Wednesday, June 27, 2007

By way of introduction...

At the dawn of cinema, films were less than a minute long. Cameras were simple and held only a small amount of film, and films usually documented real-life happenings. Of course, when you consider that so many people buy video cameras only to use them to record kids' baseball games and birthday parties, have we really come so far?

As cameras became capable of holding more film, movies got longer, and eventually directors began to connect individual shots. The shots had a progression, which gave birth to cinematic narrative. Finally, in 1903, the Edison Company made THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, an 8-minute film often acknowledged to be the first feature film. One hundred years later, there are music videos longer than THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, and the generally accepted duration for feature films is somewhere around two hours. Still, it's easy to see the progression that has taken place in the past century.

I kicked off this list in 2003. Along with the centennial of the feature film, 2003 marked the year in which I turn 25. That's fully one-fourth the age of the feature film, for those of you keeping score at home. To commemorate both my personal milestone and the larger cinematic one, I decided to compose a list (with commentary) of my 100 favorite feature films.

How did I go about making this list? What I ended up doing was to make a long list of every film I've seen that I considered even remotely worthy of a list of this kind. Both acknowledged greats and sentimental favorites made the list. And then I made a few criteria by which to pare down my list. To begin with, since I was making a list of feature-length films, every film I chose had to be over 45 minutes long, to accommodate the slimmer running times of the silent era. Also, I limited myself to a maximum of two films per director, so as to spread the wealth, and since some personal favorite directors (Hitchcock, Godard, Bergman, etc.) would've eaten up quite a bit of valuable list space otherwise. After I used those criteria to cut out some of the films (quite a few, actually), I had to knuckle down and ask myself which movies I couldn't bear to part with, and which I could (with some trepidation) give the axe.

I managed to confine myself to 100 selections for my original 2003, but even then I knew that I wouldn't be able to leave well enough alone. So rather than setting it in stone I decided to keep it constantly evolving, to add new titles as they sprung to me, and move existing ones around as I saw fit. Who knows? Perhaps I'll eventually include every masterpiece I've seen.

In short, I wanted the films on the list to reflect the double-edged nature of my cinematic appreciation. On the one hand, I consider every film on this list to be a masterpiece, fascinating on an intellectual and aesthetic level. On the other hand, I love every film on the list. I've seen each film I've included a number of times (a number larger than 1, smart-alecks), and each has a special place in my mind and in my heart. These are the films that play in my memory.

Some thoughts on films I haven't included. There are a number of "important" films that get talked up in film courses and textbooks but didnt make my list because I dont really feel especially strongly about them. For example, yeah, I see why OPEN CITY or BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN are great and influential films, but if I'm browsing the shelves at the video store, I'm not going to stop and say "ooooooh, OPEN CITY!" and reach for the box. Conversely, there are certain films I enjoy greatly but don't really qualify as "masterpieces" in my book, such as DIE HARD or DUMB AND DUMBER. And then there are the movies for which I just didn't have enough room.

Aside from those films shoved aside due to my two-films-per-director limitation (which I'll mention when I comment on the directors films which did make the cut), I imagine the following omissions will be glaring to some:

- THE GODFATHER / THE GODFATHER PART II- I really like these, particularly the first, but it came down to a choice between this and another Coppola film, so out it went.

- STAR WARS trilogy- call me crazy and revoke my geek license, but I really don't enjoy these that much anymore. Sentimental value just wasn't enough of a reason to include this.

- GONE WITH THE WIND- this movie has never- NEVER- done it for me. Something in my genetic makeup just won't allow me to like this. Which is fine by moi.

- RAGING BULL- I respect this, but it just doesn't hit me as hard as the Scorseses that did make the list.

- THE WIZARD OF OZ- I saw this again recently, and realized that it just didn't grow with me. See the "nostalgia" comment for STAR WARS.

- SOME LIKE IT HOT- lots of fun, but drags somewhat for me in the second hour. Not as tight as the classic comedies which did make the cut.

- PULP FICTION- for a long time, this was a big and important film for me, but now just a pretty damn good one, and there just isn't room for pretty damn good.

- SCHINDLER'S LIST- one of Spielberg's better movies, but not quite one of his masterpieces. Sue me, I like the entertainments more.

- THE GRADUATE- never really shared everyone's love for this one. Bancroft's pretty great, but Ben and Elaine don't really hold much interest for me.

- THE EXORCIST- plays great in the theatre, on the big screen with surround sound, but the films I've included on the list carry over their impact to a more intimate home viewing, while this loses much of its effectiveness on video or DVD. In other words, watching a film in a theatre is ideal, but a masterpiece is a masterpiece no matter where you see it.

So there you are. I believe this list is a reflection of the breadth of my personal tastes in, and experience with, cinema. Hopefully, to read it will help you better know me as a movie lover.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Detour (1945)

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage.

B-pictures in the 1940s were scruffy and scuzzy, shot quickly and on the cheap, and starring grade-Z has-beens and never-would-bes. They were inconsequential and forgettable as a rule, merely whetting the appetite for the more expensive and respectable A-picture on the double-bill. Yet, after many of those other films have faded from memory, DETOUR endures. Perhaps this story of a lovesick loser's domination by a "dame with claws" lives on because it so perfectly conveyed the desperate sleazy essence of what was later dubbed film noir. Stars Neal and Savage would never be mistaken for good actors, but they were just right for DETOUR.

My Dinner With André (1981)

Directed by Louis Malle. Starring André Gregory and Wallace Shawn.

In which the stars (playing versions of themselves) meet for dinner and talk for an hour and a half. Oh, what things they say! André, recently returned from a series of adventures all around the world, relates experiences such as a Polish theatre group who meets in the forest, British farmers who talk to insects, and being buried alive. Wally listens intently to what André has to say, but then resists, asking if all these exotic adventures are necessary to live fully, when he is perfectly happy with his normal life, drinking coffee, living with his girlfriend, reading Charlton Heston's autobiography. You'd never guess that two guys talking for an hour and a half would make for great cinema, but here it does.

Two For the Road (1967)

Directed by Stanley Donen. Starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.

Audrey Hepburn is one of my favorite classic Hollywood stars, and this is my favorite of her films. She and Finney play a married couple who remember their tumultuous history together on a road trip through France. Frederick Raphael's screenplay jumps back and forth in time, between the blessed early days of their relationship to their current discontent. Donen's stylish swingin'-60s direction is one of the few cases of this style not dating over the years. Witty and comical, but never frivolous, the film contains some hard emotional truths.

The Hustler (1961)

Directed by Robert Rossen. Starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie, and Jackie Gleason.

Hollywood in the early 1960s was in flux- the old glamour was fading away, new and more down-to-Earth stars were rising, and the studios didn't know which direction they were going in. This is one of the most fascinating and emblematic of that period's films, a film made within the system that nonetheless embraced a kind of realism. Newman, in a great performance, plays Fast Eddie Felson, a cocky kid trying to make it as a pool hustler, only to learn hard lessons both in the game and in life from Laurie's handicapped drunk, Gleason's smooth-operating champ Minnesota Fats, and Scott's ruthless manager. The film is the pinnacle of the nearly-extinct art of black-and-white 'Scope, with the wide framing and deep focus ideal for re-creating the smoky, lonely world of late-night pool halls and bus stations. The very opposite of a formulaic sports movie, Fast Eddie is forced to learn things from playing the game that he would prefer not to learn.

High and Low (1963)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Starring Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Mihashi.

Looking back on Kurosawa's filmography is like reading a list of classic films (RASHOMON, IKIRU, THE SEVEN SAMURAI, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, THRONE OF BLOOD- and thats just the 1950s). Kurosawa was dismissed by Japanese critics in his time as being "too Western", and like his famed samurai epics owe a debt to American Westerns and adventure pictures, HIGH AND LOW was adapted from a pulp novel by Ed McBain. On the surface, it's a gritty kidnapping drama, and the film observes the crime and the investigation in great detail. However, what makes the film truly great is how acutely Kurosawa examines the notion of social class in modern-day Japan.

On the Waterfront (1954)

Directed by Elia Kazan. Starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, and Karl Malden.

This film is a sticking point among many who believe Kazan was a rat who basically used this as a venue to excuse his actions, but in the greater scheme I think it's an important capsule of a prickly and difficult time. Brando's Terry Malloy struggles with the idea of standing up to the criminal element who has taken over the Hoboken docks, including his own brother Charley (Steiger). The film is informed by a more hard-hitting style than most Hollywood films of the time, and Kazan takes much of his cue from the Method acting of his stars- this, along with Kazan's earlier A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, is one of the great demonstrations for a new kind of cinematic acting. In my mind, it's Brando's best "early" performance, in service of a film which, though ideologically tricky, can't be ignored.

Broken Blossoms (1919)

Directed by D.W. Griffith. Starring Lillian Gish, Donald Crisp, and Richard Barthelmess.

Griffith's film, which is sometimes called the first depiction of an interracial relationship produced in Hollywood, is one of the most visually beautiful films of the silent era. The film's story, about a battered girl (Gish, of course) who seeks solace from a Chinese immigrant (Barthelmess) is simple even by silent melodrama standards, but what makes the film endure is Griffith's visual sense. BROKEN BLOSSOMS was produced around the same time as the rise of German Expressionist cinema, and while Griffith may or may not have been directly influenced by German films of the period, his visualization of the city, with its shadowy streets and foggy docks, has a striking similarity to those European works. Add to this the expressive face of Lillian Gish (who, incidentally, was born near where I grew up) and the film remains a classic even when so many of Griffith's other works have dated.

Rififi (1955)

Directed by Jules Dassin. Starring Jean Servais, Carl Mohner, and Perlo Vita.

After Dassin was blacklisted by the McCarthy-era Congress, he decided to move to France rather than stop making films. It's our gain, since RIFIFI is a masterpiece of the heist genre. All the ingredients are here- a veteran con, a crack team of crooks, seedy locations. As for the heist itself, it's a doozy, a low-tech affair involving such gadgets as an umbrella, unfolding over the course of a half-hour of pure cinema without music or dialogue. The film's wrap-up is fascinating in its nihilism, as one by one the team members begin to betray each other. Sure, it's all been done over and over again since RIFIFI was made, but Dassin should be praised for making such an influential film. What makes it a classic is how wonderfully it still works for me even after so many have imitated it.

Jaws (1975)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw.

Nowadays, this film takes a good portion of the blame for the downfall of risk-taking Hollywood and the rise of the blockbuster mentality. Seen on its own, however, it remains a crackling suspense yarn. Spielberg sets the audience up beautifully, establishing the beachfront community setting, while tantalizing us with scenes in which, well, something is killing the swimmers (love the shot in which the floating pier turns around). In the film's second hour, it becomes more of an adventure story, in which the film's three main characters hunt down the great white shark. These scenes are where JAWS takes off, with three specific men- Scheider's pragmatic and water-fearing police chief, Dreyfuss' nebbishy young scientist, and most memorably Shaw's crusty sea salt- on a single mission. One of the most popular movies ever made- and it still works.

Wings of Desire (1987)

Directed by Wim Wenders. Starring Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartein, and Otto Sander.

Here's another film we shouldn't hold responsible for what it spawned (in this case, the jaw-dropping Cage/Ryan vehicle CITY OF ANGELS). Wenders' poetic film has been criticized by people I know as being insubstantial, but just as there's a place in music for symphonies and piano preludes alike, so too great films come in every stripe. WINGS OF DESIRE tells the story of angels who inhabit the skies over Berlin, able to hear the thoughts of people and to transcend time, but incapable of experiencing life. Much like Wenders' other masterpiece PARIS, TEXAS, which I almost chose instead of this, the film focuses on a character who regards life impassively while those around him go about their business. Eventually, one of the angels decides to "take the plunge", trading in his wings and immortality for the chance to live and die as a human. The film isn't really about its story though (that was the mistake the remake made), but rather about the choice between standing outside of life and seeing everything, or experiencing life despite its inherent limitations.

Alien (1979)

Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, and Ian Holm.

Simply put, one of the scariest movies I've seen. Scott (whose subsequent film, BLADE RUNNER, just missed the cut), making only his second feature, cannily fused the horror and sci-fi genres to create a creepy haunted-house movie in outer space. Sure, everyone now knows Weaver's Ripley character as a tough-talking hardass, but she's one of the crew here, and it's interesting to see her as she earns her action hero stripes in a trial by fire (or, more appropriately, a trial by acid-blood). Likewise, everybody knows about the chest-bursting scene- sorry if I spoiled it if you didn't- but what makes the film frightening even to people like me who've seen it dozens of times is the atmosphere of dread set by the film's chilly, sterile visual style.

See also: Blog entry at Film Dribble

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Directed by Rob Reiner. Starring Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer.

This film about the trials and tribulations of the "World's Loudest Band" would deserve a spot on this list simply by virtue of how funny it is. Few films are this quotable, or this consistently clever (or stupid, since theres a fine line between the two). But what really makes the film a masterpiece is how fully-realized Spinal Tap really is- there's never a time when Spinal Tap doesn't feel like a convincing band, and indeed the film's stars toured a number of times as Tap after the film was released. THIS IS SPINAL TAP perfected the format of the "mockumentary", a goof on documentary style which would be impossible if the filmmaker and his actors hadn't so completely figured out their characters and their mythology. We watch the film and while we know that SPINAL TAP was a fictional band at the time, the film convinces us that they could be real, which makes everything even funnier. Really, the comedy gets turned up to eleven, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, see the film.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Directed by Luis Bunuel. Starring Fernando Rey, Stephane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Bulle Ogier, Paul Frankeur, and Delphine Seyrig.

Luis Bunuel is another great filmmaker who made so many great films (VIRIDIANA, BELLE DE JOUR, THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, L'AGE D'OR) that many of them won't make this list (though if I could include shorts, UN CHIEN ANDALOU would be near the top). In Bunuel's later years, he held onto his famous fetishes and obsessions- hypocrisy, perversity, feet- while displaying a more cutting wit. In DISCREET CHARM, we observe six idle bourgeois as they repeatedly sit down to dinner only to find themselves unable to eat. At one point, they visit a restaurant and order their food when they see a corpse lying on a table in the next room; in another scene, they sit down for a feast only to discover their food is made of plastic and they are sitting onstage in front of an audience. Bunuel's film skewers bourgeois manners and ceremony, revealing them as mere window-dressing to mask our more primal urges- he seems to ask why it's necessary to make such a fuss over eating, something we need to live? Throughout, Bunuel also adds surreal asides and circles in and out of dream sequences, making for a highly original and quite entertaining experience.

After Life (1998)

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda. Starring Arata and Erika Oda.

The issue of where we go after we die has been an question on the minds of people throughout the world ever since humans discovered their mortality. This film posits a place somewhere between the living world and the eternal where the recently deceased are asked to select one memory from their lives to carry with them for eternity. AFTER LIFE has an almost documentary-like feel to it, with friendly interviewers and hurried office workers who have deadlines to make so that the newly-dead can move onward. Much of the film's impact comes from this realism, and the way it avoids the religious iconography that's common to films about the hereafter in favor of a more secular and universal approach. The film's premise not only invites us to know the characters onscreen better, but also to consider what memory we might choose if we were asked. Much like Kore-Eda's first film, MABOROSI, AFTER LIFE is a thought-provoking and beautiful film.

See also: Review at

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Directed by Jacques Demy. Starring Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo.

I've never really been one to cry at movies regularly, and musicals are hit-and-miss with me, but this film is not only one of my favorite musicals but makes me cry every time I watch it. The film's opening scenes depict a young couple in love, but then reality sets in and they are parted and forced to accept life's compromises. This was Deneuve's star-making role, and Demy does justice to her youthful beauty and charisma here (though she wouldn't prove what a deep actress she could be until later in her career). Just as glorious are the Technicolor version of the title city and the all-sung score by Michel Legrand and Demy, with cornerstone song "I Will Wait for You" used adeptly throughout. This is a great and overwhelmingly emotional film.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, and Marlon Brando.

Coppola's Vietnam-era update of Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS took four years of his life to complete, and the result was a mad but often glorious meditation on the insanity of war. Sheen plays a marine assigned to find and kill Brando's Kurtz, and as he journeys upriver to find him he also finds himself agreeing and empathizing with Kurtz's highly unconventional ideas. When he meets Kurtz, however, he discovers that he is insane and dangerous and must come to grips with his own conflicting feelings, his own heart of darkness. Coppola went through hell to make the film, but the finished product is full of indelible images and goosebump-inducing soundscapes (see it on a big screen, if possible), and the finished product is haunting. Seek out the original version of the film, as the REDUX version is not an improvement.

L'Argent (1983)

Directed by Robert Bresson. Starring Christian Patey and Sylvie van den Elsen.

Bresson was famous as perhaps one of the most artistically rigorous of the master filmmakers, and I wasn't sure which of his films to choose for this list (I also seriously considered were MOUCHETTE and AU HASARD BALTHASAR). In the end, I found myself drawn back to his final film, an adaptation of a Tolstoy story, about the tragic path taken by a forged bill, and those whose lives it touches. What makes the film effective is its message- dishonesty leads to dishonesty, crime leads to crime- made particularly poignant in the tale of a truck driver who is arrested for using the forged bill (which someone else gave him, though no one will 'fess up), and then loses his job and his wife, is forced by a lack of money to assist in a messy bank robbery, is thrown into jail, and then when released is completely without resources. In the wrong hands, it could have been a wrongheaded bleeding-heart screed, but Bresson's spare style makes the story a universal parable about how fate can pull the rug from under our secure lives when we least expect it.

The Trial (1962)

Directed by Orson Welles. Starring Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles.

While similar to L'ARGENT in some of its themes, this plays more like the nightmare version of the story. Taking Kafka's famous novel as a starting point, Welles tells the story of Joseph K. (Perkins), a mild-mannered managerial type who wakes one morning and finds out that he is suspected of committing a crime. He doesn't know what the crime could be, nor will anyone tell him, but every facet of his life is placed under scrutiny by those around him, from the police officers who turn over his apartment and jot down every Freudian slip, to Welles as the mountainous Advocate, a distinguished lawyer who demands the respect of his clients only to string them along. The blending of the sensibilities of Welles and Kafka results in a world of shadows and disarray, in which despite a man's best efforts he is at the mercy of those more powerful and influential than he- is it possible that Welles' own career made him think of himself as a Joseph K.-like figure?

My Night at Maud's (1969)

Directed by Eric Rohmer. Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Marie-Christine Barrault, and Francoise Fabian.

The films of Eric Rohmer are an acquired taste, to say the least. Some find him a minor talent at best, favoring long conversations over visual flair or intricate narratives, but I think that his best films cleanse the palate of big-budget bloat or show-offy technique. This film, my favorite of his (though CLAIRE'S KNEE and THE AVIATOR'S WIFE come close) centers around a few days in the life of a serious young man (Trintignant), after he falls in love with a girl he sees in church (Barrault). The centerpiece of the film is an all-night bull session with Maud (Fabian), the lover of an old friend. During this sequence, which takes up at least half the film's running time, the two discuss everything from love to Pascal to Catholic dogma, which turns out to be a kind of verbal seduction without the traditional payoff, and what makes this sequence wondrous is not only how long Rohmer sustains it, but also how the characters repeatedly surprise themselves (and us) with what they have to say.

West Side Story (1961)

Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Starring Nathalie Wood, Richard Beymer, and Rita Moreno.

At a more ironic point in my life, this was one of my favorite cinematic targets of ridicule. I mean, snapping, dancing gangs? Nathalie Wood as a Puerto Rican? How dopey! So it was with no small amount of shock that I turned on the television a few years ago and proceeded to watch it all the way through, feeling pretty stupid for having dismissed it in the past. What really struck me on this viewing, and subsequent viewings, was how brassy and exuberant it was, and how perfectly the tone of the music and the dance modified the tone of the story. This is one of the great dance films, and the camera, rather than remaining a passive observer as in classic Fred Astaire films, takes an active role in the choreography of the scenes in a way that is constantly surprising. So now that I'm older and not as padded in irony, I'm free to appreciate and love this film, silliness and all.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Directed by James Foley. Starring Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and Kevin Spacey.

Many filmmakers adapting stage plays make the mistake of focusing on how to "open up the action", how to make the play more "cinematic". This time around, Foley does absolutely right by David Mamet's play, realizing that what makes a great theatre-to-film transfer isn't variety of locations or cinematic razzle-dazzle, but focus on the characters and the dialogue. The characters in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS are real-estate salesman each at a different point in his career- Lemmon is the old pro long past his prime, Pacino's the smooth-talker currently riding a hot streak, Harris is a middle-aged man who's getting fed up with the new ways, and so on. The film introduces the men, then stirs them up when it's discovered that one of them stole a batch of precious "leads" which would allow him to get the upper hand on the rest of the salesmen. Figuring out who stole the leads occupies much of the film's second half, but this mystery also illuminates the desperation of all the salesmen, who put forth a great deal of effort with little payoff. Great acting too, by the entire cast, particularly Lemmon as a modern-day Willy Loman coming to grips with his own obsolescence.

Stagecoach (1939)

Directed by John Ford. Starring John Wayne, Claire Trevor, and Thomas Mitchell.

While I like Westerns, I've never considered myself a fan, usually preferring the recent takes on the genre to the old canon of favorites. However, I can't help but love this prototype for the classical Hollywood Western, mostly because it has everything that makes a good Western so entertaining without any extraneous material, done with high energy and style. The story involves a group of passengers on a stagecoach trip in the Old West, including a pregnant woman, an ex-Confederate gentleman, a lawman, a drunken doctor, and a hooker with a heart of gold. Soon, they're joined by a latecomer, an outlaw called The Ringo Kid, in the role that made John Wayne a superstar. As the journey progresses, the passengers come into conflict at times, and band together at others, particularly during a still-exciting chase scene. The reason the film still works, even after all its imitators should have stolen its thunder, is because of Ford's assured hand, the purity of the storytelling, and above all the performers, especially the practically embryonic Wayne and Thomas Mitchell as the doctor.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Directed by Terry Jones. Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin.

I've been a fan of Python since high school, and while I can't necessarily reference every episode of the Flying Circus series in detail, I own all three of the feature films and watch them regularly. As is the case for many people, HOLY GRAIL was my first exposure to Python, but in the fullness of time LIFE OF BRIAN has become of favorite of the three. Structured around the story of a boy born the same night as Christ, in the manger right next door, the film follows the character as an adult as he becomes first a revolutionary, then a would-be messiah, until his crucifixion. But as is the case with Python, the plot is merely an excuse for the film's hilarious moments, and though it's not quite as quotable as GRAIL nor as bizarre as MEANING OF LIFE, it's flat-out funnier. This film also was the deciding factor in the decision of my favorite Python member (Michael Palin, whose scene as the speech-impeded Pilate is a classic), and is one of my most-viewed DVDs.