Thursday, May 7, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (part four)

Well I suppose it would be time for movie aficionados to start getting antsy, if any of them were watching: We're closing-in on the halfway mark of our list and any movie that hasn't made it by now will have to be something really special to make it at all. Indeed originally I'd planned to make a list of the fifty greatest movies from my first 2,000 critically watched titles--but in the end it was just too damn hard. And so the 70th through 61st best run as follows:

70. Noi (2003). There is an upside and a downside to the predictably thin selections of foreign films at your local movie stores. The downside is that the selection is predictably thin; the upside is that, with so little shelf-space to spare, most of the titles that make the cut are outstanding, or at least arresting, in some lasting way. Noi (Tomas Lemarquis) is a troubled and possibly genius seventeen year-old living in what might be the worst setting on earth for a troubled and possibly genius seventeen year-old: the semi-rural Icelandic winter. The small town where he resides -- and very occasionally shows up for school -- is hemmed-in by a moody ocean on one side, a craggy monolith on another, and the gunmetal gray sky on the third. The claustrophobia is palpable even before the first real shot of the film shows Noi shoveling a doorway-sized snowdrift from the doorway.

The constrictions placed on Noi from the external world only serve to twist the blade of angst within him from his failed and failing social interractions: From a classmate so indecisive in his frienship that he refuses to step outside the house to greet Noi, to a grandmother who wakes him for school by firing a shotgun out his bedroom window, to a stormy and occasionally violent father too liquored-up (or too unloving) to live in the same house and see to the parenting of his child. "Take my advice," his father says to Noi, through the haze of one particularly drunken encounter, "don't ever have a kid. They ruin everything."

In this tightly circumscribed world there is also room for humor, after a fashion: In one memorable scene Noi pays a visit to his only friend in town, the bookstore manager Gylfi (Kjartan Bjargmundsson), only to find him reading random snippets of important prose aloud from some of the greatest works of literature, pausing ruminatively for a second or two each time, and then tossing the books unceremoniously in the garbage. In another scene Noi is told by his father that he must skip his date to help make the blood pudding, whereupon something happens that can only be described as the Icelandic version of hilarious, I suppose. At all events this broodingly quiet work leaves plenty of room inside itself for textures, its staid and stately pace serving only to amplify the pathos of its shocking end.

69. High Noon (1952). The tagline for this one says it all: "Simple. Powerful. Unforgettable." Indeed as a tagline this one is unusually prescient, since the movie is even simpler, even more powerful, and even less forgettable than it was when it was first released in 1952. Between the career-pinnacle acting performaces of some of the biggest stars in all of Hollywood history, from Gary Cooper to Grace Kelly to Lloyd Bridges to Lee Van Cleef, to the iconic climactic scene that has been so often parodied that the first time someone sees the real thing he catches himself wondering for a moment if it's about to deteriorate into a joke, this film is the yardstick against which all other westerns either work or don't.

There are westerns higher up my ranking, but to get there they had to best this picture in a way that required conscious comparison, and they had to do it convincingly. For its time and place the cinematography and ingenious use of score, in particular, are nothing short of hair-raising. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), and Best Screenplay (Carl Foreman), High Noon found itself skunked by three self-evidently lesser movies, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Quiet Man, and The Bad and the Beautiful, respectively -- none of which ever seriously threatened any of the 100 pictures on this list.

68. Mulholland Drive (2001). "Could be someone's missin'."

David Lynch is nothing if not an acquired taste, and there are many intellectually serious people out there who view his efforts with out-and-out derision. "He's always got his signature lesbian boob scene," remarked one very clever friend of mine recently. Most of those who dismiss Lynch do it on the basis that the inscrutability of his creations lacks an obvious purpose -- in rather the same way that every single muddled hulk of nonsense to which Charlie Kauffman has ever laid a bony finger just reeks of his own, peculiar, am-I-cute-enough-to-kiss-or-what style of pretension, often at the expense of making a movie that I can even sit all the way through. Well, many people feel the same way about David Lynch, and not without some justification.

With Mulholland Drive, though, Lynch drops the more typical self-involvement of his own weirdnesses and concentrates on making a film just weird enough to churn the creative intellects of his audience; the difference being akin to that of a modern art museum in which basketballs float neutrally boyant in a fishtank, on the one hand, vs. a modern art museum in which may be found a real, oil-on-canvass painting or two, on the other.

Naomi Watts is Betty, a naive and impish wannabe actress who moves to her Aunt's apartment in Los Angeles and, that very day, finds herself the unwitting host of a dark and mysterious woman (Laura Harring) who claims to have been in a car accident and to not know anything more, including her own name. When the two women find in her purse an enormous wad of cash, and when, more to the point, their only lead into the dark figure's identity brings them to the sight of a slowly decomposing body in an apartment across town, Betty's big break into the acting business must take a back seat to the large and dangerous job of assisting her new friend. Anything else I said about this film would be giving too much away, but here's a tip for those who've seen it before and wish to clarify it: Take what The Cowboy says to Betty in the third act, literally. After which everything that follows will make perfect sense.

67. Gone With the Wind (1939). If you saw this movie for the first time in childhood, as I did, and then a long interval of time passed before you saw it again as an adult, as in my case, you were in for the experience of seeing two entirely different pictures. That may or may not be a complement to the subtle complexity of the story, but it sure feels like one: What seemed, at age eight, like an A-to-B exposition of two people in a relationship together and not always or even generally getting along, revealed itself at age twenty-four as a letter-perfect study into questions of transferrance, convenience, idealism and self-destruction.

Vivian Leigh is Scarlett O'Hara, a debutante southern belle with the good fortune to be coming out at the height of the pre-war confederate aristocracy, when hoop skirts and a steady gait were all a young lady needed to secure a life of splendor under the gentlemanly care of the south's impeccably behaved and polished landowners. Trouble is, the guy she falls for (Ashley Wilkes, played by Lesley Howard) isn't the guy who falls for her (Rhett Butler, played of course by Clark Gable).

There follows a sweeping drama covering many years of the protagonists' lives, in which O'Hara marries Butler out of convenience, the south falls, the couple rears and then loses a child, and all the while Scarlett pines, ever less consolably, for the affections of the man she has barely laid eyes on in the meantime. Eventually Butler decides he's had enough and, at the precise moment that Scarlett realizes she needed him all along, walks out -- but not before O'Hara can confront him in the doorway and demand to know how he thinks she can manage a plantation by herself, which prompts Butler, in a line that has sadly been lifted so far from context as to give it completely different meaning, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Interesting fact about the movie (interesting if you teach economics for a living, anyway): In adjusted dollars, GWTW is the highest grossing picture of all time by a country mile -- about a billion dollars in today's money -- which is quite a feat considering that the lead actor didn't want his part, the film almost killed both of its principal stars in the burning-of-Atlanta scene, there were no movie stores, international distribution rights, or shopping mall cineplexes with which to multiply the film's commercial success, and, oh by the way, the damn thing came out in the middle of the Great Drepression.

66. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). If Charlie Kauffman proves that not every complicated movie is good, then John Ford proves with this western starring John Wayne, Vera Miles and Jimmy Stewart that not every good movie is necessarily very complicated, either. Stewart is Ransom Stoddard, a vaugely hapless and indecisive fellow who finds himself landed in the middle of a nondescript town in the west after his stagecoach is robbed by the local tough-guy, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).

After working some odd jobs -- one of them as a dishwasher, for goodness' sake -- Stoddard eventually falls in love with Hallie (Miles), a woman who has been indifferently courted for years by the shy and diffident Tom Doniphon (Wayne). When Doniphon senses the threat to his long-term plans of a future with Hallie, he sets out to undermine the interloping Stoddard, but events intercede in the form of Liberty Valance's return to town and an overt threat to finish Stoddard off. Will Doniphon help Stoddard and thus permanently lose his chance at everlasting love, or will he turn a blind eye to Stoddard's pleas for help, and forever live with the consequences? Are there third options that have not yet occurred to Doniphon? Will he think of them before it's too late?

65. Gettysburg (1993). For those among us who have not seen the Ken Burns series on The Civil War, or this movie, permit me to recommend viewing the former -- or at least the Gettysburg segment of the former -- before taking-in the latter. This is because Ted Turner (producer) and Ronald Maxwell (director) spared absolutely nothing in their efforts at a totally authentic recreation of the events themselves, and for once that approach worked.

Gettysburg is, at four hours and twenty-one minutes, one of the longest films ever made for theatrical release, and yet also one of the most consistently enthralling. The cinematography is continually adaptable, with huge sweeping crane shots of Pickett's Charge offset by the close-in fighting at Little Round Top the day before; the soundtrack is perfectly befitting of a gigantic epoch, without overwhelming it; and a constellation of stars (Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, Tom Berringer, Sam Elliott, Richard Jordon, Stephen Lang, C. Thomas Hall, and Brian Mallon to name just a few) each selected with the conscious intent to match both the physical appearance, and the stature, of the people they portray.

64. The French Connection (1971). Another perfectly done tag-line gets our discussion of this one off to a running start: "The time is jsut right for an out-and-out thriller like this." And so it was. America was not having a good time in 1971; the antiwar protests the summer before had brought the administration in Washington to the unprecedented decision of circling the White House with a barricade of disused busses, the "Vietnamazation" of the southeast Asian war was beginning to look to a lot of people like a trumped-up explanation of defeat, and no one was convinced that a wider war with the Russians could ultimately be avoided. Certainly no one in the country was in a rush to get home and turn on their televisions.

Enter Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman), a flawed, impulsive New York City cop who despises the drug culture with the very kind of ferver that only the recently rehabilitated can muster with respect to any vice. Assisted by his trusty sidekick Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), Doyle stumbles onto the trail of a possibly enormous heroin deal, about to go down somewhere in the city -- and he makes it his solemn mission to stop it from happening. Incidentally, the car- chase scene that takes place midway through the movie has been lamented repeatedly by director William Friedkin, who realized only after the film was safely in the can what a miracle it had been that neither any of the stuntdrivers nor any innocent civilians living along the chase's route, were killed. In the end Popeye gets the information he needs (the car-in-the-garage scene is nothing short of iconic) and, now thoroughly in over his head, will do the best he can to thwart the bad-guys, knowing full-well that the best he can do probably won't be enough.

Which leaves only the question, are you still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie? Yeah, me too.

63. Lawrence of Arabia (1962). "There is the railway. And that is the desert. From here until we reach the other side, no water but what we carry with us. For the camels, no water at all. If the camels die, we die. And in twenty days they will start to die." "Well. There's no time to waste, then, is there."

Not every movie on this list is required viewing for anyone who fancies himself an expert on fine movies; some of them are fine in my own un-informed opinion and few others. But many of the movies on this list are required viewing for anyone who fancies himself an expert on fine movies, and few rate a higher watch-this-one-right-now score than the lush, star-dappled, historically significant Lawrence of Arabia.

An anonymous and ill-behaved British lieutenant stationed in Cairo during the First World War (T. E. Lawrence, played by Peter O'Toole) is dispatched into the desert to assess the prospects of Bedouin Prince Feisel (Alec Guiness) in his efforts to repulse the Ottoman Empire. When Lawrence's cool demeanor and self-evident prowess as a surveyor of battlefield landscapes wows the Prince, Lawrence persuades Feisel to place him at the head of an army to take the city of Aqaba, whereinafter he repeatedly distinguishes himself, in the eyes of both his British commanders and their local hosts, as a man whose rashness and impatience for formal command can be indulged if he continues to bring them victories.

After many epic and permanently unforgettable scenes, including one in which Lawrence may or may not be depicted as the victim of a rape at the hands of some Ottoman captors, the full wrath of Lawrence's furor is brought down on the raiders of Tafas, whom he slaughters with the gleeful abandon of a man thoroughly intoxicated on his lust for blood. Damascus falls and Lawrence, his own usefulness now outlived, is retired to the English countryside, where at the film's opening he is shown perishing in a pointless and unremarkable motorcycle crash.

Some movie lovers think that the signature line from this movie is, "The trick is not minding," but personally I fancy a different favored line: "I enjoyed it." For it is the latter, and not the former, that exemplifies director David Lean's intent to depict Lawrence as a flawed and broken person -- and not just a swashbuckler.

62. Casablanca (1942). I know it must be obvious but it bears repeating anyway: These ubiquitously great pictures are very, very difficult to place on a ranking that is supposed to be all about which films I, personally, think the finest. How does one put Citizen Kane anywhere other than in the top two or three or four movies of all time, and not risk being spoken to about it afterward? What does one do with Gone With the Wind? Whither Casablanca? As ever, we do the best we can to be honest and fair at the same time, and one of the most widely admired films in history ends up mired in the low sixties. C'est la vie.

It is the darkest low-moment of the Second World War, and free-thinking intellectuals from across Europe are desperate to emigrate from Nazi aggression, most of them aspiring to relocate to the United States. Trouble is, the same Nazi aggression that has inspired them to flee also renders it next to impossible to do so. The ingenious solution that emerges is to make one's way to Casablanca, on the Morroccan coast, there to wait out a shifty and intrigue-rife city full of rivals for the few sets of exit papers that allow onward travel to neutral Lisbon, and thence to America.

Neslted in the very eye of this whirlwind of espionage and back-stabbing is Rick's Cafe American, run by the jaded and possibly criminal American expatriot, Rick, played by Humphry Bogart. To survive and thrive in such a tangled mass of conflicted allegiances and geopolitical lawlessness, Rick must preserve an aire of strict neutrality in all matters -- but his neutrality is put severely to the test when a shady proto-rival, Ugarte (Peter Lorre), entrusts him with his own set of exit papers on the occasion of his impending arrest by the Vichy French commander of the town, Cptn. Renault (Claude Raines).

When a buyer of the exit papers, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) appears out of nowhere, he arrives accompanied by his wife Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), the only woman Rick has ever loved, and who'd left him heartbroken and bereft in Paris upon discovering that Laszlo was still alive. The two former lovers share a handful of tortured encounters in Rick's bar, accompanied by the strains of "their" song, As Time Goes By, culminating in a confrontation in which Ilsa threatens to shoot Rick if he doesn't hand over the exit papers -- then confesses that she could never harm him because she's still deeply in love with him.

Rick arranges for Laszlo's escape to Lisbon, telling Ilsa that he and she will remain together in Casablanca to live-out their unfulfilled love, left over from Paris. And what exactly follows? What follows is another of those examples of how a simple idea, delivered simply, can burn itself into our collective sensibilities of high art: one of the most basic and linear premises in all of movie-making, really, and yet also one of the most enduring single vingettes the art form has ever known. This movie is sitting in a rental store someplace near you, and you're going to watch it. You're going to watch it because, if you don't, you're going to regret it. Maybe not today; maybe not tomorrow; but soon. And for the rest of your life. And what about us? We'll always have this blog.

61. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Despite what a few of my closest friends may tell you about the subject, I am not a movie snob. I don't disparage movies on the basis of their popularity alone: if a film is both great and popular, I have no trouble labeling it great. I needed to say that up front because, you see, the problem with the Lucas Star Wars movies isn't that they're popular, it's that they aren't great. The original episode ("A New Hope") is cheesy and overwrought and cluttered with hack dialogue, while every episode after the second installment has been either a hopeless plot muddle or a shameless copy of the first film. Don't get me wrong, they're great ways to burn up a rainy evening indoors -- or to test-run the latest configuration of one's 5.1 sound system -- but as important cinema, none of the Lucas / Star Wars movies makes the cut. With one notable exception, that is.

What makes Empire, in the end, is the extent to which it deals with grown-up problems in ways, and of a sort, that none of the other pictures in the series have ever dared to go near. Sure, it's every bit as lush as its predecessor in its bizarre settings, its close-quarter dogfights, its quirky characters and its jaw-dropping visual effects. Sure it's a bit of a downer. (Where else could things have gone, after blowing up the Death Star?) But Empire has something going for it that Star Wars, Jedi, and certainly all of the later trilogy do not: It deals with the grim and gritty fabric of these characters' lives.

For once in their arcs -- for one, isolated two-hour spin -- Han and Luke and Lea and Darth aren't just figures out of a comic book. Sure, Solo has thought about bagging the Princess before (and since), but only when they find themselves parked there on that asteroid in the third reel of Empire does the chemistry between them ring anything close to true enough or deep enough to hold grown-up countenance over the movie. Sure, Luke has felt conflicted about his ill-explained childhood and his coolly distant Aunt and Uncle, but only there on that gantry in Cloud City can we feel the full weight of the terrible emotional burden that his past will represent for him forever more.

It's sort of a silly test, in a way -- surely not something that should be relied upon to the exclusion of all the other arugments I've made here -- but for anyone still doubting that this film, among all the Star Wars films, is the one that deserves the slot in my list of greatest movies, try this experiment: Go down to the nearest toy store right before Halloween and buy the largest Darth Vader helmet they have for sale. Then place it in a central, high-traffic location where your friends and family can see it and pick it up. If one of them, one single solitary person among them, picks up that helmet and puts it on, and then says anything other than, "I am your father!" I'll agree to swap-out this movie for one of the others. How's that for a deal.

And so, as we near the half-mile pole, a love for great movies leads a love for controversy... by a neck. Next up, movies fifty-one to sixty. Stay tuned....

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