One of the best things about writing a blog is that it gives my family an excuse to talk to me. And so, when I recently put up a piece about great directorial debuts, I heard from a lot of them. Usually they were telling me, in the politest possible terms, how many titles I had missed. And my brother, who knows a lot about film for a lawyer, also suggested a follow-up list: great final films. Though I make it a point to ignore lawyers whenever possible, I thought it was a good idea.
I quickly discovered that writing about greatest final films is a very different assignment than tackling debuts. First films are full of the energy and vigour of youth. Full of possibility. They are funny and sexy and sloppy. Often joyous. They are the kid in the candy store.
By contrast, final films fall into one of two categories and neither contains the same measure of joy. They may be the films of veterans, masters and journeymen alike, who have come to the end of a long career, but only rarely know that they are indeed telling their last story. Far too many notable filmmakers ignore Dylan Thomas’ advice and just sort of peter out, from Griffith and Chaplin through Hawks and Wilder. If they do go out on a high note, that note is often tinged with the sad wisdom that comes with age. There is humour as well, but even this is often tinged with sadness.
The second group is made up of those filmmakers who died before their time. This group does contain youngsters whose movies show elements of energy and vigour. But since their deaths robbed us of their potential, even recalling their achievements can be a somber exercise.
Still, it’s an exercise that needs to be done. We are human after all, and lists must be made.
Rules of the game (not the Renoir movie – I mean the actual rules I used to make the list):
I have left off filmmakers who only made one feature film. Thus Vigo’s L’Atalante (which appeared on my Debuts list) and Laughton’s Night of the Hunter are not on here.
I have left off interesting movies by some veterans (for instance, Ford’s Seven Women and Rossen’s Lilith) because their final films were so out of line with the rest of their work, although, truth be told, if I thought those films were really remarkable, I would have included them.
I have excluded any director who is still with us, even if he or she has not directed a movie in many years. There are too many examples of directors reemerging after extended absences to rule anyone out as long as breath remains in the body.
As with the Debuts list, I am considering theatrically released feature films, but this time I am including documentaries.
Bonus quest: Find the three directors who appear on both the Debuts and Finals list.
Here, then, in chronological order, are thirty notable final films.
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas – F.W. Murnau (1931): This was intended to be a collaboration between famed documentarian Robert Flaherty and Murnau, and Flaherty’s contributions to filming on location in Bora Bora should not be overlooked. But this is Murnau’s movie. Had he not died in a car crash at 42, there’s no telling what this greatest of German visionaries might have done in Hollywood.
Lola Montes – Max Ophuls (1955): No director created more fascinating, passionate women on screen than Ophuls. Lola was the last in a most remarkable line.
The Wild Party – Harry Horner (1956): Horner should serve as a reminder that tens of thousands of talented, unknown people have worked to create the movies that we love. Primarily an art director, he got the chance to direct a handful of low budget B pictures in the 1950s. Red Planet Mars (1952) and Beware My Lovely (1952), his first two, are best known. But this nasty little noir can hold its own with them.
The Ten Commandments – Cecil B. DeMille (1956): The ultimate showman tells the ultimate story, for the second time (he had filmed it once as a silent). Big, loud, entertaining, vulgar. In other words, Hollywood.
Terror in a Texas Town – Joseph H. Lewis (1958): Scripted by Dalton Trumbo and starring Sterling Hayden. How many American westerns have a Swedish whaler as their central character? Only in B movie heaven, which is where Lewis is no doubt residing.
Imitation of Life – Douglas Sirk (1959): Sirk was never nominated for an Oscar, though his final film did merit him a Director’s Guild nomination. Today, his melodramas from the ‘40s and ‘50s are considered among the greatest of their era.
Le Trou – Jacques Becker (1960): A close friend of Max Ophuls also makes the list with this riveting prison break movie, filmed almost verite style. No bells and whistles. Just intense human drama.
An Autumn Afternoon – Yasujiro Ozu (1962): Ozu’s body of work is the most significant in the history of narrative cinema. He made an original movie virtually every year from 1927 to 1962 and many of them dealt with life in contemporary Japan. As such, they provide an extraordinary document about the life of a country. Toward the end, he never slowed down, though he did begin to reveal a more whimsical side than we had noticed before. They are all worth watching.
Passenger – Andrzej Munk (1963): Munk died in 1961, like Murnau, in a car crash, and this was completed by friends and released two years later. Though he was barely a director for ten years, Munk helped launch a Polish renaissance that would be carried on by directors like Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski.
Gertrud – Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964): There are austere and uncompromising directors. And then there is Dreyer. He directed very few features and in this one, Nina Pens Rode gives a performance just as intense as Rene Falconetti offered in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, 37 years prior.
Witchfinder General – Michael Reeves (1968): The youngest director on the list. The same age as Orson Welles when he did Citizen Kane. Because this film was produced by AIP, starred Vincent Price, and had a vague Edgar Allan Poe reference, it often gets lumped in with Roger Corman’s other Poe movies. It should not be. This is malevolence and horror at its most intense, with no trace of whimsy.
La Prisonniere – Henri-Georges Clouzot (1968): Clouzot constantly revealed the nasty side of the French film culture. Most known for the magnificent horror, Les Diaboliques (1955), and the ultimate suspense film, Le Salaire de le Peur (1953), he made a number of other excellent movies. Despite rapidly failing health, this finale is as nasty and intense as any of them.
Play Dirty – Andre de Toth (1969): He inherited this project from Rene Clement and turned it into an English Dirty Dozen (1967). A fine conclusion for an underrated director.
That Obscure Object of Desire – Luis Bunuel (1977): It is fitting that Bunuel get the decade of the ‘70s all to himself. This was the first title I thought of when preparing this list. A magnificent comedy on the absurdity of love from the most important cinematic absurdist of all time. He never slowed down. In fact, with age and wisdom and wit, he actually sped up.
Fanny and Alexander – Ingmar Bergman (1982): Bergman continued to write and direct for television, and this portrait of a family began life as a television movie. But it was his last film to be theatrically released and though significantly shorter than the television cut, it still tells a story that is both epic and personal.
L’Argent – Robert Bresson (1983): Many film fans do not know Bresson. Many others are afraid of him. There is no reason for this. In fact, I plan on writing a brief primer to help you over that fear, should you be afflicted. But don’t wait for me. Just watch. Seemingly so out of touch in 1983. So timeless today.
Star 80 – Bob Fosse (1983): On the surface, it is about the death of Playboy model Dorothy Stratton. But Fosse’s final film is a brutal portrait of perverse masculinity, providing Julia Robert’s big brother his greatest role.
A Passage to India – David Lean (1984): Lean’s adaptation of Forster combined the human emotion of his early films with the epic grandeur of his later ones, all in the same year he received his knighthood.
The Sacrifice – Andrei Tarkovsky (1986): Tarkovsky appears to be channeling Bergman, using the Swede’s favourite cinematographer Sven Nykvist. A film that is in turns contemplative and experimental, Tarkovsky manages to look backwards and forwards at the same time.
The Dead – John Huston (1987): Huston had a reputation for being hard drinking and rough-edged, and that was plenty true. But you cannot watch his haunting adaptation of Joyce’s “unfilmable” story without recognising the intellectual rigour and deep emotion this ruffian possessed.
The Man in the Moon – Robert Mulligan (1991): Mulligan scored big early with Fear Strikes Out (1957) and especially with To Kill a Mockingbird (1963). After that, he had a string of undistinguished, modestly pleasant films. Then, out of the blue, this beautiful little movie introduced a teenaged Reese Witherspoon to a grateful film world.
Les Nuits Fauves – Cyril Collard (1992): All right, I am violating my own rule. Collard only made one feature. But it seems fitting to break rules when it comes to Collard. This honest and raw story about living with AIDS was made by a man dying of AIDS. He passed away at 35, shortly before his film won the Cesar for Best Picture, leaving behind controversy and tears.
Three Colors: Red – Krzysztof Kieslowski (1994): Kieslowski was already an acclaimed filmmaker when he launched his magnum opus, the Colors trilogy, on the world in 1993 & 1994. Many viewers preferred the final instalment, Red, but White and Blue also have their fans. All three are wonderful.
Guantanamera – Tomas Gutierrez Alea (1995): For nearly thirty years, Alea chronicled the travails of revolutionary Cuba with a sly humour that belied his satire. Juan Carlos Tabio assisted on his final two movies, Fresa y Chocolate (1993), the first Oscar-nominated Cuban film, and this final film, which won the Special Jury Prize in Berlin.
Level Five – Chris Marker (1997): Marker may well be the greatest filmmaker no one has ever heard of. The documentarian who never stopped searching, experimenting, and pushing the limits of film. At 76, after crafting his final feature about war, memory, guilt, and video games, he went on to further explore digital technology, creating interactive filmic experiences well into his 80s.
Gohatto – Nagisa Oshima (1999): Oshima never regained the level of attention he received for the hugely controversial In the Realm of the Sense (1976), but he continued to put out intense, stylistically beautiful studies in passion, and his finale may have been the most beautiful and intriguing of them all.
Moolaade – Ousmane Sembene (2004): Contrary to much Western popular opinion, there are vibrant film cultures throughout Africa. Nigeria produces more films now than any country other than India. Sembene, from Senegal, is often seen as the godfather of African film. Far from taking it easy, at age 80, he made his final film about the practice of female genital mutilation.
The Aura – Fabian Bielinsky (2005): The Argentine writer and director burst onto the scene with Nine Queens in 2000 and followed it up with this neo-noir vaguely reminiscent of Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Insomnia (1997), but with a look and style all its own. A heart attack stopped his promising career after just two features.
Waitress – Adrienne Shelly (2007): Shelly had done it right, paying her dues acting in a number of films, and directing a few mediocre features before her breakthrough; a touching, world-weary romance starring Keri Russell. At 40, on the cusp of newfound recognition, she was murdered by a 19 year old neighbour in one of the more tragic and senseless crimes to rock American film in the past ten years.
Julie & Julia – Nora Ephron (2009): Truth be told, this is only half a good film. The “Julie” part, despite the presence of Amy Adams, offers little of interest. But the “Julia” half, with Meryl Streep giving one of her greatest performances, featured the best of Ephron. She was more successful as a screenwriter than as a director, but in both roles, she was able to crank out successful comedies over a long career, helping open the door for other women writers and directors.
That’s it. Feel free to add your own, or rip your least favourite to shreds.