Lean. Lean is quite a juxtaposition from the other European directors that flourished in this era (Lean’s best film was 1962 and second and third best just before and just after) like Godard, Antonioni, Truffaut and some others that are thought of during this time (and location) of artistic boom in world cinema. Lean was not near as chic or trendy (looked at as rather old-fashioned– who did adaptations) but he was every bit their equal when it came to being a stylist.  He clearly has a perfectionist compositional eye. Lean is epic cinema (some call him the descendent of DeMille but as I’m not a massive DeMille fan I don’t love that title). I’d rather go with Griffith or von Stroheim (Christopher Nolan is certainly a decedent as is Anthony Minghella). He makes gorgeous films and his big 3 color masterpieces all won the best cinematography. In fact, I think you could probably trace the Academy’s definition of “cinematography” (mostly meaning photography) back to Lean.

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before Malick we had the magic hour with this shot from Zhivago
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he does this often in Doctor Zhivago to great effect- objects in the close-up here obscuring the frame – magnificent work

Best film:  Lawrence of Arabia. If I didn’t think so highly of Lawrence, lean wouldn’t be in my top 35 all-time directors. As we saw with The Hateful Eight, just using 65/70mm doesn’t mean a film is going to be as beautiful as Lawrence.  This film has an endless supply of beautiful images, perhaps cinema’s greatest single edit (below the match being blown out), an amazing lead performance and a gripping narrative.

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Lean was simply the greatest at this shot here- the long shot- Lawrence
perhaps cinema’s greatest single edit (2001’s bone to satellite may be a contender)
epic filmmaking— 65mm, natural lighting color , silhouette

total archiveable films: 14

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I’m pretty pumped to watch Ryan’s Daughter again and for the first time on non-VHS it is actually only this film and Lawrence from Lean shot on 65/70mm — I bet even most film buffs would lose that bet

top 100 films: 1

top 500 films: 5 (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, Great Expectations, Brief Encounter)

obscuring the mise-en-scene like von Sternberg in Great Expectations

top 100 films of the decade:  6 (Great Expectations, Olivier Twist, Brief Encounter, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago)

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one of Brief Encounter’s finest images

most overrated:   Brief Encounter. TSPDT has it as lean’s 2nd best (and #151 overall) and I’m at 5th (and #482). I’ve only seen it once so I’m due again so maybe I’m wrong.

most underrated:  Great Expectations. I’m at #256 all-time and TSPDT is at #645.   It’s the best Dickens adaptation of all-time —and there are plenty of them. If you think of Lean strictly in terms of his colorful, prestige epics. Check this one out. He can do with b/w photography what he does in later decades with color.

gem I want to spotlight:  The Bridge on the River Kwai. Even without Lean this is still a top 10 of the year quality film with acting (William Holden and Alec Guinness are superb) and writing. It’s really a fantastic film that has somehow now become underrated I’m guessing because it is classical Hollywood moviemaking and won best picture.

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the sunrise shot is here in River Kwai, and above in both Zhivago and Lawrence
Alec Guinness won the Oscar here for River Kwai– a frequent collaborator with Lean

stylistic innovations/traits:   Gorgeous, super-produced, cinema that emerged after WWII. Lean should not be faulted for Hollywood producing so many dumb big epics in the late 50’s and 60’s when they were trying to differentiate from television. Alec Guinness is in 6 of Lean’s 13 archivable films. Lean had his sharp b/w photography era (highlighted by a couple of fabulous Charles Dickens’ adaptations and Brief Encounter) and then again in his trio of big-scale epics from 1957-1965 culminating in Lawrence of Arabia. Lean’s visual style is all about the expanse and the screengrab pictures here are easy to find.  

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great use of the frame here in Zhivago

top 10

  1. Lawrence of Arabia
  2. The Bridge on the River Kwai
  3. Doctor Zhivago
  4. Great Expectations
  5. Brief Encounter
  6. Oliver Twist
  7. Ryan’s Daughter
  8. Hobson’s Choice
  9. Summertime
  10. Breaking the Sound Barrier
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superior photography whether it’s b/w (Great Expectations here) or sumptuous color

By year and grades

1942- In Which We Serve R
1945- Blithe Spirit R
1945- Brief Encounter MS
1946- Great Expectations MP
1948- Oliver Twist HR
1950- Madeleine R
1952- Breaking the Sound Barrier R
1954- Hobson’s Choice R
1955- Summertime R
1957- The Bridge on the River Kwai MP
1962- Lawrence of Arabia MP
1965- Doctor Zhivago MP
1970- Ryan’s Daughter R
1984- A Passage To India



*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