1951 Ten Best Movies

river3“But that’s not the end…it’s endless,” someone says in The River. This beautiful film, from Rumer Godden’s novel about an English girl’s experience growing up in India, epitomizes the style and subject of Jean Renoir’s work. The end is another beginning, everything that happens has happened before, and the overall flow matters more than the occasional eddy or rapids.

There is something wonderfully matter-of-fact about The River. While full of color and splendid locations, it also has a plunka-dunk travelogue quality, the look of something that might have been shown in the church basement during grade school with a title like “India – Land of Contrasts.” But there’s also the relaxed hand of a master at work, as though Renoir knew he was looking for a deeper truth than, say, the lustrous vistas of a David Lean super-production. (In any case he lacked the budget for such a thing – this movie came along at a delicate juncture for Renoir, after his imposed exile in Hollywood and before his return to European filmmaking.)

This year’s survey represents something of a breakthrough for Asia on the world movie scene, in fact. Along with a Westerner’s view of India, two Japanese masters weigh in, including the movie that brought Japanese filmmaking to international attention in a major way: Rashomon. I have gone back and forth on this film — it’s easy to take for granted, it has a certain patness in its conception and its ideas. Yet watch it again and you’ll see how enthralling it is, moment for moment (and almost nobody does weather like Kurosawa does weather). In short, the best films of 1951:

1. The River (Jean Renoir)

2. Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock)

3. Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson)

4. Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu)

5. Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder)

6. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)

7. The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller)

8. On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray)

9. The Prowler (Joseph Losey)

10. The Thing (Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks)

The Thing is an endlessly repeatable pleasure; Strangers provides an array of teaching opportunities (one textbook scene after another); Diary is one of those movies that expand in your mind for years after seeing them. And the Ray and Losey films share a noir vision of what lies beyond the city, although the results differ. This list misses two terrific John Huston films, The Red Badge of Courage and The African Queen, as well as Powell-Pressburger’s eye-popping Tales of Hoffman. I like A Streetcar Named Desire (so much so that I sometimes remember it as the Oscar-winner for Best Picture, as in my initial post, which it wasn’t), but not quite enough, apparently.

Next week: 1972.

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