46. “Days of Heaven”, Terrence Malick (1978)

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

Days of HEaven

Days of Heaven

dir. Terrence Malick scr. Terrence Malick cin. Nelson Almendros and Haskell Wexler with Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, and Linda Manz

In 100 words: This is possibly the most gorgeous movie I’ve ever seen: its painterly images capture a rustic America best preserved by famous works of art. The film’s narration adds weight to its simplistic story: Linda’s voiceover provides a wistful commentary that helps explain the logic of Malick’s editing and sensual visual rhythm— the quick cuts between people, actions, and then to nature and animals capture the feeling of recollecting memories. These superb images are matched by the gorgeous sounds by Morricone, which combined classical and modernist music that evoked the melancholy of the era. Frequent imitations serve to highlight its mastery.

Other Movies for Context: This movie is super iconic and Malick’s style, which he truly owned and formulated in this movie, has frequently been imitated but never truly and fully captured, even by Malick again. Badlands (1973), his debut movie, is closest to this film’s story, with a similar lovers on a run plot. But think of any “independent” movies after this, and most likely they’ll have some similarity to this. Personally, I think of Daughters of the Dust (1991), Julie Dash’s impeccably lyrical take on the Gulah people of South Carolina, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), which basically captures the spirit of the movie, but on a lesser note, and even American Honey (2016), which feels similarly attuned to its characters’ mental states as they roam around America.

47. “Oasis”, Lee Chang Dong (2002)

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

Oasis

Oasis aka 오아시스

dir. Lee Chang Dong scr. Lee Chang Dong cin. Choi Young-taek with Sol Kyung-gu, Moon So-ri, Ahn Nae-sang, Son Byong-ho

In 100 words: Oasis is perhaps the movie on this list that comes closest to being completely terrible had it been written and directed by someone with less talent or hackneyed sense of direction. Consider the difficulty of depicting a romance between a woman with cerebral palsy and a vaguely autistic man just out from prison, it may end up like a movie-of-the-week TV special. In Lee’s hands, it becomes something deeper and more potent: he blends a naturalistic and humanistic aesthetic with flashes of hopeful fantasy to portray an unconventional but deeply romantic love, while functioning as a trenchant social critique. Exquisite.

Other Movies for Context: Lee Chang Dong is my favorite of all Korean directors working now and has produced some of the best social dramas that depict Korean society’s worst and best instincts. My personal favorite from his small but formidable filmography is Secret Sunshine (2007), a maternal melodrama about small town dynamics, grief, and religion that hinges on Jeon Do-yeon’s magnificent performance in a tricky role. Poetry (2011) focuses on an elderly woman suffering from dementia just as she opens her mind for more learning. His most crucial work, I think, however, is Peppermint Candy (1997), a stunning historical drama that basically charts the history of Korea as it transitioned post-dictatorship.

48. “The Night of the Hunter”, Charles Laughton (1955)

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

Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter

dir. Charles Laughton scr. James Agee based on the novel by Davis Grubb cin. Stanley Cortez with Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lilian Gish, Billy Chapin

In 100 words: There’s something so perverse about Robert Mitchum’s serial killer Reverend Harry Powell that nags at me—his preaching is so out of step with his murdering instincts, yet oddly fits with his religious nonsense. Laughton’s singular horror classic strikes a similar chord: its expressionistic use of space and design recalls Weimar cinema, while his ideal American small-town community looks and feels artificial. All of these though work to create a claustrophobic atmosphere—Laughton heightens Mitchum’s treacherous presence and the noirish lighting and play with shadows as an ever-encroaching danger to the kids and the community. Brilliant, absolutely terrifying, and unforgettable.

Other Movies for Context: William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) plays with the same light and dark themes that this movie did, with its interesting angles and lighting. Another similarly odd movie is Touch of Evil (1958) by Orson Welles, which has the same ambiguous ideas about right and wrong, and even a similar style as well. The Night of the Hunter, however, recalls The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by Robert Weine and Nosferatu (1922) by F.W. Murnau–both sensational films that derived its terror from the expressionistic use of design that Hunter takes its cues from.

49. “Belle de Jour”, Luis Bunuel (1967)

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

Belle de Jour

Belle de Jour

dir. Luis Bunuel scr. Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere based on the book by Joseph Kessel cin. Sacha Vierny with Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Genevieve Page, and Pierre Clementi

In 100 words: In this darkly funny, sexy, and provocative film, Bunuel finds room to address all of his obsessions about the sexual desires of the bourgeois. Belle is a surreal masterpiece: a bored housewife who fulfills her inner fantasies by becoming a prostitute in a Parisian brothel, entertaining odd men with peculiar desires. That Bunuel focuses on a woman’s sexual thoughts and fantasies, even the lewd and filthy ones is casually transgressive. More importantly, he builds a world of ironies and unexpected character details—the family who lives in the brothel, the hilarious posturing of the young gangster, and Severine’s unexpected pleasures.

Other Movies for Context: Oh Bunuel, I love his work so much, and this is always such a treat to watch. When I think of this movie, the one that pops to mind immediately is Sleeping Beauty (2011), by Julia Leigh, because of its similar look and topic. Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016) both have Isabelle Huppert playing women with sexual desires that are particularly sadistic, but their directors are intelligent enough to engage with those desires rather than play them up for laughs or quirks.

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.

51. “Bicycle Thieves”, Vittorio de Sica (1948)

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

Bicycle Thieves

Bicycle Thieves aka Ladri di biciclette

dir. Vittorio de Sica scr. Vittorio de Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Gerardo Guerrieri, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci cin. Carlo Montuori with Enzo Stiaola and Lamberto Maggiorani

In 100 words: This landmark of Italian neorealism has built a staggering portrait of post-war Rome, with remarkable empathy for its main characters’ hopefulness, triumphs, and desperation, without turning maudlin. The narrative builds to a powerful choice and an ending full of ambiguity, and perhaps generosity towards its characters and the uncertainty about their future. De Sica’s camerawork and framing captures the desperation of a city trying to rebuild, but alive with activity.  It’s a more deeply psychological take on poverty than Rosselini’s: we understand how vital that bicycle is, but also understand too well reasons behind the choices people make to survive.

Other Movies for Context: Vittorio de Sica is an important figure in Italian cinema and this film basically cemented his status is a premiere director. His Umberto D. (1952) similarly focuses on the harshness of life in post-war Italy, even if it’s a bit more depressing than this one. I also like Two Women (1960), the movie that won Sophia Loren her Oscar for Best Actress.

 

52. “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, Jacques Demy (1964)

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

Cherbourg

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg aka Les Parapluies de Cherbourg

dir. Jacques Demy scr Jacques Demy cin. Jean Rabier with Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, and Marc Michel

In 100 words: Artifice gives way to a naked display of emotions in this magnificent musical that simultaneously pays homage to Hollywood as it comments on their phoniness. The novelty of having an entirely sung-through musical wears off immediately, but Demy thankfully has more up his sleeves than that: the tragic story of his young lovers is heightened by the sweep of Legrand’s gorgeous jazzy music and Demy’s colorful art design. The overwhelming vivacity of the colors and the music is just cover for the most devastating love story told onscreen that reaches its peak with its stunning coda. Prepare to weep uncontrollably.

Other Movies for Context: Jacques Demy continued his gorgeous partnership with Michel Legrand, the composer for the music here, with his similarly stylish (if more refined pop colors) The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), starring Deneuve again. But obviously, the movie that feels closest to this is La La Land (2016), which has the same jazzy vibe, colorful design, and a similarly devastating love story at its center.