1965: Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard)
When I was a junior in college, I went to France on one of my school's year long programs. Part of the deal was that the school paid some young French kids to show us around and, in some ways, be our friends.
One day, another American and I were sitting in a cafe with one of these French "paid friends", a girl (Magali Faventines), and we got to talking about American culture. Magali asked us to jot down on a piece of paper our three favorite American movies and three favorite American books. Then we asked if she'd reciprocate by giving us her favorite French titles. At this point, I can't remember what books she suggested. But I distinctly remember her going on and on about this one French director, this guy Jean-Luc Godard. In fact, two of the three titles she listed were Godard films, Breathless and Pierrot le fou.
I was 20 at the time and could probably count on one hand the number of foreign films I'd seen. So of course I'd never heard of Godard. Lucky for me though, I was living in Paris, cinephile mecca, and it just so happened the following week that Pierrot was playing at one of the local theaters. So I took this girl I was kinda seeing and we set out to learn a little more about this Godard guy.
When we saw Pierrot, of course it was in French with no English subtitles. The girl I was with, another American, definitely found it interesting. I thought it was absolutely mind-blowing. In fact, it struck me as the most personal, most intelligent, most liberated film I had ever seen. And really from that point forward, you could certainly make the argument that my life changed. I became more and more interested in seeking out films like Pierrot. In fact, that year, I must have easily seen over 100 movies in the theater. I had found my path.
I tell this story because it's hard for me to separate the discovery of Pierrot from Pierrot the film. It is easily the film that has had the greatest impact on me and the one that is almost singlehandedly responsible for me becoming a cinephile and filmmaker.
What do I think about it now? I still think it's one of the most personal, liberated, and intelligent films I've ever seen. I also think it's one of the most beautiful, lyrical, playful, romantic, and dangerous. A friend of mine used to say, he would show each new girlfriend Pierrot, and if they didn't care for it, that was his litmus test that the relationship was doomed. My wife has never seen it, and it's not for everyone. But I think it's in a small group of films that has that "Beatles or Velvet Underground power". In other words, the kind of film that has some rare transformative charge.
If nothing else, see it if you want to see "passion on fire". It's not every day the opportunity comes around.
Other contenders for 1965: I still have quite a few things to see. These include: Luis Bunuel's Simon of the Desert, Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee, Marco Bellocchio's Fists in the Pocket, Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More, William Wyler's The Collector, Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, Ousmane Sembene's Black Girl, Jerzy Skolimowski's Walkover, Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde, Wojciech Has' The Saragossa Manuscript, and Miklos Jancso's The Round-Up. It's been too long since I saw Roman Polanski's Repulsion and Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight. At some point I need to revisit both of them to know where they'd place on this list. And, although I don't have any close runners-up this year, I do really like Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville and Masculin feminin and Howard Hawks' Red Line 7000.
5/14/11 I watched Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde. Forman shows a very effortless style and subtle, unforced humanity. There's also a good bit of humor. After awhile though, I found it a little aimless to a fault, but overall, a nice, early work.
5/19/11 I watched Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker. A tough, uncompromising film with an incredibly depthful and pained Rod Steiger performance at its core. The ending seems to defy plot logic though (the police never come into the pawn shop?), and Lumet seems a little too enamored with his cross-cutting flashback technique.
5/20/11 I watched Wojciech Has' The Saragossa Manuscript. Offbeat, novelistic, and one of the most labyrinthine narratives I have ever seen. Has seems to have influenced later Bunuel and pulls this extraordinarily tale off in a way that seems so confident and effortless. Not totally my thing, but I have the utmost admiration for the cinematic achievement on display.
5/22/11 I watched William Wyler's The Collector. Terence Stamp is absolutely fantastic in the role. But the movie's too one-note and eventually becomes pretty tiresome.
5/24/11 I watched Ousmane Sembene's Black Girl. My first experience with Sembene, and on first look, it feels like a cinema under the influence of the Nouvelle Vague. It has its moments of poetry and lyricism, but some of the acting felt forced, and the the direction a little passionless. Of interest, but didn't impact me at the level of its reputation.
6/12/11 I watched Luis Bunuel's Simon of the Desert. Another irreverent and satiric look at religion from Bunuel. This one definitely experiments in an exciting way Bunuel's continued interest in surrealistic techniques, but as is often the case with his work, his irony and lack of much warmth keep me at a pretty good distance.
4/12/14 I watched Marco Bellocchio's Fists in the Pocket. It is an incredibly assured and confident debut film. The acting is probably what impresses most of all at first glance and then Bellocchio's ability to shift between tones and styles. It is a grim, nearly nihilistic work that is easy to admire but harder for me to love.