Sunday, August 30, 2009

15 Movies

One of those Facebook memes. I don't have any real aversion to "Crackbook", as a friend describes it, but neither do I feel much impetus toward contributing to their data-mining.

Thought this was interesting, though. Years ago, a good friend described some of the conversation-starter questions he and his wife used to use at parties in order to actually get to know a new person: my favorite was "Tell me about your most enjoyable grade-school field trip." I think this FB meme was a pretty effective one: just asking someone to name their favorite films--before they ever say much else--can really reveal a lot about that person.

Inevitably, the musicologist has to add annotations. Anyway, herewith the list:

Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen movies you've seen that will ALWAYS stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

1. To Have and Have Not
Bacall in her first movie, Bogie & Bacall falling in love onscreen, Hoagy Carmichael in his greatest movie role, the magnificent Oscar Aleman in the cafe band, and a smoother, slicker replay of the Casablanca plot wherein Bogie gets to *keep* the girl.

2. The Big Lebowski
The Coen Brothers do film noir, in LA, circa Gulf War I. some of the greatest characterizations by the Coen stable of actors including John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Peter Storemare, Jon Polito, plus staggering one-offs by Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeff Bridges, Jimmie Dale Gillmore, Sam Elliott, and the from-Venus genius of John Turturro. And, the most perfect writing of any movie I can think of.

3. O Brother Where Art Thou
The other most-perfectly-written movie out of the Coen Bros. As our friend the Good Doctor Masbrow said, "How could anybody not like the most perfect movie ever made?" An ode to the pre-urbanized South, not as it was, but as the music imagined it could have been. The absolutely perfect complement to Peter Guralnick's masterpiece Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom.

4. The Seven Samurai
Kurasawa is one of the greatest storytellers the movies have ever had, and he does it almost without words. You don't even need the subtitles, given the clarity, precision, and ferocity with which the actors attack the roles: Takashi Shimura as the Samurais' leader; Seiji Miyaguchi as the Iaido master who is finally vanquished only by modernity's brutal encroachment, and the animal vitality of Toshiro Mifune in his breakout role. One of the only films about war that conveys both its (occasional) inevitable necessity and at the same time its pointless loss.

5. Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman
Maybe not the greatest samurai film ever made, but my personal favorite. The archetypal blind masseur of the title role, played by Shintaro Katsu, is like a character out of Scots ballads or Noh drama--deadly, comic, and empathic all at the same time.

6. The Three Musketeers
Richard Lester's greatest ever. I've blogged about it elsewhere.

7. All the President's Men
Right up there with Wag the Dog as the greatest political thriller ever told. And we thought only *one* of them was a documentary!

8. The Wild Bunch
A dark, sad, autumnal movie: the bloodiest Western ever made 'til that time, by a dark, sad, autumnal director, Sam Peckinpah, who even in his '40s self-identified as a relic, like his characters, of a wilder past. One of the greatest movie endings--after the shootout--ever made in the West: the crazy, cosmic, world-shaking crazy-wisdom laughter that, as Fritz Leiber says, "was the Elder Gods laughing at the world they had made."

9. Waking Ned Devine
A movie about friendship, conversation, and the joy of story, unfettered by mundane reality.

10. The Matchmaker
Pretty slight, and pretty trite, but the two lead characters are cute together, and it has the great David O'Hara, and Janeane's Garofalo adorable smarts, and it has a whole cast of great Irish character actors. And the version of "Carrickfergus" in the Aran Islands scene would be a show-stopper on any concert stage in the world.

11. Apocalypse Now
It's not really what Vietnam *was*, for the people who were there or who went through those years, but it certainly captures something of what it *seemed*. Matched only by Laurence Gonzalez's great rock 'n' roll novel of the same years, Jambeaux, and the masterpiece of Vietnam writing, Michael Herr's journalistic Dispatches.

12. The Last Waltz
The greatest rock 'n' roll documentary ever made (by Scorsese, of course). Robbie Robertson was a self-mythologizing egomaniac--which is practically a job requirement for a songwriter--but the songs just *work*, perfectly. The band is *perfect* (most powerful weapons: Levon Helms's voice, and Garth Hudson's transcendent keyboard work), Allen Toussaint's New Orleans-style horn charts add a layer of funky vertigo, and time after time, almost every time of the chute, the special guests--Ronnie Hawkins, Joni Mitchell, the great Paul Butterfield, Dr John the Night Tripper, and the earth-shaking Muddy Waters--lift the evening higher than seems possible.

13. Genghis Blues
A beautiful documentary about the ways a shared sense of music's beauty can cross boundaries: of distance, language, and cultural experience. Paul Pena is a wonderful character and splendid musician, though he's kind of a mess as a person. This experience, however, *has* to have enriched his too-short life.

14. Bringing out the Dead
Scorsese's most Catholic and spiritual movie, and that's including Last Tempation of Christ and Kundun (below). Nicholas Cage playing within his zone, Rosanna Arquette's bruised honesty, and a story of loss, dispair, and redemption.

15. Kundun
Scorsese gets 3 out of 15 on this list, to the Coen Bros. 2, and that's about right. The Coens are the greatest writers in 20th century American film, but I think Scorsese might have the greatest eye in the same century. That he brings this to bear on the story of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is apt, and a heartfelt gesture of respect. It is probably too late for Buddhism to save us--but this film tries.

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