Lawrence of Arabia may be the last extravagant blockbuster that was also a great film. It’s nearly four hours long, much of it consisting of men galloping on camels through the desert, shot on location with a cast of hundreds, no sex, almost no women—yet this is riveting, heart-pounding stuff, and witty, to boot. It’s based on the true story of T.E. Lawrence, the romantic British officer who led a gaggle of bedouin armies against Turkish strongholds in World War I, helped bring down the Ottoman Empire, came to believe his own myths and see himself as a demigod—and thus became a delusional monster. The film has the feel of a grand epic and an intimate psychodrama. It’s an adventure, a clash of cultures, and a tragedy.
Wong Kar-wai, the greatest living Hong Kong filmmaker, is a weaver of smoldering dreams, and In the Mood for Love is his masterpiece. He may be the most intense practitioner of pure cinema. Very little happens in this film, but his brash colors (like something out of a Matisse painting), arch compositions (long shots at slightly off angles, slow tracking shots signifying the passage of time and the ache of waiting), and use of music (a languorous, longing string motif) sow a hypnotic tension and a charged passion (though its beautiful lead actors, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, barely touch each other and show not a smidgen of bare skin).
Chico & Rita is a wonderful movie, a valentine—poignant, sweet, but never sentimental—to Cuban jazz, bebop, and the street scenes of 1940s and ’50s Havana and New York. It’s a sophisticated animation, drawn in an evocative sketch-edged style similar to that of Waltz With Bashir. (It’s based on a graphic novel, a few pages of which are reproduced in the Blu-ray box’s booklet.)
Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion remains, 75 years on, one of the greatest films ever made. To some, it may seem a bit clichéd, but that’s only because so many movies since have cribbed from its plot lines. It takes place in German POW camps during the First World War and was shot on what many recognized at the time as the eve of a Second World War. One of the things it’s about is the world that vanished, for better and for worse, in the two decades between the two wars. There has been much debate over just which “great illusion” Renoir was referring to in his title. Some have assumed it’s war. But this is not a simple anti-war movie; at the end, our French heroes, who have escaped from the camp, can’t wait to get home so they can reenlist in the fighting.
There are few more enduring classics of American theater than Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, an over-the-top, sweaty steam bath of a play that straddles Greek tragedy and Gothic camp yet still commands attention, even astonishes, 65 years after its creation. The show ran on Broadway for two years; the film adaptation was shot two years after that; both were directed by Elia Kazan and starred Marlon Brando. This was only Brando’s second film. He was 27 years old. And despite all the subsequent parodies of his sultry pout and his mumblecore rage (“Stella! Stel-l-l-laaa!”), he was a blazing-hot actor. It’s a natural heat that he radiates, and he modulates it seamlessly, from simmer to boil and all shades in between. Brando’s amazing to watch: The acting is all there on the surface, yet he’s so immersed in his character, it seems completely uncontrived. You see the moves and attitude that countless actors later copied, but none of them ever matched this. (That said, his performance in Kazan’s On the Waterfront three years later was even better, subtler.)
Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is a nifty film noir with brisk dialogue (by noir novelist Jim Thompson) and brushstroke characters. It features a taut narrative within a daringly fitful structure (the plot starts over and over, charting the events from different points of view, leading up to the climax) and an ending straight out of O. Henry. The story line is fairly conventional—a racetrack heist, the mastermind who devises it, and the gang of misfits who try to pull it off. But the theme—human foibles trumping the best-laid plans—anticipates many Kubrick films to come, notably Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is also the first film where Kubrick, just 28 years old, displays a master director’s touch: a keen visual sense, both for the composition of the frame and for the fluid camera motion (it seems to be moving almost constantly). The acting is a bit outsized, but so it is in most Kubricks, and as with most, it fits the movie’s mood. This one marks his first association with Sterling Hayden, who’s very fine as the methodical planner: mordantly witty, slow-burning with desire to break through life’s trappings, and in the end stoic about his prospects.
John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King is one of those great films the likes of which “they don’t make anymore” (and, in fact, they rarely did), a grand tale of adventure and greed set against the great outdoors and the judgment of Nature. It’s based on Rudyard Kipling’s novel, but in many ways, it’s a throwback to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which Huston also directed, nearly 30 years earlier. This movie’s prospectors are former soldiers in Britain’s colonial army, seeking power and fortune by conquering tribal warlords in the mountains of Afghanistan, rather than American ne’er-do-wells panning for gold in the foothills of Mexico. But the outcome is the same: Our (anti-) heroes win everything then lose it all through avarice and arrogance. In Treasure, they dig up more gold than they can carry (or their capacity for mutual trust can endure); in King, they stumble into a cavern of riches, but one of them starts believing he really is a god (as they’ve tricked the natives into thinking), until the act is exposed.