Tuesday, October 14, 2008


The stats have dropped lower than a John McCain attack ad (rimshot, please!) since I started this little Favorite Movie Countdown Party, lower even than when I compulsively posted Lynda Carter clips every other day. But hey, I didn't stop then and I won't stop now. If the task isn't completed, the terrorists have already won. (And by terrorist, of course, I mean Barack Obama. We don't even know who he really is! Sarah Palin says so!)


14. The Thing.

John Carpenter isn't always taken seriously as a director with much on his mind, mostly because he makes horror pictures and goofy action epics. But look closer: His movies nearly always depict breakdowns of societal norms, whether familial (Halloween), spiritual (Prince Of Darkness, Vampires) or political (They Live). The prototypical Carpenter hero is a loner with no regard for the society he's charged with saving, and the outcome is almost always bleak.

Carpenter claims his filmmaking idol is Howard Hawks, and the influence is obvious. Carpenter favors unfussy setups, invisible editing and laid-back performances. Philosophically, though, he's the exact opposite; in Hawks' world, teams of professionals work as one for the common good, but for Carpenter, when a group of people come together to fight the good fight, they are defeated not by the antagonist so much as their own ennui. In this sense, The Thing is perhaps the quintessential Carpenter film, quietly stylish, totally involving, expertly made and impeccably cast...but cold, cold, cold, and not just because of its Antarctic setting.

13. Annie Hall.

Later, Woody Allen would make sunnier movies about human relationships (Hannah And Her Sisters) and relentlessly chronicle the end of so many affairs (Manhattan, Husbands And Wives), but he'd never make anything quite like Annie Hall, a romantic comedy that is uproariously funny and heartbreakingly sad, often within the same scene. And this movie is romantic; there is no doubt that Allen's Alvy and Diane Keaton's Annie love each other and belong together. But only for a limited amount of time. They find the relationship mutually rewarding--neither has ever met a person quite like the other--but gradually it becomes clear the very things they love about each other are the same things that will drive them apart, the things they will treasure in memory but would resent if they stayed together. Cinematically uneven, as Allen indulges in some self-consciously arty touches, but emotionally as true as any movie ever made.

12. The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad.

This energetic Arabian Nights caper would be a ton of fun anyway, what with its manly hero, beautiful princess, colorful locations and endless derring-do, all set to a magnificent Bernard Herrmann score. But what makes it a classic, of course, are the endless miracles conjured by stop-motion animator/effects genius/prince among men Ray Harryhausen. A horned, cloven-hooved cyclops! A cobra woman! A two-headed Roc! A fire-breathing dragon! And, best of all, a sword-wielding skeleton, whose balletic movement and grim sense of purpose caused me to watch in open-mouthed wonder when I saw this at the age of ten, and my sense of astonishment hasn't dimmed to this day.

11. A Shot In The Dark.

I'm as surprised as anyone by the prominent placement of this particular film. But when Blake Edwards was on, he was a masterful stylist who had a real talent for carefully building laughs. (When he was off, as happened more often than not, the results were too dire to consider.) Besides, despite Edwards' glossy visuals and snappy pacing, the real auteur here was Peter Sellers, making his second appearance as Inspector Clouseau. If you're a Sellers fan, this is comedy heaven, his every awkward movement, baffled reaction or nonsensical outburst a manifestation of genius, the greatest comic performer the screen has ever seen. And if you're not a Sellers fan, what's wrong with you?

10. The Outlaw Josey Wales.

All the pleasures Westerns offer--tense action, rugged landscapes, tough-but-tender characterizations--and something a little more, courtesy of director and star Clint Eastwood. There's a fascinating struggle between how Eastwood frames himself--as an icon, a movie star, backlit and imposing--and how he wants to be seen, as an actor, a character, a regular guy. So Josey Wales is an average farmer plunged into extraordinary circumstances requiring superhuman skills to survive. He journeys from Missouri to Texas, searching for freedom but also redemption, and along the way acquires a makeshift family of misfits and outcasts, drawn to him like...well, like audiences to a movie star. On purely formal terms, this is Eastwood's first great film (the one where his expert sense of composition and penchant for shooting in near darkness became apparent), but thematically, its even richer than he may have intended. I'd call it the best Western ever made, except for...

9. The Wild Bunch.

Sure, Sam Peckinpah was a nihilist. We know that from his films--Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid--but we also know it from the way he lived his life, blowing apart personal relationships, alienating collaborators, consuming whiskey and cocaine in such massive quantities it surely led to his death of heart failure at the crushingly early age of fifty-nine.

But the guy who took a film crew down to Mexico in 1968 with a bunch of the greatest actors who ever lived--William Holden, Warren Oates, Robert Ryan, Ben Johnson, Strother Martin--had every reason to live. He was about to show he was the best of the best, exploding all the traditions of Hollywood filmmaking, changing the entire landscape in his wake. His awesome visual sense and uncanny, to-the-frame editing skills are still being emulated to this day, on TV, in music videos, in every action movie churned out in Hollywood or elsewhere. Everything that tries and fails to replicate his singular gift functions as an unwilling tribute to his overwhelming genius.

As for that nihilism, yeah, it's present in The Wild Bunch, every frame marked with a seething contempt for humanity. Still, there's lyricism here, too, and great visual beauty, and fleeting moments to suggest that even Peckinpah must have felt that there were reasons, however rare, to endure the untold miseries of existence. And he was right: This movie is, for me, one of the things that makes life worth living.

8. Lolita.

I could (and probably should) rank Stanley Kubrick's oddball adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel even higher than this, but one of the things I like best about it is how minor it is. Even as a Kubrick partisan, I admit his films from the mid-sixties on always had an inflated sense of their own worth; he seemed determined to make a masterpiece every time out. Lolita is perhaps his most relaxed work, and he casts aside his virtuoso stylistic shenanigans to concentrate on what may be the greatest cast ever assembled as they enact a tale of total denigation.

And that cast! James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon and especially Peter Sellers in the performance of a lifetime, as a preening satyr determined, for no apparent reason, to ruin Mason's clueless intellectual. Heartless, impossibly cruel, morally indefensible, absolutely essential.

NEXT: Will we finally conclude this thing?