1970s

132. The Ruling Class

I think I must have a soft spot for films that combine genres. THE RULING CLASS, starring Peter O’Toole, is mostly a dry satire of the British class system. But at times it’s also a black comedy, a horror film, and a musical. When the 13th Earl of Gurney suffers a truly bizarre death, the family is distressed that the estate must go to his only heir Jack — who happens to believe he is Jesus Christ. Charismatic and kindhearted, Jack is completely at odds with society, but “curing” him comes at a terrible price. The film is a bit long at two and a half hours, but I laughed the entire time. I also loved every moment O’Toole was on screen, giving a brilliant performance that ranges from insane, to charming, to hilarious, to frightening.

123. Grey Gardens

Welcome to Grey Gardens, the home of Edith Beale and her daughter, Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt and cousin respectively. At one time it was a beautiful mansion with expansive gardens and a wealthy family. But by the mid 70s, the house is crumbling and its recluse inhabitants are just this side of crazy. That’s the Grey Gardens presented in Albert and David Maysles’ cult documentary. “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” are entertaining enough on their own to carry an entire film, especially the daughter’s strange lectures on fashion and the bitter sing-offs between the two women. However, there’s more to the documentary than kooky characters; there’s an almost intrusive intimacy and a poignancy that comes through without the filmmakers pointing it out. The Beales are a train wreck, and GREY GARDENS insists you stop and take a closer look.

17. Salò, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom

I’m back after a lengthy pause, and making up for lost time with one of Criterion’s most notoriously disturbing films.  Director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film is a Marquis de Sade novel relocated to the final days of Fascist Italy.  It depicts the kidnapping of eighteen teenage boys and girls who are taken to a remote villa to become sex slaves.  If only sex were the worst of it.  There is an entire section of the film aptly titled the Circle of Shit, and I can’t describe the horror of making it through those scenes only to discover the next portion is called the Circle of Blood.  The four tormentors of the film do everything in their imagination to degrade and torture, which functions as a shocking analogy to fascism, and makes it impossible as a viewer not to feel guilty (or slightly nauseous).  That being said, I find it hilarious that the DVD was a gift from my dad who didn’t want it in the house anymore.  He claims it was given to him by a friend who felt the same way.  Call it the Circle of Re-Gifting.

143. That Obscure Object Of Desire

When wealthy Mathieu sees the younger, beautiful Conchita for the first time, he immediately falls in love. Or is it obsession? And does Conchita — played by two distinct actresses — spurn his advances because she doesn’t want to soil their love, or because she’s merely using him?  This was Luis Buñuel’s final film, and there’s substance to be found in the surrealist details: a mouse suddenly caught in a trap, a fly in the protagonist’s drink, a sack inexplicably carried from scene to scene.  The entire film is erotically charged over a backdrop of terrorist violence, sometimes feeling like a dark allegory, while at other times like a lighthearted farce.  And the back-and-forth tug of the characters leads to a fantastically confusing ending that I wouldn’t dare reveal.

164. Solaris

In SOLARIS, a cosmonaut travels to a space station to investigate why the residents have stopped communicating.  What he discovers is the planet’s ability to bring the subconscious to life, in the form of his long deceased wife.  There’s a lot that I enjoyed about the film; ethical questions about the definition of life and what we live for are explored through subtle metaphors and impassioned discussion.  These are spread out over long, slowly paced scenes with meanings that only become apparent in retrospect.  Most of all, however, I loved watching the wife’s development — she starts out as flat and convenient, the sort of female character I’ve come to expect in certain films, before growing into a fully autonomous person with her own hopes and motivations.  Unfortunately, I found the main love interest a little difficult to believe in.  And that’s a problem for a movie that’s supposed to have love as a central theme.