I don't remember when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was a few years before I saw the 1962 movie version. I do remember that when I first saw the film, something bothered me about it. The problem was Atticus as played by Gregory Peck. Now by just about any measure, Atticus was the role Peck was born to play. Like Atticus, Peck was a pillar of morality, and more basically, a truly decent person. He could make you believe such people existed, because he was such a person. But my problem with his portrayal had nothing to do with his performance. It had to do with his wardrobe. I had always imagined Atticus in a Mr Rodgers-esque cardigan. But in the film, Atticus was never seen outside of a full suit. This bugged the hell out of me. It just didn't jibe with my mental image. A petty objection perhaps, but one which I find revealing.
As someone who has dabbled both in writing fiction, and in narrative filmmaking, I have spent a good deal of time considering the differences between the two mediums. After all, they're both essentially about storytelling. In the end I keep coming back to this—fiction asks you to give something of yourself; film just gives you something. Reading To Kill a Mockingbird I had to picture Atticus for myself. Harper Lee offers some description, but in the end, it was up to me, the reader, to compile an image of him. An image of Gregory Peck projected on a wall, makes no such demands on the viewer. All the details are there. There are no holes to be filled in. And that, to me, is why film will never be able to equal the novel's ability to transport one into the subjective experience of a character. The possibilities are circumscribed by the fact every element of the story has been set, if not in stone, than in celluloid. But this isn't meant to be a knock on film. In some ways I think movies will age better than novels. Not as a medium, but individually. Language is fluid, and over the course of a century or two the reference points that make up a novel, namely the words, cease to mean the same things, or (to many readers) cease to mean anything at all. As I was discussing with Mr. Tucker just the other day, you don't hear many people say, "forsooth methinks anon I'll come athwart an inn." As the world that a novel describes becomes more and more remote, and as the language itself becomes increasingly archaic, its value to the average reader is inevitably diminished. But a film is like an artifact. When you view a film you don't have to conjure another world; it's right there for you.
Vertigo, which has a spot in my top ten, tells a truly absurd story. It's a bizarre, almost incoherent fantasy, and I don't think it would work as a novel. But because the story is presented to you in a medium which doesn't particularly require credulity, it becomes like the most engaging and malign dream you've ever had—a nightmare you don't want to wake up from. Scottie Ferguson is never going rank among the great fictional characters. Watching Hitchcock's film, one doesn't tend to imagine much of a life for Ferguson beyond that which is depicted, or strongly hinted at, in the movie itself. But one does believe in what is happening to him, and in a San Francisco that doesn't exist anymore, if it ever existed. The more I think about it, the more I realize that most of my favorite films do have an element of fantasy to them. By that I don't mean the occasionally entertaining, but largely execrable, genre of swords, dragons, and heaving bosoms, but rather something that is simply beyond realism. To me, that is where film excels.
Anyway, I had better get down to it. I'll spare us all the obnoxious opining about the idiocy, and dare I say, futility, of trying to create a definitive list. I am, however, going to refuse to rank my choices. Here they are in no particular order:
Rear Window (1954, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) - This is a great movie because it doesn't matter whether Lars Thorwald chopped up his wife and buried her in the flower bed. It's about obsession and crossing lines, and when you are willing to risk Grace Kelly to prove something, you've overshot the line by a distance that would make a NASA engineer blush. Also, it's Hitch's most concise handling of his own most pressing obsession, namely voyeurism. The old perv.
Vertigo (1958, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) - Thematically we're in the same territory as with Rear Window, but the approach is wildly different. Frankly, I'm not sure that it's a great movie, but it's transporting, and I never tire of watching it. When it comes to film, that's good enough for me.
The Third Man (1949, dir. Carol Reed) - As my wife is fond of reminding me, Orson Welles's famous speech from atop the Ferris wheel is kinda silly. I don't care. Perhaps it would have seemed a little less stagey if Noel Coward had played Harry Lime, as was originally planned. I don't care. I like Welles as Lime. The fact that he's by turn affable and jaundiced (where Coward would have seemed unabashedly malevolent) makes his friendship with Holly Martins more believable, and makes Martin's situation a true predicament.
Odd Man Out (1947, dir. Carol Reed) - This is another Carol Reed film, which means I've used up four picks on two directors. I easily could have included another of Reed's films, The Fallen Idol, which makes him, to my mind, the most underrated director of all time. For those who haven't seen the film (which I'm guessing is just about everyone) it's about an IRA gunman who is wounded during a holdup, and who wanders around Dublin, encountering all sorts of riffraff, and having blood loss induced hallucinations. It's Fing brilliant.
Naked (1993, dir. Mike Leigh) - The vilest, nastiest, most wrenching film I've ever seen. Which is saying something, in that it's not particularly violent...Not by Hollywood standards anyway. Mike Leigh manages to pretty much cast the viewer into a pit of despair, using almost nothing but words. David Mamet should eat his Fing heart out.
Election (1999, dir. Alexander Payne) - Hehehe. It's funny because it's true.
Duck Soup (1933, dir. Leo McCarey) - "I'd be unworthy of the high trust that's been placed in me if I didn't do everything in my power to keep our beloved Freedonia at peace with the world. I'd be only too happy to meet with Ambassador Trentino, and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure he will accept this gesture in the spirit of which it is offered. But suppose he doesn't. A fine thing that'll be. I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept. That'll add a lot to my prestige, won't it? Me, the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador. Who does he think he is, that he can come here, and make a sap of me in front of all my people? Think of it - I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept. Why, the cheap four-flushing swine, he'll never get away with it I tell you, he'll never get away with it." I'm absolutely certain that this is the way foreign relations actually work.
In the Bedroom (2001, dir. Todd Field) - I'm mostly a 'more is more' type of guy, but I have to say that In the Bedroom is a miracle of understatement. It deals with violence and grief more honestly, and more accurately, than any other film I've seen. Compare the two murders in Bedroom to the endless killing in Road to Perdition, which came out just one year later. In the later the violence, while not exactly gratuitous, was disturbing in its artiness, beauty, and moral neatness. Bedroom on the other hand, managed to show the way damage slowly accumulates until it finds an outlet. Nonetheless, it refuses to further propagate the myth that violence is the answer to violence. Without a doubt, the subtlest Hollywood film I've ever seen. Bonus points for being set in Maine.
The Big Sleep (1946, dir. Howard Hawks) - It's becoming increasingly clear to me as I make this list, that I care less about coherence than I thought I did. But really, what's not to like? Bogie, and all the ennui and repartee that he entails, a script originally by Faulkner, chiaroscuro lighting and all the other trappings of noir. In some ways it's the epitome (or quintessence if you're into the whole archaic thing) of noir. Perhaps all the more so because it doesn't really make sense. The whole genre is premised on the idea that below the surface of society, there is something lurid and anarchic. What better way to make that point, than with a tangled mess of a plot?
Winter's Bone (2010, dir. Deborah Granik) - Probably I'm only putting this on the list because I'd like to include something relatively recent, and this was my top pick of the last two years. A noir of sorts, set in the Ozarks. If The Big Sleep, along with every other noir of the classic period, argues that there is something lurid and anarchic below the surface of society, then Winter's Bone says the same thing about families. Still, this pick could just as easily have gone to The Lives of Others, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, or The Edge of Heaven, all of which are up there as my favorite movies of the current century.
Honorable mentions for being ridiculously entertaining:
The Great Escape (1963, dir. John Sturges)
The Fugitive (1993, dir. Andrew Davis
Noises Off (1992, dir. Peter Bogdanovich)
My Favorite Year (1982, dir. Richard Chamberlain)