Thursday, May 31

My Top 100 Films (61-80)

[The following is the latest entry in my Top 100 films. Click the links to see picks 1-20, 21-40 and 41-60.]

61. Once Upon a Time in the West (1969/Italy, USA/Sergio Leone)

Leone's homage/revisionist take on the Western reaches its pinnacle in this perfectly directed, almost Brechtian deconstruction. From the long, unbearably tense beginning (hands down the best film opening ever) to Henry Fonda's everyman image being perverted to suggest that violence and sadism is a cornerstone of the "average American." Leone helped create a Western icon in Eastwood's Man With No Name, but here he tears the whole damn place to the ground. Even so, he does it with such lush formalism it's nearly impossible to see him battering at the foundations until it all collapses.

62. Only Angels Have Wings (1939/USA/Howard Hawks)

Hawks' most spiritually pure film, of men being men and women not losing an inch to them. Cary Grant's deliberately aloof performance only makes him more irresistible, and the muted grief these pilots cannot express when they lose one of their own turns the heavy fogged airstrip where tehy operate into a grounded ghost ship, haunted by the freshly dead and soon-to-die. Hawks' direction has never been the kind one would call poetic (and that's a compliment), but the ethereal, haunting mood he casts in this film comes damn close. The three Hawks films in this list are all perfect. Bringing Up Baby is the perfect screwball comedy. Rio Bravo is the perfect Western. Only Angels Have Wings is the perfect...well, it cannot easily be fit into genre. For that reason, it may be the greatest among these equals.

63. Paris, Texas (1984/Germany, France, UK, USA/Wim Wenders)

One of the most piercing, on-point views of America came from a foreign director with multinational backing. Sounds about right. Harry Dean Stanton's quintessential performance as a prodigal son trying to repair the life he does not remember doubles as an abstract elegy for America, for the faded Old West where this is set, and for the American Dream that hollowed out Travis and his family. Intimate, poignant moments between people are as bewildering and unsettling as they are necessary and hopeful. All we have is each other, and sometimes not even that.

64. Park Row (1952/USA/Samuel Fuller)

I have a hate-hate relationship with journalism, but this unabashedly sentimental, if pulpy and caricatured, view of newspapermen is so infectious it makes me pine for its return to prominence. Packed with Fuller's cigar-plug dialogue, brutish action and unrepentant idealism, Park Row so thoroughly believes in journalism's fundamental role in American society that it ties the profession to the importation of our greatest symbol, the Statue of Liberty. Hey, no one could ever accuse Sam Fuller of playing it small. Contains that immortal line, "The day you learn to read, you're fired."

65. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid [preview version] (1973/USA/Sam Peckinpah)

Ignore the butchered theatrical cut (and the misleading 2005 special edition) in favor of the 1988 cut that tried its damnedest to get as much of Peckinpah's original vision back on the screen. Watching this cut, though, it's hard to imagine a more beautiful, if severe, epitaph for the West. The opening credits alone, with the stop-start fades in and out of color and the juxtaposition of an old Garrett's double cross with Billy's gang shooting the heads off chickens in the past, is worthy of canonization. But the rest of the movie is no less striking, finding no heroism in Billy's iconic fast-living, but also no comfort in Pat's cowardly long life. Peckinpah's infatuation and disgust with violence finds its greatest outlet here, searching desperately for something to love in the Old West and finding nothing. Slim Pickens' quiet, dignified, but deeply sad reaction to his fatal wounding haunts me forever and always.

66. A Perfect World (1993/USA/Clint Eastwood)

My rare connection to Clint Eastwood's work makes the ones I do love all the more special, and this portrait of doomed innocence in the run-up to Kennedy's assassination is one of his most unforced, affecting films. The politics tacitly expressed in Eastwood's films are conservative, but above all weary, dissatisfied with a world that seems to please nobody. Like other conservatives, Eastwood wants to go back to the past, but instead of reveling in it, he wishes to correct something in the hopes of setting the present on a better path. The so-called perfect world he gives to escaped convict Butch and the boy hostage he unwittingly sets free from his own prison is devastating for its fragility and ephemerality. Eastwood's own Texas Ranger serves as a revision of the trigger-happy characters he started to play around the time this film is set, a cop who wants a peaceable solution to the situation and can only look on in disgust when that hope, too, is revealed as just that.

67. Persona (1966/Sweden/Ingmar Bergman)

I want to revisit my early piece on this film, but I keep putting it off because I don't want to have another go until I feel I've truly understood the movie. I may be delaying a second post until my death. Bergman's reflexive drama is as playful as it is despairing, its use of metacinematic structure and style to  peel back the existential mystery of an actress gone mute. Is the movie a parable for man's inability to deal with tragedy, or art's? The straightest answer I could give is "Yes." But it's also Bergman's most focused insight into the horror of human existence and the vacuums of communication between people. The slow entwining of Bibi Andersson's and Liv Ulmann's beings ironically connote a breakdown in illusion as the film becomes ever more illusory. The last shot, revealing camera filming the actresses, should be a liberating reminder of the falsity of the image. Instead, it suggests that all life is false.

68. Phantoms of Nabua (2009/Thailand, Germany, UK/Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

I will not be able to state definitively my favorite Apichatpong Weerasethakul feature until I know he has made his last, for he continues to develop and enrich his themes and aesthetic with each new one. So I will instead select this 2009 short, inexplicably left off the Uncle Boonmee DVD despite being part of the same project that culminated in that masterful feature. At 10 minuts, Phantoms wastes no time, but it also doesn't particularly put forward a narrative. Instead, it presents a striking composition, a fluorescent light, a flaming soccer ball and a flickering film projector showing a film of lightning strikes all blazing in starless night. Eventually, the soccer ball hits the screen and burns it to cinders, reminiscent of the climax of Inglourious Basterds and Nick Ray's experimental short The Janitor. As the projector continues to shine light into the smoke, are we meant to see it as a breakdown of film's power, or of art being projected into the real world to become one with it? This alternately mournful and blissfully hopeful conundrum, when taken in tandem with Uncle Boonmee, marks the greatest, most evocative elegy yet made for the format of film.

69. Pinocchio (1940/USA/Ben Sharpsteen et. al)

Admittedly, the film is more a collection of vignettes than a unified narrative, but when animation looks this good, I'm happy to go anywhere it takes me. The more random the better. The rich variety of colors and stunning depth of field display a technical ambition no smaller than that of Fantasia. Pinocchio himself is, forgive me, a bit wooden, but this fantastical movie makes a frightfully adult case for how unforgiving this world is, especially to someone different. As Pinocchio heads from Geppetto's cozy, cluttered workshop to a cage, an exploitative freakshow, a morally and physically corrupting island of temptations and, finally, the belly of a whale, one gets the sense that he wants to be a real boy not to feel like he belongs to the world but so it will finally stop doing everything in its cosmic power to kill him.

70. Platform (2000/China/Jia Zhang-ke)

Jia's alternately wistful and critical view of China's modern history, both its Communist 20th century and shamelessly capitalistic new era, is best captured in this period piece about a troupe traveling around China at the end of the '70s and beyond to sing of Mao's accomplishments. But those who sing of Mao's trains have never actually seen one, and most still feel tied to an almost feudal existence never wholly overcome in the vast, geographically and even lingually segmented country. The decade slowly morphs the Peasant Culture Group of Fenyang into the commercialized All-Stars Rock 'n' Breakdance Electronic Band, but as with the Communist "upheaval," this capitalistic dawn changes little about the day-to-day existence of China's population, and indeed its only true innovation is to find new ways to keep people separate and lonely.

71. Playtime (1967/France/Jacques Tati) (TOP 10)

How can a comedy on this scale be so minutely controlled? Tati's long shots emphasize the alienation and dehumanization of modern life in such a way that he can also celebrate the struggle of the human spirit against the cage it built for itself. The precision of his setpieces—the see-through apartment complex, the rows of file cabinets revealed to be sealed-off cubicles—are as funny as they are evocative, and the extended climax in a brand-new restaurant slowly dismantled by its patrons is, as Jonathan Rosenbaum rightly said, “the most formidable mise-en-scène in the history of cinema.” But if Tati's desire to back away from modernist influence seems conservative, it should be noted that his release of his iconic Hulot into a much larger world of characters is a downright socialistic narrative decision.

72. Ran (1985/Japan/Akira Kurosawa)

Taken with Welles' treatment of Falstaff, Kurosawa's stupefying adaptation of King Lear is the best Shakespeare put to celluloid. Tatsuya Nakadai captures all of Lear's folly and crumbling arrogance as Hidetora, and his descent into madness is accentuated by chilling Noh stylings. Everything else is no less bombastic, be it Hidetora's caustic, wormy Fool or the gargantuan battle sequence of a castle being torn to ribbons, a sequence shot with more disgust than Kurosawa ever put into his camera. And this is the man who ended the supposedly heroic struggle of Seven Samurai with the boldest warrior literally ass-up dead in the mud. Not Kurosawa's last great film, but perhaps his last awe-inspiring one.

73. Red Desert (1964/Italy/Michelangelo Antonioni)

I'm still torn on Antonioni's modernist ennui, but strangely I feel it works far better in this color-streaked industrial fog than in L'Avventura's bleaker monochrome. Monica Vitti shines as a woman unable to adapt to the industrial environment of the film, with its unnatural shapes and colors, to the point that she can barely function. Yet underneath Vitti's disconnect and sexual tension with Richard Harris' understanding, equally alienated Corrado, the film makes an open case for the beauty of this man-made world, where not only the vividly colored objects have aesthetic appeal but even the cold gray steel that makes up the industrial realm's circulatory and respiratory systems. Antonioni may craft characters who see no future in altered, modern landscapes, but he does, keeping the movie from sinking into navel-gazing wistfulness.

74. The Red Shoes (1948/UK/Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) (TOP 10)

"Why do you want to dance?" "Why do you want to live?" "Because I must." "Well I don't know exactly why, but I must." "That is my answer, too." And with that early exchange, I knew I'd found a film I'd cherish forever. The Archers' use of color is equalled by none, and this phantasmagoric, vividly subjective ballet film captures the overwhelming ecstasy and agony of artistic inspiration and drive like no other movie. The ballet sequences offer perhaps the first great step forward for film art after the end of the silent era, updating silent techniques into something even more magical as the music entwines flawlessly with the movements. The grim climax suggests the doomed fate awaiting all those who can do nothing but art, but that this will never dissuade anyone so inclined is part of their reason their art towers above all others.

75. Repulsion (1965/UK/Roman Polanski)

Polanski's psychological apartment nightmare is my favorite horror film by far, and the only one that truly terrifies me instead of just momentarily freaking me out. Given Polanski's infamous actions, there's a dark irony that, more than nearly any other male filmmaker, he understands women. I'll take his multifaceted, psychosexual portrait of Catherine Deneuve's stiff Carol over generations of thinly sketched knife-bait any day. Polanski's mastery with a camera is also evident even at this early juncture, the time-marking shots of decaying food and the silent nighttime hallucinations as perfectly composed as they are spontaneous and arresting. I don't watch this too often, but only because I like to sleep now and then.

76. Rio Bravo (1959/USA/Howard Hawks)

Perched on the cusp of the '60s and a subsequent downturn in American cinema and uptick in art cinema, this perfectly plotted, perfectly acted, perfectly shot Western seems a last hurrah for classic Hollywood. Made as a conservative response to High Noon, Hawks' film nevertheless always struck me as liberal, as John Wayne's hero tries to go it alone but is absorbed into a larger, mutually supportive community when it comes time to defend the small town. But regardless of what the film is "saying," Rio Bravo is so immaculately crafted that it can please anyone. Not a single moment is out of place, and that includes the songs.

77. The Rules of the Game (1939/France/Jean Renoir)

The "game" in the title could refer to aristocratic codes both followed and transgressed in Renoir's greatest feature, or maybe even life in general. But considering how much, and how quickly, its overlapping dialogue, deep-focus cinematography and fluid, playful camera movements trickled down into the language of cinema, the game for which Renoir sets down the rules may be filmmaking itself. I saw contempt in Renoir's view of the dying, oblivious aristocracy when I first saw the film, but now I see the slap he so desperately wants to give these people is a concerned corrective, not a furious assault. The spectre of coming upheaval hangs over this movie, and as repulsive and self-absorbed as these characters are, it's hard not to feel sorry for what they're about to experience.

78. Safe (1995/USA/Todd Haynes)

Haynes' domestic horror film is terrifying for its ambiguity. Like Nick Ray's Bigger Than Life, the "monster" is the American way of life. But where Ray regrettably tied James Mason's madness to a drug, Haynes leaves Julianne Moore's problems unnervingly unexplained. As the film tracks her attempts to diagnose and cure her reaction against her upper-middle-class environment, it conjures images of AIDS scares, cults and a world we'e made so antiseptic it now ironically infects us. And as that bleached, isolated life is exemplified by Moore's Carol, the victim is her own antagonist. I don't think it's any kind of coincidence, also, that Moore's character shares a name with the protagonist/villain of Repulsion.

79. Sansho the Bailiff (1954/Japan/Kenji Mizoguchi)

I have been thunderstruck by Mizoguchi for some time (seek out, please, his neglected and commercially unavailable Straits of Love and Hate), but Sansho the Bailiff eclipses all else I've seen by him. Mizoguchi's period piece shows a world where a governor's kindness gets him exiled, his wife sold into prostitution and his children made slaves. The film is unbearable, showing the corruption of the son, the maiming of the mother and, most hauntingly, the self-sacrifice of the sister, who as ever brings up the director's autobiographical guilt over the exploitation of his own sibling. There's also a scathing indictment of bureaucracy, the rampant sadism of the titular character made worse by the fact that he's the equivalent of an office manager, drunk on his modicum of power and sycophantic to his superiors. I only saw the film for the first time last week, but I was left so devastated, and so enamored with its indescribably perfect mise-en-scène, that I could not leave it off the list.

80. Seven Samurai (1954/Japan/Akira Kurosawa) (TOP 10)

The film that made me a cinephile. I'd seen and loved great movies before this, but afterward, I was never the same. Kurosawa crafts the shortest 3.5-hour film in history, an adroitly paced action epic that somehow manages to take wide, message-heavy digressions without losing an ounce of steam. This was also, along with Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, the film that made me notice how lens choices affected the image, Kurosawa's long lenses crushing the depth of field, turning each composition into a huge painting. It also emphasizes the bridging of connections between the samurai with each other and with the peasants they agree to defend, the gradual flattening of the image emphasizing their physical and spiritual proximity. The director cares so much for his characters that he does not revel in the savagery that consumes most of them, and indeed even shows their corpses embarrassingly placed to ward off any notions of heroic bloodshed. "We lost," as the sage samurai leader says as he overlooks what most would call a victory, and the final shot dwells not only the rescued living but the departed dead.

Wednesday, May 30

My Top 100 FIlms (41-60)

[The following is a continuation of my top 100 films. Click on the link for picks 1-20 and 21-40.]

41. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie [director's cut] (1978/USA/John Cassavetes)

I still have so much to learn from John Cassavetes. I need to rewatch A Woman Under the Influence and to see for the first time Opening Night, a film several writers I deeply admire love so fervently that most cannot even talk about it. But this director's cut of Cassavetes' ostensible gangster picture—actually shorter than the theatrical version—still resonates. Ben Gazzara's tragic, greasy loser, a man who celebrates the paying off of a debt by getting a whole new stack of it, is haunting. His Cosmo continuously retreats into physical and emotional safety back in the haven of his disgusting nightclub. Compared to the world around him, however, this cum-stained den is as close to comfort as Cosmo can hope for. Cassavetes doesn't use any flashy camerawork, but at no point does his camera fail to suggest the character's inner thoughts and moods. At every turn, Chinese Bookie feels like it might devolve into Oscar-baiting actor moments, only to be cruelly cut short by an uncaring world.

42. Kiss Me Deadly (1955/USA/Robert Aldrich)

Aldrich and screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides remove the assumption of heroism in Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, instead presenting him as nothing more than an amoral brute in an amoral, brutish world. Yet it is precisely that revulsion with the noir genre that makes this one of the genre's finest entries. The whole thing feels unclean, as if one should handle it in a hazmat suit and afterward have a chemical bath. The MacGuffin driving Hammer's self-absorbed quest for revenge is as useless as it is essential to the nihilistic view of corrupted noir worlds. Its small-scale nuclear holocaust is tacitly suggested to be the one thing capable of scrubbing this filth off the planet.

43. Koyaanisqatsi (1982/USA/Godfrey Reggio)

Baraka has the more striking visuals but Koyaanisqatsi is the more thematically focused. Perfectly enmeshed with the visuals of natural beauty and garish modernity is Philip Glass' gorgeous score, lilting electronics and Gregorian chants that sound like the most ambitious, unrealized score of the silent era finally unearthed and revamped with modern technology. Reggio's contention that our increasingly technological life inhibits us is so much New Age hokum, but his camera captures images of such breathtaking splendor that even when he's criticizing how we've become, he offers up too much poetry in every aspect of life to be despairing. Life may be out of balance, but even that instability can contribute to the planet's enduring majesty.

44. Lawrence of Arabia (1962/UK, USA/David Lean)

It's easy to miss just how much is going on in David Lean's epic about the life of T.E. Lawrence. Indeed, my own review of the film (one of my earlier, more embarrassing posts), offers muted praise for a film I once found visually impressive but emotionally uninvolving. I've since turned around on the film, not only continuing to bask in its sumptuous, innovative cinematography but marveling at the subtlety I'd overlooked in these frames. Lean cannot "solve" a character as multifaceted as Lawrence and doesn't try to, but he nevertheless finds psychological insights into the deliberately ambivalent front O'Toole presents for the character. Epics tend to mold their characters into two-dimensionally, grandiosely good and evil people to match the production scale, but in Lawrence there is a grace rare in films of any size, all but unheard in one this big.

45. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943/UK/Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

Michael Powell's Tory leanings never prevented him from criticizing the empire (see also: the strongly anti-imperialist Black Narcissus), but he also gives its fading glory an emotional send-off with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Compared to the Technicolor explosions of Narcissus or The Red ShoesBlimp is more subdued and formal. Yet it still dazzles, the awesome sweep of history conveyed in human, understated terms by the actors. Roger Livesey doesn't play the titular cartoon character but does port over and deepen that caricature, turning the bloviating buffoon of the comic strip into a man who's seen it all and carries a scarred sadness under his bluster. Even better is Anton Walbrook as a polite, disciplined German who becomes Candy's dearest friend. That a film made in the thick of WWII would depict the British as not always the most righteous of soldiers and a German as a sterling example of professional conduct and personal grace is astonishing, but less so than its elegiac grace. The quiet truth presented throughout that, no matter how WWII ends, life as Britain knew it will never be the same. The Archers can only hope that already outdated notions of honor and manners do not die with it.

46. Love Exposure (2008/Japan/Sion Sono)

A four-hour film about upskirt photography? Well, kinda. There's also Catholic guilt, first erections, castrations, cults and more. Sono takes already transgressive tropes in Japanese film and explodes them into something outlandishly tasteless, yet underneath the hissing sprays of blood and cross-dressing is a strangely compelling, even touching tale of wounded youth searching for an identity and for the first bonds they themselves must make in the world, not merely those thrust upon them in the form of family and, via proximity and confinement in school, friends. The chaste final shot, frozen for an indelible half-second, is as erotic and romantic as anything ever filmed.

47. M (1931/Germany/Fritz Lang)

Not the first great film to be a talkie, but the first great talkie film, if you catch my drift. The nuance and atmosphere in Lang's sound design is still striking, that horrible whistle even more chilling and foreboding than John Williams' Jaws theme. Peter Lorre's timid, soft performance gives unwanted, critical empathy to his child murderer, and the criminal community's quest to capture him and restore the status quo offers depths of cynical social commentary rarely reached by even the darkest noirs this film helped spawn. Lorre's climactic speech to his accusers is enduringly unbearable, twisting Jesus' "let he who is without sin" moral into an indictment of the social thirst for punishment. This film hasn't aged a day, which is depressing, when you think about it.

48. Make Way for Tomorrow (1937/USA/Leo McCarey)

"It would make a stone cry," Orson Welles famously said of this film, and it's hard to argue. McCarey ignored contemporary audiences' desire to escape from the Depression and gave them the story of an old, loving couple torn apart by greed on scales large and small. The scene of Beulah Bondi calling her husband and shouting into the receiver gradually slips from funny into earth-shattering as she confesses her loneliness oblivious to the parlor full of guests listen on sheepishly. The climax, in which the all-too-briefly reunited pair receive the respect and care from strangers they never enjoyed from their own children, is as giddy as their subsequent goodbye is devastating. I don't watch this one often, because the heart just can't take it.

49. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976/UK/Nicolas Roeg)

Roeg lends his kaleidoscopic visual flair to this technologically and emotionally prescient movie about an alien who comes to Earth selling advanced technology to raise money to send water back to his parched planet, only to become a slave to creature comforts. David Bowie, not yet extricated from his cocaine period and playing an aloof alien at once beholden and ambivalent to his fortune, obviously did not have to act much. But that doesn't make him any less magnificent as a being so rich even his ability to see x-rays can be swept under the rug as eccentricity. Roeg's trippy imagery somehow complements rather than counteracts this subdued story, and his elliptical editing and heady asides have the effect of making the film even more alienating and deadened.

50. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971/USA/Robert Altman)

Altman's somber Western is filmed in Joycean browns of death and decay. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography used pre-exposed film and various filters to create its soft, luminous look and ensure it couldn't be altered in post. Altman's penchant for ensembles is at work here in the microcosm he crafts out of a town named for a church no one attends because they're all at the brothel. But it's in the two titular character that his focus lies, and the director displays an even more probing insight into his leads than he already got out of much larger casts. That much remarked-upon ampersand in the title alerts the audience to the real nature of McCabe and Mrs. Miller's relationship (business, not pleasure), and that dynamic only changes after it is far too late.

51. Ménilmontant (1926/France/Dimitri Kirsanoff)

Russian emigré Kirsanoff's 40-minute masterpiece, named for the Parisian suburb where it was shot, feels, like I once called it, like "a proto-feminist, modernist fairy tale as made by Dziga Vertov." Its dizzying, terrifying opening of a frenetically edited axe murder is but the first aesthetic blow to the audience. Elsewhere, double exposures, superimpositions, pre-Ozu pillow shots, and montage combine with a silent-cinema-summarizing mastery not unlike Murnau's Sunrise, albeit the abstract emotions here are of man's darkest impulses, not the giddiness gradually built up in the German expat's best film.

52. Miami Vice (2006/USA/Michael Mann)

No one, or at least no one until Godard made Film Socialisme, has experimented with the possibilities of digital cinema like Michael Mann. This underloved 2006 take on the flashy TV show he helped create represents an as-yet untapped feat of digital analysis. His pixellated abstract captures existential cop tropes at their most stripped-down and minimal. Through Mann's quietly haunting lens, the ocean represents not the promise of escape from the entrapment of the cop-criminal dialectic that separates Crockett and Gong Li's Isabella but the futility of such hope. This is a film where the pink spray of blood from a headshot is not presented as a cool bit of action but as a spirit leaving a body. This movie only ever gets more chilling and moving with each watch.

53. Modern Romance (1981/USA/Albert Brooks)

I have a hard time describing Albert Brooks' humor, so subtle and deftly cast off that one almost misses the precision and construction of his setups and timing. The title of Modern Romance is one of those unassumingly ambitious names, two blunt, unadorned words that nevertheless reveal a desire to encapsulate the vastness of the subject those two words connote. Yet Brooks meets his own challenge, ranting about how relationships now are too focused on sex even as he avoids cranky old man syndrome by subtly tracing it to sex being put on a pedestal by our more chaste forbears. His keen sense of irony hangs over the picture, even skewering the blatantly false optimism of the conclusion. Most romantic comedies wallow in self-pity, but Modern Romance puts that arrogance under a magnifying glass until it catches fire from a focused sunbeam.

54. A Moment of Innocence (1996/Iran/Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

Makhmalbaf attempts to atone for his youthful radicalism the only way he knows how: with cinema. Finding the cop he stabbed as an anti-Shah rebel, the director attempts to gain forgiveness by telling the man's story. But as both he and the retired officer cast their young avatars, a desire to alter history emerges in both men, Makhmalbaf to assuage his guilt, the cop to undo the act that ruined his life. Slowly, the roles even reverse, the officer now pushing his younger "self" to take preemptive vengeance as Makhmalbaf's doppelgänger gets cold feet at the prospect of doing harm to another. This culminates in an emotional climax that cannot undo the true past but does rewrite the real story to find some kind of closure for everyone involved. Its final freeze-frame rivals even Kiarostami's last shot for Close-Up in emotional and intellectual intensity.

55. Monsieur Verdoux (1947/USA/Charlie Chaplin)

Somehow my Chaplin selection came down to City Lights' affirming romanticism and, at its polar opposite, this caustic satire attacking the basest impulses that drive every society, whether capitalist, socialist or communist. It therefore attracts no audience easily, and James Agee said it best when he said the vicious criticism and scorn leveled at it upon release was of interest "chiefly as a definitive measure of the difference between the thing a man of genius puts before the world and the things the world is equipped to see in it." Verdoux's disturbing rationalization for his widow-killing is so unsettling for actually being rational. His final speech, in which he notes that, when it comes to murder, numbers sanctify, is one of the most poisonous barbs ever lobbed at an audience's sense of superiority and morality. I loved the film when I first saw it but criticized the direction; Agee had a particularly erudite but bitter corrective to such thinking, one I accept as fully deserved. This movie is on every level a masterpiece.

56. Mothlight (1963/USA/Stan Brakhage)

Much as I prefer flagrant visual splendor over all other aspects of filmmaking (if my picks haven't already made this obvious), I rarely connect with the full aesthetic breakdown of experimental cinema. An exception is Brakhage's famous "found foliage" short, made of leaves, insects and other stuff stuck between two strips of film. Not only is the cascade of leaves and insect wings beautiful (and stirringly similar, when seen close-up, linking plant and animal life), Brakhage uses it to call attention to the physical properties of the film strip itself, the bits and pieces littered on it stretching across the usual conception of isolated frames run in sequential order. This isn't a slideshow, it's a fluid, tangible object. Nothing else makes me mourn the death of film like this three-minute short.

57. My Neighbor Totoro (1988/Japan/Hayao Miyazaki)

Miyazaki's most narratively lax film, almost entirely free of conflict, is nevertheless his most engaging and affecting. Totoro's light fantasy still shows off the animator's imagination, yet it's his nuanced, unforced insight into a turbulent time for two young girls that makes Totoro so memorable. There's no villain tormenting them because life is enough of a challenge, and the film contains a realistic humor, fright and wonder to it normally lost in the boundless scale of animation. And setting aside anything approaching critical appraisal, who one Earth doesn't want to hug the stuffing out of Totoro?

58. The Night of the Hunter (1955/USA/Charles Laughton)

Laughton's Southern Gothic, magic-realist fairy tale nightmare is simply divine. Robert Mitchum's sonorous false prophet is a force as terrifying as he is occasionally hilarious; see his Frankenstein bumble up the stairs or his or his fright at being discovered by Lillian Gish. The Expressionistic imagery—an impossibly raised ceiling in a humble home, the shadow of Mitchum's stalking preacher on the horizon—is aces, and Laughton's gift for moody textures show off an auteur that never got to be.

59. No Country for Old Men (2007/USA/Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Coens take a mid-to-lower-tier Cormac McCarthy book and turn it into something that not only summarizes the author's entire body of work brilliantly but serves an apex for the filmmakers' own thematic and stylistic touches. The desert proves an even better backdrop for the Coens' bone-dry wit than the icy expanse of Fargo. The anti-thriller, in which editing generates tension instead of music, ends well before the movie itself does, but it's the extended falling action that makes the film a modern classic. The secret of the title is that there's no country for old men not because the world has changed, but because those old men eventually outgrow the ability to hide from the world's true nature. This is harrowing stuff, but those who would, as ever, accuse the Coens of nihilism should take heed of how they gently, if sympathetically, criticize the man who just can't take the horror anymore.

60. Notorious (1946/USA/Alfred Hitchcock)

Alfred Hitchcock's most psychologically troubling romance (and that's saying something) is the story of two men directly and indirectly fighting over the same woman, even as they both try to kill her for being wooed by the other. The jealousy, insecurity and ineptitude is noxious, and Ingrid Bergman has never been more pitiable for being caught in the middle of it. This is a film where the America agent is more grotesque than the Nazis, and where one Nazi fears his mother more than his committed colleagues. Sex, politics and madness never went together so well, or so disturbingly.

Tuesday, May 29

My Top 100 Films (21-40)

[This is the second part of my top 100 films. See also picks 1-20.]

21. Close-Up (1990/Iran/Abbas Kiarostami)

Kiarostami's masterpiece tops Herzog's blending of fact and fiction, not merely recounting the true story of a man who posed as Iranian director Mohsen Mahkmalbaf but replicating it. Kiarostami gets all the actual parties involved, having the man and the family he conned play themselves. The director even gets to film the man's trial, possibly influencing its outcome in the man's favor. But in the playful collision of documentary, recreation and fiction, Kiarostami offers a beautiful meditation on art and the love and power of it. The final shot, frozen on the man's bashful face as he apologizes to the family he hoodwinked, is one of the greatest image in all of cinema, art bringing people together even through manipulation and lies.

22. Coeur Fidèle (1923/France/Jean Epstein)

Epstein's magical, impressionistic silent invokes Les Misérables to stage breathtaking, pre-Eisenstein editing techniques that offer stirring psychological and poetic insight into characters and the world around them. The dissolves in the carousel scene alone are worthy of rapturous praise. In its perfect blend of working-class reality and evocative, abstract imagery predicts Jean Vigo, and I can only hope that an American home video distributor eventually does it as much justice as I've heard Masters of Cinema did for its UK Blu-Ray.

23. The Conversation (1974/USA/Francis Ford Coppola)

Apocalypse Now was one of those crucial films in the development of my cinephilia, yet now I respond most strongly to the fevered paranoia of this aural take on Antonioni's Blow-Up. It feels strange to elevate this above all other Coppola films, as this one is the inverse of his usual operatic tone, all inner fear and loathing subtly manifested in well-guarded tape splices. The perverse logic behind the climactic hallucinations makes a grim order of chaos, and the final image, of a man fully lost to his own fear, captures the mood of post-Nixon America and New Hollywood like no other picture.

24. Crank 2: High Voltage (2009/USA/Neveldine/Taylor)

Yes, you're reading this right. Crank 2 is offensive on a catastrophic level, taking special care to offend everyone. But in its social transgressions is also an artistic effrontery unmatched by anyone in American mainstream film since the earliest work of De Palma. Hell, the filmmaker they most strongly recall is Seijun Suzuki at his most outlandish. Using garish lenses to stretch and distort images that are then folded back on each other in fishbowl reflections, literally throwing cheap and disposable HD cameras at stunts to get the rawest possible footage, Neveldine/Taylor break every stylistic rule in the book. And I love every second of it. The filmmaking duo have been handed a few decently high-profile gigs (the equally masterful and underappreciated Gamer and the fun but compromised Ghost Rider 2), but if they never translate their early anarchy into lasting success like De Palma, at least they'll always have this (literal) middle finger to standards of aesthetics and taste.

25. The Darjeeling Limited (2007/USA/Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson simultaneously makes the white-person-escape-to-India more self-serving and more self-critical than anyone ever has. His dollhouse production design is so pronounced that even cabs come to resemble mobile ballrooms, yet Anderson slowly reveals even his own ornate decoration to be merely a front for a group of estranged brothers putting up barriers to their own self-discovery. On a surface level, the film is guilty of the same lazy cultural appropriation and borderline racism of other such works of white people using an impoverished country for their own benefit. But that's the point, and when Anderson makes his characters realize what they're doing, they share a moment as beautiful as the director has ever made. More arch even than The Life Aquatic, yet more resonant than Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums.

26. Day of Wrath (1943/Denmark/Carl Theodore Dreyer)

I need to re-watch (and re-review) Ordet and The Passion of Joan of Arc, but Day of Wrath is no less worthy of canonization. A ruthless examination of religious sin and self-absolution as metaphor for Christian complicity in the Holocaust, Day of Wrath is profoundly dark in its implications, with the lighting scheme to match. As it always is in these matters, the most zealous of torturers and accusers seek desperately to mask and assuage their own guilt, and a universal evil settles over these characters. Impressively, Dreyer avoids outright nihilism, and if he does not bother to offer hope in this twisted tale, he at least makes tacitly plain the notion that goodness can be achieved somewhere on this planet. Hey, it's a start.

27. Dead Man (1995/USA/Jim Jarmusch)

Jarmusch's magnum opus has been called an "acid Western," but "acid" in this case could apply equally to LSD and the all-corrosive blood of a Xenomorph in Alien. Jarmusch routinely finds the weirdness in America, but never has he made that oddity so perverse and infected. From the opening of train passengers casually slaughtering buffalo from their cozy compartments just for fun, Dead Man gradually strips a white man of his power and socially ingrained privilege until all that's left is violence, violence, and more violence. Neil Young's screeching feedback of a soundtrack only deepens the unpleasant trance, and the numerous in-jokes in Native American languages make for the only non-condescending film ever made by a white man attempting to give prominence to the Injuns in a Western.

28. Do the Right Thing (1989/USA/Spike Lee)

Spike Lee, so often caricatured as a white-hating polemicist, makes with his finest film a portrait of the all-consuming effects of racism. Infecting every member of a New York neighborhood in the grips of a heat wave slowly melting social graces, racial tension spikes in whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians. Eventually, it all explodes. Ebert wrote at its premiere in Cannes that the movie was sad, not angry, a piercing insight lost to so many. Even when Lee's Mookie makes a drastic move on the cusp of a riot, there's a human logic and consideration to it that is, well, not noble but perhaps the only thing left he could do to save a life or three. The final juxtaposition of conflicting quotes by MLK and Malcolm X expresses the difficulty, maybe impossibility, of finding the right path to a unified people, and that clearly pains Lee deeply.

29. The Double Life of Veronique (1991/Poland, France, Norway/Krzysztof Kieślowski) (TOP 10)

Kieślowski made a one-film version of his Three Colors trilogy before he'd even started with those movies. Veronique's bifurcated structure stretches across metaphysical planes to link doppelgängers on either side of the Berlin Wall, freshly collapsed but still felt in its lingering socioeconomic effects. Naturally, these too are presented in human terms: one woman sings to find the beauty in her decayed post-communist world and dies, the other refuses to express her gift and lives. But as she inherits all the grief and loss of her equal in the Eastern Bloc, the Frenchwoman is overwhelmed with regret and a vague desire to have helped someone. The political implications are clear, but the transcendent grace of the director's camera, using so many reflections the lens itself seems a mirror, places such surface-level concerns as secondary to their moral and spiritual underpinnings.

30. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964/USA/Stanley Kubrick)

Though fears of nuclear war have since faded into the more intimate paranoia of the War on Terror, Kubrick's satire, co-written by Terry Southern, hasn't lost an ounce of its apocalyptic wit. Kubrick's perfectionism—demanding green felt for the War Room table to make it look like a poker table, despite it being a black-and-white film—pays off richly, and his outsized framings have the reverse effect of making the power invested to the small, petty morons with launch codes absurd. From Peter Sellers' screamingly funny improvised phone call to the Kremlin to George C. Scott's flailing jingoist to Sterling Hayden's impotent general to Slim Pickens' final, joyous ride to oblivion, the male insecurity behind annihilating war has never been more ruthlessly skewered.

31. Eros + Massacre (1969/Japan/Yoshishige Yoshida)

Criterion fans (rightly) bemoan the lack of Jacques Rivette in the collection, but at least he's a known figure. I'd much rather see someone finally honor Japanese New Wave master Yoshishige Yoshida, a near-unknown despite the awe-inspiring mastery of this end-of-the-'60s epic. Gliding across time and reflexive awareness, Eros + Massacre ties '60s radicalism to one of its strongest roots, sex, and then contrasts it with an earlier free love experiment conducted in the wake of the First World War. As the near-four-hour film wears on, dialectics collapse, romantic and political ambitions meet like matter and antimatter and annihilate, and all the intellectualization of the post-May '68 students can't do anything but observe the fallout. These kids literally play with fire, though Yoshida routinely displays the radical form demanded by radical form, revealing possibilities in his overexposed (almost nuclear) lighting and off-axis framings his subjects would never understand. At once more polemical and more self-critical than all of Godard's Maoist period. (A note: this film is currently on YouTube and can also be tracked down via torrents. In both cases, the picture quality is surprisingly good.)

32. Evil Dead 2 (1987/USA/Sam Raimi)

Raimi shows off his increased directorial skill by repeating his first film in mere minutes before spinning off into a brilliant expansion that mixes comedy and horror better than any of the subsequent avalanche of films to rip it off. Raimi understands that horror and comedy work on the same basic principles of timing, and most of the gags work precisely because they elicit screams and laughs at the same time. Bruce Campbell commits like a mofo, and the endless parade of creepy/hilarious sight gags make for a film that never forgets to be a horror film even as it critiques the genre. Few, even Raimi himself, have managed to do the same since.

33. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933/USA/Mervyn LeRoy)

Busby Berkeley's immaculate choreography combines with a delectably sexual storyline in this lavish Pre-Code feature so charged with erotic imagery that even the synchronized formation into a dandelion and its waving spores connotes reproductive acts. Elsewhere, the unbelievable scale of Berkeley's setpieces recall Metropolis and even flashes of Russian Constructivism. What any of the sexualized numbers ("Pettin' in the Park" is exactly what you think it's about) have to do with the stated intent of putting on a production about the Depression is anyone's guess, but I defy anyone to give a damn as they watch watch these setpieces unfold.

34. Hoop Dreams (1994/USA/Steve James)

Hoop Dreams' journey through the high school life of two wannabe basketball stars is a harrowing snapshot of misplaced American values, the decay and hopelessness of our education system, and the inescapable trap of our urban slums. Every change in fortune for Arthur Agee, William Gates and their families generates such cinematic tension that it can be hard to believe this is all real and unscripted even as its impact could only come from watching real people experience such hardships. But amid injuries, poor academic performance, and the constant threat of completely going under, there is a shining beacon of hope and affirmation in Arthur's mother getting her nursing certificate. As she sobs, "And people told me I wasn't going to be anything," the audience gets a glimpse at the sort of thing we as a society should be celebrating, not the hollow dream of meaningless fame.

35. The Horse Thief (1988/China/Tian Zhuangzhuang)

Tian's meditative, haunting film about a devout Buddhist who cannot reconcile his sense of religious duty with his need to steal horses to support his family came to my attention via Martin Scorsese, who clearly saw a kinship with his own Catholic guilt. Quasi-realist in style, the film nevertheless attains a poetry I so rarely feel in the pedestrian bluntness of neorealist cinema. He captures the Tibetan landscape with equal beauty and danger, a place akin to the Old West in its hopeful but unforgiving expanse. One shot, of Norbu burying his starved, frozen son in the snow, is so haunting I recall it years after seeing the film in an atrocious-quality Internet stream. For the love of God, someone treat this movie right.

36. In the Mouth of Madness (1993/USA/John Carpenter)

Sometimes I wonder if Carpenter knew this would be his last great movie, as he pulls out all the stops on this Lovecraftian horror tale. Carpenter's camerawork is as fluid and graceful as ever, but the frame is packed with monstrosities, not least of which being Sam Neill's marvelously unhinged performance. So grandiose is the film that even Carpenter's music for it deepens his usual techno minimalism for a richer, more ornate electronic sound. The film even dips into self-reflexivity in a way Carpenter never had, the cosmic horror of Lovecraft infecting every dimensional plane of reality within the movie. Through Carpenter's steady direction, though, these layers of existence are even harder to separate, making its climactic cavalcade of collapsing diegesis all the more troubling.

37. Inglourious Basterds (2009/USA/Quentin Tarantino)

Tarantino's apex as a filmmaker uses his formal precision and encyclopedic knowledge of trash to simultaneously support our collective WWII fantasy and literally burn it to the ground. There's no question Tarantino takes pleasure in killing Nazis and even rewriting history, but the unexpectedly poignant views he has on revenge (subtly expressed in Jackie Brown, Kill Bill vol. 2 and even Pulp Fiction) are expanded into a sly counterterrorism critique where supposedly heroic Americans become savages to combat savagery. Most of them are left dead, and those who remain are monsters. Tarantino doesn't force that point, and indeed makes a joke of it, but there's a chilling humanity underneath his formal travesty that makes the film's moral content as impressive as its perfect visuals.

38. The Intruder (2004/France/Claire Denis)

Denis' most minimal film concerns the philosophical and metaphysical implications of receiving a heart transplant, asking whether it changes the recipient, and if so, how. The titular intruder could signify the new heart in Louis' body or Louis himself as he attempts to make amends with a son who has moved on, and the rejection of suggests an insurmountable soullessness. Denis' post-Impressionist framings explode with color and lines but no shape, not until she gradually assembles the full image. Even then, little is clear, but so much is evoked in Denis' camera that The Intruder's wisps of focus seem richer than the most densely plotted works.

39. I Was Born, But... (1932/Japan/Yasujiro Ozu)

My favorite Ozu is one of his most playful, a silent comedy about children hesitantly, frightfully and realistically coming into their own in a country at a cultural crossroads. With the looming threat of WWII still a few years off in the distance, the main threat facing these children is how to form their identity with Japanese and Western influences constantly at work. It's routinely hilarious (the repeating silent image of one boy crying at the slightest provocation is inadvertently side-splitting). But Ozu also gets across his pet themes of cultural anxiety in the regretful speech given by the father as he watches his disillusioned children sleep, Tetsuo Saito's face containing so much love, concern, hope and sadness that the intertitles are hardly necessary to convey the depths of his thoughts. The moving camera is also a highlight, so rarely seen when Ozu moved to sound pictures.

40. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975/Belgium, France/Chantal Akerman)

Three hours of potato peeling and passionless sex. That's Jeanne Dielman in a nutshell, but what Akerman does is so radical I'd take this painstakingly slow feature over the usual freneticism and symbolic overload of experimental cinema any day. By only showing the bits usually cut over in "normal" films, Akerman forced me to pay attention to every minute detail of Jeanne's routine, and I got more out of the frame than I almost ever do. Notice, for example, how the light switches in the kitchen and bedroom seem to connote Jeanne turning her Madonna or whore side off and on, and how the son's true desires might be suggested by him incessantly leaving both lights on. As radical a film as I've ever seen.