Sunday, May 3, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (part one)

My love for movies started out as an arranged marriage.

Growing up in a household first too frugal and later to remote for cable television, I was relegated to watching mostly PBS and a scrappy independent channel originating from New York City, WPIX-11. From PBS I learned to be fascinated with the 1960s and 70s (and with Southeast Asia in particular, which I have visited as an adult three times), and from WPIX I learned to love the New York Yankees--when they were playing. When they weren't playing, however, the programmers at the scrappy independent channel had a bit of a dilemma, in the form of a three-and-a-half hour block of prime time that couldn't be filled with reliably scheduled programming, since that programming would only be preempted when the pinstripers retook the field. The obvious solution was to show movies.

It could've been much worse: As a completely independent station in the richest market on earth, WPIX had the unusual combination of freedom and deep pockets with which to show outstanding movies in general, added to which I happened to be growing up in the aftermath of the early 1970s, the only true heyday of the (American) motion picture industry. I didn't just learn to love movies, in other words; I learned to love good movies--which is not always or even generally the same thing.

I spent my twenties repeatedly crowing about how much I loved movies, but without the kind of fully versed exposure to the medium that it would take to engage in a serious discussion of the subject--a self-embarrassment that was only driven home to me when, on a lazy spring day in 1999, a dear friend of mine and his wife asked me what my number-one, all-time favorite movie was, and after a moment's befuddled hesitation I said Apollo 13. Obviously I was going to have to get a lot more systematic about this list-making business, if ever I were to be taken seriously as an authority on film. It was in this spirit that I set out, ten years ago almost to the day, to amass and view a collection of the world's best movies -- all the best movies, regardless of origin, content, period or style -- so that if ever I were asked again what my number-one, all-time favorite movie was, I wouldn't have to say Apollo 13. From my WPIX-viewing days I knew it wasn't going to be easy.

Part of the problem with answering such a question is of course the question itself: One can't really compare Unforgiven to Brazil, no matter how technical the heuristic--it would be like trying to choose a favorite between Brahm's Second Symphony and Fleetwood Mac's Rumors album. Part of the problem, too, is that the world's collection of great films is inherently unwatchable. You don't set out to view every oil-on-canvass painting worth hanging in a museum because, well, you can't. Period. There's just too many of them.

But with the recognition that neither of these limitations has ever stopped anyone before (and that neither of these explanations would negate the embarassment of having ever said Apollo 13), I've spent these past ten years gradually assembling a heuristic in my own mind that would at once be personal and intellectually defensible. I've seen during that time about two thousand potentially interesting or important films--as well as some that were conspicuously neither--and devoted a sizeable chunk of my non-viewing time to thinking about exactly how a less awkward answer to the question might come together.

To begin with, it would have to be a list. There can be no single-movie answer to the question; I don't care how many times you've seen Casablanca. Every movie is different and too many of them are too good. The list would have to be arbitrarily short (so as to eliminate the risk that it might be arbitrarily long), and it would have to be numbered--if only because other people would dismiss the absence of numbering as a cop-out.

It would also have to be mine. If I didn't think The Graduate was one of the hundred greatest movies of all time--and I don't--then The Graduate wouldn't find itself breathlessly added at the last minute to preempt that criticism of the list. If a person wants to see a list that has been vetted by an army of film critics, or a list that has been vetted by a non-scientific court of public opinion, those two lists are readily available, and re-creating either of them here would be a waste of bandwidth. If a famous director ended up with no titles on the list, that would have to be okay. If a ubiquitous movie (or two, or three) didn't make the cut, that would have to be okay too. Only my own opinions were allowed to matter.

On the other hand, I also harbor a deep (some would say depraved) adoration for a long list of movies that are clearly not entitled to the mantle of greatness by, well, anyone's standard. Including any of these--even as a nod to the simple pleasure and purely arbitrary nature of such an exercise to begin with--would end the experiment by ending its readership. A balance would have to be struck between the hundred movies that I watch over and over, and the hundred movies that my asshole friends would let me get away with posting to this blog.

Here, then, is the first installment of that list: the ten movies from my first 2,000 critically viewed films, that merit positions 91-100.

100. Bottle Rocket (1996). Wes Anderson's directorial debut is superior both in narrative structure and in laugh-value to his later, more widely known works such as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, and way superior to Darjeeling Limited--a movie which is perfect for people who love Wes Anderson, but wish he was a no-talent hack who doesn't know how to end his own films. Brothers Luke and Owen Wilson play hapless, shiftless, vaguely spoiled friends who are fresh out of school and decide to make their mark on the world by launching what just may be the least competent crime spree in history. Kudos to James Caan, in a role at once perfect for him and so unexpected as to leave me and my friends staring open-mouthed at the screen with our hands on our heads. No one who claims to be a fan of heist movies can hold a conversation about the subject without first proving that he has seen this movie.

99. The Sweet Hereafter (1997). Veteran Ian Holm and then-eighteen-year-old Sarah Polley team up to perform an arresting tale of a small Canadian town slowly tearing itself apart in the litigious aftermath of a horrifying school bus accident. Into this already transfixing story director Atom Egoyan weaves equally poignent threads from different chronologies and different narrative points-of-view, covering topics ranging from a father's powerlessness to stop the downward descent of his troubled daughter, to the taboo of incest. Special recognition is deserved to Ms. Polley who, with only bit-part supporting actress roles to her previous credit, stepped forward to fill the enormous shoes of the shattered and yet still self-empowered young heroine, and sang all of the vocals in the soundtrack--including a genuinely hair-raising rendition of The Tragically Hip's haunting tune, "Courage," for the end-titles.

98. Three Days of the Condor (1975). Robert Redford plays Joseph Turner, an improbably (if also believably) bookish and un-macho CIA analyst who returns to his nondescript Manhattan station office to find that the rest of the staff have all been brutally murdered. There follows a cat-and-mouse between Turner and any number of different would-be neutralizers, some of whom begin as friends and others of whom don't seem to work for the same set of people who are trying to kill him. As with so many great 1970s conspiracy flicks, nothing is quite what it seems and nothing is clear or predictable until the very end. This picture would have deserved a place on the list for no other reason than its status as claimant to one of the truly great scenes in cinema--the oft-copied confrontation between Turner and his arch-nemesis, Station Director Wicks, in which Turner surreptitiously enters Wicks' house in the middle of the night and summons him from his upstairs bedroom by playing the stereo as loud as it will go. Look the other way for the scenes glorifying Turner's decision to kidnap and restrain Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway); look the other way and plug your ears when Dunaway's character falls in love with him for doing it. It was the seventies, after all.

97. Ben Hur (1959). There's little to say about this picture and its still heart-quicking chariot race centerpiece that hasn't already been said twice, so instead I'm going to tell you a story about the time I went to see it in 70mm at the Senator Theater in Baltimore: My next-door neighbor, having agreed to drive in return for his ticket, sat stoically through the entire 212 minute story of "Juda Ben Hur," without uttering a sound. Then, when the end-titles were rolling up the screen, he turned to me and said, "So, they're not going to show the part where he sells Jesus?" True story. The book was written by General Lew Wallace, incidentally--and the only reason I know that is because he was from my mother's home-town of Crawfordsville, Indiana, in which there is now a Ben Hur Theater, a Ben Hur Pizzaria, a Ben Hur Dry Cleaner's, and a Ben Hur Day Care. Which you may imagine is a little arresting for a town plopped unceremoniously in the middle of a vast and featureless sea of bean fields.

96. Dirty Pretty Things (2002). Stephen Frears comfortably out-does his previous works (My Beautiful Laundrette, Everything is Illuminated), to craft a sort of "low-current" suspense movie in which the charge of the thing emanates more from our own capacities for empathy and dread than from anything specifically happening to the characters on the screen. Audrey Tauto and Chiwetel Ejiofor play two illegal aliens who work in a posh London hotel and who eventually become entangled in an unsavory enterprise being orchestrated by the hotel's dark and menacing manager, Senior Juan, played with Oscar-worthy pitch perfection by Segi Lopez. You know you've surrendered your disbelief to this picture when, about thirty minutes into it, you find yourself thinking that deportation would be a comparatively benign outcome for the two protagonists. Hat-tip to Nathan Larsen, too, for the film's engaging and yet magnificently suffused and un-obtrusive soundtrack.

95. Rocky (1976). We all know the plot summary by now: A down-and-out fighter named Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), living in the toughest neighborhoods of Philadelphia and making ends meet by breaking peoples' legs for a loan shark, unexpectedly finds love at the precise moment that the World Heavyweight Champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) unveils a plan to commemorate the bicentennial by plucking an unknown boxer from a random gym and giving him a shot at the title. This would have been a good movie -- indeed a very good movie -- if Balboa had come out of nowhere and won the fight. It is the fact that he didn't, at the end didn't even care, that makes this film difficult even to think about without choking up a little: The magic of the picture was that Rocky knew who he was. He knew he was never going to beat Apollo Creed. All he wanted was to go the distance. "There ain't gonna be no rematch," Creed whispers into Balboa's ear when the fight is over. And Rocky, equally muted, whispers back, "I don't want one." ...Did I mention that this film is hard to think about without choking up?

94. Sling Blade (1996). Most supposedly underrated actors are either rated that way by everyone or not very talented. Billy Bob Thornton is an exception, and one need look no further for the proof than his virtuouso performance in the leading role of this film--never mind the fact that he also wrote and directed it. The movie begins with a collegiate journalist interviewing mentally impaired killer Karl Childers (Thornton), soon to be released from the instution in which he has spent the bulk of his life after having slain his mother and her lover as a child. Childers settles in a nearby small town, where he befriends a precocious and trusting young boy whose stepfather seems to be slipping further and further into alcoholism and disempowered rage. The shockingly violent denoument of the film, at once unexpected and unavoidable, leaves the viewer feeling wind-blown and spent--as if he, too, had just emerged from the nightmare of domestic abuse. Mulitple tracks by French Canadian musician Daniel Lanois serve only to underscore the minor-note, vaguely off-kilter feel of the project, about which not a single fiber is out of place.

93. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). One of the last, and comfortably the greatest of the "spaghetti westerns," this Sergio Leone-directed Clint Eastwood vehicle manages somehow to spin sympathetic narrative from a premise consisting only of a psychopathic bounty hunter in pursuit of a bank robber and his con-artist wingman. Along the way the film also makes room for an ongoing tone-poem about the Civil War, a significant if not altogether credible statement about honor among thieves, and more than a little humor at the expense of each of the title characters. But as memorable as the film is--especially the final scene at the cemetery--the highest accolades are reserved for that iconic and still infectious hook-line in the soundtrack. Ask yourself: When, since 1966, has a stand-up comedian, anywhere on planet earth, told a joke in which a stern and disapproving family member stands stoically in a doorway, without pausing in his delivery to hum to the audience, "DOO'wee-DOO'wee-DOOOOOO, wah-WAH-wah"?

92. The Station Agent (2003). This Sundance triple prize-winner is a simple and unfailingly heartwarming tale about finding one's footing in social circumstances outside of one's control. Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a self-alienated trainspotter born with dwarfism who, upon the death of his only friend and benefactor at a railway hobby store in Hoboken, finds himself totally alone -- and also the sole inheritor of a railway station in rural New Jersey. Fin moves to the station, whereupon he is befriended against his will by a wide assortment of appropriately flawed and ecclectic characters, including accident-prone Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), loquatious lunch-truck drivin' Joe (Bobby Cannavale), and the consciously innocent schoolgirl Cleo (Raven Goodwin). For the first three reels the film is content to dish-up a steady diet of inoffensive humor at the expense of the lead character, whose desire "just to be left alone" keeps somehow getting harder and harder for him to realize. When the movie takes its obligatory turn in the direction of just how it would feel for Fin to get his wish, our hearts melt in spite of our best efforts to dismiss the whole thing as too predictable. The cherry on top is director Thomas McCarthy's down-to-the-microsecond awareness of precisely the right moment to end his movie and roll the credits. You'll have to watch it to see what I mean.

91. The Silence of the Lambs (1991). We can fix the small problem that horror movies aren't supposed to win the Academy Award for Best Picture by calling this film something other than a horror movie. We can fix the small problem that movies with this much unspeakable violence and unnerving terror aren't supposed to carry grown-up cache, by talking about the stellar, top-of-their-form performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. We can shake-off the goosebumps of the unexpected switcheroo that lifts the curtain on the film's climactic scene, as something we should've seen coming. What we can't do--won't do--is ever forget exactly where we were and who we were with, the first time we saw this tour de force of suspense and cold-blooded terror. Audiences don't yelp in theaters very often. People yelp after seeing this one twice.

Next up: Films 71-90. Stay tuned.

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