"Smiles of a Summer Night" (1955): This is the best of Bergman's early films and the first to break through with audiences. It's a bedroom farce that came as close to lightness and Shakespeare as he could stand. Bergman was so witty about the ways of the flesh without shortchanging their importance. He had tried in early films to marry lust and comedy, but the attempts were leaden and sentimental. By this film, with its theatrical staging and zesty slapstick, he'd perfected his touch.
"The Seventh Seal" (1957): If you could tattoo yourself with any movie's images, Bergman's most identifiable film might be the way to go. The plot is simple, yet elemental: A knight fresh from the Crusades challenges Death to a game of chess. The great existential themes of life's meaning are meant to give the film ballast. Considered essential for any film lover, it conveys the torments of the soul while maintaining allegorical distance.
"Wild Strawberries" (1957): Bergman's other meditation on death concerned a professor (the director Victor Sjostrom) on his way to receive an honorary degree. The film marked a structural breakthrough for Bergman, who used flashbacks, dreams, and nightmares to convey remorse and longing in the face of approaching mortality.
"The Virgin Spring" (1960): There has never been so strangely handsome a movie star as Max von Sydow. He was a member of Bergman's troupe of actors, and in this grim drama set during Sweden's transition from paganism to Christianity, he plays a Christian avenging the rape and murder of his daughter. This is Bergman's most linear movie (from one of the few screenplays he didn't write) and also marks the first major collaboration with the legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist.
"Persona" (1966): On one level, it's a masterpiece about an actress (Liv Ullmann) who's suffered a nervous breakdown and her nurse (Bibi Andersson). On another, it's about the act of performance, how the actorly shedding of one identity to assume another is all-consuming. The physical and psychological proximity between Ullmann and Andersson remains erotic, but Bergman, working with Nykvist, fashioned the film as a stunning and mysterious meditation on the very difficult nature of being yourself.
"Cries and Whispers" (1972): Probably the toughest, strongest, and most emotionally visceral of Bergman's movies. He was at the height of his powers with this story of three sisters (Ullmann, Harriet Andersson, and Ingrid Thulin) and their servant (Kari Sylwan) in a manor house that seems alive by association. The movie is all-purpose, losing itself in the stuff of life, death, lust, contempt, and, most evocatively, touch. Rarely have images of simple tactility, of flesh grazing flesh, seemed to skip past language into some other realm of response.
"Scenes From a Marriage" (1973): The standard by which most serious modern movies about the vicissitudes of love are measured. Ullmann and Erland Josephson play a couple on the rocks. The version released here was pared down from a five-hour television production (available on a Criterion DVD), but the abridged version is a wonder unto itself: the most dramatically and emotionally transparent film Bergman ever made.
"Fanny and Alexander" (1982): The director called this family saga "the sum total of my life as filmmaker." Amazingly, it took an arrival at the end of middle age for him to discover the free, playful spirit that he always seemed too serious to indulge. To that end, the movie relies on the point of view of something rarely glimpsed in Bergman's pictures: a child. Told from the perspective, more or less, of his boyhood self, the film, which is recommended in the original 312-minute version he made for Swedish television, is a gentle personal remembrance and an acknowledgment of a mortality that was still 25 years away. It was the sum total of his life as filmmaker, yes. But it also seems like the sum of his life as a man.
"La Notte" (1961): The second film in Antonioni's loose trilogy of malaise brings us Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau as a well-heeled couple whose love deteriorates after a soiree. Gorgeous and aimless, erotic and odd, it's a middle movie in so many ways. But at this point in his career, Antonioni's distrust in romantic permanence was evident. Dissatisfaction was a condition of the soul. The movie is unhappy in a way that makes you realize something. Even though he worked on a bigger scale, avoided capacious psychology, and didn't push too deeply into his characters (malaise in Antonioni is never the individual's fault, it's environmental), his movies could be Bergmanesque. They're about both dissolution of connection and the struggle to keep it.
"L'Eclisse" (1962): Indoors and out, the most indelibly beautiful of his black-and-white movies. The tale of a shaky love affair (another one, but this time it's only just begun) culminates in a rhapsodic version of apocalypse suggested by an eclipse. Before that arrives, there are Vitti and Alain Delon to look at, not to mention, briefly, Francisco Rabal. The movie is bound to the world of the money-mad, many of its scenes set on the floor of Rome's stock exchange. It's the director's most elastic set: a little bit church, a little bit disco, a little battle-royal in the Coliseum's arena. Of course, the movie's lasting marvel is its final montage, which leaves a science-fiction chill. Famously, it prompted boos at the Cannes Film Festival and so stymied American distributors that some released it with the ending lopped off.
"Red Desert" (1964): Decades before Todd Haynes's "Safe" and "An Inconvenient Truth," Antonioni gave us this painter's canvas of environmental toxicity and its effect on one woman's psyche. Vitti drifts from scene to scene, inadvertently underscoring the decay on screen like some fabulously depressed cursor. The movie is Antonioni's first in color and its Technicolor palette seems to make up for all the years in black-and-white. The forecast is dire but scarcely drab. Every industrial structure here dwarfs its human characters and the only living green thing is Vitti's coat.
"Blow-Up" (1966): Antonioni's best-known movie (it was a real, hipster phenomenon when it came out) is also his most aggravating. His first non-Italian picture brought him to swinging London. The movie goes for a kind of surrealism that may be commentary. It may also be a joke. His slutty fashion photographer (David Hemmings) bags models, comes on to a shagalicious Vanessa Redgrave (who really makes you miss Vitti), and discovers he's photographed a murder, which he attempts to piece together in a great montage sequence. The director seems at a loss, indulging in prurience yet resisting the constructed pleasures of his other movies. This one feels like a postcard from a middle-aged uncle who's crashed a few orgies, done a few drugs, and discovered mimes.
"Zabriskie Point" (1970): The tour continues. This time Antonioni comes to America, and his eye settles on California counterculture. The kids debate each other, they play revolutionary and act up, things continue to fall apart. A boy-girl meet-up in the desert (he hits on her in his plane) is a sexed-up digression that allows the director to make more earth art. The movie is itching for action in a way that seems counter to Antonioni's personal culture. The off-the-cuff style returns him to his neorealist roots and lands him in the heat of a political moment. The film is probably his most underrated. The classic Death Valley finale marries Pink Floyd's score to a montage of explosions so orgasmic that Jerry Bruckheimer has seemed to spend his entire career trying to top it. No one has. Blow up, indeed.
"The Passenger" (1975): The tour ends -- and with ambitious, vague style. The mid-to-late 1960s and '70s -- the era's conspiracy, the paranoia, the center no longer holding -- really turned Antonioni on. His later movies thrived on the awareness of decadence and social-political decay. That perception didn't make this movie, with Jack Nicholson embodying a symbolic shedding of identities, any less opaque. It's a detective mystery that aspires to metaphysics rather than pulp: John le Carré for philosophy grad students. But the film's very mysteriousness, its very unsolvable nature, achieves a transcendent grace. You either believe in the disassembled puzzle or don't. But the famed climactic tracking shot has convinced more than a few Antonioni agnostics that they've seen God.