Sunset Cinema: 30 superb directorial feature film finales

feature film finaleOne 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 feature film finaleTabu: 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.

the passenger feature film finalePassenger – 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 feature film finaleFanny 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 feature film finaleLes 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: RedKrzysztof 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.

feature film finaleThe 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.

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

16 thoughts on “Sunset Cinema: 30 superb directorial feature film finales

  1. I love this blog. Seriously. I always learn something, and get tons of suggestions for must-adds to my Netflix queue. That’s all I wanted to say. Just, you know. Thanks.

  2. Re: Robert Mulligan “undistinguished, modestly pleasant films” ??????? what about The Nickel Ride, The Stalking Moon, and Bloodbrothers? It wasnt until the 80’s that Mulligan went off track, and you are right…Man in the Moon was a return to form, but nearly everything he did up to 1978 was pretty high calibre.

    • I like The Stalking Moon, but I can’t share your enthusiasm for the others. To me, most of those movies feel dated. Well-made, well-acted, earnest, but still not special. David Thomson wrote something about Mulligan and Alan Pakula that I’ve always thought was spot on (though I could possibly be remembering it wrong as I sit here.) Pakula had been his producing partner, but when he went off on his own, he made Klute and The Parallax View, which to me, are better than anything Mulligan made during the middle part of his career. “Undistinguished” may be a bit harsh, because I do think many of those movies had solid elements, but I can’t go much farther. Which is one reason why I think Man in the Moon is such a marvel. I want to write something tentatively entitled Sacred Cows, in which I will take shots at several beloved movies, actors, directors… I imagine we can continue this debate then. But I’ll let others have the podium for a while. Thanks for the discussion, Bill.

  3. Jon, for the most part, this is a fantastic list, containing several movies I’ll have to catch up on. I disagree with your assessment of Ford’s Seven women. It’s a Ford picture all the way, but with women in parts usually played by men. Some additions I would make: Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo, although the weaker of the two variations on Rio Bravo, it is fascinating to me for his obsession with certain character relationships and he continued reworking them until the end. i found Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles superior to his original Lady for a Day, in small part to the creation of the peter Falk character, which gave his career a blazing start. Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (had he only lived to complete the sequel) Sam peckinpah’s the Osterman Weekend was a messby studio standards, but wasnt that the point? Sam really stuck it to those bastards with this one. but the ending is brilliant, and the final lines are sam’s final words to the tv addicts who he blamed for the demise of the motion pictures. Pasolini’s Salo remains the most heartbreaking attack on human violence ever put on the screen. Leone’s Once Upon a time in A merica may not be his masterpiece, but its damn good. Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame evidenced the great director in full form until the end. Sidney Lumet is perhaps Hollywood’s most under-rated director, and his final film, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, was a return to form. a movie that impressed itself upon me as a child that was the final film of Frank Borzage, who would become one of my favorite directors, was The Big Fisherman. It has been unavailable for decades, so I have never seen it as an adult, and it is one of my grails. I unclude it out of sentiment alone.

    • I can’t explain why Street of Shame isn’t on here. I’m pretty sure it was on at some point. I may have been a little too reckless with the DELETE key. Never seen The Big Fisherman. Too bad it isn’t easy to fin. I’ve been watching a lot of Borzage lately (and learning how to correctly pronounce his name.) His romanticism never appealed to me when I was younger. Finding it far more interesting these days.

  4. Superb list that jogged my memory of many forgotten greats. I do have a soft spot for ‘Play Dirty’, and always considered it to be underrated, perhaps because I am English! I am also pleased that the work of Douglas Sirk is now receiving due praise, if only for the wonderful colour work.
    Must have been hard going though Jon, so take a well-earned break!
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

  5. Great list, Jon! Some wonderful choices here, including “That Obscure Object of Desire” and “Red.” I’d like to add, if I may, one my personal faves, Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976, I think). It’s by no means a masterpiece, but it’s a fun film and loaded with great turns by the likes of Bruce Dern and William Devane, as well as some snappy dialogue.

    I’m going to respectfully disagree (oh, no!) with the placement of Julie & Julia, which I found to be a horrid, horrid film, in part owing to what I found to be a caricature-like performance by Meryl Streep, as well as to a dreary script and plodding direction. I’m probably in the minority on this one, though.

    Terrific job, as always, on this compilation!

    • I knew Julia childs and Streep’s performance brought tears to my eyes. Hitchcock was so sick while directing Family Plot that he couldnt do much directing. the actors ran away with the picture, something that enver before happened with a Hitchcock picture.

      • As they say in baseball: It’ll look like a line drive in the box score. Regardless of Hitch’s health, it’s still a Hitchcock film and retains much of his trademark suspense, bite, innuendo and set-piece virtuosity (including a terrific scene involving a runaway car). I’m going to continue giving him credit for this one, as his film credits do as well.

        As for Julie & Julia, I felt like Streep’s portrayal was more impersonation than performance, which I feel she does often. (Now it can be told: I’m not a big fan of Streep’s acting … that I’m definitely in the minority on, and it may well be personal taste.) It doesn’t matter to me if it’s on the dot–and although I didn’t know Julia Child, I did grow up with her being pretty much known as the definitive cooking-show host and am very familiar with her inimitable voice and inflections–what matters is a performance that transcends imitation. And I don’t think Streep did that. She didn’t have much to work with, however; I felt the screenplay and direction were weak.

    • I’m sure you’re not alone regarding Julia. An iconic character played by an iconic actress is fraught with peril. But I was surprised by how, to me, it moved beyond caricature. (For the record though, I did not like Streep in August: Osage County because I thought she sucked all the humor out of what is a funny text.)

      • Ha! I’m happy to hear I may not be alone … though I think we’re a small group of Julie & Julia un-aficionados. 😀 Streep isn’t my favorite actress–I usually find her performances very mannered and artificial-feeling–but I did like her in two very different films: Doubt and Defending Your Life. Like any actor or actress, she needs good material to work with, and I just didn’t think Julie & Julia was appetizing. But again … that’s my personal taste.

        • Im not a Streep fan either, but what impressed me in Julia and Julia were the scenes involving the illness and death of her husband. that was the period during which I knew Julia, and Streep brought it back to me so vividly that it caught me by surprise. I agree the film could easily be dropped from the list, as Nora Ephron is by no means a great director. but then again, neither is Adrienne Shelley. Subjectivity is one of the factors that makes the comment section of this site such fun.

Leave a Reply