Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Top Ten Films

Sight and Sound Magazine has come out once again with its once-in-a-decade critic’s poll of the top films of all time. Vertigo topped the list, which seems strange to me. An unusual, quirky film, to be sure, but when you start thinking about how long someone had to wait to drop that body off the top of the monastery tower, the whole finale becomes absurd. And if you’re going to go that route, why not go all the way with Mulholland Drive (which did finish in 28th place on the poll, by the way)?

The list leans a little too much toward the “arty” for my taste. But spurred by the sight of so many fine films—I’ve seen all but four of the top twenty—I decided to make a list of my own. I wouldn’t say these are the greatest of all time. What I will say is that I’ve seen most of them all more than once, and they hold up very well. A top twenty list for the common man.

Rules of the Game (France, 1939: Jean Renoir) The Rules of the Game remains the greatest film ever made, for the simple reason that it has more life, incidental detail, fluidity, energy, historical nuance, and moral import than any other film. Certainly it has a political dimension as well, with the weak-kneed French “hero,” the brittle and aggressive Alsatian gamekeeper, the slightly effeminate Jewish millionaire, the perky French chambermaid, and the naive Austrian countess. Love, betrayal, propriety, aristocracy, violence, diffidence, loyalty, charm, ribaldry, conviviality—it’s all there, and it displays itself with a vigor and economy that seems almost to spring from the eighteenth century.

The Big Sleep (1946, USA: Howard Hawks) Bogart and Bacall star in the most satisfying and fully realized Hollywood detective film, It’s famous both for its snappy dialogue and its incomprehensible plot. Who killed Brody? What happened to Sean Reagan?

Un Coeur en Hiver (1993, France: Claude Sautet) In this unusual film, Sautet, a past master of the subtleties of the human heart (Vincent, François, Paul and the Others) explores the relations between a pair of violin-makers and the concert performer (Emmanuelle Béart) who’s in need of their services. The soundtrack of Ravel chamber music compounds the atmosphere of attenuated romanticism, and the presence of students, mentors, and agents gives the film a multi-generational resonance.

The American Friend (1977, Germany: Wim Wenders) A very slow and uneasy story about a frame-maker with a terminal illness (Bruno Ganz) and an American entrepreneur (Dennis Hopper,) loosely based on themes from the novels of Patricia Highsmith.

L’Attlanta. (France, 1937: Jean Vigo) In this film about newlyweds on a barge the expressive potential of black-and-white cinematography is put to the service of a poetic and surreal rendering of the beauty and strangeness of becoming a couple. The presence of Michael Simon as the crusty old deckhand adds to the film’s ballast.

Rashomon (1951, Japan: Akiru Kurasawa) A bandit accosts a couple traveling through the woods. Later, as each of the protagonists relates his or her version of what “actually” happened to a judge, we see the events unfold before our eyes not once, but three times, colored in each case to reflect the personality, and the vanity, of whoever happens to be telling the story. Needless to say, the three versions bear only a vague similarity to one another. A fascinating meditation on truth, self-image, and compassion.

L.A. Confidential
(1997, USA: Curtis Hanson) An altogether absorbing tale, its top-flight production values are overshadowed by the growing tension,complexity, and violence of its storyline.

Cover Girl (1948, Vincent Minelli) Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Phil Silvers, and Eve Arden. With music by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin. Need I say more?

Latcho Drom (1996, France: Tony Gatlif) A semi-documentary rendering of the movement of the Gypsies from Northern India to Spain by way of Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Belgium, and Provence, told entirely by means of musical set-pieces.

Dark Eyes (1987, Italy/USSR: Nikita Mikhalkov) And speaking of Chekhov, this complicated retelling of the Russian master’s story “Lady with a Dog” describes the attempts of a dissolute Italian architect to redeem himself by pursuing a relationship with a Russian woman of a very different background whom he’s met at a fancy spa. This is the best of Mikhalkov’s many fine and lyrical films.

Sorcerer (1977, USA: William Friedkin) Friedkin’s remake of The Wages of Fear focuses on the background of the four men—a Palestinian, a German, a Frenchman, and an American—who will eventually take up the challenge of driving over-ripe nitroglycerin through the jungles of Central America. The beauty, economy, exactitude, and restraint—in a word, the ART—of the shooting make this film a genuine, if little known, cinema classic.

Into the Wild (2007) Into the Wild chronicles a few years in the life of a young man named Christopher McClandliss, who decided to get away from it all and live the simple life in the wilds of Alaska. Much of the film is set in the deserts of southern California, however, and there’s enormous sociability, energy, and uplift circulating through the story. Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener, and Hal Holbrook befriend the kid. An no one who see the film will soon forget the zany German couple camping on the banks of the rapids. Even the eccentric sculptor with his gigantic mud-and-metal monument to love somehow comes off as the genuine article.
Into the Wild is above all else a road movie, and it captures the spirit of that impulse as well as any movie I’ve seen. And yet…

Motorcycle Diaries (2004) Two buddies travel by motorcycle across South America from their home in Buenos Aires to see as much of the world as can be seen without leaving the continent. Alberto is eight years the senior, and he’s also much more robust and fun-loving. Ernesto is an asthmatic; he’s hesitant, a little uncertain, almost in a daze at times. The one dances, the other doesn’t. The two bicker frequently, sometimes almost violently, but affection also runs deep. The film is packed with motorcycle crashes, spectacular scenery, hostile and friendly strangers, problems with funds, encounters with beautiful women, village dances, bad weather, and mechanical problems, all of which are presented with a slightly faded majesty that evokes the innocence of a bygone era. (The fact that one of the two happens to be the young Che Guevera is hardly relevant to the plot.)

Touching the Void (2003) Two young men decide to climb the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, Alpine-style. That means, quick up, quick down, little equipment. Things don’t go the way they’d planned. The fuel runs out, bones are broken, safety ropes are cut. The two men are narrating the film in person, so we know they survived. But while you’re watching it, you tend to forget. It’s a true story and a gripping drama, recreated for the big screen so that you feel you’re right there…and wish you weren’t.

Twilight Samurai (2002) The samurai movie, like the Western, is a magnificent genre providing endless variations on a few basic plot-lines. Twilight Samurai, which won eight Japanese Oscars, incorporates many of them, and adds a few new twists of its own.
The hero of the tale, Seibei, is a low-ranking samurai who spends his days doing the books for his lord and his evenings caring for his mother and two young daughters. (A widower, he’d married a woman from a wealthy family and impoverished himself financing the wedding.) His colleagues refer to him as the “twilight” samurai because he’d rather spend his evening making bird cages to support his family than go drinking with the boys.
By chance, Seibei defends the sister of a childhood friend against her drunken samurai husband and she, grateful for her old friend’s courageous act, starts coming to the house to help him look after the kids. News of the donnybrook get around and the clan elders decide to send gentle Seibei on a suicide mission to root out a renegade samurai who’s refused to commit hari kari in honor of his vanquished lord.
It’s a great story, full of nuances and complexities, and just enough swordplay to keep the pot simmering.

In America (2002) Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical family drama chronicles a few years in the life of a spunky Irish couple who move to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood with their two young daughters to start life afresh. It’s a rough environment, with bums, transvestites, drug addicts, and alcoholics seemingly around every corner, and work is hard to find. Yet the film is laced with humor, and it’s moving to watch this young family face and (for the most part) surmount the challenges of inner-city life in a new country. Sheridan wrote the screenplay with his two grown daughters—so this is probably what it was really like.

Fanny and Alexander (1983, Sweden: Ingmar Bergman) In this film Bergman brought both his talents and his idiosyncrasies into a more powerful and satisfying whole than at any other time in his career. A sprawling epic set at the turn of the century, the narrative focuses on the members of a fun-loving extended family, several of whom are members of a theater troupe, and (as the title suggests) especially on two young children within that family whose lives change radically when their widowed mother marries the local bishop. The radiant tone of the cinematography suits the generally glowing affection that passes between family-members, friends, and servants who, as the film opens, are celebrating a candle-lit Christmas together. Watching the story develop we are reminded repeatedly of themes and even scenes from other Bergman movies, but in each case they’ve been expanded and enriched.

Hamlet (1996, Great Britain: Kenneth Branagh) The longest Hamlet at four hours, this is also far-and-away the best Shakespeare film ever made. In fact, Shakespeare or not, it is simply a masterfully realized creative work. Branagh, Kate Winslet, Ian Holm, Julie Christie, Richard Briars, and even Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, give Shakespeare’s lines intelligence and emotion, as if the characters might actually be trying to say something coherent. The complexity and interest of the story itself—”Student returns home to find father dead, mother remarried,” as TV guide would have it—has never been so forcefully presented.

Night Moves (1975, USA: Arthur Penn) A subtle study of an ex-football star (Gene Hackman) turned detective who is hired to find and bring home an eight-year-old girl. In the process he uncovers a smuggling operation and the truth about his friends, his marriage, and his own past. Low-key, confusing, and effective.

Knife in the Water (1962, Poland: Roman Polanski) Polanski’s first feature film relates the adventures and imbroglios of a middle-aged married couple who go sailing with a young stranger they’ve picked up hitch-hiking. That’s all there is to it—which only goes to show how much can be made out of little.

Shoot the Piano Player (1962, France: François Truffaut) Truffaut’s up-beat story of a bistro pianist attempting to hide from both his gangster siblings and his concert-musician past is full of insight, humor, and energy. The jaunty tone and loose camera-style leaven the dark subject matter, so that it comes as a genuine shock when someone actually dies.

Day of Wrath (1944, Denmark: Carl Dreyer) In a city riven with witch-hunt hysteria a young woman marries the local preacher. She falls in love with the man’s son, however, and as events unfold, the question arises whether she herself is a witch. It’s full of darks and lights, with glowing cinematography and subtle psychological tension. Of all Dreyer’s famous films (Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1931), Ordet (1955), Gertrude (1963),) this one, I think, has the best blend of entertainment, religiosity, weirdness, and cinema art.

Local Hero (1983, Great Britain: Bill Forsythe) A frustrated minor functionary for a Texas oil company tries to buy a remote Scottish village. The longer he stays, the longer he feels like staying.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, USA: John Huston) This gritty tale of three men prospecting for gold in the mountains of Mexico has both psychological depth and rich local color. Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of the paranoiac Dobbs is justifiably famous, Walter Huston won an Oscar for his performance as the wizened old-timer, and even Tim Holt, who seems out of his league here, is really only trying to be nice. The film, which contains the now classic line, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges,” never flags, and the ending is worthy of all the hardship, conflict, and tension that leads up to it.

Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978, Italy: Ermanno Olmi) Peasant life at the turn of the century, by the director who remained true to the neo-realist ideal. It may not be great, but it sure is long. No. It is great.

Alice in the City (1974, Germany: Wim Wenders) A photographer headed back to Germany from the United States enters into a brief involvement with a compatriot in New York and ends up with the woman’s nine-year-old daughter on his hands. A hilarious and somehow true-to-life series of misadventures ensues. Once back in Germany, they have to find the little girl’s grandfather’s house: she doesn’t know what city it’s in, but she has a photograph…

A Sunday in the Country (1984, France: Bertrand Tavernier) A married couple and their two sons visit the man’s painter-father at his nearby country estate. Father and son do not really get along, and the daughter-in-law is out of her depth, even before her husband’s brash sister arrives unexpectedly. Shot in an unusual sepia tone, this film is like an Impressionist painting of a Chekhov short story, which is saying a good deal. Even the lengthy scene of the housekeeper snapping beans is memorable.

Red Rock West ( 1993, USA: John Dahl) Nicholas Cage needs a job, but as it turns out, inadvertently impersonating a man hired to kill the bartender’s wife is not a good way to go about getting one.

Rio Bravo (1959, USA: Howard Hawks) This very long Zen Western finds sheriff John Wayne looking for recruits who are “good enough” to help him defend the town jail against an expected raid by local outlaws. He comes up with an inexperienced kid (Ricky Nelson) a gimpy old man (Walter Brennan) and a drunk (Dean Martin.) Deftly mixing comedy, violence, romance, and even a musical interlude or two, Hawks exploits every cliché in the book, and the result is magnificent. Who says fine art has to be boring?

Powwow Highway (1988, USA: Jonathan Wacks.) The modern West as seen from an Indian Reservation, this funny, spiritual, and entertaining film is a true rarity.

American Graffiti (1973, USA: George Lucas) A comic picture of small-town adolescence in Northern California during the early days of rock-and-roll. With a very young Richard Dryfuss and Harrison Ford.

Casablanca (1942, USA: Michael Curtiz) Everyone knows about Casablanca, but it’s surprising how many people have never actually seen it from start to finish. The core of nostalgic romance is dwarfed by a wide array of character actors and sketchy sub-plots concerning Germans and refugees from Vichy France. It’s difficult to tell who’s a crook and who’s not, and there are few genuine heroes around, yet every scene strikes an uncanny balance between sincerity and cliché—perhaps because no one on the set knew quite what was going on.

Red (1994, France/Poland: Krzysztof Kieslowski) A young fashion model (Irene Jacob) and a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trinagnant) cross paths more than once in this study of love, fate, and coincidence. The most successful of Kieslowski’s Red/White/Blue trilogy, it’s a satisfying mix of troubled solitude, murky romance, abject bitterness, and unabashed sentimentality (the puppies), all of which has been brought to the screen with considerable élan.

Queen of Hearts (1989, England: Jon Amiel) A young Italian couple uproot themselves from their village to escape family pressures and set up a coffee shop in London. The story is told from their young son’s point of view, and there are one or two supernatural elements in it, but by in large it’s a comedy of Italian family life, full of arrivals and departures, squabbles and reconciliations, personal crises and dramatic reversals of fortune.

My Father’s Glory/ My Mother’s Castle (1991, France: Yves Robert) This duo of films detail the summer vacations of a school-teacher, his wife and child, and his wife’s sister and brother-in-law in the hills behind Marseilles at the turn of the century. Based on Marcel Pagnol’s autobiography, it’s a staggering example of simplicity, sincerity, and charm.

Chinatown (1974, USA: Roman Polanski) A gorgeous color classic mix of crime, politics, romance, and decadence set in Los Angeles in the thirties, with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975, USA: John Huston) The Kipling tale effectively retold with Michael Caine and Sean Connery in the lead roles.

His Girl Friday (1940, USA: Howard Hawks) The second, and perhaps the best, of Hawks three classic screwball comedies (see also Bringing Up Baby(1938) and Ball of Fire (1942)) here editor Cary Grant tries to get his star reporter and estranged wife Rosiland Russell back on the job, and back in his life.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988, Spain: Pedro Almadóvar) A madcap farce in which a woman attempts to re-establish contact with her drifting lover.

Something Wild (1986, USA: Jonathan Demme) A recently divorced man (Jeff Daniels) encounters a young woman (Melanie Griffith) and accompanies her to her high school reunion, among other places.

Christ Sopped at Eboli (1983, Italy: Francesco Rosi) A beautiful and far from sentimental rendering of the experiences of a doctor exiled to the harsh and poverty-ridden fringe of southern Italy during the Fascist era.

Il Postino (1994, Italy: Michael Radford) A simple-minded peasant delivers mail to the famous poet Pablo Neruda. Soon they’re discussing metaphors and metaphysics. Throw in a little love and a little left-wing politics, and you’ve got a masterpiece.

L’America (1996, Italy: Gianni Amelio) A sharp and cynical Italian businessman sets up a phony business in Albania at just the wrong moment. First he loses the tires off his jeep, then he loses the senile Albanian who’s fronting as president of the business. Before long the business is gone, and then…but I don’t want to give too much away. An exploration of values, ideals, simplicity, and civilization that moves on the highest level.

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