Though this book was published a few years ago, it is worth reviewing. No ‘best’ lists can ever satisfy everyone. But Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, Last Tango in Paris) forewords this Critics’ Choice- where he muses about his discovery of ‘Kamerasutra’: the sensual magic of the moving camera!
Moreover, it is 150 films, not the traditional 100. Perhaps that additional 50 allowed the inclusion of some Asian gems like Ozu’s ‘I Was Born, But…’, Guney’s ‘Yol’ and Kiarostami’s ‘Close-Up’.
That extra 50 ‘bests’ also permit some directors to deservedly get more than one entry: Lang’s 3 films (Metropolis, M and Ministry of Fear); Hitchcock’s 3 (39 Steps, Rear Window, Psycho); Bunuel’s 2 (Viridiana, Los Olivdados); Lubitsch’s 2 (Lady Windermere’s, The Shop Around The Corner), and Scoresese’s 2 (Mean Streets, Raging Bull.)
But it is inexcusable that the humorous and wise madman, the grand magician of world cinema, Federico Fellini, the incomparable writer and/or director of such extraordinary volume and range of intriguing, startling, exciting and fantastic films should only get one entry- ‘La Dolce Vita.’ How could they omit his 8½ (1963), an astounding autobiographical film about the trials and tribulations of film making as well as life itself. Watch his forgotten directorial debut Sceicco bianco, Lo (1952) aka ‘The White Sheikh’- a poignant, human and hilarious film - to appreciate Fellini’s brilliant and original gift for cinema.
Aiming at ‘serious’ ‘arty’ film festivals, ‘high brow’ film critics and ‘intellectual’ filmmakers, Fellini is reported to have said, “I prefer to make ‘spectacles’ for the audience, not ‘films’ for the elite.”
This refreshing statement from Fellini calls for a little digression. Nowadays, exploiting the rising power of the world’s leading film festivals as high-status ‘taste makers’, quite a few directors make films primarily aimed at the world’s top three or four film festivals which enjoy concurrent huge film markets where winners (and many candidates) get instant, lucrative sales.
Sadly, this includes a few directors from Iran and the Middle East who specialize in making ‘obscure’, ‘abstract’ or ‘minimalist’ irrelevant films for Cannes and other ‘snob’ festivals.
According to insiders from Paris, a couple of Iranian directors are ‘in bed’ with French production companies who typically fund a Cannes’s favorite icon Iranian director with about 200K to 250K Euros (the cost of a TV commercial)! This ‘small’ budget in today’s Iran is the equivalent to roughly one to two millions dollars. Then, the Iranian director spends about a half to two third of that budget to cheaply make an ‘intellectual’, vague 85-minutes film (90 minutes with credits) showing exotic Persian beauties in Hijabs, often including a cute kid and a philosophical elder, shot against oriental bazaars and architecture, or against the striking landscape of Iran.
Such ‘arty’ films – whose poorly written dialog is masked by better written foreign subtitles - have little relevance to the extraordinary, bizarre and tragic realities of Iranians, especially the unnatural lives and compromises suffered by overtly oppressed women. But such ‘intellectual’ films automatically get into Cannes’ Competition or at least into its ‘Un Certain Regard’ section.
A Cannes selection automatically guarantees worldwide sales several times the original 250K Euros investment. Then, everybody is happy and the director can live like a ‘Pasha’ in Tehran and be sought by pretty actresses dreaming of a visa to travel abroad.
There are no powerful unions for cast and crew in Iran. So a director can play king and take advantage. For example, an old established director can hire a young writer or editor to do most of, if not all, the long, laborious writing or editing, and then choose to credit himself as a writer or editor, or at least as co-editor. This makes him to be even more worshipped as a genius ‘auteur’ by unsuspecting festivals, film critics and fans.
Such icon directors can then afford to invite their admiring film critics and film programmers to visit Iran as intellectual luminaries and pay their hotel bills at Istiqlal (ex-Hilton) in Tehran.
Fortunately, there are some Iranian directors who are notable exceptions to this incestuous, self-perpetuating business circle. They dare to make engaging films that are socially and politically relevant, such as Jafar Panahi, Bahman Ghobadi, Tahmineh Milani and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. Not surprisingly, unlike the Cannes’ cushy icons, these true artists and their films have been in trouble with the Islamic Regime. In 2001 in Tehran, I wished to meet Tamineh Milani to congratulate her for her courageous films depicting the ordeals of oppressed women. But she was in jail on the account of her films (Two Women, and The Hidden Half) awaiting trial. Only her relatives and lawyers were allowed to visit her.
Nama-ye Nazdik (1990, Abbas Kiarostami) aka ‘Close-Up’ - Back to the 150 Masterpieces of World Cinema: Goddard, Kieslowski, and Rohmer get two ‘best’ entries each. But Welles, Kubrick, Altman and Fellini only manage one ‘best’ each. These are respectively: Citizen Kane, Eyes Wide Shut, Nashville and La Dolce Vita. Bertolucci’s own ‘best’ is surprisingly ‘Before The Revolution’ (which he directed when he was a 22-year old ardent Goddard fan) not his more fashionable, ‘The Conformist.'
Forever-busy A-List ‘geniuses’ only get one entry each: Spielberg (Jaws), Woody Allen (Annie Hall), and Lucas (Star Wars.)
Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) -This best list begins with the silent era greats –‘Birth of a Nation’, ‘Noseferatu’, ‘The General’, et.’…. But how could Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 masterpiece ‘Greed’ be missed? The list ends with 1999 British animation, ‘Pleasure of War.’
In between, it rounds up the usual suspects: It’s a Wonderful Life, His Girl Friday, Wild Bunch, Bonnie & Clyde, The Godfather…and some deserving unusual gems: Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco, Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place, Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, Brazil, Stranger Than Paradise, Sex, Lies…, Do The Right Thing, Pulp Fiction, Blue Velvet and Clair Denis’s Beau Travail.
Dolce vita, La (1960, Federico Fellini) aka La Doceur de Vivre -Ignored in this ‘best’ list is Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent masterpiece ‘Greed.’ We studied this film at UCLA for its script style of ‘visuals cinema and action speak louder than words’ and its compelling, memorable, tense ending. This silent film proves Stroheim to be a tragically wasted early visionary and a genius of cinema.