[The following is the latest entry in my Top 100 films. Click the links to see picks 1-20, 21-40 and 41-60.]
61. Once Upon a Time in the West (1969/Italy, USA/Sergio Leone)
Leone's homage/revisionist take on the Western reaches its pinnacle in this perfectly directed, almost Brechtian deconstruction. From the long, unbearably tense beginning (hands down the best film opening ever) to Henry Fonda's everyman image being perverted to suggest that violence and sadism is a cornerstone of the "average American." Leone helped create a Western icon in Eastwood's Man With No Name, but here he tears the whole damn place to the ground. Even so, he does it with such lush formalism it's nearly impossible to see him battering at the foundations until it all collapses.
62. Only Angels Have Wings (1939/USA/Howard Hawks)
Hawks' most spiritually pure film, of men being men and women not losing an inch to them. Cary Grant's deliberately aloof performance only makes him more irresistible, and the muted grief these pilots cannot express when they lose one of their own turns the heavy fogged airstrip where tehy operate into a grounded ghost ship, haunted by the freshly dead and soon-to-die. Hawks' direction has never been the kind one would call poetic (and that's a compliment), but the ethereal, haunting mood he casts in this film comes damn close. The three Hawks films in this list are all perfect. Bringing Up Baby is the perfect screwball comedy. Rio Bravo is the perfect Western. Only Angels Have Wings is the perfect...well, it cannot easily be fit into genre. For that reason, it may be the greatest among these equals.
63. Paris, Texas (1984/Germany, France, UK, USA/Wim Wenders)
One of the most piercing, on-point views of America came from a foreign director with multinational backing. Sounds about right. Harry Dean Stanton's quintessential performance as a prodigal son trying to repair the life he does not remember doubles as an abstract elegy for America, for the faded Old West where this is set, and for the American Dream that hollowed out Travis and his family. Intimate, poignant moments between people are as bewildering and unsettling as they are necessary and hopeful. All we have is each other, and sometimes not even that.
64. Park Row (1952/USA/Samuel Fuller)
I have a hate-hate relationship with journalism, but this unabashedly sentimental, if pulpy and caricatured, view of newspapermen is so infectious it makes me pine for its return to prominence. Packed with Fuller's cigar-plug dialogue, brutish action and unrepentant idealism, Park Row so thoroughly believes in journalism's fundamental role in American society that it ties the profession to the importation of our greatest symbol, the Statue of Liberty. Hey, no one could ever accuse Sam Fuller of playing it small. Contains that immortal line, "The day you learn to read, you're fired."
65. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid [preview version] (1973/USA/Sam Peckinpah)
Ignore the butchered theatrical cut (and the misleading 2005 special edition) in favor of the 1988 cut that tried its damnedest to get as much of Peckinpah's original vision back on the screen. Watching this cut, though, it's hard to imagine a more beautiful, if severe, epitaph for the West. The opening credits alone, with the stop-start fades in and out of color and the juxtaposition of an old Garrett's double cross with Billy's gang shooting the heads off chickens in the past, is worthy of canonization. But the rest of the movie is no less striking, finding no heroism in Billy's iconic fast-living, but also no comfort in Pat's cowardly long life. Peckinpah's infatuation and disgust with violence finds its greatest outlet here, searching desperately for something to love in the Old West and finding nothing. Slim Pickens' quiet, dignified, but deeply sad reaction to his fatal wounding haunts me forever and always.
66. A Perfect World (1993/USA/Clint Eastwood)
My rare connection to Clint Eastwood's work makes the ones I do love all the more special, and this portrait of doomed innocence in the run-up to Kennedy's assassination is one of his most unforced, affecting films. The politics tacitly expressed in Eastwood's films are conservative, but above all weary, dissatisfied with a world that seems to please nobody. Like other conservatives, Eastwood wants to go back to the past, but instead of reveling in it, he wishes to correct something in the hopes of setting the present on a better path. The so-called perfect world he gives to escaped convict Butch and the boy hostage he unwittingly sets free from his own prison is devastating for its fragility and ephemerality. Eastwood's own Texas Ranger serves as a revision of the trigger-happy characters he started to play around the time this film is set, a cop who wants a peaceable solution to the situation and can only look on in disgust when that hope, too, is revealed as just that.
67. Persona (1966/Sweden/Ingmar Bergman)
I want to revisit my early piece on this film, but I keep putting it off because I don't want to have another go until I feel I've truly understood the movie. I may be delaying a second post until my death. Bergman's reflexive drama is as playful as it is despairing, its use of metacinematic structure and style to peel back the existential mystery of an actress gone mute. Is the movie a parable for man's inability to deal with tragedy, or art's? The straightest answer I could give is "Yes." But it's also Bergman's most focused insight into the horror of human existence and the vacuums of communication between people. The slow entwining of Bibi Andersson's and Liv Ulmann's beings ironically connote a breakdown in illusion as the film becomes ever more illusory. The last shot, revealing camera filming the actresses, should be a liberating reminder of the falsity of the image. Instead, it suggests that all life is false.
68. Phantoms of Nabua (2009/Thailand, Germany, UK/Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
I will not be able to state definitively my favorite Apichatpong Weerasethakul feature until I know he has made his last, for he continues to develop and enrich his themes and aesthetic with each new one. So I will instead select this 2009 short, inexplicably left off the Uncle Boonmee DVD despite being part of the same project that culminated in that masterful feature. At 10 minuts, Phantoms wastes no time, but it also doesn't particularly put forward a narrative. Instead, it presents a striking composition, a fluorescent light, a flaming soccer ball and a flickering film projector showing a film of lightning strikes all blazing in starless night. Eventually, the soccer ball hits the screen and burns it to cinders, reminiscent of the climax of Inglourious Basterds and Nick Ray's experimental short The Janitor. As the projector continues to shine light into the smoke, are we meant to see it as a breakdown of film's power, or of art being projected into the real world to become one with it? This alternately mournful and blissfully hopeful conundrum, when taken in tandem with Uncle Boonmee, marks the greatest, most evocative elegy yet made for the format of film.
69. Pinocchio (1940/USA/Ben Sharpsteen et. al)
Admittedly, the film is more a collection of vignettes than a unified narrative, but when animation looks this good, I'm happy to go anywhere it takes me. The more random the better. The rich variety of colors and stunning depth of field display a technical ambition no smaller than that of Fantasia. Pinocchio himself is, forgive me, a bit wooden, but this fantastical movie makes a frightfully adult case for how unforgiving this world is, especially to someone different. As Pinocchio heads from Geppetto's cozy, cluttered workshop to a cage, an exploitative freakshow, a morally and physically corrupting island of temptations and, finally, the belly of a whale, one gets the sense that he wants to be a real boy not to feel like he belongs to the world but so it will finally stop doing everything in its cosmic power to kill him.
70. Platform (2000/China/Jia Zhang-ke)
Jia's alternately wistful and critical view of China's modern history, both its Communist 20th century and shamelessly capitalistic new era, is best captured in this period piece about a troupe traveling around China at the end of the '70s and beyond to sing of Mao's accomplishments. But those who sing of Mao's trains have never actually seen one, and most still feel tied to an almost feudal existence never wholly overcome in the vast, geographically and even lingually segmented country. The decade slowly morphs the Peasant Culture Group of Fenyang into the commercialized All-Stars Rock 'n' Breakdance Electronic Band, but as with the Communist "upheaval," this capitalistic dawn changes little about the day-to-day existence of China's population, and indeed its only true innovation is to find new ways to keep people separate and lonely.
71. Playtime (1967/France/Jacques Tati) (TOP 10)
How can a comedy on this scale be so minutely controlled? Tati's long shots emphasize the alienation and dehumanization of modern life in such a way that he can also celebrate the struggle of the human spirit against the cage it built for itself. The precision of his setpieces—the see-through apartment complex, the rows of file cabinets revealed to be sealed-off cubicles—are as funny as they are evocative, and the extended climax in a brand-new restaurant slowly dismantled by its patrons is, as Jonathan Rosenbaum rightly said, “the most formidable mise-en-scène in the history of cinema.” But if Tati's desire to back away from modernist influence seems conservative, it should be noted that his release of his iconic Hulot into a much larger world of characters is a downright socialistic narrative decision.
72. Ran (1985/Japan/Akira Kurosawa)
Taken with Welles' treatment of Falstaff, Kurosawa's stupefying adaptation of King Lear is the best Shakespeare put to celluloid. Tatsuya Nakadai captures all of Lear's folly and crumbling arrogance as Hidetora, and his descent into madness is accentuated by chilling Noh stylings. Everything else is no less bombastic, be it Hidetora's caustic, wormy Fool or the gargantuan battle sequence of a castle being torn to ribbons, a sequence shot with more disgust than Kurosawa ever put into his camera. And this is the man who ended the supposedly heroic struggle of Seven Samurai with the boldest warrior literally ass-up dead in the mud. Not Kurosawa's last great film, but perhaps his last awe-inspiring one.
73. Red Desert (1964/Italy/Michelangelo Antonioni)
I'm still torn on Antonioni's modernist ennui, but strangely I feel it works far better in this color-streaked industrial fog than in L'Avventura's bleaker monochrome. Monica Vitti shines as a woman unable to adapt to the industrial environment of the film, with its unnatural shapes and colors, to the point that she can barely function. Yet underneath Vitti's disconnect and sexual tension with Richard Harris' understanding, equally alienated Corrado, the film makes an open case for the beauty of this man-made world, where not only the vividly colored objects have aesthetic appeal but even the cold gray steel that makes up the industrial realm's circulatory and respiratory systems. Antonioni may craft characters who see no future in altered, modern landscapes, but he does, keeping the movie from sinking into navel-gazing wistfulness.
74. The Red Shoes (1948/UK/Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) (TOP 10)
"Why do you want to dance?" "Why do you want to live?" "Because I must." "Well I don't know exactly why, but I must." "That is my answer, too." And with that early exchange, I knew I'd found a film I'd cherish forever. The Archers' use of color is equalled by none, and this phantasmagoric, vividly subjective ballet film captures the overwhelming ecstasy and agony of artistic inspiration and drive like no other movie. The ballet sequences offer perhaps the first great step forward for film art after the end of the silent era, updating silent techniques into something even more magical as the music entwines flawlessly with the movements. The grim climax suggests the doomed fate awaiting all those who can do nothing but art, but that this will never dissuade anyone so inclined is part of their reason their art towers above all others.
75. Repulsion (1965/UK/Roman Polanski)
Polanski's psychological apartment nightmare is my favorite horror film by far, and the only one that truly terrifies me instead of just momentarily freaking me out. Given Polanski's infamous actions, there's a dark irony that, more than nearly any other male filmmaker, he understands women. I'll take his multifaceted, psychosexual portrait of Catherine Deneuve's stiff Carol over generations of thinly sketched knife-bait any day. Polanski's mastery with a camera is also evident even at this early juncture, the time-marking shots of decaying food and the silent nighttime hallucinations as perfectly composed as they are spontaneous and arresting. I don't watch this too often, but only because I like to sleep now and then.
76. Rio Bravo (1959/USA/Howard Hawks)
Perched on the cusp of the '60s and a subsequent downturn in American cinema and uptick in art cinema, this perfectly plotted, perfectly acted, perfectly shot Western seems a last hurrah for classic Hollywood. Made as a conservative response to High Noon, Hawks' film nevertheless always struck me as liberal, as John Wayne's hero tries to go it alone but is absorbed into a larger, mutually supportive community when it comes time to defend the small town. But regardless of what the film is "saying," Rio Bravo is so immaculately crafted that it can please anyone. Not a single moment is out of place, and that includes the songs.
77. The Rules of the Game (1939/France/Jean Renoir)
The "game" in the title could refer to aristocratic codes both followed and transgressed in Renoir's greatest feature, or maybe even life in general. But considering how much, and how quickly, its overlapping dialogue, deep-focus cinematography and fluid, playful camera movements trickled down into the language of cinema, the game for which Renoir sets down the rules may be filmmaking itself. I saw contempt in Renoir's view of the dying, oblivious aristocracy when I first saw the film, but now I see the slap he so desperately wants to give these people is a concerned corrective, not a furious assault. The spectre of coming upheaval hangs over this movie, and as repulsive and self-absorbed as these characters are, it's hard not to feel sorry for what they're about to experience.
78. Safe (1995/USA/Todd Haynes)
Haynes' domestic horror film is terrifying for its ambiguity. Like Nick Ray's Bigger Than Life, the "monster" is the American way of life. But where Ray regrettably tied James Mason's madness to a drug, Haynes leaves Julianne Moore's problems unnervingly unexplained. As the film tracks her attempts to diagnose and cure her reaction against her upper-middle-class environment, it conjures images of AIDS scares, cults and a world we'e made so antiseptic it now ironically infects us. And as that bleached, isolated life is exemplified by Moore's Carol, the victim is her own antagonist. I don't think it's any kind of coincidence, also, that Moore's character shares a name with the protagonist/villain of Repulsion.
79. Sansho the Bailiff (1954/Japan/Kenji Mizoguchi)
I have been thunderstruck by Mizoguchi for some time (seek out, please, his neglected and commercially unavailable Straits of Love and Hate), but Sansho the Bailiff eclipses all else I've seen by him. Mizoguchi's period piece shows a world where a governor's kindness gets him exiled, his wife sold into prostitution and his children made slaves. The film is unbearable, showing the corruption of the son, the maiming of the mother and, most hauntingly, the self-sacrifice of the sister, who as ever brings up the director's autobiographical guilt over the exploitation of his own sibling. There's also a scathing indictment of bureaucracy, the rampant sadism of the titular character made worse by the fact that he's the equivalent of an office manager, drunk on his modicum of power and sycophantic to his superiors. I only saw the film for the first time last week, but I was left so devastated, and so enamored with its indescribably perfect mise-en-scène, that I could not leave it off the list.
80. Seven Samurai (1954/Japan/Akira Kurosawa) (TOP 10)
The film that made me a cinephile. I'd seen and loved great movies before this, but afterward, I was never the same. Kurosawa crafts the shortest 3.5-hour film in history, an adroitly paced action epic that somehow manages to take wide, message-heavy digressions without losing an ounce of steam. This was also, along with Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, the film that made me notice how lens choices affected the image, Kurosawa's long lenses crushing the depth of field, turning each composition into a huge painting. It also emphasizes the bridging of connections between the samurai with each other and with the peasants they agree to defend, the gradual flattening of the image emphasizing their physical and spiritual proximity. The director cares so much for his characters that he does not revel in the savagery that consumes most of them, and indeed even shows their corpses embarrassingly placed to ward off any notions of heroic bloodshed. "We lost," as the sage samurai leader says as he overlooks what most would call a victory, and the final shot dwells not only the rescued living but the departed dead.