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The 100 Best French Films of All Time

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The 100 Best French Films of All Time

French language cinema covers vast swathes of history, geography and genre. The best French movies aren’t simply the product of a French person working strictly with a French team, they represent film as entelechy—a century of directors rooting around within the source code of this particular form of storytelling, pushing it into realms equally transcendent and horrifying. For its own sake. Because it is right to do so.

If there is anything unifying the films in the following list—besides the French language—it might be that there exists a current of fundamental innovation throughout the many years surveyed. Auteurist visions care of Belgium, Greece, Poland, Denmark, Taiwan, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Senegal course through and inform the prelapsarian innards of French cinema, transforming the country into a hub for international film. This is foundational stuff.

With the following we’re trying to provide a primer on French language film from an English-speaking perspective, exploring the schools of thought and exotic taxonomies that have defined what French filmmaking has been since George Méliès first set a moon cackling like a creep in 1902, and what it can be, skin-flaying, cannibalistic Grand Guignol nightmares and all. The Nouvelle Vague—both those of the Left Bank (Agnès Varda, her husband Jacques Demy, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker) and the Cahiers du cinéma crew (Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol)—the erotic French thriller, the mind-bending (and bowel-emptying) horror of the New French Extremity, the colorful musical, the social farce, the sprawling crime film, the experimental vérité, the personal and unflinching documentaries: Even as so many films on this list have irrevocably altered our ideas of what filmmaking can mean, what it can do, so do they exist on the fringes, at the limits, willing to test the boundaries of taste, logic and (in the case of Chantal Akerman) time in order to question and then pull apart the systems and expectations that stagnate art and oppress artists.

Pauline Kael’s favorite film, apparently, was French, but made by an Estonian native (see #64), while many of Roger Ebert’s so-called “Great” movies seem obvious French choices, they’re so indelible to our collective conception of what constitutes a valuable motion picture. Criticism is important to French film, often fostered by movie critics (Godard, Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette) whose love pushed them into creating their own groundbreaking works, marrying high-minded academic evaluation with populist acceptance. As outre as these films can get, we never stray too far from a basic necessity to appeal to audiences, even when directors sometimes appear to be working against an audience’s best interests. Leave it to the French to tell us what we need.

The 100 films that make up this list represent the best of French language film; the more we flail in describing what brings these films together, the more we lose track of the breadth of what “French language film” even means. As Cléo tells herself in Varda’s masterpiece, “Everything suits me. Trying things on intoxicates me!” May you find enough to suit you, to intoxicate you, in the following.

100. La Cage aux Folles (1978)
Director: Édouard Molinaro

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Hardly as progressive today as it was 40 years ago, La Cage aux Folles still rings with good intentions and confrontational truths, a subversive testament to family and love wrapped in the tropes and expectations of traditional, studio farce. Which may be thanks to director Édouard Molinaro, who towed the populist line throughout the ’60s and early ’70s while his French peers were writhing within, defining and then redefining the Nouvelle Vague, separating into banks rather than studios. A straightforward adaptation of Jean Poiret’s blockbuster play, which premiered in 1973, Molinaro’s version (which he wrote along with Poiret, Francis Veber and producer Marcello Danon) excels in intimacy, stripping stereotype and prejudice away bit by bit, turning upside down each presumptuous or bigoted or just-plain-incorrect idea about the ways in which homosexual relationships function—about the ways in which people who are homosexuals live—by simply getting to know the characters through their responses to such a morally charged, high-stress situation. Renato Baldi (Ugo Tognazzi) owns the titular Saint-Tropez drag nightclub with his ostentatious partner, Albin (Michel Serrault), who also happens to be the nightclub’s most prominent star. When Renato’s son Laurent (Rémi Laurent), whom Renato conceived in a one-off tryst with Laurent’s estranged mother, visits with the news that not only is he engaged, but that his fiance’s father is an ultra-conservative politician, Renato makes plans to pretend that he and Albin are similarly god-fearing, wholesome brothers—which of course doesn’t quite go as planned, especially in his attempts to pass off Albin as a straight man. The story is most likely familiar for most of us care of Mike Nichol’s American The Birdcage (written by Elaine May), but what’s so beautifully subtle about this film that’s often overlooked amidst all of its big characters and bigger satire is that Molinaro’s film normalizes gay relationships and gay families without bending them to fit the status quo. Albin is more of a mother to Laurent that his biological mother ever could be; the supportive, loving staff of La Cage aux Folles are more of a family, close-knit and affectionate, than the nuclear one Laurent’s trying to fool. All of this Molinaro presents plainly and warmly, with the kind of broad humor and endless charm that helped the film become a cult hit in the U.S. (and a contender for both the Golden Globes and Oscars) at the end of the ’70s. —Dom Sinacola


99. Breathe (2014)
Director: Mélanie Laurent

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Nothing’s more effective at shaking a teen out of their monotonous high school routine than the arrival of a new student. That’s the stuff actress/director Mélanie Laurent’s sophomore film, Breathe, is made of: mystery and allure, with generous dollops of adolescent rivalry, sexual awakening and verbal abuse spooned on top. Think of Breathe as a distant European cousin to the fraught teen movies of Larry Clark, as well as Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen: stories of imperiled youth, loneliness and volatile sentiment. Breathe anchors its perspective to young Charlie (Joséphine Japy), the very picture of ordinary teenhood by anyone’s standards. Charlie lives with her folks in a sleepy French suburb that’s as quiet and nondescript as she is. Her mother (Isabelle Carré) argues with her father over matters of marital fidelity; she can only escape their skirmishes at school, where she keeps a low profile while enjoying minor but stable popularity among her circle of friends. They’re good kids, mostly, lovably raucous and totally safe, keeping in stride with the prevailing normalcy of Charlie’s life. But that normalcy turns out to be remarkably delicate: No sooner does out-of-towner Sarah (Lou de Laâge) join Charlie’s class than her mundane existence starts to splinter. Laurent’s so good at picking through the diplomatic tensions of female friendships that when Charlie’s bubble bursts and the movie takes a turn for the macabre, we don’t mind the change in tenor. (And besides, stories like this rarely end any other way than in tears.) Breathe is a film about unrequited love—not necessarily romantic love, but confused, ambiguous love, the kind of love that closely resembles a roller coaster ride and leaves people who feel it wrecked. —Andy Crump


98. La Ceremonie (1995)
Director: Claude Chabrol

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Director Claude Chabrol is often referred to as the French Hitchcock, but a film like the unsettling La Ceremonie reveals the distinct difference between the two filmmakers. Though Chabrol, like many French New Wave directors, is an admitted devotee of the suspense master (having authored a study of Hitchcock’s work with Eric Rohmer), he went on to develop his own, more understated style. While La Ceremonie is a tale of suspense and psychological drama, it also functions as a portrait of class warfare and a subtle character study. Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset) hires Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) as a maid to her family’s estate outside a small French village. The family is initially pleased with Sophie’s hard work until her increasing isolation and clandestine illiteracy create a widening gap with her employers. When a nosy postal worker (Isabelle Huppert) befriends her, the tension begins to slowly rise, leading to a shocking climax. However, anyone seeking Hitchcockian thrills will likely be disappointed. Where Hitchcock built his suspense through mounting stakes in an inherently suspenseful situation (mistaken identity, the early introduction of a sociopath, etc.), Chabrol lets a languid pace and socially awkward interactions establish an unsettling tone. It’s the offhanded nature of the final violence that makes the film so effective. —Tim Sheridan


97. Nocturama (2016)
Director: Bertrand Bonello

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Nocturama trusts its audience—more, even, than its audience may want to be trusted. Throughout, director Betrand Bonello folds timelines, indulges in flashbacks and replays moments from different perspectives, rarely with any warning but hardly without precision or consistency, investigating the comparatively small world of his film from every angle while implying that a much bigger, much more complicated world exists outside of its admittedly limited view. Bonello’s tact offers no explanations; his story follows a gaggle of beautiful Parisian teens, seemingly representing a broad swath of life, participating in a terrorist act, from planning through meticulous execution, and then, in the aftermath of the explosions, to the high-end department store where the teens hide out to watch the City respond. Bonello never allows these kids a monologue or conversation or anecdote to explain why they’ve gone to such extremes—their political understanding is about as sophisticated as that of a college student who’s only recently discovered Noam Chomsky, and even these beliefs they mumble to one another without much dedication. Instead, Nocturama is all surface, all watching: the faces of these innocents as they silently go about their terror, the tension that arises from knowing there is so much obscured behind those faces but also seeing so much so clearly in those faces, and then knowing that we will never know. Because these teens seem fine, even existentially so. They seem middle class, comfortable, unburdened by the wiles of puberty, free to do what they want, be with whom they want, say what they want—and only in the department store, amongst designer clothes and expensive, pointless home goods, do they yearn for more, potentially blowing up Paris not to protest anything, but to beg to be a part of the elite who define it. This is terrorism not against capitalism, but for it. Bonello trusts his audience to know the difference. —Dom Sinacola


96. Martyrs (2008)
Director: Pascal Laugier

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French horror, at least the French horror produced since 2003’s High Tension, has a reputation for shedding blood in quantities and through methods that might make even devoted gorehounds hoark. (France was churning out horror flicks long before Alexandre Aja began pushing the boundaries of human constitution with his movies, but let’s not pretend that French horror didn’t experience a shift in graphic intent after his third feature made him internationally recognizable.) And among that post-Tension crop of movies, you can take your pick as to which is the grossest, the most distasteful, the most agonizing to watch: Frontier(s), for instance, or maybe Inside. For our money, though, you simply can’t beat Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, a movie about transcendence that manages to achieve a form of transcendence itself; just as the film is about a malevolent bourgeois cult peering into the world beyond our own, so too does Laugier envision choreographed torment more explicitly than most horror dares to. Describe Martyrs as disturbing, and you’ll sell it short. Movies like it, movies that sear their images on our brains forevermore after watching them, are rare in cinema, and in most cases that sear is gratifying. Here, it’s nightmarish, which is likely what Laugier was going for. But Martyrs is unrequired-required viewing, a horror effort that you probably ought to watch for sake of edification and completion, but you also might not want to, assuming you’re the type who enjoys keeping down food. —Andy Crump


95. Maldone (1928)
Director: Jean Grémillon

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There’s an extended folk-dance scene in Maldone in which Jean Grémillon seems to find every angle imaginable. Grémillon’s dazzling direction throughout the film juxtaposes a simple life with wealthy privilege via the tragic story of a canal worker (Charles Dullin) who abandons life in the country to manage his family’s estate. Genica Athanasiou shines as the gypsy woman he left, and whose memory won’t stop haunting him. —Jeremy Mathews


94. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Director: George Méliès

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While A Trip to the Moon only lasts 15 minutes, it still feels epic (and that runtime wasn’t considered so short in 1902). In turn, this light, colorful (make sure you watch the hand-painted, restored version, linked above) collage of whimsy follows a premise that would go on to serve sci-fi adventure films for more than a century: People embark on a journey and crazy shit goes down. With its long, stagy takes and flat compositions, the primitive nature of the film is apparent, but Méliès makes up for it with charm. Modern viewers instinctively know how to spot basic camera trickery, especially when perspective and scale aren’t quite right. Méliès, however, understood his limitations, embraced the artifice and, with that moon face taking a rocket to the eye, created something iconic. —Jeremy Mathews


93. Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (1974)
Director: Barbet Schroeder

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Roger Ebert  once criticized this film for not being “a very good documentary.” And it’s absolutely true that this isn’t, at least on the subject of Idi Amin’s three-year rule of Uganda (at the time of filming), or of Uganda itself, or of Amin as a mass murderer. Still, Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait is a fascinating portrait of how Amin saw himself in 1974, and how Amin was a precocious self-mythmaker. Amin’s sense of self is incredible—only three years after the military coup that brought him into power, he displays a level of self-aggrandizement here that simply doesn’t seem possible. That conceit remains consistent throughout, in spite of the fact that most of the scenes in the film that are meant to show off Amin’s power were clearly staged for the benefit of the cameras. So while I do wish director Barbet Schroeder had done more with the film’s offhanded suggestion that Amin is not just the result of colonialism but also a reflection of Western colonial ideology—in context, it comes off more like a half-assed way to address the fact that this film is kind of exploitative than it does an actual argument—in the sense that this is a look at how a mass murderer might present himself to the world, Autoportrait is a compelling study of (in)humanity. —Mark Abraham


92. Mon Oncle (1958)
Director: Jacques Tati

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Jacques Tati’s are films of methodical, meticulously staged bumbling blended with acute disdain for modernity in every imaginable manner—as an aesthetic, as an ideology, as a philosophy, as a signifier of changing times. Call Tati a nostalgist or call him a barmy old codger barking at the world from the safety of his porch, commanding all within earshot to get off of his damn lawn, but be sure to call him a comic genius while you’re at it, too. He deserves that much: He did us all the favor of making the M. Hulot films, starting with Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot in 1953, and continuing with Mon Oncle in 1958, Playtime in 1967 and Trafic in 1971. Of these, Mon Oncle feels most distressed—down in the dumps even—serving as a bridge between the sentimentality of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and the undisguised social critique of Playtime, his greatest film. Mon Oncle is playful, jovial, good fun from start to close, a film built to show off Tati’s incredible gift for visual humor and also to serve as a melancholic send-off for the Belle Époque. He contrasts the beauty of old Paris with the austerity of new Paris, bereft of anything resembling character or style. We laugh fondly at Hulot’s graceless ineptitude, but we want to weep for the loss of those characteristics that make the city what it is—er, what it was. —Andy Crump


91. Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Director: Luis Buñuel

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Roger Ebert   described Luis Buñuel’s first film as a shadow of logic, a facsimile of reality: “We know that the car at the auto show does not belong to (and was not designed or built by) the model in the bathing suit who points to it.” Ebert offers this conception as a way of approaching Un Chien Andalou, a film which defies approach. Conceived when Buñuel, then working in France under director Jean Epstein, described to fellow Spanish expatriate Salvador Dali a dream he had—visceral but untethered from narrative bounds—Un Chien Andalou became a back-and-forth between two men struggling with their subconsciouses, attempting to recreate the upsetting images burped up by the deepest nethers of their brain stems. The iconic eyeball-slicing; a man dressed as a nun getting into a ridiculous bike accident; a dead hand crawling with ants seemingly borne from a Christ-like palm wound; two dead donkeys, tangled within the innards of two grand pianos, dragged alongside two befuddled priests by a man trying to feel up the woman whose eye he may or may not have sliced eight years, two weeks, the night before—sense must be countered with contrarianism, and all narrative conventions must be shat upon. With his car show metaphor, Ebert was talking about causation, about the 20-minute film’s resistance to the way traditional stories (and our four-dimensional conception of reality, for that matter) feature characters who do things that all follow a chronological line of action and reaction. But what makes Un Chien Andalou truly terrifying is understanding that Ebert’s approach, thinking of these images as “models” of a recognizable world, points to a greater force at play. A hand that reaches down and manipulates our lives without our knowledge, without our consent. We are ultimately at the mercy of powers far beyond our control. There’s little else scarier than that, and with his still stomach-churning debut, Buñuel bored right into the heart of it. —Dom Sinacola


90. Amélie (2001)
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

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Delicate and delicious, Amélie is an easily, exceedingly lovable little French trifle. With the face of an angel, the heart of a child and the haircut of a Parisian pixie, Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) sweeps us clean off our feet while Tautou launches herself into the American consciousness as the do-gooding waitress who sends her secret crush photos and riddles, masking her identity in order to make their first encounter—and first kiss—the most romantic moment of her life. Her fantastical adventures—in the name of idealized, even cinematic, coupling—unfold in flights of magical realism, Jean-Pierre Jeunet holding up love itself as both realistically magical and magically realistic. —Nick Marino


89. Persepolis (2007)
Directors: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi

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Finding black humor in totalitarianism’s contradictions, Marjane Satrapi’s animated adaptation of her smash graphic memoir, Persepolis, is as canonically effective as her book. Detailing the Iran of her childhood (through revolution, repression and expatriation), Satrapi and co-director Vincent Paronnaud transform the stark lines of her illustrations into rich black and white. Filled with exotic curlicues, crosshatched shadows and iconic characters, the hand-drawn film’s vocabulary is a tender, resonant extension of Satrapi’s eye. A full-on anti-authoritarian, Satrapi’s character—voiced by Chiara Mastroianni—fills the screen. Though Satrapi mostly observes her country’s turbulence rather than participating in it, she does so charismatically. “When you run, your behind makes indecent moves,” an Iranian policeman tells her. “Then stop looking at my ass!” she retorts, and keeps running. Equal parts contrarian and humanist, Persepolis—regardless of how it was inked—refuses to see anything in black and white. —Jesse Jarnow


88. Summer Hours (2008)
Director: Olivier Assayas

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After making several films about cat women who jet across the globe and slink through buildings of glass and steel, Olivier Assayas returns to the lower-key interests of his earlier films with Summer Hours. When Hélène (Edith Scob) reunites with her grown, far-flung children at their old home in rural France, the siblings remember growing up on the estate. And when she dies shortly thereafter, they must decide what to do with the house and its contents now that they’ve all moved on. Films about families often depict melancholy souls who reach under old beds for shoeboxes of curled photos and yellowing mash notes. Assayas has made an entire film around that moment—it’s a meditation on how objects carry history, how they reflect our decaying bones, how they sometimes outlive us. The film ends beautifully with a rockin’ party thrown by Hélène’s granddaughter on the sprawling estate: It’s a last gasp for the family home but also a poignant glimpse of a new generation claiming old spaces. —Robert Davis


87. Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
Director: Louis Malle

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Prior to reinventing filmic language with their playful genre experiments, the members of France’s New Wave movement got their start as film critics. In fact, it was through their writings and discussions that the term “film noir” was first christened as a means of describing a certain breed of brooding postwar films. It’s not surprising then that Louis Malle—though not an official New Wave member—would settle on a noir-influenced project as his first feature film. Acting both as an homage to and a subversion of the genre structure, Elevator to the Gallows stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as a pair of criminals whose plan to kill Florence Carala’s (Moreau) husband quickly falls apart when the Ronet character gets stuck in an elevator. This already absurd concept becomes all the more confounding when paired with the Malle’s unorthodox, experimental editing and the film’s somber jazz score, performed by none other than Miles Davis. —Mark Rozeman


86. The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
Director: Sylvain Chomet

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Hearkening back to the wickedly funny glory days of silent cinema, The Triplets of Belleville is an inventive and enchanting animated film, capturing the spirit of Jacques Tati (embodied by the jokes that spring up out of the simplest of modern devices) and conveying the lived-in wonder of a beloved children’s picture book (exaggerated characters and striking colors), complete with a pitch-perfect sense of timing—finding that elusive pause that precipitates the release of a fantastic belly laugh—with the few bits of the film’s dialogue in French, so unimportant they’re not even subtitled. Of course, the movie pokes fun at Americans’ obsession with bigness (and big food), but it taunts the French in equal measure, the overall effect—of so many influences finding such well-tuned representation—not so much nostalgic as absolutely captivating. —J. Robert Parks


85. The City of Lost Children (1998)
Directors: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro

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Ron Perlman plays the reluctant hero as a circus strongman named One looking for his adopted little brother Denree (Joseph Lucien), as Marc Caro (Delicatessen) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie, also Delicatessen) team up to create a wildly imaginative dystopian universe. Krank (Daniel Emilfort), the evil creation of a mad scientist, is harvesting children’s dreams in order to keep himself young, so One must enlist the help of an orphaned street thief (Judith Vittet) to retrieve the kidnapped Denree. Populated with clones, Siamese twins, trained circus fleas and a Cyborg cult called the Cyclops, this steampunk fever dream has plenty for fans of Terry Gilliam and Michel Gondry. —Josh Jackson


84. Stranger By the Lake (2014)
Director: Alain Guiraudie

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Thrillers and horror movies have long benefited from their ability to juxtapose sex and death, the mixture of ecstasy and terror creating a bewitching combination. (It’s no coincidence that all those slasher films were populated with buxom beauties.) But the moody French thriller Stranger by the Lake is an especially chilly brew. And borrowing a tenet of horror movies, it’s set in an idyllic spot in the middle of nowhere. Writer-director Alain Guiraudie takes us to the French countryside, to a lovely beach overlooking a quiet, clear lake that’s a favored summer spot for gay men looking for random, no-strings-attached hookups. The newest visitor is Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a handsome young man who immediately responds to the locale’s natural beauty and available conquests—which of course hides darker impulses and secrets. Guiraudie gives the proceedings an almost clinical detachment, and consequently Stranger by the Lake has an air of Hitchcock to it: Instead of the icy blonde seducing the leading man, it’s a buff, shirtless man doing the wooing. Cannily, even the sex is given a blasé, matter-of-fact treatment. Repeatedly, Guiraudie shows how as Franck enters the beach he’s coldly surveyed by the other men—a piece of meat to be quickly evaluated and then either pursued or rejected as a possible hookup. The film is juiced by its inherent juxtaposition: The beach is so inviting, and yet everyone there is quietly judging everyone else, sex stripped down to its animalistic, biological essence. —Tim Grierson


83. Finis terræ (1929)
Director: Jean Epstein

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Each Jean Epstein film has its own unique feel, separate from the director’s other work as well as anyone else’s. Finis terræ is at once documentary and dreamlike as it tells a story of seaweed harvesters on the coast of Brittany. Epstein shot on location with non-actors using handheld cameras to capture their way of life, yet he also gives his the impression that his subjects’ way of life could soon vanish, becoming nothing but a distant memory. —Jeremy Mathews


82. The Blood of a Poet (1932)
Directors: Jean Cocteau

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Jean Cocteau’s avant-garde masterpiece about the burden of artistic creativity uses in-camera effects to create a fantastical sense of dream logic, like a hand that gains a mouth or a mirror that works as a portal to an artist’s subconscious mind, offering up a treasure trove of surreal, upsetting imagery for fans of David Lynch’s work. Cocteau lays out, with dizzying glimpses of grace and terror, the bitter honesty of our creations—mainly, that they might be more in control of us than we are of them, and that, if we’re lucky, they will outlast us, to live again. —Oktay Ege Kozak


81. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Director: Jacques Demy

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Why walk on streets and through town squares when you can caper across them? Being in a Jacques Demy film means being free to amble about in whatever manner you please; his work is nominally set in the real world, but in truth it’s Demy’s real world, a mirror of our own washed in pastels, anchored by traces of melancholy, best explored by dancing. The Young Girls of Rochefort, much like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is a film in love with film, in which reality is suffused with the unreality of cinema. For two hours, Demy invites us to see France not only through his lens but through his greatest dream: That we should all get to live our lives in a movie. Demy shot The Young Girls of Rochefort on location instead of a studio backlot. This is Rochefort, but Rochefort given the Demy treatment.

Unlike contemporary pretenders to Demy’s throne (à la La La Land), The Young Girls of Rochefort doesn’t need to work hard to create the illusory, boundary-bending effect Demy effortlessly achieves here. Caught in front of the camera, not everyone suddenly becomes a top notch dancer; wrapped up in the plot’s romantic entanglements, not everyone finds the happy ending we expect them to. Maybe that’s the one thing Demy can’t change about the real world. Heartache and euphoria are two sides of the same bittersweet coin. —Andy Crump


80. Chocolat (1988)
Director: Claire Denis

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Praising Chocolat, Claire Denis’ first film and a semi-autobiographical story about a white French family living in colonial Africa, Roger Ebert wrote, “It is made with the complexity and subtlety of a great short story, and it assumes an audience that can understand what a strong flow of sex can exist between two people who barely even touch each other.” Such a statement might surprise those who’ve seen the movie, since it neither shows nor overtly discusses sex, but he’s right: The unsaid words in Chocolat could fill volumes. The movie compares that part of the world’s racial divide with the horizon, a steady line separating the sky from the earth. You walk toward it, and it continually moves back. Of all the characters in the movie, the family’s African servant Protée (Isaach De Bankole) best understands the social rules under which everyone lives, but the movie conveys his enormously complex outlook with very little dialogue. He’s a nearly silent presence in a house full of chatter. Chocolat is a movie for adults, in the very best sense. Such maturity might be expected from someone who made her first film at the age of 40, and then after she’d worked as an assistant director for such legendary filmmakers as Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. Denis is the co-writer of all her films, and a wide variety of resources provide inspiration—from Melville and Faulkner to her own experiences growing up in Africa and France. She combines all this in films that are both incredibly cohesive and truly cinematic. Where a novelist might describe what a character is thinking, Denis will convey something similar in a fleeting shot with a nuanced perspective. —Robert Davis


79. Zero for Conduct (1933)
Director: Jean Vigo

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Sometimes called the Patron Saint of French Cinema, Jean Vigo died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis, having directed just one feature and three shorts. Despite his minuscule output, Vigo went on to inspire many directors, from Francois Truffaut to Lindsay Anderson, and his masterpiece was Zero for Conduct. It tells the story of a boarding school revolt, beginning with an explanation of why the students feel rejected, leading up to an extraordinary series of scenes in which they take control. All the while, Vigo seems to form a narrative around jokes, resulting in something as freewheeling and whimsical as it is tightly plotted and purposeful. With a penchant for directing children, Vigo never lets Zero for Conduct’s absurdist tendencies get the better of its underlying points. Its spectacular end, in particular, is both stylistically bold and confounding, a suitable conclusion to a film absolutely brimming with life. —Sean Edgar


78. Faces Places (2016)
Directors: Agnès Varda and JR

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The best road movie of 2016 was this delightful film from New Wave pioneer Agnès Varda and photographer JR. The odd-couple contrast between co-directors is physically striking—she’s a woman, he’s a man; he’s much taller and younger than she—but they’re aligned in their desire to document the lives of everyday French citizens, taking oversized photos of the people they meet and plastering them on the sides of buildings to commemorate their specialness. Faces Places is very much in the style of Varda’s documentaries from the past two decades, such as The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnès, which chart how art and life weave inextricably together, but at 89, she doesn’t have the same stamina she once did. That fact lends added poignancy to a movie that, in part, is about the fragility of everything: small towns, photographs, loved ones, long friendships fading into disrepair. With JR as her co-conspirator, the Varda we see in Faces Places stands as a model for how to carry oneself through the world: with humor, humility and grace. —Tim Grierson


77. A Prophet (2010)
Director: Jacques Audiard

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A Prophet is a modern gangster movie about prison drug syndicates in France, using a cold, documentarian’s focus on an underground ringleader without resorting to backhanded glamorization, all the while packing a brass-knuckled punch. Still, the most alluring aspects of A Prophet look beyond crime, just as Godfather scribe Mario Puzo said that his canonized epic was more a reflection on American immigration than a Tommy gun demonstration. The story begins with ascendant thug Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a bewildered, illiterate 19-year-old tossed into a prison that bears an uncanny resemblance to an American university dorm. Charged with assaulting a police officer, the teenage offender is soon introduced to a prison yard built around racial battle lines. France is certainly no stranger to ethno-religious strife, and this continual undercurrent gives the film much of its subliminal weight. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen ran for president with xenophobic hyperbole and finished second with 18 percent of the vote. Le Pen was later fined in 2005 by a Parisian Court for “inciting racial hatred,” and in 2007 Le Mondek, quoted him saying, “You can’t dispute the inequality of races.” That same year saw riots erupt in the Southern city of Perpignan, spurred by clashes between the Romas and North African Arabs. Half Arab and half Corsican (from the French Mediterranean island populated by Catholics), Malik is left in a precarious position defined by this extreme sociological backdrop. Simultaneously maligned and embraced by his dual heritage, he uses his genealogy and bilingualism to maneuver around Arabs, Corsicans and Italians in the prison until each warring faction is either neutralized or in his debt. Herein lies the film’s ironic morality. Its “hero” manipulates racism as a tool to control the intolerant, uniting the color-blind and downtrodden into a triumphant force—to deal drugs. —Sean Edgar


76. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)
Director: Luis Buñuel

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In actuality motivated by a falling out with one of the actresses, Luis Buñuel’s decision to cast two women (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) in the role of tempestuous young Cochina who inevitably becomes a point of obsession for old and stuffy bourgeois Mathieu (Fernando Rey) delivers a genius bit of thematic poignancy throughout That Obscure Object of Desire, the final film he’d direct before passing in 1983. The actresses who play Conchita switch sometimes even within the same scene, but it matters not to the man, who’s only after an ideal of carefree, feminine youth, not anyone in particular. For his sins, Mathieu gets exactly what he craves, as a wild and contemptuous relationship drives them both to the edge of insanity. Setting his film in Spain and France amidst a terrorist uprising, Buñuel deliberately peppers its background with acts of terrorism, drawing a clear line between two toxic relationships, one political and one sexual—never clarifying which is which. —Oktay Ege Kozak

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