1937 Ten Best Movies

The fact that it is possible to debate the nature of the “grand illusion” in La Grande Illusion is a measure of the film’s greatness; and far from being a dusty classic, fit only to represent the arthouse apogee for people of Woody Allen’s generation, the movie ripples with wit and subtlety and suspense. It’s one of those obvious choices for a #1 slot in a year that is somewhat underwhelming in classics, but don’t hold that against it. Tracing Jean Renoir’s films in the 1930s is like watching a train gathering awesome speed, a trajectory that comes crashing to a halt with the outbreak of World War II.

The #2 movie is by a director whose trajectory had already been diverted from Europe to Hollywood: Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once, which takes off from the Bonnie and Clyde case but creates its own brand of poetical Thirties realism. It was a big year for Leo McCarey, who won the Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth but famously stated he should have won it for Make Way for Tomorrow. The latter film, now enshrined in the Criterion Collection and likely to find a whole new audience, is a masterpiece of sympathy and behavior – and timing, too. The ten best movies of 1937:

1. Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir)

2. You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang)

3. Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey)

4. The Edge of the World (Michael Powell)

5. The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey)

6. Stella Dallas (King Vidor)

7. Angel (Ernst Lubitsch)

8. The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell)

9. Young and Innocent (Alfred Hitchcock)

10. Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen)

Barbara Stanwyck reigns supreme in Stella Dallas, Young and Innocent is a fun pre-Hollywood Hitchcock, and Angel is kind of underrated in Lubitsch’s output. Everything comes together just exactly right in Zenda, which ought to be more of a classic. Another Ronald Colman picture, Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, is among the also-rans, and I also like Frank Borzage’s History is Made at Night, Gregory LaCava’s Stage Door, and William Wyler’s Dead End. Pepe le Moko is pretty good, too, and helped define a certain tendency in French “black” films (black is English for “noir,” you know). Also a vote for the Best Picture Oscar winner, William Dieterle’s Life of Emile Zola, which is generally dismissed as hopelessly square and sober and probably Oscar-mongering. It’s guilty on some counts, but the social-message piece about governments whitewashing the truth is remarkably forceful (even if the film backs away from emphasizing the importance of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus case); somebody should’ve remade it in 2004.

The year also had Shall We Dance, not the best Astaire-Rogers picture but the one with the Gershwin songs. And I need to see The Hurricane again, because it’s been about thirty years; it’s even longer for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which I understand is significant but which I somehow never got around to re-seeing in adulthood. Sorry, animation.

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.