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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ten Masterpieces of World Cinema

If you are serious about your love for cinema, you have got to know your essentials so it would be nice to compile a list of ten undisputed masterpieces from ten different nations. If you are a real cinema aficionado, you might have already seen all of these but maybe there are few that are still on your list of shame (i.e. classics you have missed). If you are a new lover of the art of film and haven’t seen all that much yet, these ten films are a great starting point.
It is of course impossible to be even remotely comprehensive when compiling such a list as many of these nations have produced a plethora of classic films and there are nations, which haven’t even been mentioned because we chose to stick to only ten. But for what it’s worth, you simply cannot go wrong with any of these ten movies and anybody with a serious passion for cinema would be advised to see all of them. At some point. Note: movies on this list are ranked in no particular order.

1. Germany – M (Fritz Lang – 1931)
m 1931
Fritz Lang’s first feature with sound, which he wrote with his wife Thea von Harbou, is an early example of a technically accomplished sound film and became a worldwide hit. The film was one of Lang’s last films in Germany before he departed to the United States in 1933 after having been offered to direct Nazi propaganda films by Josef Goebbles, who was unaware of his Jewish heritage.
The movie tells the story of a mentally ill child murderer, played by Peter Lorre in a magnificent breakthrough performance, who in 1930s Berlin is eluding police as they round up every criminal in the city they can find. This causes the Berlin underworld considerable grief and they decide to form their own hunting parties and when the killer is discovered, a young man manages to mark Lorre with a white chalk letter “M” (for Murderer) on the back of his coat. When Lorre is eventually caught, he is taken to a kangaroo court, where the Berlin underworld puts him on trial whilst the police is closing in.
m lang
Shot in expressive black and white, which manages to create a sinister nightly world with deep dark shadows in combination with remarkably fluid camera movement, the film also features fantastic use of sound; the killer is characterised by the tune he whistles and the murder of a child is not shown directly but suggested by a mother’s desperate cries and images of the child’s ball and balloon left abandoned. The film also has an almost documentary-type feel as it meticulously details the police’s procedures (using the then new techniques of fingerprinting and handwriting analysis). Also, there is an absence of non-diegetic music and some parts were actually played by real-life criminals for authenticity.
M is an undisputed masterpiece and Lorre’s monologue towards the end of the movie, as he pleads for his life in front of the kangaroo court, is simply one of the best monologues ever put on film. As well as being a film that bridges the silent era to the sound era of film, M’s German expressionism verges towards elements of Film Noir (Fritz Lang would go on to make a few Film Noir classics in the U.S. later on). M is a towering achievement and a must-see for any serious film buff.

2. Italy – The Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica – 1948)
Arguably the best Italian neorealist film ever made and certainly one in the upper echelon of world cinema, The Bicycle Thieves is a classic in the truest sense of the word. Italian neorealism was a post WWII film movement, which used location shooting, non-professional actors and dealt with the hard economic conditions of the working class during this time.
A poor family man, at the end of his tether, finally finds a job putting up posters in the days immediately after the end of World War II. The job, however, requires a bicycle and as the family have nothing of value left, they decide to pawn their bed sheets in order to be able to buy a bicycle. On the first day of the job, the bicycle is stolen which starts a frantic search by the father and his young son through the streets of Rome, attempting to find their sole means of survival.
The Bicycle Thieves
The film works on many levels: as a document of its era, as a sentimental drama, as clear social commentary and as a prime example of the neorealist movement; which was born out of necessity in post-WWII in Italy as there were simply no means to make movies. Filmmakers were forced to tell simple stories dealing with the after-effects of the war on ordinary poor people, whilst shooting on location and with non-professional actors. This movie received the Oscar for Best Foreign Film seven years before they officially came up with that category; it’s that good!

3. India – The Music Room (Satyajit Ray – 1958)
The Music Room
Satyajit Ray, India’s most celebrated director, was at the height of his game in the late fifties. After he made the first two entries in his renowned Apu Trilogy, he managed to find the time to direct The Music Room before finishing his trilogy in 1959. The Music Room was a failure upon its initial release but it has since taken its place amongst Ray’s greatest works. Whilst the Apu Trilogy might be his best known and most critically praised work, I decided to select The Music Room for this list as it is a stand-alone film and is just as good as any of the films in the Apu Trilogy.
It tells the story of Huzur Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), a middle-aged aristocrat in India. Huzur’s fortunes are waning but he holds on to his pride and tries to maintain his social status and heritage by throwing lavish music parties in his mansion’s music room, even though he cannot afford them. His wife tries to keep him from spending their last resources but Huzur doesn’t listen and spends huge amounts of money on a party for their son who is coming of age. Then tragedy strikes and Huzur goes into deep depression until a shrill social-climber tries to outdo him and he decides to give one last grand party in his music room.
The Music Room 1958
The film initially received poor reviews in India but when it was released in the West, it was met with critical acclaim and financial success. The first film to extensively use Indian classical music and dancing, the film features a number of truly memorable performances by some of India’s top musicians at the time. A stunning drama with a marvellous performance by Chhabi Biswas, who manages to make an extremely arrogant and foolhardy man remain sympathetic throughout the entire film, and an analogy for a class which was disappearing from India, The Music Room is certified classic cinema and just as stunning as Ray’s celebrated Apu Trilogy.

4. France – La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir – 1937)
One of the best war movies (or like all great war movies, an anti-war movie) ever made, La Grande Illusion is a humanistic masterpiece of poetic realism.
The story deals with two French men, one an aristocrat called de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), the other a working class man called Maréchal (Jean Gabin), whose plane is shot down by German aristocratic aviator von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) during World War I. They survive and are invited for lunch by von Rauffenstein, who discovers he shares mutual acquaintances with the French aristocrat; a clear sign that these men might have more in common than they differ from each other. Both men are then transported to a POW camp where amongst others, they meet a French Jew called Rosenthal who generously shares his food rations with others. They make various plans to escape but just before they finish an escape tunnel, everybody is transported to another camp.
The men are moved to a few different camps and finally end up at Wintersborn; a mountain fortress prison commanded by Von Rauffenstein. During the time of incarceration, the two aristocrats from different nations almost become friends until Boeldieu acts as a distraction in order to let his friends escape, and von Rauffenstein is forced to shoot him. He regrets this greatly and as he nurses de Boeldieu during his last hours, the men mourn the disappearance of their class, which the war will bring about. Meanwhile, Maréchal and Rosenthal travel across Germany trying to reach safety until they finally reach Switzerland.
La Grande Illusion film
The title of the film was taken from the book The Great Illusion by economist Norman Angell, who argued that war was futile because of the common economic interests of all European nations. The film examines the absurdity of war, the decline of aristocracy across Europe and the bond of humanity which we all share. It has been said that Renoir specifically created the character of the Jewish Rosenthal as a symbol of humanity across class lines and to also counter the rise of anti-Semitism in Hitler’s Germany.
La Grande Illusion received a “Best Artistic Ensemble” prize at the 1937 Venice Film Festival despite being banned in Italy and Germany. However, the greatest acknowledgement of its potent message was that Joseph Goebbels declared the movie: “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1″ and ordered all prints to be destroyed. One of the greatest films ever made and an absolute must-see for all lovers of cinema.

5. Japan – Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu – 1953)
Tokyo Story is often seen as the crowning achievement of Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu’s oeuvre, a body of work which is littered with masterpieces anyway.
The story is deceptively simple: an elderly couple travels from their village to Tokyo to visit their children who live and work in the capital. Once there, it becomes obvious that their eldest son and daughter don’t have time for them as they are too busy with their respective jobs. The only person who actually takes time out for them is their widowed daughter-in-law, who treats them kindly and shows them the sights of the big city. Their older children arrange a visit to the Atami Hot Springs for their parents but they feel like they are just being kept out of the way and soon return to Tokyo disappointed. They decide to go back to their village but during the trip back the elderly mother gets gravely ill and it might be too late for their children to make amends.
Tokyo Story film
A story about modern urbanization and changing values in Japan after the war, Tokyo Story is a truly beautiful film in which the director, in his trademark style, focuses on the little details, often keeping the camera running after the actors have already left the frame. This quiet and silent approach, in combination with the static low-angle framing and the languid pace of the movie, have an almost meditative effect and the film gracefully depicts the relentless passing of time and man’s inevitable fate.
A true masterpiece of cinema, Tokyo Story often rightfully shows up in polls as one of the best films ever made. A film everybody should see at least once in their lives.

6. Russia – The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov – 1957)
The Cranes Are Flying
The Cranes Are Flying firmly re-established Soviet cinema in the West with its heartfelt depiction of the horrible effects of the Second World War on Russia and its citizens. The movie starred Tatiana Samoilova, who was propelled to stardom by the film and received various offers to continue her career in the West, but who never did so probably due to the political situation at the time.
The film revolves around Veronika, who is in love with Boris, at the onset of the war. As Russia enters the conflict, Boris enlists and leaves Veronika behind. He is killed whilst trying to save one of his fellow soldiers but is listed as “missing in action” and hence, his family and Veronika ponder his fate throughout the war. When Veronika’s parents are killed during a bombing, Boris’ father invites her to stay with his family, which consists of his wife, daughter and Boris’ cousin, Mark. Mark always had an eye on Veronika but she rejects him as she is waiting for Boris to return.
During another bombing however, Mark rapes her and she is shamed into marrying him even though the rest of the family disapproves of this. The family then needs to relocate further East and eventually learns that Boris has died in action. Ultimately Boris’ father discovers that Mark has lied about his reasons for not going to war and that he took advantage of Veronika, thereby shaming the whole family.
The Cranes Are Flying film
Stunningly shot in stark black and white and with signature virtuoso camerawork from director Mikhail Kalatozov and his regular cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky, The Cranes Are Flying was met with much critical acclaim in the West and won the 1958 Palme D’Or at Cannes (the only Russian film to do so). Tatiana Samoilova, whose startling beauty and formidable performance made her a crowd favourite and instant critical darling, also won an honorary prize at the festival. A dark drama about love, betrayal, war and its far-reaching effects, The Cranes Are Flying is an absolute highlight of post-World War II Russian cinema.

7. Spain – Viridiana (Luis Buñuel – 1961)
Luis Buñuel started his career with two surrealist masterpieces in the early thirties in France and challenged bourgeois morals and religion from the very start. After a brief period of filmmaking in his native Spain, he had to leave after Franco came into power and spent a few years in the United States before moving on to Mexico, where he continued making films again from 1947 onward. In 1961 he was invited back to Spain to direct his first feature in almost 25 years, which was to become Viridiana.
The film tells the story of a young novice, Viridiana (Sylvia Pinal), who, just before taking her vows to become a nun, is pressured by her Mother Superior into visiting her uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), who has always provided for her. Upon arriving at his house, Don Jaime is struck by Viridiana’s resemblance to his deceased wife. The night before she is about to leave, Don Jaime asks her to wear his wife’s wedding dress and proceeds to drug her with the intention of raping her, although he doesn’t follow through on his plans. Nevertheless, he tells her the next morning that he took her virginity so that she cannot possibly go back to the convent.
When Viridiana is still intent on departing he admits he lied to her, leaving her unsure as to what actually happened the previous night. But when she is at the bus stop on her way back to the convent, police stop her and inform her that Don Jaime has hung himself. She then decides to go back to the house and invites a bunch of homeless beggars to come live there in order to do some good. When she leaves the house however, the beggars turn the place upside down and when she returns, some of them try to rape her. Although they don’t succeed, all these horrible experiences change Viridiana in fundamental ways and the movie ends with the suggestion that she might have lost her faith and beliefs.
After the film had already been sent to the Cannes film festival, Franco was unsuccessful in his attempts to withdraw the film. However, he did ban it in Spain where it wouldn’t be shown until 1977 because of its blatant attack on the Catholic Church and bourgeois values. The film even caught the attention of the Vatican and was deemed “blasphemous”. Despite all this, the film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes that year and is seen by many as Buñuel’s finest achievement. A wonderful sardonic attack on all that the Franco regime stood for, Viridiana still stands tall as one of Spain’s greatest cinematic achievements.

8. Sweden – The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman – 1957)
The fact that most people, even those who have never seen this film, will be familiar with its imagery through the countless references and parodies by other directors, is testament to the huge influence this Swedish masterpiece has had on the world of film. It is not often that such a highbrow work with existential themes so firmly entrenches itself into popular culture.
The film tells the story of Antonius Block, a 14th century knight played by Bergman regular Max von Sydow, who is returning home to Sweden with his nihilistic squire Jöns after having spent ten years fighting in the Crusades. Disillusioned by the lengthy war he fought and the plague which is ravaging his homeland, Block has started to have serious doubts about the existence of God.
But when he is visited by Death, who has come to claim him, Block is not yet prepared to leave this life and proposes to play a game of chess with Death for his soul; a game which lasts the remainder the film. As the knight and squire continue their journey to the knight’s castle they meet some actors, led by Jof, who holds simple beliefs in God. They all continue travelling together, encountering various folk who highlight the many shortcomings of religion.
The Seventh Seal film
Probably the hardest entry on this list, The Seventh Seal is in no way an easy film to watch. Both its direct approach of the subject matter as well as its inherent complexity, make The Seventh Seal a challenging viewing experience. Though the film’s themes of the existence of the God and the meaninglessness of life without God are religious ones, the film never really deals with God or religion directly but more with their place within the human experience.
The Seventh Seal won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and helped establish Bergman as a director of importance, especially in Europe, where the movie went on to win various awards. Over the next five years, in which he also released Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring, he would become the world’s best known Swedish director and auteur, which he remains until this day.

9. United Kingdom – Brief Encounter (David Lean – 1945)
A stunning romantic drama by David Lean, who is best known for his later epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai, and based on the play “Still Life” by his frequent collaborator at the time, Noël Coward.
The film seems way ahead of its time in its honest depiction of two married people who meet by chance at a train station and start an affair but still deeply care about their significant others and families. After Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) catches a cinder in her eye on a railway platform, she meets Dr Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), who removes it for her. The two are immediately attracted to each other and start meeting up at the railway station’s cafeteria every week and fall in love, only to realise that they are both bound to their family lives and that their love can never really go anywhere. A small and restrained film in comparison to Lean’s later spectacles but not any less impactful, and his first truly great film.
Brief Encounter film
Brief Encounter was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay) and shared the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1946. The film often appears on critics’ lists as the best British film ever made and that might just be right. Beautiful, realistic, romantic yet truthful and heart wrenching, Brief Encounter is an absolute masterpiece.

10. United States – Citizen Kane (Orson Welles – 1941)
Often cited as the greatest American film ever made, Citizen Kane was the directorial debut of Orson Welles, who also produced, co-wrote and starred in the movie in his first major role.
Whilst he had already starred in a few shorts and was famous for his work in radio and theatre, Wells was given full creative freedom when he was signed to RKO Pictures in 1939. Given the opportunity, he completely turned filmmaking conventions on their head by telling a story in a non-chronological order by way of flashbacks and by starting the movie with the death of the main protagonist. Wells also reinvented the way films were shot by using deep focus, long takes, low-angle-shots, high-contrast black-and-white photography and inventive editing, as well as using music and sound in previously unheard ways.
The film famously starts with Kane on his deathbed uttering the word “Rosebud”, which sets in motion the story of newsreel reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) seeking to solve the mystery behind that last word. From here on in the film tells the life story of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) through a series of interviews with friends, colleagues (most notably Joseph Cotten) and family, from his days as an abandoned child to his rise to power as a newspaperman and his ultimate fall from grace. But none of the people Thompson speaks to seem to know what Kane was referring to on his deathbed and it’s only in the last frames of the film that we as the audience are able to figure it out as Kane’s belongings are removed from his mansion or burned.
rosebud citizen kane
The film was loosely based on the life of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who disliked the movie and prohibited mention of it in any of his newspapers and even offered to reimburse RKO their production costs in exchange for burning all the negatives, which the studio thankfully refused. Non-Hearst newspapers, however, recognised the value of the film and lauded it for its cutting edge qualities but the damage was done and it was a commercial failure at the time.
The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards but ended up winning only one of them for Best Original Screenplay. It wasn’t until after the war that the film was “rediscovered” by primarily French critics, which started its rise in critical stature to the masterpiece it is considered today. A truly ground-breaking work of cinema, which in a way has influenced all Western films that came after it, Citizen Kane is the most important American film ever made.
Author Bio: Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page:


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