1953 Ten Best Movies

Danielle Darrieux, Madame de...

At the top of this year’s best-movie list are three quiet, elegant, completely assured masterpieces, arrangements in light and time that make a strong case for film as art. If you needed a case. All three look, with a fiercely penetrating gaze, on a domestic situation; the circumstances are very different (fin-de-siecle Paris, 16th-century Japan, modern Tokyo), but in each of them time is slipping away and humans are being terribly, mortally human.

The nod goes to Max Ophuls’ Madame de…, a movie all the more impressive because it surveys the apparently minor affairs of a superficially superficial group of people. Life is flesh and blood but it is also an act, Ophuls suggests, and one can admire those actors who maintain their performance throughout the play. As for the plain truths of (by comparison, stylistically deadpan) Tokyo Story, the moment when two people face each other and calmly conclude that “Life is disappointing, isn’t it?” is one of those times you realize that movie conversation can be as devastating as any epic special-effects battle. The third movie at the top, Ugetsu, is merely a consensus choice for short list of Greatest Foreign Films, and deservedly so.

But it’s a good year. And the quietly elegant stuff stops with Samuel Fuller and Luis Bunuel taking up their spots on the list. The ten best movies of 1953:

1. Madame de… (Max Ophuls)

2. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu)

3. Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi)

4. Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller)

5. El (Luis Bunuel)

6. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann)

7. From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)

8. The Big Heat (Fritz Lang) and 99 River Street (Phil Karlson)

9. Shane (George Stevens)

10. Sawdust and Tinsel (Ingmar Bergman)

El is one of my favorite Bunuel films; I hope to post something longer about it later in the week. From Here to Eternity, the big Oscar-winner that year, is a childhood favorite for a lot of reasons, and interesting for the way its soap-opera passions are held in check by Zinnemann’s scrupulous care (and Clift and the Hawaiian locations lift it to another level). The Big Heat is A-list noir, rendered superbly by a master filmmaker, while 99 River Street is inspired B-moviemaking by a quirky director. Sawdust and Tinsel is an early example of Bergman’s mercilessly lucid take on theater and real life, and the places they diverge.

Just missing the cut: M. Hulot’s Holiday, that mighty bleak adventure film The Wages of Fear, Astaire and Co. in The Bandwagon, Hawks’s Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Renoir’s Golden Coach, and John Huston’s weird put-on, Beat the Devil. Equally weird, but fascinating, is Josef von Sternberg’s Anatahan, one of the most completely artificial movies ever made (ditto Invaders from Mars, an amazing sci-fi dream directed by the legendary designer-director William Cameron Menzies). Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 and Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess are lesser works by large filmmakers (but at least Stalag 17 is entertaining). Fellini’s I Vitelloni came out this year, and a lot of people like it a lot, for reasons I could never quite fathom. And then there’s Glen or Glenda?, by Edward D. Wood, Jr., a movie not quite like anything else you’ve seen in your life, unless your life is a very special place indeed.

4 Responses

  1. What a great year. You could make a wonderful Top 10 list just out of titles you left out. But it’s hard to argue with any of your choices. I’d have found room for Roman Holiday, though, one of the greatest romance films of all time, despite being about so much more than simple romance. The final scenes say more than most whole films do, and yet the words actually spoken are just a mask for the real meaning.

    I adore your top two. Tokyo Story really snuck up on me. There is never an overt play for our feelings; in fact, it looks and sounds like more of an intellectual kind of meditation. But at some point near or even after the end, I felt a sudden and overwhelming flood of emotion unlike any that any other movie has elicited from me.

  2. Sorry to hear that you don’t care for I Vitelloni. It is my favorite of all of Fellini’s directed films. I love how it depicts the lives of contemporary Italian boys. Overly pampered, spoiled and available to live (at least at this point in their lives) a lazy life.

    I guess I enjoy watching these guys stumble and bumble more than watching Giulietta Masina getting pushed around in Cabiria and La Strada during the same period. Those tragedies are depressing. I prefer the light heartedness of I Vitelloni.

    • Well, Cabiria’s my #1 for 1957, so obviously that’s more my cup of vino. My blah feeling for Vitelloni probably betrays my lack of connection with a certain broad, bumptious strain in Italian film (of course there are many glorious exceptions); maybe I’m just too uptight for it.

  3. Broad and bumptious, Vitelloni is. I don’t think that you’re too uptight for looking at it this way. I do agree that Cabiria is a fine cup of vino.

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