A director of Italian theater and opera, Luchino Visconti’s cinematic oeuvre is naturally marked by its lush, lavish milieu in pictures like "The Leopard" (which made the S&S top 100), “The Damned" and "Death in Venice." However, it's his earlier Italian neo-realism that arguably resonates at a higher emotional frequency. “Rocco and his Brothers” wonderfully bridges both periods, but “La Terra Trema” is arguably his most austere, emotionally raw and striking film. Featuring non-credited, non-professional actors in lead roles, this 1948 Italian drama was called a "docufiction" during its day, because of Visconti’s desire to be as realistic as possible, but there’s no denying this stark and depressing exploitation of working-class fishermen is no documentary. Chronicling harsh economic realities in a small Sicilian village, the eldest son of a local fishing family convinces his family to mortgage their house in order to wrestle more control (and money) away from the wholesalers that are dominating the local fishing market. It’s a risky move, and most of the timid, under-the-boot-heel townsfolk are afraid to rock the boat (no pun intended). Everything goes prosperously until a storm ruins their boat, plummeting the the family into deeper poverty and triggers one tragedy after another that essentially destroys the entire dynasty. In the end, the consequences of their gamble force them to come back crawling to the monopolizers with their tails between their legs, and more importantly are left spiritually broken. Sparsely shot and using little music, "La Terra Trema" is unnervingly quiet outside of the hollow and cold sounds of wind. It's a bleak effort for sure, but a powerful snap-shot of neo-realism from a filmmaker generally known for his affinities toward the extravagant.
A wicked, devilish and surrealist look at the ravenousness of longing, lust and passion, Luis Buñuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire” is perhaps the most perfectly suited film for its subject on this list. Told in flashback and set against the backdrop of a terrorist insurgency in Spain, ‘Obscure Object’ centers on an aging Spanish man (Fernando Rey) who falls in love with and obsessively attempts to win the affections of an aloof, unattainable 19-year-old chambermaid. Played by two different women (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina), this unattainable paramour repeatedly frustrates this man’s romantic and sexual desires with a teasing back and forth that might drive any lover mad. Ostensibly a representation of the girl’s two disparate personalities (both Bouquet and Molina demonstrate two different types of behavior), it’s perhaps simply too facile to box in Buñuel like this, as the picture has its sly satirical elements and indictments of bourgeois society as is per his usual. Buñuel's 30th and final picture, the director died five years later, but the picture did earn him two Oscar nominations (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Adapted Screenplay).
Loosely based on the true story of Sybille Schmitz, a former Nazi starlet, whose star faded after the Third Reich crumbled -- she committed suicide as a lonely old relic the nation would rather soon forget -- the captivating and lush “Veronika Voss” is German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder at the height of his powers. On a dark, rain-soaked evening, the unbalanced and melodramatic Voss (Rosel Zech) meets and befriends an empathetic sports writer (Hilmar Thate) who takes a curious interest in her faded-glory story. The well-meaning writer soon discovers the erratic and often desperate former star is propped up by an unscrupulous “Dr. Feelgood”-like physician (Annemarie Düringer) who lords over her -- fueling her insecurities with a controlling dose of opiates, but only if she can pony up the exorbitant costs. Meanwhile, the self-sacrificing writer risks his own relationship to rescue the aging ingenue, but to no avail. Having long sought recognition within Germany -- the provincial media generally despised his always quotable “enfante terrible” mien -- Fassbinder finally received homegrown love when this picture rightfully won the Golden Bear at the 32nd Berlin International Film Festival. And while many Fassbinder pictures could have made the list, this seems like the one to go for.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s heralded alienation tetralogy about modernity and its discontents is well recognized among cinephiles as a towering achievement in cinema (and yes, it should include “Red Desert” even if it’s in color and therefore slightly different in aesthetic, but absolutely the same in theme). The haunting “L'Avventura” rightly made the Sight & Sound top 50, “Red Desert” and “Eclipse” both have cemented their position as classics thanks to the Criterion Collection. But 1961's "La Notte" is somewhat of an overlooked child, and this is a shame considering that it's possibly the most emotional and accessible of them all. Featuring the amazing trio of Antonioni regular Monica Vitti, plus Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, “La Notte” plays out as a the day in the life of an unfaithful and unhappy couple that are experiencing their relationship in the death knell of decay. Giovanni Pontano (Mastroianni) and Lidia (Moreau) -- a married couple already experiencing the slow crush of indifference and deterioration in their relationship -- begin their day visiting a dying friend. Shaken by the incident, Giovanni fails to comfort his wife and the woman then departs, wandering the streets of Milan in search of some kind of existential fleeting answers. They meet later in the evening at a party where Giovanni is already trying to strike up an affair with the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Vitti). Perhaps most devastating is its climax. As the couple acknowledges the failure of their marriage in the breaking hours of dawn long after this party has run its course, Lidia reads aloud from a profoundly poetic moving love letter. Giovanni asks, who wrote it? Lidia tells him that he wrote it years ago to her. They make love on the grass unable to accept the end, but clearly their relationship is in irreparable disrepair and this last act is a grueling and piercing sequence for anyone who has done their best to keep a dying light alive.
Vittorio De Sica topped the first ever Sight & Sound poll with "Bicycle Thieves," which was only released four years earlier. These days, it's dropped all the way down to number 37, and it's the filmmaker's only movie in the Top 100. His particular brand of Italian neo-realism is somewhat out of fashion now, but unfairly so, given the brilliance of that film, and in particular of 1952's "Umberto D." Involving the day-to-day struggles to survive of an elderly man (Carlo Battisti) and his faithful dog Flike, it sits with "Tokyo Story" as one of the great screen portraits of aging, as well as a firmly political look at the little man overpowered in society. It's a little manipulative, of course, but what is filmmaking if not manipulation, and only someone with a heart of stone would fail to be moved by the film by its end. It mostly disappeared on release, but it was the favorite film of both its own director and of Ingmar Bergman, and has since deservedly had its reputation restored.
For this writer at least, who worships the filmmaker, François Truffaut is somewhat underrepresented in the S&S Top 100: the great filmmaker only makes the list with one picture, "The 400 Blows." Were we to add another, though, it might not be the one you'd expect. Because since our teens, we've loved "Day for Night," the director's rich, playful tribute to filmmaking, with Truffaut himself playing the helmer of a drama named "Meet Pamela" with Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Leaud as his tempestuous stars. Funny, warm and pretty much manna from heaven for any would-be-filmmaker, or indeed cinephile in general, it feels more universal and profound than most behind-the-scenes dramas and deserves a place alongside "8 1/2" and "Singin' in the Rain" as one of the great movies about movies.