2006 Favorites (Older Films)

It’s time for that end of the year wrap-up, which for me, usually comes at some point in late January. So getting it done now, has me right on schedule, if not a little early. I’ve always skewed late (i.e. not December 31) on this, largely because there were always a few extra films I wanted to see whose release dates were crammed into the last week of December. Now that I’m a parent and theater time is even more limited, I skew late because there are a few extra films I want to see that are already out on DVD.

Having said that, I suspect any future write-ups of the year gone by are going to tilt even more to the personal side as the far majority of my viewing tends to be of older films. I simply have less opportunities (and interest) in the heavily marketed “event movies” or even much of the Oscar bait thrown out at the end of the year. I find as I grow older I am less interested in “discovering” some new film and more apt to read weekly reviews, festival summaries, and write ups like these at the end of the year for ideas on how to fill out my viewing list.

In that spirit, this year’s list will be the older films I’ve encountered for the first time, accompanied by a list of new films that came out in 2006. The former is much more difficult in that it includes a much longer starting list. The latter is difficult in being able to find 10 films worthy of listing. As always, my rankings are based on what I most want to see again, and I’ve avoided an unranked list mostly because I enjoy seeing where things end up in relation to one another.

1. Brief Encounter (1945, dir. David Lean)

Yeah, I know. I’m kind of surprised too. But it’s a romance about an adulterous couple, you say? Well yes, but this film had such a powerful effect on me that its place on this list is without much question. When I think back to it, the first thing that always comes to mind is the completely disarming performance by Celia Johnson as the compromised wife. There’s a fragile beauty in her eyes that leaves her at once attractive, helpless, and guilt-ridden. Yet, even as she delves further into her adulterous fantasy, one continues to find hope in her guilt, leading to a stunning conclusion that, frankly, left me gasping for breath. It sure doesn’t hurt a film’s chances either when the director liberally employs some of the most exquisite piano music ever scored – Rachmaninov’s 2d piano concerto.

2. The Man Who Planted Trees (1987, dir. Frédéric Back)

If I’m honest, this is really the only film in competition with Lean’s fine work. A short animated film, The Man Who Planted Trees is a simple fable told with such quiet grace and poetry that it almost sneaks up on you. I say almost, because in spite of its quiet way, it quickly becomes apparent this film offers a picture of a man we would all do well to emulate. The story is simple: it’s about a single man living in a desolate valley who spends his days planting seeds, and the progress of that valley over time. Beyond that, the animation itself contributes to the overall feel of the film, beginning with fewer colors, slowly expanding the palette as the scope of the film expands. There’s a lightness and airiness to the beautiful animation that offers a nice contrast to the ethical and spiritual weight offered in the story itself.

3. Trial of Joan of Arc (1962, dir. Robert Bresson)

This short (61 minutes) feature follows the famous saint in her final days. Bresson typically finds the transcendent through close observation of the physical and finite. The same is true here, as his close focus on Joan, and especially her hands and feet, offer insights into bondage and freedom, life and death, guilt and innocence. Further, while the explicit content of the trial was most often theological, Bresson is careful to highlight the political stakes that were often driving the theological conclusions.

4. Nights of Cabiria (1957, dir. Frederico Fellini)

The star of this film, Giulietta Masina, has been a revelation for me this year. So expressive, but with a hard edge, and yet can still bring out a sensitivity and fragility that is just about heartbreaking. I chose this over Fellini’s earlier La Strada first and foremost because of its pitch perfect ending, a final shot etched into my memory. Beyond that though, Cabiria, a prostitute in Rome who somehow does well enough to get by without often working, is at the edge of a transformative moment in her life. The way Fellini ties in the romantic, financial, and religious elements that bring her toward this moment is so effortless, but also filled with engaging commentary on these elements.

5. Camera Buff (1979, dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski)

Kieslowski’s fictional account of a corporate salesman’s turn toward filmmaking is remarkably personal, astute in its observations of obsession, the dynamics of married life, and the beauty of simple, realistic filmmaking. The always interesting Jerzy Stuhr plays Filip, a young husband and father of a newborn who, having bought an 8mm camera to film his young daughters life, begins to turn the camera on other subjects. As the gaze of the camera leaves his family, Filip’s eye follows, a fact abundantly clear to his wife, who is effectively silenced by all the praise Filip garners for his films made in and around his company. A fascinating look at the nature of the filmmaker, Camera Buff reveals where the truth lies in filmmaking.

6. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, dir. John Ford)

Ford’s gritty, dirty, and dark film that portrays the end of the old West, or at least the West as it moves on toward accommodating a more settled stage of life. Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, an old Senator who has returned to his roots in Shinbone for the funeral of his friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Most of the film occurs in flashback, as Stoddard tells of his early days there, back when the town was run by a common (and often bloody) code of justice rather than lawyers and judges. It is one part nostalgia, another part lament, while Ford’s direction, pacing, and framing offer a complex experience of loss and the clash between old and new.

7. My Life to Live (1962, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

Godard’s film follows a young, urban woman through twelve scenes as she moves from aspiring actress to full-fledged prostitute. Maybe that sounds just plain depressing, but with Godard’s energetic direction and the wonderful Anna Karina as Nana it is never anything short of mesmerizing to watch. Nana’s liveliness, vivacity, and naïveté create a character that is endlessly watchable, both for the passion with which she lives her life, but also out of concern for her less than ideal choices. She is a human being in the fullest sense, a wonder to behold.

8. Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987, dir. Louis Malle)

A meditation on a childhood spent in war, Malle brings us into the world of an elite Catholic boarding school in the country, where Parisian parents have sent their children to wait out the German occupation of Paris. Julien, being smarter than the other boys and desperately homesick for his mother, is lonely and ends up becoming intrigued by the new boy, Jean, who just happens to be a Jewish refugee the priests are hiding, a secret to all the boys. Thus begins a journey of discovery for Julien, whose curiosity allows him to know Jean better than most, yet whose innocence keeps him from understanding the implications of Jean’s religious affiliation.

9. Best of Youth (2005, dir. Marco Tullio Giordana)

This is a six-hour miniseries made for Italian television that follows the development, suffering, and growth of a single contemporary Italian family – particularly two brothers who are close as young men but diverge in young adulthood and struggle to relate as they get older. In doing so, director Giordana deftly weaves in scenes depicting recent Italian history, making this a kind of historical document that adds a real groundedness to the proceedings. With its wide cast of characters, its mix of comic and dramatic elements, and an often lyrical presentation, it is always interesting to watch.

10. Badlands (1973, dir. Terrence Malick)

This is Malick’s first film, with a young Martin Sheen (Kit) and even younger Sissy Spacek (Holly) traveling across the South Dakota terrain. Malick’s trademark narration, elliptical editing, and visual poetry all make appearances in the finest form. While their young love begins with all the rapture of a honeymoon, things take a turn for the worse for the couple as Kit begins his murdering spree. Holly in her innocence tags along as they evade the police, yet the genius here is her narration, which creates an interesting dissonance between her thoughts and what we see before us.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): All About My Mother, Babe: Pig in the City, The Bad Sleep Well, Cache, Chungking Express, Elevator to the Gallows, The Fallen Idol, Grizzly Man, The Lady From Shanghai, Los Olvidados, Mr. Arkadian, Nashville, La Notte, Pickpocket, Raise the Red Lantern, Sherlock Jr., Shoot the Piano Player, A Short Film About Love, The Squid and the Whale, To Live, The Wages of Fear, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The World

11 thoughts on “2006 Favorites (Older Films)

  1. Great comments, John. I always love reading lists like these, and I’m glad to see someone else is on my schedule. :) I’ve been trying to narrow down my list of viewings and pick favorites (very difficult!), but one thing or another has distracted me and eaten all of my time.

    Anyway, this is a great-looking list. Wow, I’m both happy and surprised to see Brief Encounter at #1. I’m not sure if it will make my final list, but I will certainly have to give it an honorable mention. It seems like ages since we first discussed that one, but your comments bring the emotions of the movie right back to me. You’ve really nailed what’s so great about it.

    Badlands and The Best of Youth were other first-time viewings for me last year, and they are definitely contenders for my top 10, too.

    Very nice job.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Diane. Yeah, I chuckle when I see all the top tens coming out around the 31st. Then I panic.

    The more I thought about it, the more I admired Lean’s achievement in BE, and the more I wanted to see it again. That’s ultimately how I decide what goes where anyway. Of course, I’m never happy about it, and today I’d probably rearrange the list a bit, but oh well.

    I look forward to seeing a list from you as well. I’m sure it will give me a few ideas for the coming year.

  3. Great list, John–so many personal favorites there, although I’ve yet to see “Brief Encounter” (well, I think I saw it many years ago; I certainly need to rewatch it) or “Badlands.” Both have been on my radar for some time. “Nights of Cabiria” is indeed a personal favorite–I really admire nearly all of Fellini’s pre-“8 1/2” films and have been mostly nonplussed with everything I’ve seen after that.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Doug. Agreed about Fellini, though after La Strada and Cabiria, all I’ve seen of the early stuff is La Dolce Vita (on the big screen no less) which I quite enjoyed. I also think you especially would appreciate Badlands for its more, shall we say, poetic sensibilities.

  5. Ordinarily I skip any film involving serial killers, but I’ll make an exception in the case of Malick. ;)

    Early Fellini I’d recommend would include “I Vitelloni” and “The Swindle.” (Not to mention his Rossellini script collaborations; Giulietta Masina is particularly memorable in “Europa ’51.”)

    I’m surprised “The Wrong Man” didn’t make your cut?

  6. Thanks for the recommendations, Doug. And I really need to track down some of those early Rossellini films. I love The Flowers of St. Francis.

    And I had to check, but The Wrong Man isn’t on there only because I actually watched it in December ’05. I gave it a heads up on last year’s list.

  7. Doug, I’m really eager to hear your thoughts on “Badlands.” I’m with you on serial killer films in general, but Malick’s fingerprints are all over “Badlands”–there’s just no mistaking his style. John, your summary above is excellent. You know, I found the use of music in the film to be particularly interesting, especially the Satie piece that played during one fiery scene. I was glad I had the closed captioning on; that was the only way to get the translation.

  8. Okay, you guys have really sold me on “Badlands.”

    It’s also nice to see Bresson’s film (shamefully undistributed on video in the US), “Camera Buff,” which is my favorite of Kieslowski’s early features, and “Los Olvidados” on your list. Succinct and evocative write-ups, too!

  9. Okay Doug, since you mentioned the Bunuel, here’s my story on it: First off, I really appreciated the wide variety of personalities amongst the urban poor kids there. You’ve got a guy working hard trying to make a step out of that world, others who are just trying to get from one day to the next, the main character who hasn’t really figured things out yet, and of course, Jaibo the villain, taking everyone down. I also thought Bunuel’s use of surreal elements was reigned in enough to be of great effect here.

    What I didn’t realize when seeking it out was that I had a history with this movie. In High School, Junior year Spanish class, we occasionally watched Spanish language films. One of them was quite strong in my memory, because one of the characters was named Jaibo, which my friends and I used as a kind of nickname for some people for a while after. Yet I couldn’t for the life of me remember what that movie was. I really didn’t like it at the time (I wasn’t much on B&W and certainly not on foreign language films in HS), but had since wondered what it was and if I would have a greater appreciation for it. So it was only by accident while looking through some Bunuel on VHS that I even found Olvidados and immediately made the connection. Funny thing is, now I totally get why my teacher played that movie for us; we were just too dense to get it.

  10. Hilarious story, John. If you haven’t already seen it, you’d probably really appreciate “Nazarin” from his same Mexican period, too.

  11. I have seen Nazarin, and definitely appreciated it as well. There’s a great deal of resemblance between the two, particularly in the setting. And of course, watching Nazarin makes me think of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.

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