“4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” (2007)
Here's proof of the thin line dividing the subjective from the objective in the definition of “greatness.” “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” is an experience as bleak and barren as the humdrum rhythm of its title suggests, but it would be foolish of us to deny the cinematic weight the film manages to support with all the fragility of a burnt matchstick. The story of two university friends transacting their way toward illegal abortion in late '80s Romania would have completely misfired with audiences at Cannes if it weren't for the blistering minimalist performances from Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, the perfect poster children for the entire movement the film heralds. What has become known as the Romanian New Wave, weaving the socio-political texture with dilapidated aesthetics dried up by communist rule, originated with the Short Film Palme d'Or winner “Trafic” in 2004, and continued to pry the film industry's doors open with Un Certain Regard winner “The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu” in 2005 and 2008's Camera d'Or winner “12:08 East Of Bucharest.” But it was Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or winner in 2007 that validated a new, however harsh, cinematic language, shining high society light on a cracked corner of Eastern Europe. The competition was overflowing with mainstream and arthouse filmmakers; Bela Tarr (“The Man From London”) and Wong Kar Wai (“Blueberry Nights”) mingling with The Coen Brothers (“No Country For Old Men”) and David Fincher (“Zodiac”) but Jury President Stephen Frears announced '4 Months' the winner. The fact that it was Frears is all the more remarkable, but proves our point with this one even further. While we're not going to run and have our emotions drained again through a 1980s Romanian sieve, this Palme d'Or winner was too important to dismiss, and as such, rightly deserves its spot among the greatest of them all.
"All That Jazz" (1979)
Fragmentary, hallucinatory, grandly spectacular and deeply personal, Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" is a film that constantly operates on several levels. A largely autobiographical reconstruction of Fosse's own psychological struggles when wrestling to complete his Lenny Bruce biopic "Lenny" (itself a portrait of a man bedeviled by his talent and compulsions to the point of breakdown) while mounting a Broadway production of "Chicago" (a song from which provides the title), really it's an exploration of his unraveling psychology, as the hedonism of his lifestyle starts to catch up with him. Roy Scheider is terrific as the promiscuous Fosse surrogate Joe Gideon who alternates flashes of inspiration as a movie/theatre director, choreographer, father and lover with a series of dexy-induced imagined encounters with a mysterious white-clad woman (Jessica Lange) who seems at first to be his muse, but turns out to be the Angel of Death. Perhaps she's both. Fosse's incredible flair for dance (and for dance on film especially) is highlighted in the many dazzling show sequences that become more prevalent as the third act more or less devolves into one all-singing, all-dancing fever dream, but it's the fearlessness with which he lays bare his demons which is most impressive, with the director proving himself a master of ironic counterpoint as a means to show Gideon's increasing dislocation from reality. Part dance film, part musical, part confessional and part beautiful bad trip, "All That Jazz" is a unique hybrid that saw Fosse, who also earned three directing Oscar nominations (and one win, for "Cabaret") in a filmography of just five titles, deservedly share the Palme podium that year with no less a master than Akira Kurosawa for "Kagemusha."
“The Conversation” (1974)
“He'd kill us if he got the chance.” If you didn't get chills just now, stop everything and immediately watch “The Conversation.” For everyone else, those eight little words are made all the more ominous the more they rewind in memory, thanks to Francis Ford Coppola's edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller, effectively re-aligning the edge forever after. Coppola must have felt like King Midas back in the 70s; whether he was just writing, merely producing, or doing the triple threat of writing-directing-producing, everything he touched turned to gold. He entered the Cannes competition twice in this decade, and walked away with the Palme d'Or on both occasions; for films that have become so intricately stitched into the fabric of American cinema, our list would have been impossible without them. “The Conversation” usually gets second or third billing when Coppola's greatest films are placed in order but the suspenseful fear so masterfully distilled by paranoia and invasion of privacy is arguably more compelling than epic Mafia family struggles or dehumanized journeys into the Vietnam War. Gene Hackman gives the greatest performance of his career (yes, better than his Popeye Doyle) as Harry Caul; wire tapper, hermit, saxophone player, and a man whose conscience is dictated by every one of those idiosyncrasies. Suspense is elevated into the realms of art by way of the actor's performances, use of sound editing that's never been matched since, and a direction that slowly curls its fingers around your throat and chokes you with its claustrophobic cinematography and soundtrack. It was inspired by another Palme d'Or winner (1966's “Blowup”) but for our money this intimate masterpiece is a more intoxicating, fear-inducing experience, and as such rightly deserves its spot.
“The Cranes Are Flying” (1957)
In the history of sublime director/cinematographer partnerships, there may be no pairing more consistently undersung and more deserving of a place in that pantheon than director Mikhail Kalatozov and his frequent collaborator Sergey Urusevskiy. Indeed, prior to a resurgence of interest following the restoration of “I Am Cuba,” Kalatozov’s work in general has tended to be overlooked in the role call of the all-time greats, no doubt due to the stigma he held for being a “Soviet” filmmaker (despite the fact that earlier in his career he had in fact been banned by Stalinist authorities in the ‘30s for “Nail in the Boot,” ironically a work of pretty virulent propaganda). Those politics take a back seat, however in “The Cranes Are Flying”—probably his masterpiece—a work of compelling humanism about the cost of war that runs counter to the grain of soviet filmmaking of the time by focusing on the interior lives of its protagonists. And in its female lead, it features an absolutely astonishing, indelible performance from Tatiana Samoilova (who died just last week) as the vibrant, vivacious Veronika, her light gradually dimmed through years of hardship and separation from her soldier lover, Boris. Astonishingly moving (Samoilova’s is one of the most fascinatingly alive screen presences ever) and couched in cinematography so fluid and expressive (as in “I am Cuba” there are times when we simply don’t understand how Urusevskiy achieved a shot given the technology he was using) that from the very first shot of the lovers meeting by a curving wall banking a river, it takes your breath away, time and again. Elsewhere in his filmography Kalatozov was undoubtedly more heavy-handed, but there is a purity here, in image, feeling and performance, that simply transcends politics.