The Best Old Movies I Watched in 2015

“Old” defined as anything made and theatrically released in the U.S. before 2015.

City Lights (1931)

The workplace and career anxieties of Modern Times will always make that movie my favorite Chaplin, but the unimpeachably excellent City Lights is nothing to sneeze at either. Chaplin zips from one set to the next without sacrificing any narrative coherency (a feat some modern films have difficulty recreating). While the actual city lights themselves don't shine so bright as you might expect given the title, Chaplin explores with his alternately comic and pathetic touch the city's tendency to make possible a multiplicity of identities. “In New York you can be a new man,” indeed.

The Only Son (1936)

Yasujiro Ozu's first talkie film after a career built on a silent foundation. All the hallmarks of his later, more famous works are found here: the quiet family drama, the "oh crap he's right" insights about parent-child relationships, the perfect geometry (as a cute little in-joke, the main character is a geometry teacher whose lesson plans adumbrate Ozu's choice of camera angles).

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Do we need any other actresses besides Veronica Lake? I don't think we do. For that matter, do we need any directors other than Preston Sturges? Again I'm unconvinced, especially after this hilarious satire on the movie industry. I was struck by how thoroughly modern Sturges' commentary felt—from the sex-obsessed studio executives eager to give audiences what they want to the jaded director determined to experience poverty firsthand, if only to make a meaningful piece of art. Though as Sturges' penchant for comedy proves, art need not be so deadly serious for that.

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

“Heil myself!” Enough said.

Spellbound (1945)

Kids, I'm convinced this film is a masterpiece. The facts are these:

  1. Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck are the hottest screen couple in the history of the medium. This is an objective statement.
  2. The Salvador Dali-inspired dream sequence is the perfect blend of unsettling and preposterous.
  3. The story itself is the perfect blend of preposterous and hilarious. And better yet, Hitchcock knows just how preposterous the idea of an ice-cold psychotherapist melted by a handsome amnesiac murderer is, and he wrings the premise for every drop of its absurd potential.
  4. See point (1) again:

The Third Man (1949)

If it weren't already enough that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, we get the masterful Carol Reed as director. The Third Man is rightfully hailed as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—British film of all time. The film glides along at an even keel, so that by the time the climatic subterranean showdown comes to pass we're not caught off guard by the sudden change in pace. Everything leads up to that chase, which in turn leads up to the most satisfying long take in cinema this side of Lawrence of Arabia.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

I must confess that the movie musical is not my genre of choice, but I'm hard pressed to find fault with this classic. Partly because it caters to my inner film nerd, partly because it pulls all the stops out of its many (many, many) memorable musical numbers, Singin' in the Rain is, plain and simple, a bundle of unadulterated joy.

Pather Panchali (1955)

2015 was a special year for film lovers as it marked the rebirth of Satyajit Ray's treasured Apu Trilogy. A series of films about the joys and heartbreaks in three discrete stages of an Indian boy/teenager/young man's life, Ray's masterpieces were nearly lost forever when the film prints went up in flames with their storeroom in the 1990s. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the folks at the Criterion Collection and Janus Films, the damaged negatives were restored and the resultantly gorgeous films were toured in theaters for a limited time this year. I only got to see the first installment when it came to Cambridge this summer. The only thing more special than seeing a full theater turn out for an Indian film from the fifties? My dad's reaction: “I thought I wasn't going to like it and would fall asleep, but that was actually really good.”

12 Angry Men (1957)

Let this sink in for a moment: this was Sidney Lumet's first feature film and it's a masterpiece. It also wouldn't be his last.

The Trial (1962)

Orson Welles adapted Franz Kafka's novel of nightmarish bureaucracy into an comparably haunting piece of cinema. Starring a fresh-out-of-Psycho Anthony Perkins and shot in Paris' Gare d'Orsay in the interregnum between its closure as a train station and reopening as a museum, The Trial is one of Welles' more frequently overlooked works, for no good reason other than lack of availability.

The Sacrifice (1986)

Have I already said enough about this movie? Tarkovsky is a genius, a complete master of the medium and a far more philosophically adept filmmaker than many of today's pseudo-intellectual poseurs. He also made this, his last film, while he was dying of cancer, with the legendary Sven Nykvist as cinematographer. The final sequence is so transcendentally over the top you almost can't believe you're witnessing it.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My childhood was completed in March of 2015, when I at long last saw the One Miyazaki Film to Rule Them All. 

Twin Peaks Pilot (1990)

Okay, look, I get it, this is a TV show, but if a feature-length motion picture event directed by David Lynch doesn't qualify as a “movie” then I give up. The other Lynch-directed episodes of the series are fantastic in their own right, but the pilot contains everything you really need: our introduction to the lovably wacky Dale Cooper, the skin-crawling unease of a small town (not unlike your own) rocked by the shocking death of its favorite daughter, Angelo Badalamenti's score. It's the entire Lynch mystique in a nutshell, and you can even watch it with your parents. (Or at least I did. Your mileage may vary.)

Safe (1995)

Truthfully I kind of hate this movie, but only because it's so eerily on the money about the emptiness of modern culture's obsession with faddish trends and therapies, and the seeming insolubility of the malaise at the root of contemporary life. Todd Haynes intends for the film to be read as a metaphor for AIDS, though it speaks to the film's power that it still carries import even after the AIDS crisis in America has long since subsided.

Le fils (2002)

The Dardenne brothers, about whom I have already expounded volumes on this blog and elsewhere on the web, made a film not too long ago that nimbly carries the weight of unthinkable forgiveness on its sturdy and well-defined shoulders. Unfortunately, it's seemingly impossible to come by, which is a right shame because everyone from here to Hong Kong ought to watch it and debate the many merits of its stealthy humanism. I go back and forth on whether this or 1999's Rosetta is their true chef-d'œuvre; then again, as Sidney Lumet would remind me, who's to say they aren't allowed to have two? 

Bonus Film: Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974)

Three hours and 12 minutes into its three hour and 15 minute runtime, Céline and Julie Go Boating delivers on the promise of its title.