(1993; dir. Jane Campion; cin. Stuart Dryburgh; with Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel)
An extravagant claim, perhaps, to make on behalf of a film that many people have seen but which few if any of them esteem quite so rapturously as I do. What can I tell you? Eventually, I will fulfill my evident obligation to provide a full review explaining why I think The Piano is a (the?) superior exemplar of its medium. Meanwhile, it seems only fair to state for the record that I first saw this movie at a 4:10pm matinée on December 3, 1993, and I knew right then, totally seriously, that my life had changed. Every assumption I had about the world and how I would live in it immediately dropped away, a sensation I haven't duplicated since. To this day, I am positive that I wouldn't have the job I have, the politics I have, or any of the relationships I've had in the last 10 years, friendly, professional, or intimate, if I hadn't been so floored by this film.
I do think The Piano is a great enough work of art to merit the effect it had on me; I offer no apology for the aesthetic brilliance or emotional bravery I still see in it, 33 viewings later. At the same time, there is simply no question of me having any real critical distance from this film, and I have no defense prepared against those people who assure me, doubtless with justification, that the film is flawed. I suppose that the small price you pay for having a lifetime of movie-love opened up to you is that you'll never be a fair, objective judge of the movie that provided the key. And who would want to be? For a cinephile, your touchstone movie is like your mother, or your lover: of course you realize that other people don't see them as you do, and though you are sharply defensive around their critics, you recognize and cherish the fact that your own devotion is probably excessive. Isn't the whole point of love that it's supposed to transcend reason? I love all movies, but The Piano is the one I'm married to.
(1941; dir. Orson Welles; cin. Gregg Toland; with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten)
My #2 selection is as boringly conventional as my #1 pick is wildly improbable: so sue me, on both counts. My own experience is that the first time you see Citizen Kane, you're amazed that the much-reputed "greatest film ever made" is so much fun to watch, and so dazzling to look at, and for all the technical virtuosity and multifarious points of view, it's so relatively simple to follow. On second viewing, you are amazed that it's just as fun and dazzling, and that your initial excitement wasn't just a product of having expected to be let down. By the third or fourth viewing, the subtle patterns of the editing and the inspired, newspaper-like superstructure start to emerge. By the fifth or sixth, images that became indelible the first time out start yielding their own previously-invisible nuances. You may have seen the film ten times before the bold diversity of acting styles (and the perfection, nonetheless, of each performance) starts to grip you. Citizen Kane is an inexhaustible well, and a mind-boggling gamble, because the film's own hyperbolization of its lead character would be grossly preposterous if this, his speculative biography, didn't feel like a genuinely revolutionary piece in its own right.
(1936; dir. Charlie Chaplin; cin. Roland Totheroh and Ira Morgan; with Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard)
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The title of this movie is its first great joke, and its first poignant gesture, because it's a virtually silent film made almost a decade after the debut of the talkies. The two points with which Chaplin's detractors are most obsessed, his simplistic notions of politics and his sentimental streak—if anything a mile wide can be called a streak—are right there for the nitpicking. In other Chaplin movies, like the seriously deranged The Great Dictator, I agree that these pose major problems; Modern Times, however, seems flat-out unimprovable. Where else have comic set-pieces like the eating machine or the assembly line been stretched so long without any sense of diminishing returns? Where else have hilarity and desperation been so gorgeously braided? What other movie with a plot this anachronistic—by 1936, the Fordist factory line was already old news—has nonetheless retained its accessibility and its appeal for generation after generation? Who in the movies has ever seemed so in love as Chaplin's Tramp is here with Goddard's Waif—and when else has a love like this seemed, on the one hand, so inadequate to its surrounding trials and tests, and yet on the other, so destined to beat the odds, save the day, save the world?
(1940; dirs. Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske; with the voices of Dickie Jones, Evelyn Venable)
The "coming-of-age" genre is one that I tend to avoid, because it so often leads to the squishiest possible sentimentality and the most rigid, underexamined notions of what it means to grow up. I guess it stands to reason that some of my favorite movies hail from some of my least favorite genres, because acing a seriously compromised or overfamiliar recipe may well be the harshest standard of excellence. If The Piano is my favorite colonial romance, Citizen Kane my favorite biopic, and Modern Times my favorite slapstick comedy, it's because they all so fully reimagine these basic, precarious forms that they feel new, precious, and unrepeatable. In just the same way, Pinocchio is my favorite coming-of-age tale. The hope of not only growing up but growing real is a sophisticated philosophical problem, attached to an emotion that every four-year-old can understand. Pinocchio himself is likable and frustrating, cute and a little impossible, and I like that the film encourages our compassion without demanding our full-on adoration (though Jiminy Cricket does have my full-on adoration). Meanwhile, just as Pinocchio finds his place in the real world, so too does the feature-length animated film, which is more gloriously and mind-bogglingly detailed here than it was in Snow White or Fantasia. Pinocchio, I think, gives birth to a genre by providing it with its first masterpiece, and in all the brilliant successes that have followed it, I don't think this one has ever been equaled.
(1966; dir. Ingmar Bergman; cin. Sven Nykvist; with Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann)
Persona is cinema at its most resilient; Ingmar Bergman shatters and smashes and punctures and explodes the movie in almost every conceivable way, and part of the haunting power of the piece is how it simply refuses to halt. Equally mystifying is how seductively pleasurable this brazenly modernist, wholly unsentimental movie always manages to be. Has black-and-white photography ever looked so ethereally low-contrast as in the dreamy nocturnes of Persona? Has framing ever been so erotically and neurotically super-charged, so sexy and scary at the same time, even when Bibi Andersson is just sitting around in her sun-hat? There are so many stunning monologues and unforgettable set-pieces in Persona that even at a modest 80 minutes, it feels fuller on the surface than most movies twice the length. Still, it's the beguiling silences, the unsettled riddles, the shaky transitions where almost anything could be happening that make Persona the ne plus ultra of fascinatingly fractured film.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
(1928; dir. Carl-Theodor Dreyer; cin. Rudolph Maté and Goestula Kottula; with Renée Falconetti)
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Singin' in the Rain
(1952; dirs. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; cin. Harold Rosson; with Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds)
The Earrings of Madame de...
(1953; dir. Max Ophuls; cin. Christian Matras; with Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer)
Diary of a Country Priest
(1950; dir. Robert Bresson; cin. Léonce-Henry Burel; with Claude Laydu)
(1944; dir. Otto Preminger; cin. Joseph La Shelle; with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews)