Friday, August 03, 2012
Edward Copeland's Top 100 of 2012 (20-1)
Charlie Chaplin was audacious enough to continue making silent films (although he did allow for sound effects and an occasional song) all the way to 1936. In my opinion, he saved the Little Tramp's best for last in this hysterical tale of man vs. the modern age. The comedy is as funny as you'd expect and even more pointed than usual. Since Chaplin knew the Little Tramp was making his swan song, he even let him waddle off into the sunrise. Sound didn't stop Chaplin, who had two great sound efforts to come with The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. Still, his early works are the most precious gifts. Truly, his silence was golden.
When compiling the 2007 list, I feared it was becoming too Hitchcock-centric, forcing the omission of other great filmmakers but dammit, he made so many films that mean so much to me, it would be dishonest to place a quota on him. In the intervening five years, seeing Strangers several more times only has lifted it in my extreme. Hitch's directing gifts come off at his most stylish and Robert Walker's wondrous performance as the sensitive sociopath Bruno who expects the wimpy Farley Granger to live up to his part of a hypothetical murder deal remains chilling (and darkly funny) to this day. One of the biggest leaps from the last list.
Buster Keaton always shares the title with Charlie Chaplin as one of the two great silent clowns and The General continues to be Keaton’s masterpiece 85 years later. However, while it doesn’t lack for laughs, the film more accurately could be called an adventure than a comedy. The realism of the film’s Civil War setting also proves quite striking and even though Keaton’s character Johnny Gray fights for the Confederacy against the Union, neither side comes off as particularly villainous and the film doesn’t contain the racist elements of something like Birth of a Nation. The film’s humor stems from Johnny’s two loves: his train and the woman he longs for who won’t love him until he joins the war effort, even though he’s been rejected as a fighter because of his skills as an engineer. The General never grows old.
When Mickey (Woody Allen), depressed and suicidal, wanders into a movie theater in Hannah and Her Sisters, it's this inspired mixture of lunacy that brings him back around. After all, who can sit through Duck Soup and not feel better afterward. The question as to which Marx Brothers vehicle was the best got settled a long time ago and Duck Soup won. With its classic mirror scene and the loosest of plots designed to make the insanity of war look even crazier, I never get tired of Duck Soup. Watch it if only for the great Margaret Dumont. Remember, you are fighting for her honor, which is more than she ever did.
As a journalist, His Girl Friday contains one of my favorite nonsequiturs in the history of film. Delivered with frantic panache by Cary Grant as unscrupulous newspaper editor Walter Burns: "Leave the rooster story alone. That's human interest." Oh yeah, this may also be one of the funniest films ever made with rapid fire dialogue, a great sparring partner for Grant in Rosalind Russell and a priceless supporting cast to boot. It's the best remake ever made (and the film it was based on, The Front Page, is pretty damn good too). Making Hildy Johnson a woman and Burns' ex-wife was a stroke of genius. Besides, when you watch any version of this story where Walter and Hildy are both men, it's clear this isn't a platonic working relationship. I don't advise any more remakes (forget Switching Channels, if you can), but I wonder how it would play if the leads were two gay men?
As I wrote when marking the 100th anniversary of Reed's birth (forgive my self-plagiarism, but it makes this enterprise go faster), "Rewatching The Third Man recently, it once again captivated me from the moment the great zither music by Anton Karas begins to play over the credits.…If you haven't seen The Third Man (and shame on you if you call yourself a film buff and you haven't), watching the Criterion DVD really is the way to go, not only for a crisp print but to be able to compare the different versions offered for British and U.S. audiences (though only the different openings are included — we don't see what 17 minutes David Selznick cut for American audiences). With its great scenes of Vienna, sly performances and perhaps the greatest entrance of any character in movie history, The Third Man stays near the top of all films ever made, even nearly 60 years after its release."
I don’t know what I was thinking ranking Seven Samurai so low on my 2007 list. Having seen it a couple more times since, I’ve rectified that error. All films this long should hold their length as well as this rollicking adventure does. Each time I see it, it transfixes me from beginning to end. Hacks like Michael Bay should look to a film such as Seven Samurai and discover how characters trump stunts, explosions and special effects in great action-adventure films. It's amazing that with such a large cast, not just of the title samurai but of the farmers they defend as well, the actors and Kurosawa develop so many distinct and worthy portraits. Granted, the running time helps, but they establish characters rather quickly from Takashi Shimura (unrecognizable from his role as the dying bureaucrat in Ikiru) as the lead samurai organizing the mission to the brilliant Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo, a reckless samurai haunted by his past as a farmer's son. Full of action, humor, sadness, a bit of romance and plenty of heart, its influence on so many films that have come since can’t be calculated.
Currently, we live in a time of a vicious circle: Movies inspire theatrical musicals which in turn become movie musicals (or in most cases, don't. Don't be looking for Leap of Faith: The Musical on the big screen anytime soon). Still, there was a time when musicals were created as motion pictures. Singin' in the Rain remains the very best example of one of those. The songs soar, the dance numbers inspire and the performances evoke joy. On top of that, it's even a Hollywood story, set in the awkward time between silent film and sound and milking plenty of laughs from the situation, especially through the spectacular performance of Jean Hagen as a silent superstar with a voice hardly made for sound and a personality barely suitable for Earth. Gene Kelly gives his best performance, a young Debbie Reynolds shines and Donald O'Connor makes us all laugh. Decades later, Singin' in the Rain got transformed (if that's the right word) a Broadway stage version. It wasn't very good. Stick with the movie.
When I wrote about this film for the Screenwriting Blog-a-Thon hosted by Mystery Man on Film in 2007, I said, "As far as I'm concerned, this film is Allen's masterpiece. Others will cite Annie Hall or Manhattan or some other titles and while I love Annie Hall and many others well, over time The Purple Rose of Cairo is the Allen screenplay that has reserved the fondest place in my heart. The screenplay isn't saddled with any extraneous scenes and no sequence falls flat as it builds toward its bittersweet ending. For me, it's Woody Allen's greatest screenplay and one of the best ever written as well." I've been pleasantly surprised at the number of people who have said to me since I wrote that how they agree, even among moviegoers who declare themselves not to like Woody Allen as a rule. It's the perfect blend of comedy, fantasy and realism and one of the greatest depictions of the magic of movies ever put on film. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, when Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) and his pith helmet step off the screen, the repercussions end up being both hilarious, touching and painfully real.
While for me Jules and Jim stands as the high watermark of the French New Wave films, when you look objectively at the story of Jules and Jim, it may employ many of that movement's techniques but many aspects of Truffaut's film set it apart from its cinematic brethren such as its period setting and a time span that covers more than two decades separates it from the movement as well. However, that doesn’t affect the film’s magnificence. In a funny way, the 1962 film forecast the free love movement to come later that decade except its source material happened to be a semiautobiographical novel set in the early part of the 20th century. The prurience though lies in the mind of the fuddy duddy because part of what makes Jules and Jim so special comes from Truffaut's refusal to pass any judgment, be it positive or negative, upon the behavior of his characters. Despite the director's own criticism many years down the road that the film isn't cruel enough when it comes to love, the three main characters do suffer by the end but he doesn't paint it as punishment for their sins. In a 1977 interview, Truffaut said he thought he was "too young" when he made Jules and Jim. If he'd made it at any other age, it wouldn't be the same movie and probably wouldn't hold the same appeal for so many. For Jules and Jim to grab you, really grab you, I think you need to be young when you see it the first time, and that's why Truffaut, not yet 30 but captivated by the novel since 25, had to be young as well.
Wilder’s screenplay with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. proves surprisingly malleable, never fitting easily into one genre and playing differently in each viewing. It can be the darkest of Hollywood satires or the tragedy of a woman driven insane by a world that’s passed her by. Gloria Swanson’s brilliant performance as Norma Desmond can come off as a vulnerable madwoman or a master manipulator. Similarly, William Holden’s down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis looks like a shallow opportunist in some scenes, an in-over-his-head dupe in others. The layers make Sunset Blvd. fresh and endlessly watchable. Wilder and his co-writers always produced great dialogue, but I believe Sunset Blvd. stands as Wilder’s greatest work as a director as well.
Hitchcock blessed us with so many classics, it’s hard to pick the best. This list contains seven Hitchcocks, but Rear Window stands tallest to me. I’ll allow two great directors to state my case. First, François Truffaut from The Films in My Life: “Rear Window is…a film about the impossibility of happiness, about dirty linen that gets washed in the courtyard; a film about moral solitude, an extraordinary symphony of daily life and ruined dreams." From David Lynch, as he wrote in Catching the Big Fish: “It's magical and everybody who sees it feels that. It's so nice to go back and visit that place." David, I couldn’t agree more.
Goodfellas rarely gets selected as the premier example of Scorsese’s brilliance as a filmmaker — and that’s a damn shame because, within its two hour and 20 minute running time, Goodfellas not only encapsulates Scorsese and filmmaking at their best but might be the director’s most personal film. If you wanted to demonstrate practically any aspect of moviemaking to a novice — editing, tracking shots, reverse pans, effective use of popular music — Scorsese disguised a film school in the form of this feature film about low-level gangsters. Goodfellas also happens to be the director’s most re-watchable film and, in a career stocked with masterpieces, it remains my favorite.
Every time I return to Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient screenplay, something new leaps out that I didn’t catch before. Most recently, it’s from one of Howard Beale’s monologues once he’s become the UBS network’s star. As part of the speech, delivered by the late, great Peter Finch, Beale tells his viewers, “Because you people, and 62 million other Americans, are listening to me right now. Because less than three percent of you people read books! Because less than 15 percent of you read newspapers!” Chayefsky died long before the Web revolution so remember that the next time someone blames the newspaper industry's death on the Internet. Better yet, watch Network and revel in the delicious words, magnificent ensemble and Lumet’s fine direction.
Many prefer the Kubrick of 2001: a Space Odyssey or later works such as A Clockwork Orange or Barry Lyndon, but I’ve always found him best when satirical, especially when that sharp humor took aim at the futility of war as in the underrated Full Metal Jacket, the great Paths of Glory and the best of the bunch, the incomparable Dr. Strangelove. To take the prospect of nuclear apocalypse instigated by a general driven mad by his impotence and produce one of the wall-to-wall funniest films ever was no small achievement, but having Peter Sellers in his multiple roles, Sterling Hayden and, most of all, George C. Scott’s hyperbolic, acrobatic and energetic work as Gen. Buck Turgidson, sure helped. That's not to mention Slim Pickens and Keenan Wynn as well and the surreal beauty of that closing of multiple mushroom clouds backed by that wonderfully ironic song.
So rarely does the best picture Oscar go to the best film, it always amazes me that the Academy recognized Casablanca (though for 1943, since it didn’t open in L.A. until a few months after its New York premiere). Claude Rains’ irreplaceable Captain Renault may say, “The Germans have outlawed miracles,” but the most miraculous thing of all was that a screenplay without an ending and based on an unproduced play managed to coalesce into the finest movie the Hollywood studio system ever produced. With a superb ensemble of character actors and stars delivering dialogue with more memorable lines than nearly any other film ever, courtesy of screenwriters Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, play it forever, Sam.
It does worry me that we seem to lack a filmmaker as ballsy as Robert Altman was (first person to suggest Paul Thomas Anderson gets punched in the face). Thankfully, he left us his body of work (some dogs to be certain, but the ecstasies we receive from his great ones allow us to forgive). For me, Nashville never wavers from its spot at the top of the Altman charts. It’s a musical, but not really. It’s about politics, but not really. We get to watch 24 characters intersect (or not) as Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewksbury design a tapestry displaying a picture of America on the eve of its bicentennial. It also presents ideas that in their own way prove as prescient as those in Network.
Many of the greatest films turn out to be examples of triumph over adversity and that certainly proved to be the case with Children of Paradise, Carné’s two-part masterpiece made during the Nazi occupation of France. When I wrote at length about this deceptively simple tale of mimes and actors, criminals and the aristocracy, I said that if I revised my 2007 list, the film likely would rise higher than its 18th rank. As you see, it most definitely has. Better to experience its beauty and magic than attempt to briefly describe it.
One wonders what the total would be if we calculated the number of words written extolling the brilliance and significance of Orson Welles’ filmmaking debut. Granted, the curmudgeons and contrarians exist and while not a day goes by that I don’t remind someone that all opinions are subjective by definition, Citizen Kane looms as the behemoth that practically defies that statement. Its status as a cinematic masterpiece comes close to being an objective truth. I have nothing new to add about this wonder. The film speaks for itself.
After what I wrote about Citizen Kane, you’d think it would rest in my top spot, but Renoir’s exquisite tragicomedy grabbed a foothold in my Top 10 as soon as I saw it in college and it took only one or two more viewings for Rules to clinch the No. 1 perch where it’s remained for more than two decades. Something personal within the film (too much identification with Renoir’s character of Octave; the character of Christine, who seems to cast a spell over all men who cross her path) hooks me in above and beyond the film’s artistry. If that explanation seems skimpy, I defer to what Octave says, "The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons."
That's a great list, Ed. Just for the record - the last time you published the list, I hadn't seen Ox-Bow Incident and I sought it out purely based on your recommendation.
I now have it in my own Top 100 list. You're right that it doesn't get talked about anywhere near enough. It's a galvanising, pretty much flawless film.
I now have it in my own Top 100 list. You're right that it doesn't get talked about anywhere near enough. It's a galvanising, pretty much flawless film.
Great list Edward. So glad I got to read it. Bunch of great ones there that are and would be all over my list, too. - David GaffenPost a Comment