There are certain films made by artists who respond so deeply and fully to the realization of their own ambitions that they create something that takes on a life of its own. In American cinema, we have Sunrise, Vertigo, Raging Bull, several films by John Ford and John Cassavetes. And we have The Best Years of Our Lives.

When the film was released, it was officially lauded with critical praise, box office success, Oscars, and so on. The backlash came just as quickly, followed by attacks from red baiters. Then, perhaps worst of all, William Wyler’s movie was enshrined and encased in the noxiously perfumed marble halls of Official Greatness. All of which has absolutely nothing to do with the film itself.

When I was young, The Best Years of Our Lives ran regularly on WPIX out of New York. I watched it more than once side by side with my father, who had fought in New Guinea and the Philippines. I don’t remember at what point I came to understand that the film was a kind of living testament, to him and his fellow veterans, an embodiment of the anguish and discomfort they experienced amidst their “rehabilitation.” At one point in the 90s, I asked my father if he and his friends felt that the film represented their situation truthfully. He just nodded his head and quietly said yes.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen it over the years. With every new viewing it seems to become more shattering. There are two countervailing forces that run through every frame of Best Years. On the one hand, the spirit of can-do optimism, the sense that we’d all “come through it.” On the other hand, the feeling of dread, loss, inadequacy, displacement, disenchantment, and guilt that lingers for the ones who lived to return, some physically damaged, some psychically or spiritually or all three mixed together. The only way you could have missed it, as many people did, was to look away from it.

There are passages in this film that make my heart stop. There’s no point in trying to describe the Frederic March character’s homecoming—why translate into words what’s been embodied with cinema? The eloquent simplicity of this and many other moments, big and small, is unmatched.

The Best Years of Our Lives was recently restored by the Academy Film Archive, the Library of Congress, and The Film Foundation, and presented at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. To be able to see it under the very best conditions is a miracle. But I’m also compelled to say that it’s a movie of such inner force and beauty that it transcends the very worst conditions as well.

- Kent Jones

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THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946, d. William Wyler)
Restored by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive and The Film Foundation, in association with The Library of Congress. Restoration funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

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