Monday, May 14, 2012

Sight and Sound Movie List - Der Miksic

There are so many hard questions to answer in constructing movie lists. Should you privilege the directors, many of whom should be honored more for their careers than for any individual film? Should you indulge your own tastes, knowing that you might be totally unfair from any kind of sophisticated critical standpoint? Do you privilege a certain purpose or criteria for film, such as artistic merit, entertainment value, and/or mass appeal? Do you take into account what you already percieve to be "critical consensus"?

Well, here's how I'm going to do it. I'm going to privilege variety over absolute merit -- I find the latter to be more subjective than the former anyway. To support a wide, representative, and well-informed Top Ten list, I'm going to start by creating a framework: The Top Ten Types of Movies That Appear On Top Ten Lists. Once I have those categories established, I'll work through my own movie-watching experiences and try to fill each slot with something deserving. To keep myself from trying to retrofit my decisions over my own personal preferences, I'll even leave a section at the end, so I can list movies that don't fit into any of my categories, but that I just freakin' LOVE AND THINK ARE AWESOME.

BTW, you need to realize something about me: I love lots of stuff. I think lots of movies are awesome. There are many more films that I just think are decent and unremarkable, but if I mention it below, it's not just an obligatory nod... it's that I think the movie is brilliant, even if it doesn't make it to the final top 10. So with all that stuff out of the way, here we go:



Kubrick is one of two directors whose careers have been so vast, varied, and stuffed full of masterpieces, that he gets his own special slot in the top ten. And don't worry -- his films are contenders for some of the other spots, as well!


Akira Kurosawa is the other one like that. So many films, and so many of them masterpieces, it's unfair to make him compete with every other Dick and Joe Spielberg for the various niches. The Master gets a category unto himself.


Scorcese almost makes it in with Kurosawa and Kubrick, but he just doesn't quite deserve their level of elevation. He's got a lot of great pictures, and some not-so-great ones, and most of his great ones are competing with other directors who do the same type of stuff. But his name has become so synonymous with a certain modern realistic hard-boiled organized crime template, he does at least get a category named after him, even if he might not be the best film in his eponymous subdivision.


World War II probably is probably the war that's most depicted in film, but it's drowned in sentimentality and cliche and self-righteousness to such a degree that it simply hasn't produced the level of traumatized intensity that the baby boomers perfected. I prefer the post-hippie, postwar disillusionment of the 70's and 80's, during which a bunch of very sentimental and manly directors made a bunch of really powerful films. Sorry to snub you, World War II.


Evan, paraphrased, by way of some other wise source: "It doesn't always matter who is able to do something (i.e. stick a urinal in a gallert and call it art). What matters is who did it first." Some cinema artists deserve special BEST-EVER status just because they were the first to introduce a certain technique or method. People who like movies have usually never heard of them, but people who STUDY FILM will always proclaim their superiority.

Another concession to the small crowd of people who have been required to watch films during college class time. These "film students" tend to have great attention spans, and quite a bit of sensitivity to those rare types of interpersonal problems that don't involve guns, martial arts, or genitals.


Certain directors were trying to scare people, even before the advent of jump scares, creepy dolls, CGI flesh-eating bugs, and Stephen King novels. At least one of these should make it to the top 10 list, even though we're just pretending to be scared by them now, out of a kind of patronizing respect.


Look, I know I tend to like very serious movies, which is one of the reasons there's no Adam Sandler or Jim Carey categories listed in this Top 10. But there needs to be a place for those witty, genteel comedies, often called "Talkies," that predated the exhausting Rom-Com genre (which seems to have suddenly emerged with the advent of color film). After all, they showed us that you can create genuine drama out of witty banter, and they had some of the best writing ever wrote.


"Best Films Ever" lists tend to be an orgy of films people have never heard of, and films they've heard of but never bothered seeing. But there are films whose insane box-office draw and ubiquity is clearly part of their claim to dominance. These are the movies that all the cultural references come from. Also, if you asked a random person on the street what they think is the "Best Movie Ever Made," there's a fairly high chance that they'd just blurt out one of these.

When they hit a certain point of maturity, some great directors become extremely ambitious, and the best of their work tends to earn a place at the Head Table, because they took so much work and have such massive pretense to importance.

So, with the categories decided, it's time to choose a movie for each slot! Very few others have committed to rankings within their top ten, so I'm going to follow suit... these are just the categories I figured I should cover, and the movie I think is the best possible choice for each category. I've been a little irresponsible with some of them, too. I hope you can forgive me.


Barry Lyndon (1975) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

I know I'm off to a bad start here in following my own presumptive rules, but yes, it's a tie. Eyes Wide Shut is a surreal, starkly mythic journey into an anxious, sexually-charged super-fake Manhattan, and it's one of Kubrick's most sensitive movies with regards to human desire and vulnerability. Barry Lyndon is its complimentary opposite, with a historical scale that makes it feel like a great journey (which Kubrick accomplished again with 2001), but with a humanity, spontaneity, and wry humor almost entirely missing from the rest of his oeuvre. I find Clockwork Orange shockingly frank and unhinged, but it lacks the enigma and insightfulness of Kubrick's better films; The Shining is among the greatest genre movies ever made, but it doesn't transcend its medium like the best Kubricks. And I hate to say it, but Doctor Strangelove always felt to indulgent in its own schizoid bizarreness to sit well with me; too often it feels like an SNL sketch.

RAN (1985)

I've got a lot of serious films here, but pretty much nothing as hopeless and angry as Kurosawa's cynical Shakespeare adaptation, RAN. It's no less epic than Seven Samurai, and though the latter has better-drawn characters, it's also slower, with less urgency in the group dynamics. Rashomon is a brilliant execution of a smart idea, but as with any such conceptual morsel, it doesn't leave the necessary room for really great filmmaking. And as he showed in his more humanistic films -- Red Beard, Throne of Blood, etc -- Kurosawa was truly a great narrative filmmaker, who never needed gimmicks to prop up his drama. RAN just happens to be the humanistic film where he stares hard truths most directly in the face, and it makes for his most powerful film.

Goodfellas (1990, dir. Martin Scorsese)

This category is basically the first of two showdowns between Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. In this particular case, I have to give it to Scorcese; he took the lessons from European art film, and from film noir, and from 70's crime films like Scorpio and Scarface, and he created a smart, driven, character-rich portrayal of organized crime in the contemporary world. Coppola's Godfather films may have been broader and more theatrical, but they have become less relatable, more like tales of a lost generation than truly immersive studies of people who spend every day swimming in a sea of dubious ethics and questionable decision-making. Goodfellas also had the experimental spontaneity of a young filmmaker -- something that Coppola never seemed to have, and that even Scorcese himself was running low on by the time he made Casino.

Apocalypse Now (1979, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

On to the second showdown between Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola only made a handful of films... the fact that he's such a dominant presence in both the Mafia and the War film categories is a testament to his brilliance. In this latter division, he's competing against such hard-truth films as Cimino's The Deer Hunter (intense because it had SO MUCH YELLING) and Oliver Stone's later film Platoon, which is a little too manichean to come out on top of this category. Ultimately, the only real competition for this category comes from Scorcese, whose Taxi Driver is a truly claustrophobic post-war head trip, simultaneously intimate and alienating in a way that's dizzying and uncomfortable. But Coppola's Apocalypse Now is ultimately the best of the bunch -- raw and disturbing, enigmatic, somehow both epic and obtuse, building to an unbearable climax that seems to shatter the whole trope and genre that the film has come to help define.

Man With A Movie Camera (1929, dir. Dziga Vertov)

Look, I appreciate Eisenstein's first-ever montage as much as anybody (even Brian De Palma). And I do not take for granted the beauty and power of The Last Laugh, which is both a heartbreaking tragedy and a perfect platform for the introduction of the unchained camera. And I realize that Griffith's Intolerance is often considered the greatest movie EVER because it introduced so many filmmaking ideas to the world. And this category also has to include special effects landmarks as Melies' A Trip to the Moon and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. But for my money, the best, most enduring actual movie in this group is Man With a Movie Camera, which is hypnotic, and musical, and which seems to recreate itself endlessly. I think I rate this the best of these pioneering films because it not only introduced a new method -- "absolute kinography," a "complete separation from the language of theatre and literature" -- it's also the best execution of this method to ever hit a screen. Nobody has done what Vertov did at the level that he did it.

La Dolce Vita (1960, dir. Frederico Fellini)

There are a TON of films in this category. Bergman, Antonioni, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Ozu, Renoir, Truffaut, Godard, and Fellini worked almost entirely in this mode, and some of them had very long careers. These directors alone probably count for 200+ films in this division, all of which have been called "masterpieces" at one point or another. There's also Orson Welles, who worked a good bit in more pedestrian genres, but whose greatest film -- Citizen Kane -- is firmly within this category. Warner Herzog, a ridiculous rebel in his own right, has certainly placed a few films in this group: Aguirre, Stroszek, and Fitzcarraldo all fit nicely in with the others. Despite all the competition, I think the best of these films is Fellini's La Dolce Vita. It captures a certain time and place in the world, and a certain age and attitude in a man's life, with a richness that few other films can match. Within this framework, it also gives us a host of the most memorable images in film -- Sylvia in the Trevi fountain, the sad and exhausted departure of Marcello's father, and the cynical flirtations at an unauthorized beach-house party. The film becomes a journey through Rome and a journey inward, a sort of existential omnibus film where every vignette shows a different side of the same strung-out main character. In its breadth and formal complexity, it edges out all the other intimate artsy character dramas and reaches a level of cinematic power unto itself.

Nosferatu (1922, dir. F.W. Murnau)

I felt the necessary shock and dismay at the closing "shot" (hahahalol) of Night of the Living Dead, and I registered the hazy, dreamlike beauty of Dreyer's Vampyr. But without the mythology to back it, I never really felt the danger and nastiness of the zombie menace in Romero's career-launcher; and Vampyr's mysteries were too hazy to engage my brain in the narrative. The Birds gets credit for its ominous apocalyptic tone, but it has the same problems as those other two, above. I'd also put Dali's Un Chien Andalou into this group, but it doesn't hold up -- without no coherent story, there's no bones for all that surrealist meat to stick to. Ultimately, it's between Psycho, with that quiet derangement lurking at its center, and Murnau's Nosferatu, which took that German Expressionist style and gave us such a unique, deranged gothic sensibility that we've never been able to forget it. The reason I finally chose Nosferatu is that when I walk down my apartment hallway in the dark, it's HIS beady eyes that I picture peeking in through the window. Sorry, Norman Bates.

The Philadelphia Story (1940, dir. George Cukor)

I know Rules of the Game has Evan's "one of the best films ever filmed" stamp of approval, but for me, the characters were such illustrations, such exemplars of their respective themes, that I was never driven to care much about their crises and conflicts. Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment all work in this category, too, and I'd say Casablanca almost takes the cake, being both a thrilling tale of intrigue and a heart-breaking romance. But my final decision goes to The Philadelphia Story, the 1940 star-studded parlor drama, which carried me effortlessly through its characters' emotional shifts -- resentment, affection, crippling doubt, and redemption. The dialogue is razor-sharp, as is required in this genre, and I didn't see the ending coming until it arrived, at which point I discovered myself completely rooting for it.

(Editor's Note: The Rules of the Game does not have my "One of the Greatest Films Ever Filmed" stamp of approval, it has my "Greatest Work of Art Ever Arted" stamp of approval. For the reasons why, click here.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980, dir. Irvin Kershner)

It turns out a lot of great cash-cows have also turned out to be great films on their own merits. Titanic, Singing in the Rain, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind... all epic crowd-pleasers that make flawless use of every cinematic device available to them. But it's the Star Wars films that have probably made the most money, if you sneakily take into account the entirety of the franchise and all its promotional stuff. This is largely because the story is universal, based on the Hero Myth, and the practical effects were so perfectly crafted, that even those original movies still hold up well to scrutiny (my niece and nephew, both under 12 years old, with just a little prompting from their parents, declare them among their favorite movies). I chose Empire Strikes Back because it's probably the most mature of the original three films, and much more mature than the prequels, so on top of its box office immensity, it gets some extra points for artistic merit and authorial boldness.

Doctor Zhivago (1965, dir. David Lean)

This is an odd category, because lots of filmmakers -- even genre filmmakers -- eventually reach a point in their careers where they want to make a film like this. Spielberg did Schindler's List, which is the only WWII movie to appear in any of these categories (I'm a little avoidant of movies about that period). Sergio Leone, initially a pulp Western director, graduated to this type of film after the Man With No Name trilogy... Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America, and Duck You Sucker! all fit into the historical epic model. Then, there is one filmmaker -- a Mr. David Lean -- who spent his whole life making this type of film, and thereby secured his place on a great many top ten lists. My favorites in this group are Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone) and Doctor Zhivago (Lean). The Leone is definitely my favorite of the two movies, a sweeping, edgy Western masterpiece executed with such confidence and panache that it elevates every genre it's associated with. But for the simple fact that it's about such a unique time in history, and because it presents such broad, vulnerable, uninhibited romantic sentimentality, I finally have to give the category to Doctor Zhivago.

Stroszek - A hopeless, absurd, and crushing film about something that terrifies me: the possibility that even the humblest attempt to live a normal, contented life could easily meet with failure.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - What a luminous film, and how fluidly it goes from youthful joy and defiance to the wisdom and disenchantment of maturity!
Mulholland Drive - I just love Lynch's sensibility in general, which has never been reproduced in a century of cinema. M.Dr. is the most controlled and the most exemplary of his stylistic mode.
Days of Heaven - Another director whose sensibility I love... Malick's introspective counterpoint of bleary cinematography and poetic voiceover touches me in all my most sensitive places.
Blade Runner - Worth all the hype, constituting an almost impossible balancing act of postmodern angst, cyberpunk indulgence, and earnest boyish sentimentality
Terminator 2 - A cinematic miracle, as a smart franchise collides with an incredibly ambitious vision... heroic and apocalyptic, perfectly paced, and strikingly introspective at all the right moments.

Click Here for HaZmora's List
Click here for The Hicks's Epic List of the Awesomely Bad
Click here for Der Gronowski's List
Click here for The Hicks's List
Click here for La Kozak's List
Click here for Die Grimes's List
Click here for Richard Nixon's List
Click here for The McBee's List
Click here for Der Koosh's List

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