Top 25 + 1 Movies I Love
© 2004 by John Varley; all rights reserved
I have had a Top 10 list of
movies floating around in my head for at least three decades now, and I don’t think
I’ve ever gotten it down to fewer than 15. Finally I’ve given up and decided to
go with a Top 25. Who said Top 10 was sacred, anyway?
Things have shifted here and there, the criteria for inclusion have changed, and once in a very great while a new movie gets added. At one point I decided that several of the films on the list were films that I somehow thought ought to be on the list: the ones they show you in film schools as examples of “great” films. And I realized that, while I could appreciate their greatness, or at least their craft, I didn’t really like them. Raging Bull is a good example. Many critics chose it as the best film of the '80s, and it is a massive achievement and a very daring film, choosing to tell the story of a man with no redeeming qualities at all, a man not even his mother could love. I am in awe of it, but I don’t love it. It’s not on my list.
The rules for getting on this list are fairly basic, fairly simple. Sometimes they may even be contradictory. I don’t care.
I must genuinely love the film. Sometimes because it stunned me, awed me, when I first saw it ... and every time thereafter. Other films are here because they delighted me, made me happy to be alive, gave me joy that such a movie could even exist. Sometimes a film is here because it did both things. Some films are here because they ... well, they tore my guts out. They made me cry, and will make me cry again the next time I see them.
Basically, the film must be as near perfect as a human enterprise can be. There must not be a single thing I would change, if I were given the chance to do it myself. Not a sequence, not a shot, not a frame.
... except for a few where I make allowances for the time they were made, and the different standards of cinema prevailing then. (See The General.) But I have been stingy with my exceptions, and that has had a surprising result. A lot of the wonderful films of the '30s to the '50s, which I love, are not here because of some element that probably worked fine at the time, but doesn’t now. Musicals, which I also love, were hit hard by this rule. Most of the great old musicals were, at base, extremely silly once they stopped singing and dancing. Did any sailor in the history of seafaring ever behave with the childishness of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and most especially Jules Munshin in On The Town? I think not. At that time there was this cinematic fiction that our servicemen were basically just overgrown kids. Aw, shucks! We all know what sailors ashore want, and the Empire State Building ain’t on the list. The singin’ and dancin’ are terrif, but the basic premise is stupid.
There are a large number of movies on this list from the 1970s. Many critics, and myself, now view this as a “Golden Age” of cinema. Movies were emerging from the strictures of sexual repression, writers and directors were pushing the boundaries, and studios were willing to fund these revolutionary concepts. Then as we moved into the '80s and '90s the deal makers took over and clamped down a form of repression different from that exercised by the old studio moguls, but just as stultifying. Of course some truly wonderful movies have been made since then, but most of the money has gone into stuff that is guaranteed to appeal to a target audience whose age and attention span is dwindling. So far no movie of the '80s has hit me hard enough or stuck with me powerfully enough to dislodge the ones you see here. It can still happen; sometimes a movie plays better in retrospect.
As for the '90s, and the 21st Century ... I will not put a movie on this list until it is at least 10 years old, preferably 20. If you go to the Top 250 Films at the Internet Movie Database, you will find it is top heavy with films of the last 10 years. That’s only to be expected; many of the voters are still in their twenties. What encourages me is that some films like The Seven Samurai and Casablanca are still in the Top 10. So there are still people who are looking at all that wonderful old stuff.
Having seen how a movie actually get physically made (a bad movie, I admit, but the process is exactly the same for a good movie), from the first storyboard sketch and the first nail driven on the first set, to the editing and looping and Foley work, I have chosen to include along with the director and writer and producer (who is much more important than most people realize), the art director and the cinematographer of these movies, and usually the composer of the music. The art director is in charge of creating everything visual in the film. The cinematographer is responsible for how it all photographs. These are incredibly important to how the film comes out. And most films would just not work without the music.
I welcome seeing the top lists of visitors to this site. I always enjoy hearing about the movies that other people love to distraction.
Movies are listed in chronological order. No way I can rank them best to ... least best.
So with the very first film I almost violate one of my rules. The one element of The General that I don’t like is something that was very much a part of its time, which is the predilection of making the South the sentimental favorite in dramas, and also maybe because of the American tendency to root for the underdog. Many Americans still thought of the Johnny Rebs as honorable gentlemen, spoke of the “Lost Cause,” and forgot about or just didn’t care about the rotten, festering heart of the Confederacy. Just about everybody did it, from the horrible masterpiece The Birth of a Nation to the tacitly racist Gone With the Wind. Happily, that trend is just about gone. Cold Mountain shows the war from the Southern point of view, but Inman is deserting, and we are encouraged to root for him.
Buster Keaton’s first feature-length movie was The Three Ages, in 1923. You really can’t compare two- and three-reelers against what we’ve come to think of as features (Cops was 18 minutes, which would make it a short today), though half a dozen of Keaton’s and even more of Chaplin’s shorts are masterpieces. When Keaton really got rolling at full-length (and before sound killed his career), I think he made more great movies even than Chaplin. I’m thinking of amazing stuff like Our Hospitality, The Navigator, College, Steamboat Bill, and The Cameraman.
But The General is the best. I remember laughing until I hurt during the chase, as he comes up with one ruse after another to steal his beloved locomotive and girl back from the Yankees. Keaton was the master of the visual joke, and he did it all without ever changing expression. Chaplin had 100 faces to wring our hearts with; Keaton had to make one face work for everything ... and he did!
And I can still recall the
awe with which I watched the bridge collapsing under the train engine (a scene
that was filmed in Oregon). I honestly don’t think there was a single shot to
compare to it until 1956: the parting of the Red Sea in
Commandments. And Keaton didn’t use any special effects.
Sometimes I think The Gold Rush should be on this list. Sometimes I think maybe Modern Times. And of course there’s The Great Dictator. Shorts? The Cure, The Rink, The Tramp, One A.M., The Immigrant, Shoulder Arms. Chaplin made 33 two-reelers just in 1914.
But none of them have the heart of City Lights. If you just outline the plot, it sounds silly. A blind girl mistakes Charlie, the tramp, for a millionaire. He keeps the illusion going. He manages to get the money for an operation to restore her eyesight, goes to prison, emerges even more raggedy-ass than he was; really down and out. He encounters her. Will she recognize him?
She says, “You?”
He nods. He says “You can see?”
“Yes. I can see.”
Roger Ebert thinks the smile is one of acceptance. I think the smile is at least as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa. The camera lingers on it a moment, and I am never sure just what she is thinking. Of course, it’s tough to see, because my eyes are always full or tears at that moment.
Okay, Chaplin could be hopelessly sentimental, and so can I. As always with
Charlie, the movie is so much more than that. It contains some of his best
slapstick, funny situations, physical comedy, sly observations, even satire. The
sound era was already in full swing, but he deliberately made it silent, and
probably only Chaplin could have gotten away with it in 1931. But he was right.
The Ideal was a little movie theater around the corner from the 5&10 cent store my grandfather managed in Corsicana, Texas. This theater wasn’t much; there was another place in town with pretensions to being a movie palace. The Ideal had none. My grandmother's name was Mae Van, but we all called her Nina (NIGH-na, not NEE-na), don’t ask me why. For all I know she may have been a big movie fan in the '30s and '40s, but I’d never seen her go to a movie when I was a child. Then one day a poster went up for The Grapes of Wrath at the Ideal. Nina got very excited. She and some of her friends were going to see it, and she invited me along.
This was maybe 1958, ‘59, in there. (The theater had whites on the ground floor, “colored” in a wrap-around balcony, like in To Kill a Mockingbird, that’s how long ago it was!) The movie was at least 18 years old, and they had all seen it several times, this in a day when people just did not go to see movies repeatedly. I was 11 or 12. I knew nothing of the Depression, or Okies. Corsicana is in northeast Texas, not far from Dallas, on the edges of the Dust Bowl. I can see now that this movie was important to these women because they had been there. Not as desperate as the Joad’s, I don’t think, but it was hard times for everyone.
They all cried at the end. And though I tried to hide it (boys don’t cry, especially at the movies), I cried, too, only the second time I had ever cried at a movie (first: Bambi). I still do, every time I see it. IMDb.com
Produced / Directed
Ben Hecht was a very
prolific screenwriter from the '30s to the '60s, with over 140 credits. You look
at the list and it seems he at least had a hand in half the good movies that
came out in that time, often uncredited. His most durable play was The
Front Page, which has been filmed or televised six times, of which I’ve
In 1931 it starred Adolph Menjou and Pat O’Brien as editor Walter Burns and star reporter Hildy Johnson (whose name I stole for my novel Steel Beach). Hildy is leaving the paper to get married; Walter has no intention of letting him do so. He throws every obstacle he can think of in the way of the happy couple, secure in his knowledge that Hildy will never be happy unless he’s out there in pursuit of the news. The film is amusing, but slow and static, because sound was new and movies couldn’t move around very much. It ran 101 minutes
In 1940 Howard Hawkes changed Hildebrandt to Hildegaarde, cast Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and did it again.
In 1945 and 1948 it was staged for television. I’d sure love to see either of those. (One was for the BBC.) Television in 1945! Very, very primitive.
In 1974 Billy Wilder changed Hildy back again, into Jack Lemmon, and paired him with Walter Matthau. It works okay, but is slow. It took Wilder 105 minutes to tell the story.
In 1988 it was updated to television news, they changed all the names, but the Hildy character is played by Kathleen Turner. It runs 105 minutes and doesn’t really work.
Now back to 1940.
Howard Hawks made it as a screwball comedy, and called it His Girl Friday. That was a type of romantic comedy that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make, to its loss. (About the most recent mostly-successful example I can recall is Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?) The genre was pretty much invented by Frank Capra with It Happened One Night, and developed by such greats as Leo McCarey, Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, and Preston Sturges. All it took to turn The Front Page into a screwball comedy was the stroke of genius of changing Hildy’s sex. The play is funny enough as written, but adding the sexual tension moves everything up a level.
And Howard Hawks did the whole thing in 92 minutes.
Watching it, it’s easy to see how he did it. There is seldom a moment when somebody isn’t talking. Talking? Rattling, chattering, shouting, hollering! Talk about a talkie! This is a movie about talking, wisecracks, putdowns, all played broadly with never a pause to catch your breath. That’s how he did it. How he made it work is the wonder. Many directors have tried it and hundreds have failed. But I can never take my eyes from Cary Grant and Roz Russell, they might have invented the word “chemistry,” and they seem to hate each other, and they hardly ever even touch each other. And it doesn’t dissolve, in the end, into a sappy lovefest; these people just aren’t like that. No, the best they can achieve is a recognition that this is who we are, so we might as well get used to it and go on together, because nothing else will work.
Two little bits of business: At one point Grant is describing Hildy’s fiancée to a thug he has hired to plant counterfeit money on him. “He looks like that actor fellow ... Ralph Bellamy.” Guess who is playing the poor schmuck?
And one line of Cary’s dialogue goes like this: “The last man that messed with me was Archie Leach ...” Which was the name of the poor but attractive cockney lad who came to Hollywood to seek his fortune and was named Cary Grant by the studios. IMDb.com
I came a little late to
this movie, considering that I’d become a student of film during my brief time
at college. At the film society I learned that Charlie Chaplin was not this
shuffling little doofus, seen in 5-second clips, but a great artist, maybe the
best cinema has ever seen. At the art houses around East Lansing I learned there
were foreign films that didn’t star
Brigitte Bardot. Some good ones. And in film
classes I was shown the evolution of cinema, from
The Great Train Robbery
(1903) right on into the '50s. We saw films that remain masterpieces, and others
that were interesting mostly from an historical perspective. In film class you
The Birth of a Nation to learn how that old racist
Griffith pretty much invented the epic form, and many of the basic editing
techniques still in use today. You watch
Battleship Potemkin to
Eisenstein cut shots to distort time when the sailor dashes the maggoty
meat to the deck, how he distorted space with the brilliant
sequence. You watch
The Triumph of the Will to see really
brilliant propaganda. You watch
Un Chien Andalou and
Passion of Joan of Arc and
Wild Strawberries and
Strada for basically academic, educational reasons. I watched them all,
and was stunned and amazed by most of them, learning just how much I did not
know about movies. But I didn’t love many of them.
I was absent the day they showed Citizen Kane. I read the book on it. Apparently it was important, cinematically, because Orson Welles put ceilings on his sets. I thought back, realized that rooms in most films of that era had high, high walls, so high you never saw the ceilings. That’s because there were lots of lights up there. I remember having it pointed out that during the silent era the camera was very mobile, and being shown a very stagey film from around 1930 where the camera was nailed in place, because of the newfangled microphone, like the wonderful business where they’re trying to film The Dueling Cavalier in Singin’ in the Rain. With ceilings, Welles could use dramatic low angles, and was impelled to invent innovative lighting.
Years went by. One late, late night in San Francisco I saw Citizen Kane was going to be on TV. What the hell. I started watching it, looking for the ceilings. Almost at once I wasn’t thinking “technique” at all. That all came later, on subsequent viewings, when I noted things such as the fact that the reporter’s face is never shown full-on, and that no one is in the room when Kane whispers “Rosebud.” That night I was pulled in, utterly entranced, by one of the best stories I’d ever seen, told in a way that is still stunning today. I saw a marriage dissolve in about 90 seconds over a series of breakfasts. I saw people living in rooms that would have given an elephant agoraphobia. I saw a woman’s nervous breakdown in successive operatic scenes ... well, if you haven’t seen it, you are not a serious student of the cinema. And you’re missing one of the greatest films of all time. IMDb.com
Realizing the importance
of the case, my men are rounding up twice the usual number of suspects.
I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.
How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that. Some day they may be scarce.
And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
I was misinformed.
I stick my neck out for
Because, my dear Ricky, I suspect that under that cynical shell you are a sentimentalist.
What is your nationality?
I’m a drunkard.
Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By.”
I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray. You wore blue.
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
You played it for her and you can play it for me.
Here’s looking at you, kid.
I am making out the report now. We haven’t quite decided if he committed suicide or died trying to escape.
Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.
You’ll have to think for both of us. For all of us.
Ricky, I’m going to miss you. Apparently you are the only one in Casablanca who has even less scruples than I.
And remember, this gun is pointed straight at your heart.
That is my least vulnerable spot.
If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him,
you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the
rest of your life.
We’ll always have Paris.
I’m not good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
She did her best to convince me that she was still in love with me, but that was all over long ago.
Major Strasser’s been shot! ... Round up the usual suspects.
Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
If most of this dialogue doesn’t ring a bell ... you haven’t seen Casablanca enough times. IMDb.com
Vittorio de Sica
This is another “film
school” movie, another one I missed during my college days, used as an example
Italian Neorealism. Categories like that put me off. I like to judge
a film by its individual merits, if possible. I hesitate to watch movies I’m
supposed to admire. I have admired, for instance, many films by
but I have never loved a single one of them.
This one I love. De Sica was a leader in the neorealist movement. These guys rejected the traditionally structured stories and settings that audiences loved so much but so often had little to say about real life. So he chose a very simple story and populated it with real people; none of the main characters had ever acted in a movie before, and none of them went on to very big careers afterward. This is particularly impressive in the case of Enzo Staiola, who was eight. Take a look at child actors in contemporary Hollywood films, the stilted, corny dialogue, the self-consciousness, the downright bad acting. With a few talented exceptions, most child actors before the 1970s or so were pretty awful, and directors had no idea how to coax a great performance from them. These days they use new methods, and convincing child performances are common. Not in 1948.
The story is so simple. A man in postwar Italy gets a chance at a job putting up posters. To do it, he needs a bicycle. The family pawns their bedding to get his bike out of the pawnshop and he sets happily to work. The very first day, the bike is stolen. The next day he and his son set out to find it.
There is no way to describe what happens during that day without giving away too much. It is hopeless, then there is a ray of hope ... and then ... the last scenes are of awful revelation, choking sorrow and shame, and are indelibly etched in my memory. IMDb.com
Kurosawa and Kubrick
present a big problem to someone like me putting together a Top 25 list. You
can’t put all their films on the list. It’s probably best to limit yourself to
one movie per director (and I couldn’t, with Kubrick). So, which one?
The Seven Samurai?
I’m going with Ikiru. I doubt you’ve ever seen it, unless you’re as rabid a Kurosawa fan as I am. It made something of a splash when it debuted in America, way back when. It is available on video. I strongly urge you to seek it out and rent it.
The great Takashi Shimura stars as Kanji Watanabe, a bureaucrat in post-war Japan. (To show you the guy’s range, in Shichinin no samurai he plays the part Yul Brynner took in The Magnificent Seven.) He does literally nothing but shuffle papers. He is just barely alive. Then he learns he really is dying. He has cancer, less than a year to live.
He goes on a bender. He curses his fate. Then he decides to accomplish one thing, just one thing before he dies. A group of mothers approaches him after having been shuffled through the bureaucracy, trying to get a dangerous garbage dump cleaned up in the neighborhood where their children play. He decides to help them.
Cut to his funeral.
Whoa! This is about as startling as Janet Leigh dying in Psycho (which would have been on this list, except for the dreadful last 10 minutes). His co-workers gather to get drunk and reminisce. Nobody really knew him; none of them really know each other. Their lives are as empty as his was. Then people begin to drop in. A neighborhood cop. The women. They are devastated. Kanji was a miracle worker to them. The story of his last days comes out in flashbacks, and the last scene will linger in my mind forever. IMDb.com
Produced / Directed
This was another tough
call. I’ve seen almost all of Hitchcock’s films, including some very early
silents. There’s a lot of great ones: the original
The Man Who Knew Too
Shadow of a Doubt,
Strangers on a Train,
North by Northwest. It came
down to this one or Vertigo. Both star Jimmy Stewart as a troubled
man. Both are profoundly disturbing, not so much from the suspense elements as
for the psychology: obsession in
Vertigo, voyeurism in Rear
Window. In the end I went with this one because, while there are many
good films about obsession, there is nothing quite like the claustrophobia in
Rear Window. It is in a class by itself.
I recall seeing a trailer (we called them “previews” back then) for Rear Window when it was just coming out. I believe it featured Hitchcock himself, and he was showing us around his huge indoor set, which was really the star of the show. But I didn’t see the film itself at the time. Then it vanished into the vaults, along with three other films, and when video came along some sort of contractual dispute kept those films off the market. Then they went into limited theatrical release to coincide with the video appearances. I saw them all on video (rediscovering The Trouble With Harry, which I did see when it was new), and then Lee and I and her daughter Annie went to see Rear Window on the big screen in a little revival theater called the Roseway out on Sandy Boulevard in Portland. I was knocked out.
I’m not a victim of acrophobia, so even the famous dolly/zoom shots in Vertigo didn’t affect me with any real feeling for Scotty Ferguson’s affliction. I’m not very claustrophobic, either, but Jeff Jeffries dilemma being cooped up in that apartment that he couldn’t leave affected me a lot. The camera never leaves the apartment. (Okay, there’s one brief shot from outside at the very end, when Jeffries himself is dangling from his windowsill.) After a while I can feel the walls closing in.
Roger Ebert pointed out that there is something very attractive about voyeurism for most people. I’m one of them. I have never window-peeped, but it is fascinating to do it looking over someone’s shoulder, see the lives unfolding all around while yours is on hold. Hitchcock draws us in so gradually, at first we think Jeffries is just paranoid. Then the suspense builds and builds, until it’s hair-raising. IMDb.com
(There is a
spoiler at the
end here, but it’s not something you can’t see coming a mile away.)
Giulietta Masina was married to Federico Fellini for 50 years, and she died within five months of him. She starred in three of his best films: La Strada, Le Notte di Cabiria, Guilietta degli spiriti; also in Ginger e Fred, which I didn’t care for much. In fact, I am not a huge Fellini fan. I love 8 1/2, Variety Lights, and the aforementioned three. The rest are often visually stunning but empty. For me. Cabiria is the best of the bunch.
If you’ve never seen it, it was adapted, sort of, as a musical under the title Sweet Charity. Now, I’m not putting the musical down. I’ve seen it on Broadway and I’ve seen Bob Fosse’s movie of it, and I love it. Some titanic talent there with Fosse and Neil Simon. But it is a pale, pale shadow of Cabiria. For instance, “Big Spender” is one of the finest moments I’ve ever seen on stage ... but there’s no reason it couldn’t have been staged on the streets of New York by prostitutes instead of a dime-a-dance club that, frankly, just isn’t too believable. Cabiria was a prostitute, a streetwalker, and not even a very pretty one. Her life was hard. She owned a house of which she was very proud, and it was nothing but a pile of concrete blocks out past the gas works. But hey, it could have been worse. Some of her friends were sleeping on the street.
“It could be worse” pretty much sums up Cabiria’s life, and what makes the story so strong. She is forever hopeful in the face of setbacks and betrayals that would stagger a saint. In the musical, Charity is betrayed by Oscar because he can’t face the fact of her profession and her friends. In Cabiria, Oscar was out to get her money in the first place, he cleans her out of every penny, and doesn’t push her off a cliff mostly because he’s too chickenshit to do it, not from any real compassion.
This could almost have been a silent movie. Giulietta Masina’s face is so mobile that she can go through half a dozen expressions in a few seconds, each of them crystal clear without being in any way mugging. I got some proof of this a few days ago when we rented a wretched public-domain copy from the library (they misspelled the title on the box, if you can believe that, “Caberea,” and it wasn’t a librarian’s typo, it was a printed cover) where the subtitling was spotty, to say the least, and sometimes almost unreadable ... and I always knew what was happening. Of course, Italians can say plenty with just gestures, and hers are exquisite.
The entire move is wonderful, but like with City Lights and Ikiru, it is the last shot that haunts. Cabiria is broke, dirty, heartbroken, she has just pleaded with her traitorous lover to kill her. She is walking down a road. A group of young people appear, laughing, singing, far too young for heartbreak. As the tears leak from her eyes, Cabiria begins to look around at them and smile. And for a brief moment she looks right at us, and that look says so many things I can’t even begin to describe them. It would take five pages of prose, and Fellini and Masina do it all in about 48 frames. IMDb.com
I don’t know if Lee will
ever make a Top 25 Movies list, but if she does, the only movie on my list that
I am sure will also be on hers is this one. Casablanca?
Almost certainly. Nights of Cabiria? The Bicycle Thief?
Maybe. But this quiet little masterpiece will definitely be there.
Usually, when I start off on a tirade on what rotten scum lawyers are, Lee reminds me of Atticus Finch. Was there ever, in real life, a man as good as Atticus, much less a lawyer? I don’t know, probably not, but the fictional character serves as a good reality check. It makes me remember that, no matter what scumbags some lawyers are, we do need them, and they do good work. The alternative is anarchy, every man for himself and the strongest one wins every time, or totalitarianism, the State does absolutely anything it wants to do. Sure, the strong usually do still win (the rich, in this case), and sure, the government still can screw you badly, usually with the help of lawyers. But if you ever get in trouble, either innocent or guilty, you will want the toughest legal eagle you can find on your side.
I first saw this film in a little theater on Powell Street in San Francisco with my first wife, who was from Long Beach. She had a highly developed sense of injustice, and could hardly believe it when the jury found Tom Robinson guilty. Later, outside, she simply could not understand that Robinson’s guilt or innocence had never really been in question in that jury room. The important thing was to make sure that when a white woman, no matter how trashy or how obviously a liar, made an accusation against a nigger, he had to be convicted. It wasn’t about justice; it was about control.
This film is one of the most faithful adaptations of a book ever made. You’d think that, when Hollywood buys a wonderful book, they’d try to make the movie as much like the book as possible. We all know that seldom happens. In this case Horton Foote, a southerner himself, turned in one of the best screenplays ever by simply using the scenes and dialogue provided to him by Harper Lee. IMDb.com
If you tortured me, if you
tied me to a chair and showed me videos of George W. Bush for three days
straight, if you forced me to choose my favorite film of all time
... it would probably be Tom Jones.
John Foreman once told me that movie magic consists of moments. The one he used to illustrate it was from The Man Who Would Be King, which he produced. They are exploring Alexander the Great’s treasure room and Sean Connery holds up a ruby the size of a baseball. “Look at the size of that ruby!” he whispers. Michael Caine holds up one the size of a softball. “Here’s a bigger one.” John felt that movies should do that: show you something wonderful, and then top it.
I feel movies are about magical sequences. If a movie has one magical sequence that you remember forever, it’s a damn good movie. Tom Jones has a dozen. The one everybody remembers is the eating/seduction scene in the inn at Upton. But Tom Jones begins with a magical sequence, right out of the box. In about two minutes Tony Richardson manages to summarize about 100 pages of the novel (which I’ve read, and it’s fairly heavy going) and make me laugh half a dozen times. Then there is the women fighting in the church graveyard, the race to save Tom at Tyburn, Tom wooing Sophie with his arm in a sling without a word being spoken, the sword fight, Squire Western pigging out at the table, the pursuit of the escaped thrush ... many others.
My personal favorite is the hunt. Squire Western is grabbing every woman present, everyone is pouring ale down their gullets. The dogs are released, we follow in a helicopter, then down, then in among the riders. The camera puts you in so close to the dogs that you want to wipe off the slobber. Sedate Messrs. Thwackum and Square are in the thick of it, riding hard. The whole community is out, risking their lives, tearing up the countryside. At the end Squire Western holds up the bloody head of a deer, savage and pleased as a caveman. It is all very politically incorrect, I know; I’d never be able to participate in a bloodfest like that ... but the movie makes me want to. These people devour life, they live hard, they eat up every moment.
Richardson uses every trick in the book, like Richard Lester, including asides to the audience. The movie feels real. It is dirty, sometimes dark, sometimes beautiful. Sophie has smudges of mud on her and doesn’t mind it. The whole thing is narrated rather primly, and hilariously, asking the audience to make allowances for our incorrigible hero ... then follows him lasciviously through all his amorous and disreputable adventures. And in the end, courage is rewarded, evil punished, and true love triumphs.
The music is simply perfect. Usually you don’t want to be too aware of movie music, but this stuff is so catchy and so historically appropriate you might figure it was written by Handel (that newfangled fellow that Squire Western hates), and it enhances every scene. The harpsichord is the featured instrument, and it’s played like a 17th-century banjo; just lots of fun. John Addison won an Oscar for it.
The movie ends with these words, which it would be well to remember when you’re wasting time:
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own.
He who, secure within, may say:
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today! IMDb.com
Stanley Kubrick is the only
great director who, in my opinion, never made a bad film. All the other greats,
Preston Sturges, Capra, Fellini, even Kurosawa, made
a stinker or two. Of course, he only made 13 films.
Fear and Desire
(1953) is only available on bootleg DVD. Of the other 12, I’ve seen
Killer’s Kiss (1955) twice, and it’s pretty good, and all the others
Eyes Wide Shut and The Killing and The Shining have flaws, but are still wonderful films. Spartacus is the best wide-screen epic of its day. Lolita and Full Metal Jacket just miss greatness. And Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon are full-blown masterpieces.
I already broke my one-film-per-director rule twice here, with Kubrick and Lester, and I was severely tempted to include three or even four films by Stanley. Barry Lyndon missed out by this () much. And how can I exclude Paths of Glory, which absolutely shattered me the first time I saw it?
In the end I had to include 2001, and for the second one I picked the one that made me happy. What an odd thing to say about a movie dealing with nuclear war ... but of course everything about Dr. Strangelove is weird from the git-go. Just look at the character names, for chrissake: Generals “Buck” Turgidson and Jack D. Ripper, Premier Alexei Kissov, Colonel “Bat” Guano, President Merkin Muffley (a merkin is, believe it or not, a pubic wig, and also the redneck pronunciation of American: ‘Murkin). Burpelson Air Force Base.
There are dozens of things I could talk about in this film, but I will limit myself to one: what may be the single best bit of casting in the history of cinema ... Slim Pickens as Major T.J. “King” Kong. And it so happens, as often is the case in the movie biz, that it almost didn’t come to pass. Peter Sellers was going to play it as his fourth part in the movie, but he had trouble getting the accent right and then he broke his leg. Kubrick decided to go with an authentic cowboy. He never showed the script to Slim, and didn’t tell him it was going to be a black comedy, “Just play it straight.” And thus was born one of the best comic performances I’ve ever seen, and one of the iconic images of the 20th century: Major Kong riding the H-bomb down to the end of the world as we know it.
P.S. Oh, yeah, and you want realism? The Air Force wouldn’t let Kubrick see the inside of a B-52, so they made it up ... and it was so accurate the AF was sure they’d stolen classified information.
P.P.S. Though Sellers didn’t know it at the time, there really is a condition called Alien Hand Syndrome (now called Dr. Strangelove Syndrome) whose symptoms are exactly like what Strangelove suffered in the film. IMDb.com
This is certainly the
quirkiest selection on my list. Few people have heard of The Knack,
(The Knack, and How to Get It, is the tacked-on US release title),
and I’m not even sure it would make Richard Lester’s Top 10 list of his own
films. But what the heck. This is my list; make your own, and put
your own obscure film nobody else likes on it. You’ll be surprised how good it
makes you feel.
It’s 1965. It’s black & white, like A Hard Day’s Night, Lester’s previous film. Michael Crawford (in his pre-Phantom of the Opera days, back when he was a lanky, awkward, high-pitched nerd), is Colin, who wants to get laid. His roommate is Tolen (one name, “Like Mantovani,” Nancy observes), who literally has women lined up on the stairs for admittance to his bedroom. He is planning to get all his women together to adore him, and figures the Albert Hall will be about the right size. If Tolen were any cooler, he’d freeze solid. Colin wants Tolen to let him in on the secret of how to get babes.
Awkward, not very pretty country girl from Cardiff, Nancy Jones (Rita Tushingham), comes to swingin’ Mods ‘n’ Rockers Carnaby Street London looking for the YWCA. She gets entangled with Colin and Tolen. Nancy turns out to be the one babe Tolen can’t get. Colin gets her. End of story.
With Lester, it’s often more about how the story is told. He got his early training in television and commercials, and was innovative there. The Beatles picked him because he had a twisted sense of humor and could be as outrageous as they were. He is willing to use anything to punctuate his story, including editing effects like stop motion and running the film backwards. He wants you to always be aware you’re watching a movie. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum there is a musical number, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” where Phil Silvers, Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, and Michael Hordern are singing and dancing in a chorus line. The camera moves to the side, then slightly behind them, and we see the empty streets they are playing to.
The play, which I’ve never seen, is full of that sort of dialogue Brits are so good at, where they make one or two words stand for whole sentences. All through the film oldsters on the street are commenting on the scandalous behavior.
What The Knack is best at is reveling in the new freedom of the 1960s. Nothing was impossible, anything was worth a try. This film takes me back there more than anything except the music of the Beatles themselves. IMDb.com
Non-original music by Aram Khachaturian (from Ballet Suite Gayaneh), György Ligeti (from Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna, Adventures, Requiem,), Richard Strauss (from Also sprach Zarathustra), Johann Strauss (waltz An der schönen, blauen Donau)
One of only two science
fiction films on my list, and the only movie I’ve ever seen that was virtually a
religious experience. I’m not talking about the psychedelic ending, though that
was marvelous, like every frame of this film. No, the awe for me began with the
first chords of
Also Sprach Zarathustra, that little bit of music
by Richard Strauss that has since become such a cliché but which I was hearing
for the first time, with the curtain still down in the
Golden Gate Cinerama
theater in San Francisco. The woofers made the whole theater vibrate. Something
was moving on the screen as the curtain rose. It was the moon, very close. And
then the sun burst out, behind the rising Earth! I was crying. I’d been dreaming
of this scene since well before Sputnik. Praise Kubrick! Shout out the
holy name of Clarke!
With the state of SFX in movies today, it’s hard to explain to a new generation the shattering impact of seeing, for the first time, what outer space would really look like. I sat in awed puzzlement, like everybody else, as the apes discovered the black slab, learned to kill, wondering how Kubrick got monkeys to act so well. Then the ape threw the bone in the air and there was the famous 3-million-year cut in 1/24th of a second ... and that’s when the hallelujah brother! really began. That’s when I saw Jesus, as it were, that’s when I watched in helpless ecstasy as scene after scene took me into a world that I had imagined many times, reading books, or simply daydreaming, but had never seen! Can I hear you say Amen!
My understanding is the first showing of 2001 left most of the critics scratching their heads, many of them hating it. Kubrick went back and cut seventeen minutes. I would give a lot to see that uncut version, because the only thing I didn’t like about the movie was that it ended! I left the theater and wanted to turn right around and go back in, but I couldn’t, because the line was too long. Many of the people in line were already glassy-eyed. Myself, I was never even tempted to get high on acid and watch it. The movie supplied its own acid. IMDb.com
My favorite western of all
time. Picture this:
Robert Ryan, and
Ben Johnson. My god, they’d plow through
The Magnificent Seven
like Panzers through Belgium. They’d eat
John Wayne and
Randolph Scott for
lunch, and chew up
Clint Eastwood for an appetizer.
The tension in this film starts right with the opening credits. It is 1913. We see a group of about eight guys on horses, dressed in US Army khaki, riding into a dusty little town, to drum and cymbal music by Jerry Fielding. We alternate with shots of children pitting big red ants against a scorpion, then setting the bugs on fire. The soldiers go into a bank, draw down on everybody in sight, and Holden says, “If they move, kill ‘em.” Freeze frame: “Directed by Sam Peckinpah.”
Perched on rooftops across the street is Robert Ryan, who used to be part of this gang, and a motley crew of hired bounty hunters. It’s an ambush. Down the street, a temperance meeting is breaking up and the old ladies and reformed sots are marching right down the middle. The gunfight begins, and it’s a slaughter of teetotalers. Holden, as Pike Bishop, deliberately uses the innocent bystanders to confuse the issue as the gang makes its escape. And he's supposed to be the good guy. Sort of.
Now re-wind your consciousness to 1969, if you are old enough to remember that turbulent year. Bear in mind, every cliché is startling and original the first time you see it. Back then, when a guy got shot he grabbed his chest or belly, screwed up his face, maybe said “You got me, copper!” and collapsed artfully. Maybe there would be a spot of blood on his shirt. Peckinpah almost single-handedly destroyed that idiocy. Blood exploded from bodies, which twisted and turned in slow motion. Guys were lifted off their feet when hit with shotgun blasts. Sure, you’ve seen it a billion times now, it is the most overworked stuff in show biz, but it was jaw-dropping back then. I sat there stunned as the violence was choreographed like a dance of death.
There’s a lot more going for this film than just its violence. All the other cast is excellent, and there’s even comic relief that’s almost Shakespearean, or at least Lucasian, provided by Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones, sort of like R2D2 and C3PO. The photography by Lucien Ballard is the best since some of John Ford’s westerns. Most of it is in Mexico, and you just feel hot. There is one of the most memorable stunts I’ve ever seen, when a big wooden bridge full of soldiers on horseback is dynamited and they all fall into a river.
This gang knows their day is done, they’re getting too old for this work. Without saying a word about it, they set out to find their deaths in a bloodbath unlike anything ever seen on the screen at that time.
It is clear that Peckinpah loves Mexico and the Mexican people, and hates the scumbags who have dominated them for most of their history. One note: be sure to see the restored director’s cut. The release version, which is the first one I saw, is still a great film, but the restored scenes give it much more depth. IMDb.com
... Tonight’s movie is M*A*S*H. Follow the zany antics of our combat
surgeons as they cut and stitch their way along the front lines, operating as
bombs and bullets burst around them, snatching laughs and love between
amputations and penicillin. Starring Donald Sutherland as “Hawkeye” Pierce ...”
I’m going to get sacrilegious here. I hated M*A*S*H the TV show. The reason is simple: I loved the movie so much that I was totally unable to accept the TV stars taking the place of the characters I adored. I mean, Alan Alda as Hawkeye? He seems to be a nice guy, but he’s no Donald Sutherland.
“Attention. You’ll howl with laughter as Major Burns and “Hot-lips” Houlihan group in ... ah, grope in the dark tent.”
And Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) was driven away in a strait jacket, fer chrissake, what was he doing back, impersonated by Larry Linville? Hotlips was driven almost to a nervous breakdown.
“See ‘The Last Supper’ recreated by the boys of the 4077th M*A*S*H unit, see ‘Painless Polish’ Wal ... Waldow ... see Painless take the black pill. Correction, black capsule. Watch ‘Dago Red’ bless a stolen jeep. Whistle and stomp as Sally Kellerman’s public ... uh, pubic hair is revealed in the most famous shower scene since Sicko. Check that, Psycho.”
Oh, shut up. These new TV characters were too freakin’ nice, too! Sure, in the movie the original cast was capable of doing good things; in fact, they did a lot of good things. But they could be mean as shit, too. The sense of the stress these people were under was enormous. Their ability to joke while the blood was literally gushing over them was something entirely new to me.
“Thrill to the zaniest football game ever put on film. Watch Radar pop out of nowhere and tell Colonel Blake what he’s about to say. Golf along with the Pros from Dover. Listen to ‘My Blue Heaven’ in Japanese.”
... goddam idiot PA system. Anyway ... also missing was Robert Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue, as if he’s merely listening in. And what the heck was a laugh track doing in a tent? I could never accept the laugh track. M*A*S*H is the best anti-war movie ever made. It is full of sly comments about those wacky G.I. movies of the '50s, when everybody was a veteran. The TV series is like a Classic Comix version of MacBeth. It’s like a copy of the Mona Lisa in Crayon.
“Attention. Respected skiffy author and movie critic John Varley says M*A*S*H is simply the best anti-war movie ever made. All non-commissioned officers will report for short-arm inspection at oh-eight-hundred hours. That is all.”
Goddam army. IMDb.com
Music direction by Peter Maxwell Davies
That Ken Russell is a
maniac is a given. Just look at
Mahler. Most everybody would agree that with an
over-the-top story like
Tommy, he was the perfect choice. Critics
The Devils and
Women in Love, were less
enchanted with many of his other grotesqueries.
Many purist critics hated The Boy Friend. Russell took a simple little musical or a jazzy spoof, depending on who you listen to (and which I’ve never seen on stage) and turned it into a huge, inflated, jokey mega-production. These critics said the charm of the original was that it was small.
I’m a purist only when I choose to be. Screw purity. What the madman Ken Russell has made out of this simple little story is Busby Berkeley on steroids and LSD.
“All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing!”
Premise: A third-rate theater company in England is staging a little trifle called “The Boy Friend.” It’s a matinee, the theater is pretty big, there are maybe 14 people in the audience. Backstage, we learn that the Big Star has broken her ankle. Twiggy, the little mouse of an Assistant Stage Manager, responsible for understudying all the female parts, suddenly is thrust on stage by the frantic director. Meanwhile, one De Thrill, famous Hollywood producer/director, has dropped in to while away a dull afternoon. Soon the whole cast knows he’s out there, and not only do they sing and dance their hearts out, they never miss an opportunity to shamelessly upstage everybody else.
Thus is born the multiple points of view that make this work so well for me. First, we have the actual production, which actually ain’t half bad, with bright and original sets and costumes, and damn good dancing. Second, we see the anguished director fantasizing how he’d stage the show with full orchestra and a Flo Ziegfeld-type budget. Third, we see the even vaster imaginings as De Thrill imagines how he’d mount the number on a giant Hollywood sound stage.
So what do you get? You get Tommy Tune, who is tall, like me, is from Texas, like me, and who can dance! (Not like me at all.) You get Twiggy, who was a total surprise as the waif Polly Brown, suddenly thrust in over her head, awkward but determined, getting better as she goes along. Not unlike Twiggy herself.
On stage, you get “Sur la Plage” with cardboard ocean and dancing girls in jellyfish hats and people arriving in cardboard cars. You get some of the wildest dancing I’ve ever seen in “Won’t You Charleston With Me?” as cast members try to outdo one another to impress De Thrill, with hand-held cameras, stomping atop the piano, climbing the scenery, all lit with merciless spotlights at stage front.
In the stage director’s mind you get “The Boy Friend,” with an orchestra pit the size of the superbowl, Twiggy as a Rolls-Royce hood ornament, dozens of girls in spangles climbing ladders, three chorines holding a giant golf ball.
In De Thrill’s mind you get “A Room in Bloomsbury,” with Twiggy and Christopher Gable in a room full of furniture that makes them seem two feet tall, then a madcap descent into an insane fairyland that makes Munchkinland seem like a slum. You get contrabassoons and bass saxophones. Then you get “Safety in Numbers,” with dancing dice and playing cards, with two (count ‘em, 2!) giant turntables on a split screen, seen from overhead, a kaleidoscope of twisting legs and arms and dancin’ feet, a house of mirrors.
And at the end, “The Riviera” with dozens of girls dancing on the wings of a biplane in a hilarious sendup of that craziness from Flying Down To Rio, as stagehands shovel “snow” into the blades of giant fans.
I’m not even covering half of it, and of course words can never convey the sheer lunacy of it all, nor the sheer beauty. The Boy Friend is the apotheosis of all musicals, spoofing them and celebrating them at the same time.
And be sure you get the director’s cut, released later, which includes a priceless number with synchronized old-timey wicker wheelchairs on the boardwalk at Brighton. IMDb.com
Francis Ford Coppola
When I was making this
list and writing the essays, I tried to get started on The
Godfather saga several times. Each time I got stuck. It’s a film that’s
been discussed so much I really couldn’t think of anything new to say about it.
I came very close to taking it off this list just because of that. But that’s
not a good reason. So there’s nothing new to say; I’ll just do my best to say
the old stuff as best I can.
You may not know or remember, The Godfather was not quite the plum assignment it seems in retrospect. The book was a big best-seller, but it was, frankly, trash. Coppola didn’t like it, and only agreed to direct after he was able to excise some of the trashier parts. Several big name directors passed on it. It was only after filming began, with Brando, that people began to realize the potential.
Harlan Ellison once told me he thought The Godfather was a disgusting fairy tale, or words to that effect. His point: real mobsters were the scum of the earth, not the semi-romantic characters portrayed by Brando and Pacino. I can’t disagree with him, but if you take it as more of a metaphorical family dynasty, more Shakespearean or Greek tragedy, which it is clearly meant to be, it works.
When you add in The Godfather, Part II, it works even better. At the end of Part II, Michael Corleone is a man who has sunk into a moral abyss so deep there is no possible way to get out. He has lost everything but his business, his money. He has lost his family, which was supposed to be the only thing important to him. He has murdered his brother-in-law, then his brother, whose only crime was to be weak. And he doesn’t seem to care.
I have seen the films separately, and in the re-edited Godfather Saga, and it works either way. That is so amazing. Every actor here is at the top of his or her form.
The Coppola family tragedy is that Francis was unable to complete the trilogy that could have made The Lord of the Rings seem like a trivial fairy tale in comparison. I mean, who cares about orcs and balrogs and Dark Lords when creatures like the Corleones walk among us, dressed just like human beings? Again, from Harlan ... something like “aside from the sorry, pustulent heart of the movie ... The Godfather, Part III is actually a pretty good movie.” Harlan’s sure got a way with words, hasn’t he? He was referring to the talentless Sophia Coppola, who single-handedly robbed me of the capability of appreciating anything that was going on around her affectless vacuity. Andy Garcia tried very hard, but was unable to coax so much as a ray of charisma from her. Francis, nepotism brought you down, just like it did the Corleones. If they’d trusted Tom Hagen, more things might have been different. But in the end, Tom was just a “Kraut/Mick” outsider. Fredo was too weak, Sonny was a loose cannon, and Michael in the end had no heart. And Sophia, though she’s become a good director, has no acting talent. The only performer in the entire trilogy who was not brilliant, and Francis casts her as the center of Michael’s undoing.
Oh, well. Two masterpieces out of three is more than we had a right to expect.
Remember all the uproar while the picture was shooting? How the Mafia (which John Gotti and J. Edgar Hoover and others said didn’t even exist) was rumored to be upset? Since then we’ve seen more realistic portraits of the Italian mob, pictures like Goodfellas, Prizzi’s Honor, and of course, The Sopranos. But The Godfather is the granddaddy of them all. IMDb.com
These two films have an
even greater claim to be considered as one than the Godfather
series, as they were in fact filmed at the same time ... and the cast was under
the impression it would be released as one film. Trouble was, they only got
paid for one film. Contracts had to be renegotiated.
Richard Lester has done what I would have thought impossible with these movies. He has created a comedy/adventure that at times is almost a spoof, and made it all work at the same time. This is not your ordinary swashbuckler geste, this is down and dirty fighting and nasty politics. There are seven sword fights just in T3M, and half a dozen in T4M. But these are not Douglas Fairbanks fights, with ropes and chandeliers handily placed for swinging through the air, and none of the fighters are acrobats.
In real life there are two kinds of sword fighting. There’s Olympic fencing, which is over practically before it begins, because it’s mostly attack and if you lose, you just lose a point, not a limb or your life. Then there is deadly serious fighting, which has no long-drawn-out clashing of swords. Real sabers are heavy, you can’t swing them around like a bamboo cane, at least not for very long. You slash, you parry, and you fall back and reassess the situation. Swashbuckling heroes or Kung Fu people never get tired. At the end of T4M, the climactic battle between D’Artagnan and Rochefort, both of them are breathing so hard they can barely stand up, much less fight. I love this! Most of the fighters here have a saber in one hand and a long knife in the other, or in the case of Athos, a heavy cape.
In real fights, terrain is more often your enemy rather than your friend. Gene Kelly will leap nimbly over castle parapets; in real life he’d break his freakin’ neck. In these movies fights occur in a courtyard hung with drying linen, in a laundry full of vats and scrubwomen, on a frozen lake (talk about deadly slapstick!), in a burning building, in a pitch-dark forest where opening your lantern so you can see will reveal your position to your opponent. At one point Athos is fighting in the water and then around a moving water wheel, and he’s about to kill his opponent when the wheel snags his clothes and lifts him up, helpless, to await a sword thrust on the way down.
There is one “fight” staged by the musketeers in a tavern, solely so they can steal food, because they’re broke. It’s an homage to the old swashbucklers, not meant to be believed. Otherwise, whenever a character grabs a rope and tries to do a Tarzan number, he ends up in a pratfall. There are more failed stratagems than heroic duels here, and it all works. You can be laughing in one moment, on the edge of your seat the next. That’s because Lester insisted the actors do their own sword work, with real swords. Oliver Reed was injured during one fight.
A trademark of Lester is dialogue by extras. People don’t just do their menial work in silence. Two guys carrying Milady de Winter in a sedan chair put it down, huffing and puffing, and one of them mutters “She’s put on weight!”
D’Artagnan has been played on the screen by Orrin Johnson, Douglas Fairbanks, Walter Abel, Don Ameche, Armando Bo, Gene Kelly, Jeffrey Stone, Robert Clark, Kenneth Welsh, Jeremy Brett, Maximilian Schell, Chris O’Donnell, and Mickey Mouse. And Michael York. For my money, York was the best. The rest of the cast is perfect. Charlton Heston as Cardinal Richelieu achieves a calm, understated menace he has never done before or since. Raquel Welch, of all people, is comically inspired. Faye Dunaway is truly scary as Milady de Winter. Oliver Reed, Frank Finley, and Richard Chamberlain are wonderful as the three.
Lester being Lester, the movie is crammed with wonderful little bits of business. Everywhere people are playing games, including an indoor game that is half tennis, half squash. Spike Milligan and Roy Kinnear provide comic turns.
Footnote: I had wondered for a long time why I hadn’t seen a new film from Richard Lester in a while. True, some of his more recent ones hadn’t been all that great; maybe nobody wanted to hire him. Then in researching this article I found out that during the filming of Return of the Musketeers, the great character actor Roy Kinnear fell off his horse, broke his pelvis, and bled to death. It must have been horrible. Kinnear had been in a lot of Lester films, I imagine they were good friends. Lester decided to get out of the movie business, and he’s stuck to it. What a tragedy, both for Kinnear and for the art of movies.
(The screenplays were by George MacDonald Fraser, creator of the Flashman books, of which only one, Royal Flash, has been filmed. Which is a damn shame as they would make a wonderful series. Does anyone out there have a copy of Royal Flash? It has never been released on video). IMDb.com and IMDb.com
If you tortured me, if you
tied me to a chair and showed me videos of George W. Bush for three days
straight, if you forced me to choose my favorite film of all time
... well, if you read my piece on Tom Jones already, you know
where I’m going with this. Some days it’s Tom Jones. Some days
Recreating a different time is tough. Hollywood has only started to get it right since the '60s and '70s. Before that, I can’t think of many movies that were more than a simulacrum of what another time might have been. Sure, they got the costumes right, most of the time, and sometimes the sets were fairly realistic. But something about the feel of them just wouldn’t be right. Look at any big Egyptian or Roman epic from the '50s. They are entirely too shiny. Technicolor required too many lights.
But a handful of pictures make me feel like the filmmakers might actually have taken their cameras through a time machine and just filmed it on the actual locations. Tom Jones is one. Chinatown is another. The location manager did an incredible job of re-creating Los Angeles in the 1930s. Okay, I wasn’t there; I wasn’t even born, but I’ve spent a lot of time in LA and seen a lot of photos, and every shot feels right. The light looks right. These days the San Fernando Valley stretches about 90 miles in all directions, north of LA; back then it was all orange groves, right over the hills. The costumes and the makeup are perfect, too.
Jack Nicholson is wonderful as Jake Gittes, who is not at all like Philip Marlowe. Jake is a snappy dresser, drives a great car, and is in the business for the money. He’s good at his job, and what really gets him is being played for a fool. Faye Dunaway navigates a part that is incredibly conflicted, you feel tension in her every moment she is on screen. And the climactic scene (“She’s my sister ... she’s my daughter ...”) ... well, what can you say? I was completely blindsided, as was everyone else in the audience.
Have to say a word about the music. There are several ways you can do movie music. One is to make it big. Remember the soundtracks to Gone With the Wind, or one of those epics of the '50s like Ben-Hur, or Lawrence of Arabia? The best modern example is Star Wars. Right from the first note you know you’ve got an exciting picture. Lately we’ve got a lot of movies that go the pop route, and often the music elevates a so-so movie into something more lively, like Pretty Woman. You can’t help tapping your toes. Or you can use it just for emphasis, like Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking strings in Psycho. The music in Chinatown is used mostly for mood. When this is done well—and I don’t know of any better example than this one—you are hardly even aware it’s there. But next time you watch, listen to the music, see what it does. Jerry Goldsmith is exactly right here.
It all comes together in Chinatown. Everybody did his job. Even the movie poster is one of the all-time bests.
But the real star of the picture, to me, is ... Robert Towne. You thought I was going to say Roman Polanski, didn’t you? Well, there is no doubt he is brilliant, no doubt that his contributions to the film (and in particular the ending, which originally was not so dark) are huge, it’s Towne’s script, and this is very much a script-driven film. It is wonderfully complex and interconnected, based on fact, and so, so sad.
Even the enigmatic title is perfect. We never find out what happened to Jake in Chinatown years ago, and we never go there until the end of the film. It has nothing to do with the neighborhood nor with the Chinese people who live there. It’s a state of mind.
“It’s Chinatown, Jake.” IMDb.com
is probably funnier, overall, with its willingness to go way, way, way over the
top. Mel Brooks was breaking new comic wind in that one. (It’s hard to remember
after films like
There’s Something About Mary and
Pie just how shocking it was to have a
fart joke in a movie. But it was,
and also riotously funny.) But it was all over the place, there was really no
plot, and the end pretty much collapses.
Not so with Young Frankenstein. Brooks is primarily a gag writer, and one of the best ever, but he has never shown any talent for art, in the sense of the look and feel of a film. Here, for the first and last time, he tried to get the look right, and with cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld (Fail-Safe) and production design by Dale Hennesy it all works. To me, it makes the jokes work much better to see them presented in the context of what looks like an actual B&W film from the '30s. They used the original props and castle from the Boris Karloff Frankenstein. And this time, there is actually a story, something Brooks hasn’t fooled with much since The Producers.
“Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Mel’s trademark musical number—there’s one in all his pictures—is second only to “Springtime For Hitler” as a show-stopper. Has there ever been a better Igor—“That’s EYE-gore”—than Marty Feldman? The attention to detail is fantastic. The zippers on Peter Boyle’s neck. The Bride of Frankenstein hair-do. And the sight gags. Gene Wilder plunging the scalpel into his thigh, looking at it in amazement, then crossing his leg casually. And the other gags. The townspeople who all speak with English lower-class accents, and Kenneth Mars, whose German accent is so thick he can hardly even understand himself. The horses whinnying ever time somebody says “Frau Blucher.” The shoeshine boy in lederhosen on the train platform: “Pardon me, boy. Is this the Transylvania Station?” “Walk this way.” And young Dr. Frankenstein (“That’s FRAHNK-en-steen”) hunching along just like Igor. Madeline Kahn, one of the funniest women who ever lived (sadly, dead far too early), bursting out into “Oh, Sweet Mystery of Life At Last I’ve Found You!”
And there’s even one genuinely moving moment, at least for me. Entering the monster’s cell ... (“No matter what you hear from in there, no matter what I say ... don’t open this door!” And ten seconds later: “Open this goddam door, you idiots!!!”) ... when he realizes the magnitude of what he’s accomplished ... “Are you all right in there, Dr. Frahnkensteen?” “My name ... is FRANKENSTEIN!”
Last but not least, Mel Brooks, maybe the worst ham actor in the world, isn’t in it. Sorry Mel, but it’s the truth. IMDb.com
Annie Hall is
the turning point for Woody Allen. Before, he wrote and directed some of the
funniest movies ever made:
Take the Money and Run,
Love and Death. After, he was likely to
do any sort of movie. I’m a big, big fan of the funny stuff (in
Memories, Woody has aliens land and tell him “We’re big fans of your
movies, especially your earlier, funnier stuff”). I happened to be at
East Lansing, Michigan, when
What’s Up, Tiger Lily? had its world
premiere there, and I almost died laughing. So did everybody else in the
But those movies are all jokes, like a Mel Brooks movie. Don’t get me wrong, I love movies like that, Airplane! is one of my favorites. But the addition of real characterization adds so many more dimensions, and allowed Woody to open up into different areas of comedy, as well as straight drama. The results since have been mixed. Before Annie Hall he was the bewildered nerd, delivering one-liners, taking pratfalls, spoofing everything in sight. Afterward, he was still the nerd, but with neuroses instead of pratfalls. It’s a character we’ve come to be quite a bit too familiar with, especially in his most recent movies, where it’s become an unpleasant cliché. I found his last few impossible to watch. But then he’ll come out with something like Deconstructing Harry, or Hannah and Her Sisters, or Radio Days or Crimes and Misdemeanors. I can only hope he’s still got a few more like that in him.
I was enraptured from the very first frames of Annie Hall, when Woody speaks directly to the audience. I am a fan of breaking the conventional mold of story-telling, if you can make it work, which is very hard. Woody uses every trick in the book here, walking up to strangers on the street to question them about his life, producing Marshall McLuhan himself at a theater to quiet an obnoxious blowhard, having people on split screens talk to each other, and my favorite, showing up as an adult in his old elementary school classroom to argue with his schoolmates, then have them stand and summarize their life stories since those days: “I used to be a heroin addict; now I’m a methadone addict.”
This was one of those once-in-a-lifetime roles for Diane Keaton, she created an entire look (or the costume designer did, but she sold it) and one of the most appealing screen characters I’ve ever met. She completely deserved her Oscar, and she had some stiff competition. The scene where she first talks to Woody after they are leaving the tennis court is just a joy to watch. Well, lah-di-dah!
I also have to hand it to Woody Allen, a man I don’t admire much as a person anymore, and whose talent may be on the wane. He is brutally honest here. As in most of his movies, he’s playing himself, and the portrait is of a very selfish man. The break-up of the best relationship he’ll ever have is clearly his own fault.
And even with all the sadness, the movie contains some wildly funny stuff, including one of the best sight gags in history involving a box full of powder cocaine. IMDb.com
damn it! It just ain’t friggin’ fair! He was only 60 years old, he
should have had many, many more wonderful stage and movie musicals ahead of him.
Jerome Robbins lived to be 80.
George Balanchine was 79.
Busby Berkeley was 81.
Martha Graham made it to 97. Who’s in charge here, anyway? God, is that
you? What’s the problem, don’t you like musical comedy? Then
Denial: No, man, it just can’t be Bob Fosse that was struck down on a city street in Washington, D.C. Not Bob. Sure, he smoked like a chimney, he was a driven workaholic, he had a bad heart, but he had an operation, man, he was supposed to be okay. You know what I think, I think it’s like Elvis, he’s still out there, planning new dance moves or even variations on old ones, he was my favorite choreographer, I could never get enough of him, and he’s ready to pop up, surprise!, and wow us again with another masterpiece. Sure, that’s what it is. Sure.
Bargaining: Okay, look. I’ll give you ... I’ll give you ... Singin’ in the Rain. Okay? Wipe it from my memory, it’s like I never saw it, and I’ll never watch it again, okay? I mean, that’s one of the finest musicals ever made, right? Just let Bob come back and make one more musical, that’s all I ask. Whaddaya mean, dead is dead? Singin’ in the Rain, fer chrissake. Okay, okay, wait a minute ... I’ll throw in 42nd Street. You got Busby Berkeley, and you got Gene Kelly, what more can you ask? Okay, wait, wait ...
Depression: Oh, crap. He’s dead.
Acceptance: Well, at least he made All That Jazz. Has anybody ever written his own epitaph more elegantly? For Bob Fosse, life was a cabaret. Show business was his metaphor as well as his life. The movie is brutally honest. He doesn’t try to pretend his life was wasted, he doesn’t pretend he wasn’t good; Joe Gideon was so good, and so obsessed, that his life was killing him. But he mercilessly exposes his own flaws.
The movie is such a delight, and the more you know about Fosse the more fun it is. Fosse was making Lenny, Gideon was making The Standup. Fosse was working on Chicago on Broadway, Gideon was making NY/LA. Get it?
Bob was going bald, so he liked hats. He didn’t like his hands, so he wore gloves. And he made the hat and gloves his trademark in dance. He thought he was awkward as a dancer (seeing him in Kiss Me Kate and Damn Yankees, I don’t see it, but that’s what he said) so he turned awkwardness into a whole new kind of dancing, a style you can spot instantly.
Could it be that there is a bright spot in all this sadness? Well, maybe a tiny one. Fosse was working on getting Chicago produced when he died. It was going to star ... Madonna. Now, your first choice is often not the one that gets it, and Madonna is a hell of a singer, and I did like her in Evita, and she could have played Roxie Hart harder, like she was on Broadway, and it might even have been better than Renee Zellwegger ... but I don’t think so. Chicago the movie was great, deserved the Best Picture Oscar, and most of what made it great was that it preserved the spirit of Fosse’s choreography.
And some people still have memories. Not long ago Ann Reinking re-created Dancin’, a show I never caught on Broadway, and you could see that Bob Fosse’s ghost was still very much alive. It’s on video from PBS. IMDb.com
The Mad Max series is a
perfect illustration of one of the worst things about most films that have a
Roman numeral after them, even though they didn’t use Roman numerals in this
one: Concept inflation.
Mad Max was a swell little action picture, made on a shoestring without much more going for it than a simple story and a bunch of guys willing to drive cars really, really fast and crash into things. But it had a heart. And it made $100,000,000, which guaranteed a sequel. It didn’t do much business in the US, because at that time we didn’t watch Australian films. When they did release it ... they dubbed in American voices!
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome was a bloated bit of awfulness bringing in all sorts of gimcrackery to disguise the fact that nothing was going on but Mel Gibson getting the crap beaten out of him, as he must in every film he makes, by contractual obligation.
Now I hear there will be Mad Max: Fury Road, due in 2005. I am a prophet, I can tell you exactly what it will look like. It will have CGI out the wazoo, lots and lots of car chases, and will look really snazzy. Mel Gibson will get the crap beaten out of him, but survive. And it may even be a good movie, but it won’t have much to do with Mad Max.
Luckily, between the first and the third movie was Mad Max II, better known in the US by what I think is the better title: The Road Warrior. Possibly the best action/adventure car chase film ever made.
What? I hear you say. What about all the high-tech thrill-a-minute stuff we’ve seen in the 23 years since? What about the car chase in Terminator III: Rise of the Machines, where they wrecked half of Los Angeles with a giant crane? What about The Matrix Reloaded, where they built a solid mile of freeway and used about 50 stunt drivers? Both wonderful action sequences, no question ... but I was never on the edge of my seat! My foot was never groping for the brake pedal in the movie theater, I never winced, I never actually gasped. Hell, more than half the cars in Matrix were computer-generated, they weren’t even there!
The Road Warrior began with some really snazzy chases, built up a weird and brand-new universe I’d never seen before, and climaxed with the most astonishing, balls-out, maniacal, insane twenty minutes of action I have ever seen. Just watch those guys again sometime. They are hanging out there on the edge of the envelope, skidding, bumping, rolling over, with no camera tricks. I was literally breathless at the end.
As for the look of the film ... remember that every cliché was new at some time. Sure there have been many more violent films than The Wild Bunch, but they can never have the same impact as the original. They don’t show me anything new, just variations on the old. Some films do that. 2001: A Space Odyssey showed us outer space for the first time. Star Wars showed us a lived-in future, Alien showed us ... well, slime. All those things have become clichés since then.
The costumes and sensibility of The Road Warrior have been endlessly copied, but no one has yet equaled one scene I’ll never forget that sums up the brutality it portrays. The motorized barbarians led by The Humungus are delivering an ultimatum to the people in the compound through his spokesman, The Toadie (“Greetings from The Humungus! The Lord Humungus! The Warrior of the Wasteland! The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla!”). The Feral Kid throws his super-sharp boomerang. Everybody watches it. It swoops down and The Toadie, without thinking, reaches up to catch it. Blip blip blip blip! His fingers are cut off. The Humungus starts to laugh. All his people start to laugh. The people inside the compound start to laugh, too. It’s the funniest thing they’ve seen in years. The Toadie looks around at everybody ... and he starts to laugh, too. That last touch is what turned it from simply a very shocking scene into a scene of genius.
These people live brutal lives. You take your laughs where you can find them. IMDb.com
The Commitments is an artificial band. They were assembled for this picture from
the musical and acting talent in Dublin; none of them had been a big star before
this, though a few continued on in musical careers afterwards. In that, they
Spinal Tap ... even, in a sense,
and Mary, who were joined by a folk music promoter.
I don't care what anyone says about Belushi and Aykroyd not paying their dues or shite like that. They were very good. And though it's rock 'n' roll heresy to say it, The Monkees had some damn good numbers. (Did you know that Stephen Stills almost made the final cut? Think how that would have changed the history of rock!) Spinal Tap has been on several successful tours, and they're good enough at the crap they do that there are probably still fans out there who don't get the joke.
The Commitments were flat-out good. So good they are a little bit frightening, and cause me to reflect on just how much talent there is out there in the wide world, people who are as good as or better than acts that are filling stadiums, but who never got the right break, or who don't have the stage presence or (these days) sexy good looks to make a musically bereft but visually arresting video.
Alan Parker is a quirky filmmaker. He's made one movie I'd call ill-advised (Bugsy Malone) one I'd call dishonest (Mississippi Burning), one I just hated (The Life of David Gale), a good but neglected musical (Evita) ... and one of the best kick-ass musicals of all time (Fame). Put those all together and they spell ... what? A guy who makes what he likes, is what I'd say. There isn't any "Alan Parker" movie, they're all over the place. Think about these other titles by him: The Road to Wellville, Come See the Paradise, Angel Heart, Birdy, Shoot the Moon, Midnight Express. Every one well worth seeing, all completely different. Asked to find someone to compare him to, I'd pick the late, much-lamented Robert Altman, who died two days ago as I write this.
The motley crew (hey, there's a good name for a band!) that will become The Commitments is assembled by Jimmy Rabbitte from the odds and ends of North Dublin, and they are going to play ... soul music! The rationale is impeccable: "The Irish are the blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and North Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin." Works for me. He gets them together to rehearse in an attic over a pool hall, and they stink. But everybody stinks when they start out. They get better. They play an anti-drug concert at a local church in front of a banner that reads "HEROINE KILLS," with the final E hastily rubbed out. They're not half bad. All of them are competent, but there is one genius aboard, "Deco" Cuffe, the lead singer. I kid you not, fellow R&B lovers, this kid ranks up there with the best white soul shouters of all time, as good as Joe Cocker, as good as Janis Joplin. (The guy who plays him, Andrew Strong, you'd swear he's in his late 20s. He's 16!) Deco has one problem: he is a total and complete jerk. No one in the band can stand him. But they begin to make a name, they're packing pubs, and one night Wilson Pickett has promised to drop by and listen. Before he can get there, the band gives a performance that ranks as a triumph. I was stomping and almost shouting as they absolutely own "Try a Little Tenderness," "Mustang Sally," and half a dozen others.
And at the peak of their powers, at the moment of perfection, like a zillion bands before them ... they fall apart in personal squabbling.
Some critics didn't like this, but I found it to be achingly true-to-life. For one brief shining moment they were on top of the world. Those moments usually don't last. In a standard Hollywood movie they'd have continued to rise, had hits, won Grammys. This was so much more honest, and in a very strange way, satisfying. Life goes on.
Alan Parker went about making this movie in much the same way Jimmy Rabbitte did. He insisted on no musical stars. (Van Morrison was approached at one point, but I'm relieved to say, hated the music. Probably because none of it was his.) He auditioned a lot of people who hadn't acted before but could sing or play, and then ... practice, practice, practice. All the music on the soundtrack is by The Commitments, they all sing or play their own stuff (except, I'm pretty sure, the trumpet player). This adds immeasurably to the feeling of realism.
The Commitments is, quite simply, the best movie I know about the making of music, the passion of it and the heartbreak of working hard and having it come to nothing ... in terms of success. But they'll always have that one magical night when everything cooked and the crowd went wild. IMDb.com
Not Yet Eligible