Sunday, August 16, 2009

Top 100 Films - 95 to 86

Fellini's progression as a director fascinates me to no end. But while I have a hearty appreciation for where he both started and ended up, it was that period in the middle where his work became simply extraordinary. After Nights of Cabiria showed the rougher edges to Roma, La Dolce Vita showers us in Italian style. We move from one swinging party to the next and along with Marcello spend time in the company of a collection of beautiful women that could only come out in The Eternal City. It's as fine a depiction of fame and celebrity as we've ever seen. The film never lingers too long on any one episode. It's essential to keep moving, lest we become bored like so many of celebrities that Marcello mingles with. And though the characters find their share of misery, it's hard to sympathize when we're too busy taking a midnight romp in a fountain, witnessing a miracle, going on a ghost hunt or gawking at a monster freshly dragged up from the sea. Yet while the frivolous adventures may not be emotionally satisfying, they're still loads of fun. In the world Marcello and his paparazzi prowl, life really is sweet, but the film never really claims to be anything else.

94.I’ve got a feeling that when my list is posted in its entirety, the entries that will strike most people as out of place are the comedies, because nestled among American classics, art house favorites and more obscure findings, they just don’t carry the same weight and ambition. But while a select few comedic geniuses need no defense (Keaton, Chaplin, Tati), going to bat for the others could prove challenging. It’s a genre that we all to quickly disregard, but a brilliantly written comedy, coupled with just the right cast, has the ability not only to have us in stitches, but to do so time and time again. Good comedy has to age well.

Maybe I’ve made too big of a deal with the setup, because it can’t be so hard to see why A Fish Called Wanda would rank among anyone’s (cinephile or not) favorite films. It’s pedigree combines influences from the two great forces in British comedy, Ealing Studio comedies and Monty Python. Director Charles Crichton was responsible for The Ladykillers far earlier in his career and John Cleese and Michael Palin deliver some superbly over-the-top performances. It’s the story of a jewel heist gone horribly wrong, complete with a stuffy British barrister, an animal-loving henchman with a deep love for animals and a meddling old lady with her three precious dogs. And then there’s Otto. He’s a blundering idiot who fancies himself an intellectual. He misquotes Nietzsche on a regular basis, spews phony Italian while seducing his girlfriend and has a tendency to show up at the most inconvenient times. Kevin Kline’s performance is a work of mad genius. There’s not one ounce of restraint to be found, but any would surely spoil the fun. His surprise appearance inside John Cleese’s house is so far as I can tell the only moment in a movie that has ever had me fall out of my chair and roll on the floor laughing. And it happens every time I see it without fail. It’s the kind of laugher that comes from the kind of careful writing that builds a situation into something truly hilarious. Every moment grows funnier in light of what’s already happened. So maybe it’s the brilliant script penned by Cleese himself, or maybe it’s just fun to laugh at stuffy Brits and stupid Americans, but A Fish Called Wanda earns its place as my gold standard for comedy. And it can spar with most films on this list any day.

Apologies for what is bound to be a lackluster review here. It’s been over a year and a half since I’ve seen Masculine Feminine and since I didn’t have a chance to revisit it, my praise will be tempered slightly. That’s really unfortunate because it’s a film that won me over through the little moments, not through its grand design. Gender, politics and music, three of Jean-Luc Godard’s favorite subjects, drive the deep discussions and refreshingly candid interviews that string the film together. It’s the honesty of it all with which I fell in love. Godard taps into youth culture (of the 60s, naturally) with a precision that I’ve rarely seen otherwise. Every character rings true. I hung on every moment, and in all likelihood another viewing would have it jump considerably in my rankings, but that’s a day I’ll just have to look forward to.

I can’t imagine someone loving musicals (hell, loving movies in general) and not finding something special in Singin’ in the Rain. All the best movie musicals have uniquely cinematic to them, and of course the easiest way to insure that is to have them written for the screen in the first place. Singin’ in the Rain couldn’t have started anywhere but the cinema because it’s a celebration of the grand tradition of entertainment at the movies. It being set during the sound revolution at the end of the 20s is crucial. Sound gave life to the screen musical and solidified movies as a key form of popular entertainment. Here, the most iconic musical of them all is itself devoted to entertaining the audience. “Make ‘Em Laugh” indeed. Each number is unforgettable. The performances are all larger than life. And it’s also one of the few truly beloved classics that I don’t begrudge one iota of its fame. If all my favorite films conjure up in me some sort of emotional response, Singin’ in the Rain elicits my absolute favorite emotion, pure joy.

Romantic epics are my kryptonite. I am willing to forgive a great many flaws in exchange for the perfect story of sweeping romance. Revolutions would seem to provide a good backdrop, also World War II. And Doctor Zhivago is directed by the grandmaster of epic films himself, David Lean. My thoughts on the movie don’t run deep. I simply love everything for what it is. The cinematography is jaw dropping, particularly depictions of the Russian winter. Great performances abound. It’s here where I first fell head-over-heels in love with Julie Christie. It’s here where I’ll maintain that Rod Steiger give his best performance. There’s also the score, Maurice Jarre’s finest, which is among the most stirring pieces ever composed for film. To watch it all is an endeavor. Some might even say torture. But epic and I get along very well, and doomed romance piques my interest without fail. Doctor Zhivago won’t be the last of such to show up here.

Geraldine Chaplin shows up for her second film in a row on this list. Impressive, and I think the only time that happens on this list. It’s not her last appearance either. But anyway, onto this fascinating and scarcely seen gem of Spanish cinema. It’s the story of a family, seen through the eyes of a young girl, which serves as an allegory for the end of Spain under Franco and the rise of a new generation. However, there’s a lot more here than a mirror for historical events and for that we can thank Ana Torrent whose heartfelt performance holds up the center of the film. Chaplin too is wonderful as both Ana’s mother and future self. And throughout it all, we here on repeat an infectious Spanish pop song, “Porque Te Vas” by Jeanette, which is bound to play over and over in your heads for many nights to come. But it’s sound seems so appropriate for the new Spain that is coming around. Cria Cuervos is a landmark for Spanish cinema, but for all the concern it expresses toward the state of the nation, it still feels incredible personal. Credit is owed to director Carlos Saura who strikes just the right balance with the story. It’s a marvel. Naturally, I recommend it.

Blair Waldorf would be proud. There’s no more iconic image of 60s cinema than Audrey Hepburn standing outside Tiffany’s, and image has everything to do with my adoration of this film. Like Marlene Dietrich, I may hesitate to commend Audrey Hepburn on her acting ability, but there’s no denying her presence as an actress. There’s certainly a difference, and it’s not necessarily worse to have presence but not talent rather than the other way around. She’s the height of fashion, so glamorous that you can hardly look away, and the whole film exists at the height of style. It’s not without shortcomings, or rather, Mickey Rooney, but there’s so much charm everywhere else that I can put up even with his ridiculous caricature of a role. Blake Edwards has the rare ability to make a film burst to the seams with class without ever entering into the realm of pretension. Audrey Hepburn’s image may just be the most beautiful thing ever captured on celluloid. Together, they’re unstoppable.

88.The South American jungle makes for some fascinating cinematic odysseys, but rather than hauling a boat or a house through the wild, the four men at the center of The Wages of Fear are transporting two truckloads of nitroglycerin. Put quite simply, never has a film created so much tension as here. The stakes are high, and a happy ending seems entirely out of the question, so with that in mind, it’s just a cruel waiting game before everything blows sky high. The intensity comes from everywhere. It’s in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s deft direction and in four stellar performances where characters get pushed to the edge only to come face to face with their own mortality. Each obstacle the drivers encounter kicks the suspense up another notch. Any reprieve is minimal. It’s hard to feel completely at ease with two truckloads of nitroglycerin that’s not going anywhere except out with a bang. It might just be the most terrifying road movie ever made.

87.I’ve got a general rule of never read the book once you’ve seen the movie. I hate the common sentiment that the book is always better and I’m always terribly worried that I’ll come away thinking exactly that. Books and movies are simply different beasts and they’ve got to be handled as such. What works in one medium won’t work in another. Some parts will be cut. New scenes will work their way in. One can only hope it’s for the better.

I’ve not read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, but it’s one I’d consider bending my rule for. I say this because while the story itself is wonderful, the real fascination here is the character of Mr. Stevens, a character so authentic and believable, yet impossible to fully understand. He’s the loyal butler of Darlington Hall, instilled with such a sense of duty that nothing, not relationships, morals or world affairs, is allowed to come between him and the constant task of maintaining an orderly house. Mr. Stevens is one of the greatest tragic figures I’ve ever come across, of such interest that I’d pick the book up in a heartbeat to see how he’s depicted there. Anthony Hopkins performance in the film is astounding. A lifetime of lost opportunities wear away behind a facade of strict responsibility. His pain is subtle, but not small. All would have been lost on a lesser actor, but Hopkins never missteps. As if he weren’t enough of a reason to see the film, Emma Thompson and James Fox bring a great deal to their roles as well. In particular, Fox as Lord Darlington offers an intriguing parallel to Stevens as another man whose sense of duty blinds him, though this time to the needs of his country rather than himself. As a story, The Remains of the Day is positively engrossing. As a character study, it’s simply remarkable.

The title doesn't promise anything cheery, though we do get a good laugh here and there, but while we prepare ourselves for death and despair, Jim Jarmusch's masterwork takes us down another path entirely. Through the most unfortunate of circumstances, a man named William Blake finds himself in the wilderness, on the run from the law. Pursued by bounty hunters and the law alike, he stays alive for some time on pure luck, luck that he knows can't last forever. Yet amid the constant dread, he somehow finds peace with himself. Jarmusch's film functions much like a cleansing rite of passage from one life to the next. The journey is one of the most fulfilling I've seen on film. Johnny Depp fills the role so perfectly that I can't imagine another in his place. Beyond there, it's a parade of cameos by the oddest collection of actors, none of them more memorable than Robert Mitchum who with one foot in the grave is easily more imposing than the taxidermy grizzly bear in his office. Dead Man is as ethereal a film as there ever was. We're halfway away from civilization by the time the opening credits role and as the film plunges further and further into uncharted wilderness, we become increasingly aware that there's no going back. Not that we'd want to.

Continue to 85 - 76.

1 comment:

  1. Wanda, Masculine Feminine, Singin' in the Rain, Tiffany's and Dead Man would all factor into a top 100 for me as well. Excellent choices sir!