie directors could match it. For example, the scenes wherein children are being threatened or pressured into the world of drug pedalling (where Meirelles’ use of high angles shots expertly conveys the weight of that pressure) will give the audience some serious chills. He is of course, helped ably by his incredible cast of actors most of whom were amateurs who lived in the City of God or nearby areas. In particular, the three leads Alexandre Rodriguez, Leandro Firmino, and Phellipe Haagensen are excellent in giving each of their characters genuinely relatable characteristics while still maintaining the grittier sides to those roles.
Meirettes, Gangster, 2002

92.7

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Citizen Kane
Welles’ astonishing debut sits at the top of many critics’ list of greatest films and it’s not difficult to see why if you bear in mind that nearly everything that Welles tried in the shooting of this picture was new and previously untried. It follows the story of Charles Foster Kane who torn away from his family as a child grows up to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world. The film pieces together in seamless fashion the clues to explain the dark reaches of this man’s psyche all in an attempt to explain one of cinema’s greatest mysteries, the meaning of his last words. Welles’ acting is simply thunderous as he embodies the essence of ruthless success and there isn’t one member of the supporting cast that lets the side down. However, it’s the technical aspects to this film that make it so very special. Every scene in this film was masterfully conceived from Welles’ use of lighting and camera angles to the editing that knitted them all together. The film is nothing short of an explosive celebration of cinematic innovation that more than any film before it or since changed the medium forever.
Welles, Mystery, 1941

92.7

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The Terminator
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is just a regular unassuming young woman living a normal life oblivious to the fact that her future son is destined to lead a human resistance against an army of sentient machines. When the machines send a seemingly unstoppable cyborg (Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill her and her unborn son, the resistance send back their own soldier (Michael Biehn) to protect her. One of the very best science fiction films this movie has it all: timeless special effects, an unforgettable score, sublime action, a story that re-defined what science fiction was all about, and an excellent cast. Hamilton and Biehn have never been better with the latter’s contribution often going underrated as the wily yet traumatised soldier whose performance is just unhinged enough to give us a terrifying sense of the future he comes from. Nothing about his acting seems false and it easily rates as one of the great sci-fi performances (check out that interrogation scene). However, in retrospect everyone seems to have been overshadowed by Schwarzenegger who was indeed born to play the role of the remorseless machine. There’s not another actor that could’ve played that character as coldly and as clinically as he does and it has rightly gone down in history as his defining role. However, the highest praise must go to Cameron whose direction in this film is amongst the very best to bless either the sci-fi or action genres. The pinnacle of which, the Tech-Noir scene, where Connor encounters the Terminator and where Reese’s role is finally revealed is a master class in uber-functional camera work and multilayered suspense which explodes into the most ferocious and focused action ever filmed. Pure Genius.
Cameron, Sci-Fi, 1984

92.5

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The Searchers
Beginning with perhaps the greatest opening shot of any film, the image of the great western frontier captured from the dark recesses of the family homestead says it all. The Searchers is an awe-inspiring and sweeping meditation on family and uncharted territory (both physical and spiritual). It begins with the return of civil war veteran, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), to his brother’s home only for the family to be massacred a short time afterwards by a Comanche war party out for revenge. All are killed except for his young niece and Ethan sets out after her but not necessarily with the intention of taking her back. Aware of this, his part Indian nephew sets out with him in order to ensure that his sister is rescued and not killed by the bitter and deeply prejudiced Ethan. The Searchers is a complex and deeply profound examination of love, devotion, and bitterness shot magnificently by a master director at the height of his powers. It also gives us the Duke’s best performance as he towers over everyone else on screen in both the physical and acting sense. It’s not an easy watch in parts but those darker moments are offset by some genuinely funny moments such as the fight between Martin and the fiancé of his would-be bride. But when it does return to darker territory the result is one of the most complicated and fascinating movie going experiences.
Ford, Western, 1956

92.5

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Fail-Safe
Sidney Lumet’s powerhouse of a film came out at the same time as Dr Strangelove and given it was about a squadron of US bombers who are accidentally ordered to drop their nuclear payload on Moscow and the frantic attempts of the US military to stop it, it was completely overshadowed by Kubrick’s similarly themed classic. In popularity that is, not quality, definitely not quality. Henry Fonda stars as the US president who must handle the incendiary negotiations with his Soviet counterpart while maintaining his military staff’s perspective on the other telephone line. Walter Matthau is the creepy political scientist who advises the latter to make the most out of the situation and attack all out in the expectation that the communist mindset will self-council surrender. Unique, intensely disturbing, and saturated with nervous authenticity, Fail-Safe is a remarkable piece of work in every respect. The drama is constantly switching between the White House, the Pentagon, the lead bomber, and its airforce base but at all times the transitions are seamless. Fonda is as usual terrific in a role of authority while Matthau seems to relish the darker role. However, given the broad scope to the drama, there’s a well rounded cast of support players such as Dan O’Herlihy who have just as much to do and are, in the main, every bit as impressive. Given the inevitable prevalence of technical jargon, there’s proper depth to Walter Bernstein’s screenplay. The dialogue elegantly balances the philosophical, the emotional, and pragmatic as Eugene Burdick’s story plays out on a number of simultaneously relevant dimensions. As the insanity of what we are seeing spirals into ever darkening territory, the scenario ironically begins to feel more and more real. Fail-Safe is Lumet at his imperious best reflecting all the innovation that marked The Hill, The Anderson Tapes, and Network and the flawless construction which marked 12 Angry Men, Serpico, and The Verdict. The opening and final sequences in particular are ingeniously conceived and in many ways they set the tone to Fail-Safe as clinically as Kubrick’s opening and closing sequences did to Dr Strangelove. On that note, it’s remarkable at how both films parallel each other while being almost completely opposite in tone. In many ways, Fail-Safe is the same story but told and shot from a more sombre point of view which is intriguing in its own right as Kubrick always said that he originally intended to tell his story that way but couldn’t due to the insanity of the entire scenario. Lumet and co. capture that sentiment profoundly right at the moment Fonda’s character glimpses the only solution to his most terrible of dilemmas. For in an insane world, the most rational decision must surely appear to be the most irrational. In essence, they pulled off what Kubrick felt was impossible.
Lumet, War, 1964

92.5

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The Big Lebowski
“Nihilists? Say what you want about the tenets of nationalist socialism but at least it’s an ethos”. The funniest film ever made, this Coen Bros’ masterpiece is a triumph of writing, acting, and comedy direction. The quotable lines, the jokes, the glorious set-pieces are all too numerous to list while the story is too complicated to summarise. The acting is amongst the very best for a comedy with Jeff Bridges turning in a seminal performance as the iconic Dude and John Goodman scoring equally well as his Vietnam obsessed bowling buddy Walter. This is quite simply the most original, innovative, and laugh-out-loud comedy out there. “Am I wrong?”
Coen, Comedy, 1998

92.4

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Rashoman
Kurosawa’s seamless exploration of an investigation into a murder built around the varying perspectives of a number of very different witnesses was as daring as it was imaginative. The story is disjointed but that of course was the point, the cinematography is splendid, and the acting (particularly Toshira Mifune’s performance as the vicious bandit charged with the crime) is utterly sensational.
Kurosawa, Drama, 1950

92.3

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Yojimbo
A wandering samurai arrives in a town split by two powerful and warring families and sees the chance to play both sides against the middle. Inspired by John Ford’s westerns, Akira Kurosawa created a brand new type of cinematic hero by blending the disciplined and ruthless focus of a wandering swordsman (with more than a few echoes of the legendary swordsman Musashi) with the sweeping and dramatic film-making style of the Hollywood western. The result changed not just Japanese cinema forever but also Italian cinema (by influencing Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns) and American cinema (by influencing a whole raft of iconic heroes from Dirty Harry to Snake Plisken). As you would expect from a film that brings together two of Japan’s most sensational actors (Toshira Mifune as the hero and Tatsuya Nakadai as the villain) with its most innovative and supremely talented director, the dramatic tension of the film was unparalleled at the time and has rarely been equalled. The look of the film is completely unique and the images (such as the dog trotting away with the severed hand) will stay with you forever. And then on top of all that there’s Masaru Sato’s iconic score.
Kurosawa, Jidaigeki, 1961

92.1

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Rififi
Jules Dassin’s masterpiece Rififi is an exquisitely crafted film noir and damn near the best crime film ever made. It follows the fortunes of three men as they meticulously plan and execute a daring jewellery heist but ultimately go head to head with a local gangster who attempts to muscle in on their takings. Rififi is a perfect realisation of noir expressionism heavy with fatalist leanings. A combination of sublime deep staging painted in rich greys and blacks, piercing innovation, and just enough playful imagery to make a point without distorting the overall plot. This is key because the plot is the jewel in the crown of this film constructed as it is with a burning originality and muscular cleverness. So good is it that for short periods throughout the first two acts, Dassin reinstates the bare style of the best silent cinema as characters, score, and context come together to contribute to the plush narrative. As is turns out, this is a delicious portend to the now celebrated heist sequence which takes place about midway through to a wordless, music-less soundtrack of nothing more than the thieves’ movements and carefully orchestrated criminal efforts. This 35 minute sequence doesn’t have all the luscious playfulness of the earlier snippets of silent action as its a purely realist piece of film-making. In fact, the contrast between it and the earlier periods of dialogue free action heighten this realism all the more. What makes all this even more striking is that Auguste Le Breton’s dialogue still manages to play an integral part in Rififi. In fact while Dassin takes much liberty in adapting the story from the extraordinarily dark piece of writing the book is to a tantalisingly dark script, he keeps much of the dialogue as it was in the book. And a wise decision it was too as its a surgically incisive script full of perceptive street sense and hard-hitting drama. Reflecting the realist qualities of the plot and fatalist themes to the story, the characters words swing between warm, cold, and arresting with a natural ease but always with an underlying gritty slickness. The central character Tony (Jean Servais) best illustrates these sensibilities as the hard as nails ex-con who has been wearied by his most recent prison stint. On his release, he spends his first night gambling and in the morning he pays an intimidating visit to his former lady friend who has since hooked up with the same gangster whom he locks horns with later. Tony is as rich yet singularly focused a character as they come. A man in whom all motivations become one. A man who can’t be negotiated with, manipulated, threatened, or blackmailed. And it’s hair-raising to watch him work. The film comes into its own when he is on the screen and during his denouement, the contradictory sides to his personality come crashing together in one of Dassin’s and the genre’s most searing sequences. Rififi echoed much of Huston’s earlier The Asphalt Jungle and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in this dramatic close. Servais is as brilliant as the character deserves and dominates the film. That said he’s well supported by Carl Möhner in the role of his faithful apprentice and Dassin himself as the ladies man of the crew. Rififi was Jules Dassin’s return to film making after he had been blacklisted during the communist witch-hunts of the 40’s/50’s and it counts in every way as two savage fingers to the eyes of those cowards and traitors who banished him to the wilderness. Not only because of its European success and the stature in which it is now held but because of the way he ties those wonderfully rich and textured fatalistic themes to the personal betrayal he suffered. Rififi also marked the beginning of the end for that shameful period by paving the way for the likes of Spartacus. Just another contribution this glorious film has made to the world of cinema.
Dassin, Film-Noir, 1955

92.1

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Raging Bull
Scorsese’s extraordinary biopic about the self-destructive boxer Jake LaMotta is the director’s most technically impressive film and Robert DeNiro’s crowning achievement as an actor. Scorsese’s decision to film in black and white, combined with the flat lighting of many of the dialogue-centred scenes, gives the film an authentic documentary-like feel. On the other hand, the fast cuts between wide and short angle shots and the long zooms of the fight scenes give them a dizzying and yet deeply experiential feel. De Niro transforms into LaMotta and with writer Paul Schrader’s words he commands the viewer’s attention every time he speaks. Rather than focusing on the fights exclusively, this film becomes a dark introspective study of the boxer and more subtly the Catholic familial context in which he and his brother (played brilliantly by Joe Pesci) live. Quite fittingly, the film climaxes with perhaps one of the most well remembered moments of self-reference in cinematic history.
Scorsese, Drama, 1980

91.9

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Dark City
This is one of those films that is so conceptually and aesthetically stunning that it can hit you like a freight train if you’re not expecting it. And isn’t that one of the great joys of cinema? Alex Proyas’ film has been described as a kafka-esque sci-fi noir and it very much is. It begins in a strange grimy hotel room where John Murdoch wakes up to find a dead prostitute on his floor and a group of sinister men pursuing him. His escape brings us into a world that seems at odds with everything we know and expect. It quickly transpires that Murdoch isn’t quite normal himself and may even have abilities akin to those of the strangers who are following him. For a film that was always going to repel mainstream audiences who demand conventional narratives and accessible plots it’s amazing at how much money seems to have gone into this. The production design is truly awe-inspiring and combined with Proyas’ dark vision it becomes psyche affecting. The script is electric and is as honest an attempt to live up to the potentials of science fiction as you’ll find. It presents us with highly defined yet idiosyncratic characters who are cast to perfection. William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly are excellent but it’s Kiefer Sutherland’s Dr. Schreber and Rufus Sewell’s Murdoch who are so utterly captivating. Sutherland nails his character and is responsible for much of the film’s thrust, while Sewell is immense in an altogether more difficult role. Proyas’ direction is slick and intense employing quick cuts with sharp angles to get the most out his extraordinarily lit and shadow friendly sets. Dark City is a monumental piece of science-fiction that pre-dated The Matrix by a year but went well beyond that film in its scope and daring. Ultimately, the best thing you can say about Dark City is that it achieves that holy grail of science fiction movies. A film that looks and feels like nothing that came before it or since. Utterly utterly sublime.
Proyas, Sci-Fi, 1998

91.8

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Touch of Evil
A truly mesmerising piece of film making by the master Orson Welles starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican narcotics officer, Vargas, who clashes with his cross border counterpart, the loathsome Captain Quinlan, played with relish by Welles himself. Though Vargas is ostensibly the lead character, the film develops around Quinlan as he manipulates and bullies all around him and crosses the line between legal and illegal (good and evil) as often as the Mexican border itself. If Heston is excellent as the honourable Vargas (and he is) then Welles is astonishing as the ambiguous, brutal, intelligent, barely coherent, and deeply disturbed detective who targets Vargas and his glamourous wife (played wonderfully by Janet Leigh) when the former accuses him of planting evidence. Rarely has a film had a more distinctive look, sound, and feel as this as Welles’ use of shadows (both darting and still), staging, and fast and slow dolly shots are set against an ever present soundtrack of latin or rock and roll music or the hustle and bustle of the busy border town. This sense of busyness is carried over into the dialogue as the characters constantly talk over each other. The result is a pervading awareness of space (both physical and psychological) as well as a heightened complexity of the plot. All these make Touch of Evil perhaps the greatest of all film-noir and one hell of a captivating film. There are a number of versions of this film doing the rounds thanks to the interference from the movie studios but the closest to Welles’ original is the 111 minute cut.
Welles, Film-Noir, 1958

91.8

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Sunset Blvd.
Billy Wilder’s monumental film is a dark and uncomfortable watch but a true landmark in cinematic story telling. From that otherworldly opening to the surreal and unnatural close, this film sinks it claws into you like few others. Set in 1950′s Hollywood, it follows the misfortunes of Joe Gillis, a down on his luck screenwriter as he becomes ensnared in the web of Norma Desmond, an ageing actress from the silent era whose once iconic poise has decayed into maniacal self-regard & delusions of continued grandeur as the world has long since forgotten her. Everything about this woman’s life, from her dilapidated mansion to the cold grimace that has replaced her once golden smile, gives the story a darkly mythical quality. Watch how Gillis is unconsciously shepherded to that mansion and once there, how she feeds off his youth draining him of what remained of his vibrance. And lastly, how Gillis’ future with this vampire-like figure is illustrated in the fate of her Butler (a theme echoed in the actual vampire movie Let the Right One In). The way in which Wilder captures all this is what gives this strange set up such a strong hue of decay. Opulent, darkly lit sets and powerfully slow tracking shots continually reveal this world to the audience as something out of a nightmare. The seminal script breathes its own form of listless life into the characters and when combined with Wilder’s dark vision it gives rise to some of the most memorable lines uttered in film. And on top of all this, you have the two spellbinding performances of Gloria Swanson as Desmond and William Holden as Gillis. Holden seemed to define the very essence of a lead in a film-noir with his gritty performance as the disillusioned writer. He makes you work to like him and just when you find reason enough, it makes his situation all the more distasteful. However, even he is blown off the screen by the incredible Swanson in arguably one the finest female acting performances. She gives her wretched character a twisted vibrance which makes it difficult to watch but simultaneously impossible to ignore. It might not be a film you’ll revisit too often but so powerful are the words and images, you won’t need to.
Wilder, Film-Noir, 1950

91.7

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Aguirre, The Wrath of God
Werner Herzog’s seminal film was as gruelling a shoot as Fitzcarraldo thanks to on-location demands and the typically erratic behaviour of its brilliant but wildly eccentric lead Klaus Kinski. However, it is a memorable master work that comes across as a near perfect blend of Malick-like exploration and Kurosawa-like adventure. Set in the late 16th century, the story follows a small scouting party who, part of Pizarro’s larger expedition, are sent ahead on the inhospitable Amazon to look for the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. Kinski plays the second in command of this party, Aguirre, who soon usurps authority, announces his intent to break ties with the expedition and indeed the Spanish Crown, forms a rag-tag new society built around the prospect of the golden city, and installs a puppet leader as its figurehead. Despite the seemingly wide reach of its premise, Aguirre becomes a deeply introspective affair that is confined to the greedy irrational ambitions of the mind and soul. Kinski is immense as the self-styled leader upon who’s head even the crown of emperor he deems unworthy. He bestrides the raft on which he takes the remainder of his party ever deeper into the Amazon, like an imperious ruler and in whose eyes we see only endless ambition and verbose self-regard. This is the raw power of cinema harnessed through the ragings of nature and Herzog’s and Kinski’s respective depth of ability. And like all such works of art, it must be seen to be understood.
Herzog, Adventure, 1972

91.6

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Repo Man
Alex Cox’s cult classic captures all the anarchy of the punk generation with the perfectly apt metaphor of a punk repo man. To explain the story would be impossible but also redundant as this film is an exercise in rebellion and counter-culture from the first scene to the backwards rolling credits. Eschewing the narrative conventions of story telling is easier said than done because, by their nature, conventions implicitly creep into our descriptions of everything. However, Cox manages to do just that by creating a film that glides forward under its own brisk momentum employing a series of dream like cuts between camera angles and scenes alike. The music and dialogue is as surreal as the visuals yet the actors are perfectly in tune with the spirit of the project. Emilo Esteves is excellent in the lead while the legendary Harry Dean Stanton steals every scene he’s involved with. This is one hell of a muscular statement from all concerned and it ends in one of the most imaginative ways (well!) imaginable.
Cox, Satire, 1984

91.4

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Pan’s Labyrinth
Pan’s Labyrinth is not simply Guillermo del Toro’s undisputed masterpiece but damn near the most spellbinding fantasy ever made. Set in Spain, 1944, the film begins as Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her mother (Adriana Gil) move into an old farmhouse as her step-father to be, Captain Vidal, is charged with eliminating the remaining anti-fascist resistance fighters who are hiding out in the nearby mountains. It’s not long however before Ofelia (and we as her companions) descend into the Alice-in-Wonderland type world of the nearby labyrinth led by its custodian Pan who is simply referred to as a Faun. From this point on, the film becomes a monument to sensory and intellectual stimulation as the rites Ofelia must perform to fulfil her destiny, operate on two mutually informing levels. This is an ode to the free intellect with which fascism is so at odds, a deeply subjective yet viscerally unreal experience where world and imagination are inextricably linked in tangible form. It’s also just a cracking good fairytale, perhaps the last (or at least most recent) truly great meme-inducing fairy-tale, which should be held in the same esteem as those psyche infecting tales we grew up on. Of course, the film succeeds to the same degree on the technical level as it does on the conceptual, as this is one of the most visually arresting movies we’re ever likely to see. Del Toro’s direction is that of an assured master, never once opting for the standard shot but never once allowing form to supersede function. The acting is outstanding with Baquero shining in what must have been one very difficult role.
Del Toro, Fantasy, 2006

91.3

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Dr. Strangelove
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room”. The grand-daddy of all satires, Dr. Strangelove began as a serious project about the Cold War but Stanley Kubrick found the whole thing so ludicrous he felt it needed to be told as farce. And farce is what we get, the best kind. Sterling Hayden is the mad general who orders his B-52 attack wing to drop their nuclear payload on Soviet targets knowing they will immediately go radio-silent thereby precluding anyone from recalling them. George C. Scott is utterly superb as General Buck Turgidson who is charged by the President with coming up with a plan to avoid all out war with the Russians but who seems more concerned with the Russian ambassador being let into the war-room where he can see “the big board”. Towering above even that performance however, is the imperious Peter Sellers as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the man himself, Dr. Strangelove. It’s difficult to decide which persona is his funniest right up until the final scene when the Dr. just simply nails it. The script is as sharp and subtly clever as they come with plenty of overt humour thrown in for good measure. Kubrick’s eye was never better and the wide shots of the war room and of the B-52’s making their approach have become some of the most iconic in history. However, it was his ability to know when and where to use the various shots, scenes, and dialogues which makes the progression of the film so funny. In that he achieved that rarity in comedic film-making in that his ‘direction’ was as funny as the words on the page and the actors who uttered them. It all builds up to that most seminal of endings of course and who after seeing this has ever forgotten Slim Pickens’ exit from that zany yet all-too real world which Kubrick presented us with.
Kubrick, Satire, 1964

91.1

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The Right Stuff
One of the wittiest and most compelling historical dramas you’re ever likely to see details the events leading up to and including Nasa’s first manned space flights (Mercury Mission). A glittering cast of actors play a glittering array of characters but none score better than Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeger. Director Kaufman rightly went his own way with his adaptation of Wolfe’s book and built the film around the legendary fighter ace. Shepard is near mesmerising as the stoic Yeger but in truth there’s not one actor in the extensive cast that lets the side down. Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, and Ed Harris in particular are fantastic as the famous Mercury astronauts. Kaufman deserves huge credit for the way he brings this expansive story together as he crafts an extremely intelligent, often funny, often cutting satire of politics, ego, and personal ambition. However, rather than take the easy way out he remains true to the book and skillfully interweaves the far more optimistic story about passion and dedication into the fabric of this ostensible critique and the result is a hugely complex and profoundly uplifting experience worthy of the esteemed literary source that spawned it.
Kaufman, Satire, 1983

91

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Le Samouraï
A truly remarkable piece of cinema and an utterly peerless exploration of the lone wolf/dangerous man concept, Le Samouraï refers to a meticulous hit-man who, after committing a rare error on a job, must stay one step ahead of the police and his employers. Jean-Pierre Melville’s film is a crime thriller like no other, where meditative tone and clockwork plot play out as one and where experience becomes as satisfying as entertainment. Reflexivity is the order of the day as Melville’s obsession with the gritty noirs of 40’s and 50’s US cinema take the form of Alain Delon’s stone cold incarnation of noir fatalism. Few films have achieved so clinically what they set out to do like this one and when the ambition is as abstract as it is here, then that’s no mean feat. The scene composition and framing is exquisite but, not surprisingly for Melville, his primary tool is colour. The fluorescent lighting of the subways and nightclubs ensure their starker colour schemes are eventually washed out so that the film can always comfortably reset itself in the steel grey of the classic noir. In those flat colours where both the emotions and themes to the story are equally stretched out, Le Samouraï plays out with a sense of held breath. The exhale-inhale comes in the initial moments of the murder and chase sequences where cunning set pieces of ingenious precision press the plot into the foreground. And against a background of stirring silence which sits throughout as a defining motif. It’s truly riveting to behold and taking centre stage is Delon’s Jef Costello. The Frenchman was just about the coolest man to grace European screens in the 60’s and 70’s and with a performance that dials in about 10 degrees cooler than Alan Ladd’s (This) Gun for Hire, his “cool” status gets undisputedly upgraded to world class. This ensures that Le Samouraï becomes a film of pure focus on both ends of the camera not to mention a profound cinematic experience.
Melville, Film-Noir, 1967

91

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The Killing
We shouldn’t be too surprised that the director who gave us the best science fiction film ever made, the best period piece ever made, the best black comedy ever made, one of the best horrors and one of the best war films (Paths of Glory) ever made is also responsible for one of the very best film noir. Sterling Hayden is dynamite as the man with the genius plan to rip off a race track whilst staying ahead of security, the cops, the insecurities of his men, and the deviousness of their wives. The story has all the usual multiple threads of a film noir but it’s the way Kubrick brings it all together that is so fascinating to watch and indeed so compelling. This is perhaps the earliest indication of the breadth of the great director’s confidence and the stunning innovation that came with it. Watch how he dollies the camera through the walls of the apartment (something Scorsese and Tarantino would go on to recurrently use to splendid effect) and revel in his exquisite and visionary lighting. And let’s not forget, it’s is also a chance to see the ingenious yet completely eccentric Timothy Carey in one of his more memorable cameos as “the shooter”.
Kubrick, Film-Noir, 1956

90.9

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Die Hard
The daddy of all action films, Die Hard has it all. An everyman hero, boo-hissable villains, a fantastic plot, and a scintillating script. Add in some sublime action choreography captured captured by the No. 1 action director (John McTiernen) and cinematographer (Jan DeBont) in the business and give Bruce Willis the lead and the result is the cleverest and wittiest action film ever made. Willis plays John McClane, a New York cop who goes to toe to toe with a group of German terrorists when they take over his estranged wife’s corporate headquarters during their Christmas party. Despite his meticulous planning, the terrorist leader (played with relish by Alan Rickman in his first screen appearance) finds McClane and his abrasive personality to be a consistent pain in the ass as all his plans are systematically foiled by the cop. Though the action sequences have become the stuff of movie legend, the film’s standout strength was the charisma of the two leads either on their own or while sparring with each other. Willis in particular excels like no action hero before him or since in both charm and grittiness. Combined with an array of perfectly rounded supporting characters played by a host of top actors they give the film real substance and make the action sequences all the more enjoyable. And the intelligence and wit in front of the camera is matched by that behind it as McTiernen produces a tour de force. No other sequence demonstrates this more than when McClane brings patrolman Powell into the fold with a bang – as Arglye the limo driver is chilling down in the parking garage oblivious to the mayhem going on behind him. “Welcome to the party pal”.
McTiernan, Action, 1988

90.8

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Psycho
In many ways this is Hitchcock’s most audacious film. Not content with the controversial shower scene, he gloriously defies two major cinematic conventions with one fell swoop. One concerns the switching of leads and the other the switching of genres right at the midpoint. The film starts off with Janet Leigh hightailing it out of the city with her boss’ money to start a new life with her man. Weather interrupts her journey and she takes shelter in the isolated Bates Motel tended by good old boy Norman Bates. Whether you’ve seen the rest or not, you know what happens but in getting there, Hitchcock brings us on a completely enthralling and blisteringly original trip. Janet Leigh is perfect as the decent but desperate criminal on the run. Anthony Perkins does an outstanding job as the quietly charming motel attendant with a dark streak about a mile long and Martin Balsam pops up as he does in nearly every classic from around that time. Ultimately, however, this film is all about Hitchcock’s innovation and one of cinema’s most memorable scores courtesy of the equally legendary Bernard Herrmann.
Hitchcock, Horror, 1960

90.8

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Dazed and Confused
With Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater gave us perhaps the most original and entertaining rites-of-passage film. Set in 1976, the film follows a group of high school kids on their last day of school before the summer break as the incoming seniors hunt down and haze the incoming freshmen. No film has captured the feel and spirit of its time and place better thanks in the main to Linklater’s authentic dialogue, his ability to draw real characters and relationships between them, and the intimate manner in which he frames every shot. The choice of source music would make Scorsese or Tarantino proud (the latter of which, you might be interested to know lists this as one of his favourite films) and provides the primary fuel for Linklater’s time machine. The performances are too many to fully note here but Sasha Jenson’s quirky Dawson, Rory Cochrane as the uber stoner Slater, and Matthew McConaughey’s creepy yet ridiculous Wooderson deserve a special mention. This is one of those landmark movies where all the pieces fit so well together that it effortlessly resonates with you. Whether you grew up in that era or not, it’ll ensconce you in a warm sense of nostalgia and you’ll be forever going back for more.
Linklater, Comedy, 1993

90.6

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Twelve O’Clock High
A glorious testament to the potential importance and power of cinema, Twelve O’Clock High is a deeply moving and magnificently crafted film which recounts the early US bombing missions over the heart of industrial Germany. Under-staffed and under-equipped, these men represented the first phase of US involvement in the European theatre at a time when Germany was at the peak of its might. Flying against near impossible odds, the men went up day after day slowly but surely picking away at the German munitions factories. It was through their courage that the German war machine was slowed down enough for its US and British counterparts to catch up and eventually overtake it in superiority. The immortal Gregory Peck plays General Savage, a caring but highly professional officer who is asked to return to flight duty so that he can organise a unit, the men of which, have succumb to the brutally demoralising strain of such combat. Through self and military discipline alike he begins to hone his new charges but at the cost of his own emotional and physical well-being  Peck is extraordinary in the lead role and plays the two sides to his role intuitively and flawlessly. At all times, he’s both genial and stern, composed yet emotional. It’s another majestic tour de force from an actor who registered plenty over his career. Henry King’s directing is just as impressive as his unobtrusive lens constantly brushes the exterior of the emotional context resisting the temptation to dive in until that one moment when everything comes down. The understanding between him and his lead is palpable and they have us in the palm of their hands. The remainder of the cast are all on top form and, in truth, there’s not one who steps out of sync throughout its two hours. Of course, we cannot forget Sy Bartlett’s and Beirne Lay Jr’s immensely perceptive screenplay which does justice to every bit of what those pilots and their crew went through. Even more interesting is its portrait of the generals and other army brass. Far from the cold-hearted game-players of movies like Paths of Glory (different war, different army, different context), these are conflicted and heavy-hearted men who know all too well what they’re asking of their charges but also know what the repercussion would be if they didn’t. Twelve O’Clock High is a spellbinding achievement and one that has rightly gone down in the annals of cinema as such. It should be required viewing by all with a love and passion for cinema and everyone other living person too.
King, War, 1949

90.5

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Carrie
Brian De Palma brings Stephen King’s horror classic to life with bags of wit and style in this seminal addition to the horror movie genre. From the very opening shot we see that De Palma’s innovative style and penchant for long slow tracking shots are perfectly suited to telling the story of a troubled high school girl who spends her days being bullied in school and her evenings being psychologically abused by her fanatically religious mother. A target for her classmates’ cruelty and a vessel for her mother’s self-delusions, Carrie is about to blow and given that she has recently discovered that she can move objects with her mind, neither is going to want to be around when she does. This is a case of inspired writing and screen adaptation (kudos Lawrence D. Cohen) being brought to life by a confident young director who was (along with others of his generation) both heavily influenced by the old maestros yet also changing the shape of modern cinema with bold new ideas and innovations. And Carrie is chock-full of both. This film glides along and shifts almost effortlessly in tone from seriously dark and creepy in places to whimsical, carefree, and downright fun in others (just check out that tux-buying scene). Pino Donaggio’s score helps hugely in the latter instances but really comes into its own when Carrie is using her powers. Sissy Spacek is phenomenally good in the title role given that the two sides to her character’s personality were so disparate. William Katt’s always positive presence brings a ray of sunshine the party and Nancy Allen and John Travolta are excellent together as two of the twisted bullies. Of course Piper Laurie is just plain scary as Carrie’s mother and adds that final touch of class needed to elevate this masterpiece into the high echelons of great cinema.
De Palma, Horror, 1976

90.5

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Blade Runner
Few films can be truly described as seminal and Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic would intuitively seem like a prime candidate given the fact that it has become a landmark in science fiction. However, truth be told, it is such a singular achievement that nobody seems to have known how to pick up where Scott and company left off. Though many would argue that Alien is Scott’s crowning achievement, many directors proved capable of at least emulating the industrial sci-fi vibe which he forged in that film, resulting in a traceable sea change right across the genre. Blade Runner had no such obvious effects and when one takes in the breadth of both its technical and conceptual complexity one begins to suspect that it is because nobody knew how Scott did exactly what he did. Based on a Philip K. Dick story, Blade Runner is set in a future when evolution in robotic technology has produced genetically engineered robots or ‘replicants’ which are almost completely indistinguishable from humans. When four of the most advanced and dangerous replicants escape their enslavement and make it to Earth, one of the few crack investigators (called ‘Blade Runners’) who can identify them is forced out of retirement to track them down and eliminate them. Blade Runner is a spectacular film graced with sublime production design, unrivaled visual effects, and that mesmerising Vangelis score. However, it’s the qualitative experience of Scott’s futuristic vision that is so utterly captivating and such an experience can only be achieved when every aspect of the film-making process is pitch perfect. The actors from Harrison Ford as the Blade Runner to the improvisational Rutger Hauer as the nastiest of the replicants are totally in tune with the proceedings and provide that final touch of mastery to what surely must be one of the most impressive science fictions films ever made. It’s not always an easy watch because this is a darkly heavy and profoundly existential film. But stick with it and you’ll never forget it.
Scott, R, Sci-Fi, 1982

90.5

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Heat
Heat is Michael Mann’s epic tale of obsession and discipline that focuses on the adversarial relationship between a perfectionist cop (Al Pachino) and a master thief (Robert De Niro). This was the first film to bring the two greatest actors of their generation together on screen and it’s to Mann’s credit that he keeps their meetings brief and few, choosing instead to use the charisma of the two leads to drive their own sides to the story until the inevitable showdown. Heat is an expansive film involving a number of dramatic subplots that are skillfully interwoven into the wider story. It’s also Mann’s most stylistic film. His trademark grading and wide-sweeping cityscape night shots provide the perfect backdrop to the methodical and exacting behaviour of the police and criminals alike. The immaculate editing and that quietly brilliant Elliot Goldenthal score are as good as you’ll get in any film. The action has rarely been equalled let alone bettered and the now famous street battle remains the most powerfully realistic yet elegantly co-ordinated action sequences ever committed to celluloid (story has it that it’s shown in military academies as a text-book example of how to execute an ordered retreat while taking fire). The cast, replete with most of Mann’s regulars and led by two of cinema’s icons, are invariably excellent ensuring that this compelling tale is populated with the most fascinating yet believable of characters. The result of all this is the slickest and coolest crime thriller ever made and one that you’ll never get tired of watching.
Mann, Crime, 1995

90.4

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The Battle of Algiers
The Battle of Algiers is a deeply articulate and skillfully crafted account of the Algerian struggle for independence from France. It begins by focusing on a man who has clearly just been tortured, as he agrees to lead the French paratroopers to the hideout of the last remaining leader of the FLN. The narrative then jumps back to the early days of the FLN as they organise and build their network. The build up to the FLN attacks is shown in unflinching detail from the determined concentration of the bombers and or killers to the innocence of the civilian victims. One particular sequence where three women move calmly into different areas of the French quarter is starkly framed around civilian women and children, one of whom is eating an ice cream right before the explosions. The French come off perhaps even worse given the air of cultural superiority many of them project and the ruthless methods they adopt to penetrate the closed ranks of the FLN. The dialogue mirrors the grittiness of the story but it is in the interactions between the characters and the various representatives of the two sides where the intelligence and perceptiveness of the script really comes out. The cast are all extremely strong from the bit-part players to those playing central characters. Brahim Hadjadj as the more fiery tempered FLN leader and Jean Martin as the cold and calculating French colonel are particularly noteworthy for how they handle their more prominent roles and for both the contrasting and similar themes their characters come to embody. The Battle of Algiers is as brave an attempt to capture the nuances and complexities of such struggles as has been put to celluloid. Not once does it shy away from the darkest aspects to both sides of the conflict and never once does it appear to stand in judgment. Any feelings of disgust which emerge do so within the audiences’ minds as events unfold in near documentary like coolness. The cinematography and use of sound is particularly impressive with the contrast between the white walls winding through the Algerian streets and the shadows they cast used to extraordinary effect. The sound of the protests and riots on one side and marching troops on the other is equally striking and brilliantly balanced with Ennio Morricone’s and Gillo Pontecorvo’s haunting score. It’s a powerful piece of film-making and one that has rightly gone down as one of the finest war films in history.
Pontecorvo, War, 1966

90.4

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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
As pure a horror film as you’ll find, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an exquisitely sculpted journey into the raw unprocessed soul of fear. Five friends travel to a Texas backwater to visit an old family home but stumble into a neighboring house where the majority of them are suddenly and brutally murdered by a relentless chainsaw wielding killer whose face is hidden behind a leathery mask. The events that follow become even more horrifying for the sole survivor as she comes face to face with cinema’s most grotesque and psyche-affecting reflection of institutional perversion and generational corruption – a family of deranged and psychotic cannibals from the enfeebled grandfather to increasingly defiant grandsons. Through the inspired writing of Kim Henkel and the doubly inspired writing and directing of the perennially underrated horror auteur Hooper, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre becomes a deeply intelligent but utterly relentless force-feeding of terror. Made in the immediate aftermath of the psychologically scarring Watergate scandal and at the height of public opposition to the Vietnam war, the movie is infused with the themes of fear and even disgust which permeated much of the American subconscious at that time. This is a primal scream at those times but it’s as much a warning to the power gluttons who create so much carnage from the safety of their offices that what they might ultimately create is a dark and uncontrollable future where society turns upon itself. The movie itself is lean in production quality but it never looks cheap. If anything, it’s extraordinarily accomplished right across the board. The camera work and the sound in particular are outstanding and provide much of the punch in the scenes leading up to and including the central chase. Though comprised of unknowns, the cast are universally excellent with Marilyn Burns and Paul A. Partain giving genuinely commanding performances. Of course, Gunnar Hansen deserves special mention for his physical performance as the maniacal Leatherface. However, the real genius of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre lies in Hooper’s direction as he carefully constructs and captures the very essence of a nightmare. Not rushing into things, he builds the characters first and then slowly raises the level of tension with a series of clever devices. The framing of his camera combined with the physical set-up of every scene (check out that skeleton art!) increasingly draws us into the drama until we’re right there in that house. And then, when all breaks loose, it hits us like a freight train and save for a couple of brief interludes, it doesn’t stop until, just like the main protagonist, we feel we can’t take anymore. This is one of the truly great achievements in direction and it produces a film that can be fairly described as the “2001: A Space Odyssey” of horror movies as Hooper grabs us by the scruff of the neck and drags us into the centre of this nightmare and beyond the infinite.
Hooper, Horror, 1974

90.3

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Rope
Hitchcock’s cerebral thriller is strangely compelling given its disturbing subject matter. It follows the murder of a young man and the killers as they proceed to throw a dinner party immediately afterwards to which, amongst others, the victim’s parents and girlfriend have been invited. John Dall and Farley Granger play the two murderers who are eager to put into practice Nietzsche’s ideas that murder is justified when the victim is an intellectual inferior. The action is shot in real time and involves ten long cuts (with a few sneaky ones in between) disguised as one and the major effect the then revolutionary technique had (along with the off-screen/off-mike conversations) was to immerse the audience in the apartment’s atmosphere as the two men’s intelligent former mentor (James Stewart) picks his way through the clues. Dall gives a chilling portrayal of a sociopath with delusions of grandeur as his every word and in particular every gesture reflects his inner cold blooded precision. Granger provides a decent foil to that cold calmness while Stewart is in his typical scene-stealing mood. The film concludes itself in a highly satisfying fashion given that the action never leaves the apartment. Moreover, the sense of time passed and internal disquiet you’re left with is testament to the genius of Hitchcock’s unparalleled ability to manipulate our perceptions and generate that darkest of tension.
Hitchcock, Thriller, 1948

90.3

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Rear Window
One of the most innovative and entertaining of all films, this Hitchcock classic tells the story of a apartment-bound photographer who spends his days following the lives of his neighbours from the window at the rear of his apartment – until he begins to suspect that one of them has done away with his wife. James Stewart is as usual eminently watchable as the laid-up free-spirit and he brings an enjoyable air to the proceedings. The excellent Grace Kelly is the love interest who hails from wealthy stock and for whom Stewart has mixed feelings. The real star of the show is of course Hitchcock, who’s meticulous crafting of the often explorative courtyard scenes (the area Stewart is peering out into) is a lesson in framing, tracking, lighting, and pacing. Notice how he lures one into the voyeuristic world Stewart’s character is inhabiting by soundtracking the action with the various sounds and music that the neighbours produce as they go about their daily business. And how he uses that soundtrack to heighten the tenser moments by contrasting the screaming of the victim against the natural hum of the real world. Rear Window is a fascinating watch because of this technical mastery but it’s also one hell of an enjoyable thriller thanks to a combination of it, John Michael Hayes’ perceptive script (based on Cornell Woolrich’s short story), and the acting from all involved.
Hitchcock, Mystery, 1954

90.2

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High Noon
”It’s all happened too sudden. People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do something about it”. What do you say about a film like this? There isn’t a single aspect to this magnum opus that isn’t perfect. Gary Cooper stars as the town marshal who must stand alone against four craven killers who are bent on killing him for saving the town from them years earlier. The film becomes a fascinating exploration of self-interest and cowardice as we hear the range of excuses that the townsfolk give to convince both themselves and each other that forsaking the marshal is the right thing to do. Cooper is utterly brilliant as the frightened yet courageous hero who towers head and shoulders above the rest of the town. Fred Zinnemann’s direction was as ground-breaking and searingly innovative as Sergio Leone’s would be considered 15 years later and can be seen to be directly influencing it in parts. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is surely one of the most memorable in western history as that foreboding backbeat seeps into your subconscious while Carl Foreman’s script is as true and efficient as you’ll find anywhere. A true classic.
Zinnemann, Western, 1952

90.2

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Mulholland Dr.
Easily one of the most awe-inspiring feats of film-making to come out of America in recent decades, David Lynch’s film is the culmination of an approach he had been tinkering with for years. This is nothing short of the most subjective horror film you’re ever likely to see, the horror of the subjective if you will. A car-crash on the winding roads of Mulhulland Dr. leaves Rita (Laura Harring) without any memory but circumstance or something else pairs her with an aspiring young actress (Naomi Watts) as they together attempt to discover the clues to the woman’s identity. Although, this very much represents the peak of Lynch’s surrealist story-telling, there is a definite tangible link to the real world here and that is what is so damn frightening about the whole thing. Lynch manipulates us for long periods and then almost without warning holds up a mirror to our faces and chills us to the core. One moment in particular (that won’t be flagged here) stands out above the rest and surely must count as the most disturbing scene in the history of the medium. Watts is terrific in the lead and her and Harring work so well together that much of the film’s success should be put down to their willingness and ability to understand and then buy into what Lynch was doing. This is not as accessible as Blue Velvet and so the rewards are not as conventional but it is the closest thing to a vision quest as cinema has given us.
Lynch, Mystery, 2001

90.1

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All that Jazz
One of Stanley Kubrick’s favourite films, Bob Fosse’s autobiographical existential musical is an astoundingly profound and honest exercise in self confrontation. It’s also a veritable masterclass in choreography, music, and story telling. It tells the compelling tale of a musical director whose drug fuelled life is steadily disintegrating as he struggles to balance the demands of his ego with those of his family, girlfriend, and ultimately his body. Roy Scheider is nothing short of mesmerising in the lead role, giving the performance of his career, but he is ably helped by a strong supporting cast including Jessica Lange.
Fosse, Musical, 1979

90.1

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Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
Post-apocalyptic sequel in which Max has taken the last of the V8 Interceptors deep into the wasteland where life is ruled by a constant search for fuel and avoidance of the anarchic tribes bent on taking everything. This is quite possibly the most original and compelling post-apocalyptic film ever made as director George Miller dials up the action and Mel Gisbon responds with the perfromance of his career. As an action movie, it’s a startling achievement as Miller brings a thunderous and near crazed momentum to the desert roads with the end product being a searing and relentless white hot ball of road fury. The stunt choreography has never been bettered and the sense of forboding and terror that comes with being an inhabitant in that world is palpable. Astonishing.
Miller, Sci-Fi, 1981

90

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The Good (80 – 89)

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