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 intent. 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.

Worst Best Picture: Is The Broadway Melody Better or Worse Than Crash?

broadway melody

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1928/1929 winner The Broadway Melody. Is it better than Crash?

If we’re being totally realistic, the first 10 Best Picture winners just don’t hold up. There are excuses to be made — Grand Hotel is charming in its strangeness, All Quiet on the Western Front and Cavalcade are chilling in their portrayals of war, and Mutiny on the Bounty has a truly great performance — but the only one of the first ten that’s worth your two hours now is It Happened One Night.

It shouldn’t be surprising that films from a century ago don’t hold up. For the most part it’s the pacing, because most of them are insanely long and nearly unedited. Cavalcade tells a half dozen stories, many of which are so tangential to the plot that it’s tough to determine why you should care about them. Cimarron and The Great Ziegfield sprawl like epics but have so little to say that they feel terribly padded. It’s important to look at this time as a whole before we get into The Broadway Melody, the second Best Picture winner ever and, arguably, the first “true” musical as we know the form today.

In comparison to the full list, The Broadway Melody fares pretty rough. The songs aren’t memorable, which is pretty damning. I know you’d think there would be some song that I could clip out here and you’d at least have an “oh, so that’s where that comes from” moment, but no dice. The characters are paper-thin. There’s Hank (actually Harriet, a woman, and the nickname is largely not explained), the street-smart, tough sister and Queenie, the beautiful, but only beautiful, younger sister. They’re trying to break into show business with a duo act, but producers only want to hire Queenie, on account of all the beautiful stuff.

There’s a love triangle, because by Hollywood law everyone in love with one person must be in love with someone else at all times, and if I’m honest it works better here than in most movies. The struggle of the smart-but-not-beautiful Hank is heartfelt, especially as she realizes she’s losing her sister to the wrong parts of show business. It is weird that they attempt to sell that actress who plays Hank as not beautiful, though, but that’s a problem in a lot of films. Whenever we are told as the audience that a woman is “not beautiful” that can be a challenging part of the narrative if she’s, y’know, beautiful. Marty is exceptionally bad about this, and it remains the gold standard for “look how ugly this beautiful woman is or something.”

All-in-all, The Broadway Melody is more important as a historical marker for musicals. It came first, so if you love musicals you can get something out of it akin to going to a museum. It’s a little more fun than most of the early ones, too. I can’t recommend it on its own, but it’s certainly more fun than Cavalcade.

The Best Part: Hank (Bessie Love) was nominated for Best Actress, and she definitely gives the best performance in the movie. She plays the role permanently flustered, which is fun to watch at times, and it’s really as close as anyone gets in the movie to “acting” as we know it now.

The Worst Part: It’s real, real dated, y’all. The sexual politics of the love triangle (and fourth member, who gets added late in the film) will anger modern viewers, and there just isn’t all that much going on outside of that. There’s some relevancy left in the “it’s difficult to follow your dreams and hold on to who you really are” message, but there’s not in any of the rest of it.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? 50 years from now, The Broadway Melody will still be one of the first filmed musicals of all time and Crash will be a movie that people can’t really explain. I’m extremely interested in how Crash will be rethought, and if the timeline for Dances With Wolves is any indicator, it’s coming up real soon. The only comparison between these two is in their memory, because neither really feels like it could come out right now. I guess they both offer a look into a strange, forgotten time, but one of those times is the mid 2000s, so let’s leave that one where it is.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.