The Eight Best Films I’ve Seen Since Memorial Day

| September 2nd, 2022

Each year, for Labor Day weekend, I write about something wildly off-topic. That usually means bars or movies and since my brain is concentrated on the latter, with graduate school mere days away, that’s where the road shall take us. This post is a football palate cleanser, a nice distraction before five straight months of non-stop Chicago Bears.

To prepare my brain for a return to scholarly life, I watched 67 films this summer. Those films fell into three categories: movie musicals pre-1960, English language classics by acclaimed directors and foreign language classics. Some I had previously seen two decades ago. Some I had seen pieces of here and there as an undergrad. I also read 11 books on various film-related subjects. I won’t waste space by listing everything. Instead, you can see the entire list of films and books by CLICKING HERE. (There are stars next to certain films. They are not a value rating. Ignore them.)

Of the books, I can’t recommend Anna McCarthy’s Citizen Machine highly enough. The book examines how the concept of liberalism evolved from notions of solidarity and “the people” to a concentrated individualism in post-Cold War America, illuminating how various entities (corporations, labor, etc.) used television to sell that message. It is a brilliant work.

For the films, I’ll be listing them in no particular order, and providing a brief comment or video clip that I hope piques your interest.  Here they are. (If you’re interested in seeing any of these films, they are all available either to rent or stream. You can check them all at JustWatch.com.)

High and Low (Director: Akira Kurosawa)

A stunning piece of storytelling, Kurosawa’s masterpiece is part kidnapping melodrama and part police procedural. High and Low is, in some ways, a combination of Rashomon‘s narrative flexibility and Seven Samurai‘s big Hollywood sensibility. It is one of my favorite movies ever made.

Bande à part (Director: Jean-Luc Godard)

Born to Dance (Director: Roy Del Ruth)

If “Jimmy Stewart in a Cole Porter musical” doesn’t excite you, let’s face it, we’re probably not friends.

Night and Fog (Director: Alain Resnais)

At only 32 minutes, Resnais’ Holocaust documentary essay is one of the most important achievements in the history of cinema and the most powerful visual document of humankind’s greatest tragedy.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Director: Max Ophüls)

Ophüls, thanks to the writing of Andrew Sarris, was my favorite discovery of the summer. Earrings of Madame De… is a masterful handling of a complicated narrative. Caught is a sophisticated and deeply realized love triangle, with three brilliant performances from James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Ryan. But Letter is the knockout – subtle, human tragedy handled with literary, epic scope and typically Ophülsian lavishness.

(I still have a lot more of the filmmaker to experience, including La Ronde and Lola Montes, but those will have to remain on the backburner for now.)

The Conversation (Director: Francis Ford Coppola)

I own this film, but I probably hadn’t watched it in a decade or more. The sound design, handled by the legendary Walter Murch, is the most intricate and important in the history of American cinema. The opening scene below perfectly illustrates that.

Grand Illusion (Director: Jean Renoir)

Writing about this film is incredibly difficult after only a singular viewing. But many films that followed owe it a significant debt, including The Great Escape and Casablanca.

The Seventh Seal (Director: Ingmar Bergman)

It is the most easily mocked of the European art film movement, with its depictions of Max von Sydow’s iconic chess match with Death on a stone-filled beach being satirized for decades. Some actually believe that is what the entire film is. It’s not. It’s about ten minutes of the total. And the total is human and funny and the work of a master filmmaker in total control. Here is a piece of Roger Ebert’s brilliant review:

A knight returning from the Crusades finds a rude church still open in the midst of the Black Death, and goes to confession there. Speaking to a hooded figure half-seen through an iron grill, he pours out his heart: “My indifference has shut me out. I live in a world of ghosts, a prisoner of dreams. I want God to put out his hand, show his face, speak to me. I cry out to him in the dark but there is no one there.” The hooded figure turns, and is revealed as Death, who has been following the knight on his homeward journey.

Images like that have no place in the modern cinema, which is committed to facile psychology and realistic behavior. In many ways, Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957) has more in common with the silent film than with the modern films that followed it–including his own. Perhaps that is why it is out of fashion at the moment. Long considered one of the masterpieces of cinema, it is now a little embarrassing to some viewers, with its stark imagery and its uncompromising subject, which is no less than the absence of God.

Films are no longer concerned with the silence of God but with the chattering of men. We are uneasy to find Bergman asking existential questions in an age of irony, and Bergman himself, starting with “Persona” (1967), found more subtle ways to ask the same questions. But the directness of “The Seventh Seal” is its strength: This is an uncompromising film, regarding good and evil with the same simplicity and faith as its hero.

Enjoy Labor Day Weekend and the de facto end of summer. 

DBB will return on Monday with haikus and TUESDAY with predictions for the coming campaign.

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