Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Sight & Sound list

And that time comes once again, that time every ten years where the BFI does their “OH YES THESE ARE THE TEN BEST MOVIES EVAAA!” list. Rather, this magazine, which for some reason or another has the super-air of respectability (and I don't say that sarcastically, I just assume the BFI is all-powerful and all-knowing cause, you know, they're British, hard to argue that), has polled critics and directors every ten years since 1952 on what could constitute the “best” work.

It really goes like this – they ask the critics and directors (and also programmers, archivists, etc) to make up their ten best list – and some, like Quentin Tarantino, get greedy and make a list of 12, how they get away with that I've no idea – and then they tally how many times it appears on lists, and that's how they get their 'ten best' lists, or top 100, or more, or whatever (indeed because there are apparently more critics than directors voting, by a margin of 3 to 1, there is a slight inbalance, especially as so many critics and some directors are just stunningly unknown to me – and yes, it's all about ME isn't it?) This is why Citizen Kane got knocked off the list, despite showing up on more lists than before, because the critics just got even more of a fervor for Vertigo (previously #2).

It's an arbitrary list ultimately, because who can really make a 'ten best' list when if you really love films they should be like your children... well, maybe parents do have favorites if there's a whole bunch. So, with this in mind, I decided to take a crack at my top 12 (cause like QT I'm a greedy fuck), and like almost all of the voters I've ranked them alphabetically. There is actually one new-ish entry in the top category just as of yesterday really, which is why I'm making this my official ranking for now:

"It's judgment that defeats us..."

Still the Mother of all War movies, because it's succinctly about madness, which is what war ultimately amounts to, especially Vietnam where there was really little motive for fighting in the first place aside from “Communism, the insidious evil”. I prefer the original cut to the Coppola's 'Redux' (not that the latter doesn't have some worth with its extra scenes, mostly as the Playboy bunnies sequence gives more light to the darkness in the men on the boat), and of course the 'Valkyries' sequence is a stunner every time one watches it in terms of choreography of the copters and the people, the mayhem, the napalm, the music, and Duvall's grandstanding. But it's really the film as a whole that has to suck you in; some complain about Brando's performance, yet I find him to be more and more affecting on subsequent viewings, the figure of total, haunted madness that has shattered hope.

"You're right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars *next* year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in... 60 years."

Do I need to go on about this? There's little else to add to the discourse. Sure, Touch of Evil has a grittier edge, Magnificent Ambersons more somber, and The Trial is a deranged madhouse of wonders. But Kane is where it started, and in a sense where film ends. It's hard to get past all of the technical wonders (deep focus, special effects, forced perspective), but it's the writing by Mankiewicz and Welles and the acting by the Mercury group that I think has kept it so fresh. All of the acting is top notch, and in a way Cotten gets a meatier role than Welles has. It's essential to the cinematic vernacular as Hamlet, and while it's got a dark center it's surrounded by a lot of fun and comedy and wonderment at a man's ambition. 

"We'll cure you!"

Possibly the most polarizing of Stanley Kubrick's films (yes, more than Barry Lyndon or Eyes Wide Shut), and certainly the most grungy and unforgiving of human nature. But it's also the film of Kubrick's I return to the most, for its energy, its daring, McDowell's funniest-harsh-dramatic-everything-horror-show performance, and for music. It's a savage satire, and yet I think it's oddly quite hopeful for the good in humanity as it shows what evil comes from the machine of the system-at-large. It may be hard to defend against a behemoth like 2001, but I get more pleasure out of it as a masterpiece of a 'midnight movie'.

"Marijuana isn't a drug. Look at what goes on in Vietnam. From the general down to the private, they all smoke."
"As a result, once a week they bomb their own troops."
"If they bomb their own troops, they must have their reasons."

Luis Bunuel is one of the masters, so you gotta have one of his up here. Un chien Andalou is the groundbreaker, Los Olvididados is more important, and Belle de Jour is sexier, but Bourgeoisie is unique in that it looks at the stinking rich (maybe not too unlike my next pick) with a degree of not so much sympathy but curious human interest. These are wicked people these six men and women, but hey, as Tom Waits says you are innocent when you dream, and so dreams fall within dreams (maybe even another dream? Have we been incepted here? At one point in the 'reality' there's the sound of an airplane going over the dialog... inside a police station). It's my favorite 'classy' comedy, the kind of dark-twisted satire you could show your grandmother.

"Therefore let us be happy while we are happy. Let us be kind, generous, affectionate and good. It is necessary and not at all shameful to take pleasure in the little world."

Ingmar Bergman may be the single supreme dramatist in 20th century cinema, and yet, as Woody Allen also pointed out, it's not a chore to sit through his films (unlike, say, Antonioni to an extent). It's totally absorbing when seeing one of his films, even ones that don't entirely work (i.e. The Serpent's Egg), and when you're wrapped up in it you can feel the darkness but also see the light somewhere cracking through the edges of the pyscho-drama, existential angst and sexual frustrations. Fanny and Alexander is his triumph though (and in this case a great example of a director's cut being better than theatrical), because it fully embraces the idea of what family is or aught to be, and he does something so wonderful by letting us see what is great in the Ekdahl family before the big conflict comes up in the second part. It's everything that was great about the filmmaker, and also it brings out the best in the cast, especially Bishop Vergerus as a screen villain so malicious and yet achingly human. It's five and a half hours of magic that feels as long ans never misses a beat.

"I know some people like my friends who would've gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide.  But I didn't.  I gotta admit the truth, it turned me on." 
The greatest contemporary American film ever made, a rock and roll trip through the life of a not-made-but-well-to-do gangster and what ultimately happens when the 'life' collapses and he has to be an average nobody again. What I've always loved about Scorsese's storytelling, via Henry Hill and Nicolas Pileggi, is that I could see people I knew in this world, and even see myself going through this life if I had just been in that street looking out over the gangsters having a life of no limits. But far from being preachy it's quite the opposite, it lets you (dangerously perhaps) make your mind up for yourself, to the point where you might really feel sorry for Hill and his exploits. Hell, you'll feel sorry for Pesci's Tommy, and that's really something. Oh, and it's deliriously entertaining, and a highly quotable film aside from the visual splendor.

"I liked her first!"
"'I liked her first!' What are you, six years old?  Jesus."

Woody Allen apparently didn't like what he'd done with this film (he asked the studio to get rid of it and in return he'd do a movie for them for free!), yet he underestimates what he succeeded with here, which is the most romantic story of loss done with his style of reality vs. fantasy. This is what Isaac Davis wrestles with, the reality that he's dating a 17 year old, but the fantasy that it is love... or is that reality too? Gordon Willis' triumph as well (who wouldn't want, I dunno, a dozen or more single frames of the film hanging on your wall?), and piercingly funny about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the middle-upper class in NY (maybe the Discreet Charm of Pretentious New Yorkers?) And the Gershwin. And the ending... oh man.

"This is no longer your film."

A film that you should watch three times. For me, the first time I was mesmerized, and knew I liked it a great deal, but also was not totally sure what I had seen. What was with the blue phone? Or the Robert Forrester cameo? Or those little old people coming out of the couch trying to kill Naomi Watts? What the fuck was this? But I knew I had to return to it since I saw it at a time that, like Blood Simple also did and Lynch's own Eraserhead, a film could wash over me completely, and this did that so breathtakingly with its sense of mystery and allure and nuance. 

The second time I knew it was the best film of its year, and saw more in it than before. Then the third time around, I suddenly saw it a whole different way – that the first two thirds and the last third, how I thought about them, were really the opposite of what they were supposed to mean in its relation to what was “real” - and it washed over me all over again. It's a delirious but tight look at love, obsession, and cinema as the ultimate mind-fucker; just that one shot alone with 'Sixteen Reasons' being sung that pulls out to reveal more than what we saw before is worth the price of admission. But it's also dangerous to forget how good Watts and Harring (who we don't see much in movies anymore sadly) are in the film and together.

"Which one of you nuts has got any guts?"

Another film about madness, but this is perhaps more 'conventional' than Coppola's film. Nevertheless it's massively entertaining, and a superlative ensemble cast (William Refield, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif) outside of the ultimate Good vs Evil story where little shades of gray peek in on each side: is the Nurse totally evil, and is McMurphy totally good? I don't know, but it's always a pleasure, and dramatically absorbing, to see how they spar off one another. I may also have a soft-spot for it because it's Nicholson's best day in the stadium, and he's a favorite actor/star, but it's just a fascinating, heartbreaking story from Kesey that keeps it going so strong past being a 70's anti-establishment tome. That shot where McMurphy just sits there during a party and looks on silent, occasionally smiling, his eyes going off into the distance, is one of those magical-ambiguous moments in movies I love so: what is he thinking?

"All I do is dream of you the whole night through; with the dawn I still go on, dreaming of you..."

This is the most recent addition to this list; previously it might've been, I dunno, number 40 or something in a top 50. But upon a subsequent reviewing of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's masterpiece, it's clear to me now, and I should resist denying it, that it's really the best that Golden-Age Hollywood had to offer as far as pure escapism. Like Sunset Boulevard (or, now, The Artist) it's about the changing of the guard, but you never get bogged down in the sadness of this. On the contrary change is seen as a good thing, and its message about doing what you love and doing it the best you can is inspiring. But you don't need to see it as that: it's just a completely pleasurable experience as both a meta-movie (see the sequence of 'Broadway Melody' a 'What makes life worth living' thing for me, where it's an idea visualized as a movie in a movie in a dream), and as musical comedy in pure form. Its cast is glowing, its set-pieces magnificwent (only the one with the dresses is less than perfect, but still fun to watch), and it's really just prozac in cinema-form: you sit and smile or laugh the whole way through.


Bicycle Thieves, great as it is, isn't quite the limit of neo-realism. Umberto D is, and in it Vittorio De Sica found a story of an old man and his dog that captured the simplicity of a fable from the silent-film era but submerged in the despair of post-war Europe. It's a 'pull at your heartstrings' movie, but without a shred of sentimentality (or if it has sentiment its earned in every bone of its being). And I even love small things in the film like the sub-plot with the girl maid in the home Umberto lives at. But really the film belongs to Flike the dog – if the last ten minutes don't get to you, just check your heart in for a tune-up or something. It moves like an aching, sad but strangely hopeful poem. Not even E.T. gets at this kind of pathos.

"Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice."
Like Bunuel, you gotta have the other Master on here, and for Alfred Hitchcock this is his most personal effort along with being a kick-in-the-head mystery. You can read so much into its themes, the layers of context, the psychology of the characters, but it's also if you want to watch it as such just a masterpiece of colors, uncomplicated (but complex) camera movement and perspective, and James Stewart's finest dramatic performance (yeah I said it George!) It's also grown in stature in my consciousness as I've gotten older, from a film that I was moreso told to like when I was younger (as an adolescent I preferred Psycho or The Birds or Shadow of a Doubt), and maybe that's why it's now at #1 in the Sight & Sound as the public has grown with it as the years go on and its theme of being love while also being cinema continues on.  Not to mention, best zombie movie ever?


WEEK END (Godard)

And the beat goes on and I'm not so wrooong.

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