Films too good to watch only once

Because film is a visual art, Open Studio celebrates watching – or actually, rewatching — movies – or even just favorite parts of movies – on DVD or by streaming. My go-to film expert Richard Alleva, a semi-retired movie reviewer for Commonweal magazine, has a list of 30 films he likes to revisit periodically. And now, you might think, as a film critic of a certain age, he’d be all pure and principled about the superiority of viewing movies on big screens, with audiences, at a theater. And he says he does look forward to resuming moviegoing if and when Covid eases up. But in the meantime, he’s come to embrace Amazon and Netflix for making available an endless cavalcade of films, whether or not they were box office hits. Richard shares with us today four favorite classics from that list of 30: A silent film, The General, made by and starring Buster Keaton; Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander; Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country; and Francois Truffault’s Shoot the Piano Player. I’d never seen any of these before, but having seen them, I know I’m going to follow Richard’s lead and watch them, in whole or in part, again.

Richard Alleva: 30 Movies in my DVD Collection and Why I keep Watching Them Over and Over

Alice in Wonderland: Not the Disney version but the Jonathan Miller adaptation for the BBC. Mainly for adults but older kids may enjoy it. Its summer-breathing visuals and Ravi Shanker sitar score are narcotic, so you dream along with Alice.

Andrei Rublev: Did director Andrei Tarkovsky travel back to 15th century Russia with a movie camera? If not, how did this film come to be? It’s theme: how the soul survives in the midst of barbarity.

Au Hazard Balthazar: Robert Bresson’s masterpiece shows the perversity and self-destructiveness of human love through the eyes of an abused donkey. This should have been a ludicrous failure yet somehow becomes a spiritual experience.

Beauty and the Beast: Once again, not the Disney version but the Jean Cocteau retelling from which Disney cribbed. Solemn magic.

Beetlejuice: Tim Burton captures the essence of Halloween: scariness without viciousness, joyous grotesquerie. Thanks to this film, Wynona Ryder can be a child forever, Alec Baldwin will always be wearing that Land’s End flannel shirt, and Michael Keaton will continue to turn himself inside out.

The Black Stallion: The first hour’s island scenes are the greatest piece of silent-movie cinema done in the sound era (Chaplin’s City Lights excepted). The second hour, almost equally good, is a child’s daydream rendered believable.

Capturing the Friedmans: The greatest family tragedy captured on film and (alas) it’s not fiction. This documentary’s story keeps exfoliating with each scene and when it’s over it keeps expanding in your mind.

Chimes at Midnight: Orson Welles’s greatest movie since Citizen Kane. Adapting Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, Welles mourns the death of Merrie Olde England.

Citizen Kane: Among a thousand other reasons to see it, it’s the greatest bio-pic ever made. But it also explains why there can never be a true bio-pic. No trespassing.

The Conformist: Bernardo Bertolucci’s take on Italian Fascism is so deliciously decadent that, had he seen it, it might have convinced Mussolini to give up power, put on a tutu and take ballet lessons with Dominique Sanda.

A Day in the Country: The greatest movie under one hour. Jean Renoir’s adaptation of Guy De Maupassant.

The Dead: John Huston’s adaptation captures everything memorable in the James Joyce story and adds some stuff that should have been in it.

The Dekalog: A unique achievement by the great Polish filmmaker, Krzysztof Kieslowski. Ten short films, one for each of the ten commandments. If you’re not going to read Dante’s Divine Comedy any time soon, see this instead.

The Earrings of Madam De_: Max Ophuls’ take on romantic love. As Pauline Kael wrote, “Perhaps the darting, swirling, tracking camerawork…is an expression of the evanescence of all beauty – it must be swooped down on, followed. It will quickly disappear.”

8 1/2: Fellini’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece. Composed from a thousand shots, it’s so fluid that it seems to be one, ongoing, unedited shot.  The most ordinary things, doused in Fellini magic, flit by your eyes as you try to take it all in.

Excalibur: John Boorman’s take on the Arthurian legends will survive even Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Fanny and Alexander: The triple-decker nineteenth century novel may have had its day but Ingmar Bergman brings it back to life. This is David Copperfield rewritten by August Strindberg. Must be seen in its original 5-hour TV version as preserved by the Criterion Collection.

The General: Behind Confederate lines some Union spies steal a train from its seemingly hapless engineer, but the engineer pursues, relentlessly and comically, on foot, on handcart, and on what’s left of another train. Based on a true story, but this great Buster Keaton silent comedy has nothing to do with the real Civil War, slavery, states’ rights or even history itself. It is a profound ballet about what the human body can do in motion when it’s both aided and thwarted by machinery. Paradoxically, the photography of this apolitical farce gives us a more authentic -looking 19th century America than any serious film does.

Groundhog Day: Haven’t I seen this movie many times before? Yes, and I will see it yet again. And again. And…

High and Low: Akira Kurosawa’s epic police procedural. Cops with the souls of samurai vs. a criminal out of Dostoyevsky. The greatest closing scene in movie history.

The Magic Flute: Ingmar Bergman’s production, not the recent Kenneth Branagh atrocity. Mozart’s fairy tale opera done with Mozartian grace.

The Magnificent Ambersons: An American aristocratic family is reduced to poverty and anonymity as the world of the 19th Century turns into the industrial 20th. This great Orson Welles film shows how the fall was inevitable and heartbreaking, and, in the process reveals why the very idea of aristocracy in democratic America is absurd, yet never dies.

Much Ado About Nothing: The Kenneth Branagh version. Has the greatest movie Shakespearean performance by an actress: Emma Thompson’s Beatrice.

Memories of Underdevelopment: The Cuban Revolution seen through the eyes of a Cuban aristocrat who sees his world collapsing around him. Tomas Alea’s film is too compassionate for Marxists and too critical of capitalism to be free-world propaganda. Therefore, perfect for anybody with a heart.

Nomadland: Having lost her husband to death and her house to sub-prime mortgage, a woman takes to living on the road inside an RV. This Chloe Zhao experiment in blending documentary and fiction is a total success and perhaps creates a whole new genre of moviemaking. Frances McDormand’s performance is for the ages.

Night of the Hunter: Hansel and Gretel set in the Depression-era South, but this time the witch is Robert Mitchum.

Nobody’s Fool: Paul Newman’s penultimate movie and his greatest performance as a man whose instinct for treating people right can’t be thwarted by his own cussedness.

North by Northwest: The greatest piece of mindless entertainment ever made. An espionage thriller in which comedy is inextricably blended with the thrills. Our laughter closely follows our screams and vice-versa.

One-Eyed Jacks: The only film directed by Marlon Brando. A western utterly conventional in its plot but utterly unconventional in its treatment.

Out of the Past: Greatest film noir ever made. Robert Mitchum’s innocent girlfriend tells him that that his onetime femme fatale lover can’t be all bad. Mitchum: “She comes close.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc:  Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film is a silent symphony of faces as Joan confronts her judges.

Persona: The deepest dive into a character’s psychology ever taken by a filmmaker. Ingmar Bergman’s greatest film.

Richard III: Laurence Olivier’s royal psychopath is the greatest Shakespearean film performance by a male actor.

Shadow of a Doubt: Alfred Hitchcock thought this his best work and maybe he was right. Written by Thornton Wilder, it’s like the evil sibling of Our Town.

Shoot the Piano Player: Trying to detach himself from the human race after a terrible personal tragedy, a pianist finds himself sucked back into life by his capacity for love and compassion. Director Francois Truffaut mixes gangster movie stuff with slapstick and lyricism. “Whatever Truffaut touches seems to leap to life – even a gangster thriller is transformed into the human comedy.” – Pauline Kael

Il Sorpasso (aka The Easy Life): Maybe the greatest “road movie” ever taken. Vittorio Gassman’s performance gives us the ultimate Latin macho male in all his ludicrous and unforgiveable glory.

Topsy Turvy: The greatest life-in-the-theater movie (yes, better than All About Eve). Director-writer Mike Leigh shows us how Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado was created and, a bonus, gives us great chunks of the operetta as well.

Vampyr: It doesn’t matter what time of day or night you see this horror movie; while you watch it, it’s always and unnervingly three o’clock in the morning and you’re having a nightmare. Directed by Carl Dreyer, who preys upon our subconscious.

Clockwise from upper left, four of Richard’s favorites: A Day in the Country, Fanny & Alexander, The General, Shoot the Piano Player.

Clockwise from top left, four of my favorites except for The Godfather Part 2: All the President’s Men, My Dinner with Andre, The Godfather Part 2, The Sting, The Natural

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