Thursday, December 18, 2008

Outside-the-rotation blogging: Top-26 films (youtube sampler)

What can I say? The meme is going around.

Not necessarily the greatest, or even necessarily the ones I most enjoy upon occasion. But, rather, these are the desert-island discs: the ones I can imagine watching over and over again in isolation from other films, and babbling their dialog to myself in the absence of other conversation. In other words, they’re the ones that tell the most classic stories with what I believe to be the most beautiful and effective writing—the ones that would speak (and have spoken) to me over the decades. Also, and for the same reason, heavily skewed toward English-language films—much as I would like to claim the aesthete-cred of prioritizing foreign films, that’s not mostly where I hang out.

40-year-old Virgin
Maybe the most effective updating of the screwball comedy I’ve seen. Great character acting out of the Apatow stable, Carell is both comic and courageous, and it has the utterly enchanting grown-up appeal of Catherine Keener.

Apocalypse Now
It’s not really about Vietnam as it was (for something closer to that, I’d maybe plump for Full Metal Jacket—at least in the Michael Herrian madness of that experience) but it’s a past-brilliant portrayal of what Vietnam meant in American consciousness—of just how crazy we went in those years. And it’s the best version of Conrad I’ve ever seen on screen. The African Queen is a lovely film story but Katherine Hepburn hasn’t worn well for me. American Splendor is a virtually perfect film, but that’s more due to the acting than the writing. The Apostle is magnificent but it’s mostly not about the dialogue, but about the feral intensity of Duvall’s title character. American Beauty is a bit exploitative (of suburbia and its discontents) but it has one of the greatest closing lines ever written in the movies. Amelie is right up there but it’s less about the dialog and more about Audrey Tatou’s luminous presence.

Big Lebowski
Has all the strengths of the Coen Bros.’ genius: fantastic, word-by-word quotable dialog, great characters written for great character actors out of the Coen stable (Goodman, Buscemi) plus fortunate fellow-travelers (Moore, Gazzara, Flea, Elliott), and some of the realest how-people-talk comedy I’ve ever seen. Butch Cassidy is magnificent but it too hasn’t worn all that well outside its own era.

Citizen Kane
The man was 25 years old at time of filming, OK? That’s pure-D genius, right there. And it’s a fantastic (and deserved) takedown of Randolph Hearst, the man who created the modern rationale for American imperialism. Cool Hand Luke is beautiful and accurate but it’s just too damned sad for repeated viewings. Same with Crumb, which is beautiful, sad, but also transcendent: the purity and clarity of his commitment to making art under all circumstances, no matter how neurotic.

Duck Soup
For my money, still the greatest of the Marx Bros. films, not least because they harnessed their patented, past-brilliant vaudeville-and-Yiddish-theatre slapstick to a political satire. Pretty much every scene is iconic. Dr. Strangelove is brilliant but it’s not quite the right story for a desert island, is it? Dead Man Walking is magnificent and courageous but too harrowing to watch on a daily (or even annual) basis.

Enter the Dragon
The baddest of the ‘70s martial artists in the greatest of his films. Looking back 35 years later, he’s still the baddest; and Bolo Yeung, the great Shaolin practitioner, is still the most persuasive heavy. The initial tournament scene, where he hits the Anglo heavy “O’Hara” faster than the eye can follow, made Dharmonia a martial-arts fan.

In some ways the archetypal Coen film (and the one that, preceding the friendlier O Brother, Lebowski, and Intolerable Cruelty, should have warned those shocked by the darkness of No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading): imagining a genre film (noir, basically) set in an atypical but very strongly characteristic geo-cultural locale. They did the same thing with O Brother and Lebowski, to equally brilliant effect).

Godfather Part II
Less of Pacino, more of De Niro, and—crucially—Coppolla’s beyond-brilliant of pre-WWI Little Italy. Reached past the text of the book to tell Don Corleone’s back-story more brilliantly than Puzo ever did. Only competitive candidate would have been Groundhog Day, one of the sneakiest and most effective “skillful means” applications of Buddhist teachings Hollywood ever let slip by. The other might be Gone Baby Gone, one of the only Hollywood films that ever got either my home town or the working-class right. If I was stuck for a documentary, Genghis Blues would undeniably win best in category.

Harder They Come
A stone masterpiece. No money, less professional talent, but still the best movie ever made about Jamaica, about reggae, or about pop-music stardom and its cost.

It Happened One Night
I steadfastly refuse to include any Harrison Ford or Steven Spielberg film, here or elsewhere. I like the insurrectionary quality of Capra’s ‘30s films, and Claudette Colbert was adorable.

Jeremiah Johnson
By no means a perfect film, but infused with Redford’s earliest (and deepest) love for the wild places of the Far West—and, once again, proof that the very best stories are found in history, not fiction.

Like Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead, this a deeply religious, deeply spiritual film that uses the medium to tell an honest story about experience, suffering, acceptance, and compassion. Much as I love and admire the Coens, Scorsese is the greatest American director of the past 60 years.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
I loved the books, while recognizing their manifest flaws (though I would resist inscribing Tolkien as any more of a racist than anyone else of his age, era, class, and intellectual training), but have come to believe that Jackson and his writing team made an even better story. TT is my favorite (darkest) of the films, as it’s my favorite of the books, because—to me—Tolkien’s roots in the Eddas and Sagas are clearest here. And God, would I like to see the Jackson Beowulf! The Last Waltz was right up there in this category, as was Lightning in a Bottle—the two greatest concert films ever made. Little Big Man’s a contender as well.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The best Python film, and the best ever made about how we moderns see the Middle Ages (best English-language portrayal as it was is The Name of the Rose—which I definitely do not want to watch alone on a desert island). Man Who Would Be King and the first half of Million Dollar Baby would be the only serious contenders in this Letter category. Maltese Falcon is up there but ultimately its genre conventions sink it for me—though Sidney Greenstreet’s masterful speech describing the history the “Black Bird” is one of the most wonderful portrayals of the voluptuous pleasures of history in cinema.

Gotta give it up for Altman, and this is the Letter category that was available—though I think Gosford Park is an even greater (and angrier) film, and both McCabe and MASH make (and deserve) anybody’s top-100 list.

O Brother Where Art Thou?
As the good Dr Masbrow put it, how can any critic not like the most perfect movie ever made?

Paper Moon
Not a perfect film, again—and both Peter Bogdanovich’s and Ryan O’Neal’s relationship with pre-pubescent Tatum’s was obviously beyond creepy—but it is a wonderful evocation of the grey-and-white world of the Dorothea Lange ‘30s. And the book is even greater.

I’m rigorously not listing Pulp Fiction here, because despite the brilliance of Samuel L Jackson’s Jules, Quentin Tarantino, to quote Kevin Murphy again, has no soul.

Quiet American
Brendan Fraser is underrated as an actor, Michael Caine is reliably solid in anything (like Morgan Freeman) but perfectly cast in this, and Graham Greene was, with Michael Herr, the most acute writer about Vietnam ever.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
This would be “Letter R” even if I hadn’t seen a production (my first Stoppard) at the Young Vic in 1975. The other candidate in this alphabetical location was Run Lola Run, and, as much as I love Franke Potente (unquestionably the best part of the Bourne franchise, itself a pretty darned good value), there’s not enough dialog in Lola to recite to oneself in all the desert-island hours when the solar-powered plasma TV wasn’t playing.

Seven Samurai
The other most perfect movie ever made. Took in the archetype of the American Western and coughed it back out infinitely deepened, rooted, and enriched. Kurosawa is, with Scorsese, the other greatest director of the past 60 years.
[cheating here—couldn’t resist listing 2 under Letter S]

Tremendously effective and courageous realization of the real message behind C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, a beautiful and naked parable of the arithmetic of the universe’s relentless and transformative balance of joy and sorrow. One of Hollywood’s truest and most honest articulations ever of Buddhism’s First Noble Truth. Also, the best I have ever seen Hopkins, by several orders of magnitude. Leaves the related characters in Remains of the Day and other Merchant/Ivory epics in the dust.

To Have and Have Not
Another run at the Casablanca trope which is, for all the iconic status of that film, even more effective. Howard Hawks stable is well-represented—Sidney Greenstreet, Walter Brennan, et al—and the mocked-up Caribbean locations are nearly as effective Morocco; Hoagy Carmichael (and the great Oscar Aleman) certainly take up the slack left by Dooley Wilson’s absence, but overwhelmingly, it’s the mind-bendingly greater chemistry of Bogart and Bacall—20 years old at the time, and already (and still, 64 years later) the smartest, sexiest female lead the studio system ever coughed out. No wonder Bogie fell in love with her.

Not too many in this Letter category—and it’s the only Western on the list. If I was cooler, I’d probably list something like Ugetsu, but since I’m not, I’ll leave the samurai/continuum to Letters Y and Z. For me, the watershed when Eastwood became a great director; presence of long-time Eastwood cohorts amongst the character actors, and the bleak, bleak darkness of the narrative arc, as well as the reliably-brilliant Morgan Freeman, confirm that. Usual Suspects is a pretty close contender, though—and its dialog is even better.

V for Vendetta
Mostly as a place-holder for the Letter V, but I also love at least the premise, if not the realization, of this film—particularly the “people shouldn’t fear their governments…governments should fear their people” line.

Waking Ned Devine
My favorite film about Ireland, about which Kevin Murphy wrote the most powerful, beautiful and heart-felt chapter in his great A Year at the Movies (the day after 9/11). Matchless writing, capturing both the beauty and the banality of life in the West of Ireland, and, as Murphy says, one of the most eloquent paeans to friendship ever written. Right up there is The Wild Bunch, the greatest Western ever made—and the one whose crazy-laughter ending is the truest realization of Kurosawa’s translation of the Western; only other Western even within hollering distance is The Long Riders.

Malcolm X
Cheating a little bit here, in order to account for the Letter X—but this is Spike Lee’s greatest film (Bamboozled would run a close second except for Spike’s typical self-righteous copout of an ending) and some of Denzel’s greatest acting. And of course, the beautifully-written story of the one of the most extraordinary Americans ever.

Not Kurosawa’s greatest (for that, see Letter S, above), but certainly Mifune’s. A classic fable, partaking of the greatest of the post-WWII Italian realists, while at the same time occupying the starkness and archetypal symbolism of Noh drama. This, along with Samurai, made the modern American Western film genre possible.

There are a lot of other samurai/ronin/martial-arts flicks I might select for Saturday morning fun, but this one is the greatest, and subtlest, and boasts easily the most affecting and engaging hero of them all.

That's the list. With those, I might could survive the desert island.

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