Is The Third Man the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

What’s your favorite movie? Think about it for a second, not just what it is but why it occupies that space for you. Is it a comedy you love or a love story you identify with or a drama that shocked you so much that it stuck with you forever? I have found it’s a difficult question that gets marginally easier if you give people multiple answers. If you have room for a few you can cover all kinds of bases, but what if you have to pick just one?

If you’d asked me five years ago I’d have said The Killing, but today my answer is The Third Man. It’s a big thing to say something is your favorite movie. Maybe it isn’t to everyone, but when I started this I asked a dozen people to tell me their absolute favorite one. Most people can’t really do it, they need to tell you a few. I am going to spend five minutes of your day to make the case for Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

Carol Reed is perhaps best known for Oliver!, which won him an Oscar, but The Third Man is hardly unknown. It’s frequently listed among the greatest films of all time, which I of course take no issue with. What makes it astounding is hard to pinpoint. Most people call out Orson Welles, because it’s very hard to ignore him no matter what his involvement looks like, but you really do have to start with Reed. History remembers Welles, the director, and thus it’s easy to assume that a movie he acted in was “his,” but the style is so important here. There’s so much more going on here.

The film opens with a monologue from Reed himself, explaining the state of the world and the centrality of counterfeit as a reality of post-war Europe. “I never knew the old Vienna before the war,” Reed tells us casually, but he also says of the world “a situation like that does tempt amateurs, but you know they can’t stay the course like a professional.” This gives way to a straightforward lead in for Holly Martins, Joseph Cotten’s bumbling American who has been invited to Vienna on pretense of a job but finds his friend Harry Lime (Welles) has recently died.

It is not really a spoiler to say that Harry Lime is not really dead, but watching Joseph Cotten loudly, absurdly wander his way through an unfamiliar world as he tries to discover the truth is an astounding thing to behold. Cotten plays Martins as an idiot, but not in the way you’d expect. He does not know this world and isn’t really interested in learning it, insisting on his native tongue and barging his way through even government or military controlled areas. It’s undeniably a statement about the American disposition, but we don’t have enough time to focus on that as we wonder the same thing he does: What happened to Harry Lime?

Welles gives the performance of a lifetime when he finally appears. It’s shockingly late in the film, of course, but the ghost of Harry Lime is all through the narrative. Martins keeps finding people who tell him versions of the story, including his girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli, haunting and distant, always unclear about her true motives even as more is revealed) and his associates. On rewatches, these characters really pop, especially the “Baron” Kurtz and the Romanian Popescu. What do these people want? What do they stand to gain? Why do they want to help Holly Martins, even obliquely?

This is why I love The Third Man. The story itself is fairly simple, but the complicating elements make it so worthy of further thought. If that’s all it was, it would be a marvel, but it also has so much damn style. The score is done on a zither, which makes it hyper-specific but undeniable. The cinematography is disorienting to match Martins’ confusing journey. The supporting cast again and again reinforces that there is a world to figure out here, but Martins just is unwilling and unable to do so. The more you watch it the further it gets away from feeling like a mystery. The real picture here is always available, but Martins as a force changes the alchemy of how people work and what they try to accomplish. It’s an incredible statement about America without feeling preachy or obvious.

The most famous bit of The Third Man comes during a speech Welles gives to Cotten as their characters finally reunite on a Ferris wheel. The scene deserves to be seen, but in summary it is a discussion of morality and how much of your personal faith you’d be willing to put aside to get ahead. It recalls Reed’s original monologue and takes it drastically further. It’s unlikely you’ll agree with Harry Lime here and you’re not intended to, but the choice to give him space to make his case is a fascinating one. The choice to have it steal the show, well, that’s what makes it a masterpiece.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. Titane has soured even more with distance for me, and while I am still in awe of the risk, I just didn’t like the result.

Is it the best movie of all time? Yes, I think so. It feels a little like cheating to pick my favorite film, but a reproduction played at the theater near our house and I was struck by it once again. Welles steals the show and typically gets (maybe too much) credit for The Third Man, but I really loved Cotten’s performance this time. It only works if he feels like a buffoon but also oddly capable, which comes through when you’ve seen the film enough to really pay attention. This is a true masterpiece, worthy not only of your time but also of deeper consideration. Persona is excellent and I’m glad to have seen it and considered it so many weeks in a row, but now I want something to really change my mind and surprise me. What do you suggest?

You can watch The Third Man on Amazon Prime (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Titane the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In a recent interview piece for Vulture, director Julia Ducournau discussed her new film Titane. She specifically described a gruesome scene where a character has to disfigure themselves to avoid being recognized by the police and said “you actually don’t see anything. You think you see something, but you don’t. When you anticipate something, somehow it makes it worse in your head.” That may be true in the very specific context of that moment in that scene, but it very much misrepresents the film as a whole. Titane is, maybe, the most explicit film I’ve ever seen in a theater.

It would be impossible to discuss Titane without starting here and it is really important to lead with the fact that a half-dozen (mostly) blameless people are brutally murdered, on screen, in the first fifteen minutes of Titane. Our main character mostly wordlessly and emotionlessly murders everyone they meet, which really challenges you to find a foothold. It’s not impossible to make a film with a sociopath as the central character, but it does really ask a great deal of the audience. We get a brief introduction where we learn that Alexia was in a car accident as a girl and it resulted in a titanium plate in her head and a fascination for cars, but that is 100% of the backstory. After that, it’s almost immediate deliberately disgusting shock violence.

I’m not a prude and I do respect Ducournau for making a very specific, insistent piece of art. This is violence for violence’s sake, but it’s not necessarily praising it. Without motive or introduction, however, you are more or less just thrown into a murderer’s day-to-day. Alexia barely speaks in the film and we get only slight glimpses into her feelings. Ducournau said in that same Vulture interview that the cars in Titane are “obviously symbolic” and by using the word obviously she makes clear that she will not explain it. There are definitely ways to take this and there are lenses of isolation, feminism, and more, but I really do not think it’s obvious. I’m willing to be on the outside here, but the audience scores on review sites suggest that about half the people that saw this did not like it. The shock of the violence is probably to blame there, but the theater I was in definitely laughed at scenes that are not supposed to be funny.

I really did not enjoy this, but I don’t think I was supposed to enjoy it. I know I’m harping on it, but it’s important that you understand if you plan to see this that the violence is extreme, no matter what your baseline for that is. It’s also not giving the game away to say Alexia has sex with and becomes pregnant by a car, also within the first few minutes. The car “knocks” on her door to summon her and then she sleeps with it. I can’t go there with Titane, and you have to if you’re going to do this one.

The bright spots are the performances, with newcomer Agathe Rousselle playing Alexia as a nearly mute, stranger in her own skin and Vincent Lindon as the fire chief who takes her in under odd circumstances. Lindon especially makes the film and I do think if you’re interested enough in the bizarre to see this you will be rewarded with what he brings to it. He has such a strange role here, both paternal and slightly off, and what does work only works because he nails a very specific performance.

It feels a little unfair to say that the body horror, hyperviolent movie about a murderer who has sex with cars is too weird. It is exactly what it says it will be, so it feels a little bit like taking issue with all the wars in the stars in a Star Wars movie. That said, it left me hollow the entire way through and I liked it even less after the ending and in retrospect. I think if you’re the sort of person who would see this based on the description, you may enjoy it, but if you’re on the fence let me push you to one side. I really struggle to find what this is all in service of beyond the shock of it, and while it is among the most shocking things I’ve ever seen, that alone is not enough.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It’s certainly more memorable than 2046. As a viewer, I tend to give extra credit to messy but fascinating films rather than safe successes, but I can’t do that here. I really did not enjoy Titane as an experience even though I do begrudgingly tip my cap to the sheer gall of it.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. There are a lot of ways to discuss Persona through the lends of Titane, but it would spoil some of what I want to leave unspoiled. See if, you must, but I will always remember my fiancé turning to me during a particularly extreme scene and asking, fairly, “why did you want to see this?”

You can watch Titane in select theaters, as it’s not currently streaming (yet). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is 2046 the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Seven years ago I watched every move that had ever won Best Picture at the Oscars. I wrote about them all here; not everything on there is something I stand by, but it was an interesting journey through film. The self-imposed timeline of one year kept it fresh and forced me to often watch movies when I didn’t really want to, which may not be the best way to watch nearly a century of iconic films. I had to watch 2046 because it was going to leave The Criterion Channel, but I really wanted to see it. It’s a sequel to In the Mood for Love, a movie I once called the Best Movie of All Time on this very dumb series.

It’s just not very good. I feel a tremendous amount of shame for saying that because it’s a celebrated masterpiece and because In the Mood for Love was so excellent. The New York Times called it an “unqualified triumph,” which is crazy praise. I tend to side more with Roger Ebert’s review where he said “I wonder what it could possibly mean to anyone not familiar with Wong’s work and style.” Director Wong Kar-Wai is obviously a master and it feels crazy to criticize a movie like this from where I sit, but I don’t think 2046 is very good and I don’t think you should watch it.

Think about whatever cultural touchstone you don’t like. I met someone years ago who said they couldn’t understand why Parks and Recreation was funny and I still think about that person. It’s not a perfect show, but they were deliberate in saying they couldn’t even access whatever made it a comedy to other people. It read like an alien text to them, just shut off completely. 2046 isn’t that, but it is equally hard to approach something with near-universal appeal and say it isn’t good. You feel like it’s you. It probably is, statistically speaking, you.

2046 is a sequel in that the main character continues into this text, but it’s largely a different thing. The main character is jaded now, so he resists the emotional trappings of love and relationships. We watch him have meaningless sex and label it as such, even as other people try to connect with him. He monologues in voiceover about how these are mistakes but also how they are the only way he can see the world. It’s not really as bad as all that, but he definitely becomes hard to root for and that lends a certain Cassavetes vibe to the whole thing. These are sad people who wish they could behave differently, but we are wired how we are wired.

There is a science fiction story draped on top of 2046, where supposedly humanity tries to go to a specific place in the future to realize their true desires. This is a story that is written and I mean this when I say that it is not interesting at all. The main thrust of 2046 is about how we deal with the fallout of lost love. That part, truly, is interesting, if not necessarily explored in a way that fills a full feature film. The futuristic elements of 2046 are not worth watching and they are not worth discussing here.

I did not hate this movie. I really like about 60% of it and I think those parts are a worthy story to tell. They are interspersed with a story that is absolutely not worth watching and I have spent a few days trying to find a way to talk about that and I have not found it. There’s just a lot here that I don’t think anyone could like. I have to say, from where I sit, that much of 2046 is poorly wasted time.

That’s the whole of it, right? The only purpose of talking about a movie here is to tell you if it’s worth your time. Most people would tell you this is. I am breaking from those ranks. The problem seems to be with me, as I watched the trailer again and the comments are from people who count this among their favorite films.

The premise of this series is to challenge the author, me, to experience every film as if it is trying to achieve an impossible standard. I thought In the Mood for Love achieved that I don’t think 2046 does. Does that mean it’s terrible? Of course not. Should you watch it? I think it depends on your love of the last one. This is a big drop off, mostly because I don’t think the synthesis of ideas works, but if you found yourself hoping for more then you will find some of it here. Some of it is even beautiful. It just tries your patience in a way that greatness probably shouldn’t.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes, this is better than The Nowhere Inn. I don’t really like either movie, but this one has pieces I do enjoy.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. It’s not as good as the original film and it’s not as good as Persona. I think you owe any movie that anyone loves a chance. I asked people to tell me their favorite movies before I started this and I’ve watched almost everything everyone mentioned. I do not mean to discount anyone who loves 2046, but it doesn’t do for me what it does for those folks.

You can watch 2046 on Tubi or Pluto TV. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Nowhere Inn the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Nobody seems to have hated The Nowhere Inn, but no one seems like they loved it, either. It’s uncommon for a movie to generate this kind of response because people’s tastes tend to be so extreme. Just glance through the “rotten” section of Rotten Tomatoes and you won’t find anyone saying anything too terrible, but people didn’t like it. Reverse that page to the positive reviews and you’ll see the same story. It’s pretty remarkable. The audience ratings are in line, as well, no matter what site you look at.

The Nowhere Inn is a concert movie, but it’s also a parody of concert movies. Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia, plays herself as a director filming a concert movie about Annie Clark, known in the film and real life as St. Vincent. The movie’s success really depends on your interest in the layers. They’re really Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein, but here they are playing versions of those people who are not real but also are very real. The movie opens with a few jokes about how St. Vincent is a name but Annie Clark both is St. Vincent and is not St. Vincent. It’s not really that confusing, but that’s only true if you’re already familiar with everyone involved.

But you are, aren’t you? If you’re not, there’s less than nothing here for you. If the above paragraph was even a little confusing to you or if you don’t intimately know every proper noun I’ve used so far, you can safely skip this one entirely. That’s the thing, though, if you do know all of this, there is only slightly more here for you. You can anticipate the premise and probably most of the beats. The main criticisms people seem to lay are that it’s predictable and repetitive, and boy, is it ever.

Brownstein joins Clark on a tour and aims to do a behind-the-scenes look at “the real St. Vincent,” who plays a sexual character on a tour about a sexual album. The idea seems promising to both of them, until a pivotal scene where the musician pulls out a Nintendo Switch and plays it on camera. We take from this that she’s actually not as interesting, at least all the time, as would justify a movie. It’s a fun scene and it sets up a conflict, but then we see dozens of scenes that both show and tell us the same idea. This is a recurring problem with The Nowhere Inn, and the crew behind it seems deathly afraid that we’re missing the really obvious and really clear point.

As a concert movie, it’s actually pretty cool. St. Vincent is one of my favorite artists and this album is one of my favorites of hers, and we get to see enough actual footage that it does feel mostly like the movie the fake Carrie Brownstein is trying to make. This is the most interesting thing going on in The Nowhere Inn: they made an actual version of the thing the movie is about making.

As a story about making a concert movie, it drags on and on. I think there’s enough here for a huge fan of both stars, but even they will feel the strain of the narrative chugging. Clark makes a heel turn when she realizes that Brownstein wants her to be the arrogant, hypersexual star that the audience thinks she is, but even this is telegraphed so strongly before it happens and emphasized so consistently after it happens that it isn’t that interesting to watch. There are a handful of great scenes, including one where Brownstein pulls in a fan to share their experience with Clark in a perfectly painful exchange, but they are surrounded with padding that feels like padding even in the moment.

There’s a pretty good movie in here, it’s just not enough to sustain a feature. If you’re a big fan of St. Vincent and/or you like the comedy of Carrie Brownstein, I think it’s probably worth the investment, but I really can’t recommend it too strongly. I think the consensus here exists for a good reason. The ending offers some interesting closure and it does take a risk with the way the whole thing is presented, but even that leaves you wondering what that whole experience was about.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? There’s no comparing Akira and The Nowhere Inn, though I suppose they both aim to reinvent a genre. Even that is a stretch. Akira is more worth your time, though both films have pacing issues.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it’s not. I do think it’s a really interesting idea that would have worked well as a thirty-minute short film. The resulting product says the same thing over and over and the great moments get lost in the weeds. We’re sticking with Persona again.

You can watch The Nowhere Inn on YouTube ($6.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Akira the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The Criterion Collection numbers the movies that it releases, so it’s easy to find that the first animated film they released was number 700, Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are only five others and none of them are what you’d call “anime,” though that descriptor is losing meaning in a changing landscape. I saw Akira, which Criterion has released but does not consider part of the main numbered line, this weekend and it got me thinking about what we’re willing to honor.

I saw Akira as part of a midnight showing at the Music Box Theater in Chicago. The place was nearly packed, even at midnight, for a movie that is now more than three decades old. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times and enjoyed this viewing, with a 4K print that I’m not sure necessarily adds that much to an animated movie but was a nice experience all the same. What struck me this time was how much it hits the same way every time, with a first half that draws me in and mesmerizes me and then loses me a little before a stunning climax.

Akira is “the” anime, I think, and especially for Western audiences it was the first one to really click. It was advertised in America as “not for kids” on late-night commercials back in the days when you would send in payment over the mail and get a VHS tape. This predated Sailor Moon and was contemporary with the earliest versions of Dragon Ball, so those ads had to educate viewers about what they were even offering, much less why you should want this version of it. The exoticism of anime to the West is still very much a part of it, and why there were so many people in that theater in the wee hours watching it all these years later, and the climax of Akira probably did more to build that up than any one piece of media.

Testuo and Kaneda are part of a bike gang in a futuristic, but ruined, Tokyo. Tetsuo has an encounter with a mystical glowing child and becomes both very powerful and very sick. The government shows up and wants to reign in and explain his power, but Tetsuo sees the opportunity to finally get out of Kaneda’s shadow and rebels in the only way he sees available. We get smatterings of what life is like in this world in the background, with protests and street fires and government control gone mad, but mostly we follow these two kids as they advance towards a conflict. Kaneda is his friend, but he wants Tetsuo to calm down and be reasonable.

This big brother/little brother conflict is almost all of the second act, which I have to say feels hard to watch every time I see it. Part of this is the impact of the rest of the film. The conflict itself, where Kaneda finally confronts Tetsuo and the visuals begin to really go for broke, is what people remember, and for good reason. It’s visually arresting and it’s horrifying, but it’s also largely hand-drawn and beautiful. Even if you know what’s coming, the scale of it and the constant one-upping gets you every time. The artform and the audience came from this moment.

However, it’s the first hour that reverberates through art itself. Katsuhiro Otomo wrote the original Akira manga and directed the film, and it’s his Neo-Tokyo that you see over and over. The bike in Akira is iconic, but it’s the specific way that government control and scientific discovery without ethics and societal collapse is portrayed that became the template for how you show what might happen next. Otomo didn’t invent this, but the synthesis of it in Akira helped define a language for a world that’s advanced, but also failed.

Akira is hyperviolent, even for the genre, and remains a little shocking even today. It’s not for everyone and I say that even as someone that still feels a little hesitant to recommend anime in general to a broad audience. When I talk about movies like Paprika and Weathering With You, I want people to learn what those are and when they should watch them. I think you could put either of those on after dinner on a Tuesday and enjoy it with your friends, roommates, partner, or other weirdos that watch anime with you. Akira is not in that vein. This is a stepping stone to where we are now, but it’s also a pretty watchable version of that. The ending is still surprising and the climax, as we’ve been over, is one of the great visual displays in animated history. Criterion’s hallowed list may still be reserved for when Wes Anderson makes something animated, but if you’re willing to take a chance on anything that’s slightly out there but also very acclaimed, I really can’t recommend anything more highly than this.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It would be fair to say Stalker and Akira are “in conversation” with each other, I think, and I think both of them defined their respective genres for years to come. I’m more interested in the questions Stalker asks, and I think the pacing is a problem in both of them, but I think I have to side with Akira. On this recent watch that first hour really did capture me again, which is an accomplishment for something I’ve seen as much as I’ve seen this, and worthy of note.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, still Persona. My vote for the best anime film of all time is probably The End of Evangelion, a film with an undeniable debt to Akira. I also recently watched Megazone 23, another series that’s constantly compared to Akira, though I ran out of space to discuss it above. We’ll revisit all those connections at some point, and while I’m not willing to dethrone our current winner for Akira, if you have any interest in anime at all and haven’t seen it, I’ve gotta say again that you owe it to yourself to correct that error.

You can watch Akira on Hulu (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Stalker the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I watched Stalker because I couldn’t stop thinking about Solaris. Both are films by Andrei Tarkovsky, a legendary filmmaker who feels intimidating to approach. He only made huge, heady epics that are intimidating in scope and scale. He made Solaris in 1972 because he felt that Western sci-fi was not thoughtful enough, which is also part of a disagreement with Stanley Kubrick about 2001: A Space Odyssey. He made Stalker for even more complicated reasons than that.

Stalker is the story of a man, known as a Stalker, who can enter a mysterious area called The Zone. The Stalker is not named in the film, and there is a suggestion that there are other Stalkers and that this is more aptly said to be a profession than a name. Most of the other characters are similarly unnamed, including the two men the Stalker brings into The Zone: the Writer and the Professor. Both of them want to go to The Zone for different reasons and the extended action sequence that opens the film shows how tall of a task this is. The military protects The Zone, or at least defends against people entering it. The Stalker’s wife pleads with him not to take another trip to The Zone. The Stalker himself seems resigned to his actions.

The three men drive a military jeep around and evade soldiers, but this is mostly a misdirect. The film takes place almost entirely within The Zone, where the film shifts from sepia-toned black-and-white to full color. Both settings creep along and the pacing is, similar to Solaris, almost unbearably slow. In my review of Solaris I talked about Akira Kurosawa’s commentary on how audiences find Tarkovsky’s films to be difficult because of the pacing and how he tosses off that criticism. Two films may not be enough to speak conclusively about the man’s work, but I have to again disagree. Stalker is almost three hours long and it feels significantly longer. That said, just like Solaris, the runtime is deserved here and you begin to understand what the director wants you to feel as you settle in.

Within The Zone, the two men begin to debate with each other and with the Stalker. They all discuss the dangers of the world around them and the complexities of their lives outside The Zone. They experience otherworldly phenomenon within The Zone, but most of Stalker is about what is inside these three men and what they hope to get out of this trip. There is supposedly a space within the center of The Zone, called The Room, that will grant your greatest desire. The catch, as there is always a catch, is that The Room makes this decision for you. You stand to gain something you could not otherwise achieve, but you also must confront what that means about you. What’s in your Room? Do you really want to know?

The philosophical discussion here is a little more interesting than it is in Solaris and I think it’s a better film as a result. Critical consensus tends to agree, with critics placing Stalker at #29 on the immortal Sight & Sound poll from 2012 that I keep referencing. Tarkovsky has a few films ranked even higher that we’ll get to down the line, but something made me really want to watch Stalker now. The central The Room element is definitely interesting, but there’s so much more to turn over in your head. The film predates the events at Chernobyl, but it’s become tied to the disaster to the degree that people called workers there “stalkers.” The comparisons to various events in Russian history are obvious and become darker as the group progresses through The Zone. The cast and crew famously grew ill as a result of filming near dangerous locations to lend authenticity to the visuals. The bulk of the film was reshot after disagreements between Tarkovsky and his staff and damage to the original film. There’s more to say than we’d ever have space for here.

If you can only pick one, I suggest you pick Stalker instead of Solaris, but you really should watch both. They both depend on your ability to bring something to the picture. There’s a lot of contemplative silence in Stalker and these periods require you to think. Some of these stretches feel repetitive in Solaris but they feel necessary in Stalker. Both films will test your patience, unless you are more like Kurosawa than I am, but they will also reward it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Chinatown is a perfect mystery story and a movie that rewards revisiting. I will certainly see it more often in my life than I will see Stalker. That’s not the only criteria for greatness, though, because I’ll probably see a lot of movies more than both of them. I think Stalker will give you more to think about, and on this particular day, I think that’s more important.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, still Persona, though I really thought about this one. Stalker is a special film and it’s one I’m glad I saw. There are only a dozen films on the Sight & Sound list that rank above Persona, so it’s no slight to keep saying that it retains this crown. I’ve seen ten of those twelve, and one of the two I haven’t seen is another Tarkovsky film, Mirror. That’ll be coming up, though I may have to take a break from Russian cinema for a few weeks.

You can watch Stalker on The Criterion Channel (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Chinatown the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The premise of this series is tongue-in-cheek. There is no “best” movie, not really, and even assuming there was, there’s not enough time in one lifetime to find it. I’ve been reading Roger Ebert’s Great Movies books this year and the personal details there serve as a reminder that you cannot expect to cover this kind of ground. We’re a good chunk of the way through 2021 and I’ve only seen 45 movies this year that I hadn’t seen before.

All that said, part of the reason I started this was to give me an excuse to watch new things. There’s rarely a good time to sit down and watch a three-hour Russian drama, even if you’re the sort of person who wants to do that. I’m the kind of person that struggles with rewatching things, as well, as it feels like a waste of time that could be spent in experiencing new things. That’s obviously not the right way to think about it, but when I queued up Chinatown for at least the third time recently, part of me wondered if I needed to see it again.

You don’t need me to tell you to watch Chinatown. It’s one of the most acclaimed films in American history and even if you’re not really into classic film, you know the final line. This is not obscure or in need of being rethought. I decided early on I wasn’t going to start with my favorite movies (like The Third Man and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) or the obvious ones (like Citizen Kane and Casablanca). I include Chinatown here despite violating that second rule because I think it is an interesting movie to consider in this context.

The “Legal History” section of director Roman Polanski’s Wikipedia page is extensive and you cannot discuss Chinatown without confronting the man behind the camera. There’s a much larger discussion to have around art and artist and I think it’s a difficult one to have. As of this writing, comedian Louis C.K. recently performed in front of an enormous sarcastic “sorry” sign. It’s really something I’ve thought a lot about, because his show Louie is one of my favorite TV shows of the last twenty years. It was astounding television and I’ve written a lot, years ago, on this site about how much I love it. I don’t know what to do with the reality that he seems to be a true monster and seems to be leaning into it, which is even worse, I think, but I still loved that show. The list of evil men who make good art is long, but the whole premise here is that there’s an infinite amount of things to consume. Why bother with anything made by someone that requires you to split the art and the artist? It’s one thing for someone to be “complicated” but Polanski isn’t complicated.

It’s been clear over the last few years that people will bend over backwards to defend what they consider touchstones of culture. I’m going to try to talk about Chinatown because it’s on all the great lists and, yes, is a great movie, but you have every right to ignore it and condemn it given who Polanski seems to be. I think that’s probably even a more defensible position than this one, but let’s talk about the movie.

Chinatown came out the same year as The Godfather Part II, so it lost most of the Oscars it was nominated for, but it did win for Best Original Screenplay. When you watch it through a modern lens, the script is what you notice. It unfolds so perfectly, with the first half unclear on what the mystery even is and the second half feinting towards one thing only to explode with detail in the final fifteen minutes. Jack Nicholson was at the height of his power in 1974 and his performance as Jake Gittes is unforgettable. Roger Ebert wrote about Chinatown several times, but the detail from his criticism that stands out to me is calling out that Gittes is confused alongside the audience. He’s not a mastermind detective the way so many heroes in stories like these are, but he’s resourceful and inventive. We never know what he’ll do next and we never assume he’ll figure it all out and save the day. It ends up feeling like an unpredictable story as a result, but not a confusing one. We get all the details he gets, as he gets them.

Gittes is a private investigator who is hired to investigate a local businessman is cheating on his wife, but then it becomes unclear who really hired him. Then, shockingly, the guy ends up dead, which changes the entire story. Gittes seems like a decent guy, though he’s comfortable in the muck. He knows the cops but also has some other allies. The storytelling is superb, as advertised, but you only really notice it in retrospect. It doesn’t flow from A to B. It weaves along, sometimes making you wonder what this scene means or why this person’s motivations seem unclear. It all pays off with Noah Cross, the powerful man behind the entire conspiracy, maybe, played by John Huston. His daughter, played by Faye Dunaway, seems in control of some scenes and like she’s piecing it all together alongside Gittes in others. It’s clear from the beginning that she has something to hide, but what? And what does Noah Cross, who seems to be infinitely rich and powerful, want? Gittes even asks him at one point, what more can you buy that you don’t already have?

You probably know a little bit about Chinatown or maybe a lot about it, but on the off chance you don’t know the twist, I won’t spoil it for you. The three central performances are obviously notable, but I keep coming back to Huston. He’s one of the greatest directors of all time, but his acting is almost equally fascinating. He plays Noah Cross with an effortlessness that is on display again in Orson Welles’ famously unfinished The Other Side of the Wind. In both films, Huston embodies the idea that no one in any room he’s in can challenge him at all. This is true power, not just political control or money, but the confidence that you will get what you came for in every situation. The final line of Chinatown is iconic for a reason, but Huston’s performance as he delivers the ethos of his character and of the world as he sees it is always what will stick with me. He addresses the private investigator and either deliberately (as disrespect) or absent-mindedly (as a sign that he is not worth remembering) calls him “Gits” instead of “Gittes,” and says “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” You may think you know the evil you’re up against, but the deeper you go, the worse it all gets.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The last movie in this series was Millennium Actress. Realistically I have to go with Chinatown as the better film, but it’s interesting how stark the contrast is in morals. Neither film shows a necessarily good or just world and both are consumed by evil that’s motivated by greed, but Millennium Actress shows a different way to exist within that in opposition.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it’s still Persona. I haven’t revisited Persona since watching it and I think I might do so soon. Chinatown is even better after you’ve seen it a few times as you notice what everyone knows and when they know it. The first time through it’s a story that gets bigger and bigger, but on repeat viewings you notice that the big story actually shrinks to give way to the personal conflict. It’s a neat trick and part of what makes this a movie that’s stood the test of time.

You can watch Chinatown on Amazon Prime or Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Millennium Actress the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Satoshi Kon died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 46. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer but chose not to make it public. He left behind a relatively small filmography as a result, with only four true features to his name. I opened this series with Paprika, a visual explosion that either “is similar to” or “inspired” Inception, depending on your opinion. Perfect Blue is probably his best known work, which also “is similar to” or “inspired” Black Swan, which also depends on how generous you’re willing to be with your opinion. His other two major works, Tokyo Godfathers and Millennium Actress, always felt a little more slight to me.

I recently had a chance to revisit Millennium Actress as part of an outdoor film series our local arthouse movie theater hosts. I went in with an open mind. I love Kon’s work and liked Millennium Actress fine, but the gap between the two I love and the two I like was always fairly large. I was, happily, very wrong. I probably owe Tokyo Godfathers another shot, too.

Millennium Actress is the story of Chiyoko Fujiwara, a long-retired and reclusive film actress who agrees to be interviewed by a two-man crew. Genya Tachibana is obviously a huge fan and old enough to have seen her work firsthand. He’s overly formal and places heavy significance on this moment. Kyoji Ida, his young, slacker cameraman, asks why this could be so significant and does not seem interested at all. It’s all part of a series on the demolition of Ginei Studios, where Chiyoko worked for decades.

This is fairly familiar ground. It’s a movie about movies and the heroes are the people who want to preserve the past at minimum and live within it at maximum. The opportunity for romanticism is already high, but when Chiyoko starts recounting her early performances it really goes into overdrive. The world bends to her story, inserting the crew in the drama of the film’s reality. These start simple enough, but become an overarching story that includes a curse, the search for love, and a rivalry between a former famous star and the new emerging starlet.

There are so many pieces of film history happening in Millennium Actress. There is some heavy All About Eve reference to the conflict between the two actresses, but the film rarely centers on this. There is a marriage of convenience and a war and there are several literal earthquakes, but even these huge events don’t really get a lot of time. The thing that matters here is a search for lost love that is triggered by a chance encounter. Chiyoko meets a man when she is young and gets into film to search the world for him. Everyone asks her along the way why she would care and why this is worth all the trouble, but this all seems to miss the point. How can you explain something like that to someone else? Why even try?

Millennium Actress tries, sorta, but mostly it wants you to live in the moment. Rather than explain the decision, just accept that it was made and see where that leads you. As the crew advances through her life and her performances, they learn not so much an answer to the “why” of the moment, but they do see the results. That may frustrate you, if you’re someone who needs to know why people behave like they do, but if you can embrace the journey, you’re really in for something special.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I think I like it more than Bande à part, though it does prompt me to think about what each movie is trying to do. Both movies are better if you don’t ask the question of why the woman at the center of the story does what she does. Both movies are journeys, though this one is decidedly deeper, but again, that’s not really a criticism.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I don’t even think it’s the best movie Satoshi Kon made, even after really enjoying this experience so much. Paprika has flaws, but it’s something I’ll come back to more often, and Perfect Blue really is a masterpiece. They’re all very different films. I’m more willing than the average person to judge an anime alongside a regular film, but even in that headspace, can’t argue that any of them are better than Persona.

You can watch Millennium Actress for free on YouTube. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Bande à part the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

If you read any review or review-like piece about Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 classic Bande à part, you will see the same word used: “accessible.” It’s not uncommon for consensus to build around a film, especially an “important” one by one of the masters, but it’s a little uncommon to see the same exact term. Some may go with “approachable” but really they are all saying the same thing. All of these reviewers want to tell you that even if you don’t normally watch Godard movies or even French cinema, this is the one for you.

What does that statement even mean when said about a crime drama carried out by stony-faced men that features an extended, nearly wordless, dance scene in the middle? I guess in comparison to something like Pierrot le Fou this is, sure, an easier film to parse and to follow, but it still feels like the wrong term. It also feels like it’s speaking to an imagined audience, like framing something as having the least space in a Star Wars film. I don’t think anyone would sit down to watch a movie like this and hope, first off, that it be really easily approached. The complexity for this era of French film isn’t necessarily the draw, but it certainly isn’t a hinderance, either.

Bande à part is a simple story. Two men named Arthur and Franz (Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey) meet one woman named Odile (Anna Karina) and the two men decide to rob the woman’s extended family. Odile is young and beautiful and a little naïve, we learn through her interactions with the two of them. She jokingly steals a hat and agrees to cut English class with them only after telling them that she certainly understands kissing, even “with tongue.” When she tells her new friends that she knows where a bunch of money is hiding, it’s clear that she isn’t necessarily suggesting they take it. It’s also clear that is exactly what will happen.

Parts of this will feel familiar even if you haven’t seen it. The three of them form a love triangle despite not really having anything in common or having any reason to feel affection. They decide to perform this robbery together despite Odile clearly being uncomfortable with the idea. The whole thing unfolds with a sense of dread, but more importantly it only starts out of boredom. We only see a brief window into Odile without the duo present, but there she insists to her aunt that she isn’t interested in shopping or going out or any of the things she’s supposed to want. It’s brief, but it says a lot about why she might get roped into what she gets roped into.

Just how complicit is Odile? This is the big question, as we see the men shuffle through life motivated by simple greed, though they both speak about Odile in lustful or romantic terms. Obviously there’s a love story here, but it’s so much more important to consider why this is all happening. You expect any movie about a risky robbery to be about the money, but this seems equally to be about rebellion. The title, Bande à part, even stems from an expression that means to do things separate from a group. The money matters because the gang wants to run away from society, but the question of why they want that in the first place is largely unasked and unanswered. It doesn’t need to be, because viewers felt the same way.

The director provides an infrequent narration through the film, sometimes listing the thoughts of characters and sometimes speaking to the next steps. It’s often funny, which helps to contrast with the seriousness of the crime and the grim determination of both men. I think this is the detail people are referencing when they say this film is “approachable.” The story beats are easy to follow and the narration doesn’t necessarily explain things, but it does help you track the mood. The settings are beautifully shot, especially some night scenes with the duo running through the city and falling in some kind of love.

Is it approachable? There are moments to like even if you don’t like movies like this, sure, including the most famous scene in the movie. It’s a dance scene where the trio dances to the classic Michel Legrand score. It inspired the dance contest from Pulp Fiction and has been referenced several times in other media. It fits with the tone of the film, but it also is part of the commitment to a shifting tone and only slight insights into our characters. I don’t think “approachable” is the right word, but I will agree with the overall assessment and say it’s fair to say this is worth your time even if you think it might not be worth your time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It feels a bit silly to compare Un Chien Andalou to anything, but such is this series. I think this is better and I think it’s a truly great and exciting film, even many decades later.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I still will stick with Persona. That said, I really do encourage you to watch this, even if you aren’t the sort of person who might. It’s slightly longer than Breathless but much faster paced. I think I’m more interested in the original, but I was more excited by this one. I kept wondering what would happen, right until the surprisingly absurd ending.

Bande à part is currently streaming in some countries, but in the United States you will need to purchase it from The Criterion Collection or another retailer. The company also sometimes streams it, but not as of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Un Chien Andalou the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In 1929, you weren’t supposed to like Un Chien Andalou. You were supposed to experience it, maybe, but “like” is probably too strong a term. Director Luis Buñuel has seven films included in the top 250 films according to Sight & Sound and co-writer Salvador Dalí, well, you know him, too. The two men met and described dreams to each other and used the images to craft a movie. You get the sense in reading about it that they felt they had to share their images with the world.

Un Chien Andalou is, inarguably, a bunch of images. It’s a surreal 21-minute set of images, totally devoid of story or timeline. Scenes shift in time, with title cards that tell you one scene is years before another scene, but the cast may or may not be the same from moment to moment. Reviews of the film take great care to point out that just because one scene shows someone look out a window, the next scene does not necessarily show you what they are looking at. We’re conditioned to expect that and we certainly were in 1929, which is what makes the fact that it may not be true all the more interesting.

But that opens the question, really, because we have to ask if it actually is interesting, almost a hundred years later. It’s a ridiculous film, but it also was then. If you read user reviews in the usual places you’ll see people excited to tell everyone how much they get it with their five-star reviews and people who are frustrated and confused with their one-star reviews. I don’t feel like either is strictly necessary, but a lot of the one-star reviews express criticism that I have to assume Buñuel and Dalí would have agreed with. People are frustrated there’s no story and it’s all disconnected images. They’re right.

There are two movies we’ve watched in this space that I was reminded of: Battleship Potemkin and Last Year at Marienbad. The former is another piece of dated cinema but an undeniable classic. The latter is another divisive art film that’s just as likely to skew viewers in one direction as the other. Un Chien Andalou is a singular thing, but it occupies the same space as a lot of great works. The difference is in intension. The men behind this movie wanted it to do what it did to everyone who saw it, like it or hate it. If your anger is that it makes no sense and it’s just a dumb, random collection of images, it “worked,” whether you like that or not.

That said, it’s fairly impossible to ignore the more extreme elements. I knew to expect the most famous images, with an eye being sliced open and some equally creepy imagery around body parts. I did not know to expect a man dragging two pianos with two rotting donkeys. Is this a representation of sexual frustration or animal instinct? I have to go back to the men behind it who would insist that absolutely any digging is of your own accord, they don’t intend anything. This isn’t even a sly joke, very specifically, it isn’t that you don’t get it, it’s that there’s nothing to get.

This kind of directorial intent resists criticism. Did you hate it? Excellent. Did you love it? Excellent, maybe even equally so. There is an argument to be made that by intending no meaning, they’ve made a perfect puzzle box. You can keep trying to find ways in, but it’s constructed perfectly. You cannot find what does not exist to find.

It’s all striking and it’s interesting and it’s worth the time, still, especially because the time is one minute shorter than an episode of network television minus commercials. Film students over the world watch this because it’s so central to the start of everything, but you may as well watch it because it’s free and it’s short. Maybe the images will connect with you. Maybe you’ll insistently find meaning, defying the authors. Maybe you’ll just marvel at the audacity and imagine one hundred years ago, the guts it must have taken to say that this was it, come see it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so, now. Minnie and Moskowitz is not one of my favorite movies or even one of my favorite movies by Cassavetes, but it’s hard to rate Un Chien Andalou these days. It’s barely a movie, arguably not a movie by the terms we’d use today. I can appreciate the audacity, but that’s about it.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. It’s on several top 100 lists because directors vote on those and they all want the world to continue to allow for space for something like this. I can completely appreciate that and I do think they mean it when they say this is one of their favorite movies. I think it is pretty difficult to offer a fair analysis of this movie today, which is why Persona, which owes it a very heavy debt in the striking images department, is still my vote.

You can watch Un Chien Andalou for free on YouTube. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.