Monday, May 28, 2012

My Top 100 FIlms (1-20)

I've done my best to resist the rush to list-making spurred by the critical census-taking of the Sight & Sound poll, that decennial feature that shows off the dearest loves of critics and filmmakers the world over before being averaged out to remind everyone that Citizen Kane is still the best movie ever. I've seen so many top 10 lists pop up over the last few weeks that I started to feel as if I were the only blogger actually happy to not have to agonize over something so meaningless and yet so crucial as a list of 10 movies among the thousands a cinephile has seen that somehow stand out among the rest. I can't even keep a year-end list limited to that many entries; to sum up all of cinema into so few choices is an infuriating prospect. Besides, at 22, the idea of me setting down my favorite movies is laughable. There's so much I haven't seen, so much I haven't re-seen, that I wouldn't dare claim to have any grasp on what I truly love yet.

Then, I thought about the fun of doing such a list not as a declaration of taste but as a time capsule, a snapshot of my mindset at this stage of my life to be revisited later after my picks have undoubtedly changed. I admit that gives these selections a self-satisfying, esoteric bent, but that's true of all lists. Still, I love lists, and I love to spread my affection for my favorite movies. I tried to stick to that old one-film-per-director rule to maximize the variety, though I quickly violated that with a few filmmakers. (Howard Hawks even appears three times in my top 100, but then one could make a credible top 10 of all time with nothing but Hawks films, so I'm convinced this constitutes restraint on my part.) My tastes do skew a bit more recent, a reflection both of my lateness in coming to film and my passion for a type of reflexive, (post-)modern cinema that will become apparent as I explain my choices. I have presented these in alphabetical order, having had such a hard time narrowing the list down to 100 as it is without worrying about placement. I will, though, mark the films I would likely include in a top 10 I would submit to Sight & Sound if I were asked today. Or perhaps I should say were I asked right this second, as my picks at any given moment could be different. So, for the time being, here are the first 20 of my 100 favorite films of all time:

1. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967/France/Jean-Luc Godard) (TOP 10)

I could just as easily have selected Godard's most recent feature, Film Socialisme, for advancing the ideas presented here into the digital age of communication, but 2 or 3 Things is the more inviting and rapturous of the two. Seeking a new, socialistic aesthetic for the cinema, Godard films everything, his digressions to gaze at trees, construction sites, and the void of a cup of coffee making a Terrence Malick film look as tight as a Val Lewton production. But in this essayistic breakdown of the director's early pet theme of prostitution as symbol of capitalism is a gorgeous, meditative, and uncharacteristically hopeful culmination of his work to that point and a forecast of coming ambition.

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968/USA/Stanley Kubrick)

Kubrick's most cryptic and impenetrable yet, by virtue of its head trip stylings, most accessible film. Kubrick coolly reflects the division of historical epochs by technological states by defining humanity by its tools, be it a bone that lets our forebears clobber rival apes to a program that performs our own functions so well it recognizes humans as obsolete systems and begins phasing them out. Yet beneath Kubrick's icy remove and wry cynicism is his most hopeful conclusion: perhaps the tools that facilitated our evolution into homo sapiens can trigger the next step and a new universe of possibilities. An atheist rapture.

3. Ace in the Hole (1951/USA/Billy Wilder)

Not Wilder's cleverest, best-shot nor best-acted film, but the most cohesive in its savagery and the most prescient in its worldview. In an age where screenwriters, most of them former journalists, celebrated the newspaper profession, Wilder saw the problem with trusting ordinary, underpaid and overambitious people. Kirk Douglas has never been more vile, ginning up a media circus at the expense of a man's life. The film slowly takes on the properties of the collapsed mine shaft trapping the victim of Tatum's fame baiting, grower ever darker, tighter and airless until it suffocates you.

4. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001/USA/Steven Spielberg) (TOP 10)

I'll just say it: the ending is brilliant and by far the most disturbing thing Steven Spielberg ever filmed. If you think it's sentimental and light, you're not paying attention. The rest of the film is about as grim, methodically demolishing any argument for the unique quality that makes humans human. Little David displays love and, no less critically, hate, and his Pinocchio-inspired journey perverts and despairs of a toy's futile quest to become a real boy. Unbearably, the film suggests that David fails not because of any shortcoming of his own but because humanity is no real gift in the first place. Is this the same man who made E.T.?

5. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974/Germany/Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

Take Harold and Maude, strip out the quirkiness and compound the unexpected emotional impact and you've only just begun to process Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Fassbinder's tortured romance between an elderly widow and a strapping Arabic immigrant elicits the harsh reality of lingering hatred and prejudice in a country still atoning for the extremity of its racism. More importantly, he does not lose the actual relationship to the allegory, shaping a textured portrait of a couple's internal and external pressures all the more devastating for its tangibility. The slow tightening of the frame subtly visualizes how Ali and Emmi see each other, culminating in a slightly ironic reconciliation that engenders hope and uncertainty in equal measure.

6. L'Argent (1983/France/Robert Bresson)

Bresson was like a transcendant George Carlin, getting ever harder and more vicious with age. Bresson's final film, L'Argent, is an outright horror movie, where the monster is capitalism. Even when his previous films ended on despairing notes, there was a sense of release to them, the fate of the donkey in Au hasard Balthazar in its own way as freeing as the conclusion of A Man Escaped. No such luck here: money is all-powerful and all-present, corrupting minds until the mere want for money, not even the objects it buys, becomes man's spiritual motivation. U.S. currency bears the motto "In God We Trust," but L'Argent suggests that this is redundant, for money is our God. As only he can, Bresson makes this point a great deal more elegantly and profoundly than every liberal college freshman who says the same thing.

7. Army of Shadows (1969/France/Jean-Pierre Melville)

Melville's war film concerns the French resistance against the Nazis, yet in some ways it is a more scathing indictment of French militarism than all the movies made about Algeria. Refusing to glorify the push back against Vichy, Melville instead shows realistic war, with deflated heroism and muted sadism rendered oddly unmoving by the frame's metallic blue tones. Seen here, guerrilla war looks as nasty and soul-rotting to its practitioners as it does to those on the receiving end of it. Dismissed by hip post-'68ers as DeGaullist fluff, Army of Shadows might really have gotten under their skin for suggesting the inevitable pitfalls of a radical left uprising in any era.

8. L'Atalante (1934/France/Jean Vigo)

Like Murnau's Sunrise, Jean Vigo's one and only feature-length picture L'Atalante is narratively simplistic yet impossible to describe. Located in the space between dialectics (male/female, land/water, etc.), L'Atalante eschews classification for a poetic revelry in images that at once look back to the silent era and find new innovations in the play of sight and sound. Less openly political than Vigo's short Zéro de Conduite, this feature nevertheless displays its own socio-sexual-political underpinnings throughout, never more so than when Michel Simon, that French Dionysus, is on the screen. A masterpiece, though I'd be damned if I could explain it at this time.

9. Baby Face (1933/USA/Alfred E. Green)

Barbara Stanwyck sets hearts and other body parts on fire in this audacious Pre-Code romp about a woman literally sleeping her way to the top. Stanwyck's sexual immediacy has never been so overpowering: she's so seductive here that the thought of being used by her practically seems like something for which a guy should thank her. No one is safe: she even blazes through a young John Wayne without breaking a sweat. The restored version adds even more raunch, pushing the envelope so much that even in the days of the Hays' office's impotence something had to be done to put a lid on this movie. But one glace at Stanwyck's come-hither look and it's clear that nothing short of blast shielding could protect a "hypothetical reasonable person," as the Supreme Court once described the test-case for obscenity.

10. Bigger Than Life (1956/USA/Nicholas Ray)

That I managed to restrict myself to but one Ray film is a miracle, but there was no doubt which of his films I would choose. Bigger Than Life marks the pinnacle of Ray's studio work, his CinemaScope widescreen capturing the boundaries of suburban bourgeois life with more sinister edge than has been filmed since. James Mason's magnificently unhinged performance as a dad whose druggie hallucinations give him the self-image of a deity. American patriarchy and middle-class aspiration are torn asunder in Ray's color-streaked frame, with the play of shadow and light making an Expressionist play of Mason's uncontrollable delusions of grandeur and superiority. The most savage vision of 1950s America put to celluloid.

11. Blade Runner [final cut] (1982/USA/Ridley Scott)

Scott's futuristic vision of Los Angeles, more Asian than American, is either false given the subsequent rise of Hispanic cultural influence or, given the shifting economic power of China and Japan, so prescient the world merely hasn't caught up to it. But in Scott's tactile future is the past, the use of flying cars and androids a staging for a brilliant throwback noir that mines the built-to-serve directives of Replicants for existential angst and the polluted, acid-rain haze of L.A. for its shadows and despair. the question of Deckard's own humanity, despite Scott's own urged reading, is pointedly irrelevant. What, after all, is the difference between a machine who must perform its task and a man compelled to do the same?

12. Blazing Saddles (1974/USA/Mel Brooks)

One of two masterpieces Mel Brooks released in the same year, Blazing Saddles edges out over Young Frankenstein for the audacity of its comedy (co-written by Richard Pryor) and the slyness of its genre travesty. As with all of Brooks' parodies, Saddles overflows with affection for tropes, but there's a critical edge here not found in Frankenstein or Spaceballs. The undiluted savagery of its racial humor, unsparing of the hateful nature of those rubes lionized as pioneers in other Westerns, still has bite, and it's not for nothing that the he-man brawl between flamboyantly dressed cowpokes breaks through the studio wall and into a lavishly gay musical setpiece. But through it all, Brooks' gift for rapid-fire shtick has rarely served him better, and Blazing Saddles never sacrifices funny for clever.

13. Brazil [director's cut] (1985/UK/Terry Gilliam)

Gilliam's expressive sci-fi satire replaces fascists and Communists of dystopias past for a new, more powerful enemy: bureaucracy. In a world where one needs a form in triplicate just to use the bathroom, Jonathan Pryce's Lowry has soaring dreams of freedom that gradually crumble as his ability to distinguish reality from fantasy fades.Propelled by Gilliam's magnificent setpieces and scabrous humor, Brazil moves into ever darker waters until even the darkest comedy produces unease, fear, and, in the end, sadness and horror.

14. Bringing Out the Dead (1999/USA/Martin Scorsese)

As much as I cheated on the one-film-per-director rule with Hawks, I'm amazed I didn't violate it even more so with Scorsese. I whittled the final inclusions down to two. Why leave out such masterpieces as The King of Comedy and The Last Temptation of Christ for the sake of this little-seen fin de siècle work by the master? Because it is perhaps the most stylistic film in the oeuvre of American's most stylish filmmaker. Taxi Driver played at 45rpm, Bringing Out the Dead is an explosion of Scorsese's visuals and themes, a wracked paramedic making an inverse Travis Bickle in his self-implosion to save people, not destroy them. Set in a Hell's Kitchen as infused with Catholic guilt as it is drugs, Bringing Out the Dead sends Nic Cage on nightmarish nightly runs that streak color and sound into garish, gorgeous circles of hell. Naturally, Scorsese's love of film abounds, especially in the silent-film-like effects of Frank plucking New York's trapped souls from the pavement.

15. Bringing Up Baby (1938/USA/Howard Hawks)

The pinnacle of Hawks' screwball comedy, with Hepburn and Grant turning in flawless performances and sexual dynamics turned on their heads. Practically every line is an innuendo, and the deadpan visual delivery of Hawks' workman direction only makes everything funnier. Hepburn, after some comic coaching by Grant, remains calm and playful as Grant goes to pieces under her desire. It's a pitch-perfect comedy, with Grant's leap into the air when he loses composure and screams "I just went GAY all of a sudden!" making for one of the best line deliveries of all time. I can't watch this movie without gasping for air

16. Carlito's Way (1993/USA/Brian De Palma)

Hi, Mom! is perhaps more representative of De Palma's audacious charm, but this capital-R Romantic take on a hood trying to go clean is the most elegant and pained entry in the gangster genre. De Palma and Pacino move away from the satirical excess of Scarface, each providing some of his subtlest work. Presented as a dying man's flashback, Carlito's Way is not about if but when, and the process that leads Pacino's futile effort for reform offers De Palma the chance to use all his directorial flourish with formalist precision. Gangster movies are often thrilling, even chilling, but rarely have they been this devastating.

17. Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974/France/Jacques Rivette)

I left My Night at Maud's off this list because, having seen only that film in Rohmer's canon, I was sure I'd one day see something that would top it. Why, then, include Celine and Julie Go Boating, if the same situation applies? Well, I can't think of many other films that so immediately arrested me, so completely consumed my attention from the start as this metacinematic feminist tale. Watching Celine and Julie Go Boating offers the pleasurable feel of seeing it as it is constructed, the narrative molding and rewriting itself as if visualizing the drafting process. Proustian in structure, Celine achieves a delicate, deeply intellectual playfulness all its own.

18. Chimes at Midnight (1965/France, Spain, Switzerland/Orson Welles)

Welles' decision to cast himself as Falstaff is one of the most humble instances of a director giving himself the lead. It's an act of remarkable self-criticism, inviting such scrutiny it's easy to miss the rest of the film. Well, at least until you glance around Welles' padded body and see the gorgeous construction of the frame, which has a cohesiveness one could not reasonably expect of a movie pieced together over years. The Battle of Shrewsbury remains the greatest battle sequence ever filmed, its smoky, cacophonous din terrifying, darkly funny, but not remotely celebratory. Many have ripped it off, no one has copied it.

19. Chungking Express (1994/Hong Kong/Wong Kar-wai)

Oh, which Wong to choose? The suffocating, unrequited romance of In the Mood for Love? The relationship-from-hell of Happy Together? The downright Joycean 2046? I'll go with Chungking Express, a cast-off interim movie that has in its spontaneous energy flecks of all the others. Filled with broken hearts and anxiety over Hong Kong's impending turnover, Chungking Express is nevertheless the most joyous of Wong's features, reveling in the hope of newfound love more than it wallows in despair for the end of old ones. Faye Wong wipes the floor with other Manic Pixie Dream Girls, her effervescent energy making the act of covertly cleaning her crush's apartment one of jubilation and rebirth. Hope is a rare commodity in Wong's films, which makes it all the more blissful here.

20. A City of Sadness (1989/Taiwan/Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

Geometrically precise in its camera movement, structured as variations on repeated framings, Hou's film is nevertheless stunning in its emotional impact. Hou uses medium, long, and even longer shots to get an overview of handover of authority of Taiwan from Japan to another power, China. But the film's critical distance and political content is defined, then redefined, along the personal lines of the family at the heart of the story. Hou holds his shots for so long that, when he returns to that same location and same axis later, the different placement along that same axis is immediately recognizable and portentous of social and narrative change. To date, this is the only Hou film I've seen, but if he made one better, then he belongs in the pantheon of great directors.


  1. Nice list, Jake. #'s 2-4 would all be in my own Top 20, as would #16 (De Palma's best, I agree). I'm most surprised to see Bringing Out the Dead on here, which I like just fine but which I haven't seen in a couple of years; your enthusiasm makes me want to go back and watch it a second time.

  2. Bringing Out the Dead has gotten the most response of any of these first picks, and I'm pleased that most want to see it again because of it. I think it might be Scorsese's best style parade, and the one that, unlike After Hours or Casino, is still emotionally resonant. There will be one more Scorsese on the full list, but it took effort not to have like five.

  3. Suprised to see no Yang here. I re-watched A City of Sadness recently--it's a great film, but I can't quite put it on the same level as A Brighter Summer Day. I don't think nearly as highly of Baby Face as you, but it's those oddball kinds of choices that make these lists interesting.

  4. Peter, Yang will appear, but I've never seen A Brighter Summer Day. There's some old bootleg of it floating around the Internet, but it's of such atrocious video quality that I can't bring myself to watch it. I'm hoping that Janus' recent tour of the restored print means they've nearly sorted out whatever rights issue has kept them from releasing it all these years.

  5. I've been meaning to rewatch Bringing Out the Dead for literally years and years; I saw it in the theater as a freshman in high school on a complete whim with only the name Scorsese luring me in, and remember walking out in a complete punch-drunk daze. I've no idea why another viewing has taken me so long, but images are still burned into my head all this time later, and I suspect I'm going to fall in love with it all over again whenever I get back around to it.

    All in all, a mint first batch, Jake. Many, many personal favorites here for me, too. Chimes I just watched for the first time a few weeks back actually, to say I was blown away would be an understatement.

    Looking forward to the future entries here.

  6. Whoa! Interesting list, Jake! Some fascinating choices and a whole bunch I've yet to see. (Still haven't gotten around to watching the Vigo Blu-ray, for example.) I also really like your more off-beat choices. A.I.? Gold! Also, I love that you have L'argent on here. I pretty much loathed my journey through almost all Bresson's filmography, but L'argent was the perfect melding of his dispassionate style with a pointed subject. Where I hated the distance of his other films in almost every case (except A Man Escaped), it worked so perfectly with L'argent. A truly great film from a director I cannot stand.

  7. Yeah, I saw A Brighter Summer Day on the big screen in 2010, I assume it was that restored print--along with seeing a 70mm print of Play Time it was the greatest theatrical experiences of my life. I've watched a boot I torrented since, though, and I didn't think the quality was that bad--certainly not bad enough to skip it.

    I'm with you guys on Dead too; one of Scorsese's best.

  8. Drew and Corey: Thanks guys. Hope you stick around and see the rest.

    Peter: If Criterion doesn't announce it soon I'll finally cave and watch the boot, but given how rich I found Yi Yi I was hoping to see it in as best a condition as I could (it is almost certain a print won't come to Atlanta.) Glad to hear mroe Dead love.

  9. Carlito's Way, wooo! (I have nothing meaningful to add)

  10. A splendid list of films, but quite a few I am yet to see. Great to see 2001 and ALI on here. Two very great films indeed.

  11. Thank you! Indeed they are masterpieces. Hope you check out someone of the ones you haven't seen.

  12. Fantastic top 20! I am thoroughly impressed. Delighted to see some of my favourites here, such as 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 2001, Blazing Saddles and Celine and Julie Go Boating, among others. In fact, if you're a fan of Celine and Julie, you may be envious to hear I have acquired a copy of Rivette's Out 1 (damaged and imperfect, but good enough) and will be watching it soon. Rivette is incredible, I absolutely love his film La Belle Noiseuse.

  13. Tyler: Where did you get OUT 1? I downloaded a copy some months ago with hard-coded Italian and English subtitles but haven't watched yet. I also have DUELLE, PONT DU NORD and POIROT.

  14. It was only very recently uploaded to YouTube so I thought I better take advantage of it:

    1. As far as I can tell, that's the only part of the movie that's up. And it's only got Italian subtitles. I wish I had invites on the private, arty torrenting hub Karagarga 'cause I'd send you one. That's about the only place to find the full Out 1 with English subtitles.

      Paris Belongs to Us is on Criterion's Hulu page, i noticed. That gives me some hope they might FINALLY release his work.

  15. Really looking forward to this whole series (didn't realize your 100 list was so epically spun-out), which I will probably take in chunks to savor each one.

    "I'll just say it: the ending is brilliant and by far the most disturbing thing Steven Spielberg ever filmed. If you think it's sentimental and light, you're not paying attention."

    Totally agreed.

    And your capsules on Army of Shadows & Blade Runner are extremely compelling - both will affect how I see the movies again, certainly.

    Bringing Out the Dead seems to have a cult following growing louder year by year (though it's still little more than a murmur). I was very impressed by it when it came out and then promptly forgot it for some reason; it may be the most overlooked film in Scorsese's canon. I wonder why?

  16. Sorry but "Bringing Out The Dead" is nowhere near as great as "After Hours" or "Casino", I just watched it again, I thought it was laughable and atrocious. Love Scorsese, but it's getting so that the great movies are outnumbered by the not-so-great movies, and "Bringing Out The Dead" shouldn't even be on the Top 100, much less Top 10! (but it's your list, so you can put whatever you want on it, of course!). To the person who asked why it was the most overlooked film in Scorsese's canon, it's because it's simply not that good, not that memorable, and ridiculously absurd (perhaps you need to live in NYC to understand how absurd). Marc Anthony as the homeless guy is particularly laughable, so are some of the ridiculous over-the-top "action" sequences with the ambulance. That was when Scorsese "jumped the shark", and frankly, he's never made a decent movie since, at least in my opinion.

    On the other hand, thank you for putting up "Chimes At Midnight", that has got to be one of the greatest - if not the greatest - Shakespeare committed to film. Not only is it Welles' greatest performance (the end? when the King rejects him? Oof!), but John Gielgud is fantastic. You watch that movie and you just want to weep, get angry, yell at someone, thinking that this guy spent the next twenty five years trying (unsuccessfully) to raise money to make another movie, unbelievable.