Akira Kurosawa says, “Cinema resembles so many arts. If cinema has very literary characteristics, it has theatrical qualities, a philosophical side, attributes of painting and sculpture and musical elements. But cinema is, in the final analysis, cinema.” Ten movies selected below introduce one to different styles of film-making; and unveil the emotional depths to which cinema is capable of reaching. Movies such as Tokyo Story, Bicycle Thieves, Ordet, Rashômon, City Lights and Pather Panchali are some of the more cherished works in Cinema and distinguish it as an art form. Besides the list below, works of directors such as Kenji Mizoguchi, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, and John Ford, to name a few, are particularly recommended.
1. TOKYO STORY – Japan (1953)
Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo story (東京物語, Tōkyō Monogatari) is a simple common tale of elderly grandparents visiting post-war Tokyo to meet their family. While being a simple film the movie embodies the very definition of cinema, that is, a portrayal of human emotions. The film is a powerful document not only of the time but perhaps, for all times to come. There is a peaceful coexistence of emotions within the movie, every scene in it filmed so skilfully that it imbues the viewer with emotions – joy, remorse and even peace. There is perhaps a sense of inevitable decline in the film and while feeling joy for the characters played by Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama the viewer is left in a state of utter devastation. The movie creates empathy in a person unmatched by any other art form and is the pinnacle of cinema itself. Although, Yasujirō Ozu doesn’t intend to devastate the viewer but to simply film a story, he is a neutral observer who leaves the emotion and the atmosphere to direct themselves. Speaking of the atmosphere, Yasujirō Ozu has captured some of the most beautiful images in cinema, the pillow shots and angled close-ups when put together and played on the projector gently guide the viewer through the story. The camera in the movie is stationary and positioned at a few feet from the ground through almost the entire movie. Every aspect of the movie – Yūharu Atsuta’s cinematography, Kōgo Noda’s script and, Mr. Ozu’s direction and editing; is extraordinary, and the movie without any doubt may be called an unparalleled masterpiece. You can watch this film here: https://archive.org/details/TokyoStory
2. PATHER PANCHALI – India (1955)
Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali — Song of the Little Road, is one of the greatest films that cinema has to offer. The very essence of the film lies within its lyricism and its ambiance. Mr. Ray devised a style iconic to India and more so to Bengal. Each scene in the movie brims with emotional potency and has become a landmark in cinema, especially for aspiring filmmakers. Bibhuti-bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s story about a boy Apu growing up in a rural village is told through the camera of Mr. Ray.
Inspired by the great neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves, the movie is perhaps the most genuine in its style; which along with its visual beauty remains true to the soil. “To have not seen the films of Ray is to have lived in a world without having seen the sun and the moon”, said Akira Kurosawa. Even though one may be unfamiliar with the language spoken in the film the masterful direction of the film leaves the viewer stifled with compassion. The photography and editing in the film along with the unparalleled soundtrack of the ingenious Ravi Shankar holds the audience captivated in that moment whilst leading them from one emotion to another.
The movie is woven with cinematically stunning imagery among which is the iconic seen of Apu running up to the train passing through a field of tall grass. The narrative, which progresses skilfully and effortlessly, is a reflection on human life and soul itself and is a great example of the emotional depths that art-house cinema is capable of reaching. You can watch this film here: https://archive.org/details/PatherPanchali1955720p
3. RASHÔMON – Japan (1950)
Rashômon (羅生門) is a story of a murder in the woods described divergently by four eye-witnesses – a woodcutter, a bandit, a bride and the murdered himself. As the movie commences it grips the viewer with its visual poetry. The opening scene at the Rashômon gatehouse is filmed in torrential rains where the wind and storm allude to capture the tumultuous minds of its characters. From this gatehouse to the forest where the murder actually takes place, Akira Kurosawa, as if casting a spell upon the viewers, steers them through the narrative structured by mesmerising flashbacks and staggering imagery. “I want to create beautiful films”, Kurosawa-san once said and Rashômon is the execution of that very thought. The atmosphere portrayed by the rain, the bandit (played by Toshiro Mifune) riding across the horizon and gasping in pain near the ocean and the camera tracking the woodcutter as he walks across the forest at noon – through these Kurosawa-san creates some of the most stunning images in film, leaping from one location, atmosphere and emotion to another. The movie, besides displaying his visual fluency, is the culmination of grammar that he developed by learning from directors ranging from John Ford to Kajirô Yamamoto; a classic in its truest sense! You can watch this film here: https://archive.org/details/dom-24164-rashomon
4. CITIZEN KANE – USA (1941)
Orson Wells in his directorial debut depicts the events in the life of ruthless newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane — played by Wells himself. The film begins with an enigmatic atmosphere created by the use of fade-ins and extreme close ups. The influence of montage is evident from the beginning of the movie. In addition to this Wells uses Noir-ish camera angles and increased depth of field The movie marks a milestone in cinematic technique and experimentation. There is an immense urge to progress the narrative of the movie, an approach which gave birth to one of the most unconventional and brilliant styles ever formulated. Perhaps, there is a similarity in the aspirational technique of Wells and the ambitious zeal of the protagonist Kane. Kane’s life is shown in intermittent flashbacks in great detail as his acquaintances, friends and relatives reminisce on the way they knew him. The film is not just a feat in direction alone but also an incredible achievement in scriptwriting. Orson Wells, wearing the hats of the producer, director, actor and co-writer, created a masterpiece that even decades after the movie’s release finds its place among the greatest films ever made. Perhaps, Wells gave back to art what he received from it. Wells watched the movie Stagecoach (1939), which was directed by a monument of cinema — John Ford, over 40 times before directing Citizen Kane.
5. ORDET – Denmark (1955)
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet – meaning ‘The Word’, is a movie about the lives of the Borgen family. Johannes, the youngest son of Morten Borgen, is considered to be of unsound mind for his belief that he is the reincarnation of Christ. Mr. Dreyer creates a beautiful harmony between depth and simplicity. He effectively transforms Kaj Munk’s play into a rich profusion of visual imagery. Form the very moment the title appears on the screen with the house of the widower Morten Borgen in the background the distinguished style of the film is revealed. One can experience the atmosphere and lighting of the place influencing the camera’s motions. Carl Theodor Dryer creates a stream of meditative successions and from his distinct idea of the mood for the film has branched out the unbound camera movements. A masterpiece of theatre was transformed into a milestone of cinema.
The pace of the film – initially appearing calm and peaceful, then strangles the viewer and as the movie progresses leaves him in despair. The film is an exemplary display not only of visual techniques but also of sound editing. From The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) made in the silent era of cinema to Ordet (1955), Mr. Dreyer proves himself to be a master of movement. You can watch this film here: https://archive.org/details/DreyerOrdetLaPalabra1955
6. BYCYCLE THIEVES – Italy (1948)
Vittrio de Sica created his humanist masterpiece ‘Bicycle Thieves’ when the neo-realist movement was gaining popularity. He transformed the story of a father Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) and son Bruno Ricci (Enzo Staiola) looking for their stolen bicycle into a chronicle of tragedy. At first Vittorio de Sica sketches joy for his characters only to follow it up by an incomprehensible and sudden arrival of pain. The viewer is crippled and consumed by grief as Antonio and Bruno wander the streets of traumatised Rome. Seldom has a movie taken over the audience to instill in them sorrow whilst invoking in them hope. The film roles forward playing on the genuine sympathy of its audience.
The neo-realist style at its fullest, with its deliberate pace and sincere humanism, pierces one’s heart with remorse. For instance, even a simple scene that depicts Bruno crossing the street is turned into an image of pathos. The actors in the movie were not professionals but ordinary people whom Vittorio de Sica discovered. In 1952 Sight & Sound declared Bicycle Thieves to be greatest movie of all time. Satyajit Ray, inspired by this movie, described it as “a triumphant rediscovery of the fundamentals of cinema.” You can watch this film here: https://youtu.be/4A26tj-fI-c
7. CITY LIGHTS – USA (1931)
Sir Charles Chaplin is a name familiar to and revered by everyone. From Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica in Italy to Andrei Tarkovsky in Russia, from Carl Theodor Dreyer in Denmark to Satyajit Ray in India and from Akira Kurosawa in Japan to contemporary masters like Woody Allen. The purity of this film, the profound nature of its layered plot and the sincerity of its emotion displays the ability of a story-teller, par excellence. Chaplin always had a gift for turning dark and tragic stories into comedies, an art he reinforced in his later works Monsieur Verdoux and The Great Dictator. As a writer, Chaplin weaves into this morose-filled story, brilliant humour and sub-plots, which leaves the viewer at the mercy of the movie. As an editor, Chaplain turns from one emotion to the other and the viewer, as the stories progress, cannot help but join him, until one is left overwhelmed by emotions. Although Hollywood had adapted to sound and had left behind the cinema of the kind epitomised by D. W. Griffith, Chaplin decided to stick to his original style and created one of the greatest films ever made. One can see, the love Chaplin has for films as well as his talent both as a great writer and experimentalist. The scene in which he sees the blind florist for the first time was shot over 300 times. The beautiful metamorphosis from comic harmony to remorseful tragedy shows the talent of perhaps the greatest commercial director cinema has seen so far. You can watch this film here: https://youtu.be/TkF1we_DeCQ
8. 8 1/2
The great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, speaking of Federico Fellini, once said, “He is enormously intuitive. He is intuitive; he is creative; he is an enormous force. He is burning inside with such heat. Collapsing. Do you understand what I mean? The heat from his creative mind, it melts him. He suffers from it; he suffers physically from it. One day when he can manage this heat and can set it free, I think he will make pictures you have never seen in your life. He is rich.” A better description of Mr. Fellini, the director of 8½ cannot be found. It is exactly this incredible unmatched artistic talent, fuelled by his love for cinema, that gave birth to 8½. The idea for this film came to Mr. Fellini when he found himself in a similar predicament as that of the protagonist Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) — of having lost the original idea for his movie. Marcello Mastroianni, who previously also appeared in La Dolce Vita with Mr. Fellini, gives one of his most memorable and masterful performances in 8½. The strong connection that the audience develops with the protagonist absorbs them into the film as the story advances through dreams, visions, memories and reality. The complexities of the human mind and its memories are portrayed with such ease and simplicity. He executes this through lighting, camera movements and a pre-eminent use of a variety of musical compositions for which he depends on the renowned Nino Rota. Mr Fellini’s unique biographical story and his ingenious style of direction turns the film into one of the most delightful and eccentric pieces of cinema. You can watch this film here: https://youtu.be/vqa6sJxkfeI
9. TAXI DRIVER – USA (1974)
Paul Schrader was inspired by Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) for the screenplay of this masterpiece Taxi Driver, which was directed by Martin Scorsese and became his second of nine collaborations with Robert de Niro. It is a story about a Vietnam war veteran Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro) who plays a taxi driver and is shown to be encircled by loneliness. The use of violence and profanities must not obscure the humane nature of the movie — a true masterpiece of cinema. The movie’s iconic score by Bernard Herman, the portrayal by Mr. de Niro and the incredible use of camera by Mr. Scorsese have synergised to bring forth the subliminal trepidations that Travis goes through in the movie. Mr. Scorsese reveals his unmatched visual literacy as he works in his familiar and beloved city of New York; and just in the way that Yasujirō Ozu embraces Tokyo and Federico Fellini, Rome, Mr. Scorsese embraces New York.
In scenes when Travis points his gun at the mirror, when he spends time with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and when he seems to lose track of reality around him, the audience too feels the same atmosphere of solitude and despair. All that appears left for them are the frames progressing on screen. In their state of hypnoses there remains perhaps no difference in the emotional state of the viewer and the protagonist — an apogee only a handful of films may be said to have reached. Mr. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver shall always stand as one of the most prominent works of cinema.
10. Rear Window – USA ( 1954)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is an enthralling mystery about a photographer L. B. Jeffries ( James Stewart) who, bedridden from a broken leg, notices something amiss about one of his neighbours. Hitchcock’s attention to detail may be appreciated by the effort he takes in scripting the stories that occur in many of these houses – all glimpsed by the viewer only through their windows and balconies. The film is an extraordinary feat of technique and scriptwriting. The story is told from the perspective of Jeffries; Hitchcock’s camera never leaves his apartment until the very climax. The many characters that Hitchcock weaves into the film advance the narrative. The eyes of the protagonists move from one story to another; at first appearing to be nothing more than interludes but later successfully cultivating and nurturing the mood of the movie. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window makes for an incredible study of script-writing and direction especially with respect to his shifting the focus of the scene from one story to another, all while advancing the suspense and plot of the film. You can watch this film on Apple TV.