Antonioni. Antonioni has 3 films in the top 100, 5 films essentially in the top 250 (#253 with Blow Up).  His films demonstrate a rigid formal structure (both within each film and as a collective oeuvre) and jaw-dropping photographic beauty.  During this streak from 1960-1966— L’Avventura to Blow-Up, he made five 5 in 7 years that are either masterpieces or right on the fringe. It’s there with Fellini, Godard, and Truffaut during that stretch and out of those 4 auteurs (2 Italian, 2 French) it’s Antonioni who has the best film outside of the very late 1950s and 1960s (The Passenger in 1975). I consider myself a student of Andrew Sarris so this, on L’Avventura, says a great deal (much of it for all of Antonioni’s work) “every shot is the result of calculation of the highest order.”

Best film:  Red Desert. Antonioni’s first color film and his best film overall. Antonioni- like Fellini, Kurosawa, Ozu and the other early masters who started in b/w uses color like a weapon- expressive– he actually painted part of the landscape here (red of course), goes for very bold primary, a blue shack, yellow smoke from the factory. Antonioni literally painted the pipes at the factory.  When we aren’t hit with the rich primary colors we’re swimming in rustic industrial gray color palette and fog—a vendor on the street is selling something and Antonioni paints every item gray. I adore the shallow focus opening and credits—industrial landscapes with that experimental score- it sets up the entire film so well formally and visually. Antonioni’s sense of mise-en-scene and frame design has rarely been matched in cinema history—and how that and the architecture influence his characters is pure genius. It’s harming Vitti in this film.  Seems just that every frame be a distressing picturesque masterstroke. End on the factory pouring smoke with the industrial experimental score- perfection.

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from Red Desert– this shot composition and image blows my mind– astounding
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shallow-focus– not only a gorgeous stand-alone image but a formal construct set up in Red Desert with shallow focus during the opening credits
architecture as character in Red Desert

total archiveable films:  12

top 100 films: 3 (Red Desert, L’Avventura, The Passenger)

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the chilling final shot from L’Avventura- parallel lines

top 500 films: 6 (Red Desert, L’Avventura, The Passenger, L’Eclisse, Blow-Up, La Notte)

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architecture and modernity consuming Jeanne Moreau in La Notte

top 100 films of the decade: 8 (Red Desert, L’Avventura, L’Eclisse, Blow-Up, The Passenger, La Notte, Zabriskie Point, Identification of a Woman)

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mirroring the final image in many ways– cutting the frame in half in L’Avventura
three different planes of depth here in L’Avventura

most overrated:  There’s nothing too drastic— TSPDT has Blow-Up as #99 and as Antonioni’s #2—I think the box office popularity ( I think the chic setting of swinging London, a fashion photographer, and the rock section were a big part of that hitting home with audiences)  and impact (essentially remade by De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola). I have it at #253 all-time and as Antonioni’s 5th best film. It’s just not nearly as loaded with impressive photographic moments as L’Eclisse or Red Desert.  However, every once and awhile we get the flourishes like when Hemmings drives through an entire street painted red. Antonioni also spray paints the he spray painted the grass green… effing love it. The film’s invention is brilliant– an optical illusion, is it a vase or two faces… art vs. realism. Then of course the long shot in the sea of green and he disappears… fabulous.

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Antonioni was not a realist– he’d paint the street red or the grass green (as he does in Blow-Up)
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layered mise-en-scene in Blow Up

most underrated :  I hate to do it because I already went on about it above but there’s no other choice but Red Desert. The TSPDT consensus has it as #316 all-time and #6 for Antonioni. I’m at #40 overall and #1 for Antonioni. Zabriskie Point was underrated for a long time but its found its way onto the TSPDT top 1000. The ending montage is superb along with some of the mise-en-scene imagery.

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one of the best images from Zabriskie Point-– structures consuming characters

gem I want to spotlight:  It’s tempting to go with Il Grido. It’s not quite as good but it’s Antonioni’s La Strada (almost as if it were told from Anthony Quinn’s POV)  and that would make a fascinating study– but I have to go with L’Eclisse for the formal construction. The film is exceptional in it’s entirely, a masterpiece, but the finale with the rain barrel is a formal wonder-stroke and a brazen- and avant-garde decision—instead of seeing the Vitti and Delon end up together, breaking up, or (more to Antonioni) ambiguously still there, he simply leaves them entirely– and watches the empty events of the street corner where they first met (including the rain barrel, the eclipse). The film has an odd sci-fi structure in the town- like a skyscraper and water tower combined- Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind– such an underrated work. Architecture as character and mise-en-scen. Delon is barely in the first 50 mins- again typical of Antonioni. There are constantly lines between Delon and Vitti- the telephone pole (amazing shot)- a great shot of them separated by a column at the stock exchange might be the best in this film which could be a series of still-frame art photographs. Again, the architecture or rain barrel montage at the very end—it’s a ghost town, horror film score—gets very avant-garde and metaphorical, empty street corner and building under construction and eclipse—alienation and decay, rubble.

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symmetry and wall-art beautiful in L’Eclisse
one of the many images of lines or structures intersecting and blocking Delon and Vitti in L’Eclisse

stylistic innovations/traits: Antonioni, first and foremost, is a master of shot composition. He’s obsessed with not just the foreground the background in the frame and using architecture as a character. He’s as concerned with the body language of his actors and the way people are facing each other as what they say. His films are paced, bleak and detached. His narratives are wandering and open ended. His camera movement (both tracking and his wonderful use of panning) mirrors his ambiguous and seemingly unmotivated characters. All of his films can be seen as meditations on alienation. Antonioni is what you think of when you think of foreign art house cinema. His films are again, slower (people who hate foreign art house cinema would use other words). It can be viewed (not by me) as pretentious, self-serious,  or very “art for the sake of art” but his 6 films that are in the top 5 of their respective year are all consistent and visually striking.  Alienation amidst gorgeous and vast landscapes and architecture- opaque, lyrical and ambiguous. Minor characters becoming major and vice versa is an Antonioni trademark (this starts really before he and Hitchcock drop (or kill off) their stars in their dueling 1960’s films)- Antonioni was doing this in the 50’s. Delon is barely in the first 50 minutes of L’Eclisse, of course we have the disappearance in L’Avventura, Maria Schneider first speaks 63 minutes into The Passenger. Vitto shows up far into La Notte (and she takes over- hypnotic). The characteristic Antonioni image is of two characters in the same frame not looking at each other. The factory from Red Desert, or the basin/valley in Zabriskie Point– architecture as character- the island in L’Avventura, the party in La Notte. Antonioni shoots two people, dressed immaculately in the same frame together in such a beautiful way- it’s not easy. He’s not known for the tracking shot like some other auteurs but the perplexing seven minute tracking shot through the bars at the end of The Passenger is the greatest single shot in Antonioni’s career (even if he did the best work of his career on the whole in the 60’s), and among the greatest single shots in cinema history. Nicholson said Antonioni regarded actors as moving space and nothing more. Architecture as character- for example in The Passenger we havethe Gaudi building—gorgeous statues used to frame actors—Plaza de La Iglesia – it’s a bit like the opposite of Welles’ The Trial, Red Desert or the Moreau sequences in La Notte with modern architecture destroying characters or closing in on them— this is open—lost in it.

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depth of field brilliance in La Notte
one of cinema’s greatest single shots– the seven minute long-take in The Passenger

top 10

  1. Red Desert
  2. L’Avventura
  3. The Passenger
  4. L’Eclisse
  5. Blow-Up
  6. La Notte
  7. Il Grido
  8. Zabriskie Point
  9. The Lady Without Camelias
  10. Identification of a Woman
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Hanging over the open water with arms open in The Passenger —stunning visual motifs—and this one was clearly picked up on by PT Anderson for his trademark shot in The Master from 2012.

By year and grades

1950- Story of a Love Affair R
1953- The Lady Without Camelias HR
1955- Le Amiche R/HR
1957- Il Grido HR
1960- L’Avventura MP
1961- La Notte MS/MP
1962- L’Eclisse MP
1964- Red Desert MP
1966- Blow-Up MS/MP
1970- Zabriskie Point HR
1975- The Passenger MP
1982- Identification of a Woman R/HR

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives