my fave movies of the 21st century

An interesting question came up in the comments for the post on the latest They Shoot Pictures, Don't They update: What are the one or two 21st century films that have ranked highest in my informal all-time list? Interesting enough to answer the question in a separate post.

The easiest place to start is with the Fave Fifty project a few of us did on Facebook back in 2011. Here are the 21st century films that made my all-time top 50 list:

City of God (#20 on my list, #10 on TSPDT)

In the Mood for Love (#38, #1)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (#44, #33)

The Lives of Others (#45, #31)

Since then, I have also given my highest rating to these movies, which came out in 2011 or later:

A Separation (#17 on TSPDT)

Mad Max: Fury Road (#49)

Before Midnight (#207)

The Square (N/A)

If any of these movies would make my current Top 50 list, it's probably A Separation. Fury Road, much as I love it, isn't different enough from The Road Warrior for me to bump it that last little bit, and Before Midnight gets at least some of its value from being the third in a trilogy. The Square is the only documentary on this list, so it will get an honorable mention.

So the question is, where would A Separation fit among those other four movies from my 2011 list? The only one of those movies I've watched in the past few years is In the Mood for Love, which grows in my heart with each viewing. I'd probably put it at the top of those four movies now. So, off the top of my head, here are my Top Five movies of the 21st century:

  1. In the Mood for Love
  2. City of God
  3. A Separation
  4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  5. The Lives of Others

movies, 1969

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a set of columns on popular culture in 1969. Mick LaSalle got to examine movies from that year. He noted that the old Production Code was finally dumped in late 1968, and that studios that were losing money looked to younger filmmakers: "This combination, within the industry, of no censorship and a willingness to innovate would bring about a brief but important golden age." He then proceeded to look at a few of the best movies of 1969 ... "[W]hen you consider some of the best movies of 1969, the past doesn’t seem that far away at all."

The movies he mentioned were Anne of the Thousand Days, Army of Shadows, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, Goodbye Columbus, Midnight Cowboy, Salesman, They Shoot Horses, Don't They, and Topaz. It's an idiosyncratic list, as it should be. I've written about two of these on this blog.

Army of Shadows:

This tale of the French resistance is purposely low-key; you don’t come here for action-packed heroics. Instead, you get ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, making life-or-death decisions (in truth, mostly death in the short term), living under assumed names, their actions unknown even to their closest family. There is an inevitable feeling to the fates of these people. Knowing, as we do with hindsight, that the Nazis eventually lose, and that the Resistance helped expedite the Nazi failure, isn’t much good to the characters, who all know they are unlikely to see that victory. 


In my formative years as a film major in the early 70s ... I was a real believer in cinéma vérité, and I didn't spend much time questioning the "reality" of what was on the screen. More than 40 years later, I've seen a lot of cinéma vérité, and I no longer trust it in quite the same way. I'm more aware of the artist's manipulations than I was in my more naive years. If I had seen Salesman when I was 19, I would have loved it. Now, the "vérité" seems, not false exactly, but concocted. Its truths are the ones the filmmakers want to put forward, just like with every movie. And if I take away the aura of reality, Salesman is a documentary that takes a little too long to makes its points. The more reflective salesmen have insights into their own lives, but those insights feel casually slipped it, as if they weren't any more important than the other scenes in the movie. That's part of the trick, of course, to make it seem like the camera just happened to be there to record the men. And the artistry of the film is hidden behind the theory of its execution.

Of LaSalle's other choices, I've seen Butch Cassidy and Midnight Cowboy. I'm not a fan of either, and have a special dislike for Cassidy. I've also seen Easy Rider and liked it OK. That gives me four movies to check out.

What are my favorite 1969 movies? Thanks for asking. At the top are two that I listed in that long-ago Facebook Fave Fifty project.

The Sorrow and the Pity (#2 on that list):

The film also approaches one my favorite subjects, the vagaries of memory. People tell stories about what happened to them 25 years earlier; other people tell stories that contradict the story you just heard. Some people make grandiose claims based on “facts", only to have the interviewer gently contest those “facts” with facts of his own that put the lie to the original speaker.

Ultimately, The Sorrow and the Pity puts us in the position of thinking about how we might have reacted in that situation. We might see ourselves as heroic, and the mythology tells us most French people were indeed heroes. But we also see that the myth is often more false than true, and that ordinary people act in ordinary ways under extraordinary circumstances, when to be ordinary is to be a collaborator.

The Wild Bunch (#8):

After The Wild Bunch, it was impossible to look at westerns the same way. It dealt with the end of an era, but there was nothing new in that; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, from the same period, trod similar ground. But the freeze-frame that concludes Butch Cassidy allows our nostalgia to survive. (“A freeze-frame!”, David Thomson wrote. “You can hear Peckinpah’s sneer. He might slow down the fatal frames, but that is only so we can see every bullet bursting in flesh and blood.”) The excessive violence at the end of The Wild Bunch rubs our noses in the era’s end; nothing seems to survive. After that, what else is possible? From that point on, if you made a western, you had to deal with the line The Wild Bunch drew between then and now.

I think one problem with the recent Magnificent Seven remake is that it acted like The Wild Bunch had never been made.

Army of Shadows is my 3rd-favorite movie of 1969. Coming in at #4:

On Her Majesty's Secret Service:

The worst 007 (George Lazenby), combined with one of the handful of best Bond Girls (Diana Rigg), a Bond that is more human than usual, a love story that is touching without getting in the way, and some of the best actions scenes ever to appear in a Bond movie. If it wasn’t for Lazenby, this would be a contender for best James Bond movie of all time.

So, I'm now building a list of 1969 movies I should watch. Of course, like most "requests" (I'm acting like LaSalle requested that I watched the four of his choices I've missed), it may take me five years to get there. (Anyone reading this who wants to recommend a 1969 movie, that's what the comments section is for!). Meanwhile, here are some other movies from 1969 I have never seen:

Kes, Adalen 31, In the Year of the Pig, Model Shop, Medium Cool.

And, since it's Oscar season, here are some Oscar winners from that year I haven't seen:

Hello, Dolly, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Cactus Flower. I have to say those don't look all that great to me.

And finally, I'll add two of the top grossing films in the U.S. that I haven't seen, one which I would like to see, one which I wouldn't: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Paint Your Wagon.


nicolas roeg

Nicolas Roeg died yesterday at the age of 90. There was a time when he was my favorite director. His first three films as a director (Performance, co-directed with Donald Cammell, Walkabout, and Don't Look Now) remain tremendous. I didn't like his next two, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bad Timing, as much, and then I mostly lost track of him, although he directed for another 27 years

I wrote about Performance a couple of months ago: "Revisiting Performance". I ranked it #10 on my 50 Favorite Films list back in 2012. In an earlier post:

Performance no longer seems like a very complicated movie. I showed it to a friend a few years ago who had never seen it, and he thought it was fairly straightforward. This is because the techniques of Performance, the things that made it seem so remarkable in 1970, are commonplace now. Fractured editing, uncertain chronologies, plots full of puzzles, these are all part of the standard bag of contemporary directors’ tricks.

Walkabout in 2011: "Walkabout is one of my very favorite movies, and is one of the reasons why, as a film major in the early-70s, I thought Nicolas Roeg was the best director. I recommend it highly to pretty much everyone reading this."

I discussed Don't Look Now in 2013:

In Don’t Look Now, there is a sense that nothing is as it seems, alongside a feeling that one could figure out the puzzle if you just gave yourself over to your gifts of second sight. Roeg plays with time … what the film calls “second sight” allows for flash-forwards as premonition, and the past never leaves us, either. John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) sees past events just as often as he sees the future, although he doesn’t believe in those premonitions, only in what happened in the past. The film is full of visual allusions, shapes that occur in multiple settings, motifs of water and broken glass, and the color red, always red. Venice is a character in the film, as well, but it is far from what you might see in a tourist brochure.

still in the mood for love (anthony bourdain edition)

I revisited In the Mood for Love after watching an episode of the late Anthony Bourdain's series, Parts Unknown. I watched Bourdain at the encouragement of a friend who had asked me to do so earlier this year when Bourdain died. He specifically suggested the Hong Kong episode, and I finally got around to it. I get recommendations from people all the time, and sometimes it takes me forever to get to them ... a couple of weeks ago I watched a DVD someone had given me a few years ago, for the first time. It takes forever ... but I keep track, and I do get to them eventually. (Hint: the comments section is always a good place to make requests.)

I know very little about Anthony Bourdain. I know he died. I know he was partners with Asia Argento. What I know of his work comes completely from when he wrote for Treme. I also knew nothing of the series Parts Unknown. Honestly, I thought it would be a food show and nothing more.

Well, it was great. And when it began, and I heard music that sounded a lot like In the Mood for Love, I was instantly happy. Then I found out Christopher Doyle, long-time collaborator with Wong Kar-Wai and the co-cinematographer for In the Mood for Love, is in the episode. Watching Doyle, I couldn't believe I'd never encountered him anywhere but behind the camera, so to speak. I love his work, and left it at that. To find out he is such a character fascinated me. Of course, I had to look him up, and found that he is famously rambunctious. I felt at times that I was watching a camera-toting Keith Richards, and liked finding out that he has called himself the Keith Richards of cinematographers. Like I say, I can't believe it took me this long to learn about him as a person.

There are things I don't think I quite get, given I am coming to Parts Unknown cold. It was a bit creepy knowing this was the last episode shown before he died. It was also creepy knowing Asia Argento directed it, given her own recent problems. I guess I'm lucky I found it, since apparently CNN removed her episodes from their streaming site.

I often think, when watching food or travel shows, that I wish I was adventurous. I don't like to travel to unfamiliar places, and my taste in food is notoriously narrow. Seeing Bourdain wandering around HK and eating any damn thing they put in front of him reminds me of how limited I am.

I admit, this didn't make me want to immediately watch more of the episodes of the show, but it did make me want to watch In the Mood for Love yet again. That film was #38 on my Fifty Favorites list of a few years ago. At the time, I wrote:
In the Mood for Love is a perfect title for this movie. The two main characters are most definitely in the mood; they also don't ever get beyond being in the mood. Repressed emotions have rarely been so charged as they are here. While on one level, "nothing really happens," Wong Kar-wai does a great job of making us anticipate what is about to happen. Of course, our expectations go unfulfilled.

This time around, I think I better appreciated why some people wouldn't love the film as much as I do. The haunting waltz that is played throughout the film might simply seem repetitious, and those unfulfilled expectations might just be irritating. Not for me, I must add. As beautiful as the film is to look at, it takes an extra leap because of its stars. As I once said, "The plot, whereby a man and woman discover that their respective spouses are having an affair, isn’t particularly far-fetched. But they are played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung, two of the best-looking actors in the world, and you can’t help wondering why anyone lucky enough to be married to them would have a roving eye." Ultimately, I'm not sure In the Mood for Love felt different when seen partly through the filter of the Bourdain show. But the two make a perfect, if tragic, pairing.

Here is an interesting video essay on the movie from "Nerdwriter1":

#1: the godfather and the godfather: part ii (francis ford coppola, 1972, 1974)

(This is the last of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

At last, the most anticlimactic pick of them all.

Anyone who knows me understands that my #1 choice was inevitable, as was my decision to treat two films as one. I don’t care if it’s cheating. Either film on its own would be a contender for my #1 slot. Together, they constitute epic greatness.

Part I (it’s not really called that, of course, but it’s easier for the purposes of this discussion) is a masterpiece of storytelling. It is hugely entertaining, but it is also intelligent, or perhaps better said, it does not insult the intelligence of its audience. The Godfather is filled with memorable set pieces and quotable dialogue that has long since entered the general vernacular. The casting and performances are so perfect it isn’t always clear where one starts and the other begins. In fact, at this point, the casting seems inevitable: of course Abe Vigoda is Tessio and John Cazale is Fredo and Richard Conte is Barzini. But at the time, it wasn’t so inevitable, with the obvious example being Marlon Brando, who was no one’s idea of Vito Corleone until we saw him in the movie.

Brando’s charisma is so great that Vito’s presence is felt throughout the film, even though he disappears after 45 minutes and doesn’t return until late. This allows for the gradual emergence of the character of Michael Corleone, the true center of the two films. Folks who have seen the direction of Al Pacino’s career might be surprised to revisit the first two Godfather movies, where Pacino keeps the vehement histrionics to a minimum. His performance over Part I and II is one of the greats of cinema history. At the start, he’s quiet and reserved; at the end, he is quiet and reserved. But the difference between Michael the returning war hero and Michael the Godfather is clear, and Pacino manages to show us this in his face.

The Godfather is superior entertainment; Part II takes things to another level. Without the sequel, The Godfather would not reach beyond its own basic excellence (which is no small thing in itself). The sequel gives the original a depth it doesn’t necessarily have on its own. If the first film begins with the lines, “I believe in America,” Part II shows us why Vito dismisses such sentiments by giving us the roots of the character. And the fate of Michael shows us beyond a shadow of a doubt just how corrosive the Corleone’s Sicilian heritage can be.

Part I is the story of a family, and it is understandable that some viewers saw in Vito the kind of benevolent lover of family that we wish was part of our own family. Part II gives the lie to such beliefs. It is unlikely that anyone, watching both movies, would wish they could be a Corleone.

The narrative structure of the two films, wherein we get the middle of the story first, after which we get the beginning and end intermixed, is also brilliant. The more straightforward first film allows for the kind of immediate response that leads to a popular classic, while Part II expands our understanding from both ends. And Coppola seamlessly blends the two periods, which is harder than it looks. Throughout, Coppola and his crew manage to create three completely believable periods in the 20th century, and also recreate several locations (New York, Sicily, Nevada, Havana) with seeming ease.

The character trajectory of Michael is the core of the films. Vito knows what he has done in his life, but he has done it for what he thinks are the right reasons: “I work my whole life, I don't apologize, to take care of my family.” Michael knows what he has done with his life, but he also knows he could have chosen another path, and he knows that in the name of family, he has destroyed his family. He knows he is a bad person, but still he continues.

When Michael commits his first murder, he takes the step from being the Corleone who would do something different to being the Corleone who would eventually become the Godfather. He hesitates just before leaving the bathroom, and in that hesitation, he takes one last moment to consider what he is about to do, while we in the audience, wanting him to succeed, become implicated.


The comments section was filled with “so, now what?” posts. It may be time to come up with an answer to that question.

#2: the sorrow and the pity (marcel ophüls, 1969)

(This is the 49th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

The Sorrow and the Pity is one of those movies with so much depth, you are truly rewarded with each new viewing. Those viewings shouldn’t come too close to each other; watching more than four hours of talking heads, with people speaking in French, German, and English, with subtitles and voiceover translations, takes a lot of mental work. But it’s the kind of mental work we are called upon to exercise so infrequently when watching movies, the result is invigorating, and your energy level actually picks up steam as the film continues on and each of the people featured in the interviews become more complete.

It’s a film about the Occupation years in France during World War II, told via newsreels and interviews with the participants (it was made in the late-60s, and many of those people were still alive to tell their tales). It turns every notion you’ve ever had about the Resistance and collaborators on its head, because, while it’s clear Ophüls has a point of view, he gives each interviewee the opportunity to explain their actions. Some famous figures come across as heroic, some not, but what really hits home are the “regular” people. Like the farmer, a former Resistance fighter who was denounced and sent to Buchenwald … he knows who turned him in, but he never sought revenge, because it would make him as bad as the other fellow. That sounds like someone who would fit nicely into Casablanca. And there are others like him.

But there are other Frenchmen and women who, while not doing anything that was outright evil, nonetheless participated in the Occupation, who didn’t cause trouble, who accepted the Nazis into their daily lives. There are far more of these people than you might have known about, and while The Sorrow and the Pity was made for French television, it wasn’t shown there until 1981, perhaps because of the implications about the reality of French life during the Occupation when compared to the myth of resistance.

The film also approaches one my favorite subjects, the vagaries of memory. People tell stories about what happened to them 25 years earlier; other people tell stories that contradict the story you just heard. Some people make grandiose claims based on “facts", only to have the interviewer gently contest those “facts” with facts of his own that put the lie to the original speaker.

Ultimately, The Sorrow and the Pity puts us in the position of thinking about how we might have reacted in that situation. We might see ourselves as heroic, and the mythology tells us most French people were indeed heroes. But we also see that the myth is often more false than true, and that ordinary people act in ordinary ways under extraordinary circumstances, when to be ordinary is to be a collaborator.

The film does not take a side, exactly. I mean, it’s anti-Fascism. But it doesn’t try to draw pictures of good guys and bad guys. It just gives us people, in all their complications, and let’s us think about them for ourselves. Anthony Eden gets the last word: “One who has not suffered the horrors of an occupying power has no right to judge a nation that has.”


There were plenty of comments on this one, but most were devoted to guessing what our #1 picks would be.

#3: bonnie and clyde (arthur penn, 1967)

(This is the 48th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

Bonnie and Clyde was the first movie that really entranced me, although I can’t say it was the first movie that taught me new things about film. I loved it very much, but in 1967, that just meant if someone asked, I could say it was my favorite movie. Later I learned about its roots in the French New Wave, and of course, after the fact one can see Bonnie and Clyde as the first movie in the Golden Age of American Cinema. And now I know that Pauline Kael’s epic, overlong review of the film helped give it a second life when it appeared to have bombed, and that this was the first time Kael had a real impact, but when I was 14, I’d never heard of Pauline Kael.

Gene Hackman is one of my favorite actors, and this is the first time I noticed him … he is terrific, as always. Dede Allen was one of the great editors, and Bonnie and Clyde is one of her finest works. It is a crime that the movie got 10 Oscar nominations (and won two), yet Allen got no recognition from the Academy.

As for why this movie is so close to my heart, I blame the romance between the title characters. They aren’t glorified (in fact, Entertainment Weekly trashed a reissue, accusing Arthur Penn of condescending to his characters). They are, in fact, a bit dim, never connecting their actions to the consequences. But they share an intimate relationship, with each other and with the audience, which may be why the film bothered so many on its release: love and violence are mixed in a startling fashion. (Humor and violence are also used in this way. Especially the first time you watch it, your reaction is something like funny, cute, funny, slapstick, funny, WHAM THAT GUY GOT SHOT IN THE FACE! As Kael noted, Bonnie and Clyde replaces the spoofy “we were only kidding” with the disruptive “and you thought we were only kidding.”)

When I watch, I always convince myself that they won’t die at the end. But Clyde himself explains why the movie will always end with their death. Bonnie asks him what he would do if a miracle allowed them to start over, clean with no record. Clyde thinks for a second, hems and haws a bit, and then says, “I guess I'd do it all different. First off, I wouldn't live in the same state where we pull our jobs. We'd live in another state. We'd stay clean there and then when we'd take a bank, we'd go into the other state.”


The comments were an inspired bunch of memories of the first time people saw Bonnie and Clyde. I couldn’t resist re-telling my own version: “When I saw Bonnie and Clyde when it first came out (or at least, when it first hit the suburbs), I wanted to see it so badly that I went, even though I had just contracted chicken pox. I didn't tell anyone until after I'd seen the movie (infecting the entire theater in the process, of course).”

#4: rio bravo (howard hawks, 1959)

(This is the 47th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

You never know what will be considered a classic in the future. I first saw Rio Bravo on TV when I was a kid, and I loved it, as I have every time I have seen it since then. But it would never have occurred to me on that first viewing that I was watching a classic. Even later, Rio Bravo would have been a guilty pleasure if I believed in such things. Howard Hawks was an acclaimed Hollywood director (and over time, I came to realize he was one of my own very favorites), John Wayne the biggest of stars, but Rio Bravo wasn't thought of as their best work, alone or together. And the presence of actors like Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson didn't exactly help (they are all wonderful in Rio Bravo ... well, Ricky is only OK ... but really, do you think a movie is a classic if all you know is that Dean Martin plays a drunk, Ricky Nelson plays a gunslinger named Colorado, Police Woman is a woman of mystery, and everything stops in the middle of the film so Dino and Ricky can sing a couple of songs with Walter Brennan accompanying them?)

The thing is, Rio Bravo is fun ... maybe that's one reason it wasn't always taken seriously.

This is my third and final Howard Hawks film. It contains the basic elements that I like in all his movies: witty banter, communities of men, and the ever-present “Hawksian Woman” who is always the equal of the men, largely because she is a lot like the men. In the Hawks movies I have chosen for this list, the women have gone from Rosalind Russell to Lauren Bacall to Angie Dickinson, the male leads from Cary Grant to Humphrey Bogart to John Wayne. One reason I rank Rio Bravo above the others is the way Hawks plays with the image of John Wayne. Grant and Bogart are not that different in His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep than they are in other movies. In a similar way, in Rio Bravo John Wayne plays “John Wayne.” But, while Russell and Bacall influence their co-stars, Dickinson’s effect on Wayne allows for a remarkable opening up of “John Wayne.” Grant and Bogart have a lot of love and admiration for the leading women in their movies, but Wayne in Rio Bravo is constantly unsettled by Dickinson, flustered, fumbling for words, never knowing quite what to do with her.

The relationship amongst the community surrounding Wayne also subverts any notion we might have that Wayne is the solitary man of action who needs no help. John T. Chance keeps saying he doesn’t need help (by which he means amateur help … he welcomes the help of professionals). But Chance only accomplishes his goals because his friends help him. The drunk, the cripple, the shady lady, the hotel owner, and the gunslinger (a professional, but as personified by the still-teenaged Ricky Nelson, an anomaly), all of them rise to the occasion. And Wayne welcomes their assistance.

As the community works together, Rio Bravo becomes a generous movie. Bonded by humor and common goals, the characters accept each other with all of their flaws, and we in the audience are welcomed into their company.


No one had a bad word to say about Rio Bravo in the extensive comments, but the real topic of discussion was “what will his final three choices be?” Funny thing is, when I was formatting this post for the blog, I realized I no longer remembered what my #3 was.

#5: the third man (carol reed, 1949)

(This is the 46th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

I’d like to say that The Third Man is a perfect movie. While the elements were always there, it wasn’t an easy path towards perfection. American producer David O. Selznick had his own ideas about how the movie should play, and he managed to create a version of the film for the U.S. market that had a revised introduction and ten minutes excised to make Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martins a more sympathetic character. Filming on location in Vienna wasn’t easy, so soon after the war. Director Carol Reed created what was essentially a British neo-realism, albeit with baroque camera angles. The film was perfectly cast, from Cotton as the clueless American, forcing his way into every situation, to Alida Valli as Harry Lime’s lover, to Trevor Howard as the stiff, intelligent British major. And Orson Welles, who takes up a large part of our memory of the film, even though he doesn’t make an appearance until the film is more than halfway finished, and even though his screen time is limited.

Graham Greene’s script was up to his usual high standards, and the cinematographer, Robert Krasker, won an Oscar for his contributions to the film’s unique look. Finally, there is the instantly identifiable zither music of Anton Karas, so entwined in the film and in our memories that to this day, when you hear a zither, you think of The Third Man.

Yes, I’d like to say it’s a perfect movie. But then there was the time somebody I follow on Twitter said that he’d finally seen The Third Man for the first time, and WHY DIDN’T ANYONE WARN HIM ABOUT THE ZITHER. Apparently, that was a deal breaker … for him, The Third Man was not perfect.

And so I’ll lower my praise just a touch, in honor of that zither-hating viewer. But near-perfection is a wonderful thing. The British Film Institute named The Third Man the best British film ever; it’s the highest-ranked British film on my own list. Its vision of post-war corruption is unsparing, the film’s style is noteworthy … I want to say that word “perfect” again.

Plus, I can’t quit talking about Orson Welles. Welles plays a character, Harry Lime, as lacking in ethics as any character you’ll come across. Little children die because of Lime’s actions. But Welles’ charisma in the role is such that a radio show, The Lives of Harry Lime, was created. This told the story of Lime in the years before The Third Man, and while Lime is a con artist in the series, he is nowhere close to the evil presence of the film.


In what I think is odd, considered how highly I rate this movie, the entire comments section is taken up with a discussion between Phil Dellio and I about Altman’s The Long Goodbye.

#6: the rules of the game (jean renoir, 1939)

(This is the 45th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

I first saw Renoir’s two classic films from the late 1930s, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, around the same time in the early 70s. From that first viewing, I thought Grand Illusion was one of the greatest of all movies, and I haven’t changed my mind, even if for the purposes of this list I left it off so I could write about Rules (I have written about Grand Illusion in the past). But the first time I saw The Rules of the Game, I didn’t get what all the excitement was about.

Somewhere along the way, though, The Rules of the Game became my favorite Renoir movie. I wish I could explain why; I suspect one reason I haven’t written about it before is that I can’t put my finger on what makes it great. It’s not enough to just say “watch it and you’ll know what I mean,” especially since more than most movies, Rules of the Game rewards multiple viewings (and I don’t usually like movies that require you to see them more than once to appreciate them). I can tell you that Renoir’s use of deep focus is so complete and so subtle that you can watch the film over and over and get more out of it just by paying attention to what’s going on in the background. There are few better examples of how to make style work as substance than right here. Renoir isn’t showing off, he’s using unusual (for its time) techniques to give depth (no pun intended, but I wish I had intended it, it’s a good one) to his movie.

The Rules of the Game, hated so much when it was first shown to a French audience, is not as single-mindedly dismissive of the upper classes as you might have heard. There is a tendency when showing this film to modern audiences to explain the context of its production and subsequent negative reception: Renoir made the film as Hitler was preparing the moves that would lead to World War II, and the upper-class Frenchmen and women in the movie are so unconcerned with what is going on outside of their own world that Fascism is never mentioned. Renoir isn’t attacking Nazis here; rather, he is anticipating the French response to the near future and finding the French lacking. But Renoir has always been the cinema’s great humanist. So even the upper-class denizens of The Rules of the Game are allowed a depth of character that makes them, not exactly likable, but understandable. The tragedy of the film isn’t that these are evil people, but that they are ordinary people who exist at a remove from the rest of society, and thus don’t always understand the larger implications of their actions. Thus, the most quoted line in the film isn’t when Octave says that everyone lies, but when he says that “the awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”


To be honest, I wish there had been more comments, since (obviously) I think this is a great film, and because I think I did a nice job writing about it. A couple of people agreed that it was great, and another said he would be watching it soon in a film class.