Rick Burin runs a blog called Advice for the Lovelorn and this list ran originally there:
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Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1996) - A middle-class black woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) goes in search of her birth mother and finds a coarse, tearful, loving, unhappy, chain-smoking working-class white woman (Blenda Blethyn), whose family is a powder keg just waiting for a match. There aren’t many films that change the way you see the world. Or many pieces of art, for that matter. Secrets & Lies does just that. It's brilliantly conceived, bracingly authentic and emotionally overpowering, opting at its climax not for soap or sentiment, but something truly remarkable: the truth. It's simply a masterpiece.
The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941) - A caustic, troubling, profound examination of a Southern family brought low – or high and to prominence, depending on how you view it – by a sea of moral dissolution. You could argue that the film’s delineation between good and evil is rather simplistic for a work aspiring to high art, but it’s that heightened sensibility that gives it much of its haunting power, particularly as the vultures gather and you realise that Hellman’s vision of America – imagined by Toland, enlivened by a killer ensemble, given order by the gifted Wyler – is far darker than anyone could have expected, the blanched Davis poisoned by greed, leaving goodness, humanity and virtue all gasping for breath.
American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) - Magical, lightning-in-a-bottle stuff: a flavourful, nostalgic and sentimental movie - somehow made by George Lucas - with a cast of future stars as high school kids whose stories interweave on the last night before college in 1962. And it has Harrison Ford as a grumpy drag racer in a cowboy hat.
Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) - The wife and the mistress of the world’s most unpleasant man plot his death in this stunning genre-hopper from Wages of Fear director Clouzot. It’s cynical and gripping, with flashes of humour and humanity, and Simone Signoret exuding malignant cool as a peroxide, jump-suited murderess with killer shades. There's twist after twist after twist - and the final two are just dynamite.
The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Ray Müller, 1993) - If you find yourself saying things like: “The reason I sent that telegram to Hitler was...” or “... Hitler hated it, ask anyone who was there”, it may be time to take a long, hard look at your life. The greatest female film director of all time – and the only one to have filmed a Nuremberg Rally – had been shopping this project around for a while, and finding that more than 200 respected documentarians wouldn’t touch her with a barge pole. Enter Ray Müller, who somehow manages to walk the trickiest, most perilous of tightropes: making a credible, even-handed and deeply insightful film about Leni Riefenstahl in which she is the only interviewee.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929) - A late, great British silent: a dizzying tale of romantic and sexual obsession, its slight story dazzlingly directed by Anthony Asquith. It's a little masterpiece, and it'll keep you guessing right up to the finish, while exalting you through its refusal to recognise the limits of late silent cinema.
Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, 2002) - Err, yes, a second documentary about Hitler on this year's list, meaning that over 13% of favourite discoveries this year are about him. This film is just 87 minutes of a single talking head. Thankfully that talking head is Traudl Junge, an 82-year-old German woman who worked as Hitler’s personal secretary from 1942 until he shot himself. Her reminiscences of the “kindly old gentleman” she worked for – contrasted with the “monster” she regards him as in retrospect – make for utterly gripping viewing, as she talks in circles about her guilt, sorrow and confusion. Her memories are moving, maddening, sometimes baffling, and the film is quite brilliantly structured, with a stunning final sequence.
East Side, West Side (Mervyn LeRoy, 1949) - A glossy, unbelievably entertaining Hollywood meller set in New York, with Stanwyck as a wronged wife, Charisse the girl-next-door, Heflin's effortlessly modern performance, Gardner's feline sensuality, Mason's voice, colourful bits for William Conrad, Beverly Michaels and Gale Sondergaard - her last film before being blacklisted. For what it is, close to perfect.
Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934) - A short, sharp shock that still reverberates down the decades.
Toys in the Attic (George Roy Hill, 1963) - Toys in the attic and skeletons in the closet: a very entertaining slice of Southern Gothic from commie playwright Lillian Hellman: a little ripe, a little familiar, but extremely well done. It's largely shot on one set, but future New Hollywood hero George Roy Hill directs it all extremely nicely, and much of the acting is an absolute treat, with Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller dominating in two mesmerising characterisations. Both play women who are blind and deluded, though in quite different ways, Page hitting a peak of quivering self-loathing, Hiller shuffling the moods as she did so superbly in these mid-career characterisations that she loved to (infrequently) take on: not the shimmering archetypes she had embodied in Bernard Shaw plays, but starkly real characters made beautiful by their flaws and contradictions.
True Heart Susie (D. W. Griffith, 1919) (Cinema) - Maybe my favourite ever Lillian Gish performance, with everyone's favourite tiny-mouthed acting titan playing the "simple, plain" Susie, an angelic, motherless farmer who sells her cow to fund sweetheart Robert Harron's college career, then watches, powerless as he falls for a tight-skirted, powder-faced party animal (Clarine Seymour). Yes, that is the best premise for a movie ever, thank you for asking.
Stranger on Horseback (Jacques Tourneur, 1955) - A sensational little Western about the coming of law and order, with gun-toting circuit judge Joel McCrea trying to bring the son of a powerful pioneer to justice. Made by McCrea and director Jacques Tourneur the same year asWichita, it's a vastly superior outing in every way: a tight, slim oater that does wonders with a tiny budget, boasting a riveting story, a crackling script that includes a superb monologue for villain John McIntire and a stunning climax making full use of whip-cracking desert dominatrix Miroslava.