Four Films That Shaped a Critic

These diverse films, from directors of different nationalities, offer important lessons on the why and how of film and filmmaking.

two women in kimonos are featured in this screenshot from 1953's "tokyo story"

TOKYO STORY (1953)

I programmed Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story for my college film society because I knew of its reputation and had always wanted to see it. I was still in thrall to the idea that great movie direction was about the legerdemain of elaborate camera angles and tracking shots. Here was a movie so profoundly human in its rigorous simplicity that the camera didn’t need to move at all. It was a valuable lesson.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

Even seeing Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter for the first time on daytime TV, pockmarked by commercials, I was poleaxed by its originality. The best movies usually vibrated with a single pitch—scary, funny, romantic, melodramatic—and yet Laughton somehow stirred those disparities into a ghastly, unified whole. Added bonus: it was scripted by James Agee, our greatest film critic and a personal hero of mine.

When it came to rejiggering the medium, Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s was ahead of the pack. His inventiveness was dizzying, even when I wasn’t sure what he was inventing. For Godard, the film frame was a portal into a world as distinctively his as, say, Bergman’s or Buñuel’s. Weekend’s traffic-gridlock sequence is one of the great flourishes in cinema—a 10-minute tracking shot that encompasses in its inexorable sweep the entirety of the human comedy.

McCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971)

It always bothered me that actors in the movies, even the so-called realistic ones, rarely talked over one another. Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller was not only a visual marvel; it also revolutionized the way we experienced the buzz and hiss and hum of how people actually interact. I listened to this movie as fervently as I watched it.

Read Peter Rainer’s “A Film Critic Takes Direction

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