As I have explained, I try to judge the quality of a film by how perfectly it is made, rather than how much I enjoyed it. Those criteria closely overlap, because I find any near-perfect film a joy to watch. Now, just because a film is near-perfect doesn’t guarantee it will be emotionally gratifying. All of us take pleasure in films that reinforce our beliefs, or that tickle our egos, or that thrill us in any of the ways a person can be thrilled. We love to see deserving underdogs win, and bad guys get punished, and love triumph over adversity.
But not all great art plays on the brain’s promiscuous pleasure centers. What about Munch’s “The Scream?” What about the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby?” What about Michelangelo’s “The Pieta?” Like those works of art, great films can also express anguish, futility, or sorrow, achieving near-perfection without playing to the cheap seats. It may not be exactly great fun to watch “The Servant,” or “The Conversation,” or “Psycho,” but they are as close to perfect as film can be, and failure to appreciate them as such indicates, I think, lack of understanding of what art (in contrast to entertainment) is.
Those three are troubling films, as are so many great films. “The Godfather” also fits in that category, as do “The Graduate” and “Chinatown.” What makes all of them so disturbing are their endings, which, instead of rewarding viewers with anticipated storybook closures, spring traps of surprise ambiguity. It’s a difficult cinematic trick; many lesser directors have tried it and failed.
Endings are important. A poor ending can reduce a great film to a mediocre one. A great ending can raise a mediocre film to a great one. And, a great ending to a great film takes it into the pantheon of classics, where it resides with “Gone With The Wind” and “Some Like It Hot” and “Casablanca,” whose famous endings are anchored in the cultural landscape.
A great ending is not one that ties up the film into a neat little package, or one that makes the heart burst with joy. A great ending is one that dismisses the human need for perfect closure and refutes the need for it. It tells the viewer, “Look, the real world doesn’t operate like that, and we’re not going to lie to you and say that it does—but we’re going to give you something even better.” And then it does. With a few succinct words of dialogue or choice imagery, it suddenly presents the film in a new and unexpected context. A terrific ending to a film is rather like a terrific punchline to a joke—except usually it’s not funny.
All that aside, there are plenty of near-perfect films that don’t have classic endings. I’ve seen four of them recently, and I’d like to pass them along:
1. “Silent House” (What follow is the review I wrote for it on Netflix)
“Any true cinemaphile should rave over this little masterpiece. It only has six actors, and three of them hardly count. So, for 86 minutes you have pretty much just a girl and her dad and her uncle on the premises of a country home. The ONLY reason this works is because of Elizabeth Olsen, but that is the ONLY reason you need. This younger sister of the Olsen twins blows away every actress of the day (and I have great respect for a few of them). Keep in mind that the camera is close-up on her face for 80% of the film– yet there isn’t a moment when you dare look away. She is absolutely riveting. I’m not even a big fan of horror films — the only reason I rented this one was because of the strength of Olsen’s performance in “Liberal Arts.” And kudos to the filmmakers, who minimized everything else so Olsen’s dazzling talent could shine in its full glory.”
2. “Unconscious” (Spanish, 2004)
The setting is 1913 Barcelona for this mystery-farce-drama. I don’t know what else to say about it other than that I judged it near-perfect in execution. I won’t bother telling you the plot, because it won’t help you know whether you’ll enjoy it or not. This is a bit of a wild card, but a superior one.
3. “Shattered Glass”
Based on the true story of Stephen Glass, the writer at The New Republic whose fiction-riddled articles shocked the publishing world in the 90’s, this is marvellously written and acted, with Hayden Christensen uncannily channeling Stephen Glass. If you liked “All The President’s Men,” you’re going to love this one.
4. “Searching for Sugar Man”
Wow! How it it possible to find a film that me, my wife, and our fifteen-year old son ALL rave about? This stunning documentary follows a story too incredible for it to be fiction. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Rodriguez recorded two albums in the early 70’s in Detroit. The records flopped—except in apartheid South Africa, where they bizarrely achieved near-divine status. Then in the late 90’s, a couple of journalists there went searching for the truth about how the mysterious Rodriguez had died: did he really commit self-immolation on stage, or had he shot himself in the head before a booing audience? Skip the reviews and google searches and go straight to the film. If this movie doesn’t blow your mind, you haven’t got a soul. It’s an absolute must-see.