News And Commentary – More Greatest Films – The Lists of Others: Auteur Edition
Wow. There must be something in the air. Here at Mid Century Cinema we’re been compiling our “best of” lists, and just by coincidence – we assume – those invaluable folks at the Criterion Collection have put up a link to this French website which has posted a slew of “top 50s” from notable directors. Participants include Mid Century Cinema favorites Olivier Assayas, Costa-Gavras, Arnaud Desplechin, Bertrand Tavernier, and Agnes Varda.
This is a Stop The Presses moment, and so we interrupt our own proceedings to share some thoughts about these lists. (Actually it’s start the presses, since our Seventies list – the jewel in the crown? – is not scheduled to be posted until next week.) Our first thought is: “and you thought we were obscure!” Not only have I not seen a large number of the favorite films of these auteur-cinephiles, I had not even heard of some of them. I did know that Assayas was a huge fan of the ten-part silent serial Les Vampires (Feuillade 1916), but only because it was in important inspiration for his own Irma Vep (1996).
What do these lists tell us? First of all, the history of cinema is just too vast. Consider that the lists of these five filmmakers alone – not the most culturally dissimilar bunch (all more or less French, all over 55) – have selections that span across nine decades and nineteen countries. We will never see it all. (Those more optimistically inclined can just marvel at the range of possibilities available for us to explore.) More generally, these personal favorites championed offer a lesson in diversity. Within each slate, there are films that will likely cause you to say, as I did, “What? I hated that movie.” And there is a remarkable diversity across the lists, even when participants were celebrating the same director. Fear not—this is great. In movie-land, the very purpose of listing “the greatest” is not to establish the canon, but to fight about it. If you are not arguing about the movies, you are missing the point. (As I contend in Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: as a rule of thumb, the longer the argument, the better the film.)
Finally, a few thoughts about each list; comments, I should add, that barely scratch their surface. (Really, you ought to take a closer look at the individual links, as we could even argue, easily, about the way I’ve chosen to characterize them!) Assasyas is looking to cause trouble, I think, which I have to accept as a good thing, given the credo asserted above. But consider his choices for Altman, Bergman, and Chabrol—three of my favorite directors: California Split (1974), The Touch (1970), and The Pleasure Party (1975). In each case, none of those would be in my own top ten from those artists. (And how did that dismal mid-80s Godard make the list?) Melville’s The Red Circle (1970) is also a bit of a non-traditional choice, but I would not take issue with that one. And I guess I will have to add Fritz Lang’s The Spies (1928) to my impossibly long “to-watch” list.
Varda, the senior correspondent, has the most modern-leaning picks. Are these in order? Because Manhattan (Allen 1979) slots in at number two, just ahead of Persona (Bergman 1966). And a bit further down is A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes 1974), among many confident choices; not surprisingly, on this list a number of small, offbeat films sit side-by-side with revered classics. Also notable is Varda’s Chabrol pick, This Man Must Die (1969), a compelling and formidable but still contestable choice. Among its strengths is the small, memorable role played by the director Maurice Pialat, whose films show up on many of these lists (his Van Gogh  checks in on Varda’s slate).
Desplechin’s selections would make a great film class – wide ranging but somehow instinctively coherent. Traditional French New Wave favorites Howard Hawks and John Ford are well represented, but so is Russia, along with some Asian esoterica and many other lesser-knowns from around the globe. I was surprised to see that much Lubitsch, thrilled to see Ozu’s There Was a Father (1942) and Huston’s The Dead (1987), and intrigued by the inclusion of the Hitchcock relative-obscurity The Wrong Man (1958), which, along with I Confess, are two Hitchcock films of the 1950s I’ve been hoping to revisit.
Costa-Gavras and Tavernier compiled lists closest to my own sensibilities, if admittedly way-cooler. But these guys do this for a living—Tavernier, after all, doesn’t just make best of lists, he writes "best of" books. And he has put forward outstanding, non-obvious selections from Chabrol, Clouzot, Hitchcock and Sautet (The Butcher , Le Corbeau , Lifeboat , Max and the Junkmen ), not to mention Resnais’ Melo (1986), which I much prefer to his universally acclaimed early films. And there is Out of the Past (Tourneur 1947), of course, and what a pleasure to see we have the same favorite Ozu (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962). Costa-Gavras is another advocate for An Autumn Afternoon (as well as The Butcher), and also rolls out the red carpet for Wild Strawberries (Bergman 1958), Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick 1964), The Soft Skin (Truffaut 1964), Five Easy Pieces, (Rafelson 1970), and Fanny and Alexander (Bergman 1982). All that, and Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, too!