The troubled history of "Once Upon a Time in America" might be one of the reasons the film has failed to break through to the list. Sergio Leone's epic four-and-a-half hour cut of his epic, 40-year spanning gangster tale lost over two hours on U.S. release, and Leone was too heartbroken to ever direct again. But as tremendous as his Westerns are, the film (even in the slightly abridged 229-minute version) might be the Italian director's masterpiece, with outstanding performances from Robert De Niro, James Woods and William Forsythe, among others; a poetic, novelistic beast that's one of the most extraordinary films ever made. A 245-minute restoration premiered at Cannes this year, but there's still another 25 minutes of deleted scenes caught up in legal tangles. Hopefully, by the time the next poll takes place, the film will be back to Leone's original length and ready to get the credit it deserves.
A concentrated portrait of human suffering, Robert Bresson’s “Mouchette” is often held in high regard next to its sorrow and hardship cousin-picture “Au Hasard Balthazar” (which did make the S&S list, along with two others in the top 100). Grim and bleak, yet extraordinarily moving in Bresson’s famously detached and minimalized manner, “Mouchette” centers on the titular 14-year-old heroine, an already impoverished outcast who is forced to grow up far too fast. Berated in school and forced to care for her ailing mother and baby sibling at home, even a moment of potential legitimate human connection at a carnival is quickly squashed by her drunkard father. An unfortunate encounter with an epileptic poacher finds her pegged as his murderous alibi, and raped just for good measure. Through the director’s inquisitive camera, we watch as poor Mouchette learns to find the burden of living this existence altogether unbearable. As ascetic as it is, the picture is also filled with consistently striking imagery, such as final moment of Mouchette giving herself to the lake. And as searing and bleak as the picture can be, it’s suffused with an almost excruciating humanity, as empathetic and tragic as anything you’ll ever see on screen.
It says something when your debut feature premieres at the New York Film Festival at the same time as Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”… and then completely overshadow it. Such is the case with Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” his smallest, most intimate, and most powerful film (still) about a pair of lovesick teens who embark on a murderous crime spree. (The tale was based on real-life killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.) Filled with what would become Malick hallmarks – a contemplative Texas setting, elegiac cinematography (mostly handled by future Jonathan Demme collaborator Tak Fujimoto), and wistful narration – “Badlands” is shocking, bold, and dreamlike, anchored by a pair of career-best performances by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Sheen is menacing but totally charming, and Spacek is elusive in all the right ways -- while the brilliant poster claimed that “She watched while he killed a lot of people” (amazing in its own right), you’re never sure how much she wants to be there or whether her presence is egging him on. It’s an incredible relationship, always shifting and scary. In the years since “Badlands” we’ve watched as Malick has expanded his scope and intensified his experimentalism, which, for film fans, is something to behold. But his debut is a tiny masterpiece, one as perfectly cut as any jewel, and still might be the director’s finest work.
Yes, we’re cheating here, but we’re split down the middle as to which of these two Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger films to include. That “The Red Shoes” is not in the top 100 is a big surprise -- it has a very high-profile frequent advocate in Martin Scorsese (it certainly made his top 10), and was reissued in 2009 in a painstaking, sumptuous restoration. And it is a terrific film: a driven ballerina, caught between her svengali and her lover, is brought to the brink of madness by the competing demands of her art and her life, mirroring the tale told in her signature ballet role. But the logline captures none of the film’s true magic: the technicolor photography is almost shockingly delicious, with the titular shoes and Moira Shearer’s red hair singing out lavishly amid exquisite choreography and costuming and stylised set design. So our heads wonder “where is ‘Red Shoes’ ”? But our hearts, on aggregate, might look for its less-celebrated counterpart, “Black Narcissus.” Sharing many of the themes of ‘Shoes,’ (obsession, female psychological disintegration and the clash between vocation and the world outside) what marks ‘Narcissus’ out is its sensuality: a cloying, thwarted eroticism pervades the film like a heavy perfume. A group of nuns is sent to an isolated spot in the Himalayas to ‘civilize’ the local population, but instead an atmosphere of suppressed hysteria, arousal and jealousy brews until one of them goes full-on bonkers through sexual deprivation and envy. The photography, put in service of this lurid agenda is unforgettable -- fat raindrops falling on indecently lush vegetation, Sister Ruth lasciviously applying crimson lipstick, virginal white habits billowing from room to room, painted backdrops of mountains, peach skies and cliffs that fall away to clouds beneath -- every frame is a masterpiece of deliberate, controlled artistry. Here you’ll find tones and textures that, outside of Daphne du Maurier’s fever dreams, you won’t get anywhere else; watch a Sirkian melodrama on a cocktail of LSD, PCP and Hormone Replacement Therapy, and you might get close. Love them though we do, we couldn’t justify two entries for the Archers on this short list, so we bent our own rules with this either/or. But, list be damned, mostly we recommend you rush out and buy both.
After his breakthrough film, "Shadows," in 1959, John Cassavetes struck out with his next couple of directorial efforts; "Too Late Blues" and "A Child Is Waiting" were both studio efforts with stars in the lead roles, and neither were especially liked, not least by the filmmaker himself. So nearly a decade after his directorial debut (and with an Oscar nomination for "The Dirty Dozen" under his belt, he returned to the same kind of low-key milieu for this tale of the imploding marriage of Richard and Maria Forst (John Marley and Lynn Carlin) as they seek solace in others (namely Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel). Though stylistically at opposite poles, Cassavetes was in some way the American Bergman, and the brutal, raw honesty of this picture certainly backs that up, even if the jazzy, experimental editing and framing owes more to Godard. Any number of Cassavetes films could make the list, but it's this one that feels essential.
Probably the last masterpiece of Soviet cinema (the nation that brought us Eisenstein and Tarkovsky disintegrated six years later), Elem Klimov's "Come and See" is one of the most unutterably powerful war films ever made. Showing the Nazi occupation of what is now Belarus through the eyes of a pair of teenagers (Aleksiei Kravchenko and Olga Mironova), it's war not as it's normally shown on screen, with heroic soldiers at the forefront, but through the eyes of an innocent, and its depictions of atrocities are all the more horrifying as a result. It's an unbelievably punishing, bruising watching thanks to the realism of Klimov's technique; it wouldn't surprise you if you were told that you were watching documentary footage. Of course, it's all meticulously planned out by a filmmaker who never made another movie, saying sixteen years later "I lost interest in making films ... Everything that was possible I felt I had already done." He died in 2003, but there's no doubt that he went out on a masterpiece.
So that's it. 30 picks we feel strongly about. Some in the top 250 (though a few very, very low in the list in our opinion, see the Kieslowski's) and some not in there at all. It's by no means definitive, but it's the 30 films we felt passionate about. You surely have your thoughts, so weigh in below and tell us what you're missing. Arguably there's still at least five or six Bergman, Bresson and Kurosawa films that could join that list, to name just a few, no? - Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Jessica Kiang