Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) (1954)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
I've yet to watch a Kurosawa film I didn't enjoy or love. You know a director is great when the debate over what their masterpiece is includes about five or six of their films, and that is certainly true for Kurosawa. Seven Samurai, for me, is up there with Ran and Ikiru, my favourite Kurosawa's films so far (and I am yet to see Throne of Blood, which I am told is just as good).
This epic has a surprisingly simple story: a village seeks to employ a group of samurai to defend it from bandits. One of Kurosawa's greatest (and less talked about strengths) was his focus on character. A large part of the film is focused on the relationships between the samurai and the villagers, and the samurai themselves, all of whom has distinctive personalities. These parts are just as enjoyable to watch as the brilliant fight sequences; in fact, our interest in the unfolding of the battles hangs on our investment in these characters.
Another of Kurosawa's skills as a filmmaker is his ability to make films that are distinctly Japanese, yet are completely accessable to audiences around the world. Seven Samurai does not explain the laws of samurai, or the class system in medieval Japan, yet we understand the differences that strain the relationships between the villagers and samurai.
Despite its length, Seven Samurai never drags, never feels too long, and I can't think of anything that could be cut. All the praise heaped upon this film is well deserved: it is exciting, funny, beautiful in its visual composition, and ultimately moving in its melancholic finale. One to watch again and again.