Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
There's nothing like getting lost in a film—not merely in its narrative, but in its visual and formal storytelling as well. For me, these are films that seem to fly by, regardless of their gargantuan running times.
5. La Belle Noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991, France): Seeing Celine and Julie Go Boating for the first time earlier this year at the Gene Siskel Film Center, I was reminded of what little use I, personally, have for Rivette. I like a good number of his films—Paris Belongs to Us remains my favorite of his, though it misses this list by a mere 10 minutes—but by and large, he's struck me as an armchair philosopher whose films are needlessly cumbersome. This adaptation of Balzac's "The Unknown Masterpiece," happens to be one of his longest—240 minutes to be precise, although a two-hour version exists—but it's also one of his most fluid. As Jonathan Rosenbaum said in his capsule review for the Reader, "Rarely has Rivette's use of duration to look at process been so spellbinding; hardly a moment is wasted." Too true. The film plays like a series of moments, each one a robust illumination of an artist's relationships: to his craft, to others, to himself, and to his surroundings.
4. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979, Soviet Union): Tarkovsky's films are marked by their spirituality, and this film, a sci-fi epic about a man's journey into a mysterious region known as the "zone," is one of his best. Conceptually elusive, it's the sort of film that demands close attention—not necessarily to the details of the plot, bur rather the nuances of its form. Tarkovsky films, to me, tend to float. They're not hampered by the rigors of a screenplay. Despite its somewhat lofty premise, Stalker eschews hard truths in favor of an objective experience.
3. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999, USA): It might be a structural mess, but this novelistic ode to Los Angeles remains Anderson's best film not named Punch-Drunk Love. The liberties he takes with characterization, performance, and naturalism are all inspired, creating a world that looks like our own but retains its own Andersonian sense of logic, rhythm, and morality. In terms of capturing the sheer scope of human interaction, the film is virtually peerless in its displays both comic and tragic. Robert Altman is the obvious calling card here, but Anderson displays the sort of daring originality that's made him one of the American cinema's most important young filmmakers, for better or worse.
2. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 1975): If Magnolia examines the macrocosmic nature of the lives we live, than Jeanne Dielman handles the microcosmic. The premise is notoriously simple: it captures two days in the life of Jeanne Dielman, a dutiful mother who works as a prostitute to help care for herself and her son while tending to the upkeep of her home, and Akerman, taking cues from structuralist cinema, depicts it all in a series of static long takes that amplify the inherent banality of a person's day-to-day routine. Though it certainly can be read, particularly in its first half, as a sort of feminist manifesto—although Akerman, herself, would disagree, as she often claimed to not believe in a "woman's cinema"—it's ultimately a major statement on the way human lives are lead. The final thirty minutes or so, imbued with a subtly mounted sense of dread, remain some of the most genuinely shocking in all of cinema.
1. Satantango (Bela Tarr, 1944, Hungary/Germany/Switzerland): Forgive the obvious choice, but there's simply nothing that compares to this masterwork. Watching it was, admittedly, something of a laborious experience: Like most people, I prefer to watch a movie in one sitting. (For similar reasons, I do my best to avoid going to the restroom if I'm watching a film in theaters, which isn't always easy.) So I took a particularly gloomy day to sit down and watch this thing, soldiering through stretches of anxiousness—but I was enraptured by it. I said in my last post that Bela Tarr's films feel the most real to me, despite his use and occasional celebration of artifice; Satantango is the purest encapsulation of "realism" I've ever seen.
Honorable mentions: Although it might not technically count, as it was conceived as a TV movie, Bergman's Fanny and Alexander nearly made the list. I left off The Decalogue and Berlin Alexanderplatz for the same reason. I also might have included Peter Watkins' La Commune (Paris, 1871) or Edvard Munch, but why would I do that when Punishment Park and Privilege are such better films?