Sunday, October 12, 2008


One clarification about this ongoing list: The movies on it are (for the most part) ones that I've seen multiple times, or have seen fairly recently. There are certain films I hold in very high esteem, but haven't been able to rewatch for one reason or other, and so don't appear here. I strongly suspect Francesco Rosi's Christ Stopped At Eboli belongs on this list, and am certain Stanley Donen's Movie Movie (never available on DVD!) does, but I haven't been able to view them recently enough to absolutely confirm my enthusiasm. In fact, a lineup of movies viewed once, long ago, then remembered fondly would make an excellent list in itself.

For now, though, we'll stick with the list at hand.

19. Hollywood Boulevard.

You could say I'm casting aside notions of quality with this one, and true, I'm pretty much indulging my fondness for Joe Dante here, but I still maintain that this wonderful piece of Grade Z schlock is actually one of the best American comedies of the seventies. Dante and co-director Allan Arkush made a bet with Roger Corman that they could crank out a movie in about a week and for very little money. Given the constraints they imposed on themselves, the filmmakers had no choice but to utilize their own surroundings, concocting a movie about the making of a Grade Z movie. Movie geek in-jokes run wild, but really, you don't have to be a devotee of Filipino Women-In-Prison pictures to appreciate this; it's a genuinely funny knockabout farce, with surprisingly engaging characterizations from wonderful character actors like Mary Woronov, Dick Miller and Paul Bartel. Oh, and there are a lot of gratuitous topless scenes.

18. The Tales Of Hoffmann.

Any number of films from the always awesome writing-producing-directing geniuses Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger could have appeared here, but let's go with this one. Not as well known or highly regarded as the team's The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus, this adaptation of Jacques Offenbach's opera is a crazy mess, a mix of music and dance filmed as pure cinema, maddening, beguiling, brilliant. Offenbach's opera is divided into three "tales" with a prologue and epilogue, and the second story on display here--The Tale Of Giulietta--is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in my life.

17. The Exorcist.

I was in fifth grade when I first saw this--or more accurately, tried to see it. The Iraq-set prologue creeped me out, the introductory scenes of a mother and child under seige by forces beyond comprehension unnerved me, and by the time little Regan thrust a bloody crucifix into her vagina, I started freaking out so badly, my brother had to help me out of the theater.

But the genius of William Friedkin's film isn't so much in its gross-out qualities, but how it grounds its horror in a recognizable reality. This was the first film I remember seeing that really struck me by how real it looked--rooms looked lived in, lighting sources appeared natural, the actors looked like people, not movie stars. And when this reality is violated, it has real, terrifying impact. I'm not sure this movie holds up to deep analysis, but as a feat of pure filmmaking, it's peerless.

16. Topsy-Turvy.

A movie about Gilbert and Sullivan, directed by British social realist Mike Leigh? I couldn't work up any enthusiasm over seeing this, but my then-wife insisted, one of the few times she dragged me to a movie against my will, and...I fell in love with this literally from the first shot. Leigh didn't make a stuffy period piece or a corny biopic. He concentrated on the creation of only one G & S operetta, The Mikado, and portrayed Sullivan and especially Gilbert as passionate, driven professionals. We watch them at work, and not for a second do we feel we're watching actors on sets. We're simply there, every step of the way, and no phony dramatics interfere. For Leigh, the act of creation is as dramatic as any car chase or love scene, and he's right. I wish words could somehow convey the sheer joy of watching this movie--it's a great one.

15. The Horror Of Dracula.

This is one of those stand-ins I referred to at the beginning of this project, a movie that represents a whole group of other movies. In this case, Dracula is my pick for a representative from Hammer Films, which in the fifties, sixties and early seventies had a distinctively lush house style for their splendidly realized melodramas. Other Hammer epics may have been better--The Mummy and The Hound Of The Baskervilles, which has some imagery worthy of Michael Powell--but Dracula was the true landmark in the studio's history. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee became icons of my youth from this, as Bernard Robinson's brilliantly designed sets, James Bernard's thunderous music and especially Jack Asher's lusciously overripe Eastmancolor cinematography all came together under Terrence Fisher's direction to produce a classic Gothic chiller. A childhood favorite every bit as beloved in adulthood.

NEXT: We get slightly more mainstream...or do we?