10 great movies

From the “There-are-better-things-to-watch” department:

I’m marking the occasion of America’s annual celebration of mediocrity at the movies known as the (trademark, copyright, I’ll probably be sued just for mentioning them without the express written permission of Major League Baseball) Oscars, by writing about some great films. These are all films worth seeing again if you’ve already seen them, and these are films that you should rush out to see if you haven’t. In fact, if you haven’t seen most of these films, then you really don’t know film yet… but perhaps there’s still hope for you. First, a note about the “top 10 list” format: it’s stupid. At any given moment, if you asked me what my all-time favorite film was, it might be any of the first four films on this list, most likely the last one I had seen. But English doesn’t lend itself to four-dimensional expression, so a sequential list is a good fall-back. There’s probably a great deal of correspondence between this list and others, so I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here. I think that the British Film magazine Sight and Sound does a decent job. I also think that AFI generally gets it horribly wrong.

You’ll notice a good representation of the decades since the introduction of talkies, with the exception of the challenged 60s and the pathetic 80s. But it’s evident that the greatest era in film ranges from the 30s through the 40s.

Here, then is my list of 10 great, classic films:

1. The Maltese Falcon. 1941, directed by John Huston.

It’s somehwat astonishing–no less than three of the films on the list are directorial debuts. But history showed that these were not mere cases of beginner’s luck, although poor Jean Vigo died of tuberculosis at 29, so he never got a second chance to prove himself. I can’t really say whether Huston already has a full-fledged directorial voice in this picture; he successfully creates the illusion of just standing back and getting out of the way of the story. There is an amazing ensemble cast at work, including Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer, the Gunsel (do yourself a favor and look this word up). The cast and stylistic similarities bring to mind Cassablanca, another great picture and a sentimental favorite. But for me, The Maltese Falcon is the better picture. This film is extremely taut; there isn’t a single extraneous line of dialogoue or frame of film. And the dilagoue, from Dashiell Hammet’s novel, is frst rate; many words to live by. I’ve been tempted on a few occasions to repeat Peter Lorre’s great line: “our private conversations have not been such that I am eager to continue them.” Huston, of course, went on to direct many classic films, which include the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The Ashphalt Jungle, The African Queen, and his final efforts, Prizzi’s Honor, and the masterpiece, The Dead.

2. L’Atalante. 1934, directed by Jean Vigo.

It’s just a beautiful and masterful film. If you are a stranger to classic French cinema, this would be a perfect place to start. If you’re so inclined, you will marvel at the technical mastery of this film and wonder how a first-time director could achieve some of these shots in 1934. See if you notice how Vigo sometimes transfers visual motion in one shot into a complementary motion in the next. And if you’re not interested in film technique–shame on you!–the story is so simple and the characters so convincingly portrayed that you will be thoroughly drawn in anyway.

3. The Third Man. 1949, directed by Carol Reed.

The best Orson Welles film not directed by Orson Welles. A perfect blend of noir and dark comedy; fine performances by Welles, Valli, Joseph Cotten and supporting cast; razor-sharp screenplay by Graham Greene based on his own short story; brilliant directing by Reed (the first glimpse of Welles, the famous chase through the sewers of Vienna); one the most memorable scores ever by zitherist Anton Karas. All of this adds up to one of the best pictures ever made. Just thinking about this movie makes me want to watch it!

4. Citizen Kane. 1941, directed by Orson Welles.

The opening gambit of America’s greatest film director. What more needs to be said?

5. La Grande Illusion. 1937, directed by Jean Renoir.

Spectacular and beautiful film, featuring one of the greatest French film actors of the 20th century, Jean Gabin. Jean Renoir was the son of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and directed two of the great masterpieces of French cinema, this picture and La Regle du Jeu. It is the latter film which invariably show up on “all-time top 10” lists, and La Regle du Jeu is indeed a great film that you should see right away. But for me, La Grande Illusion is a little more direct, a little more engaging, a little less cerebral.

6. Ikiru. 1952, directed by Akira Kurosawa.

Like most westerners, for me Akira Kurosawa is Japanese cinema. I know this isn’t fair, and I’m working on it. That doesn’t change the fact that Kurosawa was a monstrous talent. I have only discovered Ikiru recently and it took me a bit by surprise. By far the most moving of Kurosawa’s pictures that I have seen so far. I would also recommend each of the following: Rashomon, Shichinin no Samurai (The Seven Samurai), Kakushi Toride No Son Akunin (The Hidden Fortress – aka stuff George Lucas ripped off for Star Wars), Yojimbo, Tsubaki Sanjuro, Yume (Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams).

7. Vertigo. 1958, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The Maltese Falcon, L’Atalante and Citizen Kane all represent brilliant debuts by budding geniuses of film. Vertigo, on the other hand, is the work of a completely mature master. Hitchcock is a highly technical director; this bothers some people, but just delites me (for me, brilliant technique in the hands of a master is highly under-rated, Bach’s fugues are little more than technical exercises, and yet they are some of the best music ever written). Two specific flashes of camera brilliance come to mind: the famous tracking shot that terminates on the Golden Gate bridge; the backwards dolly while zooming trick, which was recently snitched by Peter Jackson in the first of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. One also has to mention the score by Bernie Hermann, arguably the greatest film score of the 20th century. A nice partner for a Saturday night double feature would be 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle. Columbia did Jimmy Stewart a favor by letting Kim Novak do Vertigo for Paramount. Bell, Book and Candle was Paramount’s and Stewart’s repayment for that favor. It’s a great comedy, a classic New York film, and super stylish–although Ernie Kovacs almost steals the show.

8. Pulp Fiction. 1992, directed by Quentin Tarantino.

This is the film that brought me back into mainstream first-run pictures after a rather lengthy boycott. On the whole, the 80s was the single worst decade for American film. Things seemed to get worse as the decade progressed. I remember walking out of Toronto’s Bloor Cinema after just 15 minutes of 1998’s stinkbomb Stealing Home (Mark Harmon wasn’t the draw, we had thought mistakenly thought that perhaps Jodie Foster would make it interesting). In fact, pop culture in the late 80s was so thoroughly bad, that I pretty much completely tuned out, and in doing so missed the first couple of seasons of both The Simpsons and Seinfeld. So it had been more than a year since stepping foot inside a movie theatre when I sat down to watch Pulp Fiction. Naturally, I was blown away, and actually thrilled to be enjoying a new picture again. I won’t say more, except if you have seen this movie and didn’t like it, then you didn’t get it. Go see it again five times!

9. The Thin Man. 1934, directed W.S. Van Dyke.

Two pictures on this list are based on Dashiell Hammet novels. This one also serves as the sole representative of the screwball comedy genre–and for me, it’s the funniest of them all. Film noir and screwball comedy: if these were the only films to watch, I’d still be happy. Nick Charles is one of my great role models, and more than anything else, he taught me how to throw a good party. Maureen O’Sullivan, who plays Dorothy Wynant here, plays Hannah’s mother some 52 years later. You might notice that in Hannah and her Sisters, there’s a picture of Maureen from The Thin Man sitting on the piano. Clyde Wynant, aka The Thin Man, actually dies early on in this film. But that didn’t stop Warner Bros. from producing five sequels, all with “The Thin Man” in the title. Sadly, none of them live up to this snappy, witty, stylish little film.

10. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. 1974, directed by Martin Scorsese.

This film lends some serious support to the thesis that “Star Wars killed American cinema.” Imagine, in the early 1970s, people made movies for adults, movies not set in Outer Space, and movies where things didn’t blow up real good. What’s amazing to me about this film, is Scorsese’s sensitivity to the women here. Since he has never been able to repeat this, I think it comes mostly from the great screenplay and the stellar performances by Ellen Burstyn and Jodie Foster. It’s hard to believe (hard in the sense that you don’t want to believe that humans can be so stupid) that this great film was the basis for the TV show Alice. Other great American classics from this period include Five Easy Pieces, 1970, directed by Bob Rafelson, The Last Picture Show, 1971, by Peter Bogdanovich, The Conversation, 1974, by Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese’s next film, Taxi Driver, from 1976, and let’s even through caution to the wind and include the 1977 Woody Allen masterpiece, Annie Hall.

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