7. Il Postino (1994)
A heady, romantic fact meets fiction tale all about the power of words. Co-writer, star and would-be-co-director Massimo Troisi tragically passed away aged just 41 after principal photography was completed, but his quiet charisma suffuses the whole project.
Fisherman-turned postman Mario Ruoppolo (Troisi) is tasked with delivering the fan mail of exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret), and over the months forms a close bond with the writer who teaches him how to sensitively express his feelings for his intended.
The idyllic coastal Italian landscapes, leisurely pacing and warm human interaction all help to make Il Postino a crowd-pleaser, and the consistent humanist quality of the film as a whole makes it a much bigger tragedy that we were robbed of Troisi’s talent so early.
Braveheart won this year, which, beyond its scale and ambition, seems less and less the right decision as time passes.
6. Drive My Car (2021)
As a 3 hour film about adapting Chekhov for a multi-lingual cast where the opening credits don’t appear until we’re past the 40 minute mark, this might seem like arthouse “awards bait” but ends up being far more engrossing and emotionally tender than you might expect.
The crux of it is the gradual development of the bond between a grieving theatre director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his driver with a troubled past (Tôko Miura) as they share long daily journeys to and from his temporary accommodation into Hiroshima where he is to rehearse and stage his play performed by a multi-lingual cast.
The deliberate, almost glacial pacing, and the time the film dedicates to building all the key character relationships above all else, makes this a mesmerising, singular experience if you’re in the right frame of mind, though it is by no means devoid of humour and warmth to keep the film riveting.
CODA won, because representation matters and you’ve got to start somewhere.
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5. La Grande Illusion (1937)
This is up there with the top war films; taking a sad, philosophical look at men trying to make the best of a nightmarish situation and retain their dignity and honour in the process. It’s also one of the last great French films that saw release before the outbreak of WWII and the Nazi occupation, Jean Renoir’s treatise on war seeming very aware of the new conflict on the horizon.
It’s a great film about class, not only in its setting of POW camps for officers, but the sub-divisions within it based on each prisoner’s pre-war background. Erich von Stroheim’s fascinating German commandant character found a purpose on the battlefield, but extensive injuries reduced him to overseeing captured officers in an isolated castle prison, and even this is preferable to what was awaiting him in society outside as an (aristocratic) invalid at the end of the war.
If you think about it, The Great Escape is a much broader version of this set in the next World War, and Jean Gabin’s character is the Steve McQueen equivalent: the camp dissident put in isolation and planning an escape to Switzerland. He finds a chance of happiness in peace time when he convalesces with a lonely war widow who observes that without her husband, “The tables’s grown too big”.
Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You won Best Picture this year, a fine film but not quite up there with his best. Perhaps the Academy didn’t want to award another challenging Great War film less than a decade after All Quiet on the Western Front.
4. Cries and Whispers (1972)
Ingmar Bergman’s almost unbearably intense period chamber piece follows two wealthy sisters (Liv Ullman and Ingrid Thulin) and their maid (Kari Sylwan) caring for their bedridden sister (Harriet Andersson) who is slowly, agonisingly dying of cancer.
The striking visuals, including searing red backdrops and characters’ staring faces melting into them at the end of each chapter, do a lot of work in the dialogue-light first half, but soon we have cutting monologues and even elements of macabre gothic horror worming its way into the plot.
By no means the easiest watch, with the pain-wracked performances and pervasive atmosphere, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome either; this is a hypnotic slice of domestic trauma populated by a family struggling to understand and express love for each other in an even remotely healthy way.
The Sting won this year because everyone loves watching Robert Redford and Paul Newman being charming and handsome together.