Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Top 100 FIlms (41-60)

[The following is a continuation of my top 100 films. Click on the link for picks 1-20 and 21-40.]

41. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie [director's cut] (1978/USA/John Cassavetes)

I still have so much to learn from John Cassavetes. I need to rewatch A Woman Under the Influence and to see for the first time Opening Night, a film several writers I deeply admire love so fervently that most cannot even talk about it. But this director's cut of Cassavetes' ostensible gangster picture—actually shorter than the theatrical version—still resonates. Ben Gazzara's tragic, greasy loser, a man who celebrates the paying off of a debt by getting a whole new stack of it, is haunting. His Cosmo continuously retreats into physical and emotional safety back in the haven of his disgusting nightclub. Compared to the world around him, however, this cum-stained den is as close to comfort as Cosmo can hope for. Cassavetes doesn't use any flashy camerawork, but at no point does his camera fail to suggest the character's inner thoughts and moods. At every turn, Chinese Bookie feels like it might devolve into Oscar-baiting actor moments, only to be cruelly cut short by an uncaring world.

42. Kiss Me Deadly (1955/USA/Robert Aldrich)

Aldrich and screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides remove the assumption of heroism in Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, instead presenting him as nothing more than an amoral brute in an amoral, brutish world. Yet it is precisely that revulsion with the noir genre that makes this one of the genre's finest entries. The whole thing feels unclean, as if one should handle it in a hazmat suit and afterward have a chemical bath. The MacGuffin driving Hammer's self-absorbed quest for revenge is as useless as it is essential to the nihilistic view of corrupted noir worlds. Its small-scale nuclear holocaust is tacitly suggested to be the one thing capable of scrubbing this filth off the planet.

43. Koyaanisqatsi (1982/USA/Godfrey Reggio)

Baraka has the more striking visuals but Koyaanisqatsi is the more thematically focused. Perfectly enmeshed with the visuals of natural beauty and garish modernity is Philip Glass' gorgeous score, lilting electronics and Gregorian chants that sound like the most ambitious, unrealized score of the silent era finally unearthed and revamped with modern technology. Reggio's contention that our increasingly technological life inhibits us is so much New Age hokum, but his camera captures images of such breathtaking splendor that even when he's criticizing how we've become, he offers up too much poetry in every aspect of life to be despairing. Life may be out of balance, but even that instability can contribute to the planet's enduring majesty.

44. Lawrence of Arabia (1962/UK, USA/David Lean)

It's easy to miss just how much is going on in David Lean's epic about the life of T.E. Lawrence. Indeed, my own review of the film (one of my earlier, more embarrassing posts), offers muted praise for a film I once found visually impressive but emotionally uninvolving. I've since turned around on the film, not only continuing to bask in its sumptuous, innovative cinematography but marveling at the subtlety I'd overlooked in these frames. Lean cannot "solve" a character as multifaceted as Lawrence and doesn't try to, but he nevertheless finds psychological insights into the deliberately ambivalent front O'Toole presents for the character. Epics tend to mold their characters into two-dimensionally, grandiosely good and evil people to match the production scale, but in Lawrence there is a grace rare in films of any size, all but unheard in one this big.

45. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943/UK/Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

Michael Powell's Tory leanings never prevented him from criticizing the empire (see also: the strongly anti-imperialist Black Narcissus), but he also gives its fading glory an emotional send-off with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Compared to the Technicolor explosions of Narcissus or The Red ShoesBlimp is more subdued and formal. Yet it still dazzles, the awesome sweep of history conveyed in human, understated terms by the actors. Roger Livesey doesn't play the titular cartoon character but does port over and deepen that caricature, turning the bloviating buffoon of the comic strip into a man who's seen it all and carries a scarred sadness under his bluster. Even better is Anton Walbrook as a polite, disciplined German who becomes Candy's dearest friend. That a film made in the thick of WWII would depict the British as not always the most righteous of soldiers and a German as a sterling example of professional conduct and personal grace is astonishing, but less so than its elegiac grace. The quiet truth presented throughout that, no matter how WWII ends, life as Britain knew it will never be the same. The Archers can only hope that already outdated notions of honor and manners do not die with it.

46. Love Exposure (2008/Japan/Sion Sono)

A four-hour film about upskirt photography? Well, kinda. There's also Catholic guilt, first erections, castrations, cults and more. Sono takes already transgressive tropes in Japanese film and explodes them into something outlandishly tasteless, yet underneath the hissing sprays of blood and cross-dressing is a strangely compelling, even touching tale of wounded youth searching for an identity and for the first bonds they themselves must make in the world, not merely those thrust upon them in the form of family and, via proximity and confinement in school, friends. The chaste final shot, frozen for an indelible half-second, is as erotic and romantic as anything ever filmed.

47. M (1931/Germany/Fritz Lang)

Not the first great film to be a talkie, but the first great talkie film, if you catch my drift. The nuance and atmosphere in Lang's sound design is still striking, that horrible whistle even more chilling and foreboding than John Williams' Jaws theme. Peter Lorre's timid, soft performance gives unwanted, critical empathy to his child murderer, and the criminal community's quest to capture him and restore the status quo offers depths of cynical social commentary rarely reached by even the darkest noirs this film helped spawn. Lorre's climactic speech to his accusers is enduringly unbearable, twisting Jesus' "let he who is without sin" moral into an indictment of the social thirst for punishment. This film hasn't aged a day, which is depressing, when you think about it.

48. Make Way for Tomorrow (1937/USA/Leo McCarey)

"It would make a stone cry," Orson Welles famously said of this film, and it's hard to argue. McCarey ignored contemporary audiences' desire to escape from the Depression and gave them the story of an old, loving couple torn apart by greed on scales large and small. The scene of Beulah Bondi calling her husband and shouting into the receiver gradually slips from funny into earth-shattering as she confesses her loneliness oblivious to the parlor full of guests listen on sheepishly. The climax, in which the all-too-briefly reunited pair receive the respect and care from strangers they never enjoyed from their own children, is as giddy as their subsequent goodbye is devastating. I don't watch this one often, because the heart just can't take it.

49. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976/UK/Nicolas Roeg)

Roeg lends his kaleidoscopic visual flair to this technologically and emotionally prescient movie about an alien who comes to Earth selling advanced technology to raise money to send water back to his parched planet, only to become a slave to creature comforts. David Bowie, not yet extricated from his cocaine period and playing an aloof alien at once beholden and ambivalent to his fortune, obviously did not have to act much. But that doesn't make him any less magnificent as a being so rich even his ability to see x-rays can be swept under the rug as eccentricity. Roeg's trippy imagery somehow complements rather than counteracts this subdued story, and his elliptical editing and heady asides have the effect of making the film even more alienating and deadened.

50. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971/USA/Robert Altman)

Altman's somber Western is filmed in Joycean browns of death and decay. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography used pre-exposed film and various filters to create its soft, luminous look and ensure it couldn't be altered in post. Altman's penchant for ensembles is at work here in the microcosm he crafts out of a town named for a church no one attends because they're all at the brothel. But it's in the two titular character that his focus lies, and the director displays an even more probing insight into his leads than he already got out of much larger casts. That much remarked-upon ampersand in the title alerts the audience to the real nature of McCabe and Mrs. Miller's relationship (business, not pleasure), and that dynamic only changes after it is far too late.

51. Ménilmontant (1926/France/Dimitri Kirsanoff)

Russian emigré Kirsanoff's 40-minute masterpiece, named for the Parisian suburb where it was shot, feels, like I once called it, like "a proto-feminist, modernist fairy tale as made by Dziga Vertov." Its dizzying, terrifying opening of a frenetically edited axe murder is but the first aesthetic blow to the audience. Elsewhere, double exposures, superimpositions, pre-Ozu pillow shots, and montage combine with a silent-cinema-summarizing mastery not unlike Murnau's Sunrise, albeit the abstract emotions here are of man's darkest impulses, not the giddiness gradually built up in the German expat's best film.

52. Miami Vice (2006/USA/Michael Mann)

No one, or at least no one until Godard made Film Socialisme, has experimented with the possibilities of digital cinema like Michael Mann. This underloved 2006 take on the flashy TV show he helped create represents an as-yet untapped feat of digital analysis. His pixellated abstract captures existential cop tropes at their most stripped-down and minimal. Through Mann's quietly haunting lens, the ocean represents not the promise of escape from the entrapment of the cop-criminal dialectic that separates Crockett and Gong Li's Isabella but the futility of such hope. This is a film where the pink spray of blood from a headshot is not presented as a cool bit of action but as a spirit leaving a body. This movie only ever gets more chilling and moving with each watch.

53. Modern Romance (1981/USA/Albert Brooks)

I have a hard time describing Albert Brooks' humor, so subtle and deftly cast off that one almost misses the precision and construction of his setups and timing. The title of Modern Romance is one of those unassumingly ambitious names, two blunt, unadorned words that nevertheless reveal a desire to encapsulate the vastness of the subject those two words connote. Yet Brooks meets his own challenge, ranting about how relationships now are too focused on sex even as he avoids cranky old man syndrome by subtly tracing it to sex being put on a pedestal by our more chaste forbears. His keen sense of irony hangs over the picture, even skewering the blatantly false optimism of the conclusion. Most romantic comedies wallow in self-pity, but Modern Romance puts that arrogance under a magnifying glass until it catches fire from a focused sunbeam.

54. A Moment of Innocence (1996/Iran/Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

Makhmalbaf attempts to atone for his youthful radicalism the only way he knows how: with cinema. Finding the cop he stabbed as an anti-Shah rebel, the director attempts to gain forgiveness by telling the man's story. But as both he and the retired officer cast their young avatars, a desire to alter history emerges in both men, Makhmalbaf to assuage his guilt, the cop to undo the act that ruined his life. Slowly, the roles even reverse, the officer now pushing his younger "self" to take preemptive vengeance as Makhmalbaf's doppelgänger gets cold feet at the prospect of doing harm to another. This culminates in an emotional climax that cannot undo the true past but does rewrite the real story to find some kind of closure for everyone involved. Its final freeze-frame rivals even Kiarostami's last shot for Close-Up in emotional and intellectual intensity.

55. Monsieur Verdoux (1947/USA/Charlie Chaplin)

Somehow my Chaplin selection came down to City Lights' affirming romanticism and, at its polar opposite, this caustic satire attacking the basest impulses that drive every society, whether capitalist, socialist or communist. It therefore attracts no audience easily, and James Agee said it best when he said the vicious criticism and scorn leveled at it upon release was of interest "chiefly as a definitive measure of the difference between the thing a man of genius puts before the world and the things the world is equipped to see in it." Verdoux's disturbing rationalization for his widow-killing is so unsettling for actually being rational. His final speech, in which he notes that, when it comes to murder, numbers sanctify, is one of the most poisonous barbs ever lobbed at an audience's sense of superiority and morality. I loved the film when I first saw it but criticized the direction; Agee had a particularly erudite but bitter corrective to such thinking, one I accept as fully deserved. This movie is on every level a masterpiece.

56. Mothlight (1963/USA/Stan Brakhage)

Much as I prefer flagrant visual splendor over all other aspects of filmmaking (if my picks haven't already made this obvious), I rarely connect with the full aesthetic breakdown of experimental cinema. An exception is Brakhage's famous "found foliage" short, made of leaves, insects and other stuff stuck between two strips of film. Not only is the cascade of leaves and insect wings beautiful (and stirringly similar, when seen close-up, linking plant and animal life), Brakhage uses it to call attention to the physical properties of the film strip itself, the bits and pieces littered on it stretching across the usual conception of isolated frames run in sequential order. This isn't a slideshow, it's a fluid, tangible object. Nothing else makes me mourn the death of film like this three-minute short.

57. My Neighbor Totoro (1988/Japan/Hayao Miyazaki)

Miyazaki's most narratively lax film, almost entirely free of conflict, is nevertheless his most engaging and affecting. Totoro's light fantasy still shows off the animator's imagination, yet it's his nuanced, unforced insight into a turbulent time for two young girls that makes Totoro so memorable. There's no villain tormenting them because life is enough of a challenge, and the film contains a realistic humor, fright and wonder to it normally lost in the boundless scale of animation. And setting aside anything approaching critical appraisal, who one Earth doesn't want to hug the stuffing out of Totoro?

58. The Night of the Hunter (1955/USA/Charles Laughton)

Laughton's Southern Gothic, magic-realist fairy tale nightmare is simply divine. Robert Mitchum's sonorous false prophet is a force as terrifying as he is occasionally hilarious; see his Frankenstein bumble up the stairs or his or his fright at being discovered by Lillian Gish. The Expressionistic imagery—an impossibly raised ceiling in a humble home, the shadow of Mitchum's stalking preacher on the horizon—is aces, and Laughton's gift for moody textures show off an auteur that never got to be.

59. No Country for Old Men (2007/USA/Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Coens take a mid-to-lower-tier Cormac McCarthy book and turn it into something that not only summarizes the author's entire body of work brilliantly but serves an apex for the filmmakers' own thematic and stylistic touches. The desert proves an even better backdrop for the Coens' bone-dry wit than the icy expanse of Fargo. The anti-thriller, in which editing generates tension instead of music, ends well before the movie itself does, but it's the extended falling action that makes the film a modern classic. The secret of the title is that there's no country for old men not because the world has changed, but because those old men eventually outgrow the ability to hide from the world's true nature. This is harrowing stuff, but those who would, as ever, accuse the Coens of nihilism should take heed of how they gently, if sympathetically, criticize the man who just can't take the horror anymore.

60. Notorious (1946/USA/Alfred Hitchcock)

Alfred Hitchcock's most psychologically troubling romance (and that's saying something) is the story of two men directly and indirectly fighting over the same woman, even as they both try to kill her for being wooed by the other. The jealousy, insecurity and ineptitude is noxious, and Ingrid Bergman has never been more pitiable for being caught in the middle of it. This is a film where the America agent is more grotesque than the Nazis, and where one Nazi fears his mother more than his committed colleagues. Sex, politics and madness never went together so well, or so disturbingly.


  1. Kiss Me Deadly might be my favorite noir. Great inclusion.

    And reading your list makes me feel like I've seen barely any movies.

  2. Hal: Had I made this year a mere year ago I don't think it would have a good third of the picks. All we can ever do is just try to see what we can. In 10 years I hope my picks would be even weirder and more varied. It means I'm still learning. Cheers :)

  3. I haven't seen as many films on this portion of the list but I do love Koyaanisqatsi and Lawrence of Arabia.

    1. Tyler: I can only recommend them all. You wrote you've only seen one Chaplin, right? I wouldn't recommend jumping straight to Verdoux. Part of its power is in seeing just how masterfully he inverts his entire career to that point.

  4. Jake: I wonder if you've read J Rosenbaum's take on KOYAANISQATSI which one can see here:

    "Eighty-seven minutes of American landscapes and urban sociology are synchronized by filmmaker Godfrey Reggio to a plodding Philip Glass score. (A once interesting composer, Glass invariably does his worst work for films.) Despite a certain underground reputation, aided in part by Francis Ford Coppola's sponsorship, this 1983 quasi-mystical documentary is largely a dull rehash of ideas given infinitely better realization in Vertov's The Man With the Movie Camera (showing at the same venue afterward—see separate listing) and many other experimental films of the 20s."

    If you had to, how would you respond to his criticisms of the movie? I, like you, am in my early twenties and when I saw KOYAANISQATSI recently for the very first time I was enamoured by it; for me, it's a must-see. At the moment I'm uncertain as to whether I think it's a masterpiece and worthy of being canonised if I was to come up with my own list of great films because 1) that would imply that I think Reggio is a master director (he comes across as more of a focused one-trick pony director) and 2) I've only seen the film once and it seems to me that the second time you watch a film is really the first time because you're not preoccupied with the story or what the background of the film is.

    1. I love Rosenbaum but that doesn't mean he doesn't often resort to lazy dismissals. Koyaanisqatsi shares little with Man With a Movie Camera other than they are both beautiful, exciting works. I also don't think one needs to be a master director to be canonized. It's the work that counts, not the name that gets top billing.

  5. Something I love about Lawrence, for which it doesn't get nearly enough credit, is its transfusion of landscape with psychology. Kudos to you for recognizing the extent to which the character far from being a cipher, is compellingly complex.

    Especially loved seeing Love Exposure, Make Way for Tomorrow, and Menilmontant on here. And enjoyed reading the exchange on Rosenbaum (great critic, but sometimes insufferable as well) above.

  6. Opening Night disappoints, watch Minnie and Moskowitz and Husbands (and Faces). Minnie and Moskowitz is fantastic. Husbands has one of the greatest scenes in all of movies, the barroom singalong that goes on forever. Opening Night has its moments, but it can't hold a candle to Chinese Bookie, Woman Under The Influence, Minnie and Moskowitz, or Husbands (or Faces).

  7. No Country For Old Men? Over Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo or even A Serious Man? At least you didn't put the Big Lebowski on (yet).

    Couldn't have been less intimidated by Javier Bardem who I otherwise like in other movies, but wow....Fargo is ten times the movie. The utter implausibility of so much of the movie (bloody people crossing the border? You've got to be kidding me) just was so distracting, I want to lose myself in a movie, not consciously force myself to suspend disbelief so that I can enjoy it.

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