Monday, August 20, 2012
Before proceeding with this post, a quick mea culpa is in order. In spite of declaring my desire to write more for this blog, it has been almost half a year since I last posted anything and I can offer no excuse other than to admit that I've had difficulty finding the motivation. When I was contributing pieces to the blog of my friend Ed Copeland (who, for health reasons, recently decided to take a more solely hands-on approach to managing his site), I had deadlines to help compel me to write something. Anything. When that went away, much of the drive to write went with it. At any rate, for those few individuals who may follow this blog, I apologize. Fortunately, a recent event has incited my passion and enthusiasm for discussing film once more and has provoked me to compose the following piece. Hopefully I can be disciplined enough to maintain a real presence online once again.
Now, to the task at hand. Although there are innumerable top 10 lists out there, any real film-lover knows that the one published every ten years by the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound magazine is considered THE top 10 list. Over a thousand prominent critics and filmmakers are asked to submit their picks for the "greatest films ever made" and the results are always interesting. The most recent list, however, incited some debate and has even sparked a series of articles at The House Next Door wherein writers who did not participate in the official poll have submitted their own personal top 10 lists. Several of my film-blogging friends have contributed and I have enjoyed their lists immensely, although I have also been somewhat envious because, to put it in childish terms, I wanted to "play" too. Then I remembered that I had a blog. So, I have decided to publish my own list here at CINEMEMORIES.
The following titles are arranged chronologically and they come, of course, with the usual disclaimers: it is not necessarily a list of "favorites" (as there are many films I truly love but did not include) nor even a definitive "best" list (as there are some films that I would consider in many senses superior to a few of these, yet I chose not to include those either) and it could change tomorrow blah blah blah. What I can say unashamedly is that each of these films is not only of great significance to me personally, but is also worthwhile for anyone to see... for each title deserves, if nothing else, to at least be part of the dialogue as to what the "greatest films of all time" are.
City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931). There's a scene in Richard Attenborough's serviceable 1992 biopic Chaplin where a frustrated Charlie (flawlessly played by Robert Downey, Jr.) is agonizing over how to communicate visually to an audience that a blind flower girl has mistaken his kindly Tramp character for a wealthy man. Charlie's brother pleads with him to make the film a talkie and have the Tramp simply TELL her that he's rich, but Charlie adamantly refuses knowing that it would "ruin the magic." The solution, arrived at by Charlie as he watches someone get into a vehicle to drive away, is to have the girl hear a car door slam and assume that is the Tramp's automobile thus allowing him to quietly sneak away without her ever knowing the truth. Though the exchange in Attenborough's film was most likely imagined, the filmmaking obstacle it dramatized, as well as Charlie's brilliantly graceful solution, illustrates why Chaplin was such a genius and why City Lights is considered his masterpiece. Chaplin did indeed resist the transition to sound for over a decade (City Lights would be one of his last "silent" pictures) although it meant that he had to work even harder than his colleagues to make audiences laugh and/or cry... and does he ever do both here. Not only is the film delightfully funny but the final scene is one of the most touching ever committed to celluloid, with or without talking.
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). "The remarkable thing about Shakespeare," English poet Robert Graves once wrote about the man considered to be the greatest writer in the English language, "is that he is really very good - in spite of all the people who say he is very good." There is no quote I think that better articulates the phenomenon of Citizen Kane. Since 1962 Orson Welles' magnum opus occupied the #1 spot on Sight & Sound's list (until it was controversially replaced by Hitchcock's Vertigo this year, but more on that later) and was blessed/cursed with the moniker of "greatest film ever made." This characterization kept the film simultaneously revered and reviled for over 50 years, but whether or not it truly deserves its alleged place in film history -- whether it truly is the greatest film ever made, one of the greatest or merely the product of a half a century of propaganda-- is ultimately irrelevant. Citizen Kane is a great film and as long as the conversation about the artistic merits of cinema continues, Kane will always have its place.
La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954). Man, did Giuiletta Marsina have quite a face. So expressive. So beautiful. Her sweet and innocent, though at times sad and lonely, waif of a character is the heart of La Strada (which translates "The Road"), the fourth film made by her husband Federico Fellini. La Strada won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1954 and made Fellini an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. Though it built upon the foundation laid by the Italian neo-realists (of which Fellini was a part) it was also, conversely, a reaction against it. La Strada is essentially a "realistic fable" that relates the melancholy but whimsical tale of a quirky young woman named Gelsomina who is bought by a strong man named Zampano (Anthony Quinn) to assist in his traveling act. Along the way they encounter another circus entertainer (known simply as the "fool") who imparts words of wisdom to Gelsomina but who antagonizes Zampano. This triangle results in a series of tragic events which culminate in one of the most powerful and heartbreaking final scenes in any movie. As the obnoxious guy from Annie Hall, who complains about how indulgent a filmmaker Fellini could be, is forced to admit: "Granted, La Strada is a great film." Indeed it is, sir. You may have been wrong about Marshall McLuhan but you were right about that.
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). A friend asked me what I thought of Vertigo taking the top spot in the latest Sight & Sound poll. Honestly, I have no problem with it. Just because I didn't place Vertigo in my own personal top 10, does not mean I take issue with its being considered "the greatest film ever made" (at least no more than I do with any other film being called such... well, except perhaps The Waterboy). Vertigo is a masterpiece and I do love it. Nevertheless, I always have been and probably always will be a Psycho guy. From a technical standpoint, Psycho is just as clever, manipulative and cinematic as Vertigo. From a storytelling standpoint, it's just as dark, provocative and emotional as Vertigo and from a thematic standpoint, it's just as deep, rich and tragic as Vertigo. What probably makes the latter seem more sophisticated than the former (and what causes many to select it over Psycho) is pedigree. Being a horror film, Psycho's subject matter is far more lurid, seedy and vulgar than Vertigo. There are no elegant blonde beauties waltzing around in stylishly colorful outfits to the gorgeously delicate strains of Bernard Hermann's bittersweet love theme. What we get instead is a slutty blond girl who steals thousands of dollars and then gets brutally stabbed to death in black-and-white while Hermann's violins shriek at us crudely. Vertigo, like its protagonist Scottie Ferguson, may be disturbed, but there's no denying that Psycho, also like its main character Norman Bates, is sick. That sickness doesn't mean it can't also be high art, but its perversity spawned a whole host of trashy imitators who, quite frankly, aren't even worthy to clean Psycho's shower. Maybe it will always be somewhat devalued by its association with a fairly ignoble genre, but even if we punish the film for the company it keeps forever, Mother still gets the last laugh.
The Wild Child (François Truffaut, 1970). While many cinephiles would probably choose 400 Blows (a film I love by the way) as Truffaut's greatest work, I happen to be irresistibly drawn to The Wild Child. Based on the true account of Victor of Aveyron, a feral boy who was captured and then re-introduced to 17th century French society, Wild Child benefits greatly from the onscreen presence of Truffaut himself. Playing Dr. Itard, the teacher who patiently educates, socializes and ultimately civilizes young Victor, Truffaut's natural warmth and compassion comes through as clearly on camera as it does from behind it. It also presents some of the most powerful and hopeful scenes of a person rediscovering their innate dignity and humanity I've ever seen. There's an incredibly moving sequence where Itard, concerned that he has simply trained a pet rather than awoken the boy's inner sense of morality, makes the difficult decision to punish Victor for actually obeying him and Victor briefly rebels (biting Itard's arm in the process) which the doctor considers a great success. Jean-Pierre Cargol, the young actor who plays the titular child, does a phenomenal job of seeming genuinely savage and animal-like. Similar to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (a story Truffaut wanted to adapt before learning Arthur Penn was already doing so), his gradual overcoming of his natural "handicaps" seems authentic. It's a superb performance, one of the best ever given by a child actor, and it is no surprise given that he was directed by one of the greatest child directors ever. In many ways, Wild Child is just as personal and autobiographical a story for Truffaut as 400 Blows is. Whereas the latter is about Truffaut's youth and falling in love with film, the former is about his adulthood as a filmmaker and the "coaching" he ends up doing of so many little children as a result. It's no coincidence that the film was dedicated to Jean-Pierre Léaud, the boy who worked with Truffaut on 400 Blows and four other films over a period of 20 years.
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). I find that great art often transcends its subject matter and in the case of great films, that includes its genre. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness) is ostensibly a war movie but in the hands of director Coppola, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and editor Walter Murch, it becomes much more. The story begins relatively straightforwardly (Martin Sheen's special ops captain Ben Willard is ordered to proceed downriver and assassinate Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz who has apparently lost his mind and is running his own rogue military command, composed primarily of natives, in the heart of Cambodia) but as the film goes on and Sheen gets deeper and deeper into the heart of the jungle, it becomes more of an abstract experience: imagery becomes symbolic, colors become impressionistic and dialogue becomes philosophical. The finale is a like a hallucinogenic nightmare from which Willard, though he completes his assignment, can never wake up. The mission is essentially a journey into the darker recesses of his own soul and what he finds shocks and horrifies him. Many consider Apocalypse Now pretentious and indulgent but most films that plumb the depths of human nature tend to be. It is also criticized for having very little connection to historical reality, but again I think this misses the point (the film is basically an allegory). For me, it is a quintessential example of what I call "meditative" cinema and it is, quite honestly, astonishing it turned out as well as it did given the immense obstacles Coppola was forced to overcome to create it (and which were chronicled in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: a Filmmaker's Apocalypse). Years later, Coppola revisited his film with the extended Apocalypse Now Redux and although it does have one or two interesting additional sequences, I prefer the original. You can have too much of a good thing.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989). In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky wrote that if God doesn't exist, "everything is permissable." Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (an obvious variation on the title of another Dostoyevsky tome Crime and Punishment, only notice that Allen does away with the "punishment") is an exploration of that very idea. It tells two parallel stories (one of a man, played by Martin Landau, who has his former mistress murdered and the other of an unlucky filmmaker, Allen himself, whose marriage is falling apart and who is becoming attracted to another woman). In the film's final scene, the two stories converge in a conversation where the difference between fantasy (as it's usually depicted in movies) and reality (as Allen perceives it) is articulated. In the vein of Allen's idol Ingmar Bergman, Crimes and Misdemeanors is about the absurdity of guilt, the indifference of the cold and unfeeling universe and the ways in which we human beings cope in the face of such hard, bleak concepts (Allen would later revisit some of these themes in Matchpoint). Much of the imagery throughout powerfully illustrates this (Landau's character is an opthamologist and his rabbi friend Sam Waterston is going blind, which indicating he doesn't "see" the truth about God's non-existence). Woody Allen, a known atheist and pessimist, is one of my favorite filmmakers (my most beloved of his films being Manhattan and Purple Rose of Cairo, both of which it was very hard to exclude from this list) and it seems strange to me sometimes that his work should resonate so much with me given that I am neither an atheist nor a pessimist. Nonetheless, there is a lot of insight in his work (Allen is particularly good, for example, at dramatizing the sentiments of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes: "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity") and it keeps me coming back to them. In many ways he has, if you'll pardon the expression, "eyes to see."
Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). Whenever someone decides to make a "top 10," "top 20," "top 50" or "top 100 greatest films ever" list, my first tendency is to scan the entire thing looking for this title. If I don't find it, my respect for the list immediately drops a point (Note: I actually had just such an experience recently when I discovered that not a single person voted for Schindler's List in the most recent Sight & Sound poll). Acclaimed and criticized in its initial release, Steven Spielberg's three hour-plus docudrama is a landmark film in the history of cinema as well as a major turning point in the career of its director. A filmmaker known primarily for technically flawless and unapologetically juvenile escapist fare, Spielberg's restrained, dignified and honest treatment of the true story of a German industrialist who risked his reputation, fortune and life to save 1,100 Jews from extermination during WWII was as surprising as it was inspiring. It is also, if I can get a bit more personal for a moment, a seminal film in my own development (both as a cinephile and as a human being). It may not be the greatest "Holocaust film" ever made -- many seem to prefer Alan Resnais' harrowing 1955 documentary Night and Fog -- but I would argue that, due its immense recognition and the way it brought the topic into the mainstream cultural dialogue more than any other film had before or since, it is the most important. Furthermore, like Apocalypse Now, Schindler's List transcends its subject. It becomes a rumination on pure ideals: good, evil, courage, fear, love, hate, etc. Very few films reach as high and dig as deep. Very few films juxtapose humanity's frightening capacity for sheer wickedness with its incredible potential for goodness more clearly or more gracefully. It may very well be, as I have not infrequently called it, the best film I've ever seen or will see (although the final film on this list comes close) and should it ever occupy the #1 spot in Sight & Sound's poll, you will not hear me complaining.
The Red Violin (François Girard, 1998). In Jr. High I remember reading a short story about a coin which traveled all over the world, was owned by many different people, was used for both good and evil purposes and which "lived" far longer than any of individuals who possessed it. I remember being fascinated by that idea and the prospect of asking any object (assuming it could magically speak) about its adventures. What sort of stories would it tell? Well, The Red Violin dramatizes that very scenario. The object in question is a violin known for the eminence of its creator as well as for its distinctive red-colored varnish and the film chronicles, in five different stories which span four centuries and several continents, a remarkable journey from its origin in 17th century Italy to the hands of an appraiser (played by Samuel L. Jackson) in modern-day Montreal. The Red Violin is legendary because it is no ordinary instrument and the film The Red Violin is brilliant because it is no ordinary film. It is dark, mysterious, hypnotic, unsettling, lush, romantic, ambitious, soulful... it is everything that a movie can and should be. It also has, thanks to composer John Corigliano, one of the most hauntingly beautiful scores ever written for a motion picture.
The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011). Once in a blue moon, we see a movie that reminds us of why we watch movies in the first place, what we are seeking when we venture into that dark room to gaze at light flickering on a screen. We see a film that produces the kind of effect in us (an intense emotional, spiritual, intellectual and existential experience) that only films can stimulate. It is awe-inspiring and ambitious while simultaneously personal and intimate. The Tree of Life was that movie for me. Though it may seem strange to include a film that was released just last year in a list of the ten greatest films ever made, I believe that Tree of Life deserves it. Praised and condemned in equal measure since its 2011 Cannes premiere, Terence Malick's glorious two-and-a-half-hour tone poem takes its audience on a grand odyssey from the beginning of the universe to the troubles of an ordinary family in 1950's Texas to the end of all creation and finally to an enigmatic "no man's land" where time, space and identity seem to merge into one. In terms of style, scope and themes, it has been aptly compared to Kubrick's 2001, but (and I realize this is probably cinematic heresy), I think Tree of Life is better. When I first saw it in the theater, I was dumbstruck. I wasn't exactly sure what I had seen, but I knew I had just seen something extraordinary. It took several more viewings, not to mention reading a whole host of pieces on it (both positive and negative), for me to clarify my thinking and form a precise opinion on the film... and it is this: though it may sound hyperbolic, Tree of Life is not only a pure manifestation of the power and potential of cinema, it is the universal human journey expressed beautifully in a stunning marriage of words, images and music. It is sublime. It is magnificent. It is virtually a religious experience and it is, quite simply, one of the best films I've ever been seen. If movies can do that, they can do anything.
Runners-Up: Singin' in the Rain, The Seventh Seal, Unforgiven, The Grapes of Wrath, E.T., The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, The Shawshank Redemption, Blade Runner, The Mission, The Bicycle Thief, Lawrence of Arabia, Double Indemnity, The Godfather, Amadeus, Die Hard, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dr. Strangelove, JFK, Aguirre: the Wrath of God