Over the past week and a half myself and Laurent di Alberti at FilmLand Empire blog have set each other a daily challenge to name our absolute favourite top twenty films ever. We titled the feature Top Twenty Films Challenge (cue: dramatic music). It has been a difficult task and since we’re now half way through said endeavour, I thought I’d publish the first ten movies in an article so there’s no need to forage like a wild boar looking for other entries. If you’ve been following it daily you’ll already know what films I’ve chosen and if not, here they are below. Don’t forget to click on the FilmLand Empire link above to check out Laurent’s selection!
#20: City Girl (F.W. Murnau, 1930)
Common consensus, critical or otherwise, tells us Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is F.W. Murnau’s American masterpiece. And they’d be right. But so is City Girl (1930). The film had a problematic production with Murnau absent for some of it and then replaced (by hacks). Despite polite reviews at the time, City Girl was caught between the transition from silent to sound. Ironically, the sound version is now lost.
Murnau had arrived in Hollywood to make Sunrise at the behest of William Fox (a mogul in serious need of reappraisal). Sunrise was an artistic success and a box office flop. In between the director made 4 Devils (now lost). City Girl is the story of two young lovers from different places falling in love and returning the bridegroom’s homestead in Minnesota, where she learns to live the rural way. It’s a tough life and she’s viewed with suspicion. Mary Duncan, as ‘city girl’ Kate, is superb and deserves a place next to Janet Gaynor in Sunrise. Her character is plucky and sincere. Murnau’s poetic vision sometimes feels near-documentary with shots of farmers going about their daily toil. The film would prove an inspiration for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and is waiting for re-discovery.
City Girl is a film I adore largely because of Mary Duncan’s excellent performance. The actress would go on to retire in the early 1930s, too. Murnau’s last American studio picture might be the poor cousin of Sunrise but I love it more.
F.W. Murnau once said:
“The camera is the director’s pencil. It should have the greatest possible mobility in order to record the most fleeting harmony of atmosphere. It is important that the mechanical factor should not stand between the spectator and the film.”
Now watch this gorgeous little sequence. First time I saw the tracking shot sequence, I was truly moved. An incredible moment.
#19 La Jetée (dir: Chris Marker)
I am not joking when I declare this 1962 short to be the most influential sci-fi flick of the past fifty years. It is also an incredibly moving account of the fragility of memory and time. Terry Gilliam pinched elements from Marker’s film for 12 Monkeys, but I absolutely recommend you see this because it blows 12 Monkeys right out of the water and in less time. I repeat, this is a short film.
La Jetée is told as a photo-montage with a time traveller going into his own past and returning to his present time (a post-apocalyptic underground Paris) with pieces of technology and fragmented memories. The Man (Davos Hanich) begins a relationship with The Woman (Hélène Chatelain). She calls him ‘her ghost’. He’s haunted by an image of a woman stood on a viewing platform at Orly airport. There is an utterly astounding moment in La Jetée where all of a sudden the image beings to move, a woman looks at us and coyly smiles. I called this, in article I wrote on the film, the ‘Mona Lisa’ shot of cinema. We do not understand the smile therefore it becomes enigmatic and troubling.
Marker’s short – it is twenty-six minutes long – has influenced such films as The Terminator, Inception, Gilliam’s movie, The Time Traveller’s Wife and others with its surprisingly low-tech approach to time travel. The future is ruined and ruled by scientists who take prisoners and conduct sinister experiments. The Man is one of the few who can endure the arduous task of going into the past. An obsessive memory provides the man with strength.
You can watch the whole twenty-six minutes long masterpiece that is La Jetée below. It is quite possibly one of the best twenty-six minutes you’ll ever spend alive. Marker’s film is something to be experienced and then studied (if you’ve got the time and of that persuasion). That La Jetée was made by a filmmaker with little interest in narrative fiction cinema seems all the more remarkable. The film discusses the past, the present (it was made during the nightmarish days of the Cuban Missle Crisis) and the potential disaster awaiting us in the future. The fragmentary back and forth style is allusive and intriguing.