Friday, October 17, 2008


I've noticed a few alarming things since putting this list together. For instance, I'm apparently more of an American chauvinist than I realized. Where the hell are any foreign films? True, a couple British entries made the cut, but really, this is just weird. And not at all intentional--it's just that when I started thinking about what movies I really, really like, these are what I came up with.

Of non-American filmmakers, what's especially weird is, there's nothing from Federico Fellini on this list, but there is (at Number 7) a movie heavily influenced by Fellini. Do I think Fosse is better than Fellini? No...but I like this particular movie a lot. (The Fellini pictures I had assumed would be on here, incidentally, were La Strada and Juliet Of The Spirits.)

Stranger still, there are no John Cassavetes pictures here, even though I list Cassavetes as one of my heroes on my profile. (The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie and especially A Woman Under The Influence are the movies that really should have been here.)

And I swear, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye wasn't just supposed to be here, it was originally slotted into the Top Five! So why isn't it here? Also, the whole stuffing the list with Joe Dante pictures was supposed to lead to the Top Ten appearance of Gremlins 2. Where the hell is it?

Ah, well. Enough of the chicanery and antics. Let's find out what actually is here.

7. All That Jazz.

You could whine all you want about how much Bob Fosse's musical comedy treatment of his own heart attack cribs from Fellini's 81/2, but you'd be missing the point. The Fellini-esque Life-Is-A-Circus stuff is all window dressing, anyway, and Fosse repeatedly mocks his own pretensions within the film itself.

Really, what makes All That Jazz great isn't the strictly autobiographical stuff (fascinating as that is, even to the point of Fosse's accurate prediction of his own death), but the myriad showbiz details piled up, the punishingly hard work for a moment of gratification, a depiction of artistic endeavor as just another act of labor, no different from baking donuts or building sheds. True, Fosse humbly depicts himself as a particularly brilliant donut maker, but he shrugs while doing so, as if saying, "Yeah, I'm good. So what?" And his film is the So What--endlessly rewatchable, always rewarding.

6. Once Upon A Time In The West.

The creak of a windmill. Water drip, drip, dripping on Woody Strode's head. Jack Elam and a fly. "Looks like we're shy one horse." "You brought two too many." Dusty angels of death appearing from behind desert shrubbery, killing a boy as they killed his family. Claudia Cardinale steps off a train, to be rewarded by the greatest crane shot in movie history. Henry Fonda's cold eyes. How Charles Bronson came to play that death rattle harmonica tune.

Sergio Leone's masterpiece isn't any kind of Western, or any kind of movie, really. With its outsized emotions and bigger-than-life characters all underlined with Ennio Morricone's now-lyrical, now-brittle score, it's more operatic than anything else. An opera in which nobody sings, because nobody needs to.

5. North By Northwest.

Being the depressive sort I am, you'd expect me to choose one of Alfred Hitchcock's bleakest pictures, Vertigo, most obviously, or Shadow Of A Doubt or The Birds. You wouldn't expect this, one of his purest thrillers, the work of a master entertainer not a dark artist.

And sure, I love those others, too, but dammit, North By Northwest is so much fun: Cary Grant is all unflappable coolness, Eva Marie Saint is perhaps the most alluring of Hitchcock's many ice queen blondes, James Mason is a perfectly oily but always dapper villain, Martin Landau is a superbly menacing henchman. Plus a rollicking, involving storyline, masterful staging and cutting, all set to a classic Bernard Herrmann score. Is it deep, is it profound? Nah. But it sure is fun.

4. Meet Me In St. Louis.

I haven't done this with anything else on this list, but I want to show a clip that illustrates everything I love about this movie. The compression rate on YouTube doesn't do justice to the elegant visuals, but you'll get the gist.

Papa has announced he has accepted a promotion that will require moving the entire family away from their beloved St. Louis all the way to New York. He proclaims this with pride, certain all the family will be thrilled. They're moving up in the world! Instead, all are horrified, from the oldest daughters, entering into their first serious romances, to the youngest, Tootie, saddened that she'll have to dig up all her buried dolls! Grandfather, the maid, even Mama is upset--no one wants to leave their perfect life. But they will move, Papa insists, finding all this sentiment baffling and silly. Everyone storms off, leaving Papa alone with his pride. Everyone but Mama.

What is wonderful about this scene--about the whole film--is its lack of cheap sentiment. The family reassembles, because that's what they're expected to do, but they're still not happy. They're together, but not quite.

And beyond that, the details--the song pitched in the wrong key, little Tootie trying to steal food, Mama's face as she chimes in at the end of the song, indicating that she interprets the lyrics on a deeper level than her husband realizes. And the performances by Leon Ames and Mary Astor, and Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien. And Vincente Minnelli's elegant staging, perfectly sustained tone and masterful use of color. And...everything about it. Do you have all day? Because I could honestly spend the entire day talking about this.

3. Dumbo.

Rest your head close to my heart, never to part, Baby Of Mine.

2. Singin' In The Rain.

Sure, let's consider this the greatest musical in screen history. How can we not? Gene Kelly's title number, Kelly and Donald O'Connor ripping loose with Moses Supposes, O'Connor solo with Make 'Em Laugh, Cyd Charisse's awesome legs unfurling to The Broadway Melody. Let us especially consider You Were Meant For Me, introduced by Kelly explaining all the artifice of a Hollywood set, the cheap painted backdrop, simulated evening light and piped-in mist, only to have the camera move in as Kelly and Debbie Reynolds dance together, a neat little deconstrucionalist move miraculously reassembled before our willing eyes.

But let us also consider Singin' In The Rain as the greatest comedy film ever made. The script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green is intricately plotted, infinitely quotable, well-layered and wise. The direction by Kelly and Stanley Donen hurtles the plot forward at a madcap pace, pausing when necessary to let us catch our breath. The playing is superb down to the cameos--and seriously, how did Jean Hagen fail to become a huge star off of this?--and it's all wrapped up in a Technicolor package that's absolute heaven to adore. I've seen this movie dozens of times, and it's always enthralling. But more impressively, it always makes me laugh out loud like I've never seen it before.

In fact, it's probably my favorite movie of all time. However--

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

--is, I think, the greatest film of all time.

I was ten that first time I saw it, and it's not just that Stanley Kubrick's literally awe-inspiring widescreen miracles blew me away. It's how they lingered, and how that last, enigmatic image--and retroactively, everything leading up to it--refused to yield any secrets. Forced, helplessly, to think about it, to ponder it for days after, and weeks, and ever, it played in my mind on an endless loop, unending, always there, always with me.

And it never left. It compelled me to ponder the nature of the universe, and my place in it. More than that, it compelled me to know more about this particular film, and this Kubrick fellow, and how and why it all came together. It made me wonder why I was so taken with it, how it managed to work on me as no movie ever had before. It freed my mind as nothing ever had before, sending it off on paths I'd never dared explore, paths I never even knew existed.

The first, halting steps down those roads soon became eager journeys. I had a will to understand things I'd never cared about before, things like movies, yes, and other forms of art, because yes, this was art, something I'd never understood, never considered, never appreciated. But more, this film taught me wisdom, a way of seeing the world. I came to realize that nothing is ever quite as it seems, that the truth of anything can never be instantly revealed, that everything is ultimately unknowable.

On a Sunday afternoon in May of '75, the person I was became the person I am. Many of my sensibilities were already in place--I loved Warner Bros. cartoons and Mad magazine--but as soon as I saw 2001, everything fell into place. Nothing could ever be the same.