Tuesday, May 29, 2012

My Top 100 Films (21-40)

[This is the second part of my top 100 films. See also picks 1-20.]

21. Close-Up (1990/Iran/Abbas Kiarostami)

Kiarostami's masterpiece tops Herzog's blending of fact and fiction, not merely recounting the true story of a man who posed as Iranian director Mohsen Mahkmalbaf but replicating it. Kiarostami gets all the actual parties involved, having the man and the family he conned play themselves. The director even gets to film the man's trial, possibly influencing its outcome in the man's favor. But in the playful collision of documentary, recreation and fiction, Kiarostami offers a beautiful meditation on art and the love and power of it. The final shot, frozen on the man's bashful face as he apologizes to the family he hoodwinked, is one of the greatest image in all of cinema, art bringing people together even through manipulation and lies.

22. Coeur Fidèle (1923/France/Jean Epstein)

Epstein's magical, impressionistic silent invokes Les Misérables to stage breathtaking, pre-Eisenstein editing techniques that offer stirring psychological and poetic insight into characters and the world around them. The dissolves in the carousel scene alone are worthy of rapturous praise. In its perfect blend of working-class reality and evocative, abstract imagery predicts Jean Vigo, and I can only hope that an American home video distributor eventually does it as much justice as I've heard Masters of Cinema did for its UK Blu-Ray.

23. The Conversation (1974/USA/Francis Ford Coppola)

Apocalypse Now was one of those crucial films in the development of my cinephilia, yet now I respond most strongly to the fevered paranoia of this aural take on Antonioni's Blow-Up. It feels strange to elevate this above all other Coppola films, as this one is the inverse of his usual operatic tone, all inner fear and loathing subtly manifested in well-guarded tape splices. The perverse logic behind the climactic hallucinations makes a grim order of chaos, and the final image, of a man fully lost to his own fear, captures the mood of post-Nixon America and New Hollywood like no other picture.

24. Crank 2: High Voltage (2009/USA/Neveldine/Taylor)

Yes, you're reading this right. Crank 2 is offensive on a catastrophic level, taking special care to offend everyone. But in its social transgressions is also an artistic effrontery unmatched by anyone in American mainstream film since the earliest work of De Palma. Hell, the filmmaker they most strongly recall is Seijun Suzuki at his most outlandish. Using garish lenses to stretch and distort images that are then folded back on each other in fishbowl reflections, literally throwing cheap and disposable HD cameras at stunts to get the rawest possible footage, Neveldine/Taylor break every stylistic rule in the book. And I love every second of it. The filmmaking duo have been handed a few decently high-profile gigs (the equally masterful and underappreciated Gamer and the fun but compromised Ghost Rider 2), but if they never translate their early anarchy into lasting success like De Palma, at least they'll always have this (literal) middle finger to standards of aesthetics and taste.

25. The Darjeeling Limited (2007/USA/Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson simultaneously makes the white-person-escape-to-India more self-serving and more self-critical than anyone ever has. His dollhouse production design is so pronounced that even cabs come to resemble mobile ballrooms, yet Anderson slowly reveals even his own ornate decoration to be merely a front for a group of estranged brothers putting up barriers to their own self-discovery. On a surface level, the film is guilty of the same lazy cultural appropriation and borderline racism of other such works of white people using an impoverished country for their own benefit. But that's the point, and when Anderson makes his characters realize what they're doing, they share a moment as beautiful as the director has ever made. More arch even than The Life Aquatic, yet more resonant than Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums.

26. Day of Wrath (1943/Denmark/Carl Theodore Dreyer)

I need to re-watch (and re-review) Ordet and The Passion of Joan of Arc, but Day of Wrath is no less worthy of canonization. A ruthless examination of religious sin and self-absolution as metaphor for Christian complicity in the Holocaust, Day of Wrath is profoundly dark in its implications, with the lighting scheme to match. As it always is in these matters, the most zealous of torturers and accusers seek desperately to mask and assuage their own guilt, and a universal evil settles over these characters. Impressively, Dreyer avoids outright nihilism, and if he does not bother to offer hope in this twisted tale, he at least makes tacitly plain the notion that goodness can be achieved somewhere on this planet. Hey, it's a start.

27. Dead Man (1995/USA/Jim Jarmusch)

Jarmusch's magnum opus has been called an "acid Western," but "acid" in this case could apply equally to LSD and the all-corrosive blood of a Xenomorph in Alien. Jarmusch routinely finds the weirdness in America, but never has he made that oddity so perverse and infected. From the opening of train passengers casually slaughtering buffalo from their cozy compartments just for fun, Dead Man gradually strips a white man of his power and socially ingrained privilege until all that's left is violence, violence, and more violence. Neil Young's screeching feedback of a soundtrack only deepens the unpleasant trance, and the numerous in-jokes in Native American languages make for the only non-condescending film ever made by a white man attempting to give prominence to the Injuns in a Western.

28. Do the Right Thing (1989/USA/Spike Lee)

Spike Lee, so often caricatured as a white-hating polemicist, makes with his finest film a portrait of the all-consuming effects of racism. Infecting every member of a New York neighborhood in the grips of a heat wave slowly melting social graces, racial tension spikes in whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians. Eventually, it all explodes. Ebert wrote at its premiere in Cannes that the movie was sad, not angry, a piercing insight lost to so many. Even when Lee's Mookie makes a drastic move on the cusp of a riot, there's a human logic and consideration to it that is, well, not noble but perhaps the only thing left he could do to save a life or three. The final juxtaposition of conflicting quotes by MLK and Malcolm X expresses the difficulty, maybe impossibility, of finding the right path to a unified people, and that clearly pains Lee deeply.

29. The Double Life of Veronique (1991/Poland, France, Norway/Krzysztof Kieślowski) (TOP 10)

Kieślowski made a one-film version of his Three Colors trilogy before he'd even started with those movies. Veronique's bifurcated structure stretches across metaphysical planes to link doppelgängers on either side of the Berlin Wall, freshly collapsed but still felt in its lingering socioeconomic effects. Naturally, these too are presented in human terms: one woman sings to find the beauty in her decayed post-communist world and dies, the other refuses to express her gift and lives. But as she inherits all the grief and loss of her equal in the Eastern Bloc, the Frenchwoman is overwhelmed with regret and a vague desire to have helped someone. The political implications are clear, but the transcendent grace of the director's camera, using so many reflections the lens itself seems a mirror, places such surface-level concerns as secondary to their moral and spiritual underpinnings.

30. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964/USA/Stanley Kubrick)

Though fears of nuclear war have since faded into the more intimate paranoia of the War on Terror, Kubrick's satire, co-written by Terry Southern, hasn't lost an ounce of its apocalyptic wit. Kubrick's perfectionism—demanding green felt for the War Room table to make it look like a poker table, despite it being a black-and-white film—pays off richly, and his outsized framings have the reverse effect of making the power invested to the small, petty morons with launch codes absurd. From Peter Sellers' screamingly funny improvised phone call to the Kremlin to George C. Scott's flailing jingoist to Sterling Hayden's impotent general to Slim Pickens' final, joyous ride to oblivion, the male insecurity behind annihilating war has never been more ruthlessly skewered.

31. Eros + Massacre (1969/Japan/Yoshishige Yoshida)

Criterion fans (rightly) bemoan the lack of Jacques Rivette in the collection, but at least he's a known figure. I'd much rather see someone finally honor Japanese New Wave master Yoshishige Yoshida, a near-unknown despite the awe-inspiring mastery of this end-of-the-'60s epic. Gliding across time and reflexive awareness, Eros + Massacre ties '60s radicalism to one of its strongest roots, sex, and then contrasts it with an earlier free love experiment conducted in the wake of the First World War. As the near-four-hour film wears on, dialectics collapse, romantic and political ambitions meet like matter and antimatter and annihilate, and all the intellectualization of the post-May '68 students can't do anything but observe the fallout. These kids literally play with fire, though Yoshida routinely displays the radical form demanded by radical form, revealing possibilities in his overexposed (almost nuclear) lighting and off-axis framings his subjects would never understand. At once more polemical and more self-critical than all of Godard's Maoist period. (A note: this film is currently on YouTube and can also be tracked down via torrents. In both cases, the picture quality is surprisingly good.)

32. Evil Dead 2 (1987/USA/Sam Raimi)

Raimi shows off his increased directorial skill by repeating his first film in mere minutes before spinning off into a brilliant expansion that mixes comedy and horror better than any of the subsequent avalanche of films to rip it off. Raimi understands that horror and comedy work on the same basic principles of timing, and most of the gags work precisely because they elicit screams and laughs at the same time. Bruce Campbell commits like a mofo, and the endless parade of creepy/hilarious sight gags make for a film that never forgets to be a horror film even as it critiques the genre. Few, even Raimi himself, have managed to do the same since.

33. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933/USA/Mervyn LeRoy)

Busby Berkeley's immaculate choreography combines with a delectably sexual storyline in this lavish Pre-Code feature so charged with erotic imagery that even the synchronized formation into a dandelion and its waving spores connotes reproductive acts. Elsewhere, the unbelievable scale of Berkeley's setpieces recall Metropolis and even flashes of Russian Constructivism. What any of the sexualized numbers ("Pettin' in the Park" is exactly what you think it's about) have to do with the stated intent of putting on a production about the Depression is anyone's guess, but I defy anyone to give a damn as they watch watch these setpieces unfold.

34. Hoop Dreams (1994/USA/Steve James)

Hoop Dreams' journey through the high school life of two wannabe basketball stars is a harrowing snapshot of misplaced American values, the decay and hopelessness of our education system, and the inescapable trap of our urban slums. Every change in fortune for Arthur Agee, William Gates and their families generates such cinematic tension that it can be hard to believe this is all real and unscripted even as its impact could only come from watching real people experience such hardships. But amid injuries, poor academic performance, and the constant threat of completely going under, there is a shining beacon of hope and affirmation in Arthur's mother getting her nursing certificate. As she sobs, "And people told me I wasn't going to be anything," the audience gets a glimpse at the sort of thing we as a society should be celebrating, not the hollow dream of meaningless fame.

35. The Horse Thief (1988/China/Tian Zhuangzhuang)

Tian's meditative, haunting film about a devout Buddhist who cannot reconcile his sense of religious duty with his need to steal horses to support his family came to my attention via Martin Scorsese, who clearly saw a kinship with his own Catholic guilt. Quasi-realist in style, the film nevertheless attains a poetry I so rarely feel in the pedestrian bluntness of neorealist cinema. He captures the Tibetan landscape with equal beauty and danger, a place akin to the Old West in its hopeful but unforgiving expanse. One shot, of Norbu burying his starved, frozen son in the snow, is so haunting I recall it years after seeing the film in an atrocious-quality Internet stream. For the love of God, someone treat this movie right.

36. In the Mouth of Madness (1993/USA/John Carpenter)

Sometimes I wonder if Carpenter knew this would be his last great movie, as he pulls out all the stops on this Lovecraftian horror tale. Carpenter's camerawork is as fluid and graceful as ever, but the frame is packed with monstrosities, not least of which being Sam Neill's marvelously unhinged performance. So grandiose is the film that even Carpenter's music for it deepens his usual techno minimalism for a richer, more ornate electronic sound. The film even dips into self-reflexivity in a way Carpenter never had, the cosmic horror of Lovecraft infecting every dimensional plane of reality within the movie. Through Carpenter's steady direction, though, these layers of existence are even harder to separate, making its climactic cavalcade of collapsing diegesis all the more troubling.

37. Inglourious Basterds (2009/USA/Quentin Tarantino)

Tarantino's apex as a filmmaker uses his formal precision and encyclopedic knowledge of trash to simultaneously support our collective WWII fantasy and literally burn it to the ground. There's no question Tarantino takes pleasure in killing Nazis and even rewriting history, but the unexpectedly poignant views he has on revenge (subtly expressed in Jackie Brown, Kill Bill vol. 2 and even Pulp Fiction) are expanded into a sly counterterrorism critique where supposedly heroic Americans become savages to combat savagery. Most of them are left dead, and those who remain are monsters. Tarantino doesn't force that point, and indeed makes a joke of it, but there's a chilling humanity underneath his formal travesty that makes the film's moral content as impressive as its perfect visuals.

38. The Intruder (2004/France/Claire Denis)

Denis' most minimal film concerns the philosophical and metaphysical implications of receiving a heart transplant, asking whether it changes the recipient, and if so, how. The titular intruder could signify the new heart in Louis' body or Louis himself as he attempts to make amends with a son who has moved on, and the rejection of suggests an insurmountable soullessness. Denis' post-Impressionist framings explode with color and lines but no shape, not until she gradually assembles the full image. Even then, little is clear, but so much is evoked in Denis' camera that The Intruder's wisps of focus seem richer than the most densely plotted works.

39. I Was Born, But... (1932/Japan/Yasujiro Ozu)

My favorite Ozu is one of his most playful, a silent comedy about children hesitantly, frightfully and realistically coming into their own in a country at a cultural crossroads. With the looming threat of WWII still a few years off in the distance, the main threat facing these children is how to form their identity with Japanese and Western influences constantly at work. It's routinely hilarious (the repeating silent image of one boy crying at the slightest provocation is inadvertently side-splitting). But Ozu also gets across his pet themes of cultural anxiety in the regretful speech given by the father as he watches his disillusioned children sleep, Tetsuo Saito's face containing so much love, concern, hope and sadness that the intertitles are hardly necessary to convey the depths of his thoughts. The moving camera is also a highlight, so rarely seen when Ozu moved to sound pictures.

40. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975/Belgium, France/Chantal Akerman)

Three hours of potato peeling and passionless sex. That's Jeanne Dielman in a nutshell, but what Akerman does is so radical I'd take this painstakingly slow feature over the usual freneticism and symbolic overload of experimental cinema any day. By only showing the bits usually cut over in "normal" films, Akerman forced me to pay attention to every minute detail of Jeanne's routine, and I got more out of the frame than I almost ever do. Notice, for example, how the light switches in the kitchen and bedroom seem to connote Jeanne turning her Madonna or whore side off and on, and how the son's true desires might be suggested by him incessantly leaving both lights on. As radical a film as I've ever seen.


  1. You have an impressive list ... also saw the 1-20 one and all i can wish for is to watch those superb movies!! i haven't even heard of half the titles you added .... so much more there is out there to experience for a film nerd like me.

  2. Yet another very solid write-up.

    You hit the nail on the head that The Conversation "captures the mood of post-Nixon America and New Hollywood like no other picture."

    Also: I find it interesting that Darjeeling Limited is your favorite Wes Anderson pic.

  3. Holy Shit! To quote DeNiro from Goodfellas, "The balls on this kid!" This is a helluva a list so far, and these entries are really interesting. But just so we're clear: the choice that you thought would be really polarizing is Darjeeling Limited, right?

    Seriously, though, I'm so out of the loop on Crank 2. I reviewed it years ago, but I think I was drunk when I wrote it. I titled the piece "Worst. Movie. Ever." I guess I didn't get the joke. I do remember the last shot (right?) of the middle finger. At least the filmmakers own up to their steaming pile of a movie.

    Lots of interesting choices here, though. I especially like the inclusion of Dead Man (a personal favorite of mine, too), the Carpenter (totally undervalued horror film), and Basterds (which I would have ranked higher on my list).

    I really want to see The Horse Thief ever since Scorsese called it the best film of the '90s on that special edition he did for Ebert's show.

    Can't wait for the next entries. Love the mix of styles/genres, countries, and eras.

  4. Asif: Thanks! There's so much I don't know either. In fact, the more you learn, the more you'll find you still have left to learn. I imagine this list would look incredibly different 10 years from now.

    Hal: I was cool on Darjeeling for a while, but I wrote a review for it not too long ago where I completely reversed on it

    Kevin: The list is just alphabetical. Inglourious would probably be in my top 20 were this placed in some kind of arbitrary numerical ranking. And yeah, Scorsese was how I came to Horse Thief too. Like I said, you can totally see why he loves it.

  5. Ah. Wasn't paying attention to the fact that these are alphabetized.

  6. Sifting through this list and reading carefully, I was delighted to spot some of my favourites including Close Up, The Conversation, The Double Life of Veronique, Dr Strangelove and Evil Dead II. However, nothing could prepare me for the pure delight and absolute wonder of finally seeing Jeanne Dielman so high on someone's top list. I absolutely love that film. I have only seen it once, but I treasure that viewing. It's powerful, it's perfect, it's unlike anything ever made before or after it. The attention to detail is meticulous and unparalleled, and Akerman's cold directorial stare appeals to me in ways even I can't fathom (probably why my favourite living director is Michael Haneke). Fantastic 21-40, can't wait to read 41-60 right now!

  7. Tyler: Thanks for the comment. I can only naturally agree with your agreement with me. :)

  8. Well, at least photo booth new York came up with a fresh adjective. ;)

    Some stray reactions:
    -Love the frame from Conversation.
    -I'm among those who consider Acquatic, Darjeeling, and yes even Moonrise disappointing out of the fusion of humanist heart with formalist intricacy in Rushmore & Tenenbaums. I would like to see Anderson collaborate with Wilson on a screenplay again. Frankly, I'm a broken record on this subject. Wonder if/when it will happen.
    -Excellent capsules for Do the Right Thing & Double Life of Veronique.
    -Watching Strangelove in the 00s I was struck by how a film that seemed to me a period piece in the 90s was suddenly and frighteningly relevant again. Scott seemed a dead ringer for Rumsfeld at times.
    -Not sure I buy the moral reading of Inglourious, but interesting take nonetheless.