Friday, August 21, 2009

Top 100 Films - 85-76

85.Ridley Scott convinced Harry Dean Stanton to sign on for Alien by likening it more to Ten Little Indians than the typical science fiction film. The comparison is apt. In the lonely isolation of space, the crew of the Nostromo is picked off one by one by an enemy they know next to nothing of. There’s a lot of terror to be mined from that situation, but the same formula has been mishandled by countless horror films ever since. Alien gets it right because it’s in no hurry to toss in a make-you-jump moment. There’s a solid 45 minutes of setup before things get critical, but those 45 minutes are so packed with a steadily building sense of suspense that when the infamous gut-busting sequence comes along, it’s justifiably one of the scariest things you’ve ever seen. And of course, that’s only the beginning of the crew’s problems.

Watching Alien is an instant reminder of a time when horror films could, on occasion, be great films. A cast of Ian Holm, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton and Sigourney Weaver on board does lend a bit of legitimacy to the project, but none of the characters just feel like bodies waiting to be torn limb from limb (even if that’s what they are). Weaver, in particular, is exceptional. It’s a performance as important as it is effective. Hollywood needed a female action hero. In Ripley, they got one to equal any male action heroes they had.

84.Sand clings to every frame of Woman in the Dunes. We’re used to sweeping cinematic shots of desert, but here’s the rare film that dissects that desert grain by grain. And if the vastness of the dunes seemed mind-boggling before, the idea of billions upon billions of particles surrounding you, keeping you in, is enough to overwhelm just about anyone. The entomologist finds himself trapped in a hole in the dunes, his only companion a woman who’s been there far longer than he has. They form a relationship that is beyond odd. They satisfy their every erotic need, yet can’t be bothered to help each other escape the sandy shack at the bottom of the hole. Faced with the infinity in grains of sand that surround them, they regress. Primal instincts take hold as their world closes in. It’s a film as haunting as it is beautiful, and like the grains of sand, its curiosities are endless.

83.Less a traditional choice than most films on the list, 8 Women earns its spot for successfully packing just about everything I love from movies into one. It’s a whodunit, and a clever one at that, so I was already bound to love it, but add to that the brilliant cast of classic French actresses, the high melodrama homage to Douglas Sirk, and the vibrant color palate that comes along with that and I’m hooked. Oh yeah, it’s also a musical. It’s by necessity over-the-top and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The cast is thankfully all in on it. The ladies are marvelous, from Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux to Emmanuelle Béart and Ludivine Sagnier. It’s Isabelle Huppert that steals the show though in a roll that’s fun to consider in comparison to her part in The Piano Teacher.

8 Women is based on a stage play that I’ve never seen and likely never will, but the adaptation to the screen seems to have been carried out successfully. The dialogue often fires back and forth at a rapid pace, and with no less than eight motives and alibis to keep track of, I find myself very thankful for the use of close ups. Yes, it passes my admittedly strict test of stage to screen adaptations. François Ozon uses the inherent advantages of cinema well. There are also the subtle references to classic films waiting for the right eye to pick up on them. Each character’s style harkens back to an actress of classic Hollywood for instance, and there’s that portrait of Catherine upstairs that seems to come straight out of Belle de Jour. But there’s no need to dig this deep. I fell in love long before I considered any cinematic merits it may have.

82.The film that ended Michael Powell’s career was among the best he ever worked on. Like any film tackling voyeurism head on, Peeping Tom is far creepier than it is terrifying, but that unnerving feeling that rides you throughout the film is all part of the horror. Powell brings back Moira Shearer for a far different dance than she stepped to in The Red Shoes, but here her audience is one man and his camera, and her stage a television studio. It was reviled upon release, unfairly so, but not unsurprising considering that the searing indictment of voyeurism here involves the camera itself, by extension the film, and therefore the audience. Its initial reception seems only to prove that the film hit its mark. It’s rightly considered a classic now, but to have seen it in theaters back in 1960, well, that would have been something.

The entire experience of viewing Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon plays out like the most surreal of dreams. It last but a few minutes (around 14 I believe) but feels anywhere from mere moments to an eternity. That is, time steps aside as the viewer slips into a beautiful trance. A feverish mystery plays out before our eyes, but dissecting the dream while under its spell would do nothing except ruin the moment. Much as with a David Lynch film, it’s the experience of watching Meshes of the Afternoon that awakens the greatest emotions.

Cheating, you say? Yes, well, I can’t really deny that. Kieslowski’s trilogy is connected only loosely, thematically and by an incident, but it just made more sense to include all three together rather than set aside separate entries for both Red and Blue (both would have made it regardless). And don’t get me wrong, White is wonderful, definitely the underrated one of the bunch, but the trilogy makes the list primarily on the strength of first and final installments. There’s far too much ground to cover so I won’t even attempt to break each film down measure for measure. Across the board we are treated to some of the most striking cinematography imaginable, adjusted for the appropriate color of course, with the visual resplendence of Red standing as the most unforgettable. Also present in all the films is Kieslowski’s empathy, perhaps the greatest asset in his direction. The performances he is able to glean owe much to his deep respect of the characters themselves. All are handled with the utmost delicacy. Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant seem perfectly matched against each other, but the real marvel is Juliette Binoche. Her performance in Blue ranks among the finest ever.

Also, apologies on the lame graphic for the one. I considered picking through all three films (which I own) to make screencaps, but ultimately decided I’d never sum all three up in such few images anyway, so I might as well save myself some time. So yeah, between that and including a trilogy in one spot, I’m all about cutting corners here. Incidentally, if pressed to choose one, I’d go with Red.

There’s two ways that I prefer to see horror films handled. They can be a spectacle, dramatic and elaborate deaths accompanied with buckets and buckets of blood, or they can run on practically nothing but the suspense and instability of their little worlds. Now, simple and stripped down are things I don’t abide well, but they can be strong assets in the best horror films. Repulsion witnesses a woman alone in her apartment gradually drive herself into madness. Catherine Deneuve has never been better, precisely because of the instability that her character brings to the film. Roman Polanski’s hand holds tight control, and lets the reigns loose at just the right time. His films often exist in collapsing worlds, and the mental world of Repulsion is darker than any other he’s given us. And trapped there in that apartment, we begin to mentally unravel with Catherine. It’s the best psychological horror film ever made.

78.I can only speak for the two Atom Egoyan films I’ve seen, this and Exotica, but damn do they have a way of lingering with you long after the credits stop rolling. The Sweet Hereafter, especially, really wrenches itself into your conscience. Like Exotica, the story springs from a tragedy, only here we’re familiar with the basic details from the outset. The fatal wreck of a school bus in a small Canadian town is enough to shake up life considerably for the community. Enter the lawyer, Ian Holm in his finest hour, urging them to sue for damages. Everyone involved has their reasons, and it’s a struggle to take a stand amid all the uneasiness these characters have toward each other. There’s a beautiful sorrow to it all, a sadness that extends far beyond the initial accident that looms over all the proceedings. And I couldn’t bear not to mention Sarah Polley as well. As the crippled survivor of the crash and the assumed voice of the community’s lost youth, she gives a positively devastating performance.

77.Few directors can get under our collective skin like Michael Haneke. Funny Games, as you may or may not have found out by now, is the great sadistic experiment of cinema. Cache isn’t quite as ruthless, and it certainly tortures us in a very different way, but Haneke’s mark is unmistakably there. That is to say, he’s still playing games with us. This time, it’s what’s held back that becomes maddening. An unknown stalker torments a family. The father hides a tumultuous past. The wife may be committing adultery. The son disappears. Secrets abound, but is doesn’t take long to come to terms with the fact that answers are not on the way. We’re treated to some disturbing memories, a continual accumulation of unsettling souvenirs and visual clues, and a brief moment as shocking as anything seen before on film, but they never come together in the end. But even the most tightly wrapped up narratives are rarely entirely satisfying. The ambiguity of Cache, driven home doubly by the shot that plays over the closing credits, gives us a film that never suffers upon re-viewings and can keep us scratching our heads time and time again. Also, Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche rock, but you already knew that.

76.Yes, I’m aware that this is the film sticking out in sore thumb fashion from the rest of my lovely list. Am I permitted a defense? Well of course I am, and I doubt it’ll convince you otherwise if you’ve already started scoffing. But here goes.

There’s obviously a nostalgia value here, but that alone wouldn’t have done it. I’ve trimmed countless films which I once obsessed over from my list because, well, they just weren’t that good in retrospect. Yet I’ve watched Clue more times than any other movie and while the direction is uninteresting and the set decoration is unusually stale for a mansion, it soars entirely because it’s running with one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled. The performances can’t get more campy and the clever, if ridiculous, dialogue is fired back and forth so fast that it’s a challenge to recover from laughing quick enough to catch the next bit. Most importantly, every last one of them is having a blast running amok in what is truly a madcap murder mystery. There’s not a week link, though Eileen Brennan as the overly dramatic Mrs. Peacock steals scenes like no one else, but then again Madeline Kahn’s icy husband-killer exterior is so perfect that I wish Mrs. White was always like that and not some stupid house maid.

Or maybe it gets a spot here just to deliberately knock my reputation as a movie-elitist down a notch. I’ll admit that it’s just plain weird to sandwich Clue in between Cache and the even loftier entry that’s to follow, but what the hell, these are my favorites and I couldn’t bear not to find some place for this one a list of 100.

Continue to 75 - 66.


  1. I loooove 8 Women. Glad to see it included. I nodded the film for Supporting Actress (Huppert) and Ensemble at my awards. God, it's been since 2002 that I saw it. A repeat viewing is in order!

  2. I remember when I first saw Alien... I was 10. The horror of that movie has never left me... I'm still scared of those face sucker things. :)

  3. I actually think Cache is a far more disturbing (and in a way, scary) film than Funny Games (the only two Haneke I've seen), for a few reasons. Given it's nature, it's easy to simply hate Haneke for what he's doing in Funny Games, like he wants you to ... and then it's not so much creepy as disgusting. Since nothing is resolved in Cache, like you said, pretty much the entire nature of truth itself is called into question, enough to make one uneasily look over their shoulder when alone to check to see no one's watching!

  4. Oh you're totally right. But Funny Games goes so far as to indict the audience just for continuing to watch, hence why I call it the more ruthless of the two.