3. “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”, F.W. Murnau (1927)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

Murnau Sunrise

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

dir. F.W. Murnau scr. Carl Mayer cin. Charles Rosher and Karl Struss with George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston

In 100 words: The greatest of all silent movies is this universal tale of love and redemption that verges on simplistic were it not for the beautiful humanity that its makers have imbued within every frame. Sunrise does not even bother giving a name to its characters, just pronouns, but Murnau uses his brilliant expressionistic style to subtly highlight a romance rekindled or to suggest the overwhelming feeling of being lost in a big city. The freedom of his camera to move and to create such poignant images during the era made this an even more stunning accomplishment. Gaynor and O’Brien are unimprovable.

Other Movies for Context: One of the great masters of cinema, F.W. Murnau made other invaluable contributions to film, including the landmark horror film Nosferatu (1922), the social realist The Last Laugh (1924), and the great documentary-like Tabu (1931).

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11. “Persona”, Ingmar Bergman (1966)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list

Persona

Persona

dir. Ingmar Bergman scr. Ingmar Bergman cin. Sven Nykvist with Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann

In 100 words: What the fuck is this movie about? And why does it feel like it pierces into my soul? I’ve never seen faces these well-lit, lit in stark contrasts, sometimes with unforgiving lights or gentle caresses. I love Bergman’s avant garde take on the feminine psyche, his sort-of political stance on Vietnam, his understanding of how desirous it is to speak with someone and have someone listen to your thoughts, but also to receive pleasure from hearing someone speak to you their unfiltered lives. It is also a stunning evocation of film, and maybe even its artifice. Andersson and Ullmann spark.

Other Movies for Context: Experimental Bergman is at his loosest, least easily digestible, and most adventurous. Curiously, the film the most fits this is Robert Altman’s loose remake 3 Women (1977), which has the same setup, except more impressionistic than experimental. Mulholland Dr. (2001) by David Lynch feels similarly intriguing with a particularly inscrutable plot.

50. “Shame” , Ingmar Bergman (1968)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list

Shame

Shame aka Skammen

dir. Ingmar Bergman scr. Ingmar Bergman cin. Sven Nykvist with Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Sigge Furst, Gunnar Bjornstrand,  Ulf Johansson

In 100 words: The Bergman film that feels the least gimmicky in its construct but still the most potent in its delivery. Released at the height of Vietnam War, this film affirms the savagery of war but its intrusion into a couple’s life manifests not only in the physical toll but more profoundly in their psychological well-being. Their marriage was never perfect, as the script’s incisive dialogue suggests early on, but the terror and chaos have magnified their weaknesses, and cracked open their animosity towards each other. Shot for shot, it’s Bergman’s most realistic and immediate film. Bleak, unsparing, and damn near perfect.

Other Movies for Context: Thematically, Bergman’s movie kind of reminds me of The Hurt Locker (2009), although blown up and more focused on “war as a drug” aspect. Although underneath that story, it feels like a rich examination of a couple so unsuited for each other. Otherwise, Bergman’s filmography offers a rich examination of marriage: Scenes from a Marriage (1973) being another highlight, while his script for The Best Intentions (1991) was directed by Bille August. Bergman is among my favorite directors, and he will show up two more times on this list.

59. “Chinatown”, Roman Polanski (1974)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

Chinatown

Chinatown

dir. Roman Polanski scr. Robert Towne cin. John A. Alonzo with Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Burt Young, John Huston, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd

In 100 words: With Chinatown, Polanski and Towne created a world that updates the film noir of the 40s and 50s with something that at every turn feels more insidious, and doubles up on the rich symbolism of its predecessors. Nicholson and Dunaway both embody their archetypes, but twist them enough to make them feel modernist; they’re sadder and more complex than their models were. The rich details of the script’s dialogue offers a lesson in cryptic storytelling without feeling abstract, while Polanski’s direction help make the surprises and revelations fluid. Its commentary on wealth and power lends its story potency and relevance.

Other Movies for Context: This was Polanski’s last American movie before he fled for rape charges. I’ve only seen three of his other films: the creepy, skin-crawling terror of Repulsion (1965) and the richly drawn horror of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are both awesome. The Pianist (2002) won him the Cannes Palme d’Or and the Oscar for Best Director, and I think it’s pretty superb. For modern-day equivalence, I think the closest to getting me this excited was L.A. Confidential (1997), a fantastic noir that comments more on toxic masculinity and hues closer to that than Chinatown.

64. “Hyenas”, Djibril Diop Mambety (1992)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

Hyenas

Hyenas aka Hyènes

dir. Djibril Diop Mambety (1992), scr. Djibril Diop Mambety based on the play The Visit by Freidrich Durrenmatt cin. Matthias Kalin with Ami Diakhate, Djibril Diop Mambety, and Mansour Diouf

In 100 words: Sembene may have laid out the foundation for great African cinema that challenges western intrusion, but Mambety takes its further with a more acidic takedown of neoliberalism, international development, and African self-destruction in this bitter but comedic gem, ironically adapted from a European play. Begins with a herd of elephants that transitions to a similarly indolent group of African men sets the tone immediately, while establishing the film’s recurring motif and playful but intelligent visuals. Colorful characters fill the screen, aided by Mambety’s sharp script that deconstructs African poverty as a failure of human behaviors. A landmark of African cinema.

Other Movies for Context: Mambety’s filmography is tragically short, but his debut film Touki Bouki (1973) felt like a more rebellious and definitely Frenchier version of African cinema that Sembene laid out. Speaking of Ousmane Sembene, who’s often called the Father of African cinema, his films feel similar to Mambety, and not just because of their continental locations. Sembene’s filmography offers such strong critical dissection of post-colonialism, most prominently in Borom Sarret (1963), Xala (1975), which barely missed my Top 100, and Black Girl (1968); religion, with Ceddo (1977), and female circumcision, Moolaade (2004). I personally love all of these. They’re primers for the great African cinema that too few people care to watch.

80. “Rome, Open City”, Roberto Rossellini (1945)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list

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Rome, Open City aka Roma citta aperta

dir. Roberto Rossellini (1945) scr. Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini, based on a story by  Amidei and Alberto Consiglio cin. Ubaldo Arata with Aido Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero

In 100 words: The prototype for Italian neorealism, Rome famously shot its tense, emotional story about Italian resistance fighters during the last year of World War II, and it’s rather evident through its dilapidated settings and documentary-like camera capturing moments that feel off-hand. Actors, led by an impeccable Magnani, feel authentic and natural, like people you find on the streets. The way characters attempt to live their full lives even when the war is raging around them is moving. That Rossellini even manages to inject humor between scenes fraught with suspense is amazing. Rome opened the door for gritty, realistic, no-nonsense modern cinema.

Other Moves for Context: Rossellini was vital to Italian neorealism and made a lot of movies: I loved the vignettes of Paisan (1946), but absolutely disliked the marital film, Journey to Italy (1954), which is a shame because George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman are two of my favorites. I have yet to explore the rest of his filmography, but I think those are pretty vital films.

96. “Breathless”, Jean-Luc Godard (1960)

Part of the 100 Greatest Films I’ve Ever Seen list.

breathless

Breathless aka À bout de souffle

dir. Jean-Luc Godard (1960) scr. Jean-Luc Godard based on a story by Francois Truffaut cin. Raoul Coutard with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg

In 100 words: Released in 1960 and forever changing the face of cinema, Breathless embodies the spirit of the French New Wave by essentially chucking the rigid rules of old movies out the window and playfully experimenting with form. The film was shot with a realistic vibe that approximated documentaries, invented new ways of shooting and cutting films, and created a sound that mixed colorful selections of jazz and Parisian street noise. But most importantly, Breathless effortlessly bridges the old and the new: it is a lovely homage to the films of yesteryear while it simultaneously points the direction for the medium’s future.

Other Films for Context: Godard is arguably the most famous and most important director of the French New Wave, making a lot of movies during the decade that influenced countless directors since. My favorite from the ones I’ve seen of his is Vivre sa vie (1962), a gorgeously shot and easy to follow movie. Other films of his I’ve seen include the overrated Contempt (1963) and the interesting Alphaville (1965). Towards the end of the decade, his works have started becoming more political and experimental to the point of being obnoxious–Weekend (1967) is a prime example of this turn.