Army of Shadows (L’Armée des ombres) (1969, Director: Jean-Pierre Melville): Incredibly, this film was not released in the United States until 2006. As a result, many critics named it among their top films that year, despite it being nearly 40 years old. Army of Shadows follows a small group of French Resistance fighters in the middle of the war (1942-1943) as they try to survive in the midst of occupied France. Despite its epic length (145 minutes), it feels intimate and gripping due mostly to the sparing use of music and dialogue, and the moody cinematography that gives the impression that most of the film takes place in twilight.
The entire group display a sort of doomed heroism. We see very little of their actual resistance work, since they always seem to be on the run, hiding out, worrying about informers or getting arrested. It’s not that they’re inept, it’s just that the crushing paranoia makes it difficult to operate. The atmosphere of claustrophobia is pervasive from the first frame to the last. Even amongst themselves, there’s very little affection or humour. It’s as if their humanity has been reduced to just the instinct to survive. And to do that requires trusting other people, which is perilous.
Despite the setting, this is far from an action movie. It’s more of an anxiety movie, with every moment holding the possibility of danger. And in the end, it’s an incredibly sad film. These are good people, reduced to the simplest forms of right and wrong by a greater evil. Their physical survival is far from assured, but the hope that their humanity can remain intact makes this a very different kind of thriller.